When Towers and Trust Collapse

The BBC is running a story about 9/11 conspiracy theories:

On 11 September 2001, four passenger planes were hijacked by radical Islamist terrorists – almost 3,000 people were killed as the aircraft were flown into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. Just hours after the collapse of New York’s Twin Towers, a conspiracy theory surfaced online which persists more than 16 years later.

“Is it just me?” an internet user named David Rostcheck wrote, “or did anyone else recognise that it wasn’t the airplane impacts that blew up the World Trade Centre?

“I hope other people are actually catching this, but I haven’t seen anyone say it yet, so I guess I will. There’s no doubt that the planes hit the building and did a lot of damage. But look at the footage – those buildings were demolished,” he continued. “To demolish a building, you don’t need all that much explosive but it needs to be placed in the correct places… Someone had to have a lot of access to all of both towers and a lot of time to do this. This is pretty grim. The really dire part is – what were the planes for?”

Subsequent investigations made it clear that the tower structures were weakened by the inferno from the planes and felled by the weight of collapsing floors. However even now some people refuse to believe this version of events.

I watched the towers collapse on a television in the conference room of an engineering consultancy, surrounded by civil and structural engineers. None of us could believe what we saw, and many of us thought an airplane crashing into the towers couldn’t cause the towers to collapse as they did. A few months later some American TV station aired a program explaining exactly how they collapsed, someone recorded it, and we all packed into the same conference room to watch it. Everyone came away fully satisfied by the explanations given.

The video explained that the two towers fell in quite different ways. Their construction consisted of an inner steel core and an outer shell, held together by cross-braces made of light steel. Neither the inner core or outer shell could stand independently, so the cross bracing was essential. When the aircraft struck the impact knocked off a lot of the fire protection, and the subsequent fire weakened the cross bracing to the point the outer shell fell away, causing the entire tower to collapse. In one video clip you can actually see the core standing on its own for a fraction of a second before it too collapsed to the ground. The other tower fell differently. When the aircraft struck, the resulting fire weakened the supporting steel above the impact point so the entire (intact) tower section above slammed into the floor below, which gave way, and the process repeated through several floors bringing the entire structure crashing down. Although burning jet fuel is insufficient to melt steel, any increase in temperature beyond a certain point severely reduces its structural strength, and temperatures far exceeded that point.

There are many inexplicable elements to 9/11, but most have to do with the fact that this event was entirely without precedent. Nobody could possibly have predicted what would happen should two colossal skyscrapers come crashing down in sequence in the middle of a city, and the mechanisms it triggered in the immediate surroundings will never be properly understood. People say WTC 7 (or whatever) should not have collapsed in the way it did; well, nobody knows how a building is going to behave subject to forces of that nature, all we can do is look at the wreckage and try to figure it out. If the same thing was repeated half a dozen times we might get a better idea, but until then there will always be a lot of odd phenomena about 9/11 we can’t explain. This is what conspiracy theorists rely on when peddling their nonsense.

However, the point of my post is to highlight how much times have changed. When 9/11 occurred there was still some semblance of trust in the US government, and only demented conspiracy theorists believed it would be an inside job. Most people were even on board with the official explanation, which seemed to make sense to me. I certainly can’t see any reason not to believe the official version of events, at least those concerning the WTC and the Pentagon (the story of Flight 93 lends itself to some manipulation, not least because we don’t know for sure what the target was and how it was brought down). But public trust took a huge knock a year later when George W. Bush and co. started banging on about Iraq’s nuclear weapons and resorting to complete bullshit to make the case for war. Since then things have gone rapidly downhill: the Obama years saw the utter corruption of government agencies, flat-out lies concerning Benghazi and Fast and Furious, and since Trump’s election it’s been non-stop disinformation regarding Russia’s alleged interference in US politics. To cap it all, we had a gunman firing hundreds of rounds into a crowd in Las Vegas and after a brief period of feeding the public contemptible bullshit, law enforcement officials and politicians have decided they’re not going to tell anyone what happened, and the media aren’t in the slightest bit interested in finding out. The government’s reaction to this event was so remarkable that even normal, balanced people were convinced something was rotten about the whole thing. And we’re still waiting for answers, by the way.

So my point is that the 9/11 conspiracy theories are nonsense, but if 9/11 happened today the public would have every reason to think they were being told a pack of lies from the outset and they’d almost certainly be right. This collapse in public trust may prove almost as catastrophic as the collapse of the towers themselves.

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Natural Limits

To kick this post off, here’s a photo of the world’s largest dump truck, the BelAz 75710 made in Belarus.

I once read that a rubber tyre with a diameter larger than about 18 feet (5.4m) quickly becomes impractical. Similarly, even though an Airbus A380 is considerably larger than the Wright brothers’ flyer, nobody has built an aeroplane a mile long capable of carrying several thousand passengers. We’re probably approaching the limit on ship size, and although skyscrapers are getting ever-taller they’ll top-out eventually. My point is that there is a limit to things, and in these examples they are governed by the laws of physics and the physical properties of materials, air, and water.

