Even the best designs have flaws

Russell Wangersky
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A study out of Newcastle University’s faculty of medical science, “Water-induced finger wrinkles improve handling of wet objects,” was just published in the journal Biology Letters.

Here’s the abstract for the study: “Upon continued submersion in water, the glabrous skin on human hands and feet forms wrinkles.

The formation of these wrinkles is known to be an active process, controlled by the autonomic nervous system. Such an active control suggests that these wrinkles may have an important function, but this function has not been clear.

“In this study, we show that submerged objects are handled more quickly with wrinkled fingers than with unwrinkled fingers, whereas wrinkles make no difference to manipulating dry objects. These findings support the hypothesis that water-induced finger wrinkles improve handling submerged objects and suggest that they may be an adaptation for handling objects in wet conditions.”

Researchers had subjects pick up submerged or dry marbles, as well as small lead weights, pass them through a hole in a container and then drop them in another container.

­One group had dry fingers while the other had wet hands with wrinkled fingertips.

To cut right to the chase, the wrinkly fingertips work a little bit like tire treads, allowing water to move away quickly under pressure, and improving grip.

And while that’s interesting enough, what’s more interesting is how you can look at that sort of study. To me, and to the study’s authors, it appeared to be some sort of evolutionary advantage, something along the lines of “survival of the grippiest.”

You can easily imagine that dexterity at picking up wet or submerged objects could confer a significant advantage.

But when I mentioned the study to another editor here, his immediate response was that it was proof of intelligent design.

And I guess that’s true.

You look for what you want to see — or, more to the point, you interpret things through your own particular lens.

The hardest part of an objective examination is looking clearly and honestly at the things you don’t want to see.

And while it may be flogging a dead horse after December’s sanction of the Muskrat Falls project, I think it’s worthwhile looking back and seeing just exactly how two simple questions ended up being the core of a flawed debate.

The first question was, will we need the power? The second was, if you look at only two options, which one is cheaper?

Will we need the power?

The government has always argued that the answer to that question is implicitly yes — that, regardless of whether the pulp and paper industry is crumbling worldwide, potentially freeing up power supply from the Corner Brook mill, regardless of power opportunities from the Upper Churchill in 2041, and regardless of energy-saving and conservation measures, demand will necessarily rise and outstrip our current supply.

That critical question has never been objectively answered outside the confines of Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro’s own power forecasts, but the government has always taken as a given that the forecasts are right. That’s interesting, because such forecasts don’t have a great history of accuracy in this province.

Then, to the second question: which option is cheaper?

The two options were: maintaining an isolated island system

with Holyrood providing increased amounts of electricity, or building Muskrat Falls.

Both options are predicated on the island actually needing substantial amounts of increased power. (Which, hopefully for all our sakes, it will. If it doesn’t, we’ll end up paying for it anyway.)

The financial difference between the two plans was massive — billions of dollars.

Billions based, of course, on a 50-year forecast for the price of oil (we haven’t been able to successfully forecast the price of oil for even one year ahead, let alone 50) among other things.

So, why did the government refuse to put the whole project up for a fully objective review?

Perhaps because it had, to its own satisfaction, already answered the one truly critical question and decided  that we would need the power, whether we’ll be able to pay for it or not.

Once that question was answered, the rest flowed simply: if you accept that there’s evolution, you’ll examine your wet fingertips with evolution in mind.

If you need the divine intervention of intelligent design, your wet fingertips can be proof of that, as well.

The decision on Muskrat Falls, for better or worse, was made the moment the government accepted the premise that electrical consumption in this province would  rise — and that there was nothing that could be done to slow that rate of increase.

After that, everything is interpreted by the lens you decide to look through.

History, though, is likely to have a different look at this particular wrinkle.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Newcastle University, Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro

Geographic location: Corner Brook

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Recent comments

  • Cyril Rogers
    January 13, 2013 - 14:15

    I cannot add anything of substance to the comments made by Winston Adams and Maurice Adams. Both of these gentlemen have added immeasurably to the debate on the need for Muskrat Falls....or not. My only comment on their comments here is that The Telegram, using the small print and clustered paragraphs of these writers is doing them a disservice by using said format. I have emailed you about this before, Mr. Wangersky, and would hope the staff of your newspaper will take steps to print important and reasoned commentary in such a way as to make it easy for the reader to digest the contents. All other newspapers I subscribe to, do indeed, offer much easier reading in the comments section. What is holding The Telegram back in its ability to print in a clearly readable and logical format??

