Monday, December 25, 2017

Too Fast and Too Slow: The Washington State Derailment and Positive Train Control

After more than a decade of planning and construction, a new section of track was opened for Amtrak passenger service south of Tacoma, Washington on Dec. 18, 2017.  The old route that Amtrak trains used to take went northwest from Tacoma along the coast of Puget Sound, around a peninsula named Point Defiance, and then down the coastline several miles until it crossed Interstate 5 south of the small town of DuPont and headed south inland.  The new shorter route uses a bypass track that goes southwest of Tacoma and hugs I-5 for the rest of the distance, crossing the interstate south of DuPont.  There is a long stretch of fairly straight track just north of I-5 past a golf course before the track makes a sharp left turn to the south to cross the bridge over the freeway.

The problem with the old route was that a number of sharp turns and single-track tunnels slowed the Amtrak passenger trains down, making the Point Defiance section something of a bottleneck.  The project map on the Washington State Department of Transportation website for the Point Defiance bypass bragged that the top speed allowed on the new route would be 79 miles per hour.

Rail fans and others interested in passenger rail transportation made plans to be on Amtrak 501 as it left the station in Tacoma on the new route.  The engineer, whose name has not yet been released, was training another railroad employee who rode with him in the cab. 

In most parts of the U. S., trains are not operated in a completely automatic mode, although in many regions a system called Positive Train Control (PTC) is in operation.  PTC is a kind of robotic supervisory system that, among other things, constantly monitors a train's speed and intervenes if the train goes too fast for a particular section of track.  About 60% of all Amtrak trains use PTC, but in order for PTC to work, the track has to have sensors installed along it, and the Point Defiance bypass was not one of those routes.  So the engineer was solely in charge.

Around 7:25 AM, the train was running on the long stretch of straight track before the turn to the bridge over I-5.  A properly trained engineer knows what speeds are safe for which parts of a route, and knows when to apply brakes in anticipation of a lower-speed area ahead, as passenger trains can take several miles to decelerate at a rate that doesn't unduly disturb the passengers.  A video exists of what was going on in the cab in the last few seconds before the train reached the I-5 bridge.  The train was still going at the maximum route speed of 78 MPH.  Six seconds before the bridge, the engineer commented about the excesssive speed of the train, but by then it was too late.  The engine and a dozen other cars left the tracks, killing three, injuring dozens, causing numerous highway-traffic crashes (none fatal), and closing Interstate 5 for many hours.  The maximum safe speed for negotiating the turn was posted as 30 MPH.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will not issue its formal report on the investigation of this disaster for many months, the preliminary evidence is pretty clear that the accident was caused by human error.  Something—possibly distraction in conversing with the trainee, possibly plain forgetfulness—made the engineer neglect to slow the train before the I-5 curve.  As numerous reports emphasized after the wreck, if the train had been using PTC, it would have automatically slowed down for the curve if the engineer had done nothing, or even if he had tried to keep the speed high.  And we have no knowledge of how many wrecks of both freight and passenger trains have been prevented by PTC, because by definition such incidents that don't injure or kill anybody don't get reported.  But it is clear in this case that the absence of PTC was a contributory cause.

Congress mandated the installation of PTC after the worst train accident in the last thirty years, a 2008 wreck caused by operator error that killed 24 people.  The original deadline for all passenger trains to be using PTC was 2015.  But as the deadline approached and railroads were lagging behind in their rate of installations—in fairness to them, due to problems with government regulation of necessary radio frequencies as well as other causes—they told Congress that if the deadline wasn't extended, they would simply shut down.  How serious this threat was, we'll never know, because Congress caved and moved the deadline to the end of 2018.  And under the current business-friendly administration, we can expect if the railroads ask for another extension, they're likely to get it.

Statistically, rail passenger travel is very safe overall, with the number of fatalities most years hovering in the single digits.  Still, nobody wants to be one of the six or seven people who get killed in a train wreck or hit by lightning—dead is dead, no matter how you go. 

