Monday, March 29, 2021

Don't Be a Technocrat


Much as some engineers would like to ignore politics, it's irresponsible to do so.  I'm not saying you have to be a political junkie, but an awareness of the ultimate purposes and effects of the organization you work for is part of being a responsible engineer.  Writing in the Human Life Review, bioethicist Wesley J. Smith has issued a call to defeat technocracy before it takes over more of our lives than it has already.  And every engineer should hear that call.


The meaning of the word "technocracy" has changed over the years.  Engineer William Henry Smyth coined it back in 1919 to mean democracy as mediated through scientists and engineers.  For a brief time in the 1930s it became a small political movement of its own, favoring the management of society by engineers and other experts rather than by democratic means.  That sense is usually the one which is used today.  A pure technocracy would be in radical contrast to a democracy, where the ultimate authority resides in the people at large.  In a technocracy, all important public (and many private) decisions are made only by experts, qualified by the usual professional credentials of education, licensing, or other signs of expertise.  And by implication, a technocrat is a sort of technically-educated bureaucrat, one of those experts to whom power has been entrusted to do the right thing for the uneducated rabble, who aren't smart enough to know what is good for them.


As you can tell, I'm no fan of technocracy, and neither is Wesley Smith.  He sees technocracy as a primary threat in a spectrum of what are called "life issues":  abortion, euthanasia, healthcare rationing, and the destruction of the privilege of conscientious objection for medical workers.  The problem stems from the stunted view of human life that technocracy tends to have.  Because this stunted view seems to be all too common among engineers, I'll pause to describe it in some detail.


Engineers are great at getting things done, but not so great at deciding what things need to be done.  In a technocracy, certain fundamental assumptions are made without questioning or even thinking about them.  For example, one such assumption is that increasing a country's GDP (gross domestic product) is a good thing.  So anything that contributes to the GDP is good, and anything else is bad.


That sounds nice, except what about all those useless old people in rest homes?  They can't contribute to the GDP—they're too old to work.  And what about children?  Same deal—they are a drag on the economy, not a benefit.  Even the worst technocrat can see, you would think, that if a culture quits having children, pretty soon there won't be any culture to worry about.  But it was technocrats who came up with the brilliant idea of China's one-child policy, which threw a giant monkey wrench into that country's demography and is threatening to wreck its future economy even now. 


Engineers are great at coming up with more efficient ways to do things.  And within the proper context, greater efficiency is indeed a worthwhile goal, if you're talking about, say, energy efficiency or reducing a waste stream.  But when you try to apply that same attitude outside its proper sphere, you end up like Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher that Smith quotes as saying the respect one should receive depends on your "capacity for physical, social, and mental interaction with other beings."  A person with such an attitude, which is entirely consistent with the goal of increasing a country's GDP, will take a dim view of people with disabilities of any kind, and will see nothing wrong with, for example, aborting any baby with Down's syndrome, or refusing health care to an old useless guy with only a high-school education who's probably going to die in a few more years anyway, in preference to a young productive college grad. 


Essential to doing engineering ethics right is the cultivation of one's moral imagination.  The easy way out is simply to do what you're told, acting as a small cog in the large organizations that most engineers are a part of, and not asking about the wider implications or effects of one's work.  But it's attitudes like that which have allowed China to start constructing their social-credit system, which Smith cites as an egregious example of technocracy gone bad.


For those unfamiliar with it, think of social credit as your credit score, only applied to your whole life instead of a narrow aspect of your financial behavior.  The Chinese government, with input from their technocrats, decides what kind of citizen they want.  Then they set about giving points to people who behave the way they want, and taking away points from those who don't.  Intrusive technologies such as GPS tracking, facial recognition, and of course, informants, are deployed to find out who you associate with, what you do in your spare time, and what websites you visit.  (Even here in the West, our technocratic watchers in the private sector have perfected the website part of the business.)  And for people who do things the government doesn't like, such as going to church or meeting with other Christians or Muslims, loss of social credit score can mean restrictions in travel, loss of employment, or worse, not only for yourself but for your children as well, who had the bad judgment to be born to such ne'er-do-wells.


