Monday, January 28, 2019

The Brumadinho Dam Disaster

On Friday, Jan. 25, a dam holding back millions of gallons of toxic mining tailings broke at the Brumadinho iron mine outside the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil.  The resulting floodwaters engulfed a cafeteria owned by the Vale mining company where hundreds of workers were having lunch.  As of today (Sunday Jan. 27), forty bodies have been recovered and about 250 more people are missing.  The president of Vale, Fabio Schvartsman, expressed his grief and surprise in a statement that was reported by the website Buzzfeednews.  This accident comes a little more than three years after another dam holding mining tailings collapsed at a different Brazilian Vale facility in Bento Rodrigues, killing nineteen and leading to what many sources call Brazil's worst environmental disaster as brownish waste filled a river and ran all the way to the Atlantic, despoiling water supplies and beaches along the way. 

Mining is a dangerous business, and most miners know this.  But that does not absolve mining companies of the responsibility to ensure that avoidable disasters don't happen.  Twice now, Vale has allowed tailing dams to fail, leading to consequences that in the United States would probably put a firm out of business.  But the company failed to learn enough from its 2015 disaster to keep this latest one from happening.

What is a mining company doing with lakes full of toxic waste anyway?  It has to do with the way that lower-grade iron ore is processed in a system called "beneficiation."  To be smelted (turned into pure iron) efficiently, ore must have a minimum iron content of about 60%.  Lower-quality ore can still be used, but it has to be concentrated with a variety of techniques such as gravity separation and magnetic separation.  Another technique is flotation, in which the ore is ground to a powder and then has water added to make it into a slurry with special chemicals that separate the desirable iron-bearing part from the waste with air bubbles. 

Once the good stuff is taken out, you are left with tons of basically useless rock powder, and if the last step was flotation, the stuff is in slurry form rather than dry.  It would take a huge amount of power to dry it, so the least expensive alternative is to pipe it into a man-made reservoir and hope it will eventually settle enough to where the water can be recovered.  Evidently this is often more of a hope than a reality, so the near-term solution is simply to put more and more liquid waste into the reservoir and hope the dam holds. 

Judging when one reservoir is full and another one should be built, at much trouble and expense, is a difficult call—a little like preparing for a war.  The only way you know you didn't prepare adequately is if you lose, and by then it's too late.  If the company shuts down one reservoir and builds another one before the first one is full, they're wasting reservoir capacity.  But if they keep putting stuff in till the dam bursts, well, you get disasters like Bento Rodrigues and Brumadinho.

The best way to keep these things from happening is to build dams that don't fail.  Good dams are expensive, but there are less expensive things one can do to minimize the damage if a dam does fail.  Alarm and alert systems and evacuation plans are useful in this regard, but hardly anything along these lines was done before the earlier dam failure in Bento Rodrigues, which became completely inaccessible by road once the resulting flood washed the access road away.  Having a major disaster is bad enough, but having one that rescue teams can't get access to except by helicopter is a nightmare.

There are technical reasons, I'm sure, for the dam collapse at Brumadinho, but the record of the Vale firm shows that technology, or lack thereof, is not the only problem.  Civil engineers have known how to build dams that don't fail for more than a century.  What is lacking here is a commitment to safety of employees, as well as a sense of stewardship of investors' capital and the environment. 

Large companies such as Vale operate in a legal and governmental environment that plays a huge role in determining their behavior.  The Wikipedia page on the 2015 Bento Rodrigues disaster indicates that the joint venture firm that owned the Brumadinho dam commissioned an inspection by a dam engineer in 2014.  He found serious deficiencies and warned of possible failure.  But clearly, whatever the company did to prevent it wasn't enough.  And now something similar has happened again.

Such an egregious case of negligence calls for major changes in the relationships and power structures of private firms and the government.  Without a collective voice such as a union, the miners are at the mercy of their employers.  Without the threat of severe and long-lasting negative consequences for endangering their employees, the mining company is simply going to go on doing what it's been doing:  making money while spending as little as possible on things that don't lead directly to profits—things such as better dams and evacuation plans.  Logically, then, it will take a force greater than the company's own willingness to make sure that another disaster like the two we've seen won't happen again.  And in the absence of powerful moral centers of authority such as churches, the government is the only place where such a force can come from. 

