Should we be afraid of Michigan’s waters?

Should we be afraid of Michigan’s waters? Lead and copper, toxic algae, polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), cryptosporidium, the next grim chemical to be discovered in our water: how concerned (afraid) should we be? The consensus seems to be very afraid.

 

Today’s technology allows us to detect chemicals at increasingly lower amounts. In the 1960s, we identified pollutants in parts per million—that’s one tiny grain of sand in a 1 foot by 1 foot by 1 foot high sandhill. Today, we identify many chemicals in parts per billion—one grain in a 10 foot by 10 foot by 10 foot high sandhill, or in parts per trillion—one grain in a 100 foot by 100 foot by 100 foot high sandhill. Some chemicals can even by detected in parts per quadrillion. This means we can now “see” chemicals in our water that were once “invisible”.

 

Just because we can “see” a chemical—one grain in a billion or trillion—doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, that we should be afraid. Though zero is a useful number in mathematics, in the physical/natural world, zero is unattainable. So what questions should we ask if something is detected (“seen”)? Is it a chemical of concern, or grave concern? Is there more than the regulated amount? Is there more than the amount that can cause problems with repeated exposure—not just a sip here or there? Does the amount pose an imminent danger (a chemical spill)? Unless the “seen” chemical is subjected to these questions, we could be afraid for no rational, evidence-based reason. Without asking such questions, everything becomes a crisis, and when everything is a crisis, it’s hard to focus on what’s important.

 

Home and workplace water treatment technologies have advanced rapidly, so a problem at the water source needn’t mean a problem at the tap, even if the water treatment plant isn’t equipped to handle it. As for the big picture, human health and wildlife protection, Michigan’s waters are cleaner than they’ve been in over 100 years. Just because we can “see” more chemicals in our water doesn’t mean water quality is deteriorating, or we’re in danger. With rare exceptions, exposure to Michigan’s waters poses far less risk than driving a car, smoking tobacco or pot, bicycling, extreme sports, tattoos, prescription medications, or being sexually active.

 

Shall we rely on consensus, or the evidence? It’s good to be concerned about Michigan’s water quality, but we need not be afraid.

The Lucifer Ego, and questions

7 years after “Toward the Gleam” was published, it gives me joy to announce the publication of the sequel, “The Lucifer Ego”, a rousing mystery-thriller. The theft of the ancient “Toward the Gleam” manuscript, and the Oxford archaeologist recruited to recover it. Prehistoric archaeology, psychology, mythology (including Middle-Earth and Narnia), and First Things.

All the threads were connected, or were they? Who is Elana Rosman?  What of the exotic (extinct) butterfly? Why was Li Hwang in Oxford?

 

Order the print version at: https://www.amazon.com/Lucifer-Ego-Sequel-Toward-Gleam/dp/1732472602/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1534688161&sr=8-2&keywords=the+lucifer+ego

 

Or the Kindle version: https://www.amazon.com/Lucifer-Ego-Sequel-Toward-Gleam-ebook/dp/B07GLWQ98Y/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1534688161&sr=8-1&keywords=the+lucifer+ego

 

Storytelling and Truth

“I don’t read fiction because it’s not true, it’s made up.”

 

I hear this often, and these people are right in that fiction isn’t history or biography or science or theology, but by going further up…further in, as C.S. Lewis put it, stories can reveal truth in ways that non-fiction can’t.

 

George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 alerted the world to the lies and horrors of communism in ways no newspaper, politician, or academic publication achieved. “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”, and “I loved Big Brother” reveal truths about totalitarianism that statistics and rational arguments cannot match.

 

The prolific French author, George Simenon, wasn’t a moralist, but his novel, Maigret on the Riviera, depicts how a murdered man traded slavery to propriety and wealth for slavery to sensuality and self-indulgence, a story about the deeper truth of the insidiousness of slavery. On the surface, the man seems to have been liberated, and perhaps Simenon thinks so too, though his honesty as a writer demands that he depict where years of sensual indulgence lead the man.

 

Autism and its myriad spectrums are frustrating mysteries to most of us, and even to many who daily encounter these conditions. More scholarly books have been written on this subject in the last twenty-five years than all prior years combined, many helpful, many informative, many useful. Mark Haddon’s novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, told from the perspective of a brilliant/constrained fifteen year old boy gives the reader deeper insights—truths—into the world of autistic human beings than clinical descriptions. Christopher Boone’s observations and understanding of the world amaze the reader, while the challenges he faces with routine daily events horrifies us. The dog engages Christopher in ways that escape the rest of us, and leads him to truths he wasn’t seeking. Christopher is both much more and much less than so-called normal people, and Haddon shows rather than tells us why this is so.

 

How many learned books have been written on the causes and mechanisms of addictions and obsessions? Can any of these measure up to J.R.R. Tolkien’s depiction of the lure of the Ring? The twentieth century literary critic, Edmund Wilson, wasn’t impressed: “One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child. It is essentially a children’s book – a children’s book which has somehow got out of hand, since, instead of directing it at the “juvenile” market, the author has indulged himself in developing the fantasy for its own sake…”

 

Why are we surprised that a literary critic immersed in a milieu that rejects the possibility of anything transcendent, a milieu immersed in addictions and compulsions, cannot see the forest for the trees? In fact, Tolkien’s story speaks to addictive lures, as represented by the One Ring. How unaided man cannot resist such temptation—in Smeagol/Gollum who is possessed and then consumed by the Ring, in good Bilbo who oh-so-gradually is seduced by it, in Boromir who never possesses it but yearns for it from afar, in the faithful Sam who has it for a short time but equivocates in returning it to his Master, and in the heroic Frodo who cannot resist it’s power in the end. The truth that man is not made for such things is anything but a children’s story, and The Lord of the Rings informs us of this truth better than technical treatises and therapeutic programs.

