Monday, April 27, 2015

Ownership, Access, and Freedom: The Role of Technology

Let me present a contrast between an ownership lifestyle and an access lifestyle.

Exhibit A for the ownership lifestyle is my late father-in-law Ben.  Following his marriage in 1946, he built not one, but three different small houses with his own hands, selling each one and building another while holding down surveying and drafting jobs.  Once he found steady employment with the Texas Highway Department, he bought a new contractor-built house in a growing subdivision and a new 1955 Oldsmobile, which he still owned when he died earlier this year.  From that point on, he lived the American dream of ownership.  Anything he needed and could afford, he bought:  TVs, lawnmowers, appliances, and (much later in life) computers for his wife to pursue her genealogy hobby with.  

Contrast that lifestyle with that of a hypothetical 30-something single living in Austin—call him Brad.  He rents a stylish apartment near the Metro rail that he rides to work, so he doesn't own a car.  He calls vehicle-for-hire services like Uber when he needs to go anywhere that he can't get to in the city with public transportation.  His biggest single expenditure this year was for a three-week European tour with some friends.  His most expensive single possession is a mechanical watch.  Brad spends most of his discretionary income on experiences and services rather than things.  He pays for access, not for stuff.

Brad is part of the reason that rates of new-vehicle ownership, home ownership, and even possession of a driver license are all declining in the age group of U. S. citizens centered around 30, according to an article by James Poulos in a recent issue of The New Atlantis.  Poulos is concerned that the decline of ownership among young people will lead to a corresponding decline in freedom.  Will it?

Before exploring that question, we should admit that technology has played a major role in the rise of the access economy.  Technically, software is leased, not owned.  "Buying" software (already a fading trend in contrast to ongoing service contracts favored by many software firms) really just gives you the privilege of using it.  The planned obsolescence of many products, whose useful life is measured in months rather than years, is enabled by rapid advances in digital technology and manufacturing techniques, even when hardware is involved.  The services so favored by Brad and his friends are usually intermediated by the Internet, and would be much harder or impossible to offer without it.  So if we are looking for guilty parties in the case of the movement from ownership to access, technology is a prime suspect.

To the question of whether Brad, the access guy, is more free than Ben, the ownership guy, one might respond, free to what?  And here we step into some deep philosophical waters. 

Superficially, Brad looks a lot more free—no burdensome car or house payments or other long-term obligations (unless you count student loans), free to up and run off to Antigua or Bermuda or you name it for a vacation—the ideal young-urban-professional life.  Only, if everybody in the country acts like Brad, with no wife or kids and no plans for same in the future, the country would die out in a generation.  Something like this is already happening in Japan, whose population declined by 268,000 (0.2%) in 2014. 

Even people Brad's age seem to have a sense that they are missing something that an earlier generation had, without knowing exactly what it is.  I've been invited to the upcoming wedding of a Brad-generation couple who have erected an elaborate wedding website, complete with a list of things to do for out-of-town guests coming to Dallas.  One of the items is a visit to a museum about the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, and the prospective couple attached this curious comment to it:  "As many of y'all know we were born in the wrong era."  What does it mean when a whole generation thinks it was born in the wrong era?

To answer the question of human freedom, you must have some idea of what human beings are for.  There are varying opinions on the purpose of human life.  In 1992, as part of its decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, the U. S. Supreme Court regarded the core of liberty as the right to "define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”  That idea would be fine with Brad, whose concept of existence may change from year to year, or even month to month, as he ponders his next appealing experience. 

But there are others who regard human beings as marked with the divine image.  I came across a fine word the other day in a book by the English professor and translator of Dante, Anthony Esolen.  The word is "theomorphic," meaning "formed in the image of deity."  Esolen says that "the right of private property is grounded, not in practical economics, but in the theomorphic nature of man."  Because man is made in the image of God, anything that is a product of man's labor is owned, and ownership is something only humans can lay claim to.

And only people can choose whether to use their ownership of the fruits of their labor to live lives of superficial pleasure, spending their income on transient experiences and then ultimately passing out of existence, like Windows 98; or to found a family—either literally or by playing the role of father or mother to the younger generation—and serving those who come after us, passing the torch of human life and its best meanings to those who come after us. 

