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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Principles is Principles

This isn’t really surprising:

The SR-71 Black Bird is truly a wonder of engineering. You can tell that’s the case just by looking at it even if you have no prior knowledge of aviation. The way it looks just screams “radical design.”

Designed in part by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson for Lockheed and its secret division called Skunk Works, this bird was years ahead in innovation.

That’s the point of this article. It had to be thought through. In the early 60s no computers existed that could render or even come close to computing how this aircraft should be built. It was all done on drawing boards with pencils, rulers and protractors (if you remember what any of these are.) That’s one incredible feat if you think about it.

What’s even more incredible is that in the 2000s this design was ran through a sophisticated computer program used to design planes. You’re talking about thousands of rivets, angles of the fuselage and about a million other factors that this computer checks for.

The end result? The computer wouldn’t do anything different. The design is as efficient as it could be. It was perfect.

I might have expected some minor redundant elements to be identified in the computer model, but not much else.  The purpose of computer-aided modelling is not to give you a different design as one worked out by hand, but to make that process of working out quicker and easier to visualise.  The underlying engineering principles – bending moments, second moments of area, allowable stresses, material properties, etc. – on which the manual calculations and drawings are based would have been programmed into the computer software: the computer isn’t making any decisions, it is merely performing hand calculations very quickly and in vastly greater quantities.  The SR-71 engineering team would have performed all necessary calculations by hand and scrutinised the whole design to eliminate any redundancy, seeing as the design was so close to the edge in what was feasible.  You’d be far more likely to find a bog-standard 1950s motorway bridge to differ from a computer-modelled version because there wouldn’t be as much pressure to optimise the design.  It’s a matter of resources and time/economic priorities, not capability.

People seem to think that computers, when executing calculations, can do what humans can’t.  Presumably they wouldn’t expect a result calculated by an Excel formula to differ from a hand calculation, so I’m not sure why we’d expect engineering calculations to change once the forumlae are calculated by machine instead of on a piece of paper.

(On the subject of the SR-71, this is an awesome little story.)


A Post About Boilers

Commenter Alex M. chimes in under this post on the subject of boilers, and I thank him for that:

My plumber has a handy sideline reselling perfectly good boilers than people replace because they fall for all the guff about modern energy-efficient equipment. New boilers may use slightly less oil but the savings will never cover the cost of replacing an old serviceable boiler, never mind the much higher maintenance costs and the fact that new condensing boilers are only designed to last around ten years. A bog-standard 20th century non-condensing boiler will last fifty years or longer with regular servicing.

It is probably not surprising that I never owned a property with a boiler until recently.  My employer has always been generous enough to supply me with accommodation wherever I’ve been posted, and the place I bought in Thailand back in 2009 has nothing more than a small water heater for showers and washing up, for obvious reasons.  That changed when I bought a property in Annecy a couple of years ago, a modern apartment which was fully electric (i.e. no gas) and independently heated (i.e. unlike the older apartment complexes, there was no centralised heating system for the whole development).  The boiler was new, so the previous owner told me, and he had receipts to prove it.

When II collected the keys I didn’t even have a place to sit down, and so after looking around I switched off the water and the power and went back to Paris.  That’s one of the advantages of an apartment over a house: you can drop the shutters, switch everything off, and just leave it unattended for months.  Do that with a house and you’ll find things have gotten inside and taken up residence.  Anyway, I made a habit of visiting the place every few months and then switching everything off when I wasn’t there.

I arrived at the property on 22nd December last year, intending to spend Christmas there, and found the boiler leaking.  It wasn’t a bad leak and fortunately there was no damage to my property or that of my neighbour, and I could even still take showers, but something had gone wrong with the boiler.  I found it odd that the leak wasn’t coming from the bottom, but about halfway up.  I couldn’t see any hole but I could feel that below the leak the casing was warm, but above it was cold.  The water was dripping down the inside of the casing.

My first reaction was to swear loudly.  This was 3 days before Christmas, remember.  And plumbers are known to be cheap and readily available, especially with foreigners close to a major holiday, oh yes.  My second reaction was to pull out the warranty.  I called the service number and as I was on hold a passage in the warranty terms caught my eye: the warranty is void if the power has been off for more than 24 hours.  Mine had been off for seven months.

I’m an engineer, mechanical according to the certificate.  Not a good one, but an engineer nonetheless. I know about corrosion and how it works.  I’d suspected the leak was caused by corrosion, but was struggling to figure out how the hull had been breached so fast.  Now I knew.  Modern boilers are made from paper-thin steel to save costs, make them lighter, and make them more energy efficient.  This is inherently sensible.  The problem is corrosion: even the slightest degradation of thin steel will cause a hole to appear.  All boilers deal with corrosion by using sacrificial anodes, but they need to be replaced every few years increasing servicing costs.  You can avoid this by using a powered anode, which does not deteriorate with time but – as the name suggests – needs to be powered.  When I pulled apart my boiler I found a small 9V battery underneath: that would be the emergency supply when the main power is switched off for whatever reason.  The anode wouldn’t need much power, but a 9V battery is not going to keep it working for seven months.  As such, the anode stopped working and the boiler itself corroded in short order.

This all came as a surprise to me.  The house in which I grew up in rural Wales had a boiler, which from memory was made of steel an inch thick and probably needed a crane to install.  If the anode lost power there would be enough allowance in the steel to withstand months or even years of corrosion before springing a leak.  But modern boilers have no such margin, they will be made using thin steel and will become useless at the slightest sign of physical degradation.  So you have to keep the damned things powered up.

I was fortunate enough to find a decent plumber in Annecy who replaced it on 23rd December with a better one for 1,200 Euros including installation, taxes, etc.  It was a bit of a dent in the wallet, but it didn’t mean Christmas was ruined.

This isn’t a rant about disposable boilers, though. Old-style boilers might last forever, but that comes at a cost too: you need a strong floor to put them on, and you certainly can’t hang them from a wall like you can the modern ones.  You also can’t install them with one person and another one helping, you’d need some serious kit to move them in and out.  And they’d also be more expensive to run.  There is a reason why modern French apartments are all electric: heating technology and insulation has gotten so good that you no longer need a heavy, industrial central heating system or a gas-fired boiler, and all the equipment you need can be bought from a DIY store and chucked in the back of your car (just about).  In the long run, I suspect the savings on heating costs would easily pay for replacing the boiler once every ten or fifteen years (though perhaps not every seven months).

But there’s another point, which as an employee of an oil company I understand well: CAPEX versus OPEX.  Most people would rather pay for a cheap boiler and replace it every ten years – $700 up front, then two $1,000 payments at year 10 and 20 respectively, totalling $2,700 – than pay $2,000 up front on Day 1 and not pay anything for the next 20 years.  What do economists call it?  The time value of money, or something.

And that’s the real benefit of modern boilers: they are cheap according to the price tag hanging off it in the shop.


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.