My father, Roger Lines, was a research forester, working for the Forestry Commission. When, in the early 1970’s, I did my Statistics O-Grade I was fortunate to be able to help with some real research at the, then fairly newly established, Forestry Commission Northern Research Station. I was chopping young Sitka Spruce trees, grown under different conditions, in half at the basal node, and weighing the root and stem halves to determine how the environment in which is it grown affects where the plant puts its energy.
On the door of my father’s office was, in lieu of an official plaque with a job title, a clipping, presumably from some forestry journal, which simply said ‘Mr Acid Rain’
Acid Rain was one of my fathers many forestry related specialities. In earlier years soot from factories and power generation had been deposited on nearby vegetation, (and building and clothes on washing lines) physically blackening them and cutting off the light. The Clean Air Act of 1956 had greatly reduced smoke, but the sulphur which was still being emitted from the higher chimneys which were then being used was carried by the prevailing winds across the North Sea, where is acidified the rain falling on the Norwegian forests, stunting their growth.
Six hundred years later, in March 2021, another gigantic Treasure Ship sailing from the far east along roughly the same route, sailed past Yemen, but became stuck in the Suez Canal. This time Europe was immediately aware, and not simply because it made a dramatic story, there was a real impact on some prices and on availability of some items. (This is slightly reminiscent of the expected effect on the price of goods when the sailing barque Kishon was due to arrive at some destinations, but on a much larger scale).
Another item dominating the news in March 2021 was the Covid-19 pandemic, and how vaccines – developed with impressive swiftness, could be fairly distributed around the world. Although the various vaccines tend to be associated with particular countries (or even cities – unless it is just around here that the Astra-Zenica vaccine tends to be called the Oxford vaccine), supply chain difficulties tend to reveal how interconnected all the items required to create a vaccine which can be delivered to people really are. The interconnected nature of today’s world also makes a worldwide response to the pandemic essential, as if there are large populations of people who are transmitting the virus then it will mutate amongst that group, and will re-emerge as a new threat.
The worldwide flow of goods, information, wealth and problems.
As an aside I am currently reading ‘Good Economics for Hard Times‘ which has some interesting commentary, by Nobel Prize in Economics winning authors, on the traditional thinking on Free Trade, Globalisation, Migration etc. This article is already long enough, but I really recommend this book if you are interested in the economic issues raised by our Interconnected World.
Science can not be used on its own for some big decisions.
It is strongly hinting that we can not both continue to burn fossil fuels, and avoid climate change, but does not in itself say which option is ‘better’.
The Golden Rule: He who has the Gold makes the Rules
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country… corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.
Economics is another decision support system, helping us to decide how to allocate resources. As a nation, should we spend more on the NHS, or Education or the Arts – and if we say ‘yes’ to all of these, what do we cut, or do we (there is no magic money which comes from ‘the government’)
To paraphrase William Jevons, “Money‘s a matter of functions four, A Medium, a Measure, a Standard, a Store“. In supporting decisions it is its functions as a Measure – i.e. a way of comparing the economic values of two things at the present time, and as a store, which can be thought of a way of comparing the value of having one thing now against something else at a later time.
Pure economists tend to work with a hypothetical ‘economic man‘, who makes rational choices, based on economic self interest, however most real life people blend economic with ethical and scientific considerations.
How do They decide ?
If we can take a set of circumstances, and apply some combination of Ethics, Science and Economics, to work out what the response to some situation should be, then others, such are governments and corporations are, explicitly or implicitly doing the same.
If we examine the decisions they make we can work out how they actually weigh, for example the science which suggests that Climate change is a danger, against the economics which suggests that increasing air travel will bring prosperity.
All politicians claim to be working to benefit those who voted for them, and the question is, does examination of who actually benefited from their policies, once they have been implemented, match the claims ?
This is why transparency in the decision making process is so important. We should not expect perfection from politicians, or any decision makers, but if we, and they need to be able to show their reasoning, as part of a reasoned feedback loop.
Do we decide ?
I am not talking in the deeper sense, of do we have Free Will, discussed in an interesting way in ‘Is God a Taoist ?‘, but in the more pragmatic sense that access to information shapes our ability to make rational decisions.
