Social Engineering

Staying on the subject of gays:

A bill that would have wiped clean the criminal records of thousands of gay men has fallen at its first parliamentary hurdle.

The private member’s bill would have pardoned all men living with UK convictions for same-sex offences committed before the law was changed.

Mr Nicolson says he was motivated by his work as a BBC journalist in the 1990s: “I made a documentary in the 1990s looking at the discriminatory laws which criminalised gay men.

“There were some shocking injustices. Men were arrested aged 21 for having ‘under-age sex’ with their 20-year-old boyfriends,” he said.

Section 12 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 concerned buggery.  Which means 60 years ago politicians sat down and decided what two grown men of sound mind could and couldn’t do to one another, and how the rest of the country should treat them.  Does this sound reasonable to you?  It doesn’t to me.  There is an argument that this is what the majority population wanted, but I don’t see any reason why the wishes of the majority should be taken into account when two independent adults decide what they’re going to do behind closed doors.

Had the principle of individual freedom and liberty been in force in 1956, this law would never have come into being.  This is why the war cry of the gay movement was “Get the Government out of the Bedroom!”, implying what two men get up to is no business of the government’s or anyone else.  On that basis, the gays of the day would have had my full support.

Across the Atlantic there is a parallel: pre-Civil Rights Era laws requiring blacks to be segregated from whites, and the two treated differently.  At some point legislators sat down and determined that blacks should be treated differently from whites, and anyone breaking these laws – be they black or white – would be subject to criminal prosecution.  Regardless of whether a free individual of one colour wanted to interact with a free individual of another, this was prohibited by law, which in turn was justified on the grounds that this is what the majority wanted.  Only if individuals are truly free then they can associate with whomever they please, and it ought not to be a matter to be decided by the majority.

My point is that not so long ago legislators put severe restrictions on supposedly free individuals as to how they could interact with each other based on rather arbitrary criteria beyond the individuals’ control.  They justified these laws by saying that this is what the majority wanted and it was for the greater good of society.  These laws, the majority agreed, made for a better, safer society.

Only now we look back and most people are in agreement that these laws were an abomination and ought never to have been passed.  Hence the attempt now to pardon those in the UK and the rioting and looting in the USA.  I’m being ironic about that last one.

Fortunately politicians and the voting public learned their lesson that individual liberty and freedom is paramount and governments have no business passing legislation as to how free individuals should interact (short of causing actual physical harm or loss of property, reputation, etc. covered by laws that have been in place since Man first wandered out of the Great Rift Valley).

Oh wait.  No, actually they didn’t.  With breathtaking hubris they determined that although the last lot of politicians and voters were catastrophically wrong, they are much smarter and hence are able to write laws setting out exactly how individuals must interact in a hideously complex society to achieve the absolute optimum outcome in terms of happiness and security for all.  Clever folk, eh?

So now we have laws which actively discriminate between people of different skin colours and religions, insist that gender – which can be changed on a whim – should be both ignored and acknowledged simultaneously, maintain an ever-growing list of sexual orientations all of which deserve special treatment, allow grown men to wander into women’s toilets a fundamental human right, and make formal (and even informal) criticism of all of this practically illegal.

Whatever happened to the principle of all humans are equal?  Or the principle of individual freedom?  Well, that’s the problem: there are no principles being applied, it is simply a small group of people deciding this is what they want to do, claiming a democratic mandate, and forcing it on everyone else.  Just as they did when they criminalised gays and made blacks drink at a different fountain.

Some people call this Social Engineering, and it’s a good term.  But engineering is all about the application of principles, not doing whatever a gaggle of people fancy doing this week.  If you tried to build a bridge like this it would collapse.  As will our society if we keep this up.


Ainu a Feminist

I don’t come across many hardcore feminists in person either in my line of work or social life, but I had the occasion to do so in the form of my artsy friend Angela around February this year.  One of the things she said to me in the early stages of our brief acquaintance was that she was a feminist and, after I probed that statement, she told me she believed behavioral differences between men and women were wholly the result of social conditioning.  To support this theory she said she used to play with trucks as a child, and not dolls.

My response was to ask her to imagine a set of men and a set of women being assigned the following task: each person has to wrap a Christmas present of an awkward shape, such as a pair of socks.  Let each go away and do so, and then view the results.  I said the presents wrapped by women would be very neat with the ends folded into little triangles and Sellotaped in place, whereas the men’s would be an utter mess of crumpled paper and excess tape.

The likely results she did not dispute, but our reasons for them differed: my theory was that men simply don’t care about the presentation of gifts they receive – especially things like socks – possibly because they know it’s going to be ripped off in a second anyway, and so don’t see the point in putting in effort to wrap things nicely for others.  By contrast, women tend to care about the presentation of gifts – both given and received – and so put more care and attention into the wrapping.  Angela wasn’t convinced.  Her hypothesis was that society places an expectation on women to wrap presents well and so they do, whereas men have no such expectations placed on them.  I didn’t press the point any further, and took a slug of the strong cocktail I was holding at the time.

If Angela’s hypothesis is true, then seemingly disparate societies are a lot more similar than we think.  Back when I was working in Sakhalin for an oilfield services company which did, among other things, industrial insulation of pipework we set up a training centre in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.  One of the conditions of us being granted a quota for bringing foreign workers into the country was to hire and train local labour, which was fair enough only anyone who was unemployed on Sakhalin between 2006-2008 was incapable of holding down a job.  An exception to this was a handful of Ainu women who we brought down from the north of Sakhalin and put through our training centre.

From what I could tell, the Ainu had only partially integrated into Russian life.  They spoke Russian, ate Russian food, and dressed in non-traditional clothes, but were treated by the Russians as an altogether separate people (as Russians are wont to do with their ethnic minorities).  I’d probably describe them best as looking like Eskimos, with one or two being rather attractive, but the rate at which they aged showed they lived hard lives.  Almost every one had a husband who was either an alcoholic, had taken off, or was in prison, although I never found out if they were ethnic Ainus or Russians.  Anyway, what we found when we put the Ainu women to work insulating pipes was that they worked very slowly but very accurately, and the result was insulation around the bends of pipes which was incredibly neat.  And they did so with more than a little pride.  By contrast, the (Russian) men who we were training turned in work which looked as though it were done wearing boxing gloves.  None of us involved was particularly surprised by this outcome.  (Incidentally, the Ainus were the only women we put through the training centre: ethnic Russian women simply wouldn’t sign up to this kind of work.)

