Monday, March 02, 2015

A Chunk of (Climate) Change

An old saying in investigative journalism is "follow the money."  According to a recent article in the New York Times, that's just what the environmental organization Greenpeace did when it began to look into the funding of publications written by one Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon.  Soon is a researcher associated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and has attracted a lot of publicity for his outspoken comments on global warming, which he appears to doubt is due to man-made causes.  He has made the rounds of conservative talk shows to express his doubts, and that is probably why Greenpeace decided to investigate him.  While Soon has made no secret of the fact that some of his funding came from energy industries and interests, documents obtained by means of the Freedom of Information Act showed that Soon was producing papers to order for specific funders, referring to the papers as  "deliverables."  He received over $400,000 from a prominent electric utility and $230,000 from the Koch Charitable Foundation.  The New York Times reports that the Smithsonian Institution is mounting its own investigation into Soon's dealings, and its acting director admits that the Institute may need to clean up its ethical act with regard to disclosure of funding sources. 

As Newton taught us, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, at least in physics.  The opposite reaction inspired by the Soon affair has come from the U. S. Congress, which has now showered universities and energy companies with letters demanding information about funding sources for scientists who have criticized the establishment view of climate change.  This has prompted Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University, to criticize what he calls "fishing expeditions" by Congress, because of the chilling effect it has on academic freedom.

I heard Prof. Dessler speak about a year ago at Texas A&M on the topic of the history of climate-change science.  In general, he is in sympathy with the Greenpeace view that corporate interests are trying to sow discord in the climate-change area, in much the same way that tobacco interests sowed doubt about the link between smoking and cancer in the 1960s.  But he is objective enough to realize that when Congress sends your university a letter asking for documents concerning your own research funding, it doesn't help you sleep better at night, and it doesn't make it any easier to follow the data wherever it leads.

If everybody would recognize the wisdom of a couple of well-established principles, things like the Soon investigation and the congressional reaction to it might be avoided.

The first principle is, always acknowledge your funding sources in sufficient detail.  I haven't read any of Dr. Soon's papers and I don't know how or whether he acknowledged the specific ties between dollars and articles, assuming these ties existed (and while the investigation is still ongoing, it looks like they did).  As far as I'm concerned, the only time an academic should take money for publishing a specific piece of writing with a specific point of view, is when the funding source itself publishes the piece, as in book publishing.  (Full disclosure:  I am currently waiting for Wiley to publish a textbook I've written, and while I don't expect to get rich from it, I will get royalties if they sell any copies.)  Any time someone comes to you and offers you money to "place" specific publications in other venues not controlled by the funder, especially if readers of the publications will think that what you write is objective and not influenced by outside agencies, you should see bright flashing red conflict-of-interest lights and think about it a long, long time.

Now, I myself have taken money from agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) with the expectation that I would do work and publish papers as a result.  What's the difference?  Sometimes it's not easy to tell.  Everybody expects that scientists and engineers who take research money from NSF will publish papers about their research.  And nobody I know looks at the acknowledgment section and says, "Ah-hah!  The NSF paid for this.  No wonder it's X, Y, or Z."  This is because the NSF has, overall, done a reasonably good job of letting scientists themselves judge what is good research and what isn't, and whether it should be funded or published. 

The problem that comes up with climate-change research is that it has become a political hot-button issue.  Billions of dollars of corporate revenue are at stake if unfriendly climate-change-related legislation comes to pass, and so corporations that feel threatened are eager to see ostensibly objective research published that favors the views which allow them to keep making more money.  This is rational behavior on the part of the corporations, but the danger to objective science research is clear. 

And that brings me to my second point:  the fiction of truly 100% "objective" science.  Guess what:  there ain't no such animal.  Every scientist has biases, prejudices, and hunches that prevent him or her from being the perfect, suspended-in-the-air, dispassionate, Mr.-Spock-like viewer of objective truth.  In the choice of research topics, in the selection of funding agencies, and in the way research is performed and presented, scientists betray their biases—and yes, even their political convictions—all the time, often while fooling themselves into thinking they are being perfectly objective. 

When the subject of study is not of widespread public interest and influence—say, nematodes—it's fairly easy for the small group of folks who just can't know enough about nematodes to get together and pursue the truth about nematodes, and sometimes come pretty close to ideal objectivity.  But when the subject has vast and time-extended implications for every resident of the planet, as climate change does, everybody wants to get in their two cents, or two hundred thousand dollars, as the case may be.  And while I won't go so far as to say that everyone has their price, if a researcher's salary depends 100% on raising external funding, it's hard to resist the blandishments of a corporation or political group that wants a quid pro quo in the form of research with a predetermined outcome.

