Monday, June 24, 2019

The Fatal Dallas Crane Collapse

Two weeks ago, on Sunday June 9, a severe thunderstorm appeared over downtown Dallas, Texas.  Sudden thunderstorms are not uncommon in this region, and the residents of the Elan City Lights Apartments had no undue reason for concern.

But they should have been worried.  Around 2 PM that afternoon, a construction crane owned by Bigge Crane and Rigging Company toppled over onto the apartments, slicing through the buildings "like a hot knife through butter," in the words of one eyewitness.  One person, 29-year-old Kiersten Smith, died in her apartment, and five other residents suffered various degrees of injury.  More than 500 people have been temporarily made homeless while the building's safety is being assessed and repairs commence.

This is only the latest in a number of construction-crane accidents that have happened in the U. S. and elsewhere in recent years.  As a CNN report pointed out, from 2011 to 2015 Texas led the nation in the number of crane-related deaths, with nine occurring since 2011.  While this means you probably shouldn't take out a special crane-fatality rider on your life insurance, nine deaths, especially if they were not construction workers but ordinary citizens who were unable to do anything with regard to crane safety, is nine too many.

As crane-safety expert Thomas Barth pointed out in a CNN interview after the accident, there are things that crane operators can do to ensure that cranes won't blow over in case high winds arise.  The tower cranes so common in the skylines of modern cities can be designed and installed to withstand winds of up to 140 miles per hour (225 km per hour), which would occur during a moderate hurricane.  But the operators have to take certain precautions in the event of high winds.
One such precaution Barth cited was to attach a large weight to the working end of the crane.  With no load, such cranes are only marginally stable due to the large rear-mounted counterweight that compensates for the typical load the crane carries, and so pre-weighting the front adds to the crane's stability.  Another precaution taken by some operators is to release the rotation clutch and let the crane "windmill" in the wind, so that the long front part naturally points in the direction of the wind.  This also places the counterweight in such a position as to oppose the force of the wind and lessens the chances that the crane will blow over.

Apparently, neither one of these precautions was taken with the crane in Dallas.  Both live video shot during the storm and drone video of the accident's aftermath shows that the crane fell over nearly backwards, with the boom partly crosswise to the wind and partly pointing into the wind.  While definitive conclusions will have to await the results of the accident investigation, it appears that no one was on the construction site or charged with the responsibility of taking precautions with the crane if a storm arose. 

Some cities have regulations and licensing requirements for crane operators, but Dallas, in keeping with the general laissez-faire economic atmosphere of Texas, is not one of them.  Such regulations are not guaranteed to prevent crane accidents, as the 2008 crane collapse in New York City that killed seven people showed.  In general, the lawsuits and insurance-rate increases that follow a fatal accident like this can be enough incentive to make crane operators take reasonable precautions, but sometimes leaving safety to the commercial firms isn't enough.  All the regulations and policies in the world won't make a difference if the people on the ground doing the work either get careless, or simply are not told what the safe thing is to do, and get paid for doing it. 

In the case of the Dallas crane accident, either the crane operator or the construction general contractor would have had to pay somebody to be responsible for putting the crane into a safe mode in the event of threatening weather.  In retrospect, the few hundred dollars this might have cost would have been money well spent if it had prevented the accident.  And perhaps Bigge Crane and Rigging has learned its lesson, although news reports say it has been cited some eighteen times by the U. S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the last ten years. 

Such a record may be typical for a large, busy firm with extensive operations in numerous states.  And some of the citations may be for fairly trivial matters, such as mislabeled safety equipment.  But we now know that in at least one case, inattention to crane safety has led to the loss of one life, the injury of several bystanders, the loss of an expensive piece of equipment, and untold damage to property.

