Monday, April 24, 2023

Digidog To the Rescue: The NYC Parking Garage Collapse


On Tuesday, April 18, there were, by one estimate, about 40 cars parked in a four-story parking garage in the financial district of Manhattan.  When the structure was built in 1925, it may have been one of the first purpose-built multi-story parking garages in the world, as the value of a parking place in the middle of the Roaring Twenties was probably higher near Wall Street than anywhere else and would have paid back the owners in a short amount of time.  Over the years, city inspectors cited the garage for various violations, including spalling concrete and other signs of structural deterioration.  None of these was apparently serious enough to cause the city to condemn the building or close it until repairs were completed.


Around 4 PM last Tuesday, the building suddenly collapsed.  One report says the roof level caved in and set off a chain reaction that caused the entire structure to pancake.  Seven employees were injured and the building's longtime manager, Willis Moore, was killed.


A week earlier, the city had held a news conference about its use of a new robot called the Digidog in both crime-fighting and other emergency situations.  One of the fire department's Digidogs, a four-legged device painted with Dalmatian black spots on white, was sent into the collapsed building to search for survivors, and video-equipped drones probed the wreckage as well.   In the event, all the survivors were rescued, some from precarious perches amid the rubble, and no firefighters were injured in trying to save them.  This was the first time that the firemen's Digidog was used in a building collapse, but it won't be the last.


Buildings have been falling down ever since there were buildings.  Before the modern era, the only way to learn engineering was by experience.  Trial and error is a hard teacher, especially when the errors are several stories high and collapse while people are using them.  But the knowledge of just what was needed to keep a wall or a tower from caving in was jealously guarded by those who needed to know, and led eventually to such amazing creations as the medieval cathedrals of Europe.


Once the properties of materials became quantifiably known and their application through mathematical principles to structural engineering became routine in architecture, it was now possible to prove mathematically that a certain structure wouldn't fall down.  But that depended on the exact following of engineering plans, which were carried out by contractors and construction workers, and sometimes they made mistakes, as the engineers did too from time to time.


We won't know exactly what went wrong with the parking garage in Manhattan until forensic engineers comb through the wreckage and try to piece together the sequence of events.  The fact that the building was cited for dozens of code violations, including some that involved cracks, exposed steel beams, and other signs of structural deterioration, suggests that a deteriorated member—either poured concrete or steel or a combination—finally gave way under loads that it was probably not designed to have.  Photos of  what may have been the roof level after the collapse show cars densely lined up on it, and cars in 2023 weigh three to four thousand pounds, a lot more than the 2200 pounds of a Ford Model A, typical of what was parked there in 1925. 


The hope expressed in the early days of modern engineering was that, now that we have put the enterprise on a sound scientific footing, there is no excuse for anything to fail ever again.  In reality, failure is just as much a part of engineering as success.  The game is to control failure so that it either doesn't happen during the lifetime of the engineered artifact, or if it does, the failure's consequences are minor enough to effect repairs without serious harm to anyone or anything. 


With buildings, failures can range from minor issues such as window blinds that don't work, all the way up to the whole structure collapsing.  Obviously, more energy should be expended on preventing major structural failures, and in a regulation-intensive environment like Manhattan, few major signs of structural problems can escape notice.  But what to do about them once they're noticed is another question.  To condemn a building based on structural problems is a major step, and unless there is solid evidence that is rarely available, even New York City regulators hesitate to go that far.


While drones and robotic dogs are all very well, they are only useful once the tragedy has happened.  Technology is now being developed at my own school (Texas State University) and around the country to make buildings more self-diagnosing:  concrete that can tell you how healthy it is and whether it's developing internal flaws that would otherwise require impossibly costly means such as X-rays to determine.  The hope here is that long before a building gets to the point where it might fall down, the internal diagnostic tools will alert inspectors to exactly what is wrong and how dangerous it is.  At that point, the decision to repair, evacuate, or condemn can be made not on guesswork, but on quantifiable data that is presently not available.


Unfortunately, these types of innovations can practically be applied only to new construction.  Nearly everything that is built already can't benefit from them, and it is in the nature of buildings to be used until something better replaces them, or until they fall down.  So we will have to wait for decades until we have a built infrastructure that tells us enough about itself to allow us to make a good judgment as to whether collapse is imminent, or whether repairs can be put off for another day.


Until that happy time, we will still be hearing about building collapses from time to time.  Drones and robotic dogs may become as routine as fire ladders, but in the long run, let's hope we can avert every building collapse before it happens.


Sources:  I referred to articles carried by CBS News at,, and, as well as the Wikipedia article "2023 New York City parking garage collapse."

