Hot Air, Cold Air, Compressed Air

I commend this 4-minute soundbite to you – it’s journalist Bill McKibben putting our current climate change in the context of the history of human civilisation.

Source: Speaking of Faith (NPR)

Clive James points out this week that the exact science behind climate change theories might be up for debate (or perhaps has been scandalously misreported by the media).

However politicians and individuals have to make decisions based on the best evidence available at the time: right now, majority international scientific opinion tells us that the planet’s climate is changing, that it’s likely that human activity is causing it, atmospheric carbon levels are off the chart and if we do nothing, the consequences will be disastrous.

On this basis alone, postponing global action to change our would be highly irresponsible, and probably immoral. Maybe 10, 20, 100 years from now, our current climate science will be proved wrong. Maybe future generations will laugh at us, but at least they won’t be able to accuse us of inaction in the face of the science that we do have.

US Sea Level Trends, 1900-2000 (Data Source: NOAA/US EPA)

Elsewhere in the podcastsphere this week, George Kenney’s been talking to coastal geologist Professor Orrin Pilkey about sea level rise – an interesting hour’s conversation covering the scientific evidence for rising oceans and the policy challenges facing those who are trying to convince governments to tackle the problem.

In any case, moving away from a carbon-based economy promises enormous political and environmental benefits – decentralising power generation, reducing reliance for energy on politically unstable regions of the world, diversifying economies and offering new, cheaper energy technologies to developing countries. The meeting in Copenhagen this week is a great chance to start moving towards a low-carbon future. We’d be stupid not to grab it.

And if you’re a little jaded by all the political and science talk we’re hearing at the moment, check this out: a car that runs on compressed air.

Invented by a French engineer, the MDI engine produces ZERO pollution while running. The concept model may suffer a little from inimitably French design, but the underlying technology looks very promising. Tata has invested in the company, and there are plans to begin commercial production in 2010. The revolution is here, and it looks like a plastic snail.

Meeting Leanna

Leanna (top) and Bethany Mills (Photo: Natalie Grono/Sydney Morning Herald)

Once in a while, life throws unexpected meetings at you, meetings that take you completely outside your normal frame of reference.  I’ve had one of those moments this week. Today, I met Leanna Mills. It happened something like this:

Last night, coming home from dinner on the tram, I was talking with an English friend, (in English of course). A man sitting nearby turns around and looks at us. As my friend got off the tram, he gets up and comes over, and asks, in a strong Australian accent, “So, where’re you from mate?”

He finds out I’m from New Zealand, and I find out Nic’s from Newcastle, New South Wales. And he’s here in Montpellier with his family because his 14 year-old daughter Leanna is having life-saving surgery. For the sixth time.

Leanna and her younger sister Bethany (12) suffer from an extremely rare neurological condition called primary dystonia. There is no cure, and one of the few successful treatments is deep brain stimulation, which involves the implantation of electrodes in the brain. One of the only places in the world they undertake the procedure on children is the paediatric neurosurgery department at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Montpellier.

Nic and his wife Michelle don’t speak a word of French, but since 2005, the lives of two of their daughters are in the hands of a few French expert surgeons. As Nic told me, the Australian government provides part-funding for overseas treatment, but most of the enormous costs of travel, surgery and after-care have been paid for by Nic and his wife’s own fundraising efforts, and the help of a few generous donors.

I wanted to give Nic my contact details, but when we parted ways at our tram stop, I didn’t have a business card on me, and Nic didn’t have a pen. So I shook his hand and wished him well, and walked home. A late-night google search uncovered this article about the girls in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Today, I wrote down my contact details on a piece of paper, and stuck it in an envelope. The plan was to drop it at the reception desk at the hospital, and ask them to give it to Nic. I wasn’t even sure if the hospital staff would allow me to do that, given patient confidentiality rules.

But when I arrived at reception, the lady said “Ah yes, the Australian girl. She’s on the 5th floor in Pediatric Neurosurgery. Take the lift, and go on up.” So I found the ward, asked at the nurses’ station, and I was shown to Leanna’s room. Leanna and Nic were both asleep, but the nurse had no hesitation in waking them up to tell them they had a visitor.