Some things don’t scale, and even when they do, it’s not necessarily in a linear manner. I first went to Singapore when I was 23 and couldn’t believe how well-run the place was. My first thought was that everywhere should be run as well as Singapore, using the same methods. Now I’m a bit older I realise that running a city state of 5.6m people condensed into an island of 278 square miles isn’t the same as running a country of 70m people spread across 93,600 square miles. As societies grow from families to tribes to towns to cities to nation states, different methods of maintaining cohesion and control are needed at each step. In short, human societies don’t scale.

In my previous post I wrote about the behaviour of Pope Francis. Now if the Pope can’t be bothered defending the Catholic church and prefers to pander to people who will, once they have the numbers, kill his followers and burn his palace to the ground, it’s a sign that things have gone badly wrong somewhere. I cite this because it exemplifies what is going on in the western world today: every single major institution I can think of seems to be in the final throes of self-destruction, abject surrender to its enemies, or suicide. Many of these institutions have for centuries formed the foundation of western societies and have contributed substantially to their success, yet they are being destroyed by the very people who have been charged with their guardianship.

I’ve spent a while thinking about this and I reckon it has something to do with what I described earlier. Just as mechanical systems run into physical limitations beyond which they don’t work, there is probably a point beyond which human societies simply fail to hold themselves together and self-destruct. Human’s are odd creatures, and thrive when faced with hardship. The capacity of humans to overcome the most appalling conditions and adapt in order to survive is incredible, matched only by our ability to constantly seek to improve our lives. There is an optimum level of stress for humans: too much and we can’t function beyond the basics to stay alive, but too little and we become equally useless.

Insofar as western, Christian societies have gone most societal and technological advances appear to have come about as a result of people wanting to ensure Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are not only met, but permanently assured – particularly those at the bottom of the pyramid. These societies have become so wealthy that Maslow’s needs are now met by default for tens of millions of people. Furthermore, this has been going on so long that anyone born in western society who ever worried about these things is well over seventy. Anyone younger than that, generally speaking, has had the easiest ride in the entire history of mankind.

It is probably no coincidence that it’s these younger people who now seem so determined to destroy the foundations of the society they’ve been raised in. I found when I lived in under-developed countries that people there are completely unconcerned about the minutiae of politics; they are only interested in the important matters that directly affect them and their families. As an example, the only people in the entire world interested in transgender rights are white, western liberals. For everyone else, it is simply a non-issue. Russians were mainly interested in their salaries, their mothers’ pensions, and the price of a decent car. Nigerians were chiefly concerned about their salaries, job security, and the levels of violence and corruption in their country. People who come from places where the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are not assured tend to focus on important issues and ignore the rest.

So I have a theory. Just as a you can’t use a rubber tyre beyond 18 feet in diameter due to natural limitations, there is a limit to which human societies can grow in terms of wealth and comfort. Beyond a certain point, the bonds which hold the society together, which have been painstakingly constructed over centuries, get cut because people no longer realise what they’re for and the whole thing collapses. It might be that this societal limit is relative – either in terms of other societies around it, or perhaps the rate of change from earlier generations – but I am reasonably sure that such a limit nonetheless exists.

One thing I notice in the language of progressives is a hubristic certainty that their version of society, once shaped, will last forever because there is nothing left to discuss, as if their vision is inevitable. Personally, I don’t think we’ll see a whole lot of advancement from this point on; I don’t think we’re going to be looking at a future of interstellar travel and permanent luxury, but a world where everyone now needs to remember how much hard work, cooperation, and violence is required to get the bottom of that pyramid of needs met. Perhaps in time humankind will recover from the setback and rebuild, just as Europeans eventually managed to meet and then surpass the levels of sophistication the Romans achieved, but it may take centuries if not longer.

I might be wrong, but there is one thing I am absolutely sure of. Historians will look back on this era and prevailing opinions regarding matters such as immigration, religion, political violence, war, economics, taxation, redistribution, procreation, welfare, race, law and order, and politics and marvel at how we blindly assumed western civilisation would survive. I’d also make a tidy bet they too will talk about how the collapse was inevitable once we’d reached a certain level of wealth and comfort. I concede they might not use a dump truck to illustrate the point, though.

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A Detail of the Berlin Wall

Once, when watching a documentary on the history of the Berlin Wall, I learned something I’ve never been able to forget:

That rounded piece on top of the wall was obviously put there to make it harder to climb over. When I visited Berlin in 1995 and saw a preserved section, I assumed it was moulded as part of the wall itself. But according to this documentary, it was just a bog-standard piece of concrete pipe with a longitudinal section cut out and plonked over the top. I always thought this level of crudity was apt for what the wall was, and what it represented.

I also read last week that the Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up. If anyone were to look around now, they’d scarcely believe the thing ever existed or the Communists lost the Cold War and the right side won.

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The Grenfell Tower and Sprinklers

From the BBC:

London’s fire commissioner says the Grenfell Tower blaze must be a “turning point”, calling for sprinklers in all high-rise council flats.

Dany Cotton, commissioner of the London Fire Brigade, said: “I think Grenfell should be a turning point.

“I support retrofitting – for me where you can save one life then it’s worth doing.

“This can’t be optional, it can’t be a nice to have, this is something that must happen.

