Building Construction, Renovation, Maintenance & Advice

Trusting Modern Technology and Safety

"Modern Technology and Bat Poo Therapy"

Years ago I lived in a small village from which, on September 27 1825 the world's first steam hauled passenger train set off carrying 600 passengers. It took 2 hours to run a distance of around 12 miles.

At the time people said that humans were not meant to travel at such speeds and the human body would disintegrate at 30 miles an hour. Of course the first railway engine, Locomotion No 1 built by Robert Stevenson (who later built his famous Rocket) only averaged 6 miles an hour - they survived.

Technology is pretty amazing isn't it. When my father was born there was no such thing as an aeroplane, when he joined the second world war planes were biplanes built from canvas and plywood with piston engines, by the end of that war they were monoplanes built from aluminium and with jet engines.

I always find it hard to comprehend just how fast our world is changing and our lives are surrounded by technology and gadgets that our recent forebears couldn't even have started to imagine. Cars, aeroplanes, televisions, CD players, fridges, washing machines, microwave ovens, internet, mobile phones with video call facilities, naval fluff removers …… It is easy to forget that we've only seriously had plastics for 50 years or so. Wars are not what they used to be, these days they are fought by drones operated from thousands of miles away in real life computer games. We have even been to the moon.

These days it is all so familiar to us but there is a trap in that unfortunately we do tend to take it all for granted. I suspect that most people have a blind faith and assume that technology is far more capable than it really is.

The realisation of this came to me years ago when I was directing a large festival and I was looking for content for an environmental subprogramme to the main event. A young man offered to act as a coordinator for a series of environmental discussions and lectures we were running. I kept having doubts and as time went on I discovered that my "Environmental Coordinator" had an unusual point of view - he believed that technology would always be able to address any environmental problem that humans faced, that as problems emerged technology would always be able to keep pace and find solutions.

He had no technical background so, as an engineer, I was shocked at his naive belief in what technology could achieve.

If you take a deep breath and you blow away that cloud of mystique you might start to see the weaknesses and understand the shortcomings.

For me one glaring personal example stands out. In another life I worked for a company that specialised in carrying out very difficult civil engineering repair work such as repairing cracked cooling towers or leaking oil rigs in 350 feet of water. We were called in to carry out repairs in a Nuclear Power Station. The work involved sealing leaks in a 3 metre square concrete duct used for carrying highly radioactive cooling water to and from the reactor core. I was shocked at the fact that such leaks could occur in the first place and I was particularly shocked in the way the duct had been built and how it was to be repaired. Day after day a whole series of workers were sent in using hammers and chisels to hack out and reinstall sealant in a construction joint. Each man would expend his legally allowed maximum lifetime exposure to radiation in a matter of minutes then be replaced by another. The repair took many days and many, many workers were "used" to complete the job. No need for street lamps any more in that part of the world. Harry could you just bare your bum, I want to read in bed.

At the time I heard of other horror stories involving the building of Nuclear Power stations notably the poor welding of pipes in the reactor core of a power station that, after vast amounts of money being invested, was never allowed to become operational. At the time there was uproar at the waste of money because the annual budget for environmentally responsible technology at the time was about as much as the average income of a Roman Catholic condom salesman.

When we start to look more closely at many of the major engineering projects being carried out around the world we might suddenly find just how close to our limits we operate and also how often short cuts are taken, errors are made, or worse, how often the Poverty Alleviation Gene (or PAG as it is known) cuts in and brings serious risk.

Bearing all this in mind I am not at all surprised by recent events unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. It has been said that this was an accident waiting to happen. The idea that we can float a rig on the surface of the sea and drill a hole into the sea bed a mile below could hardly be considered a totally safe thing to do especially considering the pressure in the oil reservoir beneath. It's rather like trying to lance a boil on horseback. The idea that oil companies have all the answers to cover any eventuality that might occur in such a challenging task is, I suggest, not being realistic. It remains to be seen whether we will see the hundreds of kilometres of environmentally precious coastline reduced to the toxic wastedump that some of the worlds rivers and lakes have become.

But this is, of course, not an isolated case and joins a list of man made catastrophes such as the Exxon Valdiz, Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, Chenobyl Nuclear Power Station and closer to home the Sidoardjo mudflow (although that one, we all know, was a "natural" disaster wasn't it). How many more of these things do we never hear about?

