Monday, September 28, 2020

Julius Randall's Life Mattered


Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police last May, countless companies and organizations have announced their condemnation of racism and their commitment to its abolishment.  Time will tell how effective these commitments are.  Rather than pen a bland general statement, I would rather tell a story.  It's a true story.


There was once a young engineering student named Julius Randall at a small college in South Carolina.  The college was so small that it had no bookstore, and so the engineering students had to go to the nearby Woolworth's to buy their supplies.  Julius was black, and although the Woolworth's would sell him graph paper and pencils, it wouldn't let him sit at the lunch counter.


This was the 1960s, and one day Martin Luther King Jr. showed up in the area and found out about the Woolworth's policy of no Blacks at the lunch counter.  Rev. King caused a picket line to be organized, and for the next few weeks no student of any color bought any supplies at that Woolworth's.  The worst violence that resulted was that somebody threw an egg at the store.  Soon the owners capitulated, and now Julius and his friends could sit at the lunch counter in Woolworth's after buying their supplies.


Julius went on to graduate and got an engineering job in the New Jersey area.  He then moved into higher education, and at Stevens Institute of Technology, for seven or eight years he ran the co-op program that allowed students to work and get an education at the same time.  Then he was hired by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in their new Minority Engineering Program (MEP), which is where I met him. 


Around that time, Julius contracted a kidney disease that prevented him from driving, and so one day he asked us where we went to church, and could he have a ride there?  It was the beginning of a personal as well as a professional relationship that gave me a close-up view of one of the most saintly persons, of any color, that I have ever known.


Julius knew that an engineering education could be the path from poverty to success as it had been for him, which was why he left industry to devote his life to bringing the blessings of engineering education to minority students.  But his work was not without obstacles.  One obstacle at the time was our dean of engineering, who barely tolerated the MEP and repeatedly refused Julius opportunities for promotion when they arose.  Another obstacle was his chronic illness, which would attack him with nausea and vomiting, whereupon he would simply excuse himself from a meeting and deal with it without complaining.  He eventually had to begin a type of home-based dialysis that involved hooking himself up to a complicated machine every night. 


But he didn't let that slow him down from his professional work, or from volunteering to organize and run worthy events at church.  During a service he would get up and smile a thousand-watt smile and say, "Good morning, saints!" and then encourage us to join the painting crew or the tee-shirt sale or whatever worthy cause was on the menu that day. 


He had been married before, but was divorced before we met him.  Around 1997, he fell in love with a woman and they decided to get married.  Julius did me the honor of asking me to be one of his groomsmen, and we went down to New Jersey in July of 1998 and saw him and Lynn tie the knot.  They honeymooned in Hawaii, and after another year or so at UMass, he found a job closer to his new bride's family in New Jersey, and we saw him off from UMass at a going-away party.


In 1999, I left UMass myself for Texas, but we kept in touch with people who knew Julius, and soon we heard a sad story.  It seemed that his wife took on the notion that Julius no longer needed his dialysis machine, so somehow she persuaded him to quit using it to see what would happen.  Ever the loving husband, he tried it, and the result was that he landed in a hospital in a coma. 


I learned this shortly before I was due to make a trip from Texas to the New York City area on business, so I found out where the hospital was and made a special side trip to see him.  He was in an ICU surrounded by beeping machinery, and while he seemed unresponsive, I knew that sometimes the last sense to go is hearing.  So I told him I was here, and that my wife and I were praying for him.  I'm not sure, but I think I saw his lips move a little in response.  A few weeks later we heard that he had died.


God only knows how many lives Julius Randall touched for the better during his relatively brief time on this planet.  He was always finding people who needed help and figuring out how to help them with jobs, money, a place to stay, a way of doing things, a plan, a word of encouragement, or just a listening ear. 


But he did all this in a way that let you know he was human, and "holier than thou" never applied to him.  Once in a blue moon, I even heard him complain.  One day I was driving him back to his apartment and we had to drive through the UMass campus.  He was in the front seat beside me, and I was obeying the speed limit.  Suddenly I saw the lights of a campus police car behind me, so I pulled over.  I forget what reason the officer gave for wanting to pull me over, but it didn't make a lot of sense at the time.  The officer finally let us go, and as I was driving away Julius said, "Man, I get tired of that sometimes."  It wasn't the first time he'd been pulled over for DWB:  Driving While Black.  But it was the first time I experienced just a tiny sliver of what it was like to live in supposedly enlightened Massachusetts as a Black man, whose life certainly mattered.

Monday, September 21, 2020

We Don't Chat — For Now


Today (Sunday, Sept. 20) the U. S. Department of Commerce implemented an unprecedented ban on a major Chinese social media company, WeChat.  Citing security concerns, President Trump issued an executive order on Aug. 6 to cripple WeChat and TikTok, but the TikTok order has been delayed until November.


