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Elf ‘n Safety and The Grenfell Tower fire

The tragic fire at Grenfell Tower breaks one’s heart.

There was a question asked tonight on BBC’s Newsnight which amounted to:

How is it, in 21st Century UK, a rich and prosperous country despite everything, that a fire can engulf a tower block in the way it did last night?

This got me thinking.

People from the council, politicians and others talk of the need to ‘learn lessons’ in a way that makes one wonder if they really believe it.

Apparently, in the British Army they ban the use of such language. Because we all know what this means. Another report. Another expert ignored. Another tragedy, and another lesson unheard, and ignored. A lesson demonstrated through a change in behaviour, great, but some aspirational statement that one will change at some indeterminate time in the future? No thanks.

We know that tragedies like this are multi-causal, so no single cause can explain it. But that doesn’t mean it was unforeseen. In this case there are factors that have been raised:

  • cladding that is not fire-retardant, but rather designed to make a building more aesthetically pleasing, with scant regard for how it undermines the underlying fire-safety of the original building;
  • a lack of any alarm to warn the residents of fire;
  • a lack of sprinklers in rooms or hallways (whereas in hotels this is standard practice; why the difference);
  • a failure to implement a report by a Select Committee of Parliament published following a previous tower-block fire;
  • a building with only one staircase for escape;
  • building standards that are evidently not fit for purpose and widely criticised (for some time) as providing a very low bar for compliance;
  • an arms length management organisation that refused to listen to the concerns of residents.

These and no doubt other factors compounded to either make the fire worse than it should have been, or the response to the fire by residents and rescue workers less effective than it could have been.

No doubt there will be questions about how it is that experts have known about the risks of the kind of cladding used, and have published papers on this, but their knowledge has fallen on deaf ears. No one in authority has had the smidgen of intellectual curiosity or moral impulse to track it down using Google. We apparently need another report to rediscover stuff we already knew, which who knows, maybe they will read this time.

No doubt there are questions to be asked of organisations like the British Standards Institute (BSI) that produces standards in this case that seem to fail to challenge the industry to reach the highest common factor for health and safety, but instead, to arrive a lowest common denominator of standard. They specify tests that are clearly not real-world tests. One is bound to ask if the BSI is fit for purpose, and whether its processes lead to an excessive chumminess with the industries it works with. It has a business model where it generates and sells standards and associated consultancy. Better not rock too many boats? No doubt the standards are “pragmatic” in the business-speak synonym for barely adequate.

Christoper Miers, in his conclusion of a report entitled “Fire Risks From External Cladding Panels – A Perspective From The UK”, wrote:

“Can anything be done about the worldwide legacy of buildings with combustible cored composite panels?  Unless something radical is done, such as national retro-fitting subsidy schemes, it seems inevitable that there will be further fires involving aluminium-faced polyethylene core panels.  Nightmare scenarios include multiple-fatality building-engulfing fires as in China, or given the proximity of towers in some districts, the ignition of neighbouring buildings’ cladding from an external cladding fire, or disintegrated burning panels igniting the roofs of lower buildings adjacent.

It is difficult to envisage owners voluntarily stripping off entire existing aluminium composite panel facades and replacing them with Fire Code-compliant cladding panels, as the cost would be prohibitive.  Partial replacement with barrier bands of fire resistant panels has been suggested to stop fires spreading, [48] but given the flame heights at the Tamweel, Torch and The Address, such barrier bands would have to be substantially large.  The works necessary to provide these barriers would involve much of the scaffolding and associated costs of full replacement.

It seems inevitable that insurers will differentiate between buildings with and without combustible aluminium composite panels and will charge higher premiums for higher risks.  One or two more fires, or a fatal fire, could lead to insurance cover being refused if the risk is considered excessive.  Insurance issues, bad publicity and loss of property value might then make retro-fitting external cladding a viable option in commercial, as well as fire safety terms.”

But despite all these unlearned lessons, there is something far more insidious at work here.

The sneering right wing commentators like Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Fail have waged a campaign for many years against what they claim is an over-weaning attempt by the liberal elite to protect us from ourselves, which goes under the catchy title of “elf ’n safety” (snigger, snigger, sneer). Imagine …

Poor Johnny can’t even go diving off some rocks without someone doing a bloody risk assessment, then someone else has to hold a flag. 

Stuff and nonsense – in my day we used to ski down black runs blindfolded. Never did us any harm.

You get the picture.

I remember once doing a study for the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) back in the 90s, and some of the horror stories of what used to happen in industries like farming and chemicals would make your hair stand on end.

And of course deaths and injury in these and other industries have fallen dramatically in the last few decades, thanks to organisations like the HSE. Far from hurting productivity, it has helped it, by enhancing efficiency and professionalism. In some industries it even drives innovation, as with the noise regulations for aircraft.

And even in the more parochial area of school trips, there was plenty of evidence that just a little bit of prior planning might well prevent poor performance (and injury).

But no, to Richard Littlejohn and his ilk, the “world has gone mad”.

Too often the bureaucrats seem to have bought into – maybe unconsciously – this background noise of derision towards health and safety. They feel inclined to dismiss the concerns raised by experts or ride roughshod over citizens concerns.

What do they know? Business must go on.

And once again we have the chumminess effect: councillors too close to developers, and lacking the critical faculties to ask searching questions, or even obvious ones.

For example, one might have imagined a councillor asking the questions …

“This cladding we plan use… is it anything like that used on that tower block that went up in flames in Dubai? Have we assessed the risks? Can we assure the tenants we have investigated this, and its OK?”.  

There is good box-ticking (in the cock-pit of an aeroplane) and the bad kind. The good kind is used by engineers, pilots, surgeons, school-teachers and others who are skilled in their respective arts.

The bad kind is used by bureaucrats wanting to cover their arses. We heard some of this  last night on Newsnight “we got the design signed off”, “we followed the standards”, etc.

Where is the imagination, the critical thinking, the challenging of lazy assumptions?

And most importantly, where is the answering of tenants’ questions and concerns, and taking health and safety seriously as the number one requirement, not as an afterthought?

But risk assessment planning and execution is incessantly mocked by the sneering, curled lip brigade who inhabit the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and other right wing denigrators of “elf ’n safety”.

This has created a culture of jocular disregard for safety.

Try this. Go to a cafe with a few friends and ask “shall we have a chat about health and safety?”. I bet you that they will – whatever their political views – either laugh or roll their eyes.

Well, maybe not any more. Maybe they may feel suitably chasticised for a while at least, and stop their lazy sneering.

The champion sneerers have been successful through their drip, drip of cherry-picked stories or outright myths; their project has had an insidious effect, and has done its worst inundermining respect for health and safety.

But you see, it is not really health and safety that they have in their sights.  It’s just the easy to mock first hurdle in a wider programme.

There is a bigger prize: regulation!

What the de-regulators like Daniel Hannan want from Brexit is a bonfire of regulations, as he wrote about in his 2015 ‘vision’.

