Too much inept handling of aptitude

19 October 2009

"Remedial migration of financial and business people is not going to be easy"

There are ripples of moralising in some quarters with regard to the graduate migration there has been from science, engineering and technology to economics, finance and business. Waves of bright young men and women have been lured across to use their own analytical talents and their new employers’ computer facilities for the furtherance of commerce. They have been attracted by offers of rich rewards and have earnt them.

It has taken a long stretch of the twentieth century to move on from the early hydraulic and electric analogues of macroeconomic systems, and to take the digital computer from its first simple business applications forward into the indispensable roles it occupies today. However, the historic transformation has been triumphantly made.

Many people have done well by applying the mathematics and information technology that they were taught in scientific and technical faculties to the business ends that society sometimes seems to desire more than any others. Career guidance has changed shape accordingly. Now, in a global economic crisis, after

unemployment has wrought its havoc in great banks and other temples of finance, there are perceptible shivers of guilt about the displacement and misplacement of so much ability, and we hear calls for a rebalancing of incentives in society.

I fear that the damage cannot be easily repaired. The nurturing of good engineers, scientists and the like requires not merely development of the mathematical and related mental aptitudes of rising generations but those generations’ very practical experience of appropriate activities, at appropriate times of life and in appropriate places. A remedial migration of sacked financial and business people into manufacturing industry, agriculture, medicine, scientific research, energy technology and comparably valuable callings is not going to be easy.

A binary fixation could be to blame here

Freudian slips are not as popular as they were. The glib psychological label was, at least conversationally, an almost universal explanation of human error. However, it gave little guidance to practical, or indeed theoretical, folk concerned with the calculation, prevention or consequence control of imperfect design, execution and operation.

Inspection is one of the things engineers do to catch flaws and failures before they do more serious damage. An interesting and versatile tool for power plant inspection has been brought to my notice by GE Inspection Technologies, a German offshoot of General Electric, USA. The company’s Everest XLG3TM video probe can, according to a press release, ‘be used for application as wide ranging as turbine inspection, boiler outage inspections and critical examination of reactor components. It is exceptionally easy to operate, using a hand-held controller with an integrated joystick and high-resolution display, or a wireless remote control. Intuitive software control buttons and drop-down menus guide operators effortlessly through the control functions and give step-by-step instruction for each component until the inspection is complete. Images can be tagged…’. And so on.

The detail looks fascinating, and the quoted comment of Ed Hubben, the company’s product manager, seems justly proud: ‘Digital imagery and live video are critical in all industrial and process sectors. With the Everest XLG3 you can now capture very high quality digital data and transmit this in real time direct from the point of inspection to remote quality control and maintenance teams to deliver fast and reliable diagnosis, allowing accurate, critical decision making’.

So why oh why does the press release proclaim in its opening sentence that the probe ‘offers the capability and versatility to allow fast and reliable internal visual inspection to boost productivity throughout the power generating sector, both fossil fuel and nuclear’? What about the rest of the power generating sector? That word, ‘both’, is surely a slip, even if not a simply Freudian one.

Reincarnation hopes battered

Readers who possess a sentimental streak and who were moved by my note last December on a scheme for the ‘reincarnation’ of Battersea Power Station in London, UK, will share my regret at the proposal’s demise. Apparently local residents, public bodies and London’s mayor were against the idea. This (as described in The Financial Times) had been to erect an ‘ecodome’, boasting a multi-purpose glass chimney taller than almost anything else in the British capital.

The authorities rejected the scheme because the skyline of south-west London would have been dominated by such imposing architecture. More modest redevelopment is being considered.

The visionary architect, (Uruguayan and New-York-based) Rafael Viñoly, has substituted something ‘more commercial’ for his original versatile chimney – which would have transfigured the already dramatic setting. Battersea Power Station ‘died’ in 1983. It must wait some time longer for a reincarnation: of sorts.

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