Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.


A Farewell to Ice

and possibly to common sense

in Science , Thursday, January 05, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I read the recently published book "A Farewell to Ice", by Peter Wadhams. It recounts Wadhams' long involvement in sea ice research, intertwining popular science and anecdote. It's quite an entertaining read, and makes some compelling points, but I came away from it feeling a slight sense of disquiet. This arose not from the predictions of the grim consequences of sea ice loss - which are hard to disagree with - but more down to the presentation.

At some point in the distant past I moved in quite close circles to Peter Wadhams. I'm not sure if we ever met, but I don't think so. But my impression is that he always had a reputation for being ever so slightly out on the fringe, which actually would probably have appealed to me. Although he has had a long and fruitful career, somehow he seems to lack a certain sense of gravitas. Of course you could also say that this is because unlike a lot of his peers, he's not a pretentious, self-important windbag. Nevertheless, his claims about a murder conspiracy directed at climate scientists a few years back were not only extremely far-fetched but also very hurtful to friends and relatives of the said scientists.

Wadhams also emphasises the importance of field data and actually understanding physical processes over modelling, a point that his critics in the denial looney corner conveniently overlook, but which I fully concur with. In fact my own skepticism about modelling as the solution to everything played a large part in my forced exit from the field, many years ago. It wasn't a good line to take when dealing with a boss who seemed to actually live in a computer simulation.

But back to "A Farewell to Ice". The big problem is that Wadhams cannot help himself from making dramatic predictions. Does it really matter if the North Pole is ice free next year or in ten years? Or even in a hundred years? The big fight now is countering the blatantly dishonest denial campaign, and its harnessing of an army of illiterate trolls and pseudo-scientists. Giving them a headline like "all ice will disappear next year - oh, and by "disappear" I mean only 1 million square km will remain - is a gift from the Gods. He may, god forbid, even be right, but it's neither here nor there. There is little point in writing a book like this and playing to the gallery. If it cannot even convince a mild skeptic, what is the point? Allowing it to be so easily dismissed as wild-eyed scaremongering is extremely careless, to put it mildly.

I'm also a little puzzled about the bibliography. If he believes that Seymour Laxon and Katharine Giles were so important, why does he not reference their research, in particular Laxon's exhaustive, diligent and controversy-avoiding work on refining techniques for determining sea ice freeboard (and hence the key thickness measurement) by satellite remote sensing? All I can recall is a dismissive, generic comment on missions such as Cryosat. Well, ok, maybe upward facing sonar from submarine is more accurate, but he's hardly going to generate much coverage that way.

So, "A Farewell to Ice" is a good, accessible book, and a worthwhile and recommended read. The science is extensive, fairly comprehensive and sound. But in failing to rein back on some of the more emotive aspects, it also ends up as a lost opportunity, and does little, for me, to dispel the vague feeling that maybe he is just slightly bonkers.

Taking the 4th

planetary politics

in General Rants , Thursday, October 06, 2016

The brief hype bubble surround Elon Musk’s SpaceX push to colonise Mars seems to have died away for now. Donald Trump is far more captivating. The vision is of course breath-taking, the ambition is boundless, and the technology amazing. But in the end, what’s the difference between this and, say, a Steve Jobs product launch writ large? Is Silicon Valley the right place to gestate such a far-reaching (in many senses) plan? I have some serious doubts.

I’ve seen no discussion at all of the socio-political considerations here. Let’s believe that SpaceX are going to be able to launch a fleet of 1000 ships to Mars. So, that’s 1000 ships in Earth orbit under an American corporate flag, off to settle a new world. How are the Russians, Chinese, Indians all of whom are rather immune to Silicon Valley spin going to react to this? Not exactly with wild enthusiasm, I think. How even is the US Government going to react? Will they just be all hands-off free enterprise - or will they engineer an NSA-led coup? Indeed, given his apparent political leanings, will Musk just invite the NSA and all their chums along for the ride? And even beyond the nationalistic rivalry, what about Jeff Bezos? Is he going to let SpaceX eat his cake? Or Boeing ? Or Google, probably.

Who is going to decide who gets to go? Who’s in charge? Somebody has to be - human societies need a leader. And when they get there, and plant a flag, which they assuredly will do, which flag will it be? Will USA nationalist Musk (despite being South African) claim Mars for the United States of America? I can’t see the “no claims” conventions lasting long. Musk evokes the great explorations of the past, but the driving force of almost all of these was greed and conquest - or even worse, religion - and the human species has not yet evolved 1mm beyond that mindset.

I’ve searched for any discussion of these topics, and found nothing. Starting with SpaceX, where all I can find is shiny shiny tech. Inspiration is not the same thing as aspiration. A species which tolerates countless ongoing brutal wars, with major nations perpetrating practically all of them is not ready to leave the planet. And even if it were, the Silicon Valley mindset is the last thing to drive it. The moon landings were driven by politics, not technology. The technology to get to Mars seems to be practically solved. The politics isn't even started.

If SpaceX, or Boeing, or Blue Origin manages to get these ships into Earth orbit, the challenge of getting to Mars will be far less than that of avoiding getting blasted out of the sky by a Chinese missile. And in the unlikely event of getting to Mars, any colonists will probably be in more danger from other humans than the inhospitable environment.

Ok, so I’m terminally pessimistic, but I can only see this as a very dangerous, immature and misguided initiative which could have terminal consequences. It would take the greatest statesmen the world has ever seen to pick a path through this minefield, and Elon Musk most certainly doesn’t qualify.

