Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Bridge Too Close

Construction accidents that lead to loss of life are always tragic, but it's unusual that anyone other than construction workers are killed or injured in them.  When hazards to the public are involved, most construction organizations take extra precautions to make sure that public safety isn't jeopardized by potentially dangerous operations or conditions.  Last week, a freak accident at a construction site came uncomfortably close to turning me into a statistic, but instead picked off another unfortunate member of the public whose safety engineers are supposed to protect.

Most new interstate bridge construction in Texas these days involves those huge prestressed-concrete beams—the ones you will see now and then rolling down a highway after being turned temporarily into a long trailer by hitching the front to a tractor and the back to a set of wheels.  Whenever one of these beams is hoisted into place across an active roadway, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) usually waits until late at night and diverts traffic away from the overpass under construction, so that if something goes wrong, no passing vehicle will be squashed like a bug under a falling beam.  But once the beam is in place, especially if the roadway involved is as busy as IH-35 that goes from Laredo on the Mexican border up through Austin and Dallas-Fort Worth, the usual thing is to let traffic pass once again.  And that is usually all the precautions that are needed.  But it wasn't enough on Thursday, March 26.

Somehow—the investigation is still ongoing—a flatbed tractor-trailer carrying a bucket-truck-type load wound up going north on I-35 near the small tourist town of Salado, about 50 miles north of Austin.  As part of a months-long construction project to widen the interstate in that area, TxDOT had recently placed the last of about a dozen of the concrete-beam monsters across both northbound and southbound existing lanes as part of a new overpass.  So the picture was that the beams were bridging the roadway, but the structure wasn't yet a bridge—just a set of beams laid between the end buttresses.  Once the superstructure of the bridge was completed, TxDOT would "armor-plate" the leading edge of the bridge with a thick steel L-beam so that any overheight loads would simply damage the armor plating without threatening the structural integrity of the bridge.  But there was no armor plating in place on Thursday.

Concrete is great for bearing evenly distributed compressive loads.  Concrete beams even perform in tension well if prestressed to be in compression, as these beams no doubt were.  But anyone who has tried to make a hole in concrete with a chisel knows that if you concentrate a lot of pressure at a small point, concrete will crack.  And that's exactly what happened about 11:30 AM on March 26.

Despite height-warning signs of a 13.5-foot clearance (there was actually more room than that), part of the flatbed truck's load was high enough to strike the leading concrete beam with such force that it not only cracked, but slammed forward into the adjacent beam and caused it to fail too.  Once that happened, many dozens of tons of concrete beams plunged onto the busy roadway.  It was just a matter of chance that one of the people driving under the bridge at that moment wasn't yours truly.

Earlier that day, I had left San Marcos by car for Wichita, Kansas—to attend a funeral, as it happens.  The logical route would have been straight under the beams in question, but lately, I have encountered so many traffic delays on I-35 that I've taken to driving a back-road route to the west.  It goes through small towns and beautiful hill-country vistas, and although it takes about an hour longer than you can do on I-35 when I-35 doesn't have any slowdowns, I believe the last time I-35 didn't have any slowdowns was sometime around 2003.  So about the time the beams were crashing down in Salado, I was leaving I-35 in south Austin for my leisurely westerly route.

An unfortunate pickup driver was crushed beneath one of the beams and died, and three other people were treated for minor injuries.  The driver of the flatbed that apparently caused the accident was uninjured and made it through the crash to the other side, but will no doubt face a lot of questions from authorities and investigators.  And TxDOT may start thinking about putting armor-plating on concrete beams the minute they are put in place, rather than waiting until the bridge is finished to do so.

In one of the news reports, a TxDOT spokesman objected to the headline "Bridge Collapse" because the structure in question wasn't yet a bridge.  This is a distinction without a difference to most people, but to engineers, especially bridge engineers, you can't have a bridge collapse until you have a bridge.  Technically, this was a construction accident, not a bridge collapse.  But the man in the pickup is just as dead, and it's possible that compartmentalized thinking has contributed to this accident. 