While the jury is still out, that's apparently what happened to Dr. Song.  His case can serve as a warning to every funded researcher not only to disclose one's funding in enough detail, but to ask whether one has betrayed the ideal of objectivity for cash. Congress can think about restraining itself from scaring academics and making it even harder to do objective science in the academy.  And everybody can realize that scientists are human beings for whom the ideal of absolute objectivity is just that—an ideal that is rarely, if ever, realized in practice.

Sources:  I referred to the New York Times articles "Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Researcher," appeared at
on Feb. 21, 2015, and "Lawmakers Seek Information on Funding for Climate Change Critics" on Feb. 25 at  After this blog was written, I was saddened to read of the passing of the original Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame, Leonard Nimoy, at the age of 83. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Temperance, Net Neutrality, and the FCC

Later this week, on Feb. 26, the U. S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is going to vote on a proposal to enforce net neutrality.  Net neutrality, according to some, is the idea that all bits are created equal, and that communications firms using or operating parts of the Internet should not discriminate against or for certain types of services, providers, or customers.  If I could do one thing to help the FCC decide wisely on this proposal, I'd bring back Aristotle and ask him to explain to the commissioners what he means by egkrateia, which is usually translated as "temperance" or "moderation."  The Internet has to be one of the most influential and beneficial engineering developments of all time, and it would be a shame for the FCC to cripple it.  But if they don't exercise temperance, that's just what they might do.

Writing in the electrical engineering professional journal IEEE Spectrum, Jeff Hecht points out that wireless technologies, where a lot of the most exciting new Internet developments are happening, need careful technical management to work.  It has to do with the fact that all data on the Internet travels in little chunks called packets.  When the Internet was founded, most data was not that time-sensitive.  If data for email or a webpage shows up in pieces spaced even several seconds apart, it's no big deal.  But as highly time-sensitive services such as telecommunications (phones) and video began to switch to the Internet, and as new time-sensitive services such as multiplayer games developed, timing became a big deal.  Hecht points out that a delay of only twenty milliseconds can disrupt a phone conversation, and if a sound that short goes missing it can turn "can't" into "can" and lead to all kinds of problems.  The same goes for video, which gets jerky with such delays, or game apps, which slow down and aren't that fun anymore.

Delays like this and speed-slowing bottlenecks are especially hard to avoid in two places: (1) where internet service providers (ISPs) connect to the Internet's "backbone," or (2) where wireless is used, such as when you access the Internet from your phone or mobile device.  In the latest generation of mobile phone service, called 4G LTE, providers have developed a way to label packets with what amounts to a digital ship-by date.  Packets that spoil fast—phone conversations, video, game-player data, and time-sensitive system control data—get shipped the fastest, while packets that represent email or webpages have to wait longer in line. 

This technical packet-labeling is called "priority coding" and it's a critical ingredient in the new high-fidelity phone service called VoLTE (LTE, by the way, stands for "long-term evolution"). 

Here's where the moderation comes in.  Reportedly, the FCC is planning to reclassify the Internet as a "common carrier."  Currently the FCC views it through a different legal lens, as an "information provider," which allows the government fewer regulatory options.   But the common-carrier class includes the highly regulated telecommunications industry, and so the FCC's proposed rule changes could allow it to regulate the Internet much more closely than it does now.  Depending on what the FCC means by net neutrality, the commission (or a sneaky lawyer wielding the Commission's new rules) could use its new legal chops to break the new 4G LTE by making priority coding illegal.  After all, if every bit is created equal, shoving some to the front of the line in front of others could be viewed as discrimination.

Any time a government agency decides to extend its regulatory authority, you have to hope that it won't go overboard and stifle the industry it's allegedly trying to help.  This is where Aristotle's virtue of temperance can help.  As has happened in many other fields, the Internet's technology has in many ways outstripped the legal frameworks that were set up to regulate communications systems in the past.  I think it's good for the FCC to acknowledge that the communications world has changed, and that pretending the Internet is just an information provider is outdated.  But an attempt at heavy-handed populist-style regulation in the name of absolute net neutrality could do more harm than good.

