Friday, May 30, 2008


For the past week I have been suffering from acute bronchitis.  It's not the first time and it does seem to have a pattern.

A couple of years ago I stayed in a hotel in Luanda where they were cleaning the air-conditioning ducts.  Luanda is a dusty place anyway, so the added dust and potential mold spores only made things worse.  Also, having replaced the filters, the blast of cold air exceeded what would be necessary to freeze a side a beef.  All in all a recipe for infection and bronchitis.

Much the same thing happened a week ago.  As I checked out of the hotel in Kinshasa I noticed a sign apologizing for ongoing work replacing the fans in the room air-conditioners.  I didn't think much of it at the time but on reflection that must have been the beginning of this bout of bronchitis.  Ugh!

I consulted, the best online source of medical information, and can confirm that I don't have bacterial bronchitis (yellow/green sputum) so it's just a matter of keeping the 101ºF temperature under control with Disprin and lubricating my throat with Benylin.  Except that I would have liked it to go away as quickly as possible and it hasn't!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Who to blame for high oil prices?

There is no doubt that the high price of oil has become a major topic of conversation in the political halls of power, so it is no surprise that the UK's financial bosses - ex-Exchequor Brown and Exchequor Darling - are to meet with oil industry chiefs.  This will be interpreted by a lazy media as the 'right thing to do' which is, of course what Brown and Darling want lay people to believe.

The truth is the oil industry is virtually helpless in the face of global economic events.  Crude oil is a commodity and as such is traded on commodity markets by people who we should refer to as "middle men".  Oil traders are an interesting breed.  They don't find much oil (though they do invest in a few petroleum licenses these days).  The situation really isn't very different from commodity buying in wheat and corn where the stocks are available but buyers' demand is higher than supply.  Note my use of the term "buyers' demand".  This is not necessarily the same as end-users' demand.  And that's the problem that isn't being addressed.

I wonder how many commodity traders make big contributions to politicians?  Just a thought!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Petrol Tax

Do you have any idea how much of the hard earned money you hand over for a liter of petrol goes straight to the UK Government?  Probably not.  For some strange reason the oil companies don't post the amount of tax on the pump.

They should.

Fuel tax in the UK is the highest in Europe.  The road infrastructure is among the worst, mainly because very little of the tax is actually spent on improving the road system.  If you need an example of this, take a look at the A303, the main trunk road from London to the Southwest.  It will probably never be finished.

So here is a useful graph from this site, albeit a little out of date:

If you do the math, tax is around 65%.  Now that is bad enough, but remember, for many people fuel is paid with after-tax net earnings.

The excuse, of course, is the aim to protect the environment.  A reasonable excuse do I hear you say?  Not really, because the alternative transport solutions simply do not exist for many people.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A 100 years of Middle East Oil! manages to condense a lot of history into this article.  And, based on my knowledge of BP history, it's accurate.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Science Education?

If you wonder about where scientists will come from in the next ten years this article will suggest nowhere.  It also suggests that science and common sense could be one and the same thing.

I like the idea of shaking a lump of granite and comparing it before and after.  Now that is real science!

Behind with Flickr

I am currently about three weeks behind with Flickr.  Slow connections have necessitated this.  One one occasion last week in Kinshasa I noted that upload speeds were down to 1.3 kb/sec.  That is slow!  But the positive side of this delay is that I currently showing about 4 new images a day - a ration book of photographs!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

What is Green? has an interesting collection of articles here that question many of the fixations our (read Western) society has about what to do to be seen to be green.  Some of their findings will surprise.

It all goes to show how poorly anyone really understands what is going on and how to best meet the challenges we apparently face.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Buy Prime Lenses!

I have said it before that prime lenses are better than zooms.  A recent week spent in France saw me using three full frame lenses, all Nikon, in my D200:

20mm (30mm in D200 DSLR) f2.8
60mm (90mm in D200 DSLR) f2.8
24-120mm (36-180mm in D200 DSLR) f3.5-5.6

The first two took sharp, crisp, flat images which would have been just as good in full frame 35mm format.  The poor zoom couldn't even manage decent resolution and lack of distortion even though the worst edge effects would have been outside the reach of the sensor.  If you want an example, take a look at this one in original size and scroll down to the bottom left corner:

Classic Canal du Midi
Perhaps the main reason the image is so poor is that it was taken at the telephoto end of the zoom range.  There is little chance of camera shake being responsible as the shutter speed was 1/750 second and the center of the frame is in focus.

