Sunday, 31 May 2009


Got a nice time-lapse of late afternoon clouds and sunbeams today ...

A little longer might have been better, but the clouds melted away so I had to cut it short.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Another Friday head-count

As of lunchtime, we still have seven ducklings. As well as getting quite big, they're now beginning to lose their down feathers and are changing their colouration. Last year only three chicks (of 30+) made it as far as the seven we currently have. And since two of those appeared to ultimately escape the quad, perhaps this is going to be a good year for the ducks. I must remember to bring the camera in next week.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Bank Holiday Weekend

Saturday: gardening and dining

Sunday: London for Picasso and Annie

Took a trip up to London to catch the Picasso: Challenging the Past exhibition at the National Gallery. The idea behind this exhibition was to show examples of Picasso's work that were inspired by, or are responses to, the works of other artists. These included (relatively) well-known works such as Velázquez's Las Meninas and Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, along with a large number of others. The works exhibited covered Picasso across his entire career, starting with his early representational work, moving through cubism and taking in more symbolic or surrealist works. Needless to say, the exhibition works simply as an opportunity to see work by Picasso. Although I'm usually skeptical of grand, sweeping statements, especially those about art, I was reminded again that Picasso really is the 20th century's premier artist. His range is truly extraordinary, and his skill from an early age as a representational artist allows him to beautifully execute works, regardless of the movement they fit into. This is perhaps a bit gushing, but he's the one artist I admire who's always interesting, and he never went down the "Rothko route" to obscurantism/pretension. Anyway, the one thing this exhibition dropped the ball on was doing a good job on providing the context that it was supposed to be centred on. The little guidebook we got showed some of the works that Picasso was referencing, but the exhibition would have been much improved if these works, or reproductions of them, were also displayed (or displayed better). Some of the works alluded to I was aware of, but many I'd not a clue about, and the exhibition does tend to assume a level of knowledge that's somewhat excluding. Still well worth the trip to London. Actually, one thought that did occur to me was that, while he worked in most of the 20th century's movements, Picasso never tried anything in Pop Art. Maybe a bit too low-brow for him?

We also caught up with Annie and Eddie. As indicated by the photograph above, Annie's about ready to pop. We're not sure if a boy or a girl will result, but it's liable that the name "Thierry" will somehow be used.

Monday: Greasy spoon, Royal Victoria Country Park and more gardening

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Hi-res / Lo-res

In preparation for an O2025 meeting (that I've managed to dodge), I've been knocking up some movies of Medusa's performance in different resolution versions of NEMO. Here are two showing the same field (total primary production) for the same year (1998) and for the same region (tropical instability waves in the equatorial Pacific).

1 degree:

0.25 degree:

It's funny to think that when I started in this game, 1 degree was considered high resolution. Now it's "woefully inadequate". Still, at least the 1 degree model runs on our local supercomputer and gets about 3 (simulated) years per (real) day. And it's getting a lot of the features that the 0.25 degree model is showing. Although it just doesn't look as "real" as the latter!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Magnificent Seven

We're still at seven ducklings, even after a Bank Holiday weekend. And there's still no sign of any other families arriving. Maybe a bumper year for ducks?

Friday, 22 May 2009

Friday head-count

Still holding at seven ducklings belonging to one family.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

"Mars sucks"

Back to Mars with John Varley again, this time in Red Lightning, the sequel to his earlier novel, Red Thunder.

Set one generation after the events of Red Thunder, the novel is narrated by Ray Garcia-Strickland, son of the central character and narrator of the earlier novel, Mannie Garcia. While Mars represented the High Frontier in Red Thunder for Mannie and his friends, now it's an over-rated tourist trap: great for a few weeks holiday, but unbearable if you're wedded to it by virtue of your father being among the first to set foot on it. Much like his grandmother does on Earth, Ray's father now runs a hotel on Mars, and Ray and his sister serve as its unpaid staff. But it's a disorganised destination for the tourists who have over-run it, and there's only one place worse as far as Ray is concerned: Earth. But life isn't all bad, where else can you surf down from a moon to the surface of a planet? However, a relativistic impact into the Atlantic Ocean causes disaster for the eastern seaboard of the US, and contact is lost with Ray's grandmother, forcing Ray and his family into a rescue mission from Mars. Not as difficult as it sounds given the squeezer drives created from the force field "bubbles" developed by Ray's "uncle" Jubal, but post-impact Florida is a lawless wasteland while the authorities struggle to restore order. But the known difficulties of the anarchy in Florida pale compared to those when the family returns to Mars. Unnerved by the impact, and by the disappearance of Jubal from his Falkland Island laboratory/prison, a shadowy military force descends on Mars to pressure Ray and his family for information. In the ensuing civil unrest on Mars, its citizens discover, for the first time, a new unity and patriotism. While once the children of Earth, they are now Martians.