Clearly, the beam was vulnerable to damage caused by traffic from the moment it was put in place and traffic was allowed to pass.  But somehow, the sequence of construction didn't allow for the armor plating (as I'm calling it) to be attached until later in the process.  Because the circumstances are so unusual, construction crews have avoided such an accident up to now.  It's rare that any type of overheight load gets onto the interstate and goes very far, much less one that has the concentrated mass and speed to actually break a large concrete beam.  But we have seen that it can happen, and I bet that somewhere in Austin engineers are rewriting construction specs to make sure that any beams exposed to traffic have their armor-plating on from the start. 

Besides death and injuries, this accident caused annoyance to thousands of beleaguered denizens of I-35, which has the reputation of harboring some of the worst freeway traffic in the U. S.  Situations like this are exactly why I no longer drive long distances on that stretch of roadway if I can avoid it.  My sympathies are with the family and friend of the man who died, with everyone who got stuck in the 10-mile backup for hours, and for the engineers who are sadder but wiser after experience has taught them a better way to build bridges—a category of engineers that stretches back hundreds of years to the dawn of history.

Sources:  I used information from the online edition of the Austin American-Statesman for Friday, March 27 (subscription only), and from the Austin Fox News TV channel KTBC at

Monday, March 23, 2015

Blue About Blue: Health Hazards of Nighttime Light

A few years ago I was having trouble sleeping.  My wife, who at the time was editing a breast-cancer blog, told me about the connection between blue light and the body's 24-hour circadian rhythm, which dictates all sorts of things ranging from when you get sleepy to what your levels of stress hormones are.  It turns out that in addition to the rod and cone cells in the eye used for vision, there are special retina cells that send timekeeping signals to the entire body, based simply on the presence or absence of blue light.  During most of mankind's existence, blue light happened only in the daytime, so the signals from the timekeeping cells were a reliable guide to what time it was.  But since the advent of artificial light, especially artificial blue light, these signals have become scrambled. 

Studies have found that women with nighttime jobs or other circumstances that expose them to blue light for longer than the normal daylight hours run an increased risk of breast cancer, and also suffer sleep problems.  So I bought some orange sunglasses that were guaranteed to block nearly all blue light and wore them in the evenings.

I wish I could say my life was changed for the better, but frankly, I didn't notice any major immediate difference in my sleep patterns, so I quit wearing them.  Eventually I got to where I was sleeping better anyway, and I forgot about the whole thing until I read recently about a meta-study of light exposure and human health by Richard Stevens, a cancer specialist at the University of Connecticut. 

As reported in Wired's online edition, Stevens cites evidence connecting nighttime light exposure with obesity, breast cancer, and depression.  But the problem with these results is the same as the question of whether wearing those sunglasses really helped my sleep patterns or not:  what other factors are at play here?

I come from a physics and electrical engineering background where truly controlled experiments are easy to do.  One of the introductory labs we put our sophomores through is to wire up a circuit with resistors and a power supply, and verify that it obey's Ohm's Law.  With decent equipment and careful measurements, anyone can get experimental results in a few minutes that are within 1% or so of the theoretical predictions. 

Hardly any experiments involving human beings work out that accurately, except perhaps for actuarial studies that predict simple things like death rates per million people in well-understood populations.  But an individual human being is such a complicated system with so many unknowns in its history that predictions about anything concerning an individual's health are often little more than educated guesses. 

When a factor as ubiquitous as artificial light containing blue wavelengths is involved, the problem gets even harder.  Without putting experimental subjects in a totally controlled environment for long periods of time—a prohibitively expensive undertaking—researchers are forced to simply ask questions about work schedules and environments.  These questions cannot possibly capture all the variables at play, and so you are left with the uneasy feeling that if a significant effect can be found despite the crudity of the data available, there may be something even more remarkable out there, if only the experiments could be performed to find it.

Should computer display and illumination engineers worry about this issue?  After all, they are the ones who have brought us all this nighttime blue light, first with mercury-vapor lamps, then with fluorescent lighting, then the blue LED and its progeny.  High-intensity LED lighting is rapidly replacing older forms of illumination, and its spectral content is relatively high in the blue region.  The old incandescent lamps produced relatively little blue light, but no one really knows how much is too much or whether any at all is harmful, so there is no point speculating about whether we have made a bad bargain by trading in our old incandescent bulbs for LED units.

