NEW IMMIGRATION RULES FOR NON-EU CITIZENS

It’s been a week in which I’ve wanted to write on lots of topics that have been reported in the media – and I don’t have time to do it all.  But there are a few things that are really important in engineering at the moment so I’m going to stagger them over the course of the next few weeks and hope they’re still relevant by the time I get to publish them!  And here’s number 1:

This week, the UK government announced plans to allow non-EU citizens to remain here only if they earn over £35K pa after 6 years in the country. Immediately the response was that it will hit the NHS due to the very high numbers of nurses from overseas. Also that there are many low-paid jobs that the native British just don’t want to do, which immigrants often end up working in. Our immigration rules are complicated, counter-intuitive and harsh as it is; and this is another arbitrary rule to add to the never-ending list.

So, we know that professions that we consider to be traditionally low-paid will be affected, but there’s more to it than this. The current rules already break up families, with a marked effect in academia. UK universities seem very keen to attract overseas staff and students (they bring in more money than UK nationals due to their having to pay a higher rate of fees and maintenance), but immigration rules stand in their way. International students are under higher scrutiny than UK students simply by virtue of the fact they have to demonstrate attendance and their whereabouts just to stay in the country. And academic positions are often short-term contracts and poorly paid. With little certainty of an income, academics and their families live in fear of being kicked out if they or their spouse earns below a certain threshold. And being married to a UK national isn’t a guarantee of being permitted to stay, either.

And worse: if academia is considered a respectable profession, what about engineering?  The trouble here is that you won’t be poor in this industry, but you’re also unlikely to be terribly rich either.  I do a well-regarded, complex and important job, one which I have done for the last 13 years.  I work in a sector with a shortage of skilled staff (despite exposés of the ‘myth’ of a skills shortage – check out this excellent breakdown of the facts from the Huffington Post).  And I’m not quite at the £35K mark yet.  So if a highly-educated and experienced British national can’t fulfil the criteria imposed on immigrants, what hope is there for someone coming to our country from abroad to fill vacancies that we desperately need them to work in?

I currently work with many people from abroad, and I do worry that I will start to see my colleagues disappearing.  It’s bad for me, for the projects I work on, and for engineering generally.  What is the government thinking?

As well as coming across as incredibly insular and unfriendly, I really feel the UK is setting itself up for a fall.  Certain industries, e.g. healthcare, engineering, the sciences, are going to start losing staff; we will be unable to produce.  We will lose many skilled, but low-waged employees (I say low-waged, but the median income in the UK is about £26,000, so immigrants are actually being held to a ridiculously high standard here), and we’re not exactly training up many of our own people to fill those vacancies.  UK higher education has had its funding slashed of late, and tuition fees are currently set at an astronomical £9K per year for British & EU undergraduates.  Many vacancies I have applied for, or seen other people recruiting for, want people who already have experience.  It’s the old problem of being a new worker – every job wants you to have experience, but you can’t get the experience because no-one will take you on.  We have a huge problem with not investing in staff (from wherever), and combining this with immigration policies to keep out those who do have the skills is bad news for UK industry.  Even if we do suddenly sit up and realise we need to train British people to do the work, well, it’s not going to happen overnight.  We’re tearing down a system that is already broken to replace it with something far worse.

I do wonder, have we got to a point where we can either choose to bolster our low birth rate with immigrants to fill the roles of the missing British people, or do we just allow our population to dwindle and wind down our output correspondingly?  It’s a scary thought, but it could become a reality if we make it even more difficult for outsiders to get in.

END OF AN ERA 1.1: AN UNEXPECTED ENCOUNTER

I wrote about the demolition of the Grosvenor halls of residence in an earlier post, END OF AN ERA 1.  Today, I was walking to my office after attending a training session at University Place (this is going to be one for a future post), when I was stopped by a woman looking into the Grosvenor complex from Booth Street East.  She asked me some questions about what was going on, and I explained that they had started demolishing the halls about 4 weeks previously (at the moment, they’ve done some groundworks around the front of Grosvenor Place, on York Street, and they appear to have started taking the roof off of Bowden Court).

She told me that she was also a UMIST graduate, and that she had also lived in these halls.  She had been away for a long time (20 years!), and she was checking out her old haunts to see what thinhgs were like now.  We got talking and shared some stories of what it was like to live here.  She used to go out with someone who worked in the building opposite, and they’d wave to each other through the high-level windows across the service road.  And I used to sit in my room at night, watching the colours change on the UMIST sign next to the weather station on the top of the Maths and Social Sciences building.