Again, much like Red Thunder, this is very much a "juvenile" novel in the tradition of Robert Heinlein. As well as easing up on the more mature elements of sex and violence, the novel has a very straightforward narrative. Also like the earlier novel, it's skilfully written from the perspective of a late teenager and, along with the interplanetary travel, deals with many of the issues that affect young adults the world over. So I'm guessing that it's much more appealing to a younger demographic - not that my reading of it is any way indicative of this.

If there's a downside to the novel it's that, like its predecessor, it's much lighter on science fiction content that Varley's trademark Eight Worlds novels and stories. There are no aliens, no AIs and none of the biotechnology that characterises these "further-future" stories of Varley. The most (only?) science-fictional part is the "squeezer" technology that underlies the societal backdrop of Red Lightning, but this, and the "stopper" technology that appears late on, is described in only vague terms. That said, this is almost certainly a conscious and wise choice by Varley - all too many authors come unstuck when they over-dissect the (typically shoddy) science.

Nonetheless, Varley instead makes the novel rather relevant to some very contemporary themes. The consequences of the impact on Earth have a resonance with both the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Meanwhile, the subsequent security crackdown on Mars has uncomfortable echoes of the hasty and illegal measures implemented by the West in the so-called "war on terror". Through these and other contemporary parallels, Varley makes this novel highly relevant to life in the early 21st century. But, to his credit, he doesn't do it with a sledgehammer, he more or less just lays things out for the reader to tease out.

On top of all of the above, Varley's writing is a lot of fun. As with Mannie in Red Thunder, Ray in Red Lightning is a credible and enjoyable guide to take in the future with. Varley's good on language with his protagonists, and you really feel with the books that the narrating characters are both young, and are doing a lot of growing up at the same time. He's also pretty funny at times. One of my favourite lines comes early when Ray, commenting on his father's writing style in Red Thunder, remarks that he won't be copying Mannie's "condescending" way of transcribing Jubal's Cajun speech in Red Lightning (OK, so you had to be there).

Another minor hit for Varley I reckon. While I prefer his more conventional science fiction (and Varley's hardly really conventional), there's a lot to like about this novel, and it's plenty to be getting on with till he returns to the Eight Worlds.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Holding steady

After the initial die-back, the ducklings seem to have stabilised now. We've still got seven in the quad, all from the same family. And they're getting quite big now. Dare I hope that they'll make it to early adulthood? I'm not sure what's different this year, but the fact that there's only a single duck family in the quad might be significant. Perhaps the absence of competition, which I understand can include intra-specific killing, is allowing a greater population to persist? Or perhaps I'm just reading too much into: (a) statistically small population sizes; and (b) two seasons worth of data?

Monday, 18 May 2009

No such thing as free will?

In this week's Nature there's an article entitled "Is free will an illusion?" by a German biologist, Martin Heisenberg. The article makes the oft-repeated assertion that stochastic noise from quantum mechanical processes may be the key to free will in animals such as ourselves. Since it's transparently obvious to me that randomness is no better than pure determinism when it comes to explaining free will (assuming such a thing exists), I fired off a response to Nature. While my suggestion is entirely mechanism-free (I've got nothing on this front), I do think that the appearance our personal reality presents to us is at least suspicious, and hints at some degree of freedom in our actions. I don't entirely buy this myself, principally because I really can't think of anything approaching a plausible mechanism, but I have thought about this on and off for a long time without committing my thoughts to paper or blog. Anyway, seeing as they're so capricious, it's always worth a dabble with Nature, but since the odds of publication are vanishing I thought I may as well reproduce what I submitted here ...