You can take various approaches to this issue.  One is the "if it was really bad, we'd know about it already" approach.  If seeing blue light at night was as bad for you as licking paintbrushes full of radium paint, we would have seen a major die-off in the printing trades around 1905, when the Cooper-Hewitt mercury-vapor lamp showed up in newspaper printing plants across the country where the morning editions were being printed for the next day.  But no such die-off occurred. 

On the other hand, in the 1920s, radium was being used in fluorescent paint to make clock dials glow at night, and the women who painted the dials often licked the brushes to point them.  Soon, many of these workers began to suffer bone fractures and deterioration of the jawbone, and these health problems were traced to the radium that had concentrated in their bone tissue.  Despite initial denials of responsibility by their employer, the so-called "Radium Girls" eventually won in court and established an important precedent in the field of workplace safety.

Whatever the health risks of seeing blue light at night are, it can't be as bad as that.  Nevertheless, there are some troubling increases in various diseases that epidemiologists currently have no explanation for, and one wonders whether blue-light exposure may be a factor. 

The opposite approach would, I suppose, be to buy yourself a pair of orange sunglasses and put them on at sundown every day.  That might help you, but it wouldn't do anything for the millions of people around the world who are staying up till 2 A. M. tweeting or Facebooking or playing online games.  And that brings up another issue:  how to disentangle the effects of sleep-cycle disruption from exposure to light at night.  People generally have to be awake to see any kind of light at night, so when you have one, you have the other.  And there is an equally large body of data showing that inadequate or disrupted sleep causes health problems too.

Perhaps some day a researcher will get to the bottom of this question, either with a massively funded study or through some other insight into the problem.  In the meantime, all I can say is to go easy on too much TV-watching or Internet-surfing at night, and try to get a good night's sleep.  Even if you're an illumination engineer.

Sources:  The article "Screens may be terrible for you, and now we know why" by Brandon Keim was posted on Mar. 18 on Wired's website at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on the mercury-vapor lamp and Radium Girls.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Dear Deceased

Bureaucracies are technology, you know.  When you hear the word "technology," the first thing that springs to your mind may be a piece of machinery, or a technical discipline such as electrical engineering, but probably not the U. S. Postal Service or Medicare.  Nevertheless, just like pieces of machinery, bureaucracies are designed by experts to achieve certain purposes, and if they fail to achieve those purposes, you can have a disaster that is fully as harmful as an explosion or a fire due to purely mechanical causes.  Think Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The little bureaucratic malfunction I will draw your attention to today is not a disaster.  Some may not even see any problem at all with it.  But to me, it is evidence that the bureaucracies we increasingly deal with as citizens of modern societies are failing to treat us like people, and more like machines or units of production in a giant factory.

As many readers of this blog already know, my father-in-law Ben Simons passed away last Feb. 7, after living with my wife and myself at our house for over eight years.  We were with him more or less constantly for the last few days of his life.  To the extent possible, we made his passing as comfortable as we could make it.  At a memorial service for him held at our church, dozens of friends and relatives shared their memories of his good nature, and we heard encouraging words about meeting him again in Heaven.

Contrast all that with a letter I received yesterday, from which I quote:

"Dear Ben Simons:

Thank you for having a Humana Group Medicare plan. It was our pleasure to serve you.

Medicare confirmed your disenrollment from your Humana Group Medicare Advantage plan.  After 02/28/2015, Humana won't cover your healthcare.  If a provider needs to send your claims to Medicare, tell him or her there could be a short delay in updating your records. . . . "

Now, it can be said in defense of Humana that their bureaucracy faces the difficult task of serving thousands, if not millions, of customers with a minimum of needless expense.  So the expedient they have chosen, after advice from lawyers, efficiency experts, and computer programmers, is to respond to a customer's death by sending out the form letter from which I have quoted above. 

It is written to cover any and all cases in which a person "disenrolls" from Humana Group Medicare Advantage—switching to another plan, winning the lottery and not needing any kind of health insurance, leaving the country to join the French Foreign Legion, or dying.  And I suppose it works, in the sense that it lets survivors know that Humana knows that the party in question has died.

