Infrastructure Lessons from Texas

TL:DR Design for graceful failure. Avoid global dependencies.

This past week, millions of Texans were left without power or water during the worst cold snap in a decade. There are so many lessons here.

As I understand it, the bulk of Texas power comes from natural gas. As many people know by now, electric grids cannot store electricity. Supply must equal demand at all times. During the storms, unexpected demand from the cold temperatures met an unexpected lack of generation due to multiple causes, and the only way to keep the grid up at all was to drastically shed load. This is supposed to be an organized process, but things you don’t test test not to work when you need them. Instead of everyone suffering short outages, some people lost power for days.

Texas “conservatives” were quick to blame, for example, AOC (huh?) for this, and then to blame wind power for dropping offline. In fact, wind and renewables account for less than 10% of Texas generation and the availability of renewables was better than fossil and nuclear. The actual cause of a lot of fossil generation losses was a lack of winterized equipment, so instrumentation froze, and a lack of natural gas to power generators, due to … high demand because it was cold and a lack of winterized equipment in the gas industry, so wells froze. It turns out that Texas natural gas generation plants do not store much gas locally, so they had to shut down.

The next problem is water. The low temperatures and lack of winterization caused unexpected pipe and water main breaks, and treatment plants shut down due to lack of power. Shut down plants and low pressure have caused uncertainty about the safety of what water there is, so people are supposed to boil water. Of course they have no electricity or gas, so…?

I think the first lesson for public infrastructure is that you have to spend money to make your system reliable even when conditions are unusual. Cold areas have utilities, water, and electricity that work in subzero temperatures. That part is well understood.

Second, your part of the system must not depend on remote services that you do not control. A water treatment plan must have local emergency power with fuel enough to ride through an extended outage. Gas power plants should either have several days local storage of gas or reliable access to stored gas. Probably you don’t want giant gas storage tanks in the middle of cities.

Third, hospitals, police and so forth must have emergency power and communications that does not depend on outside services.

There has been a lot of humorous writing about Texas’ decision to not join the national grids. I don’t think the interconnections would have been enough to overcome a lack of local generation, but what would have helped is adherence to national standard for reliability. El Paso did winterize their services, according to standards, and they did just fine.

It’s fine with me if Texas wants its own grid, don’t mess with Texas! But it is kind of sensible to track the national standards anyway. Texas had a similar cold event in 2011 or something, and many reports were written and ignored. That part is on Texas politicians.

It is tempting to point out that Republicans claim that government is useless, and then once they get into power proceed to prove it, but I’ll resist.

Here in Massachusetts, the power and gas has been reasonably reliable since the utilities started actually trimming the trees that tend to fall on the wires. Nevertheless, we have a wood stove and a pile of split wood and a 6KW generator that gets used once or twice a year, and a second small generator in case the first one is busted. As soon as we can afford it, we plan to get batteries to be charged by the solar panels on the roof as well. Central utilities are great, but you shouldn’t depend on them 100%.

In computing, there’s a saying that a distributed system is one in which the failure of a machine you didn’t even know existed can keep you from getting your work done.

I think it is quite hard to predict the results of unusual combinations of events. It is much easier to provide backup systems to prevent failures from cascading and becoming disasters. It takes money and periodic testing.

Insurrection

What I believe:

Joe Biden won the election. There was a large turnout, many people voted early and by mail and the election was the cleanest and best run ever. People who believe otherwise have not produced any evidence and have lost in 63 legal challenges, in many states, and many courts, including the supreme court..

Trump has refused to accept a peaceful transition of power, and has incited an actual insurrection that so far has killed six people

Trump has been supported in his rejection of law and the constitution by many Republican Attorneys General, six Republican US Senators, and over 100 Republican Representatives.

Trump should be removed from office immediately, by the 25th amendment or by impeachment and conviction.

Trump should be barred from ever again holding a position of power or honor, either through impeachment and conviction, or by the 14th amendment.

The congressmen and senators who violated their oaths to the constitution must resign or be expelled from the congress.

I think we need a conservative party in this country, and there is a fair amount of evidence that democracies work best when they have two reasonably well balanced groups. The problem I have is that the current Republican party is not conservative and doesn’t believe in democracy. They seem to spend their time trying to deny the right to vote to people who don’t agree with them. This is pretty obvious through gerrymandering efforts and voter suppression efforts.

I think that conservatives should abandon the Republican party and start a new one.

Non smart appliances

Our electric dryer is a 1988 Kenmore model. Thursday night it stopped heating. Friday I got around to taking it apart. Inside the front cover is

Schematic for electric dryer

which is a pleasantly simple wiring diagram. The only “electronic control” is a small thing that has lasted 30 years so far and seems to control the moisture sensor.

As for the heater itself, it comes out with a few screws, from the front:

Dryer heater element

A closeup view shows the problem

The resistance wire is broken. You might be able to weld such stuff, but the replacement unit is still available and costs less than $20.

Try that with a modern appliance! Sure it doesn’t match the 25 years newer HE washing machine, but it hardly ever breaks, is cheap to repair, and there is not that much to be done about the efficiency.