There is an aspect to this accident that gets almost no attention these days, but deserves it nonetheless.  It concerns the wider society's attitude toward "lowly" jobs such as construction workers, even those who operate costly pieces of equipment and hold the responsibility for dozens of lives in their hands.  The same thing could be said about airline pilots.  Pilots are respected, treated with deference, and in turn receive good pay and job security, while the operator of a construction crane is unknown to everyone except perhaps his family and co-workers, certainly gets paid less than the lowliest supervisor on the job, and may not know if he has a job at all after the current project is over. 

This situation reminds me of a saying attributed to Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, one John W. Gardner.  In a 1961 book called Excellence:  Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? he wrote, "The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water."  As a society, I think we both tend to scorn lowly but important activities such as crane operation, and exalt others, not just philosophy (think sports and entertainment?) that don't necessarily deserve such exaltation.  If crane operators and their ilk were more respected, they might feel a little more responsible, and companies employing them might act more responsibly too.

Sources:  I referred to news reports on the Dallas accident from the websites of Channel 5 News at and CNN at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles "303 East 51st Street" for the New York crane collapse and for the quotation about plumbers and philosophy. 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Is Facebook's Libra Cash In Your Future?

A recent item in the San Jose Mercury News says that the social-media giant Facebook is planning to announce that it's venturing into the cryptocurrency business with something it has code-named Libra.  The earliest and most well-known such currency—Bitcoin—has not exactly taken the financial world by storm.  But Facebook is reportedly lining up cooperation with credit-card companies Visa and Mastercard as well as PayPal to make using Libra more appealing than its predecessors.

Most of my readers are probably familiar with the basics of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which is based on a technology known as "blockchain."  From what I understand, it's a way of guaranteeing that everybody knows what has been done and who owns what, but without anyone being able to trace ownership of a particular unit of currency beyond the person you are immediately dealing with.  Anyway, it works well enough to have attracted the attention of investors who have sent the value of Bitcoin on a roller-coaster ride that has enriched a few and impoverished probably just as many.  And the fact that most cryptocurrencies are subject to just such wild and unpredictable fluctuations is one big reason that non-speculators have mostly stayed away from them, unless their desire to transact illegal business with untraceable cash has overcome their fear of short-term changes in value.

The way Facebook plans to fix the fluctuation problem is to tie their Libra to a basket of government-issued currencies.  So the idea would be that anybody holding 100 units of Libras (or whatever they end up being called—I suggest "zuckers") could take them at any time and trade them in for a certain fixed number of pounds, dollars, and euros. 

That's fine in theory.  But if Facebook suddenly finds itself in the position of the Federal Reserve, able to issue as much or as little currency as it wants, and able to say how much the currency is worth, the firm will face temptations that few governments have been able to resist in the past.

The open secret about the U. S. Federal Reserve, and for that matter any entity that issues fiat currency, is that they can print money.  Or, what amounts to the same thing, they can loan you money that they don't have until they write you the check, but then you have to pay it back in real cash that you have to earn somehow.  This is why you almost never run across a banker in the line at the soup kitchen.  The Federal Reserve System is open to numerous criticisms, but at least it has some semblance of being under the control of the U. S. government, and if it went totally crazy one day we citizens would stand a chance of doing something about it before it bankrupted us all. 

Facebook, however, as a private (though publicly traded) entity, is under no such restrictions.  If the company chooses, it can go the way of the nineteenth-century "wildcat" banks that predated the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1913.  Back then, every bank that wanted to could issue its own currency, and many of them did.  But if you accepted a note from the Second National Bank of Podunk, Indiana, you were taking a chance that it wasn't worth the paper it was printed on if that bank had decided to go on a note-printing spree, which many of them did—and then closed forever, leaving holders of their notes with no recourse.

An entity as big as Facebook isn't likely to vanish in a shower of virtual zucker notes.  But there are reasons why sovereign governments typically reserve the right to issue the primary legal tender in their respective domains.  As is usually the case with governmental behavior, it has to do with power.

You may have heard the saying, "The power to tax is the power to destroy."  Nobody's saying Facebook will start taxing people and calling it that, but you can certainly picture them charging people for certain services involving their currency.  It turns out that the quotation is taken from an oral argument that the great U. S. statesman Daniel Webster made before the even greater U. S. Supreme Court justice John Marshall in 1819.  And at issue was the power of a state to tax guess what?  A bank.

