When an upgrade is downgrading

I had slightly surreal time last week.  I visited the USA to attend a review of a research programme sponsored by the US Government and reported on two of our research projects.  When I arrived in the USA on Monday evening, I went to collect my rental car and was told that I had been upgraded to a pick-up truck because the rental company did not have left any of the compact cars that had been booked for me.  I gingerly manoeuvred the massive vehicle, a Toyota Tacoma, out of the parking garage and on to the freeway.  I should admit to having owned a large SUV when we lived in the USA and so driving along the freeway was not a totally new experience, except that the white bonnet in front of me seemed huge.

The following morning, I drove to the location of the review and strategically selected a parking space with empty spaces all around it so that I could drive through into the space and avoid needing to reverse the behemoth.  As I was walking across the parking lot, someone accosted me and said: ‘Nice truck, how do you like it?’  Embarrassed at driving such an environmental-unfriendly vehicle, I responded that it was a rental car that I just picked up.  To which he replied that the best protection against my Tacoma, was his Tacoma. And, that it was his dream car.  Then, I noticed that he had parked his black one alongside mine.

Our children learnt to drive in our ancient Ford Explorer and loved it.  We all knew that it was wrong to drive something that consumed fuel so voraciously even if it did get us effortlessly through the most horrendous winter storms.  However, we have left all that behind and now either use public transport or drive cars that achieve 60 mpg or more on good days. But here I was being admitted to a club that worshipped their pick-up trucks.

We walked together into the review which was held in a small lecture theatre equipped with comfortable armchairs, which was just as well because we sat there from 8.30 to 4.30 for two days listening to half-hour presentations with only short breaks.  We were presented with some stunning research based on brilliant innovative thinking, such as materials that can undergo 90% deformation and fully recover their shape and how the rippling motion of covert feathers on a bird’s wings could help us design more efficient aeroplanes.  More on that in later posts.  Of course, there were some less good presentations that had many us reaching for our mobile phones to catch up on the endless flow of email [see: ‘Compelling Presentations‘ on March 21st, 2018).  At the end of each day, we dispersed to different hotels scattered across town in our rental cars.  On Thursday, I drove back to the airport and topped up the fuel tank before returning my truck.  I worked out that it had achieved only 19 mpg (US) or 23 mpg (UK), despite my gentle driving – that’s almost three times the consumption of my own car!  On the plane home I started reading ‘Overstory‘ by Richard Powers, a novel about our relationship to trees and the damage we are doing to the environment on which trees, and us, are dependent.

The Salt Path

Some readers might have recognised that the photographs in recent posts were taken in Cornwall (UK) and deduced we were in Cornwall for our holiday last month (see ‘Relieving stress‘ on July 17th, 2019).  If so, you would have been correct.  One of our pastimes is walking along sections of the South West Coast Path which is a 630 mile long distance path that follows the coast from Minehead in North Somerset to Poole on the south coast in Dorset.  Our efforts are a leisurely stroll when compared alongside those of Raynor Winn and her husband whose struggle to complete the whole 630 miles is described in her book The Salt Path.  The book is not just account of a walk but of their encounter with homelessness and coming to terms with the diagnosis of a terminal illness, which might lead you to expect a depressing read; however, it is the reverse.  It is a witty and up-lifting account of how Raynor and her husband overcame these adversities and her insight on homelessness should be compulsory reading for all us who enjoy the comforts of modern living.

I connected with the book because we were walking along the Salt Path, as the South West Coast Path is known; but nevertheless, I would rate it amongst the best books that I have read this year.

Engineering correspondents needed

Society’s perception  of scientists and engineers is not well-balanced; scientists tend to get the headlines when they make new discoveries while engineers are only in the headlines when things go wrong.  Even worse, when I was a student, the successes of the NASA’s space shuttle were usually reported as scientific achievements while its problems were engineering failures; when the whole programme was an enormous feat of engineering!  Perhaps this is because news organisations tend to have science correspondents and editors but no engineering correspondents.  When you search for engineering journalism jobs most of the results relate to roles associated with the technology of journalism; whereas a search for science journalism jobs results in dozens of vacancies for science writers, correspondents and editors.  The lack of engineering correspondents has been evident in the UK during the past week in reporting about the potential bursting of the dam at Toddbrock Reservoir and flooding of the town of Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire UK.  A 188 year old dam has been damaged by the turbulent flow of water over its spillway following unprecedented levels of rainfall (e.g. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-49222956). There is little discussion of the significant achievement of the Victorian engineers who designed and built a dam in the 1831 that has lasted 188 years or that climate change is causing shifts in weather patterns which have altered the design specifications for engineering infrastructure including dams, bridges and sea defences.  We need more journalists to write about engineering and preferable more journalists who have been educated as engineers particularly as society starts to face the potential existential threat caused by climate change and over-population.

For more on the nature of engineering, and its relationship to science, see ‘Making things happen‘ on September 26th, 2018; ‘Engineering is all about ingenuity‘ on September 14th, 2016 and ‘Life takes engineering‘ on April 22nd 2015.

And on the communication skills of engineers: ‘Poetasting engineers‘ on March 4th, 2015 and ‘Einstein and public engagement‘ on August 8th, 2018.

Destruction of society as a complex system?

Sadly my vacation is finished [see ‘Relieving stress‘ on July 17th, 2019] and I have reconnected to the digital world, including the news media.  Despite the sensational headlines and plenty of rhetoric from politicians, nothing very much appears to have really changed in the world.  Yes, we have a new prime minister in the UK, who has a different agenda to the previous incumbent; however, the impact of actions by politicians on society and the economy seems rather limited unless the action represents a step change and is accompanied by appropriate resources.  In addition, the consequences of such changes are often different to those anticipated by our leaders.  Perhaps, this is because society is a global network with simple operating rules, some of which we know intuitively, and without a central control because governments exert only limited and local control.  It is well-known in the scientific community that large networks, without central control but with simple operating rules, usually exhibit self-organising and non-trivial emergent behaviour. The emergent behaviour of a complex system cannot be predicted from the behaviour of its constituent components or sub-systems, i.e., the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  The mathematical approach to describing such systems is to use non-linear dynamics with solutions lying in phase space.  Modelling complex systems is difficult and interpreting the predictions is challenging; so, it is not surprising that when the actions of government have an impact then the outcomes are often unexpected and unintended.  However, if global society can be considered as a complex system, then it would appear that its self-organising behaviour tends to blunt the effectiveness of many of the actions of government.  This seems be a fortuitous regulatory mechanism that helps maintain the status quo.   In addition, we tend to ignore phenomena whose complexity exceeds our powers of explanation, or we use over-simplified explanations [see ‘Is the world incomprehensible?‘ on March 15th, 2017 and Blind to complexity‘ on December 19th, 2018].  And, politicians are no exception to this tendency; so, they usually legislate based on simple ideology rather than rational consideration of the likely outcomes of change on the complex system we call society. And, this is probably a further regulatory mechanism.

However, all of this is evolving rapidly because a small number of tech companies have created a central control by grabbing the flow of data between us and they are using it to manipulate those simple operating rules.  This appears to be weakening the self-organising and emergent characteristics of society so that the system can be controlled more easily without the influence of its constituent parts, i.e. us.

For a more straightforward explanation listen to Carole Cadwalladr’s TED talk on ‘Facebook’s role in Brexit – and the threat to democracy‘ or if you have more time on your hands then watch the new documentary movie ‘The Great Hack‘.  My thanks to Gillian Tett in the FT last weekend who alerted me to the scale of the issue: ‘Data brokers: from poachers to gamekeepers?