Licensing Body Agrees To Temporarily Allow Man To Criticize The Government Without A License

from the baby-steps dept

A couple of months ago, the Oregon state government finally decided it was tired of listening to a civilian poke holes in its yellow light timing theories. So, it did what any reasonable government would do: used licensing laws to shut him up.

Mats Jarlstrom, a resident who had performed a great deal of research into traffic light timing, was informed by the state’s engineering licensing board that he could no longer perform engineering without a state-ordained license. Not that Jarlstrom was actually performing any engineering. (Although he could! He has a BS in electrical engineering.) He just wanted to discuss his research with the state’s engineering body. He also discussed his findings in more informal contexts, which was a necessity because the state wasn’t interested in listening to him.

In essence, Jarlstrom was told to stop criticizing the government without permission. He was fined $500 and told to shut up if he didn’t want to be fined in the future. Jarlstrom sued the state for violating his Constitutional rights. And he’s already achieved a small victory, as the Institute for Justice reports:

In an early and important win, yesterday a federal judge issued an order prohibiting Oregon from penalizing Mats Järlström for discussing the timing of stop lights or for calling himself an engineer. The order, which was agreed to by the state, means that Järlström is free to exercise his First Amendment rights to discuss his traffic light theories without first obtaining an Oregon professional-engineer license.

The opening paragraphs of the order [PDF] suggest the state licensing board has had a change of heart in light of all the negative press it gathered with its “shut up” fine.

Jarlstrom’ s complaint asserts that Oregon’s Professional Engineer Registration Act, Or. Rev. Stat.§ 672.002 et seq., and implementing regulations violate the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution both as applied and on their face by preventing him from (1) communicating publicly and privately about theories relating to the mathematics behind traffic lights, and (2) describing himself using the word “engineer.”

Rather than litigating a motion for preliminary injunction, the Board agrees not to enforce the Professional Engineer Registration Act, Or. Rev. Stat. § 672.002 et seq., or any implementing regulations against Plaintiff Jarlstrom during the pendency of this litigation for engaging in any of the speech described below.

At least for the duration of the litigation, Jarlstrom is free to speak about his traffic light research and refer to himself as an “engineer” without the express, licensed permission of the state licensing board. This suggests the state doesn’t feel very confident about its chances of success, so it’s minimizing the damage during the litigation. Hopefully, this will result in a settlement which modifies the behavior of the licensing board permanently and prevents it from wielding its granted power as a tool of censorship.

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Comments on “Licensing Body Agrees To Temporarily Allow Man To Criticize The Government Without A License”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Let’s see if I have this straight, the licensing body is forcing citizens to get a license in order to exercise their right to free speech? If the courts ever get a lawsuit challenging this, they’re going to overturn that law or regulation because it truly does violate the first amendment in regards to free speech and the right to assemble.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m just exercising my first amendment rights when I say “I’m a Doctor”, what if my first name is just “Doctor”. Either way it’s my right to say that, so Wooo! free speech. So don’t go fining me for saying I’m a licensed medical doctor. Which just happens to be the best pick-up line at a bar ever.

Anonymous Coward says:

The problem is not a citizen using their right to free speech.

This guy says, “As an engineer, it’s my engineering opinion that this is wrong.” Which is the issue.

It’s very similar to someone without a degree saying, “As a doctor, it’s my medical opinion that this is wrong.”

He can complain about traffic signals. He can run tests and measurements to explain that he feels the lights are too short. But when he says, “As a professional engineer…” Then you need your professional engineering license, which is honestly not very hard to get.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re:

It’s very similar to someone without a degree saying, "As a doctor, it’s my medical opinion that this is wrong."

No, it isn’t, because he has an engineering degree, just not an engineering license.

A better analogy would be to a guy with an MD but no state medical license saying "As a doctor, it’s my medical opinion that this is wrong."

He can complain about traffic signals. He can run tests and measurements to explain that he feels the lights are too short. But when he says, "As a professional engineer…" Then you need your professional engineering license, which is honestly not very hard to get.

