Copy/ Paste

In the past I have written several flaming blog posts about this topic, to then decide to delete or not publish them. Yet as it seems to be a reoccurring theme, I have decided to try to summarize our position in regards to designs being copied…

It is very easy to be categorical and damning when it comes to cheap and cheerful duplicates coming out of factories in the Far East, yet I feel in many ways this is an over-simplification.

What I am not talking about here is about elements of a design being copied and developed further, this is part of a normal evolution of designs over time. After all, no design is thought up in a vacuum, so when a novel design is presented and proves itself fit for the task, it is only natural this feature will be referenced and incorporated into future solutions.

Rather, I am talking about straight out copies of products, with little or no changes.

Take for example the Xinda copy of DMM’s Revolver above.

There are a myriad of such products available on eBay and other on-line market places for very little money.

One is tempted to discount it all as cheap and cheerful rubbish and whoever buys from such a source is taking his or her life in their hands. The truth of the matter is more complex, however. Whilst it may be true that some of these manufacturers have a sketchy history when it comes to quality, others are actually producing high-quality products. So to simply condemn all Far East manufacturing out of hand is certainly an over-simplification.

Our position in this matter has always been that whilst on the one hand one should not over-simplify, it is also important to ask the question of who is doing the type certification for these products? Who ensures and monitors the quality during their whole life cycle? Is the quality consistent? Is the material being used in manufacturing consistently the same and up to spec? Is a seamless traceability from source to end-user guaranteed? What is the social and ecological cost of production? Without answers to these questions I do not see how one can responsibly and confidently use this equipment.

Mind you, if it is plagiarisms you are on the outlook for, there is no need to travel as far as Asia, as this phenomenon is not specific to a geographic region, you can easily find examples for it much closer to home.

Be all that as it may, one could debate this backwards and forwards interminably, but one thing is for sure: the copy/ paste view of product design, where all the financial risk, the time and the effort involved in coming up with innovative designs is left to others, to then simply take and imitate those designs without a doubt has one very clear consequence: it is a killer for true innovation. The proposition of investing design and development time to produce innovative products, to then have them copied is not very attractive – and of course it is always possible to market gear at a lower price if you are not having to cover the overheads involved with product design. Or by cutting costs with your materials or with labour costs…

Supporting the trend where research and development turns into rip off and duplicate is like cheating your future self of innovative designs.

And who wants that?

Get interested!

As I have written about many times before, there are lots of things I love about arboriculture and the people it attracts. However, over the past couple of years some tendencies have emerged that I am finding increasingly hard to stomach.

Let me try to explain…

To do so, I would like to introduce you to the following Alan Watts quote, which Doug of Out On a Limb kindly pointed out to me. Thank you for that, Doug.

Touché, Alan!

So let us get interested! Interested in the people around us and the teams we work in, interested in the equipment we work with and the techniques we employ, interested in gaining a deep understanding of the hows and whys of our profession.

Part of this process may mean that I have to step back from something I am very involved in, have invested a lot of time and energy in or am passionate about and attempting, from this outside view to assess whether there are obvious points I have missed. Moreover, it may also involve listening to critical feedback or striving to objectively assess the merits and foreseeable risks.

The foundation for this has to be objectivity and facts, rather than echo boxes, which allow points of view to be reinforced by bouncing them off a few like-minded individuals. I totally understand the dynamic of this and am not insinuating any malevolent intent, yet regardless of the intent, this is not about rising above the masses – not about the “I” – , but rather to ensure that the systems and tools we use offer the highest degree possible of safety and ergonomic benefits.

Now, before you frantically start rummaging around your shed looking for pitchforks and torches: the statement above is not meant in an inflammatory spirit, I do not mean to deny these tools or techniques validity – for all I know they may be the best thing since sliced bread – , but the development and evaluation of PPE and other safety-critical equipment should not be a crusade which is all about what I believe, but rather a level-headed and objective process of deliberation and discussion, because we are interested in understanding how to get things right!

Nor do I mean to attack or value judge anybody, yet the same holds true here as it does of any other walk in life: be wary of – apparently – easy solutions! These are after all complex issues, let us ensure that the discussion regarding them are respectful, informed and inclusive rather than blinkered, superficial and entrenched.

Let us get interested and step away from the “I”!

