Monday, July 17, 2017

Silicon Valley Wants Inside Your Head—Literally

A recent article in the engineering professional's magazine IEEE Spectrum reveals that several powerful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are sponsoring initiatives to breach the barrier separating our brains from the rest of the world.  They all fall into the category of "brain-computer interfaces" or BCIs. 

For example, Facebook wants to develop a noninvasive (meaning you don't need surgery to wear it) system that would let you type five times faster on your smart phone than you do now.  A former Facebook executive named Mary Lou Jepsen is trying to develop an MRI-type device that will "interpret the patterns of neural activity associated with thoughts"—mind-reading, in other words.  Elon Musk, true to form, has thrown caution to the winds with his program to implant a sensor in your brain, bypassing the old-fashioned eyes, ears, and fingers and mainlining the Internet straight to your hippocampus, or wherever the thing will be attached. 

There are two things I'd like to say about these projects.  One is technical, and the other is moral.

The technical aspects of BCI projects are daunting, to say the least.  While some research has been done already into ways of communicating with the brains of people with "locked-in" syndrome (e. g. sufferers from Lou Gehrig's disease who can no longer move any voluntary muscles), progress has been slow and the systems have been customized to each individual.  The brain is the final frontier of biology, in that it is the most complex organ known and probably the one we know the least about in comparison to what there is to know—which, in a sense, is all human knowledge, since all human knowledge is, materially speaking, contained in brains.  The self-reflexive nature of brain research makes me wonder if there isn't something analogous to Gödel's incompleteness theorems at work in the brain's attempt to understand how the brain works. 

Mathematician Kurt Gödel showed in 1931 that every mathematical system of a certain complexity is bound to have statements in it that cannot be either proved or disproved without going outside the system.  The brain analogy of this is that the brain may not be able to understand exhaustively everything about itself. 

Whether or not that is the case is a purely speculative question at this point—just the kind of issue that the Silicon Valley types are not interested in.  They want to do something with the brain, not understand it, and their research is way toward the development end of R&D, with explicit timelines and the whole apparatus of high-tech development programs favored by those with essentially infinite amounts of cash.

What a contrast it is to the way some wealthy corporations used to behave.  Physicist Mark P. Mills points out in a recent article in the journal New Atlantis that U. S. corporations spend only about 7% of their total R&D money on basic research, which the government's Office of Management and Budget defines as "study directed toward fuller knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts without specific applications toward processes or products in mind."  Mills makes the telling point that while the basic-research labs of the old pre-breakup Bell System and IBM can count thirteen Nobel Prizes to their credit, the free-spirited pursuit of knowledge wherever it leads is no longer in favor in the U. S. corporate world.  Though the lag between a discovery and the awarding of a Nobel Prize can often be decades, Mills looks in vain for any comparable scientific achievements from the tightly-application-focused "moon-shot" projects currently favored by Silicon Valley.

The technical point here is that those pursuing BCIs may have bitten off more than they can chew, and the nature of the problem might require a longer-term, less focused perspective.  Even if the goal of brain-computer interfaces is worthy of pursuit, we may be in for a long marathon instead of a sprint.

Now for the moral issue.  Is it right to read another person's mind?  Especially if they are not fully aware of what is involved in the process?  Ah, the corporations say, we would never do such a thing without your consent.  Yes, I reply, the same kind of consent I give whenever I load a new piece of software on my computer and lie that I have read and understood eight pages of legal gobbledegook when I click the button that will let me load the software. 

We have already been trained to allow snooping at a scale that twenty years ago would have been regarded as outrageous.  Everyone who gets online has probably had the experience of doing a web search for a consumer item in one place, only to find ads for it popping up later during a completely unrelated activity.  A combination of cookies and data-sharing among Internet companies on a grand scale means that privacy, at least when it comes to things you search for online, is mostly a thing of the past. 

Should we let the greedy hands of the Internet reach into the last remaining sanctuary of privacy, the human mind itself?  I am reminded in this connection of a passage in one of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  In it one of the English children transported to Narnia is named Lucy, and at one point she is alone in a magician's house, perusing a great book of magic.  She comes upon a spell "which would let you know what your friends thought about you."  She says the magic words, and a kind of television process shows her two friends of hers in a train.  She hears them talking about her, and not in a nice way, either. 

A bit later, Aslan the Lion appears, and says to her, "Child. . . I think you have been eavesdropping."  When she replies that she didn't think it counted as eavesdropping if it was magic, he replies "Spying on people by magic is the same as spying on them in any other way."  I don't know how popular the Chronicles are in Silicon Valley, but it's just possible that a moral lesson a child could understand needs to be taught to some of our most powerful technical leaders.

