Tag Archives: genetic engineering

But What If I’m Wrong?

“But what if I’m wrong?”

A novel question, don’t you think?

This seems to be a preposterous question to many experts and people of authority. Their degrees and titles are accumulated like armor to shield them from such questioning by others, and our narcissistic society of recent decades does much to program high levels of ‘self-esteem’ and ’empowerment’ to fill in any gaps in credentials. Can you picture Larry Summers or John Boehner or Larry Ellison or Marissa Mayer asking this?

As an auditor and consultant who has spent much of my time questioning the wisdom of others, I am exposed to the occupational hazard of turning those weapons of critical inquiry on one’s self. Fortunately, it is rarely suicidal, and it can sometimes have the benefit of alerting one to one’s own foolishness before it is brought to one’s attention by others, ….generally not gently.

I engage this question most often, which is generally daily, with the subjects of climate change and energy transition. A recent article on the protracted drought in the western US brought the question to the fore. At issue is whether the western US is undergoing a cyclical drought that has happened before in various cycles and various levels of severity for various extended periods of time, or whether this is the systemic effect of climate change that will not manifest as a cycle, but a trend.  If we wait for a definitive answer, the consequences could be dire for those directly affected.  If we rush to act on either assumption, we stand a risk of wasting precious resources or precious time. In the moment, one bears a significant risk of error, with consequences, one way or another.

The specific manifestation may be drought, but the contextual question of cause is by no means unique to this piece of geography or this particular natural phenomenon.  Climate skeptics and climate change adherents can each marshal arcane data to support their position, or alternatively poke holes in the credibility of the other side’s argument.  Often, neither side can prove or disprove their argument, because neither side has sufficient bullet-proof information. Much of what climate change advocates rely on for climate history is inferential evidence drawn from proxies: tree rings, ice cores, soil cores, etc.  And the more direct and current evidence is either insufficient in time span or insufficient in breadth and depth of accumulation (e.g. ocean temperatures, atmospheric readings at higher altitudes over the entire globe for completeness and uniformity) to be able to have a lock on an argument. The skeptics’ preferred route is divide an conquer: cherry-pick the data that supports the premise, and narrow in on a particular arcane facet to the exclusion of everything else that’s happening.  A recent article on divergent approaches to storm surge and sea level rise further illustrates the dilemma.

The scientific community, which we are told is 97% supportive of the premise that Climate Change is a) real, and b) subject to human influence, is somewhat schizophrenic as a group on the subject of climate change.  On the one hand, some significant chorus of the community is warning us in breathless tones of the impending point of no return in climate system dynamics that will seal our fate.  On the other hand, with each new report on ice sheets, or tornadoes or ocean acidification, or monsoonal rains, or new high temperatures, or whatever, they demure to make a direct connection to climate change because “we don’t yet have enough data to state the case conclusively”.  That may be valid from a perspective of scientific methodology, but it does not sustain the thesis that we “must do something NOW”, even though the apparent trend of events that we all can observe suggests that we probably should. And, it does not sustain the proposition of exactly what we should do now to what attainable effect.

There are four reasons why I can sustain commitment to the hypothesis of climate change in spite of science’s struggle to bring coherence to seemingly disparate facts or conundrums in modeling:

1)  Something’s going on, across a broad range of phenomena with some level of consistency and apparent escalation that it cannot be responsibly dismissed as just another day in paradise, even if we can’t explain it definitively now. (multiple data points)

2)  Even if the science remains somewhat muddled and inconclusive within the straight-jacket of its empirical methodology, the anecdotal evidence from that unruly place we call The Real World is sufficiently diverse in nature, and congruent in basic direction to give comfort that a trend of some kind is developing to which we must pay attention, because the consequences could be such that we cannot afford to ignore.  (Multiple perspectives)

3)  While the scientific community is by no means immune to herd mentality, the breadth of professional specialties and institutions and vested interests who have come to consensus defies credible belief that the consensus is merely herd mentality orchestrated by some world-dominating cabal. (Checks and balances)

4)  So many of the arguments hurled at consensus science by the outliers and their camp followers are predicated on such apparently flimsy logical and factual constructs that they beg dismissal from serious consideration. (Logical fallacy)

But still one must allow that even the minute minority may be right for the wrong reasons. Scientific progress has often been built on destruction by renegades of conventional wisdom of the moment. They cannot be summarily dismissed.

Is the sun a factor in global warming? Quite likely, although current scientific methodology has given it modest influence. Are greenhouse gases the major cause? Quite probably because we know the chemistry of burning carbon fuels beyond question, and we know the physics of their effect.  Unfortunately those physics are not the only physics to be considered in understanding climatic evolution.

So, an open mind is essential, and the question: “But what if I’m wrong”, is a vital tool of self-assessment and intellectual integrity for all players.  But too few seem to use it.

