Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Intellectual Arrogance-II

I attended a talk on "Energy Regulation and Policy" at Tufts today. The speaker was Mary Clark Webster (her website should be here, but for some reason is down), a Tufts alum who now runs her own energy regulatory consulting business and now is an energetic globe-trotter.

The first sign that things were not what they might seem was when in the first few minutes, the speaker said something like "... country X produces Y megawatts... do you know what a megawatt is? You're all graduate students, right...?" Silence all round. "It's a unit of energy..."

"So we'll focus on Iraq and Nepal. Does everyone know where Nepal is?"

A few minutes later, "So this table here with the GDPs of various countries... you know, when I was a student here at Tufts, I hated statistics, but everyone had to take the course. But it's really useful to know."

To prove her point about greenhouse gases from inefficient Iraqi power plants, she pulled out photographs... "Just look at this smoke coming out of these stacks. And these. And these. Oh look, this one's BLACK!"

Then there were the photographs of her.


In front of an American tank in Iraq. And in front of several palaces. In front of many, MANY places.

Punctuated regularly with comments about how run-down the infrastructure in the countries she was talking about was {it was - she was talking about Iraq and Nepal}, but, above all, how dirty those countries she was talking about were, {unspoken "tut tut"}. Oh, for Tosin's benefit, she also threw in a few "sigh"-comments about Nigeria...

And so on...

... and then there were the questions.

"umm... I don't know much about hydroelectric power, so this question is probably dumb." {it was. subtext: I'm going to open my mouth and start freely associating, since I want to be noticed so you'll give me a job} "You talked about hydroelectric power in Nepal. Don't they have... ummm... other sources?" {She had said clearly several times that 95% of Nepali electricity was generated via hydel power, which has HUGE hydel resources which are massively underutilized. And very few other energy resources to speak of.}

Response from Mary Clark Webster - "That's an excellent question." {jabber jabber explaining the perfectly obvious} "Sorry for the long answer to that really hard question."

Guy who asked it, Beavis&Butthead-style, "Heh heh, yeah, hard question."


In case it isn't obvious from my above comments, I actually liked her talk. She possibly knew her stuff (she should, she's been in the field 15 years), at least enough to fake it as a black-box oracle. Her facts and figures seemed to be about right (barring occasional gaffes along the lines of "India and and China both produce 100 GW of electricity" - that one's off by almost a factor of three in China's case). It was well-structured from a get-the-facts across point of view. Obviously, she cared about the matter (though in a "Oh! Let me help the poor injured birdie" kind of way). And most importantly, in her area of expertise, that of setting up the bureaucratic organizations that monitor energy with scads of paperwork, she knew her shit. (After the talk, when I button-holed her, she spoke admiringly of the 86 different regulatory bodies that India has for energy matters; the lady may not know enough about the Indian penchant for red-tape babucracy).

And even though some of the audience members were just... blah. Well, hey, that happens at the best of places, and some of them at least looked intelligent.

What scared me was my own reaction to this... impatient with the slightest deficiency (albeit successfully kept just to myself). Sure, these are the sort of people who'll be deciding the same policies that better engineers than me will have to implement, and that really sucks, but I always knew that. No, what scares me is my suddent relapse in interactions with "real" people in the "real" world (i.e., not the geekdoms I've inhabited this last decade). I thought I'd gotten better over the years, more understanding of the fact that most people are just trying to get by, and don't really want to be doing whatever it is they're doing, and so despite the fact that they hold your toothpaste or tooth or appendix in their hand and aren't doing a terribly good job fixing it, it's okay, they'll get better with time, and it doesn't really matter, because there's a crucial minimal set of people who really like what they're doing and do it well, and that's all that matters to keep the world going, and, more importantly, to keep ME going by a symbiotic relationship with their enthusiasm, and that mental energy can be used to gently poke the others that you can help in the right direction and they often end up surprising you in a good way, and that's what matters in the end, that's what it's all about.

Yeah, what scared me was those flashes of nihilism I felt during the talk. Ayn Rand-esque, but without even an Atlas Shrugged possibility of redemption.

Luckily, on the way out I bumped into this competent-looking guy who's doing his thesis on energy issues on Indian, pumped him for information which he had at his fingertips, and I'm back to viewing the world through rose-tinted glasses again.

Gawd - that's a horrible photoshop job, even if I do say so myself...

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