Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hot Air!

Balloon 1
No, this is not a post about global warming! It's not every day a hot air balloon passes your home and in this case it seemed to be heading for disaster - first the trees, then the power lines! But a long burst of propane (that's where the global warming bit comes in!) and all was well......
Balloon 5

Friday, April 25, 2008

Train Fare Rationalization?

Not much on trains these days, but along comes the news that the incredibly complex fare structures used by Britain's train operating companies are to be simplified.  In this analysis by the BBC it is suggested that the rationalization of fares will ultimately lead to passengers paying more.  That doesn't really surprise, now does it!

The biggest shake up would appear to be the non-refundability of advance purchase fares if plans change.  With travel times up in the air a lot of the time due to the weather, track and signal failures within the railway system, not to mention external failures and necessary changes to one's itinerary, it is clear that the changes will probably favor the train operators.

The plan, of course, is always to maximum the revenue per seat (and, unfortunately per aisle space as well) so that the profits can be re-invested in a better service.

Sadly I have just about given up on rail travel in recent months.  It's all about reliability, or the lack of it.  Higher prices won't help to bring me back.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Is Science too big a subject?

Wired.com carries this article today about research into a drought that caused the human population in East Africa to shrink to "maybe 2,000" individuals about 70,000 years ago.  Interesting reading because it reports only half the story and you do have to wonder if the researchers don't know all the story either.

As reported on this blog, the human population did indeed shrink as a result of a massive volcanic eruption at Mount (now Lake) Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia.  the Toba event is well chronicled geologically as a layer of volcanic ash (or tuff) can be correlated across much of Asia.  The ash cloud would have caused a localized winter and guess where!  Prevailing winds would have carried the ash cloud around the globe and East Africa, birthplace of Homo sapiens, is at the same latitude.

The near extinction of our species was almost certainly true but what happened was truly marvelous.  A mass exodus lead to the classic survival of the fittest and perhaps those 2,000 survivors carried the "right stuff" to evolve into the intelligent life form called "humankind".

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Live Mesh - a Microsoft vision

Live Mesh is announced.  I am not sure whether to be excited or dismayed.  As a reluctant user of PowerPoint (only because it is the presentation software of universal choice) I have mixed emotions about Microsoft releasing anything new before they address the many many issues in their existing products.  But at least this product will be cross-platform (mind you, Microsoft may have to consider cross platform applications as the norm if Apple's sales continue to rise!)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day by wired.com

I like the sentiment behind this article - let's just celebrate the planet and not get too political, environmental or zealous about it.  Wonderful satellite images.  I hope they keep this page live for a long time!

The moral challenge

Gordon Brown now thinks we should be "more selective" in employing a biofuels policy.  Quote of the day:

"If our UK review shows that we need to change our approach, we will also push for change in EU biofuels targets"

We need to review this?  Come on, Gordon, don't be so wishy washy, that's how we got into this fine mess in the first place, by paying too many people to study the problem!

[An extra thought on the article.  We keep reading that the number of people being pushed into greater poverty may be 100 million.  That number will surely rise in the coming months, mark my words.  This is a very serious problem, far more serious than the politicians imagine.]

Napoli Report

The BBC announced this morning that an official report on the Napoli is out and available for download here as a pdf file.

Napoli in the Evening Sunshine

I must admit to being somewhat disappointed to find out that the report only concerns itself with the ship and not with the environment into which the ship was purposely placed for what has now been sixteen months.  No mention of the ship having been beached on a world heritage coast (a.k.a. The Jurassic Coast) and no mention of why that decision was taken.

In fact, by stressing that the structural integrity of twelve other vessels is similarly weak the report seems to be trying to add weight to the fact that the beaching was necessary.  What they appear to fail to mention (and I admit to having only scanned the report, not reading every word) is that the crack in the hull would not easily break when controlled explosives were applied as part of the salvage operation.  In other words, some of the photos of damage may not be that relevant as they could be the result of several attempts at blowing the ship into two.

While the report is probably not a cover up, its conclusions can be taken that way.  Once the last of the ship is removed I am sure the entire episode will quietly "float off into the sunset".

The Napoli and the Beach

Yet more anti-biofuel matter!

Another day, another second thought on European biofuels policy!

Monday, April 21, 2008

More anti-biofuel matter

This time from wired.com.  Looks like those biofuel subsidies won't be long-lasting!

Science vs Establishment - a case history

My recent posts have called to account the problems when politicians and scientists get together and "cook the books".  The latest debacle with climate change science has plenty of precedents with several that are close to my own profession - geology.