Moderation on all sides is called for.  Free-market enthusiasts may worry that the FCC is going to tax or regulate the Internet to death with its new proposed powers.  This is unlikely.  But at the same time, a more subtle danger to watch out for is the co-opting of government authority by big corporate players in a way that favors their interests over those of small firms who want to innovate, but whose innovations pose a threat to the big guys.  This can't happen in a lightly-regulated industry, which so far the Internet has been, for the most part.  I think the FCC is smart enough not to issue rules that would flat-out break the 4G LTE technology.  But any extension of regulatory authority can lead to manipulation of that authority by vested interests.  And I think that is what Aristotle would caution us about the most.  But first, we'd have to explain to him what the Internet is.

Sources:  Jeff Hecht's article "Net Neutrality's Technical Troubles" was posted on the IEEE Spectrum website on Feb. 12, 2015 at  On Feb. 4, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler declared his intentions with regard to net neutrality in the online edition of Wired at  I also referred to an article on The Daily Dot about the FCC's Title II authority (which allows it to regulate common carriers such as telecomm companies) at  I most recently blogged on net neutrality on Nov. 24, 2014 in "How Neutral Is the Net?"

Monday, February 16, 2015

Would Licensed Engineers Make Workplaces Safer?

Joe Carson is a licensed professional engineer (PE) with three decades of experience as a federal employee whose job involved responsibility for nuclear safety.  He is also an activist and whistleblower who has devoted much of his time in recent years to problems with safety and accountability in the engineering profession.  Joe recently sent me a couple of articles that, taken together, raise an interesting question:  if engineers working in U. S. industries had to have PE licenses, could they raise the level of workplace safety?

The first article reports that the U. S. government's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently levied $1.7 million in fines against Ashley Furniture for numerous safety violations and injuries in its large plant in Arcadia, Wisconsin.  OSHA says about 4,500 people are employed at the facility, making it probably one of the largest furniture factories in the U. S.  But Ashley's Arcadia plant doesn't seem to be a safe place to work.  OSHA says that Ashley's plant workers have suffered over 1,000 injuries in three and a half years, and have placed the firm in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program.  A spokesman for Ashley disputes the allegations and calls the fines "grossly inappropriate and overzealous." 

In some countries, engineers cannot work in their profession at all without obtaining a PE license or equivalent from a government agency.  In turn, the government can hold licensed engineers responsible for ethics-related performance, such as the safety of products manufactured, and even for the safety of employees who work at a plant under the engineer's supervision, broadly defined.  There is an entire specialty called manufacturing engineering which is devoted to the efficient—and safe—design of manufacturing facilities.  If U. S. manufacturing engineers had to have PE licenses in order to work in private industries, and the terms of their licenses spelled out minimum safety standards that facilities they designed had to meet, it stands to reason that with their jobs on the line, manufacturing engineers would pay a lot of attention to workplace safety in facilities they were responsible for.

So why isn't that the case in the U. S.?  Because of a little-known set of laws collectively known as the "industrial exemption."  Back in the 1930s when engineering societies began to lobby state legislatures to enact PE licensing laws, corporate manufacturing and industrial interests got wind of this and inserted industrial exemptions into the laws in many states.  The effect of these exemptions is to exempt firms that are basically big enough to look out for themselves from having to hire only licensed engineers.  Some states without industrial exemptions nevertheless do not enforce the licensing of all engineers.  The history of PE licensing and regulation is complicated, but the results are simple enough to summarize:  unless you practice engineering as a direct service to the general public (as in a consulting firm), or work for a government agency engaged in public works such as roads and bridges, you generally do not have to hold a PE license to work in the engineering field.

In his fair-minded way, Joe also sent me another article, this one on the question of whether state licensing laws have gone too far.  The recent rise of unlicensed taxi-equivalent private services such as Uber has raised the issue of whether we really need to license professions such as hair-braiding and interior decorating.  The arguments in favor of professional licensing made by trade groups usually start from the premise that the public needs protection from untrained amateurs who don't know what they're doing.  Consequently, the state has an interest in licensing X profession, and the licensing process typically requires a minimum amount of training and certification for the licensee.  With such training, the public can now rest assured that a licensed practitioner of X knows what he or she is doing, and certain dire consequences, ranging from mis-braided hair to clashing colors in your living room, can be avoided.

I let myself go a little there at the end of that paragraph, but the basic point is sound in some cases.  Everyone wants licensing for highly trained professionals in life-critical jobs such as surgeons and airline pilots, because the negative consequences of error in these professions are so obvious.  Critics of state licensing laws counter that while licensing can raise the standards of performance in a profession, it can also restrict entry and create a seller's market for the profession's services.  This lets licensed members of the profession make more money, but arguably leads to more expensive services that are not always better, as numerous studies comparing services in states with and without particular licensing laws have shown.

