David Cameron, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, not only thinks porn is bad for children—he’s done something about it.  After calling in a speech last year for a change in online access to adult sites in the UK from “opt-out” to “opt-in”, most internet providers were persuaded by Cameron’s government to make porn-blocking filters the default option for their customers.  After the change, if an account holder wants to view such sites he or she must actively set the account option to do so.  In promoting this initiative, Cameron’s goal was, as he put it, “protecting innocence, protecting childhood itself.”   But what I want to ask is, exactly what is the harm that this initiative protects against?
Your opinion of how pornography can harm children will depend on what you think children are. 
If you believe children are simply economic units that consume for their early years, and then become units of productivity for their adult years, then you will naturally look to scientific surveys of objective measures of harm such as increases in teen pregnancies, evidence of social pathologies such as sex crimes, and so on.  This is the view that New York Times business writer David Segal took when he wrote a riff on Cameron’s action called “Does Porn Hurt Children?”  After interviewing experts who did meta-studies of more than 200 social-science papers examining the question, he concluded that if there is any harm, it’s hard to identify.  There were slight statistical increases in some measures, but nothing that could be called a smoking gun.  The only time he mentioned ethics in the article was when he decried the fact that the ideal scientific study of the effects of porn on children could not be done for ethical reasons.  It would be unethical, he said, to find a sample of children who had never seen porn, and then give them a strong dose of it over a period of months and measure its effects as compared with a control group whose innocence was preserved.
But what if you believe children are immortal souls whose eternal destiny may be affected by things they see?  And what if you believe the words of Jesus, who, after calling a child to him, and telling his disciples that they must become as little children to enter his kingdom, said “. . . whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”?  In other words, it’s better to die a quick and certain death than to run a porn website that children can view. 
We seem to have a difference of opinion here.  On the one hand is a materialist view that looks to scientific studies as the ultimate authority on whether porn harms children in objective, measureable ways.  On the other hand is a view that there is something special about children, an attitude or state of mind that we generally call “innocence”, and that doing anything to damage that innocence is a worse thing than death by drowning.
Sociologists and psychologists don’t have much to say about innocence, and even less to say about the soul.  William James, brother of the novelist Henry James and one of the founders of modern scientific psychology, famously dispensed with the soul, saying that if there was such a thing, it was incapable of being detected or measured scientifically.  For a picture of innocence, one could turn instead to the Christian eighteenth-century poet William Blake, whose Songs of Innocence contrast with his Songs of Experience.  Blake is a puzzle for modern readers, because he combines what for his time was a shocking frankness about sexuality (many of his hand-illustrated poems depict nude figures) and a total lack of what might be called pornographic intent, that is hard to comprehend today. 
As one of the leading spokesmen of the Romantic movement, Blake opposed the Industrial Revolution and the new scientific, rational mode of thought that was sweeping the intellectual world around 1800.  After two centuries of its dominance, we have a lot of trouble trying to think in any other way.  But even Segal encountered hints that there is another way of viewing children besides the scientific one.  Many scientists he talked with prefaced their remarks with comments like, “Don’t portray me as endorsing pornography” or “I don’t want my kids watching this stuff.”  And he described an interesting event in which a group of teenagers were divided into two panels.  One panel was to argue in favor of the idea that pornography affected them, and the other was to argue that it didn’t.  The pro-impact panel waxed eloquent about how pornography negatively affected their views of what sex should be like, and tempted them to go out and try some of the pornographic acts they’d seen.  By contrast, the no-impact group ran out of things to say after two minutes. 
It has been argued that the widespread availability of internet porn has damaged or destroyed what should be one of the strongest bonds between a married couple:  the channeling of a man’s sexual desire into fulfillment exclusively by his wife, and vice-versa.  True, this is an ideal, not always realized for long, if at all, in some marriages.  But the fact that an ideal is not always realized does not make it any less of an ideal.  And the competition women feel between their own appearance and the fictional airbrushed images online may explain why so many young women obsess about their looks and are generally unhappy with them, no matter how attractive they are.
So I applaud Cameron’s move toward restricting internet porn access in the UK, and wish we could do something similar here, though our federal system and fragmented regulatory structure makes such a move much more difficult in the U. S.  But for sure, nothing much will happen about protecting children from internet porn if the only authorities we listen to are scientific ones. 
Sources:  David Segal’s article “Does Porn Hurt Children?” appeared on Mar. 29, 2014 at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/29/sunday-review/does-porn-hurt-children.html.  David Cameron’s speech before Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children calling for the change to opt-in for internet porn is at
https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-internet-and-pornography-prime-minister-calls-for-action.  The quotation from Jesus is from the English Standard Version of the Bible, Matthew 18:6. 