The early geologists, often thought of as natural historians, soon found that they could not easily reconcile their observations in the field with what they had been taught.  Namely the Old Testament explanation of the history of the planet could not be supported with factual evidence from the field.

Many of the early natural historians did sterling work on the six days a week they did not work at their principle job.  Yes, they were ministers of the cloth!  So the lack of coherence between the Old Testament and their observations must have been of great concern.

Just what would the bishop say to a rector or vicar who wanted to publish a heretical treatise on the age of the earth?  Learned professors at institutions like Oxford University sided with the Church and denounced the many heresies that stacked up against them.

Charles Darwin was so concerned with his theory* of evolution that he was reluctant to publish the Origin of Species until persuaded by many of his learned friends (and in fact it was the threat that parallel researcher Alfred Russell Wallace might publish first that tipped him over the edge).  Darwin was then vilified by the Establishment for selling Homo sapiens down river - a mere animal?  What balderdash!

So geology took a while to shake off these shackles which still come back to haunt from time to time.  In 1912 Alfred Wegener noted how the opposite sides of the Atlantic seem to fit together and proposed continental drift.  But Wegener was a "mere" meteorologist, not a geologist, and despite his research turning up solid evidence (fossils from both sides of the ocean matched) his theory was laughed at by, you guessed it, the Establishment.  As a student in the 1960s I witnessed the gradual acceptance and provision of proof that continental drift does take place and the theory of plate tectonics, its direct descendant, is now universally accepted.

There are other Establishment mindsets alive and well in geology today and no doubt they will be debunked in the future as individuals stake their reputation and risk it all on a new approach to old subjects.  Just like the modern day climate change debate!

[* An important point about evolution.  DNA techniques have, in recent years, allowed the theory of evolution to be proven]

Palm Oil - Jekyll or Hyde?

Back in the 1970s Malaysia started to introduce palm oil plantations, stripping out virgin jungle in places like Johore (north of Singapore) and planting vast rows of saplings.  Which soon grew into trees laden with fruit.  This was slash and burn agriculture and of course today it's on the increase.
Palm Oil Plantation, Malaysia
Somewhere at home we have a Malaysian Airlines System cook book that espouses the use of high chloresterol palm oil for every day cuisine.  Personally I prefer to live longer with a Mediterranean diet!  That seemed to be an important use for palm oil back then.  Today the new and critical use for palm oil is in biofuels and, because this is part of the green initiative to save the planet, the planting of many more palm oil plantations is under way.

So the situation has come wherein Greenpeace cannot easily decide whether to love or hate the palm oil plantation.  On the one hand it provides biofuel, on the other hand it removes vast areas of habitat for aboriginal people, orang utans and many other species.

So Greenpeace is staging a protest against Unilever today, complete with people dressed in orang utan suits.

Dr. Hyde yesterday, Mr. Jekyll today.  The life cycle of palm oil!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Google Earth - New Version


A new version of Google Earth is out.  If you like and use this free software, the new version is much the same but a bit slicker.  I particularly like the directions tour.  It's like being a raptor soaring over the planned route!  Particularly impressive on clover leaf junctions!

It would be even more useful if the tour could be recorded and saved as a movie.  After all, there is no wi-fi available along cross-country routes.  Not yet, anyway.  I realize that this is really a poor man's version of Sat-Nav (except the images are real air photos) which is becoming a common place accessory in many vehicles, but I rather like the idea of being able to plan ahead and with a good co-pilot manning the movie we could almost be rally drivers!

The NIPCC's report: It's a CO2 Scare

A useful article in today's Sunday Telegraph by Christopher Booker points to an excellent report authored by 15 eminent scientists led by Dr. Fred Singer.  This report is a 4MB pdf download which will provide 50 pages of illuminating science.

The fifteen scientists worked under an umbrella organization, the Non-Governmental International Panel on Climate Change, to produce a document that contrasts with the official (and very political) reports issued by the International Panel on Climate Change.  So it's NIPCC vs. IPCC.

The NIPCC report claims that the IPCC have been selective in their use of data and have ignored a most important feature of computer models - feedback.  From even a lay point of view it is clear that every action creates a reaction so why did the IPCC ignore feedback?  Apparently the politics of climate change forced the IPCC to be selective, to produce an end-result that had been ordained to be necessary.  That is simply bad science and history has demonstrated many times over that consensus science is rarely successful.

