The Joy of … Big Numbers; the Simpsons, Hype Cycles and George Monbiot

Here’s 3 quotations about energy provision. They’re from 1973, 2001 and 2010. Skim, don’t ponder. I’ve put the relevant bits in bold. The tl;dr is that politicians like Big Numbers (duh).

“Project Independence was an initiative announced by U.S. President Richard Nixon on November 7, 1973, in reaction to the OPEC oil embargo and the resulting 1973 oil crisis. Recalling the Manhattan Project, the stated goal of Project Independence was to achieve energy self-sufficiency for the United States by 1980 through a national commitment to energy conservation and development of alternative sources of energy. Nixon declared that American science, technology and industry could free America from dependence on imported oil (energy independence). He called for the construction of 1,000 nuclear power plants by the year 2000.”



“For the electricity we need, we must be ambitious as well. Transmission grids stand in need of repair and upgrading and expansion. The demand for electricity is vast, but it also varies from place to place and from season to season. An expanded grid system would allow us to meet demand as it arises, sending power where it’s needed from where it’s not. If we put these connections in place, we’ll go a long way toward avoiding future blackouts.

“But that will only work, of course, if we are generating enough power in the first place. Over the next 20 years, just meeting projected demand will require between 1,300 and 1,900 new power plants. The low estimate is 1,300 new plants; the high estimate, 1,900 new plants.  That averages out to more than one new power plant per week every week for the next 20 years.”

Vice President Dick Cheney, April 30, 2001”
Annual Meeting of the Associated Press,Royal York Hotel, Toronto, Ontario

and finally

“With reference to an energy scenario featuring high levels of global coal use, the International Energy Agency CCS Roadmap recommends an ambitious roll-out in which 100 CCS projects are operational by 2020, rising to 3,400 by 2050 (IEA 2010).”

Mander, S., Gough, C., Wood, R., Ashworth, P. and Dowd, A-M. (2013) New energy technologies in the media. A case study of carbon capture and storage pp.225-6. In Roberts, T., Upham, P., Mander, S., McLaclan, C., Boucher, P., Gough, C. and Abi Ghanem, D. (eds) (2013) Low Carbon Energy Controversies. London: Routledge.

Geroge Monbiot makes a similar argument about the attraction of new extractive industries. You get to pose in a hard-hat and be, well, thrusting. And there’s the whiff of technophilia there, far sexier than insulating houses (which can end badly – see the Australian Governments pink bats experience.)

“So we miss part of the story when we imagine it’s just about the money. It’s true that industrial lobbying often defeats a rational assessment of our options, especially, perhaps, when Lynton Crosby has the prime minister’s ear. But cultural and psychological factors can be just as important. Supporting shale gas rather than the alternatives means strutting around with a stiff back and jutting jaw, meeting real men who do real, dirty things, shaking hands and slapping backs, talking about barrels and therms and rigs and wells and pipelines. It’s about these weird, detached, calculating, soft-skinned people becoming, for a while, one of the boys.”

George Montbiot, “What is behind this fracking mania? Unbridled machismo” Guardian, August 19th 2013

One helpful way to think about this is via “hype cycles”.

Now, that classic Simpsons episode “Marge versus the Monorail” is great, but it will only get you so far. You need to clock this.

Hype Cycles, as developed by the IT research and advisory firm Gartner.


There are criticisms of the theory of hype cycles, but rather than cut and paste a slab more of wikipedia, I’ll give the final word to an anonymous UK journalist, interviewed in Mander et al. (2013, p. 231) about Carbon Capture and Storage;

“[It’s] really interesting over the last five to six years is as far as I can see, there has been no improvement or demonstration of the technology at all and yet the idea has moved from the fringes to very much in the main stream.”

Boundary Objects and good advice.

You know the old joke – “I’m a sex object. I ask for sex, and people object”? No, well, now you do…
Boundary objects are, according to wikipedia – “In sociology, a boundary object is information, such as specimens, field notes, and maps, used in different ways by different communities. Boundary object are plastic, interpreted differently across communities but with enough immutable content to maintain integrity. The concept was introduced by Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer in a 1989 publication (p. 393)”

So, it’s a very clever name for a bunch of new doctors…

Boundary Objects was founded in the summer of 2013 by a group of recent PhD graduates. Life outside of the Ivory Tower can be difficult: publishing our research, finding work, staying in the academic ‘loop’. We decided that we needed a support group. Boundary Objects is an international network for early career researchers working with museums and collections, run by and for its members. It is free of any institutional affiliation, allowing it to operate purely in the interests of its members.