Engineering Ethics Blog

Engineers are people of action, not just words.  But even if we believe what we are often told about climate change, it’s not at all clear what we should do about it.
Last week, I attended a meeting at which a highly credentialed professional meteorologist outlined the history of the science of climate change from the nineteenth century to the present.  Prof. Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences described how as long ago as the 1890s, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius calculated that the small concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (then around 300 parts per million) had a disproportionate effect on the earth’s temperature.  Regular monitoring of this concentration began in the 1950s, and by then it was clearly understood that more carbon dioxide means higher temperatures.  Dr. Dessler said that for at least fifty years, there has been a consensus that the present human-caused increase in carbon dioxide in the air will eventually lead to a rise in global average temperatures of “a few degrees C.” 
So far I was with him.  Other things being equal (which they never are), more greenhouse gases in the air (of which carbon dioxide is one) means the planet gets warmer.  But then he started talking about cigarette smoking, and how the tobacco industry mounted a cynical disinformation campaign in the 1960s against the overwhelming evidence that smoking caused lung cancer and heart disease.  Because it took about forty years for the scientific truth to change public policies (you began to see smoke-free campuses and workplaces only about ten years ago), Dr. Dessler thinks it may take that long for the U. S. to get serious about global warming.  Personally, I think it will take longer than that, because the two cases are more different than they are similar.
As someone else in the audience pointed out, smoking has highly specific individual consequences.  As long ago as 1964, anyone who read a newspaper knew that by smoking, you made it a lot more likely that you would die early and fast, the way my father died of lung cancer at 57 only a year after he was diagnosed.  If driving a Humvee increased your personal chances of having your own house wrecked by a tornado by the same degree as smoking increases your chances of causing lung cancer, what would happen?  Well, for one thing, Humvee owners would have a lot of trouble getting home insurance.  And sales of Humvees would fall.
But in contrast to the smoking-cancer tie-in, the actions that contribute to climate change, and the possible (I emphasize “possible”) consequences, are about as far removed as you can get and still stay on the same planet.  From what little I know about the matter, it appears that the most widespread and likely consequence of letting the earth’s average temperature rise a few degrees Celsius is that a lot of ice will melt, water will expand, and the ocean’s average levels will rise.  Let’s leave aside all the other stuff—species extinction, storms, and other changes in weather patterns—and concentrate on just that one thing.
About 44% of the world’s population in 2010 lived within 150 km (94 miles) of the sea.  And many of the world’s most populous cities are coastal ones, or so close to the coast that a significant rise in ocean level would cause them major problems.  Now if all the ice in Antarctica melted, the ocean’s level would rise some 61 meters (200 feet).  So in that case, good-bye Hong Kong, New York, and Florida.  But to my knowledge, no serious scientist has proposed that the entire ice sheet covering Antarctica is going to melt because of human-induced climate change.  So the fact is that you have a range of estimates of how much the oceans will rise, but all of them are much less than 61 meters.  They may be well-educated estimates, but that’s all they are—estimates.
So instead of a single increased chance that you, individually, will suffer about the most serious consequence you can encounter—death—as a result of your individual actions, your individual motivation to do something about climate change is that somebody, somewhere, possibly but not certainly near a coastline, might eventually have to move or suffer an increased chance of getting flooded out in a storm.  And that person might be you, but not for another few decades, anyway.  And even if you become a hyper-climate-conscious zero-carbon-footprint fanatic, your solitary actions will be fruitless unless billions of people all across the world do likewise, or at least move in that direction.
Personal versus impersonal, individual versus transnational, death versus some fuzzy probabilistic consequence for many people you will never meet—at the point of political action, the analogy between smoking and burning fossil fuels collapses.  There is also the little matter of the difference in economic importance of the two industries in question.  If the entire tobacco industry vanished tomorrow, life could go on more or less normally for most of us, but if the entire fossil-fuel industry vanished tomorrow, a large number of us would die in a matter of weeks for lack of basic necessities.  That is a big downside cost to the proposal to something about climate change fast.
Prof. Dessler sees a global carbon tax as the way forward.  He thinks if the U. S. slapped a big carbon tax on imports, that the rest of the world would fall in line and come along quietly.  A global tax high enough to put significant brakes on fossil fuel consumption now would likely do something similar to what the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930 did.  Most economists believe that those extremely high U. S. tariffs contributed significantly to the worldwide depression of the 1930s, and punitive carbon taxes imposed on countries that don’t get in line with reduction in fossil-fuel use would probably trigger a global depression that would make the 1930s one look like a mild headache in comparison.
From an engineering point of view, achieving the goal of transitioning from a global economy based on fossil fuels to one in which fossil-fuel use is cut to a small fraction of its present rate is logically possible.  But achieving it in a way that is just and fair, and imposes hardships less than those otherwise suffered from whatever climate change would result, is an immensely challenging technical and political task, and would require a degree of coordination and cooperation that is unprecedented in world history. 
Maybe it will happen.  But if history is any guide, something really awful, and unequivocally attributable to climate change, will first have to happen worldwide, in order to create the political will to act.
Sources:  Prof. Andrew Dessler spoke at the Lone Star Historians of Science meeting at Texas A&M University on Apr. 11, 2014.  I referred to Charles Krauthammer’s column on climate change carried by the Washington Post on Feb. 20, 2014 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/charles-krauthammer-the-myth-of-settled-science/2014/02/20/c1f8d994-9a75-11e3-b931-0204122c514b_story.html, and Daniel Yergin’s history of climate change at http://danielyergin.com/history-of-climate-change/. 
The statistic about ocean levels and Antarctica is from http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/geophysics/question473.htm.  And for how a qualified opponent of the conventional view of climate change, Prof. William Happer, was received at another professional meeting, see my blog “When Scientists Aren’t Scientists” on Oct. 7, 2013.

Engineering Ethics Blog

Desktop Sketching - EclecticEchos - https://flic.kr/p/bbqqTR

Desktop Sketching - EclecticEchos - https://flic.kr/p/bbqqTRThis week I gave a verbal report on some project management initiatives that are underway in the City. Click through for the speaking notes that give some context to the slides – HaikuDeck – Construction Management Presentation. Much of the effort is in developing better project management processes for staff to use in planning and delivering projects. This slide set was presented at the regular council meeting on April 8, 2014.

Some of these things are relatively simple changes, while others are distinct changes in direction for the organization. These will require more staff effort in planning the projects, but the results should be tighter project delivery, greater transparency and improved processes. Instituting these practices, particularly a formal “Lessons Learned” process into closing projects, will likely result in significant continual improvement over time.