The NIPCC analyzed how feedback could work within the atmosphere and predicted that water vapor, the largest component of "greenhouse gas" does a remarkably efficient job of stabilizing the climate.  The test of how effective this feedback could be is to study global satellite data (the IPCC chooses land based stations, often unsuitably positioned in heat islands like cities).  Global satellite data from the last 10 years shows no perceptible change in temperature.  Unfortunately 10 years is not long enough for me (the geologist in me speaking!) but even so this information is at direct variance with the oft touted news that we are experiencing uncontrollable anthropogenic global warming during the same time span.

I could go on, but actually it makes a lot more sense for me to recommend reading Booker's article and then downloading the NIPCC report.  Fifty pages sounds like a lot but the latest IPCC synthesis of their AR4 report is longer.

Fred Singer makes the point in his preface that the debate on anthropogenic global warming is being suppressed and decisions based on the IPCC report are being blindly accepted by politicians.  The debate must continue and where better to conduct it than on the internet?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Biofuel Plantation


Palm oil plantations, Indonesia.  The view is approximately 10 miles across.  Thirty years ago this was all jungle (or, as the politically correct like to call it, the tropical rain forest).  It is very probable that rice could be grown here but it isn't.

Where the Nanny State doesn't exist

I spend my time living between two very different cultures.  The so-called developed world and the so-called undeveloped world.  In some ways it is hard to believe in those labels.  True, we have few power failures in the UK (though more than we used to, I think) while in Africa they are so common most offices and hotels have a back up generator.  But in terms of modern issues like health and safety and the so-called nanny state that "knows best", I think the values in the developing world are far more commendable.

A simple example.  In the UK I swim whenever I can in a heated outdoor pool in Exeter - all year long and it's great.  However the number of signs plastered around the pool that tell us what we can't, mustn't do is quite amazing.  I would love to show you a photograph of the place but, naturally I am not allowed to do so, this being nanny state country.  [Edit April 20th:  The pool is privately owned - see dp's comment]

In Africa I swim in an outdoor hotel pool.  There is not one sign around the pool.  But guess what, I don't actually need a sign to tell me which end is deep and which is shallow!  And as I am a responsible person I know that I should only dive in to the deep end.  Back in the UK, of course, I am not allowed to dive at all!

And, naturally, I can show you a photo of the pool:
Villa Madiba, Pointe Noire

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Innocent Photographers. . . .

An interesting article from the BBC that says nothing that has been said before about the law and taking photographs in public spaces.  Since 9/11 we have read numerous stories and some of us have experienced the problem first hand.  In 2003 I had this idea of specializing as an oil industry photographer, taking shots of refineries, installations etc. for annual reports, board rooms, etc.  While living in Houston and with my oil industry experience this seemed to be a natural thing to do.

But it wasn't.  Heading out to Pasadena where all the oil installations are located along the Houston Ship Channel I began to think about the security aspect.  It can't possibly affect me, I thought!  Well, it did.  As soon as I started to frame the first shot of a petrochemical plant the security people were on to me.  Without a letter of permission there was no way this business opportunity was going to get off the ground.

Later I found myself in a children's play center in Warwickshire with my two grandchildren.  We were having a lot of fun and I had my camera with me.  Suddenly I realized that I could be challenged as a pedophile even though every shot I had taken was of my own kin.  I put the camera away.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

RSS techniques used by the media

If you use an RSS newsreader (you do, don't you?) the you will be aware that there are several ways to present an item to the world.  Most bloggers simply allow their entire entry to be uploaded onto the newsreader site.  It is then easy to scan the entire article, photos, movies and all.  If you want to make a comment or read other comments, simply click on to the site.  Otherwise keep moving down the list.

Commercial media and the BBC (which is not commercial, quite the opposite!) employ a very different technique.  The newsreader is only given a title and the first line or two of the article.  No photos, nothing visual.  Sometimes there will be a box of ads as well.  The reason for this is simple - revenue enhancement!  They want you to click through so that they can claim to the advertisers that the story is getting more hits on their website, not your newsreader!

Why the BBC does this is difficult to comprehend.  There are no advertisements on the site and the site is paid for out of the TV license.  As a provider of news the BBC can and should do a lot better.

Also, the BBC has recently begun a new tactic - catchy titles.  For example:  "A lot of steak" is about "EU rules on mince upset traditional UK beef producers."  It's all about market share, apparently.  The BBC wants you to use their site, not your newsreader.  Then they can claim that, with more page hits they are providing a better service.

In my opinion they are providing a less than good service, causing me to waste more time on the web than I care to spend.

Global Warming vs Global Hunger

This article says what I've been going on about for some time.  Apparently even the UN is getting concerned.  Based on my observations in Kinshasa, that may not be a good thing:  their concern costs you and me a lot of money.