Bitcoin, or for that matter all the cryptocurrencies lumped together, represent such a small fraction of all the money in circulation today that governments can afford to ignore them.  But suppose that Facebook's venture into this business turns out to be really successful.  People start getting paid in zuckers instead of dollars.  Banks start carrying your account balance in zuckers instead of dollars.  On April 15 you write a check to the U. S. Treasury in zuckers instead of dollars—uh-oh, that won't wash.  Uncle Sam gets to say how you pay Federal taxes, and he won't take anything but dollars.

If this alleged stabilization business with the currency basket works, maybe there won't be a problem with paying taxes in cryptocurrency.  But if governments haven't been able to resist the temptation to tamper with the exchange rate of their currency, my guess is that Facebook won't be able to resist the temptation either.  And presumably, Facebook (or whatever co-op ends up running the currency) will be able to determine how many zuckers are in circulation.  That right there is a temptation that is hard to resist.  Why go to all the trouble of developing a business model and charging customers and paying employees and making a profit, when you can just issue another few million zuckers and there you are?  And if the exchange rate stays constant, those zuckers are just as good as dollars or what have you. 

No, there are good reasons why any government faced with the advent of an increasingly popular medium of exchange that isn't under its control sooner or later grabs it for itself.  And I predict that either Facebook's venture into cryptocurrency will vanish in the welter of other such products without a trace, or if it becomes really popular and lots of people and companies start using it, Uncle Sam will come along and take away Mr. Zuckerberg's new toy.  Even if they are called zuckers. 

Sources:  The San Jose Mercury News carried the article "Who is Facebook getting to support Libra, its cryptocurrency?" on June 14, 2019 at  The attribution to Daniel Webster is from  For one of the clearest explanations of the Federal Reserve System, and for arguments that actually favor the limited issue of currency or its equivalent by private entities, I recommend distributist author John C. Médaille's Toward a Truly Free Market (ISI Press, 2010).

Monday, June 10, 2019

Death With Style and Elegance: Philip Nitschke's Death Pod

Near-universal consensus about anything is rare in ethics.  But I think you could get most people to agree on an answer to the question, "Was the invention of the Nazi gas chambers a good invention?"  In the Auschwitz concentration camp operated by Nazi Germany during World War II, an estimated 1.1 million people died, most of them Jews, and scientifically-designed gas chambers were used to kill many of them.  Those gas chambers represent a nadir in the history of engineering:  designed by a corrupt, malevolent government for industrial-scale executions of people who died in them only because they ran afoul of Hitler's regime.

Ah, but what if those wanting to try out a gas chamber are not compelled, but have made the decision of their own free will?  And have even passed an online test certifying that they are of "sound mind"?  And have read a fancy advertising brochure promising "death with style and elegance"?  Just climb into the Death Pod—which looks like what you might get if you asked Apple to design a body-length chest-style freezer—lie down, make yourself comfortable, and push the button.  The software does all the rest.  Allegedly, the user will experience first "euphoria" as the oxygen level decreases, then pass out into the Great Beyond.  Since liquid nitrogen is involved, it's not clear whether the corpse is flash-frozen after death or if that's just a convenient way to get a supply of suffocating nitrogen.  But after you're dead, it really doesn't matter. 

The inventor of the Death Pod is Philip Nitschke, a resident of the Netherlands who has been working on self-operated suicide machines since at least the 1990s.  I won't remark on the similarity of Mr. Nitschke's name to the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, except to say that they seem to share a pessimistic view of life that partakes of what some call the culture of death. 

The alleged problem that the Death Pod addresses is the tiresome necessity of involving medical personnel, or worse yet, rolling your own method, in one's decision to commit suicide.   The writer and wit Dorothy Parker portrayed the difficulties facing someone who has reached the decision to do herself in with this grim little poem, titled "Résumé:"

            Razors pain you,
            Rivers are damp,
            Acids stain you,
            And drugs cause cramp.
            Guns aren't lawful,
            Nooses give,
            Gas smells awful,
            You might as well live.