The Supreme Court has ruled that falsely claiming to be a veteran is protected speech under the First Amendment. It’s hard for me to buy that a guy with an engineering degree referring to himself as an engineer would qualify as unprotected speech given that established precedent.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This guy says, "As an engineer, it’s my engineering opinion that this is wrong." Which is the issue.

What is wrong with someone stating their expertise when criticizing what a government has done. Using ones expertise to give considered criticism backed up by factual calculations is not practicing engineering without a license, as it is not certifying the implementation of a system.

This looks much more like bending the law past breaking point to try and shut up a critic when the could not dispute the actual argument.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t know how things work there but here you can give all your engineering opinions you want. They have ZERO legal value unless you provide the proper “legal responsibility annotation” (we call them ARTs here) along with said opinion and to generate such ARTs you have to be registered in the professional body that regulates the thing). This means you are assuming technical responsibility for said opinion, document, whatever. This doesn’t apply for Government engineers as long as they are properly registered in the professional body (incidentally a government sanctioned body). You have to generate one ART (and PAY for its official registration) for every specific project, opinion or work you produce as an engineer (multiple documents and projects can be grouped under a single ART).

I truly doubt it’s too different in the US. Even if you aren’t registered with the proper govt bodies you still have your degree. You can talk about engineering as much as you want. You can produce academic works and you can prove traffic idiots wrong as much as you like.

Professor Ronny says:

Re: Professional

I teach (business) at an engineering school. The professional license for an engineer is a PE (professional engineer). It is required for signing certain types of documents, basically certifying that the documents are sound from an engineering standpoint. You are right that a PE is not required to teach engineering any more than a CPA (a professional license) is required to teach accounting.

My brother has a MS in Mathematics. He works for a major defense firm. His job title is engineer in spite of him not having a PE and actually not being eligible to sit for the PE exam. Is he an engineer? The license board would say no but his employer would say yes.

Many of the professors teaching engineering at my school have Ph.D.’s in engineering but no PE. Are they engineers? The license board would say no but the university would say yes. And, many of them most likely know more about engineering than the people serving on the license board.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: I'm not sure about a degree.

It’s not entirely relevant, but a quick Google search shows numerous articles stating that he has an engineering degree from Sweden, e.g.:

You could probably argue to toss over whether this is equivalent to a US degree and whether it’s relevant to the story, but the facts are out there.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Re: I'm not sure about a degree.

There are examinations to become a Licensed Professional Engineer, but you cannot take the examinations until you have the required education and/or work experience. After graduating from an engineering school accredited by the American Board of Engineering Training (ABET), you can take the Engineer-In-Training (EIT) exam, which covers material common to all branches of engineering. It’s a multiple-choice exam, rather like the math portion of the SAT college entrance exam, only covering a wider range of subjects. Then you have to get four years work experience under the supervision of a Licensed Professional Engineer. Finally, you can take the advanced exam. If you don’t have a degree from an accredited engineering school, you have to have eight years work experience, and then you can take the EIT and the advanced exam at the same time. This latter fork generally applies to people who have gotten engineering degrees via night school while working as technicians or craftsmen under an engineer, taking two courses a term, or a class every weeknight. Having completed the advanced exam, you are licensed to practice in a particular state. A Swedish engineering school is of course not accredited, but, for reasons which I shall go into, that is a bit like saying that you cannot become a United States Army officer on the basis of graduation from a Swedish military academy.