She’ll be alright

Serge brought this book into work today, Frauen auf Bäumen (Women in Trees), which I thought was worth sharing, despite not quite qualifying for the Recommended Reads category.

Apparently the author was an avid collector of old photos at flea markets. After a while he realized that women in trees was a reoccurring theme, so he decided to compile those pics into a book. What can I say, a bit niche, but none the less rather weirdly wonderful.

You cannot help but wonder, why specifically women and no blokes? Were they all off doing guy things, whilst the ladies went tree climbing? I confess to being mildly puzzled.

The pic that took the biscuit was this one…

Like, seriously?

I would love to see the pic in the series that came after this one… one imagines it is probably of the lady sprawled on her back with the tree trunk lying next to her, snapped off at the base. Notice also the broken limb lying behind the trunk, obviously from when she climbed it (I don’t know, Schatzi, do you really think this tree is stable enough? It seems terribly, you know… wackelig). Hold on, though, maybe this is exactly what this is! A picture of load testing a tree back in the fifties, pre-Wessoly! One thing is for sure: visual tree assessment was not a core competence of the person taking these photos.

And hey, who needs VTA – or PPE come to that – anyway?! Totally overrated.


I would rather swim than sink, thank you very much

I was struck by this quote, which is supposedly attributed to an anonymous Navy SEAL:

Under pressure, you don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training. That is why we train so hard.

Archilochus, a first century Greek lyric poet expressed a similar sentiment…

We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.

Whichever version you subscribe to, the essence remains the same, both highlight the need to underpin actions with a solid foundation of knowledge and skill if they are to withstand the pressure of stressful environments or demand high performance levels – or a combination of both.

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High-stress environments are prone to human error.

What exactly constitutes high-stress will of course differ from individual to individual, but without a doubt there are any number of everyday – and not-so everyday occurrences – in the life of a climbing arborist which ought be considered as such.

From setting the line under the skeptical eye of a client, dismantling a tree with structural damage, managing traffic on a job site at a busy intersection to mediating a conflict in your team, managing an emergency situation and administering first aid on site or performing an aerial rescue. As such situations will expose the operator to high stress levels, in order for him or her to respond correctly it is essential that  the correct responses to such instances should have considered and rehearsed in advance in a safe, non-critical environment.

Training is one way to do so.

By this I do not mean simply applying a bit of spit and polish or a superficial veneer, but rather to aim for a holistic, well-founded understanding of your position in your team, the tasks you are expected to perform and the degree of competence required therefore. Yes, of course this is a challenge and by necessity an on-going, evolving process, but it is also interesting and fun to expand your horizons – and if push comes to shove it also allows you to respond to difficult or stressful situations in a more coordinated fashion.

Think of training in all its guises as a buoyancy aid, allowing you to float right on the surface, consequently the distance from the occasion mentioned in the SEAL quote above to the level of your training is a short hop rather than a long drop.

Yup, count me in, I would rather swim than sink…

Workshop in Seattle

Last Friday and Saturday I had the opportunity to run a workshop with Phil Kelly here in Seattle. Very generously Kathy Holzer opened her house and yard for this event and her partner, Levecke, spoiled all attendees rotten with first class catering.

The event was by invitation only, so we were able to work with a very competent, switched-on group, which resulted in interesting, animated discussion. What I take away from this one is – once again – the value of face to face interaction, and the fact that every region poses its own challenges depending upon prevalent species. Here in the Pacific Northwest, due to the many very large conifers,access can be a major challenge. These are not easy to install a safe anchor point in for the initial ascent, consequently it was one of the discussion points.

A further lengthy debate was had regarding the opportunities and challenges that new materials and techniques offer, and how to respond to these. Certainly there are not easy answers here, but gatherings such as this one are certainly part of a process of collectively gaining a better handle on some of these issues.

This trip has been not only fun, but also inspiring, I will be taking away a number of points I will be mulling over in the weeks to come. I would like to warmly thank all who made this event possible and who attended it.

Living in the future

Increasingly, we live in a world where we surround and immerse ourselves in technologies which until a few years ago would have been unthinkable – yet today we take for granted. This can create a strange bias by making us view anything that went before us as somehow less highly developed and a bit… primitive, for lack of a better word to describe it.