A utilitarian approach to the issue of PTC and passenger trains might conclude that, hey, given the low number of fatalities, let's just allow things to go the way they're going, and eventually we'll have PTC everywhere and we won't have to worry about it.  But the expense per life saved is so high with railroads that we'd be better off using political and monetary capital fighting automobile traffic accidents or promoting self-driving cars.

That's one approach.  But another approach says, "Look, here's this technological fix that will cost the railroads money and trouble, but will almost completely eliminate what is the last major remaining cause of railroad passenger fatalities:  human error.  Let's bite the bullet and make a special effort, even spend some extra money, to fix this thing once and for all."  Maybe that's the engineering approach, or even the perfectionist approach (many engineers have perfectionist tendencies).  Yes, the absolute numbers of fatalities are small.  But deaths in a train wreck share with deaths in plane crashes a peculiar horror, in that you are completely bereft of control of the situation.  And in the case of train fans who simply wanted to experience a new route for the first time and ended up paying for their hobby with their lives—well, some ironies are too much to contemplate.  I have a good friend who, if he was not otherwise engaged that day, might well have been on that train, because he simply likes to ride trains.

Better training (pardon the pun) of engineers and faster completion of the installation of PTC are needed.  And maybe if these things happen, this will be the last fatal accident involving train passengers for a long time.

Sources:  I referred to several news items on the accident, including CBS News at, a government-run transportation statistics site at, a Washington State Department of Transportation map of the bypass route at, and a report giving the time of the crash at 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Will We Miss Net Neutrality?

On Thursday, Dec. 14, the U. S. Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 in favor of repealing the Obama-era "net neutrality" rules that have been in effect since 2015.  Like so many things lately, net neutrality has become a partisan issue, and the vote went along party lines, the three Republican appointees on the Commission voting in favor of repeal and the two Democrats opposing it.  Polls show that the idea of net neutrality is popular, with as many as 80% of those asked being in favor of it.  But the pollsters generally didn't ask respondents to define net neutrality, or to say why they favored it.  Amid the protests and shrill voices raised on both sides of the issue, it's hard to get a grasp on what exactly is at stake, and what the pros and cons are.  A little history may help in this regard.

Among other things, most modern governments are expected to protect the weak against the strong.  This is an elementary aspect of justice.  In the late 1800s, during the rapid expansion of another kind of network—the railroad network—the public became aroused over perceived abuses that the railroads were practicing.  Farmers discovered that the railroads were manipulating shipping charges to curry favor with certain interest groups, and handing out free passenger passes to influential politicians.  The problems were so pervasive that the first free-standing administrative commission in the executive branch of the federal government was established to ride herd on the railroads:  the Interstate Commerce Commission, or ICC.

The ICC established rules for what became known as "common carriers"—enterprises that were so essential to the public that regulation by government was regarded as necessary.  The idea of a common carrier spread to other systems such as bus lines, airlines, and public utilities like electric and water systems.  In exchange for close regulation by the government, the business being regulated was allowed to make a reasonable profit.  Some industries eventually came around to welcoming common-carrier status, because they found that manipulating the government's rules in their favor wasn't that hard and it stabilized their business models. 

In 2003, a Columbia University professor named Tim Wu coined the phrase "net neutrality" to extend the common-carrier idea to the internet, which was not regulated in any meaningful way at the time.  In the case of the internet, the potential for the kind of abuse that the railroads got into trouble for is always there.  And there have been some incidents prior to the 2015 adoption of formal net-neutrality rules that give advocates of net neutrality some credibility.  According to the Wikipedia article on net neutrality, the internet service provider (ISP) Comcast took measures to throw digital roadblocks in the way of the troublesome service BitTorrent, which was using up a lot of bandwidth at the time, and the FCC has fined AT&T for similar misbehavior.

But the net neutrality rules that the FCC has now pledged to abandon may go too far in the other direction.  According to ISPs, the rules left them with limited flexibility for expansion and the offering of new services.  Treating everybody the same on the internet is a fine idea in principle, but working out the details can get complicated, and there are genuine judgment calls involved in an ISP's decisions of how to allocate limited fiber-optic and especially wireless bandwidth to best serve the incredible variety of customers, and websites that customers want to visit. 