Not so WeChat.  While it will not be illegal for individuals to continue using WeChat in the U. S., it may become difficult or impossible in the days to come. 


The Dept. of Commerce order bans the distribution of the WeChat app to new phones and prohibits the transfer of funds through the app.  It also prohibits internet service providers from servicing the app, and so unless your ISP is based outside the U. S., the app may disappear altogether.  Some of the terms of the ban are rather technical, but I think a word from the underworld covers the intent of the order:  they want to kneecap WeChat. 


Anyone who knows a person who speaks Chinese has probably heard them at least mention WeChat.  It's operated by the huge Chinese Google-like conglomerate Tencent, and is sort of like Facebook on steroids.  In addition to allowing Facebook-like interactions, it serves as a money transfer medium, a news app, messaging app, and of course, an advertising medium.  According to a report in the Washington Post, the Chinese government censors it heavily, and independent investigators who tested it with 26,000 test words on accounts registered in China, Canada, and the U. S. found nearly 200 words triggered censorship in accounts with Chinese phone numbers.  Over three million people use WeChat in the U. S., and the majority of them are going to have big problems trying to continue with the app after today.


Why is the U. S. government landing on WeChat like a piano from a third-floor window?  The official announcement is terse on this:  "The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has demonstrated the means and motives to use these apps to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and the economy of the U.S. Today’s announced prohibitions, when combined, protect users in the U.S. by eliminating access to these applications and significantly reducing their functionality."  Personally, my impression of what WeChat does is to connect Chinese speakers in the U. S. with their friends, relatives, associates, and (possibly) fellow spies back in China.  But because the vast majority of what goes on through WeChat is probably in Chinese, it's hard to see how the rest of the U. S. is directly harmed by the existence of the app.


What this looks like to me is more along the lines of a diplomatic tit-for-tat on a large scale.  Every so often the U. S. will catch some spies from another country and expel them.  It's entirely expected that in the days to follow, the foreign country will go to the U. S. embassy there and tell an equal number of U. S. diplomats or diplomatic staff to pack their bags and head back to the U. S. 


Ever since Facebook, Twitter, and company gained prominence, these U. S.-based apps have been heavily censored or flat-out banned in China, which is one reason why there was such a big vacuum for WeChat to fill.  In going a long way toward banning WeChat here, the U. S. government is simply saying, "You want to ban our apps?  Okay, we'll ban yours and see how you like that." 


Such moves have their place in a carefully planned strategic pressure-building exercise that includes sanctions of other kinds.  But this administration's actions toward China do not exactly give the impression of careful deliberation.  Nevertheless, being startling and unpredictable can itself be an effective strategy, and it's possible that WeChat and even the Chinese Communist Party itself was caught off guard.


The broader picture of U. S.-China relations, while not explicitly a matter of engineering ethics, deserves mention at this point.  While allowing economic freedom to a great extent, the Chinese government continues to repress political freedom and systematically persecutes certain groups such as the Falun Gong religious organization and the ethnic group termed Uighurs.  These are deplorable actions that deserve censure, and if the WeChat ban is a sort of punishment for these things, it is well deserved. 


On the other hand, one has to ask how effective it will be.  Something else not called WeChat but doing everything WeChat does is probably in development at this instant, and the Department of Commerce order hinted that they might take care of that too, if WeChat shows up under another name.  What this action has started is a social-media-ban war that will be marked by a ban followed by an evasive move, then followed by another ban, and so on.  The WeChat users, most of whom probably do nothing more sinister than checking on Aunt Hong in Wuhan every now and then, are caught in the middle, and will have to struggle along as best they can with old-fashioned phone calls or whatever ingenious programmers and companies can come up with to evade the ban. 


And there is always the possibility that, as the clock runs down to Election Day, this anti-China move will turn out to be just a political plum offered to supporters of the President, rather than a calculated diplomatic move in a well-crafted chess game.  I don't know how many Chinese-American citizens voted for President Trump in 2016, but this action probably has not endeared him to them. 


Historically, one reason the WorldWideWeb has appealed philosophically to certain tendencies of mind is that it does not recognize borders.  For people whose ideal world would be a borderless global block party under a single benevolent government, that has been one of the strengths of the Internet-mediated thing that lets people chat with others halfway around the world as though they were in the same room.  But the Department of Commerce move is an attempt to impose borders on what began as a borderless cyberworld.  Whether this is a good thing, a bad thing, or simply a political stunt that will soon be forgotten is something we can't tell yet.  All we can be sure of is that U. S. users of WeChat are going to have a hard time continuing to use it, and we'll just have to wait to see what the wider effects are, if any.


