Monday, October 29, 2007

A meandering ...

I recently posted about this short exchange that I had with BT.

I am well beyond the end of my tether with them, after the 'Engineering Team' refused to install a new phone line into my new house 'because there is already one there'. I happened to already know that the 'phone line' already there is infact just an extension from a house next door. In essence my house has borrowed a couple of the unused wires out of their phone cable. This means that neither house has a line suitable for broadband ADSL.

I had (increasingly im-)patiently explained this to several 'customer misinformation service' representatives over the past few weeks. I explained that I didn't have time for them to activate and test the current line and then begin a new order from scratch.

In the end, they activated the line but they cancelled the broadband order because there was no line active at the precise moment earlier in the day when the line test was run. I rang them up, I was baffled yet again by the difficulties they seem to have in getting their systems to talk to each other (being a communications company and all that) and I started the broadband order again.

Sorry madam, I can't place that order - this line is a DAX line - it's not suitable for broadband.

I didn't know whether to laugh, cry, scream, swear or simply go to their offices with a weapon.

It was then explained to me that 'The Engineering Team' would need to do a 'Site survey' to establish the cost of installing a new line, which would then probably be passed on to me.

In theory BT have a flat rate of £107 for installing a new line. I did point out that I have ordered several new lines previously whilst living in London, and that the point of the flat rate is that the profit they made on doing those ten minute installations is supposed to ensure that rural communities aren't left without services, but I may as well have been explaining the exact meaning of the term 'attenuation'.

For the non-geeks, attenuation is the opposite of amplification. As the signal is transmitted through the system it becomes less strong and less clear. Whilst there is no doubt that BT's entire sales / orders / installations / service system is essentially one huge attenuator, it strikes me that this is a problem much more widely experienced in the UK.

I am working on a book at the moment about ... well, it's kind of hard to sum up here, but essentially it's a journey which takes in human biology, consciousness, anthropology, sociology, politics and the science of global warming. It seeks (rather ambitiously) to answer the question "Who are we, why have we screwed up the planet and what can we do about it?"

The book is the baby of an amazing Australian thinker who I am very very fortunate to be working with. In writing it, and making an interactive documentary, I am having to really examine my own beliefs to ensure they don't get in the way of the truth / facts / science.

In particular I am having to look again at my core reaction to the concept of Nuclear Power. It brings my hackles right up.

I have several negative responses to NP. Some of those are valid, if perhaps exaggerated or out-dated, concerns about safety. However, I have an additional and even stronger barrier which is proving to be really difficult to overcome.

I am scared that if I change my beliefs about Nuclear Power then I will not be acceptable to my peers, my friends, my family.

On a biological level, human beings are pretty useless on their own. We need others, need their love and approval as well as their tangible help and support. Our limbic system drives us to belong, to find people with whom we resonate, and shared "felt truths", such as "Nuclear Power is completely unacceptable" are the scaffolding we use to hold ourselves in place within the group.

And yet increasingly I am coming to wonder whether there is any alternative. It seems likely that in order to avoid either the catastrophic kind of climate change that will cause massive death and misery, or the escalation of tension over oil into the levels of war that will cause massive death and misery, we might have to consider how best to use Nuclear Power to generate energy that can meet the needs of every human being on the planet.

I am nervous writing this, and yet I know that were I writing in French I would be much less concerned. As a population France have accepted, and even embraced, Nuclear Power. As I began to look at the reasons why, I was drawn back to a paper I wrote when I was 19 about the challenges facing the UK as a result of a lack of scientific and engineering literacy within the population. (If you really wanted to you could order it here but it basically boils down to dumping the current education system which creates an arbitrary arts / science divide at 16 and adopting the international baccalaureate or similar).

To make informed decisions about issues such as Nuclear Power, we need a population who can comprehend and grapple with risk. To understand risk you need a sound relationship with numbers as expressed through statistics. We need an electorate who understand why it is ridiculous to sit in the crazy chair on Deal or No Deal and say 'Well, the quarter million hasn't been in box 17 for the last 54 shows, so I figure the chances it's in there have gotta be quite high'.

