Worst environmental disaster in history?

In keeping with Betteridge’s Law: no.

My news feed is full of headlines like:

These are not from top-tier news sources, but they’re getting attention all the same. Which is too bad, because they’re all false by any reasonable SoCal gas leakmeasure. Worse, all of the above seem to deliberately misquote from a new paper published in Science. The paper does say, however:

This CH4 release is the second-largest of its kind recorded in the U.S., exceeded only by the 6 billion SCF of natural gas released in the collapse of an underground storage facility in Moss Bluff, TX in 2004, and greatly surpassing the 0.1 billion SCF of natural gas leaked from an underground storage facility near Hutchinson, KS in 2001 (25). Aliso Canyon will have by far the largest climate impact, however, as an explosion and subsequent fire during the Moss Bluff release combusted most of the leaked CH4, immediately forming CO2.

Make no doubt about it, it is a big release of methane. Equal, to the annual GHG output of 500,000 automobiles for a year.

But does that make is one of the largest environmental disasters in US history? I argue no, for a couple of reasons.

Zeroth: because of real, actual environmental disasters, some of which I’ll list below.

First: without the context of the global, continuous release of CO2, this would not affect the climate measurably. That is, by itself, it’s not a big deal.

Second: and related, there are more than 250 million cars in the US, so this is 0.2% of the GHG released by automobiles in the US annually. Maybe the automobile is the ongoing environmental disaster? (Here’s some context: The US is 15.6% of global GHG emissions, transport is 27% of that, and 35% of that is from passenger cars. By my calculations, that makes this incident about 0.0003% of global GHG emissions.)

Lets get back to some real environmental disasters? You know, like the kind that kill people, animals, and lay waste to the land and sea? Here are a list of just some pretty big man-made environmental disasters in the US:

Of course, opening up the competition to international disasters, including US-created ones, really expands the list, but you get the picture.

All this said, it’s really too bad this happened, and it will set California back on its climate goals. I was saddened to see that SoCal Gas could not cap this well quickly, or at least figure out a way to safely flare the leaking gas.

But it’s not the greatest US environmental disaster of all time. Not close.




Power corrupts, software ecosystems edition

I’ve written a lot of software in my day, but it turns out little of it has been for use of anyone but myself and others in the organizations for which I’ve worked.

Recently, my job afforded me a small taste of what it’s like to publish software. I wrote a small utility, an extension to a popular web browser to solve a problem with a popular web application. The extension was basically a “monkey patch” of sorts over the app in question.

Now, in order to get it up on the “web store”, there were some hoops to jump through, including submission to the company for final approval. In the process, I signed up for the mailing list that programmers use 2000px-Gnome-system-lock-screen.svgto help them deal with hiccups in the publishing process.

As it turned out, my hoop-jumping wasn’t too hard. Because I was only publishing to my own organization, this extension ultimately did not need to be reviewed by the Great And Powerful Company. But I’ve continued to follow the mailing list, because it has turned out to be fascinating.

Every day, a developer or two or three, who has toiled for months or years to create something they think is worthwhile, sends a despondent message to the list: “Please help! My app has been rejected and I don’t know why!” Various others afflicted try to provide advice for things they tried that worked or did not.

And the thing is, in many cases, nobody can help them. Because the decision was made without consultation with the developer. The developer has no access to the decision-maker whatsoever. No email, no phone call, no explanation. Was the app rejected because it violated the terms and conditions? Which ones?

The developers will have to guess, make some changes, and try their luck again. It’s got to be an infuriateing process, and a real experience of powerlessness.

This is how software is distributed today — through a small number of authorities. Google, Apple, Amazon, etc. If you want to play, you do it by their rules. Even on PCs and Macs there seems a strong push to move software distribution onto the company web stores. So far, it is still possible to put a random executable on your PC and run it — at least after clicking through a series of warnings. But will that be the case forever? We shall see.

The big companies have some good reasons for doing this. They can

  • assert quality control (of a sort. NB: plenty of crap apps in curated stores anyway)
  • help screen for security problems
  • screen out malware.

But they also have bad (that is, consumer-unfriendly) reasons to do this, like

  • monetizing other people’s work to a degree only possible in a monopoly situation
  • keeping out products that compete with their own
  • blocking apps that circumvent company-imposed limitations (like blocking frameworks and interpreters that might allow people to develop for the framework rather than the specific target OS)

All of those reasons are on top of the inevitable friction associated with dealing with a large, careless, monolithic organization and its bureaucrats, who might find it easier to reject your puny app than to take the time to understand what it’s doing and why it has merit.

Most sad to me is that the amazing freedom that computing used to have is being restricted. Most users would never use that freedom, but it was nice to have. If you could find a program, you could run it. If you could not find it, you could write it. And that is being chipped away at.