We have seen how the content providers themselves (e. g. Facebook) have done things that go against some principles of net neutrality, such as the idea of no censorship.  Both for legal and moral reasons, Facebook polices itself and removes posts it deems to be unsuitable for various reasons.  But it's not an ISP that's doing this, it's Facebook. 

The ISPs, as ISPs, do not have the resources (or I suspect, the inclination) to do a lot of fine-grain discrimination, which is probably the kind of thing that many people who favor net neutrality are worried about.  Basically, the ISPs don't have time to pick through the floods of data that they must ship around every microsecond.  The most they can do in a typical situation is to note sites and services that produce unusually demanding traffic patterns.  And I think the most that they are hoping for in the repeal of net neutrality is to gain some freedom more efficiently to allocate their bandwidth in order to serve the most customers with the fewest additional resources of hardware and software. 

Maybe that is a Pollyanna-ish and naive view of ISPs, but it's hard for me to imagine that some of the more dire consequences foretold by the proponents of net neutrality will result from its abandonment:  widespread censorship, the inability of small-scale websites and enterprises to compete with larger ones based on something the ISP is doing, and so on.  One concern, transparency, is largely being taken care of by the internet itself.  Tricks like artificially degrading services are quickly detected and exposed by users, and it's easy for protesters to gather a digital lynch mob with torches and clubs and go after the bad guys.  Whether the bad guys mend their ways is another question, but my point is that if an ISP tries anything unpopular, they will be called out for it.  And this is an important self-regulating aspect of the internet that we may not appreciate as much as we should.

So my own answer is, no, I don't think we'll miss what we've had for only the last two years anyway, in terms of the Obama-era net neutrality regulations.  Even critics of the FCC decision admit that nothing is going to change right away, as the Commission has to come up with alternative rules and perhaps turn over some aspects of its work with the internet to the Federal Trade Commission. 

The internet is a modern necessity, not much less essential than electric power, and it is appropriate for governments to make sure that whoever qualifies as "weak" with regard to it is protected against unfair and unjust depredations by ISPs, or anybody else for that matter.  But even in the bad old days before government regulations were in place, abuses were fairly rare.  And it looks like the commercial instinct of self-preservation will keep ISPs from doing anything really dastardly, now that net neutrality rules are going away. 

Sources:  I referred to reports on the FCC vote to repeal net neutrality carried by at and  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on net neutrality and the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Are Teens Killing Themselves With Smartphones?

Jean Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and she thinks she knows one surprising reason why the rates of teenage depression and suicide have been climbing steadily since 2012 in the U. S.  She summarizes both her own work and the results of several other social-science studies of the problem in a recent article on the academics-to-the-public website called "The Conversation."

From an analytical view, she and her colleagues seem to have done their homework.  The raw statistics are chilling:  between 2010 and 2015, the number of teenagers reporting symptoms of depression in several large surveys rose by a third, as well as the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide.  Examining the usual suspects—economic causes, race, class, and so on—revealed that the increases were quite uniform and uncorrelated to shifts in those factors.  So the researchers started looking for anything else that changed a lot in those five years.  And what they hit on was the fact that what marketers call the "penetration rate"—the percent of a given market group which owns a new product—went above 50 percent in 2012 among teenagers for guess what?  Smartphones. 

Examining the correlation between smartphones and teenage depression and suicide more closely, Twenge noted that longitudinal and causal-link studies point to smartphones as a likely cause, and not just a correlated effect of depression.  That eliminates a problem you often have with studies like this, where you find that the factor you're interested in happens alongside some other factor, but there's no obvious causal connection between them.  Basically, they found that when people became more unhappy, they didn't use smartphones a lot more, but when otherwise normal people began to use smartphones, they had a tendency to become less happy.

Twenge speculates about exactly why smartphones tend to do this to teens, and some of the answers are pretty obvious, at least to those of us who don't use smartphones much.  Every minute a teen is in the presence of another live person, and instead stares at a smartphone, there is an opportunity lost for direct human interaction, which both psychology and common sense say is one of the most beneficial things you can do to avoid depression.  And although she doesn't mention it, I will add that the image-maintenance which keeping up one's Facebook page requires would give even a professional media manager of the 1960s nightmares.  But playing that game requires teens to be constantly checking out what their peers (I won't call them friends) are doing and trying to be equally impressive by means of one's own online persona. 

