The Foundation of Civilization: Trust

Rowayton harbor on a misty morning

A structural engineer friend once told me that you can’t safely use welded steel framing in India because so many of the weld inspectors take bribes. Welding is subject to failure, and trustworthy inspection is the only way to find the failed welds and repair them. Likewise, I am told that LEED certification in India is a farce, as consultants who must verify performance simply invent results for a small fee. Most LEED-certified project in India receive the highest rating, Platinum: if you are cheating, cheat big.

Civilization has always been based to some extent on technology, but we have become like parasites in a technological host, utterly helpless without it. Even ISIS, determined as it is to send us all back into the 14th Century, is completely dependent upon electronic media, along with modern weapons, explosives and vehicles. Shut off the electricity and everything else shuts down.

As the examples from India suggest, corruption that undermines trust also undermines the technology on which modern civilization is based. Quality control standards are at the heart of establishing trust. It is unfortunately one of the least sexy aspects of technology. The procedures prescribed by ISO (International Organization for Standards) are mind-numbingly thorough, requiring repeated testing, recording and re-checking. But ISO is the gold standard of quality control, and manufacturers who meet ISO standards can profitably use this fact in their marketing.

The Wikipedia entry on ISO notes that Microsoft pushed through a fast-track procedure now approved by ISO. A criticism of ISO’s decision to approve this procedure elicited this comment from Computer security entrepreneur (and investor in a Linux based operating system that completes with Windows), Mark Shuttleworth:

When you have a process built on trust and when that trust is abused, ISO should halt the process… ISO is an engineering old boys club and these things are boring so you have to have a lot of passion … then suddenly you have an investment of a lot of money and lobbying [by Microsoft] and you get artificial results. The process is not set up to deal with intensive corporate lobbying and so you end up with something being a standard that is not clear.

Volunteer standards like ISO are necessary but not sufficient in a marketplace based on economic competition. A current example is the Millennium Tower in San Francisco, which as of 2016 had sunk 16 inches and tilted 6 inches at the top. The causes likely were the use of 60- to 90-foot long friction pilings sunk in the unstable mud and sand, rather than 200-foot pilings down to bedrock; combined with the crazy decision (in an earthquake-prone area) to use a heavy concrete frame rather than lighter steel framing to construct the tallest building in the city. I speculate that these decisions reduced first cost, greed trumping quality and common sense, as it so often does. No one knows what will happen to the building in a major earthquake, when the mud and sand supporting the building may turn into jelly.

It is this perverse incentive to ignore reality for short-term gain that requires regulation by disinterested third parties, typically established by governments. The Millennium Tower was built before the city had set up the current structural review procedure, relying instead on the word of the structural engineer (hired by the developer).

It is highly disturbing that our political right-wing is bent on dismantling such regulations. Yes, they slow down development, burden companies with paperwork, and add cost. That’s the whole point, to insist on quality in order to establish trust. The alternative is, in the long run, to undermine the foundations not only of tall buildings but of the technology that holds up modern civilization.

It is ironic that the companies that fund the radical right are themselves completely dependent upon the trust they are undermining – yet another example of the very phenomenon (setting reality aside in favor of short-term gain) that the regulations are designed to counteract!



Hurricane Katrina: How a “Free Enterprise” Economy Budgets

In sorting my papers, I ran across an article I had saved from the April 30, 2002 NY Times entitled “Nothing’s Easy for New Orleans Flood Control.” It described in detail what would happen if a major hurricane hit New Orleans. One quote:

“Perhaps the surest protection is building up the coastal marshes that lie between New Orleans and the sea and that have been eroding at high rates. But restoration will require time, a huge effort, and prohibitive sums of money, perhaps $14 billion according to a study…”

Here are a couple of quotes from Wikipedia entry on Hurricane Katrina, which occurred three and half years later:

“All of the major studies concluded that the USACE [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers], the designers and builders of the levee system as mandated by the Flood Control Act of 1965, is responsible. This is mainly due to a decision to use shorter steel sheet pilings in an effort to save money.”

“Overall, at least 1,245 people died in the hurricane and subsequent floods, making it the deadliest United States hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane. Total property damage was estimated at $108 billion.

Free enterprise is anything but!

Bucky Fuller’s Dymaxion Car: What Was He Thinking?

Bucky Fuller was what we would now call a “futurist,” someone wedded to the myth of progress, with unlimited faith in the power of technology. He was also a highly gifted amateur, never afraid to apply his intuition to a problem, but always taking a short-cut to avoid the difficult road to truly useful innovation, one paved with hard won evidence.

He leapt into any endeavor from the top, determined that his genius could solve problems that plagued ordinary smart people who were working in the trenches building from a solid foundation. Now it does happen, very rarely, that a gifted amateur stumbles on a solution to an important problem. Amateurs indeed contribute much, yet seldom without devoting the time to become thoroughly knowledgeable about the science and technology behind the problem they are trying to solve.

Two examples come to mind. The great physicist Richard Feynman, always determined to derive insight from first principles, delved into evolutionary theory and correctly deduced a number of insights, which he proudly put before the famous evolutionist Steven Jay Gould for comment. Gould noted that he could have learned everything he deduced from a textbook on evolution. So in regard to this subject, Feynman was an amateur, and had over-valued his insight in his attempt to make an end-run around the hard work of learning the trade.

