Monthly Archives: January 2013

What is non-measurable and non-predictable will remain non-measurable and non-predictable no matter how many PhDs you put on the job…

quotes from Taleb's "Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder"

quotes from Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder”

A fantastic book that I recommend for all fisheries scientists (and otherwise) out there. Nassim TALEB1-300x300Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things that gain from Disorder” – just recently released.

There’s a pretty decent review at Scientific American that sums things quite well:

…he’s brilliant, funny and fearless and tackles consequential topics. What are the limits of science? Of understanding and prediction? Given our limited ability to know and control the world, how should we live our lives? How can we prosper in spite—and even because—of life’s vicissitudes?

A former derivatives trader, Taleb made his reputation by bashing conventional economics and finance, but his scope has always ranged far beyond Wall Street. His Big Idea is that life inevitably serves up surprises, or “black swans”–from AIDS and nuclear weapons to the 9/11 attacks and the internet—that our necessarily retrospective models of reality cannot foresee.

…Here is how he sums up his message in The Wall Street Journal: “We should try to create institutions that won’t fall apart when we encounter black swans—or that might even gain from these unexpected events… To deal with black swans, we instead need things that gain from volatility, variability, stress and disorder.” That is what Taleb means by “antifragile.” He offers some suggestions for achieving antifragility in government, business and other spheres: “Think of the economy as being more like a cat than a washing machine.” “Favor businesses that learn from their own mistakes.” “Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.” “Trial and error beats academic knowledge.” “Decision makers must have skin in the game.”

Taleb has a decent editorial in the Wall Street Journal this past November:

Learning to Love Volatility: In a world that constantly throws big, unexpected events our way, we must learn to benefit from disorder, writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Several years before the financial crisis descended on us, I put forward the concept of “black swans“: large events that are both unexpected and highly consequential. We never see black swans coming, but when they do arrive, they profoundly shape our world: Think of World War I, 9/11, the Internet, the rise of Google.

I also recommend Taleb’s earlier book from 2007, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. The review on Amazon sums it well:

A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives.

This certainly sounds like the 2010 return of Fraser sockeye… the big one. And in turn the ‘collapsed’ run of the year previous.

There are some pretty good YouTube clips of Taleb speaking. He’s known to be volatile and unpredictable at times. In one of his calmer appearances, he has a great comparison between plane crashes and bank failures…

He suggests that when a plane crashes, generally people die – however, we learn from those crashes, which in turn reduces future plane crashes.

Yet when big banks crash and fail, we don’t learn from those events and in fact, more big banks fail more regularly.

Taleb suggests, as the handwritten quotes above suggest, that we spend far too much time and resources trying to predict things, that we can’t in fact predict.

Hmmmm. like salmon runs? for one.

And two, predictions of how many salmon can be caught from those badly predicted run sizes… yet retain the ‘health’ and ‘resilience’ of these runs, or collection of salmon runs which comprise the Fraser sockeye runs?

And so on, and so on.

We know that the concept, and formulaic practice of determining Maximum Sustainable Yield in fisheries is a highly failed, flawed, and screwy model. It should be banished, yet it still dominates ‘fisheries management’…. [see free E-book in right hand column]

…that term in itself a misnomer… it implies we can ‘manage’ the fish, and in turn the ‘fishers’ that target and bonk them… the latter being somewhat more ‘controllable’… ‘manageable’….

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Wading through Justice Cohen’s reports, evidence (or lack of…), and 1000+ pages makes me think of Taleb’s quote above: ‘the limit is mathematical, period, and there is no way around it on this planet. What is nonmeasurable and nonpredictable will remain nonmeasurable and nonpredictable no matter how many PhDs you put on the job.’

And like banks and politicians — no one is held accountable for making bad or wrong predictions based on complex spreadsheets and formulaic equations. As Taleb essentially asks: what if we held scientists accountable, would we continue to get the same bullshit models and faulty prediction regimes? He suggests that far too few ‘predictors’ and ‘spreadsheet makers’ are ever held accountable for their ‘predictions’.