Martin Heisenberg (Nature 459, 164-165)1 makes a number of intriguing points concerning the reality (or illusion) of free will in humans and other animals. However, to my mind (free or otherwise), his review overplays randomness as a route out of slavish determinism. Stochastic noise, quantum mechanical or otherwise, hardly seems the path to a triumphant restoration of self-determination. Instead, while it counts more as a hint or indication rather than hard empirical evidence of an underlying mechanism, the appearance of free will is telling from an evolutionary perspective. Assuming that free will is annulled (and I include Heisenberg’s stochasticism in this class), a biologist might well question why natural selection has gone to the bother of giving organisms the perception that they are ploughing their own furrow. If there is no possibility of any consequences of this perception feeding back to guide events, why has selection acted at all? Furthermore, why has selection furnished the minds of animals like ourselves with all sorts of carrots (pleasure and love) and sticks (fear and pain) to guide us towards goals that service the genes that build us? Heisenberg is right to question overeager neurodeterminists, but he may have chosen (or not, of course) the wrong route for doing so. One question for those who deny a seemingly obvious feature of personal reality is why, given that we are only scratching the surface of neurobiology, that we have yet to determine which flavour of quantum reality is the right one, and that the universe contains as-yet inexplicable entities such as dark matter and dark energy, why we can so quickly preclude free will.

1 Heisenberg, M. (2009). Is free will an illusion? Nature 459, 164-165.
Before I fired this off, I circulated it to a few of my friends at NOCS. While they generally liked it (or perhaps were just very polite), none of them bought it. What's more, it turns out that two of them, APM and BS, physicists to a man, very much subscribe to the "free will as illusion" school of thought. Not entirely to my surprise since there appears to be nothing by way of a mechanism (let alone a plausible mechanism) for material to somehow be both self-aware and capable of channelling this to affect reality. On this I'd completely agree with them, but I do still have a problem swallowing the idea that we're not free (to a degree) on, well, wishful-thinking grounds. Regardless of the subjective fact that I feel free (cf. my articulations in the submitted correspondence), I just don't like the idea that I might not be, and that I am living in a world where it's not possible. APM and BS seem OK with this, but it's not for me. Partly because agreeing with the idea seems somewhat tautological: what, simply, does it mean for me to agree with the proposition that I have no free will, when agreement itself seems to undercut the very notion?

A different sort of duck

From the sublimely literary The Poisonwood Bible back to the pulpy science fiction world of Neal Asher ... This time the short story collection The Gabble.

The eponymous Gabble, or Gabbleduck, is a predatory alien species that first appeared in the novel The Line of Polity on the planet Masada. Named for their appearance and for the nonsense speech that they continually spout, they are simply one part of the violent ecology that characterises this world. They feature here in three stories stories, the latter two of which question whether they really are the unthinking animals that they appear. Instead, the human scientists who encounter them gradually uncover evidence that once they were sentient with their own space-faring empire, but that events transpired that forced them to cast aside first their technology and then their civilisation. The nature of these events is darkly hinted at, but Asher seems to be saving his revelations for a further story.

The rest of the stories also take place in Asher's Polity universe, and range over a number of themes and worlds. Common to all is Asher's fascination with body-horror and with fast-paced tales centred around ultra-violent events. In one, a character discovers that the biological agent he contains to digest alien food is actually a corporation-modified parasite that is inexorably shortening his life. In another, a treasure hunter stranded on a world that experiences massive tides is forced to transform himself into a crustacean-like louse in order to survive and exact revenge on his enemies.

Much as with his previous short story collection The Engineer, these stories allow Asher's imagination to run riot while being, by necessity, short enough to prevent his weaknesses from showing. His writing is still pretty perfunctory, with rather cardboard characters that rarely show anything resembling emotions or an inner life, but the stories are strange and diverse enough to hold interest. Much as with the eponymous story from The Engineer, I was most interested and felt most empathy with his aliens. For all of their violence, Asher's uncovering of the history of Gabbleducks, with their casting aside of their civilised nature, made it a lot more easy to sympathise with them than with the assorted gun-toting humans that people these stories.

Asher remains a guilty pleasure.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

African Epic

Dipping once more into the Barbara Kingsolver well, this time with her 1998 novel The Poisonwood Bible.

