Solutions Without Hysteria


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Written by Artful Lodger

8 min read

After what has seemed like a period of stagnation, the space industry appears to currently be on steroids and the theme of space exploration appears to have re-acquainted itself with mainstream culture. There are now frequent news headlines and articles demonstrating progress with rocket technology and capabilities. The idea of sending manned missions further and further out into space for the benefit of humanity is exciting and fantastic, however during this nascent phase in space exploration it is important to maintain a steady focus on what is happening on this planet. With a potential decline in living standards and political instability featuring in several credible future scenarios this century, it is important for all members in society to contribute where they can to mitigate these risks. However, what is being presented in mainstream media as inevitable sacrifices, including the switch to bug protein as a staple food source, colder showers and pod-life is unpalatable and depressing. Whilst constraints on resources do risk causing declines to living standards and political instability, the aim of this article is to point out who should be removing these constraints. Due to the way the human brain works, anyone who is hysterical or in panic mode, cannot be also in problem solving mode and should be excluded from debate up front. This especially includes teary eyed celebrities broadcasting their emotions through the media.  

Watching sport is simple and transparent as it is often based on viewer perception of basic quantities of speed, strength etc. It is a popular pastime because it's an exhibition of human ability and is based on a set of principles that include fairness and sportsmanship. The characteristics of each contest vary in complexity. Differences in speed and strength should be accessible to even the most amateur spectators, and as time and distance are displayed in fundamental units, the spectator can quickly determine whether to celebrate or not. Players who can, without cheating, demonstrate extra speed, strength or stamina are elevated to hero status by spectators. Exceptional performance manifests in a variety of ways: great players have a little extra 'time with the ball'; players 'find space'; have an extra 'yard of pace'; and others withstand the hits long enough to draw additional resources from the opponents. The players that can't do this become losers, or if found out as cheats, villains. This simplicity is deeply satisfying and helps explain the high status of sports stars.

In contrast, running a civilisation involves subjective processes and is dependent upon the capacity of the human mind for imagination. Yuval Noah Harari explains this quite well in his book, Sapiens. The systems that contribute to our civilisation rely upon human imagination to function and remain stable. Human rights, nations, money and corporations are all products of co-operation made possible by this capacity for imagination. Likewise, interest rates and inflation are determined not by objective means but by human decisions. Conflict occurs when the co-operation required for the respective system breaks down. For example, crypto currencies undermine the power of central authorities and this competition precipitates conflict or instability.

Constraints in society lower quality of living and increase political instability. As described above, life is simple for sport spectators most of the time because units of measurement are basic, and the results are mostly transparent. Conversely, life can be difficult and unjust for the citizen depending on the behaviour and level of power residing in government, corporations and institutions. These dynamics characterise the stability of these systems. Abundance and efficient distribution of resources helps stabilise a society, but when it starts to run out of these things, solutions are necessary. Drastic reduction in quality of life is not an acceptable solution.

Solving problems, or more specifically, engineering problems, is complex and relies on abstract concepts to remove constraints. This cannot be performed by sport spectators or bureaucrats, but by engineers. They don't use simply basic units and subjective decision. Analogous to the sporting heroes finding space, when an engineer can make use of an additional dimension in an application, society benefits. Some fields are highly developed and mature, so the constraints no longer exist. The glass in fibre optic cable is of such high quality that if the sea was as clear, we could see to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Consequently, the bandwidth of fibre optic cable is so high with modern multiplexing technology that capacity is no longer an issue. Additionally, fibre optic cable is commoditised to the extent that it can even be bought online. As wireless spectrum has become more heavily utilised, different techniques for compressing information have been introduced to make use of the spectrum more efficiently. It seems that mobile technology has reached a stable level of maturity for the urban consumer, although there is a lot of work to do in standardisation by the industry to support new applications. The power grid is undergoing change from what was historically a centralised top-down system to a distributed system with bidirectional power flow. To unlock further flexibility, energy markets are going through a phase of de-regulation and ancillary markets are being further developed to support additional services. This will include, for example, the trading of reactive power which we will need to differentiate from real power. 