 

Speaking of children’s stories, A.A. Milne wrote stories that take place in a tightly contained world—the world of childhood and a small corner of nature—until the last few chapters when the walls of Christopher Robin’s world start tumbling down, evoking the anticipation and specter of maturity. These are stories that intersect with life beyond the Thousand Acre Wood: the resentment Milne experienced from the constraints these stories imposed on his literary career, the resentment Christopher Robin experienced at how these stories constrained his later life, and the deeper truth about fathers and sons that resonate in these stories, the ideal that can never be achieved in this life but for which parents and their children yearn.

 

If knowledge and truth are what we seek, discernment is necessary in selecting both fiction and non-fiction. We’re kidding ourselves if we think non-fiction isn’t filtered by the preconceptions of authors and their sources. Everyone brings a perspective to his or her work, and the best are forthright about identifying the lines between evidence, speculation, and imagination.

 

We can find truth in many ways, including good stories.

What Could Go Wrong…And Why It Often Does

“Of course, we consider risks.”

 

That’s the response from governmental agencies and companies when the subject of risk preparedness is introduced. Then, why do we so frequently experience disasters like the compromised Fukushima reactor, British Petroleum oil spill, and Flint water contamination, or threats like the Kaspersky software “surprise”?

 

“Unpredictable events.” “Black Swans.” “A natural disaster.” “Limited human and financial resources.” “The perfect storm.” “Human negligence…malfeasance.” Plenty of explanations and excuses.

 

Here’s one more: the lack of a What Could Go Wrong process.

 

I can hear the objections: we have time-tested standards, a quality control process, risk officers, risk-based checklists, a project management program, experienced reviewers.

 

We can do a better job with threat identification and prevention. Different levels of risk require different approaches. For adhering to standards and design norms, checklists are okay, and most organizations do a good to very good job with this category of risks. Most do a fair to good job with conventional risks—how to prevent spills, what if a fire breaks out? Where we do a poor to awful job is with “barrier-free threats”, that is, risks that fall outside an organization’s scope of work or competency, or outside conventional risks, and have the potential to drastically affect a project, product performance, or a policy’s effectiveness.

 

A water treatment plant with a scope of work to produce treated water that meets drinking water standards at the plant’s fence line, and a community that doesn’t understand, or neglects, the consequences of unstable water conveyed by lead pipes outside the fence line. Kaspersky software, where a What Could Go Wrong process would have started with this question: Knowing what we do about Russia, what if this company is a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the Russian government. A new state-of-the-art German frigate that wasn’t designed to counter traditional threats—as a January 2018 Wall Street Journal article puts it: “(The) frigate was determined…to have an unexpected design flaw: It doesn’t really work”. And that’s highly regarded German engineering. The Fukushima nuclear reactor that wasn’t able to resist a tsunami, though it’s located on an island in an earthquake-prone region. Instead, we struggle with after-the-fact accusations, “patches”, litigation, and PR initiatives.

 

Such threats aren’t Black Swans—an asteroid strike, a Los Angeles magnitude earthquake in Michigan, nuclear war. Nor is the standard perfection. Rather, identifying unconventional risks—threats—by employing a disciplined, barrier-free What Could Go Wrong process.

 

The essentials of such a process are:

  • Activation as early as practical, before project initiation or policy definition
  • A leader who drives big picture What Could Go Wrong questioning, discourages small picture problem solving, and doesn’t allow “What if” questioning to be shut down by statements such as: “That’s outside our scope”, “There isn’t budget for that”, “We’re following all the standards”.
  • Engaging one or more subject-matter experts (“rabble rousers”) with no formal role in the enterprise and no incentive to tell the organization what it would like to hear.
  • 1-2 days is long enough to identify big-picture threats if the right people are present; not a costly or time-intensive process.
  • Concise and clear documentation of the big picture threats, for action as deemed appropriate by top leaders, not just the project team

 

If an organization doesn’t have a process along these lines and thinks that such disasters can’t happen to them, they’re kidding themselves, and while such a process wouldn’t protect against all possible threats, they could be better identified and might be mitigated. Just as important, risks could be communicated to the public, company leaders, etc., in an audience-appropriate manner, and considered in planning and decision-making. Such a process, done well, could have prevented the Flint and BP debacles, and could have mitigated the Fukushima disaster.

 

Lawyers often warn us that if we don’t know something we may not be as liable as if we knew ahead of time. The problems with this legally protective approach: 1) We have an ethical, if not legal, obligation to investigate and address threats, especially risks to health and public safety, and 2) How did this legally protective approach work for the principals in the Flint, Fukushima, and BP disasters? Addressing such threats appropriately ought to be one of a leader’s most important jobs. Far from being an assault on private enterprise or interference with government experts, such a process safeguards the interests of these entities because it helps them avoid disasters and grave harm.

 

How much time and money are organizations willing to spend on public relations and remediation in the wake of disasters, while neglecting big picture What Could Go Wrong questioning ahead of time? We can do better. We have the talent. We need the will and the process.