Sources:  The IEEE Spectrum article "Silicon Valley's Latest Craze:  Brain Tech" by Eliza Strickland appeared on pp. 8-9 of the July 2017 print issue.  The Spring 2017 edition of The New Atlantis carried Mark P. Mills' article "Making Technological Miracles" on pp. 37-55.  I also referred to the Wikipedia articles on Gödel's incompleteness theorems and the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory.  Lucy's exploit with magic is found on pp. 131-135 of the Macmillan paperback edition of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, originally copyrighted 1952.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Does the U. S. Need a New Star Wars Program?

On the Fourth of July last week, the world saw one rocket's red glare that wasn't fired in celebration:  North Korea launched the latest in a series of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests.  The timing was intentional, and the North Korean news agency quoted its leader Kim Jong-un as saying, "The American bastards must be quite unhappy after watching our strategic decision."  Not exactly diplomatic language.  Although the test missile went mostly straight up and down and landed harmlessly in the Sea of Japan, if directed toward the east, experts say it could have reached as far as parts of Alaska.  According to the New York Times report, it is unlikely that Pyongyang has a small enough nuclear weapon to fit on their ICBMs, but they seem to be devoting a great part of their pitifully small GNP to reach their ultimate goal of being able to threaten the continental U. S. with a nuclear warhead.

The North Korean government is one of the few remaining bastions of old-fashioned, dictatorial despotism, and rational behavior is not to be expected from them.  But missiles are. 

There are some parallels between this situation and the way the final years of the old Soviet Union played out.  When President Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") in 1983, it arguably contributed to the eventual downfall of the USSR as that nation's confidence waned that they could counter the U. S.'s initiative with anything as effective.  As it turned out, Star Wars as originally planned never reached the deployment stage, but by 1991 the USSR had cracked apart, and it wasn't needed.

North Korea is different, in that they will probably never have more than a few viable nuclear ICBMs.  But even one nuclear bomb can spoil your whole day, so since about 2000 the U. S. has been developing a kind of mini-Star Wars system called the Ground-based Missile Defense (GMD). 

Shooting down even one ICBM on the fly is a very delicate undertaking that has been likened to shooting a bullet with another bullet.  Nevertheless, in 18 tests the system has successfully destroyed 10 targets.  These are not encouraging odds, but it's not bad for a system whose funding and support has fluctuated wildly over the years with the political climate in Washington. 

Austin Bay is a retired colonel in the U. S. Army Reserve whose service record goes back to the 1970s, and for some years has written regular columns on national affairs from a military perspective.  I have always found his viewpoints to be solidly grounded in factual information, and before the latest North Korean missile launch, Bay noted in a May 31 column that the GMD program was doing as well as you could expect in view of  the "sparse and fitful" testing it has had. 

Compare the record of an average launch of one per year for the GMD to the series of manned as well as unmanned spaceflights that took place in the 1960s, leading up to the moon launch:  14 launches (3 of which failed) for Project Mercury, 14 launches (two partial failures) for Project Gemini, and 10 successful flights that led up to the triumphal landing on the moon in 1969.  All this happened in only ten years, 1959 to 1969, which saw an average of nearly four launches a year.

The world and the U. S. were very different then, and the 1960s space program ate up a much larger proportion of the federal budget than Washington is likely to tolerate today.  But in North Korea's missile launches, we face a threat that is much less predictable than the old Soviet Union was, and one that could quite possibly lead to hundreds or thousands of American deaths in a nuclear attack.  This is serious business.

In contrast to what worked with the USSR, merely announcing a greatly expanded GMD is not going to make much of an impression on Kim Jong-un.  As Bay points out, the alternative to missile defense is diplomacy, and when the Clinton Administration made an agreement with North Korea in 1994 to quit making plutonium, evidence shows that the regime ignored us and went right ahead with their nefarious plans. 

It looks like North Korea won't quit rattling their nuclear saber until we grab every one they flaunt and crack it over our GMD-equipped knees, to stretch a metaphor.  But we can't afford to attempt a shoot-down of one of their missiles and miss—that would be worse than sitting on our hands.  Bay thinks, and I agree, that the time has come to get serious about ICBM defense, and that means a focused, well-publicized, and well-funded effort, as independent as possible of politics, to come up with a system that can be relied on to shoot down North Korea-style missiles, say at least 90% of the time. 