“If that isn’t one of the recommendations (of the Grenfell Tower inquiry) then I will be so very disappointed.”

Firstly a little on the background of Dany Cotton:

Since 2017, she has served as the Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade and is the first woman to hold this position. She had previously been the Director of Safety and Assurance at the London Fire Brigade. In 2004 Cotton became the first woman to be awarded the Queen’s Fire Service Medal. She is the National Chair of Networking Women in the Fire Service.

Aged 19, she had been a full fire-fighter for just three months when she attended the Clapham Junction rail crash. In 2007, she was assigned the post of Area Commander, becoming the highest-ranking woman in the British Fire Service.

Her professional biography seems to be a lot more about being a woman than a firefighter. But let’s look at her remarks.

Retrofitting sprinklers into an existing building will be extortionately expensive:

Croydon Council, in south London, has taken the decision to retrofit sprinklers in its 25 high-rise blocks at a cost of £10m.

I bet that figure will triple. Of course, somebody who has only every worked for a taxpayer-funded organisation like Cotton wouldn’t care too much about what things cost. Look at this statement again:

for me where you can save one life then it’s worth doing.

For a public servant in charge of safety to come out with this is rather illuminating, as it appears she has no idea about how resources are applied to minimise risk. When it comes to safety, you want to spend the money in the areas where it will have the most impact. For example, do you spend £10m on sprinkler systems if the same money spent on networked fire alarms and better fire doors would save more lives? This is something a risk assessment and cost benefit analysis would tell us, and this is what should have been done. The fact that we have the head of the London Fire Brigade saying sprinklers should be retrofitted regardless of cost and their effectiveness suggests that it hasn’t. Then again, nobody seems even in the slightest bit interested in what caused the initial fire, so perhaps we ought not be surprised.

The money from these sprinklers has to come from somewhere, and this will mean cuts to other services or an increase in rents. If the latter, it will push those at the margins into cheaper, less safe accommodation. The video here is not an outtake from The Lord of the Rings but an interview with a spectacularly smug and idiotic Welsh MP talking about Wales being the first country ever to make sprinklers mandatory in all new homes:

I hope they will just look and listen, and I think this idea about over-burdening and over-regulating has proved that we do have to have those regulations. You know, sprinklers have been around since 1886 and the building industry haven’t used them successfully so, you know, if you’re not going to use them in goodwill, then as we have done in Wales, we’ll mandate for you to use them to keep people safe.

Aside from the first sentence being gibberish, at no point does it occur to her that there are good reasons why not a single country in the world has insisted sprinklers are installed in ordinary homes since their alleged invention in 1886. But apparently the Welsh know better and have made it compulsory, and now want to foist this idiocy on the rest of the country.

All this will do is push up the cost of housing, which in the UK is the last thing you want to do. Again, this will simply push those at the margins into cheaper, less safe accommodation. And presumably all homeowners and tenants will know exactly how these systems work and are maintained. I know I wouldn’t.

There’s also the issue of how effective sprinklers are in houses and flats. My understanding, at least from how they’re deployed on oil and gas installations, is they exist to keep surfaces cool and stop fires spreading as opposed to putting fires out. From what I can work out, the fire protection philosophy in buildings is to contain the fire using fire doors, use sprinklers to stop it spreading and keep the escape ways clear, giving you time to evacuate. The fire brigade then come in and put the fire out. In other words, they make sense in places with a proper evacuation plan but not so much in stand-alone private residences.

Interestingly, I’m sat in a 40-storey tower built between 1982-85 which has no sprinkler system. They have fire hoses on each floor but (and I’ve just checked) no sprinklers in the offices, corridors, or stairwells. Is the building unsafe? Probably not. Every door is a fire door, they have a decent alarm system and in the event it goes off everyone evacuates. I suspect a more modern tower would have a sprinkler system in, but I am reasonably sure its purpose would not be to put out an actual fire.

Would sprinkler systems help in a tower like Grenfell? Probably. Would they make much difference in the absence of fire doors and an evacuation procedure? Probably not. They might keep the stairwell clear, but if they’re installed in the apartments themselves you can expect a lot of spurious discharges as people set them off by mistake or maliciously, which would upset those in the flats below. Are they worth the money? In a new-build block, probably. But to insist they’re retrofitted regardless of cost or the lives they’ll save is madness, as is mandating their installation in new-build houses. The money would be far better spent on other fire-safety measures.

I think people have seized upon sprinklers as the solution of the day without really knowing what they’re for or how they work, let alone what they cost. That the head of the London Fire Brigade doesn’t seem to know any better ought to shock, but actually it doesn’t, not at all. This is the new normal. At least she’s got a few medals.

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Bridges Collapsing during Construction

My research assistant, who I thought had been slacking off recently, sends me this story:

On June 26, just two weeks after an “inspection” by President Uhuru Kenyatta, a $12 million Chinese-built Sigiri bridge in Western Kenya collapsed before it was completed.

Built by the Chinese Overseas Construction and Engineering Company in Busia County, the bridge connects a region that has historically lacked government investment and development. Around a dozen people died on the river after a boat capsized while attempting to cross in 2014.

