Sunday thoughts

Whew. Back home from Scotland, last of the bags that got lost in Heathrow just been delivered and feeling a bit drained…

In the 10 May edition of NewScientist, Alice Marwick wrote an interesting opinion piece that caught my eye titled “Plus ça change: social media’s broken promise”. 


In the article she describes the transformation of Web 2.0, that was initially heralded as a radical game changer that would encourage transparency, activism and creative pursuits to what it has become today where it re-inscribes a limited view of success and a narrow range of acceptable behavior, sentiments I would, at least to a degree, agree with.

In her article she writes:

“Those who weren’t company founders, but wanted broad visibility, used social media to strategically create personas that might appeal to wide audiences, using Twitter to promote themselves and position friends and acquaintances as “fans”. (…) One of the strategies I observed in San Francisco is known as micro-celebrity. Micro-celebrities use social media’s immediacy to promote carefully designed images of themselves. They think of their audiences as fans (rather than friends or family) and share personal information and intimate moments to create emotional bonds with viewers.”

In the past treemagineers has had very little social media presence – don’t expect this to change any time soon.

This was a deliberate choice on our part. We remain convinced that to ensure high-quality social interaction and a sense of authenticity, face to face meetings  are indispensable. In virtuality you loose all sorts of important aspects, such as body language, nuances in spoken language or the whole tactile dimension of human interaction. Yet despite this, people fairly regularly say things to me down the lines of: “You must be on the road almost all the time”. The answer to this question is “No”. Or at least not most of the time.

So, obviously, despite trying to ensure genuine interaction, there is still a degree of projection going on as to what we actually do, so I suppose the point I am trying to get across, is that if distortions occur face to face, how can this be avoided in virtuality? In my opinion, probably not… and, as Alice Marwick writes, in some cases, this ambiguity may even be deliberate and wanted.

All three of us, Beddes, Chris and myself spend the majority of our time doing tree work. For me this means working locally, within a 20km radius, in our tree care co-op, which for me is an essential, core part of my professional life. I enjoy working with my friends in the company, spending time around my family and just climbing, doing tree work –  I marvel, time and again, at how it is just the most fulfilling thing I can imagine doing to earn a living.

I know that Beddes and Chris feel much the same.

Team Baumpartner/ Arbres et Partenaires

Having said that, I believe there is also an element of balance involved. I organise my year into blocks of work, i.e. I will do a block of treemagineers-related activities, such as the past three months, then plan a couple of months here at home, working in the company or doing the odd day of training here or there – and then switch round again.

I find that this kind of balance and diversity lets me look forwards to all the different facets of the actives I am involved in and lets me start into the next block with a sense of fresh appreciation for what I am doing and a renewed motivation to do it well.

Caledonian Give It Some Depth

A while back I wrote a post about giving it some depth, reflecting upon the need to beef up opinions with fact it they are to be meaningful. So here we are, in the Highlands, with a load of rigging gear, attempting to do just that.

Arrived on site on Sun and was blown away by the amount of work that Chris has put into this. The site was super-well organized and well set-up, more or less ready to get going on Mon. We had a day of drops yesterday and regardless of what comes out of all of this by the end of the week, just watching rigging systems under high dynamic loads teaches me lots every time: Seeing the impact, hearing the equipment being loaded, and seeing the damage that these kind of forces can cause.

Food for thought indeed. I’ll be very interested to see how the week progresses.

So maybe this is the other side of the coin of what I wrote about the other day, about just going out there and doing some testing yourself if you have questions you want to find more out about.

Testing doesn’t come free.

You have to invest time and effort. The degree of which depends upon how ambitious the scope of the foreseen testing is, so to a degree you can influence that. The aim has to be for the methodology to be sound and for it to be replicable, i.e. the test set-up to be clearly defined.

One of the exciting things about going into a process like this is that you don’t know what’s going to come out the other end… some profound insight, a confirmation of something you already knew (but can now put figures to or can back up) – or profound puzzlement, because the outcome was not at all what you had anticipated. But that’s ok, then it’s really down to discussion to find out where the variables are that influenced the outcome, was it a mistake in set up, were you thinking down the wrong lines… or was is something else that’ll take some more work to understand?

So, big thanks to Chris for making this all happen, with this kind of preparation things go more smoothly, even if unforeseen events occur. As is often the case… especially when chucking big lumps of wood overhead into rigging systems.