Here we have a fairly new technology which seems to have an objective negative effect on the health and lifespan of a certain class of people.  If this were a different kind of problem, I can tell you what would happen from here, drawing from examples like the "radium girls" episode of the 1920s, when women who painted radium-dial watches and instruments started dying off.  Survivors of those who fell ill and died called for legislation, which was first opposed by the manufacturers, but eventually government public-health agencies got involved, and the dangerous manufacturing practices were banned.  Today nobody even manufactures radium anymore—it's just too dangerous.

The trouble with the smartphone-teen-depression issue is, you can't point to a chemical or physical cause that smartphones are guilty of.  But it's pretty obvious that something about the way teens use them affects their minds and leads to depression and suicide.  We know that much, but what do we do to fix it?  Twenge ends her article with a halfhearted call to limit smartphone use to two hours a day, but that might not be enough to make a difference.  And how can parents do that without following their kids around all the time?  I suppose there's an app for that, but if there is, there's also an app for evading the time limits imposed by the first app.

I'd like to add a couple of examples of people I know whose lives are relevant to this issue.  One is an example of what happens to a person when most of his social action is lived online, and another example of more or less the opposite. 

The first example is a relative of mine.  After working in a professional career, in his forties he got tired of dealing with people in person on his job—not particular people, really, just people in general.  He had accumulated enough money to live on without working if he lived very frugally, so he just quit. 

This was about twenty years ago, when the Internet was just beginning to take off.  He discovered chatrooms, and developed online relationships as time went on.  For the last ten or fifteen years, his days have scarcely varied.  He sleeps until early afternoon, gets up, makes breakfast, I guess you'd call it, and logs on.  Then maybe he watches television some, but from what he tells me (I keep in regular phone contact with him), most of his time is spent in online contact with people around the world, in Alaska and Wales and other English-speaking regions.  He stays up till three or four in the morning doing this sort of thing, then goes to bed.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  As far as I know he still goes grocery shopping, but that is about his only live human interaction.  And that is just the way he likes it.  He recently bought his first smartphone, but I don't think it can do him any more damage than he's already sustained.  I think talking with me is about all he uses it for.

He's an example of what can happen to someone who indulges the fantasy of an all-online life. 

The other example is a person I know a lot less about.  She's a young woman who attends a local church we know of.  She is one of a family of eight or so children.  The father is a doctor and the mother has homeschooled the entire family.  The woman is now ninenteen and holds down a job and I think is attending community college.  In the last year or so, she got her first smartphone.  Not only did she survive most of her teenage years without it, she has turned out better than a lot of kids who had them.  So in the right circumstances, it is possible in 2017 to raise teenagers and not give them smartphones.  I've seen it done.  But whether smartphones are so bad for teens that we should enact a minimum phoning age of 21, I can't say.  All I will say is, there's something bad going on with smartphones and teenagers, and if we care, we should do something about it.

Sources:  Jean Twenge's article "With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit" appeared on Nov. 14, 2017 at  I have changed a few details to preserve anonymity of the individuals discussed. 

Monday, December 04, 2017

North Korea and the Paradox of Nuclear Weapons

On Tuesday, Nov. 28, North Korea launched a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).  Analysis of the flight path and other data indicates that the new model, called the Hwasong-15, can probably reach any point in the continental U. S.   And last September, Kim Jong-un ordered a successful underground test of a thermonuclear weapon whose yield exceeded 100 kilotons of TNT, the standard measure of nuclear-weapon power.  While North Korea has yet to demonstrate the ability to deliver nuclear weapons with its ICBMs, that is clearly its intention, and the latest ICBM test shows it is farther along that road than many people thought.

The world has lived under the threat of nuclear weapons since the first atomic bombs were exploded over Japan in 1945.  Fortunately for all concerned, the threat has never been carried out since then, although the 1962 Cuban missile crisis brought the U. S. and the former Soviet Union closer to nuclear war than anybody ever wants to get again. 