Real power is intuitive – it's the power that heats the sports spectator's kettle or warms their seat in the football stadium. Mathematically, real power is the real part of the complex quantity of apparent power. For anyone who has studied complex numbers in mathematics, reactive power is identified using the complex j component. The terminology used here can be confusing - imaginary is a poor descriptor because reactive power is not an imaginary thing and is a physical phenomenon unlike the concept of money. An electromagnetic field produced by reactive power might be a risk to both a chimpanzee and a human standing in it, although it would be impossible for the chimp and might be difficult for the human to understand that they are in one. Reactive power moves in the power system from components that produce it (eg long cables) to those that consume it (eg inductive loads) and when it does, it affects the voltage in the network. The development of a market in reactive power enables generators (who can adjust their output between the two types) to trade this quantity therefore helping with this system control function. Much like the pitch is for athletes, the complex plane is one extra space that the engineer can manoeuvre around in. The outcome of these developments is that extra capacity is being found within the existing system assets, deferring the requirement for network reinforcement. Hopefully these brief examples demonstrate what has occurred across many different disciplines.

If engineering is applied science, then engineers occupy space between science and the population. They need to apply scientific principles in the most appropriate way based on societal need. For some mature fields, most of the founding scientists are no longer alive. Whilst the engineers are not classed as scientists, they do perform a scientific function in the development and maintenance of standards.

To solve the development vs conservation trade-off, engineers need to solve constraint problems to maximise existing infrastructure whilst minimising opposition. From the examples above, engineers have increased capacity, or are in the process of doing so, in telecommunications and energy and it should be obvious to the reader what immediate benefit this has. Since most planning objections to new infrastructure relate to the upgrade of corridors for new pipelines, trainlines and power lines, the aesthetic needs of most of the nearby residents are met for new projects when the upgrade is avoided.

There is a range of opinions as to whether development is good. Projects can be mapped onto a two-dimensional chart with high development and high opposition representing each of the axes. The key to progressing through approval is to be able to provide options which include the required level of development without excessive opposition. This simple sketch illustrates that different types of typical developments provide more development per opposition and are more likely to proceed. A good engineer will be able to shift the project down and to the right by way of innovation and full use of the right tools and techniques mentioned above.


Opposition vs Developmental Benefit Relationship for typical projects


Engineers should discharge their duties as British subjects in accordance with their responsibilities, which described in the fifth part of the Wellington Project mission statement. By doing so they will apply the laws of the land to remove societal constraints whilst minimising impact to other British subjects. Otherwise, the value of their output is reduced.

Corporations who lobby governments to excessively relax immigration rules for foreign labour undermine society's ability to meet its own needs. This is because appropriately qualified specialists need to be deployed to provide acceptable solutions. When corporations lobby the government to relax border controls for foreign engineers, they risk using non-subjects who may not know the laws of the land. Readers can decide for themselves whether non-subjects, who may not understand the culture, customs and societal norms are likely to understand how to responsibly occupy the role. Additionally, a lack of established indigenous capability leaves a vacuum for charlatans when there is urgent demand for skills. Industries with an insufficient skill base can fall prey to those charlatans who blag their way in, creating a burden for others.

We have briefly compared spectator sport, politics and engineering in order to characterise the measurands used in each of these topics. These measurands range from real and readily observable, subjective to complex and concealed from intuition. Complex concepts are tools that help engineers improve utilisation of existing resources, helping to decouple project opposition from developmental benefits. This translates into visibly better solutions for the public, whereby development can be increased with minimal impact. Since engineering has a political dimension to it, engineers need to be fluent in the culture, customs and societal norms of the country where the project is taking place. Lobbying by corporations for foreign labour can undermine this and lead to non-optimal solutions. Engineers might neither be as popular as athletes nor as criticised as politicians, but they do need to be included in the process at the right time with the right set of values and principles. Whilst they don't necessarily need to become world leaders or be overly visible, engineers need to be the ones implementing change and developing new standards for the benefit of all subjects. How long it will take for humans on earth to be living in a widely accepted sustainable system or for the development of permanent space colonies is not clear but panicking certainly won't help.

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