What if fisheries scientists and predictors and prognosticators were held accountable for their predictions? and risk models? and so on…?

Would we all of a sudden see a massive simplifying of this ever-increasing ‘science’ which is not really a ‘science’. Similar to economists, fisheries scientists can predict future salmon runs with as much accuracy as the prognosticators predicting where financial markets will close next Wednesday…

They/we can’t.

So why do we continue to waste millions and millions of dollars on faulty science, predictions, consultants, law professionals, and so on.

As has been pointed out in recent posts, and many past posts, wild salmon inhabit far too many vast areas (e.g. the North Pacific) of which we will never, ever be able to make accurate ‘predictions’ about. So why flaunt and flit about suggesting that we ‘understand’ things that we don’t…

It’s kind of like lying on one’s resume then getting the job, or taking performance enhancing drugs for decades and yet maintaining innocence, or lining one’s own pockets or those of their friends while an elected politician…

“Our track record in figuring out significant rare events in politics and economics [and natural systems] is not close to zero; it is zero.”

Italian ‘Earthquake’ scientists charged with manslaughter…failure to adequately evaluate, and then communicate potential risk to local population.

Sockeye circle2Here is a very curious story… scientists — “well-informed professionals” — charged with manslaughter following April 2009 earthquake in the Italian town of L’Aquila. If one searches the term “L’Aquila Seven” a whole range of media stories and otherwise pop up. I became aware of this story through the Dec. 2012 newsletter produced by Simon Fraser University “Centre for Natural Hazard Research“.

[of which in addition to the article on the convicted scientists are very interesting articles on the earthquake and tsunami that hit Haida Gwaii this past October]

As stated in the newsletter:

In October of this year, an Italian judge sentenced six scientists and engineers and a civil servant to six years in prison for manslaughter in connection with the magnitude 6.3 earthquake on April 6, 2009, which devastated L’Aquila. Much has been written about the decision and the international reaction to it, with many learned groups decrying the verdict and the court sentence. This reaction seems to stem from the assumption that the scientists were being condemned because they failed to predict the earthquake, which every geologist knows is not possible.

The story,however, is more nuanced – the decision was based on the scientists’ failure to communicate the risk not predict the earthquake.

There’s another interesting blog article published in October 2012: The L’Aquila Verdict: A Judgment Not against Science, but against a Failure of Science Communication. This article seems to take the opposite tack of many, which is to try and be clear about why the sentence was so harsh – it had nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes accurately, but, more to do with the communication that the professionals engaged in (based on their predictions – right or wrong).

The article states:

A court in Italy has convicted six scientists and one civil defense official of manslaughter in connection with their predictions about an earthquake in l’Aquila in 2009 that killed 309 people. But, contrary to the majority of the news coverage this decision is getting and the gnashing of teeth in the scientific community, the trial was not about science, not about seismology, not about the ability or inability of scientists to predict earthquakes. These convictions were about poor risk communication, and more broadly, about the responsibility scientists have as citizens to share their expertise in order to help people make informed and healthy choices.

The article continues:

…That is what this trial was all about; the poor risk communication from Dr. De Bernardinis – one of those convicted – and the NON-communication by seismic experts, who would certainly have offered more careful and qualified comments. Did that poor communication cause those tragic deaths and warrant manslaughter convictions? Certainly not directly, as the defense attorneys argued.

Did it fail a frightened community looking to the scientific experts for help, for guidance, for whatever insights they could offer…a community so scared by the tremors and that lab tech’s prediction that hundreds of people were sleeping outdoors? Yes, the poor communication was a serious failure, although scientists share the responsibility with the Italian national government.

While these scientists were there for their expertise in seismic risk, not as communicators, they also knew full well how frightened people were, and how important their opinions about the possibility of a major earthquake would be, and how urgently the community wanted…needed…to hear from them. But they just left town, and let a non-seismologist describe their discussions. For his failing to do so accurately and without appropriate qualifications, the scientists themselves are also surely to blame.

