Here’s an interesting post from a blog called The Foresight Institute called Moral Railroads about the recent DC railroad crash and how over-regulation and incompetence — as opposed to malfeasance — may have led to the crash.
Unless I am completely mistaken and deluded, there was and is nobody associated with the DC train system who wanted the crash to happen. It’s not a question of morality at the level of bad intentions, either of people or machines.
It was, in simple terms, a case of incompetence. It may have been of design, or of management, or of implementation, or maintenance. It may have been software or hardware. Most likely it was some combination. But the bottom line is simple: things didn’t work the way they were supposed to.
The modern world is full of movements that are overly concerned with motivations, and it is passe to worry about whether whatever cause you’re espousing will actually accomplish the grand goals that are claimed for it. Bluntly put, people are too concerned with other peoples’ wishes, which are none of their business, and not enough concerned with other peoples’ competence, which is very much a legitimate concern.
And here’s a follow-up post. which links to this interesting post at Metblogs on a thing called “tin whiskers”. In it he comments on a Washington Post article on why the train computer systems failed. From Metblogs:
It sounded to me like the same problems that have been encountered on the Space Shuttle, nuclear power plants, and various military systems. And that problem is tin whiskers.
The backstory: When people first started building electric circuits, they used tin metal to solder the interconnections between the copper bits. It wasn’t long before they noticed the tin would get “furry”, growing spiky whiskers as the part was used. These spikes could grow long enough to short out the circuits, and then were so weak that they would break off right after doing so. A smart metallurgist figured out that adding a small amount of lead to the tin alloy stopped this behavior. And so the electronics industry grew, and electronic circuits got so small and fast and reliable that they ended up in nearly every control system – with a bit of solder in every one of them.
In the early 2000’s two things happened: Europe passed legislation that prohibited lead in consumer products, and at the same time, the production of interconnection technologies went global. So even though only European markets mandated this change, producers all over the world had to comply. And that means that consumers all over the world were getting lead-free electronics, many times without knowing it. Many times the same part number started showing up with lead-free solder, making this trend very hard to track.
So yesterday, I dropped a note to one of my expert friends, who agreed with me that the circuitry in the Metro replacement part, more likely than not, contained lead-free solder. And then, he pointed out the likelihood that the latest Airbus crashes had lead-free solder components in their flight controls.
Hence the cold chills.
As the Foresight post says… “over regulation” due to the demonization of a substance. When will people wake up to the fact that whether it’s “tin whiskers”, guns, DDT and malaria, or any of a whole host of issues… regulators — technocrats — kill people (unintentionally)? Lead doesn’t kill people — people kill people.