If the industrial exemptions went away and states began aggressively enforcing PE licensing for all engineers, we would certainly see a spike in engineering salaries for licensed engineers.  There would also be a rush to get PE licenses, which usually take years to obtain for undergraduate engineers, who can only get "EIT" (Engineer In Training) status immediately after passing an initial exam, and then must accumulate some years of experience before applying for a full license. 

As to whether products and workplaces would be safer, that would depend on whether safety requirements were built into the licensing laws, as I described above.  Currently, that is not the case, although as a matter of principle, engineers at facilities such as Ashley Furniture ought to consider workplace safety more than they apparently do at present, license or no license.  If no engineer would work for a firm out of fear of losing his or her license, it would apply a novel kind of pressure that would encourage such organizations to clean up their act safety-wise.  But it would also turn licensed engineers into a sort of government agent, a role that many might find uncomfortable, to say the least.

I thank Joe Carson for bringing this issue to my attention, and I hope that engineers responsible for workplace safety, including those at Ashley Furniture, will follow Joe's example of holding safety paramount above profit, promotion, and even one's job, whether or not licensing laws are changed.

Sources:  Joe Carson sent me notice of the New York Times articles "OSHA Cites Ashley Furniture Over Dozens of Safety Violations" at
and "Job Licenses in Spotlight as Uber Rises" at  You can read more about Joe Carson and his work at  For the history of PE licensing, I referred to an article by Neil Norman on the National Society of Professional Engineers website at  I last blogged about PE licensing on April 13, 2013 at

Monday, February 09, 2015

Passing of an Ethical Engineer

For almost as long as I have been writing this blog, my wife's father Benjamin G. Simons has lived with us.  Ben passed away in our home on Saturday, Feb. 7, at the age of 89.  There is a branch of engineering ethics that uses "moral exemplars"—basically, good examples—as models of how ethical engineers should live.  Ben was one of these.

Ben was a brick.  I use that word in two senses. 

One sense is now archaic, but means something close to today's "cool dude."  When a character in Mark Twain called someone a brick, it meant that they were a good, reliable, and even generous character, what in Yiddish is called a "mensch."  Ben was born in 1925 in Kenefic, a town occupying one square mile in south central Oklahoma, to a couple who decided in the early 1930s to seek better opportunities when they moved to Fort Worth, Texas.  Ben's mother trained him well:  he was unfailingly courteous to women, always said "thank you" for favors received, and almost always used his native Irish stubbornness for good purposes.  Following his graduation from high school in 1943, he joined the Navy as soon as he turned eighteen and served in the Seabees (the Navy's Construction Battalion) in the South Pacific theater until the end of World War II.  He made some efforts in the direction of higher education, both with independent study in the form of International Correspondence School literature and formal academic training.  In going through some of his old papers we found while cleaning out the family home in Fort Worth, I found a calculus exam he had failed.  In the late 1940s, a college degree was not yet a necessity for someone who wanted to become a surveyor or civil engineering professional, and he found work in those fields in South Texas and various other locations, turning his wartime construction experience to good purpose.

Sometime in the mid-1950s, he joined what was then called the Texas Highway Department in Fort Worth and determined to live the American dream:  he built a new house, bought a new car (a 1955 Olds, which now resides in the garage here), and after ten years of marriage, a girl was born in 1956.  (That girl eventually became my wife.)  From that time until his retirement in 1979, he worked at the Highway Department's Fort Worth offices and occasionally on field sites as a construction supervisor.

The grand civil-engineering project of that era was the Interstate Highway System promoted by President Eisenhower, who had seen the military usefulness of Germany's advanced autobahns during World War II and understood the unifying effect of a good transportation infrastructure for the U. S.  Ben's career spanned the construction of Loop 820, the main ring road around Fort Worth that interconnects the east-west IH-20 and IH-30 routes with the north-south IH-35W, which goes all the way from Laredo, Texas to Duluth, Minnesota.  He was one of those guys you see in old photos of large drafting rooms where white-shirted men wearing ties spent their days under fluorescent lights churning out penciled drawings on mylar that became blueprints for America.  His title on retirement was Engineering Technician V, but most people back then would have called him a highway engineer.