In contrast I would point to the highly respected amateur ethologist, Ellen Dissanayake. She never achieved a bachelor’s degree, but by dint of hard work over many years, she self-educated to become a leading investigator on the subject of the evolution of art, and was admitted to the company of scholars in the field despite her lack of credentials.

As far as I know, Bucky Fuller never invented anything that was particularly useful. His famous geodesic domes were a solution looking for a problem (and he didn’t invent them). They were lightweight and could cover large spans, as long as the foundation was circular. They did find limited use covering a few sports stadiums and exhibit spaces, and for radar installations, temporary shelter, and even a few homes. I was involved in the construction of a geodesic dome birdcage in Oakland, California, an ideal use because it did not involve the difficulties in attaching a weatherproof skin to the framework, and took maximum advantage of the volume enclosed within a spherical shape.

Bucky did however popularize a number of ideas that have implanted themselves in the cultural milieu (what Richard Dawkins would call “memes”). He got deeply involved in the geometry of geodesic solids, which he applied to his domes; his name became closely enough associated with geodesic geometry that when scientists fabricated strong carbon materials exhibiting geodesic geometry, they named the materials “fullerenes”. I think his primary claim to fame is popularizing this branch of mathematics.

In the 1930’s, the technology of both cars and airplanes was advancing rapidly and garnering in inordinate amount of attention. Bucky, in his thirties, got a bee in his bonnet that the world needed a land-sea-air vehicle, which would in his view provide people with unlimited freedom of movement.

Putting aside its utter impracticality if realized and the anti-social Libertarian philosophy underlying it, the idea had no basis in physics. Flight then and now requires rigid wings, but Bucky envisioned inflatable wings, along with “slots” for future jet-power of some sort. It was a Flash Gordon fantasy, an adolescent dream.

Acknowledging the difficulty of resolving the flying and floating aspects of the vehicle, he concentrated on its terrestrial mode. With the help of a kindred spirit, the inventor, aviation pioneer and yacht designer William Starling Burgess, he put his ideas for a car together and over time built three prototypes.

As the photos show, it was innovative in shape, adopting the “streamlining” that was being popularized in the U.S. by the industrial designers Henry Dreyfuss, Otto Kuehler and Raymond Loewy. Its superstructure (including the thin members supporting the extensive glass) was lovingly crafted from wood, no doubt courtesy of yacht-designer Burgess. It had an engine in the rear that drove the front wheels, and was a whopping 19 feet long. It had no rear windows and no rear-view mirrors.

For reasons only known to Bucky’s unconscious, he decided that rear-wheel steering was a good idea. Anyone who has handled a cart or vehicle with rear steering, or tried to back a car, knows its fatal defect: any steering error is magnified in a runaway feedback cycle. Rear steering cannot be made self-correcting, as can front steering (with appropriate camber and toe-in). The only vehicles made with rear steering are fork-lifts and street-sweepers, which are operated at low speeds and need to make sharp turns.

Somehow or other, a few highly skilled people learned how to drive the Dymaxion car at moderate speeds. On an infamous occasion in 1933, Francis Turner, a famous race driver who had learned to operate the Dymaxion car, was driving aviation pioneer William Sempill and the French Air Minister Charles Dollfuss to a rendezvous with the Graf Zeppelin when a Chicago official crowded the car trying to get a close look. Turner sped up to 70 mph to evade the rubbernecker.

The official’s car accidentally bumped into the rear of the Dymaxion, causing Turner to lose control of the steering. The car entered its fatal feedback cycle, turning sideways and rolling over, killing Turner and seriously injuring Sempill. Astonishingly, the court did not find the design of the car to be a factor in the crash. If something like this happened today, Fuller would be in prison.

Not only did Fuller promote a fundamentally deadly design, he hyped its capabilities, claiming that its weight was low, that it got very high gas mileage, and that it could go over 100 mph, all of which were untrue.

To get a more in-depth account of what it is like to drive a Dymaxion car, go to or

Here are a few quotes from the latter source:

“With the steering’s self-centering action non-existent and the epic amounts of tiller-spinning still required, crowned roads, bumps and potholes can present life-threatening challenges.”

“…no one in his or her right mind would ever venture above 45 miles per hour because of the lousy handling…”

“So this is the stuff that some automotive legends are made of – a wacky idea, a shameless promoter’s dream and a credulous press, excited to herald the coming of a wonderful new future.”

“Shameless promoter” and “living in an alternative reality” are good ways to describe Fuller (and Donald Trump), yet he remains a fascinating character, and his lectures were utterly riveting to this impressionable college student. Building the geodesic birdcage in Oakland, California was a highlight of my life.

Bucky acted out the same dreams I dreamed, and perhaps I am chastising myself for being unrealistic. I admit that I am being unfair to Bucky: he was a man of his time –  and of mine. And compared to the devastation left in Mr. Trump’s wake, contributing to one death is a small crime indeed. The time was out of joint, dislocated by the myth of progress that still enthralls us.

More Depressing News

I wish I could find something to cheer about, but this article in today’s Times is so terrifying that I have to pass it on. It is unfortunately a must-read.