A decision implies that there were some set of choices, and that one of those was picked. If the choices do not exist, or we are not aware of them then no decision is possible. It is easy to look at some other person, or group, and say that they are making poor choices, but they may not be aware of, or have access to alternatives.
This is where diversity interacts with decisions – or lack of them. If the only food available is burger and chips, because that is all that is available where you live, or you are not aware of alternatives, then you do not have a choice.
In an Internet context, if you are only aware of the products of the big monopolies – as is quite likely for most ‘real’ people, then there is not really a choice. For example Excel has become synonymous with spreadsheet, and Zoom with Video Chat. Although, for example Hoover is often used where we mean Vacuum Cleaner, we do actually know that in that case there is a choice, and we benefit, when we go to the shop to purchase one from range of options available.
The reasoned feedback loop is central to human progress. Feedback loops are everywhere, but the key element introduced by people is the Reason step. It is core to the way that science works, and engineering, and good (I wish I could think of a better word here), legal, moral and political systems.
In such loops things are in some state, which is examined, and reasoning is applied to do something, to get to a new – intended to be better – state. This seems very abstract, so I will supply some examples to show what I mean. I will also point out where access to information is important in this.
To many non-scientists, the role of a scientist is to know things, but real science starts with not knowing something, but wanting to find out. Scientists start off not knowing, for example if there is a connection between smoking and cancer, or where the energy that powers the sun comes from. They perform experiments, or apply statistical tests, and reasoning, and the end state is an increase in human knowledge.
The success of this process depends on open sharing of the information and reasoning used make the new discovery. Usually these are published in scientific journals, for fellow scientists to see if they can reproduce the results, and examine the reasoning.
Accurate measurement and good data is essential to all science, and in medicine this is particularly the case, which is why I support the Cochrane foundation – which promoted evidence based medicine, and the All Trials campaign, which pushes for the results of all drug trials, not only the favourable ones, to be made available.
Applying the Reasoning stage is particularly important in the face of a global pandemic. Denying it exists, or humanizing it leads to worse outcomes. An epidemic is the bad kind of a positive feedback loop leading to the bad outcomes, and rationally applied strategies can push towards the good outcomes, as described in ‘Is Coronavirus a Catastrophe‘
I shall use the British system here, as it is the one I am most familiar with, and because – despite it’s flaws – it is the result of many people over a long time trying to do The Right Thing.
The Law is not perfect, change can be frustratingly slow, and implementation often fails to match the ideal, but potentially it uses the same process of a reasoned feedback loop as science does.
British Law is made by Acts of Parliament, proposed, discussed and voted on by elected MPs. These discussions are publicly available in Hansard. They are not the most exciting reading, but these parts at least are public.
When there is doubt about the meaning of a law, this is decided by the Court system, refining this through the appeals system until a final judgement is reached. To make these judgements the lawyers use Hansard to try to work out what Parliament intended by the law, and the judgement of previous courts (precedent), to try to make the law as fair as possible. Most of the body of ‘case law‘ is in legal libraries, not published on the Internet, but, for example the British and Irish Legal Information Institute does make many cases available.
Parliament should (and usually does) take existing case law into account when passing Acts which replace previous laws.
Systems where knowledge important to bits of this process are hidden from wider view tend to work less well, as there is more chance that some key information will be missed. If the information is not available to decision makers (for example if their primary source of information are biased lobbyists – and there is no way to review the accuracy of what they have been told) they will make poorer decisions.
The Internet, the core part, which should be distinguished from the things which run on top of it, is another example of the effectiveness of open decision making and transparency being used to drive progress. The ‘laws’ of the Internet are a set of documents called Requests for Comments, and they most important of these are published by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The final versions of these can be found on the web site of the RFC Editor. Those which are Standards are produced by IETF Working Groups, and the discussions which lead to the final documents are openly available (and open to public contribution).
In general for something to be a Standard there must be at least two interoperable implementations.
The guiding principles of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) an guiding committee of the IETF, is that ‘The Internet is for End Users‘ making the ethical framework explicit.
The intertwined themes of Diversity and Regulation are in my thoughts a lot at the moment, so this post acts as an anchor from which I expect to expand on in other posts.