In the current fractious political atmosphere in Washington, such a plan is way down toward the bottom of most politicians' priority lists.  It may take a genuinely frightening incident such as an apparent attack by North Korea to motivate enough voters to call for protection.  But nobody (on our side, anyway) wants to go that far.

There are other things we can do about North Korea, but unfortunately most of them are not unilateral:  asking China to squeeze them a little, solidifying alliances with Japan, South Korea, and other eastern nations against the crackpot North Korea regime, and so on.  While China doesn't want its little neighbor incinerating the planet by mistake, it is much more tolerant of North Korea's human-rights abuses and other misbehavior than we can accept in the U. S., and there is little hope that the North Korean regime will change in response to anything that China does.

In the meantime, the U. S. needs to defend itself against attacks by foreign powers.  Everybody—Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, you name it—agrees that defense is one of the bottom-line functions of the federal government.  However misdirected the defense budget has been in the past, the problem of North Korea won't go away.  We need to finish the job that the current GMD program has started, and develop and test it to the point that people in Alaska and the rest of the western United States can go to sleep without worrying that a rotund guy in Pyongyang is going to wake up one morning and decide to drop a nuclear bomb on their heads—and nobody can stop him.

Sources:  I referred to a report on the latest North Korean missile test in the New York Times carried on July 4 at  Austin Bay's commentary on previous GMD tests appeared on May 31, 2017 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on the Strategic Defense Initiative and NASA's 1960s space program. 

Monday, July 03, 2017

The Legacy of Hanford

One era's triumph can turn into another era's disaster, and perhaps no better example of that in the field of nuclear energy and weapons is the Hanford Site in south-central Washington State, about 200 miles from Seattle.  During the height of World War II, physicist Enrico Fermi designed a nuclear reactor for the Dupont Corporation to produce plutonium that was needed for nuclear weapons, as part of the ultra-secret Manhattan Project.  The small farming community of Hanford, Washington was selected for the site of the reactor and associated chemical processing plants, and more than 40,000 construction workers swarmed to the bank of the Columbia River in 1943 to build what became known after the war as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. 

Because plutonium is one of the most deadly radioactive substances known, plant designers had to come up with novel ways of transporting large volumes of liquid and solid plutonium-containing material while keeping workers either far away from the load or behind several feet of radiation shielding.  Accordingly, one of the first industrial applications of closed-circuit TV was to view remote-controlled plutonium-handling equipment.  In view of the hazards of spills during transportation from the producing reactors to the processing plant, a railway tunnel was constructed of timbers and steel, buried in a foot or more of earth on top.  Plutonium that went into the "Fat Man" nuclear bomb used on Nagasaki, Japan probably passed through this tunnel, as did dozens of tons of plutonium used to make nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

Beginning in the 1960s, plutonium production ceased at Hanford, as it was realized that the site was heavily contaminated with long-lasting radioactive material and was no longer usable by then-current safety standards.  When the U. S. populace felt its back was to the wall during the war, not many people raised issues about long-term health hazards of working with nuclear weapons.  But as the threat of nuclear war declined after the Partial Test Ban Treaty between the USSR and the US in 1963, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, most production activity ceased at Hanford and instead, a massive cleanup became the top priority.  The U. S. Department of Energy now spends billions of dollars a year on the Hanford cleanup, employing 8,000 people at the site and taking reasonable precautions about keeping workers safe.  But since President Trump's appointment of former Texas governor Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, the media has paid more attention to the Department and any problems it may have, the most recent of which is the collapse of part of the roof of the old railroad tunnel used to transport plutonium.

The hole in the tunnel, more than ten feet across, was discovered on May 9, and as a precaution, many employees at the site were told to shelter in place until measurements could be taken to tell if substantial amounts of radioactive material had been released.  Investigation showed that no such release occurred, and the hole has since been covered in plastic and plans made to fill the old tunnel with grout.  Several railroad cars used to transport plutonium remain in the tunnel, which is altogether too radioactive to be inspected by humans, although robotic inspections are possible.  A second larger tunnel built in the 1950s has also shown signs of structural instability, and Hanford managers are planning to do something about preventing its collapse by August.

It would be nice if engineering ethics consisted of a set of unchanging rules, and doing engineering ethically simply meant understanding and following the rules.  But a phrase I recently came across expresses nicely the difference between the discipline of ethics and the disciplines of the hard sciences. 

Ethics is a "humane science"—meaning not that it's kind to animals, but that its "laws" are really just generalizations that depend on the nature of humanity, and so cannot show the ironclad reliability and constancy of physical laws.  This is not to argue for relativism—the notion that all ethical principles are relative to particular times, places, and cultures.  Rather, it is to confess both ignorance—no finite human being can possibly know all the relevant considerations in a particular ethical situation—and the fact that as human cultures and societies change, what is regarded as ethical behavior in a given circumstance can also change. 