David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, claims not to know the difference between a ‘soft’ Brexit and a hard one.

Well, here’s a guide, David.

A hard Brexit is one where we have a bonfire of regulations; where we have no truck with experts who advise us on risks of ethylene-based cladding or excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; where ‘risk assessment’ is a joke we have down the club; where the little people enjoy the fruits of ‘trickle down’ economics in a  thriving Britain, free of (allegedly) over-weaning regulation.

But the British have made it clear they do not want a hard Brexit.

I hope and trust that the time is over for the sneering, arrogant advocates for de-regulation, and their purile and dangerous disregard for people’s health, and their safety.

Whether in bringing forth and implementing effective measures to prevent another terrible fire like at Grenfell Tower, or in all the other areas of life and work in the UK that are important for a safe and secure future, the time to take experts and regulations seriously is needed now, more than ever.

 

Richard W. Erskine, 15th June 2017.

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A Climate of Consilience (or the science of certitude)

There seems to be a lot of discussion about an apparently simple question:

Can science be ‘certain’ about, well, anything? 

If that meant not doing anything – not building a bridge; not releasing a new drug; not taking off for the flight to New York; not flying a spacecraft to Saturn; not vaccinating the whole world against polio; not taking action to decarbonise our energy supply; Etc. – then this lack of 100% certainty might totally debilitate a modern society, frozen with doubt and so unable to act.

But of course, we do not stop implementing solutions based on our current best knowledge of nature and the world, however limited it might be. We make judgments. We assess risks. We weigh the evidence. We act.

I think scientists often fall into the trap of answering a quite different question:

Do we have a complete and all encompassing theory of the world (or at least, ‘this’ bit of the world, say how black holes work or how evolution played out)?

And everyone will rush defensively to the obvious answer, “no”. Why? Because we can always learn more, we can always improve, and indeed sometimes – although surprisingly rarely – we can make radical departures from received bodies of knowledge.

We are almost 100% certain of the ‘Second Law of Thermodynamics’ and Darwin’s ‘Evolution by Natural Selection’, but almost everything else is of a lower order.

But even when we do make radical departures, it doesn’t always mean a complete eradication of prior knowledge. It does when moving from superstition, religious dogma, witch-doctoring and superstitious theories of illness: as when we move to the germ theory of disease and a modern understanding biology, because people get cured, and ignorance is vanquished.

But take Newtonian mechanics. This remains valid for the not too small (quantum mechanical) and not too massive or fast (relativistic) domains of nature, and so remains a perfectly good approximation for understanding snooker balls, the motion of the solar system, and even the motion of fluids.

As Helen Czerski describes in her book Storm In A Teacup, the physics of the everyday covers many interesting and complex phenomena.

In the following Figure, from her entertaining TEDxManchester talk The fascinating physics of everyday life, she shows how the physics of the every day applies over a huge range of scales (in time and space); bracketed between the exotic worlds of the extremely small (quantum mechanics) and extremely large (general relativity) which tend to dominate our cultural perceptions of physics today.

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Want to build a bridge, or build a solar system, or understand Saturn’s rings? Move over Schrodinger and Einstein, come on board Newton!

And yes, if you want to understand the interaction of molecules? Thank you Schrodinger.

Want to predict gravitational waves from a distant galaxy where two neutron stars are collinding? Thank you Einstein.

That is why the oft promulgated narrative of science – the periodic obliteration of old theories to be replaced by new ones – is often not quite how things work in practice.  Instead of a vision of a singular pyramid of knowledge that is torn down when someone of Einstein’s genius comes along and rips away its foundations, one instead sees new independent pyramids popping up in the desert of ignorance.

The old pyramids often remain, useful in their own limited ways. And when confronting a complex problem, such as climate change, we see a small army of pyramids working together to make sense of the world.

As one such ‘pyramid’, we have the long and tangled story of the ‘atom’ concept, a story that began with the ancient greeks, and has taken centuries to untangle. Building this pyramid – the one that represents our understanding of the atom – we follow many false trails as well as brilliant revelations. Dalton’s understanding of the uniqueness and differentiation of atoms was one such hard fought revelation. There was the kinetic theory of gases that cemented the atomic/ molecular role in the physical properties of matter: the microscopic behaviour giving rise to the macroscopic properties such as temperature and pressure. Then there was the appreciation of the nuclear character and the electronic properties of atoms, leading ultimately to an appreciation of the fundamental reason for the structure of the periodic table, with a large dose of quantum theory thrown in. And then, with Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron, a resolution of the reason for isotopes very existence. Isotopes that, with the help of Urey’s brilliant insight, enabled their use in diverse paleoclimatogical applications that have brought glaciologists, chemists and atmospheric physicists together to track the progress of our climate and its forcing agents.

We can trace a similar story of how we came to be able to model the dynamical nature of our weather and climate. The bringing together of the dynamics of fluids, their thermodynamics, and much more.

Each brick in these pyramids starting as a question or conundrum and then leading to decades of research, publications, debate and resolutions, and yes, often many new questions.

Science never was and never will be the narrative of ignorance overcome by heroic brilliance overnight by some hard pressed crank cum genius. Galilieo was no crank, neither was Newton, nor was Einstein.

Even if our televisual thirst for instant gratification demands a science with instant answers, the reality is that the great majority of science is a long process of unfolding and developing the consequences of the fundamental principles, to see how these play out. Now, with the help of the computational facilities that are part of an extended laboratory (to add to the test tube, the spectometer, x-ray diffration, and so much more) we can see further and test ideas that were previously inaccessible to experimentation alone (this is true in all fields). Computers are the microscope of the 21st Century, as one molecular biologist has observed.

When we look at climate change we have a subject of undoubted complexity, that is a combination of many disciplines. Maybe for this reason, it was only in the late 1950s that these disparate disciplines recognised the need to come together: meteorology, glaciology, atmospheric chemistry, paleoclimatology, and much more. This convergence of disciplines ultimately led to the formation 30 years later to the IPCC in 1988.

At its most basic, global warming is trivial, and beyond any doubt: add more energy to a system (by adding more infra-red absorbing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere), and the system gets hotter (because, being knocked out of equilibrium, it will heat up faster than it loses heat to space, up and until it reaches a new equilibrium).  Anyone who has spent an evening getting a frying pan to the point where it is hot enough to fry a pancake (and many to follow), will appreciate the principle.

Today, we have moved out of a pre-existing equilibrium and are warming fast, and have not yet reached a new equilibrium. That new equilibrium depends on how much more fossil fuels we burn. The choice now is between very serious and catastrophic.

The different threads of science that come together to create the ‘climate of consilience’ are diverse. They involve everything from the theory of isotopes; the understanding of Earth’s meteorological system; the nature of radiation and how different gases react with different types of radiation; the carbonate chemistry of the oceans; the dynamics of heat and moisture in the atmosphere based on Newtonian mechanics applied to fluids; and so much more.

