Monday, December 26, 2022

Engineering and the Immigration Crisis


As I write this, the U. S. Supreme Court has just issued a temporary order allowing Title 42, a border restriction applied during the Trump administration, to remain in place until the Court makes a later decision.  This may or may not stem the tide of many thousands of immigrants, largely from Central and South America, who are massing at the U. S. - Mexico border in hopes that the end of Title 42 will increase their chances to enter, and remain in, the United States.


At first glance, this ongoing crisis seems to have little to do with engineering as a profession.  But engineers are people, and people have to come from somewhere. 


The issue of illegal immigration was brought home to me some years ago when I offered a temporary research job to a bright undergraduate in one of my classes.  He asked to speak to me in private, and when I met him in my office he said, "Well, I'd like to take the job but I can't."


"Why not?" I asked.


"If they search for a Social Security number for me, they won't find one."  It turns out his parents were Mexican immigrants who entered the U. S. illegally when he was only a child—a Dreamer, in other words.  While I couldn't do anything for him after that, another faculty member helped him get a job at a private company upon graduation, apparently together with legal help to deal with his immigration status.  He has done quite well professionally, and while I don't know if he has obtained U. S. citizenship yet, he deserves to as far as I'm concerned.


The problem of immigration over and above what is legally allowed is a classical dilemma.  On the one hand, there is the question of respect for the rule of law.  A sovereign nation has a right to regulate the influx of immigrants as it sees fit, and the U. S. has gone through three distinct phases with regard to immigration policy since the 1860s.  From then up to about 1920, basically almost anyone who wanted to come to this country could do so, with some racially-based exceptions that discriminated against groups such as the Chinese.  A chart from the Migration Policy Institute shows that from 1860 to 1920, nearly 15% of U. S. residents were immigrants, meaning they were born outside the U. S. 


Following World War I, a nativist tendency in politics led to the enactment of severe restrictions on immigration with the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which allowed only a few select (mostly Northern European) countries to send a few people a year here, relatively speaking.  This sent the percentage of immigrant residents into a long decline, which bottomed out at about 5% in 1970, as the absolute number of immigrants entering the country fell from 1930 to 1970. 


The attitude toward immigration changed again in the 1960s, and the quota system was repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  As a result, immigration (both legal and the other kind) began a steep increase which has not yet stopped, although COVID-19 slowed it down some.  As a result, the percentage of U. S. residents who are immigrants has now almost returned to its historic level of 15%.


The other horn of the immigration dilemma is the morality of the thing.  The Old Testament Hebrew prophet Malachi had hard words for "'. . . those who turn aside the alien, and do not fear Me,' says the Lord of hosts."  There is the admirable sentiment on a bronze plaque displayed at the Statue of Liberty with the words "Give me your tired, your poor . . . " and most of the migrants huddled just south of El Paso as I write qualify as tired and poor. 


In the long run, the only national resource that counts is people.  Without people, you don't have a country—you have Antarctica.  In America's annals of racism, different immigrant groups came under the scornful eye of the establishment:  the Irish following the potato famine of the 1840s, the Italians, the Jews from Eastern Europe, the Chinese and Japanese, and most recently, Mexicans and immigrants from Central and South America.  Should we have let them in, those forebears of John F. Kennedy, Frank Capra, Martin Scorsese, Richard Feynman, Jackie Chan, and my own recently deceased Ph. D. advisor, Tatsuo Itoh, who one day in a rare moment of personal revelation, spoke a few words about what it was like growing up as a five-year-old in Tokyo in 1945? 


It is impossible to say "no" to that question, but we have the advantage of hindsight in answering it.  Completely unrestricted immigration, with full citizenship granted to everyone who manages to step across the border, is an idealistic dream that could lead to anti-immigration strife and the kinds of social problems that open-arm countries like Germany are presently dealing with.  Massive disobedience of any duly passed law is inimical to good order and public discipline.  Such laws should either be enforced, or if public sentiment is no longer in favor of them, they should be changed legislatively rather than be used as a political football and kicked around by the courts.