Monday, April 17, 2023

Magic Two-Thirds: The Proposed EPA Electric-Car Mandate


On Apr. 12, the Biden administration announced a new set of proposed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rulings that would require by 2032 two-thirds (67%) of passenger vehicles sold in the U. S. to be "zero-tailpipe emission" types.  In practice, that means electric cars.  Lower fractions of service and transport trucks would also have to be electric by then.  As reported in National Review, both automakers and consumer advocates criticized the move, saying that the industry is not ready for such a radical shift, and that the result will be higher prices for consumers and shortages of largely foreign-produced materials such as lithium and cobalt. 


These proposed rules would be in addition to the Department of Transportation's so-called CAFE standards, a set of fuel-economy requirements that have had the unintended consequence of making U. S. automakers rely mainly on production of larger vehicles (e. g. pickups and SUVs), because of the perverse incentives put in place by the standards.  Unintended consequences always follow mandates like this, and unless the EPA changes its collective mind, there are sure to be problems we can only dream of now caused by such an extreme requirement.


For one thing, we are already seeing stresses on the electric grid caused by the rather exotic requirements of rapid-charge stations for electric cars.  The most powerful stations, the "direct-current fast charging" (DCFC) ones, can draw up to 350 kW and charge an all-electric (battery-only) passenger car in as little as 20 minutes.  In doing so, however, it uses as much energy as an average household uses in three days.  Multiply this high-peaking intermittent demand by several million, and you can understand why Californians have already had requests from their state leaders to restrict charging of EVs on hot days when the grid is stressed already.  Mandating that two-thirds of new car sales must be electric will only make this problem worse.


More generally, this proposed ruling is a good example of the kind of thing that I mentioned in last week's blog:  the tendency of government leaders to propose progressive-sounding climate-change-prevention measures to go into effect long after they are out of office.  By doing this kind of thing, they try to have their political cake and eat it too.  They get kudos from their supporters for being on the right side of history, but avoid the all-too-real negative and unintended consequences of their proposals, which may never see the light of day in any case.


The public is not stupid, on average, and there are signs that outside of Washington and certain elite enclaves, anyway, the constant hyperventilating about climate change is losing its luster for the average voter.  In Vaclav Smil's book How the World Really Works, Smil points out the huge gaps between the aspirational goals set by international meetings such as the Paris Climate Accords and the realities on the ground of how the world's economy relies on giant systems that must use fossil fuels both now and in the immediately foreseeable future. 


No one to my knowledge has proposed a battery-electric cargo ship, for example.  The reason is that so much space and weight would have to be occupied by the batteries that the negligible amount of freight transported would be unprofitable.  The only non-fossil-fuel power that is practical for large ocean-going vessels is nuclear energy.  There are only about 160 nuclear-powered ocean vessels in the world, and the majority of those are nuclear submarines operated by the military.  While nuclear energy is a viable option for ships, many ports prohibit nuclear-powered vessels from entering out of safety concerns, and so a sea change (so to speak) would have to occur for nuclear energy to make a dent in shipping.


And nuclear energy is simply not an option for air transport, so until much better battery technology is developed, airliners are going to be burning fossil fuels.


None of this is to deny that the emission of carbon dioxide by human activity contributes to changes in the climate.  But the uncertainty and variation in how climate is going to change, and how much our burning of fossil fuels will affect that change, make it unreasonable to impose mandates that produce undue burdens on the majority of a population.


Suppose that tomorrow, all new internal-combustion-engine passenger vehicle sales in the u. S. were banned.  In a few years, our transportation infrastructure would go a long way toward resembling that of Cuba, where a very few favored individuals can buy new cars, but everyone else gets by with ancient patched-up vehicles that are many decades old.  As my wife and I have learned, today's well-made cars (most of which tend to be Japanese) with care can last twelve or fifteen years, so as long as we could buy gasoline we could deal with such a mandate.  But I can easily imagine the government leveraging the self-driving capability of new electric vehicles to ban older non-self-driving types from certain areas, beginning with urban regions and spreading gradually to the suburbs.  So you would have an even greater divide between rural and urban than we do now:  urbanites zooming around drinking their latt├ęs and reading their smart phones in their self-driving cars, and impoverished rural citizens driving their gas-guzzlers and hunting down bootleg gas stations in small towns in the countryside.


It is a weird and unsatisfactory picture, to say the least.  But something like this would result if the Biden administration had the courage of its convictions and imposed rules soon enough to deal with some of the adverse consequences they generate.  And putting off the rules won't make them any better.  It will simply delay the inevitable disruptions that unreasonable government mandates cause, without visiting the consequences on those whose bad idea it was.


Perhaps sanity will prevail, and the outcries over the proposed EPA rulings will persuade the unelected bureaucrats in that agency to modify their demands.  That already seems to be happening with previous climate-change commitments that are "honored more in the breach than in the observance."  But sometimes that's a good thing.