Driven by his evangelical fervour and his wartime experiences as a soldier in another distant jungle, Nathan Price takes his wife, Orleanna, and four daughters, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, to the Belgian Congo to continue a mission abandoned by a defrocked Catholic priest. Armed with anti-malarial quinine and other benefits of the civilised western world, he sets out to bring the benighted residents of Kilanga to God. Initial failures to successfully raise their western crops become compounded by a willing incomprehension of the lives of the people around them, and the family slowly begins to slide into destitution and despair. But convinced that these are trials sent by his God to test his resolve, Price refuses to countenance abandoning the mission, even as this already precarious situation is compounded by the aftershocks of political tectonics elsewhere in the world. It is 1959, and independence for African nations is in the air, but the democracy-pushing west has interests that can't be upset by the misguided choices of the legitimate electorate. Told from the different perspectives of each of his four daughters, and by the retrospective narrative of his wife, the novel describes the tragic unwinding of Price's plans. However, his intransigence to Congolese culture and life is balanced by his daughters who, still growing up in this world, reach, by separate paths, their own accommodations with the Congo.

First of all, this is easily the best book I've read in quite some time, and certainly within the lifetime of this blog. To the degree that I'm almost afraid to describe my response to it in case I mess things up. ;-) There are a number of notable aspects that I want to ramble on about, so in no particular order ...

As mentioned above, the novel juggles - to perfection - five discrete narratives, one for each of the daughters and one for Price's wife, Orleanna. The latter is infrequent and retrospective, but its reflections tee up the main business of the novel, life in the Congo, expertly. It is made clear right from the beginning that tragedy resides within the novel's pages, but Orleanna's recollections are tantalising and also moving, as she gradually reflects on the past and on the errors that her younger self made.

More impressive are the narratives of the daughters. First of all, spread over a range of ages, they have both different takes on their situation, and very distinct voices. The youngest, Ruth May, views the Congo through child's eyes - everything about the world is newer to her, so she quickly adapts to her new environment, making playmates with local children and being open-minded to Congolese mythology. The eldest, Rachel, instead views the Congo as an unwelcome interruption to her burgeoning teenage life. While she should be focused on clothes and boys, she is instead on an African exile, one where the only eligible boys are, in her words, of the wrong "color category". The twins, Leah and Adah, are probably the most interesting of the four. Because of difficulties at her birth, Adah is partially disabled, physically and mentally, and her view of the world is shaped both by the pace at which she is forced to encounter it, and by an awareness of how others perceive her. One of her favourite activities is the construction of palindromes, and these imbue her narrative with a distinct style and a portentous commentary. Finally, Leah begins the novel as a devoted acolyte to her father's pursuit and a reluctant guardian to Adah, but gradually revises her loyalties and position as events take their toll. A tomboy, she takes up archery and, like Ruth May, begins to fit in more with the local population, at least after a fashion.

As hinted above, what's hugely enjoyable in this novel is how the girls change during their stay in the Congo. Their transformations, as they both grow in age and are forced to grow up by their situation, are completely plausible and engaging. The latter, fast-forwarding third of the novel, sees them flesh out into fully adult characters, but the hints of their past persist. The reader also finds their perception of and loyalty to the characters changing. Initially, I empathised with Rachel and her predicament, and viewed Leah as terribly naive (which, being young, she is) and overly devoted to an appalling father. But as the novel advanced, my sympathies and interests shifted until, by the end, I was most concerned about the fates of Leah and Adah.

As a sidenote, although shifting between these characters with their very different perspectives, the narrative is completely coherent. So while the story's timeline is broken up between them, there's no confusion about what's happening. In some respects, it feels almost like a conversation with four narrators who each pick up and advance the story from the last. Since the narrators touch on the same events and characters, they also give revealingly different interpretations. This approach can't have been easy to write, but Kingsolver does it brilliantly.

Before I leave character, I want to say something about how Kingsolver portrays Nathan Price. Though my plot description above presents the novel's story centralised about him, he's not a narrator and actually features only intermittently at times. But despite this, he weighs heavily on the reader's mind. At first, he appears a misguided figure, simply stubborn and overeager to fulfil his obligation to the Kilanga mission. But as time passes, his intransigence to the increasingly severe mishaps that befall his family, as well as his conception of God as an Old Testament tyrant who has sent these to test him, turn him into a hateful figure. But then, something happens. At the climax of the novel's tragedy, all of the power that he appeared to wield over his family becomes utterly dissipated, and for the rest of the novel he becomes almost pitiable, ultimately a pathetic wild-man preacher scraping an existence in the Congolese jungle. I thought that how Kingsolver did this was fantastic. She had me raging (internally, at least) about his character and the injustices he inflicted on his family, only to draw it all out of me over a relatively few pages.