We parted at the path that takes you across Brook Street to the rest of the North campus.  She wanted to get some photos of the site, and I had work to do.  But it was great to chat and reminisce with someone who I’d never met before, but shared the same experience as me.

YOU’RE NOT DOING ANYTHING WRONG

I have received this piece of feedback a number of times in the past, along with variations on the same theme: “you’re not doing anything wrong”.  This is often followed by “but….” or a long speech about how whatever it is that I am or am not doing fits in with the whole project (in a sort of woolly way with no clear objectives), or details of the incredible vision the other person has.  Sometimes a lingering silence, which is even worse than the aforementioned options. But it seems to lead nowhere, and leaves me none the wiser as to why they actually came over to speak to me (or what I can actually do to improve).  This makes me really uncomfortable because this phrase obscures the speaker’s true meaning, and it’s so damned obvious that they’re doing it.  Here are the things it could mean:

” You are doing something wrong”.  It’s pretty unusual to say to someone that they’re not doing anything wrong, when they are indeed not doing anything wrong. So why not just say what the problem is?  If you’re not happy, then tell me.  If you don’t tell me what you do want, you’re not going to get it.  Don’t be afraid to be direct.

“I’m frightened to be honest with you in case you have a meltdown”.  I really hope that’s not how people see me, but people are often frightened of a bad reaction.  But not confronting a problem just saves it up for later, magnifies it, and raises the inevitable questions of why it wasn’t dealt with at the time.

“I’m afraid to be honest with you because I don’t want to hurt your feelings”.  Do you really think that I can’t take criticism like everyone else?  I work in a field in which my work is critiqued, compared with that of others, and sometimes discounted – and I have chosen to do so.  I didn’t enter a challenging field in order to put my feet up while everyone else does the work; I want to be a part of it.  And by assuming that I can’t take honest feedback, you are excluding and patronising me.  And why are my feelings more precious than anyone else’s?  Am I some delicate little flower who’s never been in a lab or on a site before?

“I’m not going to be honest with you because I don’t respect you”.  There’s not much I can do about this one.  You’ve shut down dialogue and you’ve decided to go round me rather than deal with me.  And, honestly, whenever someone means any of these four things when they tell me I’m “not doing anything wrong”, it always sounds like the fourth one.

Feedback is so important, and it needs to be clear, consistent and open. If it’s not, the person giving the feedback will just end up going round in circles and dancing around the issue, and never actually getting the result they want. I’ve learnt this myself, having once been a giver of crap feedback. Be brutally honest. People may not like you for it, but they will respect you.

And are we really in this to be “nice” to each other? The person receiving the feedback needs something that they can actually work with, in order to improve. If they don’t obtain that, they’re going to feel left out, powerless, and like they cannot progress. And they won’t bother making an effort in future or ask for more feedback – why would they? It’s obviously not going to get them anywhere.

And people know when they’re being lied to. Stop it.

RESEARCH VOLUNTEERING 10 – UNUSUAL EXPERIENCES

This was an online survey about experiencing unusual events, the type that one might put down to a spiritual or paranormal cause. I was invited because the people conducting the research hadn’t had many responses from atheists (perhaps unsurprisingly). And so I took the survey, and felt a little uneasy because it asked me to describe events and beliefs that I know are completely irrational, but I also acknowledge that I experienced. The brain is complicated and plays tricks on all of us, even the most hardened skeptic. Richard Wiseman’s book, Paranormality (link below), gives an accessible introduction to psychological tricks that we can play on ourselves and others, as well as explanations of phenomena that are often attributed to “things we cannot explain”. Well, turns out we can.

My experience involved seeing an apparition. At the time I didn’t believe in ghosts either (I don’t think I ever really have, but as a child I enjoyed the romanticism of the idea), but I was sure that I’d seen something. It felt eerie and weird, because I was sure there was something there, but knew that rationally there wasn’t. Had I dreamed it (basically, yes)? I was walking along the Ashton Canal towpath through Ancoats, when I imagined that I saw a man wearing a frock coat and top hat, pointing at one of the mills. Well, it seems pretty clear that my own prejudices and knowledge of the area’s history came into play in developing this hallucination. Like a dream, it was probably just my brain regurgitating previously absorbed information and spitting it out in a disordered fashion. But why did it happen then? Who knows? And who cares? Not me, it was just a thing that happened and has no significance to my life now. I don’t need to attach meaning to every single thing that occurs; and I accept that just because something is unusual, it doesn’t mean that it is the work of a higher power or some woo nonsense.