Sources:  I referred to these articles on the National Review website: and  I also referred to the websites and for shipping statistics. 

Monday, April 10, 2023

The Only Climate Change Book You Need to Read


Say the phrase "climate change" to a certain class of generally well-educated and well-placed people, and you will hear how it is the most significant existential threat to humanity, how we should all go around despairing that we as a world community are not doing enough to avert the climate apocalypse that is coming, and that we face either the alternative of doom for humanity or a radical change in political, social, and economic arrangements to avert it.  If you think I'm kidding, take a look at publications like the New York Times or The New Yorker or indeed, most mainstream media. 


I've written here on climate change occasionally, but by and large I have taken an agnostic position on it.  A wise teacher I know tells his students that worrying a lot about something you can't personally do anything about is a waste of time, and that's why I haven't expended a lot of mental energy on the topic.  But I did come across a reference not too long ago to a book by Steven E. Koonin entitled Unsettled:  What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters.  Having read the book, I'm now convinced that my attitude toward climate change is the right one, and I now have one of the best-placed persons in the world to back me up.


I can't imagine a better-qualified person to write this book.  Koonin's professional career began at Caltech, where he was a professor of theoretical physics, then vice president and provost for several years.  He left academia to become chief scientist for the international energy company BP, and then went into government and was President Obama's Undersecretary for Science in the U. S. Department of Energy.  He now holds positions at New York University.  So he is a product of academia, industry, and government, and has seen all three from the inside as a leader and participant.


Perhaps it is his early training as a physicist that makes him cut through the sound bites, breathless stories about polar bears, and even the periodic Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and go straight to the peer-reviewed, observation-based data and ask the question, "How sure are we that this alleged climate catastrophe is going to happen?"  The answer suitable for a 1000-word column is, "Not sure enough to turn the world upside down."  Koonin has never met a piece of hype he couldn't see through to get to the raw data that it was allegedly based on. 


The first part of the book examines the accuracy, consistency, and meanings of the climate data on which the IPCC and other climate-change reports are based.  Take rising sea levels, for example, which have inspired pictures of the Statue of Liberty wading in the Atlantic up to her waist.  One overarching point he makes in this section is that climate is something that can't be determined without taking long-term averages, ideally over periods of 20 to 30 years or more, while weather is what's going on outside your window right now.  For one thing, global sea level has varied as much as 100 meters (that's about 330 feet) over the last half million years, falling as ice ages take up water and rising as they end.  We're currently right at the end of the last melting period, as it turns out.  A plot of the last 24,000 years shows a rise of about 120 meters followed by a nearly flat period over the last 5,000 years—in other words, during the historic era.  The bottom line here is that it's much too early to tell if the rise in carbon-dioxide levels due to fossil-fuel use is going to make much of a difference in the average sea level.  The true climatological answer won't be known in any of our lifetimes. 


And it's basically the same or worse for any of the other climate tragedies that have become boogeymen to scare children with over the last twenty years or so.  The worst aspect of the distortions and false terrors concerns violent weather:  hurricanes, tornadoes, and so on.  By two different measures, the frequency of tornadoes in the U. S. is probably going down, not up, although with modern Doppler radars it is easier to detect them than it used to be.  And the annual fluctuations in something called the "power dissipation index" in the North Atlantic, which is correlated with hurricanes, are bigger than any so-called upward trend. 


After showing how the actual data reveal that the IPCC, governments, and journalists have hyped climate change with cherry-picking, tendentious interpretations, and sometimes outright lies, he examines why this whole mess has come about.  He concludes it is a combination of publish-or-perish pressure on scientists, desire for click-bait headlines on the part of the media, and a public that is poorly informed on even basic procedures of science.  The "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality of yellow journalism has only gotten worse via the Internet and its penchant for 280-character summaries of topics that deserve a book like this one. 


Although Koonin doesn't mention the following factor, I think a contributing aspect to the climate-change hype is the gradual secularization of Western culture.  Modern science arose from the Christian conviction that the universe was designed by an intelligent Being and was therefore capable of being figured out, because it follows logical rules.  If most people no longer hold that view, it is an open question as to how long they will insist on looking at the data themselves, as Koonin does, versus being swept up in a public-relations fantasy that is based on greed for power and wealth rather than disinterested respect for knowledge.  I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the so-called "climate change deniers" (which does not include Koonin) have a Christian background.  Yes, there are Christian ignoramuses too, but just because an idiot takes a certain view of a thing doesn't mean the view itself is wrong.


Before you listen to another word on climate change, read Koonin's book.  You'll never think about it the same way again.


Sources:  Steven E. Koonin's Unsettled:  What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters was published in 2021 by BenBella Books, Dallas, Texas. 