We are surrounded by diversity – among people, in the objects in our daily lives, in culture and knowledge, in fortune – good or bad; and more exposed to this than in any time in human history.
I am a fan of diversity, which is a good thing, because it exists, and to deny the existence of something real is ultimately a mistake.
People come a variety of shapes, sizes, skin colours and ethnic origins, gender identifications and orientations, abilities and interests.
The objects and tools around us are more varied, and can come from anywhere in the world. Although the food we eat may (and probably should) come from close to us, the ideas and cuisines can come from anywhere in the world – or bring them together to create something totally new.
Out in the bustling streets of Oxford (pre coronavirus) I love to see the bright colours of traditional African garb, the formal western suits, the casual jeans and tee-shirts, the outrageously short mini skirts and the ultra modest burqa, all able to mingle and co-exist.
My television has some huge number of channels, covering many varied interests, and my bookshelves hold several thousand books – I have not counted them recently. My Kindle has, slightly alarmingly, well over 500 books on it, and the Internet gives me access to more information than the librarians of the Great Library of Alexandria could have dreamt of.
Oxford Phab brings me in touch with a range of people who enrich my life, and broaden my horizons.
Pressure against diversity
There are some people who do enjoy some aspects of this diversity. They do not like the way some people live their lives, or the way they dress, or the ideas expressed in some books.
In some ways this is natural – we humans spent almost all of our evolutionary lives as small bands of hunter-gathers, where anyone who was not of our tribe was a threat, and anything we did not understand in our environment was probably dangerous. When we allow these ingrained reactions to rule our actions then bad things happen.
Such attempts to make the world the way we wish it was by denying reality are doomed to failure, though they can cause great harm in the process. That is not to say that we can not change the world, simply that we must work in the real world and accept that real change needs a lot of work.
During my lifetime computer software and technology has gone from something only of interest to a few ‘odd’ people, to being woven deeply into all our lives. The economics of information, for that is what software is, are different from the economics of goods, and have an even stronger tendency to form monopolies. Dealing with these issues is much more difficult than for monopolies in goods, and a large enough subject that it deserves a post of its own, still to be written.
The benefits of diversity
If we lived in a perfect world, then there might be a single best food, best item of clothing, best religion and so on. However we do not, and then variety provides versatility as our environment changes. An example would be industrial melanism, in which different moth colourings have different survival chances, depending on their environment.
Insufficient diversity leads to a monoculture, which, in an agricultural context can be efficient, but is more risky if the environment changes, leading to consequences like the Irish potato famine.
A good system of regulation takes into account a continuous measurement of the current state of something, and a desired state, and a process for getting from here to there. In the case of creating laws or rules these may constrain diversity, but should do so as little as possible.
The process of arriving at the these rules, standards, regulations or laws should be open and transparent, so that, as will happen, when flaws are discovered in the rule it can be adjusted to cover the cases which had not been considered. The process of considering hypothetical cases and adjusting rules is brilliantly demonstrated in Outnumbered Series 2 episode 1, where Ben explores the boundaries of Pete’s ‘Don’t hit people’ rule.
One of the reasons the Internet is so successful (apart from YouTube) is that the standards it uses are created through an open process, under the governance of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and are openly published. This allows diversity in the ways the standards are followed, indeed to become an actual Internet Standard there must be two independent implementations of the standard, which must interoperate. The standard which specifies this is called RFC2026, which you can read to verify this by clicking on the link. The Internet Engineering Task Force is governed by the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), which takes the postition that ‘The Internet is for End Users‘ – published at RFC8890. This provides an excellent overview of values at the heart of the Internet (not to be confused with the values of services, such as Facebook, Google, etc which run on top of it).
By contrast there is a good reason for the current insurance advertisement saying
By contrast if society is over regulated, for example by a totalitarian government, it tends to stagnate, and – because it has suppressed the diversity in its society, which is where the innovation comes from, it is left behind by more open societies. Refusing to allow different voices to be heard, or actively suppressing them, cuts off a flow of information which is vital to the feedback loop. It may be uncomfortable to be told you are wrong, but if you are wrong, it is better to know.