There is another interesting article on the incident at Earth: The Science Behind the Headlines, which argues in the scientists favor, against the judgement: Voices: Judged unfairly in L’Aquila – roles and responsibilities should have been considered.

The case centers around these statements [statements of the scientists saying the chance of major earthquake was small]. According to a story in Nature [Scientists on trial: At fault?], Simona Giannangeli, a lawyer who represented some of the civil plaintiffs, said: “You could almost hear a sigh of relief go through the town. It was repeated almost like a mantra: the more tremors, the less danger.”

“That phrase,” one L’Aquila resident said in the Nature story, “was deadly for a lot of people here” — largely because local custom had been to go outside when earthquakes struck, even if that meant spending the night outside. Instead, according to plaintiffs, due to the reassurances from De Bernardinis, people stayed inside where they were then killed or injured when their homes collapsed.

The Nature article was written when the indictment was filed against the seven scientists and has some key interesting suggestions:

The indictments have drawn global condemnation. The American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), both in Washington DC, issued statements in support of the Italian defendants. In an open letter to Napolitano, for example, the AAAS said it was “unfair and naive” of local prosecutors to charge the men for failing “to alert the population of L’Aquila of an impending earthquake”. And last May, when Italian magistrate Giuseppe Gargarella ruled at a preliminary hearing that the scientists would have to stand trial this September, the Italian blogosphere lit up with lamentation and defence lawyers greeted the decision with disbelief. “On the one hand, he’s stunned,” Francesco Petrelli said of his client, Barberi. “On the other, he’s very pained and sad.”

The view from L’Aquila, however, is quite different. Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population.

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There is much written on this case from a variety of sides and opinions — scientists quite naturally are up-in-arms; however as the last quote suggests and other info on the case — the focus is on the wrong issue.

The issue is not the accuracy of predicting earthquakes (or tsunamis or super storms, etc.) its on the communication surrounding these events and the risks involved, and how those are communicated.

Now maybe its events such as these that will give supposed “experts” pause when making various prognostications about risk… such as with oil pipelines and tankers, for example.

Or, how about government appointed scientists and decisions surrounding the impact of dwindling resources such as wild salmon…

The decimation of wild salmon runs throughout their historic range has led to things such as starving bears having to be shot, starving eagles falling out of trees, and who even wants to begin to tally the losses to human communities – First Nation and settler alike.

Now maybe this is a bit of a stretch for some… however, something to ponder. “Scientists”… the “experts” may need to be held more accountable for recommendations, and especially of their communication about risk — whether human community or otherwise.

However, that seems to maybe… putting us back into a spin cycle of ‘absence of evidence and evidence of absence‘… and… my science vs. your science… our ‘expert’ vs. your ‘expert’

“There’s always the human factor…” says U.S. Coast Guard, as oil tanker hits San Fran Bay Bridge

from Silicon Valley Mercury News

from Silicon Valley Mercury News

The headline from the National Post reads: Oil tanker crashes into San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge:

An empty oil tanker caused minor damage Monday when it struck a tower in the middle of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge while navigating beneath the hulking span, officials said.

The 752-foot Overseas Reymar rammed the tower about 11:20 a.m. as it headed out to sea, according to the Coast Guard and state transportation officials. It didn’t affect traffic on the busy bridge, which is the main artery between San Francisco and Oakland, Ney said.

OSG Ship Management Inc., which is the parent company that owns the Marshall Islands-registered ship, said the vessel hit an underwater portion of the massive bridge structure.

Investigators had not yet determined the cause of the crash.

“There’s always the human factor,” Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Lansing said. “That is again what we’ll look into and see whether, in fact, it was a human error or something else and take that into consideration in the development of future regulation.”