I had originally planned to simply drop off a letter. I ended up staying two and a half hours. Stuck in France, the Mills have had few English-speaking visitors. Nic and I talked about the fundraising efforts, and the adventures and dramas the family have had over the course of ten years. A nurse came in, invited Leanna to a birthday party for one of the other patients, and she disappeared for half an hour in a wheelchair.

It seems a cliché to describe Leanna as a brave young woman. At the age of 14, she’s spent more time in hospital than most people experience in a lifetime. She has electrodes in her brain, a battery pack in her abdomen and wires inside her neck. And yet, one day out of intensive care, she was still smiling. And she insisted on getting my myspace address.

Just as remarkable are Leanna’s parents. Nic has given up his job to care for his daughters and to find ways to raise funds for treatment and care. They both look tired, but determined. Nick’s made a solid list of contacts and has grand plans to put together the financial footing the family will need in the future. There’s a book and a website on the way.

Even if the repeat surgery is succesful, there’s a long way to go – Leanna and Bethany both require ongoing monitoring, and changing the batteries in their brain stimulation devices requires surgery every two years for the rest of their lives. The costs involved are extraordinary – but without this treatment, the girls would die.

Bethany, two years younger, is back in Australia and by all accounts doing very well. The Mills’ youngest daughter Olivia also stayed behind in Newcastle with relatives this time, while the oldest daughter Katey travelled with her parents to spend the summer in Montpellier while Leanna underwent surgery.

Next week, the Mills hope to fly home to Australia. I’m going to try and keep in touch with this remarkable family, and when their website is live, I’ll post the link here. Because you never know who might be able to help.

Promising the Moon

Florida as a whole doesn’t hold a lot of appeal for me: a vast flat strip-mall full of beaches, theme parks, swamps and cops in pastel polo shirts driving Ferraris. But there is one place amidst this general tawdriness that geniuinely impressed and inspired: Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.

A Saturn V is immodest in size, brutally functional in its design and arrogant in intent. Seen up close at KSC, it’s a completely wonderful machine, the engineering backbone of the single most impressive technical feat in the history of our species.

Here’s me standing next to one of the Rocketdyne F-1 first stage motors. A Saturn V had FIVE of these puppies, each one of them developing more thrust than an entire space shuttle:

On the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, there’s been debate about whether humans should go back to the Moon, or further. A counter-argument often used is that manned spaceflight is a waste of money, and that we should be focusing our attention, resources and energy on solving problems on Earth first.

Such reasoning is flawed. The opportunity cost of not going back to the Moon or to Mars is NOT prolonged starvation, war or global warming. Cancelling the $100 billion ISS would never result in that $100 billion being spent instead on AIDS research or education in African countries.  And aerospace engineers wouldn’t suddenly turn their enthusiasms towards creating new forms of clean energy.

But there is a pot of money and a set of expertise that could profitably be turned to space exploration: defense spending. 

A 20% cut in the US defence budget ($515 billion in 2009) would fund current NASA activities ($18.7 billion) six times over.  And most of the contractors who might lose business through defence cuts (firms like Lockheed, Boeing and BAE) would be exactly the firms with the technology and skills to bid for work in an expanded space programme.

This is not just an American effort, however. The same level defence cuts applied across Europe, Japan, Russia and China, and the subsequent redeployment of brain power and manpower could be transformative for the world economy.

By rights, a space programme should be a politician’s wet dream. High-value jobs. New technologies. Adding to the knowledge economy. And it’s not just jobs for scientists and pilots…there’s thousands of factory floor jobs involved in stitching spacesuits and running wiring through space capsules. The French for fiscal stimulus package is “plan de relance“. Relance – re-launch.

Like Robyn Gallagher, I’d love to see men and women walk on the Moon or Mars during my lifetime. A Mars programme will certainly have to be an international project. The Americans did it on their own with a Saturn V, some chewing gum and a pocket calculator in 1969. In the 21st century it’ll be even better, because we’ll all be along for the ride. To infinity and beyond!