Unfortunately, in some countries the government and large companies are on the same side of most disputes, and that may be the case here.  Words are cheap, and while the expressions of sympathy and offers of help on the parts of the Vale's Schvartsman and the President of Brazil are no doubt sincere, words alone will not keep another disaster from happening.  Resources—money—will have to be redirected out of the pockets of the owners toward safer dams, more reservoirs when old ones get to capacity, and intelligent safety plans that give the workers a chance to survive if disaster does strike. 

Mining will always be dangerous, but a miner shouldn't have to take his life into his hands every day.  Let's hope that this second major catastrophe at Brumadinho will lead to reforms that make mining in Brazil a lot safer.

Sources:  I learned about this disaster from the website Buzzfeednews, which I found out recently gets more traffic than the website of the New York Times.  The story on the Brumadinho disaster is at  I also referred to information about beneficiation from the website and referred to the Wikipedia articles on the Brumadinho and Bento Rodrigues mining disasters. 

Monday, January 21, 2019

"The Challenger Disaster" Movie

Perhaps the most widely studied case in the field of engineering ethics is the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger shortly after launch.  The cause was traced to solid-rocket-booster O-ring seals that became too stiff to work in the near-freezing temperatures of the January 28 launch.  Combustion gases leaking through the seal of a rocket booster during the stress of launch destroyed the craft and killed all seven crew members, including a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe. 

Investigations after the launch revealed that engineers working for Morton-Thiokol Inc., the contractor for the boosters, knew of the leakage problem before the launch.  One engineer in particular named Roger Boisjoly was convinced that it was too dangerous to launch in such cold temperatures, and argued desperately in the hours leading up to the launch for his company to withhold approval.  But NASA was under severe pressure to keep to its schedule of launches, and Morton-Thiokol managers overruled the engineers and approved it anyway. 

That is the raw material out of which Nathan VonMinden, an aerospace engineer and now film director and screenwriter, has fashioned "The Challenger Disaster."  I spoke with VonMinden about the film, which is scheduled for general video-on-demand release at iTunes and Amazon on Jan. 25, and he stressed that his film is not a space movie in the mold of "The Right Stuff."  Having previewed the film, I agree with him that if you're looking for a pleasant hour and a half of thrills and adventure, "The Challenger Disaster" is not your best choice.  But if you want to see the inner workings of a dramatic and suspenseful tragedy and how it hinged upon the personality of a single engineer, this is the film to watch.

Adam is the name VonMinden gave to the Roger Boisjoly character.  Eric Hanson portrays Adam as a man obsessed by the truth and incautiously careless about how he tells it to others.  In eight years of researching the movie, VonMinden learned that Boisjoly was not an easy person to get along with.  In this film, Adam almost single-handedly forces his engineering colleagues at Morton-Thiokol to set up a teleconference with engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, which was in charge of the rocket design, and NASA officials at the Cape, who were annoyed to hear that someone at Morton-Thiokol was expressing doubts about the integrity of the system less than a day before the already-delayed launch.  Watching engineers almost coming to blows over a technical issue may seem over-the-top to some, but believe me, fights can happen among engineers over plenty of less serious issues. 

Even if you are pretty familiar with the basics of the story, as I was, the film is almost agonizing to watch as the launch time draws closer.  VonMinden raises the dramatic tension with TV clips of actual footage of launch preparations and other authentic incidents in this film, which has very high production values for a modest-budget independent work.  The focus is always on Adam:  his belief going in that the truth is always a sufficient argument (it's not, as it turns out), his doubts that he's done enough to stop the launch, and his retrospective descriptions of what went on in the hours leading up to the launch. 

The film is set in the form of flashbacks during a conversation Adam has with an attorney he is trying to interest in a lawsuit against his former employer (unsuccessfully, as it turns out).  For the most part, this format works, although I confess to being slightly confused when another lawyer was shown interviewing Adam and a co-worker after the launch.  It turned out that the second lawyer was prepping Adam in advance of the presidential investigation commission hearings. 