What is most interesting about this article is the tenor of the huge number of comments.  Whether the politicians like it or not there is a huge undercurrent of opinion that is firmly and squarely opposed to the politics of global warming.  How this undercurrent will become mainstream remains to be seen.  It may take some time which implies the potential for a great deal of discomfort and death in poorer countries while the politicians play their games.

I find it interesting that when in Africa the subject of global warming politics rarely figures in conversation.  Believe it or not, Africans have more important things to worry about.  Perhaps that's the trouble with the so-called developed world - we think we don't have any problems and so allow people like Al Gore to invent them for us.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Compulsory Biofuel

Even the BBC cannot avoid what is fast becoming the realization that biofuel production is far from green, leading to greater poverty among indigenous peoples and driving the price of basic foods beyond the reach of many millions.

So they have devoted a lot of column inches to this report that the UK Government is mandating at least 2.5% of petrol and diesel must include biofuel.  Yet another example of the politics of global warming gone awry.

Monday, April 14, 2008

John Simpson in Kinshasa

April is reading "Not Quite World's End: A Traveller's Tales" by BBC Foreign Correspondent John Simpson.  The other day she read a passage aloud to me concerning a visit he made a few years ago to Kinshasa.  I have to admit there were some parallels with his description and my first experience leaving Kinshasa airport which was around the same time.  But I am pleased to say that things have improved a bit since then.  Not a lot, but I couldn't say that Kinshasa is the worst airport in the world like Simpson does.  I am sure there are worse to be found, I just haven't been there!

On reflection I think Brazzaville's Maya Maya International may take my personal prize.

Are biofuels the cause of higher food prices?

Both the World Bank and the IMF have spoken on the crisis facing poorer countries due to the huge increases in basic food prices.  But no-one seems to know why the prices have increased so rapidly in the past three years.  If they do they are not telling.  Surely they do know, but perhaps they don't want to admit they know.

My guess is that too much valuable crop growing land has been turned over to lucrative biofuel farming.  While that may not directly explain the short supply of rice it certainly can explain why there is less grain in general, forcing many to turn to rice and thus driving up its prices.

The policy of growing biofuel needs to be questioned.  Urgently.

Video and the Net

I am not sure about all this video stuff.  First there was YouTube but now it seems everyone is getting in on the act.  Even Flickr, the photo sharing site.

Personal movies have always been the bane of family get togethers, in particular those "what we did on our holidays" in glorious 8mm film format - you know, the ones that turned orange before it was possible to transfer them to video.  Not that the average quality of internet video is much better but at least the colors won't fade!

So why the incredible interest now?  It beggars belief.  I even own a video camera and have three movies on YouTube but I simply can't find any enthusiasm to do more.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Flickr Back but Lo-Res

A work around for those hungry for my Flickr photostream!  I'm loading low resolution versions, no bigger than 500 pixels wide, as a temporary fix.  The full resolution images will replace them eventually.  So for the time being the images are only allocated to sets, not groups.  Here's a taster from last weekend - an HDR treatment of clouds offshore from Weston Mouth, East Devon.  Looking surprisingly fluffy they harbored snow, as was proved later in the afternoon.

Clouds

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Dead Dinosaurs and the Asteroid

Once again we read that one Asteroid killed off all the dinosaurs.  While it is true that a large asteroid probably did finish them off, it is hardly true to suggest that without that asteroid they would have continued to flourish.  By the end of the Cretaceous the dinosaur was already on its way out having specialized to the point that it could not cope with change - the darkening of the skies after the asteroid's impact was enough to cause a global winter.  It was the inability to cope with this change that killed of the dinosaurs, not the asteroid per se.

There is surely a moral for Homo sapiens here.  Even as the politicians deny change so we are pricing ourselves out of the global economy.  No asteroid needed for us, just a bunch of hot-heads preaching doom and gloom without fully understanding the implications.

I am reminded of a plaque in the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta that supports my contention above.  "Species come and species go.  The only constant in life on Earth is change"

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Glacial Lake Story

Ah, this is the way to write a political story about global warming!  Scientists observe a perfectly normal post-glacial event and then the media writes it up as due to global warming.  Guess what!  Post-glacial means that the planet is warming up!  This is a normal event.

The post-glacial period we are currently enjoying is far more unstable than most geologic time.  The media would be positively bored by the lack of natural events had we evolved during a more stable geological time.  Of course, there is a strong argument that we evolved into Homo sapiens precisely because of the post-glacial climatic instability.  But that's another story you won't be reading much about!