Doing the latter requires a longer-term vision than the next expensive vacation.  Those who work simply to enjoy the access to services provided by giant concentrations of ownership, are ultimately slaves to the owners of those service providers, whether it feels like slavery or not.  The classic image of this type of slavery is Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World.  But those who work not just for themselves, but to provide for others, using ownership as a means of providing for a real or metaphorical family—they are those who, while appearing to lose their lives in service to others, can actually save them. 

Sources:  John Poulos's article "Losing Liberty in an Age of Access" appeared in the Summer/Fall 2014 issue (No. 42) of The New Atlantis, pp. 13-22.  The statistic on Japan's declining population was obtained from the website  The Esolen quote appears on p. 140 of his book Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Manchester, NH:  Sophia Institute Press, 2014).  The U. S. Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992) contains the famous "mystery clause," which was quoted in the website

Monday, April 20, 2015

West Two Years Later: The Cause Above Everything

Today, impossible heroes and implausible villains are to be found mainly in video games, but back in the 1930s, one of the largest-selling series of adventure books for boys was based around a young inventor character named Tom Swift.  Great literature it was not, but there was plenty of action, the good guys were always good, and the bad guys were really bad, although sometimes it was hard to tell what they were being bad about.  I particularly remember the closing scene of one book in which, after Tom foils a complicated attempt by an evildoer to wreak havoc on an entire city, the bad guy is led away in handcuffs muttering, "The Cause!  The Cause above everything!"  The reader was left in the dark as to what the Cause was, but it didn't matter—it was merely a placeholder, an unnamed motivation so that the bad guy could move the plot along.

In Texas, fiction sometimes becomes reality more than we'd like it to.  For example, who would have the nerve to write a book in which the president of the Texas Ag Industries Association would be named—I kid you not—Donnie Dippel?  But that's his name.  It's right here in the paper, the Austin American-Statesman for Friday, April 17, a date which marked the two-year anniversary of the ammonium nitrate fertilizer explosion that devastated the town of West, Texas, killing 15 and causing an estimated $100 million in damage.  After the explosion, the accident was thoroughly investigated amid outcries for tighter regulation of fertilizer storage facilities, of which there are dozens all over the state. 

As you might expect from a blast that was so strong it registered on seismographs hundreds of miles away and dug a crater ten feet deep, any evidence as to what caused the fire that led to the explosion was pulverized and scattered almost beyond recognition.  The official investigation by the Texas State Fire Marshal's Office listed the cause as "unknown," which is true in a technical sense.  But what is known is that somehow, a fire started in a wooden structure housing around 270 tons of ammonium nitrate, which can detonate in milliseconds under the wrong conditions.  And many of those conditions—such as storage of the chemical in wooden bins, lack of adequate automatic fire control systems such as sprinklers, and keeping flammable materials such as fuel, batteries, and seed grains near ammonium nitrate stocks—still prevail in many of the other fertilizer facilities in Texas.

But no, we cannot say with iron-clad certainty exactly what started the fire that made the ammonium nitrate explode at West.  And for Mr. Dippel, it's the cause above everything.

The twisted logic he seems to be following goes like this:  If you don't know the cause of an accident, you can't place the blame, and if you can't place the blame, you can't take actions such as legislation to improve the safety of fertilizer facilities.  That's the only way I can see that a person of otherwise sound mind could come up with the following statement, which I quote exactly as it appears in the paper: 

"We don't know what happened at West, and we wish somebody could determine what happened so we make sure to correct what happened so it never happens again."

But unless somebody determines what happened, the official position of the Texas Ag Industries Association is that they do not want a bunch of new rules about how to store ammonium nitrate.

No one determined "the cause" (in Mr. Dippel's sense) of the fire aboard the cargo freighter Grandcamp, which was carrying 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate when its cargo detonated, wrecking most of the port of Texas City and killing over 500 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department.  This was back in 1947, sixty-six years and a day before the West explosion.  But the absence of an exact known cause didn't stop the port of Texas City from banning the transportation of ammonium nitrate in any form through its port facilities two years after the disaster. 

