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Fall of the Machines

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.

h/t Instapundit

6 comments to Fall of the Machines

  • Very true about the way solder acts/reacts. If indeed the solder was “lead free” there could be a direct correlation to the failure of the system.

    Along the same lines, although perhaps more for monetary reasons rather than environmental, there was a time in the 1970s when homes in America were constructed with aluminum wiring instead of the tried and true copper. This was done because the price of copper was soaring to astronomical levels.

    On the railroad I worked for, it was nothing for the system of railroad company communications to go down completely in the middle of the night. It was found that Joe Bob, the good old boy local redneck and his friends were going out in the country at night in their pickup truck with a long handled tree trimmer and cutting long stretches of copper communications wire from the railroad’s comm. lines. They would then, in turn, take the rolled up copper down to the local salvage yard and sell it for whatever they could get.

    This in turn led to homebuilders cutting costs and using cheaper, more plentiful aluminum wiring in home construction. I owned one of those homes in Texas for three years. On very regular occasions, I would turn on a light and it would not come on, or a lighting circuit would trip a breaker. After many tries at tightening the connectors in the switches and circuit breakers, it still continued to happen. The aluminum had a tendancy to corrode. Not fast, but over a long period of time, during which it would build up a white powdery residue, which would eventually break the circuit. There were a lot of house fires because of the aluminum wiring and the practice of using it was replaced with copper wiring. A lot of this was corrected as a result of the change in building codes. This in turn reduced the hazard, but increased the initial cost. In most cases I don’t believe a retrofit to copper wiring was mandated for existing construction.

    As I recall, did not the Pope tell Pres. BHO this week while he was in Europe, that to protect the environment at the cost of human need was a wrong tack to take? Government regulation has, and will continue to cost humankind as long as it continues unabated. Sometimes people are just plain more important than CO2 or money or what have you.

  • Back during the Apollo Program, the stress of the whole thing was unbelievable. You’re looking at 40,000 people employed by hundreds of companies suppling parts and contstruction to built a 360-foot-tall rocket, and everyone knows that a rocket is just a bomb with a whole in one end. There were literally *hundreds* of ways the thing could have gone wrong. People were paralyzed with stress. Ultimately, the contractors got together and started a program to re-assure the workers, keep them focused, and roll back the stress levels some, thereby increasing the overall odds of success. Their slogan was,

    “It won’t fail because of me.”

    It worked surprisingly well. “Yeah, there may be 40,000 people working on this thing, and it may explode and kill the hell out of everyone, but when they sift through the wreckage and trace the problem back to it’s source, it WILL NOT be anything I did.” They got all the workers in all the companies, contractors, and agencies to focus on doing their one job to perfection, and it worked.

    Just sayin’ is all….

  • David Marcoe

    There is some wisdom in the Roman practice of decimation, where if I a military unit would mutiny, they would select soldiers by lot and execute every tenth man. A similar system would be bound to get results.

  • Floyd

    unless you’re French and it’s World War I.

  • A particularly brilliant (or nasty) element of decimation was that the loser’s buddies were given clubs and required to beat him to death themselves. Concentrates the mind wonderfully, I imagine.

  • Maybe they should consult an engineer or two before making decisions about laws concerning the design of something that actually has to do something…now that would be revolutionary.

    Fricking Idiots.

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