In the case of Hanford, what has changed the most is our sense of priorities.  In 1939, the U. S. suspected Hitler of building a nuclear weapon, and Japanese troops were showing signs of fighting to the last man on the last domestic island of that nation.  For good or ill (plenty of both, actually), Roosevelt gave the green light to the Manhattan Project, which led to the first production and use of nuclear weapons six years later.  Both leaders and ordinary citizens felt seriously that the U. S. was fighting for its life, and in such a situation, concerns about exposures to levels of radiation that might possibly lead to cancer in twenty or thirty years, or might pollute the environment for hundreds of years, simply faded into the background.

Having enjoyed relative peace in the North American continent ever since the end of World War II, the U. S. can now afford to deal with the messes it created during the war, Hanford being the leading example.  Many opponents of nuclear power take the acres of lethal radioactivity at Hanford to be proof sufficient to lead us to swear off all use of nuclear power forever, amen.  And it must be admitted that disasters such as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear-reactor fire in Ukraine are uniquely horrible.  Shutting down all nuclear plants would presumably avoid such incidents in the future. 

But nuclear energy is also uniquely suited to address the increasingly prominent issue of global warming.  While it is an open question whether renewable energy can compete economically with nuclear energy for the world's short-term energy needs, it would be shortsighted to rule nuclear out altogether because of an emotional reaction against it not based on an objective view of the facts.  Unfortunately, there are lots of facts to view, and so nuclear power remains controversial, as it probably always will simply because its first public use was to bring us the horrors of nuclear war. 

Sources:  I referred to news reports on the Hanford tunnel-roof collapse carried by the Washington Post on May 9 at, and the Seattle Times on June 30 at  I also referred to the Wikipedia article on the Hanford Site. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Mistake in Yellow and Gray

Texas has always been a forward-looking state, where things are always going to get better and history doesn't count for much.  The spirit of the state is well expressed by GM engineer and inventor Charles F. Kettering, who said in 1948, "My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there."  So it's natural to expect that this bias toward novelty would show up in architecture. 

The problem with novelty in architecture is that most of the time, a new building is surrounded by older buildings.  And if the style of the new building is too radically different than its surroundings, the overall effect cannot be a happy one, regardless of how elegant or coordinated the new building is on its own.  When you leave out elegance and coordination and design a building's appearance in a manner that seems to have taken every minute of a half-hour's thought, well—you get the new Local apartment building here in San Marcos, Texas. 

I should explain something about the way San Marcos has grown from a town of less than 10,000 people in 1950 to its present estimated population of over 60,000.  Like most county seats in Texas, settlement started out around the county courthouse in the town square.  Many of the original buildings around the square still stand, and the immediate area of the square is a historic district, as is a quarter-mile or so of old homes along the main road that extends southwest of downtown, and much of the newer construction in town is several miles farther southwest in that direction.  Going northeast in the opposite direction from the old residences, you encounter one- and two-story commercial buildings, a 1970s-era bank building or two, a few auto repair shops, a gas station, and so on, until you reach the San Marcos River, fed by nearby Spring Lake, which has evidence of human habitation going back 9,000 years.  While there are not any architectural gems in the couple of blocks northeast of town, the buildings were all pretty consistent with each other, and the historic small-town atmosphere still lingered in that district to some extent.

That is, until the Local started going up a mere two blocks away from the courthouse square.  Here is a view taken from a parking garage a few blocks north of the area I'm speaking of:
The brownish copper dome to the extreme right is the county courthouse, no longer in active use but preserved for its historic and architectural beauty.  Almost even in height with the courthouse is the six-story thing on the left that looks like something an architecture undergraduate turned in at the last minute. 

In researching the history of the Grenfell Tower building in London that caught fire on June 14, I learned that its architectural style is known by the technical name of "brutalist."  I'm not sure that the Local's style has the dignity of a name, but I think brutalist will do until a better one comes along.  Here's a closeup of its sole concession to the fact that it's going to be on public display to thousands of people for years or decades to come: the yellow and gray—patterns—or whatever they are:

Good architecture treats space and the people who occupy it with respect, framing and transitioning to make mechanical necessities such as columns and cornices things of beauty.  The Local is just a box for housing students, and one gets the feeling that the designers came close to leaving it a solid uniform light gray, and then had a twinge of conscience, plus maybe some leftover yellow and dark gray panels (there's no sign of paint anywhere outside), and so they determined on the alternating design that reminds me of nothing more than a surveyor's stadia rod, or the way old 1960s space-flight rockets were painted with alternate black and white squares so the engineers could tell if they were spinning after launch.  Both patterns were designed for high visibility, and I suppose you could say the Local has that.  But they could have made it any color or no color at all, and it would still be highly visible anyway, towering six stories above the surrounding one- and two-story buildings.