I guess there are two tangential things to say about this presentation, the first is that the iOS app used to create the slide deck is called HaikuDeck, and it creates simple stunning presentations with ease. HaikuDeck does have a webapp in Beta, and a companion iPhone app that can be used as a presentation controller as well. I highly recommend the app to anyone who regularly creates presentations, it will keep you on task and deliver beautiful slide layouts.

The second, is that in terms of formal project management systems, the most comprehensive resource is the PMBOK from the Project Management Institute (PMI). For anyone wanting to take their Project Management Professional Certification with PMI, I’d recommend Head First PMP by Jennifer Greene and Andrew Stellman as an excellent and engaging study guide.

Created with Haiku Deck, the free presentation app

This post was written by Mike Thomas for UrbanWorkbench.com ©2006-2014.

Originally posted as Project Management Initiatives


How much stuff do you carry on your keyring?  Besides keys, I mean.  Some minimalists like my wife carry car keys separately from other keys, with nothing attached except maybe a small plastic tag to make it easier to find in her purse.  Other people, many of whom are younger, may carry a whole bundle of stuff on their keyrings:  those little barcode cards that give you discounts at retailers, miniature plastic poodles, handcrafted bits of knitted yarn, and I don’t know what all.  But it probably never occurred to you to think that a heavy keyring could be hazardous to your health. 
Brooke Melton probably wasn’t thinking of her keyring one rainy March night in 2010.  She was driving her 2005 GM Cobalt when the ignition switch suddenly moved from “run” to “accessory.”  This had the unfortunate effects of killing the engine, disabling the power steering, and turning off the airbags.  The sudden loss of power caused Melton to cross into oncoming traffic.  The Cobalt crashed into another car at 58 mph and wound up in a creek, killing Melton and starting a chain of events that revealed the true cause of more than a dozen similar crashes going back more than half a decade.
As long ago as 2001, engineers at General Motors knew that a certain model of ignition switch assembly that was later used on a number of models had a problem.  The mechanical design of an ignition switch is a compromise, as are so many things in engineering.  Most mechanical ignition switches use a device called a detent, which divides the continuous rotation of the switch that would occur without the detent into a small number of discrete positions, typically four:  “off”, “accessory”, “run” and “start.”  If the detent provides too much resistance, the switch will be hard to turn and might eventually wear so much that it would fail to work at all.  But if the torque (twisting motion) required to move the switch is too small, you take the risk that unbalanced forces resulting from heavy stuff on a keyring, for instance, may spontaneously make the switch turn from one position to the other.  This is apparently what happened to Brooke Melton and the 12 or more other drivers who died in ignition-failure accidents in GM cars having the suspect assembly.
At this remove, it is obvious what GM should have done.  The guilty part, No. 10392423, should have been redesigned with a more forceful switch detent plunger—a 57-cent piece that consists of a rounded plastic cylinder backed by a coil spring.  It is the force exerted by this plunger that sets the amount of torque needed to turn the ignition key from one position to the next.  Changing the spring fixes the problem by increasing the torque needed to turn the key from “run” to “accessory.”  Then, the ignition assembly part number, or some documentation somewhere, should have been changed to reflect the fact that the new part was substantially different.  And GM should have recalled however many cars they had sold with the defective ignition switch and replaced them free of charge. 
If this had been done early, before too many cars had been sold with the defective ignition, it would have cost something, but the earlier such things are dealt with properly the less expensive they are.  But at the time, a few other things were happening at GM that provided distractions, namely, bankruptcy.  So matters drifted along, and at some point, Delphi (the company that makes the switch in Mexico for GM) changed the plunger to fix the problem.  There is contradictory information as to whether Ray DiGiorgio, a GM engineer, approved a design change in April of 2006 making this fix.  He has testified that he did not, but a Congressional committee claims it has documentation showing that he did.  Whatever was done in 2006, it had no effect on the thousands, if not millions, of cars already on the road at that time with defective switches.
After Brooke Melton’s death, her parents decided to sue GM.  Their lawyer, Lance Cooper, hired a consulting materials engineer named Mark Hood to look into why the ignition turned off—an event that was documented by the car’s black box.  After plowing through numerous Cobalts of various vintages in junkyards, he discovered that the critical plunger had been silently altered around 2006 or 2007.  Switches made before then took less torque to turn off than the newer switches.  Armed with these facts, Cooper took depositions from GE engineers and reached a settlement with the firm.  But the publicity surrounding the lawsuit attracted enough attention that others with similar crash incidents on their hands began looking into the matter.  And just last week, GM CEO Mary Barra testified before Congress about the whole thing.
To her credit, Barra took action to issue massive recalls, affecting some six million cars, on this and other problems within weeks after learning about them when she took the helm of GM in January of this year.  But these recalls are too late for Melton and at least a dozen others who died in ignition-related crashes of GM cars.  Although the investigations are continuing, it appears that at least one GM engineer may have lied under oath about the matter. 
This story has heroes and villains, although most engineering ethics cases are not black and white, including this one.  Consulting engineer Hood and GM CEO Barra appear to have done the right things with what they learned.  Investigations may prove that the GM engineers involved with the faulty ignition switch may have made the best decisions they could have, based on the information they had available.  No automaker can afford to do as much prototype testing as they would like.  It took making and selling thousands of cars to reveal that a few people with exceptionally heavy keyrings could end up getting killed by a switch that took just a little less torque than usual. 
But the truly blameworthy actions happened after GM began receiving reports of such ignition-caused crashes.  One fatal accident due to a defect that can occur under certain conditions should be looked into, and if necessary, a recall—not just a service advisory, which GM issued about the matter in 2005—should be issued. 
This situation shows that corporations, like people,  have good times and some not so good times.  GM’s financial troubles possibly dissuaded decision-makers from issuing the massive recall that would have been needed to fix the ignition defect early, before more defective cars were sold.  But the result has been an even larger and more costly recall later.  Let’s hope GM can fix all of the defective ignitions soon and move on, a sadder but wiser organization.
Sources:  I referred to the Wikipedia article “2014 General Motors recall,” as well as the following online news articles.  CNN reported on the problem at http://money.cnn.com/2014/04/02/news/companies/gm-recall-part/.  Engineer Mark Hood’s detective work is described at http://www.bendbulletin.com/home/1949311-151/a-florida-engineer-cracked-gms-ignition-flaw#.  Also, a Reuters article at http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/31/us-gm-recall-congress-idUSBREA2T0HO20140331 correctly describes the critical component as a “detent” plunger (it has been elsewhere described incorrectly as an “indent” plunger).  And National Public Radio published a helpful timeline of the issue at