    January 13, 2013 - 11:36

    Very poorly written. I suspect your fellow Newfoundlanders who are employed with the project are left shaking their heads. I can hear them now, "Russ Wangkersky, the paper boy says are design is flawed, lets pack 'er in. LOL

  • Winston Adams
    January 12, 2013 - 12:40

    Russell, you say, as to whether we actually NEED the power from Muskrat Falls, "the question has never been objectively answered outside of Hydro's own forecasts..... which don't have a great history of accuracy". Now JM, an economist, had a lengthy presentation to the PUB, that the forocast was biased and unreliable. He pointed to our aging and no growth population, being not properly considered. Feehan, another economist put reasoned arguments against the need of more power. Maurice Adams, on his Vision 2041 website has presented the charts of Hydro's flawed forecast record, and has correctly stated that new houses use less energy than old ones, despite being larger. Even economist Wade Locke stated the economics of MF is questionable and subject to the island forecast holding up. Sullivan, Martin and others have questioned the forecast. I filed a submission to the PUB dealing specifically with that issue, showing that efficiency opportunities were substancial. The Telegram later published 3 pieces showing my analysis from an engineering and mathematics perspective that the efficiency potential was 4 times the present average production of Holyrood, and was so economic as to hold steady or decrease costs to consumers. What was not objective about that analysis. I could not engage Nalcor, journalists, media, or MHAs to open up the issue. When you refer to objective analysis you likey mean a significant study, of this and other considerations. Certainly, I could get no details of Nalcor's efficiency considerations before the MF project was sanctioned. Was it a flawed debate by not properly analysing the need for power, before proceeding with the question of what the source of power would be? Certainly it was flawed, and I suggest deliberately so by the government and Nalcor, who preferred to go with MF whether we need the power on the island or not, as the rationale kept changing. Is it like flogging a dead horse to discuss this need for power now? I would say it is late but appropriate to discuss it. Nalcor has just awarded a contract exceeding 100 million for excavation. But Nfld Power is pushing ahead seeking 8.0 percent increase on residential energy rates. Look at their application. See their reduction to normal forecast due to future declining population, and aging population. See the negative impact on power use with the price increase requested, and superimpose this on what effect another 30 or 40 percent increase will do to load growth. You can see Nfld Power's analysis supports the objective statements made by JM and others. Then look at the Application from the perspective of energy efficiency savings. Also note their concern about having little access to alternative power sources, other than Hydro. You will see we are on a path that separates us from all oher progressive utilities. Others put 5 to ten times more resources into the efficiency and conservation approach with real significant benefits for consumers. This Application confirms a path, with little efficiency effort, to prop up power demand.The negative consequences of not doing a comprehensive analysis of whether ne need more power will rattle our economy and worry all power consumers for a long time. This is but the first of many post MF sanction price hikes. Lets brace ourselves for that. It may not be too late, but Nalcor is certainly ramping up expenses. I hope it doesn't turn out like Joey's follies. Certainly,as the costs esculates, more and more it will be asked "did we need that power for the island'. Meanwhile , in Nova Scotia, their Efficiency Corporation is flying the banner "Home Heating Revolution. Oppressed by the high cost of heating your home? Citizens of Nova Scotia- affordability and comfort are yours for the taking!" And yet such a revolution is technically possible much more easily here. So, I suggest, lets kick the dead horse. What harm is that. We need to know if horse is really dead. Electrical power is rated in terms of horses. And 45 percent of our present horsepower is wasted. Our horses have much more to give. With due attention, our electrical hourses are far from exhausted. Where is the proof? Where was that objective study? That is the Question.

  • Foghorn Leghorn
    January 12, 2013 - 09:15

    Well I guess we have the answer, now we have to check Danny Williams, Cathy Dunderdale, and Jerome Kennedy to see if they have wrinkled fingertips. The rest of us must then have dry fingers. Yes a definite sign of a more intelligent design!

  • Maurice E. Adams
    January 12, 2013 - 07:43

    Nicely written.......... I do think, however, that you have it backwards --- I would suggest that "The decision on Muskrat Falls, for better or worse, was made" FIRST, ------ THEN "government accepted the premise that electrical consumption in this province would rise — and that there was nothing that could be done to slow that rate of increase." --------- A means to justify the end. ........The decision was made in 2010 (or earlier) and then government set about creating the various and continually changing justifications and rationale for its decision. ... Almost like 'reverse engineering', where you already have to end product, now work backwards so as to include all the elements needed to create the product while discarding all those that don't.,,,,,,,, Kennedy's approach in the House was similar ---- where, instead of keeping an open mind while grasping and arriving at an understanding of whether or not Muskrat Falls was the best option, he said instead that he approached Muskrat Falls by FIRST convincing himself that it was the best option and then went about selling it to the people (the very opposite of a rational, scientific, objective approach)....... The process has, from the beginning, been designed to push Muskrat Falls though --- whether it was and is in the best interest of the people and the province ---- or not ----- whether we need the power or not, whether we can afford it --- or not. NONE OF THAT MATTERS ---- PERIOD.