The Professional Engineer system belongs primarily to Civil Engineering. The raw material of Civil Engineering is land. Land belongs to the government, either directly, or via Eminent Domain. If you can’t take land, then your designs are no more than pretty pictures. This means that Civil Engineering is overwhelmingly dominaated by government employment, in ways which other kinds of engineering are not. It is normal for a Civil Engineer to spend a lifetime working for a particular government organization, a city, or a state, or a federal agency, under seniority rules which make transfer to a different organization more or less impossible. When people drop out of the government service, they go to work for private employers, doing kinds of work which are considered less distinguished. The first engineers were military engineers, soldiers who could also build fortifications, and who could always build any other kind of structure the government might need. The first Civil Engineering (as distinct from Military Engineer) school in the western world was the French government Ecole de Ponts et Chausees, the School of Bridges and Roads, organized in 1747, in the reign of King Louis XV, in the headquarters of the Department of Bridges and Roads, by an man named Rodolphe Perronet, a military enginner who had been obliged to drop out, but had rejoined the government service in a different capacity. In the United States, there were two big early sources of Civil Engineers. One was the United States Military Academy, West Point. The other was the State of New York’s Erie Canal project.

Things like roads and bridges and canals and dams are at the heart of the Civil Engineer’s work, and, generally speaking, the bigger the better. The largest buildings tend to be public buildings. These works are built by veritable armies of men. You cannot be a fifteen-year-old genius in Civil Engineering, for much the same reasons that you cannot be a fifteen-year-old colonel or general. A newly graduated Civil Engineer will wind up spending five years or so as a kind of engineering secretary, or, to use the military term, Aide de Camp. Having, by law, to spend four or eight years in a subordinate capacity doesn’t really affect anyone very much, because that is pretty much the way the construction world is organized anyway.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Queen of England

You can say you have the biggest inauguration crowd size evar – and it’s not illegal.

You can say you don’t have tiny hands — and it’s not illegal.

You can say that the former present put a tapp (sic) on your phone — and it’s not illegal.

Just because it’s not illegal doesn’t make it the truth.

ECA (profile) says:


With the understanding that Companies DO NOT WANT to update/change hardware, IF NOT REQUIRED or proven WRONG..
Any short cut works..

IF we created a product that uses 8 bit math, and simplified instructions, because nothing else works in 8bit and limited RAM..AND that making changes/improving a product/FIXING mistakes is NOT part of the job..(UNTIL PROVEN).. WE WONT FIX IT.
Even with making NEW INTERNAL HARDWARE.. Faster camera, and computer broads and recording abilities.. IT COSTS MONEY(even tho we charge a FORTUNE for OLD hardware)..
Why use 16bit/32bit/64 bit Math and abilities and MORE RAM, when we are satisfied with a product..

Says the company and the CITY and state,,

David (profile) says:

Listen up, Engineer License.

In Oregon we have this licensing board. And they have state law to back their exclusive hold on the word, Engineer. It comes with providing testing, rules and regulations of what it takes to be a *licensed* engineer in the state of Oregon.

There are several problems with the law. 1st Amendment being the first, of course. But when the law was written it was to protect citizens from unlicensed, and thus unqualified, individuals claiming to be engineers.

When I was in school for programming, lo those many decades past, they tried very hard to include software engineering, as well as electrical engineering under their fold. Sadly, for them, they could never agree or get agreement from those in the field or in academia what exactly the test would cover. Add in the fact that software actually was changing faster than they were able to create tests and push them out, they failed. Note, electrical engineers that deal with supply side voltages are licensed (at least I believe so) those dealing with electronics have slipped by them.

In its heart it is trying to do good. In its actions it has always been hamfisted and this time it clearly debarked on a mission that some high(-ish) ranking official chose to shut Mats up. With luck, and a reduction in Republican legislators, the law can be re-thought. Clearly the universal claim to Engineer is over-broad and needs to be restrained.

Please save the ‘waste engineer’, ‘janitorial engineer’ and such. We have abused the board with them for decades. Sadly, as their ears are covered by their rectums they have never heard us.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Listen up, Engineer License.

Well, right; it’s generally agreed that you don’t want people practicing law or medicine without a license, and there’s an argument to be made that people shouldn’t be able to represent themselves as engineers without a license either.

Clearly the law was well-intentioned.

The problem is that it’s clearly overbroad and being used for purposes other than those original, well-intentioned ones.

