Monday, April 24, 2017

Earth Deserves Better Than TV Coverage of Climate Change

As I write this, a day after Earth Day 2017, the memory of hundreds of "Marches for Science" and in particular, a CNN report on climate change makes me wonder whether the medium of television is more harmful than helpful in bringing the attention of the general public to complex issues of public interest.  These thoughts are stimulated by an online article and video clip of the report, which featured an exchange between famed popularizer of science Bill Nye the Science Guy, and a man I have seen in person and exchanged emails with, one William Happer, a longtime Princeton physicist who thinks concerns about climate change are, to put it mildly, overblown.

An otherwise uninformed observer of the exchange saw two older men, Nye wearing a bright-red bow tie and Happer dressed in muted grays, in two panels of a four-screen split that included CNN anchors and a representative of an environmental group.  Nye was clearly upset at Happer's mild-toned assertions that carbon dioxide is something each of us produces two pounds of a day just by breathing, and to treat it as a pollutant is going too far.  What really got Nye going was when Happer compared the Paris climate accords recently signed by the Obama administration to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler's Germany prior to World War II.  This one stunned even the anchors, who asked Happer to repeat himself, and he explained that the parallel was that neither agreement was going to achieve its stated aim.  Chamberlain failed to stop Germany from grabbing more territory in moves that led directly to World War II, and according to Happer, the Paris accords won't do anything significant to slow down climate change.

What media experts call the "visuals" were all in favor of Nye, a practiced TV performer who brought the right amount of passion to be convincing without yelling or seeming to lose his cool.  But if you look at the academic qualifications of these two parties, you might begin to change your mind.  Mr. Nye's highest formal degree is a B. S. in mechanical engineering, after which he started doing amateur comedy routines and developed the on-air personality for which he is now famous.  William Happer holds a Ph. D. in atomic physics from Princeton and is the Cyrus Fogg Bracket Professor of Physics at that institution.

As encouraging as the Paris agreement was to many who believe that the only moral thing to do with regard to climate change is to stop burning fossil fuels yesterday and undertake a massive retooling to renewable energy, hardly any of its terms are binding on the parties involved.  Like many other such agreements, it consists of hopeful statements of intentions, but if history is any guide, the only countries that will fulfill their obligations under the agreement are ones that were headed in that direction anyway. 

As University of Oxford professor of energy policy Dieter Helm points out in his book The Carbon Crunch, looking to international agreements as an effective means of lowering carbon emissions is probably a fool's errand.  Many European countries are currently outsourcing carbon-intensive industries such as steelmaking and heavy manufacturing to places like India and China, and so Europe can show a net reduction in carbon footprints that is happening not only because of high-minded dedication to the environment, but because of changes in the makeup of their economies toward services and high-tech businesses that simply don't need as much energy. 

As for China and India, the future growth of their economies depends vitally on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.  They are not about to put the economic brakes on developments that have led millions of their people out of rural subsistence-farming poverty to improved lives in manufacturing-intensive towns and cities.  The Paris agreement may look good on paper, but according to Helm, the chances of any significant dent being made in the world's carbon production by such an agreement roughly equal a snowball's chances in Hades (my metaphor, not his).

Since Helm has made his professional career out of taking global warming seriously, and  spends the rest of the book describing real-world near-term solutions to the problem of fossil-fuel emissions, I think we can count him as a credible witness.  And his conclusion is, leaving Hitler aside, that Happer's opinion on the effects of the Paris agreement is probably closer to the mark than Nye's.

When I sat down to write this blog, I was all set to denounce the politicization of science, and then I thought of another book I read recently:  The Pope of Science, a biography of the famed Italian physicist Enrico Fermi.  Fermi was a scientist's scientist, in that he lived, breathed, and slept science, taking little or no interest in politics and dealing with it only when it directly affected his livelihood (as when he and his partly-Jewish wife decided to flee Fascist Italy as it turned toward Hitler's Germany in its anti-Semitism), or when politics made it necessary to pursue a particular line of inquiry so that the Germans wouldn't make a nuclear weapon before the Allies did and take over the world.  For that reason, Fermi willingly led a team funded by the U. S. government to build the world's first nuclear reactor in 1942, which was a necessary step in the development of nuclear weapons.  But once the war was over, he was glad to get back to basic physics, for the most part.