Engineers were no doubt involved in the design of this structure.  If you look carefully just to the right of the old-fashioned-design streetlight in the second picture above, you can see evidence that electrical engineers were involved:  a set of junction or transformer boxes connecting to large steel conduits that run up outside the first two parking-lot floors of the building.  I suppose this side is the rear, but it looks pretty much the same from any angle, so who can tell?  Trying to make one side of this building inconspicuous is like trying to hide an elephant under a napkin—the thing can't be done. 

This is not the first or the only apartment building in downtown San Marcos.  The red-brick structure visible to the left in the second picture probably is, or was, an apartment building, but it was built in a scale and style commensurate with the rest of that section of town.  With the huge increase in population in the last decade brought on by the explosion of enrollment at Texas State University (of which I am an employee, therefore indirectly part of the problem), the city has broken out in a rash of apartments ranging from the marginally tasteful—the old First Baptist Church was converted into apartments in a way that at least made some concessions to the appearance of its surroundings—to the esthetic horror that is the topic of this blog. 

There may be no place on Earth where the Local would fit in and look normal, but if there is, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want to live there.   And nothing I'm saying should be construed as a criticism of the safety, structural integrity, or legality of the building under discussion.  There are lots of things that are legal that nevertheless shouldn't be done.  Downtown San Marcos was not exactly an architectural showplace, but it at least had a semblance of coherence and a flavor of the town's historic roots.  The Local has changed all that.  I will probably teach students who live in the Local, and that's okay—everybody has to live somewhere.  But I'll still always think of it as the Mistake in Yellow and Gray.

Sources:  The photos were taken by the author on June 15, 2017.  The Kettering quote is from a Forbes magazine interview and can be found at

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Grenfell Tower Tragedy

In 1974, a new high-rise public housing apartment building opened in West London.  Called Grenfell Tower, it was 24 stories tall and designed to house as many as 600 people in 120 apartments.  Photographs of it taken before a renovation in 2015 show large windows on one side and smaller ones on the adjacent side. 

In 2014, as reported in this blog, the 63-story Address Hotel in Dubai, United Arab Emirates went up in flames as aluminum-clad foam-plastic panels called architectural cladding or sandwich cladding on its exterior caught fire and quickly spread the conflagration to most of the outside of the building.  Amazingly, no one died in that fire, due to a quick evacuation order by the authorities and the failure of the fire to spread to the interior of the hotel rooms.  But this was only one of numerous exterior-cladding fires that have resulted from the use of flammable architectural materials on buildings that are too tall to be reached conveniently by fire ladders.

In 2015, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organization, the bureaucracy in charge of public housing in the Grenfell Tower district, decided to do a renovation, possibly to improve the structure's insulation and lower heating costs.  New windows were installed, thermal insulation was added, and to cover these changes, sandwich cladding panels were installed to cover the four exterior side walls. 

Some, perhaps most, of the cladding was made by the U. S. firm Arconic, which sells various types with different kinds of plastic between the outer aluminum sheets.  A cheaper type uses polyethylene plastic, but is not recommended for structures over 10 meters (33 feet) tall.  A slightly more expensive type is fire-resistant, as was the thermal insulation used underneath the cladding.  But even fire-resistant plastic can burn under some conditions.

When constructed, the building had no sprinkler system, but the apartments were piped for gas cooking and gas lines were present throughout the building.  Each apartment had fire detectors, but a residents' organization called the Grenfell Action Group has voiced complaints to authorities over the past few years about outmoded and non-functional fire extinguishers, flammable clutter in hallways, and other fire-safety issues, with little apparent response.

Residents of the Grenfell Towers, as were most other residents of London, had been instructed in case of fire to remain in place to be rescued by firefighters, rather than attempt an escape on their own.

In retrospect, the Grenfell Towers fire was a disaster waiting to happen:  an aging, open-style building without a sprinkler system but full of gas lines, covered with apparently flammable sandwich cladding outside potentially flammable insulation material, crowded with up to 600 residents who had been told to stay in their apartments in case of a fire.  And in the early morning hours of June 14, 2017, a fire broke out, reportedly in a kitchen on the fourth floor.