Engineering Ethics Blog

Instead of following traditional paths, women are using their science, technology, engineering, and math degrees to create new careers.

There are plenty of women out there engaged in traditional jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, but many are forging novel, interdisciplinary, STEM-based careers that blur categories and transcend agenda.

Because women have traditionally been excluded from these disciplines, and because their fresh eyes allow them to make connections between fields, many women are launching careers, and even entire industries, based on a flexible and creative definition of what it means to be a scientist, artist, or engineer. K-12 schools have done a particularly poor job of integrating study across STEM fields and encouraging creativity and interdisciplinary connections.

We continue to teach science, technology, and math in isolation, as if they have little to do with one another. This sort of compartmentalized approach runs counter to what we know about effective learning: Students need to be able to connect content knowledge and concepts to real-world applications in order to develop mastery and passion for a subject.

The challenge for anyone seeking to forge a brave new path through STEM careers, particularly ones that involve interdisciplinary study and practice, is the challenge of job stability. Kendall Hoyt, professor of technology and biosecurity at Thayer School of Engineering explained, “Interdisciplinary career paths are easier to create than they are to sustain, because there is not an established career trajectory and evaluation system.”

The challenge of how to maximize the opportunities for those interested in careers in science, technology, engineering and math is important to all economies. There are difficulties in doing this and so continued focus on this area is good. My personal belief is we focus too much on the gender issue. Yes, we should reduce discrimination. I think we have done well but still have further to go.

Most of the suggested changes in how things should be done help women and also plenty of men that are turned off by the old way of doing things.

I also think we need to be careful in how we use data. Clamoring about discrepancies in a field with far more men (say physics) while not doing the same about a field with far more women (say psychology) is questionable to me. I don’t believe that any field that isn’t 50% male and 50% female is evidence that we need to fix the results so they are 50% each.

I believe we should provide everyone the opportunity to pursue the interests they have. They must perform to earn the right to continue. And we don’t want to waste potential with foolish barriers (for women, minorities or men). But if we do so and certain fields attract more women and others attract more men I think we can waste our effort by being too worried that certain fields are problematic.

If we are concerned it should be based on data and looking at the real world situation. In the coming decades my guess is women will exceed men in careers in many science disciplines (engineering still has fairly high male bias overall though some field, such as bio-engineering are already majority female graduates). It starts with education and women are already the majority of undergraduate degrees in science and engineering overall. And in many disciplines they dominate.

It has taken longer for higher degrees to switch to women majorities but I believe at the masters level in the USA women already are a majority of all science degrees. At PhD level, I don’t think it has flipped yet, but it will soon (if it hasn’t). It will take decades for this to bubble through the economy.

And history (even recent history) shows the numbers will not flow through directly. If 60% of science and engineering bachelors degrees are awarded to women this year. I believe 30 years from now less than 60% of the science and engineering professionals from the years graduates will be women (if I am wrong, great. Of course then we may have another problem to address, why are we wasting the talent of men would could also be contributing). Some of this decline will be to due to things we should fix. My guess is some of it is due to things we should not fix.

Many of steps we have taken have been good and we have been rewarded with the benefits gained by capturing the work those interested in science and engineering careers have provided our economy. We need to continue to encourage steps that allow us to benefit from the great work scientists and engineers provide all of us by allowing everyone interested in those careers the opportunity to pursue them.

Related: Women Working in Science (2007 stats) – Women Choosing Other Fields Over Engineering and Math – Science PhD Job Market in 2012 – Science and Engineering in Global Economics

Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Engineering

Eating out is something that lots of Americans do, and watching TV is something else that lots of Americans do.  But increasingly these days, if you choose to eat in a restaurant, you are more or less obliged to watch TV too. And in my opinion, that is an obligation which deserves more public discussion and consideration than it has received up to now.
In the last few years, a number of factors have combined to lead to the proliferation of TVs in dining establishments of increasingly mainstream and even upscale reputation.  I think the first place I noticed them in was a McDonald’s in a small Texas town we were driving through, six or eight years ago.  This was when flat-screen TVs were fairly new. The mounting of such a TV on the wall is a simple operation, which is probably one technical reason they are spreading in public places so fast.  (Try screwing an old-fashioned forty-pound non-flat-screen TV to the wall with only three bolts and see how long it stays up.)  Few people go to McDonald’s with the express purpose of having deep, meaningful conversations.  At the time, I didn’t much mind losing whatever solitude might otherwise have been available, and being subjected to MTV while I consumed my hamburger as fast as I could before going to the next thing, which is often the way people eat at fast-food places anyway.
But the next significant video intrusion into my dining-out experience was at the Luby’s we go to every Friday night.  For those readers who are not Texans, I should explain that Luby’s is a cafeteria chain that caters to older Southerners for whom cafeteria dining is a positive pleasure, and not a grim necessity you have to bear up under because you’re stuck in a corporate office, or a hospital, or a prison, where there isn’t anything better.  I’m not personally old enough to favor Luby’s over a restaurant where they actually bring the food to your table, but my wife’s father lives with us, and it’s his favorite place in the world to eat out, so that’s where we typically go.
About a year or two ago, I was dismayed to arrive in their large dining area only to find that a large clock on the wall had been replaced by a good-sized flat-screen TV.  Not only that, but there were similar TVs on all four walls, so that no matter where you sat, there was one in your field of vision.  Two were kept tuned to one of the ESPN channels, and two more to CNN.  The sound wasn’t loud enough to overpower average conversation, but it didn’t need to be:  closed captioning took care of that.
I don’t know if you’ve tried ignoring a TV in your field of view, but it’s not easy.  Advertisers know that the brightly colored moving images on the screen attract the eye by appealing to the part of the brain we have in common with lizards and other lower animals.  It takes constant concentration in order to avoid falling almost unconsciously into the mode of gazing unthinkingly at the screen, even if your wife or your father-in-law is talking to you.  And that can lead to other problems.
The journalist and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton had something to say about a similar trend, though he was writing in the 1920s.  Apparently, there was a post-World-War-I fad in England of hiring a band to play at the larger restaurants.  In a column entitled “On Pleasure-seeking” he said “The fashion of having very loud music during meals in restaurants and hotels seems to me a perfect example of this chaotic attempt to have everything at once and do everything at once.”  The phrase “multitasking” had not been invented yet, but that is exactly what Chesterton is talking about.
Restaurant owners don’t spend money without a reason, and there must be some felt or perceived need on the part of their customers, that the restaurateurs are satisfying by putting up TVs everywhere.  One food blog I read on the topic commented that it’s mainly the younger people who are driving this trend, but most of the younger people I see in Luby’s are there by compulsion, not choice, taking their mothers out on Mother’s Day or some such thing.  Maybe the TVs showed up because of a command from the Luby’s headquarters in Houston inspired by fear that if Luby’s doesn’t follow the trend, they’ll be left behind and eventually shunned like a restaurant would be today if it refused to install electric lights. 
Or maybe it’s just a much later stage in the casualization of public culture that has been going on ever since the 1960s.  I have a confession to make.  I may be part of the generation that caused the problem.
The first TV my family ever owned was a big, heavy RCA unit that was deeper than it was wide or tall.  It sat in the living room where my dad planted it when he brought it home, and it stayed put until the day its picture tube died, which back then was like having the transmission go out on your car—time for a new one.  The new TV, which was much slimmer, came with a gold-plated steel cart on wheels and its own rabbit ears, which meant it wasn’t tied to the place where the antenna wires came through the wall from the roof.  And one of the first things my father did with it was to roll it into the kitchen so we could watch TV at mealtimes, possibly even suppertime.  That was in 1962.
Half a century later, everybody dresses like they’ve just gotten out of bed, and they go out to eat and watch TV while they eat, just like do at home.  As ethical matters go, this is definitely small beer, but if this trend continues, it will do its part to further erode the dying art of conversation in congenial settings.
Sources:  The Chesterton quotation is from his Generally Speaking (London:  Methuen & Co., 1928), p. 141.  I referred to the Wikipedia article on Luby’s Restaurants, and found a number of food blogs on the topic of TVs in restaurants.  The most vivid one has a URL that I can’t repeat here verbatim because this is a family blog, but you can figure it out: http://blogs.riverfronttimes.com/gutcheck/2011/12/restaurants_mind_your_f***ing_televisions.php.

Engineering Ethics Blog

Corroded Steel Watermain

AWWA’s 2014 State of the Water Industry post image

The American Water Works Association (AWWA) has released their state of the infrastructure report for 2014 (pdf), collecting responses from 1,739 AWWA members across the US and Canada. This report gives an insight into the industry without political or corporate interference1.

For 2014, the top five water industry issues identified for 2014 are:
  1. State of water and sewer infrastructure
  2. Long-term water supply availability
  3. Financing for capital improvements
  4. Public understanding of the value of water resources
  5. Public understanding of the value of water systems and services
The list of top 15 issues compared between 2013 and 2014 is given in Table 9 on page 12 of the report, the 2014 data is shown below.
AWWA - Top 15 Issues. Table 9, SotWIR 2014

AWWA – Top 15 Issues. Table 9, SotWIR 2014

Interestingly, a number of the top 15 issues relate to asset management and long term solutions2. The report discusses these challenges:

Many of the challenges highlighted in this report have engaged water professionals for years, yet there is a growing urgency to address our persistent infrastructure, water resource, and communication issues. To do so, the water industry must work collectively to develop sound and sustainable solutions and to then disseminate and implement them at the local and regional levels where water-related decisions are mostly made. Public input and proactive community involvement are essential to the success of this process.

Growing Urgency

Corroded Steel Watermain

Corroded steel watermains exist across our utility networks

AWWA states that there is a growing urgency to address our persistent infrastructure, water resource, and communication issues. The industry collectively has had little success in bringing these issues to the greater public; the issues vary so widely across the continent and from community to community – from groundwater resource availability to regulatory compliance, each utility has it’s own unique challenges and needs to communicate the issues directly to their communities. AWWA’s role, (and they have done a great job with this), is building awareness within the industry, and empowering utilities with training and information to support their needs.