Which those are exactly the questions lawmakers and citizens need to ask, all the time, about every law:

  1. Could the language of this law be narrowed and still achieve its intended purpose?
  2. What unintended purposes could it conceivably be used for? Do they include the government using the law to punish critics?
  3. What are the consequences of the law being used for those unintended purposes?
Christenson says:

Re: Re: Listen up, Engineer License.

I like those principles for laws…and I do think that fraud upon the public is a problem, because the public (and importantly, my employer too) has a very difficult time determining who has sufficient engineering skill and conscientiousness to be allowed to control something potentially dangerous that can fail unexpectedly with deadly consequences.

I tend to agree with Techdirt on the issue, however — more speech is better than censorship. I also think that monopolizing “engineer” is a lot like trademarking a common word, and the principles of trademark law (no confusion) is the right one to apply. I therefore think the right answer in this case is simply to disclose explicitly that the engineer IS NOT a licensed P.E., and that is all that should ever have been required.

Finally, I think a serious violation of the ethics portion (the bit about serving the PUBLIC) of the PE license has been violated by the Oregon licensing board, and if they want respect, part of earning it involves revoking a few engineering licenses for failure of conscientiousness.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Listen up, Engineer License.

yeah, i have worked with engineers my whole career, and most were good people without ego issues…
BUT, that begs the question: just HOW did we survive all the millennia with –gasp– NON-PE nobodies designing bridges and such ! ! !
oh, the horror ! !!
(yes, their bridges failed at times, but you know what, bridges/buildings designed by the ‘best and the brightest’ bona fide, 100% certified, sho-nuff engineers on the planet fail all the time, too…)
stupid sheeple, professional licensure/certification is more a racket to keep a monopolistic career than it is a means of protecting the public… protecting their own paycheck through artificial scarcity and semi-bullshit credentialism, is more like it…
AS IF you have much recourse even if a ‘professional’ fucks up, so what is the point ? ? ? they ‘police’ themselves, and find they did everything ‘by the book’…

Anonymous Coward says:

One thing you all should be aware of is there are many different kinds of engineers, and being one kind of engineer does not give you the right to practice all branches of engineering. You have to practice only within your area of expertise. So, for example, a licensed electrical engineer cannot design a bridge.

Anyone is allowed to make calculations. But you must be a licensed engineer to call yourself an engineer and you must also practice only in the field and areas of your expertise.

z! (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In most states, you must have a license to represent yourself a “professional engineer” (a term of art), abbreviated PE. This usually only applies to the licensed disciplines of civil, electrical, and mechanical (any others?). Call yourself a doctor, lawyer, dentist (or PE), and it’s implied that you have that license. Everywhere, except apparently Oregon, the bare word “engineer” does not.

I can call myself a “software engineer” or “computer engineer” all I want, and if I operate a locomotive, even just “engineer”.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Different kinds of Engineering.

This case involves a conflict between different kinds of engineering. Mechanical Engineering and Electrical Engineering differ importantly from Civil Engineering in the nature of their professionalism. The most fundamental difference is that Mechanical and Electrical Engineers tend to produce mass-produced objects. Even high-end devices like airliners come in models. Mechanical and Electrical Engineers try to produce incipiently universal devices, the perfect example being the computer, which lend themselves to being produced for a wide variety of customers, with widely different requirements. Public safety is mostly ensured by testing sample items, often to destruction. Civil engineers tend to produce particular structures for particular requirements in particular locations, and the nature of civil engineering professionalism follows from that. They cannot demonstrate the safety of their buildings by blowing them up, so they are forced into asserting the purity of the design process. At the other extreme, we have Open-Source Software, which isn’t pure at all, but is very self-correcting.

One of the first things the American Society of Mechanical Engineers did, upon its foundation in 1879-80, was to develop standards for testing steam boilers, setting rules under which the boilers were to be pumped up to higher than their certified pressure in a test pit to see whether they exploded or not. About the same time, a leading mechanical engineer was asked whether he favored the licensing of stationary engineers (boiler and engine operators). The leading mechanical engineer replied that he did not, because the principle requirement for a stationary engineer was sobriety, and no examination could indicate whether a man was likely to get drunk on duty or not. In our own time, the automobile industry routinely drives new automobiles into brick walls to find out how well the air bags work. A typical automobile production run is a couple of million units, over several years, and it is no big deal to allocate a hundred or so to destructive testing.

