Monday, September 24, 2018

YouTube, COPPA, and Twelve-Year-Old Lawyers

YouTube, as anybody who is reading this online probably knows, is a video-streaming service owned by Google.  Because Google makes money from ads that go along with its services, it is in Google’s interest to make such services as easily accessible as possible to the most people.  Accessing YouTube requires only the ability to spell, or maybe even just to point on a smartphone screen to an icon.  Such skills are easily mastered by children as young as eight. 

In April of 2017, USA Today carried a story about an eight-year-old boy in Ohio who not only figured out how to watch YouTube, but learned how to drive a car by watching instructional videos.  He and his four-year-old sister waited until their parents were asleep one day.  Then they went out to the family car and drove to McDonald’s, where he used his piggy-bank money to buy a cheeseburger.  People who saw him on his way to the restaurant and called the cops when they figured out what was happening nevertheless said he obeyed all the traffic laws and didn’t hit a thing. 

COPPA stands for the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, a federal law that prohibits collecting online data from children under 13 without the consent of parents.  Last April, a coalition of childrens’ privacy protection groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that YouTube does indeed collect data from kids under 13—location, usage habits, and more.  And just last week, a pair of U. S. representatives, one Democrat and one Republican, wrote a letter to Google chair Sundar Pichai to ask him how his company uses data collected on those under 13.

The only substantive response from the company so far on these matters has been the following:  Protecting kids and families has always been a top priority for us. Because YouTube is not for children, we've invested significantly in the creation of the YouTube Kids app to offer an alternative specifically designed for children. We appreciate all efforts to protect families and children online and look forward to working with members of Congress to answer their questions."

Of course, kids get into all sorts of things that aren’t intended for them, YouTube included.  The only barrier that keeps kids under 13 away from YouTube is item 12 in the YouTube Terms and Conditions, which reads in part, “In any case, you affirm that you are over the age of 13, as the Service is not intended for children under 13. If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.”

A recent Roz Chast cartoon in The New Yorker portrayed an updated carnival freak-show sign, and one of the featured creatures was “The Man Who Actually Read the Terms and Conditions.”  If I had a twelve-year-old child who came to me and told me that she had dutifully read the YouTube terms and conditions, and said to me, “Paragraph 12 told me to talk to you about what sites are appropriate for me,” I’d tell her to go check out the Harvard Law School application page.  And then I’d probably never forgive myself for having raised a lawyer. 

Everyone, including the lawyers who wrote those terms and conditions, knows that the chances of a child actually reading Paragraph 12 and acting on it are indistinguishable from zero.  But technically and legally, YouTube has told precocious under-13 lawyers, and anyone else in that age category, that they shouldn’t be watching YouTube.  Presumably, the company’s default position on this issue is, “Well, we warned kids to stay away and not to lie to us about their age.  What else can we do?”

And that is the question.  Displaying content that is inappropriate for young children is bad enough, but collecting data on them is illegal—technically, according to COPPA.  But here again, we run into a legal fiction.  While there are all sorts of good laws on the books to prevent this sort of thing, laws are pointless unless they are enforced.  And as far as I know, the filing of the childrens’ privacy group complaint to the FTC has vanished into the federal bureaucracy, and Sundar Pichai has not yet replied to the letter from David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska). 

This whole situation begins to remind me disquietingly of a joke that was told about the way work got done in the old Soviet Union.  When a Western tourist asked a worker privately about conditions in a town in Siberia where the pay was low and the store shelves were almost empty, he replied, “Well, we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” 

YouTube pretends to keep children under 13 from watching it, and when that doesn’t work, the federal government and its representatives pretend to try to do something about it.  I normally don’t like sounding cynical, but sometimes the level of hypocrisy gets so high that you simply can’t ignore it.

I am not accusing either privacy groups or members of Congress of hypocrisy in this case.  Filing complaints and writing letters are sincere efforts to do something about the situation.  But so far, they appear to be just as ineffectual as YouTube’s Paragraph 12 in keeping kids from being exploited or having their innocence (remember innocence?) stripped from them. 