But Parker, who died in 1967 of mostly natural causes, didn't live to see how the Death Pod could solve all these problems in one stroke.

In a development that I am sure will be noted by future historians (assuming there are any left), the idea of legalizing suicide has spread around the world in recent decades.  In the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and some U. S. states, both euthanasia (mercy killing by physicians) and suicide are legal, and organizations such as Nitschke's "Exit International" promote the idea that killing yourself should be—well, it's hard to say what they think it should be.  Socially acceptable?  More often considered as an option to be chosen when facing problems?  Quick, easy, and convenient, like the tag line to countless other advertisements for products that let you become more of the ideal autonomous self that modern culture seems to be encouraging us to be?  All of these things and more.

As far as I can tell, nobody has actually died in a Death Pod yet.  Nitschke enlisted the help of an industrial designer in creating a full-scale model that people visiting it on display in Venice, Italy can try on for size.  There's a photo of a gal lying underneath the clear plastic canopy of the thing, holding a bunch of lilies and grinning.  Death can be funny if you can open up the canopy and get out afterwards.  But that won't be an option once Nitzschke finishes his design and publishes 3-D printing instructions for the entire system.

This whole thing may be nothing more than a publicity stunt, as the news reports about it say that Nitschke isn't planning to make and sell the device himself, apparently concerned that he might get in trouble with a government which doesn't look favorably on people selling products that are not only likely to kill their owners, but almost guaranteed to.  Instead, the suicidal customer is expected to download the plans, 3-D print the device somewhere (good luck finding a printer large enough to handle a coffin-size plastic box capable of holding the weight of the average human), and hook it up to liquid nitrogen that you get at your handy local liquid-nitrogen convenience store. 

Technically, this scenario doesn't make much sense, and it sounds like there's some important ingredients missing.  For example, a third party (Nitzsche doesn't say who) has to be involved to give the user an access code to get into the thing, presumably ensuring that the user has passed an online test verifying that they are of sound mind.  But the definition of "sound mind" must be pretty skewed.  Public health officials tend to treat suicidal tendencies as aberrant behavior, not evidence of a sound mind.

There are so many things wrong with this idea that I could write several columns about it, but I will close with this thought, which readers not believing in the supernatural can skip.  Ever since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, humanity has been in a battle that is primarily waged in the spiritual realm, between God and his angels and the Devil and his angels.  The Devil would like nothing better than to kill off humanity, which he finds offensive in the highest degree.  So he likes to portray death as attractive, even as stylish and elegant, in order to achieve his purposes, which are to kill, steal, and destroy.  Philip Nitschke is an unwitting servant of the Devil when he goes around promoting attractive means of killing oneself.  The Devil, a liar from the beginning, likes to fool us with the illusion that we are autonomous individuals who can freely choose what to be or how to end our lives, with no adverse consequences.  The Death Pod is just one of the latest of his tricks.  But somehow the product's execution (pardon the expression) doesn't sound like it will live up to the hype its creator has generated, and I for one hope it doesn't. 

Monday, June 03, 2019

Bitcoin-Enabled Ransomware Attack Strikes Baltimore

Last month, the city of Baltimore became the latest target of a ransomware attack.  The city's Microsoft operating systems were held hostage by a group that demanded 13 bitcoins, which at the present rate of exchange is about $100,000.  Despite their inability to repair all the damage after nearly a month, Baltimore administrators refuse to pay the ransom, and instead have asked the federal government for help.  According to some sources, the malware used for the attack was developed at the U. S. government's National Security Agency (NSA), and somehow it leaked and was posted by a group of hackers in 2017. 

Irony is usually found more in literature than in engineering, but this incident is particularly rich in them. 