And here we come to the second meaning of "brick," namely, a rectangular block of fired clay used in construction.  There is nothing that remarkable about an individual brick, and nothing that useful, either.  But as long as each brick meets its specifications for hardness and strength, you can use thousands of them to build truly amazing structures, anything from houses up to churches, roads, and aqueducts, as the ancient Romans knew.  Ben was a metaphorical brick in the great, and possibly historically unique, burgeoning of engineering that the United States experienced in the 1950s through the 1970s.  In 1950, there were no interstate highways, only two-lane roads connecting most cities, and television was just beginning to put small fuzzy gray images in the homes of a few million city dwellers.  Digital computers consisted of rooms full of giant boxes of hot vacuum tubes, and even their developers thought the world market for computers would be saturated by the time a dozen or two were completed.  By 1960, the interstate highway system was on the drawing boards of most states, 87% of U. S. households had at least one TV, and computer engineers were eagerly ordering a new device from Texas Instruments called the "integrated circuit." 

For the next two decades, Ben stayed married to his wife (a monumental achievement only those closest to him could appreciate), raised two daughters, paid off his car loan and his mortgage, and stayed gainfully employed as a member of the Texas Highway Department's staff.  At one point, in order to communicate better with a hearing-impaired colleague, he went to the trouble to learn American Sign Language, and we have a photo that shows him receiving a service award for this work.  To the best of my knowledge, Ben never accepted a bribe, and none of the roads or bridges he helped design and build ever showed serious flaws. 

To some, this might seem to be an unremarkable, even dull, life.  But just as each brick's hardness and solidity contributes its small part to the integrity of the entire structure, Ben's small role in the story of American engineering in the mid-twentieth century was just as important as every other brick's role.  Without millions of such bricks, many of them veterans who had seen just enough of foreign lands to be glad to be back home in America, this country could not have become what it became:  the birthplace and home of many of the most outstanding engineering and scientific achievements of world history.

There is honor in fulfilling one's obligations to one's profession, one's society, and one's family, and Ben fulfilled his obligations.  That such achievements are commonplace makes them no less honorable for that.  Ben's life is history now.  But his legacy of simply doing his job well and remaining faithful to his vision of right and wrong is one that deserves attention and emulation.  Ben never founded a Fortune 500 company, or won the Nobel Prize, or even got promoted beyond the title of Engineering Technician V.  But he did his job competently and well, and we engineers who follow in the footsteps of his generation should do no less.

Sources:  I found the statistic on TVs in U. S. households at

Monday, February 02, 2015

Who Wazed the Sheriff?—Traffic Apps and Law Enforcement

Google's traffic app called Waze allows users to tell each other about traffic-related issues such as construction zones, tie-ups, and speed traps.  It uses a phone's GPS system to locate an icon on a map of the area that everyone using Waze can see.  Google bought Waze from its Israeli developers for a billion dollars in 2013, and it is now one of the most popular free apps on Apple's rankings.  But the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA) is not happy about it.

In a widely publicized statement, the NSA's Deputy Executive Director John Thompson said "we are . . . concerned this app will have a negative effect on saving lives and with public safety activities."  The app's little police icons can show locations of speed traps and other law-enforcement operations.  The sheriffs cite recent ambush attacks on law enforcement, such as the killing of New York City patrolmen Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu last December, as examples of hostile actions that could be aided by Waze.

An Associated Press report of the reactions to the NSA statement includes a response by a Google spokesperson, who pointed out that most users tend to drive more carefully when they believe law enforcement is nearby.  Free-speech advocates oppose any restrictions on locating law-enforcement operations via Waze as long as the operations are clearly visible on public property. 

Traffic-law enforcers face a problem that is in some ways paradoxical.  Sometimes they want to be highly visible simply because of the deterrent effect on most law-abiding citizens.  After all, the overarching goal of law enforcement is to encourage obedience to the law.  This goal would be achieved with respect to speed laws if everyone obeyed the speed limits.  And most drivers (but not all) who become aware of a potential speed trap will slow down.  So letting folks know that Smokey is hiding over that next ridge on the interstate will probably lead to fewer speeders, which is what we want, isn't it?  That doesn't take into account the other aspect of the paradox, which is that sometimes traffic cops want to hide, too.

I think it may be significant that the National Sheriffs' Association, but no other major law-enforcement organization, has come out in opposition to Waze.  In small towns in rural areas, and in larger Western counties where the main law enforcement is by sheriffs and not town or city policemen, a considerable fraction of the sheriff's office revenue may come from speeding tickets.  If a deputy has found a nice concealed location where drivers who are just passing through frequently get ticketed for speeding, the last thing he or she wants is for this prize fishing hole to show up on Waze.  Local circumstances such as these can create perverse incentives which encourage law enforcers to rely on a certain number of speeders to show up, just to keep them in business. 