Sources:  The official U. S. Department of Commerce statement regarding its orders on WeChat and TikTok can be found at  I also referred to a Washington Post article at

Monday, September 14, 2020

Hyundai Engine Fire Recalls: Lessons to Learn


With the COVID-19 situation, a lot of other things have dropped under the radar.  But in one way or another, life is still going on, people are buying and driving cars, and not all of those cars are behaving the way they should.  In particular, the South Korean automaker Hyundai has had a serious issue with their cars catching fire.


According to one Associated Press report, since 2015 Hyundai and its associated brand Kia have recalled over two million vehicles because of issues with engine failures and fires.  In April of 2019, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it had received over 3,000 complaints of engine fires and 103 injuries as a result.  That investigation revealed poorly machined crankcase bearings that caused metal shavings to clog oil passages, overheating the bearings and causing the engines to seize. 


The more recent recalls relate to an anti-lock brake computer board that can corrode and short out, causing a fire even if the car is turned off.  In a recall released last week, Hyundai warned owners of about 180,000 of its Tucson SUVs to park them outside, and if the anti-lock brake warning light comes on, to disconnect the battery and call Hyundai for a loaner car. 


There's good news and bad news here.


The good news is that Hyundai is not stonewalling or denying that there are any problems, as other auto companies have done from time to time when consumer complaints forced them to deal with a safety issue, such as rapid unintended acceleration in Toyotas.  While I would not be happy to be on the receiving end of one of Hyundai's recalls, at least I would know that the company is concerned and wants to do the right thing if a problem shows up.


On the other hand, one wonders about the quality control and engineering that is letting these things happen in the first place.  The overheated-bearing problem sounds like a manufacturing issue.  Automakers have been machining crankcase bearings since there were automobiles at all, and so the problem is most likely a defect in the way the manufacturing process was set up or executed.  Automobiles are probably the most complex type of consumer product to make, and so it's easy for a subtle issue such as metal chips that don't cause problems right away to escape notice. 


The anti-lock computer board problem is harder to understand.  One of the basic rules of electric power system design is to include protective circuitry—read "fuses"—in all power wiring, so that if any part of the system draws enough current to start a fire, a fuse somewhere will blow and interrupt the process before a fire gets a chance to start.


Of course, you can carry this only so far.  You have to have wires going from the battery to the fuses, and how do you protect those wires?  More fuses?  Typically, heavy-current pathways such as the one going from the battery to the starter are not fused.  But the starter operates only 0.0003% of the time the car is in use, roughly, so no fuse is needed in that circuit.  And maybe whoever designed the anti-lock brake system figured that hey, this system is rarely going to operate either, so it doesn't really need a fuse. 


Trouble is, corrosion doesn't punch a time clock, and it's rather surprising that cars only a year or two old have experienced enough corrosion on a supposedly well-protected board to short out and cause fires.  Besides the electrical issue, Hyundai needs to take into account that millions of cars in this country get exposed to salt spray from icy roads for months at a time.  Unless every seal is perfect, your electronics in any area that the salt can get to will be toast, perhaps literally if it catches fire.


Corrosion of a computer board was the reason I had to let go of my 2006 Honda Civic last summer.  An intermittent missing problem made me take it to the shop, where the tech called me aside and took me outside for some privacy.  I felt a little bit like a patient waiting to hear from his doctor about a cancer diagnosis.  He told me that the wires coming out of the main computer box were corroded green.  "We call it the green death.  There's nothing you can do but replace the whole thing, and that would cost more than the car's worth." I consoled myself with the fact that the vehicle ran fine for fourteen years, although in Texas we don't put salt on the roads, just sand on the few days a year there might be ice on the streets.


If corrosion is causing shorts in circuit boards of Hyundais that are only a year or two old, this does not bode well for the long-term viability of the vehicles.  Good automaking has advanced to the point where car owners expect to drive their vehicles for 200,000 or even 300,000 miles before they encounter a fatal problem like my Honda's green death, or other issue that sends the car to the scrapyard.  The auto industry as a whole is to be congratulated for resisting the temptation toward planned obsolescence that other industries such as consumer electronics have bought into wholesale. 


But it's not easy to make a machine as complicated as a car run without problems for hundreds of thousands of miles, and Hyundai, a relative newcomer to the automotive industry, may still have some lessons to learn.  Thankfully, few people have been injured or killed by the problems that have led to recent recalls, and let's hope that the firm can address such issues proactively in the future before they cause further problems to consumers.


Sources:  I referred to articles on the Canadian Broadcasting Company's website at, the Car and Driver website at, and Fortune's website at, besides the Wikipedia article "Hyundai Motor Company."

