Skip to content
Health, Sports & Psychology
  • Video
  • 5 mins

OpenLearn Live: 22nd August 2016

Updated Monday 22nd August 2016

The tiny pieces of metal that climbers hang their life from, and the fight for the right to see the code running your body. Free learning from across the day.

How does learning and research fit with your life? OpenLearn Live epxlores the point where they come together. This page will be updated across the day.

On Friday, we remember the Soviet coup, completed a week of sports equipment and looked at dual nationality

See the complete collection of OpenLearn Live


Today's posts


Who owns the code running your heart?

Medical technology means that many people have become cyborgs - they've got minicomputers inside them, regulating tiny pieces of health kit. For example, a lot of pacemakers send and receive wireless transmissions to regulate the code which runs them. And that creates a whole series of messy questions, boiling down to 'why would a person be forbidden from seeing the code that runs something that is inside them?' BackChannel has a couple of stories about people campaigning for the right to know what's going on with their heart regulating technology:

Boston attorney and open-source activist Karen Sandler has a similar story: She has a common hereditary condition called hypertrophic cardiac myopathy, and her heart is prone to glitches and arrhythmias that could potentially be fatal. She has an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), which unlike a pacemaker kicks in only if she needs to be shocked out of an arrhythmia and back to life. Recently, it has mistakenly shocked her twice, including while she was pregnant. Pregnancy can bring on heart rhythm changes that the device interpreted as a dangerous arrhythmia. Like Moe, Sandler wants to be able to explore the code running her device for programming flaws and vulnerability to hacking, but she can’t. “Because I don’t have access to the source code, I have no power to do anything about it,” she says. In her eyes, it’s a particularly obvious example of a problem that now cuts across much of modern life: proprietary software has become crucial to daily survival, and yet is often locked away from public exploration and discussion by copyright.

Read the full story at Backchannel: “I Want to Know What Code Is Running Inside My Body”

Read Half man, Half circuit - the people living as cyborgs


BBC Four, tonight, 8pm: Life Story

As BBC Four shakes off its surprising reinvention as an all-Olympics channel and the scientists and musicians who usually populate its schedules return, there's a chance to see our 2014 landmark natural history series Life Story.

Find out more about Life Story


Caster Semenya

One of the most-discussed victories at Rio 2016 was that of Caster Semenya, whose testosterone levels have become the subject of courtroom wrangles and rule clashes. We've gathered a short reading list of some of the more insightful articles and videos unpicking the question of genetic difference and sporting ethics raised by her success.

Explore Our Caster Semenya reading list


Bolt week: climbing bolts

This week, we're going to celebrate Usain Bolt's extraordinary achievement at the Olympics in the best way we know how: tangentally. We'll be celebrating some other bolts across the week. And we're starting with climbing bolts.

Rock climbing bolt Creative commons image Icon Benjamin Hollis under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license

Basically, these are small metal hooks that climbers put permanently into rock faces to aid their own, and others' climbs.

This is a wonderful example of sports people helping each other out, but there is a downside. Because when you're using a bolt that someone else has put into a climb, you're literally trusting your life to the work of a stranger. And even if the person who put the bolt in place did a great job, the nature of rock climbing means these bolts are pieces of metal in sometimes crumbly rock. Jeff Archy at climbing.com explains the danger:

[B]olting sport routes is a completely unregulated practice, carried out mostly by practitioners who are not only untrained, but often are functioning on dangerously tight budgets. Skimping on materials can save $100 or more per route—a week’s living expenses at Miguel’s or Rifle Mountain Park. At the same crag, some anchors will be “by the book,” while others are creative combinations of bolts, chains, and hangers chosen to save cost, and some are poorly placed due to lack of knowledge. Some anchors are exposed to unusual corrosive forces that have surprised even trained specialists.

Climbing organisations recognise this, and place the onus of responsibility on the climber to ensure that their path is safe. The British Mountaineering Council publishes a 22 page user's guide to making use of bolts:

All climbing is an exercise in personal responsibility. We climb because we enjoy it, whilst trying to minimise the risks involved. With hand-placed protection you judge for yourselves how reliable it might be and make your decisions in the light of (or despite) any doubt you may feel.

Few climbers would place bolts and then not climb the route themselves and so have a vested interest in ensuring the equipment is safe during their ascent. After all, falling is a far more common occurrence on bolt-protected climbs than on traditional routes. 