So if Angela was right in her thinking, the tiny Ainu society – which would know about the wrapping of presents only insofar as they have seen their Russian neighbours do it and adopted their customs – imposes such gender-based expectations on its womenfolk that they will go to a yard run by foreigners and wrap a piping spool in fibreglass with more care and attention than any number of men.  And if I was right, it is simply because women – of any ethnicity, society, and background – are simply pre-programmed to care about this sort of stuff more than men.

I’ll leave it to my readership to choose which theory they support.


Self-Driving Cars

I am probably not in the majority in finding this wholly unsurprising:

THE GOVERNMENT revealed Thursday that a Tesla Model S crashed into a truck in Florida in May, killing the electric car’s driver.

In the Florida case, the car failed to detect a large truck that had crossed into the Tesla’s path, perhaps because it blended in with a brightly lit sky.

A lot of people who are not engineers, and a lot of people who are, have a touching faith in the ability of technology to solve every problem there is.  People tend to look at technological progress in one area and assume that it can be seamlessly transposed into something entirely different provided enough minds are working on it.  This is why people are so optimistic about self-driving cars: they look at the amazing advances in computer power in the past few decades, they see Google has a huge stack of money and a very clever search engine, and conclude that self-driving cars are just a matter of time because…well, technology, innit?  And the same people often think it is self-evident that computers will always do a better job than humans as the former are infallible.

Personally, I understand enough about how things work to know that technological progress in any given area is not inevitable, there must be a mechanism in place for the shift to happen, e.g. a step-change in technology in the vein of the PCB or transistor.  When you consider how long the humble motor car has been around and the hundreds of millions of manhours that have been spent in trying to improve it in every possible way, it is astonishing how little has changed since the Model T Ford.  The basic principles of how a car is powered, controlled, and physically laid out haven’t changed.  They even still have wing mirrors and a driver’s rear view mirror.  So much for technology.  There have been plenty of improvements and enhancements, but no step-change in motor car technology since the first one rolled off a mass production line.

Google reckon they can make his step-change by doing away with the driver, and everyone seems to be confident they, or somebody else, will be successful in doing so.  Why I’m don’t share their confidence is because of two technical reasons: the first, which I’ll write about at length in a separate post, is the cost of manufacturing, testing, and maintaining extremely reliable electronic systems.  The second is that I do not believe computers will ever be as good as humans at driving in the environment in which humans live.

The mistake people make is to assume every action in driving is one of simple measurement, and conclude that computers are far better at measuring things than humans are in terms of speed and accuracy.  However, driving is often about judgement as opposed to pure measurement (and this is why it takes a while to become a good driver, judgement improves with experience), and much of this judgement relates to the interpretation of visual information.  The recognition of objects by computers is still only in its infancy, and nowhere near robust enough to deploy in any safety-critical system.  Given the pace of development of other areas of computing abilities, such as sound recognition in apps like Shazam, object recognition is seriously lagging behind and I suspect for very good reasons: software, being made up of pre-programmed algorithms, simply isn’t very good at it.  And even then object recognition isn’t enough, a self-driving car would need to be able to not only accurately acquire visual data but also interpret it before initiating an action (or not).  Computers are unable to do this for anything other than the most basic of pre-determined objects and scenarios, while the environment in which humans operate their cars is fiendishly complex.

There are those who think that advances in computing power will solve this issue, but I think the problem of visual data acquisition and interpetation is one more akin to aesthetics than measurement, i.e. its a judgement, not a binary decision.  Are we confident a computer will one day be able to write a decent novel?  Or generate a picture which is not a pre-programmed mathematical model which the coder knew in advance produces nice shapes?  With enough computing power, do we believe a computer could write a better song than a human could?  Personally, I don’t think this will ever happen because so much of aesthetics is down to judgement and involves variables which cannot be properly defined, much less defined in advance in a piece of code.

I believe a human’s ability to determine at a glance that an object in the road is a shallow puddle and not a large rock is the same ability which can differentiate between an operatic aria and a pet shop on fire.  Computers don’t have this ability, as the failure of Tesla’s to tell the difference between a large truck and the sky shows.  What does amaze me though is that computers are being put into cars with the belief that they can do things they demonstably can’t.  A hefty lawsuit and tighter regulations can’t be too far away.

If self-driven cars have a future, I believe they will take the form of manually-controlled machines which switch to self-drive mode only once they are driven by a human onto a very tightly controlled and sterilised environment such as a motorway specifically designed to take only self-driving vehicles.  I am confident we will never see self-driving vehicles moving around cities and towns as we currently know them, ever.


The Failure of Russian Projects

The Streetwise Professor writes about another ambitious Russian state project which has gone badly off the rails, this time the Vostochny Cosmodrome project.  As usual, the project is way behind schedule, way over budget, and workers haven’t been paid for months.

All of this would seem drearily familiar to anyone who has worked on Russian projects, but outsiders might not know the mechanism behind the failures.  Russian certainly would, but only those who have gotten their hands dirty on a project, i.e. the mal’chiki-mazhory who are the most enthusiastic of grand Russian projects won’t have a clue.

The problem is not in the experience, competence, or attitude of the technical workforce.  Russia has a ready supply of clever, motivated, experienced, and competent engineers and technicians.  These men and women are more than capable of designing and constructing pretty much anything in Russia.  Granted, it might not look too pretty and the design might be a bit dated, but it will work as intended.  The problem is in the management of these skilled resources.