Every age has its public priorities—institutions and ways of doing things that are so accepted and even praised that they cannot be seriously challenged.  Slavery was one such priority until less than two hundred years ago, but that finally changed for the better.  Perhaps kids watching YouTube videos and having their data used by Google is not the worst thing that can happen to them.  But it’s one tip of the iceberg of this culture’s neglect and exploitation of children that will have long-term effects that we may not even understand for decades, let alone be able to do anything about. 

The first step toward righting a wrong is to recognize it as wrong.  A few people are questioning whether a giant corporation should get away with pretending it’s not doing something that it’s doing, at the expense of children.  And that is a good first step, but only the first step on a long journey.

Sources:  I referred to an article at entitled “Reps. Press Google on Kids Data Collection Issues” published on Sept. 17, 2018.  The quotation from a YouTube representative is from published on Sept. 18, 2018.  The story of the 8-year-old who taught himself to drive on YouTube is at  And in case you’re having trouble falling asleep, YouTube’s terms and conditions can be read in full at 

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Massachusetts Gas Disaster

Being one of the longest-settled regions of the U. S., the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been home to gas utility companies for close to a century and a half.  Unfortunately, some of the pipes installed in the 19th century are still in use in older parts of the state, notably around Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover in the Merrimack Valley north of Boston.  So earlier this month, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, the gas utility serving the area, announced that it was going to start replacing some older gas lines. 

On Thursday afternoon, Sept. 13, residents of these towns would have been justified in thinking that they had suddenly been transported into the midst of a bad horror movie.  House after house exploded and caught fire.  The Massachusetts State Police logged over 30 calls reporting fires, and by Saturday authorities counted over 60 suspected gas fires in the area.  When one house exploded, its chimney toppled over onto a car, and one teenager in the car later died of his injuries.  Twenty-five people suffered injuries, some serious.

As soon as the scope of the disaster was known, authorities shut off gas and electric utilities to the areas affected and ordered an evacuation, which lasted in some cases until Saturday.  Citing Columbia Gas’s lack of cooperation, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said he was replacing Columbia Gas with another utility, Eversource, to lead recovery efforts, and declared a state of emergency in the region. 

A thorough understanding of what went wrong in Lawrence will have to wait for the results of investigations by local, state, and Federal officials, including members of a National Transportation Safety Board team that were dispatched to the scene.  Nevertheless, similar incidents have happened before, and their history is better known.

In the early days of gas utilities, gas was manufactured typically by the destructive distillation of coal and stored in large accumulator tanks at close to atmospheric pressure.  Only enough pressure to send it through distribution pipes and gas meters was used, and the delivered pressure was so low it was measured in inches of water, rather than pounds per square inch (PSI).  About 7 inches of water was the standard delivery pressure then, and it remains so today—equivalent to about 0.25 PSI.  Such a low pressure reduces requirements on residential piping and means that even a wide-open pipe is not going to leak enough gas to form anything more than a moderate flame.  I have seen a gas utility worker at a work site in my neighborhood street leave a delivery pipe open and unattended for a few minutes, with no apparent concern.

But by the same token, systems designed for such low pressure behave badly if by some mishap a higher transmission-line pressure reaches them.  For transmission over long distances, pressures ranging in the 50 to 100 PSI range are used to deliver gas to substations, where pressure regulators lower the pressure to the low levels needed at customers’ houses. 

Experts agree that somehow, a pressure greatly in excess of the normal 0.25 PSI was mistakenly connected to the distribution system in Andover, North Andover, and Lawrence.  The exact effects on each home depended on what kind of appliances were connected and operating at the time.  Fortunately, the weather was mild—highs in the 70s, lows in the 60s—so probably few domestic heating systems were being used.  Still, older furnaces and stoves use pilot lights, and one official was quoted as saying with enough pressure, a pilot light can turn into a torch.  Minor flaws in piping that would withstand 0.25 PSI may give way under higher pressures, resulting in major leaks of gas that can be triggered by an electric spark, a burning candle, or other source of ignition.  Out of the many hundreds of homes serviced by Columbia Gas in that region, some 60 or so suffered either major leaks or fires and explosions as a result.

