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Category: Commentary (page 2 of 4)

Physical Security and Walls

Obvious, but not obvious.

There’s an important concept in the security field that everyone should understand. I’m writing this now because of all the discussion about building a wall at the USA/Mexico border. Some of you will find what I have to say obvious. Most will find it to be a new way of thinking that they hadn’t consciously thought about before.

Back in the last century, I spent 15 years building a company in the security business — physical security, access control, tracking of personnel within a secure facility, and asset tracking. Focus was on facilities needing the highest level of security, mostly government, so our systems supported man-traps, two-man-rule (required for access to nuclear warheads), surreptitiously weighing personnel as they entered and exited to detect systematic theft, collecting data that could indicate impaired performance of personnel, on and on. Back in the 1980s, if you visited the headquarters of the three letter agencies you passed through systems designed by me. In the 80s and 90s, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton controlled zone security the Whitehouse with my systems. FBI evidence rooms and all federal court facilities are secured by my systems today. If technicians need to work on a nuclear warhead at facilities where they are stored, their access is controlled by systems I designed. When the Soviet Union fell, the USA stepped in, and I and others worked on systems to physically secure the Russian nuclear arsenal until they put a stable government together.

When I began in this field, I was just an electronics engineer and software guy, who had done a lot of things. In the course of working in security, I was fortunate and privileged to work with the roughly half dozen guys in the USA, who are the most skilled and knowledgeable in this field. They all worked for various agencies in the government and I can’t describe how brilliant, experienced, and amazing they were. I learned an enormous number of fascinating and useful things. Over the years, it became clear that there are a number of basic principles that govern the field of security, like the laws of physics. One partner and I repeatedly discussed writing a book on these principles, but we never got around to it.

One of the principles or realities of physical security, the most important one to have clearly in mind, is that there’s no such thing as foolproof physical security. We constantly hear promotional phrases like “bulletproof security”, built like Fort Knox, impenetrable as a bank vault, uncrackable codes, unpickable locks, etc. There is no such thing. Any security scheme devised by Man can be defeated by Man. The only thing that physical security does is buy you time. It buys time for humans to respond with force to an intrusion attempt. Hopefully, it raises the time cost/risk high enough that an intruder isn’t willing to try. That’s all it does. It’s a delaying mechanism and nothing more.

If there is no human to respond to an intrusion attempt, then there is no security. Security depends on human intervention and how long it takes for the response to arrive. This is obvious once you think about it. It’s just something most people don’t consciously think about. It’s not pleasant to think about because it makes you feel naked to realize that all the fancy security systems you have are worthless if an armed response like the police doesn’t arrive in time.

Now you’re thinking about it. I hope this informs your thinking about the security measures in your home and business.

It also means that a border wall is useless without intrusion detection and armed response. Adding that to a wall costs more than the wall because it’s a perpetual ongoing expense. This is the drawback of all walls, including the Great Wall of China. Walls are not standalone solutions. They must be defended.

There are other considerations, but there’s no need to get into them here. All arguments say that walls of any kind do not work. History proves it.

Please comment below.

$1.5 Trillion Tax Cut Fails to Deliver What Congress Promised

Time: December 2017
Place: Washington, DC

Congress: We’re going to restructure the tax code and give you corporations an enormous $1.5 trillion tax break.
Corporations: Great. Thanks.
Congress: We believe this money will cause big corporations like you to increase your capital expenditures, which will stimulate the economy.
Corporations: Why would we do that? We’ll use the money for stock buybacks that drive up the price of our stock and we’ll pocket the rest of it.
Congress: Wait. What? Well, we’re going to do it anyway because our big donors want it and Trump wants it.

Reuters: $1.5 Trillion US Tax Cut has No Major Impact on Business CAPEX.

Please comment below.

IRS Building, Washington DC

IRS Building, Washington DC

Coal Mining Isn’t What It Used To Be

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, the term “coal miner” conjured up a stereotypical image of a man covered head to toe with black coal dust, wearing a hard hat, and swinging a pick or shovel. The work was grueling, dangerous, deadly, and paid terrible wages. In the United States, a shocking 90,000 men lost their lives in coal mines between 1900 and 1950. If there was ever a line of work that could be called “the widowmaker”, it was coal mining. The rest of society viewed coal miners as the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Harry Fain, 1946
National Archives Photo

Today, coal mining is used as a political football by politicians. Politicians know that it conjures up powerful images that are based on the stereotype I described above. Most recently, President Trump invoked these images repeatedly during his campaign, and it created the desired effect on his listeners.