The root cause is that owning a successful company in Russia is a result of your being allowed to do so by virtue of your personal connections or the muscle you can deploy (preferably both).  Without one of these, you are never going to be able to run a company large enough to execute a sizeable project, as you will be shut down or forced out by the local powerbrokers – either government authorities or gangsters – before your business is anywhere near mature enough to bid for large contracts.  Competence, a sound business plan, or good management practices count for nothing if you don’t have connections or the muscle to defend yourself.

As such, all players bidding for a large engineering and construction contract will have achieved and maintained their position by something other than technical competence and delivery.  The problem is further compounded by the fact that those very same connections which allow them to operate are used to determine which company gets the juicy contracts.  The award of contracts in Russia is therefore an exercise in nepotism; the selection of contractors is done not on the expectation of competent execution, but by which company offers the most beneficial kickbacks, favours, counterfavours, and financial rewards to those who have the final say.

This would not be a problem in itself if the winning contractor has within its organisation the skills required to execute a project competently.  Surprisingly, quite a few of these contractors do: they have on their staff the experienced technical resources that I mentioned earlier in the post.  Or even if they don’t, at the beginning a contractor will hire in the competent people and the project will start well.

The problem comes when the cashflow situation goes belly-up.  This always happens for the simple reason that cashflow is very difficult to manage on any project and especially so in Russia.  Whereas normally any contractor will have demonstrated their skill in managing cashflow by virtue of a proven track record and still being in business, in Russia this isn’t a requirement at all: personal connections are what matter.  So on Russian projects there is a strong likelihood that the management of the entity in charge doesn’t know much about cashflow, or indeed any other aspect of running a normal business.

Whereas some aspects of business can be ignored in favour of lies, threats, and pig-headedness, e.g. HR, HSE, quality, accounting, etc. cashflow isn’t so easily ignored.  If your bank account is empty, then you can’t pay suppliers; if suppliers aren’t paid, you don’t get the materials and equipment; if you can’t get the materials and equipment, you can’t make progress; and if you can’t make progress, you can’t invoice for the next stage payment.  Managing cashflow on a project is a very specific skill, and even major oil companies get it wrong and have to rely on the parent company and partners having large cash reserves to keep the project solvent.  Most Russian companies simply don’t possess this skill and probably few CEOs appreciate what it is, not having attained their positions through business acumen.

If a project experiences a problem with cashflow, one of the early signs is the workforce not being paid on time.  This is particularly true in Russia.  In countries like Russia and Nigeria, shafting the workforce by not paying them on time (or at all) appears to be perfectly acceptable behaviour in the eyes of many Managing Directors.  Indeed, some almost seem to think it a very clever way of saving money and engage in this practice even when they are flush with cash.  I knew several engineers and technicians in both Russia and Nigeria who had quit previous jobs having been owed months and months of wages, and given up hope of ever seeing it.  So if the company in question had experienced and competent technical staff on their books at the beginning, the best of these will leave once the pay problems start, with the rest following in a steady trickle depending on how bad the situation gets.  They will be replaced by inferior people, who will also get fed up and leave, to be replaced by even less-qualified people, and so on in a vicious circle until – like I saw in Russia – the site is filled with undocumented, uneducated rural folk from Tajikistan and North Korea working for meagre cash-in-hand wages.  When this manpower drain is coupled with the other side of the cashflow problem – the suppliers not being paid, hence materials not being delivered to site – the situation is almost impossible to reverse without massive cash injections from somewhere.  And this being Russia, the project owners are not the sort to be handing out extra cash even assuming it is available.

So in short it is a management problem, particularly their inability to manage cashflow.  This is compounded by the fact that the sort of people who manage large contracting companies in Russia are the sort of people who would treat the project account as their own personal fund for the purchase of dachas and Porsche Cayennes in the days after the initial advance payment, and also the sort of people who would think nothing of shafting the workforce and suppliers by not paying them for months or years.  Few, even in 2015, seem to understand the concept of a market for skilled labour which enables a skilled Russian welder to walk off the job if he hasn’t been paid and pick up another one elsewhere.  For those managers skilled only in Soviet-style thuggishness and corruption, they have yet to understand the Soviet labour system of being shackled to your workbench doesn’t, for the large part, exist any more.

This is why, despite Russia having easily enough technical resources to complete such a project, the Vostochny Cosmodrome project has been unable to even pay its bill for lighting.  The failure was never about Russian engineers being useless, or lazy, or too few in number, or Russian contractors not knowing how to do complex works.  It was always about that one thing Russia never had in the Soviet times or now, the one thing which they increasingly insist the West cannot help them with: managerial competence.

If somebody in Russia could harness Western management practices with local technical resources, we’d see a vast improvement.  One chap did this once, went by the name of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and had a company called Yukos.  Whatever happened to him?


Fallen Idols

A few nights ago a giant, 328-foot tall windmill came crashing down in a field in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.  To say that questions need answering is an understatement.  Take a look at the photos.

turbine-2_3153749b The failure mode here is buckling, but with my not being a structural engineer I can’t say much more than that.  However, I can say with some certainty that the root cause is either:

1. A poor design; or

2. Poor fabrication/installation.

(With  it being only 3-4 years old we can probably rule out maintenance issues.)

Let’s start with the design.  I would expect that lateral and other loads exerted on the structure to be more or less known, and design loads calculated (expected/actual loads plus a safety margin).  The whole structure would be modeled using a Finite Element Method, which would give the stresses present in the structure under the design loads.  The engineer would then compare these stresses with those allowed under the applicable industry standard (e.g. ASME, BS, etc.) appropriate to the material and application.  If the calculated stresses were within the allowable values, the design is sound.

Simply put, that’s how every single modern structure is designed and verified these days, and it is certain that this windmill will have been subject to the same process.  So either the design loads were wrong, or the allowable stresses were badly calculated: neither is very likely.

There is a possibility that fatigue is at play here, the phenomenon whereby cyclic loading of a structure (caused by vibrations around its natural frequency, which are commonly caused by wind especially around cylindrical structures in what is called a Kármán vortex street) results in cracking followed by catastrophic collapse.  But such effects have been known for the best part of a century and it comes as no surprise that vibration effects and how to avoid them are taught in the first year of a civil engineering course.