And given the cost of these needs, as an industry, we need to ensure our communications are targeted and effective:

Addressing water and sewer infrastructure needs, the most important water industry issue, could easily top $ 2 trillion over the next 25 years in the United States.

Sustainable Solutions

The engineering profession and the water industry have been criticized for not moving quickly with new technology – we’re a conservative bunch when it comes to public health and safety, and the track record is remarkably good over the last couple of decades in the western world.

But the profession must accept new realities of energy and resource constraints as well as best practices for developing and running projects such as the Envision Rating System. Finding ways to “do the right project and do the project right” are becoming the greater challenges within the industry, ensuring works and projects are completed within a sustainability framework, where the lifecycle costs of the projects are minimized while the benefits are maximized.

Public Input and Community Involvement

A component of good project management is Stakeholder Engagement and Stakeholder Management3 All utilities need to do a better job of communicating the projects and challenges they face, particularly relating to infrastructure and water sources. I sense that the industry has been reluctant to be too open in the past as unwanted and seemingly unhelpful criticisms are often the result of attempted transparency. Unfortunately this is part of stakeholder management; ensuring that expectations and input opportunities are managed in a respectful way for all parties involved. This demand shifts the industry away from purely technical science and engineering solutions to collaborative, community based forums. For many, this is a whole new skill set that must be acquired and mastered.

An example of the communication problem the industry faces, is this statement from the report:

Only one percent of 2014 SOTWI respondents indicated that the water industry was fully prepared to address issues related to talent attraction and retention in the next five years while 15 percent thought the industry not at all prepared and 35 percent thought it was only slightly prepared.

To solve this problem, the industry needs to find new ways to distribute this information through recruitment channels and in high schools. Promotional materials (many good examples have been commissioned by AWWA) need to be distributed by the utilities in a ground roots effort at driving industry recruitment.But at this stage, past efforts seem to be having little effect on the attraction and retention of talent.

 What Does it Mean for Your Community?

The report paints a picture of the state of the water industry as a whole, but what does it mean for your community? Here are some predictions of how things will change in the next ten years in most communities:

  1. Water rates will likely increase significantly to cover the increased demand for quality water and replacing aging assets
  2. Watermain and equipment failure will become more regular occurrences
  3. Water conservation efforts will be required to ensure sustainable source use
  4. Regulatory standards will increase, including increased treatment and testing requirements
  5. Training requirements for treatment and distribution staff will increase, making recruitment and retention even harder.

Figure 11 in the report shows the responses for the question of whether utilities can cover the full cost of running their systems. The scary thing is that any answer other than “Fully Able” should concern us, but we (the industry) have become accustomed to utilities not being fully funded, and tacitly accept the consequences without adequately explaining these to our communities.

Can utilities cover the cost of providing service? - Figure 11 SotWIR 2014

Can utilities cover the cost of providing service? – Figure 11 SotWIR 2014

Future Concerns

On a final note, Table 13 shows the current perspectives on future regulatory concerns. Somewhat of a crystal ball exercise, but scanning down the list, it is interesting to see what threats some in the water industry do not feel are adequately protected through regulation.

Future Regulatory Concerns Rated - Table 31 SotWIR 2014

Future Regulatory Concerns Rated – Table 31 SotWIR 2014

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the state of the water industry from your perspective, whatever that might be. One final, inspiring thought from the report:

Water systems protect public health by delivering safe drinking water, collecting and treating wastewater to protect our waterways and drinking water supplies, and providing fire protection for our homes, businesses, schools, churches, stores, stadiums; in short, water touches us everywhere our lives take us. That is the reach and responsibility of our industry, and if utilities can continue to meet their community obligations of safeguarding public health and ensuring adequate and reliable supplies to customers and the environment, then we carry on the legacy of the water industry professionals who came before us and provide useful guidance for those who follow.

This post was written by Mike Thomas for UrbanWorkbench.com ©2006-2014.

Originally posted as AWWA’s 2014 State of the Water Industry


  1. although it is a self selecting group that chooses to participate, there appears to be little rationale or evidence for biases in the data 

  2. Some of the issues we identify as relating to asset management are 1, 3, 5, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15 in Table 9 of the report 

  3. note that these practices are rewarded in the Envision Rating System. 


Photo Credit: howzey via Compfight cc

I’ve been blogging about sustainable infrastructure for eight years1, have presented on sustainability, was involved in designing award winning sustainable subdivisions2, and was talking about it long before that. I’ve worked hard to differentiate myself from the traditional view of Civil Engineers to one of being a Sustainability Professional; problem-solving sustainable solutions to everyday infrastructure problems. Becoming accredited as an Envision™ Sustainability Professional (ENV SP) is a step I recently took to establishing my commitment to sustainable infrastructure.

Photo Credit: howzey via Compfight cc

Some History…

The British Institution of Civil Engineers received a Royal Charter in 1828, formally recognizing civil engineering as a profession. Its charter defined civil engineering as:

the art of directing the great sources of power in nature for the use and convenience of man, as the means of production and of traffic in states, both for external and internal trade, as applied in the construction of roads, bridges, aqueducts, canals, river navigation and docks for internal intercourse and exchange, and in the construction of ports, harbours, moles, breakwaters and lighthouses, and in the art of navigation by artificial power for the purposes of commerce, and in the construction and application of machinery, and in the drainage of cities and towns.

