Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal

Reading the story in today's Chronicle about how Bechtel Corporation has built more than half the country's nuclear power plants took me back to the days of yore, when I was a clerk at that San Francisco-based company during the 1970s. The safety of nuclear power was a controversial issue in California long before Three Mile Island, which scared the shit out of the whole country.

I asked an engineer who worked in the division that designed the power plants, Are they safe? After a long, not-very-reassuring pause, he answered something like this: We design power plants that are perfectly safe, but they might be built by contractors who cut corners, use sub-standard materials, or fail to follow our specifications. And after they are built, the people who operate the plants might be incompetent, drunk on the job, etc. All we can vouch for is the quality of our design.

It was an important point with wide application. Semanticists were telling us something similar: The map is not the territory, the menu is not the meal, and fail-safe specifications for nuclear power plants are not the same as fail-safe nuclear power plants. (And then there's Mother Nature, who can be an awful bitch.)

The moral of story: While the human species can be brilliant and charming, it's not good at constructing perfect systems. We shouldn't even try to do that if the danger from the failure of those systems is as great as it is with nuclear power.

9 Comments:

At 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While the human species can be brilliant and charming, it's not good at constructing perfect systems. We shouldn't even try to do that if the danger from the failure of those systems is as great as it is with global climate change.

 
At 1:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, in the minds of the hipsters, who know everything despite their lack of much experience in life, everything comes back to the evil of the automobile, even when the subject is something completely unrelated.

 
At 1:18 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Your point? That nuclear power is clean power and doesn't cause global warming? If the price of nuclear power is an occasional Chernobyl, it's too high:

"Soviet authorities started evacuating people from the area around Chernobyl only on the second day after the disaster (after 36 hours).By May 1986, about a month later, all those living within a 30 km(18 mile) radius of the plant---about 116,000 people---had been relocated.This area is often referred to as the zone of alienation.However, radiation affected the area in a much wider scale than this 30 km radius."

 
At 1:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are looking at Nuclear Power, and 99.99% of the time, there is no issue, but IF there is an issue, we're completely fucked, then it's not worth it. You're right.

But when the issue comes to making radical changes in how we transport ourselves, in order to reduce our fossil fuel usage dramatically, because of the finite percentage chance that we could completely fuck ourselves, you just say "Well, how else are we going to get around?" How else is Japan going to get electricity? I don't know but they better figure it out, and we should invest in things like HSR because if we DON'T build it AND adopt it, we're fucked.

 
At 2:58 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

You put a statement in quotes that I've never made. Japan is in big trouble, since they are highly dependent on nuclear power, and they also have to import all their oil. But I was surprised to learn that the US now has 104 nuclear power plants in operation.

You're not paying attention on the HSR issue. Look at the numbers on the money to just get the system built, and it's clear that it's not going to happen. This report is a good introduction to the impossible money hurdles the project has to surmount just to get built. I'm all for public transportation. I rely on Muni with a monthly fast pass. Instead of a costly HSR system, we should be using that money for existing systems---Muni, AC Transit, BART, Caltrain, etc. These systems work, more or less, and we know that they can carry a lot of people a lot cheaper than HSR, which is expensive to build and to operate.

Pro-HSR folks keep citing China as an example of a successful HSR system, but the latest news on China is that they've overbuilt their system, they have to charge too much for tickets to cover their costs, which means the average Chinese can't afford to ride the system!

California can't even afford to build such a system, which is just as well, since it would burden the state with debt for decades, and Governor Brown is even now grappling with a $26 billion deficit.

 
At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Look at the numbers on the money to just get the system built"

" This report is a good introduction to the impossible money hurdles the project has to surmount just to get built."

Again - MONEY IS JUST DIRTY PAPER.

The only hurdle we need to get over is the willingness to get it done. It needs raw materials and hard labor, not money. We have those. Goods and services need to be exchanged for those things. We have those. The means to make those transactions are being held hostage by the wealthy, who are hoodwinking the tea partiers because they want to hold on to more of their DIRTY PAPER. They are doing so by giving DIRTY PAPER to people who write the reports you keep quoting.

Fuck the money. How should we get from SF to LA, in a way that conserves ACTUAL resources, not DIRTY PAPER? Plane, Train or Car. Answer - Train. Hands down.

WAKE UP.

 
At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You clearly don't spend much time in District 5, aside from driving your car around it

 
At 11:13 AM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

This comment pertains to what, exactly? I'm not aware of any nuclear power plants in District 5. In fact I live in the district and haven't owned a car in more than 20 years.

 
At 1:09 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Correction: There are in fact two nuclear power plants on the coast of California.

 

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