No sprinkler system or fire extinguisher succeeded in stopping the blaze before it ignited the exterior cladding, which in a matter of a few minutes spread the flames upward and eventually completely around the structure.  Many survivors got out by disobeying the orders to stay in place.  As of this writing (June 18), the estimated death toll is 58, and is expected to go higher.  If this is confirmed, it will be the largest number of people to die in a single fire in London since the Blitz of World War II.

Fires that kill lots of people at once are not that uncommon, but usually they happen in crowded single-room venues such as nightclubs where fireworks or other sources of ignition catch flammable materials on fire.  The spectacle of an entire high-rise building going up in flames because of flammable exterior cladding is something that is not supposed to happen in modern "fireproof" structures.  But the invention of a cladding material that is light, inexpensive compared to concrete, solid steel, or aluminum, and reasonably durable has led to its use and abuse throughout the world.  And as numerous cladding fires have shown, you can take the most fireproof building in the world and surround it with thin, flammable sheets exposed to a lot of air, and what you get is a giant Roman candle waiting to be set off. 

The Grenfell Towers fire may become a turning point in the politics and regulations of exterior cladding, similar to the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City that killed 146 garment workers in 1911.  Like many of the residents of the public-housing Grenfell Towers, most of those who died in the 1911 fire were poor immigrants, though they died on the job amid flammable clothing materials, not at home surrounded by flammable architectural panels.  The Triangle fire had the good result of inspiring calls for improved fire-safety building codes and regulations, which if implemented can prevent tragedies like this.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, already in a politically weak position, has been jeered and attacked for what many saw as her inadequate response to the tragedy.  She and other politicians could turn this situation to the benefit of their country by leading a thorough investigation into the causes of both the Grenfell Towers fire and other similar fires in which flammable exterior cladding has played a role.  Then, they could take vigorous and definite action with regard to both existing and future architectural cladding that has any significant chance of short-circuiting fire safety by enabling the spread of a fire on an otherwise fireproof structure's exterior. 

It is ironic that after making people suffer for centuries the hazards of living in wooden structures that were chronically prone to burn down, nineteenth-century architects thought they had solved the problem of fire with concrete-and-steel structures, only to torch their triumphs in the last few decades by using what amounts to cheap window-dressing materials that burn like fireworks.  If I were an architect, I would be afraid to show my face in London after the Grenfell Towers tragedy. 

The most basic ethical requirement of a profession is that the professionals look out for the interests of those average citizens affected by their professional activities, citizens who have no way of knowing what hazards they could be subject to and how to avoid them.  I would be surprised if more than a few residents of Grenfell Towers knew anything about sandwich cladding, or the fact that under the right circumstances it would burn.  Well, everyone knows now.  And I can only hope that this knowledge gets applied to similar dangerous situations, and we do whatever it takes to keep another Grenfell Towers fire from happening anywhere, ever again.

Sources:  I referred to news reports about the Grenfell Towers fire carried by the Australian Broadcasting Company on June 17 at, the Canadian Global News at, and the Wikipedia articles "Grenfell Tower fire" and "Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire."  My blog on the Address Hotel fire in Dubai appeared on Jan. 4, 2016.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Moving Automated Driving To the Next Level

If there had been a competition for world-class back-seat drivers, my grandmother would have won it hands down.  Back in the 1980s when we were living in Massachusetts, we drove to Boston's Logan Airport and picked her up for a visit.  Despite never having been closer to New England than Ohio in her entire life, she immediately started telling me which turns to take in downtown Boston as soon as I got lost, which I always did anyway, but without her help.  We made it home, but not without lots of needless distraction.

Developers of what the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) calls "automated driving" are facing the opposite problem of back-seat driving in trying to get people in the front seat to pay attention to the road while a robot does what the SAE calls "Level 3" automatic driving. 

In a recent New York Times piece, tech writer John Markoff highlights the problems that arise when autonomous vehicles are not yet capable of 100% "hands-off" operation.  Two or three years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and SAE concurred on a classification scheme for automated driving systems.  What most people do now in older cars when they do all the driving themselves is Level 0 (no automation).  Level 5 is a system that could adapt to any and all driving conditions with no input whatsoever from the driver, who could therefore safely sleep or do crossword puzzles for the whole trip.  No one has yet been able to field a Level 5 system, but the standard assumes we will eventually get there.  In between, there are vehicles such as Tesla cars equipped with an autopilot system (Level 2), and the latest self-driving cars now being fielded by Google's autonomous-car spinoff Waymo (Level 4).  But even Level 4 cars can't cope with all situations, and when a driver starts to treat a Level 2 system like it was Level 5, trouble lies ahead. 