I was thinking about this as I was discussing the Historical Development of Tree Climbing Techniques presentation with the group here in Seattle. Every time I look at them, I find the photographs which Davey Tree, Honey Brothers and Merrist Wood College kindly allowed us to use for this presentation very moving, as they show individual people working in accordance to the best practice guidelines of that period. These people were trained and committed to doing a good job. Of course, in hindsight some of the work being performed is dated and would today no longer be performed in that fashion, yet was based upon the level of knowledge of that point in time. Without a doubt the same will be true in fifty years time of someone looking at photos of an arborist working in 2016.

In a similar vein, a couple of weeks ago I was in the South of France and whilst there went to visit the Grotte Chauvet in Vallon Pont d’Arc in Ardèche. Well, strictly speaking it was not the cave itself I visited, but rather the mirror image replica of it situated a couple of kilometers up the road from the original site. The reason for this is that in order for the site to receive the status of UNESCO world heritage site it has to be accessible to the public, and as this cave with its 36’000 year old paintings is so fragile there is no way it could have withstood a high volume of visitors without suffering severe degradation.  I thought this was a very clever solution, added to which the replica is housed in a architecturally stunning building.

I was blown away by the drawing and etchings. These date back to a period from 36 to 30’000 years before the present day. And rather than being primitive or simple, you can sense that the persons who created this artwork were highly perceptive, switched on and had a profound understanding not only of the materials they were using to create their art, but also the subjects they were depicting. Admittedly there was not a single microchip or fibre optic cable involved in creating this, yet despite the millennia separating myself and the person who drew these images, I could not help but feel deeply connected and touched.

The point I am trying to make is that maybe we should not let ourselves be blinded by the all the gadgets we surround ourselves with. We are not the pinnacle of any evolution, but rather just one step. High tech need not necessarily have to involve all sorts of modern trimmings and blinking lights, but rather is elegant solutions for complex problems. With this expanded definition of high tech it become applicable to many indigenous and traditional technologies.

To return somewhat closer to the arb world, the obvious parallel here is that we constantly strive to change and evolve the ways in which we work, which is good. But I also believe it is important not to innovate for the sake of innovation, to recognize the qualities and insights of generations of arborists whose work we are building on. After all, often as not, apparent innovations are nothing other than variations upon a theme that known and being used years before. Yet still we are all to prone to discard these older technologies as they are not hip and high-tech. I suggest that we take the time to take a closer look and try to understand before doing so.

Hey! Actually, if we really are living in the future, where the hell are my jetpack and my hoverboard?!

Products that will probably – hopefully – never be

Walking through downtown Seattle this morning with my youngest daughter, we were discussing shops with stuff in them that you never realized you needed – until you see it, to then realise that you cannot be without it. Which totally makes sense, in a world-turned-upside-down kind of way.

This got me wondering what such products might look like in our arborist world… so here I give you products that will probably – hopefully – never come to be!

First off, obviously, is the Bungee Jump Rope Rigging Kit™. Using this heavy-duty bungee rope, dynamic lowering will never be a problem again, you can lock off every single limb you lower and it will come down as smooth as can be. Then, watch the piece as it skyrockets upwards again, past the climber and over the roof of the house. Et voilà, piece rigged and cleared out of the garden, all in one clean sweep! Just remember: When using the BJRRK, always attach the limb with a slip knot so that it releases cleanly on the rebound.

I do not see what can possibly go wrong.

Oooooooor the DIY Port-A-Pringles lowering device…

This ingenious DIY kit solves two problems in one go: less waste and friction at your greasy finger tips whenever you need it! Whatever could go wrong?!

Moving on, and I love this one: the Timer Redirect. Before you start working down the side of a canopy, you install this redirect, estimate the time it is going to take to do the work, set the timer and off you go. When time is up, the jaws release the soft eye, popping the redirect. Ta-daaaa! Problem, solved! Why no one thought of this earlier I will never understand.

I will give this matter some more thought in the coming days, stand by for more products that will probably never – hopefully – be!

I know, I will call this solo project of mine the Dodo Line! DL stylee all the way!

Recommended reads #2

Because I do not feel like a flippant post after yesterday’s quite serious topic, I decided it is time for the next installment of the recommended reads posts.

This one is going to be about Hayao Miyazaki‘s manga/ graphic novel, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was first published from 1982 to 1984 in a number of installments. Parts of the book were later turned into an anime film of the same name.

