Monday, February 20, 2017

Can Anything Echo Hears Be Used Against You In a Court of Law?

That's the question raised by a murder case out of Bentonville, Arkansas.  On Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, James Bates invited three friends over to watch an Arkansas Razorbacks game.  The men had some drinks, and when one of them, Owen McDonald, left around 12:30 AM, Bates was still up and around. 

The next morning, Bates called 911 to report that he'd found one of his guests, Victor
Collins, floating face-down, dead in Bates's hot tub.  He claimed he'd gone to bed and left Collins still awake.

After checking with McDonald and looking at the physical evidence, police began to doubt Bates's story.  The deck around the hot tub was wet despite near-freezing temperatures, and Collins' body had sustained numerous injuries consistent with his being strangled to unconsciousness and then put in the hot tub to drown.  Bates's home was equipped with both an Amazon Echo and a smart water meter.  As part of the investigation, police attempted to obtain evidence from the operators of both devices.

The Bentonville utility department was very helpful.  The smart meter records hour-by-hour water usage.  Up to midnight the most water used in an hour at Bates's home that fateful evening was ten gallons.  But between 1 AM and 3 AM, somebody used 140 gallons, the most ever recorded by that meter in a short time.  This was consistent with Bates' use of a water hose to rinse away blood, which police found traces of anyway near the hot tub. 

The way the Echo works is similar to other digital assistants such as Apple's Siri.  It passively listens, holding audio in a local buffer memory, until it "hears" the wake-up word—in the case of Echo, it's "Alexa."  Then it sends the preceding and following minute or so of audio to the Amazon cloud, where sophisticated voice-recognition software decodes the request and does whatever the inquirer has asked, within the limits of the software, of course. 

It was a long shot to begin with to hope that the Echo would have recorded to the cloud anything of relevance.  The investigators were hoping that on the off chance Echo "woke up" sometime during the murder, they could obtain useful information.  But they ran into a wall with Amazon, which claimed that their request was outside the bounds of what Amazon considers reasonable.  All that Amazon would tell them was Bates's purchase information regarding the Echo, which has been physically taken into custody by law enforcement.

On the strength of the smart-meter evidence, Bates has been charged with the murder of Collins, but is currently out on bail awaiting trial.  In the meantime, numerous privacy and electronically-stored-evidence legal experts have commented on the case, as it is one of the first to involve the relatively new digital assistants, and also one in which the company operating the device has refused to cooperate to the extent requested by law enforcement.

As David Pogue points out in a commentary in Scientific American, one can understand Amazon's reluctance to give a public impression that every Echo is a potential stool pigeon.  The product has been very popular up to now, and Amazon doesn't want to do anything to dampen the law-abiding public's enthusiasm. 

But it's interesting to me to note the contrast between the different attitudes that the local utility company had toward the request for information, and what Amazon has done.  The fact of the matter is, once again technology has outpaced the ability of the legal system to keep up with it.

Generally speaking, the laws of evidence allow law enforcement personnel to request all sorts of information once they have obtained a valid search warrant.  Telephone and text message records, Fitbit data, records of Internet searches, and even video game data have all been used as evidence in criminal cases, according to Holly Howell, a writer at the legal website Cumberland Trial Journal. 

But the difference here between the smart-meter data and the Echo data is that smart meters aren't bought by consumers who have a lot of other choices about where to spend their money on smart meters, and personal assistants like Echo are.  One can detect a whiff of hypocrisy in the stance of Amazon, whose profitability increasingly relies on the rich mines of data it extracts from the digital behavior of its customers, and the way it sells such data or otherwise profits from it.  Admittedly, anyone who has spent any amount of time on the Internet knows that unless you take extreme precautions to prevent information mining, the websites you visit are going to share information about your searches with whoever they think might be interested, as long as the interested parties pay for it.  So when you're online, you know you can easily be observed, just like in the old days of three-network TV you knew that no matter how good the show was, it would sooner or later be interrupted by a commercial.  It's just something we've learned to put up with.

But doing a deliberate Internet search is one thing, and just minding your own business and going about your private life is another.  I suppose if I became a bed-bound invalid I would find some use for an Echo or a Siri, but other than that I have no plans to get one.  But if I did, I would be undoubtedly creeped out if I thought the thing was listening to everything I said and was relaying it to some anonymous cloud server that would do Heaven knows what with the information. 