My dad and I regularly joke that it's quite safe for me to travel by any mode of transport because he has been in a serious train crash and an emergency landing of a plane.

So, how is NP acceptable in France when it is so feared and demonised in the UK? Obviously the French have a strong motivator, having no significant fossil fuel reserves of their own, but in addition general level of trust in and respect for scientists and engineers is much higher in France than it is in the UK. This is primarily because they have a higher rate of scientific literacy. In an age where we have lost the blind faith in authority that once underpinned our trust, they are able to maintain trust because they can ask questions and resonate with the answers in a way that we aren't able to in the UK. The vicious circle in this experience is obvious. (The circulation of the Daily Mail is a terrifying confirmation.)

The UK's level of respect for science and engineering has fallen to a level where we allow people to refer to themselves as 'Washing Machine Engineers'. A good mechanic / plumber / technician has incredibly valuable skills, and I'm not questioning the value of the work, so I lay in the bath last night wondering why it irks me so much that BT keep referring to 'The Engineering Team' when I am confident that the 'Engineer' who does my installation will probably not be an Engineer in the BEng sense at all.

It occurred to me that it is because I do have faith in Engineers. I did my (manufacturing) degree in the fairly massive 'Mech Eng' department of Birmingham University, and I would honestly say that 99% of my fellow students are people I would trust to make decisions that impact on my safety. The bread and butter of an Engineer is the process of assessing factors, discarding unimportant ones, distilling the problem to the lowest practical level, identifying risks, imagining consequences and choosing a first line solution. The area of engineering is less important than the natural alignment with the process. True Engineers don't think "Oh, yes, I should start my process ... " they are doing it constantly - they can't do anything else. (This makes us quite irritating when you really just want a cup of tea and a cuddle and not a fully spec'd pareto-analysed solution matrix).

Air travel is the current whipping boy of the global warming debate. For those of you dreaming of heading off to sunshine rather than slitting your wrists in the drizzle of a British winter let me give you a number to ease your conscience.


Specifically 1 percent. This is the carbon contribution of the air travel industry to the global carbon footprint. (Actually I have figures that say about 1.2 %, and these things are estimated, but suffice it to say that whilst power generation for homes and business make up 60%, not taking your winter break is not going to save an icecap).

In the UK at the moment we're talking a lot about recycling. Pay as you throw. Green taxes on air travel. Taxing carrier bags. I suspect that these conversations are mostly the noise in the system. We need to be having a bigger conversation about our education system, so that we introduce into the electorate a generation of citizens who are scientifically and statistically literate enough to hold our leaders to account. They need to be emotionally and socially literate too - able to rise above marketing messages, to know which buttons are being pushed, to question themselves as well as authority.

What are the chances?


Blogger Böbø said...

Some times you remind my of my best mate Gavin, who is a scientist jazz-playing philosopher who knows things.

Oh I can see how you're going have fun evening chit chats, with your quaint old fashioned bright-sunny modernist views. Compared to some people's co-created postmodern discourse.

Personally, having all the science knowledge of a historian, I just expect the modernist project to work. Yet BT is a classic example of something that ought to "just work" that self evidently doesn't.

Unfortunately, science is (comparatively) easy. People are hard. It's easy to pooh-poo marketing messages. Easy and surprisingly satisfying.

But in a world where there is too much to take in, a world in which I'd rather not know about attenuation in an engineering context. Marketing and politics and the media are the chaotic mechanisms by which information and decisions are transmitted. And it is a very very noisy process that rather defeats the clarity of the scientific method. So instead we co-create our world through complex and haphazard processes that seem sub-optimal from any rationalist perspective.


And if it's any consolation, yes, NP might be the least worse option for now, so that I can carry on taking power for granted. But what to do about BT, Lord knows.

