Hold paramount

I always start with a relevant image, but I was unable to find an openly licensed photo of one of the Boeing 737 Max crash sites and I refuse to show a photo of an intact Max 737.

What’s new?

The Guardian reports that the US Federal Aviation Administration has fined Boeing $2.5 billion for its behavior, including fraud and conspiracy, concerning safety issues of the 737 Max airliner.

What does it mean?

Crashes of Max 737 planes in October 2018 in Ethiopia and in March 2019 in Indonesia killed a total of 346 people. As explained in this 2019 article from Vox, Boeing made the business decision to try to avoid a lengthy recertification process by redesigning an existing plane rather than design a new plane. “But because the new engines wouldn’t fit under the old wings, the new plane wound up having different aerodynamic properties than the old plane. And because the aerodynamics were different, the flight control systems were also different. But treating the whole thing as a fundamentally different plane would have undermined the whole point. So the FAA and Boeing agreed to sort of fudge it.” An attempt to fix the problem through software was never incorporated sufficiently into pilot training. “That let Boeing get the planes into customers’ hands quickly and cheaply, but evidently at the cost of increasing the possibility of pilots not really knowing how to handle the planes, with dire consequences for everyone involved.” People died.

What does it mean for you?

In 2015, when news broke about VW’s use of software to defeat the ability of EPA tests to accurately measure emissions from VW diesels, I met my engineering class of about 20 juniors, seniors, and graduate students. I intended to briefly comment about the VW actions, lament the ethical lapses, reinforce the importance of ethics and safety, and then turn to our scheduled topic for the class. The engineering faculty had long agreed on the importance of highlighting news events related to engineering. However, much to my shock, some of the students pushed back: everyone lies, it’s part of the game, and that’s just business.

I argued back and a lively discussion ensued. In fact, I yelled at them. At the next meeting of our departmental advisory board (made up of representatives from local companies that hire our graduates), I recounted this story; the members of the board told me I was correct in yelling at the students. They said that ethical lapses were fireable offences.

A failure in learning by a wide group of students generally indicates a failure in teaching, so a few class sessions later, I spent some time reviewing the stance of the engineering profession regarding ethics and safety, material we cover in the first year introduction to engineering course. I started with the first Fundamental Canon in the NSPE (National Society of Professional Engineers) Code of Ethics for Engineers, which forms the basis for the codes of ethics of all engineering societies in the US: “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.”

Next I described that ABET, which accredits all engineering programs in the US, requires programs to include as a desired outcome that graduates have “an ability to recognize ethical and professional responsibilities in engineering situations and make informed judgments, which must consider the impact of engineering solutions in global, economic, environmental, and societal contexts.” The achievement of that outcome must be assessed and evaluated, and that evaluation must be used for continuous improvement of the program. In addition, any safety lapse during ABET’s review of a program that is not immediately fixed, will lead to a negative review, involving a “show cause” decision in which the institution must argue why the program should not lose its accreditation.

I reminded the students that, as seniors, they would be invited to be inducted into the Order of the Engineer, by reciting the obligation (including the statement that “my skill and knowledge shall be given without reservation for the public good”), and wearing a ring that reminds them of their obligation.

When I present this material to first year students in engineering, I tell them, that, if they are not ready to take on these ethical obligations, they should not become engineers. I invite them to leave.

I recently had a very bad experience with a national company (which left us for 5 days without propane) and a very good experience with a local company (Flow Right Plumbing, Heating and Cooling) that got our furnace and water heater running again after we got propane. When I complimented the local company, the repair person went on at length about the training they get – the first training he mentioned was ethics. I repeat: the first training he mentioned was ethics.

The fact that Boeing (and VW) did not receive the death penalty for their actions is an example of privileging the “lives” of corporations over the actual lives of living beings. If you are not prioritizing ethics, if you cannot make ethics and safety part of your business plan, if you do not make sure that every employee behaves ethically, then your business should not exist.

Where can you learn more?

Excellent material abounds for teaching engineering ethics, especially using case studies: for example, here, here, and here.

I am less familiar with such material for teaching business ethics, but an Internet search turned up similar business case studies here, here, and here. I cannot find that the standards of the leading business school accreditation body, AACSB, include a requirement that student outcomes include any knowledge or skill about ethical behavior, but I might have missed such a statement.  

An Internet search for “teaching ethics to employees” turned up many web pages with helpful material and many companies that offer such training or advice on how to train employees. I like this article from Training Magazine and this one from Strategic Finance Magazine.