It can't happen here, can it?  Wesley Smith doesn't seem to think so, at least not in the full-bore prison-camp variety, because the Constitution would prevent it.  Well, I'm not so sure, because lately the Constitution has been found by its nine Supreme Court interpreters to say a lot of things that most people didn't think it was saying.


But one thing is for sure:  if engineers, who are vitally necessary to any sort of technocracy, individually and collectively refuse to destroy democracy and replace it with technocracy, that will be the end of technocracy.  Idealistic?  Maybe.  But the first step is to understand what technocracy is and what its goals are, and only then can you decide to oppose it.


Sources:  Wesley J. Smith's article  "Defeating Technocracy is Crucial to Life," appeared in Human Life Review, vol. 47, Winter 2021, pp. 30-38.  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on technocracy.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Getting Used to Liquid Modernity


I do not own a conventional smart phone.  Instead, I intentionally use a style of flip phone whose rugged case and physical numeric keypad buttons won't be injured by a drop of three or four feet to a concrete surface.  It can receive some texts on its small screen, and I can even send texts after a fashion with the twelve numeric keys, tapping them rapidly one to four times to select the correct letter or punctuation mark.  It won't do capitals, but you can read texts from me without capitals and still get the message.  It took me a while to get used to that method of texting, but in the five or six years I've had a phone like this, I've gotten to where I can do it as fast as I need to. 


Until a couple of weeks ago, that is.  One day I went to send a text and the keypad didn't respond as usual.  If I wanted to start a sentence with "C," for example, I tapped the "2-ABC" key four times.  It used to be that I'd get a C that way.  But no longer.  Now, if I tap the "C" key four times, I don't get "C"—I get "BBC." 


Much as I admire the British Broadcasting Corporation, it was not my intention to discuss it when all I wanted was a C.  Further investigation revealed that some little menu showed up every time I touched a key longer than really short, and the thing expected me to navigate the menu to the letter I wanted, using a separate up-and-down button that I never had to fool with before when I was texting.  It's two weeks later and I still haven't figured out how this new system is supposed to work.  I've been too busy to call my phone provider and chew them out about this, because I don't send texts that much and the ones I do send are things like, "OK" and "LVG NOW" ("leaving now," not "living now," although that's not a bad interpretation either), and I've been able after much struggle to send those messages after taking out extraneous spaces and idiotic guesses of the software as to what I was really trying to say.


I shouldn't complain, though, because this is a tiny example of what the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called "liquid modernity."  Living in liquid modernity requires that you take an approach to life that is more like a tourist on a vacation than a conventional citizen of an organized, institutionalized society. 


The only constant of liquid modernity is change, chiefly of the self, but also of the self's surroundings.  Jobs, relationships, commitments, political or sexual orientation—all are subject to the whims of the sovereign self.  And firms that fail to adapt to liquid modernity will of course be left in the dustbin of history.  The onslaught of liquid modernity has accelerated in recent decades, and the contrast can be seen by another thing that happened to a piece of personal electronics of mine recently.


Somewhere around 1984, I bought a Hewlett-Packard HP15C pocket calculator.  It was a state-of-the-art machine when I got it, capable of all the standard scientific math operations plus programming and even numerical integration.  To use it, you had to learn something called "reverse Polish notation" involving stacking numbers in an imaginary stack, but I was younger and eager then and didn't have much problem learning it.  The beauty of it was that it avoided having to use parentheses in complicated math expressions, which was good because the small one-line display wouldn't have accommodated parentheses very well anyway. 


That calculator served me well for over thirty years until a couple of weeks ago, when it fell from a height of two feet underneath a book that also fell on it, and the glass display screen cracked.  I was able to find a used one on eBay, so I can still calculate with reverse Polish, but the point here is that a product that didn't change fulfilled its purpose in my life—hardly a week passed when I didn't use it for something—for over thirty years.  I kept doing the same sort of thing, and it kept right up with me.


You might call that "solid life"—an approximation to the eternity of bliss promised to the faithful by the religions of the Book (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).