Much like her earlier novels, The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams, Kingsolver includes a strong element of politics here in the background history of the time. Also much like these, this novel angrily reports on the anti-democratic activities of the ostensibly democracy-pushing West, particularly the former rulers, Belgium, and the United States. I wasn't much aware of the history of the Congo beyond a general awareness of 1960s misdeeds in Africa, so the detail in the novel was all new to me. And, much as I'm sure Kingsolver intended, infuriating. Given the apolitical rural penury of life in the Congo, it's difficult to imagine why anyone thought the activities sanctioned by the West were a "Good Idea". If people in the Congo thought that their lives, already susceptible to all manner of natural calamities, couldn't be any more fragile, then they were very much mistaken. It came as no surprise that the CIA had a malevolent hand in events yet again.

I can't let Kingsolver's use of language slip by unmentioned. Much as with all of her novels that I've read (especially her later ones), the writing is simply brilliant. She's lyrical and has an excellent ear for language. She also, as a former biologist, is great on the natural world, but here gives it almost a mythical quality with its Garden-of-Eden vegetation and abundant snakes. It's difficult to know quite which is the best example to give, but I was particularly struck by Orleanna's explanation of her actions immediately following the novel's central tragedy.
As long as I kept moving, my grief streamed out behind me like a swimmer's long hair in water. I knew the weight was there but it didn't touch me. Only when I stopped did the slick, dark stuff of it come floating around my face, catching my arms and throat till I began to drown. So I just didn't stop.

A couple of closing points. If the novel has a flaw at all, it could be seen to be in the timeline history. Everything in the first two thirds of the novel is gradually building up to a tragedy that is telegraphed in Orleanna's opening remembrance. And when this had happened, and I saw that a full third of the book still remained, I thought that this was a strange decision. But I was so engaged with the characters that I really wanted to know what happened to them next. So this perception of the structure gradually left me. As it happens, the plot's fast-forwarded unfurling of the characters' futures serves to flesh out their paths as well as that of the Congo itself. It all makes sense in the end but, raised on Shakespearean plot conventions, I did find the early (in page number terms) arrival of the shattering event surprising at first.

Quickly. The exact nature of this event is carefully hidden and nurtured by Kingsolver. She brilliantly creates a growing sense of dread as characters that you have come to care about advance towards it.

Finally, looking over Kingsolver's work, and this is the last of her novels that I have to read, this one shows a culmination of trends in her writing. The lyricism was always there, but it's especially good here. Similarly with her grasp of political injustice. But this novel excels (for me anyway) in its scope, its ambition and its emotional power. It's almost like the novel which she always meant to write, and that the earlier ones were in the lower slopes up to this peak. Certainly, in noting the gestation of this book, she implies as much in her foreword. This view also casts Prodigal Summer, hitherto my favourite of her works, in the shade, almost like it's part of the downslope. And since Kingsolver has avoided writing any further novels in the 9 years since Prodigal Summer was published, it feels like she knowingly reached a peak with The Poisonwood Bible, has said what she wanted to say, and can take things easy from now on. If this is right, I hope that she revises this view and comes back to it.

And, yes, I realise that I've used the word "brilliantly" too often above. I just have an impoverished vocabulary when it comes to words of praise.

Thursday, 14 May 2009


Just back from another Christians in Science seminar. This time it was the molecular biologist Denis Alexander with the rather provocative title "Creation or Evolution - Do We Have To Choose?" I say "provocative" because the seminar was advertised with the imagery of a man and an ape, and with a description that stated "Can the concepts of Adam and Eve and the Fall be reconciled with evolutionary theory?"

Unsurprisingly, the "creation" claimed by Alexander had very little to do with creationism, and rather a lot to do with wordplay and the sophistry that's a hallmark of these seminars. From the start it was clear that Alexander was using the word "creation" in a fashion that allowed him to have his cake (or ice cream; as in his presentation's graphics) and eat it. He toed the rather conventional party line that emphasises "evolution as God's way", and tied in some fairly rarefied nonsense about "immanence". How exactly this ties in with the allegorical/literal split of material in the Bible, and what the less-than-benevolent nature of the universe says about an immanent deity, somehow missed being covered. Surprise, surprise.

Needless to say, the seminar included the traditional bashing-of-the-Dawkins that's a regular feature at these events. More than talking scientific sense until personal religious choice comes up, dodging big questions such as "why my religion is the right one", and talking as if agnosticism doesn't exist, this is the most recurrent theme in these seminars. And the most tired. Time after time his arguments are paraphrased as straw men or aggressive soundbites that practically will you on to deny them.