The fact is, science has always been political to some degree, going all the way back to Francis Bacon, who took what passed for science in the 1500s and put it to work for the betterment of mankind.  Some scientists who worked on the nuclear bomb opposed its use in war, and some scientists today, such as Happer, criticize the plans for gigantic economic disruptions that would take place if the Bill Nyes of the world became dictators of our industrial and economic policies.  At least today, the debates are carried out in the open on widely accessible media.  It's hard to believe, but the entire nuclear-weapon development program in World War II was carried out in near-total secrecy, in a fashion that would get witheringly criticized in view of today's standards of open debate about major publicly-funded projects.  And the outcome, namely nuclear weaponry, has posed a moral quandary ever since. 

But the Nye-Happer confrontation is a reminder that visuals can be deceptive, and there is always more to be learned about a technical subject than you see on TV.

Sources:  The CNN report and video of the Nye-Happer exchange can be viewed at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Bill Nye, William Happer, and Enrico Fermi.  Dieter Helm's The Carbon Crunch:  How We're Getting Climate Change Wrong—and How To Fix It was published in 2012 by Yale University Press.  The Pope of Physics by Gino Segré and Bettina Hoerlin was published in 2016 by Henry Holt & Co.  I blogged on my encounter with William Happer and the dissing of his talk by a gathering of otherwise well-behaved scientists on Oct. 7, 2013 in "When Scientists Aren't Scientists."

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Modest Proposal to Save California $200 Million

In order to forestall a lot of hate mail, the following blog is written in the tradition of eighteenth-century satirist Jonathan Swift's essay, "A Modest Proposal."  It is not meant to be taken seriously. 

With that out of the way, I have a modest proposal to save the good citizens of California over $200 million.  That is the estimated cost of a suicide-deterrent net project that is going to be installed on the Golden Gate Bridge, according to a recent article in the San Francisco Examiner. 

Opened in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge is as iconic a symbol of San Francisco as the Eiffel Tower is of Paris.  But shortly after it opened, its builders found that they had constructed what lawyers call an attractive hazard, like an unfenced swimming pool in a neighborhood full of small children.  The 240-foot plunge from the sidewalk of the bridge to the deep waters below began to draw despondent individuals of all kinds, who generally did not survive their high dives.  According to the Examiner, 1,558 people have committed suicide by diving from the bridge, an average of about one person every two or three weeks.  And this is despite intensive efforts of patrolmen specially trained to spot depressed-looking loners who evince an unhealthy-looking interest in the view from the sidewalk. 

So at long last, after numerous engineering proposals and at least one squabble over who should have won the bid, engineers plan to install a wire-rope mesh on the bridge, about 20 feet below the level of the sidewalk and extending 20 feet out on both sides.  The rendering posted online makes it look fairly unobtrusive, but it will inevitably change the appearance of the bridge, sort of like putting fishnet hose on the legs of a beautiful woman.  (Sometimes it helps, but generally it just looks tacky.)  So if you've never seen the bridge in its present netless state, you'd better go look fast, because soon they will put up temporary fences along the sidewalks to keep people from throwing things at the construction workers below.  This last measure is a consequence of sad experience—pedestrians evidently not only can't be trusted to stay on the sidewalk, they can't keep their potential missiles to themselves either.

And now for the modest proposal.  Last June, California enacted an assisted-suicide law.  It is now legal in that state to plan and execute your own death and funeral, and people have already started taking advantage of this law.  We now see the interesting spectacle of Californians on the one hand spending $200 million to stop a few dozen people a year from doing themselves in, and on the other hand, encouraging people who really want to do themselves in to go ahead and do it. 

For $200 million, a lot of people contemplating suicide in California could have an all-expense paid trip from wherever they live to San Francisco.  Those with debilitating diseases could take ambulance rides, and even they might manage to live it up overnight in the garden of nightlife delights for which San Francisco is famous.  Then, with all good-byes said, the person could be assisted out onto the sidewalk and take the time-honored way out that more than 1500 of their fellow citizens have chosen over the years.  And of course, we wouldn't want any ugly fish-net suicide deterrent to get in the way, so there's where you'd save $200 million.