No Flickr - Slow Upload Speeds

Why no Flickr recently?  Simply that I can't get an upload speed that is fast enough and stable enough to upload just one 8 MB photo file at a time!  But there are a few available on my Tumblr site.  This less advertised mini-blog is called "Snaps and Crackles from Pops" and is aimed at my grandchildren.  But the photos are still photos even though they are low resolution, so please enjoy!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Gordon Brown's Mosquito Nets

On the face of it this report looks and sounds very good.  20 million mosquito nets at £10 a piece sounds a lot and I think the price is actually very steep but in reality it is a drop in the ocean of malaria containment.  Prevention will require more than netting.  Education on how mosquitos breed would be money better spent in the long run.  Malaysia did this thirty years ago so there is a precedent.

But none of this is why I have written this post.  It irks me that the first paragraph reads, and I quote:

Gordon Brown has appeared on the US talent show American Idol to promise to buy 20 million mosquito nets for malaria-hit countries.

Truth is, I don't think Gordon Brown has £200 million in his bank account!  What the report really says, of course, is that the UK Government, a.k.a. the British Taxpayer, is buying the mosquito nets.  Typical political grandstanding which simply should not be allowed to go uncommented.  Media, where are you?

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Baywatch vs The Simpsons

News today that Venezuelan TV is replacing The Simpsons with Baywatch because the former is unsuitable for children.  To anyone who hasn't been to Venezuela that might seem a little odd - after all Pamela Anderson's boobs do seem to get in the way of life saving activities!  But my experience suggests that the Government probably cannot tolerate the candid satire of The Simpsons even when it usually isn't aimed at them or anything like them.  By contrast, Baywatch scenes can be seen all the time on beaches and around swimming pools.

Venezuelan women are recognized to be very attractive and have at least one Miss World that I am aware of.  But these days the percentage of women electing to have breast augmentation in the country is among the highest in the world.  Which possibly explains why Baywatch is the Government's program of choice.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Mobiles over Europe - NO!

According to the BBC, Europe is to allow cell/mobile phones to be used by passengers while airborne over Europe.  What a dreadful idea.  Hopefully the airlines will show some reluctance in offering the service to passengers.  Some hope!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Library of Congress on Flickr!

Once again the US taxpayer sees value for money!  The Library of Congress is sharing priceless photos from their archives on Flickr so that people can comment and add to the historical value contained therein.  Fascinating stuff!

Tip of the Hat to the Birmingham Conservation Trust blog.  As they rightly point out, other organizations could do the same.

Big Brother knows where you are!

I sometimes joke that we live in such a remote spot we are off the radar screen. That may not exactly be true. If it isn't radar it could be the cell/mobile phone. One of the interesting things that emerged from Steve Jobs' last Macworld presentation was that the iPhone and iPod Touch would shun GPS as a location device in favor of triangulation between cell phone masts.

The cell/mobile phone companies certainly know where you are roaming - try some of their traffic hot lines, for example. And emergency calls are usually spotted on the map very quickly by the police - "We're driving down the M5 just past Michael Wood Services and there is an accident on the other side of the motorway" "Yes, sir, no need to explain where you are, we have your location."

Then there's Google Earth. I bet there are a few survivalists in America wondering when their stockpiles of tanks and assorted weaponry will be found by a casual researcher using Google Earth! Luckily for them, Google Earth isn't real time. Yet.

The UK has more CCTVs than any other country. While most seem pretty harmless, the presence of number recognition cameras even extends to our local recycling center. "Welcome ABC 123 to the Poole Recycling Centre". One wonders what will happen one day to the poor council tax payer who is recognized for his total abstinence from the center.

The controversial plan to fingerprint all passengers entering and leaving Heathrow's T5 has many people up in arms, or at least in fingers. Who knows whether or not that Spanish company (BAA) will cast aside our fingerprints at the end of each day? Heck, they can't even look after our baggage properly!

It used to be said that people get lost in a big city - think of the detective novels of the 1950s and 60s - Mickey Spillane, etc. Most of their opening chapters carried some such thread. "New York, the place where a man can lose himself in the crowd. . ." Well, that's not true any more as the July 7th London bombings demonstrated.

It looks like George Orwell was right!

Accents

Here we go again!

The stereotypes of the brummie accent are being brought out once again. Not that I have a brummie accent having spent most of my life somewhere else, though I can say "roight" when I want to.

And the researchers apparently associate Birmingham with violence.  I always thought it was a city of hard working, friendly people who had a good sense of humor and looked down on anything from the Establishment.  But then I am probably a little biassed.