But actually talking about it put me on edge.  I feel that, as a skeptic, I should “know better”.  Like I shouldn’t have had the experience in the first place.  Which is a silly belief, of course.  As stated above, all of our brains are susceptible to being fooled.  The placebo effect still works even if you know that you’re being given a placebo.  As well as evolving adaptable and complex brains, there are a few quirks.  And by understanding them for what they really are, we can really enjoy our brains.  Why cloud the brain’s beauty with superstition when we could be striving to find out a far more interesting truth?

500 WORDS OR DIE

I’ve recently had a lull in output, and so I’ve set myself a target to deal with it. Some of the Ph.D-ers I follow on Twitter set themselves goals of a certain number of words per day, and so I thought I’d give it a go. I’m starting off small, but 500 words is better than No Words. I’ll be distributing my 500 words across reports, drafts of papers, and blog posts. They all contribute to my overall Ph.D aims, so it’s a great way to ensure that I actually get something done, even if it’s just a rehashing of previous work to consolidate my thoughts. The only rule is that the words have to contribute to something that I will publish in one form or another. I’m tempted to include posts on forums, or replies to blogs. I could split the 500 words over multiple pieces, but I’ll try not to diversify so much as to make individual contributions meaningless. Like I said, 500 words is just a start. I’ll build up to more words as time goes by. 500 words can sometimes be a lot when you’re studying part-time, but I’m determined to get better at writing and being more productive. That’s the whole point of this exercise. Who knows when I will go up to 750 or even 1000 words daily? Then I could end up with the problem of too many words. Numerous individuals I follow on Twitter complain of having to cut superfluous verbiage from their theses. I am permitted a maximum of 90,000 words in my final submission, but 80,000 is the recommended figure. Not Writing Anything is a problem I suffer from terribly. My supervisor often encourages me to just submit what I have in its current state for review – it’s not possible to monitor progress if it’s all in my head. But I’m a perfectionist – I don’t like to submit anything unless it’s complete and done exactly to my liking – this is a very dangerous vice to have. And so, 500 words that are meaningful in some way, but not necessarily perfect. There’s always room for editing at a later stage. 500 words amongst all the other things I have to do – the research, the reading, the thinking, the discussing, the presenting. But that’s really half the battle. There’s no record that I’ve done and understood the work unless I get it down on paper. 500 words might be the optimal quantity – enough to get me writing something, but not so many that I waffle on about anything for the sake of production. And what if I go over 500? It doesn’t matter. I can’t save up my words to get out of writing another day. I must be strict on myself, or I’ll slip back into my old ways. One idea I have is to create a graph of my daily output over time (tracking progress motivates me). I love graphs. And I love words.

Word Count: 499

POSTSCRIPT: I found this rather neat productivity suite while messing about online (ha, the irony!): http://prod.uctivity.com/

CONFLICT OF INTEREST 2

About 5 years ago I designed a housing estate in Gorton, but due to financial constraints, only part of the site was built. There is now more money coming back to the construction industry, so the second phase of the project is underway. I’m really proud to drive by the site and see something that I designed being used, lived in and enjoyed.

houses
New houses on Clowes Street

apartments
New flats on Hyde Road
The row of shops in the picture, right, are one of the few remnants of the old council estate that once stood here.  Most of the old houses are gone, leaving an overgrown wasteland.  There are one or two rows of houses remaining, the only streets with the signs still on, and not cordoned off by Heras fencing.  Within these abandoned roads, a single house is still inhabited, unlike its neighbours all boarded up with notices on the front door stating that everything of value has been removed from inside.  The residents are not ready to move on yet.

Last one standing.
Last one standing.

Impressively enough, some of these shops are still open.  Just not today.
Impressively enough, some of these shops are still open. Just not today.

These streets used to be a filming location.  Shameless was shot here, and the old homes with the ginnels and balconies of a 1960s housing estate formed the backdrop for a neighbourhood in decline.  It was decided that this neighbourhood needed gentrifying in real life, and that’s where my hard work came in.  We lose a landmark and gain a new home.