In his sprawling magnum opus, Miyazaki portrays a post-apocalyptic world, 1’000 years after the mythical Seven Days of Fire, when a cataclysmic global conflict left behind a world of poisoned seas and bioengineered forests saturated with fungal spores brimming with organisms inimical to the scattered remains of humanity, which is barely clinging on at the fringes of this Sea of Corruption. Of course none of this stops wars and conflicts between the various remaining factions and nations, mainly the Torumekians and the Dorok nation. The arms race between these two causes an escalation within the Sea of Corruption, provoking exponential growth and mutation of the forest, which sets a process in motion towards a daikaisho (which translates as a tidal wave), threatening to cover all of the remaining land and smother all life there.

Enter Nausicaä, the princess of the Valley of the Wind. Her perception of the natural world differs from that of others, establishing bonds to the trilobite-like Ohmu and other creatures of the forest. But before a balance can be re-established, Nausicaä has to confront demons from the past and try to convince the Torumekian King and the Dorok Emperor of the danger they are placing humanity in.

In this timeless story, Miyazaki touches upon many themes, such as deep-ecology, the interconnection between humanity and the natural world, the consequences of greed for power and influence, as well as friendship, courage and standing up for what is right and necessary. Miyazaki comes from a story telling tradition that is definitively not Hollywood, where the bad guys are bad and the good guys good, here there are many shades of gray, the protagonists have a depth that allows them to evolve during the narration. The perception of the natural forces reflects a deeply animistic take on the natural world.

Despite the book being over 30 years old, the themes discussed remain as burning and urgent as when the book was first published, so for instance a number of the topics highlighted in Nausicaä featured prominently in James Cameron’s Avatar. Many recent studies have demonstrated plant consciousness and a high degree of interconnection in forests between different organisms, all in keep with very Miyazaki-esque outlook of nature. And our world is definitively facing some very serious environmental issues cause by humanity’s rampant hunger for natural resources and consumer goods.

Playing on this theme, Miyazaki delivers a deeply moving, important and inspiring story that comes highly recommended – if you do not know it already. VIZ Media published a double volume box set in 2012 that is still in print. If this kind of thing is your cup of tea, get it, read it and let’s hear Miyazaki’s message and not be indifferent to these issues.

High-profile Systems Failure

The weekend before last the unthinkable happened: a climber fell out of a tree during a Masters’ Challenge at a tree climbing competition. It is unnecessary to specify where and to whom this happened, not because it is a huge secret , but rather because it is not key to this discussion. I have however spoken to the climber since and he appears to have walked away from this one with minor bruises, which comes as a big relief.

The reason for the fall was a total anchor point failure during the climber’s ascent once he reached about 20 feet. He hit the ground and rolled to one side, narrowly avoiding being hit by the top of the tree as it impacted next to him.

Initially I meant to write about this sooner, but have to confess to having been so distressed by the whole matter that I decided it would be preferable to let it settle a bit first in order to be able to give the matter a bit more thought and to gain a better understanding of what actually happened – rather than simply charging in.

So here are my thoughts. The comments below are intended in a strictly non-judgmental spirit, I am all too aware of how situations like this can develop their own dynamic – been there, done that – , what follows it is an attempt to reflect upon the various factors that led to this failure.

The obvious key question is, how could something like this happen?

A perfect storm, you say?

Well yes, that was a phrase that also popped into my mind first off. But actually, upon reflection, this is not a random chain of events that aggravated a situation that ultimately led to system failure. So therefore I do not think that this is an accurate metaphor to describe this specific incident: there is a clear chain of conscious decisions made by a number of people, including the climber, that led to this result.

The recipe for the cocktail Massive Anchor Point Failure goes like this:

  • The tree was a Siberian Elm, a tree known to shed limbs. The internal decay on the base of the limb the anchor point was installed on was extremely extensive, with only a very narrow ring of healthy wood remaining.
  • The town the event was run in has a history of rough tree work, leading to trees with bad pruning cuts, extensive pockets of decay and extensive cavities.
  • The event was run in one day, so the Masters’ set-up involved a crew whipping round the Masters’ tree in a bucket truck setting a couple of bells. No one had climbed the whole Masters’ ahead of the event to make sure it was feasible due to time pressure to get the whole thing done in a day.
  • Many experienced volunteers did not show up this year.
  • The climber had misgivings about the anchor point, but decided to use it regardless as he was keen to perform well in Masters’
  • A number of volunteers in the ring had misgivings regarding the anchor point but did not express these prior to the climber leaving the ground.
  • The climber und a judge performed a vigorous bounce test on the anchor point.