But you won't get lost during the flashbacks to the generally dark and even dingy surroundings of 80s-era engineering office cubicles, complete with vintage PCs and even a Macintosh SE-30 I spotted on one manager's desk.  VonMinden carefully chose settings that allowed the human drama to be the focus rather than expensive sets or CGI work:  offices, homes, and exteriors that could be anywhere.  Nevertheless, the generally underlit atmosphere symbolizes Adam's darkening mood as the critical conference call comes and goes, and the decision is made to launch.  After Adam drives home that evening, he just sits out in the driveway in his car until his wife comes and gets into the seat beside him.  The resulting scene is Bergmanesque in its intensity and silence, and is welcome in an era when decibel levels seem to be the main criterion for a film's popular success.

Later, during the  hearings that Adam and his fellow engineers attend, they come forward out of the audience and interrupt the proceedings after they hear a Morton-Thiokol manager lie about his knowledge of the seal problem.  After the hearing, a sympathetic commission member finds Adam and reassures him that there are whistleblowing laws to protect him from repercussions of his testimony. 

While it is never good to kick a man while he is down, I wish the film had taken time to show in more detail the intensity of the ostracism that forced the real-life Boisjoly to resign from Morton-Thiokol after his participation in the hearings made him persona non grata at work.  Although I'm unaware of any rigorous statistical studies of the fate of whistleblowers after they blow the whistle, my sense is that they always pay a heavy price professionally.  They are usually treated as traitors by their organizations, and find it less stressful to let go of a job that has become meaningless and find another employer, or even another profession.  For his part, Boisjoly made a new career out of giving talks to engineering students about his experiences.  In a brief scene toward the end of the film we see Adam doing just that, encouraging budding engineers to take their work seriously, because it can affect people you don't know in ways that you can't imagine.  But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. 

For a complex, historically accurate, and thought-provoking take on the Challenger disaster, I cannot think of a better medium than "The Challenger Disaster"  for conveying the seriousness of the emotion-laden decisions that have to be made at critical times.  It is not a fun movie, but it's a good one.  And I hope it does well in video-on-demand release, because engineers need to see it. 

Sources:  The film's distribution company, Vertical Entertainment, contacted me about "The Challenger Disaster" and motivated me to view the film and interview the director, who is based in San Antonio.  The film's trailer can be viewed at, and on Jan. 25 it should be available at numerous video-on-demand outlets such as iTunes and Amazon.  It will also have theatrical premieres in Houston on Jan. 22 and Dallas on Jan. 24.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Transhumanist Bill of Goods

Depending on your point of view, the intellectual movement (and now political party) that goes under the name of "transhumanism" is either a set of fringe beliefs held by a small number of people who can be safely ignored, or the leading edge of something that will completely transform human life as we know it.  The truth probably lies somewhere in between.  One of transhumanism's intellectual fathers is Ray Kurzweil, who coined the term "the Singularity" to mean the moment when artificial intelligence, cyborgs, and uploading peoples' minds into software converge to create a kind of Big Bang of superintelligent activity that will make everything everyone ever wanted come true, and will also render ordinary biological human lives obsolete.  Significantly, Kurzweil now holds a high-level position at Google, and other tech leaders such as Elon Musk have promoted transhumanist ideas.

Not satisfied with the Silicon Valley reins of power they already hold, the transhumanists have formed a political party and issued a Transhumanist Bill of Rights.  The first version (called 1.0, naturally) was delivered to the U. S. Capitol on Dec. 14, 2015.  Its subsequent fate did not make the news.  In a recent piece reprinted in the Human Life Review, Wesley J. Smith noted that version 2.0 contains enough wacky ideas to wreck the economy, violate fundamental religious freedoms, and erase the difference between people and machines. 

For a group that tends to ignore the past and live mentally in the future, the writers of the Transhumanist Bill of Rights clearly acknowledged some historical precedents.  The very title, Bill of Rights, comes from that 230-year-old set of amendments to the U. S. constitution of the same name.  Their preamble says they "establish" the Bill to "help guide and enact sensible policies in the pursuit of life, liberty, security of person, and happiness."  That phrase goes one better than Thomas Jefferson's in the preamble to the U. S. Declaration of Independence—he left out "security of person."  And at the very end, almost as an afterthought, in Article XV (25, to those of you who can't read Roman numerals), they incorporate by reference all the rights in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was enacted by the then-new U. N. in 1948.