PSRS Poster

The Postgraduate Summer Research Showcase is an event run by the University of Manchester, for postgraduate researchers to produce a poster presentation on an aspect of their Ph.D studies, and present it to a panel of judges and interested members of the student body. I attended last year, and the setup is thus:

The first floor of the Christie Building (this is one of the grand ones behind the arch on Oxford Road) is filled with rows of pin boards, on which over 200 students present their work. Each candidate stays with their poster and answers questions on their work to anyone who asks. There’s a lunch provided for visitors, but you have to register in advance. So no sneaking in for a free butty!

Last year I saw some very diverse and worthwhile topics presented, ranging from understanding the role of various emotions in the progression of anorexia nervosa, to the use of stem cells in treatment for arthritis, to the study of knots in mathematics. The point of the event is that it presents work from all departments, and demonstrates the broad yet deep variety of research being conducted at the University.

First time around I learnt about the research of others, and got to understand the format of the event, and the standard of work expected. Second time, as a presenter, it was part of my journey to become a better science communicator and build up my academic reputation. I submitted a 150-word abstract on the topic of “19th-Century housing in a 21st-Century climate” relating to the particular subject of how Manchester’s vast quantities of Victorian housing could be adapted to suit the predicted changes in climate, and why we might want to do so. I’m not going to publish the abstract here, because I intend to produce more work on it. I don’t want to end up self-plagiarising.

TL;DR version: Manchester has a lot of old houses, many are likely to still exist decades from now, the UK is getting warmer, what are we going to do to make those houses habitable?

I was really excited about taking part, and exploiting one of the few opportunities that I have as a part-time researcher to present my academic work to others. But unfortunately for me, I had a terribly busy few weeks at my day job, and the pressure didn’t allow me time to complete my assignment. Added to this, I got called away to a meeting in London the evening before the deadline, so my plans to do a hatchet job on it the night before weren’t feasible either. I was really disappointed, as this was one of the first big opportunities to experience a conference-like setting, and I had felt so confident about doing it.

I then found out that I had to come in to the office on the day of the presentation to complete an emergency deadline, so the odds were just completely stacked against me.

I will, however, complete the work anyway. I want to study this topic in more depth, and so just doing the poster preparation will form the structure of the report. And so I’ve combined my post about the event with my post about the research. Below is an overview of the areas I want to research in more detail. This is just an outline – I can add so much more to this so I’m not worried about this list of ideas getting into the public domain.

I think the question is a really important one. Manchester has some of the most important architecture from the era of the Industrial Revolution in the whole country. Yes, yes, this is entirely subjective, but the sheer volume of history attached to places is quite incredible. And take a walk through the ghost streets of Ancoats, the former “workshop of the world” – it’s imposing yet eerie. There are many who think this should be preserved and recognised, but there is also a practical reason to retain it – there is a housing shortage and we have an incredible resource ready for exploitation. Just because our buildings are old, it doesn’t mean that they are obsolete. Many of the features of the Victorian home can be used to our advantage.

A great one is thermal mass. Structural materials that hold their heat not only keep the heat in during the colder months, but they retain the “coolth” during the summer. High thermal mass gives the internal temperature a bit of stability – the slow response of the building to the external temperature can help us to control our environment in predictable and less energy-intensive ways.

Related to this is the cavernous basement floors that many larger 19th-Century townhouses have. If you’re going to talk about thermal mass, the ground we walk on is the “go big or go home” option. Below ground, temperatures are very stable. This is why ground-source heat pumps can be used to provide heating in winter and cooling in summer. We know that there will be a small temperature differential between the indoor air and the ground, and we know what it will be. And so we are able to exploit it. So not only could we utilise basement floors to provide cooler and more stable temperature living areas, but we can also use the ground’s own temperature to heat or cool our homes.

Even dwellings without basements very often had ventilated floor voids – providing an essential level of infiltration all year round, and a welcome connection to he cool earth in summer. The latest building regulations have a complicated and fractious relationship with infiltration, with recent drives to insulate and seal our buildings as tightly as possible. This means the old Victorian house often falls short of the standard, and needs to be refurbished and improved prior to let, sale, or use as a working building. But are we showing a lack of foresight? My research aims to cover this topic in depth. Modern houses and apartments already show signs of overheating, before we’re even sure of the full extent of global warming. Refurbished homes have been reported as suffering similar problems, with such a strong emphasis on keeping warm that we seem to forget that summer is even a thing.