The Question (BWIIAW) becomes particularly important when one’s responsibility for decision-making impacts the well-being of others; their lives and livelihood, their health, their wealth. People who are clueless about climate change are keenly aware of their personal circumstances, and understandably distrustful of those who pronounce with obvious disregard for personal consequences. The manifestation of arrogance and indifference on both sides of  the climate debate is troubling, and explains in large measure why humankind has not progressed sufficiently on this issue.

Nor is The Question exclusive to climate change.  It might be nice for both sides of the fracking issue to try it out.  And genetic engineering. And nano-technology. And technological displacement. And Big Data Analytics. And economic policy. And foreign policy. And medical efficacy. And data privacy. And right to life. And death with dignity. And interventions of all kinds for all the best of intentions. And the list goes on. In a time when Big Data has yet to vanquish great uncertainties, and when judgments in a nanosecond can yield regrets that ‘keep on giving’, we can all afford a moment to ask ourselves ‘The Question’.

Asking The Question doesn’t necessarily give me answers, but it does inject a minimum daily requirement of humility. And as long as a voice in my head does not whisper ‘Sid, you’re probably wrong, or at least on really thin ice’, I can inch forward for another day, and ask again tomorrow.

Onward.

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Is Clim-Ergy like Y2K?

Yes.  But not for the reason climate deniers allege.

Climate change deniers and peak energy cynics often claim that these contemporary issues are urban fantasies, hoaxes, or, worse yet, conspiracies of gullible Chicken-Littles and manipulative one-worlders to undermine paradise as we know it. The supporting ‘fact’ of this analogy is that Y2K, for most people, was a non-event. If you weren’t an accountant or an I.T. professional or in the information bowels of a major corporation, it probably seemed like a non-event.  Gratefully, the world did not end at Midnight. Indeed, it barely seemed to skip a beat!  Case closed.

Except, that’s not really as it was, and the similarities between how society handled Y2K and how it is handling Clim-Ergy should give us pause. Allow me to elaborate.

I first heard of Y2K in 1975, while working as an internal auditor for a major multi-line insurance company.  As we were concluding an audit of data center operations, the I.T. auditor on our team was telling me how technology was likely to change over time. He mentioned the Y2K dilemma in passing with the memorable closer that “by the end of the century, most, if not all, the affected systems will be replaced by then.”

Didn’t happen.  The next time I encountered Y2K was 1995 when, by chance, I read a journal article on the risk and the state of unpreparedness facing the world community.  I was quite surprised by this revelation, and a bit disturbed.  First, I knew how long it takes major corporations to implement a major IT system on a good day, and that putting a gun to their head for accelerated implementation generally goes badly.  Second, I knew that, contrary to my colleague’s firmest expectations, there were still a lot of legacy systems surviving in major corporations, supporting pretty front-end interfaces with old COBOL code held together with the electronic equivalent of chewing gum and baling wire, while supporting applications programmers hummed mantras invoking higher technology spirits to keep the crappy code running ‘until we can replace it.’ Third, a whole new platform of software had evolved in the Win-tel world with the introduction of PCs into the business environment.  Did they bother to avoid the problem? No. They followed standard practice.  So much for heads-up, progressive remediation.

For the next two years society in general and the business community in particular appeared to be playing ‘Who’s On First’. If there was a hero in the Y2K drama, it was Alan Greenspan.  About three years before ‘The Event’, he decreed that any bank which was not Y2K compliant by a specific date would be closed or merged with a capable institution.  Finally, someone in a major sector had taken  charge with a clear deadline and explicit consequences.

What followed next was interesting; a cascading series of epiphanies among various industries and institutions. The insurance and investment communities fell in line with the Fed. The SEC required public disclosure of anticipated Y2K costs and the registrants’ capability for timely remediation of issues. The legal profession smelled potential blood for litigation, and insurers devised new liability products to manage risk. As individual companies became comfortable with their own level of remediation and survivability, they began to realize that they were only as secure as their supply chain and customer base, and so began seeking written assurances from business partners that their systems were also Y2K capable.

There were two tracks to the Y2K dilemma.  One was the transaction track involving systems that process monetary and operational transactions and events in which date fields are critical.  The other was the embedded chip track. Embedded computer chips were made in the millions by thousands of vendors over the course of three decades.  Some were custom chips designed for a specific machine with specific capabilities.  Many were ‘generic’ chips, off-the-shelf devices with basic capabilities that could be programmed in a variety of applications for a variety of purposes. Many of those chips had date capability, whether it was actually used in a specific application or not.  Documentation was not always good.  Many manufacturers had gone out of business or were acquired over time, with technical specifications lost or irretrievably buried in archives.  Problem: which chips having which capabilities were alive in which critical applications?  Like heart pacemakers, nuclear power plants, aircraft, ya-di-ya-di-ya?