The risk, though, is that even climbers who think they're following best practice can be confounded by the geology of the rocks they're climbing - there's a wide range of different types of rock that people might find themselves searching for a toehold upon. A study by ClimbZA, for example, discovered something quite disturbing about even the best bolts on a climb on soft sandstone:

It appears that ALL the anchors fall short of what would seem to be the desired safe working load and should be considered on a bolt-by-bolt, route-by-route basis for replacement. This was not due to negligence on the part of the bolters, who generally followed the currently accepted bolting standards and in general co-operated with and encouraged this testing program. Some bolters even placed test anchors specifically for anchor validation.

And writing for the American Safe Climbing Assocation, John Byrnes, Skip Harper and Mike Shelton warned about what can happen when the cliff faces out over the sea:

The stainless steels used today in almost all climbing bolts are susceptible to a failure mechanism called Chloride Stress Corrosion Cracking or SCC. Just like it sounds, the chlorine ion, which results from dissolving salt in water, and stress must both be present. A typical multi-piece expansion bolt has the shaft in tension, and the hanger has complex stresses placed on it when it is clamped against the rock as you tighten the nut. This type of bolt placed in a sea cliff is a bomb with a short fuse. Once started, SCC spreads like a disease following the stress lines in the steel, much like grass grows in small cracks in concrete and forces the pieces apart. The cracks get larger over time, and soon the microscopic grains of the metal are no longer in contact.

Although SCC can occur on any part of a bolt exposed to salt water, it usually occurs under the hanger where salt water wicks into the crevice between the hanger and the rock surface. Bolts corroded by SCC typically break flush with the surface of the rock. Hangers typically break at the ninety-degree bend, and nuts can crack just about anywhere. At least one bolt vendor sells stainless steel "clad" bolts and nuts. These have a thin outer cladding of stainless steels urrounding a core of mild steel. This type of bolt seems to be worse then others, since once SCC cracks the cladding,oxidation (rust) finishes the job in short order. If you see a stainless bolt with a rust "beard" on the rock under it, beware!

There are attempts to try and solve the problem of degrading bolts - in the US, for example, the Access Fund is attempting to replace at-risk bolts with ones designed to last 50 years.

The best advice, though, is for every climber to do their best to know they can trust the bolts.

As if worrying about the bolt from a safety perspective isn't enough, there's also an environmental aspect to hammering pieces of metal into what is generally unspoiled territory. Many environmentalists have harboured concerns about the impact the sport can have on the planet. A Canadian study at the start of the century was pretty damning:

The researchers found that rock climbing greatly decreases the diversity of vegetation on cliffs. Notably, climbed faces had only 4% as many vascular plant species as those that were unclimbed. Moreover, the diversity of bryophytes and lichens in climbed areas were roughly 30 and 40% of that in climbed areas, respectively.

Rock climbing also decreases the cover of vegetation on cliffs. For vascular plants, the cover on climbed plateau and talus was roughly 60% of that on unclimbed areas. For bryophytes, the cover on climbed plateau and talus was about a fifth of that on unclimbed areas. While climbing did not affect the extent of lichen cover, it did change the types of species that grow on cliffs. Delicate lichen species were replaced by tough ones: in unclimbed areas the most common lichens are so fragile that they crumble to the touch, while in climbed areas the most common lichens are so sturdy that they can even withstand rubbing.

Climbers aren't actively going out to destroy the wilderness - most actually prize the wild nature of the places they climb. So anything they can do to minimise the impact of the sport is embraced by the community. And this includes trying to reduce the visual impact of the bolts. Reese Martin explains how:

The goal when camouflaging bolts and fixed anchors is to apply a durable coating that blends into the rock background, yet can withstand weather and repeated clipping. Use non-reflective (flat or matte) colors that closely match the rock. Shiny (glossy) coatings reflect too much light and are easy to spot.

One method is to take a few representative rocks with you to the paint store or bring paint chips with you to the crag to get a color match. If that’s too much trouble, I’ve found that in most situations with granite, light colored sandstone or limestone a flat black primer works extremely well. Gear painted flat black looks like a shadow from most angles.

Listen: The OU's Mark Brandon explains the joy of sea-cliff climbing

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?