Adaptability is key; the ability to stay warm in winter and cool in summer. So undoubtedly airtightness provides close control, but if not applied properly it falls down. This is related to inappropriate use of MVHR (a form of low-energy mechanical ventilation system designed to recuperate waste heat from the air and turn it into useful work) systems (more on this below), which is a real shame because it’s actually a system that could do a lot of good if used correctly.

The principle of MVHR (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery) is to introduce external air to the building, but use waste heat from the indoor environment to maintain an appropriate indoor temperature – if the fresh air is just blasted in, then useful heat will be lost. The MVHR is designed to produce close control of the internal environment, but why does it go wrong? It’s mainly down to poor installation and commissioning of the system, and users not being properly educated about how the system is supposed to operate. MVHR can be used for cooling (as well as heating), by operating in bypass mode.

And there’s more: one of the cheapest and most effective things we can do to an old house is to change the windows. We can use better frames in the existing apertures to reduce leakage and thermal bridging, we can use double or triple glazing to improve U-value (a measure of thermal permeability). Yeah, I know, I went on about airtightness and insulation like they were terrible above, but like I said, it’s about controlling the indoor environment. If you design buildings that are perfect in winter but ovens in summer, that’s not control. Extremely sophisticated glazing systems have been developed to allow light in but to reduce the amount of infra-red radiation getting through – meaning that solar gains can be reduced while still having a light and airy interior.

If you really want to reduce solar gains during the day, you could fit shutters to the exterior of the windows. It might seem odd in 2010s Britain, rather than the Mediterranean or the Southern US, but there will come a time when we need them. It’s also another inexpensive trick that does a lot of good.

And a counter-intuitive thing: You can cool your house more effectively by closing the windows during the day, and opening them at night. Most people’s instinct in hot weather is to open a window, but in the Victorian house, the shade and thermal resilience of the heavy structure actually do more for you with the windows closed. Opening them just moves hot air around. When it’s cooler at night, the interior will be warmer, and so then is the best time to let that heat out.

What else is there about the Victorian home? Oh yeah, chimneys. In many of the converted period homes I’ve been in, the fireplaces have been boarded over. But we can open them up and re-use them – but not for warmth. If the fireplace is covered in winter, than it prevents heat escaping (can you see where this is going?). But open it up to allow summer ventilation, maybe in conjunction with some operable air inlets on the building perimeter, and voila – the stack effect draws air through the building, creating a cooling effect and important levels of air turnover.

That is something that’s often forgotten when thinking about minimising infiltration – that while a reduced ventilation flow can keep the heat in, we also require certain air change rates to maintain decent air quality indoors. No-one likes a stuffy environment, much less one that’s damp, smelly and downright icky.

And now to the roof. There are two different ways of looking at the problem. You can either try to reflect the Sun’s radiation, or absorb it. Well, that sounds like a huge contradiction, but it’s all about manipulation. If you paint your building white, you can reflect the radiation. But paint the roof black (and sacrifice your attic space, sorry), then you can heat the roof void and use it to drag air up through the chimney system more effectively (as discussed above). Cool, huh?

All of the above items are just some of the possible retrofit measures for a Victorian house. My next move is to model these using computer simulations. I’m going to learn how effective each measure will be, under different climate scenarios. But that’s for year two and three of my Ph.D; the end of my first year is about consolidating ideas like the above and demonstrating I’ve understood the appropriate literature.

9/11 CONSPIRACIST DEBATE

Recently I attended the type of event that I wouldn’t usually go to – but I heard about it from a friend of a friend, and it sounded interesting (more on this shortly), and it got me out of the house on a Sunday afternoon.  I’m not really sure how to best describe it, as it wasn’t a debate in the sense that I am used to, in which there is a statement that the house does or does not believe and then two sides to argue for or against it.  The format of this event was a short presentation followed by what began as a Q&A and then proceeded into a heavily-moderated discussion.  Apologies if this post is a bit rambling, but it follows the format of the debate, which was equally disjointed.

I went to this event because I am acutely aware that I do surround myself with people who think like me and have similar political leanings, and I wanted to leave the echo-chamber.  Going to this talk faced me with someone whose opinions are far removed from mine, and we would normally never choose to associate in ordinary life.  And while neither the presentation, nor the arguments brought forward, convinced me that any of the official evidence was wrong, I did learn a lot of things about opinions, beliefs, and other humans.  That’s what made it so interesting – understanding why people form opinions that seem to be so obviously wrong to many people, and to understand what sort of reactions these opinions generate.  Maybe it was a bit of a spectacle, but I have no qualms about that.