So I can see why Amazon is reluctant even to give the impression that Echo is really listening to everything you do, in any meaningful sense.  But as the Internet of Things keeps advancing, both criminals and law-enforcement personnel will increasingly find uses for them—the one group in committing ingenious crimes, and the other in solving those crimes.  And currently, the laws concerning what is valid evidence have to be twisted out of their traditional context to apply to at least some of these novel technologies.  Asking for more laws these days is not a popular thing to do, but it does seem like there needs to be some legislation that will clarify the status and obligation of firms such as Amazon when products they sell and operate inadvertently obtain information that can be used in judicial proceedings.

The discovery process of Mr. Bates's trial begins next month, and so we'll have to wait till then to see if the police ever found anything useful on his Echo.  In the meantime, if you have a personal digital assistant, watch what you say around it.  It might rat on you.

Sources:  I came across the Collins murder case in David Pogue's column "Your Echo is Listening," in Scientific American (March 2017), p. 28.  I also referred to Holly Howell's article "Is Evidence Gathered from 'Smart' Devices the New Way to Catch Dumb Criminals?" in the Cumberland Trial Journal at

Monday, February 13, 2017

Are Chimeras For Human Organs a Chimera?

The word "chimera" originally referred to a creature in Greek mythology.  It had a lion's head and body, a goat's head growing out of its back, a serpent's tail, and it breathed fire.  Also, it was female.  Seeing a chimera was generally regarded as a bad omen, leading to earthquakes or famines. 

The other use of the word, as in "the chimera of peace in the Middle East" is to mean something that's probably never going to happen.  Recent experiments at the Salk Institute and elsewhere show that while mice may be able to grow organs for transplantation into sick rats, the hope that pigs may be able to grow human organs for transplants have receded into the future, and may never be realized.  What I'd like to know is, should we even be doing this stuff at all?

First, the background.

Human organ transplants from either cadavers or live donors are plagued by the problem of rejection.  The body recognizes foreign tissue and mounts an attack on it, leading to complications in organ transplants such as graft-versus-host disease, which can ultimately lead to the failure of the transplanted organ and other chronic and acute problems.  So medical researchers would like to develop replacement organs from the patient's own body using the patient's own adult stem cells, which can be potentially made to become a wide variety of organs.  The problem is that for a desired organ such as a pancreas to develop from stem cells, it needs to be in an embryo, or an embryo-like environment that is similar enough to a human embryo to encourage the proper development and growth. 

Pigs turn out to be one of the closest animals to humans physiologically, in terms of weight, size of organs, and other factors.  So Juan Carlos Izpis├║a Belmonte and Jun Wu of San Diego's Salk Institute inserted adult human stem cells in 2000 pig embryos and implanted the embryos in a number of female pigs.  The yield wasn't very good—only 186 embryos lived as long as a month, at which time the pigs were "sacrificed."  Many of the modified pig embryos were smaller than normal, and the human stem cells that survived were mostly just scattered around in the embryos rather than forming specific human organs.  Wu views this setback as temporary, calling it "a technical problem that can be tackled in a targeted and rational way."

At a recent workshop sponsored by the U. S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), that federal agency reviewed the ethics of chimera research and said it would reconsider its current ban on federal funding of such work.  But it is not clear now that a new administration has taken charge whether the ban will be lifted or not.  The Salk Institute researchers got around the ban by using private funds for their research.

It's easy to think of arguments against chimera experiments involving human cells.  The NIH people seem especially worried about the brain of a pig getting human brain cells, or the germ line (eggs and sperm) of a pig receiving human DNA.  The thought that a candidate for transformation into pork chops has a family tree that includes your Uncle Jack is indeed a disquieting notion.  And what about a human brain growing in a pig's body?  Would that make the pig-chimera human?  Obviously, to answer this question requires that one have a robust definition of what it means to be human.  And it's not clear to me that the NIH has such a definition, at least not one that can be coherently defended.

If possession of a human brain is all you need to be human, U. S. law currently allows humans to be aborted up to nearly the time of birth, under some circumstances.  While the question of human-chimera research does not at first seem relevant to the issue of abortion, both issues involve treating living beings as instruments of someone's will. 

Bioethicist Leon Kass used the phrase "the wisdom of repugnance" to describe certain reactions that people have which cannot necessarily be articulated into finely honed arguments, but which nevertheless deserve attention.  A more pungent term for the same idea is "yuck factor."  If the idea of growing a human brain inside a pig's body fills us with revulsion, maybe we should pay attention to the revulsion even if we can't say exactly why we are revolted. 