29 October, 2007 14:08  
Blogger Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

I am so with you on exasperation with companies such as BT and their totally unacceptable indifference to customers legitimate needs and complaints and their inefficiency, lack of communication between their own departments, etc. But BT isn't unique. I could (and so could all of us) give you a list of equally infuriating examples from innumerable others. The book you're working on and its thesis sounds brilliant and I also agree with most of the points you raise. But not about the nuclear power issue or the French attitude to it. The average French man/woman-on-the-Clapham-bus/metro is much less interested in the details of environmental issues (including those related to food, pesticides, chemicals, health, pollution etc) than other Europeans. There is more of a tendency to accept decisions made by those in authority and less of an urge to find out information for yourself. Yes, nuclear power is largely accepted in France (though there are small pockets of dissenters) but the big issues concerning it (e.g. what to do about nuclear waste, risks of accidents, etc.) have never been open to public debate. Yes, there are as you say valid reasons for considering nuclear power to be an environmental "solution" but there are also powerful reasons for rejecting it and for focusing scientific brains on viable alternatives. Sometimes even the demands we make of technology have to be questioned too: do we actually need all the power that we insist energy must give us in ever-increasing amounts?

29 October, 2007 14:13  
Blogger Stray said...

Bobo - I think least worst hits the nail on the head.

Natalie - thanks for that! I am obviously generalising terribly on the french position - though the stats for Europe do show that almost all of the other nations have a level of scientific literacy much higher than in the UK! I am quite interested in the French solution to the problem of nobody wanting the waste to be 'buried' in their back yard.

The government have reframed the disposal process, rightly I believe, as more like a temporary storage system - with a firm promise to come back and deal with it in a better way as soon as technology allows.

I absolutely resonate with the core belief that there must be better solutions - including reducing our gobbling of energy ... but I don't feel that I can impose a rule that developing nations shouldn't be able to have at least a little of what we have, and compared with the energy needs of china and india, ours will soon seem like a drop in the ocean.

I don't think scientific brains aren't focussing on viable alternatives - I think thousands of very fine minds and vast sums of research money are being thrown at that question every day, but the crisis is likely to come before any big enough development in renewables. The current estimates I am looking at indicate that we could get at most a quarter of our energy from renewables.

We're really not very far from Peak Oil at all. We're probably less than a decade from the point at which we have serious differences between the amounts of oil being requested by the largest nations and the amounts that are coming out of the ground. At that point I worry that if we don't have a viable alternative then we simply end up in a combination of conflict and a global depression.

The accidents issue is interesting. Chernobyl burns brightly in my mind, having happened at such a formative time in my life. And yet I am strangely untouched by the fact that over 25,000 people die in the coal industry in china every year. The more I look at the figures the more I am wondering whether my 'no nuclear, ever' position is a luxury I can afford because I am not personally struggling with power outages or extreme weather or terrible health and safety at work ...?

Obviously the consequences of getting nuclear wrong are potentially catastrophic. It scares the shit out of me! I'm glad the French aren't quite as comfortable with it as the surveys and reports I am reading for my research indicate!

But yes - mostly I am feeling really rather grateful to have such a fab, and challenging, project to work on.


29 October, 2007 14:45  
Blogger That's so pants said...

Wise words as always Stray. I fear you may be too late with the education system. There's no one well educated enough to teach what you're proposing. The book sounds interesting. 'Great Australian thinker' - music to my ears.



29 October, 2007 19:15  
Blogger Random Reflections said...

I really liked when you said "On a biological level, human beings are pretty useless on their own. We need others, need their love and approval as well as their tangible help and support. Our limbic system drives us to belong, to find people with whom we resonate, and shared "felt truths"... "

I think that is very true and it gave me real pause for thought.

So many of the things you said in this post were worthy of comment, but I was particularly struck by that point.

I also don't think there is anything wrong in questioning why you think what you do about nuclear power. Society progresses by questioning itself and seeing if things can be done better. It doesn't mean that we always have to be changing what we think but we also don't want to be in the position of saying "I believe what I believe because that is what I have always believed".

There's more to say but I shall leave it there...

