Category Archives: Soapbox

Slow progress replacing 150 year old infrastructure

Photograph of salvaged section of original gas mainThe Liverpool Gas Light Company was formed in 1816, just as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere started to rise above the pre-industrial revolution level of 278 ppm. A rival Oil Gas Company was formed in 1823 and became the Liverpool New Gas and Coke Company in 1834. The two rival companies merged in 1848. Last year a piece of cast iron gas main from around this period was salvaged while replacing a gas main on the Dock Road in Liverpool. It was date-stamped 1853. For the last month, works have been underway to replace the original gas main in our street which appears to be of a similar age. The concept of gas-fired central heating using pressurised hot water was developed in the 1830s by Angier March Perkins [1838 US patent], amongst others; but did not become fashionable until the 1850s which coincides approximately with laying of the original gas main in the road outside our house. There is a cavernous coal hole under the pavement (sidewalk) in front of our house which would have been used to store coal that was burned in fireplaces in every room. So, we can deduce that the house, which was built in the early 1830s, did not initially have gas-fired central heating but that it could have been installed sometime in the second half of the 19th century, just as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere started its exponential increase towards today’s level of 412 ppm [monthly average at Mauna Loa Global Monitoring Laboratory for August 2020].  Carbon dioxide represents about 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the US EPA, and heating of commercial and residential properties accounts for 12% of these emissions in the US and for 32% in the UK.  Hence, before our house is two hundred years old, it is likely that we will have converted it to electrical heating in order to reduce its carbon footprint.  We have made a start on the process but it is pointless until our power supply is carbon neutral and progress towards carbon neutrality for electricity generation is painfully slow in the UK and elsewhere [see ‘Inconvenient facts‘ on December 18th, 2019].

You can check live carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and consumption using the ElectricityMap.

Shaping the mind during COVID-19

Books on a window sillIf you looked closely at our holiday bookshelf in my post on August 12th 2020, you might have spotted ‘The Living Mountain‘ by Nan Shepherd [1893-1981] which a review in the Guardian newspaper described as ‘The finest book ever written on nature and landscape in Britain’.  It is an account of the author’s journeys in the Cairngorm mountains of Scotland.  Although it is  short, only 108 pages, I have to admit that it did not resonate with me and I did not finish it.  However, I did enjoy the Introduction by Robert MacFarlane and the Afterword by Jeanette Winterson, which together make up about a third of the book. MacFarlane draws parallels between Shepherd’s writing and one of her contemporaries, the French philosopher,  Maurice Merleau-Ponty [1908-1961] who was a leading proponent of existentialism and phenomenology.  Existentialists believe that the nature of our existence is based on our experiences, not just what we think but what we do and feel; while phenomenology is about the connections between experience and consciousness.  Echoing Shepherd and in the spirit of Merleau-Ponty, MacFarlane wrote in 2011 in his introduction that ‘we have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world’.  It made me think that as the COVID-19 pandemic pushes most university teaching on-line we need to remember that sitting at a computer screen day after day in the same room will shape the mind rather differently to the diverse experiences of the university education of previous generations.  I find it hard to imagine how we can develop the minds of the next generation of engineers and scientists without providing them with real, as opposed to virtual, experiences in the field, design studio, workshop and laboratory.

Source:

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 2014 (first published in 1977 by Aberdeen University Press)

 

Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts

During the coronavirus pandemic, politicians have taken to telling us that their decisions are based on the advice of their experts while the news media have bombarded us with predictions from experts.  Perhaps not unexpectedly, with the benefit of hindsight, many of these decisions and predictions appear to be have been ill-advised or inaccurate which is likely to lead to a loss of trust in both politicians and experts.  However, this is unsurprising and the reliability of experts, particularly those willing to make public pronouncements, is well-known to be dubious.  Professor Philip E. Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania has assessed the accuracy of forecasts made by purported experts over two decades and found that they were little better than a chimpanzee throwing darts.  However, the more well-known experts seemed to be worse at forecasting [Tetlock & Gardner, 2016].  In other words, we should assign less credibility to those experts whose advice is more frequently sought by politicians or quoted in the media.  Tetlock’s research has found that the best forecasters are better at inductive reasoning, pattern detection, cognitive flexibility and open-mindedness [Mellers et al, 2015]. People with these attributes will tend not to express unambiguous opinions but instead will attempt to balance all factors in reaching a view that embraces many uncertainties.  Politicians and the media believe that we want to hear a simple message unadorned by the complications of describing reality; and, hence they avoid the best forecasters and prefer those that provide the clear but usually inaccurate message.  Perhaps that’s why engineers are rarely interviewed by the media or quoted in the press because they tend to be good at inductive reasoning, pattern detection, cognitive flexibility and are open-minded [see ‘Einstein and public engagement‘ on August 8th, 2018].  Of course, this was well-known to the Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu who is reported to have said: ‘Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.’

References:

Mellers, B., Stone, E., Atanasov, P., Rohrbaugh, N., Metz, S.E., Ungar, L., Bishop, M.M., Horowitz, M., Merkle, E. and Tetlock, P., 2015. The psychology of intelligence analysis: Drivers of prediction accuracy in world politics. Journal of experimental psychology: applied, 21(1):1-14.

Tetlock, P.E. and Gardner, D., 2016. Superforecasting: The art and science of prediction. London: Penguin Random House.

Tacit hurdle to digital twins

Tacit knowledge is traditionally defined as knowledge that is not explicit or that is difficult to express or transfer from someone else.  This description of what it is not makes the definition itself tacit knowledge which is not very helpful.  Management guides resolve this by giving examples, such as aesthetic sense, or innovation and leadership skills which are elusive skills that are hard to explain [see ‘Innovation out of chaos‘ on June 29th 2016 and  ‘Clueless on leadership style‘ on June 14th, 2017].  In engineering, there are a series of skills that are hard to explain or teach, including creative problem-solving [see ‘Learning problem-solving skills‘  on October 24th, 2018], artful design [see ‘Skilled in ingenuity‘ on August 19th, 2015] and elegant modelling [see ‘Credibility is in the eye of the beholder‘ on April 20th, 2016].  In a university course we attempt to lay the foundations for this tacit engineering knowledge; however, much of it is gained in work through experience and becomes regarded by organisations as part of their intellectual assets – the core of their competitiveness and source of their sustainable technology advantage.  In our work on integrated nuclear digital environments, from which digital twins can be spawned, we would like to capture both explicit and tacit knowledge about complex systems throughout their life cycle which will extend beyond the working lives of their designers, builders and operators.  One of the potential advantages of digital twins is as a knowledge management system by duplicating the life of the physical system and thus allowing its safer and cheaper operation in the long-term as well as its eventual decommissioning.   However, besides the very nature of tacit knowledge that makes its capture difficult, we are finding that its perceived value as an intellectual asset renders stakeholders reluctant to discuss it with us; never mind consider how it might be preserved as part of a digital twin.  Research has shown that tacit knowledge sharing is influenced by environmental factors including national culture, leadership characteristics and social networks [Cai et al, 2020].  I suspect that all of these factors were present in the heyday of the UK civil nuclear power industry when it worked together to construct advanced and complex systems; however, it has not built a power station since 1995 and, at the moment, new power stations are cancelled more often than built, which has almost certainly depressed all of these factors.  So, perhaps we should not be surprised by the difficulties encountered in establishing an integrated nuclear digital environment despite its importance for the future of the industry.

Reference: Cai, Y., Song, Y., Xiao, X. and Shi, W., 2020. The Effect of Social Capital on Tacit Knowledge-Sharing Intention: The Mediating Role of Employee Vigor. SAGE Open, 10(3), p.2158244020945722.