Proponents of animal rights are probably not rejoicing over the prospect of pigs that grow human organs either.  Their reasons are different in some ways, but go back to the question of whether living beings—human or animal—should be used as instruments for another's will.  There is near-universal agreement that one human should not use another as an instrument, a sentiment that goes back at least to Kant.  But there is disagreement about whether humans can use other animals as instruments, a practice that also has a long-standing tradition in favor of it. 

For now, the debate about human chimeras is largely still academic, as it appears that pigs are not yet a good candidate for this sort of thing.  Maybe they'll try monkeys next, but that raises the same sort of issues as experiments with pigs. 

God gave us human beings minds that are capable of devising plans for great good and also for great evil.  Most religious traditions hold that people also have a moral sense that gives rise to such things as the yuck factor, and that we ignore this sense at our peril.  It's probably a good thing that the NIH has refrained from supporting human chimera research, but obviously that hasn't stopped its progress.  If someone told me I had a fatal disease that could be cured with a transplant from a specially grown pig, or monkey, I don't know what I would decide.  But I'm not sure we should even contemplate asking people to make such a decision, especially if, in the process, we risk creating monstrosities who might be human and might not be.  And only the chimera would know for sure.

Sources:  I referred to two news sources for information about the Salk chimera research.  CNN carried a story entitled, "First human-pig embryos made, then destroyed," on Jan. 26 at, and Science Magazine (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) carried "Human organs grown in pigs?  Not so fast," on Jan. 26 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on chimeras, the Salk Institute, and the wisdom of repugnance.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Is fNIRS the Key to Locked-In Syndrome?

Everybody has something or other they fear the worst.  For Indiana Jones, it was snakes.  Surely high on many people's lists of horrors is the fate of falling victim to "locked-in syndrome," which is often the outcome of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that results from the death of motor neurons.  Two famous sufferers from the disease were baseball player Lou Gehrig (which is why it's sometimes called "Lou Gehrig's disease") and physicist Stephen Hawking, who has survived for more than five decades after his diagnosis.  Most victims die within about three or four years of diagnosis, however.

A person with locked-in syndrome can usually hear and see normally, but has lost the ability to move any voluntary muscle.  Two-way communication with such people has therefore been impossible up to now, although if even a single eyelid can be moved voluntarily, such a low-data-rate channel can with patience be used to good purpose.  As a recent article in the MIT Technology Review notes, in 1995 Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a stroke leaving him locked in except for one eyelid, and he used it to dictate his memoirs.  But once the last voluntary muscle nerves die, the door is shut, at least until recently.

The article reports on the work of a Swiss neurological researcher named Niels Birbaumer, who has developed a system to detect voluntary brain activity of locked-in-syndrome sufferers.  The most common means of monitoring the brain is the electroencepalograph (EEG), but EEG signals are notoriously difficult to interpret in terms of actual thought processes.  The most high-resolution way of measuring activity in specific parts of the brain is currently functional magnetic-resonance imaging (fMRI), which can focus in on millimeter-size locations anywhere in the brain and monitor subtle changes in blood flow which apparently correlate well with increased neuronal activity.  But fMRI rigs cost many hundreds of thousands of dollars, are expensive to maintain and operate, and so are limited to a few well-funded research sites.

A relatively new technique Birbaumer has helped develop is called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), and can non-invasively view blood-flow changes in the outer layers of the brain at much less cost and in a more convenient way than fMRI.  Instead of the need to insert the patient's head in a liquid-helium-filled machine the size of a small car, fNIRS uses a cap-like device that fits over the patient's head.  The cap holds emitters and sensors of near-infrared light in the wavelength range of 700 to 800 nanometers (visible light is in the range of about 400 to 700 nm).  This can be done with inexpensive solid-state components, and the outputs are digitized and analyzed for changes in blood flow.  It turns out that many types of bodily substances such as muscle, skin, and bone are partially transparent to near-infrared light, and so an fNIRS system can "see" up to 4 cm beneath the surface of the skull, which is far enough to reach the outer layers of the brain. 

That's far enough for Birbaumer to run a series of tests in which locked-in-syndrome sufferers learned to change their thoughts in a way that would show up on the researcher's fNIRS system.  Then he asked them yes-or-no questions that the patient knew the answer to, such as "Were you born in Paris?" Based on the answers to these test questions, Birbaumer estimates that he can accurately detect the intended answer from a typical patient about 70% of the time.  This is not great, but it's better than chance.  Admittedly, the sample size is small (four patients), but it's a start.

What is most interesting about the study was the answers to questions that no one has been able to ask a totally locked-in person before:  "Are you happy?  Do you love to live?"  Three patients who gave fairly reliable answers to the questions with known correct responses said yes, they were happy.  Family members welcomed the news, probably the first communication they had received from their loved ones in many months.