Visibility at the time was about a quarter-mile, but officials didn’t say if that was a factor.

from Silicon Valley Mercury News

from Silicon Valley Mercury News

The Silicon Valley Mercury News reports Pilot in Bay Bridge oil tanker crash had three accidents since 2009:

…The pilot of the ship was identified as Guy Kleess, 61, of San Francisco, a former Exxon oil tanker captain who has been involved in at least three other shipping accidents since 2009.

The incident provided a stark reminder of a similar Bay Bridge collision five years ago, when the Cosco Busan, a 901-foot-long cargo ship, hit the adjacent tower of the Bay Bridge, spilling 53,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into the bay, fouling 69 miles of shoreline and killing thousands of birds.

That an oil tanker similar in size to the Exxon Valdez, with the capacity to haul millions of gallons of heavy crude oil, hit a bridge in San Francisco Bay alarmed environmentalists.

This last line is particularly entertaining… what exactly is an environmentalist in the eyes of these writers? Is it only ‘environmentalists’ concerned about this?

The Washington Times reports:

Monday’s mishap brought back memories of a major crash in November 2007 in which the 902-foot Cosco Busan rammed the bridge and spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay.

That accident contaminated 26 miles of shoreline, killed more than 2,500 birds and delayed the start of the crab-fishing season. Capt. John Cota, the pilot of the Cosco Busan, was sentenced to 10 months in prison after pleading guilty to two misdemeanors.

Apparently, that’s just more than those ‘pesky’ environmentalists fronting concern… I’m guessing the maybe 7 million+ residents of the Bay and surrounding area might be a bit concerned if this ship had hit the bridge with its full capacity of some 500,000+ barrels of oil which it had just offloaded.

from mercury news

from mercury news

The Silicon Valley Mercury News

Biologists for years have said that if a large oil tanker spills in the bay, the currents could carry much of it southward, where it would devastate egrets,herons, harbor seals, salmon and other species in the marshes and wetlands. Because of the weak tidal action in the southern part of the bay, the oil would take months, if not years, to remove.

The article continues with some key questions:

Among the key questions Monday: Why was the ship sailing in significant fog? After the Cosco Busan spill in 2007, the Coast Guard put in place rules limiting large ships from sailing when there is less than half a mile of visibility. Coast Guard officials said Monday that the visibility was a quarter-mile at the time of the accident.

Also, did Coast Guard officials who track ships on radar warn the vessel it was about to hit the bridge tower? [what about the ship's own radar...?]

And why did the ship or its contracted emergency response crews not deploy boom — floating barriers that protect against oil spills — until hours after the accident?

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Lansing said the ship, which was built in 2004, had a double hull, which is required under a federal law signed by President George H.W. Bush after the Valdez spill. At a news conference Monday afternoon, Lansing said investigators don’t yet know the cause of the crash but are looking at human error as a possibility.

There it is again… ‘likely possibility’… ‘may’… and now we’re back into the circle of ‘evidence absence’ and ‘absence of evidence’… and… well…

… then the great news cycle… this accident will blow away or float away in the Bay tides in coming days and weeks.

Except maybe in places where people are contemplating the ‘human error’ risk factors present in shipping oil, bitumen, fuel and otherwise in areas where collisions between land, and land-based structures could be absolutely disastrous – as the Exxon Valdez and numerous other accidents demonstrate.

Here’s an image from the Vancouver Sun of the community of Kitimat and the Douglas Channel stretching west:

Vancouver Sun image

Vancouver Sun image

And a more complex view of the Douglas Channel from the Dogwood Initiative website;

from Dogwood Initiative website

from Dogwood Initiative website

And the Bay Bridge… pretty darn tough to see that thing…

Fog City

Double-hulled, triple hulled, highly trained pilots, radar, Coast Guards, regulations (current or future), policies, judicial reviews, ministerial imperatives, etc. … it don’t matter when it comes down to old faithful “HUMAN ERROR“…

It’s not a matter of ‘if’… it’s only a matter of ‘when’… that is… when we’re talking shipping, ships, and oil.

Risk… Reward?