I also want to emphasise that I do have respect for the person who has worked on this project.  I do not respect the opinions put forward, for logical reasons, but they probably knew full well that they were going to be met with a strong opposition – and they handled it well.  Just because someone can be mistaken or misguided, it does not mean that the individual is not worthy of respect.  While 90% of people in the room did not agree with the host, 100% of them were respectful and questioned them appropriately.  It’s the first rule of debating for me, and one that can be applied to everyday life: once you resort to ad hominem attacks, you’ve lost the argument.

To discuss such a controversial subject, knowing that you’re on the side that the majority see as wrong, is a pretty brave thing to do.

It still doesn’t make you any less wrong, though.The person who was doing the presenting does believe that 9/11 was an inside job, and they discussed the reasons why they think this. Much of the information they presented was old arguments that have been debunked several times over, which was pretty tiresome (at this point I was wondering if it was actually a good idea to engage with the event and its host, as I don’t think that going over the same ground over and over gets us anywhere). There were a few times when I was watching the videos in the presentation and listening to descriptions of conditions within the buildings, and I thought “oh, that’s because of [this or that obvious thing]”, which was kinda cool and engaging, until I heard the presenter explain why they thought it was explosives, or why the building couldn’t possibly have deformed or collapsed in the way it did. Then it was madly infuriating, and I did bring up a number of these points in the Q&A.

I am wondering if the speaker twigged that I am an engineer – it’s not like I concealed the fact.  And beginning sentences with “When we design buildings…” may have been a giveaway.

There was a lot of focus on WTC7, which was an adjacent building that was not hit by a plane, but did collapse.  Why?  Excessive Fire Load (yeah, that link’s from the Daily Mail – they’re not wrong all the time).  The building’s structure came under a level of strain that caused it to fail.  I find this one especially ridiculous – the speaker claimed this fell due to a controlled demolition, yet those responsible just randomly set the building on fire 6 hours prior to detonation.  Because, like, 6 hours of continual burning wouldn’t maybe cause a bit of structural damage?  Yeah, seems totally legit. <headdesk>

But this is only part of the dispute.  A number of other (cherry-picked) issues were raised, namely:

The freefall thing, and why did it collapse in on itself, explained neatly in this video.

There was a man in a basement level, far from the initial impact, who got burnt in an explosion – probably caused by immense heat and pressure in the structure building up and firing out of confined spaces into circulation areas – maybe fire spreading through service voids and travelling from one part of the building to another, in seemingly unpredictable ways – which not only explains why WTC7 fell without any external impact, but also why fires and explosions were occurring in parts of the other buildings remote from the planes’ impact.  Or it could have been as simple as burning jet fuel descending through the building.  There’s no reason to not go for the most obvious explanation – but that seemed to be the way a lot of the conversations went.  I’ve heard a lot about disenfranchised people clinging onto conspiracy theories because they “know” the secret that the rest of the “sheeple” just can’t see.  It makes them feel superior & special.  And I did see that on this occasion.  It made me feel quite sad, as this person had deluded themselves and chose to remain ignorant; they seemed to have invested so much into their project that there was no backing down now.

The “explosions” further down the towers from the impact.  One of the truthers’ theories is that these were planned detonations, but a basic understanding of engineering will tell you that these are the result of heat and deformation generated by fire spreading to the levels below.

And there were plenty of seemingly obvious responses to these and other topics, like:

If it was actually a controlled demolition, why did no-one in, or around, these enormous, 24-hour buildings notice explosives and charges being brought in and installed in the structure?  This would actually be a massive undertaking,and you’d need to pay off all the security team, everyone who worked in the buildings or in the neighbourhood who might have seen it, anyone working for the government or air traffic control (who would have been “in on it”), huge sectors of the media, and anyone with any connections at all to any of these institutions.  If you take six degrees of separation into account, that’s roughly the whole world’s population.  If you had a secret as huge as this, the amount of expenditure and connections necessary to maintain it would be astronomical.  The concept is nicely illustrated by the Mitchell and Webb sketch about the reality of faking the Moon landings.