What was Mars God of, again ?

A short story

un soir, un train

in General , Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Bear with me.  There’s a point to this.

A couple of weeks ago, I stupidly left my phone on the train.  A quite new phone to me, an iPhone 5s, I could not at the moment afford to replace it.  The train was headed towards Milan. Bad news, as it would be out of range of solid, honest Swiss citizens.

Anyway, we tried calling it, and somebody answered. A guy, speaking slightly broken Italian, told he us he was near Cantú, which is over an hour away by car, and an intimidating rats nest of confusing roads south of Como. Initially I decided to try to go there at the weekend, but a bit later, decided to call to see if I could go that night (Tuesday).

Oh no, he said, now I’m in Milan. I’m taking the train to Brescia. Cue sinking feeling - Brescia is half way to Verona, and a good 2 hour drive on a good day. We resolved to go on the coming Sunday. If, indeed, we could get hold of this chap, who told me his name was Michele. Again, the conversation was difficult.

So, on Sunday I tried to call, but could not get through. We set off anyway, feeling quite pessimistic. After all, this phone represents something close to a third of the monthly income for a large number of Italians. Quite some temptation. But around half way there, he called back, and apologised for sleeping late. He promised he’s be available all day to meet up, and we arranged to wait for him near the hospital.

Pretty much on time, he turned up, smartly dressed, with my phone.  He didn’t want to take any reward, but I insisted. The reason for his accent turned out to be that he was from Senegal. And the reason he was sleeping late turned out to be that he’d been travelling all week in his job, or more accurately, vocation, to arrange the financing and export of Italian light agricultural machinery to rural Senegal. After some encouragement he told us about his work, how he had persuaded companies, ambassadors, finance ministers and religious leaders to back his project.  He had targeted the kind of machinery that could be affordable and practical in Senegal, and became nominated as the agent for Casorzo s.r.l in Africa

He was a really fascinating, kind, enthusiastic and open-spirited guy, and a real tonic to talk to. An instant friend.

Oh yeah, he let slip he was a Muslim. He hardly needed to say so: it was obvious, and for all the right reasons.

Lifting the kimono

a little more about me

in General , Saturday, August 15, 2015

Some thirteen months ago, I questioned if I should carry on with this web site. Eventually, I decided to do so, following some public and private encouragement from a number of visitors.  This year, I’ve been too busy too even think about self-doubt, so I’ve just payed for another year’s hosting fees, on the ever-reliable Meirhosting servers.

At the same time, I’ve done a little technical housekeeping, updating various bits and pieces. It took me quite a while to remember how to do a lot of this. My day to day work no longer involves any technical know-how, but to maintain this site I need to use PHP, CSS, HTML and remember how the slightly eccentric Expression Engine works. But it seems to have survived.

I’ve also done a substantial refresh of the “About” section, which is now split into several pages, and provides a little more information in amongst the low wit and heavy sarcasm. Hence, the title of this post.

See you in a year’s time…

This season, I’ll be mainly wearing….

Aether. And next season too.

in General , Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Nobody comes to this blog for fashion tips. Let’s face it, nobody comes much at all. But now, for my small but highly select audience, here’s a new direction for snowhenge dot net!

Well, probably more of a one-off really, but I really can’t not give recognition where it’s due to the wonderful Aether Apparel of Los Angeles, USA.  Around 18 months ago, I’d never heard of Aether, but Luchiana, my significant other, was trying to find a winter jacket for me that (a) I would actually like, and (b) I could realistically wear to work. She discovered Aether, and by all accounts the person she spoke to was very helpful, understood what she wanted, and recommended a “Barrier” waxed cotton jacket. I duly received this on my birthday, and it was an instant hit.  It’s light, warm, without being hot, puts up with all winter weather it’s been subjected to, and looks and feels great.

Aether website

We soon followed up with more orders for Aether fleeces, sweatshirts, summer shirts, even swimming shorts.  Several friends have caught the bug too. The designs are classy but understated, and just feel great to wear. And, crucially for me, they are not emblazoned with huge logos. In fact you have to look very hard to see any branding at all. This is fashionable but durable outdoor clothing which I imagine builds its reputation more by word of mouth than flashy marketing. Their stuff is not cheap, but it isn’t particular expensive either, and it is excellent value for money.

Having said that, the marketing is also very nice. It’s photography-heavy, with a lot of moody outdoor shots and some very nice work, albeit quite stylised. Indeed, the first catalogue I received together with my jacket featured one spread with bits of Hasselblad V series and Fuji cameras prominently displayed.  They had me hooked!

Aether catalog

hook, line & sinker!

Aether’s marketing includes the Journal, which seems to mainly promote stuff from other companies that they’ve discovered and like, as indeed does their Twitter feed.

On top of this, they have a level of customer service which I have to say I’ve rarely encountered, and if then, only in the USA. I wrote an email a few weeks back asking about wear on the sleeves of my Barrier jacket.  I soon received a long and helpful reply, explaining what I already should have known, i.e. how to care for a waxed jacket.  Oh, and as a last point, Tamme just mentioned they’d like to send me a new jacket.  This is a company that actually means what they say when they promise a lifetime guarantee.

Drm 2014 07 16 P7160052

My new Barrier jacket. Counting the days to winter!

(oh, and if you’re too young to get the reference in the title, this should explain it)


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