Apple Open Letter… eh

[ Updated below, but I’m leaving the text here as I originally wrote it. ]


By now, just about everyone has seen the open letter from Apple about device encryption and privacy. A lot of people are impressed that such a company with so much to lose would stand up for their customers. Eh, maybe.

I have to somewhat conflicting thoughts on the whole matter:


If Apple had designed security on the iPhone properly, it would not even be possible for them to do what the government is asking. In essence, the government plan is for Apple to develop a new version of iOS that they can “upgrade” the phone to, which would bypass (or make it easier to bypass) the security on the device. Of course, it should not be possible to upgrade the OS of a phone without the consent of a verified users, so this is a bug they baked in from the beginning — for their benefit, of course, not the government’s.

Essentially, though they have not yet written the “app” that takes advantage of this backdoor, they have already created it in a sense. The letter is therefore deceptive as written.


The US government can get a warrant to search anything. Anything. Any. Thing. This is has it has been since the beginning of government. They can’t go out and do so without a warrant. They can’t (well, shouldn’t) be able to pursue wholesale data mining of every single person, but they can get a warrant to break any locked box and see what’s inside.

Why should data be different?

I think the most common argument around this subject is that the government cannot be trusted with such power. That is, yes, the government may have a reasonably right to access encrypted data in certain circumstances (like decrypting known terrorist’s phones!) but the tools that allow that also give them the power to access data under less clear-cut circumstances as well.

The argument then falls into a slippery slope domain — a domain in which I’m generally unimpressed. In fact, I would dismiss it entirely if the US government hadn’t already engaged in important widespread abuse of similar powers.

Nevertheless, I think the argument that the government should not have backdoors to people’s data is one of practical controls rather than fundamental rights to be free from search.


I have recommendations to address both thoughts:

  1. Apple, like all manufacturers, should implement security properly, so that neither they nor any other entity possess a secret backdoor.
  2. Phone’s should have a known backdoor, a one-time password algorithm seeded at the time of manufacture, and stored and managed by a third party, such as the EFF. Any attempts to access this password, whether granted or denied, would be logged and viewable as a public record.

I don’t have a plan for sealed and secret warrants.


[ Update 2/17 11:30 CA time ]

So, the Internet has gone further and explained a bit more about what Apple is talking about and what the government has asked for. It seems that basically, the government wants to be able to to brute-force the device, and wants Apple to make a few changes to make that possible:

  1. that the device won’t self-wipe after too many incorrect passwords
  2. that the device will not enforce extra time-delay between attempts
  3. that the the attempts can be conducted electronically, via the port, rather than manually by the touch screen

I guess this is somehow different than Apple being able to hack their own devices, but to me, it’s still basically the same situation. They can update the OS and remove security features. That the final attack is brute force rather than a backdoor is hardly relevant.

So I’m standing behind my assessment that the Apple security is borked by design.

Privatization, aluminum sky-tube edition

This Congress still has some must-pass legislation to complete.

That includes a reauthorization bill that contains a bunch of much-needed reforms for the agency. But they slipped in a doozey of a change: complete privatization of air traffic control. The plan is to create a separate government-chartered independent non-profit to run the whole show, with the intention, of course, that it will be run much more efficiently than the ZAN-ARTCC-ATOPgovernment ever could. I liked quote from an unnamed conservative groups from another Hill article:

“To us it is an axiomatic economic principle that user-funded, user-accountable entities are far more capable of delivering innovation and timely improvements in a cost-effective manner than government agencies.”

Axiomatic, eh? Well, I think I see your problem…

Anyway, it’s worth taking a step back to think about this proposal from a few different angles. First, let’s remember what the FAA does. Really, there are three main activities:

  1. Write regulations
  2. Allocate funds for aviation-related programs (AIP and similar) and
  3. Run ATC (Note: the FAA’s ATC arm is called “ATO,” but I’ll keep calling it ATC here)

Honestly, there has always been something of a conflict between the needs of air traffic control with safety as top priority and efficiency and cost as lower priorities, and the rest of the organization’s needs. It is a small miracle that the FAA’s ATC runs the safest airspace in the world. But miracle or not, it is a fact.

Furthermore, it is also true that ATC has been slow to modernize. This is for several reasons. First, yes, government bureaucracy, of course. But there are other reasons, such as having congress habitually cut and delay funding for new systems (NB: when you are on temporary reauthorization, you don’t buy new things; programs do not progress. You just pay salaries.) Another problem is that the old systems, as cranky and obsolete as they are, work, and it’s just not a simple matter to replace a working system, tuned over decades with new technology, particularly if you require no degradation in performance in the process.