That said, this speaker didn't spend too much time on this perennial topic. Instead he drifted off on a rather directionless seminar that didn't make an especially strong case for anything. The strongest part, to me anyway, was the speaker's off-handed treatment of conventional creationism, which he essentially dismissed as scientific nonsense that he implied could be laid at the feet of modern, anti-religious scientism (though he didn't use those particular words). It would be interesting to know what a dyed-in-the-wool creationist made of this seminar. Not to mention the speaker's suggestion that creationists had more in common with Dawkins than with his rational, manifestly sane and completely obvious interpretation of Christianity.

Another idea that the speaker dispensed with early on through disingenuous wordplay was that of God's complexity. Dawkins and many others have argued that whatever God is, they must be pretty complex to have built and/or operate the universe in which we live, and thus beg the question about their own origins. Here the notion that God was "complex" was dismissed with some arm-waving that was tantamount to claiming that concepts like "complex" simply don't apply to the Good Lord. He (for it is a He; as C noted during the seminar) is of a qualitatively different order. Or something. As I said above, sophistry.

In passing, there were a few sidenotes that were of interest. Historical footnotes included some quotes from St. Augustine (354-430 CE) that denied a literal reading of the Bible; reference to a work by the 17th century chemist Robert Boyle that attacked the idea of "Mother Nature"; and remarks by 18th century theologian John Wesley that present a recognition of the "one tree of life" a century before Darwin. All very interesting.

There was also an interesting quote from the Bible (Isaiah 55:8-9) that paints a rather non-human or impersonal portrait of God. I find these sorts of bits interesting since they conjure a realistic image of a being that, unsurprisingly given their nature and power, is hard to reconcile with "in our image". Perhaps it's just because I read too much science fiction and am overly familiar with the notion of beings that far exceed us, but I've always thought that the idea that something omniscient would have a personal connection with us as rather odd. Maybe I'm just not being imaginative enough.

Still, on the plus side, this was another pro-science speaker who didn't stoop to the disreputable tricks of McGrath. My eyes rolled, but there was little danger of them falling out and bouncing down the lecture hall to the speaker.


We're currently at seven ducklings and holding. They're beginning to get a bit bigger too. Perhaps I'll have to renege on my previous post and report on them after all. I'm not going down last year's path of intensive coverage and regular graphs, however.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Calling the shots

Coincidentally, having wittered on about how interesting last Friday's seminar speaker was, I'm now in the dubious position of having been fingered for the job of seminar programme organiser. Fortunately, I'm going to be one of four organisers, so I should only be devoting one Friday per month to organiser duties on the average. Knowing that BAG was vacating his organiser position, I figured that I might get a knock on the door, being of the right vintage and having recently been made somewhat more permanently employed. Oh well, I guess that I can't really complain about the quality of the speakers that we get for the next couple of years. Actually, it is something of an honour, being both one for the C.V. and an opportunity to meet and chat with the speakers. The role does, however, carry the burden of having to introduce speakers with a flattering and cringe-worthy potted biography. There have been some corkers over the years ...

Tuesday, 12 May 2009


Another "lives of plants" time-lapse. This time a combination of germination and phototropism ...

Annoyingly, my camera ran out of juice before the emerging seedlings got very far. I'm trying for a repeat today, but with slightly less frequent frames, in the hope that this prolongs the movie period without upsetting continuity.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Friday Seminar

An interesting one today, David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government.

The style of the talk was smooth and engaging, kind-of what one might expect from a former chief scientific adviser. The content of the talk was mostly familiar information about climate-related topics, viewed through a policy filter. However, there were quite a few interesting tales woven into it.

One was to do with GM crops. King strongly played up the role that these could (and, in his opinion, should) play in the global food mix. He illustrated it by means of a digression into the food prices rises of early 2008. While this was largely down to the channelling of (inefficient) maize into biofuels in the US (which then caused trouble for developing nations who'd previously been buying/receiving this), it also stemmed from the loss of the rice crop due to excessive flooding. King pointed out that flood-resistant rice strains were developed using GM techniques the better part of a decade ago, but have only come to be used once more conventional plant breeding techniques have "engineered" the same change. A missed opportunity in his book, and it was clear that he was more than slightly miffed by "greens" in Europe who've held back GM. He was certainly dismissive of a later question from the audience that suggested equating GM with the technological disaster of (indiscriminate) DDT use.