Each of these threads has a well established body of knowledge in its own right, confirmed through published evidence and through their multiple successful applications.

In climate science these threads converge, and hence the term consilience.

So when did we know ‘for certain’ that global warming was real and is now happening?

Was it when Tyndall discovered in 1859 that carbon dioxide strongly absorbed infra-red radiation, whereas oxygen and nitrogen molecules did not?  Did that prove that the world would warm dangerously in the future? No, but it did provide a key building block in our knowledge.

As did the findings of those that followed.

At each turn, there was always some doubt – something that suggested a ‘get out clause’, and scientists are by nature sceptical …

Surely the extra carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activities would be absorbed by the vast oceans?

No, this was shown from the chemistry of the oceans to be wrong by the late 1950s, and thoroughly put to bed when sufficient time passed after 1958, when Charles Keeling started to accurately measure the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ‘Keeling Curve’ rises inexorably.

Surely the carbon dioxide absorption of heat would become ‘saturated’ (unable to absorb any more heat) above a certain concentration.

No, this was raised in the early 20th Century but thoroughly refuted in the 1960s. Manabe & Wetherald’s paper in 1967 was the final nail in the coffin of denial for those that pushed against the ‘carbon dioxide’ theory.  To anyone literate in science, that argument was over in 1967.

But will the Earth system not respond in the way feared … won’t the extra heat be absorbed by the oceans?

Good news, bad news. Yes, 93% of the extra heat is indeed being absorbed by the oceans, but the remainder is more than enough to ensure that the glaciers are melting; the great ice sheets are losing ice mass (the loses winning out over any gains of ice); seasons are being affected; sea levels are rising inexorably; and overall the surface temperature is rising. No need for computer models to tell us what is happening, it is there in front of us, for anyone who cares to look.

Many pour scorn on consensus in science.

They say that one right genius is better than 100 fools, which is a fine argument, except when uttered by a fool.

Even the genius has to publish, and fools never will or can, but shout from the sidelines and claim genius. All cranks think they are geniuses, whereas the converse is not true.

Einstein published, and had to undergo scrutiny. When the science community finally decided that Einstein was right, they did so because of the integrity of the theory and weight of evidence were sufficient. It was not a show of hands immdiately after he published, but in a sense, it was a show of hands after years of work to interrogate and test his assertions.

It was consilience followed by consensus (that’s science), not consensus followed by consilience (that’s political dogms).

We are as certain that the Earth has warmed due to increases in greenhouse gases – principally carbon dioxide, arising from human activities – as we are of the effects of smoking on human health, or the benefits of vaccination, and much more.  And we are in part reinforced in this view because of the impact that is already occuring (observations not only theory).

The areas of doubt are there – how fast will the West Antarctica Ice Sheet melt – but these are doubts in the particulars not in the general proposition.  Over 150 years of accumulated knowledge have led to this consilience, and was until recently, received wisdom amongst leaders of all political persuasions, as important and actionable knowledge.

The same is true of the multiple lines of enquiry that constitute the umbrella of disciplines we call ‘climate science’. Not a showing of hands, but a showing of published papers that have helped create this consilience of knowledge, and yes, a consensus of those skilled in their various arts.

It would be quicker to list the various areas of science that have not impacted on climate science than those that have.

In the two tables appended to the end of this essay, I have included:

Firstly, a timeline of selected discoveries and events over a long period – from 1600 to nearly the present – over which time either climate has been the topic or the underlying threads of science have been the topic.  I have also included parallel events related to institutions such as the formation of meteorological organisations, to show both scientific and social developments on the same timeline.

Secondly, I have listed seminal papers in the recent history of the science (from 1800 onwards), with no doubt omissions that I apologise for in advance (comments welcome).

When running workshops on climate fluency I used a 5 metre long roll – a handwritten version of the timeline – and use it to walk along and refer to dates, personalities, stories and of course, key publications. It seems to go down very well (beats Powerpoint, for sure) …

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All this has led to our current, robust, climate of consilience.

There was no rush to judgment, and no ideological bias.

It is time for the commentariat – those who are paid well to exercise their free speech in the comment sections of the media, at the New York Times, BBC, Daily Mail, or wherever –  to study this history of the science, and basically, to understand why scientists are now as sure as they can be. And why they get frustrated with the spurious narrative of ‘the science is not yet in’.

If they attempted such arguments in relation to smoking, vaccination, germ theory or Newtonian mechanics,  they would be laughed out of court.

The science of global warming is at least as robust as any of these, but the science community is not laughing … it’s deeply concerned at the woeful blindness of much of the media.

The science is well beyond being ‘in’; it is now part of a textbook body of knowledge. The consilience is robust and hence the consequent 97% consensus.

It’s time to act.

And if you, dear commentator, feel unable to act, at least write what is accurate, and avoid high school logical fallacies, or bullshit arguments about the nature of science.

Richard Erskine, 2nd May 2017 

Amended on 17th July 2017 to include Tables as streamed Cloudup content (PDFs), due to inability of some readers to view the tables. Click on the arrow on bottom right of ‘frame’ to stream each document in turn, and there will then be an option to download the PDF file itself.

Amended 31st October 2017 to include a Figure I came across from Helen Czerski TED Talk, which helps illustrate a key point of the essay.

TABLE 1 – Timeline of Selected Discoveries and Events (since 1600)

 

TABLE 2 – Key Papers Related to Climate Science (since 1800)

 

END of DOCUMENT

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Lest we regret: science not silence

Cherish not only those who you love, but that which you love. Yesterday I went with my wife on the March for Science in Bristol, the city where we fell in love many years ago. We were on one of over 600 marches globally, to express a love for the science that has brought us so much, and promises so much more.

We do not want in the future to find ourselves mournfully recalling the words of some great poet, words of regret at our careless disregard, our taking for granted –

“When to the session of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste….” 

(Shakespeare, Sonnet 30)

Humanity needs more experts now than ever before, but it also needs poets and novelists too to find that voice, that will reach the hearts of those who will be hurt by the cynical disregard for truth, for evidence.

This is no longer the preserve of cranks, but now influences men (and it is mostly men) in power who attack the science of evolution, vaccination and climate change, that has saved the lives of billions and promises to save the lives of billions more in the future. Notwithstanding the more prosaic inability to live without the fruits of science (try having a no science friday).

That is why the over 600 cities that Marched for Science yesterday spoke with a true voice. Science is for everyone and we all benefit from its fruits but just as few really know where their food comes from, we have become blind to the processes and creativity of the scientists who will bring us the next wonders, and the next solutions to the challenges we face. We the people, and scientists, must both now pledge to remedy our careless assumption that the Englightenment will prevail against the tide of ignorance that has reached the pinnacle of power, without strong and systemic defenses.

We ignore these threats at our peril.

Let’s not regret being so careless that we allowed an opinionated, ideologically motivated few to use their positions of power to drown out the voices of reason.