I had no idea this lens could be so bad until I used it as one of several desktop pictures.

I have heard that the cheaper Nikon lenses can have a wide range of quality.  It may be worth checking a potential purchase before you buy.  A good dealer will let you do that though mail order companies may not be so friendly!

If you look at the cost of professional Nikon zooms that offer fixed apertures around f2.8 you will notice that a mortgage is required!  The reason is, unfortunately, all too obvious in the photo above.

Airport security saves shaving gel costs!

For those of us who travel by air frequently, airport security has become a source of continual frustration.  Yes, the global terrorist situation requires airport security but so often it seems that the stable door is closed after the horse has bolted.  The liquids and gels limitations are one example.  However, I have found one positive outcome (but only one!) and that concerns shaving gel usage.

I have found that "King of Shaves" shaving gel is best suited to my beard but is sells in 135ml tubes which exceed the 100ml maximum permitted for carry on baggage.  I tried their shaving oil and it simply doesn't come (or shave) close.  Which is a pity as a bottle of shaving oil takes up no space at all.

My solution is to decant around 100ml of gel into a re-usable plastic bottle.  This bottle has an opening large enough to stick my index finger inside and this is where the cost-saving comes in!  A finger or so coated with shaving gel is just right and far less than a typical squeeze of the original packaging.  So my shaving gel goes much further than it used to!

Unfortunately the savings don't compensate for the extra airport tax on the airline ticket.

FT Report - Working in the Oil Industry

Over a week ago I picked up a special report from the Financial Times on Working in the Oil Industry.  Packed full of features that are best accessed using this FT search link, I found most of the contents to ring true.  However, the average age of the FT writers appears to be a lot less than the average age of those of us working in the industry!  We have good memories of the hard times as well as the occasional booms and most of us have been through one, two or perhaps three downturns with devastating career consequences.

It is no surprise, therefore, that many of us are reaping the benefits of actually being in demand!

I am somewhat amused by comments like "most oil company personnel retire at 55" when nearly every one I work with is over 60!  Of course, many of us are consultants who had a previous career as an employee.

The last significant hiring episode was in the early 1980s when oil prices jumped and then collapsed.  Many young geologists and engineers were laid off and went into new careers.  The largest oil companies were the worst offenders, claiming significant cost benefits to the bottom line.  Likewise, oil company mergers contributed to the bottom line at the expense of huge layoffs of experienced and talented people.

A natural resource company has two assets - its material reserves and the capability to replace them as they are exploited.  Without people it can do little unless following the zero-sum game of buying out other companies and their reserves.   All too many companies have used the M&A route to "grow" but the loss of that capability to replace reserves is now coming back to haunt.  With oil prices above $125/barrel and perhaps heading for $200/barrel by year end, there is no easy solution to many of the world's problems that need cheap energy and transportation solutions.

The mid-1980s saw a difficult time for both the US and the rest of the world but Ronald Reagan had the vision to deficit his way out of trouble - a policy that worked - with cheap oil being the economic driver.  Much as I admire Reagan, I have to fault his short term vision on energy policy, a consequence of which we continue to suffer as no-one since has been brave enough to tackle the subject.  The pigeons have now come home to roost on expensive barrels of our most precious commodity.  Playing around with bio-fuel subsidies is not the answer!

So, working in the oil industry is not so bad at the moment.  But will it last?  Maybe, for a while.  $200 barrel oil would cause a recession which would lower demand and the spike would soon be history.  Political pressure is already being foisted on Saudi Arabia to open up the valves and this could stall the rise in price before it gets to $200.

"Make hay while the sun shines" seems an appropriate thought for the day.  And the sun is indeed shining!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

NIMBY Oil Exploration Ltd.