One definition of "cause" is that state of affairs which, if removed from a situation, would prevent the effect from occurring.  A lot of dangerous circumstances prevail in cities and towns where ammonium nitrate is stored, and if those circumstances are removed, the effect of another such explosion is less likely to happen.  If the owners of the plants and the first responders in their surrounding communities won't voluntarily take new safety measures (a few have, but many haven't), maybe changes in laws will.

In this year's Texas legislative session, several bills have been introduced to help prevent another West-style fertilizer disaster.  One of the most sensible, filed by Texas Rep. Kyle Kacal of College Station, would give the Texas State Fire Marshal authority to inspect locations where ammonium nitrate is stored.  At the very minimum, information shared from these inspections would help local fire departments plan for firefighting and evacuation, if necessary, in the case of fires at these facilities.  Other bills, such as the one by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, would go farther and increase the mandatory amount of liability insurance carried by such plants.

To my mind, the single worst failing in the West disaster was lack of information.  The first responders apparently didn't know how dangerous the West Fertilizer Company fire was.  And the town had no plans for evacuation in case of a fire at the plant.  A similar fire in College Station led to the evacuation of a large area of town, fortunately without an explosion occurring.  Two simple measures—allowing inspections, and sharing information and training with first responders—could have prevented most of the loss of life and injuries at West, but not the millions in property damage.  To make sure such explosions don't happen in the future, fertilizer firms that store ammonium nitrate will have to clean up their act with improvements that will cost them money. 

One test of a society's ability to function is to watch how it deals with major disasters, and how well it acts to prevent them in the future.  Texas and Texans have dealt with major tragedies successfully in the past—hurricanes, tornadoes, oil-refinery explosions, and many other natural and self-inflicted messes—and I like to think that we come together in the aftermath to do the right, sensible, and just thing.  Perhaps this is a foolish hope, but I hope that suitable legislation is passed to make the West, Texas tragedy the last ammonium-nitrate disaster that Texans ever experience.

Sources:  The Austin American-Statesman carried the article "Despite West blast, industry crackdown unlikely," in its Friday, Apr. 17, 2015 print edition on pp. A1 and A8.  (The online edition is accessible only by subscription.)  I also used information from The Texas Observer's online article "West, Texas Blues" at  The Texas City disaster is described in impressive detail by Bill Minutaglio in his 2003 book (HarperCollins) City on Fire, and the Texas City ban on ammonium nitrate is reported in that book on p. 270.  I also referred to the CNN article for the size of the crater and to the Wikipedia articles on the West Fertilizer Company explosion and the Texas City disaster.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Explosions are Bad for Business: PG&E's $1.6 Billion Fine

Back in 1956, the California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric laid a new gas pipeline, designated "132", to supply the growing needs of San Francisco and cities to its south along the peninsula.  The 30-inch-diameter pipeline's sections were welded together, and in one length near the town of San Bruno, a lengthwise seam was welded in one section.

For many years, the pipeline carried natural gas northward to San Francisco and surrounding communities, and as the population grew, PG&E increased the pressure the pipeline carried so as to keep up with growing demand.  In 1956, weld-inspection methods were fairly crude, and no one knew for sure how much pressure the pipeline could stand.

PG&E is regulated by the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC), so its profits and mode of operation are a creature of government as much as a product of private industry.  It is also a large publicly held corporation, ranking at 183 on the Fortune 500 list in 2014.  Under law, PG&E was obliged to take numerous safety measures to ensure that its aging pipelines were not a public hazard.  At one point, the firm got authorization to collect a special fee to be spent on safety improvements and upgrades.  Somewhere along the line, some of this safety-fee money was diverted instead to increases in executive salaries.  PG&E was also supposed to keep up-to-date GIS (geographic information system) records of the location and conditions of its pipelines, including seams such as the one in the section lying under San Bruno.  In many cases, it failed to do so, as PG&E staffer Bill Manegold found when he joined the company in 2005.  

In 2008, instead of performing a laborious pipeline-inspection procedure that would have involved shutting down the line, the firm intentionally "spiked" the pressure on Line 132, in a mistaken belief that if they failed to test it in this way, federal regulators would lower the maximum allowable pressure the line could carry.  According to state regulators, such spiking in turn required an inspection of the line for damage, an inspection that PG&E never performed.  In 2007 and again in 2010, PG&E asked the CPUC for permission to spend $5 million on upgrading sections of Line 132, but the work was not carried out.