On that topic, if I am wrong – please let me know. Comments on this blog are moderated – to prevent spam, but I do try to approve or respond in a timely manner.
As I write this we are in self isolation, in response to the Coronavirus. The situation is exposing the risks of much of the ‘Just in Time‘ world wide flow of goods and people which we normally take for granted to view. As the situation is unusual, many people have panicked and stockpiled things they think they might need. Unfortunately their system for deciding what to stockpile seems to be based on buying as much as they can of whatever seems to be in short supply, particularly toilet roll – thus creating a supply shortage.
The situation reminds me of some lessons from my past. From 1987 to some time in the early 1990’s I worked on an oil rig on the Hutton oil field in the middle of the North Sea.
I worked there in stints of a fortnight at a time, doing, as most of the crew do, a 12 hour shift, 7 days a week, although as the work was extremely interesting, and I did not have much else to do, I tended to work longer. I learnt a lot about many things, but of particular relevance to our situation was the way the rig was always prepared to be self sufficient in dealing with problems.
Travel to the rig involved a helicopter flight of several hours, and weather conditions could be extreme. I remember one landing where the wind was so strong that the pilot had to use the rotor for downforce, rather than lift, to keep the helicopter on the helipad, and the passengers, and their luggage, were passed along a chain of crew to the stairs down into the accommodation. If the wind had been any stronger there would have been no way on or off by helicopter.
Supplies arrived by ship, which stood to, near the rig, and pallets were removed from the hold by skilled crane operators on the rig, whose cranes could pull a load off a ship very quickly, as once the load was being carried by the crane it had to be moved out of the way before the ship came up and smashed it. Again, in a heavy sea there was no way on or off the rig by ship.
The systems on the rig were designed with an expectation that it could, if necessary, be self contained (i.e. in isolation) for up to a month. This meant holding spare parts for everything which might need it. My own work was the ultrasonic inspection of the legs of the oil rig, which was done by a winch lowering a complicated and expensive probe down a 75mm diameter hole in the centre of each leg. There were two probes on the rig, the one in use, and a spare, plus a full set of spare parts to replace any component which failed. There was also a well fitted out workshop, so when a component – luckily a common one, failed on a CAMAC module, I was able to replace it rather than have to wait for a new module to be flown in.
The rig was powered by two large generators, either of which was capable of powering the rig in production on its own (or a small town), plus a less powerful stand by generator. The need for this level of redundancy, and the way that, as a colleague of mine used to say ‘Murphy is always vigilant‘ was demonstrated one time I was out there, when one of the main generators was ‘on the beach’ – i.e. it had been taken off the rig and was onshore for a major overhaul. The main generator failed, and there were problems starting the backup generator, so the rig was running on is large bank of backup batteries. I shut my systems down, as they were in the control room, but not vital to the running of the rig but using its batteries, and waited in the emergency lit accommodation for the generators to be repaired. During this time a very wet worker entered the accommodation, as he had been in a compartment where the batteries had not been powerful enough to keep the deluge fire suppression system from operating. The problem was fixed – by engineers already on the rig, and life in the little closed world returned to normal.
There was not only redundancy in equipment. The regular crew were all trained in more than one job, so could cover if someone was sick, and workloads were designed to ensure that normal operations were calm and well organised – so that there was slack in the system available for an emergency.
Unfortunately budget constraints have squeezed the slack out of the NHS, even when they were operating under normal conditions. This is partly due to confusion over whether it should be treated as a set of isolated parts or as a single entity, even a single ‘superentity’ combined with the social care system. For budgetary purposes elements of the NHS, for example NHS Trusts or GP practices, are regarded as targets for budget cuts if their resources do not match their normal load, but if there is a sudden peak in demand they are supposed to be able to deal with it by diverting demand elsewhere – but the financial systems actively discourage this.
If we want our NHS to be able to deliver excellent service then we must build slack into the system.
Service excellence, spare capacity and virtuous cycles
At one time I was involved with managing an expensive supercomputer system. The support staff spent quite a lot of time apparently doing nothing, but training and learning. This meant that when there was a problem they could react quickly and knowledgeably. These large systems generally ran Unix (from which the the Linux system I prefer was derived). This is used in places where reliability is very important, and tended to run for many months at at a time. Because they were so reliable they could be monitored very carefully, and any problems investigated in depth. This created a virtuous cycle where minor potential faults could be fixed to make the systems even more reliable.
