Archive for occupational hazards

Rotten Apple

Posted in computers, Personal with tags , , on August 16, 2010 by davidnm2009

I used to like Apple. I actually have an ancient, 2001-vintage iBook. Every now and then, I even turn it on, if only just to see how much more the hard drive has died since the last time I played with it. (In a way it’s quite sad – I have some good memories from that computer!)

Unfortunately, Apple seem to have taken a turn for the worse over the last few years.

In 2006, I re-joined the modern world of computing with my new laptop. This was the first computer I’d bought in several years. It was wonderful, for about a fortnight. Then I installed iTunes.

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The Danger Of False Alarms

Posted in Personal, Social Concern with tags , on July 26, 2010 by davidnm2009

Sensible health and safety policy isn’t always easy to do. Here is an instructive example:

  • Williams said he discovered that the physical alarm system had been disabled a full year before the disaster. When he asked why, he said he was told that the view from even the most senior Transocean official on the rig had been that “they did not want people woken up at three o’clock in the morning due to false alarms”.

Oddly enough, on this one thing at least, I do have some sympathy for the Deepwater Horizon people.

The naive approach to health and safety holds that there is no such thing as a false alarm, and that people should be willing to tolerate any degree of minor inconvenience for ‘safety’. Unfortunately, this is horrifically counter-productive in practise, and can in effect actually endanger life rather than protect it. Let me give an example…

At the university where I work, we have a fire alarm system. It operates on a ‘zone’ system – the building is divided into a number of zones. When a fire breaks out in one of them, an automated alarm will go off to evacuate that area. The zones next to it get ‘alerts’ – not actual alarms, but a blaring speaker in each room that announces in a deafening, stentorian voice that ‘THERE IS A FIRE ALERT IN A NEIGHBOURING ZONE – STAND BY FOR FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS!’ It does that at something close to 90 dB, and can carry on doing this for up to half an hour. (The only people who can turn this off are Security, and that involves rousing them from their daily tea-break, which starts at about 9 AM and finishes some time around 5 PM.)

Problem is, fires aren’t the only thing that set it off. Hot weather sets it off. Heavy rain on the asphalt roofing can set it off. The frequent burning smell from Engineering can set it off. For all I know, the phases of the Moon might set it off too. And this is a big problem. It disrupts work. It annoys people. It shortens tempers. And also, very, very dangerously, it habituates people to the idea that when an alarm sounds, it’s false.

This is bad.

It means that, one day, the alarm will go off for real – and no-one will react. Everyone will assume that it’s just another stupid false alarm. And they’ll only realise it isn’t when the flames start licking at the office window.

Basically, something some health-and-safety types really need to realise is that conditioning people to assume that alarms are false is not clever.

Occupational Hazards

Posted in Amusing, Astronomy with tags , , on July 20, 2010 by davidnm2009

Astronomy has some very odd occupational hazards.

  • At the Mauna Kea observatories, you’re banned from going to sleep(!). The problem is that, at high altitude and an air pressure of ~ 600mb, some sleepers don’t wake up again.
  • There’s a radio telescope facility in India. A colleague of mine who did some observing there was warned not to go outside at night, due to the risk of being attacked by panthers(!).
  • The Roq de Los Muchachos Observatory is the most scenically-beautiful that I’ve yet been to. It’s also the most convenient, being (in principle) about 4 hours’ flight from Europe. (It’s longer from the UK because there aren’t any direct routes – you change at either Madrid, several places in Germany or in Tenerife.) But, it also has just a bit of a body count. The week before I was there in 2008, someone fell to their death off of the back of one of the MAGIC telescopes. Also, people keep driving straight off the roads – and the roads zig-zag up a very steep hillside. Going off that will hurt.
  • Although I’ve never been there myself, apparently the safety advice at the VLT in Chile is something to the effect of ‘Don’t go outside at night, because if you fall over and break something you’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no way to get help to you’.
  • I imagine that if you visit the South Pole Telescope, there might be just a small problem with hypothermia. (Oh, and maybe rabid zombie penguins too…)

Basically, observing is less sedate than you might think.

Also (perhaps sadly) we don’t actually look through the telescopes any more. In fact, I’m not aware of any research-class instruments that have an eyepiece attached. (You can usually see the output on a screen in the control room, though.) Saying that, I think there is an old finder-scope bolted onto the side of the INT, but I’m not sure if anyone’s used it in a long time.

An 8-metre with an eye-lens would be cool … until it accidentally points at anything bright, that is, and the unlucky viewer gets blinded, of course.