Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 16, 2013

Define homeland security? We can’t even define weight…

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on January 16, 2013

…or at least what a kilogram actually weighs.

Doesn’t it weigh a kilogram?  Maybe not:

The kilogram is unique in that it is defined by reference to a lump of crude, man-made stuff. Besides aesthetic niggles, that fact leads to an important practical problem. The international prototype kilogram (IPK), the technical name for the cylinder in Sèvres, does not in fact keep a constant mass. Over the years pollutants from the air settle on its surface, causing its mass to rise. Attempts to clean it then cause its mass to fall. As a result, what science understands by a kilogram has varied, but has done so in a way that is, by definition, unmeasurable.

The Economist editors raise a question often debated within the homeland security community:

Science would thus love to be free of this awkward lump of metal, but attempts to define mass objectively—with reference to, say, the mass of a proton—have always foundered on the question: “So how do you measure that?”

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1 Comment »

Comment by Ben

January 16, 2013 @ 10:45 am

The Enquirer article is a bit unfair – there are several active projects seeking to define the Kilogram relative to some physical constant. The Avogadro Project uses the mass of a silicon atom, the Watt balance ties mass to the Volt, and still others are looking at tying mass to the Plank constant, the ampere or other such quantities. What is undetermined at this time is which of these many efforts will end up determining THE standard kilogram in the future – and in 2014, there will be a meeting of the General Conference on Weights and Measures which will be discussing this.

To interject with some perspective, the mass of the International Prototype Kilogram (IPK) is estimated to have varied by 50 to 200 micrograms. That’s 0.0000002%. (Would that we were able to measure everything so precisely.)

Now, regardless of what happens in 2014, eventually, some constant will be chosen as the keystone of the Kilogram, but this will not end the fluctuation. As we devise more and more precise tests for measuring the universe, we will invariably revise our estimates of fundamental constants, and any unit of measure that is tied to that constant will see a subtle readjustment. Is this a problem? I think not.

So let’s tie this revised situation back to Homeland Security. In terms of measures (particularly of effectiveness), I think we’re still in medieval times. Everyone is developing their preferred measurement and right now we’re still using a living person’s foot as a unit of length. Joe’s ordering 6 feet of public safety from Jane, and Jane used her much smaller feet to measure it out. Joe now feels like he got the shaft (or was that a rod? How long is a rod, again?).

So here’s where I offer a somewhat controversial proposal: We have incredibly precise measurements for physical things that are based off of known or defined constants. Let’s pick a relative constant and use it for measuring effectiveness in the HLS world. I suggest that we use the VSL – the value of a statistical life. This isn’t perfect for a variety of reasons, one of which is that it’s not easy to determine exactly what this number is. But most government agencies already pick some number and use it for performing risk-benefits analysis.

For example: let’s imagine that we pick a really large value for the VSL: $10 million. Now, let’s consider what we should be willing to spend on a program that is estimated to save 1000 lives over a decade. That’s $1 billion per year. (If this seems like too much, then you will be advocating a lower value for the VSL.) But with this number, we can start to make effective comparisons: What benefit must a dive team, tower rescue training, a fancy new fire truck, new regulations, or a new government agency offer in order to make it worth the expense? After these things exist, how do we measure their effectiveness to determine if we should maintain them? Of late, I’ve seen too much posturing and too many “at all costs” solutions, with little justification.

The principal problem with the VSL is that nobody wants to have a conversation about it. If you ask someone what a human life is, the answer is frequently “priceless”. While this is the attitude that some in the HLS community have been taking, asking a slightly deeper questions reveals no one is willing to impoverish themselves on behalf of a statistical person. Pinning down an exact number is a deeply disquieting exercise for most people, but it’s a conversation that we desperately need to have at the national level.

If not, well, then the car salesmen of the HLS and Military world are going to take us for quite a ride.

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