So if it’s not a design issue which caused the main tubular structure to buckle, that leaves fabrication or installation as the root cause.  The first step in the investigation will be to see whether the material was actually that which it was supposed to be.  It wouldn’t be the first time that substandard material has been substituted into a design which called for higher-grade stuff, either deliberately or by mistake.  It might be that the material is fine but the welding is substandard (although it doesn’t look to have failed along a weld).  But it might also be that somebody backed a forklift into the tubular section when it was in the yard waiting to be assembled, and with a bit of heat and a large hammer they knocked the dent back out again, painted over it, and told nobody but left it forever weakened.  Again, it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.

Somewhere along the line the quality assurance process has fallen down, and I doubt it will be long before the exact cause is found.  What will be more interesting is how the government reacts to it.  So far, from what I can tell, the wind power industry appears to be self-regulating:

Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety for wind industry body RenewableUK, said: “A thorough investigation is already underway into what happened in this extremely rare incident. The wind industry takes health and safety issues very seriously, and the lessons learned from this will be implemented as swiftly as possible.

“No member of the public has ever been injured by wind turbine operating in the UK. As the trade body representing the wind industry.”

So the industry body which promotes the growth of wind power is also responsible for regulating the health and safety aspects of windfarms.  This used to be the case with the FAA in the US, until the NTSB was formed to take over accident investigations; and it was also the case that the UK’s offshore oil industry was self-regulating with respect to health and safety until Piper Alpha, after which regulatory powers were passed to the HSE.  Quite sensibly in both cases, I might add.

The results of the investigation, and the frequency of similar incidents, will determine for how long this arrangement lasts.  Quality control and safety compliance is expensive, and if the groups promoting wind power take the same approach to safety and quality assurance as they do the economics, we might find that operating under an umbrella of political promotion and protection has generated a culture of complacency.  Maybe.

It is interesting that The Telegraph links to another story of two windmills falling over in February 2013, this time in Devon, with sabotage being cited as a possibility:

An investigation into the collapse of the first turbine in Bradworthy, Devon, during a 50mph gale last weekend has revealed that bolts are missing from its base.

The turbine was initially thought to have been brought down by the wind, despite being designed to withstand winds of up to 116mph, but the new evidence could suggest a case of foul play, councillors said.

Margaret Coles, the chairman of Bradworthy Parish Council, revealed that an examination of the turbine had found that a number of bolts were absent from its base.

She said: “We know the bolts are gone but don’t know what caused it. It was a windy night – we do suffer lots of high winds but you would have thought the structure would cope with that.

“People that end of the parish were woken up by the crash it made when it came down. Some people think the bolts had been removed from the turbine which is why it was brought down.”

I’m a little skeptical of this.

Although the picture above supports the view that the bolts didn’t do their job (with the bottom flange appearing to be intact), I’m not entirely convinced somebody would go and deliberately undo the bolts.  For a start, these bolts are huge, and the nuts done up extremely tightly by a powered torque wrench, two of them per bolt – one on top of the other – then likely plastered in something to keep the rust off.  It isn’t simply a matter of turning up with an adjustable spanner and running off with the nuts in your pocket.  Also they say the bolts are missing, which is odd as I would expect them to be embedded in the concrete foundation and impossible to remove.  So I expect they mean the nuts.

It is possible that somebody decided to commit the necessary tools and manpower to undo the nuts on the foundation of a windmill, but it seems like an odd thing to do.  Were they subject to repeated vandalism already, then perhaps I’d be more ready to believe it.  But before I’d go hunting for saboteurs, I’d be looking at the quality control records of the installation: were the bolts properly installed, were they of the right material, were the nuts tightened to the correct torque.

The Tay Bridge didn’t need sabotage to bring it down.


Ah, so it was all bullshit?

This is long overdue:

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) says electronic devices such as mobile phones can be left switched on during flights.

EASA says that electronic devices do not pose a safety risk.

The restriction on using mobile phones was almost as stupid as the requirement to turn off “electronic devices” during taxi, take-off, and landing.  If any aircraft, ever, had displayed the slightest sign of inteference from a mobile phone or other device, the whole fleet would have been grounded immediately.  The “because it may interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system” was a lie, pure and simple.

It came about, in my opinion, due to a confluence of several things which can be observed separately elsewhere.  The first is the phenomenon whereby people feel empowered by a uniform and delight in telling other people what to do, even if this means causing them unnecessary inconvenience.  Pilots have always overestimated their own speciality: modern aircraft are not like those of two or three generations ago, and pilots are simply too numerous for the job to be that difficult.  They do an important job, and you’d want a good one to be at the yoke if something went wrong, but the manner in which they like to portray themselves belongs to an era which has long since passed.  And nothing reinforces their sense of authority more than ordering passengers around in the name of “safety”, not even the tedious reminders that “this is a non-smoking flight” (the last of which took place around 16 years ago, at least in the US) and pointless information regarding the aircraft’s speed and altitude.

Then you have the trolley-dollies who, having to put up with shit from passengers for most of the flight, enjoy nothing more than to harangue them during the fleeting moments they have some authority.  I’ve noticed they’ve even taken to ordering passengers to remove headphones during take-off and landing, no doubt citing the importance of passengers being able to hear announcements in the event of an incident.  Although any passenger who is unaware of an announced incident during take-off or landing is almost certainly unconcious or dead, and not merely listening to music.

Coupled with this is the dumbfuck, luddite mentality amongst most people who lack the basic scientific knowledge to laugh in the face of anyone who says an iPod will interfere with the correct functioning of an aircraft.  Aircraft are constantly bombarded by all sorts of electromagnetic waves, particularly during taxi, take-off, and landing when they are near the airport and other aircraft, who are all communicating with one another.  To the degree that any component of the aircraft could be unduly influenced by electromagnetic radiation – and this is doubtful – the device and its cables would be shielded.  An iPod would produce some electromagnetic radiation, but this would be almost undetectable without specialist equipment set up right next to it.  It is simply impossible for an iPod to interfere with a plane’s equipment.  But most people lack any kind of technical knowledge and, in the fashion of Pavlov’s dogs, simply nod dumbly when somebody in a uniform tells them to do something vaguely to do with technology – even if the person in the uniform is employed primarily on looks.  I particularly hate the request to switch off “all electronic devices” because its ludicrously broad criteria makes it impossible to comply with.  My watch is electronic.  How do I turn it off?