This work is remarkable for several reasons.  First, cracking the lock on locked-in syndrome would be a blessing for both patients, who must be immensely frustrated at not being able to communicate, and caregivers and loved ones, who both have and do not have the patient with them.  Second, because of the relatively simple equipment needed compared to fMRI, there is reasonable hope that the technology could either be commercialized, or at least used more widely than in a few research labs for routine communications with locked-in-syndrome sufferers.  Fortunately, ALS is a rare disease, occurring in about 2 out of 100,000 per year.  But by the same token, its rarity makes it somewhat of an "orphan" disease, meaning that drug companies and research funders often overlook it in preference to more common diseases.  Its cause is unknown except for a few cases that can be attributed to genetic factors, although it seems to be more frequent among players of professional sports. 

The intersection of medical technology and economics has always been troublesome ethically.  Prior to the modern era, the quality of medical care received depended mainly on wealth, although even the best physicians of the 1700s could do very little compared to the average general practitioner of today.  Even in countries with government-funded single-payer healthcare systems, resources are limited, and life-or-death decisions about who gets what treatment are sometimes made by faceless bureaucrats, with sometimes dire personal consequences for those who don't make it through the approval process for treatment.  Like the poor that we will always have with us, there will always be some sick people who cannot be cured, whether for reasons of economics or limited medical technology.  But devices such as the "mind-reading" fNIRS system can alleviate the suffering of those whose fate is to be still in this world, but who cannot respond voluntarily to any human voice or touch.

There is still a role for charitable organizations in medicine, entities whose primary purpose is not to make money, but to succor the suffering.  Perhaps such an organization will undertake to develop the Birbaumer system into something that can be used more widely by victims of locked-in syndrome, with appropriate precautions against giving false hopes that would be disappointed later.  In the meantime, I hope other fNIRS researchers will follow up this promising lead and pry open the door that has been closed on locked-in people so far.

Sources:  The article "Reached via a mind-reading device, deeply paralyzed patients say they want to live," by Emily Mullin appeared in the MIT Technology Review  online at on Jan. 31, 2017.  The research article on which the story is based is on the open-access site of PLOS Biology at also referred to the Wikipedia articles on functional near-infrared spectroscopy and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.  I thank my wife for bringing the MIT Technology Review article to my attention.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Tricks A Dumb Grid Can Play

Inauguration Day in Brookville, Pennsylvania arrived with a bang. Within minutes after Donald Trump swore to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States, the 911 calls began.  In one house, light bulbs were exploding.  Another resident reported that a power strip was smoking.  At another house, the siding was on fire, and at yet another the electric meter was engulfed in flames.  The main radio transmitter at the police station tripped out, so the 911 call center was unable to contact them until the dispatcher used his battery-powered radio to make contact.  In all, about 400 residents of the small western Pennsylvania town of 3800 suffered some type of damage, ranging from singed carpets to fried computers and exploding fluorescent light fixtures.

The power surge had nothing directly to do with Donald Trump.  A quick investigation by Penelec, the local electric utility, revealed that an insulator on a power line had failed.  What follows here is my extrapolation from the limited details in the Associated Press wire story, but represents what I think is a good guess.

Electric power networks are divided into transmission lines and distribution lines.  The transmission lines are the tall steel-framed towers that span many miles across the countryside, and are the interstate highways of the electric grid, transmitting megawatts of power from generating plants to substations many miles away.  To transmit this much power efficiently, the voltage of these lines is generally above 100,000 volts (100 kV).  For example, there is a 138-kV transmission line that connects Brookville with the rest of the power grid in western Pennsylvania, and there may be others at even higher voltages.
Once power arrives at a substation, it is stepped down in voltage with large, expensive units called transformers to a lower voltage suitable for distribution locally.  Distribution lines, the neighborhood streets of the network, carry voltages in the range of 12 kV to 35 kV, or occasionally higher in rural areas.  My guess is that Brookville has at least two or three separate distribution circuits with voltages in the 25-kV range.  The familiar wooden power poles that carry telephone and cable TV lines also support power-distribution cables, always suspended on the highest point of the poles.  Every few hundred feet, a "pole pig" (distribution transformer), usually a metal can a couple of feet tall, lowers the voltage still more to 240 V or less for delivery to commercial and residential customers. 

