Moral railroads (update)

I wrote in the Moral Railroads post that the key to trustable systems is that they work right. A recent post at Metblogs points out one reason they may have failed: overregulation because of the demonization of a substance.

“In the aftermath of the crash on the Red Line between the Takoma and Fort Totten stations, Metro officials analyzed track circuit data and found that one circuit in the crash area intermittently lost its ability to detect a train. The circuit would report the presence of a train one moment, then a few seconds later the train would “disappear,” only to return again.”

It sounded to me like the same problems that have been encountered on the Space Shuttle, nuclear power plants, and various military systems. And that problem is tin whiskers.
The backstory: When people first started building electric circuits, they used tin metal to solder the interconnections between the copper bits. It wasn’t long before they noticed the tin would get “furry”, growing spiky whiskers as the part was used. These spikes could grow long enough to short out the circuits, and then were so weak that they would break off right after doing so. A smart metallurgist figured out that adding a small amount of lead to the tin alloy stopped this behavior.

Then, of course, the regulators demonized lead, because yes, it is poisonous in the long run if you eat or drink it. (Personally I’ve been able to keep my appetite for circuit boards under control.) So people die, and they blame “technology” rather than overzealous regulators.

Yet the activists admit that the amount of lead in electronics isn’t at dangerous levels; they say their ultimate goal is to shut down lead production entirely. (In the interest of full disclosure, I facilitated a study back in 2005 that predicted this, and only now is the military starting to address those findings.)
Hey, guys, maybe technology might need to trump politics for once?

… or that, God forbid, regulators be held accountable for the deaths they cause?

(Ht/ Ronald Bailey at Reason)

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