Violent Protests

There’s a line of argument that peaceful protests over unequal justice have not worked, and it has been, what 170 years since the civil war, and 50 years since Martin Luther King was killed.

I don’t even disagree, but, just, not now. We have two months until the most consequential election in our history, and Trump would be far less likely to support positive change than Joe Biden.

Can we just hold it together for, say, five months? Let’s elect Joe and give him a month after January 2021 to get a real process for change started.

Cities burning and stores looted doesn’t help the cause. It materially plays to the worst instincts of Trump and gives excuses to the wavering to continue supporting him.

Breonna Taylor

I’ve been reading https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/08/08/why-it-s-not-so-simple-to-arrest-the-cops-who-shot-breonna-taylor and it finally crystalized what I think about this.

When bad things happen, it is because the cops are bad or because the laws are bad. In every case, there needs to be visible change.

I don’t think this case is about racist cops. Now the reason for the warrant at all might be racist, but these police officers, storm troopers, uniformed thugs, whatever didn’t target Breonna Taylor. They didn’t know she was there. They killed her by sheer incompetence and negligent behavior.

The Marshall Project article talks about a legal gray area regarding Kenneth Walker’s right to defend himself and the officers “right” to their self defense. I don’t buy it. The officers’ rights surely do not extend to firing 20 unaimed shots and killing innocent bystanders. At the very least, that level of wanton behavior warrants charges of negligent homicide or manslaughter.

It seems to me that either the officers are guilty of criminal behavior or the laws are wrong. An outcome of “oops, we’ll do better training” just doesn’t cut it when trigger happy cops conduct no-knock warrants and kill innocent people.

As far as I can tell, when police make “mistakes” or are grossly incompetent, they are not held accountable. That is wrong. Even when police are not held criminally responsible, they generally have no civil liability either, due to the court created qualified immunity doctrine. That has to change too.

  • If they can’t be charged, then Kentucky laws need to change.
  • Congress must write law getting rid of qualified immunity. I am happy with suing the department rather than the individuals, but there must be civil accountability in addition to criminal. Very large damage awards should be routine.
  • No knock warrants must be outlawed
  • Judges should be held accountable for rubber stamping thin search warrants
  • Prosecutors and police must be help accountable for any false or misleading statements on warrant applications.
  • Police who make mistakes with guns should not have guns. If they can’t be fired they should be put on desk duty for the remainder of their careers. They’ve proven in the most direct way possible they cannot be trusted on the street.
  • There needs to be a national do not hire list. A fired police officer should never again work in law enforcement anywhere.
  • I’ll even suggest a felony murder doctrine. All the officers on the raid are liable even if it is “one bad apple”, which it never is.

UPDATE

A grand jury in Kentucky has just declined to lay any criminal charges against the men who killed Brionna Taylor. I am disappointed and angry but not surprised.

Walker was justified in defending himself against home invaders. The police say it was not a no knock warrant, but they didn’t have cameras and their word that they announced the raid is not believable. In any event Walker didn’t know they were police. (And why have the raid in the middle of the night?).

Kentucky law says the police were justified in defending themselves, and so no criminal charges can apply. I understand the idea. I just think it is wrong and Kentucky law is an ass. As I said earlier, a fusillade of 20 shots which did not hit their intended target and which killed an innocent bystander cannot be a justified response. The city has agreed to a $12 million settlement, so they clearly understand the police’ actions were wrong.

As to the ruling, a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich if the DA wants them to. I must conclude that the DA handling the grand jury did not want any charges pressed. Charge the police and let them answer to a jury. If they are innocent the jury will so find.

Body Cameras

Well what a surprise. The Lousiville officers who broke down the door to Briana Taylor’s apartment and killed her while shooting at someone else did not have body cams.

Other Lousiville officers who killed a restaurant owner David McAtee for the crime of serving barbeque did not have their cameras turned on.

I think it is time we started treating police like airline pilots. The cockpit voice recorder and the digital flight data recorder are required pieces of equipment. The body cam should also be required equipment.

  • You cannot start a shift without one, in working order.
  • It stays on all the time.
  • If it stops working, you go back to the station.

Police argue that they can’t leave the cameras on because otherwise people won’t talk to them. You know what? Killing unarmed civilians also makes them reluctant to talk to you.

The Republican Party

I think it is now time to shut down the Republican Party. I am sorry to say that everyone who is a member of the Republican Party must be held responsible for the abomination that is Donald Trump.

If there are any members of the party who are actually conservatives and who loath what Trump is doing to the country, it is their duty to turn in their cards and hopefully start a new party which will hold to actual conservative principles. We need such a group, but the current bunch are just grifters

I will not vote for a Republican ever again. I kind of like my governor Charlie Baker, but so far he hasn’t quit the party and therefore I will hold him personally responsible for the actions and failures to act of the national party.

I call on all citizens to vote in November to remove every Republican from every office nationwide. They have lead the nation to ruin and are responsible for what has happened. They failed to hold their man to account at any point and now it is simply too late. Over 100,000 americans are dead from Covid-19 and it happened on their watch.