I don't expect anybody to jump at this idea (so to speak), except to say how tacky I am to conflate the people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge with the people who take advantage of the new assisted-suicide law.  But the point I'm trying to make with my proposal is this:  is suicide okay, or is it wrong?  Or does the answer depend entirely on the convenience of the professionals involved?

It's beginning to look like the latter is the best available answer, at least where California is concerned. 

Take doctors who want to put some of their suffering patients out of their misery, but are worried that someone will find out and charge them with murder.  Solution:  pass an assisted-suicide law that makes it legal.  Now the docs don't have to worry about murder charges. 

Take first responders who, after someone takes their last high dive from the bridge, have the disagreeable task of conducting a search, possibly in bad weather, and fishing out said diver from the drink.  It's expensive, dangerous, and bad publicity besides.  So once the nets are in place, people who are determined to jump will either find another bridge, or if they're really determined, they'll jump down onto the net and, using the exercise-honed athletic skills that many Californians take pride in, they will crawl to the edge of the net and finish the job.  You heard it here first.  Notice the designers don't call it a suicide-prevention device, just a suicide deterrent.  So even $200 million isn't going to reduce the number of suicides from the bridge to zero, and the authorities implicitly admit that.

All satire aside, I think doing something more to keep people from jumping off bridges to their deaths is a good idea.  And maybe the giant stainless-steel nets on either side of the Golden Gate Bridge are the best way to do it, although the price tag gives me pause.  The expenditure of so much money on suicide prevention, on the one hand, and the passage of a law saying that basically it's okay to off yourself, on the other hand, reveals a deep split or inconsistency in attitudes toward suicide in our most populous state. 

This nation's founders allowed for differences in belief on the part of its citizens.  But for most of the history of the United States, there was a general consensus, based upon mostly religious tenets, that suicide, assisted or not, had no redeeming social value and was to be discouraged in law and in engineering (and in medicine, too).  As evinced by the assisted-suicide law in California, this consensus has broken down, at least in that part of the country.  And that's a sad thing, for both those who stand on the sidewalk of a bridge thinking about jumping, and those who lie in a nursing home thinking about hastening their own end. 

Sources:  The San Francisco Examiner website carried the article "Construction to begin on Golden Gate Bridge suicide deterrent system," on Apr. 13, 2017 at  A rendering of what the system may look like once installed can be viewed at

Monday, April 10, 2017

What Really Happened With Internet Privacy?

Anyone paying attention to U. S. headlines recently heard something about internet privacy.  But what you heard probably depends on where you heard it.  President Trump signed a bill on Monday, Apr. 3 that used a thing called the Congressional Review Act to reverse a pending FCC rule.  So whatever it was, the rule that was revoked hadn't even gone into effect yet.

If it hadn't been shot down, the FCC's proposed rule would have required internet service providers (ISPs) such as AT&T to request permission from their customers to use certain data about what the customers do online.  Right now, ISPs don't have to ask, but depending on the ISP, they may not be doing much with that data anyway.  The big users of customer-generated data are social-media outlets such as Facebook, Internet companies such as Google, and advertisers who pay these outfits to place targeted ads using harvested customer data.  I'm sure the ISPs would like to get into that business eventually, but the FCC rule would have blocked them.  President Trump and the Republican-dominated Congress simply removed that stumbling block.

So for one thing, nobody lost any internet privacy they previously had.  As to the hypothetical future, it's anybody's guess what the FCC rule might have done, but clearly the ISPs were not happy about it, which was how the rule got quashed by a corporate-friendly Congress and President.

How you feel about this may depend on what you think about internet privacy and corporate freedom.  At this point in history, the phrase "Internet privacy" is about as meaningful as "Trump modesty."  Both are in short supply.  Most people who spend any time at all on the web have turned from looking for electric toothbrushes online, say, to researching the versions of ancient Mayan calendars, only to have an ad for toothbrushes pop up in the middle of the British Museum's webpage.  Obviously, a combination of "cookies" (little browser things that tell servers where your web browser has been) and clever marketing schemes has engineered that outcome.  All the FCC rule might have done would have been to stop ISPs such as AT&T and Verizon from doing similar things, at least without asking first.   And the asking could have been buried in one of those novel-length terms-and-conditions documents that everybody must either lie about reading before signing onto a new service, or actually read (and I don't know anybody who reads them).  The only reason that the FCC could have passed the rule in the first place lies in the historical carve-outs of which Federal agency gets to regulate what electronic communications means.  A similar historical fluke explains why on-the-air TV shows are not quite as raunchy as cable shows:  the FCC gets to regulate on-air stuff, but not cable-only stuff.