Testing stuff

Heath Robinson's rope test
Heath Robinson’s rope test

Got a week of testing coming up next week in Scotland, which I’m looking forwards to, good crew to spend time with, in the Highlands, which is always beautiful – and let’s not talk about the weather forecast. I’ll be writing about it on the blog as we progress…

Thinking about this got me pondering testing.

Testing implies something that is complex and somehow mysterious. It’s not – or at least it needn’t be. As a kid I loved Heath Robinson’s drawings (see above) – still do, come to that – where he would develop a solution to a seemingly easy task by means of some ridiculously complex contraption held together by bits of string, nails and springs (I suppose the modern-day equivalent to that would be zip-ties and Duck tape). This is one way to do you testing, but there is a different approach, which – as in any systems design – is to keep it as simple as possible.

First off you want to decide what you want to find out about: maybe it was a question that came up during a lunch break and that lead to a heated debate. One way to resolve this is to define a test set- up and to run some tests. An example? One year I finished off a presentation with a slide with a picture of a compact steel karabiner choked onto a lanyard. The discussion that year had been on configuration of connectors and one of the summaries was a suggestion or a question whether it might be an idea to use a compact steel connector in certain applications. Thinking about this, observing my own use of karabiners and discussing it with Chris raised further questions, so we decided to do some testing on choked karabiners.

We defined a test methodology, met in our yard on a Saturday, set up and got going… The test set-up involved a mechanical advantage system, three steel drums of different diameters to simulate a range of branch diameters, a load cell and a Dyneema line.

Test set-up
Test set-up

We defined a three minute 15kN pull on three different diameters of “branch” and documented each sample. This resulted either in a pass or fail. The summary was that all karabiners struggled on the small diameter, with one complete failure (karabiner broke), whilst on the larger diameters, the shorter the karabiner, the better it handled this unusual loading – unusual in the sense that the connectors are not designed for this. No manufacturer would ok this kind of loading, the design merely foresees loads along major and minor axis and with the gate open. Still, we felt this was a configuration used fairly frequently in tree care and we weren’t able to find any answers to our questions, so by doing this testing we improved our knowledge – and were actually able to back up a gut feeling with facts.

The other testing I mentioned in a post a while ago was the continuous long descents testing. For this we went to the Musical Theatre here in Basel, as that offered a height of 20m plus, sufficient to do the testing in. Next problem was measuring the descent speed, 1, 2 and 3m/second. The way we sorted this was by building a rig consisting of a wooden base that we could load with weights and a small 20″ kid’s bike wheel with a speedometer on it. The line ran round this and gave us the speed km/ h speed that we converted into m/ sec. Obviously not super-accurate, but good enough to get the descent speeds roughly right.

Not brilliant quality image, sorry about that, lighting left something to be desired… still, gets the point across. Actually looks quite Heath Robinson-ish, come to think of it.

The point I’m getting to here is that if you have a question about a technical issue, go beyond a web search on Wikipedia, Youtube and the forums, get together with some friends, work out a replicable test methodology and go for it. Don’t let yourself be intimidated, testing is not something reserved for boffins in labs in white coats, it can be hands-on, exciting and can expand your comprehension of tools and systems you are working with.

It doesn’t even have to look very sexy, as long as it does the trick! Just look at the Russian space program – basically tractors sitting atop big rockets, but they get the job done.

We Are Arborists

Fantastic videos by Florim Ajda, we were treated to a sneak preview of the whole thing today after Climbers’ Forum set up in Augsburg… Florim manages to capture a lot of the soul and spirit of what it means to work in trees – and of the people who do so.

Thank you for your hard work, Florim.

Give it some depth, part three

I actually considered renaming the last three posts to Give It Some Depth, Give It Some Depth Strikes Back and Return of Give It Some Depth – but then decided that’d be a bit too geeky.

On the drive back from Neuchâtel this morning through the driving rain (yes, I was very glad we had the presence of mind to cancel the last of the three days of the course and move it to Autumn!) I was thinking about the last two posts. I realized that I was really thinking about the whole thing from a communication and presentation angle only, but that when I took a step back actually realized that it goes much deeper than that – that this philosophy is a red thread through much of the treemagineers story: all along we have always been very aware of the need to have a well-founded understanding of what we are doing, designing and talking about and attempting to back up statements with hard data.