The worst example so far of driver inattention while riding in a partially autonomous vehicle happened in 2016, when a Tesla Model S in Florida failed to detect a semi that suddenly crossed the vehicle's path.  Despite the fact that Tesla warns the driver that he or she must be prepared to take evasive action in such situations, he was apparently watching a video, which was the last thing he saw, let us say.  This fatal accident was the first such mishap in Tesla vehicles, which have since been modified to test the driver's attention periodically.  And if the driver isn't paying consistent attention, the car will terminate the autopilot feature for the rest of the trip, forcing the driver to go back to work.

This is just one specific example of a general problem with partially autonomous vehicles—say Levels 2 through 4.  They all require the driver to be prepared to regain control of the vehicle in an emergency or other situation that the robot driver can't cope with.  But as Markoff points out, going from sheer inattention to fully capable operation of a motor vehicle in a few seconds is not something people do particularly well.

Studies have shown that even with those who are mentally prepared for the transition, it can take as long as five seconds to adjust to the feel of the steering at a particular speed and get to the point where the driver is truly in control and capable of dealing with problems.  Five seconds can be a longer time than you have—a car traveling at 70 MPH will move over 500 feet (156 meters) in five seconds.  If the potential problem is only 200 feet away, by the time you're ready to act it may well be too late.

Those wanting to deploy cars with more and more autonomous features face a chicken-and-egg problem.  Everybody admits that as of today, there is no system in which it is completely safe for the driver to act like he or she is at home in bed.  But to get to that point, we have to gain experience with less-than-perfect systems, which all require the human driver's input at some point.  The issue then becomes how to accustom drivers to this wholly new mode of "driving."  And people being people, they are not always going to follow instructions.  The man who lost his life in the Tesla accident was told to keep his hands on the steering wheel at all times.  But he'd found that nothing bad happened most of the time he didn't, and so would many others unless the system enforces attention in some way, which it now apparently does.

As for me, I may be fairly typical in that I am not interested in automated driving systems until I can trust them at least as well as I can trust my wife to drive—if not better.  We may be encountering a different form of what in aesthetics is known as the "uncanny valley."  Humanoid robots that look like classical robots—hardware sticking out from their metal chests and so on—don't bother us particularly.  And a humanoid robot that is such a good imitation of a human that you can't tell the difference between the robot and a real human presumably wouldn't bother us too much either.  But students of robotics have found that "human-like" robots that are close to real humans, but not close enough, give people the creeps.  And it will give me the creeps, or worse, if I sit behind the wheel without steering unless told to do so by a machine.

If I was sort of driving and sort of not driving a car that was doing things in traffic that I couldn't predict, and I was constantly hoping I wouldn't have to intervene but always wondering if something was about to happen that would require me to grab the wheel—well, I might as well quit my job and start teaching driver's education at Nelson's Driving School for the Chronically Nervous.  Back when high schools were obliged to teach driver's ed, you would learn in a car equipped with two brake pedals, one on the passenger's side where the instructor sat.  My instructor got to use her pedal more than once, and I can now only imagine what torment she went through while she watched me move jerkily through traffic.  If I was riding in anything less than a Level 5 autonomous vehicle, I'd be in the same position as my unfortunate driving instructor—all the time it was moving.

The prospects for autonomous driving hinge critically on how manufacturers and developers will handle the next five or so years, before truly autonomous (Level 5) driving is possible.  It may be the wisest thing to continue mainly with experiments until automakers can say with reasonable confidence and safety what the bus companies have been saying all along:  "Leave the driving to us."

Sources:  John Markoff's article "Robot Cars Can't Count on Us in an Emergency" appeared on the New York Times website on June 7, 2017 at  It has a reference to a summary of the SAE Standard J3016 for the classification system of automated driving, at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Waymo, the history of autonomous cars, and the uncanny valley. 

Monday, June 05, 2017

Cambria Corn Mill Dust Explosion Kills Three

Last Wednesday, May 31, everything seemed normal at the Didion corn mill in the small village of Cambria, Wisconsin.  Like most factories of its type, the mill operated 24 hours a day, and late that night only sixteen workers remained as the machinery processed corn into ethanol and other products.  Shortly after 11 P. M., a tremendous explosion sent flames high into the air, knocked out power, and destroyed most of the processing division of the plant.  Three workers were killed, eleven others were hospitalized with injuries, and millions of dollars of damage was done. 