I suspect she forwarded it to me thinking I was involved in the design – a reasonable assumption, given the results. But alas, nothing to do with me.

I doubt this is much of a story, actually. The first thing that strikes me is $12m is rather cheap for a bridge, even a relatively small one. And bear in mind this is in the middle of nowhere, which would account for a lot of the costs. Sure, the Chinese have screwed up but at that price, who cares? Just build another one a little further down.

Bridges are prone to failure during construction as, depending on the method, they see stresses during construction they would not normally be subject to once built. I have no idea what happened to the bridge in Kenya – from the photo it looks as though it’s simply sheared off at the far end – but at university I studied the case of the Cleddau Bridge in Pembroke Dock:

The bridge was expected to be completed by March 1971, however on 2 June 1970 a 70 m (230 ft) cantilever being used to put one of the 150-tonne sections into position collapsed on the Pembroke Dock-side of the estuary. Four workers died and five were injured. Construction was halted until October 1972.

(More pics here)

I took an interest in this case study because I used to cross the Cleddau Bridge often as a kid (the lecturer pronounced it Cledd-ow; correctly, it’s Cleth-aye). A section of the box-girder bridge was being extended in cantilever towards its permanent support when it buckled, resulting in catastrophic failure (this word document explains it well). Once installed on both piers, the completed section would have easily been strong enough, but in cantilever it is subjected to much higher stresses.

While this incident is largely forgotten, the collapse of Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge during construction a few months later brought about a global rethink on box-girder bridges. The cause of failure were different, but the failure modes similar (i.e. buckling of a cantilevered span during construction). I’ve both driven over and sailed under the West Gate Bridge, and each time I thought of the Cleddau Bridge back home.

Thankfully, we seem to have learned how to build large bridges without having them collapse during construction. Cheap bridges in remote parts of Africa? We’re getting there. At least nobody was killed (well, we hope: none was reported, anyway).

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Two Approaches to Safety

Tim Worstall makes the following remark in response to a column by Polly Toynbee:

There was significant regulation here. What there wasn’t was responsibility. And a little more of the second can be very much more important than the first. Whether we call it the Clerk of Works, or professional responsibility, whatever, that one individual–and yes, making it one person does concentrate minds wonderfully–owns a project, the benefits and failures of it in that liability sense, tends to make things safer. On the very sensible basis that someone with their knackers potentially in the vice tends to pay attention. Box ticking doesn’t have quite the same effect.

This is absolutely correct.

In the wake of Piper Alpha, the regulations governing North Sea oil and gas operations were completely overhauled to address the many, many shortcomings that had led to the world’s worst oilfield disaster. One of them was to adopt what is known in the industry as a risk-based approach to safety, and put the responsibility to implement it on the shoulders of the operating companies.

What this means in practice is this. Each company must demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the UK HSE and – God forbid – a tribunal or court in the event of an accident, that the residual risks have been minimised to a degree which is As Low As Reasonable Practicable (ALARP). Residual risk is the term used to described the risks associated with a facility or operation which remain once mitigation and prevention measures have been implemented. This is important: playing around with highly volatile hydrocarbons is an inherently dangerous business, and there will always be risks associated with it. The requirement is not to eliminate risks entirely, as that would entail leaving the hydrocarbons in the ground, but to minimise the risks that remain once you’ve done all you can.

This is the principle of ALARP: “reasonably practicable” is an open term with no strict definition, but is well understood in the risk management industry. It recognises the fact that money spent on safety and minimising risks is a scarce resource and must be properly targetted. If open-ended safety obligations are demanded of an oil company, commercial operations will cease.

Most important is the word demonstrate, which is why I emboldened it. How a company demonstrates that it has minimised the risks associated with its operations is largely up to them, but the North Sea has developed a standard process (with associated tools and techniques) which all operators now follow. In short, it consists of:

1. Identifying potential hazards and the events they could lead to.

2. Identifying the consequences of such events should they occur, in terms of effects on humans, the environment, the asset, and the company reputation.

3. Identifying what can be done to prevent the event (preventative measures).

4.Identifying what can be done to mitigate the impact of the event, should it occur (mitigation measures).

5. How the company intends to manage the residual risks of their operations once 3 and 4 have been implemented.

This process focuses the minds of those charged with designing, building, and operating the installations to ensure the residual risks are ALARP, and can indeed be demonstrated to the satisfaction of anyone who may ask (e.g. regulatory bodies). I am heavily involved in this entire process as my day-job, and have been for years. I take the approach that if I find myself hauled in front of a court facing twenty to thirty years in an African prison for manslaughter, can I demonstrate that I did everything I could do minimise the risks associated with the installation? I am not exaggerating, I really do think this. In Nigeria I was responsible for signing off designs. Gulp.

By telling companies that they have to demonstrate their facilities and operations are as safe as they can be, and all potentially catastrophic scenarios have been thought of and addressed, it forces them to take responsibility for the complete design and operation. Moreover, it forces them to consider the installation as a whole, i.e. how the different systems interact with one another, and address the unique complexities of their particular situation.

