Monday, May 25, 2015

For Want of a Spectrum Allocation: The Philadelphia Train Derailment

There's a proverb of uncertain origin that begins, "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost; being overtaken and slain by the enemy, all for want of care about a horse-shoe nail."  That particular version is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but all the various versions make the same point:  lack of attention to apparently minor details can sometimes have major consequences.  As more information emerges about the tragic AMTRAK train derailment in Philadelphia on May 12, it looks like what began as a minor kerfuffle over frequency allocations may well have kept a new train-control system from preventing the deaths of eight passengers and the injuries of many more.

At this writing, no one seems to know for sure why the Northeast Regional train heading from Washington, DC to New York City sped up to 106 MPH (169 km/hr) as it entered a curve near a rail intersection called Frankford Junction.  The maximum recommended speed for the curve was 50 MPH (80 km/hr).  All the train's cars left the track, killing eight passengers and injuring at least 200 others.  There were some reports that an object might have hit the train's cab in the minutes before the wreck, but presently the reason for the train's excessive speed is not definitely known.  At the time of the wreck, the train was under the manual control of engineer Brandon Bostian, who was apparently knocked temporarily unconscious in the crash and claims to have no memory of the moments immediately before the derailment.

In many parts of the U. S. including the Northeast, railroads have installed an automatic system called Positive Train Control (PTC) that could well have prevented the May 12 tragedy.  A fully operational PTC system continuously monitors a train's position by means of radio links to trackside transmitters, and calculates the maximum speed that is allowed at each point along the route.  If the system notes that the train is going too fast, it will automatically apply the brakes to reduce speed. 

Why wasn't the Northeast Regional using PTC in Philadelphia?  Because AMTRAK hasn't been able to purchase a 220-MHz radio-frequency allocation (channel, essentially) to put it into operation there yet.  And thereby hangs a rather tortuous bureaucratic tale.

On their own over the past decade or more, railroads have developed pieces of what amounts to PTC using various existing equipment, and the most popular type of train-control radio systems use the 220-MHz frequency band.  For most of its existence since the 1930s, the U. S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allocated the limited resource called the radio-frequency spectrum through a purely administrative process, and in principle at least, money had nothing to do with it.  In practice, political pull and other arbitrary factors influenced the FCC's decisions.  Partly in response to accusations of unfairness, in 1994 the FCC began auctioning spectrum slots to the highest bidder, and most observers say that auctions have led to a fairer and more efficient set of allocations.  But in the case of the railroad's need for 220-MHz slots for its PTC system, the market method of frequency allocations may have failed.

The legal requirement for railroads to use PTC originated with a Congressional mandate passed in 2008 mainly to improve safety.  In that legislation, Congress told the railroads to finish the job by December of 2015.  Most railroads have largely complied by now, despite problems with interoperability of different systems developed by different lines and the fact that one railroad may operate on tracks owned by several other railroads.  When PTC was passed into law, the most common frequency band used for these types of train control and monitoring operations was 220 MHz, so the railroads decided to use their existing 220-MHz hardware and to require all PTC equipment to use that band.  If more bands were used, a single train might have to carry equipment that works with three different bands, for example, and as PTC was already costing billions of dollars to implement, they stuck with 220 MHz.

That was fine for most areas, but the railroads ran into a snag in some regions, including Philadelphia.  There the 220-MHz slots were either not available, or were priced at a prohibitive level.  The railroads asked the FCC simply to allocate the needed frequencies for free, so that they could meet the Congressionally-mandated deadline, but the FCC essentially said tough beans, go buy them like everybody else does.  And Congress did not fund the costs associated with the PTC mandate, so the rail lines have been doing it on their own dime.  So at the time of the Philadelphia crash, PTC was not working, but not because of any hardware problems.  The bureaucracy had simply not done its job yet.

PTC is not a flawless system, and it is not absolutely certain that it could have prevented the Philadelphia crash even if it had been working at the time.  Putting on the brakes for a train is not as simple as jamming your foot on the brakes of your car.  A friend of mine is a locomotive engineer on an excursion train that operates near Austin.  He has explained to me how the brakes on each car have to be applied at a certain carefully judged rate, and sometimes even in a certain order, so that the train doesn't undergo stresses that can cause severe shocks or even break couplings and separate the cars.  Even just locking the brakes so the train skids along the track can severely damage the wheels, necessitating extensive repairs.  But sometimes it's necessary in an emergency.