It’s bullshit masquerading as safety compliance, and I hear enough of this in my own industry.  Mobile phones are banned on all operational sites where hydrocarbons may be present, yet there is not a single example, anywhere, of a mobile phone causing a spark.  Mythbusters tested this to death and couldn’t get a solitary spark out of a mobile phone; they also couldn’t get aircraft instruments to react to a mobile phone, either.  Of course, most people will say “well, if it makes us safer, even by a little bit, then it is not too much to ask”, and indeed they do say this.  And they know nothing about risk, and even less about people’s actual preferences: if it wasn’t too much to ask, the stewardesses wouldn’t need to check, would they?

I can see why they banned mobile phones: airlines simply didn’t want the hassle and complaints associated with people taking on phones on an aircraft, so they came up with some safety bullshit as a way to enforce compliance.  But now technology has advanced to the point that money can be made from people making calls on flights, the regulations prohibiting phone use have magically disappeared.

This is welcome, but it’s a shame they had to bullshit us for two decades in the first place.


The False Start of Electric Cars

I have noticed that there is considerable optimism in some quarters about the future of electric cars, and many people are pointing to Norway as a sign that the internal combustion engine may be on the way out:

Norway may seem like an odd place for electric cars to thrive, but the 1,493 Tesla Model S new registrations last month set a new single-model sales record. That’s more than sales of the two next-best selling models, the Volkswagen Golf and Nissan Leaf, combined. In fact, so far this year, the Tesla Model S is the best-selling car in a cold country that has quickly warmed to electric vehicles.

Only when you look a bit closer you find the underlying reason as to why Norwegians have taken to the Tesla in such numbers:

Unlike many European countries, where electric cars carry a huge price premium, there is no import tax or 25% VAT tax on [electric vehicles] in Norway. 

And that reason is the government has, through taxation (particularly import taxes, which are a function of horsepower), made the price of ordinary cars artificially high. From Wikipedia:

As an example, by early 2013 the price of the top selling Nissan Leaf is 240,690 krone (around US$42,500) while the purchase price of the 1.3-lt Volkswagen Golf is 238,000 Krone (about US$42,000).[9] Electric vehicles are also exempt from the annual road tax, all public parking fees, and toll payments, as well as being able to use bus lanes.

Plus what gets left out of the purchasing figures in Norway is how many of these cars are bought by government departments for whom image is more important than value for money.

Personally, I am of the belief that the uptake of electric vehicles in Norway doesn’t tell us anything about the future viability of electric cars.  When you look at the development of the motorcar in the US between the wars, the boom was driven by an overwhelming desire of individuals to move around freely and independently, and the car companies rushed to meet that demand whilst the oil companies competed with one another to build the infrastructure to support it.  I can’t think of anything further from this situation than a government taxing the hell out of something and shoving a population in the direction of their chosen product.  Would Norwegians be buying Teslas if ordinary cars were reasonably priced?  According to this Reuter’s article, Norway’s electric cars require an annual public subsidy of up to $8,200.  This is the future?

What we have here is a government picking a winner, and this rarely ends well.  The underlying assumption is that everyone driving electric cars is a desirable end, and I’m not convinced this has been proven.  Norway registered about 11,000 electrical vehicles in 2013, which might make Oslo’s air a bit cleaner and the streets quieter, but is in no way indicative of what might arise should even half of Norway’s 5m inhabitants eventually switch to electric cars.  11,000 electric cars quietly charging themselves off the grid at night won’t make much difference, but 2.5m of them?  You’re going to need a lot more power stations to cope with that sort of demand, and although Norway currently produces around 96% of its electricity using hydroelectric power it is far from certain that they would not need conventional power stations to meet the increased requirements.  In any case, it is somewhat unlikely that other countries, should they choose to emulate Norway in this regard, would be able to meet the increased demands using renewable energy sources.

In fact, the whole drive to use electric cars seems at odds with campaigns by Green organisations and politicians who are constantly nagging us to save negligible amounts of energy by unplugging phone chargers and not using TVs on standby mode.  I think when most people talk of electric cars, they think charging them is simply a matter of plugging them into a grid which is already in place, and I suppose this is true while their numbers remain small.  But an increase in just one order of magnitude – let alone two or three – is going to require a complete overhaul of the electricity generation infrastructure in a manner which is going to render unplugging phone chargers even more negligible than it is now.

Just where is this additional power going to come from?  Wind is a non-starter, suffering from the same physical limitations the Dutch faced on their windmills a couple of hundred years ago.  Tidal sounds great, except it is mind-bogglingly expensive to construct and maintain, and wrecks the local environment. Wave power suffers from the difficulty of converting uneven, irregular reciprocal motion into rotary motion and the fact that any wave powerful enough to be of any use is likely to have a big brother in the vicinity which will destroy any device used to harness its power.  Solar has potential, but the technology is likely a few decades away yet.  In 40+ years time I can envisage an efficient system whereby solar power is used to generate energy which is stored in cells, and converted to electricity in cars which is then used to power a motor.  But even with huge leaps in solar technology I don’t think we’ll ever be in a situation where:

Solar > electricity > battery > motor

is an improvement over:

Petrol > engine

either in terms of efficiency or overall effect on the global environment.  Not even close.  As I say, perhaps this might work:

Solar > energy cell > electricity> motor

with the energy cells being instantly replaceable, but until then I think this whole electric car concept is dead in the water.

Aside from the economics, the enormous appeal of the motor car is its flexibility, a large part of which it is its near-permanent availability.  The electric car, as currently envisaged, does away with this as it is unavailable for several hours while it charges.  Unless one can predict exactly when the car will be used and for how long then it won’t be much use, and although in theory this sounds ideal for regular commuting the shortcomings of such a system quickly become clear.