The first irony is that a cyberweapon presumably developed to be used by the United States against its enemies was stolen, published worldwide, and used instead to attack the infrastructure of a major U. S. city. 

The second irony is that an idea traceable back to 1991, a chain of blocks developed originally just to prevent software timestamps from being tampered with, has turned into a means by which ransoms can be paid with no realistic hope of tracing where the money goes. 

And the third irony is that some eyebrows are being raised by the fact that the city of Baltimore is asking for help from the federal government. 

Let's do a little thought experiment and set the essential ingredients of this incident in an alternate universe which is just like ours, except there's no computer networks and so on.  Suppose a gang of paratroopers landed in Baltimore and made their way to the city offices, holding employees at gunpoint while they absconded with tons of files and records in a heavily armored vehicle.  Then the mayor received a ransom note demanding $100,000 for the return of the records.  Not only would a nationwide manhunt be mounted for these criminals, but the FBI and other federal agencies would get involved as a matter of course. 

But simply because the records and functions involved are on computers and not physical documents, attitudes and actions are vastly different here.  Now, admittedly some blame can be attached to those responsible for running Baltimore's IT systems.  Microsoft evidently does a fairly good job of sending out patches and updates in response to new viruses and malware, but these patches have to be implemented in a systematic and organized way.  And in the case of Baltimore's systems, this was not done.  In the world of our thought experiment, this amounts to not having enough armed guards surrounding your municipal buildings to fight off the attackers. 
While a certain amount of security is to be expected, nobody wants to have to do the equivalent of breaking into Ft. Knox in order to pay your city water bill. 

While I am not usually in favor of greater centralization of power and resources, in this case I think it is only fair for the federal government to help out Baltimore in their hour of need.  For one thing, the NSA never should have let its malware escape in the first place.  It would seem to be a fairly straightforward investigation to discover who was responsible.  But the NSA's workings are deliberately opaque and poorly supervised even by Congress, who pays the bills, and that sort of setup is an open invitation to laxity and inefficiency.  Perhaps this leak represents only 0.001% of everything that NSA has developed, most of which is still secret.  But in situations like this, even one leak can be too many.

As for bitcoins being used for ransomware payment, it makes a certain amount of perverse sense that a form of currency inspired by hyper-libertarianism is used mainly for two things nowadays:  speculation and illegal transactions.  It is an ill wind that blows nobody good, and bitcoins have benefited some people.  I may have mentioned a student of mine who managed to buy some bitcoins only a few years after they came out in 2009.  I don't know exactly what she paid, but by the time she graduated I think she had been able to pay for her entire college education with her profit in bitcoins. 

But is this advantage worth the social cost of having a virtually foolproof way of laundering money?  I leave that for the reader to decide.  It doesn't matter now, because bitcoins and their offspring are a permanent part of the cyberlandscape now. 

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Baltimore situation is the complete anonymity of the attackers, who could be, and probably are, anywhere in the world outside of the United States.  Prior to the Internet, the most significant threat the U. S. endured from outside its borders was the threat of intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads, and billions of dollars were spent in an arms race that is in some ways still with us.  But now that anyone with sufficient skills can mount attacks on specific geographic entities in the heartland of the U. S. from halfway around the world, we still act as though it's just some sort of defect in a strictly local pile of computer networks, and treat the attackers much like an act of God—something that's always going to happen sooner or later, so you might as well just buy insurance and be ready when it happens.

Maybe that's the best approach.  Baltimore, as it turns out, did not have cyberinsurance, but the bond underwriters will soon see to that  So in the future we will go armed not with guards, but with insurance policies to buy experts who come in and fix our computer systems, just like roofers replaced my roof after a recent hailstorm this spring.  Complexity begets complexity, and if Baltimore and other cities consistently refuse to pay ransomware demands, perhaps the criminals will devise some other way to make ill-gotten gains.  I can hardly wait to see what they'll do next.  (That's irony, by the way.)

Sources:  I referred to articles at and the website at, as well as the Wikipedia articles "blockchain" and "bitcoin."