The alternative system is one whereby clever people draw up a set of rules and regulations that must be followed, and if a company does then – in theory – the installation will be safe. This is called a prescriptive-based approach to safety. In effect it’s a giant box-ticking exercise, which involves little actual thinking on the part of the design engineers and allows them to shift responsibility to those who drafted the regulations if something goes wrong. As far as I am aware, this is how most industries are regulated: companies obtain a set of prescriptive rules and regulations and if they follow them to the letter, they are covered. Indeed, this is how the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) works, and this approach is applied to their own oilfields.

The shortcomings of the prescriptive-based approach are obvious, but a risk-based approach is more complicated and expensive to implement. However, the lessons from Piper Alpha might well be dusted off and re-learned in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. I highly doubt that the British building regulatory regime allowed banned cladding to be installed: I am reasonably certain that it was quite legal. However, they were clearly not suitable for the application, because nobody considered the cladding system as a whole as it was installed on that particular tower, and what might happen in the event of a fire. All they did was select a panel type that was approved by the regulations, comply with all the other regulations, and assume they were safe.

The problem with prescriptive regulations is that they cannot anticipate every scenario, and it only takes one unique application of a certain product or system to leave the whole thing prone to a catastrophe. Or course lessons will be learned from the Grenfell Tower fire and that particular gap will be closed, but others will remain so long as we insist on a prescriptive-based approach to safety. The irony is that all those people calling for companies to take greater responsibility for the works they carry out are likely to be the same people calling for greater regulation, which will inevitably be of the prescriptive type. The two demands are not compatible: either we tell companies to follow the regulations, or we tell them to proceed as they see fit but demonstrate to the regulators that they’ve done the job properly and take full responsibility if it later proves they haven’t.

My guess is we’ll end up with an unhealthy mess of both: companies told to follow regulations but also carry the can when those regulations prove to be inadequate, leading to increased prices, a lack of transparency, and yet more cosy partnerships and conflicts of interest between private businesses and those writing the regulations. None of this will make the public any safer.

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Laurie Penny is not a nerd, and never will be

This caught my attention yesterday:

For those who might not know, Laurie Penny is a feminist journalist and author who studied English at Oxford and has appeared on the BBC, Channel 4, and in the New Statesmen, Guardian, and Morning Star almost always to express her political views. She is extremely outspoken and loves both stirring up trouble and getting attention, including writing about her polyamorous lifestyle in a national newspaper. The Daily Telegraph called her “”without doubt the loudest and most controversial female voice on the radical left.”

Does this sound like a nerd to you? No, me neither.

There was a time when to be a nerd you had to be good at science, technology, engineering, or maths (STEM) to the detriment of everything else. Or at least you had to be more interested in these subjects than most other people were, which made you socially inept as a teenager. Given that I studied maths, physics, and chemisty for A-level, did a Mechanical Engineering degree, and have (sort of) worked as an engineer for most of my career, believe me when I say I know what nerds are.

Nerds can be women. My first girlfriend back in university was a nerd, one of those one-in-million geniuses who could understand calculus without being taught, was blind as a bat, and if she spilled a glass of water the next thing she’d do was step in it by mistake. I knew another female nerd here in Paris, some maths whizz who worked for one of the international finance groups and numbers excited her. Wander around the geoscience department of a major oil company and you’ll see plenty of female nerds, although they are outnumbered by the men. The geologists are the most weird of all. They wear cargo pants and lumberjack shirts and take two-week holidays to go and visit an outcrop somewhere.

Being a nerd is about personality, which drives what you study. Nerds pay obsessive attention to detail, which suits STEM subjects where accuracy is more important than creativity. This is why nerds never really grow out of it. The engineers I work with are no longer the awkward teenagers they once were, but they still engage in the same hobbies. A colleague and friend of mine is from Malaysia, has a PhD, and wears glasses. His hobby is building amplifiers the old fashioned way using valves. Sometimes the stereotypes write themselves. Another colleague, a Venezuelan, heard about this and the two of them built one together. Both of them are around forty. Other engineer friends of mine are obsessed with whatever kit and equipment is associated to their hobby: biking, skiing, sailing, music. For them fiddling with the kit is three-quarters of the fun. Me? I have been known to build Airfix models as an adult and if I had the time and space I’d build a model railway. And I play the banjo. Enough said? I think so.

So why would an obvious non-nerd like Laurie claim to be one? Simple: in the modern world nerds are successful (once they grow up) and nerds are one of the few female groups who genuinely don’t need looks to gain attention, recognition, and progress in their careers. By claiming to be a nerd, Laurie is implying that she is highly intelligent and is respected in a field which requires a lot of hard work and dedication to enter. She says this in order to offset the physical disparity between her and the models, something nerds of both sexes do. Laurie is intelligent, but nobody would call a polemical feminist writer with such a craving for attention a nerd. Except herself, when asked to stand alongside a bunch of models.

It cannot be ignored that nerds tend to get well-paying jobs in stark contrast to those who study sociology or gender studies. Whatever it is nerds have, employers like it. Also, TV shows like Mythbusters and The Big Bang Theory repainted the nerd as an eccentric with a certain charm. The combination is to make the adult nerd somewhat endearing in terms of character and overall station in life (with the caveat that there are limits to the nerdiness). By calling herself a nerd, Laurie is attempting to portray herself as a loveable eccentric whose idiosyncrasies and quirks will be overlooked in light of her superior intellect and high-standing among like-minded peers.