That being said, America is a nation of immigrants, and in one way or another, immigration has always been a critical ingredient in the nation's success, a source of vitality and energy that we restrict at our peril.  Let immigration be done decently and in order, not by means of mobs and trailer trucks full of suffocating victims.  But anyone who wants to come here pays us a compliment by doing so, and in due time, we should let them, because they or their descendants can be the future's business leaders, artists, scientists, politicians—and maybe even engineers.


Sources:  The Migration Policy Institute's graph on which I based my comments can be viewed at

.  I quoted from Malachi 3:15 (New American Standard version).  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles "Immigration policy of the U. S." and "The New Colossus," the poem by Emma Lazarus which is the source of the Statue of Liberty quotation.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Terrorism and the U. S. Power Grid


Modern life in advanced industrial societies depends on the availability of certain basic utilities such as water, sewage service, and electric power.  Probably the most vulnerable of these infrastructures is the electric grid, as the others are mostly underground, and the transmission towers, distribution poles, and substations are right out there in the open just asking for someone to come along and shoot them up.  And that's exactly what happened on Saturday, Dec. 3, when two substations operated by Duke Energy in Moore County, North Carolina were sabotaged by unknown intruders.


These were no casual drive-by attacks by joyriding teenagers.  The attackers knocked down a gate leading to one of the substations and used high-powered rifles to damage enough equipment so that 40,000 utility customers were without electricity.  Fortunately, Duke Energy repaired or replaced the equipment fast enough so that things were basically back to normal in a few days, but for a while some water utilities were running on emergency power and a local hospital had to switch to its emergency generator.


On a larger scale, Russia has been targeting Ukraine's power grid with missiles, and has succeeded in knocking out the power to critical regions of that country, leading to mass evacuations before the coldest winter weather sets in.  Of course, a war is not domestic terrorism, but the extreme vulnerability of power grids make them the target of choice when an enemy wants to get the most harm-inflicting bang for the bucks it spends on missiles and bombs.


What can be done to make the grid less vulnerable to terrorist attacks?  It depends on which part of the grid you're examining.


Most current power grids consist of relatively few large central generating stations which feed power into the high-voltage transmission lines that cover dozens or hundreds of miles between the generators (generally in rural areas) and the places where most power is used (suburbs and cities).  Where power is needed, substations transform and switch the high-voltage energy into lower-voltage distribution lines, which are the familiar one or three cables at the top of power poles, which connect to the transformers that step the voltage down further to 120 and 240 V for homes and somewhat higher voltages for businesses and industries. 


The farther upstream you go in this distribution chain, the more damage you can do, but the harder it gets.  Every now and then, a driver accidentally runs into a power pole and knocks it down.  This results in an outage affecting perhaps a few dozen customers, and is fairly easily repaired in a day or less.  Many localities are wired so that there is more than one pathway from the substation to any given customer, and so power can be restored quite rapidly to most users by isolating the problem and using alternate pathways until the damage is repaired. 


On the other hand, an attack on one substation can put thousands of people in the dark, because substations are typically the only source of power for a given region.  But as the Moore County incident showed, service can be restored in a few days, assuming enough spare parts are available.  The most critical component is the substation transformer, because these cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take a long time to manufacture and transport.  You can't just order one on Amazon and get it in a couple of days.


Attacks on high-voltage transmission lines, while not unheard of, are (a) difficult and (b) dangerous, which is why they are so rare.  And as with distribution lines, the utilities have designed multiple pathways for energy to get to most places, so the net harm from one transmission line going out is usually not that widespread, unless the grid is already stressed. 


Finally, disabling an entire power plant can cause serious but not catastrophic outages.  Again, most grids are resilient enough to take up the slack with other generating stations, and for terrorists to disable a power plant would be a grand-scale exploit comparable to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.  The payoff in terms of domestic disruption would be much less, however, which is another reason you don't see a lot of terrorists going after power plants.