But if they knew he died, and not simply that he disenrolled for some other reason, you would think that somehow, someone could come up with a better form letter than this one.  It could start with "Dear Survivors" and say a little about how sorry the firm is that they have lost a customer this way. 

No, death does not fit into the bureaucratic picture.  The great German sociologist Max Weber recognized bureaucracies as one of the most significant developments of the nineteenth century.  The ideal Weberian bureaucrat can function like a machine.  One of Weber's nine main principles of his "legal-rational model" for bureaucracies is the supremacy of abstract rules, which machines can obey better than people can.  If minimizing expenses is a high priority, and one form letter can cover all cases of disenrollment, then the rules say to go with it, even if the survivors of dead customers get letters addressed to the deceased as though they were not only living, but that their chief concern was what Humana was going to do with them now. 

And of course, this letter had virtually no contact with human hands.  Some programmer wrote it with nobody particular in mind, another programmer determined the situations under which it is printed and mailed, and it would be a hard thing to find out exactly who, if anyone, was responsible for sending it.  It is signed only "Humana's Enrollment Team."  There is no doubt some person or committee in charge of Humana's enrollment team, and if I brought this matter to their attention, they might give it some thought.  But if they are under cost pressures, they would decide that, however tacky such letters look in the hands of survivors, it would be too much trouble to come up with a special letter sent only to survivors of deceased clients.  So they wouldn't bother with my little issue, and I'm not going to bother them with it.

There is an engineering ethics lesson here, I believe.  Bureaucrats and programmers and systems analysts everywhere need to remember that their ultimate job is to serve people—not the boss, not the system, but people.  I'm currently reading a book by Anthony Esolen called Reclaiming Catholic SocialTeaching.  The gist so far is that if you leave God out of your social calculations and plans, you will go far, far astray.  Maybe not all at once, but you will inevitably end up, not with a society, but with simply an ant-hill-like heap of individuals.  And you will be tempted to treat members of society not as people, but as faceless units of production or profit. 

As a bureaucracy, Humana did its job well.  They dealt with hospital bills so obscure and complicated as to make the most mysterious passages in the Book of Revelation look as plain as day by comparison.  They helped provide good health care for my father-in-law during his lifetime.  However, man does not live by bread, or health care, alone.  And it is perhaps too much to expect acknowledgment of loss or sympathy from a bureaucracy designed mainly for efficiency.  We have received many messages of sympathy and concern from our friends and fellow worshippers, for which we are thankful.  And I think we have learned a lesson about where help can really come from.

Sources:  In writing this blog, I consulted the Wikipedia article on Max Weber.  Anthony Esolen's Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching:  A Defense of the Church's True Teachings on Marriage, Family, and the State was published in 2014 by Sophia Institute Press. 

Monday, March 09, 2015

ICAO To Airlines: Watch Where You're Going (Every 15 Minutes)

Once in a great while, I have the satisfaction of making a prediction or calling for a certain action in this blog, and then seeing the called-for event actually come to pass.  Last month, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) issued a new set of tracking requirements for airlines in participating countries, which means just about every airline that flies in more than one country.  While a formal vote on the requirements won't happen till later in the year, the slow-moving machinery of the United Nations—of which the ICAO is a part—has finally creaked into action.  So it may not be too much to hope that the kind of situation that has kept the destiny of Malaysia Flight 370 a mystery to this day can be avoided in the future, or at least that such incidents will produce data that will make the plane easier to find.

Flight 370, which disappeared a year ago March 8, was supposed to stay within range of ground-based tracking radars.  But when it veered way off course toward the open ocean for reasons that are still unknown, the limited-range ground radars lost contact with it, and an onboard satellite-tracking system was not working, possibly because it was intentionally disabled.  The upshot was that once the flight disappeared, investigators had to use some arcane technical tricks to estimate the flight's last known location, and the resulting poor accuracy and long gaps between known locations have left searchers stuck with many thousands of square miles of ocean to cover.  The plane may never be found.