[Remember this post from almost exactly one year ago today: Proposed Northern Exit-gateway Pipeline: Accidents happen because of human error… and are not averted due to elaborate statistical anlayses…  [or elaborate regulations... which may not be followed anyways... as in this case and half mile visibility and big bridges]

Enbridge Northern Exit-way II

Enbridge Northern Exit-way II


Assessing the salmon evidence… cost and costs?

cost of Justice Cohen's recommendations?

cost of Justice Cohen’s recommendations? (# Recommendations from Volume 3 report)

In reading through Justice Cohen’s 1000+ pages reports, there is quite a bit of positive recommendations, ‘conclusions’, etc. — however there are some glaring contradictions, and sad disappointments.

Justice Cohen explains his weight given to evidence in Volume 2 of the Cohen Commission Final Report: The Uncertain Future of Fraser Sockeye – Causes of the Decline:

Assessment of the evidence
In the field of law, lawyers and judges ask whether the evidence led at a trial “proves” the case. In a civil trial, the plaintiff must prove his or her case on the balance of probabilities – that is, the judge or jury must be satisfied that the plaintiff’s version of events is more likely than not true. In a criminal case, the prosecution must prove the accused’s guilt to a much higher standard – beyond a reasonable doubt.

In this Inquiry, I have not conducted a trial, and in relation to making findings of fact regarding the causes of the decline, it would not be appropriate in my view to apply either the civil or the criminal standard of proof set out above. Rather, I use terms that express likelihood or degrees of certainty to describe the strength or weakness of the evidence, as did many of the authors of technical reports and other witnesses who testified during our hearings. (pg. 103)

The good Justice suggests in the 2nd volume:

It is not, in my view, a matter of choosing one potential cause over the other [for Fraser salmon declines]. Given our limited understanding of how the many identified stressors actually affect Fraser River sockeye and how regional processes affect many different sockeye stocks, prudence dictates that neither be ruled out.

The available evidence has identified a risk that both Fraser River–specific stressors and region-wide influences may have contributed to the long-term decline. Regrettably, that is as far as the evidence takes me. However, there are things that can be done to fill in knowledge gaps and progress toward finding cause-effect relationships.

Sadly, I think this is the great mis-guidance of our time… as well as a great contradiction. Plus a ‘limited evidence trail’ that cost some $25 million to write up.

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Here’s a true “cause-effect” relationship…  Catch Fraser River sockeye, bonk on head, dead fish.

Cause of death: catching and bonking…

Effect? Dead fish.

Not complicated. Quite simple really.

‘Climate change’ and Fraser sockeye? Human-altered salmon habitat and large salmon run declines?

Well… the ‘arguments’ for this will rage until the last sockeye comes home… and… well… moo’s like the cows that came home too…

And thus there’s all this legal talk by the good Justice of “available evidence” as well as the complex, Donald Rumsfeld (Dubya Bush’s former Secretary of Defense) ‘absence of evidence, not to be taken as evidence as absence‘, etc. As aren’t we essentially looking for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ of Fraser salmon…?

But what about ‘presence of evidence’ to be taken as ‘evidence of presence’? (well that may be likely or probability is high… and enter other wiggly, slippery words here…)

Climate change is one of those sticky ones… sure the ‘climate’ is changing… but is that ‘climate’ as in the entire global — if so, how do we prove or proof the evidence? Is there evidence of presence… like on a criminal trial burden of proof? or a civil? or Justice Cohen’s ‘probably likely’ tests used in these reports? [and no offence intended, this is a complex subject... higher burdens of 'proof' or 'evidence' would have meant no report.]

When it comes to climate change, these are debates raging around the world, with deniers and climate change gurus alike. My point is not to pick a side… but to point out the obvious… if we humans (especially those esteemed peer reviewed scientists) can’t even agree that climate change is occurring or not, and that human activities are the cause, or at least accelerating what may be occurring naturally since the last ice age…

…then how are we having these theoretical discussions about theoretical impacts on things like ‘Fraser sockeye’ — from the ocean to the natal stream…?