The problem of publicizing law-enforcement operations and locations should not simply be brushed off.  You can imagine a months-long sting operation by police that would climax in a stealthy approach to a crime organization's secret hideout.  But if some clueless driver comes along and posts a lot of cop icons on Waze, and one of the crooks happens to be looking at his phone at the time, the whole operation could come unglued, with dire consequences up to and including bloodshed.

Back in the slow-media days when newspapers were the main forum of public information about law enforcement, reporters would sometimes get wind of secret police operations in advance.  It was a part of the journalistic code of ethics not to spill such beans when it would cause major problems to the police, even though it would make a scoop that would sell papers.  Editors have sat on such hot news many times until after the police have had time to spring their traps.  While such measures could have been viewed as press self-censorship, most observers would agree that it was done in the public's best interest in most cases.  The public's right to know is not absolute, and must be tempered by other considerations such as the safety of law-enforcement officials when publicity would put their lives at risk.

But this is 2015, not 1935, and the age of citizen-journalists.  Instead of fedora-wearing photographers armed with big Graflex cameras, we have baseball-capped passersby armed with iPhones linked to Facebook and Waze.  We can no longer count on the reasoned restraint of professional journalists who can view the larger picture and weigh the consequences of their actions in the long run.  If a Waze user sees a cop and posts the sighting on Waze, the user has no idea whether the cop is there for a routine speed trap or for more specialized and delicate reasons. 

So far, there have been no major incidents to my knowledge in which Waze data on law enforcement personnel locations has led to a major miscarriage of justice or harm to an officer.  But in the present atmosphere of tension between police and many citizens, I can understand why the National Sheriffs Association is touchy about the popularity of Waze, and why they have asked Google to do something about it.

Unfortunately for the NSA, chances are not good for that to happen.  While Google could conceivably run interference between the raw data coming from observers and the displays of police icons, it would be a resource-intensive and probably manual process, which would slow down the edited displays and diminish what is one of the main attractions of Waze in the first place:  its timeliness.  Public-access apps that let the public post information directly depend on that same public not to lie or manipulate their inputs in a nefarious way.  Fortunately for law enforcement, and everybody else, most people at most times are simply trying to get along and help others when it's not too much trouble.  Waze helps them do that, and it looks like the speeding-deterrent effects of posting speed-trap locations will outweigh the possible negative consequences, at least in Google's view.  And in this case, unless some more powerful force intervenes, it's Google's view that counts.

Sources:  The Associated Press article by Eileen Sullivan describing reactions to the National Sheriffs' Association press release was carried by numerous outlets such as the Chicago Tribune at  The NSA statement itself can be found at  I also referred to Wikipedia's article on Waze. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

High Time for Satellite Tracking of All International Flights

This coming March 8 will mark one year since Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared from radar en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing somewhere over the Indian Ocean.  The wreckage has never been found, although communications experts used some almost accidental satellite-transponder data to estimate the last known location of the plane.  At the time, I recall thinking that if I was an airline and owned a number of high-value mobile assets known as airliners, I would want some way of knowing where each one was every minute or so, anywhere in the world.   After all, the technology for tracking the much cheaper assets called semi-trailer trucks has been around for years.  The little white domes on truck cabs report minute-by-minute locations to a data center where operators can pay a monthly fee to any one of a number of firms to keep tabs on shipments, and truck drivers too, for that matter.  But there is no international requirement for airlines to do the same.

Last week, the U. S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) waded in with a recommendation for all passenger airliners to be equipped with improved location technology.  The board admitted it was motivated partly by Flight 370's disappearance, and called both for improvements in in-flight tracking and in "black-box" technology. 

The in-flight tracking part seems to be pretty straightforward technologically.  It would operate more or less the same way as the truck-tracking system.  Every minute or so, a GPS receiver on the plane would send its location to a satellite in view, and the satellite would relay that information to a data center, where it would be logged and made available in the event of an incident of interest.  The only slightly tricky part would be identifying which satellite to use.  But there are already geostationary satellites in orbit such as Inmarsat which provide virtually world-wide coverage, and the missing bits of Earth near the poles could be made up for by linking to numerous low-earth-orbit satellites in polar orbits. 

The technology is not nearly so much a hurdle as the cost and the peculiar structure of international aviation regulations.  The NTSB's recommendations went to the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration, and if the FAA adopts them they will be obligatory for all U. S. airlines—but nobody else.  Because the U. S. operates only a fraction of international flights over large bodies of water where the technology would be most useful, the idea will not succeed without international cooperation, and that means the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO.