When we were first talking about the Ocean Polyester Eye to Eye slings we defined a stitch length that would function well in a Hitch Climber configuration, i.e. it had to be a fair bit shorter than all other stitched terminations out there that we were aware of. I remember that Egon, one of the engineers at Teufelberger was at the meeting where that stitch length and the feasibility was discussed. He had been in the company for years, had lots of experience – but never used to say much. But he’d get this oh-this-is-a-challenging-problem look sometimes, and he definitively had it on then… he’d go away and mull over the problem and you knew that great things are about to happen! That’s how it worked on that occasion. He delivered the goods – and then some! To this day, I love that termination, very functional and elegant!

It was clear that we could get certification for it, as it fulfilled the necessary criteria.

However, during that same time Ulli Distel was doing high cycle testing on his Gecko spikes after a couple of issues with them. This got us wondering whether high-cycle failure might be an issue for textiles too. So we decided to run high cycle tests on Ulli’s rig, doing a range of tests of up to 100’000 cycles at low load and then testing for residual breaking strain and also constant cycles with increasing load. No standard requires this, but it was info we felt we wanted to have in the background before people started trusting their lives to the slings.

Or the long descent testing comparing Polyester and Ocean Poly slings. That was great, fixed up a rig in the Musical Theatre here in Basle and simulated constant descents on a loop of rope for a range of descent speeds. Again, nothing required by standards, but non the less highly relevant information in view of the planned use of the Eye to Eye slings. The difference between the performance of Polyester and the PES/ Aramid co-braid was really striking, after 2000m we gave up on wearing through the 10mm slings in one descent. That would be a big tree indeed! But again, this is all fantastic data to have to fall back on.

Then the epic ascender/ lanyard/ line testing that Chris did with a crew on DMM’s drop tower in Llanberris. Or the Impact Block testing that we did in the forest a couple of years back…

Testing to standards is all very well, but sometimes you want to know just that little bit more about how the equipment is going to behave in a real-world situation…

Apart from the fact that it’s fun and interesting to do this kind of testing, it is also adding to the depth of understanding backing up a product or an assembly. In view of the fact that we’re not  designing.. dunno, computer games or sunglasses, but equipment that people are trusting their lives to, we feel very strongly that from an ethical point of view this is the right thing to do.

Give it some depth, part two

Where do topics come from and what to talk about?

I there was one piece of advice I would give, it’s to be open to input and to be prepared to make lateral connections, i.e. not to approach a topic from one side only or from a very narrow perspective. I find it interesting to consider a topic from multiple angles and maybe also to look to other areas or industries, as again, this adds more layers and depth to a topic.

I have always found reading to be a rich source of inspiration and ideas.

Read that book!
Read that book!

Looking for a one-stop starting point from which to draw ideas from a wide range of science-based sources? I would recommend subscribing to New Scientist. This is a weekly UK publication that summarizes research published in the specialist publications, such as Nature, BMJ, the Lancet etc. and I have found it invaluable. When things are really busy, issues may go unread for weeks on end, but then I will pick one up and topics relating to things I have been working on or thinking about jump out at me from, I don’t know… somebody writing about copyright issues in regards to the future of 3D printing and home manufacturing. Or a review of a really interesting book I wouldn’t have come across otherwise.

As to the how of presenting topics, there are myriad publications on how to present. And often as not a lot of them I find annoying, patronizing or simply not relevant to what I am interested in.

However, having said that there is one author I would like to mention, which is Garr Reynolds. Garr is an American who lives and works in Japan and has written a lot about presenting. He applies the Zen philosophy to how he thinks information should be presented and uses a very stripped down, minimalist visual language, allowing white spaces, for instance, that I find really interesting. I can throughly recommend his books such as Presentation Zen or the Naked Presenter.

Another thing I have found really interesting is watching TED talks. TED began in 1984 and stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. At the TED conferences people deliver short talks on a dizzying range of subjects in a very short, concise fashion that I find really interesting, like for instance this talk by Rose George on the global shipping industry. Never given the subject much thought before, but she puts it in such a clear and structured fashion that I can take something away from this short talk – understanding based on fact.