And how do we separate out the historical reality that during the last big glacial advance, say some 10,000 or 12,000 years ago… wild salmon barely existed between north of the Columbia River and somewhere in Alaska and the Yukon (e.g. Beringia)… theories suggest some salmon were living as far south as areas in Mexico during the big glacial advances.

If that’s the case… then wild salmon have done just fine re-colonizing after cataclysmic events…  And if that may (or may not) be the case… then do we really need to spend $26 million (or so), largely on lawyers, legal realm experts, and supposed ‘salmon experts’ (who essentially bickered with each other and ‘their’ research agendas) — and trying to implement a slew of recommendations that will probably cost some $500 million or so to actually implement…

[Note: completely theoretical number... disclaimer... i'm not a government economist prone to making grandiose economic fighter jet cost budgeting...or niggling about cliff diving off the famed Fiscal Hills located near Washington, DC]

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See it’s commentary such as this – below – that drives me batty:

Only a few studies have explored the relationship between temperature and survival of immature sockeye salmon in the open ocean.

Oh, Ok…. so if we do more studies on the temperatures of the North Pacific and the ‘relationship between temp and survival’… we’re going to be able to better manage the relationship between ourselves and wild salmon?

Hmmmm. Let’s ponder that…

salmon… North Pacific… survival… temperature…

so are we measuring the temperature at the surface… 5 ft down… 15 ft down… (I know that whenever I swim in the North Pacific temperatures can range dramatically in a 30 ft radius, especially if there’s whales peeing in the area…)

How about where in the North Pacific…? it’s kind of big…

Survival…? Hmmmm. How?

Or better yet… how, accurately? Or wait… is it precision…?

… or accuracy…?

We can’t even get accurate counts of spawning salmon in a river 20 feet wide… and say 10 feet deep… let alone an ocean some several thousands of km wide and miles deep… full of salmon… well… from all across the Pacific Rim…

This is akin to trying to accurately measure the water displacement in my bathtub when a speck of dust lands in it… or better yet, tracking that speck of dust from my bathtub drain, some 800 km upstream of the mouth of the Fraser River, downstream, out to the Pacific, and how it impacts a gray whale migrating from Baja Mexico…


Page 77 of Volume 2 report:

During the evidentiary hearings, Dr. McKinnell testified that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections for future climate are difficult to represent in terms of the finer-scale climate, such as climate changes that will occur in British Columbia and what the response of the marine ecosystem will be in the northeastern Pacific Ocean.


These consistent theories that suggest developing more theories, devised by professional theorists, will assist in devising a theoretical ‘management’ strategy (aka theory), implemented by more professional theorists, adhering to the initial theorists’ theories to catch theoretical salmon… just doesn’t hold a lot of water. Especially, when it’s all said and theoretically done… the Minister still has the unfettered power to overrule the theorists and make decisions that make more sense to the other professional, practitioning theorists… the economists.

So no matter how much we continue to debate, argue, protest, whine, snivel, shout, cry and kick&scream and then delay doing things… because of absence of data… or… is it absence of evidence… or is it evidence of data absence…

No… it’s ‘high likelihood’ and certain certainty or is it just likelihood and certain evidence… likelihood of data absence, or evidence of data likelihood…?

ah, I can’t remember… however, one things for sure… if you’re in the salmon theorizing field (and it’s a pretty small one) chances are pretty good that your job security, or research contracts are looking pretty decent.

Oh wait… under the current Canadian governing regime, only if it’s researching fish that supply a ‘fishery’…

Likelihood that the evidence of absent data gets filled in near future by present evidence and theory…? Low.

Likelihood that $$ continues to be wasted on theoretical processes that result in preconceived, unfettered decisions…? High.

Likelihood that even if evident data gaps got filled with evidence and data-gap filler, that our ‘management’ of salmon fisheries, salmon habitat, and slowing ‘climate change’ or ‘climate change impacts’ will occur…? Low!

(cost of that opinion… well… FREE).