Nothing was mentioned in the news reports I saw as to whether any security-camera photos were obtained of the perpetrators of the Moore County attacks.  Virtually all substations are probably now equipped with such cameras, but a systematic terrorist would note their locations in advance and make sure to shoot them to pieces before leaving.  The knowledge that they'd be caught sooner or later will discourage some kinds of terrorists, but not others.


Finally, there's what you might call the fear factor.  Working with limited budgets, terrorists want to produce the most anguish in the most people for a given effort.  Having your power go out for a couple of days is inconvenient, surely, but it's not in the same league as having your head blown off by a bomb.  There is some speculation that the Moore County attacks were connected with a local drag-queen show, but if all the terrorists wanted to do was to douse the lights at the drag-queen show, it would have been easier to cut off the power for a particular building than to wreck two substations.  Terrorists are not always logical, however.


While the power grid is probably one of the more vulnerable types of infrastructure we have, it looks like the kinds of damage that can be done with a small-scale terrorist operation are relatively minor and short-term.  And doing anything that would cause extensive long-term outages would take the operation out of the terrorist class into the civil-war class, because it would require multiple widely-separated and coordinated attacks, or else a concerted effort by what would amount to a whole militia. 


I hope they catch the people who knocked out Moore County's power, not only for reasons of justice, but to find out why they chose that particular approach, and to see if we can get ahead of the next bunch who wants to damage the grid.  In the meantime, terrorist attacks on power grids are not going to be high on my worry list, and they shouldn't be on yours either. 


Sources:  The online version of the Austin American-Statesman of Dec. 11 carried an editorial by Myron B. Pitts of the Fayetteville Observer entitled "After attacks, how safe are substations?"  I also referred to the Wikipedia article "Moore County substation attack." 

Monday, December 12, 2022

Time Is Running Out on TikTok in the U. S.


The video-sharing app TikTok has come up several times in this space in the last year, and never in a complimentary way.  In April, I noted that a couple who learned the suicidal art of fractal woodburning over TikTok succeeded in killing themselves and burning their house down.  In September, a number of U. S. TikTok executives resigned in protest over being forced to take orders from the Chinese corporate headquarters (TikTok is a subsidiary of the Chinese company ByteDance).  And just last week, following revelations that TikTok executives lied about whether data from U. S. users could be accessed from China, several states banned its use from all state-provided devices and members of Congress began looking into the possibility of banning it from the U. S. altogether.


A recent article in National Review outlines the increasing concerns that TikTok poses for uses who don't want to be spied on by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or be subjected to propaganda and social-media manipulation coordinated by that entity. 


According to members of the U. S. House's Oversight Committee, TikTok executives told them that "China-based staff cannot access U. S. users' locations."  A few weeks later, reports indicated that the China-based parent company ByteDance was laying plans to do exactly that. 


In common with many China-based corporations, part of ByteDance is owned by the CCP and hosts a CCP committee that meets at the company's headquarters.  We have learned that there are "no meaningful firewalls" between the U. S. division of TikTok and ByteDance, and 300 TikTok and ByteDance employees formerly held jobs with the Chinese state media, which are not known for fairness or objectivity.  While there is no smoking gun showing that TikTok is taking orders direct from Xi Jinping, it's pretty clear that ByteDance and consequently TikTok are heavily influenced by CCP policies and goals, including its policies toward the minority Uyghurs.


Among the actions taken against TikTok this week were bans on using it on state-provided devices in South Dakota and Texas.  This follows a bill introduced by Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Mike Gallagher to ban the app outright in the U. S.  The FBI and the Treasury Department are also beginning to view TikTok as a threat to national security, as the app is beginning to cover more general news and political issues, as well as music videos and failed juggling attempts.