We seek to support members in three key ways:

by facilitating research and collaboration by providing opportunities online (and hopefully in the future) in person, for members to meet, share ideas and develop new projects together;

by campaigning for the interests of early career researchers;

by offering informal guidance, mentoring, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on when academic life gets tough.

The network is (yet) unfunded and run on an entirely voluntary basis. Our passion is to support those with similar concerns to our own.

And they have some corking advice about how to raise your profile in and outside academia.

Planes, Claims and Automobiles – #masculinity, #cars and #advertising

Two adverts have been on the idiot’s lantern at the gym (I am one of those tremendous bores who doesn’t have a television and lets you know at every opportunity)

Briefly, the plots; In one, a generically handsome (quietly athletic, mid-30s, stubbly; basically the male equivalent of the beige cheeky-boney woman you see in the other ads) is awaiting the arrival, by plane, of his gorgeous wife at their own isolated house in what might be the Canadian north (pine trees, lakes). There’s a (comedic, but unintentionally so) accident with the generator and the runway lights go out! OMG, She’s about to die!!! He leaps into his car, and because he can waggle the LED lights independently of the car, he guides her plane down. They exchange a steely, stoic and oh-so-sexy look, and the car logo comes up. Buy this car. You can be rich enough to own a plane, your own runway, and sang froid.

In the second, a generically handsome man (see above) is driving his sexy car. Over some ice. Suddenly a helicopter bristling with air-to-surface missiles appears, and starts to attack. He swerves and dodges among the explosions. Then (and this is dreamlike) the car is racing down on of those toboggan luge things. It flips up out of the luge, and circles over the helicopter. When it is directly above, the chopper pilot looks up and sees the car driver, smirking and in slow-mo, doing that points-fingers-at-own-eyes-then-points-at-pilot thing (i.e. “I own you.”) The car lands safely back in the luge chute, having done a complete circuit. The helicopter pilot, clearly distraught, doesn’t see a low-hanging powerline and is snagged, blowing up. The car pulls to a stop… Think that opening sequence in Top Gun, or perhaps Die Hard 4.0 and the “you killed a helicopter with a car” thing.

So far, so normal/outrageous/ridiculous/sinister and silly. I’ve wasted more time typing this up than I should have. What’s going on, under the surface?
I think there are claims about masculinity (I know, such insight!!)
Men are famously under attack (all those crazed feminazis out there, setting up roadblocks and burning their bras and calling for an end to everyday sexism via projects like Everyday Sexism . It’s the Handmaid’s Tale in reverse! We cis-men are oppressed!!)
And cars have been constructed as (sold as) places of virility for a century or so. (anything longer than wide is, after all, a phallic symbol).
What are these two adverts are claiming is that, via a halo effect, if you own the car you will have –
Mastery/competence, being able to improvise, and to cope when over-matched by either accident or malice. I’ve a friend who says that part of the attraction of James Bond is that he is able to become uber-proficient at whatever gadget Q gives him, and often literally shreds the instruction manual.

And you will be showing that you want to/are able to
Protect womenfolk
Defeat adversaries on the battlefield, especially ones with more firepower (one is reminded of Rambo and his exploding arrows in Afghanistan, or the Wolverines in Red Dawn. Nobody wants to win as the over-dog…)

See also

Decoding Advertisements by Judith Williamson
Mythologies by Roland Barthes

Book Review: “Innovation For A Low Carbon Economy”

innovlowcarbonFoxon, T, Kohler, J. and Oughton, C. (2008) Innovation For A Low Carbon Economy Economic, Institutional and Management Approaches Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

This one is a corker, if you like that sort of thing.

There are nine chapters, including the introduction, and every single one of them is worth some or a LOT of attention.  It’s rare that you can say that about edited volumes, no?

The authors of the various chapters are careful to define their terms, and if you take notes (pro-tip; take notes) then by the time you finish reading, you’ll have yourself a very handy glossary of terms for understanding the vast and ever-expanding literature on innovation, technology, socio-technical transitions etc.

I probably shouldn’t pick a favourite chapter, but one that particularly resonated, because of personal experience, was chapter 7;

Evolutionary Innovation Systems of Low Carbon Electricity: Insights about Institutional Change and Innovation in the Cases of CHP and Wind Energy by Marianne van der Steen, John Groenewegen, Martijn Jonker, Rolf Künneke and Eeke Mast

Packed full of important definitions (they matter) and historical examples (they matter too), this bit – “better to ask forgiveness than permission” – leapt out –

Meanwhile, the small-scale, decentralized wind energy market gained momentum from a bottom-up process of change. In 1972, Riisager, a carpenter, developed a small stall-regulated turbine, which he connected to the grid in 1975 without permission (van Est, 1999). After consulting with his neighbours to confirm that they had had no negative effects in their electricity supply, Riisager went to the local electricity company for official permission. Another important experiment was conducted at one of the Danish folk high schools; an education system designed by Grundtvig to educate the local community. In 1978 the folk high school Tvind built a 2MW turbine together with help of other high schools and volunteers. The size of the turbine certainly was remarkable, especially since this machine was developed as a community endeavour.
Page 191

But, to re-emphasise, there’s great stuff in chapters 1 to 6 and 8 and 9 too.

