the evenings out here - Thoughts, rants and musings about absolutely everything except photography. Or cats.

The case of the Zürich handbag

Wild outbreak of racism

in General Rants , Monday, August 12, 2013

I can’t avoid adding my CHF 0.02’ worth on the Great Swiss Racism scandal, in which an obscenely rich Americam woman was somehow prevented from buying an obscenely expensive handbag in a shop catering to obscenely rich people in Zürich. Given that said woman is of African-American descent, this was of course a clear indication of the endemic racism embraced and encouraged by the entitre vile, evil Swiss nation. Or at least this is what a formerly respectable British newspaper, The Independent, would have you believe, unquestionably delivering the line it was fed.

But, could there be an alternative, hypothetical explanation? Could it actually be a case of a flustered shop assistant reacting in a less than perfect way to yet another loud, arrogant, wildly self-entitled American demanding that everybody in the world speaks perfect American English? Or could it be a case of a very miffed celebrity not being recognised as such? No, it must be racism, especially when said celebrity just happens to need this as a prop in her latest prime-time TV self promotion.

Of course the story isn’t even questioned, and the shop assistant’s side of it is of no interest to anybody. Not even to the Swiss Tourist Authority, who shamefully issued a demeaning apology on the assistant’s behalf.

One would not have thought that an American had to travel so far to find racism. But I suppose Switzerand seemed such an easy target. I doubt most of her audience even knows where Switzerland is, but it’s cleary foreign hence bad guys. Especally as it has all those bad banks (largely run by Americans, but whatever).

Switzerland has probably one of the most egalitarian societies in the world, despite being largely rural and small-c conservative. A full 25% of the population carries a non-Swiss passport. Switzerland welcomes more than twice as many asylum seekers per capita than any other European country, and in recent decades has absorbed and integrated a huge number of immigrants from the traumatised Balkans. Is there racial prejudice? Well, yes, and unfortunately in my random experience, it tends to be directed by people in blue and black uniforms with “Police” written on them against other people found in possession of a dark skin. But casual, day to day racial prejudice? You’d find more of that in one evening in a British country pub than a whole Swiss canton. And as for Alabama, well...

Global Warming is a Marxist Plot

pass me a polar bear steak

in Science , Thursday, July 11, 2013

Watermelons”, by James Delingpole, is a major broadside against the acceptance of anthropogenic, in other words, human-influenced, global warming, otherwise known as AGW.

As an alumni not only of UCL’s Climate Research Group, indeed a founder member, but also of the British Antarctic Survey, de facto I would not be expected to align myself with the sceptics and deniers of AGW. Even worse, my University research work was on physical and computer modelling of vertical-axis wind turbines. Delingpole is not big on wind energy. But if my science background has taught me anything, it is to consider all aspects of an issue, so I was genuinely interested to see what Delingpole had to say. And according to Amazon reviews he’s an entertaining writer. So why not?

I decided not to read any further reviews - most on Amazon are pure hagiography anyway - but to make up my own mind.

I have to confess I’d never heard of James Delingpole. I haven’t really followed the AGW sideshow of warmists and deniers, and I’ve got very little patience for the question “do you believe in global warming?”. Belief doesn’t come into it. On this topic I base my views on proven facts and well reasoned hypotheses. And on those grounds, frankly, I lean towards the “insufficient data” response so far. As does a good proportion of the scientific community. But this leads us to the crux of the problem: many people, including most journalists and all politicians, cannot deal with anything beyond “yes” or “no”. Or what a man in the pub told them the other day. James Delingpole is less complicated: he can’t deal with “yes” either.

“Watermelons” actually makes several very valid points. Principal amongst these is pointing out the scale of the industry that has grown up from the AGW theory, or “threat”, and that fact that it could be very awkward for a lot of very large vested interests if AGW were to be disproved. He also, correctly in my view, exposes the excesses of the large eco NGOs such as Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth who have long since abandoned their grass roots calling and turned into massive global corporations. But then he calls out the motives of the Greens, claiming that it’s all a global sinister conspiracy to destroy the capitalist growth economy and dismantle civilisation. Hmm. Well, how does that square with the aforementioned NGOs becomming the epitomy of capitalistic achievement? Again, it’s not a simple case of black and white.