What probably happened was this.  One of the high-voltage insulators on a transmission line carrying in excess of 100,000 volts failed mechanically, dropping its conductor on or near enough to one of the town's distribution lines to allow a flashover (an arc) to jump from the 100+ kV transmission line to a 25-kV distribution line.  All power-line insulators are built with a safety margin.  That is, an insulator for a 25-kV line may be able to withstand 50 or even 100 kV, which can happen during situations such as lightning surges and so on.  This is good in normal circumstances, but in this case it backfired.

The insulation of the 25-kV distribution line held just long enough for the high voltage, four or five times normal, to get into the distribution transformers and ultimately the houses of about ten percent of the town.  So for a few seconds or maybe even longer, equipment designed for 120 V was receiving, say, 500 or 600 V. 

There are kooks on YouTube who delight in taking innocent electric appliances such as razors, clocks, toasters, light bulbs, and so on, and connecting them to high-voltage power sources just to see what happens.  They are never pretty.  Every electric appliance has a maximum rated voltage, and when you exceed it by 500% you either blow a fuse or, in the case of equipment that doesn't have fuses such as light bulbs, the excess heating makes something melt or vaporize or explode. 

Many power strips have surge-arresting devices in them meant to absorb fast transient surges caused by lightning.  But those surges usually last only milliseconds, and a surge of several seconds overheats such a device, making it smoke, which explains the reports of smoking power strips. 

Why didn't all the protective devices that a utility normally uses, such as fuses and circuit breakers, operate right away?  Because they are designed primarily for lightning strikes, not an overvoltage that lasts many seconds.  And the fuses probably didn't blow right away because a fuse only slightly over its rated current takes a considerable time to melt. 

Penelec has announced that they will compensate those who have suffered losses as a result of the surge.  Fortunately, no one was injured, but a considerable amount of property was damaged and the mess will take weeks or months to clean up. 

The "dumb grid" in the title refers to the fact that most electric utilities still use protective technology that was developed prior to World War I, for the most part:  fuses and electromechanical relays.  Innovative "smart grid" technology connecting the power grid to the Internet and replacing many electromechanical controls with faster-acting solid-state devices promises a number of good things, mainly pertaining to increased efficiency and reliability.  But it's also possible that if Brookville's grid was smarter—that is, if it could have figured out within milliseconds what happened and cut off the surge then—none of the bizarre damage might have occurred.

Admittedly, situations in which a transmission line arcs over to a distribution line are rare.  But as Brookville shows, they can happen.  If the new Trump administration wants to improve America's infrastructure, encouraging utilities to take the smart-grid path is one way to do it.  Whatever Washington does about it, though, it's too late for a few hundred residents of Brookville, who are still replacing siding, light bulbs, and computers as a result of a freak accident that shows we still have a ways to go in improving electric utility safety and reliability.

Sources:  The Associated Press report on the Brookville incident of Jan. 20, 2017 was carried by a number of news outlets, including at on Jan. 28, 2017.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Radiation: The Unsolved Problem of Space Travel

These appear to be great times for future space travelers.  Commercial rocket outfits such as SpaceX are thriving, the Dutch organization Mars One is still refining their pool of potential Martian astronauts for a flight presently scheduled for 2032, and National Geographic's "Mars" docu-drama TV series has intermingled interviews with space experts and a dramatic portrayal of what an actual flight to Mars might be like, complete with death-defying crises. 

Then along comes Charles L. Limoli, a radiation biologist at UC Irvine, with his mouse brains shot full of holes, as he describes in an article published in the February 2017 issue of Scientific American.  They're not holes you can see with the naked eye—just tracks of ionization damage caused by nuclear particles intended to simulate the damage caused by cosmic rays and solar particle radiation that a typical years-long round trip to Mars would involve.  The bad news Limoli has is that when you take smart mice and shoot their brains with that much radiation, it damages certain fragile parts of the nerve cells:  the dendritic spines.  And they don't grow back.  So even high-IQ mice who get zapped in a NASA particle accelerator designed to simulate the type of radiation that astronauts will be exposed to, end up with what amounts to a mouse form of Alzheimer's.  The performance of these mice in certain mouse intelligence tests (don't ask me how they figured out how to do that) fell to only 10% of what it was before the zapping.  And the damage seems to be permanent, at least in mice.

So what, you say?  We'll just shield the space capsule.  Think again.

