Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Paying for free housing

Minister Tokyo Sexwale has announced that the scheme to provide free housing for the poor will soon come to an end.

We were all poor once - and no-one offered us free housing once we had left home. Another answer to provision for the poor must be found.

Perhaps the German solution merits deeper investigation. From the 1870's onwards, when the German peasants wanted to move to the city, they could sell their 'tribal right' to land. This gave them cash to house themselves in the city. Those who did not wish to move could buy land with a state-funded mortgage. Germany never had shacks.

We need to allow people to sell their tribal rights to land - and use some of the money generated to pay the chiefs for their losses. That way some of the tribal land which is exceedingly arable can be brought under modern farming and make a contribution to our well-being, while those wishing to move to the cities would have the funds to do so.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ecoterrorism is rife

In the runup to COP17, the horror stories are flowing thick and fast. The latest to cross my path came from a recent capacity-building workshop on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD+) . "Deforestation and forest degradation produced about 20% of total human-caused GHG emissions on a yearly basis."

There is absolutely no basis for this statement. It is typical of the horror stories dreamed up to coerce us into foolish action.

Total consumption of timber is around 1400 million cubic metres a year, most of which comes from sustainable forestry. Total consumption of fossil fuels is around 10 500 million tonnes oil equivalent. Burning oil produces far more CO2 than burning wood. So the "20%" figure is more like 1%.

You can lie for only so long before you are found out. These ecoterrorists need to learn that simple lesson.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Law of the Engineer

As an engineer, I had to learn that Murphy’s Law really is a Law, not some wishy-washy rule. For the uninitiated, the Law says that if something can go wrong, it will. Note, “it will”, not “it may”. There is an awful finality about the Law. It is inescapable.

So when we engineers design something, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that it will almost certainly fail. Its failure will be unexpected – a ‘black swan’ event – but fail it eventually will.

Fortunately we learn from our mistakes. What we design gets better and better all the time. My first car was a Morris Minor. It had a hole in the centre of the front bumper. When the starter motor failed, you took out a crank handle, put it through the hole, and turned the engine by hand until it started.

When the starter motor failed, not if. In the 1950’s the starter was expected to fail. Over the years, starters have become more and more reliable. No longer do cars come with crank handles.

This simple example is repeated over and over. I once travelled fast in a 1926 Bentley. Its chassis was positively alive, and the slightest bump would send the car off course. The Bentley had been the finest machine of its day. It won at Le Mans several years in a row. But today its road-holding would make it impossible to sell. The designers of cars have learned from their mistakes.

The result of this continual improvement is that unexpected failures become rarer and rarer. In the motor industry, there are occasional ‘recalls’ when an error appears in one of the many systems that make up the modern vehicle. They are rare, so rare that they are newsworthy.

Much of modern life benefits from the continual improvements we engineers have made. However, we can never forget that Murphy is peering over our shoulders. The latest example was Fukushima. The designers knew that if cooling was lost, it would be a disaster, so they designed backup pumps that would keep cooling water flowing. Then they recognised that the power to the backup might fail, so they installed generators to supply power if the normal power supply failed. If the generators should fail, there were batteries to keep things going until the generators could be restarted.

When one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded struck, the reactors shut down as expected. The power lines failed, so the generators kicked in. For an hour, all was well. Then Murphy arrived, in the form of a wave that was twice as high as anyone had conceived. The generators were flooded, the batteries battled on until they had run out of energy, cooling was lost and the reactors were destroyed.

Everyone has learned from this disaster. It will not happen again. Nuclear reactors will become safer. But they will never become perfect. Perfection is impossible. At best, accidents will become more and more infrequent, and lower and lower in their impact.

But whatever we do, Nature will invent more ways to defeat our best-laid plans. Murphy is ever present. That is the Law by which we engineers are ruled.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Misplaced passion

I am a passionate person. I am happy to share my passions with others, which is why I write here.

However, passion is a dangerous emotion. The passionate have to take care they they use the force of their passion constructively. It is all too easy to be destructive.

I have long felt infinitely sad for those in the animal rights movement who have expressed their passion by violence. People work with animals to try to find ways of alleviating human suffering. If you don't like them working with animals, then you should strive to find another way of curing human ills. That is the constructive use of your passion. The destructive use is to attack those who work with animals, because ultimately you are hindering their attempts to relieve human suffering.

One of my many passions is a belief in an open society, one in which we should be free to express our beliefs without fear or favour. Thus I have a hatred of propaganda. I like the definition "Propaganda is -- a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual)" [Richard Alan Nelson, A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States (1996) pp. 232-233]

When I saw the video Gasland, I soon realized it was a good example of propaganda. Finding out that it really did give a one-sided message which in many places was anything but factual took a little time. Fortunately my quest was aided by others who had reached the same conclusion. An epiphany came when I found a You-Tube of Gasland's producer, Josh Fox, admitting that he had known that the "flaming water" was a long-standing phenomenon that had nothing to do with fracking. Since then I have been passionate about revealing the propaganda for what it was.

The debate has generally been fruitful. My opponents have been courteous, knowledgeable in their own way, happy to share their concerns, and willing to consider that their concerns could be addressed. The debate has therefore come down to ways of ensuring that fixes could be achieved. Once the concerns had been reliably addressed, exploration via 'fracking' was reasonable.

I, for my part, have had to stress that no fix is perfect. Murphy's Law is alive and well. But one of the beauties of engineering is that it does get better and better - we do learn from our mistakes. So the risk of the fixes failing is likely to diminish with time. As one concern is addressed, another will be found to take its place. Ultimately the de minimis rule will kick in, and all will accept the tiny chance of failure that remains.

But there is O'Toole's rider to Murphy's Law - he said "Murphy is an optimist!" I said that the debate has generally been fruitful. There are exceptions to this rule, point blank refusal even to discuss concerns, outright rejection of the possibility of another view.

The latest example of this has been an invitation to a musician to play to a group of us. Negotiations proceeded slowly, but finally we agreed a significant fee. Then, with a week to go, came a surprising email "Since my last email I have read some of your blogs. I do not wish to be associated with you or your crew. I am vehemently against Fracking. I will also not support the pursuit of profit without regard for its humanitarian and environmental impact."

I was not previously aware that 'my crew' would be deemed to share my passions - in fact, I am certain that they share a few, and equally certain that they hold contrary views about many others. I don't mind vehemence - some of those with whom I have debated have been quite vehement, and it expresses passion well.

However, passion can blind, and surely it has in this case. One of my passions happens to be music, and that is one which I share with the musician - and with many of 'my crew'. The musician has allowed one of his passions to get in the way of another. That is as good an example of the destructiveness of passion as I know.

Shakespeare, how now your Romeo and Juliet?