And this runs all through the book. It thrives on polarities, on stereotyping, on tarring all with the same brush. All it takes is one scientist to be found - alledgedly - tampering with the evidence, and then all scientists are “liars”. I don’t particularly want to rehash the ins & outs of Climategate, but one particular stolen email is held up as evidence of extreme evil:

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last twenty years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline”

Anybody with any passing familiarity with research work will see little wrong here. Perhaps if we substitute “trick” with “technique”, and realise that Nature is the most prestigious and tightly reviewed science journal around, then it becomes clear that the first part refers to a well accepted adjustment to account for known distortions. Same for the second part, this referring to the extremely well documented fact that tree ring count data needs to be treated carefully for recent years. This, in an email which was never intended for any other than close colleagues who understand the shorthand and can read between the lines. This is not evidence of any kind of fraud. And worse, I don’t doubt that Delingpole knows this.

That some scientists did a deal with the devil by exaggerating some of their predictions in order to encourage funding, that some politicians saw a fantastic vote-grabbing potential in a dumbed down version of these predictions, and that a whole bunch of entrepreneurs, bureaucrats and career Greenies then jumped on board, well this is none other than the capitalist growth economy, which the author defends tooth and nail, hard at work.

There is little real addressing of the science in the book. It is dismissed as a new religion, with climate scientists as its high priests. Actually, I note that in his blog Delingpole refers to them as climate “scientists”, presumably because they don’t do real science. When he does mention science, it’s usually to dismiss the “hockey stick” graph of accelerated warming yet again, with the usual fallacies, or to come up with claims like Arctic sea ice only recedes in the summer but freezes again in the winter, or that the Northwest passage was perfectly navigable a century ago,since Amundsen sailed through it. What he fails to mention is that it took Amundsen 3 years, wintering over twice in sea ice. On the other hand, this year, a normal sailboat, with an experienced skipper, can just sail straight through.

The old chestnut of the Medieval Warming Period (MWP) comes up a lot too, as “proof” that AGW doesn’t exist. What he seems unable, or unwilling, to grasp is that likely natural drivers for the MWP are reasonably well established, and that climate variation, both global and local, on all sorts of timescales, is well accepted. AGW theories concern themselves with modification of the natural variability due to human activity, largely due to carbon dioxide (not “carbon”) emissions. Still, in respectable scientific circles the jury remains out on the real impact. But as mentioned before, expressing reasonable doubt isn’t good for funding.

But in a sense it doesn’t matter. Delingpole claims it’s not about the science, and anyway that he is not a scientist. Rather, it’s about massive scale misrepresentation. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t give him an open license to misrepresent in turn.

Frequently I started to get the impression of some incipient eye-swivelling as Delingpole ranted on about one or other of his more far-fetched conspiracy theories or character assassinations, but most of the time he pulls back from the brink just in time. However, he goes way beyond the acceptable in his treatment of Michael Mann, and his characterisation of Rachel Carson, the author of “Silent Spring” as a “mass-murderer” is unforgivable. His description of pretty much everybody on the opposing side of his arguments as “Nazis” is also a little tiring.

But despite this, I do find myself in agreement with him on some of his specific criticisms of bodies like the IPCC, and some instances of scientists overstepping the mark. I also share his dislike of the extreme end of the Green movement. But the general tone of the book is of a foaming-at-the-mouth, sub Jeremy Clarkson rant, preaching to his followers and making no attempt at reasoned dialogue. In this he lets himself down. AGW has been used and abused by far too many agenda-owning special interests, and there are tales there that deserve to be told. But wrapping it up in a vitriolic and very largely unjustified attack on dedicated working scientists is not the way to go about.

I approached “Watermelons” with an open mind, I read it right to the end, and I even found myself nodding in agreement more often than I might have expected. But my remaining impression is of a foul mouthed attention-seeking little boy screaming “ITS NOT FAIR!!!”. A balanced debate on AGW is urgently needed, but “Watermelons”, sadly, is as unbalanced as it gets.


The Great Ocean Conveyor

It’s science, Jim

in Science , Sunday, June 23, 2013

I’ve just finished reading “The Great Ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate Change” by Professor Wally Broecker. Finding the odd 20 minutes here and there on trains is not the ideal environment to read a book like this, so a wet Sunday afternoon provided a good excuse to sit down and read it properly.

This isn’t a “global warming disaster” book on either side of the battle lines. In fact, as one reviewer describes it, it’s a new genre, the science detective thriller. Well actually, that might be taking it too far. There have many popular science books written in narrative form, often with plenty of human drama interwoven in. This is not that kind of book. Actually, it is right on the extreme between popular science and textbook or peer-reviewed journal, but none the worse for that.