29 October, 2007 19:32  
Blogger Ms Melancholy said...

Gosh, that was a long bath, Stray. (And what's wrong with reading Heat magazine like the rest of us?)

Sorry to lower the tone honey. I am just in awe of your very cleverness x

29 October, 2007 21:26  
Blogger But Why? said...

What are the chances? Well, seeing as us apes have been playing with technology for a few hundred thousand years, and the UK embracing nuclear power hasn't happened yet, it's well overdue and therefore virtually certain to happen next year, isn't it...?

On a more serious note, how about a marketing message for NP? I was thinking somewhere along the lines of embracing nuclear power and getting that warm glowing feeling...?

BTW, I've just caught sight of the 2012 logo and all I can see is Lisa Simpson. Hideous.

29 October, 2007 22:37  
Blogger Dale said...

Yeah. Me too. Think it may have to be nukes, I mean. I don't mention it often, and some of my friends would be horrified, but c'mon, people just aren't going to stop consuming power on this scale. Even I'm not (glancing around the room, seeing the three computers, hearing the natural gas heater, looking at the lights, hearing the whir of the fridge.) And I pass for green here.

I dunno about engineering, though. I worked many years doing QA for software projects, and after that long, seeing things that are supposedly foolproof break over and over and over -- although designed and built and tested by people far smarter and more conscientious than I am -- I'm a little gloomy about fail-safe engineering.

It's not the accidents that trouble me, though, so much as the waste disposal. I live in a part of the US that people keep trying to dump nuclear waste in, because it's relatively empty and useless, but it certainly doesn't feel empty and useless to those of us who live here :-)

30 October, 2007 06:53  
Blogger Misssy M said...

Gosh if that's you meandering then...we've really got to pay attention when you start deliberating.

I learned a few things. And I actually read a post all the way through with numbers in it which is really amazing for me.

Given me lots to think about.

30 October, 2007 18:09  
Blogger Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

"...The government have reframed the disposal process, rightly I believe, as more like a temporary storage system - with a firm promise to come back and deal with it in a better way as soon as technology allows."

Uh-oh! Firm promise to deal with it...whenever? Those are the kind of promises all politicians are so good at making. Pardon my skepticism but life has a tendency to do whatever it feels like doing while governments are making other plans. Like the aftermath of the war in Iraq which was supposed to be over and settled before you could say geronimo.
Unfortunately "temporary storage systems" could stretch into the unforeseeable future. "I'll go on smoking temporarily.." Yeah, right: by the time, if ever, the smoker decides to quit his/her lungs will have been damaged beyond repair.

31 October, 2007 15:40  
Blogger Stray said...

Ms Pants - a great Aussie thinker indeed! He's quite something .. though I have to say his Aussieness is in the context of being born and schooled in the UK, and married to an amazing Japanese woman. He's rather global really :) Still has that lovely 'let's just bloody get on and do it, and sod the people who say it can't be done' air about him, which I recognise in quite a few of my Aussie mates.

RR - it's nice to be a mammal isn't it?

Of course you are right about the questioning, the world used to be flat and the sun travelled around it ...

It's just a bit scary when you find yourself looking at the situation and thinking that the 'least awful' scenario is something that so many people are vehemently opposed to.

Ms M - it was indeed quite a long bath, I probably would have been better off reading Heat magazine after all!

But Why? - God - yes, you're right! And of course I must be due to win a holiday because I've yet to meet anyone who has. I must apply for some 'win a holiday' competitions quick before someone else I know wins one and makes it less likely!

2012 logo ... yeuch.

Like your slogans. You should apply for a job with the nuke dudes.

Dale - now suddenly I feel better! In my head you're a gentle, thoughtful, sensible kind of fellow, so the fact that you're reluctantly nodding along with me is rather encouraging. We're fairly 'green' in our house but still using a good few KHW. Apparently the average westerner uses 30 x 50 times more energy simply to exist than our closest biological counterpart, the great ape. So, a country like the UK, with a population of about 60 million humans, is taking the same energy to survive as 2.4 billion apes. Scary.