Given this background, it may come as no surprise to you that on Sept. 9, 2010, residents of San Bruno heard a loud whooshing noise, followed by a tremendous explosion and fire.  The seam-welded portion of the line had ruptured.  In the ensuing holocaust in the middle of the residential neighborhood that had grown up around the pipeline, 38 homes were destroyed, dozens of people were injured, and eight persons died.  One of those killed, Jacqueline Greig, worked for the CPUC and had spent part of the summer investigating PG&E's plans to replace outdated pipelines.

Hundreds of lawsuits were filed against PG&E, and on April 9 of this year, the firm agreed not to contest a $1.6 billion fine levied against it by the CPUC.  (That amount is twice the company's total profits for 2014, incidentally.)  Reportedly, PG&E has in the meantime undertaken a massive effort to improve its safety and pipeline-inspection practices, but the CPUC is considering whether to break up the combined electric-gas utility into smaller pieces.

What went wrong here?  How could a large, supposedly competent organization of engineers and managers allow an old pipeline to be put at such risk that it explodes and destroys part of a neighborhood?  The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the accident, sums it up by saying it was an "organizational accident" that was the direct result of operational and managerial deficiencies. 

The CPUC is not innocent in this case either.  As the public entity charged with the responsibility of ensuring that private firms such as PG&E operate safely, it has come in for a lot of criticism as well.  Levying a fine that is twice a company's annual profits is something, but the real changes that have to happen are in the way PG&E operates.  And while fines are a form of punishment that companies understand, probably the most that fines can do is cause turnover in the executive suite, as disgruntled shareholders seek new leaders who won't let such a fiasco happen again.  There is no guarantee that the new managers will be any more competent than the previous set, except possibly in the matter of avoiding fines.

In all the words written about this disaster, I didn't see one that I think holds the key to avoiding such disasters in the future:  character.  You don't hear much discussion about character in the face of organizational failures, because we are trained to think of organizations like physicists think of air molecules:  as collections of particle-like people who will behave according to laws we can manipulate.  
There is something to the idea that even good people in a flawed organizational structure will end up doing bad things.  But even the best organizational structures cannot function well if the organization's people do not have strength of character, and a healthy respect, if not fear, of what can go wrong if their jobs are not done well.

The kind of fear that is needed was expressed well by a driver's ed instructor I had in high school, back in the days when high schools had driver's ed instructors.  She looked me straight in the eye and said, "You're about to sit behind the wheel of a machine that can kill people.  Every time you drive, you will be personally responsible for the safety of all the other drivers and pedestrians around you."  It put the fear of God in me with regard to how serious a matter driving was.  While I have not always lived up to that instructor's ideal, that fear I felt was a good thing in that it made me take driving seriously.

The ideal PG&E, and CPUC for that matter, would be composed of individuals whose memory of the San Bruno tragedy is never very far from their minds.  Not everyone working for those organizations is directly involved in safety matters.  But safety ought to be built into the consciousness of every employee to the extent that when those who are technically qualified to speak about safety say something's wrong and needs to be fixed, the entire organization should support all reasonable measures to ensure that those safety needs are addressed.  This includes things like replacing old lines when you get the money to do it, and spending ratepayer's money designated for safety on safety expenses, not extra pay for executives. 

It's a shame that eight people had to die to reveal the rottenness within the utility organizations responsible for the safety of California residents.  But sometimes, that's what it takes to bring strength of character back where it belongs.

Sources:  The AP article by Ellen Knickmeyer, "Utility won't appeal $1.6B penalty for blast" was carried by numerous outlets such as Yahoo News at;_ylt=A0LEV7sPUypVDxAAIZgnnIlQ.  I also referred to an article in the Los Angeles Times on the diversion of safety money to executive pay carried Mar. 25, 2015 at, an article on the shoddy state of PG&E's GIS data carried on July 31, 2012 by at, and the Wikipedia article "2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion".  PG&E's Fortune 500 ranking can be found at

Monday, April 06, 2015

Airline Pilots as Human Infrastructure: Neglect At Your Peril

By now, enough information has emerged from the March 24 crash of a Germanwings plane in the French Alps to show that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately flew the plane into the ground after waiting for the pilot to leave the cockpit and locking him out.  Data from the flight's recently recovered "black box" showed that Lubitz sped up the plane's descent in the moments before it flew into a mountain in the French Alps, killing all 150 people on board.  It also appears that Lubitz suffered from depression and was suppressing information about his condition from his employer.