I should like to develop two parallel cases of accidents in which hundreds of people were killed, circa 1975-80, for reasons amounting to corporate recklessness and frantic profit-seeking. One involved an airplane. The other involved a bridge.

The first case is the crash of a Turkish Airlines DC-10 at Paris in 1974, with 346 people killed, after a cargo door had popped out in flight, collapsing the cabin floor, and destroying critical control linkages. What eventually emerged from legal discovery was that a there had been a design “bug”; and that this bug had been identified, first in a ground pressurization test in 1970, then in the “Windsor accident,” a non-fatal “Miracle on the Hudson”-type accident in 1972. American Airlines Captain Bryce McCormick, who was very much the same kind of man as Captain Sullenberger, was able to get a damaged airplane back on the ground. Not having access to the rudder, he used the wing engines for “thrust-vectoring.” Afterwards, a corrective modification for the cargo door was worked out; and the Federal Aviation Administration wanted to issue it as an Airworthiness Directive, that is, a recall notice. However, McDonnell-Douglas management pulled strings in the Nixon White House to prevent this, promising to effect the repair privately and without publicity. The airplane subsequently sold to Turkish Airlines (“ship 29”) had not been so repaired; and unidentified McDonnell-Douglas executives (presumably Licensed Professional Engineers) had falsified the airplane’s paperwork to create the appearance that it had been repaired. To do this, they committed the crime of forging the signatures (or rather, seals) of three inspectors. Other airlines than Turkish Airlines apparently got the benefit of informal warnings. A McDonnell-Douglas employee might sit down at the bar next to a United Airlines employee, and whisper something like: “I’d be fired if it got out that I had told you, but there’s a critical problem with the DC-10 cargo door…” Turks being untrusted foreigners, who might very well talk to the New York Daily News if they thought they had been sold a “lemon,” that kind of back-channel information did not penetrate to them. We are not talking about something which really falls within the scope of engineering ethics– political corruption and forgery are still crimes, even when done by a banker or stockbroker. The system of quality control and factors of safety was thick enough that, in practice, it was breached by what amounted to an act of intentional sabotage.

The other case was the Kansas City Hyatt Regency disaster in 1981. A steel-reinforced concrete bridge crossing a hotel atrium (used as a ballroom) collapsed. More than a hundred people were killed, and more than two hundred injured. It emerged that the original designer (A Licensed Professional Engineer) had ignored the required factors of safety; that the steel fabricator had modified the design, making it still weaker, without any recalculation of its strength; and finally, that the welding had been defective. Three acts of “subtle sabotage” were enough to cause the bridge to collapse with a crowd of people under it. Yet no one seems to have done anything amounting to forgery, perjury, or bribing a building inspector. Unlike an aircraft company, the construction firm did not have the apparatus in place to triple-check everything. Granted, there was breach of professionalism, for which the designers were ultimately stripped of their licenses, but there really wasn’t the kind of intervention which would have been obviously criminal, even if carried out by a stockbroker. I was in engineering school, at Cincinnati, at about that time, and when I took Strengths of Materials (taught by a member of the Civil Engineering department), this case was presented. The professor presented it factually, without any great discussion of the corporate climate in which people shave away at factors of safety, in a blithe assumption that no one else is doing the same thing further down the line.

Also: Paul Eddy, Elaine Potter, and Bruce Page, _Destination Disaster: From the Tri-Motor to the DC-10: The Risk of Flying_, 1976; Moira Johnston, _The Last Nine Minutes: The Story of Flight 981_, 1976

Electrical engineering is a bit different again, in the sense that very few electrical engineers do applied physics. Most of Electrical Engineering has a kind of identity crisis. There are a handful of traditional Radio Engineers, concerned with signal propagation, but there are very few applications where truly custom-designed hardware makes sense. The vast majority of electrical engineers either produce traditional software, or else they write Verilog, for use with FPGA’s. Verilog is sometimes made up into ASIC’s, but that is economical only for the most mass-produced applications, the crossover point being a million parts or more.