At another time in my career our over-stretched team were sent on a ‘Service Excellence’ course. One of the examples the instructor gave of excellent service was a company being unable to deliver a washing machine at the agreed time, and excellent service would be to not only reschedule at a time convenient to the customer, but then to plumb it in for free. They conveniently ignored the fact that if the team is already working at capacity, then other customers will not receive their washing machines as the delivery team will need to cancel other deliveries to meet this expectation. A vicious circle.
There are some key parts to the feedback loop as they relate to the Coronavirus, and the issues it has shown up.
This is vital to any kind of control loop – we need to know something has happened before we can do anything about it.
How long does it take between measuring something and being able to do something about it
On the basis of what we know from the measurements, what do we need to do.
In the context of coronavirus, the experience of South Korea has shown how important testing is. Coronavirus, like most infectious diseases has its own feedback loop, in which each infected person infects more people, and in the absence of a good information about the disease, the only way we can control it is through the blunt instrument of isolation. This has a significant economic impact on the country – or world in general.
Regulating the NHS
The inherently long delay between detecting a problem and being able to act on it is very significant in the context of the NHS. Our modern, connected society has led us, and our politicians, to operate as if, once a problem has been detected, it can be solved quickly – our electricity goes out, we contact our supplier, or an electrician and soon we have electricity again. The expectation of a quick response means that we do not need to prepare for this. My family had a cottage in Argyll, where we knew that we had to be able to manage for some time without electricity, so we had firewood, hurricane lamps and a camping stove to mitigate the problem.
The NHS fairly quickly identified that it did not have as much of some kinds of equipment as it would need, and if we had either been a fully self sufficient nation, or the worldwide market had been normal then this could have been rectified more quickly; although still not instantly – it would have taken time to switch our respirator factories to three-shift working, or for container ship loads of respirators to arrive from China. As it is there is a longer delay while factories change the type of item they produce and there is international competition for purchasing all forms of medical equipment.
The time lag between knowing that we do not have sufficient doctors or nurses and them becoming available is several years, which is, unfortunately, further than the attention span of some politicians. A possible short term fix is to recruit already trained medical personnel from abroad, although some sections of our society seem to be determined to sabotage this approach by being as unwelcoming as they can to anyone coming here from abroad.
Shortages of doctors or nurses put extra pressure on those who remain, who are more likely to become unwell from stress,
Another theme running through my mind at the moment is the importance of diversity, and how we retain cohesiveness and diversity simultaneously.
The crew of the oil rig was remarkably diverse, and yet, as a small community, everybody worked well together. Keeping an oil rig clean (in the accommodation and working areas) requires constant hard work from the cleaners. Being there for a fortnight, with only a flight bag, meant that everyone was grateful for the unobtrusive overnight (or I assume overday for the night shift) way you could leave your laundry outside your cabin and it would be returned clean by morning. I got to know the people running the ‘ship’ side of the rig quite well. Many had been working on oil tankers, so seeing their family for a fortnight every other fortnight was a boon to them. They tended to be quite, steady and unflappable family men, from all over the country. The scaffolders were a slightly rougher crowd, younger, largely from Glasgow, and using the f-word as every other word, but very friendly and good natured. Like everybody they took their work very seriously, being the only people allowed to work outside the main body of the rig without being on a certified scaffold. The range of professions was fascinating ; Drillers – huge strong men who helped manoeuvre the sections of drill into place, I saw one carry two plates heaped high with food to the table and work his way through them ; Reservoir modellers ; Explosives experts ; Underwater submersible pilots – all fascinating to meet.
Working in such a close community, there was no room for social differences – I saw the OIM – the Offshore Installation Manger, playing table tennis with one of the cleaners.
If any good is to come out of this pandemic, I hope it will be to realise that, in our diverse world, we can, and must come together (figuratively, while still maintaining social distance), that we all have a role, are valued, and value and respect our neighbours in return.