Or this talk by Sir Ken Robinson on changing education paradigms. Ken is a really inspiring speaker who brings facts together in a really clear, structured fashion without over-simplifying things. I also really like his delivery and the way he creates a rapport with the audience. The other thing I love about this video is the artwork by Cognitive Media, as it visualizes the presented information in an intelligent and funny fashion.

These talks help you reflect and get you thinking about how to convey and communicate sometimes complex information in a very clear, precise fashion without having to dumb it down, but rather to strip it down to the essentials and to adapt it to the audience you will be speaking to, which is likely to change from event to event.

In approaching the assembling of themes and materials for your presentation in this way it becomes more than just that, it turns it into a process in which you gain insights and a broadening of vision that in turn will allow you to give the topics you are talking about more depth… or that is the way it is for me at any rate.

Give it some depth, part one

The final approach to the Climbers’ Forum in Augburg got me thinking about the process of developing topics for presentations.

So,what makes a good presentation?

Of course there’s obvious aspects like the charisma of the presenter, the form of presentation and all of the wrappings surrounding it.

However, to me, what makes the difference in regards to the quality of a presentation is the depth that it has.

Entering into a new topic, or exploring a new angle to me is always a bit of a trip into the unknown, as you are never sure where you’re going to end up. This is the challenge and also the attraction of doing this kind of work, is that you often gain understanding in an area you weren’t expecting to initially. For that reason it also demands flexibility, i.e. not to enter into the process with fixed, preconceived ideas and to be willing to change your mind should evidence indicate that maybe an initial hunch or gut feeling turns out to have been wrong.

Sometimes we will start out on a topic and I will think to myself that this is going to be an easy one. But then every presentation ends up demanding effort in one way or another: this could be in a trip to research it; defining a testing procedure, followed by a series of testing; intellectual effort, reading up on background information;  a series of drawings; talking to a wide range of people; assembling materials from diverse sources; chasing up obscure data; working through legislation or talking to manufacturers… and so the list goes on.

This effort is what gives a presentation its soul, its depth.

This is a quality that the spectator may not be immediately aware of and may therefore superficially seem like overkill, as you could achieve the same result with much less effort, yet it allows you to back up statements with facts and to make them with greater authority and adds weight to your arguments. Without this solid foundation the whole structure above can be ever so cleverly crafted, yet it will remain inherently unstable, as background is lacking.

Give it some depth! Blubb...
Give it some depth! Blubb…

A number of topics we have developed over years, periodically revisiting them, until finally a keystone element – a central insight or piece of information – slots into place and the whole thing makes sense and can be communicated. Or themes are revisited and developed further as variations on a theme. In this way, a discussion that might start off by looking at configuration issues  in systems design may at a later point in time expand to include considerations regarding aspects of compatibility of neighboring components.

In the day and age of near-instantaneous communication this position may seem almost a little old-fashioned, however it is one that has served us well over the years and seems appropriate when discussing matters regarding work at height and Personal Protective Equipment.

Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and diligence. (Abigail Adams)

Why waste time learning when ignorance is instantaneous. (Bill Waterson, Calvin and Hobbes)

More than just a grain of truth

Came across this old Toyota advert. It makes me smile and wince at the same time, because it really hits uncomfortably close to the mark. People working with trees in (sub)urban environments are having to battle tree owners or municipalities prioritizing other issues over trees all the time. This is a worrying development, especially in view of the fact that towns are changing  so rapidly that there is not really the time for a mature population of trees to establish itself before requirements change and everything is started from scratch again.

Clear priorities

Yes, indeed, you could love:

☐ your car

☐ building

☐ green house

☐ patio

☐ sunlight

☐ view

☐ … (delete as applicable)

more than your trees. After all, they only produce the oxygen we breathe.

It also reminded me of this case of an Elm tree in Brighton which New Scientist ran an article on a while ago (see article below).

I find this very encouraging: People need to start to understand that trees are more than just a mere commodity, they are essential not just to quality of life in towns but also to life on Earth as we know it. This doesn’t mean protecting every tree at any cost. Certainly there are situations in which a tree becomes dangerous or a change in its surrounding is so significant that it is not compatible with the preservation of the tree. Still, as the case in Brighton shows, alternatives often are possible.

The aim, in my opinion is to approach such decisions with the necessary respect and diligence, to try to see all sides and based on that to come to a balanced, well founded decision, which allows the tree to keep its dignity and is sustainable.