Let us, most of all, not waste our dear, precious time.

. . .. o o O o o .. . .

 

Richard W. Erskine, essaysconcerning.com, 23rd April 2017

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The speakers at the Bristol event were Professor Bruce Hood from the Bristol University’s School of Experimental Psychology; TV naturalist Chris Packham; science writer and scientist Dr Simon Singh; At-Bristol’s creative director Anna Starkey; and, scientist and writer Dr Suzi Gage.

Youtube videos of their speeches available here >

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLz3n5TyzhVlR88vhkd8guOjH8F53kizSt 

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Complexity ain’t that complex

According to Megan McArdle in a Bloomberg View opinion piece we cannot trust computer models of the climate because economists have failed when they tried to model complex economic systems.

Leaving aside the fundamental fact that the ‘atoms’ of physics (molecules, humidity, etc.) are consistent in their behaviour, whereas the ‘atoms’ of economics (humans) are fickle and prone to ‘sentiment’, this is a failed form of denialism.

You do not have to be Champagne maker Taittinger investing in sparkling wine production in Kent (England), for example, to know that global warming is real, because there are thousands of scientifically observed and published indicators of a warming world. Most of these receive little attention in the media compared to the global average surface temperature (important though it is).

In her article she repeats something I believe is a key confusion in her piece:

“This lesson from economics is essentially what the “lukewarmists” bring to discussions about climate change. They concede that all else equal, more carbon dioxide will cause the climate to warm. But, they say that warming is likely to be mild unless you use a model which assumes large positive feedback effects.”

Matt Ridley is also often railing against the fact that the feedback from increased humidity turns a warming of 1C (from doubling CO2 from pre-industrial levels) into closer to 3C (as the mean predicted level of warming).

This has nothing to do with the inherent complexity in the climate models as it is derived from basic physics (the Infra-Red spectra of CO2 and H2O; the Clausius–Clapeyron relation that determines the level of humidity when the atmosphere warms; some basics of radiative transfer; etc.). Indeed, it is possible to get to an answer on the basic physics with pencil and paper, and the advanced computer models come to broadly the same conclusion (what the models are increasingly attempting to do is to resolve more details on geographic scales, time scales and within different parts of the Earth system, such as that big block of ice called Antarctica).

But even in the unlikely event that Megan McArdle were to accept these two incontrovertible points (the world is warming and the central feedback, from H2O, are not in any way compromised by some hinted at issue of ‘complexity’), she might still respond with something like:

“oh, but we do rely on complex models to make predictions of the future and things are too chaotic for this to be reliable.”

Well, we have learned from many great minds like Ilya Prigogine that there is complex behaviour in simple systems (e.g. the orbit of Pluto appears on one level to perform according to simple Newtonian mechanics, but in addition, has apparently random wobbles). One needs therefore to be careful at specifying at what level of order ‘chaotic behaviour’ exists. Pluto is both ordered and chaotic.

Whereas for other system that are complex (e.g. the swirling atmosphere of Jupiter) they can display ’emergent’ ordered behaviour (e.g. the big red spot). We see this all around us in the world, and ‘complexity theory’ is now a new branch of science addressing many phenomena that were otherwise inaccessible to pencil and paper: the computer is an essential tool in exploring these phenomena.

Complexity is therefore not in itself a reason for casting out a lazy slur against models, that predictability is impossible.  There is often an ability to find order, at some level, in a system, however complex it is.

Yet, it can also be very simple.

At its most basic, adding energy to the climate system as we are doing by adding heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, tends to warm things up, because of well established basic physics.

In a similar way, printing too much money in an economy tends to lead to inflation, despite the irreducible random factors in human nature.

It ain’t rocket science and you don’t need to be an expert in complexity theory to understand why we are a warming world.

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The Climate of Clive James

Clive James is known as a man of letters and, in the UK at least, as an erudite and  witty commentator on culture, for which he is widely respected. He has also been extremely courageous in sharing his thoughts on his terminal cancer, with his customary wit and flair.

For all these reasons it is sad that he has decided to become embroiled in climate change in the way he has. For sure he has the right to an opinion, but he seems to have muddied the art he loves, with the science that he clearly does not, and the result will satisfy neither discipline.

For those in broadcasting and the media, paid to express a view on anything and everything, it must be easy to develop a self assurance that belies any lack of knowledge. We are now resigned to the almost daily stream of nonsense that those such as Melanie Philips and others produce, given free rein to fulminate in the press.

Clive James’s poem “Imminent Catastrophe” was published in the New Statesman, and discussed  in an article by Kaya Burgess in The Times, 17 March 2016  is barely more subtle, even shrouded as it is in the form of a poem.

The poem reveals more about Clive James’ self-declared ignorance on climate change than it does about the scientists, and if there is a metre absent then it is surely in his poetry, not the predicted sea level rise.

Let’s unpick the poem.

“imminent catastrophe”

No self-respecting climate scientists has ever talked about “imminent” catastrophe. The timescales vary greatly depending on the impacts in question. Yes, there is a strong argument about how fast we need to stop emitting carbon dioxide, in order to avoid the medium to long term consequences. But that is a distinction lost on CJ.

“Not showing any signs of happening”

There are many signs and CJ must either be too lazy or too blinkered to find out about them. The receding mountain glaciers are not imminent, they are already well on their way, and there are many other signs, as illustrated in NASA’s ‘Vital Signs’.

“The ice at the North Pole should have gone” 

A typical exaggerated straw-man statement, rather than an accurate reflection of the scientific position. The clear evidence is that the minimum in sea ice is on a downward trend. “The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century”, says NASA (see Vital Signs above).

“Awkwardly lingering”

Yes it is … rather like those discredited contrarian memes, that CJ slavishly trots out.  Not much creativity at work here I am afraid on his part.

“It seems no more than when we were young” 

CJ’s anecdotal personal experience is worthless, like those who claim that smoking is safe because granny smoked 20 a day and lived to 90, so it must be ok. The disrupted weather systems are already bringing extremes in terms of both wetter winters and hot summers, depending on the region. While ‘attribution’ can get us into the difficult area of probabilities, the dice is already slightly loaded towards more extreme weather, and the loading will increase as the world warms. The National Academy of Sciences have just reported on this  (But once again, I am sure that CJ will not want his opinion to be confused by facts).

“Continuing to not go up by much”

Well, CJ might not be impressed by the sea level rise so far, but the projected sea level rise is expected to be up to 1 metre by the end of the century, which would have a devastating impact on many countries and many cities situated near sea level. The long term picture, over millennia, offers little solace because of the long time it takes for elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide to remain in the atmosphere.

“sure collapse of the alarmist view” 

A word of caution here from CJ regarding the sceptics’ who “lapse into oratory”, but he clearly shares the belief that those who warn of serious impacts of global warming should be labelled alarmist, while at the same time being affronted at the label denialist. Sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.

