Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Friday, January 24, 2014

Contrasting notions of risk in the developing and undeveloping world

Today's topic is risk. Not financial risk. Personal risk.

Last year I and our financial adviser had a meeting at the Canadian offices of an international engineering firm to discuss a project in Africa. We were a few minutes early for the meeting, but to my surprise, we were informed we would not be allowed to go into the conference room until we watched a safety video. The safety video represented about thirty minutes of my life I will never get back. Worse, it implies that other, similar, losses are likely in my future.

The film advised us that if we saw anyone fall, we had to report it, even if there were no injuries. All injuries, even paper cuts, also had to accompanied by a sheaf of reports to the appropriate authority.

The excess regulation of risk is a defining characteristic of a country that has passed the developing stage and is entering the undeveloping stage. It is mirrored by a changing time-preferences of money from leading a society from civilization to decivilization.

Now in Africa, on the other hand, I once had to find local operators and a local fishing vessel (dugout canoe) to run a small sidescan sonar survey. So I hit the local fishing harbour, found a crew that had been operating daily for more than two years, hired them, and started work.

One of our company executives was an engineer, and he was horrified by my quick decision--hiring these local fishermen to do the job (unless they first had appropriate safety training, which appeared to involve a lot of lifeboat and man-overboard drills). Besides, he asked, how do you know these guys can operate the boat safely? My answer was that they have been going out to sea every day for two years and are still alive. In any event, we completed a series of missions over the next two months without mishap.

About fifteen years ago, I was tasked with finding some local Ghanaians to be trained as commercial divers. We brought a diving instructor from Canada, and I advertised for people who could swim. There were many applicants. I went into town on some errands and left the diving instructor and his assistant to vet the applicants at a local hotel swimming pool. When I returned that evening they were exhausted--they had spent all day rescuing applicants. When told to swim across the pool, they jumped in without fear and sank straight to the bottom.

At length we found some good swimmers, and they completed their training. But at the end of their training, the instructor in good conscience could not pass them--for without exception, they refused to believe in the "bends". I think it was because they were all experienced free-divers, and in free-diving there are no consequences to a rapid rise. During the pool practice dives, they would always ascend by inflating their BCDs, sending them rocketing to the surface. No amount of explanation could convince them to do otherwise.

At around the same time, we rented a vessel and hired our first ocean-going crew. Our first gift to them were life jackets. Every day we arrived at the village, they would put on their life jackets, as they brought all the equipment to the boat. Then as we set sail--their life jackets were gone. Where were they? One of them told me that they didn't want to risk anything happening to them while at sea, so they left them at home.

When they were hired, they had assured me that they had abundant experience at sea. Unfortunately, their experiences were limited to hauling in fishing nets. They had never been to sea on their own before. We had a few exciting adventures in the first couple of weeks getting the vessel through the surf zone (especially landing), but after that they got the hang of it, and we completed the project without issue.

The view of personal risk in the developing world is clearly different than back here.

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