The ICAO is a United Nations body in charge of international standards for, well, civil aviation, as you might expect.  As such, its rulings have no force of law in individual countries unless the countries' own aviation regulations require that its carriers follow ICAO rules as well, which most do.  It was a 2008 ICAO ruling, for example, that required all air traffic controllers and flight crew members involved in international flights to be proficient in English.  I'm rather surprised that it took until 2008, but after all, everything takes a while at the UN.

The question is whether and when the ICAO might follow the NTSB's lead if the NTSB prevails with the FAA to make international-flight GPS tracking mandatory.  Enough alphabet soup for you?  The whole process—from tragic accident to technical recommendations to changes in laws and regulations—is typical of how safety technology develops in coordination with regulations requiring its use.  And the regulatory part is particularly tricky when it involves spending money.  The requirement that pilots speak English can be met by changing hiring practices, but GPS tracking will involve both up-front and ongoing expenses for new hardware—which itself needs to be standardized somehow—and rental fees to the commercial firms that operate the satellite transponders used to convey the location data.  Fortunately, we are not talking about large bandwidths here—the equivalent of a single cellphone text message every minute or so would be sufficient.  But coordinating all this will take some doing, and coordination of any kind at the level of the ICAO is a challenging and slow-moving process at best.  If they took till only seven years ago to agree on a common language for radio communications from international flights, the ICAO isn't going to churn out new GPS-location rules overnight, you can be sure. 

The other part of the NTSB recommendations concerns the nature of the onboard flight data recorders.  Now that video cameras and recording equipment are so inexpensive, the NTSB says we should have cockpit video as well as audio recorders, and that controls for the entire system should be inaccessible from the cockpit.  (There is some suspicion that the radar-transponder system of Flight 370, which works only within range of ground-based tracking radars, was intentionally disabled by the pilot.)  Also, the NTSB floated the idea (so to speak) that the flight recorders should be housed in buoyant housings and ejected upon impact so that they can remain on the surface, where their radio signals could be more easily received than the limited-range and limited-time sonar emissions that the units currently send out underwater. 

All these are good ideas, and if the FAA adopts them they will make an already safe U. S. air-travel system even safer, or at least increase the likelihood of finding any flights that go down in deep water.  And the information from such accidents is always valuable in preventing the next one, whether it was caused by mechanical failure, human error, or evil intent.

Nevertheless, I am not going to be holding my breath until the ICAO follows suit.  You would think that the international carriers themselves would have adopted something similar to the truck-tracking systems years ago, but there may be a mentality in place that makes such a system seem unnecessary because of the vanishingly small number of incidents in which it would turn out to be useful.  But once GPS tracking for international flights is in place, I bet folks find other uses for it, for things like fuel-economy efforts and even weather tracking.  But first, the ICAO has to get in gear, so stay tuned.

Sources:  The article "NTSB:  Planes Should Have Technologies So They Can Be Found" by Joan Lowy of the Associate Press was carried by numerous outlets, including ABC News on Jan. 22 at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, Inmarsat, and the ICAO.

Addendum Feb. 1:  Edwin Doetzal wrote me on Jan. 31 as follows:

"Your analysis of MH370 contained a couple issues:
Airliners do often have SATCOM tracking 'like trucks'.  On MH370, this system was turned off along with the radio transponder.
ADS-B is the new satellite based air traffic control system that will replace the radio based air traffic control system and is already being implemented through efforts by NAVCanada and ICAO.
What is currently in discussion are new systems such as AFIRS that would stream amounts of data automatically or by trigger in an emergency as well as explosive jettisoned FDR/CVR units.  Knowing where an aircraft was is of course not enough without the detailed DAQ information that might explain why the emergency happened and what action was taken by the flight crew.  A truck's limited DAQ can be retrieved from the ditch.  Please be assured that an airliner is a much more sophisticated system than a truck.
It was somewhat troubling to see such an article on an 'engineering ethics' blog.  With respect, it would seem that you are speaking outside your professional scope.  A retraction would appear appropriate.

Edwin Doetzel

Lay Person"

It was careless of me to imply that airliners had no such tracking systems, and I apologize
for leaving that impression.  In the space I had, I meant to concentrate not so much on the technology as on the international coordination that would be needed to implement it uniformly so that flights such as MH370 would not slip through the cracks.  My thanks to Mr. Doetzel for the correction.  