We were told that approximately 2200 architects and engineers dispute the accepted version of events, and based on an extremely conservative estimate, in 2005 there are about 1,086,498 architects globally.  The number of building engineers is more difficult to quantify (seriously, it’s really difficult to find data on this!), but lets just say that we are only considering structural engineers – that would be about 27,000 registered structural engineers with the IStructE.  So if we add these two numbers together (which are from different time periods and incomplete – so it’s likely the figure is an underestimate), and add on a margin to include practitioners who are registered through alternative professional bodies, or in a country not included in the stats, we could call it 1.2 million.  Compared to other estimates of up to 2.5 million+, this is still a very low figure.  But divide the little number by the big number, and you get 2200 / 1200000 = 0.18%.  That’s considerably lower than the number of scientists who disagree with the consensus on global warming, and most who do disagree are less well-respected and credible scientists (and we can even demonstrate that scientifically).

Consensus within the scientific community is an important tenet of how the scientific method works.  Data is produced, peer-reviewed, adjusted based on criticism, refined, republished, and all in the name of accuracy and better understanding.  When a large number of scientists agree, it’s not based on opinion, it’s based on an assessment of the facts.  So it’s not an appeal to popularity by any means, consensus is based on scientific findings, not individual preferences.  An important point about scientific consensus is that it can change.  Usually over time, and not in large leaps, seeing as the way that we develop our understanding these days is by people contributing one study at a time to the whole.  Most of the big ideas have already been discovered.  Maybe there are big ideas that we haven’t yet uncovered, and perhaps one person will make a mind-blowing discovery in their field, but this is the exception.

A common argument in favour of the “inside job theory” is that melted steel was found at the site, which was criticised from two angles: steel structures do not need to melt in order for them to collapse, they just need to weaken enough to become unsupportable – which happens at increased temperatures that still fall below the melting point. Secondly, many people believe that the molten material is actually aluminium, which would melt at the high temperatures of the fire (its melting point is 660.3C), especially if it came from, say, a burning aircraft…. (wonder where we could find one of those?)

An interesting point raised was that structural engineers over-design buildings so they never fall down. Well, that’s not quite true. When buildings are designed there is a margin of “error” built in, so that a building is unlikely to fall down unexpectedly. This is a safety margin to ensure that our buildings are fit for purpose and that engineers don’t get sued for producing under-specified buildings. But it doesn’t mean that we design all (or even any) buildings to withstand every possible condition. If that was true, demolition would be impossible. Which kinda conflicts with the idea that it was a controlled demolition. Oops.

Another one that I’d not heard before: Fire is unpredictable so a collapse by fire shouldn’t look similar to a controlled demolition – false. We know how fire is likely to behave (there’s a whole industry devoted to modelling the effects of fire within buildings, and I’m pretty sure they’re not just making shit up). Additionally, demolition by fire is a recognised method that was used in the UK until very recently – check out some of Fred Dibnah’s old stuff.

The people who know all this aren’t wasting their time on petty squabbles about the  minutiae of the truthers’ arguments because they know that their own evidence is so strong and there’s nothing more to be said.  That was an interesting thing to note about the presentation, and many of the truther arguments generally – that they concentrate on tiny details, rather than looking at the obvious – hellooooo – buildings do not perform very well when planes fly into the side of them.

I guess that was a kind of strange thing for me to hear – I am one of those who knows what they are talking about, and yet I decided to engage with the host’s odd viewpoint. It really reinforced a lot of what I already knew about arguing with idiots, and I guess I’ve learnt all I need to about this type of “debate” – it’s only going to go in one direction, and none of the participants will benefit from it.  If the authorities did get involved with this sort of thing they’d look foolish. And so they don’t. There’s nothing more to add. As I noted above, the 9/11 truthers have no new arguments, and they just reproduce all those that have already been debunked – as if repeating the same old tripe over and over will make it somehow more believable.

But aside from listening to the actual arguments, be they truth or “truth”, the best part of the afternoon was engaging in the discussion.  I would classify many of the people in attendance as skeptics (this kind, not this kind), but there were also some people who probably wouldn’t align with that definition, and they seemed to have a very diverse set of views.  Some of them might have been convinced by the speaker’s arguments, but they were also listening to reason and asking plenty of intelligent questions – although not all thinking entirely critically.  But it does show that the people who lie in the  middle of two polarised views are often an astute bunch, even if they don’t play by the rules of formal science or debate.

It was interesting to hear the speaker’s responses to the arguments put forward by even the toughest skeptic.  They maintained their composure at all times, even if they didn’t give satisfactory answers.  But they did have an answer for everything – this was surely a lesson in the internal machinations of a 9/11 truther.