He lazily conflates the science with those that who at first sight may easily be cast in the mould of  alarmist: those dreaded environmentalists.  Let us assume for arguments sake that some of who he objects to are shrill alarmists. Does that have any bearing on the veracity of the science? Of course not, yet he applies his broad brush to tar anyone who might dare raise a concern.

Scientists for their part are often a rather quiet and thoughtful bunch. They often take years before publishing results, so they can check and re-check. But what are they to do about global warming? Keep quiet and they could be criticised for not raising the alarm; yet if they tell us about the worst prognostications in the calmest of voices, they will surely be accused of alarmism. A no-win situation.

It is rather easy for those like CJ, whose opinions are unencumbered by knowledge, to discount thousands of diligent scientists with an insulting and pejorative label.

“His death … motivates the doomsday fantasist”

Scientists such as  Sagan have demonstrated a far less parochial view of the future than CJ. Boltzmann foresaw the heat death of the universe and scientists routinely remind us of what tiny specks we humans are in the universe. It is CJ not they that need reminding of how insignificant we all are.

Scientists show an amazing ability to have both a deep knowledge which challenges our deepest assumptions of the world, and a positive attitude to humanity. A combination of realism and optimism that is often inspiring.

The real fantasists here are those like CJ who imagine that they can stand judgment on 200 years of cumulative scientific knowledge, by rubbishing all those men and women who have established the understanding we now have, including the scientific evidence for global warming resulting from human activities that is now incontrovertible.

It is sad that someone who knows and loves poetry should decide to adulterate his art with this hatchet job on another discipline, science, for which he has little empathy and even less knowledge, but feels qualified to insult with the poetic equivalent of a latter day Margarita Pracatan.

Entertaining for some no doubt, but a rather sad reflection on CJ. He could have used a poem to provide a truly reflective and transcendent piece on the subject of climate change, but instead merely offered an opinion piece masquerading as art, clouded by contrarian myths.

We still love you Clive, but I really hope this poem is not your last.

 

(c) Richard Erskine, 2016

Note: If readers would like a presentation of a golden thread through the science, in plain English, then my essay Demystifying Global Warming & Its Implications aims to provide just that.

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Data catching Santa in the exploding digital universe!

At this time of year, cynics and sceptics pour scorn on Santa and his faithful reindeer, the prancers and dancers of this festive time. The gauntlet is often laid down as follows. Santa will visit all those children who want presents from him – in about one billion homes – which he has to visit on Christmas Eve.

Thankfully, Fermilabs published the calculations some years ago and proved that Santa, travelling at close to the speed of light, would have no problems covering the ground, in 500 seconds, leaving a generous but fleeting 0.15 milliseconds per dwelling to wolf down some sherry and mince pies. We are of course assuming there is just one Santa, but please note that in Iceland they have 13 Santa Clauses, sons of a horrible mountain hag called Grýla (we leave the re-calculation as an exercise for the reader!).

So what about data? Let’s think not about boring networks and bandwidth, but something more fantastic: the whole of our digital universe.

The Guardian reported back in 2009 that “At 487bn gigabytes (GB), if the world’s rapidly expanding digital content were printed and bound into books it would form a stack that would stretch from Earth to Pluto 10 times.”

Assuming 500bn Gb was being added every 18 months, the speed of the 2009 virtual stack of books was about 1000 kilometres per second. This is fast but well short of the speed of light, that is 300 times this value.

The rate of growth is not constant. It too is doubling every 18 months. It is no wonder this was characterised as the “expanding digital universe”. IDC’s fifth annual study on the digital universe published in June 2011 estimated that we had reached 1.8 trillion gigabytes. We are exploding according to plan!

Translated into a velocity, I have calculated that the exponentially accelerating virtual stack of books, reaching well beyond our solar system, will be travelling at more than the speed of light by 2018. Unlike Santa and crew, our ‘virtual stack’ does not have to comply with the special theory of relativity (Einstein, 1905).

So data will not only catch Santa, but accelerate well beyond him, if we carry on at this rate.

With some thought and some digital out-sourcing, maybe Santa can use this virtual stack as a delivery mechanism, and so create a little space in his busy schedule at this time of year to enjoy the mince pies and sherry at more leisure, and avoid indigestion.

Merry Yuletide.

 

Republished from my 2011 post on thoughtfeast

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Thank you, Neil MacGregor

Neil MacGregor is stepping down as director of the British Museum at the end of 2015.

What an awe inspiring interpreter of our common human history, our common humanity; and what a leader, who has reached across the world, transcending political barriers with a diplomatic skill that matches his cultural sensitivity.

If you have never read A History of The World in 100 Objects (or better, heard the original BBC Radio broadcasts, enriched by his resonant voice), then you are missing a real cultural gem.

After seeing what Neil MacGregor achieved with his equally monumental Germany: Memories of a Nation (such magnificent antidote to an often one-dimensional view of Germany in the British media), Germany could be in no doubt about their choice of him as leader of the Humboldt Forum.

We all wait expectantly to see the fruits of this new project.

New wonders await, for sure.

Thank you, Neil.

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Why James Hansen is wrong on COP21

I think that James Hansen, as much as I respect him and his huge contribution to the science of climate change, and his personal commitment to communicating the risks we face (including getting arrested), has been outrageous in calling COP21 a fraud.

What would have happened if he had chaired the meeting? Hitting everyone over the head until they agree with a carbon tax, which he sets? I suspect the meeting would have ended in acrimony and the world would be in despair at no agreement.

Diplomats may not be great at science, but the converse is also true.

Laurent Fabius possesses another kind of genius.

Is the current agreement flawed? Yes, in many ways, but it is a framework on which to take us forward with 5-yearly reviews, and things that many developing countries had requested, like loss and damage.

I marvel at the ability to bring more than 190 countries together, all with very different histories and current needs, to knit something together.

French diplomacy tonight deserves our gratitude, not our scorn.

Is 1.5C achievable? The science suggests almost certainly not. So why include it? Because low lying and vulnerable countries demanded it. It is a recognition of their plight. Is that a sop to them, a fraud? No, its called diplomacy and of course not an easy thing for scientists like Hansen to accept.

It would not be the first time that ‘creative ambiguity’ was used in the cause of a greater good (I am thinking the peace accords in Northern Ireland where, if we had instead insisted on absolutely rigorous unambiguous language, would still be in a war there).

There is a joke about the visitor to Ireland who asks a local old man for directions to a place he needs to get to … and the old man says … “If I were going where you are heading, I wouldn’t have started from here!”.

We cannot change where we are starting from, not Hansen, not Fabius.

We can all help, individually, in our towns, in our communities, as voters, etc. to help turn aspiration into reality. e.g. like three examples below:

I think we all need to stop whinging about how hard it is and #JFDI.

By we, I mean all levels of civil society across the globe, utilities, politicians, industry, engineers, and all who can contribute.

It is surprising how much can be achieved when everyone decides to work together.