Apollo 17 photos from NASA / Apollo Lunar Surface Journal

Conformity of Thought

Image: eco-photography

This week’s Rue des Entrepreneurs on France Inter took on the controversial topic of how humans actually make decisions. There were some notable concepts raised: essentially all the recent research throws most traditional assumptions of rationality out the window.

I liked this quote from Jon Elster about the absurdity of groupthink:

Conformity [of belief] can be rational, in the sense that if you observe a large number of people thinking like that, they must doubtless be correct. But if everyone forms their belief in the same way – by observing others – there is no “hard core” [of belief]. For example it’s possible to observe the following situation: where nobody really believes in a certain proposition, but everyone thinks everyone believes in it. And so everyone behaves as if they believe in it.
-Jon Elster, Professor of Rationality and Social Science at the Collège de France

“Le conformisme peut-être rationnel, dans le sens que si l’on observe que beaucoup de gens pensent comme ça, ils doivent sans doute avoir raison. Mais si tous ces autres forment leur croyance de la même manière, en observant autrui, alors il n’y a pas de “noyau dur”. Par exemple on peut constater la situation suivante: que personne ne croit dans la vérité d’une certaine proposition, mais chacun croit que tous les autres y croient. Donc tout le monde se comportent s’ils y croyaient.”
-Jon Elster, professeur au Collège de France, chaire « Rationalité et sciences sociales »

[Ed– thanks to Yann for his corrections to my French transcript]


Just finished listening to Chris Lydon’s podcast conversation with George Scialabba. In his analysis of how intellectualism has largely disappeared from view in American society, Scialabba imagines a re-emergence of public conversation about ideas, based on shared locality.

In Scialabba’s opinion, people should be talking about political ideas to each other on the bus, in the coffee shop or at work. The big questions need to be addressed by everybody over a sandwich, rather than assuming that some professor, theologian or journalist is doing it for us.

Central to Scialabba’s argument is the notion that technology is not a replacement for conversation. He points out that most of us still live and/or work in specific physical spaces. The issues and ideas that affect our lives most are necessarily best discussed and solved locally. The internet, while connecting us to ideas and resources globally, could actually be fracturing our ability to identify or deal with the questions that most affect our lives directly.

…some people are on such a fast-track to the future that, when other people are sunk in pre-modern misery, and its just not a healthy prognosis for the species.

-George Scialabba

I wonder if this notion of local debate ties somewhat into my previous post on locally-based economics and its role in community. More thinking required there…

Another interesting idea of Scialabba is that the happy liberal post-modernity in which most of us live is a luxury we can ill afford. Indeed 60-80% of the world’s population are still barely struggling into modernity, both in terms of physical conditions and philosophical ideas. In this context, local conversations become increasingly important because for most humans they are the only tool they have available to better understand their world.

The iPod kids might be characterised as a nation of flighty, ethereal creatures. I’m possibly a card-carrying (if elderly) citizen of this digital Arcadia. We are so comfortable in our multi-tasking, multi-discourse environment that we can no longer identify with those who are not part of the networked world. Perhaps we are also being deafened to the voices closest to us.

(This post is mostly “thinking aloud”. I’m not sure I’ve managed to say anything at all. I’m not even sure if Scialabba is right. But he made me waste an hour writing all this, so that’s some kind of an achievement…)

Waking up with Donny

(Or: Towards a Recontextualisation of Art based on a Sliding Scale of Badly Drawn Monsters)


Donny Hathaway – Love, Love, Love
From Extensions of a Man [Buy] [iTunes]

The morning after a fun Friday night out in London, dodging raindrops between pubs and engaging in some good conversations with people I don’t see enough of, the iPod alarm clock woke me with a randomly selected tune, which just happened to be Donny Hathaway’s Love,Love,Love. Normally waking up is not particularly fun, especially on Saturdays, but this was one of those moments when the tune completely fitted with the good memories of the previous evening.

Which got me thinking – was the appreciation of that particular moment and that particular song enhanced by knowledge of Donny Hathaway’s career and his tragically short life?