We will never know whether PTC could have prevented the Philadelphia train wreck.  But excessive-speed wrecks are exactly the sort of thing that PTC was designed to prevent.  While making everybody pay for frequency allocations seems to be the fairest way to do things in most cases, the FCC ought to consider making exceptions in situations involving serious safety issues.  Sometimes the old ways are better, and allowing for emergency no-fee allocations in situations where an organization is caught between an FCC rock and a congressional hard place seems like a good idea.  But it won't bring back those who are no longer with us because of what happened in Philadelphia. 

Sources:  I referred to news articles on Brandon Bostian at, a list of fatalities in the wreck at, and the Wikipedia articles "2015 Philadelphia train derailment," "Positive Train Control," and "For Want of a Nail."

Monday, May 18, 2015

Why Most Engineers Turn Into Managers, and Whether It's a Good Thing

The other day, a student asked me why gray-haired engineers are so rare.  He's been working as an engineer himself for a few years, and had noticed that most of his engineering colleagues are his age or at most ten or fifteen years older.  The vast majority of people with gray hair that he encounters in his job are managers.  At the time, I didn't do much more than confirm his observation from my own experience.  But he touched on an issue that anyone considering engineering as a career should know about.

Depending on the discipline, the purely technical side of engineering can be largely a young person's game.  If you're in a rapidly changing field such as semiconductor chip design, the entire life cycle of a product can often be measured in months.  Recent graduates with the latest skills are eagerly sought after, and those who do the actual programming and design have to be constantly learning volumes of new information simply to do their jobs.  On the other hand, a discipline such as civil engineering doesn't change as rapidly, and the experience of a decade or two of building-design work can make you even more valuable as a designer than a freshly minted but inexperienced engineer just out of college.

By and large, though, the tendency is for most engineers to move into management at some point in their careers.  Why is that?  I can think of at least two reasons. 

One is that as a person ages, acquiring and using great volumes of new information simply gets harder.  Some people can keep doing it better than others, but typically, doing cutting-edge technically intensive engineering in a rapidly changing field gets to be more than most middle-aged folks can deal with, at least without a lot of strain.

The other reason is, engineers do not take kindly to being bossed around by someone who does not have at least a basic grasp of the technology in question.  Many management decisions in engineering organizations involve technical issues, and a manager with a background in accounting or advertising is not often going to receive the respect needed when dealing directly with technical people.  Of course, as you go up the chain of command in most engineering organizations, you will find managers with little or no engineering background, and sometimes they do a fine job anyway.  But that is only because they have good middle managers under them who are former engineers, and who can translate and buffer the stuff coming down from the upper-management heights into terms that the engineering staff members can understand and deal with calmly. 

What if you go into engineering because you find that technical work is interesting in itself, and you have no desire whatsoever to take a management job?  That was my position when I started out in my first industrial position, some thirty-five years ago.  At the time, I was told that the large engineering organization I was joining had two promotion "ladders": a technical ladder and a management ladder.  If you wanted to stay in a hands-on engineering position, you could aspire to the technical titles that were, if I recall correctly, laid out in a little chart that paralleled the more commonly-known management rungs of group leader, section manager, department manager, and so on.  The chart gave me the impression that it was simply my choice as to which ladder I climbed, and I'd be just as well off going the technical route as I would be on the management route.

Well, yes and no.  I don't doubt that there were people in the organization who had climbed the technical ladder—I even met one of them.  But they were few and far between.  On the other hand, managers were everywhere, and it was pretty clear that, to state the obvious, the place was run by managers.  And the more people a manager managed, the more rewarding (in monetary terms) the management job was.  In retrospect, the dual-ladder chart was something that the company showed young engineers to give them the hope that staying in the technical side of engineering was not simply a dead-end job with no possibility of promotion.  But that was largely all it was—a hope, that I suspect relatively few engineers realized.

