Monday, May 31, 2010

Digging deeper holes

Oil continues to spill in the Gulf. That makes it as good a time as any to continue reflecting on the truth that complexity breeds collapse. In the real world, where large engineering projects are subject to large, unpredictable risks and threats, it would be silly to pretend that engineering is a science. Engineering is an art.

Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times on Friday:
Americans have long had an unswerving belief that technology will save us — it is the cavalry coming over the hill, just as we are about to lose the battle. And yet, as Americans watched scientists struggle to plug the undersea well over the past month, it became apparent that our great belief in technology was perhaps misplaced.

Misplaced indeed. Remember the bridge that collapsed over the Tacoma Narrows in 1940?

Well, I don't remember either, it happened when my parents were toddlers. The lesson still applies, however. Mistakes happen.

Industrial food production is another complex aspect of modern society that has to do with energy. In this case industrial technology is applied to the goal of energizing human bodies -- as opposed to cars, trucks, and airplanes. As in the extractive industries, complexity leads to toxic disaster time and time again.

In China in 2008, milk processing factories added melamine to dairy products, including infant formula, leading to illness in hundreds of thousands of victims, including hundreds of hospitalizations and six infant deaths. Why would food producers do such a thing? Because addition of the industrial chemical lent an appearance of greater nutritional value to poor-quality milk. The goal, apparently, was to fool parents into feeding their children poison in order to spin profit from dross. But 2008 wasn't the first time reckless milk profiteering killed Chinese infants. BBC News reported in April 2004 that:
Dozens of Chinese babies are said to have died from malnutrition in the past year after being fed fake or inferior-quality baby milk powders. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said makers of the products would be severely punished [...].

It seems that whatever punishment was actually meted out didn't do the trick. But why is this a technology issue and not just about evil profiteers? Because proximity encourages accountability.

According to Wikipedia's definition,
Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. It strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and promotes farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem.

The resurgence of farmers markets in cities and towns, restaurants that advertise "grown locally" on their menus, bestselling books by Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan (Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food), and the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. are all related to "slow food." This is a movement that aims to simplify complexity in food production and distribution ... complexity that leaves room for layers of industry between producers and consumers to spice up plain old food with toxic fraud and negligence. Some call this a 'local food' movement.

One of the ickiest kinds of industrial food poisoning is meat and packaged-produce tainted by E. coli bacteria, a product of factory-farmed beef and pork ... quite literally. Where animal feces meets the food supply, E. coli flavored illness and death frequently result. This can happen when fields are overrun by feral pigs or irrigated with water contaminated by animal waste, for example, as happened on an (organic) produce farm in 2006; or when animal carcasses are not kept clean as they are moved through meat processing plants.

Can technology fix this sort of problem? A set of articles in the San Francisco Chronicle last week suggested otherwise.

Carolyn Lochhead reported on 23 May that:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service served notice in March that all meat plants should validate their existing safety plans to ensure they are preventing E. coli, salmonella and other contaminations. The draft document, part of a raft of new food safety actions stemming from the President's Food Safety Working Group, calls for microbial testing.

But smaller, 'slower' meat producers are crying foul.
While small meat cutters do some testing now, they worry that the proposed rules would require them to do much more, at far greater expense. [...] "This is typical of food safety regulations over time," said John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. "There's a fundamentally different relationship between processors and farmers who sell in the local community and big, impersonal operations that are bringing in livestock and shipping those products all over the country." [...] Ikerd said the government's proposed rules could pose "a serious setback for the local food movement."

A second article on that date by the same reporter described in some detail how high tech meat processors operate differently from small slaughterhouse operations, comparing an operation near Harrisonburg, Virginia that butchers 2,897 animals per year to one in North Carolina that kills 32,000 pigs in a single day. The smaller plant takes 25 minutes to turn a live cow into a carcass hanging in cooler; industrial slaughterhouses
"have beefs flying down their lines every few seconds. The line speeds are extraordinary. You can't keep that carcass clean."

It's a fascinating read for those who have the stomach to know where food comes from.

Jumping straight to the conclusion of the Chronicle article, we have Joe Cloud, who operates that small slaughterhouse near Harrisonburg:
"They want me to go through the exact same testing regulations as a plant that kills 5,000 or 6,000 head of beef a day," Cloud said. "It's the high-tech industrial system that creates the problems, and all the solutions are technological solutions. That's all Congress is capable of mandating, and it drives the system further into the paradigm that created the problem."

Hmmmmm. Technology-driven "testing regulations" are the way to solve a problem caused by our reliance on high-tech slaughterhouses?

There's something funky in that logic.

Here's Elizabeth Rosenthal again, from yesterday's NY Times article about the Gulf oil spill:
Indeed, think of all the planes grounded for nearly a week in northern Europe last month, as a volcano poured ash in the atmosphere. There was no technological fix, and many passengers couldn’t believe it. Said Mr. Kohut, of Pew Research, “The reaction was: ‘Fix this. Fix this. This is outrageous.’ ”

Fix a volcano. Um, yeah.

Maybe we need to take a few slow steps back from the seductive belief that engineering conquers all.

So consider this video posted May 23rd, 2010, 70 years after the bridge over the Tacoma Narrows collapsed. The voices in the sound track are speaking Russian, and the YouTube uploader Chinese:

[UPDATE: sorry, this video seems to have been pulled for copyright infringement. However:]

In English, from the U.K.'s ITN on May 21:
The Russian Emergency Ministry has closed a seven-kilometre-long bridge which crosses the Volga River in Volgograd, after the structure started to wobble. [...] Strong currents in the river caused by the huge flow of extra water from melting snow upstream had apparently loosened one of the vertical supports, which affected the balance of the entire bridge.

And here's a rich take on the incident from U.K. tabloid The Daily Mail, datelined May 25:
The bridge, spanning the giant Volga River, cost £275 million and was opened by deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov - a close aide to premier Vladimir Putin - eight months ago. [...] So far, experts blame the wrong kind of wind for the extreme turbulence suffered by drivers on the bridge [...].

The "wrong kind of wind"? Okay, I know, it's the Daily Mail so who knows where they found their "experts," but ... what kind of wind, exactly, qualifies as "wrong"?

The belief that technology will shield us from complexity's fallout isn't just betting on the wrong horse. It's watching the wrong race.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Things fall apart


  1. Excellent post, thank you.
    In my post a few minutes ago, I also argue that the job of the President of the United States may be doomed because of the inability to take decisive actions in the midst of such complex situations.

  2. Great post.

    I love the excuse of "wrong kind of wind". We might have blamed the current oil spill on wrong kind of sea water depth!

    Sure, it is up to BP to clean up the mess, but without the government as the accomplice, issuing permits violated its own rules, this mess would not have happened.

    Weeks before the oil spill, Obama claimed that the current technology would be able to prevent and deal with almost impossible oil spills. Well, either he was as delusional as the Wall Street investment bankers, or he had bought the argument that technology tramps everything. Well, it sure tramped the ecosystem we are such a poor guardian.

    Matthew Felix Sun