For most of recorded history, suicide was a private affair.  But when trains, planes, and automobiles came along, it became technologically possible to take a lot of folks with you when you died, if you happened to be driving or flying.  And here is where the issue of what I'm calling "human infrastructure" comes in.

It's not a very good phrase, but I can't think of another one to describe the state of mind of a person whose job, mediated by engineered transportation, makes them directly responsible for the safety of others.  I'm going to stick my neck out here and claim that in certain periods of history, the committing of certain acts was essentially inconceivable.  The evidence for my claim is that nobody ever did them.

Here's one example.  Unless I've missed something (which is always possible), I believe there is no recorded case in the 19th century of any locomotive engineer (engine driver, in the UK), of his own free will, deliberately causing a train wreck that killed himself and injured or killed large numbers of other people.  It was technologically possible to do that back then, but as far as I know, nobody did. 

But in the last couple of years, we have seen at least two cases—the Germanwings crash and Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, that disappeared over the Indian Ocean—of airline pilots apparently taking their own lives and those of their passengers too.  And this doesn't include things like the hijackings that destroyed the Twin Towers in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.  The hijackers were not authorized pilots, but they managed to learn enough about flying to do what they did.

What if the world of the 1800s was such a place that the kind of people who signed on as locomotive engineers were essentially incapable of seriously considering a suicidal act that would betray the trust extended to them by their employer and their passengers?  And what if the twenty-first century is such a different place that, despite the best efforts of airlines to screen and inspect their pilots, the kind of people who get hired as pilots include a few to whom crashing a plane with lots of people on board is not only conceivable, but seems like the best thing to do at the time? 

The kind of person you do want to pilot your aircraft is someone like Chesley Sullenberger, whose sense of responsibility to his passengers was so strong that he spent his spare time making a study of aircraft safety and devised contingency plans for various unlikely mishaps, such as having all your engines fail due to clogging by birds during takeoff.  That is exactly what happened to him on Jan. 15, 2009, as he flew US Airways Flight 1549 out of New York's LaGuardia Airport.  Sullenberger expertly maneuvered the powerless plane to a safe water landing, and everyone survived. 

Not every pilot can be a Sullenberger, but is it humanly possible to weed out the Lubitzes?  One can imagine draconian measures, such as firing any pilot who gets treated for depression.  But that would immediately lead to situations such as Lubitz apparently got into, in which he was suppressing the fact that he was seeking help for his condition. 

As long as we let human pilots control aircraft, we extend trust to them to do the right thing in whatever circumstances arise.  Some may think it obtuse or irrelevant for me to point out that in the nineteenth century, your average locomotive engineer probably believed in God, Heaven, and a Hell for people who deliberately killed themselves and took others with them.  It was a kind of belief that is not that common today among college-educated individuals, which is the only pool we take airline pilots from. 

This is not a call for all airline pilots to be Bible-believing fundamentalists.  After all, it is presumably Koran-believing fundamentalists who flew the hijacked planes into the Twin Towers.  But something has changed in the metaphysical background if we compare the 1800s to modern culture, and it has changed in a way that has made formerly inconceivable acts not only conceivable, but do-able, at least by a few bad apples.

In the days to come, we will see calls for more technological fixes that will prevent pilots from deliberately crashing planes.  Something may need to be done along these lines, and if it's effective and doesn't lead to other problems, I hope it will be.  But what I think is more important is a renewed look at the human side of the situation:  the way pilots are chosen and the way airlines keep tabs on them for subtle hints that things are not going well.  Lubitz appears to have been a loner, and while there's nothing illegal or immoral about that, it's a modern situation that has few historical precedents.  Airline pilots have such great responsibilities that it might be worth sacrificing some of their privacy to ensure that they will carry out their duties in a manner worthy of the trust we extend to them.

Sources:  For information on Lubitz, I referred to a CNN article updated on Apr. 3 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on US Airways Flight 1549 and Chesley B. Sullenberger.