So does this justify privatization? Will a private organization do better in this respect? Well, here are some ideas for thought, in no particular order:

  • a private organization will use fees to fund itself. This might be good, because they should be able to raise all the money they need, but then again, fees might grow without control. A private organization running ATC is essentially a monopoly. Government control is a monopoly, too — except that you can use the levers of democracy to manage it
  • a fee-run organization will be mostly responsive to whomever pays the fees. In this case, it would be the airlines, and among the airlines, the majors would have the most bargaining power. Is this the best outcome? How will small carriers fare when it comes time to assign landing slots or assign routes to flight plans? How will general aviation do under such a system? Will fees designed for B747‘s coming into KEWR snuff out the C172 traffic coming into KCDW?
  • Regulatory capture is a problem for any industry-regulating government entity. Does the appointment of an all-industry board of directors for a private organization that assumes most of those functions “solve” that problem making total capture a fait accompli?
  • Will this new organization be self supporting or will it still depend on government money? How will it perform when there is an economic or industry slump? If there is a bankruptcy, who will foot the bill to keep the lights on?
  • When the inevitable budgets shortfalls come, how will labor fare? Will they have to sacrifice their contracts in order to help save the company?
  • I don’t know, but I’m just guessing, that nobody at the top of the FAA’s ATC today makes a million dollars a year. Will it be so under an private organization? If so, where might that money come from?
  • Does an emphasis on efficiency server the flying public? To that matter, do the flying public’s interests diverge from those of the airlines, and if so, how are they represented in the new organization’s decision-making?

I honestly have not considered or study this matter enough to have a strong opinion, but so much of it causes the hairs on my neck to stick out.

I’ll give the authors of this new bill credit for one thing: they managed to get the ATC union (NATCA) on board, essentially by promising continuity of their contracts and protections. I’m not sure if that comes with guarantees in perpetuity. One thing I noticed immediately is that current employees would be able to pay into the federal retirement system. New employees…


[ Full disclosure: I am a general aviation pilot and do not pay user fees to use ATC, and like it that way. I do understand that this is a subsidy I enjoy. ]




Cheap shots at economists

I like a cheap shot at economists. Who doesn’t? Economists are so frequently arrogant, close-minded, smug and willing to throw out data that doesn’t match the theory. Why not enjoy a good takedown screed? If you need to hear social scientists vent even more about the weaknesses in economics, the comments here are even more fun.

I have formally and informally studied econ a lot and have to say, I have a good deal of sympathy for some of the points made in the links above. The fact that we have seen some earth-shaking economic events in our lives and our “top men” have not, even many years on, been able to set aside ideology and come to some agreement about what has happened, or why, does not speak well for the whole intellectual endeavor. (NB: I don’t read the papers; I read the blogs, so my opinion is formed from that sample set.)

All that said, let’s remember that microeconomics has been a mostly successful enterprise. You want to know how to structure a welfare program to provide the least distortions? You want to internalize the costs of pollution? You want to set up an auction? Economists have your back.

You want to maximize social utility according to a welfare function of you choosing? Fuggetaboutit.



Sometimes I think that one of the bummers of humanity is that most of us are overqualified for what we do. I guess that’s not a big problem compared to starvation or war, but I think that getting each person to achieve — and then apply — their human potential is a laudable goal for a society. (That is, if you’re like me and think societies should have goals.)

I often feel overqualified for the tasks I’m asked to do. In part, that’s my own fault because I’ve made it hobby to pick up bits of unrelated knowledge that more or less cannot be simultaneously applied to any particular project. But still, I find it a thrill to be working on a particular problem that is at the limit of my capability. I think we would all benefit from being at the limit of our capabilities more, but our employers might feel otherwise.

I’m not bragging about being overqualified, mind you. The “sandwich artist” at Subway is overqualified, too. A thousand years ago, the farmer with his shoulder to the plow was overqualified. We’ve all got these amazing state-of-the-art computers in our heads that can solve all sorts of problems. Sure, some of them are better at certain things than others, but I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of them are grossly underutilized.

Sometimes I envy medical doctors. They probably spend a lot of time doing routine things, but they must occasionally be presented with a patient that they will have to work hard to treat. As long as there exist ailments that cannot be cured, I think it’s fair to say that physicians will never be overqualified.

Airline pilots are also an interesting category. Jets are highly automated these days, and a lot of flying is just “minding” the machine. But every once in awhile a pilot is called on to apply judgment in an abnormal and unforseen situation. They might spend most of their professional lives quite bored, but there will be those times, I’m sure, when they feel just adequately — if not inadequately –qualified.

Anyway, there’s not much point to this post. One of the things I admire about the fictional Star Trek universe is that each person seems able to work in the field of their choosing, pushing the boundaries of their abilities, without a care or concern other than excellence for its own sake. (That is, unless you’re a “red shirt.”)

Until we’re Star Fleet officers, let’s put our shoulder back to our plows and hope for better for our kids.