The typical corporate public response was “No Problem!”  But privately many corporations struggled to identify and isolate potential risks, and to devise contingency strategies to deal with failures and maintain continuity of operations.

i sensed that by August, 1999, business in general felt it was pretty well prepared with remediating transaction systems, and had isolated areas with embedded chip risks to the point that they could respond with workarounds  that could contain problems.  But nobody could know for sure until The Ball dropped at Midnight.

Was Y2K real? Yes, but it was contained because it was successfully remediated by society as a whole at the last-minute.  Whatever glitches may have occurred were minimal or were effectively concealed from obvious effect.  I personally encountered three Y2K glitches; two before The Event, and one after.

One of the glitches had to do with the run-and-gun implementation of an ERP system by a client.  Because of the haste of implementation, it was largely installed Off the Shelf (OTS) with minimal customization. As a result, some functions and data fields were not effectively mapped between the old system, which had to be retained, and the new system; a costly but necessarily redundancy. My role was to devise a bridge in Excel between the old data format and the new record format, and keep it working until the software vendor could install a patch. Four months of billable time for one month of incurred work, because the client was in a critical business, and chose to keep me on stand-by.

In fact, one of the other effects of Y2K that was not widely reported in the general press but was acknowledged in the business press was the need for remedial consultancy after The Event to fix numerous serious glitches in ERP systems that were implemented in haste.  While much was made of the dot-com implosion and its impact on the economy, I would offer that an equal drag was the post-Y2K remediation costs, and business opportunity costs resulting from the diversion of Y2K resources from more productive applications.

*  *  *

One of the technology wizards at consultancy Cap-Gemini projected that Y2K would cost the world $1.3 trillion to remediate.  Mind you, that’s when a trillion was real money.  Today it will only buy you a one-country war without remediation. I didn’t run the official adding machine tape accumulating the actual costs, but the number sounded credible based on what I knew major corporations and institutions were reporting for expenditures (and I assume that in many cases, the majors were under-reporting for the same reasons that no company likes to discuss its security breaches). I would guess that the total breaks down as follows:

– One third went to fix the intrinsic problem.

– One third was paid in premium rates and overtime to old dis-interred COBOL programmers to fix existing code, or to big ERP software providers for run-and-gun last-minute implementation of ERP systems when management concluded that timely remediation of existing software would not be possible, or would hold great risk.

– One third went to contingency planning, generators in case of power failures, overtime for all-hands-on-deck drills and event staffing, audits of remediation efforts, liability insurance, legal work, revenue lost from curtailed operations on the eve of The Event.

In other words, about $800 billion of worldwide cost, was for nothing.  If we had addressed the Y2K dilemma in a responsible, proactive manner over the twenty-five years between the time I first heard of it and the time the ball dropped on Time Square for The Event, we could have saved enough money to fund another small war, or maybe infrastructure improvements.

But here is the more fundamental point of this exercise.  Humankind created the technology that led to Y2K, and failed to control it until the last-minute. Leadership procrastination and arrogant complacency led us to the brink of a potential calamity.  It took the imminence of a crisis to galvanize organizational action that could have and should have occurred much earlier in the supposedly rational managerial mind.  Does it sound like any other quagmires that come to mind.

Now here’s where Y2K differs from Climate Change and Energy Transition. We created the information technology.  We understood its mechanics and impacts for the most part, except we kind of got sloppy with the embedded chips.  By contrast, we did not invent climate, and we barely understand its mechanics. We proceed to impact a system we do not yet understand with the same arrogant complacency about consequences.  Similarly with the energy transition in general, and fracking in particular.  We are replaying the institutional incompetence and irresponsibility of Y2K with these current paradigms, and let’s not forget our management of the economy as a whole.

Nor should we stop with Clim-Ergy. How about nano-tech, and genetic engineering, and geo-engineering. How many of us really believe that these technological frontiers are any better managed by our corporate and political gun slingers than was Y2K?

Or how about cyber-security? Do you believe that the institutional corporate sensibilities that led to Y2K, and that have perennially short-changed investment in computer security over the evolution of this technology are any better equipped today to protect their enterprises and the greater society’s stake in them from criminal or nation-state assault?

If this assessment sounds exceedingly cynical, at least it is founded on ample precedent.

*  *  *

One group of computers did not suffer risk of exposure to Y2K. Those were Apple p.c.s and systems running on variations of the Unix operating system. But while they were not vulnerable to Y2K, there is some concern that they face a comparable dilemma in Y2038. This too was known in 1995, but recognized at the time as a ‘deferable issue’.

Not to worry.  We’ve got 25 years to go til then, and besides, “most of today’s systems will be replaced by then“.

In any case, I’m not the least worried. I anticipate that my personal operations will terminate before then.

Beam me up, Scotty. There’s no intelligent life down here.

Onward.

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