Despite the best efforts of both the U. S. and the Soviet Union to keep nuclear-weapons technology secret, the physics behind the bombs is well known, and it was only a matter of time until more countries built their own weapons.  As of today, at least eight nations possess nuclear weapons, and probably nine (Israel has never publicly admitted to having any, but is widely believed to have components ready for rapid assembly and use in an emergency).  North Korea is both the newest member of the nuclear club and the one that is most worrisome.

Since the development of the modern nation-state, the question of what kind of defenses to use and what proportion of a country's wealth to devote to armaments have been perpetual issues.  During the Cold War era, many countries such as Japan maintained only nominal armies and sheltered under the guarantee of protection by the U. S.  But since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, a sense has arisen that it's every nation for itself now, and North Korea has bought into that mindset wholesale.

In individuals, the mental state known as paranoia can be debilitating and lead to bizarre and even violent behavior.  I am neither a psychologist nor an expert in international affairs, but paranoia at the highest levels of government seems to account for many of North Korea's actions better than most other explanations.  Its rogue actions and hyperbolic threats have isolated it to the extent that its people are severely impoverished, but the nation's governing class continues to devote absurdly large amounts of money and resources in pursuit of militarization, and in particular its nuclear arms race. 

A report on the latest ICBM launch on the Wired website says that North Korea probably imported the rocket engines used in the latest launch.  Despite international sanctions, critical military hardware such as rocket engines finds its way to North Korea, and it's probably vain to think that attempts to blockade such hardware could stop their progress toward fully functional nuclear-tipped ICBMs.  Whoever sold them those rockets should take a share of the responsibility for whatever disasters result.

The paradox of nuclear weapons mentioned in our headline is simply this:  with the exception of World War II, nuclear weapons have proved to be useful only to the extent that they weren't actually used.  Even Kim Jong-un probably understands that if he were to launch an unprovoked nuclear attack on the U. S., the consequences for his country, and him personally, would be dire.  So despite the heated rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang, there is probably a practical endpoint to North Korea's nuclear ambitions:  to have a few missiles poised and ready to threaten whoever might offer to overthrow the regime.

In a way, it's silly to worry about a potential nuclear threat from North Korea that isn't even real yet, when the leftover nuclear weaponry of the former Soviet Union is still owned by Russia and numbers in the thousands.  The difference is that Russia does not seem inclined even to use its weapons as threats against the U. S., preferring to interfere with our affairs by other means, while North Korea's leaders seem to thrive on the attention their country receives every time they launch a new missile or explode a new bomb underground. 

The technology North Korea needs to become a full-fledged member of the nuclear-ICBM club is probably only a matter of a few years away.  Even Kim Jong-un would probably not risk the international scorn he would get if he tried to demonstrate an air burst from a nuclear-tipped rocket over an isolated part of the ocean, but logically, that's probably the only way he can convince the world that he has a fully-operational system.  We may just have to take his word for it.

What then?  Well, we in the U. S. have made it from 1949 (the year the USSR demonstrated a nuclear weapon) to 2017 while living under the threat of thousands of nuclear bombs, and a few more in North Korea probably won't make much practical difference.  If we demonstrate that our anti-ballistic-missile systems could take down a North Korean missile before it did any harm, and there is some evidence that this is true, it will vitiate but not eliminate North Korean threats in this area.  The problem is that we're fighting probabilities with probabilities, and appearance in such a game can be more influential than reality.

The consensus of historical opinion is that Ronald Reagan's Star Wars proposals played a significant role in the eventual demise of the USSR from within.  The case of North Korea is very different.  Being smaller and more insular, Kim Jong-un can probably squelch any signs of dissent before it turns into a major internal threat to his regime.  But once he has nuclear-capable ICBMs, he will learn that the power of nuclear weapons is best used by not using them.  And that won't be nearly as much fun as developing them.  But even dictators have to grow up sometime.

Sources:  Wired's website published "North Korea's Latest Missile Test Was Even Scarier Than It Seemed" on Dec. 1, 2017 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on nuclear weapons states and the number of nuclear weapons owned by each state.