Like the U. N.'s declaration, the transhumanist Bill is aspirational, not legally binding.  And here is where the vast differences between the U. S. Bill of Rights and this document show most vividly.  The people who gathered in 1789 to debate how best to carry their young experiment in democracy forward were elected leaders of a real nation.  In a sense that the transhumanists don't seem to appreciate, they held their future in their hands.  The fate of a country that they and their compatriots fought for, and many had died for, depended on the wisdom with which they reconstituted their republic, which at the time was suffering from serious problems.  Looking back, we can say that while they didn't do a perfect job—the canker of slavery would have to be removed from the body politic in a horrendous Civil War two generations hence—the constitution they forged has withstood the test of time. 

Contrast what those founding fathers did with what the transhumanists are doing with their Bill of Rights 2.0.  For one thing, the transhumanist Bill's direct effect on the actual politics of the nation has been nil.  Despite the window-dressing of Roman numerals and references to historic documents, the actual content of the Bill reads like something out of a speech at a Comic Con convention.  One can come closest to being able to predict the things most desired by transhumanists by imagining a teenage boy of exceptional intelligence but limited experience, and asking him what his ideal world would be like, given unlimited technological resources and a free imagination.  The answers might go something like the following:
Gee, well, nobody would be poor (Article XVIII:  "Present and future societies should ensure that their members will not live in poverty solely for being born to the wrong parents.").  And there wouldn't be any discrimination or prejudice (Article XVI:  "All sentient entities should be protected from discrimination. . . "), and everybody would be healthy (Article VII:  "All sentient entities should be the beneficiaries of a system of universal health care.").  And (snigger) there'd be plenty of sex (Article XII:  "All sentient entities are entitled to reproductive freedom. . . . ").  And college should be free (Article XX:  "Present and future societies should provide education systems accessible and available to all . . . ").  And we wouldn't have nutcases like Trump running the government (Article XXIV:  "Transhumanists stand opposed to the post-truth culture of deception.  All governments should be required to make decisions and communicate information rationally and in accordance with facts. . . .").

Maybe Kurzweil, Musk, and their fellow transhumanists are experts in their deep, narrow pursuits that require specialization in technical fields and a certain amount of leadership and management expertise.  But in politics, they seem to think that if you take some half-baked left-wing notions, mix them with some technospeak, put Roman numerals on them, and quote a few well-known historical documents, the public will come flooding to your door and ask to join.

On the other hand, perhaps we should read this document not as a step in a democratic process that involves persuading the sovereign public to accept one's ideas, but more as a manifesto of what an elite, powerful group of people plan to do once they manage to dispose of all the stupidity and traditionalism of the vast majority of people in the world and run the place the way they know (from their superior expertise) that it ought to be run.  Wesley Smith worries that transhumanists in power would establish a communist-like society.  And I think he is right.  If transhumanists by some means gained real power to implement their ideas, the totalitarian government that would result might very well end human life as we know it—and leave nothing in its place but some buzzing machinery that would run down faster than anyone expects.

Sources:  Wired published the Transhumanist Bill of Rights 2.0 at on August 21, 2018.  Wesley J. Smith's article "The Transhumanist Bill of Wrongs" appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of the Human Life Review on pp. 91-93, and was reprinted from the American Spectator.

Monday, January 07, 2019

But What If You Like Being A Nerd?

One of my Christmas presents was a book with the bemusing title Nerds:  How Dorks, Dweebs, Technies, and Trekkies Can Save America.  The author, David Anderegg, is a child psychologist who is concerned that the near-universal prejudice against nerds, especially in junior high schools, is depriving the nation of talented people who steer away from math, science, engineering, and other technical subjects even though they may like them and be good at them.  Why?  Because these about-to-be-teenagers are deathly afraid of turning into that social monstrosity called a nerd. 

In his examination of nerd-dom—its meaning, ramifications, and how preteens fear the nerd label even before they have a clear understanding of what it is—Anderegg says the bias against nerds is every bit as harmful as racial bias.  The days are long past when American schools would allow white kids to taunt black kids just because they were black.  But every day in schoolyards all across the country, popular kids use the word "nerd" to demean studious, high-performing, or otherwise eccentric classmates.  And those classmates accused of being nerds, especially if they are in the psychologically vulnerable age group around 8 to 14, quite often change their behavior to be perceived as less nerdy, even if it means purposely doing less math homework or dropping their interest in a physics science fair project.  And Anderegg rightly regards this as a tragedy.