The cynical way of looking at this is to say that, in the term popularized by the animated cartoon "Despicable Me," engineers who do technical work are simply minions, hired only because the company can't do what it needs to do without them.  They are overhead, treated the same accounting-wise as the light bill, and anything the firm can do to minimize the overhead expense of hiring engineers is good, because that money can now go instead to the shareholders as profit.  And profit is what engineering firms are all about.

This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.  Engineering can make the world a better place, and unquestionably has for billions of people around the globe.  To do good things, engineering organizations of any size require chains of authority in which the actual engineering work at lower levels is coordinated by a management structure, many members of which may be former engineers. 

Good engineering organizations also play positive roles in society beyond simply making a good return on monetary investments.  They also contribute to human well-being, and avoid harm to the extent possible.  That is the ethical side of the engineering equation, and it is the deeper reason to go into engineering, not simply because it provides you with a well-paying job.  Yes, managers are needed to make all this possible, and in the nature of things, most engineers who stay in the field at all eventually take on management roles.  Depending on the person, this can be a good outcome or a not-so-good outcome.  Some engineers turn out to be born managers, and others couldn't manage their way out of a paper bag.  But as long as we need engineers to do things, and as long as engineering is a complex activity that has to be done by large numbers of coordinated workers, we will need managers, and many of them will be former engineers. 

Sources:  Although the issue of engineers going into management was not their focus, the sociologists Diane E. Bailey and Paul M. Leonardi did an extensive study of three types of engineering organizations—electronic engineering, civil engineering, and automotive engineering—and some of what I wrote above was inspired by their book Technology Choices (MIT Press, 2015).  The career path of technical engineer to manager (and out of engineering altogether) was described well by the self-taught engineer John Robison in his memoir Look Me In the Eye:  My Life with Asperger's (Three Rivers Press paperback edition, 2008).

Monday, May 11, 2015

Printed Guns and Siren Servers

Cody Wilson is in the news again.  Two years ago this week he made headlines (and my blog) by posting online plans for making a working gun with 3-D printing technology.  When the U. S. State Department found out, it sent him a stern warning to take down the information or face severe penalties for exporting controlled weapons technology.  According to the New York Times, Mr. Wilson tried to comply at first, filling out reams of paperwork with the aid of lawyers.  In turn, the State Department was supposed to issue a ruling about whether he could go back online with his plans within 60 days.

That was two years ago, and Mr. Wilson still hasn't received a decision from the State Department about his application.  Now Mr. Wilson's company, Defense Distributed, has sued the government for restraint of free speech.  Saying that he has been singled out for political reasons, he wants a Federal judge to lift the State Department online ban on his 3-D-printing plans for guns. 

On the face of it, this looks like a fairly straightforward free-speech issue with a techie twist:  a libertarian-inclined individual trying to make information free, versus the backward-looking giant regulatory regime of the government.  But Jaron Lanier would say otherwise. 

Who is Jaron Lanier?  It's hard to summarize him.  He looks like one of those dreadlocked ne'er-do-well musician types you see around Austin who eke out a living doing something like playing ancient reconstructed musical instruments such as Greek lyres.  And that is indeed one of his favorite activities.  But he was also an early player in the field of virtual reality back in the 1980s, hanging around with the likes of MIT artificial-intelligence whiz Marvin Minsky, and eventually becoming a consultant to the Silicon Valley crowd and a high-tech entrepreneur.  He has written a book called Who Owns the Future? which I'm still reading, but I've gotten far enough to recognize in Cody Wilson's doings a pattern that Lanier describes very well. 

It's a pattern that helps explain a lot of things, ranging from the success of network giants like Google and Facebook down to why you can't find a good manufacturing job in the U. S. anymore.  Lanier calls it the domination of the "Siren Server."

A server, of course, is the set of machines that power network presences such as Google and Facebook.  The Sirens, as the ancient Greek poet Homer described them, were beautiful women who delighted in singing intoxicatingly sweet songs to sailors who strayed near their island, which was surrounded by treacherous waters littered with wrecked ships.  To fall victim to a siren song is to get pulled into a scheme that looks attractive at first, but turns out to be disastrous in the end.