Even those who use their cars mainly for commuting also use them for unplanned or irregular trips, e.g. at weekends or in emergencies.  The non-availability of an expensive asset will become an issue to even the most organised of citizens, and some might even keep an ordinary car as a spare.  And supposing you hit traffic on the way to work?  You can switch off the car and conserve your battery, but let’s hope you don’t live anywhere too hot or too cold (like Norway!) otherwise it’s not going to be very comfortable.  One of the beauties of the internal combustion engine is the waste heat means even the crappest of crap cars is warm; people don’t realise how damned cold a car would be without the engine pumping out heat, and to generate the equivalent amount of heat from a battery will eat into the range considerably.  According to this calculator driving with an outside temperature of 21°C with no heater gives you a range of 283 miles; drop the temperature to zero and put the heater on and you’re at 234 miles, a reduction of 17% (and 27% with the smaller 60kWh battery).  And that’s for a new car, that reduction will increase only as the battery and heating elements start to wear.  You could find yourself thinking you’ve got enough juice to get to where you want to, and then hit traffic and find your destination is outside your range.  The advantage of the internal combustion engine is that they burn little fuel when the vehicle is stationary yet keep you warm with no additional fuel cost.

The limited range isn’t actually the issue, as petrol cars also have a limited range.  The problem is the charging time, which renders the vehicle unavailable for several hours.  If you run low on petrol, you spend 5 minutes filling up and you’re on your way again.  Anyone who relies on an electric car to complete a journey within 20-30% of the maximum range is going to have to be very well organised – which most people aren’t, particularly when it comes to travelling by car – and have luck on their side as well.  The whole concept on which the current breed of electric cars is based will collapse as soon as there are more than a handful of stories of people being caught out miles from home – children in the back, howling – and having to wait at a charging station for hours before being able to continue the journey start to appear on the internet.  Until electric cars can overcome this issue, perhaps by using instantly replaceable energy cells instead of recharging, I don’t think they’re going to make even a dent in the supremacy of the internal combustion engine.

Whatever the Norwegians think they’re doing, game-changing it ain’t.  I give it a year or two before we start seeing news reports of electric cars found abandoned by their owners between Bergen and Stavanger due to a flat battery and a desire to sleep somewhere warm that night.


The Korean Ferry SInking

In the BBC’s report of the ongoing Korean ferry sinking, this line stood out (in the analysis, off to the side):

The speed with which it flipped over and sank is a major concern.

This is a well-known problem with car ferries.  In order to make them economical you need to have fairly open car decks without any watertight bulkheads dividing the decks into compartments as you would on any other type of vessel.  You want all your cars to be able to drive unhindered into what is effectively a large floating car park and then drive off the other end when the ferry reaches its destination.  The problem with this is that water sloshing about on an open deck makes a vessel extremely unstable.

Back in the late ’90s I found myself stuck at home in Pembroke with a computer but no internet (it wasn’t widespread in homes back then) and an assignment to write for my engineering degree on engineering risks.  I had very little material to base an essay on, but there was a stack of old New Scientist magazines of my sister’s lying about, and one of them (dated August 1990) had this article in (subscription required), which is introduced as follows:

The risks of ferry travel: Many car ferries are built with a fatal design flaw. If the vehicle decks flood, the ferries are likely to capsize rapidly.

The article said that an inch of water covering a car deck was enough to cause a ferry to capsize, due to the enormous momentum of the sloshing action.  An inch isn’t much when you have the sea pouring in.

This is why ferries tend to sink so quickly, with both the Herald of Free Enterprise (March 1987) and Estonia (September 1994) disasters being the two that I remember happening; the first because it involved a lot of Brits in what seemed to be a spate of home-grown disasters (the Kings Cross Fire in November 1987, Piper Alpha in July 1988, and the Marchioness in August 1989) and the second because of the harrowing accounts of the ship listing severely before disappearing into the freezing Baltic Sea.  I’ve since been on a ferry from Finland to Tallinn, and ending up in the water doesn’t bear thinking about.

The New Scientist article has stuck in my mind since, probably because I had to write an essay on it in the absence of any other source material.  I got a good mark by the way, mainly because I actually wrote a good essay, but the lecturer did remark that my basis was somewhat limited!  The other aspect of ferries mentioned in the article which contributed to their poor safety record – on some measures, ferry travel is the most dangerous in the world – was that the operators tend to get complacent.  You can imagine, doing the same, normally short, route day after day would breed complacency among the crew in terms of safety equipment inspections, evacuation drills, etc.  Also, a lot of ferries, especially in the developing world, are operating on a shoestring budget whose owners aren’t much interested in spending money on things like maintenance and inspections.  Add in poor training and experience of crew and you have, well, a recipe for disaster.

For all of these reasons, underpinned by the fatal design flaw described in New Scientist, I fear ferry disasters – like air crashes – will always be with us.


Forget the Medium Term

A Royal Marine officer friend of mine, who took part in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, explained to me how he coped during a particularly fierce action.  Paraphrasing:

“Well, it was complete chaos and I didn’t really know what was going on.  So I concentrated only on what I had to do next and the two or three things after that, and forgot about the rest.  Once I’d done one thing, I moved onto the next.  And I kept doing that.  If I didn’t concentrate on doing one thing at a time, it would have been a mass panic.”

Here’s Ed Viesturs, one of the world’s most accomplished high-altitude mountaineers, in his book No Shortcuts to the Top (page 316):

“Look, it took me eighteen years to complete a very difficult endeavour.  Viewed as a whole, climbing all fourteen 8,000ers would have seemed almost impossible, but I took it one day at a time, one step at a time.  I was passionate about what I did, and I never gave up.

If you look at the challenge as a whole, it may seem insuperable, but if you break it down into tangible steps, it can seem more reasonable, and ultimately achievable.  The model for that strategy comes from the way I learned to break up the “impossible” 4,000-foot climb to a summit into tiny, manageable pieces; just get to that rock outcrop there, then focus on the ice block up ahead, and so on.”