I have more than a passing interest in this book, because I could have been literally the poster child for nerdism when I was that age.  In my senior year in high school, I became known as the Nerd Express for my habit of zooming as fast as possible from one class to another.  A photographer for the high-school annual stationed herself at a corner of a hallway where I was known to pass by at a certain time of day, and snapped a picture that National Lampoon could have used for their famous "Are You A Nurd?" poster of the early 1970s (back then the spelling hadn't been standardized yet).  Out of eighteen highlighted nerd characteristics their poster pointed out—things like high-water pants, plastic-rimmed glasses, and a slide-rule case strapped to my belt—I scored on about thirteen of them.  I can't remember exactly what my reaction was the day I saw that poster for the first time in a college dorm, but it was probably something as mild as, "So?"

You see, I wanted to be a nerd.  When my parents took me to the eye doctor at the age of ten and found out I needed glasses, I was thrilled.  All the smart lab-coated scientists in TV shows and science-fiction movies wore glasses, and I was tickled to be joining their ranks, even if it was only opthalmologically.  For whatever reason, I never felt inhibited by accusations of being nerdy or weird—I kind of liked being regarded in those terms, actually.  I hung out with a few friends that had similar interests, as my high school was large enough to have several kids interested in electronics and science.  And once I went to college, well, Caltech had probably the highest concentration of ages 18-to-21 nerds on the West Coast.  So I fit right in. 

Anderegg says that there is a spectrum of nerdishness ranging from hard-core types like me who do not give a flip about accusations of being a nerd, to a larger group of marginal nerds who are still trying to decide what their adult personalities will be.  He's not concerned about the small hard-core group who latch on to microbiology or mathematics at the age of eleven and plow straight on thereafter.  They will succeed no matter what their peers call them.

Instead, he's worried that the larger group of pre-teens who are naturally inclined toward math and other "harrd" subjects, as he puts it, will encounter so much flak in the form of nerd taunting and teasing, that they will drop their budding interests in technical subjects rather than suffering the slings and arrows of being called a nerd.  And he has more than one anecdotal incident gleaned from his child-psychology practice showing that this really happens.

His solutions to the problem involve a deep cultural change that one book alone will not achieve.  But it begins with the recognition that the nerd trope is not just a harmless and amusing label that we put on people who will always succeed in any case.  Especially for pre-teenage kids, being called a nerd can be a deeply disturbing and isolating thing, at an age when the pressure to fit in and be regarded as one of the crowd is intense. 

He calls on parents to avoid stereotyping other adults as nerds, because children will perceive attitudes that we may not fully understand ourselves.  Parents who are themselves nerds may need help in dealing with their children who get taunted as nerds, because as adults we tend to forget how serious and even painful peer interactions can be.  Even things as trivial-sounding as what kind of pants a boy wears to school can result in horrific social ostracizing, and sometimes a reasonable compromise does wonders for the child's outlook on life, even if it goes against a nerd parent's principles. 

Looking to the wider culture, TV shows like The Big Bang Theory and its progeny propagate the stereotype that brainy people are either ugly, socially inept, sexually unattractive, or a combination of the above.  It's hard to imagine how a society completely shorn of stereotypes would have much in the way of humor, but I see his point that a show whose basic presuppositions are based on the nerd stereotype doesn't help the situation. 

If we want more young people to enter "harrd" technically intense fields such as engineering, we can't keep sending them messages via the nerd trope that they are, by doing so, also dooming themselves to a sexless and socially isolated existence.  The next time you're tempted to use the word "nerd," especially around young people, think about what you're really saying and whether you really mean it.  The nerd you save may be your own.

Sources:  Nerds:  How Dorks, Dweebs, Technies, and Trekkies Can Save America by David Anderegg came out in hardcover in 2007, and the paperback edition was published by Tarcher/Penguin in 2011.  Thanks to my wife for finding it for me.  Googling "1970s poster image of nerd" will generally turn up a few copies of the well-known National Lampoon poster of the kid with greasy hair, a slide rule on his belt, and a bulging briefcase in his right hand.  That was me, all right.