Lanier calls a Siren Server any networking scheme that ends up enriching the server operator who concentrates information gained from a large population at the expense of that population, who initially think they are getting something for free.  But sooner or later, it turns out that somebody—usually a whole lot of somebodies except for the Siren Server operator and a few of his friends—is indirectly harmed economically by the Siren Server's success.  The classic example Lanier uses is the transition from a music industry based on mechanical copies of CDs to one based on digital copies.  After the dust settled, many of the middle-class types who were formerly able to make a living in music were out of jobs as the industry shrank to about a quarter of its former size, and the only people still earning substantial sums in the industry were a few superstars and Siren Servers such as iTunes. 

What has all this got to do with Cody Wilson?  It's pretty clear that Mr. Wilson wants to run a Siren Server of his own devising.  His goal is to be the iTunes of 3-D-printed weaponry.  And in his view, the stupid State Department is sitting on his plans and blocking his way.  So he's suing, and claiming that his First Amendment rights of free speech are being violated.  Under the popular Silicon Valley slogan of "information should be free," Wilson portrays himself as a nimble good-guy David, the libertarian freedom fighter, versus the slow-moving bad-guy Goliath of government regulation.

Lanier would say, "Not so fast."  It usually turns out that when information is "freed" in the sense usually meant by wannabe Siren Server operators, it means that they want to offer information in exchange for learning tiny bits of data about their user base.  The real money comes from aggregating these bits of data into a form that attracts advertisers and others who will pay for the use of that knowledge. 

Let's imagine that Mr. Wilson does indeed become the iTunes of the business of weapons 3-D-printing.  Instead of lots of little and medium-size gun makers around the world, you might have Defense Distributed and a proliferation of steadily cheaper 3-D printers that can make guns.  Eventually, the gun market collapses as weapons that formerly cost hundreds of dollars to make now go for much less because of the competition from 3-D printed guns.  Why buy one when you can print it yourself?  But to make them, you have to pay Defense Distributed, either directly to get the plans or indirectly through fees charged for the right kind of printer, etc.  One way or another, the dominant Siren Server cashes in on its dominance at the expense of risk and unemployment radiated to the wider economy.

Should Cody Wilson be allowed to post his gun plans online?  I personally think it's pointless to stop him, if for no other reason than somebody else in a less regulated country is going to do it sooner or later (or maybe already has), and we might as well keep the new form of gun industry local.  (Austin is only 35 miles up the road from where I live, after all.)  But according to Jaron Lanier, it's an oversimplification to see in this conflict nothing more than a free-speech issue, or a freedom-of-information issue.  It's one more example of an infant Siren Server trying to grow up and disrupt an entire industry.  And as I hope to finish Lanier's book and find out his solution to the problem, you'll probably hear more about it later in this space.

Sources:  The article "Cody Wilson, Who Posted Gun Instructions Online, Sues State Department" appeared in the May 7, 2015 online edition of the New York Times at  Jaron Lanier's book Who Owns the Future? was published in 2013 by Simon and Schuster.  My blog post "Printing Guns" appeared on May 13, 2013. 

Monday, May 04, 2015

Driverless Cars: Good News for Whom?

After some cautious toe-dipping by Google in a well-publicized series of experiments on public roads in California and Nevada, other more serious players are now eyeing the waters of driverless cars.  According to a recent New York Times report, automakers including General Motors, Volvo, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, and Tesla have either already fielded limited-capability "lane-keeping" features in their high-end models, or plan to unveil more advanced systems soon that will allow complete hands-off driving under a wide variety of conditions.  Absent a flood of new restrictive legislation, which hasn't happened so far, it is fairly safe to say that the autonomous vehicle is just a few blocks down the road and heading this way.  Is this a good thing, and if so, for whom?

Danny Crichton, a Ph. D. student in the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government, thinks it is.  Writing in a recent issue of National Review, he waxes rhapsodical over the benefits of automation past and future, and has this to say about driverless cars:  "Perhaps no technology has more potential to improve our quality of life than the autonomous car.  We will be able to relax during our commutes, reducing our stress and improving our health.  Autonomous cars could almost instantaneously deliver a greater number of goods and services, such as meals, household supplies, and home-maintenance services, giving us more leisure time."