Does enjoyment of art increase with familiarity? Or can our engagement with art be inhibited by too much knowledge about the context of its creation? And how does our knowledge interact with the specificity of the moment in which the art is consumed/observed/heard?

A music geek or an academic might argue that one’s enjoyment and appreciation of any given musical performance is enhanced by extensive study or obsessive fandom. When this relationship is expressed in a graph, the Appreciation Curve rises proportionally as one’s knowledge (Ka) of an artist/artform/genre increases, and as a function of specificity of the moment in which the music is heard (Sc).

One Bullshit Diagram

Fig. 1

For example – in Figure 1, the anonymous elevator music heard on the way to work would lie near the bottom left side of the Appreciation Curve, whereas for a jazz fan, hearing Coltrane’s A Love Supreme at the funeral of a close friend or family member might rank very high to the right hand side on the curve.

However, this neat Unified Theory falls down rapidly when tested against real world experience. For example, Maurice Ravel‘s String Quartet in F Major can hit you between the ears with the same force of beauty, whether you’re hearing Ravel for the first time or for the 1,000th. And speaking personally, my irrational love of Senorita by Justin Timberlake is completely out of proportion to any instinct for good taste or indeed my knowledge of Mr Timberlake’s career, which is rather limited.

So knowledge and context interact in far more intricate ways than we might expect. Therefore the graph must be modified somewhat to illustrate a rather more complex reality, as in Figure 2:

Fig. 2

The implications of this revised model of music appreciation, which we might call the “Ball of String Theory” are quite startling, and are twofold:

1. Sometimes you really should stay in bed on Saturday mornings

2. Clever theories will come back and bite you on the arse, as demonstrated in Figure 3:

Fig. 3

My Brain Just Exploded

The thing about Cosmology is that lots of us are really interested in it, but very few are actually patient and smart enough to do the measurements and the maths necessary to figure out where the heck we might fit in the universe.

Luckily there are people like Brian Greene to do the maths and then explain it to the rest of us “normal” humans. He’s director of the Institute of Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics at Columbia University, with a DPhil from Oxford.


I’ve been listening to a conversation Greene held with Robert Krulwich from WNYC’s Radiolab recently as part of a science lecture series organised by the YMCA in New York.

Brian and Rob explore the multiverse theory, swiss cheese, free will, bubble baths and the probability that our universe is a giant simulation being run by super-smart ubergeeks from the planet Xantar.

50 minutes of brain-expanding talk, and pretty funny too. There’s an mp3 to download or it’s listenable on the Radiolab website.

Neighbourhood Watch

While my aunt’s away on summer holiday, it’s nice to know that NASA is keeping an eye on her house.

STS-116 astronauts Robert L. Curbeam, Jr. and Christer Fuglesang admire my aunt’s rose garden.

(Original and hi-res image available on Wikipedia. And for a variation on this photo featuring an unexplainable local kiwi joke, see David Slack’s blog.)

Mood Piece

I was sent this movie yesterday by a friend – it’s a video of images taken by the NASA Messenger probe as it flew by Earth in August, on its gravity-assisted path to Mercury.

Seeing Earth as viewed by a passing spacecraft put me in a strange mood. It was almost like stepping out of ourselves, and getting a glimpse what a visitor from elsewhere might see. Our planet is so small… we are so insignificant. This thought has struck me previously in a different form.

My initial thoughts for a soundtrack to this short movie was Sting’s Fragile, but in the end I selected a song by Beck. Charlie Haden plays bass on this track, in case anyone cares…

Beck – Ramshackle
From Odelay: Geffen 24926 [Buy]

First Podcast from Space

As I write this, the space shuttle Discovery is about 30 minutes from its deorbit burn, as it prepares to return to Earth. Possibly a good time to note the recording of the first podcast from space, made yesterday by astronaut Steve Robinson (below). There’s no music, but it’s from space, and that makes it cool.

Steve Robinson – The First Podcast from Space

I was going to write an entry on the passing of Ibrahim Ferrer, but Taxi Driver and Pete have both posted already, so I’ll point to their blog entries and just say resto en paz.

“Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do…..” Photo:NASA