Naturally, there are men falling over themselves to validate Laurie’s claims in the replies to her Tweet, probably thinking it will get them laid, but she’s not a nerd and never will be. That title is bestowed upon you by others, not awarded to yourself whenever you need a cutesy persona.

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French v British Car Parking

There’s a decent discussion going on over at Tim Worstall’s about the state of car parking in British towns and cities.

One of the things I have noticed over my years in France is the presence of large underground car parks in French towns and cities, even the very old ones with lots of heritage buildings. People complain about not being able to find a parking space in Paris because they are looking for the free ones at street level, not the ones in dedicated car parks. When I was in Bordeaux last weekend I came across the entrance to an underground car park in a small square surrounded by old buildings:

According to the website there are 196 places down there.

You almost never see these municipal underground car parks in British towns and cities. Instead, you get surface or hideous multi-storey car parks. The same is true for residential buildings. In France, most modern apartment blocks come with two or three layers of basement parking (plus an extremely useful set of storage rooms). When I’ve looked at these I imagine construction starts by digging a gigantic hole and pouring a lot of concrete to make the car parks, then putting the building on top. You rarely see this in the UK. Most apartment blocks there have a ridiculously undersized surface car park and residents who don’t have their own space are expected to park on the streets.

I have heard various excuses for this. Apparently parking cars at street level is safer, as criminals have to operate in full view of everyone. Which British criminals appear to do anyway, so this is a stupid idea. Other people mumble about the water table or proximity to a river. I don’t buy this, either. There is an underground car park in Annecy which spirals downwards into the ground for at least a hundred metres, possibly more. It is located right beside a canal that leads to the lake some 100m away. The car park in Bordeaux pictured above is about 200m from the river. Proximity to water and geology doesn’t seem to be much of an impediment to building underground car parks in France.

My guess is that underground car parks (both municipal and residential) require specific civil engineering skills that British construction firms lack, and they cost money. British councils and developers being what they are, they will use every excuse in the book to avoid spending money on a quality job. If there is a corner to be cut they will do so, the consequences down the track be damned. So a developer will seize on any reason not to build an underground car park if they can get away with a strip of tarmac instead. It’s not like they can’t flog the apartments for a king’s ransom anyway. Continue this for a while and soon you’ll not be able to find any contractors who have the skills and experience to do build them anyway. And here we are.

I’ll wrap this up by saying French civil engineering is extremely good, and I could cite many examples in support of this statement. I may return to this topic in future.

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Age, Experience, and Project Management

In a thread over at ZMan’s place somebody left the following comment:

The point appears to be that a young engineer entering into the workforce should shut up and listen to his elders and betters instead of getting ideas above his station about wanting to be a project manager. From experience I can say that this attitude is common in industry, or at least it was 15-20 years ago.

At first glance it makes sense. It is unthinkable that somebody with no experience should be put in charge of those who have twenty years under their belts, and I know too well the disaster that can unfold when over-educated bright young things are given the run of a place at the expense of older people who know what they’re doing. The problem is this assumes the problem is peoples’ age rather than simple shit management.

There is no reason why somebody young and with very little experience cannot be a project manager. The key is to give them a project which is small, easily manageable, and not very important. It can be something as simple as reorganising a warehouse. The idea is they understand the fundamentals of project delivery early on, when failure doesn’t matter and there are plenty of people to jump in and help out. Chances are on the first day he’ll start issuing instructions to one of the old hands who will roundly put him in his place, and he’ll have learned a valuable lesson: some of the old hands are worth listening to, and you need them. But that doesn’t mean they ought to be in charge. He’ll also learn about planning, preparation, organisation, reporting, budgets, etc. in an environment that is more forgiving than he can expect in future. If he does well he can be given a slightly bigger project, and then another, and so on across a whole career.

The skills required in a project manager are wildly different from those required to be a good discipline engineer. The two require different personalities for a start. There is no reason to think that one must prove oneself as an engineer before becoming a project manager. I would advise that one still needs to be an engineer, or technical at least. You wouldn’t want a historian turning his hand to industrial project management. But you wouldn’t want an engineer with 20 years’ experience doing so either.

The mistake a lot of companies make is taking their best, most experienced engineer and giving him his first project management role at age 40. The skillset is completely different, but companies have this annoying habit of thinking project management is something anyone can do on the fly. What happens is the engineer hates the role – he’d rather have stayed as an engineer, but likes the increased pay, prestige, and “manager” title – and does a lousy job. All of the fundamentals of project management are completely new to him and he has been put on a large, complex project with many pitfalls. This is no place to be learning the ropes. His reaction will be to hunker down into what he knows best – the minute details – and start trying to micromanage everything, because he doesn’t know how to delegate, doesn’t trust anyone, and believes everyone is winging it as much as he is. Micromanagement is a sure sign the person in question is not confident in their own abilities; those who are don’t micromanage, because the idea of somebody being competent is not alien to them. You can often tell what discipline a project manager comes from because they try to do all the design of that area themselves. Meanwhile the project management tasks – particularly communication and organisation – don’t get done.