Social Media Advice for Conferences

A while back I went to a “how to ‘do’ social media for (academic conferences).  Typed up stuff and… left it on my desktop…

Good advice includes;

  • start early
  • have a separate email address (also makes it easier to get a twitter account)
  • don’t overcommit to stuff (if you’re not populating a blog/updating a twitter feed, then it’s worse than useless…)
  • don’t bother with facebook for academic purposes
  • Interesting decision to just have a hashtag, rather than an account – could work!

They talked about

  • blogging/websites – weebly, wordpress, blogspot
  • then facebook, twitteresque then eventbrite
  • Finding images – discussion of permissions (online and meatspace being different beasts)
  • Flickr, John Rylands Library Image service

Stuff I didn’t know well/at all

That list of what we knew

facebook, twitter, tumblr, instagram, pinterest, pblobspot, googleplus, linkedin, wordpress, mendeley, snapchat, youtube, ,

I didn’t mention Grindr

Happy Days are here again (aka “don’t kick the Beckett)

I’m the “Potsie.” And I’ve got to figure out a way for happy days….

Potsie was the dweeb. Nice, but dim. And in the May 15, 1979 episode of Happy Days, he is about to flunk out of college, because he just can’t get things right. He can’t remember his anatomy.

But his friends (including the Fonz) realise he can easily remember song lyrics. So they get him to write his homework as song-lyrics. Problem solved.

(Warning. This song is dire)

So, I am going to need to write my PhD dissertation as activist rants/blogs and then convert it to academese…

Book Review: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

Duhigg , C. (2012) The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and businessNew York: Random House

powerofhabitThis is one of those books by a middle-class middle-aged American where (Gladwell, Gawande, Hertsgaard etc etc). They interview lots of people, they read lots of academic literature, they write very well (with knowingess that plays a game of tag with cynicism, avoiding the C word, generally [but not in the example below!]) and bish-bosh, you have a 250-ish page book. It will contain, in some ratio, some stuff that is banal, much that is obvious (but was hidden), a little that’s tendentious and two or three killer anecdotes that you can use as they were intended or twist to your own purposes.

Here Duhigg is looking at routines that we live by, at the personal level, the organisational level and the social level. He writes fluently, and is good on Paul O’Neill and how his safety culture transformed Alcoa, thanks to unexpected fringe benefits. Here’s his take on O’Neill’s first speech as CEO.

The audience was confused. These meetings usually followed a predictable script: A new CEO would start with an introduction, make a faux self-deprecating joke – something about how he slept his way through Harvard Business School – then promise to boost profits and lower costs. Next would come an excoriation of taxes, business regulations, and sometimes with a fervor that suggested firsthand experience in divorce courts, lawyers. Finally, the speech would end with blizzard of buzzwords – “synergy,” “rightsizing,” and “co-opetition” – at which point everyone could return to their offices, reassured that capitalism was safe for another day. Page 98

O’Neill believed that some habits have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization. Some habits, in other words, mater more than others in remaking businesses and lives. These are “keystone habits,” and they can influence how people work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.Page 100

Duhigg is good on how Starbucks helps employees deal with ratty customers, and he’s excellent on the 1987 Kings Cross Tube fire, a story that they should be teaching in kindergartens everywhere. [Here’s a blog post on that.]

His section on Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott should be required for every 21st century facebooker who casually uses Parks and the Black Civil Rights movement to prop up their own sense of self-righteousness and deluded hope for easy social change.

What is missing? A strong sense that we live in a reality distortion field. Power is about making people see just what is needed for them to see. Those who can force others to act (and therefore, usually, ultimately see) in the prescribed ways, end up with the spoils, at least in the short term. Lukes and all that. And the underlying question of what to DO about that is tricky indeed. I fear we are always pack animals, dependent on the tribe for both physical and “psychological” (the term can be misused, anachronistically) safety.

The costs of telling the truth are high, and fall on individuals. It is “safer” to keep schtum, even when everybody knows the ship is sinking, and everybody knows the captain lied.

See also:

Margaret Heffernan Willful Blindness

Geoffrey Martin Hodgson(born 28 July 1946) is a Research Professor of Business Studies in the University of Hertfordshire, and also the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Institutional Economics.

Committee on Food Habits (1941-43)

Words, ideas, videos