Some years ago, I had occasion to look at a group of “hardware capstone projects” posted on the website of Columbia University’s Department of Electrical Engineering. What impressed me was that essentially none of those projects made sense as electronic products. The assignment was in effect to design and build a circuit board that did something, to show proficiency with OrCad and a soldering iron, etc., but these were all projects, such as a calculator or an alarm clock, which could equally well have been implemented with an inexpensive micro-controller, and a bit of software. Or, in some cases, they would have done equally well as programs to run on a personal computer or a tablet computer, under an operating system. None of the students were doing anything at the supposed core of Electrical Engineering, eg. wave propagation. No one had built a better microwave oven, or anything like that. Of course, I suppose that most of the students got programming jobs, probably in the financial services industries.

One solution to the intellectual problem has been to pad out Electrical Engineering curriculum with Computer Science courses, and even to capture the Computer Science department and refuse to teach Computer Science to anyone who does not enroll in Electrical Engineering. However, much the same basic problem applies to Computer Science. Ideally, someone getting a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science ought to be made to write a small compiler and a small operating system, by way of proving his competence in computational linguistics and resource allocation. Again, however, in market terms, writing a serious compiler and operating system, with all the usual and expected features, is only justified under certain very special conditions. Google itself only _modified_ Linux to make Android. I’m not even really sure whether the sophomore-level Data Structures and Algorithms course can be strictly justified for people who will spend their careers writing SQL code.

Back in 1982, when I took Human Factors Engineering, one of my classmates produced an extra-credit project which I found admirable. He designed and built a screwdriver and a claw hammer, both of which looked very strange, but which were rationally designed to protect carpenters from carpal tunnel syndrome. One admirable recent electronics project I have seen is this, a glove-mounted sonar set for blind people:

Note that it is Arduino-based, and that the electronic construction amounts to plugging a couple of off-the-shelf sonar transducers into one end of an Arduino, and a couple of off-the-shelf servomotors into the other end, and connecting up a battery. The activating code is not all that difficult either. The developer’s hardest problems were things like figuring out how to sew sheet rubber, in order to be able to strap the whole business to the user’s wrist. This project was published before 3-D printers hit the market. With a 3-D printer, of course, the developer could have worked up a machine-produced plastic chassis to hold everything, with lugs to attach velcro straps to. To the extent that this kind of thing is taught in a university, it is taught in the Industrial Design department of an art-and-architecture school. The Columbia Electrical Engineering seniors were not doing this kind of work, and that is ultimately a fairly serious critique.

There is one area of electrical engineering which conforms to the expectations of Civil Engineering. This is Electric Power Engineering. At the moment, Electric Power Engineering is a scarcity field, because so many cities have decided that they want electric street cars, and this has swamped the normal demand resulting from electric-grid construction. Overhead wires are traditional civil engineering works which happen to conduct electricity at high voltages.

The historic safety agency for electrical equipment is Underwriter’s Laboratory (UL). As the name suggests, it was originally organized by fire insurance companies. Its business is to test mass-produced electric equipment, and make sure that it does not start fires or give electric shocks. UL is not based on the idea of professionalism. It is based on the idea that insurance companies naturally resent having to pay claims for fires caused by defective electrical equipment, and naturally look out for their own interests, and everyone else’s at the same time. As applied to computers and electronics, UL’s operations are focused on a handful of components (power supplies, wall warts, lithium batteries, etc.) which have enough energy to be potentially dangerous. UL does not concern itself with the correctness of the information generated by a personal computer.