It dawned on me recently that I’ve slipped into a similar routine – I’ve mentioned that word before – derived from similar methods to those which my RM friend and Ed Viesturs describe above.

It involves forgetting the medium term, and concentrating on the immediate while being mindful of the long.  I have to be in this posting at least another year, possibly two.  I have to keep in mind that at some point I will leave, and that I will be in a better position, a nicer place, on a better project, etc.  You have to keep thinking of the eventual goal, otherwise there’s no point in being here (it’s a means to an end, not an end in itself).  Plus you’ll go nuts.  But if you think about the medium term, e.g. “October is so far away”, or “my next leave is not until Christmas” and “this time next year I’ll still be here”, you’ll start to get depressed pretty damned quickly.  So you need to forget about it.  I do this by filling my head with today and nothing else.  If you started to contemplate how many more times you’d have to drag yourself out of bed at 6:00am before you get to work in a place with civilised office hours, you’d lose the will to live.  So you don’t.  You concentrate on getting into the shower, getting to work, doing what needs to be done today (and in the office you can afford yourself the luxury of thinking about the rest of the week, but no further), getting home, going to the gym, eating dinner, and going to bed.  Before you know it, the medium term ceases to be relevant because time starts flying.  Like the proverbial kettle that never boils, the time won’t move if you watch it too closely.

Now this doesn’t constitute much of a life, and it’s a strange thing to want time to fly by when you’re in (what people say) is the prime of your life.  But this is abnormal work I’m in, and it makes for an abnormal life.  The key to understanding the expatriate oil and gas business is that you must take the rough with the smooth.  Cliched it may be, but it’s true, and if there is one thing which should be dinned into all newcomers it is that.  And when you hit the rough patch, which can last a while, you need a method of getting through it.

But interestingly, when I watch myself doing the job I’m paid to do (insert jokes here), I notice that I tackle my work in exactly the same way.  My job is basically to coordinate engineering works.  I’d say manage, but that word gets abused so much half of you would immediately assume I do nothing whatsoever and stop reading.  Anyway, it might come as a surprise (although not to anybody who works with me, with the possible exception of my boss who hopefully doesn’t read this) to hear that I really don’t have a clue how to manage an engineering project in itself.  If you sat me in a room and asked me to write down how I would manage a medium sized engineering project, it would be full of generic guff which would serve no useful purpose for anyone executing the works (which, incidentally, adequately describes most documents being passed about in an oil company).  In fact, when presented with a new project (which happens about once per week) I have a momentary panic in which a voice inside me says “How the hell am I going to do this?”  So I hide from it.  Not in the detail, which is the mistake a lot of engineers make when promoted to management or coordination positions, but in a structured sequence of known, comfortable, steps.

I forget about how I’m going to actually execute the project, and identify the first thing I have to do.  Fortunately, that’s always the same: give it to people who know what to do and ask them to get their heads around it then get ready to explain it to me in a meeting, but do no more than that.  Once explained, I then move onto the second thing, which is also always the same: I create a work breakdown structure, which is effectively a multi-layed hierarchal list with the lowest level detailing every single activity which must be performed from start to finish (it goes without saying that I have those aforementioned blokes who know what they’re doing close to hand when I do this).  Once I’ve done this I can relax a bit, and I write a project execution plan which is effectively a narrative on each one of those items in the work breakdown structure.  The whole lot then gets passed to those who know what they’re doing, it comes back with red ink all over confirming that I am an idiot who doesn’t, but I make sure that by the time I’m finished they’re happy with it.  The management of the project then becomes a relatively simple matter of plodding through one activity after the other as per the work breakdown structure and execution plan, ticking them off as you go and rarely worrying about what is coming later on.  I cling to those two documents like a drowning man to a life-belt, because if you were to ask me what we are all supposed to be doing and I’d lost them, I wouldn’t have a clue.  I am unable to grasp the full scope of a project, even a relatively minor one, without it being broken down into manageable chunks.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  Well, it is.  Half the time I feel like a complete fraud having taken information from people far more technically capable than I, compiling it into a single document, and waving it about as if it held the key to eternal life.  The other half the time I remember how project managers I worked for in the past did away with all this writing stuff down nonsense and waved their hands around and talked lots instead.  Or more specifically, I remember how their projects turned out.

And that’s kind of my point.  There is nothing original in this method I use of breaking down work, and the more testing parts of life, into manageable parts to avoid being overwhelmed by the whole.  This is, after all, the basis of any well-written procedure.  What I have noticed though is that although it seems obvious, and it really is pretty easy, there are an awful lot of people who can’t seem to do it.  Those that can seem to be able to get stuff done, as the two examples I started this post with show.  And if I were to sum up why people employ me, and have almost always done so since I graduated, it’s because, one way or another, I “get stuff done”.  It’s only recently that I’ve understood how to do it: forget the medium term.

Oh, and make sure you listen to those who know what they’re doing, especially if you don’t.


The Best Business in the World

I have heard the following quote attributed to both J.D. Rockefeller and John Paul Getty, although I have been unable to verify its actual source.  Not that it matters, as it’s as true as true can be:

The best business in the world is a well run oil company.  The second best business in the world is a badly run oil company.

Many people probably labour under the impression, as I once did, that oil companies represent the most efficient, well-managed businesses going.  How else would they make profits running into the billions year on year?  Anyone who’s worked in an oil company will quickly learn that nothing could be further from the truth, and perversely it is their very success which makes them so inefficient.

Oil companies make money by opening a spigot and flogging what comes out.  What comes out is extremely valuable, so they make an awful lot of money very quickly.  But if it is so easy, why isn’t everyone doing it?  Because to get into a position where you own the spigot and what comes out of it you need to have invested an enormous amount of capital, which few people have.  By far the greatest contribution of western oil companies to any given development is their stumping up enormous amounts of the necessary capital.  Their secondary contribution is to manage the expenditure of this capital in an efficient and responsible manner.  Of course, the criteria for that last one is that the oil company must be more efficient and responsible in matters financial than either a kleptomaniacal tin-pot dicator or anyone else in the position of owning an oil well, who thankfully for the western oil companies all happen to be kleptomaniacal tin-pot dictators.  Or Russians, who have even less clue than tin-pot dictators how to spend money wisely.