In marked contrast to that is liquid life, in which a cell phone you buy isn't really yours in the full sense.  In order for it to remain useful, the phone company continually messes with it and reserves the right to change important fundamental aspects of its operation. 


What happened to my phone was minor compared to some of the things that New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert describes in a recent piece about the fluid nature of ownership in a high-tech world.  Her emphasis is on the way that legal concepts of ownership have lagged far behind what firms like Apple and Google actually do, shielded by incomprehensible legal boilerplate that it is practically impossible to opt out of.  Besides providing all sorts of details about our private lives that we don't even know our phones and other electronics are sending to their makers, the software we try to use is subject to change at any time, and usually does.  If you don't like it, well, your liquid self can just flow over to the next opportunity and change phones, or service companies, or even start using carrier pigeons if it strikes your fancy. (But you'll have to get everybody you know to switch to carrier pigeons too. Good luck with that.)


The freedom that high-tech life presents is largely illusory, because it has to remain within the bounds of what the dominant high-tech firms allow us to do.  I could pitch my flip phone and buy a smart phone, but I suspect that would just be leaving the frying pan for the fire.  So as long as I don't move by myself to a cabin in the woods, I suppose I'll just have to deal with whatever arcane system for sending texts that the phone company imposes on me.  But I wonder what this sort of thing multiplied by millions does to our collective psyches.


Sources:  Elizabeth Kolbert's "What's Mine is Mine" appeared in the Mar. 15, 2021 issue of The New Yorker on pp. 78-80.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Zygmunt Bauman and Late Modernity. 


Monday, March 15, 2021

Is Boeing's 737 Max Safe to Fly Again?


The U. S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seems to think so.  Last November, the FAA lifted its order that grounded all 737 MAX aircraft for more than a year, after two fatal crashes were traced to faulty software.  While the FAA's order includes mandatory fixes that appear to address most of the issues that led to the crashes, some questions remain unanswered.


In October of 2018 and again in March of 2019, 737 MAX planes crashed with the loss of all on board.  As subsequent investigations proved, both disasters happened because a single faulty angle-of-attack sensor confused a piece of software called MCAS (short for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) that most pilots were unaware of.  What the pilots experienced was that the plane kept trying to run itself into the ground, despite repeated attempts to right it.  After the cause was known, the FAA and all other aviation administrations around the world grounded the aircraft until the problem could be fixed.


To recap the entire saga would take too long, but basically, the 737 MAX is a redesign of an older airframe with larger engines that unfortunately upset the plane's handling characteristics.  Rather than undertake a complete mechanical redesign, Boeing attempted to patch up the problems with software, including the MCAS feature that was designed to avoid stalling, which the new design was prone to.  But the MCAS relied upon data from small sensors on the plane's sides called angle-of-attack sensors, and wind conditions or other problems occasionally cause these sensors to malfunction.  The flaw in the MCAS design was that it would be thrown off by erroneous data from only one sensor (there are two on the plane), and would then jump to the conclusion that the plane was stalling (pitched up too steeply to fly).  The right thing to do in a stall is to point the nose downward, but only if you're really in a stall.  As long as the sensor was defective, the MCAS kept trying to crash the plane against the pilot's efforts to keep it in the air, and twice, the MCAS won.


Operating companies were required to implement several changes before taking their 737 MAX fleets to the air again.  The new MCAS software relies on both sensors, not just one, and a warning light is now required to show when the sensors disagree.  When the MCAS detects a problem, it will try to right the plane only once, instead of however long the sensors tell it to.  And the pilot will now be able to overpower the MCAS's attempts to nose down by pulling back on the control column.  Also, more extensive pilot training in specific 737 MAX simulators is required.  To add to the reassurances the FAA is trying to give that the problem really has been fixed, chief FAA administrator Steve Dickson personally piloted an upgraded 737 MAX to check on the changes himself.