Another aside dealt with future directions and what sort of decision making is likely to help in the future. He identified national democracy that focuses solely on narrow national interests as a potential problem (i.e. acting to "solve" a problem at home without considering its consequences elsewhere). But he took this off in a very interesting direction that brought in Gulf War II as a potential example of the sort of resource war that this decision making could lead to. As he was chief scientific adviser from 2000, he was privy to general government discussions before 11th September 2001. In some of these he heard that Iraq was on the table for invasion long before it could be tarred with the terrorism brush. He puts this down to the depletion of US reserves of oil, and stakes his claim that Gulf War II will be identified by future historians as the first major resource war of the 21st century. In passing, he then went on to put the cost of Gulf War II at around $3 trillion ($3 x 1012), and rhetorically asked if it would have cost US science this much to come up with a technological solution to US energy problems.

He also gave an interesting account of why climate change came to be quite so high on the agenda at the G8 summit in 2005. Back in early 2001, the UK began to experience what became one of the worst ever outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. Relatively new to his government post, King found that his scientific advice was not sought on this issue, but he met with some other scientific experts and formulated a plan that, ultimately, brought the epidemic to an earlier close than models suggested the standard procedure would have. This gave him a credibility within the UK government that he was able to capitalise on when the time came to discuss climate issues (and which he was also able to use as leverage for other changes to government). King told this story in response to a question about what we, as scientists, should do to influence government, but it seemed not to answer this but instead illuminated a certain arbitrariness of government operation (i.e. you won't be taken seriously unless a crisis rolls along that you can prove yourself with).

Anyway, he made a lot of other interesting points along the way, and certainly wasn't afraid of being seen a technophile. He was clear about the role that population plays (and will increasingly play) in the problems that face us, but was also positive about its levelling off during this century, noting that high birth rates continue for around 2 generations after the child mortality drops off.

Overall, as a malcontent when it comes to much of what passes for green ideology (while subscribing to most of its key tenets), I was certainly quite pleased with what he said. Another quality Friday Seminar.

Further to the above, my cycle ride home furnished more thoughts. One of the ideas that King introduced was the idea that the economic statistic GDP should be replaced by something which also considers factors usually viewed as externalities but which helpfully encompass sustainability. All well and good, but he didn't give us any ideas about how such a thing should come to pass, and as already noted, he wasn't exactly forthcoming on what scientists can do to shift governments (short of being the chief scientific advisor and having a scheme to stop a major epidemic up your sleeve).

Duckling count

I've decided not to keep a log of our quad's ducklings this year. Partly because of the dispiriting mortality that they suffer, but also because I've gotten off to a rubbish start. I didn't get a good initial head-count, and the ducklings seem to be better at hiding under bushes this year. Anyway, as of right now, we appear to be down to a single brood of 8 ducklings (contrary to the last duck post, we had two large broods in the quad). That's quite a bit down on what we started with this year, but not precipitous just yet.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

More plague state news

While I'm about 80% better since my last post, I saw my first face mask today cycling in (... to work - I'm back transmitting my RNA-based invader). A woman walking over the Itchen Bridge had a mask of some sort over her mouth. Although the bridge is a major thoroughfare, it's single lane traffic and pretty wind-blown, so I don't think the mask was anti-pollution. Certainly, I think that it's the first mask I've seen anyone wearing in all of the years I've been crossing the bridge. So although Mexican/swine/H1N1 flu is off of the news agenda (at least that of the Beeb), some people appear to be taking it seriously. Though it might yet come back to bite us in the winter, it's already looking like this latest pandemic alert is just going to chalk up another example in the "crying wolf" column.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Phil and Kate's wedding

I'm finally getting myself organised regarding posting about our recent trip to Scotland. As per our last trip to Scotland in 2005, this was motivated primarily by a wedding, in this case between Phil and Kate. Anyway, bar trouble collecting our rental car on arriving in Edinburgh Airport, plus an embarrassing (and expensive) failure to check out our return flight time, everything went to plan. The full itinerary was as follows ...
(Links connect to Flickr collection for holiday)

Along the way I managed to make a few panoramas of the Edinburgh skyline and sights ...



Parliament panorama

Friday, 1 May 2009


Ironically, after complaining so much about the overblown coverage of Mexican Flu in the media, I've come down with a bad cold. Bad enough to take the day off work, which is unusual for me - usually, I'm happy to share my infective agents with others at work. Anyway, let's see what a day confined to quarters does for me.