Over 137 fairly dense pages, Broecker describes his original thesis for the global circulation system which drives heat exchange between the poles and the tropics, which he names the Great Ocean Conveyor. One part of this, the upper level North Atlantic limb is well known under the name of the Gulf Stream. He starts off with a preamble on the discovery and confirmation of the Milankovitch insolation cycles, and from this starting point looks at shorter term fluctuations in temperature and ice cover which are due to other factors than planetary mechanics.

Along the way, he describes the various proxy measurements of climate, starting with oxygen isotope concentrations in ocean sediments and ice cores, and techniques invented to provide reliable dating. The discussion of the sheer inventiveness of some of the methods used and the elegant ways in which they are developed to me is the core of this book.  In fact, if I have any criticism, it would be that some kind of overall treatment of the Great Conveyor itself seem to be missing. I would have liked to see a conclusion, and perhaps some better global illustration of what is known about it. The book focuses on the geochemistry, which is fine, but a little more ocean dynamics would have been nice.

The concluding chapter discuses the Anthropocene - defined as the geological period we’re now living in, starting from the point where human activity has a significant impact on atmospheric CO2 levels. One might expect this chapter to flourish a few dramatic, doom-laden scenarios as a dramatic sign off, and probably if it were a standard popular science book, the editor would have demanded this.  But actually, Broecker confesses that he’d rather avoid the mistake of crying wolf, and holds back from stating or implying that the conveyor-based mechanisms he has discovered for abrupt climate change necessarily apply the current context. However, he does emphasise that we are still far from having an answer to everything, and that the one constant is that the Earth’s climate system is full of surprises. We may well be able to deduce what happened in the past, but quite possibly we’ll only know if todays’s concerns about climate change hold up after the event.

A reader with no scientific background would probably have to skip some of the more technical discussion, which is a shame as I don’t doubt it these sections could be made more accessible. For myself, although I have had some exposure to glacier geochemistry, and can grasp the basics, there were still a few passages where my brain went blue-screen. In particular the discussion of NO4* as a proxy, which left me completely baffled - even more so as I haven’t been able to find any discussion of this anywhere else. There are a also a few key points which are presented as an elegant twist, a scientific sleight of hand, which would no doubt get a round of appreciative grunts, if not outright applause, in a scientific forum, but might be a little lost to a general readership. In shoer, and to some extent, this book does not quite seem to know who its audience is.  But that’s not a major issue. All in all, it’s an enthralling and mentally refreshing read, and I recommend it to anybody interested in what really lies behind the climate change story.


Website refresh

New! Improved! More MegaPixels!!

in Site Admin , Wednesday, April 24, 2013

As you will have noticed, if you’re a regular visitor here (or should I say, the regular visitor here), the front page has been redesigned a bit. Hopefully the use of space is a bit improved, and the layout will cunningly impel you to do exactly what I want you to do…

..and that is is to stay here and look around a bit, which is, er, well, probably why I’ve just added a new feature called “Recommendations”, which invites you to visit other people’s websites. And that, Alanis, actually is ironic.

Whatever. The idea of “recommendations” is to point out places on the web that are maybe not so well known, with a few exceptions, but which I find interesting, inspiring and educational.  I’m a bit of an information addict, so a fair few of these are blogs, but there are some more static sites in the mix too.  So far, it’s just photography and photography-related, but a parallel “other stuff” channel is in the works.

You can find recommendations in three places. Firstly, a single random entry on the home page, at the bottom right, under the tag clouds. Second, in the right hand column of the Photoblogography main page, 5 random entries, and finally the whole lot on their own dedicated page.

I hope you find this little resource useful, and if you have any suggestions to add to it, do please let me know.


Northern Lights Extravaganza in Iceland

Mr Grumpy is not impressed

in Humour , Monday, March 18, 2013

Northern Lights Extravaganza in Iceland:

northernlights-breiddalsvik_psConditions for viewing the northern lights in Iceland last night were spectacular with exceptionally clear skies and high Auroral activity.

(Via Iceland Review)

Well I could soon put a stop to all that. All I need to do is just hop on a plane to Keflavik and I can guarantee 100% cloud cover, drizzle, and blown fuses in all Aurora activation circuits.

Of course they’d start up again the day I left.

Anyway what’s the big bloody deal ? For one, all Aurora photos look exactly the same, and for another, the sky’s not supposed to be that colour anyway. Load of fuss over nothing if you ask me. Which you didn’t.

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