When I lived in Massachusetts for a time after growing up in Texas, I noticed a rather widespread prejudice against gas for domestic heating, as opposed to either electricity or heating oil.  I encountered more than one person who said they would never buy or rent a place with gas, simply because of the danger.  Having grown up in a house heated with gas floor furnaces and space heaters (most of which would be too dangerous to install in new construction today), this attitude struck me as strange.  But Columbia Gas has not done its industry’s reputation any good by first allowing this accident to happen, and then by failing to take quick, decisive public actions to mitigate the disaster.  Columbia Gas’s parent company NISource saw its stock price fall 12 percent on the Friday following the disaster, an unusual occurrence for a generally conservative investment such as a fully-regulated utility firm. 

Environmentally speaking, the use of natural gas for domestic heating is more efficient than electric heating, even if natural gas is used to power the electric generation plants.  It can be argued that in making so many new natural-gas discoveries over the past decade, the U. S. has done more in recent years to replace higher-carbon-emission oil with natural gas than any other nation, thus decreasing the world’s carbon footprint. 

But these arguments will not console those who have lost loved ones or property in the Massachusetts gas explosions.  I wouldn’t blame them if some of them return to what is left of their homes and rip out all the gas lines completely.  I can also imagine the troops of lawyers who must be descending upon the region to file lawsuits against Columbia Gas and anyone else with deep pockets who might have been involved.  There is justice in compensating victims for their losses to the extent possible.  A trust has been betrayed when a utility’s normally benign facilities suddenly turn into engines of fire and destruction.  It will be interesting to learn what combination of mechanical failure, lack of understanding, and management errors led to this tragedy.  But even if we learn everything there is to know, that won’t fix the death and damage that resulted from it. 

Sources:  I referred to articles carried by CNN on Sept. 14 at, the Boston Globe at, and Fortune (a Bloomberg News story) at, as well as Wikipedia articles on natural gas and Lawrence, Massachusetts. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Boyan Slat’s Pacific Trash Collector: Noble or Quixotic?

Earlier this month, a 2000-foot-long (600-meter-long) floating boom set out from California to head for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  The instigator of this ambitious project, a Dutchman named Boyan Slat, hopes that the boom will demonstrate its ability to clean up the garbage floating in the top layer of the ocean.  If it does, he wants to use more of the $35 million he’s raised so far to build more booms and make a sizable dent in the garbage patch, which is reportedly twice the size of Texas.

According to a Sept. 8 Associated Press story, Slat got inspired to clean up the ocean when he went scuba diving in the Mediterranean Sea when he was sixteen, and saw more plastic junk than fish.  Now 24, he heads the nonprofit organization called simply The Ocean Cleanup, which he has single-mindedly guided to create the boom that is now undergoing its initial tests.  Wikipedia’s article on him notes that he first presented his garbage-collecting boom idea in a TEDx talk in 2012, and raised $2 million for it shortly thereafter with crowdfunding.  Only six years later, he has realized his initial dream and is hoping that storms won’t reduce his garbage collector to pieces that will themselves become floating garbage, although this is a small but real possibility.

Slat is a product of his times, and while we must salute his drive and ingenuity, he depends vitally on the good will and priorities of the thousands of people, wealthy and otherwise, who have supported his enterprise. 

The Ocean Cleanup represents something fairly new in engineering organizations:  an explicitly non-profit entity whose goal is to do something that indirectly benefits the entire world but directly benefits no one in particular.  Smaller-scale organizations such as Engineers Without Borders also try to do good rather than simply support outfits that make money, but EWB tends to take on small-scale specific projects, not mega-ambitious things such as a fleet of booms to clean up the Pacific Ocean. 

Nevertheless, Slat is doing engineering, and it remains to be seen whether the project will succeed on its own terms.  The task Slat is undertaking is not easy.

The phrase “garbage dump” conjures up a picture of a solid layer of large pieces of floating plastic trash so thick you could almost walk on it, like you might see in a puddle at a trash dump.  But the worst of the Great Pacific Garbage Dump is nothing near that dense.  Some estimates say that at the highest concentration, there are only about 4 particles per cubic meter, and the size of most particles is on the order of a few millimeters, which makes the area difficult to assess through satellite imagery.  You have to go out there with a sieve and drag the surface to find it—even visual observations from a boat will miss most of it. 