What is not so clear is whether Boeing's engineering culture has changed much as a result of the most expensive grounding of a commercial aircraft type in history.  Every airline that owned even one 737 MAX lost tons of money as huge investments sat on the ground, ground that also had to be paid for, because you don't just stick an idle 737 MAX in your back yard till you need it again.  While Boeing has competition—the 737 MAX was designed largely to respond to Airbus's A320 inroads—a wholesale boycott of Boeing by major airlines is unlikely.  However, it is notable that since December, when it became possible to fly upgraded 737 MAX planes and the FAA equivalents in most countries lifted their own grounding bans, China has yet to do so.  Their reasons are unclear, but it sends a signal that carelessness like Boeing manifested in the MCAS fiasco will not be forgotten soon.


Sentiment does not come up a lot in discussions of engineering ethics, but there is a type of sentiment that tends to keep problems like Boeing's 737 MAX grounding from happening, if it is cultivated and encouraged to play its proper role.  Loyalty, faithfulness, fidelity to an organization and its reputation, an esprit de corps that embodies what it means to be an engineer who wouldn't do anything to harm the company's ultimate responsibility, namely the safety and well-being of its customers—these are inadequate attempts to describe what I mean, but they approach it.  Free-market absolutism tends to corrode such feelings, as do many manifestations of social media and a kind of cynicism that is easy to acquire in an age that considers four years a long time with one employer.  And such feelings—that's what they are primarily, feelings—are hard to acquire if you are a short-term contract worker, as evidently some of the software engineers were who developed the original MCAS.


This is not a call to return to the good old days of lifetime employment by one firm, although other things being equal, reducing the turmoil and churn that job changes and uncertainties entail would probably make the lives of a lot of engineers easier.  Job tenure is not what loyalty is about, not primarily.  But while an engineer is with a particular company, there needs to be a mutual feeling that what the engineer does is the best possible job she or he can do, and what the company does is to support its engineers in doing the right thing—"right" including making enough money to stay in business as well as producing safe and reliable products. 


Boeing emails and other information indicates that such feelings and the behavior they engender did not prevail in the case of the original MCAS design and the subsequent efforts to get the 737 MAX approved.  Let's hope that this saga has ended with everyone involved being wiser and more dedicated to the highest ideals of engineering.


Sources:  I referred to an extensive article on the 737 MAX saga at, and the Wikipedia article "737 MAX ban." 

Monday, March 08, 2021

Can Civilization Survive Flip-Top Tartar Sauce?


Probably.  But the processes of engineering ethics analysis can be applied to small things as well as big ones, as the following story shows.


I happen to like tartar sauce on fish, an inclination I share with many other residents of English-heritage countries, according to Wikipedia.  In France, where it was invented, it's called sauce tartare, but even Wikipedia doesn't say what it has to do with Tartars, an umbrella term for peoples of north and central Asian region called Tartary.


Whatever.  In the U. S., tartar sauce is basically mayonnaise with some chopped sweet pickles and other stuff mixed in with it.  The mixture is rather thick, and for easy dispensing, in the last decade or so it typically comes in a plastic flip-top squeeze bottle. 


If you think about it, a flip-top squeeze bottle is a considerable feat of engineering.  It has to be flat enough so it doesn't kink if you squeeze it, like a round cross-section would.  And the clever little hinge on the side of the flip top toggles to let you either close it or open it at a fixed angle. Some of the most anonymous engineers of our anonymous profession have to be food-packaging engineers. 


When the bottle is full, the stuff comes right out when you squeeze it.  But as it empties, even if you store it top down (which the maker intends you to do), the sauce is so thick that a lot of it sticks to the sides.  Last Friday we had fish, and I noticed the tartar sauce was low.  Thereupon I strayed into a region of use that was, all things considered, probably not recommended by the manufacturer.


My wife, who is famous for getting the last three ounces of anything out of a bottle, would have unscrewed the cap and gone after the last little dabs with a knife or something.  But, physicist that I like to think myself as being, I decided to apply a little physics to the situation:  centrifugal force.


Of course, there is no such thing as centrifugal force, although it's colloquially called that.  It's really just inertia applied to a circular motion.  The point is, if you force a container to traverse a circular path, the acceleration of the curved path will produce a force on the contents that appears to be directed radially outward, although it's really just the mass inside continually trying to go in a straight line, and you're continually keeping it from doing so. 