So what has been portrayed in some circles as an epic loss of consumer protection turns out to be more of a turf battle among giant powerful Federal agencies and giant corporations, and the consumer just gets to watch the results from the sidelines. 

Even though the actual effect of either the FCC ruling or its revocation by Congress and the President might have been minimal, it's worth asking a broader question about how consumers—or citizens, to use a more general term—are faring with respect to the centers of power in the U. S.  I recently ran across a blog by a man who, back in May of 2016 before the party conventions had selected either Presidential candidate, predicted that Trump would not only be the Republican nominee, but that he'd win too.  Anybody can make a lucky guess, but this gentleman, a writer by the name of John C. Médaille, based his prediction on the fact that ordinary Americans were enraged that their interests have been ignored in favor of the interests of "the Rich, the powerful, the banker, the foreigner."  Of course, our current President belongs to at least two of those categories himself, and Médaille was far from pleased that Trump was probably going to win.  But he was right.

Powerful corporations such as Google and Facebook are able to offer "free" services that compel users to generate content that profits the companies.  Médaille, who believes in an obscure and mostly forgotten system of economics called distributism, sees this sort of thing as an injustice, which brings the matter into the scope of engineering ethics.  Because engineering, broadly speaking, makes everything on the Internet possible, engineers who work for such companies shouldn't simply turn a blind eye to the applications of their code, saying, "All they pay me to do is code.  What they do with the code isn't my business."  Google's code of conduct, summed up in the phrase "Don't be evil," is a masterful exercise in question-begging, namely because at least to my knowledge, it doesn't include a definition of "evil." 

And by the nature of human relations, we can never set out a precisely-written code of conduct that a robot could follow flawlessly, because we're not robots.  We're human beings, each of us a mystical world unto ourselves, and relations among such beings cannot be reduced to mathematical formulas. 

The kerfuffle about the proposed FCC ruling shows that, although our current President ran as the vindicator of the common man and woman, reality may be setting in rather faster than anyone expected—reality being the continuation of a long-term trend of concentration of both economic and political power in the hands of an oligarchic few.  By the nature of modern engineering, most engineers will end up working for medium-size to large corporations, and therefore have a perhaps unconscious bias in favor of policies and actions that favor such corporations. 

However, there are reasons that millions of people in the U. S. have experienced stagnating wages, worsening work conditions, and a lack of genuine opportunities to be a free contributor to the common wealth.  Instead, unless you have reached a certain educational level, your options are nearly all of the "heads we win, tails you lose" variety, and many men in particular have taken the easy way out of simply giving up on work and living off the meager surpluses of welfare and compliant relatives and girlfriends that are available. 

To reverse such trends will take more than an internecine government flap.  It will take first, awareness of the depth and scope of the problem, and second, a willingness to overlook differences and artificial divisions set up by those hoping to keep the masses tranquil, and to do something in a united way that will bring about meaningful change.  But that is a topic for another time.

Sources:  I used material from The Hill's website posted on Apr. 3, 2017 at, entitled "Trump signs Internet privacy repeal."  That article referred to a blog by a person described as "AT&T's top lobbyist" Bob Quinn at, which I also referred to.  John C. Médaille's prediction of Trump's triumph and his mixed feelings about it can be read at  Another blog of mine on distributism can be found at

Monday, April 03, 2017

Atlanta Burns a Bridge

For several years—possibly since 2006, according to one report—construction crews working near an elevated section of Interstate 85 near Piedmont Road in northeast Atlanta had stored large quantities of bright-orange high-density-polyethylene (HDPE) pipe.  It's used for a variety of things in public works, such as conduits for streetlight and traffic-signal cables, and comes in large reels two or three feet high each, that were stacked two high under a bridge span.  It's not the kind of thing one could just shove in a backpack and walk off with, so authorities thought that just surrounding the stash of pipe with a chain-link fence was enough security.