The more energetic a particle is—the faster it's going and the heavier it is—the harder it is to shield against.  Turns out that galactic cosmic rays, which are one of the two main kinds of radiation astronauts on deep-space missions will encounter, are the highest-energy particles known, with many of them having more energy than the most powerful earth-bound particle accelerators can produce.  The only practical radiation shielding presently used involves putting a lot of heavy stuff—concrete, steel, lead—between you and the radiation.  On earth, this isn't such a problem if you happen to have a disused salt mine handy—you just go underground.  But weight is the enemy of space travel, and a rocket that was shielded well enough to reduce cosmic-ray fluxes to something comparable to what we encounter on earth (shielded as it is by its magnetic field and atmosphere) would be prohibitively heavy.  We are talking shield thicknesses of many feet, all around the living areas of the vehicle. 

So at present, all these nice dreams of people spending years in deep space are still only that—dreams.  Based on the work of Limoli and others, sending astronauts on an unshielded rocket to spend a year or more in deep space would likely turn their brains into Swiss cheese, radiation-wise, with dire consequences that would affect everyone on board.  I don't know about you, but I can't think of a more depressing end to a space flight than to have everybody turn into candidates for assisted living in a matter of months.  And that's just if we try to get to Mars.  If the astronauts somehow manage to get there without losing their minds, the first thing they'd have to do would be to dig a deep burrow to shield themselves, or apply whatever unknown shielding technology they used on the trip to the newly established colony as well.

Space optimists look at this problem as just another speed bump on the road to Mars.  There may be medical ways of alleviating some of the damage that radiation causes to neurons.  But any such treatment is far in the future, and prospective space travelers need it now.  There is even less likelihood of finding a lightweight way of shielding against high-energy cosmic rays.  The physics of the problem has been well understood for decades.  In principle, you could use magnetic fields to create a shield, but the field intensity to deflect such particles is absurdly high—even the superconducting magnets in  today's MRI machines, which have to be carefully isolated from any ferrous object, probably wouldn't do the job.  And if you don't do something, you're condemning your space travelers to virtually certain mental decline.  Of course, some may think that this is just a risk we have to take.

Having watched the entire National Geographic "Mars" series over the Christmas holidays, I noted a disturbing tendency on the part of some enthusiasts for what I would term secular millennialism.  The religious millennialists called the Millerites were followers of William Miller, who convinced both himself and many others that he had figured out when the second coming of Christ would occur:  Oct. 22, 1844, about ten years ahead of when he was writing.  In the years leading up to 1844 he accumulated a large following who sold their farms, businesses, and houses and gathered in small groups, waiting for the big day.  In what became known as the Great Disappointment, nothing unusual happened, either then or later.

Secular millennial movements such as classical Marxism exact arduous and even painful sacrifices today for a promised millennial paradise tomorrow—and somehow, tomorrow never comes.  Some present-day promoters of deep-space travel have convinced themselves that the future of the human race lies not on Earth, but on Mars or other places where we'll be able to start over again and do it right.  If you really believe this, it's going to affect your attitude toward life on Earth.  After all, if we're just going to move soon, why paint the walls? 

It's not clear at this point whether radiation will pose a "deal-breaker" problem to deep-space travel.  I suppose if we get clever enough about orbital assembly stations, we could eventually manage to build a rocket that could carry enough conventional shielding to protect astronauts on their way to Mars.  But that does not seem to be in the current plans of many space enterprises. 

If somebody started calling for volunteers, or even offered lots of money, for people to jump off a thousand-foot cliff without parachutes "just for the experience," I hope we would find a way to shut them down.  That hasn't happened so far with Mars One, the Dutch outfit that is currently selecting people to go on a one-way trip to Mars.  But if by the time astronauts gets to Mars, their brains are so fried that they don't know where they are, it would be a shame for everybody—especially the astronauts and those who put them knowingly into a situation that was going to end badly. 

Maybe we'll figure this one out, but in the meantime, any time I see someone promoting manned deep-space flight, I'll be wondering what they plan to do about radiation.  And so far, I don't see anyone taking it seriously enough.

Sources:  Charles L. Limoli's article "Deep-Space Deal Breaker" is on pp. 54-59 of the Feb. 2017 edition of Scientific American.

Monday, January 16, 2017

No Airbags for Takata's Crash

The story of Takata Corporation's defective air-bag inflators is one we've been following for the last couple of years.  Last Friday, Jan. 13, Takata itself received what amounts to a corporate deathblow by admitting guilt in a single criminal charge brought by a Federal grand jury in Detroit.  In the agreement, Takata will pay a total of $1 billion which will go to fines, to compensation for individuals who were killed or injured by defective inflators, and mostly to car companies who bought the bad inflators, and who are now facing the world's largest recall headache.  Takata is expected to file for bankruptcy and be sold or liquidated shortly thereafter. 