Monday, September 07, 2020

Not Recommended: Flying a Jetpack near LAX


But that's just what somebody did last Sunday afternoon, in the sky over Cudahy, California, a one-square-mile town about eighteen miles (29 km) east of the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).  Two pilots spotted the person at an altitude of about 3000 feet (914 meters).  Flight controllers were inclined to doubt the credibility of the American Airlines pilot who saw the flyer first, but then it was confirmed by a Southwest pilot a few minutes later.  One plane came within an estimated 300 yards (90 meters) of the still-unidentified jetpack pilot, who the FBI is still looking for.  I don't know how many FAA regulations one violates by flying a jetpack into the LAX runway approach, but all it takes is one to get you in serious hot water.


This incident could have turned out much worse, as a man and a jetpack getting sucked into an intake cowling or hitting a wing could seriously cripple a jetliner, not to mention putting a premature end to the jetpack pilot's career.  And this is why justice, in the form of the FBI, is seeking him out. 


About a week before the LAX incident, a couple of residents in the LA area spotted something that looked like a flying person in the sky and even got some brief cellphone videos, although the jetpack-flyer was too far away to see details.  So assuming it was a man (and I don't think most women will be offended if I assume testosterone was at least partly responsible for this situation), it looks like the guy took some test flights before doing the really foolish thing of hanging out in controlled airspace long enough for a couple of airline pilots to get a good look at him.


Let's speculate a little and imagine profiling this person.  While control systems have improved since the very early days of jetpacks in the 1960s, to the point that you can find one or two companies that sell jetpacks commercially nowadays, it's still not something that the average citizen can just strap on his back and fly.  So our suspect has to have had some kind of flight training, though it might not have been anything too out of the ordinary—he might be a general-aviation pilot, for example, or a helicopter pilot.  Or he could just be somebody who's really good at a flight-simulator video game.


Next, there's the resources you need to get a jetpack and fuel it up. The information I could find on jetpacks indicates that the fuel used was probably high-purity hydrogen peroxide, around 85% to 90% pure.


German scientists came to the same conclusion about fuel when they designed the first rocket-propelled interceptor plane during World War II, the Messerschmitt Bf 109.  It used high-purity hydrogen peroxide too, which has got to be one of the nastiest substances to handle that there is.  It wants to let go of its oxygen really bad, to the point that if it comes in contact with any organic substance—dirt, cloth, hair, skin—it catches fire.  Reportedly, more people died during the testing and training phase of the Me-109 deployment than were killed in combat, and I'm sure the hydrogen peroxide was a big factor in that.


So our California jetpack enthusiast, tiring of his enforced idleness during COVID-19 days, orders a $200,000 jetpack and either manages to lie his way into a delivery of high-purity hydrogen peroxide, or gets the fuel some other way.  Now there are lots of aerospace companies in the LA area, so it wouldn't be surprising if the fuel or the jetpack or both were obtained via good-old-boy connections.  But the pilot would have to be a good old boy himself, and so engaged in some sort of high-tech network that investigators shouldn't have too much trouble identifying, assuming his friends are willing to talk.


Barring that, I'm sure UPS or whoever delivered these things kept records, because offhand I wouldn't have the first idea how to ship such dangerous stuff without all sorts of special permits and so on, which would make it easy to trace.


The most mysterious part of this incident remains the motivation.  If it was just personal curiosity, going somewhere way out in the desert by oneself would seem to be the best place to practice jetpack flying, not directly over one of the most densely-populated municipalities in the United States.  Leaving all questions of personal safety aside, having a misguided jetpack fly in through your kitchen window would not be an easy thing to handle in case something went wrong, and so the choice of location seems singularly poor.


It doesn't seem like Cudahy itself, which is mostly lower-income apartments, is exactly a likely hotbed of cutting-edge aerospace technology expertise, although in California, you never know.  One thing we can be sure of is that the pilot didn't travel very far from where he took off, because the flight times of even the longest-flight jetpacks are measured in minutes.  Here it will be helpful to figure out where else he was sighted in his practice flights, which by necessity would be close to home.  On your first flight in your brand-new jetpack, I don't think you're going to fly out of your back yard and intentionally land at the door of the neighborhood QuikSak to pick up some beer. 


But if the pilot could choose where to fly, why the LAX landing pattern, unless he was wanting to make some kind of statement?  Anybody smart enough to fly a jetpack would be smart enough to know what restricted airspace is, and so it was a deliberate attempt to cause consternation, at the least. 


Well, sometimes people do stupid things just for the heck of it, and that may be the case here.  With all the clues we've enumerated, it does seem like it will just be a matter of time before the FBI identifies the pilot and comes calling, if he can be found.  On the other hand, he may have wised up once the publicity appeared about his little stunt, and taken a long vacation in the Bahamas.  Anybody who can afford a $200,000 jetpack can probably afford a vacation in the Bahamas too. 


Sources:  NBC News reported the location of the incident as determined by the FBI at  I referred to a Manchester Guardian report on the history of jetpacks at, and the Wikipedia article "Messerschmitt Bf 109."