That spirit of working together may be up against huge hurdles, and punishing odds, but it is not a fraud.

(c) Richard Erskine, 12th December 2015

 

 

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Climate Alarmists?

Ted Cruz decided to use a Congressional Committee to ask the question “Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Climate Change.”

A number of commentators have explored the why & wherefores of the meeting and analysed Cruz’s partisan summary .

My purpose here is not to reproduce those arguments. Detailed responses to Ted Cruz often repeated talking points are available.

I want to express my intense irritation at the dishonest use of emotional language by Ted Cruz, when labelling (the majority of) climate scientists, and those who are calling for action on global warming, as “alarmists”.

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book; to try to make your position seem reasonable by use of emotionally charges labels to apply to your opponent (or their arguments) in a debate. Unfortunately, as long as there are politicians, there will be abuse of language as a substitute for substance.

It is worth also recalling some wise words from Robert Thouless as true today as when first published in 1930:

Once we are on the look-out for this difference between factual and emotional meanings, we shall notice that words which carry more or less strong suggestions of emotional attitudes are very common and are ordinarily used in the discussion of such controversial questions as those of politics, morals, and religion. This is one reason why men can go on discussing such questions without getting much nearer to a rational solution of them. …

Those who show enthusiasm in support of proposals with which a speaker disagrees are extremists, while those showing similar enthusiasm on his own side are called staunch. If a politician wishes to attack some new proposal he has a battery of these and other words with emotional meanings at his disposal. He speaks of “this suggested panacea supported only by the bombast of extremists”, and the proposal is at once discredited in the minds of the majority of people, who like to think of themselves as moderate, distrustful of panaceas, and uninfluenced by windy eloquence. Also we may notice that it has been discredited without the expenditure of any real thought, for of real objective argument there is none, only the manipulation of words calling out emotion.

Robert Thouless, Straight and Crooked Thinking, Pan, 1930 (revised 1953)

Ted Cruz (like many politicians left and right), uses emotive words to  try to make a case that is stronger than it deserves.

But when he throws around the label global warming or climate “alarmist” to compensate for the paucity of genuine science on his side of the argument, and does this while chairing a US Senate Committee, this is abuse not merely of argument but of power.

When will Republicans realise that they are being manipulated, using the oldest tricks in the dishonest argument handbook?

 

 

 

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Falstaff prepares for battle in Paris

Christopher Monckton and his merry band of global warming contrarians have been in Paris last week plotting their next skirmish in their never ending war against the science of global warming.

Their meeting to discuss their ‘messaging’ for COP21 has been documented by a journalist from Open Democracy and gives a remarkable expose into their rambling thought processes.

I have a vision of Falstaff – a tragic, comic and hopelessly flawed figure – and his crew of weary old soldiers preparing for a new battle. For audiences of Shakespeare’s plays, these scenes provide some light relief from the more serious plots afoot in his great plays. The same was true here except that on this occasion no one was laughing.

In the main play at COP21 there are serious actors at work: mayors of cities planning to decarbonise; managers of huge investment funds now actively forcing businesses to accept fiduciary responsibility; entrepreneurs promoting zero carbon innovations in energy, transport and elsewhere; climate action networks working with citizen groups; and many more. They are not debating whether or not we have a problem – all informed people know we do – they are instead working hard on solutions. Whatever happens with the final text of COP21, the transition is underway. It cannot be stopped.

The contrarians are bound together by a suspicion, and in some cases hatred, of environmentalism, the UN and ‘big’ Government. They have no interest in exploring scientific truth, only in finding ways to create confusion in the climate debate, for the sole purpose of delaying action. So their strategy has been to challenge science in ways that are thoroughly disingenuous.

For example, over many years these people have said that you cannot reliably measure the average global surface temperature of the Earth, or have claimed it is in error because of the heat island effect or whatever (all untrue, but they keep repeating it). So guess what happens when it appears that the warming has slowed or ‘paused’? They then switch tack and say “look, its stopped warming”, now feigning a belief in the very science of global temperature measurement they were lambasting before.

I call that disingenuous.

This is a game that some people have called ‘wack a mole’, because the contrarians pop up in one place and no sooner have you wacked them there, they pop up in another place. Having no shame, they are happy to pop in the prior places where they have been thoroughly ‘wacked’, hoping no one will remember. This is ‘wack a mole’ meets Groundhog Day.

It is not merely a case of getting tangled in knots over the science. Even before we get to the science part, the contrarians deploy a myriad of debating techniques and logical fallacies. One of the favourite fallacies deployed by contrarians is what I call ‘Argument from Incredulity’.

Now, I do not blame anyone for being incredulous about the universe. I would say it is quite normal, on hearing it for the first time, to be incredulous that we are in a galaxy with a few hundred billion stars and in a universe with over 100 billion galaxies. Incredulity is often a good starting point for enquiry and discovery. But it should never be an excuse for persistent ignorance.

As a child, I was surprised when I learned that even 1oC temperature rise meant a fever and a few degrees could be fatal. It is indeed a wonder how a complex system, like the human body, works to create such a fine equilibrium, and that when the system goes even slightly out of equilibrium, it spells trouble.

The Earth’s system has also been in equilibrium. It too, can get a fever with apparently small changes that can knock it out of equilibrium.

In No. 7 of the talking points in Monckton’s rather long list is his observation that CO2 is less than a tenth of 1% of the Earth’s atmosphere (currently, it is 0.04%, or 400 parts per million [ppm])). True, but so what?

If I look through clear air along a long tube I see visible light from a torch at the other end undiminished, but if I then add a small amount of smoke there will be significant dimming out of all proportion with the relative concentration of the smoke. Why? Because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

The same is true when considering infra-red (which is invisible to the human eye but is emitted from the ground when it has been warmed by sunlight). Since 99% of the Earth’s atmosphere is transparent to this infra-red, the ‘small’ amount of CO2 (which does absorb infra-red) is very significant in relative terms. Why? Again, because if you add a small effect to a situation where there is little or no effect, the change is large.

Contrarians like to express the rise as 0.03% to 0.04% to suggest that it is small and insignificant.

Actually, a better way to express the change is that it is equivalent to a 33% increase in CO2 concentrations above pre-industrial levels (see Note).

The current 400 ppm is rising at a rate of over 2 ppm per year. All of this increase is due to human combustion of fossil fuels. That is not small, it is huge, and at a rate that is unprecedented (being over a period of 150 years not the 10s of thousands of years over the ice age cycles).

But here is the most amazing conclusion to the Monckton meeting. In trying to rehearse the arguments they should use when ‘messaging’ on the topic of the greenhouse effect:

“We accept that there is such a thing as the greenhouse effect …
yes, if you add CO2 to the atmosphere, it would cause some warming – there are some on the fringes who would deny that, but it’s tactically efficacious for us to accept that.”

Efficacious to say something you don’t believe! I don’t call that denial, I call it deceitful.