As Nat also says, the waste issue is the big one.

misssy m - don't worry, I never actually do proper thinking. I exclusively meander. Well done for pushing through the numbers, they're not that different from letters when you relax about them. It's the letters substituting for unknown numbers that you want to save your concern for ;)

Natalie - I know I know! It's incredibly horribly uncertain - using a technology which creates a problem for which we currently don't have a solution, though a lot of people are working bloody hard to try to find one. All the more reason to encourage people to think that being a scientist or an engineer is a useful thing!

I agree that politicians are bloody rubbish at keeping promises. I think the reality is though that it might still be the least horrible option. I am not yet sure where my feelings take me, but I am starting to contemplate the fact that a possible problem as a result of nuclear waste disposal is less horrid than a definite massive loss of life as a result of conflict over dwindling oil reserves.

I am pretty sure that the US's recent 'discovery' that their oil reserves aren't quite as deep as they had imagined are something to do with attempting to make Iraq look like something other than an oil raid. As for the recent sanctions - I think they are counter productive really. Instability pushes up oil prices, so Iran rake in more cash for their oil, and it's hard to imagine that the sanctions will harm the people in power, or even their status within the general public in their country.

To be honest I am hoping we hit $100 a barrel for crude asap, and have a few horrible shortages and some rolling powercuts in the UK and US in the next year. I'd love to see us queuing at the petrol stations and only able to fill up on days with a number that matches the license plate ... it can't really happen soon enough because at least the reversal will start quicker!

I'm wondering what you'd suggest Natalie - do you have a feeling about what the 'least bad' solution might be?

31 October, 2007 16:12  
Blogger Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

"I'm wondering what you'd suggest Natalie - do you have a feeling about what the 'least bad' solution might be?"

Dear L: first of all, I haven't researched the subject so I know a lot less about it than you do. My skepticism and wariness about going all-out nuclear are mainly to do with these facts:
Nuclear energy creates nuclear waste.
More nuclear energy creates more nuclear waste (keep adding to that exponentially).
N-waste remains remains *seriously* dangerous for an inconceivably long time (generations).
The N-waste disposal problem hasn't even begun to be solved satisfactorily. The sooner N-power becomes THE major source of power, the more serious and urgent the problem of N-waste becomes and continues to grow. To say that technology will find a solution to a problem that keeps growing bigger by the minute is, well, unrealistic to say the least.It's a problem we'll be leaving as a gift to this planet and to all future generations.
It seems to me that this side-effect of choosing N-power as a solution to the energy crisis makes the "remedy" unacceptable. The patient, in this scenario, is our planet and all that lives and will live on it. The oil crisis is indeed serious along with all the global disasters predicted, but it seems to me that all alternatives to N-power that are put on the table need to be given full attention and support and priority simply *because* of the uncceptable side-effect of wholesale N-power. I'm sure there are some far-thinking brains out there who are looking into these issues and who do have "less bad" proposals but how seriously are they being considered? My feeling is that those in power to make the decisions have already made up their minds about going nuclear and that it's now only a marketing campaign to make it acceptable, or even unavoidable. Like the decision to go to war in Iraq. All of us protesters around the world who said "Stop! You don't know what you're doing! You'll regret it!" were not listened to because the powers-that-be had made up their minds. I can't help drawing parallels with the N-power issue.

01 November, 2007 11:53  
Blogger Stray said...

Thanks Natalie. I agree N-waste is horribly complex and difficult to deal with.

I know that bio fuels aren't an alternative - people are already starving in places where we're taking the crops to make power instead of food.

I'm building some engineering software around photovoltaics at the moment - solar power - and the fact is that at the present time the technology is still barely viable - there are questions about whether they ever produce enough power to exceed the energy employed in manufacturing, transporting and installing them!