So I picked up the squeeze bottle from the kitchen table where we were sitting and prepared to give it the old centrifuge treatment.  I'd used this many times before with ketchup squeeze bottles, and it had proved to be both safe and effective.  But there are some subtleties involved, such as not squeezing the bottle so hard when you swing it that the top pops open.


I'm still not sure exactly what happened.  It had been a long day, I was tired, and maybe I wasn't paying the attention I should have brought to the situation.  In any event, I gave one mighty swing on the tartar-sauce bottle. 


Judging by the aftereffects, the top popped open just at the beginning of the swing, because the stuff radiated over a 210-degree arc that extended from the stainless-steel front of the refrigerator behind me, across the floor where evenly spaced streaks recorded the fact that a stream of rapidly extruded tartar sauce separates into shorter globs, across a few books lying on an unused chair, up the gray kitchen-window curtains, and as a subsequent investigation by my wife revealed, some even made it to a few spots on the ceiling. 


Supper was suspended as we got out the paper towels and spray cleaner to remedy the worst damage.  The curtains, which needed washing anyway, turned out to be washable in an ordinary washer, and the books suffered no permanent damage.  I think I got most of the spots off the ceiling, and the stainless-steel refrigerator (which is anything but, actually, and you have to use a special cleaner to get it looking only streaky instead of like a bunch of third-graders with sticky hands have been at it) looks about as good as it ever does.  So as engineering disasters go, this was definitely on the mild side.  Still, I wish it hadn't happened.


As with many such incidents, the root cause can be laid to human error.  At least two precautions are needed before one attempts to centrifuge a squeeze bottle.  The first is not to squeeze so hard on the thing that the top pops open.  I'm sure there are various pressure ratings for different tops, and maybe I was used to using the more robust ketchup-bottle tops, which would take quite a squeeze to open.  But the tartar-sauce top is smaller, the little plastic catches that keep it closed aren't as strong, and I suppose some mechanical-engineering senior design project could investigate the question of what pressure blows the top of different squeeze bottles, but it's probably a waste of time.


I could have also held my fingers over the top when I was swinging the bottle.  And if I'd been more alert I might have thought to do that.  But I didn't.  Sins of omission can get you in trouble in engineering just as much as sins of commission. 


In the Big Freeze we had here in Texas in mid-February, the power to a water plant that supplies about half of Austin's water failed.  The engineers who designed the plant some five decades ago knew that this might happen, so they installed auxiliary generators and a "gear switch" (a term the Austin American-Statesman used) to change the power over from the external utility to the auxiliary on-site generators.  But when the workers at the plant went to switch over the power to the emergency generators, nobody on site knew how to operate the switch.  As water usage soared due to people running faucets and water-main breaks, the water supply dwindled and caused multiple-day outages to many thousands of people in Austin.


One hopes that the managers of Austin's water system are planning to instititute better training of their operators.  And one (at least my wife) hopes I won't try to get the last tartar sauce out of the jar the same way I did last Friday.  We have all learned lessons, but that will help only as long as we remember them and use them the next time. 


Sources:  The story of the Ulrich water-treatment plant power failure is at  I thank my wife for putting up with a husband who now and then does things like centrifuging tartar-sauce bottles.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Friendly Jammers: The U. S. Military's Threat to Commercial Aviation


The Global Positioning System (GPS) that allows a few dollars' worth of electronics to determine your position within a few feet almost anywhere in the world has proved to be a great boon to aviation, which previously relied on an expensive and not that reliable network of ground-based technology for electronic navigation.  Newer aircraft use GPS as an essential part of their autopilot system, for example.  A report in the February 2021 issue of IEEE Spectrum shows that this happy situation is frequently being disrupted by the U. S. military in test exercises that use GPS jammers and spoofers, especially in the western United States.  Despite a formal requirement to warn pilots that such tests may be occurring, these tests have caused numerous problems to pilotes and even near-accidents over the last decade or so. 


In fairness to the military, GPS is their baby.  Deployed initially with a secret feature that degraded its accuracy for non-military users, it was designed primarily for combat uses, and commercial uses began as a kind of afterthought.  In 2000, this "selective availability" option ended, and now anybody, military or commercial, can get the highest accuracy possible out of the system.