I think there should be an oil company floated on the London Stock Exchange called NIMBY Oil Exploration Ltd.  They should then apply to drill in the back gardens of the homes of all the environmental "activists" and "experts" who also just happen to rely on oil to get them to and from their places of work and sundry demonstrations against the oil industry.

Strong stuff, eh?  Well, we are all NIMBY's at heart, I suppose, and so it is no surprise that people will be complaining about an application to drill for oil on England's South Downs, an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB).  The area already has some small oil discoveries and even smaller production facilities that unfortunately haven't provided much of a bonanza for the investors, never mind the community.  So it should be no surprise that another application has been lodged and, perhaps, it is also less of a surprise that the authorities may be granting permission - they have the precedent for doing so.

This comes hot on the tail of a comment I received the other day from my farmer neighbor.  As I was leaving for Africa and another tour of work he asked me how the work was progressing - his own diesel bills are climbing fast and the price he gets for his cattle hasn't.  In this day and age of "food miles" you would think the environmentalists would be all for finding oil in the "back yard".  But it's so much more convenient to have the oil fields somewhere else, isn't it?

[Comments welcome as always, but first please note that the UK's largest onshore field is located next to Brownsea Island in Poole Bay - I offer this gem of information to stop the ranting that otherwise may develop!]

iPhone - should I buy and unlock?

I am in a quandary. I want an iPhone. I have seen and used one and while lust may be a strong word the pull is very strong. But Apple and O2 (in the UK) don't want me to have one. Let me explain.

I would probably use an iPhone mostly in the UK (and Europe) even though I don't spend a lot of time there. So it would make sense to buy one in the UK. Except, while I can easily buy an iPhone I cannot enter into the O2 contract because I don't have a bank account in the UK. It is for this reason I have a UK (Orange) pay-as-you-go SIM card rather than an Orange "plan".

So the logical thing to do would be to unlock the iPhone and use the Orange SIM card, retiring my existing cell phone for use with my Congo SIM, also pay-as-you-go.

The problem with unlocking is that future firmware upgrades will render the phone useless. If I decide to upgrade, that is. The experts in Pointe Noire (where unlocked phones are available at a price) tell me that firmware upgrades are simply devices to stall the boom in unlocking iPhones.  That may be true but we all know that firmware upgrades often contain improvements, the recent Apple TV upgrade being a very good example.

A report today confirms that a lot of iPhones in the US must be unlocked as they are never activated.  Apple doesn't seem to be too worried about this - they make money selling the device, after all.

The long term question is that eventually those phones which were sold at the outset and activated will come off contract (18 months, I believe) so presumably they will be legally unlockable at that time.  Perhaps then the whole question of firmware upgrades will be history.

But there is also the possibility that Apple will recognize a parallel business model for those of use who want, no, need, an unlocked iPhone.  World travelers with multiple SIMs would benefit enormously from such a business model (At the moment I carry four SIM cards with me, all pay-as-you-go).

Rumors are strong that the 3G iPhone will soon appear.  At that time I plan to buy an iPhone and unlock it.  But should I?  I should probably ask this question to the nice people at Exeter's new Apple Store!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Racou Plage

Racou Plage
Racou Plage is an interesting place, a seasonal beach at the southwestern end of the French Mediterranean where miles and miles of sandy beaches meet the Pyrennees.  In early May the beach awakes and a few brave souls venture forth.  In August there are almost as many people as grains of sand (well not quite but I am sure you understand the temptation for exaggeration).  By the second week of October the place is all shut up for the winter.  So the season is short.  This really doesn't make a lot of sense unless you happen to be a warm blooded person who dons a sweater on the first of September!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

L'écluse de Fonsérannes

L'écluse de Fonsérannes is a major tourist attraction these days and is also a World Heritage Site.  Located on the Canal du Midi, the flight of large locks raises the canal from the valley of the River l'Orb west of Beziers up to a level which can be maintained without locks for a considerable distance.  The flight of locks is in daily use and has been modernized with electrically operated gates and an interesting double lock procedure that speeds up the transfer as well as providing a spectacle for onlookers.  Basically the boats travel up the flight two chambers at a time, using the skill of both skipper and lockmaster to get the timing just right.
L'Ecluse de Fonseranes 1
There are lots of photos on Flickr; this photo is the first in the series.  Most of the images follow the progress of the training vessel Langon up the flight.  In addition there are a few photos of the nearby impressive Beziers Aqueduct over the l'Orb.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Twin Cities

I have never been sure of the value of towns and cities having "twins" in foreign countries.  My view has been that this was simply an excuse for civic dignitaries to go on junkets.