Engineering culture constantly reinforces attention to safety and ethics, and every organization can do the same. Some companies start every meeting with a safety review. The pinky ring from the Order of the Engineer is designed to be a constant reminder of the obligation of the engineer to the public. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County; every meeting has a report from our safety committee about how we are keeping kids safe. You can think of ways to make ethics constantly at the forefront of the minds of those in your organization.


What’s new

Three articles came together for me this week.

  1. New Scientist magazine reported on an ambitious project to use artificial intelligence (AI) to speak with animals.
  2. New Scientist also reported on the astounding amount of code in old programming languages still present in financial processing software.
  3. A friend who writes and teaches about Celtic paganism and horse goddesses posted a link to a 2017 article arguing that Joseph Campbell got a lot wrong in his work on mythology.

What does it mean?

The first article states “AI is good at language,” and describes a current project to decode the sounds made by sperm whales using AI to look for categories in massive databases. The technique “is great at detecting patterns and can neatly sort whale calls, say, into piles based on their acoustic properties, but often can’t tell you what those piles relate to.” The researchers realize they need to correlate the whale’s clicking vocalizations, called codas, with whale behavior and conclude “This is still a long way from deciphering meaning.” The article falls, I fear, into a long, long pattern of hype about AI, with the headline “Dr Dolittle machines: How AI is helping us talk to the animals” belied by the actual content of the article.

Among the many social problems made even more visible by the corona virus pandemic, attempts to provide financial aid to people found that some computer systems were overwhelmed “with the flood of people applying for welfare benefits – and hardly anyone around knew how to fix things,” as stated in the second article. These welfare processing systems, it turns out, still have massive amounts of code written in COBOL and other old programming languages. Ageing programmers, like the COBOL Cowboys, were called into service to try to fix the situation. But it often turns out that you don’t just need an experienced COBOL programmer, you need the COBOL programmer who wrote the original code. “Opaque turns of phrase, plus coding conventions that can vary significantly between domains or even organisations, make deciphering a specific bit of software difficult for an outsider.”

While Campbell’s views shifted across his many works, he is best known for arguing for the similarity of myths across many cultures. His thesis is summarized in the title of one his books, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which, according to the Joseph Campbell Foundation, “Campbell formulated the dual schemas of the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through all of humanity’s mythic traditions, and of the Cosmogonic Cycle, the stories of world-creation and -dissolution that have marked cultures around the world and across the centuries.” To the contrary, the 2017 article by Jeana Jorgensen quotes Sara Cleto as writing: “By saying `all these stories are the same,’ we lose what stories mean in different contexts and, especially, what they can mean to people that come from cultures that are not our own.”

What does it mean for you?

Humans look for and see patterns, perhaps due to evolution, since pattern recognition can help us survive. The theme I see in these three articles is that problems can arise through overuse of categories or patterns. It is more than just the difference between lumpers and splitters in taxonomy, it is more than whether patterns or categories help or hinder our thinking, the issue is our overuse of the general at the expense of the particular and our failure to respect the meaning an individual puts on an experience.

I can give more examples.

  • What some cite as Freud’s belief in universal symbols in dreams is better described as the need to interpret symbols in the individual’s context.
  • New Scientist also recently reported on efforts to use AI to identify emotions from facial expressions, but Lisa Feldman Barrett is quoted as questioning the fundamentals of the approach because “the use of various expressions varies noticeably between cultures.”
  • Again, from New Scientist, the Y2K bug lingers because the specific local ways in which the fix was implemented have caused other problems.

Local customs and cultures matter. Individuals matter.

In my interactions with people, I am constantly on the watch for indications that my interpretation of a situation is not the same as the other people I am working with. I can’t assume that the pattern, the categories, or the meaning I see is the same as what others see. I am listening for the implicit statement “That’s not how I see it.”

In my specific area of creating probability models, one person may say to another “wait, what is the sample space you are using?” which means that we are not thinking about the situation in the same way. We need to back up and reexamine our different interpretations of the situation.

In our quest for shared meaning, in our quest to establish an organizational culture, and in our quest to communicate clearly, we can use the amazing human skill of creating categories and of looking for patterns, but we must always be carefully alert for and we must always respect the particular, the local, and the individual.  

Where can you learn more?

In support of the recognition of the particular over the general, I urge you to watch your life over the next days and recognize those situations where another person interprets an event differently than you do. I think of them as Rashomon moments. For me, Facebook is a rich source of amazing and sometimes shocking cases where consensus is disrupted by someone who just views the whole situation in a different light. Wow, I say to myself.

I am adamant about using images that are in the public domain and about giving credit to the creator of the image, but I was stymied in this case by my inability to find an open use image of the sled Rosebud from the movie Citizen Kane, a powerful image, I think, of the particular nature of symbols. I substituted a rosebud photo. Did you get the reference? Or was it too particular to me?