Et voilà. Mix that all together and it results in a person falling out of a tree.

Let’s start our examination of this accident with the climber. This individual is very experienced and competent. He also says of himself that he is a highly competitive person who wants to win. On the day, due to time constraints, he decided not to manipulate the throw line in the way he would have in a work situation to get the best possible point, but rather to go with what he had.

This is classic case of target fixation.

The operator realises there is a problem, yet decides to push it to one side as he or she is close to the goal and has invested so much they are no longer able and/ or willing to turn around or to consider alternative plans of action so late in the game. Warning signs are ignored.

I do not subscribe to the point of view that as it is a comp no holds are barred. My understanding of the tree climbing competition is that they are supposed to be a professional skills competition allowing to showcase the way arborists work. The vision that anything goes seems to me to be in stark contrast to this and belongs more in an extreme sports arena.

The anchor point was bounce tested.

The information gained from a so-called bounce test is null and void. Depending on the species, even a small dead stub of a branch, so long as the line is right up against the stem will withstand such a bounce test. However, when performed by two people, assuming a load of 200 kg, a dynamic bounce test may generate considerable peak forces and may induce primary failure (see graphic below) of an anchor point – and in a next step lead to ultimate, catastrophic failure during ascent.

Do not bounce test. Two person testing yes, by all means, but make sure it is a static, steady force you exert on the anchor point.

Set-up in a Siberian Elm under time pressure.

The aim of Masters Challenge is to allow the climbers to demonstrate best practice. In this instance, however, the combination of choice of species and set up meant this was not possible. The probability of this happening increases if the set up crew does not have the ability and/ or time to trial run the climb. Also, a set up that forces the climber to choose either between good line angles/ bad anchor point or good anchor point/ bad line angles has to be questioned.

Set achievable challenges in appropriate trees in a realistic time frame.

People did not voice misgivings they had regarding the anchor point.

This touches upon something much bigger than just a competition.

I am of the conviction that by empowering all members of a crew, you are creating a powerful tool to prevent exactly this kind of failure. Everybody can at any point in time call a halt to proceedings if they feel that something is not as it should be.

These various factors stacked up and culminated in the failure of an anchor point. I am clear in my mind that the when and where of this happening was fairly random, there have been many other occasions where we were extremely close to having something similar happing, possibly with more serious consequences. The fact is we urgently need to up our game in regards to all of the above, we have to focus upon the fact that we, as an industry, are not doing a good job on systematically assessing our anchor points, recognizing warning signs and/ or overload and putting in place remedial actions.

What are suitable remedial actions?

Well, for instancy by applying stringent criteria every time you select an anchor point. The same requirements should apply regardless of what line configuration you are using. A secondary anchor point failure in a stationary line set up remains that: an anchor point failure, as it could well result in a significant fall and/ or contact with structure below you. Choose anchor points that you can assess thoroughly from the ground, use binoculars to do so. Do not rely on bounce tests as an indicator whether a point is safe or not.

Also, learn to recognize sketchy situations, perform buddy checks on each other, discuss anchor point selection in your team, strive to create a culture of dialogue that allows concerns to be expressed and heard.

And finally: Be diligent and meticulous. Every. Single. Time. After all, who is going to sort this, if not us?!


En route

Sorry for the radio silence…

There are a number of reasons for this, a combination the internet dying the death as a consequence of a lighting strike the week before last in the South of France, followed by a super-frantic week at home last week, loads of stuff to sort in a short time, including the last meeting before this year’s vertical connect.

Now en route to Seattle.

It has been too long since my last visit to Pacific Northwest, an area I have always found very appealing and interesting. Looking forwards to meeting up with old friends and to the event next weekend. Thank you, Kathy and Phil for making this possible! This time round I am afraid we will be running the workshop with a limited number of participants – just to make our life easy – , but I suppose were there to be a demand we can alway run something like this again at a later point in time.

Blog-wise, over the past few days I have come across a number of topics I want to write up, so bear with me, as soon as I get a chance to catch my breath and sit down I will write them up.