Anyway, the upshot is oil companies throw lots of money at a development and make lots of money in return.  LOTS of money.  If you are making lots of money, what is your incentive to do something differently?  There isn’t one.  If you are making lots of money, what is your incentive to do something which is not only different but a right pain in the arse as well, like sack an idiot, launch an efficiency drive, or refrain from airfreighting scaffolding tubes around the world?  None whatsoever.

Contrast this with an engineering company providing services to an oil company.  How do they make money?  Well, they convert manhours into drawings and sell the drawings.  Sometimes they even sell the manhours and hope the oil company won’t notice no drawings have been produced.  They do so on a margin of somewhere between five and ten percent.  In other words, if an employee of an engineering company goes to the toilet, makes a coffee, picks his nose, or surfs the ‘net for 3-6 minutes an hour, the company loses money.  Which goes a long way to explaining why most of them do, unless they happen to have a subsidiary in Jakarta or Chennai stuffed full of people who go home at weekends to till the family farm with a buffalo.  For engineering companies, time is money and people are vital.  For oil companies, oil is money and people are involved for some reason, but nobody’s sure why.  The difference can be appreciated by observing a typical first day of work at both companies.

When you join an engineering company you get instructions to present yourself at the office no later than 8am.  You walk through the front door bypassing the empty receptionist’s desk (being an overhead she starts at 9am), and find your manager’s office.  You know who he is because he interviewed you last week.  He will run at you as if he has discovered there are only 24 hours in the day instead of the expected 30.  He’ll grasp your hand and, taking you by the shoulders and wheeling you around, propel you to an empty desk outside his door.  There you will be plonked into a seat opposite a computer which is already booted up, and has a Post-It note stuck to the screen with your username and temporary password.  Before you’ve caught your breath your boss will have plonked a pile of papers on your table, splurted out the location of a folder on a server you don’t know the name of, and told you to “get up to speed” in preparation for the meeting this afternoon.  By the time you go home at 6pm you’ve delivered a presentation, negotiated a contract or two, reviewed a folder full of drawings, done your HSE induction, been issued with a badge, missed lunch (nobody ever tells you where to get grub on your first day), written a progress report, and feel as though you’ve worked in the company a month.

When you join an oil company you get instructions…actually, no you don’t.  You don’t get any instructions.  Your first day on the payroll is 1st September, and by 18th September you think it may be time to give somebody a call to ask when and where you are supposed to be.  After finding out that the person who interviewed you has now been promoted to Senior Venture Planner in the company’s Rio de Janiero office, the person who has replaced her has no idea where you are supposed to be.  She promises to get back to you.  By October she will probably have called you having been on the receiving end of a phone call from a bewildered engineering manager who thought he was supposed to get a new engineer sometime this autumn.  By mid-October, if you are lucky, you will know where you’re supposed to be and on what date.  If you’re daft enough to turn up before 9:00am you can expect to wait outside the door for a while, staring helplessly through the glass at the empty reception desk beyond, or the plastic square against which you will one day press your badge to gain entrance.  Once everyone else arrives and somebody lets you in, you’ll speak to the receptionist at the front desk.  She will take you through to an admin. girl whose job is to…well, nobody is sure.  But she will give you a blank look as the receptionist skedaddles back to her desk before she can get roped into doing any more work today.  The admin. girl will um and ah, um and ah, and when she sees you’re not going away she will pick up the receiver of her phone and stab a few buttons.  The conversation that will follow, if you can call it that, is akin to that which takes place between an employee at a job centre and a smack-head who has been told to show up or else lose his dole cheque.

After a lot of pouting and snorting, the admin. girl will take you down the corridor, into a lift, up a few floors, out of the lift, down another corridor, and into an office containing a Human Resources department and more incompetence per square metre than anywhere else on earth.  A sour-faced harpy will bark at you for having come to the wrong office on the wrong day less than a minute after saying she doesn’t know who you are and she’s not the one dealing with you.  She will then ask you where you are supposed to be working, perhaps not realising that you are stood there hoping she might be able to tell you.  She will make a few phone calls, grumbling that her busy day has been disturbed and she might not be able to book herself on the training course in Paris before lunchtime.  She will put the phone down, look up at you, and say something along the lines of “Okay, you need to go to Churchgate”, as if its meaning and location were self-evident.  If you ask where it is you can expect an impatient snort, a wave of the hand, and no useful information which might help you get there, so you’re better off wandering down the corridor poking your head in the offices as you go and finding the nearest expat.  He’ll tell you where Churchgate is.

Unfortunately, when you get there the bloke you’re supposed to be meeting will be on leave.  The department admin. girl, different from the other one in name and appearance but identical in all other aspects including manners and competence, will plonk you at an empty desk and tell you to wait until he comes back.  From his three-week skiing holiday?  Apparently yes.  By this time it’s 11am and everyone is starting to think about lunch.  You know this because since you’ve been sat down half a dozen people have wandered aimlessly past carrying mugs of coffee and engaged you in idle chit-chat, and the admin. girl has already left.  By the time you’ve explained to everyone where you’ve been working previously it’s actually lunchtime and you join a jolly throng of twelve of your new colleagues on their way to the staff canteen.  Over three courses and an hour and a half you get to know everyone, but alas nobody has the faintest idea of what job you’re supposed to be doing.  “Maybe you could ask HR?” they advise kindly if not a little naively.

The afternoon is spent trying to find out when you will get your computer, when you will get your badge to let you in the front door, and when you will be doing some work.  The answers do not come easily, but through toil and perserverance the results come in and are, respectively: at least a month, at least a month, and loud guffaws with one request not to swear.  By the time you go home at 4pm you’re thinking one thing only: thank f*ck I left that engineering company!