However, coal mining today isn’t what it was in 1910. The above stereotypes are completely false today. Coal mining has changed radically as have the men and women working in that business. President Trump’s rabble rousing was based on fantasy and imagery that no longer exists.

Back around 1910, there were thousands of coal mines. Larger mines employed hundreds in each shift. Virtually all coal mining was done underground, not on the surface. This meant entering or descending into deep mines. The standard mining technique was room and pillar, which dates back to ancient times. A room is hollowed out with pillars of coal left standing to support the roof. The size of the pillars was based on the opinions of experienced miners. Sometimes, they were wrong. There’s a tradeoff involved. Making the pillars larger provides increased safety but reduces the amount of coal that can be extracted.

Room and pillar is still used today in mines where there’s a valuable enough deposit, like anthracite (hard coal) and surface mining isn’t feasible. However, instead of relying on seat-of-the-pants guesses, science and engineering is involved. The force on the ceiling can be calculated, the compressive strength of the coal deposit can be measured. Optimal column sizes can then be calculated and actual stresses measured so danger can be detected and averted.

For added excitement and profit, one can still get the material left behind in the pillars by a method called retreat mining. Once a room is exhausted, the pillars can be destroyed, one by one, starting with the deepest one. The ceiling is allowed to collapse and the coal recovered. Needless to say, this is a dangerous business. My two coal miner friends here in West Virginia do this kind of work. With modern technology, it can be done successfully and accidents kept to almost zero.

My friends still come home from work with black faces and clothes full of black coal dust — hard shiny anthracite coal particles that sparkle when you look at them. They use the two washing machines at the laundromat set aside especially for coal miners. Unlike their counterparts a hundred years ago, they don’t use a pick and shovel, are highly skilled, and are paid well. But, they are in the minority. The majority of coal is produced nowadays using surface mining, including the infamous mountaintop removal mining technique. Fortunately for the environment, the number of mountaintop removal permits has dropped to about half of what it was ten years ago. This might be from political pressure, or because coal sales have dropped sharply since 2008. I don’t know. The economic collapse of 2008 started a sharp decline in coal sales that continues today. Demand has dropped. Again, President Trump’s rhetoric about increasing jobs in coal could only happen if demand increases. Coal mines are not gold mines, where the demand is essentially infinite. Coal mines produce only the amount of coal that is needed.

Surface mining, which produces the majority of coal today, is done by comparatively few highly skilled workers using gargantuan machines worth millions of dollars each. These machines are so large that you have to see them in person to comprehend. Imagine a bulldozer that could drive down one side of your neighborhood and obliterate every house on one side of the street in a single pass, without the least effort. Or, a dump truck so large that it’s not apparent where the driver is located. You have to climb three flights of stairs to reach the cab. Coal mines of this type employ more people who are mechanics, machinists, welders, engineers, and explosives experts than those who actually do the mining. It’s a whole different world from coal mining in 1910. What’s more, over the next ten years, more of these machines will become robotically controlled with no operator. In twenty years, surface mining will likely be done entirely by computer and robots.

Let’s look at some numbers. In 1900 the population of the country was 76 million and the coal industry employed 500,000 men. So, the better part of one percent of the population, or 1 out of every 152 men in the country, was a coal miner.

In 1900, annual coal production was about 275 million tons. From 1900 to the present, coal production increased to a peak of almost 1,200 million tons in 2008. In 2008, the US population was about 307 million, and the coal industry employed about 70,000 people, nationwide, or 0.02 percent of the population. In 2008 we had one seventh the number of people producing five times as much coal as we did in 1900. Coal production efficiency per worker is 35 times what it was in 1900.

To put these employee numbers into perspective, consider that Walmart employs 1.5 million people in the USA. Amazon employs 570,000. The US Postal Service employs 503,000. The coal industry employs 70,000. To increase production, the coal industry would add a few more machines and a few more employees to accommodate demand. So, to base a political campaign promise on increasing jobs in coal mining is disingenuous at best, stupid at worst. Coal is one of the worst sectors to choose to make such a promise. The number of jobs in coal mining will not increase significantly no matter what happens. The only reason to make such a promise is because it has strong emotional appeal to voters because they still have the old coal miner stereotype in their head and don’t know how things have changed.

Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913

If you were born and raised in Los Angeles and/or are interested in the history of the Southland (Southern California), there is a wonderful book for you.  “Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913” by Harris Newmark is a great book about the history of Los Angeles and the Southland from 1853 to 1913, written by a person who lived it.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s I was fascinated to learn the origin of some of the street names like Sepulveda, Pico, and Olvera. Sepulveda is named after the Sepulveda family, owners of tens of thousands of acres now occupied by Palos Verdes. Pico Blvd. is named after Don Pio Pico. When I was five years old, my uncle’s house was near Winslow Drive and Micheltorena, and I thought Micheltorena was such a strange word. I had not yet learned to speak Spanish, nor did I know that Micheltorena was a well known person in 19th century Los Angeles.

As time went on I learned more but I’d never before found a book like this one–jam packed with information. Written by a businessman who immigrated from Germany to Los Angeles in 1853, the author personally knew everyone of any importance in the Southland over a period of 60 years. He writes the story of LA as it grew from a few adobe buildings and dirt streets, complete with gold miners and gunslingers, to a modern metropolis.


Here’s a short list of names in the book that should sound familiar to any Angeleno: Juan Temple, owner of the 27,000 acre Los Cerritos Rancho, after whom is named Temple Street; Don Abel Stearns, owners of tens of thousands of acres between San Pedro and San Bernardino including Los Coyotes Rancho, La Habra Rancho, San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana Rancho, and the Los Alamitos Rancho upon which now sits the City of Long Beach; John G. Downey; Bernard Yorba, owner of the land upon which now stand the City of Anaheim, Orange, Santa Ana, Westminster, Garden Grove, and other parts of Orange County, which was then part of Los Angeles County; Willliam Workman and John Rowland, owners of the 49,000 acre La Puente Rancho; Don Luis Vignes, owner of the land now occupied by East LA; The Dominguez Family, owners of a 48,000 acre land grant from the King of Spain; Dr. del Amo; Henry Dalton, owners of the Azusa Ranch and Duarte; Manuel Garfias, owner of the 14,000 acre San Pasqual Ranch upon which were built Pasadena and South Pasadena; Don Ygnacio Machado, owner of La Ballona; Colonel Jonathan Trumbull Warner, owner of the Warner Ranch upon which part of Orange County now sits; Benjamin Davis Wilson, owner of most of San Gabriel, after whom Mt. Wilson is named; Colonel Julian Isaac Williams, owner of the Cucamonga and Chino ranches; Don Pio Pico, owner of a 22,000 acre rancho and after whom Pico Blvd. is named; William Wolfskill, owner of Rancho Santa Anita and Rancho San Francisquito upon which Newhall now stands; Don Jose Ygnacio Lugo, owner of the land upon which Santa Barbara now stands; Louis Robidoux, owner of the Jurupa Rancho upon which now sits the City of Riverside and after whom Mt. Robidoux is named; Juan Forster, owner of the Santa Margarita Rancho and Las Flores Rancho; and the Verdugo Family, owners of a 36,000 acre land grant from the King of Spain dating from 1784 and upon which now sits the City of Glendale.

Interested? The above really is a short list. The author knew all of these people personally and many more. The book contains vast amounts of first hand information.

“Sixty Years in Southern California 1853-1913” is available for free download from The Gutenberg Project:

http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/42680

The epub version includes all the photo plates from the book. I highly recommend it.

Or, get a real copy of this excellent book:


This is What Disagreement Looks Like

Bridge Collapse Sign of Things to Come?

A bridge collapsed this morning in the West Deptford area of New Jersey sending a train loaded with toxic chemicals into a creek.  It was reported on CNN here: http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/30/us/new-jersey-train-derail/index.html

CNN Photo:

The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes an annual evaluation of the infrastructure of the United States.  There are tens of thousands of bridges in the U.S., most of them built long ago and ill maintained.  The ASCE says that a quarter of the nation’s bridges are “structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.”  Water systems, dams, and other infrastructure is also old and in need of repair.

But politicians are reluctant to sponsor remediation projects because they lack appeal and pizazz.  It’s much more exciting and attractive to voters to grandstand about a new project.  There’s no interest in spending money on existing structures and systems.

The ASCE estimates that $2.2 trillion needs to be spent repairing existing infrastructure.  Imagine how many jobs that would create.  But remediation projects are boring so we’ll have to wait until serious failures become common and people die before something is done about this problem.

The American Society of Civil Engineers publishes the results of their evaluation here: http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/

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