The profession has grown since those early days, with a new mandate building among forward thinking engineers, facing head-on the realities of resource constraints, climate change and community needs for today and into the future, providing ethical and sustainable solutions to tackle these global challenges and develop the infrastructure needs of society. These concepts are becoming more mainstream in the engineering community than ever before, but until recently in North America we’ve lacked a system for detailing sustainability metrics specifically for infrastructure projects, (including those described in the charter above).

Civil Engineering – “the art of directing the great sources of power in nature”
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ENV SP – The Professional Context

Open only to Professional Engineers and others with a four year degree, the ENV SP accreditation offers those engineers who see themselves as infrastructure sustainability professionals a means of detailing the sustainability of projects they are working on. While a similar concept to the LEED ratings used for buildings and neighbourhoods, the Envision™ rating system is specifically designed to rate municipal scale infrastructure projects.

Wrapping a broad range of sustainable perspectives together, from community social impacts, energy use, climate resilience, and resources and materials, the rating system can be used to guide an infrastructure project through the thought process of considering the options, opportunities, and decisions that can impact the sustainability of a project. Working from these considerations, the project team can select areas to target for further sustainable metrics. For example, a project team may gain points for consideration of the lighting options available, but to gain more points in the assessment, a team may decide to implement options that restore the dark sky in the vicinity of the project.

Envision – “are we doing the right project?” and “are we doing the project right?”
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The rating system doesn’t provide the answers, or cookie cutter solutions, but rewards solutions that innovate toward the sustainable and away from the status quo design paradigm that North America is stuck in. As a professional, the Envision™ rating system should assist and measure the decision making processes for infrastructure projects and help answer the questions, “are we doing the right project?” and “are we doing the project right?”

Professional buy-in is an important next step. For the the Envision™ tool to become mainstream in Canada, engineering consulting companies and associations such as Engineers Canada and APEGBC need to embrace the concept behind it, and promote the tools for general use. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve had many interesting discussions with industry leaders, including representatives from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities last week. I am also getting a lot of queries about whether it is too onerous to use, or whether it is just a fad. My answer typically is that I have been waiting for almost a decade for a robust tool to assess the sustainability of infrastructure projects and reward those projects that shine, the Envision™ rating system is the fist tool that meets this challenge head on.

Ask any questions in the comments below…

This post was written by Mike Thomas for UrbanWorkbench.com ©2006-2014.

Originally posted as Are you an infrastructure sustainability professional?


  1. See some of my early articles such as Massive NSW water recycling plant opens and A Brief Argument Against Stormwater Pipes 

  2. Murrays Beach, NSW North of Sydney, retained 70% of the trees on site in a residential development 


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This post was written by Mike Thomas for UrbanWorkbench.com ©2006-2014.

Originally posted as Ottawa


As most engineers know, the U. S. patent system is intended to protect the inventor’s rights in an invention.  A patent holder has exclusive rights to make, sell, or license an invention for a limited period of time (currently 20 years).  This is a compromise between two extremes:  the free-for-all extreme in which no patent law exists and anyone who can figure out an invention can copy it and make it without incurring development costs, and the perpetual-monopoly extreme in which patents would last forever and nobody else could ever make the invention. 
Most compromises need adjusting as circumstances change, and patent law is no exception.  According to U. S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, one of the worst current problems in patent law is the growing number of so-called “patent trolls.”  Who qualifies as a patent troll?  It probably depends on who you ask.  If you ask someone at Apple Computer, which is named as the defendant in more cases filed by patent trolls than any other U. S. firm, Apple will probably tell you that a patent troll is a person or organization that acquires a patent solely for the purpose of suing a deep-pocketed firm such as Apple. 
For that matter, any patent is nothing more than a license to sue.  This is because, at least in the U. S., patent infringement is a violation of civil law, not criminal law.  But with full-blown patent infringement cases complete with a jury costing upwards of $ 1 million, and current laws that allow the plaintiff to conceal the details of the accusations until later in the legal process, the defendant named in a patent troll’s lawsuit usually has only two choices:  (1)  call the plaintiff’s bluff and go to trial, knowing you might lose, and even if you win it will cost you a megabuck or more, or (2) settle out of court without seeing the details, and write off the six-figure settlement expense as just a cost of doing business. 
Of course, patent trolls may view the situation differently.  Some legitimate inventors do not have the financial backing to found a company in competition with one of the big boys, and patent litigation may be their only hope of profiting from their invention.  But if an individual or group clearly has no intention of making or using the patented item, and is formed for the sole purpose of pursuing patent litigation based on dubious claims, you can be fairly sure you are dealing with a patent troll.
Sen. Cornyn’s proposed changes would move the law in what he thinks is a fairer direction.  For the first time, plaintiffs (i. e. patent trolls) would have to reveal their accusations up front in enough detail so that the entity being sued could make an informed decision as to the likelihood that a full-scale lawsuit would succeed.  With this and other changes, the hope is that frivolous and baseless patent suits that amount to little more than legalized blackmail would disappear from court dockets, while leaving the more substantial cases in place. 
Like any change in the law, the proposed legislation may have unintended consequences.  But to find out what they are, we’d first have to pass it into law.  Somewhat surprisingly, the ideas behind the Republican Sen. Cornyn’s proposal have been endorsed by President Obama, and Cornyn cites the U. S. Senate as the main roadblock, which under the control of the Democratic Party has so far not acted on the legislation.  We have noted the sclerotic state of Congress elsewhere, and will simply express here the hope that the Senate will do the right thing and pass Sen. Cornyn’s legislation, if it will do as much good as he says it will.
One advantage to doing a blog for a long time (we observed our eight-year anniversary a couple of weeks ago) is that you can note long-term trends, and call for changes, and actually see them happen after a while, sometimes.  Back in 2006, the first year of this blog, I discussed a patent issue not entirely unlike the current one of patent trolls:  the situation of “submarine patents.”  Until 2000, the content of a patent filing was a deep secret between the person who filed the patent application and the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office.  The secret was revealed to the public at the end of the process, only after the patent was issued, so some inventors became skilled in intentionally delaying the granting of a patent in order to keep it secret until its contents became something valuable.  Then, the patent submariner would allow the patent to issue and try to sue the pants off some large firm that was profiting from a technology at least remotely related to the now-surfaced patent. 
According to Wikipedia, one of the most skilled practitioners of this art was an independent inventor by the name of Jerome H. Lemelson.  Lemelson was without question a clever and legitimate inventor, who clearly began his career as a fruitful developer of original ideas which he licensed to various firms, mostly in the areas of machine vision.  But as time went on, he developed habits which his critics began to describe as filing for submarine patents, although Lemelson always denied the accusations.  He also became very wealthy, and after his death his estate contributed to the formation of the Lemelson Foundation with the purpose of encouraging invention and innovation by individuals.  The Foundation’s National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA) sponsors competitions and grants to teams of college students and faculty members interested in developing inventions, and has no doubt done a lot toward encouraging such activities over the years since Lemelson’s death in 1997.  As Lemelson no doubt intended, any bad memories or ill will created by his patent litigation activities during his lifetime are fading in the light of the good his money is doing after his passing.
As it happened, when I wrote about submarine patents in 2006, they were already passing from the scene, because in 2000 the Patent Office began revealing the contents of most applications no longer than eighteen months after filing.  So it is no longer possible to do the submarine-patent dodge today, at least in the U. S. 
If he were still around, Lemelson might not like the tone of Sen. Cornyn’s proposed changes to patent law.  Lemelson always sided with the underdog in a patent fight, and anything that would tend to make the independent inventor’s lawsuits harder to prosecute against major firms is something he would probably oppose.  But law is inherently a balancing act, and if the U. S. Senate sees fit to pass the anti-patent-troll legislation, maybe in another eight years I can look back and see how well it did what it was supposed to do.  But don’t hold your breath.
Sources:  Sen. John Cornyn’s editorial “It’s time to stop patent abuse with bipartisan Senate support” appeared in the Mar. 15, 2014 edition of the Austin American-Statesman.  I referred to Wikipedia articles on Jerome H. Lemelson, submarine patents, patent trolls, and the term of U. S. patents.  The NCIIA website is nciia.org.