The old soldiers were naturally up in arms. Being sold out at this stage, would be a bitter pill to swallow. As the reporter noted:

Monckton suggested that they should accept that the greenhouse effect is real. There was a fair amount of disagreement in the room. The chair said “I’m trying to appeal to left wing journalists”. For a moment they lost control as a number of people shouted out their various objections. The conclusion?: “The Greenhouse Effect – the debate continues”.

Enough of dissembling contrarians, I say.

At this point the comic interlude must come to a close. Time to get back to some serious debate.

[Falstaff exits, stage Right]

[The action moves back to the main stage]

COP21 continues without interruption, despite noises off.

(c) Richard Erskine, 2015

NOTE

In fact, the Earth’s average surface temperature would be roughly the same as the Moon’s (being the same distance from the sun) without the CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, about 30oC cooler (-15oC rather than +15oC, on average). So adding even a small amount of CO2 to to an atmosphere of Oxygen, Nitrogen and Argon has a huge effect. Something on top of nothing is a big change in percentage terms.

Over the 4 last ice ages, CO2 concentrations have varied between 180 and 300 parts per million. So less than a halving or doubling of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere moved the Earth from ice age to interglacial and back again. We know that less than a doubling can have dramatic changes.

Today’s level of 400 ppm has not been seen on Earth for almost 1 million years.

For at least the last thousand years, the level has been stable at 280 ppm, up until the industrial revolution.

The question of a ‘pause’ in surface temperature is debated amongst climate scientists. One thing they do not disagree about: the increased CO2 means there is an energy imbalance that is causing the planet to warm, with over 90% of the heat going into the oceans, mountain glaciers receding apace, etc.

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Bringing Protest to the Heart of COP21

In the light of the IS attacks on Paris that has terrorised the city, thoughts inevitably turn to the climate talks in December, COP21, and how France will respond.

Will this change the venue or format of COP21?

The message is that the conference remains on course. This is the right decision. This conference is much too important to be blown off course by the actions of murderous ideologues.

The event already had in place security that is inevitably needed for an event like this, with badged access to the conference area itself. I suspect they had already factored in what many Parisians expected might be coming (even if the reality was much more shocking than anyone had imagined).

Will security be beefed up? Yes, inevitably, but it would be a mistake to create an image of a besieged COP21 with popular protest groups shut out of the conference behind even higher ‘walls’ (an impression that many protest groups already feel).

Total security for the large numbers of the ‘unbadged’ outside the conference would be impossible. What to do? Not to be heard in Paris, to stay away?

I don’t believe so, but I do believe we need to re-think the organization of the protests, and I had this feeling even before the terrorist attacks.

We, the citizens of planet Earth all qualify for a ticket to this event: ‘how to save the Earth’, and clearly we cannot all be there.

Whereas UK citizens, like me, can find low carbon ways to travel to Paris, what about a citizen of Indonesia or Canada? Flying in large numbers to Paris would not exactly send a consistent message. A couple of tonnes of carbon dioxide for each far flung protestor: is that the right price?

There needs to be protesters there for sure, and the French people are protesters par excellence. We need people there to create that energy, to help remind the delegates why we are here.

The people – and many of these student groups – understand the challenge better than the politicians, and understand the severe limitations of our politicians to speak for them, and show vision and leadership. They need their voice heard. Often, these events are accused of being ‘corporatist’ and the voices of the status quo still get undue access to the high table.

The organisers need to recognise this imbalance and not to allow the terrorist attacks on Paris to widen this imbalance further.

The COP21 organisers should create a protest space within the conference zone itself: a space where delegates must pass through and is a wall of images, tweets and statements from protest groups who are physically unable to be there. Every hour of every day, delegates must be reminded of why they are there.

We need the words of all nations represented … Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Kenyan, … not just the middle-class Europeans and North Americans who can afford to fly to be there.

If we want a global protest, inside the COP21 tent, then let’s find a way to do this that does not compromise the inevitable demands of security for delegates and observers.

Let’s bring protest to the heart of COP21.

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E O Wilson on Humanity & Biodiversity

E .O. Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, was in conversation with Jim Al-Khalili on BBC Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’ (a little gem of a series)

He discussed his early years (from age 8!), discoveries, and his ideas on how Darwinian natural selection works in  creative tension between individual selection (the self gene variety) and group selection (which many biologists dispute). Fascinating stuff.

In reference to Darwin, he said …

“the man was impossible, he was always right”.

HUMANITY & BIODIVERSITY

In the latter part of this wonderful programme, Jim Al-Khalili steered the conversation to Ed Wilson’s concerns about biodiversity and the impact that humanity is having on it.

For those of you who may be unable to access the BBC iPlayer or a download of the programme, I wanted to share his words, which were so powerful and insightful I felt compelled to transcribe them (my punctuation, because this was a mesmerising stream of thought):

”Humanity has palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like power … now that’s an extremely dangerous combination” …

“We are by instinct related closely to the survival of our distant ancestors by a driving need to strike nature as hard as we could and to draw as much as we could from it, and we haven’t lost that at all;

And we now come to a higher level recognition that we struck too hard and too far and we are threatening the world that we first entered so aggressively and so successfully in Africa;

And we’ve somehow got to pull back our instincts to exploit and subordinate and convert to our immediate welfare because if we take too much more of the Earth’s biodiversity we render the biosphere unstable;

We could in the worst circumstances reach a tipping point in which the whole thing collapses, and we with it.”

Humbling and thought provoking. Nothing to add.

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Google’s Digital Black Hole

So Google, or at least its Vice President, Vint Cerf, has now had a flash of inspiration!

It has realised that information preservation is important.

The Huffington Post reported :

Cerf told the American Association for the Advancement of Science that “if we want people in the future to be able to recreate what we are doing now, we are going to have to build the concept of preservation into the internet”.

Cerf says that a “digital vellum” must be developed which can maintain the state of hardware and software, as well as raw data, so that the web as it appears today can be experienced in decades to come.

“When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history,” he said, according to the Guardian.

This is an old story that pops up from time to time, like when the BBC’s re-hash of the Doomsday Book turned out to be unreadable after 15 years

People have for some time been discussing the probable gap in the historical record as society makes its messy 50 year transition from a paper-based world to a truly digital one (I think perhaps we are halfway through this transition, which varies in speed according to industry and culture).

Information scientists and those at the sharp end of delivering strategic platforms to industry have known about the preservation issue for as long as there has been IT, and strategies and standards are now well developed for addressing the preservation of information – at the physical preservation, content preservation and intellectual preservation levels.

As Jeff James, the Chief Executive of the UK’s National Archives, pointed out on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (14th February 2015 – in response to this Google story), institutions such as his have a number of successful strategies for ensuring the national archives, at least, will be preserved in perpetuity.

Google naively sold the vision that content does not need the disciplines of information science – curation, preservation, indexing, etc. – because Big Search and Big Data mean the old skills are irrelevant. No, they are even more relevant today than ever, but of course, need to be reframed in terms of digital standards and strategies.