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Passing of Google Glass

Most people who are even slightly technology-aware have heard of Google Glass, the wearable head-mounted display device that Google introduced almost two years ago amid a blizzard of publicity.  Priced at $1500, Google Glass was never intended to be a mass-market product.  As of tomorrow, Google Glasses will become collector's items, because the company announced last week that the product will no longer be available.  According to Will Oremus at, the press release announcing the news tried to put a positive spin on the situation with phrases like "moving even more from concept to reality."  So the idea of a wearable camera/monitor isn't dead—just the particular embodiment of it in Google Glass.

I could have told them this was coming, because about a month ago, I finally got to try out a pair.  A student of mine had borrowed some from a friend of his in Austin, and was walking around campus letting all and sundry try them on.  I wear ordinary glasses, so the fit was somewhat of a problem.  But I managed to see the little display, and then the battery ran down, so my experience was very limited.  Nevertheless, it was enough for the Stephan Kiss of Technological Death to take place. 

More times than I can count, I have tried out a new technology just before it's about to disappear.  We bought a VHS player right after DVDs came out.  We got a DVD player about the time BluRay came out.  I bought a cellphone with a color screen about the time the iPhone came out.  Well, you get the idea.  In any market, there are early adopters, then the great mass of people who buy a thing after the early adopters have worked the bugs out, and then late adopters like me who come along after everybody else has dropped a product for the next hot item. 

Why wasn't Google Glass more successful?  From a late-adopter point of view, I can tell you one reason:  it didn't promise to do anything for me that was worth $1500 of my money.  From the start, I got the sense that a lot of the people buying them were doing it for the same reason that they bought Rolex watches.  A Rolex doesn't keep time any better than a Timex.  But a Rolex tells other people you are the kind of person who can afford a Rolex.  So Google Glass became a fashion brand for the folks who just couldn't wait to show up at the office wearing another expensive personal item.  I'm a little surprised that nobody came up with an imitation knockoff Google Glass that looked the same as the real thing but wasn't functional, priced at $99.99.  Only it would have been embarrassing for people to come up to you and ask to try them out, and you'd have to tell them sorry, the battery just ran down.

Probably the most useful feature of Google Glass was also the most controversial:  the little camera that could record your environment without anyone knowing for sure whether you're recording or not.  Spy cameras have been around for some time, but if they're designed and placed right, nobody knows about them except for the operator.  You see a Google Glass on someone and right away, you knew they could be recording you.  It was a little bit like walking around with a 35-mm camera in front of your face all the time.  No wonder some people got annoyed.  Nevertheless, Oremus reports that the most serious business customers of the technology used the camera feature to capture things like pictures of sides of beef for FDA inspectors, and whether Dr. Whozis left any forceps inside his last gall-bladder-surgery patient.  So it's likely that face-mounted cameras in some form will show up in places where the product or service is pricey enough to justify the expense of whatever comes after Google Glass.

No one can currently beat Google at what they do best, but designing hardware for personal use is very different from the massive Internet-based data crunching that got Google where it is today.  Technology geeks in particular tend to be blind to some issues that the general public care about deeply.  When Henry Ford first marketed his Model T, he later recalled that he said in 1909, "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."  And for many years, Ford beat his competition on price and performance with all-black cars.  But as automobiles became more of a commodity, other makers found that they could attract customers away from Ford by offering a variety of paint colors, and Ford eventually had to follow suit. 

Engineer and author Henry Petroski likes to say that failure is often more instructive than success.  By failure, he usually means things like collapsing bridges, but the failure of a new technology to meet its sales target is still a failure, though of a different and less hazardous kind than the failure of a bridge or a building.  In a free market, market failures are inevitable, and it's not like everybody at Google is now out on the street because they can't sell any more glasses.  In general, wearable technology seems to be the wave of the future in some form, and it's just a question of what form it will take. 

I think Google took on a major challenge by messing around with a person's face.  The face, and particularly the eyes, are where we look first when we meet another person.  We have had a few hundred years to get used to the idea of people wearing ordinary glasses.  They started out as expensive specialty items too.  A graphic on the Fashionisto website says that in the U. S. of the 1700s, a pair of eyeglasses could set you back about $200, which is like about $6,000 today.  So regardless of who comes up with the next version of Google Glass technology, they face an uphill battle in getting us used to the idea of having some active technology in the line of sight between soul and soul. 

Sources:  The article "Google Glass Is Finally Dead.  Ish." by Will Oremus appeared on Slate's website at .  The Fashionisto spectacle graphic can be found at  I referred to the Wikipedia articles on Google Glass, and the Henry Ford quote can be found at