Monday, April 03, 2023

An Unhappy Easter in West Reading: The R. M. Palmer Chocolate Factory Explosion


Chocolate Easter bunnies are a minor but long-established part of the holiday, which will be celebrated a week from today. They are well-known enough to be the subject of a long-running shtick in the comic strip "Sally Forth," in which the mother always finds the daughter's chocolate Easter bunny and eats the ears off.  But somebody has to make chocolate Easter bunnies, and one of the prominent suppliers of such is the R. M. Palmer Company of West Reading, Pennsylvania.


Around 4:30 P. M. on Friday, Mar. 24, several employees of the 850 or so in the West Reading facility smelled gas.  Patricia Borges, who had worked in the factory for four years, approached a supervisor and asked if they were going to be evacuated.  She says she was told that such a decision would have to be made by someone higher up, and so Borges went back to work.


Just prior to 5 P. M., a tremendous explosion demolished much of the two-story brick factory and damaged several nearby buildings.  Surrounded by flames, Borges began to run and fell through the floor into a basement vat of chocolate, which extinguished a fire that had attached itself to her arm.  But her feet were injured by the fall.  As the vat began to fill with water from fire-fighting equipment, she managed to crawl onto the lip of the tank and onto the floor, which was flooding with water.  Dazed, she lost track of time until much later, when she heard noises of rescue workers searching the rubble.  She cried out ,and rescuers pulled her from the building and took her to a hospital, where she is being treated for burns and broken bones in her feet.


Seven of her co-workers were killed and about twelve more were injured in the blast, which is under investigation by both state and federal authorities.  A statement on the homepage of the R. M. Palmer Company addressed to "our R. M. Palmer teammates" says "Our thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time."  But the rest of the site is unchanged, and presents brightly colored ads for Valentine's Day, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas candy over the company's slogan "Making Candy Fun."


Lest we lapse into a bathetic mode, let us note that the same employees would be just as dead or injured had they been making 45-caliber ammunition instead of candy.  Factory workers in any facility have a right to expect that their place of employment will not put them at daily risk of life or limb, and while working in a munitions plant might call that expectation into question, you would think making candy would be a fairly safe way of earning a living.  And most of the time, it is.


We will have to await the results of investigations to learn the cause or causes of the explosion, but one thing seems to be pretty clear from Borges' testimony already.  Whoever her supervisor was, he or she made a fatal mistake in not responding to the smell of gas by ordering an immediate shutdown and evacuating the plant.


Such a decision is not to be made lightly, of course.  Especially with continuous-process plants, an emergency shutdown entails hazards of its own and a guaranteed cost in lost product, lost time, and other costly issues.  But against these costs must be weighed the imponderable but real chance that a catastrophic accident may be averted, or at least minimized, by a shutdown and evacuation. 


Different types of manufacturing have different cultures, including different safety cultures.  The petrochemical industry deals constantly with highly flammable and explosive materials under conditions of temperature and pressure that make an accident almost guaranteed if a leak occurs.  Because of this, they have developed a safety culture that to an outsider seems extreme in its emphases on training, precautions, and rigorous rules that can get an employee fired for violating them even if nothing bad results from the violation.


I have no idea what type of safety and training programs were in place at the R. M. Palmer Company.  News reports indicate few recorded violations of OSHA rules in the recent past, but candy manufacturing is not a typically dangerous process.  Gas leaks can occur at any facility where gas is stored or used, however, and procedures should be in place for precautions to be taken in the event of a gas smell.


This incident calls to mind an accident at a chicken processing plant in January of 2021 in which a liquid-nitrogen leak asphyxiated six workers who were apparently not informed of the hazards that were involved.  Again, proper training would have at least minimized the number of fatalities, but in the event, the company was fined over a million dollars for OSHA violations.


Perhaps it's a fantasy, but wouldn't it be nice if there was some sort of rule that required upper-level managers to don working clothes once every few months and take the place of a sick or absent worker in the factories they supervise?  Some managers have worked their way up from the factory floor, and probably wouldn't benefit that much from returning to their old haunts.  But others would have their eyes opened at the conditions that their employees endure, and I think such a policy might do more for safety and other working conditions than any number of OSHA rules. 


Maybe I've mentioned this before, but it's worth saying again.  Back when I was in high school, I attended an Explorer Scout program that met in a telephone exchange building operated by the Bell System.  A plaque was prominently displayed on the wall of the meeting room, and it read "No job is so important and no service is so urgent that we cannot take time to perform our work safely."  The Bell System was far from a perfect organization, but at least it had high aspirations for safety.  And that motto has struck me as being something to keep in mind the next time a safety issue arises and a supervisor has to decide whether to protect workers at some cost.  For all I know, that supervisor may have paid for the bad decision with his or her life.  But the rest of us are still around to learn from it.


Sources:  I referred to Associated Press reports on the accident carried at the sites and  The R. M. Palmer company website is 


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