There were no details in the AP article about the size of the screen that Slat’s boom uses, but obviously there are a lot of compromises involved.  A screen small enough to catch 5-mm pieces of plastic will also bother fish, and so Slat is sending marine biologists along with the boom to monitor any harm that wildlife may come to as a result. 

Another question is, how many of these booms will have to be deployed to make a dent in the problem?  The Wikipedia article on the Great Pacific Garbage Dump cites an estimate of 80,000 metric tons of trash in the area.  A spokesman for the Ocean Conservancy named George Leonard said that while he hoped Slat’s effort will succeed, some 9 million tons of plastic waste go into the oceans each year.  No source was given for that statistic.

Even if we ignore the question of whether metric or English tons are in question, the ratio of 9 million to 80,000 is a factor of about 100.  Assuming the 9-million-ton figure is true, even if Slat gets the Garbage Dump completely cleaned up, that will represent only about 1% of the stuff entering the ocean each year, which is (pardon the expression) a drop in the ocean.  If the 9-million-ton figure is in error, somebody needs to be called to account to correct it.

Now, cleaning up the environment is a noble goal, and I hope Slat’s boom collects all the garbage that his heart desires.  Of course, once the garbage is brought to land we’ll face the problem of what to do with it then, but at least it will be out of the ocean.  But I can’t help but wonder how a 24-year-old, even a very determined one, can raise $30 million for a giant project that will not demonstrably directly improve the life of any single individual on earth, while obvious human needs such as the lack of pure water and sanitation in many locations around the globe results in the deaths of thousands every year. 

The answer, I think, is the distortion of priorities that has occurred in the global culture, a distortion that can be traced to a vacuum where knowledge ought to be.  Most traditional cultures presented people with an integrated vision of what the world is about, and what one’s place in the world was.  Leaving aside any question of which vision is actually true, a person growing up in such a culture usually conformed to the culture’s vision, and if that vision was benign, things went well with that culture, generally speaking.

But in today’s atomistic, fragmented, individualistic culture dominated by global media that present a highly selective view of the world, projects such as Slat’s can attract attention and support from people who may not know or care that their next-door neighbor could use help a lot better than the fish in the Pacific Ocean.  There is no united vision of the world and its purposes, so anybody who comes along with a good-sounding solution to one of the problems highlighted by the media can gain the kind of support that Slat has with his Ocean Cleanup project.

I wish Boyan Slat’s project the best, but I hope he learns from failure as well as success, and redirects his future efforts toward something that will help others a little more directly. 

Sources:  The Chicago Tribune website carried the Associated Press article by Olga Rodriguez “Two Texases' worth of plastic is floating in the Pacific. A new device will spend 20 years trying to clean it” on Sept. 8, 2018 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on the Great Pacific Garbage Dump and on Boyan Slat. 

Monday, September 03, 2018

Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation and the Point of Sports

Full disclosure:  on a scale of sports-fan tendencies, I am off the scale in the negative direction.  But my almost complete lack of intrinsic interest in sports makes me a somewhat dispassionate observer, I hope, of a phenomenon that engages the attention of billions around the globe, and has its ethical aspects as well.  When technology gets in the mix, you have engineering ethics concerns.  And so that’s why we’re looking today at something called transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) and its increasing use by both professional and amateur athletes.

The technique of tDCS consists of connecting two or more electrodes to your skull and sending a small DC current of a few milliamps through the electrodes, where some of it finds its way to your brain.  Depending on which part of the brain is stimulated, the effects can range from nothing to the triggering of an epileptic fit in susceptible individuals.  Most of the time, though, the effects are subtle and have to be documented through elaborate studies.

According to a report in IEEE Spectrum that appeared in 2016, two young tDCS researchers named Daniel Chao and Brett Wingeier decided to take what they learned from working at a brain-implant company that sold anti-epileptic devices, and turn it into some kind of profitable business.  They experimented with a non-invasive tDCS setup instead of an invasive implant, and found that the area of the brain that seemed to respond most positively to tDCS was the motor cortex, which controls voluntary movements.  They founded a company called Halo Neuroscience, and for the last year or two the firm has been selling a product that looks like an odd kind of headphone with foam spikes pointing inward around the headband.  The spikes are the electrodes, and the Spectrum reporter who tried an early prototype found that using the device enhanced her performance on a simple motion:  curling her biceps on a bicep-curling machine.