Understandably, pilots and airframe makers have begun to rely on GPS almost exclusively for routine navigation.  The bad old days of shooting the stars with a sextant ended when various radiolocation technologies such as VOR (VHF omnidirectional range) were deployed after World War II, but in the last few years the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been decommissioning those stations in preference to GPS.  And GPS works fine, except when it doesn't.


Because GPS is now an essential part of military operations, the U. S. military is now coming up with ways to deprive the enemy of it.  By the time satellite-transmitted GPS signals reach the ground, they are weak enough that suitable ground-based transmitters can either simply overwhelm them with interference (jamming) or worse, imitate them to deceive any GPS receivers in the vicinity (spoofing).  By law, any such military tests have to be announced to the aviation community through Notices to Airmen (NOTAM).  But these notices tend to be very broad, blanketing multiple states for days at a time, and most notices do not result in pilots experiencing any interference.  The net effect is that when GPS jamming happens, it tends to take pilots by surprise, and you don't want to startle a pilot when he's doing his job, or even when she's doing her job.


One of the worst such incidents happened in May of 2020 as a commercial airliner came in for an approach to El Paso International Airport in West Texas.  It was early morning, still dark, and that airport is surrounded by high mountains that pose threats to airplanes that are not where they're supposed to be.  Suddenly the pilot lost his GPS position, and rather than attempt to land blind, he declared a missed approach, went around, and landed on a different runway guided only by air-traffic control.  In a report he wrote about the incident, he remarked dryly that the runway he used "has a high CFIT threat due to the climbing terrain in the local area."  CFIT stands for Controlled Flight Into Terrain.


Investigation by Spectrum reporter Mark Harris revealed that such incidents are much more common than previously believed.  In one six-month period in 2017, for example, 96 GPS disruptions occurred in commercial aviation.  This led the FAA to ask the nonprofit Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) to investigate the problem.


The RTCA's report recommends several things, but it's not clear that many of them have been implemented.  Better reporting of GPS failures due to military interference was one of them, and now the FAA wants pilots to report any such incident, not just if it required the intervention of air traffic control.  But many other recommendations, such as the military making more specific NOTAMs that describe exactly when and where the interference will happen, have apparently not been acted upon.


According to Harris, the situation is only going to get worse, as GPS manipulation becomes a more important feature of war games in military reservations, and as GPS becomes increasingly relied on as the main navigational technology used by airlines. 


This kind of situation is very familiar in engineering ethics, and can be characterized as the passed-out canary in the coal mine.  As you may know, in the days before technology was available to detect methane that could lead to an explosion, coal miners carried along canaries, whose respiratory systems are more sensitive than those of humans.  If the canary showed signs of distress, it meant there was enough gas to be dangerous, and the miners took steps to avoid igniting the gas, such as stepping outside of that part of the mine.


The near-misses and other distressing but so far harmless incidents that military GPS jamming and spoofing have caused are the kind of warnings that a responsive, on-the-ball organization will seize upon for appropriate preventative action.  Nobody wants people to die because an avoidable accident wasn't avoided. 


It's a matter of judgment as to how much effort should be expended to avoid it, but a good measure of that effort is to monitor the frequency of near-misses to see if remedial actions are making them less frequent.  If they are, the changes are doing their job.  But according to Harris, GPS failures are only increasing.  And as the aviation industry relies more exclusively on GPS for takeoffs and landings, it is just a matter of time before something really serious happens.


This situation is made worse by the distributed nature of the responsibilities involved:  the U. S. military, the FAA, airline operators, airline manufacturers, and pilots.  With so much opportunity for finger-pointing, it's no surprise that not much substantive has been done.  It would be a tragedy if effective steps were taken to fix this problem only after somebody gets killed.  But sometimes it takes a tragedy to get people to do something.


Sources:  Mark Harris's article "Lost in Airspace" appeared on pp. 22-27 of the February 2021 issue of IEEE Spectrum.  Portions of it can be viewed at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on GPS and VOR.