Ever since 1878, when what was then the world's largest grain mill was destroyed by a dust explosion in Minnesota, grain mill operators have known that the fine particles produced by various milling operations can combine with air to produce explosive mixtures.  Unfortunately, the science of dust explosions does not appear to be as complete as the science of gas explosions, for example.  Scientists have studied mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen for flammability, and can predict down to the third decimal place exactly what the mixture limits are for that combination of gases to explode.

Dust is different.  It comes in all sizes, ranging from particles almost too large to stay in the air very long, down to submicron bunches of molecules that take expensive equipment even to detect.  And as one expert interviewed by the Journal Times of Racine, Wisconsin pointed out, dust lying on the floor is relatively harmless, but if somebody walks by and kicks up a dust cloud, and it's a dry day and the person's body accumulates electric charge and then touches a grounded metal object, you can have the fatal combination of enough dust in the air and an ignition source to cause an explosion, whereas five seconds earlier there was no way an explosion could occur. 

This unpredictability may be one reason that dust explosions are relatively common compared to other types of major industrial accidents.  An insurance executive interviewed by the Journal Times said that over 500 dust explosions at grain processing facilities have occurred since 1982, killing more than 180 people in all.  If all 180 had been killed at once, dust explosions would be more prominent on the nation's scope screen of safety concerns, but a typical grain mill is manned by only a few dozen people at most and so the fatality numbers are rarely high enough to garner more than the occasional national headline.

Another problem with preventing such explosions is that they typically do so much damage that the originating cause is often never determined.  When I was about ten years old, I witnessed a demonstration of a dust explosion performed by a fireman who traveled to elementary schools to give fire-safety lessons.  He had a big box inside of which was a small container of ordinary baking flour, and a rubber hose was rigged to the box along with some kind of ignition source—maybe a candle he lit inside the box.  Anyway, when he closed the hinged lid and blew into the tube, the flour hit the candle, flung the lid open, and produced a huge yellow whoosh of flame.  It impressed the heck out of me, but in retrospect it must have been mostly for show, because dust explosions are not a big domestic fire hazard—almost all of them occur in industrial plants. 

Especially when it occurs in a confined area, a dust explosion's pressure wave wrecks everything in sight.  While investigators can sometimes gather some general idea of the sequence of events, it is often impossible to locate even the specific site where the blast originated, let alone to reproduce the conditions that led to the explosion. 

Anything that can reach a dust-air mixture's ignition temperature can cause such an explosion.  Static electricity is a favorite scapegoat, and in facilities where humidity can be raised high enough to eliminate this hazard, it is easy to control.  But for grain processing, too much humidity can be both expensive to produce and detrimental to the product, especially in drying operations, so other means of prevention are employed:  ventilation to keep concentrations of dust below dangerous levels, regular cleaning to prevent dust piles from accumulating and getting kicked up to cause hazardous clouds, and explosion-proof electrical fittings and equipment, which can be very expensive but are needed in certain locations where dust cannot be avoided. 

Records indicate that the Didion mill was cited for a potentially hazardous dust condition back in 2011, but the owners paid a fine and apparently corrected the problem.  The ongoing investigation may or may not find out what caused the explosion.  But since renewable fuels were mandated to be mixed into U. S. automotive fuels in 2005 and 2007 with the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the U. S. has outstripped Brazil as the world's largest producer of ethanol, and most ethanol made in the U. S. comes from corn.  Hence, there are a large number of corn mills in the U. S. that turn corn into ethanol, such as the Didion plant did until last Wednesday, and the risk continues that dust explosions in these mills will injure or kill workers.

To many residents of rural areas, making ethanol from corn is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal future faced by farm communities, decimated by children moving to cities, drug problems, and other woes.  It's too bad that the process has the inherent and difficult-to-prevent hazard of dust explosions, but hopefully the industry will learn some lessons from this latest catastrophe and improve its track record by good safety and housekeeping practices. 

The safety culture of leading oil refiners is a gold standard that grain mills could aspire to.  Oil refinery operators have learned how to handle millions of gallons of hot, pressurized, flammable products with an exemplary safety record overall, but only at the price of what seems to outsiders to be ridiculously involved and rigorous safety practices.  It may be time for owners of grain mills to look to their more experienced compatriots in the petrochemical and refining industries for guidelines as to how to keep dust from killing their workers and wrecking their plants.

Sources:  I referred to an Associated Press report on the Cambria explosion (not to be confused with the Cambrian explosion of new species over 500 million years ago!) on the ABC News website at, a Racine Journal Times report at, and Wikipedia articles on dust explosions and ethanol fuel in the U. S.