Last Thursday, March 30, a fire was reported under the span, and despite desperate attempts by firefighters to combat the fierce heat for over an hour, several emergency responders barely escaped with their lives when the span over the pipes collapsed, damaging both northbound and southbound parts of the interstate to the extent that it will be closed for several months for repairs.  Eyewitnesses reportedly saw Basil Eleby, an apparently homeless man, standing on a chair in a shopping cart near the fence shortly before the blaze, and Eleby is now in jail, unable to post $200,000 bond and awaiting trial for arson.

Fortunately, no one was killed or injured in the fire or collapse, but Atlanta commuters are going to have to deal with serious disruptions, as that part of I-85 is the main transportation corridor between downtown and the northeastern suburbs, normally carrying over 100,000 cars a day.  It was how I would get downtown from the suburb of Chamblee during my two years working as an engineer at Scientific-Atlanta, and I can only imagine the traffic snarls that this will cause.

Clearly, nobody expected this to happen, and for over a decade it didn't happen.  Those pipes have been sitting there at least that long, and as far as accident-prevention policies are concerned, it didn't look much like an accident waiting to happen.  Of course, arson isn't an accident, but it's unlikely that Mr. Eleby had any idea what would happen if he tried to set those pipes on fire.  It's too early to know what his motives might have been, but even if it turns out that he was hoping to cause major damage, I doubt that he really expected to bring down a bridge span single-handed.

One good thing that could result from this fire is that construction organizations everywhere will now view large accumulations of HDPE pipe with a different attitude.  It's not as dangerous as big piles of ammonium nitrate, which is known to be a powerful explosive under the wrong conditions.  But HDPE is a little bit like solid gasoline, in that it's just concentrated carbon and hydrogen with convenient air holes in it to aid combustion, and it's not surprising that a large stack of such pipes burned so hot for so long. 

It's far from criminally negligent to store that much flammable pipe under a vital transportation artery, but it wasn't the smartest thing to do, either, especially in an area where homeless people tend to hang out.  For complex sociological and economic reasons, many highway overpasses in major cities across the U. S. have been informally colonized over the past few decades by people who don't have, or don't wish to have, any other place to stay that will keep the rain and sun off.  Most of the time, the worst things these folks do is deal drugs, harass passersby, and leave messes, but now and then they can turn to more consequential criminal activity, such as the apparent arson that brought down the I-85 span.

I'll leave it to the civil engineers who will no doubt be combing through the wreckage to figure out exactly how hot a bridge has to get before it collapses.  But if steel was a significant component of the bridge—and it had to be, either as the main support or as rebar in concrete—well, steel melts at a certain temperature, and well before that it gets soft enough to lose most of its tensile strength, and there goes your bridge. 

Like many isolated mishaps that don't fit the usual patterns, a number of individually common events and conditions had to come together to cause this fire.  Both homeless people and construction supervisors see otherwise wasted public land under overpasses as a good place to take advantage of, either for living space or for storage.  And in secure warehouses, HDPE pipe is no more hazardous than furniture or wooden forklift pallets, which are notorious for burning fast because of the combination of flammable material and openings where combustion-aiding air can get in.  The chain-link fence around the pipes apparently kept intruders out for the ten or more years the pipes had been stored there, and there was no obvious reason to be concerned that some disgruntled or mentally deranged person would come along and try to damage the pipes.  But he did.

This fire, as bad as it was, could have been much worse.  It lasted long enough for first responders to isolate the area and stop traffic along the highway, keeping commuters out of harm's way.  And while fire-department personnel were unable to put out the fire before the span collapsed, at least no one was injured in the collapse.  Still, it would have been nice if they could have extinguished it before it got so widespread that it endangered the highway bridge overhead. 

Maybe it would be a good idea to install remotely monitored fire alarms in every big pile of HDPE in a public place, especially if it would cause serious damage if it caught fire.  True, there might be an issue with false alarms.  But I bet Atlanta's first responders would have been willing to put up with a few false alarms in order to prevent something that's now going to be a serious inconvenience for millions of drivers, and a multimillion-dollar expense for the taxpayers.  Next time you're in Atlanta, your best bet in getting around may be their MARTA trains, at least until they fix I-85.

Sources:  I consulted a number of news reports on the fire, including one on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website at and Atlanta's Channel 11 News at, as well as the Wikipedia article on HDPE.