Engineering

Clickbait Headlines

by Don Friedman on January 19, 2018


The failure of the spillway at the Oroville Dam in California was a big story last year. The spillway failure had the potential to cause an overall failure of the dam, which would have been catastrophic. Emergency measures to lower the water behind the dam and repair the spillway worked, and a disaster was averted.

As part of good engineering practice, the state ordered a forensic study of the failure, its causes, and ways to minimize the risk of similar failures. That report is comprehensive and available to the public. As is often true in situations like this, the report does not identify a single cause for the problem. Rather, it begins with:

The Oroville Dam spillway incident was caused by a long-term systemic failure of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), regulatory, and general industry practices to recognize and address inherent spillway design and construction weaknesses, poor bedrock quality, and deteriorated service spillway chute conditions. The incident cannot reasonably be “blamed” mainly on any one individual, group, or organization.

Over 500 pages of detail follow that statement. So far, so good. I haven’t read every word of the report yet, but I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t address the problems that led to the failure.

I learned that the report was available online from this article: Failed Oroville Dam Spillway designed by inexperienced grad student in the 1960s. That headline is frankly, garbage. A little further into the article, comes the statement: “The principal designer of the spillway told the dam-safety team that he had just completed post-graduate work at the time he worked on the Oroville project decades ago, had had no previous engineering employment beyond two summer stints, and had never designed a spillway before.” So the designer was not a grad student at the time, but rather a full-time employee of the DWR with a graduate degree. Unless the agency operated in a different manner than every other engineering organization in the country, his work would have been reviewed by other engineers at multiple check-points before construction began. The designer wasn’t a grad student and he was part of a group of engineers that designed the dam.

That kind of sensational headline raise fears for no good reason. It’s completely unnecessary to tell the story. Here’s a reasonable article with a reasonable headline: Governor appoints new chief at California’s troubled water agency. Engineering failures are frightening enough, and difficult enough for the average person to understand, without pandering to the worst get-clicks-at-any-cost instincts of the internet.

Common Problems

January 18, 2018

The latest issue of the CROSS (Confidential Reporting on Structural-Safety) newsletter is out and I had a weird feeling of déjà vu while reading it. In the same order as within the newsletter, the topics include: Commentary on the rather grim UK government review of fire safety triggered by the horrific Grenfell Tower fire, Report […]

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Raw Physics

January 14, 2018

The basis of a lot of structural engineering is the branch of physics known as “statics.” The picture above, taken at the Big Apple Circus a few weeks ago, is one of the finest demonstrations of balancing forces that I can imagine. (Click on it to enlarge and be awed.)

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Professional Engineer, but Forever a Student

January 12, 2018

  Sometime during my fall quarter as a freshman engineering student, I learned that there would be a test at the end of all of this, The Principles and Practice of Engineering (PE) Exam. Back then it seemed like such a ways off, but it registered to me as a personal goal that would ultimately […]

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A Fine Line

January 10, 2018

That’s an old picture of the Cleft Rock Bridge in Prospect Park, built in 1872 as one of the picturesque bridges that Olmsted and Vaux liked to use for grade separations in park designs. It’s a nice looking bridge, although not remarkable within O&V’s work. What makes it remarkable is that it’s not cut stone […]

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The ASCE Infrastructure Report Card

January 9, 2018

Every year, the American Society of Civil Engineers puts out a report card on the state of the nation’s infrastructure. That’s last year’s summary above, and the link has the details. What does it mean to say that our infrastructure is somewhere between mediocre and poor? Many of the areas of concern are less important […]

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A New Publication

January 8, 2018

Gabriel Pardo Redondo of OSE and Berta de Miguel Alcalá of Vertical Access‘s – not coincidently, a married couple – have a new paper out in Loggia on preservation engineering in New York. Somehow my name ended up on it, even though Gabi and Berta did about 98 percent of the work. If you go to […]

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Extreme Events

January 4, 2018

Today’s storm gives a good context for the loads that are code-mandated for use in building design and analysis. I’m going to make a point now, at the beginning, and again at the end because it’s so important: I’m not arguing against the loads defined in building codes, I’m simply comparing extreme events with ordinary […]

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A Precursor Design

December 28, 2017

That’s a view of the interior of the American Institute Hall, formerly the Empire City Skating Rink. The building filled most of the block between Second and Third Avenues, and 63rd and 64th Streets. Honestly, I’d never heard of it until a recent article on ice-skating mentioned it. It didn’t last long as a skating […]

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Safety Is An Essentially Contested Concept

December 21, 2017

That’s a view of the wreckage of the excursion steamer General Slocum, run aground in the Bronx after burning in the East River. Over 1000 people died during that incident, so I think it’s safe to say the ship was not safe. I recently came across the definition of an essentially contested concept, and I think […]

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