TikTok appears to be most appealing to people under 30, who increasingly rely on it for Google-type services as well as amusement and social connections.  This poses a problem for laws that would ban it outright, but less radical steps such as insisting that ByteDance relinquish ownership of the U. S.-based TikTok division are more likely to succeed.


The Internet famously knows no boundaries:  global, state, or local.  And so it's not surprising that one of the newest rapidly-growing and popular social media apps (it became available worldwide only in 2018) originated in China. 


As we have learned in recent years, there is no such thing as a neutral social-media app.  The depths of human depravity ensure that as an app grows beyond a few hundred thousand users, the worst stuff on it will be so bad that some form of control or monitoring becomes necessary, even with the protection of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which exempts internet service providers (e. g. TikTok) from lawsuits over content provided by third parties. 


Given that TikTok has to exert some kind of control over its content, and also has to amass user-generated data to satisfy its advertisers, why should we be worried that all this goes on under the watchful eye of the CCP?  It all depends on how well you trust the CCP to act benevolently toward the United States, its citizens, and anybody in the U. S. who has drawn its unfavorable attention. 


In my somewhat misspent teenage years, one day I was rummaging through some old books at our house and came upon a slim volume with a black-and-white dust cover that carried the bold title "YOU CAN TRUST THE COMMUNISTS—to do exactly as they say!"  In other words, when a country such as China excoriates another country such as the U. S. for doing things like being friendly to Taiwan and protesting maltreatment of Uyghurs, and China threatens to take over the world in the future, there's no reason not to believe that they are serious. 


In such a situation, allowing a CCP-friendly company to embed itself so deeply in the lives of U. S. citizens and residents as to track their movements all the way from Beijing is a dumb thing to do.  Fortunately, more and more government leaders are seeing things that way, and the main question now is how to disengage from TikTok without fomenting a revolution among those 25 and under.


Perhaps a corporate breakup similar to what happened with Standard Oil or AT&T is in the best interests both of the U. S. at large, and the millions of TikTok users who depend on their daily fifteen seconds of buffoonery and news reports, or whatever it is they use TikTok for.  But any breakup will have to be rigorously enforced, because corporate breakups have a way of losing effectiveness after a while.  Even in such a relatively benign case as AT&T, after a decade or two the sundered pieces began rejoining like a cut-up flatworm turning into lots of little flatworms that crawl back together for a party.  (That's a lousy simile, but then again, I never took biology.) 


The point is that even if the U. S. division of TikTok is formally severed from its ByteDance parent, informal ties through corporate leaders and relationships could persist—in fact, would have to persist unless there was a leadership shakeup along with it.  As one of the most popular apps for sharing music, TikTok worldwide is on track to garner $12 billion in revenue in 2022, so a split-off piece of it would probably attract U. S. investors, who could then dispense with the political slant toward China and concentrate on just making money.


That won't mean TikTok's troubles are over, as accusations of addiction and other problems will not be solved by a change of ownership.  But at least if TikTok was cut off from its Chinese corporate parent, we wouldn't be harboring a giant social-media spy network, which is pretty much what it looks like right now.


Sources:  I referred to a National Review article calling for the ban of TikTok in the U. S. at, Gov. Abbott's declaration of a ban of TikTok on state-provided devices at, and a Fortune profile of TikTok at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on TikTok.

Monday, December 05, 2022

Global Warming, Monsoons, and Engineering


Depending on where you live in the U. S., if you ask someone what the worst problem facing humanity is today, you'll get different answers.  On the coasts, apparently, at least in cities and among the knowledge classes, one of the most common answers will be "climate change."  In other parts of the country, it might be" inflation", "immigration", or even something as off-the-wall as "sin." 


Regardless of what you think the worst problem is, it turns out that as the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide (CO2) increases, it's getting closer to what the level was in the Pliocene era, some three million years ago.  And according to a recent report in Wired, scientists at Syracuse University have studied ancient leaf-wax deposits that tell them the American Southwest used to have significant monsoons (periods of extended rainstorms) back then, when CO2 levels were not much higher than they are now. 