Crichton clearly writes from a perspective in which driving is just one more daily chore we have to put up with on our way to our real job of teaching or administrating or studying for our Ph. D. from Harvard.  Rather oddly for a person who researches labor economics, he never once mentions an occupation by which about one out of every forty employed persons (2.4%) in the U. S make their living:  professional truckdriving.

If you are a sober, responsible family man (or woman) who couldn't cut the grade in college but want to make a decent living by working hard, truckdriving is one of the more attractive jobs.  Especially with the recent oil boom fueled by fracking technology, truckdrivers have been in great demand.  For a while there were billboards on I-35 in Central Texas advertising large signing bonuses for truckdrivers willing to go to work in the oil fields.  While the hours are long, the work stressful and sometimes dangerous, and time at home is limited, millions of truckdrivers earn enough to support a family.  Many of them are members of minority grouns, and quite a few own their trucks, making them entrepreneurs.  Almost every dump truck I see servicing a construction site around Central Texas has a sign on it with the Hispanic surname of the owner-operator. 

I don't know when, or if, trucking companies will go to autonomous driving systems.  Because of their specialized skills and responsibilities, long-distance and heavy-equipment truckdrivers may be the last cadre of humans to yield the driver's seat to a robot, long after all passenger cars have turned into mobile Internet lounges.  But operators of delivery fleets would like nothing better than to turn their personnel headaches into autonomous-vehicle maintenance accounts.  There remains the question of who or what picks up the package from the back of the UPS truck and carries it to your door, but quadcopters are waiting in the wings for that.  I'm not sure how a quadcopter will ring a doorbell, but by then maybe we'll have wireless doorbells.  Local delivery service is one of the applications that Mr. Crichton explicitly envisions as being done by autonomous vehicles.

Human beings have an obscure but persistent longing for permanence.  If we find a good thing, we want it to go on indefinitely, and that goes for jobs as well as other things.  But it's generally a bad thing to use legislation or union muscle to artificially preserve specific categories of jobs in the face of technological changes.  This kind of thing carried to an extreme produces the antique-car museum that is Cuba, and stifles the increasing technology-fueled productivity that Crichton praises in his article.  If increased productivity means we can do more with less, the economy as a whole benefits, but some people stand more of a chance to benefit than others.

Today's truckdriver in an earlier time might have been my grandfather's iceman, who routinely lugged 300-pound blocks of ice around in a horse-drawn wagon and hauled chunks of it into kitchen iceboxes.  The electric refrigerator eliminated those jobs by the 1950s, but at the same time the trucking industry grew and eventually supplanted rail as a dominant form of goods transport.  And it takes a lot more truckers than it does railroad workers to deliver the same amount of stuff. 

So far, autonomous-driving technology is expanding into what the New York Times terms a regulatory vacuum.  A few states have passed laws either licensing or restricting such cars, but in most states it is still neither prohibited nor explicitly allowed.

Eventually, a driverless car will be involved in a fatal accident.  We may or may not hear about it, depending on the skill of the automaker's PR people.  But whenever such an accident becomes public knowledge, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will then receive its legal warrant to examine the whole issue of autonomous vehicles.  The outcome of its study will be critical to the question of whether the technology will continue to be deployed smoothly and cautiously, or whether labor groups such as truckdrivers who feel threatened by it will seize on the incident to mount a crippling regulatory attack that will stop the technology in its tracks.  If that happens, the nation as a whole may end up the loser.

The growth of a new technology is a fascinating thing, bound up in both technical and social issues that can hinge on small but critical events.  The next few years will show whether driverless cars make it big and relieve most of us from what is often a burden—and whether they relieve thousands or millions of professional drivers of their jobs.

Sources:  Danny Crichton's article, "Fear Not the Robot," appeared in the May 4, 2015 edition of National Review, pp. 34-35.  The May 2, 2015 online edition of the New York Times carried the article "Hands-Free Cars Take Wheel, and Law Isn't Stopping Them," by Aaron M. Kessler, at  The statistic about the number of professional truckdrivers in the U. S. was from the website  And my grandfather really did run an ice plant for a number of years in the 1930s.