“Sooner” or “Later”?

Oklahoma is crazy Republican territory. Before we had political parties it was just crazy territory so perhaps it is unfair to blame the GOP.

Here are a few scary facts, for Sooners anyway. In 2007, Oklahoma had one earthquake of magnitude 3, the lowest level that can be generally felt. Last year there were 890. Of the 12 largest recorded earthquakes in Oklahoma history, 10 have occurred since 2011. And it has been 300 million years since this seismic zone was last active. Move over California, in December 2014, Oklahoma won the dubious honor of becoming the state with the most earthquakes.

Now here are some possibly related facts. Last year the state finally acknowledged that water injection involving in fracking might conceivably play some role in these geological occurrences. But not certainly, you understand. If you want to know more about fracking and its consequences, check this discussion. The fracking technique has been in use for decades, but it has only been since the end of the Great Recession that it really surged. Note when earthquakes also surged in Oklahoma in the chart below. At the current rate, they are well on their way to setting new records in 2016. Not incidentally, the proportion of jobs in Oklahoma related to the oil and gas industry is 20%. Oh, and by the way, the number of seismologists currently employed by the state is zero.

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This is yet another of a long line of misbegotten policies of wantonly disregarding scientific data when the consequences might conflict with business goals or threaten jobs. Are we really sure that sucking tubes of lit tobacco causes cancer? I know several people who lived to ripe old ages while smoking two packs a day. And isn’t the evidence of global warming pretty flimsy. After all, in many parts of the country, today’s weather is actually colder than yesterday’s was. And it could just be coincidence that the increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases has occurred in conjunction with an increase in human industrial activity. As I’ve often noted, the plural of anecdote is not data, but there seems to be no upper limit to our human capacity for self-deception.

594c6bd7a010544790f24a740bc7a51bThe Oklahoma state bird is the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, and a beautiful little creature it is. But I suggest that a more appropriate choice would be Struthio camelus, the common ostrich. To be fair, the state government does seem to be belatedly paying attention to this looming threat, but past history suggests that this might be largely window-dressing.

There is a perfectly logical reason that Oklahomans are called Sooners. The name derives from the “sooner clause” of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889. This stated that anyone occupying the territory that became Oklahoma before its opening for settlement could be denied the right to claim land. In the event, this rule was widely ignored by eager settlers. Perhaps now a better name might be Laters.

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The Overprotected Child

cottonwoolkidsA new study shows that early exposure of children to peanuts makes it less likely that peanut allergy will develop later. This completely reverses current medical practice where children are protected from exposure until they are at least 3 years old. But isn’t it obvious? The way infants develop protective defenses is precisely by controlled exposure, either through inoculations or through diet. If you put an infant in a bubble it will grow into a defenseless adult.

The way that researchers came to perform the study was due to an interesting observation of Jewish children. In Israel, for dietary reasons I don’t understand, early exposure is the norm. But for Israeli Jews who have migrated to the UK where that is apparently not the practice, their children have far greater incidence of peanut allergy. Now these researchers have done a large and well-regarded clinical trial that confirms this effect is not confined to Jews. They are currently extending this to other types of food allergies.

Anecdotally, I have noticed that children of previous generations seem to have far fewer food allergies than is now common in the U.S. They were not protected from potentially adverse exposures because their parents weren’t warned that it was necessary.

I suspect that this is not the only way in which well-meaning protection has unanticipated adverse consequences. Both physical and psychological problems may result from the way we often restrain children’s play and interactions.

Safer Air Travel: A Modest Proposal

Recently our modern autos are getting really smart, if one can say a computer is smart. Some have features that take over if they detect unsafe operation. Take mine for example. It has a system that keeps track of whether safety envelopes are being exceeded during a turn and intercedes with throttle control and differential braking. In other words it tries to prevent me from driving so fast or recklessly that I drive off the road during a turn. Other cars have systems and sensors that completely prevent head-on collisions or backing into traffic.

Which gets me to my question. Why can’t commercial aircraft have similar systems that would prevent the kind of disaster we just saw in the downed Lufthansa flight? In effect, it should be impossible just to fly a plane into the ground.

maneuversetIn fact, modern commercial aircraft already have the necessary system in place. It is called the Flight Envelope Protection System. But it has two flaws, although both are easily remedied. First, it only works while the plane is under automated control — not the same thing as automated pilot, by the way. However that actually is the normal case. Going full manual is very hazardous and almost impossible on some planes. Few pilots can do it and probably it should only be allowed under very restricted circumstances. The second flaw seems a bit odd to me. The system can protect against airframe and plot limitations (g-forces), aerodynamic limitations (stall and spin), and terrain threats. For some reason that final capability is not presently employed. A flight envelope is now allowed to intersect the current terrain as long as other parameters are within limits, such as speed, angle of attack, descent angle, etc. This is crazy and should be fixed now!

An argument against this type of automation is that we need to give pilots full freedom to exercise their expertise. But this misunderstands reality. As many recent events have shown, pilots often no longer know how to fly their complex machines without automation. There are even efforts afoot to resume the kind of hands-on unassisted training that was once standard. A recent crash that occurred because the airport’s landing assist system was offline is evidence of this reality. The pilots simply didn’t know how to land unassisted. Aircraft systems will undoubtedly get even more complex over time. Enshrining the old “seat of the pants” methods is fruitless and dangerous.

Airline Safety: An Oxymoron?

Recent events, particularly the Lufthansa and Malaysia Airlines disasters, raise an unsettling question. Is air travel as safe as authorities and airline companies would have us believe?

NuttyPilotPost 9/11 we installed sturdy doors that protect the pilots from dangerous passengers. But what protects the passengers against dangerous pilots? Safe behind those doors, deranged pilots are free to do as they choose.

One would hope that airlines take extreme precautions in selecting and monitoring their pilots so that this is not a concern. But now we have to wonder. As it happens, the mental health of pilots is verified essentially on an honor system. They are tested by professionals only during the hiring process. Thereafter they are expected to report any problems they are having, a strange notion since nut cases are hardly reliable witnesses to their mental state. Still, surely incidents like the Lufthansa case must be very unusual, don’t you think?

Well, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that about one in four adults in our society experiences a serious mental illness in a given year. We are not talking about inability to sleep, etc. These are the biggies like bipolar disorder, PTSD, panic disorder, and major depression. Even for U.S. carriers that enforce a two-man cockpit rule, this implies that the chance that both pilots holding our lives in their hands are wacko might be as high as 6%. Actually, that overstates the risk for two reasons. First, a disturbed pilot might in fact follow his duty and report his incapacity. And second, the two pilots’ derangements might not coincide. Nevertheless we are left with a non-negligible risk far higher than anyone acknowledges.

Also, the latest incident uncovered a related concern. For all carriers, including our own, suffering from depression doesn’t disqualify a pilot from flight status as long as he is taking medications that adequately control his condition. I think I see how this rule arose in these politically correct times, but I read too many stories of people off their meds to be comfortable with this. How about you?