But there may be a good reason for twinning despite my cynical point of view.  We just spent about 24 hours in the city of Lyon, France which twinned with Birmingham way back in 1951.  There has never been much evidence of this link up, at least until Air France announced a twice daily service from Lyon to Birmingham a year or so ago.

What transpires from a little research and exploration is that there are some compulsive parallels between the two cities (though there are also some very obvious non-parallels as well).  So here are some of my thoughts, ranging from the obvious to the obtuse.

  • They are both considered "Second Cities" of their respective countries;
  • Large banks were founded in both cities despite being away from the financial centers of London and Paris respectively;
  • Culture has become an important ingredient of life;
  • The people are friendly (very subjective, I know);
  • Transport is quite well integrated (i.e. there are railways stations at the airports);
  • Food is important (Lyon is considered the gastronomic capital of France, Birmingham's wide range of cuisines continues to amaze visitors);
  • City life centers around water (rivers in Lyon, canals in Birmingham, water running through public squares).
Twinning may be a good thing in that it creates competition between friendly rivals - anything you can do I can do better.  Birmingham can certainly learn a thing or two from Lyon, not the least being the tram and metro systems.  One thing it cannot easily achieve though is an equivalent climate!

Highlights of our visit included dinner at Brasserie de l'Est, a Paul Bocuse establishment that served up a memorable meal, a ride on the futuristic tram car and metro systems, a stroll through the old city and a French lesson from a jocular waiter at an outdoor café near the Town Hall.  Photos will appear on Flickr in the days ahead.

More Essential Reading on the Warming/Cooling Debate

The link is here and I must quote the last two paragraphs, so please read these even if you don't get into the details!

"It won't do for believers in warmist orthodoxy to claim that, although temperatures may be falling, this is only because they are "masking an underlying warming trend that is still continuing" - nor to fob us off with assurances that the "German model shows that higher temperatures than 1998, the warmest year on record, are likely to return after 2015".

In view of what is now at stake, such quasi-religious incantations masquerading as science are something we can no longer afford. We should get back to proper science before it is too late."


I might add that this sort of opinion is sadly lacking across the broad spectrum of the media.  Shame.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Global Warming "delayed"

I saw this a few days ago and kept a mental note to discuss it at length.

The huge number of comments below the article once again demonstrate that Joe Public feels that the whole man-made global warming scenario is a big con, a vehicle to allow for new taxation policies by governments who want to exercise "control" over their citizens.  The few who cry "false alarm" rely on the "fact" that the world's eminent scientists must be correct in their assessment (as one put it, crossing their t's and dotting their i's).

The interesting part of this story concerning a group of (eminent) scientists who believe there will be a natural feedback which will stall global warming for ten years is that many ordinary people perceive this as yet another trick to avoid admitting that the science may be flawed.  And to a large extent I suggest that the public is right.  The scientists have done their best and admitted the uncertainties.  The politicians, on the other hand, have seen the results but have not understood the statistics (even though they are the best at twisting statistics to suit their purpose) or have pretended simply not to understand the statistics.  The environmental taxes and other constraints on society are simply too good to ignore.

The problem with this sort of politicking is that sooner or later the truth will out.  And to some extent the publication of doubting scientist's views help to undermine the politicians' position.  At the expense of the reputation of a good many eminent scientists who have themselves been conned into supporting the politicians.

What may now come to pass is that the very proclaimers of global warming will start to look and talk like those of us who they labeled the "deniers".  This crossover of public opinion will hardly help the debate.