It is because businesses and institutions fired all those people like records managers in the past, because they imagined a word-processor and a fileshare meant that such disciplines were unnecessary, and did not implement enterprise content management (ECM), that there will be a hiatus in their historical records … not because we didn’t know how to standardize or migrate formats.

Those of us that work on information management in industries as diverse as healthcare, engineering and pharmaceuticals have if anything been on the case for even longer than our national archives.

The issue of aging storage devices has long been solved, because at least for those using ECM systems, content is silently moved to newer storage devices periodically, without even the need for human agency.

The issue of document formats is the next easiest to address (at least for those artefacts that are commonly regarded as documents). These may have been created in many forms:

  • Take a clinical safety report for a new drug, written using Microsoft Word 97.  Knowing that Microsoft upgrades its software at least once every 2 years, it is an obvious worry that the report might not be readable in 20 years time. In addition, this report might form part of a huge dossier that is then submitted to the regulatory authorities, to get approval for the drug, and will need to be accessible for some decades after a drug has been taken off the market. So let’s say, at least 50 years from the date of its creation; so we need to preserve the context not just the content.
  • Alternatively, imagine we have created a design for a bridge, using 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software, and then rendered this as 2D drawings (elevations and cross sections) that engineers will use to build the bridge. These are printed on large format sheets that the engineers and construction workers can take on site, and stored digitally in some format

These are non-trivial problems for a raft of reasons of which the format is the least difficult.

At the content level, we need to ask questions of content like,  “Do we ever need to revise, or reuse, the content?”, “For viewers of the content, what level of fidelity is required?”:

  • For the drug safety report, we want to make it non-revisable, non-deniable, so we could create a PDF-A (a flavour designed for archiving which is non-revisable) and for belts and braces, we also store a rendition in a facsimile format (using the TIFF standard, like the RAW type format from a good camera), because the information is quite flat. In this way, we have covered all bases. We are 100% sure we could read the document in 100 or even 1000 years. The fact that TIFF is such a basic format – just rows of coloured dots – is a weakness when it comes to reuse (e.g. editing) but a strength for long-term ‘readability’. A visitor from Alpha Centauri would have no problem understanding it, and so viewing it.
  • What about the engineering drawings? If we come back in 75 years to do a major re-work on the bridge, due to the failure of some components, then would we need to get hold of the original revisable 3D CAD  files? Yes we would! So how do we solve this problem? One strategy is to ensure there are industry standards for specialised formats like CAD (there are), and we make sure these are ‘forward compatible’ (i.e. new versions of software can read old content).  Where this is problematic, we need, periodically to refresh old content to bring it forward to newer formats; this is one of the strategies that national archives use.

In the document world, Goldfarb and others created ‘Generalized Mark-Up Languages’ (GML) in the 1960s, to get around the problem of different  formats, but mainly to enable high fidelity sharing of data/content between people and systems.

This evolved into SGML (Standard GML), and over time into XML (eXtensible Markup Language). There are two main benefits I wish to stress here:

  • Firstly, a separation of content from presentation, meaning that we can take the same content and render it for different viewing contexts or devices (this is now routine today, as people observe viewing the same content on different styles and devices).
  • Secondly, we can create different ‘dialects’ of XML specialised for different industries or applications, in the media, healthcare, finance, etc.

So, for example, NewsML allows many news agencies to send news to an aggregator like Reuters whose systems can automatically process those documents, because the syntax and semantics have been standardized. This includes not only content but the indexing information (in modern parlance, the meta-data) used to characterize or contextualise the content – which ensures high fidelity routing/ targeting of the information to Reuters’ clients.

For more complex situations, like that of a drug dossier, containing say 20,000 files, the whole structure can be defined using an XML ‘schema’ to standardize the structure and its meaning: it specifies what is required in terms of context, metadata and the content itself.

Interestingly, the HTML for which Sir Tim Berners-Lee is famous for, the World Wide Web is a kind of dumbed down SGML/XML which is great for creating simple web pages on the WWW, but loses the two main benefits mentioned above (contextual rendering and industry dialects).

Of course, some technologists would prefer to ignore the practicalities of information management, such as the need to think about document standards. Instead they propose a magic bullet which is to preserve software and hardware environments. By virtualizing the whole stack of software and hardware we preserve everything needed to read the old content. While virtualized systems have a big place in modern IT (because they enable fast deployment of complex systems), they do not obviate the need to tackle the underlying information management standards.

A regulator in healthcare is not going to certify a software stack instead of a document standard (and by ‘document’, I mean the whole machinery of meta-data, context and content formats).

Google may be in danger of looking for a technological magic bullet where none exists. Meanwhile, back in the real world of industry, the rest of us are finding solutions today to all aspects of the information preservation and fidelity issue.

So what if Google did offer a ‘Digital White Hole’ (instead of a Black one), to provide improved access to archived information? What would that mean?

I ask this because Google are on a mission to monetize both our content and our internet personas and behaviour. Unlike National Archives, they do not have a public duty to do what is best for our content, only what is best for them. And they already have an hegemony in relation to search!

Do I really want ‘search’ to extend to the custodianship of content? A new hegemony?! I don’t think so.

When I make a search, Google chooses to put results at the top for those who have paid to be there, not the most appropriate to my context. If I want a drug safety report from 30 years ago, would I expect Google to be the best custodian of such content in the future?  At present, there are no signs that would be even a remotely realistic outcome.

The risk we as citizens or businesses might face is that we become beholden to large service providers like Google to gain access to our archived content, with no statutory safeguards.

If this used some magic virtualized ‘digital vellum’, we might find it difficult or impossible to take our content away and move it to another provider.

The issues of long-term preservation and fidelity of information/ content are too important to be left to commercial interests alone (but of course they will need to play a role).

This is why the standards based approach, coupled with pragmatic strategies as illustrated earlier are what I would recommend. No magic, just hard work, experience, collaboration and persistence.

These are what work today in many industries/ businesses, albeit not implemented universally. If we face a ‘Black Hole’, all the more reason to scale up what we know works.

I would not fly on planes today without a standardized dossier called the Aircraft Maintenance Manual (AMM), linked to the actual maintenance applied to each plane in service, which is a global industry standard, independent of any commercial interest. Planes are like flying paragons of information management!

There is today, particularly in domestic use but also in a surprising number of businesses, far too much content that is unmanaged, unindexed and uncared for, stored on file shares in proprietary formats, not using the well established methods and tools (such as ECM) that would ensure digital and intellectual preservation.

Google’s rather belated realization that the world is not as simple as they would have had us believe, is a great first step (for them), but is it for us? We shall see.

Rather than imagining they have discovered something new, they might be interested in learning how others like Jeff James of the UK’s National Archives, and those of us at the coal face of information management, have been addressing these issues for many years.

Welcome Google, to the world of business critical content, and long-term preservation.

You’ve certainly taken your time!

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