It’s like Harry Truman said, the buck stops here.

George Floyd, and too many others

George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed by police in Minneapolis last week.

The officer who killed him, and the three others who stood by and let it happen, were summarily fired, but in spite of video, none were arrested or charged until protests turned to riot.

The killer, officer Derik Chauvin had at least 17 misconduct complaints, mostly for excessive force, yet nothing was done.

The government, which records much data, somehow fails to record how many civilians are killed by police each year, but independent groups do keep track and the number is typically over 1000. The police kill black people at a rate almost three times the rate at which they kill white people. See for example https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/

I have some modest suggestions.

  • Cancel and renegotiate all police union contracts so that bad officers can be successfully removed from the force.
  • Write legislation to fix 42 USC section 1983, which permits people to sue the government for civil rights violations. The courts have pretty well eviscerated this law, so that it is nearly impossible to successfully sue in spite of the most egregious violations. Search for “qualified immunity”.
  • Require that all police killings be investigated and if appropriate, prosecuted by arms length teams who have no relationships with the local force. It is clearly obvious that local prosecutors will not do their jobs. All investigations must be made public. It is too important for anyone to hide behind privacy.
  • Any officer who kills a civilian should be placed in a desk job for at least a year. Every police killing <must> be tried by a jury of the public. Maybe it was justified, maybe not, but you don’t get a second chance to kill the people you are supposed to protect. All proceding must be made public.
  • All police discipline records must be public. Doctors have this, are they killing unarmed black men?
  • Terminated officers must not be rehired by any other police force.

I really don’t condone rioting, looting, or burning down cities as forms of protest, but since nothing less seems to work, I do understand the impulse.

Authentication

TLDR – when someone calls you and then asks you to authenticate yourself, they are doing it wrong. DO NOT ANSWER.

A while ago, I got a call from a brokerage house I use (Hello Vanguard!). The caller asked me for the answer for one of my challenge questions, to make sure I was actually me.

I burst out laughing.

This a surprisingly subtle issue, and to have a major brokerage get it wrong is both sad and scary.

The caller is the unknown party. The called person is not, at least with the current way the phone system works. Caller ID is easily spoofable. You cannot trust that a caller is who they claim to be.

As long as the phone system is ringing the correct phone, the recipient should be, if not the exact person you want, then someone nearby. There are certainly exceptions to this, such as SIM card hijacking, which is sadly easy as well, but for the most part, if you call 1-800-BIG-CORP from a phone, you are going to get the right people.

The reverse is not true. If 1-800-BIG-CORP calls you, you have no reason to believe it is really them. You must not give away ANY secret information. You must call back, using a number you find out by yourself, NOT one given to you over the phone.

Why is this important? If the caller is actually a scammer trying to break into your account, when they come to the “secret question”, they just call you pretending to be the bank and ask you for the answer! Don’t give it out.

The caller can be quite inventive about trying to convince you they are legitimate. Krebs on Security reports on recent cases in which callers knew details of recent transactions, for example, (see https://krebsonsecurity.com/2020/04/would-you-have-fallen-for-this-phone-scam/) Krebs gives the right advice, look up the number from public sources and call back, but he doesn’t explain the general principle.

The caller must authenticate themselves, not the callee.

This is also the reason why you should never click a link in an email message. There is no reason to trust such a thing. You must look up the link yourself, from public sources.

Ukraine Whistleblower

Mr. Trump says the whistleblower should be ignored because he reports second hand information.

The law does not require first hand knowledge. The report must only be urgent and credible, which it was found to be by the IG, who is a Trump appointee.

Mr. Trump says the whistleblower claims facts that are incorrect.

Mr. Trump himself released the transcript of the call, which confirms the representations made in the whistleblower report. The White House confirmed the movement of call records to the code-word server. The whistleblower noted Mr. Giuliani’s travels, and those have been confirmed on TV by Giuliani himself. The remaining mystery is who ordered the halt to Ukraine aid, which will be properly investigated by Congress.

Mr. Trump says the whistleblower has a political agenda.

That is unknown but irrelevant. It was the whistleblower’s clear duty to report his observations to the inspector general, through proper channels. After that, the IG and the DNI and the Congress are responsible for what follows. The IG and the DNI are Trump appointees.

Mr. Trump claims the whistleblower is a spy and public speech by Congressman Schiff is treason. Neither is true or possibly even legal. I certainly would like to see such statements clearly rejected by every American. Perhaps Twitter should close his access for inciting violence. Perhaps Mr. Trump can be sued for creating a hostile work environment/

In short, this isn’t about the whistleblower. It is about abuse of power and the, at this point, fairly obvious violations of his oath of the president. If Mr. Trump feels that the published whistleblower complaint and published (but incomplete) transcript of the call are incorrect, then his best course of action should be complete transparency, to get these “mistakes” cleared up quickly.

I read the whistleblower report. I recommend you do t0o. See https://intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/20190812_-_whistleblower_complaint_unclass.pdf

My own opinion is that this man or woman is both an excellent analyst and an excellent writer. I’ve heard a rumor that our local high school AP Government class may use this as an example of both.