What most electrical engineers are actually doing is computer programming, or to label it as a discipline, Computer Science. I think one can make a case that software is a kind of extreme case of mass-production, in the sense that it is normal to get a disk with a complete set of upgrades and fixes at regular intervals. The dominant issue of Computer Science is complexity. The most trustworthy software is not that produced under a system of engineering professionalism, rather, it is that produced under the system of Open Source, in which any snot-nosed kid is entitled to point out defects. In a sense, Open Source is a logical evolution of quality control practices. The logic of engineering professionalism with respect to Open Source is to be a plagiarist. A kid tells you about a bug in your software, and you fix it, but you don’t give him any credit because he has no engineering license, and the engineering society forbids you to admit that anyone “unqualified” worked on your software. Alternatively, you can deny the existence of the bug, because its discoverer is un-credentialed.

The usual aerospace electronics practice for securing reliability is to do the calculation a number of different times, and see if you get the same answer, and in case of discrepancy, to go with the majority vote. This is of course a carry-over of the traditional nautical fashion of doing navigational calculation. Take an electric switch. It can fail open, so that it does not transmit current. It can fail closed, so that it always transmits current. It can even fail by rapidly flapping back and forth, so that it is neither safely open nor safely closed. One can construct a grid of switches, such that no one switch failure can cause the grid to fail. Some years ago, I think about 1990, I remember reading in BYTE about a British Ministry of Defense initiative for extremely reliable computing, called VIPER. They went the whole length: solve the problem with different algorithms; code the different solutions in different languages; compile them with different compilers; to different processor architectures; and actually build the different processors in different chip chemistries. There were a few other details, such as banning interrupts in favor of I/O polling. There was the maximum possible effort to ensure that there was no common failure point, and that the inevitable errors would not duplicate each other.

Of course, this has to be extended all the way out to the sensors, as was illustrated by the case of Air France 447, which crashed into the South Atlantic in 2009. The airplane had massively redundant computers, and it had three airspeed sensors– but– the three airspeed sensors all worked on one and the same physical principle– the pitot tube, and they all had a common failure mode. This failure mode is not clear, but it was probably icing, maybe with a bit of dust from a dust storm mixed in with the ice. The pilots more or less flew the airliner into the water in good condition (*) because they could not figure what was going on. The accident would not have happened if there had been an additional instrument operating on an independent principle. One proposal is to squirt out a little water, and track it with a Doppler radar as the air-stream carries it away.

(*) The angle of attack was pretty high, but informed opinion seems to be that the crew could probably have gotten the nose down again without breaking up the ship.

The nature of computer/electronic information systems is such that it is generally possible to build indefinitely many levels of back-up at not too great a cost, or to build suites of tools to subject the system to brute-force testing.

Mechanical Engineering is different from Electrical Engineering, as it actually exists, because Mechanical Engineering is centered around trade-offs. I find that electrical engineers usually don’t understand thermodynamics very well. The three laws of thermodynamics are almost the opposite of Moore’s Law: You. Cannot. Do. That. Mechanical engineers find ways to edge around such laws, and circumvent them. Mechanical design really does require a nice understanding of physics, so that one can work with the forces of nature, rather than against them; and, consequently, design requires a firm command of mathematics.

The present case involves traffic light timing, and is actually a case involving Human-Factors Engineering. Civil engineers do not have a particular expertise in Human-Factors Engineering. When I was in engineering school, I took two relevant course, one in Human-Factors Engineering per se, and the other in Safety Engineering. Both of the professors belonged to the Industrial Engineering program in the Mechanical Engineering department, and the Human Factors Engineering textbook was written by a psychologist. The Human Factors Engineering was more “scientific,” in the sense of talking about general principles, with a lot of emphasis on how to design displays. A lot of human-factors work came out of the aviation industry, and involved pilots misreading instruments, or grabbing the wrong lever. The Safety Engineering course was more case-oriented, aimed at getting us to think about the crazy ways people actually behave. The professor presented and discussed a slideshow, consisting of photographs he had taken as an accident investigator. A motorcyclist had a bad accident because the handlebars of the motorcycle came loose at speed, and he couldn’t steer, things like that.

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