The genuine old hand engineers know this. Provided they are used properly and treated with respect, they have no problem reporting to young whippersnapper project managers. This is unsurprising when you consider the military: young men with no experience are taught a specific set of skills and are then put in command of much older and more experienced men (the NCOs) with a different set of skills. It is vital that each respects the other’s role and experience for it to work, but it’s been proven to work over centuries. The decent old hands will help the young, ambitious guys not shoot them down.

The sort of old hands who come out with the remarks like those in the comment I quote above are almost always bitter individuals whose own ordinariness or incompetence has left them in the same position for the past two decades and all they have to fall back on is their time served. They make the mistake of equating time served with experience, and compound it by believing such experience is more important than competence. One of the best project managers I worked with was inexperienced, but boy was he competent. I’ve lost count of the number of “experienced” project managers I’ve come across whose entire career was a litany of blithering incompetence.

I’d say to any young engineer, treat any old hand engineer with a healthy skepticism until you’ve figured out those who are worth talking to. And then you listen to everything they have to say.

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What Engineering Doesn’t Need

This rubbish appeared in The Guardian a few days ago:

Thirty years ago, when I was struggling to find work as a chemical engineer, I was used as a case study in a newspaper article about the barriers facing black graduates. Back then we were being told industry was crying out for engineers, so I and many of my black colleagues on similar courses, with good grades, and with similar jobs-market difficulties, couldn’t understand why the industry didn’t seem to want us.

Fast-forward 30 years, and it seems nothing’s changed. This week a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering has revealed that black and minority ethnic graduates are twice as likely to be underemployed two years after finishing their studies than their white counterparts are – and that’s despite attending similar universities and achieving similar grades.

In my experience one is an engineer first and foremost, and one’s ethnicity, nationality, sex, etc. are very much secondary and barely considered at all by one’s peers.  I have worked in engineering teams made up of a bewildering array of nationalities and skin colours, and never once have I heard an engineer being criticised or bad-mouthed by their colleagues for anything other than being a shit engineer (managers will criticise good engineers for not being on-message and sufficiently subservient, but that’s a separate issue and one that is equally colourblind).

I have spent the past three years in an engineering team made up of both men and women from the UK, France, Jamaica, Russia, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Syria, and Venezuela, and we cover every hue on the spectrum of possible skin colours (I slot firmly into the category of “pasty white”).  When a new project arises I find myself paired off with another team member, and this can be anyone.  The first thought that comes to mind when I learn with whom I will be working is how experienced they are on this type of study and how good they are technically and professionally.  At no point – and I am being 100% truthful here – do I care what nationality, skin colour, or sex they are.  All I’m interested in is their technical ability, and I am sure this goes for almost every other engineer I have worked with.  If they can deliver on the technical stuff, nobody cares if you’re black, white, or bright purple with green spots.  Things may have been different 30 years ago, but this is how they are now.  Hence I am skeptical.

In fact, it found that being in an ethnic minority was a bigger obstacle to employment than any other factor they considered – including degree classification, attending a less prestigious university, or gender.

The report is here, and looks to me as though somebody set out to prove that engineers’ ethnicity was keeping them unemployed and did just that.  Anyone who thinks there is a lack of ethnic Chinese or Indians in engineering teams across all disciplines is likely on good terms with a guide dog, but of course the report doesn’t go into such detail: instead it lumps everyone together as Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) and then later, in trying to control for other factors, splits that out into Black and Asian (presumably throwing Indians, Chinese, and Indonesians into the same pot).

Despite my experiences, this came as a shock. I actually thought things were getting better.

Well, if your experiences are telling you one thing but a Diversity Report from an industry body says different, who are you to believe?

When I graduated, in 1987, the world was quite a different place.

Yes, it was.

Diversity had not entered the mainstream conversation.

Yes, those were the days when we weren’t being ordered to take somebody’s skin colour into account when doing engineering work.

It was clear there was inequality, but no one seemed to care. I saw many opportunities pass by that I felt I was more than qualified for.

Yes, this is what happens in an industry where “experience” is equated with “years on the job” and weak managers and HR departments insist on hiring people with 15-20 years experience for jobs an intern could do.  When I moved to Sakhalin it was for a job that I had applied for online on one of the main oil and gas career websites.  It was the one solitary job I was offered in well over a hundred applications, and this was in the middle of the biggest boom the industry had ever seen and they were hiring people straight out of the military in management and supervisory positions.  Life is extremely difficult for young engineers just starting out, even if you’re an Anglo-Saxon white male such as me. See my Recruitment category for my earlier rants about this.

I remember one excruciating meeting at which my interviewer, despite knowing my qualifications and experience before inviting me along, barely asked me a question.

Welcome to engineering recruitment.

He knew my gender in advance; he wouldn’t have known my race. Clearly, he felt he was wasting his time; I wish he hadn’t wasted mine.