Engineering Ethics Blog

Why Engineering Apprenticeships Are So Popular

The advanced apprenticeship in engineering is recognized as a preeminent proposition that enables new entrants to achieve technician status both onshore and offshore. An Apprenticeship is the mainstay for an exciting and a well-paid career with great prospects in the field of engineering. On the completion of an engineering apprenticeship, you not only qualify for work on an awesome project but also get plenty of opportunities.

What is an apprenticeship?

An apprenticeship is referred to as a programme intended to train individuals and make them skilled and conversant about the profession they have chosen. Training for an entrant willing to pursue career in the engineering industry is organized by renowned companies. For those interested to be a part of engineering industry, an apprenticeship is a definitive way to take and be recognized among the employers engaged in the multi-million pound industry.

What to expect from an engineering apprenticeship

Becoming a part of engineering industry through an apprenticeship ensures a future beset with many choices and better prospects. Making an informed decision about the apprenticeship may give you an opportunity to travel all across the world.

Best of all, you find work that is very exciting and lucrative for your entire life. As an Apprentice, you will be paid for your involvement on pretext of utilizing your skills and techniques taught by the training providers. After the initial period of apprenticeship, commonly known as ‘off-the-job training’, you will progress to hone real projects with the leading employers.

Growing popularity of engineering apprenticeship

Apprenticeships go hand in hand with a university degree with a view to savor a fruitful career in engineering. Over years, engineering apprenticeship has witnessed a significant increase of 86.8% in contrast to previous increase of just 22.4% in the issuance of university degree in engineering. In just three years, the number of placements through engineering apprenticeships has doubled from the previous number of 16,710 to currents statistics of 31,070. Best of all, this trend of increase in the number of apprenticeship placements is quite consistent.

The government has recently come up with an initiative that will generate 100,000 more engineering technicians in the impending years. This will bring more opportunities to young people who often undergo the predicament of choosing between a university place and a career in engineering.

A university degree alone cannot guarantee a job in engineering unless you have work experience. Employers are always in quest of applicants having 'on-the-job' knowledge, which can only be gained by engineering apprenticeship. New entrants to the engineering industry lack proper skills and a degree without any proven ability to implement theory fails to impress an employer.

On the contrary, an engineering apprentice may get a high from the day one. Even if you do not get much in the beginning, it increases with the experience you gain through on-the-job training. Best thing that an engineering apprentice can gain is the opportunity to continue studies while gaining work experience. With engineering apprenticeship, you can pay all your fees, earn the degree and learn new skills every day. On the whole, engineering apprenticeships ensure a career with great prospects and also total freedom from student debts.

So if an apprenticeship in engineering (or even something else, such as IT or business administration) appeals to you, we recommend going to Gordon Franks Training, a brilliant apprenticeship trainer in Birmingham, UK. Gordon Franks supply apprentices training in a variety of careers, including IT, customer services and warehousing. They're based right in Birmingham city center at St James House, 1 St James Place, Nechells, Birmingham, B7 4JE. Speak to their super friendly staff on 0121 333 3001 and see what they can offer you.