First, some background.  Air bags are safety devices which demonstrably save lives.  An older friend of ours who was driving her pickup truck when it was hit by a delivery van a few months ago is alive today, thanks in part to the airbags that went off in her truck cab.  But when a safety device turns into a deadly weapon, as a certain fraction of Takata air-bag inflators do, you have the automotive equivalent of razor blades in Halloween candy.  That's not what's supposed to be going on.

By admitting guilt, Takata has implicitly endorsed the findings of the Federal indictment that charges three managers in particular with covering up the defects in the air-bag inflators for over a decade.  As we discussed in an earlier blog on this matter, air bags work by setting off a propellant chemical that is supposed to burn in a controlled way, releasing lots of gas rapidly to inflate the air bags.  But a controlled burn is not an explosion, and if the propellant detonates instead, the spike in pressure can rupture the metal container, sending shrapnel toward the vehicle's occupants.  This has happened worldwide hundreds of times with Takata inflators, resulting in over a hundred injuries and sixteen deaths. 

The requirement for controlled burning is tricky, and various chemicals have been used over the years.  One of the main challenges with airbag inflators is to make sure they'll work when needed after years of changing temperatures and humidity inside a car body.  This calls for chemically stable propellants, which tend to be expensive.

Takata had the notion years ago of using one of the cheapest propellants around:  ammonium nitrate.  It can be made to burn controllably, but it is sensitive to humidity and can turn into a highly explosive state unless protected from moisture.  Internal Takata tests showed that their ammonium-nitrate inflators tended to leak, leading to instability of the chemical and the possibility of an explosion when triggered. 

What the indictment shows is that the Takata executives intentionally and repeatedly falsified test data as long ago as 2005, calling it "XX-ing" the data, in order to keep selling the inflators to automakers.  When problems with the Takata inflators began to surface, the company first ascribed them to isolated manufacturing issues.  But investigations have revealed the truth:  Takata executives have known there was a systematic problem for years, and concealed it from their customers and the public. 

As a result, although many Takata inflators worked properly, over a dozen people died and hundreds were injured by defective ones.  And millions of drivers (including yours truly) are wondering whether a minor fender-bender in their Honda or Toyota will set off a Takata inflator and turn the incident into a deadly encounter with a time bomb. 

It's probably pointless to speculate, but I wonder if any of the Takata executives involved in this sordid mess ever took an engineering course that mentioned ethics.  When I discuss ethics in my engineering classes, one of the standard case studies I trot out is the (hypothetical) situation in which some engineering test results come out negative, and your boss tells you to fake the results so it looks like the product passed anyway.  It's one thing to sit in a classroom as an impoverished engineering student and say, "Oh, sure, I'd never do anything like that."  And I suppose it's another thing altogether to be in charge of a large American division of a firm whose profit margins depend on sales of a product that you know to be defective. 

There are limits to the ability of education to influence behavior.  The most that educators can do is to alert students to the moral implications of their work, to urge them to be aware that such situations can arise, and to think carefully about how they would respond before being caught up in the heat of the moment when an ethical dilemma arises.  Even if the Takata managers took some such class way back when they were students, in their case the workplace pressures overwhelmed whatever inclinations they had to do the right thing. 

It's unusual that an ethical lapse ends up basically destroying a firm, but it has happened before—think Enron—and the Takata story shows that it can happen again.  Even if Takata manages to liquidate itself to the extent of paying the full $1 billion (which is dubious), I don't think it will help the wronged automakers much in their attempts to replace the millions of airbag inflators that are now under a cloud of suspicion.

As far as the three individuals who were personally charged in the indictment, the U. S. government is attempting extradition, but the final decision is up to the government of Japan.  Assigning blame for such situations on an individual level is complicated, simply because one has to have a good enough understanding of the management structure that prevailed at the time of the wrongdoing to figure out who was really doing the coverup and how it was managed.  Should the janitor in the lab where the tests were falsified go to jail?  Probably not.  Should both the technician who falsified the reports, and his boss who ordered him to, be jailed?  That is a judgment call that I'm certainly not qualified to make, but complexities like these will arise in the denouement of this sad tale.

In the meantime, if you're like me and have received a recall notice about defective airbags, either don't sit in the seat next to the airbag, or if you can't help but sit there, drive really carefully.