Sorry, how do you know he was uninterested in you because of your race?  I think it far more likely the position you were applying for had already been earmarked for an internal candidate but HR policies insist the post is advertised externally, and the poor sap that had to interview the applicants knew this.  Or maybe the guy was just useless at interviewing: God knows, I’ve sat through enough interviews where I wasn’t asked a single relevant question, but I don’t think it was anything to do with me personally.

I eventually became a chemical industry consultant, and thankfully such incidents are now rare.

One would have thought becoming a successful independent consultant was impossible in an industry that doesn’t like to recruit black people.  The fact she’s managed to become one suggests the problem lies more with crap management and recruitment processes than racial prejudice, doesn’t it?

But talking to younger engineers, I learn that a sense of unconscious bias appears to persist.

A sense of unconscious bias appears to persist.  This is somebody who supposedly has mastered the hard sciences.

The main problem is that engineering still lags behind other traditional professions, such as law and medicine, which over the years have introduced significant and meaningful initiatives to raise the level of diversity.

No, we never lagged behind.  Law and medicine are closed-shops, and it is extremely difficult for a lawyer or doctor to turn up in another country and open a practice.  By contrast, engineering is and open industry based on universal principles which transcend international boundaries and cultures such that a Brazilian, Japanese, American, and Russian engineer can all work together in the same team and know what each other is on about: they all sat pretty much the same exams at university.  Diversity in engineering comes naturally, it doesn’t need to be forced on people.

Inequality in these professions has regularly been flagged up in the media, and they have been heavily criticised over arcane practices.

Such as being self-regulating closed shops that are not subject to the same commercial pressures as other industries?

Engineering has not been exposed to the same level of scrutiny. Most have heard the news stories of black lawyers struggling to get into the bar, but engineering stories are rarer.

That’s because there is no equivalent of the bar in Engineering.  True, engineers sometimes get chartered through a professional body but it is not a requirement to do so as I myself can attest.

Most people are unaware of what professional engineers even do (no, we’re not mechanics). Although engineering touches every part of our lives, the profession operates quietly, out of the public eye.

Yes, and for that we are grateful as it has spared us the bullshit that is foisted on the more prominent industries by poisonous identity politics and social justice activism.  At least until now. We just want to be engineers and left alone.

One recent black engineering graduate told me that during the interview process he felt there was an underlying sense on the selection panel of “Will he fit in here?” –

Prospective employees are judged on whether they’d fit into the organisation doing the hiring?  How odd.

and that, after many rejections, keeping motivated was hard.

Come back to me when you’ve sent off a hundred plus applications and had three acknowledgements, two of which said “no thanks” and the remaining one said “How do you fancy Sakhalin Island?”

Even when black graduates do get their foot in the front door, their career progression can be slow.

My impression as a young engineer in the UK was that I was waiting for those above me to die before I could move up the ladder.  That’s why I emigrated.

A chartered civil engineer who’s worked on some high-profile construction projects tells me that black engineers tend not to be offered the type of work that could further their careers; there are limited opportunities to lead projects and manage teams to develop the skills and experience needed for senior roles.

That I can believe: promotions are handed out based on how much you suck up to the management, and it is probably more difficult for a black guy to do this than his white counterpart in a company full of white people.  The Oilfield Expat put up a good post some time back about why this was also a problem for women in engineering.  This has less to do with discrimination than appalling management.

There has been a huge push in recent years to take on sexism in the industry and promote science, technology, engineering and maths careers for women. But ethnicity has never been part of any discussion.

That’s probably because anyone who’s worked in an international engineering environment would see it’s like the United Colors of Benetton.

In my years working in the European chemical industry, and having attended countless meetings, I can’t recall seeing another person of colour.

Bullshit.  No Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Malays, Nigerians, or Europeans who were anything other than white?  Not one?  Sorry, bullshit.

The Royal Academy of Engineering now runs a programme tasked with increasing diversity and inclusion across professional engineering institutions. This offers some hope, as there are many such organisations (some of which are relatively small) covering different engineering specialities, and I doubt whether the issue of diversity is high on the agenda for any of them. So the academy could help create a platform for change.

However, these initiatives will count for little if they don’t filter down to the engineering companies themselves. Their practices need to change regarding how they recruit graduates, and how they develop and support black and minority ethnic engineers once employed.

If the experience of other industries and diversity agendas is any guide, this will mean quotas.  The irony in all of this is that quotas for ethnic minorities already exist in much of the engineering world in the form of local content legislation.  If the author wants to see an office full of black engineers and very few whites, then she can look at Nigeria for an example.  When I worked there my company had an engineering department which consisted of ten Nigerians and two Scotsmen and was managed by a pasty white Brit who happened to be me.  Did I or anyone else give two hoots what colour the engineers were?  No.  Did I care what sort of technical work they were producing?  Damned right I did.  Nobody – including the Nigerians in my team – wanted their suitability as an engineer to be based on their skin colour, they wanted it to be based on their professional qualifications, experience, and competence.  And the biggest gripe among Nigerian engineers was that this was often not the case in their country, where personal connections and nepotism play far too great a role.

The last thing the modern engineering world needs is identity politics being rammed down the throats of its employees in an effort to solve problems that either don’t exist or are the result of widespread crap management and recruiting practices.

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