Even today, people living in the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada know that much of their sparse rainfall comes during the summer monsoon season.  But the Pliocene monsoons were intense enough to make those regions as wet as northern Minnesota, land of a thousand lakes.  That hasn't happened here yet, but if the scientists are right, things may be heading in that direction.


How does leaf wax tell us about rainfall millions of years ago?  The wax is made from hydrogen in rainfall, and when it dries up, it blows away and gets deposited in sediment that can be dated accurately.  And somehow, the scientists use these deposits to figure out how much rain was falling and at what time of year.  It's not clear how quantitative this process is, but it's good enough to give the experts confidence that the Pliocene was a pretty wet time for the southwest U. S.  And it may get that way again if current trends continue.


What strikes me about the article is not so much the facts of the matter, which are pretty indisputable, but the attitude toward the situation evinced by the researchers.  On the face of it, you'd think that a forecast of more summer rains in regions that are historically dry as a bone would be welcomed as good news.  But that's not the tone the article takes. 


Instead, we hear that while some of the intensified monsoon rains will soak into the groundwater, much will run off into the watershed.  And the built infrastructure—roads, bridges, storm sewers, etc.—may not be able to keep up with the more intense rain, leading to intermittent flooding.  The lead researcher, Tripti Bhattacharya, herself says that another downside to more intense monsoons is—believe it or not—wildfires.  More rain means more trees and shrubs, and more trees mean more wildfires. 


In Act II of Hamlet, the title character says to his erstwhile friend Rosencrantz, ". . . there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."  Depending on one's point of view, the same scientific facts can seem to be either good news or bad news. 


Prof. Bhattacharya works in a funding environment in which climate change is the continuing crisis of the moment.  Projects that relate in some way to climate change stand a better chance of getting funded than ones which don't.  And so when asked about the implications of her research, it's understandable that she would come up with consequences that sound dire, because maybe then she'll get more money to find out exactly how dire. 


I have no way of reading her mind, and perhaps such a characterization is unfair.  But when the leaders of a culture unite around a pessimistic view of the future, it has serious adverse consequences.  Young people raised in such an environment begin to wonder whether marrying and having children is pointless—or even going on from day to day, getting out of bed to face another day closer to the inevitable catastrophe that will happen if we don't revolutionize our economy to abandon fossil fuels yesterday, if not before.  At best, it leads to an "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" attitude which bodes ill for the long-term survival of a culture, regardless of what the climate does.


On the other hand, the Wired article did point out one useful thing that can be done.  As the climate changes, our infrastructure has to keep up with the changes.  Civil engineering projects have historically based their designs pertaining to water and flood control on an unspoken assumption of uniformitarianism.  That is to say, they take historical climate statistics and assume that what happens in the future will be the same, on average, as what has happened in the past. 


There is a good and substantiated argument to be made that uniformitarianism in this regard is no longer useful.  With numerous "500-year floods" happening a lot more often lately than statistics say they should, smart and forward-looking engineers should make efforts to forecast the long-term changes in climate that will result from the inevitable rise in CO2 levels that will happen in the coming years.  That is how humanity has ingeniously survived all sorts of adverse situations in the past, ranging from the Ice Age to woolly mammoths and onward:  by noticing threats and planning and executing countermeasures to survive them. 


So the Syracuse University findings can be viewed either as more ammunition for a counsel of despair—one more reason to give up on the planet—or as useful information to use in adapting the infrastructure of the arid Southwest to deal with increased intensity of summer monsoons, which, if properly channeled into reservoirs and aquifer recharge zones, could be a very good thing. 


Hamlet, the melancholy Dane, viewed Denmark as a prison.  But we don't have to view the planet as a doomed spacecraft.  It's a home that needs some fixing up, but that's how we've been surviving all along.


Sources:  The Wired article "Pliocene-Like Monsoons are Returning to the American Southwest," appeared on Nov. 30 online at