Sources:  The Associated Press report of Takata's guilty plea and fine were carried by numerous outlets, including the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 13 at  I also referred to an ABC News story at  I previously blogged on the Takata inflator problems on Oct. 27, 2014 (, and on Sept. 19, 2016 (

Monday, January 09, 2017

Californians Talk To Their Cars

The citizens of the U. S.'s most populous state have long had a love affair with the automobile.  Life in Los Angeles is well-nigh impossible without wheels of some kind, and many commuters spend almost as much time in their cars as they do on the job.  As of Jan. 1, it is illegal in the state of California to use your mobile phone while driving unless you use hands-free technology.  Fortunately for the millions who will now have to find some other way to communicate from their cars, the automakers are rushing to integrate voice-recognition systems such as Amazon's Alexa into their products so that you can simply ask for directions or ask to talk to a friend, and the system will do the rest.

As reported in a recent  New York Times article, Ford announced that Alexa will soon be a feature of its newest hybrid models later this year.  A mobile Internet connection is vital to the new service, which counts on using cloud computing for the often computationally-intensive task of voice recognition.  The same Internet connection will be used for many of the services accessed by the software:  online purchases, remote control of "Internet-of-Things" devices, and many other uses besides the obvious ones of telephone service and GPS guidance. 

The new law is a step forward in the struggle to reduce traffic accidents caused by distracted driving.  But we have yet to see what the effects of a well-functioning voice-recognition system in a car may be in terms of safety. 

Studies have shown that visual distractions can be deadly to drivers, while sounds are much less so.  Most people can carry on an animated conversation with a passenger without being too distracted from driving, and it's reasonable to assume that conversations with voice-recognition software will not be much more distracting than having a live passenger beside you.  Still, depending on the usefulness and accuracy of the system and the number and complexity of features, things could get complicated.

Your scribe here lives such a sheltered life that the closest I've come to an Alexa is seeing the ad for it every time I click onto  So I am not in a position to pass judgment personally on how well they work.  Apparently they work well enough to have made Amazon a lot richer in the past year or so, and the quality trend as more artificial-intelligence resources are applied to these things will only be upward.  Like many other new technologies, the real challenge in growing the market won't be so much technical as it will be changing peoples' habits.  And the California law is a powerful incentive to do so.

Consumers lie on a spectrum with regard to the adoption of new technologies.  Some folks—often younger ones—are early adopters who are the ones who wait in line all night long to be the first to buy a new iPhone or what have you.  The bulk of us don't rush out right away to get every latest thing, but when friends or acquaintances tell us about the item and how pleased they are with it, we go ahead and buy one when our old one wears out or when some business or personal need makes it better to buy than not.  And then, bringing up the rear of the bell curve, there are late adopters such as myself, who cling to old technologies with a grip that often takes legal force to loosen. 

There's no need to spend much marketing effort on early adopters—they often turn out to be a product's best informal salespeople as they show off their new purchases to others.  The major challenge is getting the average person to change their ways in the face of a new technology.  And California has done the automakers and the voice-recognition people a big favor in passing their hands-off-the-phone law.

Casual observation shows that a large fraction, if not a majority, of people who drive also like to talk on the phone at the same time.  If they haven't already adopted hands-free technology, as of this month, in California at least, they'll have to do something in order to avoid the threat of getting a ticket.  Enforcement is going to be lax at first, but the understanding is that this is just a grace period to give people time to adopt a new way of phoning while driving, and eventually you'll have to be using some kind of voice-recognition system, whether it's in your phone or installed in your vehicle. 

For people such as real-estate agents, maintenance providers, and others who drive around all day and have to be in touch with customers, the new law is just part of having to do business, and they will either buy a car with a built-in system or achieve their goal some other way, if they haven't already. 

For others who have not made a habit of talking on the phone while driving, the law will mean either pulling off the road when their hands-on phone goes off, or ignoring it until reaching one's destination.

Eventually, though, such actions will seem as quaint as hunting around for a pay phone to make a phone call.  The last time I saw a working pay phone was last summer on a drive through a small Nebraska town.  If I recall correctly, the same town also had a small operating movie theater in the middle of town, and a factory near the edge of town that made lawnmowers.  I didn't see any signs saying "Caution — Entering the Twilight Zone" but it gave me that feeling. 

The California law, and the automotive voice-recognition systems that will allow people to abide by it, are all part of the push to make us constantly connected whether we're at home, at work, or in between.  It's what people seem to want, or at least think they want.  Why they think they want it is another question, but one best left for another time.
Sources:  The New York Times article "Coming From Automakers: Voice Control That Understands You Better" by Neal F. Boudette and Nick Wingfield appeared on Jan. 5, 2017 at