Back in January, I blogged on this tragedy and noted that the U. S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was urging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to adopt improved flight-location technology.  I also noted that while this move would help us to find international flights operated by US carriers, a truly international solution would have to await action by the ICAO, which has now begun to act.

As reported in a recent Associated Press article, the ICAO rules would require each airline to get location updates for all their flights every 15 minutes.  How they get the updates is up to the airlines.  Deep-pocketed operations such as Air France already have automatic satellite-location systems in place, and probably either already meet the requirements or can change their operations slightly to comply.  Less well-funded airlines can fall back on having their pilots look at their pocket GPS they mail-ordered from Walmart and use their shortwave radios to report their position.  Any way will do, says the ICAO, but you have to update your flight locations every 15 minutes.  If the rules are approved, this requirement will go into effect in 2016, which is by UN standards almost instantaneously. 

A second part of the ruling pertains to automatic flight-location technology, typically a satellite link.  By 2020, all new airplanes carrying more than 19 passengers will have to go into a minute-by-minute location transmission mode if an emergency occurs such as a steep dive or significant deviation from the flight plan.  The five-year delay from now would give airframe manufacturers and their customers time to ready the technology and the money to pay for it, respectively. 

By specifying in the 15-minute rule the desired outcome rather than the technology required to achieve it, the ICAO has done a clever thing.  Each airline can tailor its response to its own circumstances and adopt an approach that doesn't place an undue burden either on the flight crew or on the airline's budget for new equipment.  For reasons that are not clear, but may have to do with relationships between large avionics companies and the federal government, FAA rules tend to be much more prescriptive of exactly how certain goals are to be achieved technologically.  Historically, the FAA owned and operated much of the technology itself, so naturally the agency got in the habit of telling the airlines what matching equipment they needed.  But nowadays, the central-control model is pretty old-fashioned and is being superseded by distributed technologies that rely upon a combination of public, private, and open-source resources to work.  Safety-critical technologies are a breed apart, and a certain level of standardization and certification is reasonable.  But I wonder if things might move a little faster in domestic aviation technology if the FAA took a hint from the ICAO, and moved toward simply telling airlines what is to be achieved, and let the firms themselves figure out how to achieve it.

All this comes too late to help those on the ill-fated Flight 370, which is probably—but not for sure—somewhere at the bottom of the Indian Ocean.  The death of a loved one is always a tragedy, but there must be a special pain associated with not knowing anything about the person's final hours, and what mischance caused their demise.  Sooner or later, someone will probably find the wreckage, and if enough evidence can be recovered it may be possible to reconstruct what happened.  But in the meantime, I hope that the proposed new ICAO rules will make it much less likely that airlines will simply lose track of a plane while someone runs off with it, and can even prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.

Sources:  The article "Airlines move to better track their planes" by Scott Meyerowitz and David Koenig was carried by numerous newspapers, including the Deseret News on Mar. 3, 2015 at  My post "High Time for SatelliteTracking of All International Flights" appeared on Jan. 26, 2015.

Monday, March 02, 2015

A Chunk of (Climate) Change

An old saying in investigative journalism is "follow the money."  According to a recent article in the New York Times, that's just what the environmental organization Greenpeace did when it began to look into the funding of publications written by one Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon.  Soon is a researcher associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and has attracted a lot of publicity for his outspoken comments on global warming, which he appears to doubt is due to man-made causes.  He has made the rounds of conservative talk shows to express his doubts, and that is probably why Greenpeace decided to investigate him.  While Soon has made no secret of the fact that some of his funding came from energy industries and interests, documents obtained by means of the Freedom of Information Act showed that Soon was producing papers to order for specific funders, referring to the papers as  "deliverables."  He received over $400,000 from a prominent electric utility and $230,000 from the Koch Charitable Foundation.  The New York Times reports that the Smithsonian Institution is mounting its own investigation into Soon's dealings, and its acting director admits that the Institute may need to clean up its ethical act with regard to disclosure of funding sources. 

As Newton taught us, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, at least in physics.  The opposite reaction inspired by the Soon affair has come from the U. S. Congress, which has now showered universities and energy companies with letters demanding information about funding sources for scientists who have criticized the establishment view of climate change.  This has prompted Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University, to criticize what he calls "fishing expeditions" by Congress, because of the chilling effect it has on academic freedom.