There were a couple of things that bothered me, aside from the glaringly obvious fact that they were just plain wrong.  The speaker claimed to disagree with the scientific method, yet cherry-picked papers that supported their theory.  So the scientific method is ok if it backs up your own viewpoint but not when it supports the 99.8% of experts who disagree. Hmmmmm.

More worrying than this was that when asked what evidence would make them change their mind, they said that nothing would.  While I’m often analysing my thoughts, beliefs and actions, not everyone is as skeptically-minded as me.  And yet – that’s a pretty bold statement to make.  That literally nothing would make you change your mind – no amount of evidence, no wavering in your beliefs, no concept of doubt.  That’s about dogma, not the truth.

I also objected to the chair criticising a group member for saying the presenter’s ideas were “bullshit”.  They focused on the use of ‘bad language’ as a means to quell dissent – which totally did not work.  The person who said it kindly clarified by saying that they respected the speaker, and the were treating the idea with exactly the amount of respect it deserved.

Something that the speaker did have right is that the Internet is an incredibly effective communication tool.  They use it to spread what they see as the truth.  This is why it’s so important to engage at some level with this type of discussion to refute it for the benefit of those not really on one ‘side’ of the argument, but who are interested in curiosities like this, for whatever reason.  If a bad idea is presented, it will proliferate if left unchallenged.  Or the whole thing will backfire and their belief will become stronger.  But either way, I do feel there’s a moral obligation to publicly to rail against bad ideas, policies, and institutions – but that we need to make sure we do it properly and effectively.

On the whole, it’s got to be one of the oddest Sunday afternoons I have ever enjoyed.  It was a great day out, meeting a bunch of strangers who actually wanted to have a conversation, and to spend time in an engaging activity with my partner and friends.  And it’s all thanks to my marvellous friends who I can always trust to get me into the most bizarre and exciting scrapes.  Well done, chaps!  But if I was looking to change minds or educate, well, it was something of a pointless exercise.  The speaker themselves acknowledged that this was nothing to do with facts or evidence.  Their work on this theory is all to do with bolstering their pre-existing beliefs.  Their ideas are testable – but they’re not interested in the results.

ASIDE: I think it’s really important to talk about something that often gets forgotten in discussions of the World Trade Centre attacks.  Those buildings were designed to 1960s codes, which fall below more modern standards.  Someone else in the group noted that the buildings had failed a fire safety check in the 1990s.  And yet – despite this, those buildings remained standing for 90 minutes after a plane flew into the side of them.  The skill and ingenuity of those who designed and built those structures is recognised in the thousands of lives that WERE saved by the integrity of those structures.  Even built with technology from 50 years ago, those buildings were still tough enough to have prevented an even greater tragedy.  We should recognise their contribution and not tarnish it by asking ludicrous questions about whether it was an inside job, or if it was some conspiracy related to the Bush family or insurance fraud (no, really!) or any of the other peculiarities I’ve encountered.

THE NEW YORK TIMES TEST

The New York Times Test is the name of a check that one can undergo to determine whether one should say or do a certain thing.  It goes like this: “How would you feel if your actions were reported on the front page of The New York Times?”

I do sometimes agonise about whether I should be bold and say certain things, seemingly related to both anxiety (yes, I have a diagnosis) and impostor syndrome, especially on my blog. I work in a field where people have to justify their actions frequently and we are always reminded of our responsibilities, often in a rather pessimistic and negative way. This adds to the nagging doubts, especially when others seem to be so much more confident and outspoken than I (and I’m not exactly quiet).

But the true test is of whether you would stand by your convictions. And sometimes it’s a good thing to have to stand up for what you say. Going unquestioned could lead to fixed patterns of thinking, and doesn’t allow for much introspection. When people challenge me, I do question my beliefs – it doesn’t mean I always change them – but by thinking critically, and having the courage to admit when I’m wrong. So I use the New York Times Test to think about what I want to say, and to consider whether my argument is a good one or not.  Like, rather than how would I feel if my actions were reported on the front page of The New York Times; how would I defend my actions in such an instance?

The link in the first sentence of this post is an interesting one – it discusses The New York Times Test in the wider conext of defending the indefensible, and misapplication of the rule.  I think that’s why it’s such a good rule, because you have to think very carefully before you apply it.