Natural occurrences are, of course, another matter and Hurricane Katrina was inevitable but it was known for a long time beforehand that the civil engineering defences of New Orleans were not good enough.

Yes we got men to the moon but nature is something we ant like beings on this planet have never and will never master. Some things are bigger than Ben Hur. Earthquakes, eruptions, floods, tornadoes, tsunamis, PLN and the like will always be beyond our control. It is well said that "man who go to Blackpool always get sand in shoes".

Technology surrounds us, we use it every day of our lives and in all sorts of ways and I suggest that we need to look at it with a good healthy dose of reality.

We should also bear in mind that, while reliability is improving, things are becoming more complex and the opportunity for failure increases. It is also sensible to consider that most technological failures, including many of the world's major disasters are the result of: mistakes, incompetence, laziness, stupidity, over confidence and, probably more than anything, greed and the desire to make larger profits.

It would be wise to be ever vigilant for how technological shortcomings may occur in our own lives. In most houses technology may appear relatively simple but still we need to be wary.

Always unplug electrical appliances when not in use. I always unplug my television when I leave the house simply because I don't fully trust a plastic internal power switch manufactured in a backstreet of Taiwan. Toasters, electric kettles and hair driers are particularly dangerous. I knew a woman who was nearly killed by a short circuit in her dishwasher.

Low quality electrical appliances can be dangerous especially if they have steel cabinets that can become live.

Make sure electrical circuits are properly installed and safe particularly around your swimming pool. Make sure safety systems work and that electrical circuits are properly grounded and that contact breakers of the correct size have been installed. Make sure wiring is installed in protective ducting that will keep rats out (how many houses have burned down in Indonesia because of rats chewing wiring and causing short circuits - I dare say a considerable number). If you have rats in the ceiling - get rid of them.

Beware of badly made powerboards many of which may appear to be grounded but in reality are not.

Be very careful when installing regulators on gas cylinders and keep the cylinder in well ventilated places. The Indonesian Government has just completed a national program to replace the old kerosene stoves with new gas ones. There are reports from all over the country of people blowing themselves up or setting fire to their houses simply because of the problems of the rubber seals in the top of the cylinder and the lack of people's ability to correctly install the regulator. The problem is made worse by the fact that many of the regulators you buy here are very poorly manufactured.

Water pumps, those forgotten servants we depend on every day, can wear out a bearing, seize up and set on fire.

Air conditioners should be cleaned and serviced regularly. Go for well tried and tested machines with a good reputation. I personally favour Mitsubishi Heavy for a solid reliable workhorse air conditioner or Panasonic (particularly the inverter models using the newer R410A refrigerant) for quieter operation, lower running costs and for environmental responsibility.

Many of the electrical and plumbing fittings in this country are manufactured under conditions that don't bear thinking about and can be dangerous or can damage your home. Avoid cheap but you don't need to go for very expensive fancy products. Clipsal make high quality standard electrical fittings, Toto make reliable plumbing equipment. Many people these days are buying very expensive works of metallurgical art to wet themselves every morning, beware of low quality fakes.

Chemicals used for cleaning. Very nasty acids can be bought on street corners here and are used for such things as cleaning stains off ceramic tiles. Even the ones you buy from the supermarket can have some pretty nasty ingredients. Be aware of what that pembantu of yours is using, get her to use protective gloves and shoes and make sure they are not disposed off in the nearby stream.

Medicines can be very dodgy and recent reports suggest that a surprisingly large proportion of medicines in this country (25%) are counterfeit meaning effects can range from "nothing at all" to "meeting your maker".

What about the insecticides we use everyday? Most of us wouldn't have a clue whether they are safe or not. We trust the all powerful "they" to protect us. It may be wise to be skeptical, this is a country where fish are stored in formaldehyde and people (including expats) are dying in lumps from drinking martinis made from rocket fuel, insecticide and bat poo.

Take care.

Copyright © Phil Wilson 2010
This article or any part of it cannot be copied or reproduced without permission from the copyright owner.

8 February 2017 Copyright © Mr Fixit,
Jl Bypass Ngurah Rai, Gg Penyu No 1, Sanur, Bali 80228, Indonesia
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