Wind power is similarly not really energy positive yet - you could chuck a wind turbine on your house and maybe make a small fraction of your energy and possibly after a few years you might have generated enough power to compensate for the energy expelled in making it. The payback times for this technology are simply estimates - they range from 18 months to infinity ... and nobody really knows because tracking every bit of energy expended along the process is so difficult.

I'd love to think that a mad professor somewhere is about to produce a 'flux capacitor' that runs on garbage :) It's possible that it already exists and the powers that be simply aren't telling us.

I find it hard to imagine what the ulterior motive is for politicians pushing nuclear. Oil is quite obvious - oil makes the money markets go round ... and a move away from oil changes the political landscape of the world quite considerably.

See, this is why I am hating that I have to get into this - because lots of lovely people who I respect and generally feel well aligned with are going to find it horrifying that I could even contemplate the idea that we may have no choice but to embrace NP. I feel like a pariah in my own head!

I've got a lot more research to do, a lot more to find out and question and understand before I get to writing, but eek, it's a difficult position to be in!

Can you be green and be pro-nuclear (as the least worst energy source) at the same time?

I spoke to a colleague in sweden this morning - it's interesting that Scandinavia seems to have both NP and a very serious widespread commitment to green values. I guess I need to speak to a few more Nordic types about how they line it up.


01 November, 2007 13:00  
Blogger PurpleSparkleBright said...

The education problem will not be solved for a long time. The problem reminds me of the B-Ark and the A-Ark which were blasted off dying planet Golgafrincham in a Douglas Adams book- one full of Executives and high powered people and one full of telephone sanitizers and janitors etc. The entire A Ark died of a virulent disease contracted from an unexpectedly dirty telephone, and the B Ark landed safely on a new planet but proved equally useless but in a much more long drawn out painful way, as they lacked the education to know what the hell to do except organise meetings and cut hair and clean phones. And it is in this long drawn out and painful way that we'll come to realise that if we dont get on top of it, there will be no engineers. Here. They will all be in Bulgaria, Poland, China and India. They already are. And as for BT- I suspect the poor guys on the end of the phone are working with an antiquated piece of badly written software that looks like a bios, that gives them step by step instructions on how to piss customers off, and being paid £13,000 for the priveledge. Because all the Engineers are self employed and/or IT involved and basicaly, being paid more. Its sad. But its true. The skills are leaving us. At least they are not leaving the human race, only the UK :)

01 November, 2007 13:19  
Blogger NMJ said...

Stray, You made me smile, my ex always gets upset when BT/gas men etc are referred to as engineers. 'They're not engineers, they're technicians,' he wails. I tell him he's being elitist, though I don't think he is - I just say it to annoy him. While these (well, the competent ones) technicians do valuable jobs, I think BT and British Gas etc call them engineers to make us feel re-assured, even when we have little reason to. My uncle, who is a lovely man, is a BT 'engineer'. He empathises fully with customers going thru your sort of hell & would happily weep with you. BTW, I think I had a DAX line & they came & did sth that took 3 minutes before I cd have broadband.

02 November, 2007 18:35  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The notion of nuclear power generation leaving a horrible legacy for future generations is well argued. What seems to be less obvious to everyone is that we are already leaving future generations a massive horrible legacy by using carbon based energy.

The problem is that CO2 is just as likely to kill you as legacy nuclear waste. It will just be faster! It will be worldwide as opposed to local. And it may produce more wars more quickly.

So, we better get engineeriing.

07 November, 2007 22:03  
Anonymous Austin said...

Just a little in a country where there is a lot of uranium to be mined. The other problem with nuclear, besides the fact that we have no good ways of dealing with the waste and it uses lots of water to produce energy (here in OZ that is a problem) and also creates environmental havoc where it is mined, is that there is only so much uranium in the ground and as far as I understand in a very short time we would be confronting the same problems that we do with oil and coal. The only answer seems to be with the potential which is still untapped in alternative energy sources.

12 November, 2007 07:32  
Blogger Böbø said...

How can three bloggers in one house produce so few posts for such an eternity! And that's no exaggeration!

14 December, 2007 22:48  

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