I heard Prof. Dessler speak about a year ago at Texas A&M on the topic of the history of climate-change science.  In general, he is in sympathy with the Greenpeace view that corporate interests are trying to sow discord in the climate-change area, in much the same way that tobacco interests sowed doubt about the link between smoking and cancer in the 1960s.  But he is objective enough to realize that when Congress sends your university a letter asking for documents concerning your own research funding, it doesn't help you sleep better at night, and it doesn't make it any easier to follow the data wherever it leads.

If everybody would recognize the wisdom of a couple of well-established principles, things like the Soon investigation and the congressional reaction to it might be avoided.

The first principle is, always acknowledge your funding sources in sufficient detail.  I haven't read any of Dr. Soon's papers and I don't know how or whether he acknowledged the specific ties between dollars and articles, assuming these ties existed (and while the investigation is still ongoing, it looks like they did).  As far as I'm concerned, the only time an academic should take money for publishing a specific piece of writing with a specific point of view, is when the funding source itself publishes the piece, as in book publishing.  (Full disclosure:  I am currently waiting for Wiley to publish a textbook I've written, and while I don't expect to get rich from it, I will get royalties if they sell any copies.)  Any time someone comes to you and offers you money to "place" specific publications in other venues not controlled by the funder, especially if readers of the publications will think that what you write is objective and not influenced by outside agencies, you should see bright flashing red conflict-of-interest lights and think about it a long, long time.

Now, I myself have taken money from agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the expectation that I would do work and publish papers as a result.  What's the difference?  Sometimes it's not easy to tell.  Everybody expects that scientists and engineers who take research money from NSF will publish papers about their research.  And nobody I know looks at the acknowledgment section and says, "Ah-hah!  The NSF paid for this.  No wonder it's X, Y, or Z."  This is because the NSF has, overall, done a reasonably good job of letting scientists themselves judge what is good research and what isn't, and whether it should be funded or published. 

The problem that comes up with climate-change research is that it has become a political hot-button issue.  Billions of dollars of corporate revenue are at stake if unfriendly climate-change-related legislation comes to pass, and so corporations that feel threatened are eager to see ostensibly objective research published that favors the views which allow them to keep making more money.  This is rational behavior on the part of the corporations, but the danger to objective science research is clear. 

And that brings me to my second point:  the fiction of truly 100% "objective" science.  Guess what:  there ain't no such animal.  Every scientist has biases, prejudices, and hunches that prevent him or her from being the perfect, suspended-in-the-air, dispassionate, Mr.-Spock-like viewer of objective truth.  In the choice of research topics, in the selection of funding agencies, and in the way research is performed and presented, scientists betray their biases—and yes, even their political convictions—all the time, often while fooling themselves into thinking they are being perfectly objective. 

When the subject of study is not of widespread public interest and influence—say, nematodes—it's fairly easy for the small group of folks who just can't know enough about nematodes to get together and pursue the truth about nematodes, and sometimes come pretty close to ideal objectivity.  But when the subject has vast and time-extended implications for every resident of the planet, as climate change does, everybody wants to get in their two cents, or two hundred thousand dollars, as the case may be.  And while I won't go so far as to say that everyone has their price, if a researcher's salary depends 100% on raising external funding, it's hard to resist the blandishments of a corporation or political group that wants a quid pro quo in the form of research with a predetermined outcome.

While the jury is still out, that's apparently what happened to Dr. Song.  His case can serve as a warning to every funded researcher not only to disclose one's funding in enough detail, but to ask whether one has betrayed the ideal of objectivity for cash. Congress can think about restraining itself from scaring academics and making it even harder to do objective science in the academy.  And everybody can realize that scientists are human beings for whom the ideal of absolute objectivity is just that—an ideal that is rarely, if ever, realized in practice.

Sources:  I referred to the New York Times articles "Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Researcher," appeared at
on Feb. 21, 2015, and "Lawmakers Seek Information on Funding for Climate Change Critics" on Feb. 25 at  After this blog was written, I was saddened to read of the passing of the original Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame, Leonard Nimoy, at the age of 83.