The article also raised the question of whether tDCS would be viewed unfavorably by sports-regulating commissions such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which is the outfit that tries to police Olympic sports to prevent certain categories of drug-taking and other activities deemed to be unfair. 

The criteria used by the WADA to decide whether a given technology is allowable are as follows:  (1)  Does it have the potential to enhance or enhances sport potential?  (2)  Does the substance or practice represent an actual or potential health risk to the athlete?  (3)  Is it in the spirit of the sport?

By now, Halo and similar tDCS firms have been able to show repeatable positive results when athletes train for their particular sports while wearing tDCS rigs.  The devices are not used during an actual competition, because their usefulness consists in aiding what is sometimes called “muscle memory.”  In stimulating the neurons associated with voluntary movement, tDCS makes it easier to acquire the particular patterns of nerve behavior that makes optimum use of one’s muscles.  Even now the fine details of how tDCS does this are not entirely clear, but a lack of total understanding of a technology has never kept entrepreneurs from selling something that works.  And although the results are not spectacular—increases in performance in the 2 to 5 percent range are typical—these marginal improvements are most valuable to professional athletes looking for that little extra something.

Of course, if tDCS becomes as common as Gatorade and everybody uses it, we’ll be right back where we started, except that the tDCS companies will have a guaranteed market indefinitely into the future. 

The second criterion of the WADA about safety seems not to be much of a concern with tDCS.  The technique itself has been studied with modern techniques for at least forty years, and no one has discovered any notable ill effects that tDCS has on most people, unless there is some underlying condition already present such as epilepsy. 

So if there is any ethical objection to tDCS, it would be based on the third criterion, namely that using it is not in “the spirit of the sport.”  And that’s a rather fuzzy phrase.

There are some things you can imagine that would enhance performance, wouldn’t be dangerous to the athlete, but would definitely be contrary to the spirit of the sport.  For example, if a shot-putter got into the ring and brought a carbide cannon with him (a little device that generates acetylene and then sets it off behind a projectile), and used it to hurl the shot a couple thousand feet, this would clearly not be in the spirit of the sport.  The point of shot-putting is to see how far you can throw the thing, not how far your cannon can throw it.  But once you start banning technological aids, it’s hard to draw the line, because all technology is the same kind of thing, in one sense.  It’s just the degree to which it helps that varies. 

It turns out that the WADA has effectively given tDCS a pass, and its use is spreading among athletes in a wide variety of sports ranging from swimmers to cyclers and beyond.  One practical concern that doesn’t show up explicitly in the WADA criteria is the question of how easy it is to detect a given technology’s use.  Carrying a carbide cannon into a shot-put ring is a fairly obvious thing to do.  But using a tDCS device only in training and not on the field is something that would be almost impossible to detect after the fact, and to detect such use would require continuous supervision by WADA personnel that the agency simply does not have.  I suspect this near-impossibility of detection played a major role in the agency’s decision to allow tDCS.

But that doesn’t answer the question of whether tDCS, or any other advanced technology that makes the body something else than what it was before, is truly in the spirit of any sport.  The answer to that question hinges upon one’s philosophy of what sports is all about.  Is it just a way that humans entertain themselves and others, no different in principle than watching a Star Wars movie?  Or is it a striving toward an ideal, a direct assault on the possible using only what you were born with and can acquire through personal discipline? 

Having no discernable interest in sports myself whatsoever, I’m the wrong person to answer these questions.  But those who care need to think about what sports is really about before simply accepting advanced technologies such as tDCS, because one day you may wake up and realize that the sport you loved has turned into something a lot closer to Star Wars than you may like.

Sources:  The article on Halo Neuroscience’s prototype tDCS headset, “A New Kind of Juice” was written by Eliza Strickland and appeared on pp. 34-40 of the September 2016 print issue of IEEE Spectrum.  An online version of the article can be found at  I also referred to articles on tDCS and sports regulation at and  A news release about Halo equipment being used for the USA cycling team can be found on the company’s website at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on tDCS.