Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Landslide could be warning shot we should not ignore

Interesting article in today's Press and Journal by Nicola Barry:

LANDSLIDES are only good if they happen for your party in an election. But when you come face to face with the real thing, see the raw power of nature in action, it can be truly terrifying.

You cannot have failed to notice the TV and press coverage of the massive slippage on the A83 at Rest and Be Thankful, in Argyll. A massive 1,000 tons of mud and rubble crashed down the mountainside and blocked the road for the second time in two years at almost exactly the same place.

I was driving home after speaking at a conference at Tarbert, a lengthy enough journey at the best of times. Then I came face to face with a blocked route and a mammoth 60-mile diversion to circumvent the mess. I was not alone. For the next four days, hundreds of drivers had to make the same extended detour.

We have had serious landslides here in Scotland. Remember the one which trapped 50 people and isolated the entire village of Lochearnhead in 2004? They are caused by prolonged heavy rain – and we have seen plenty of that this year.

Climate change scientists believe these conditions will become more common in the UK, making landslides more frequent. According to experts, the rock which forms the foundation of the hill at Rest and Be Thankful is so smooth that any extensive rainfall will dislodge the top soil. This soil has nothing beneath it to hold it in place, so it forms a mass of moving earth and stone; a veritable avalanche which hurtles down the mountain at a terrifying speed.

I have had my doubts about climate change. But when you witness, first-hand, the result of something as awesome as a hillside collapsing, you do wonder whether we should give the believers more credence.

The first question which entered my head was how far had I been from a really nasty accident? And, how many drivers were close when the rumbling landscape decided to relocate itself hundreds of feet down the mountain.

We do, at least, know that landslides are caused by prolonged heavy rainfall. It could have got me. It was only just as I was leaving Tarbert that the landslide was reported. I was just in time.

So, what would you do in such circumstances? Try and reverse your car, with all the dangers that would entail? Try and outrun it? Or, would you freeze like a rabbit caught in headlights, unsure of what to do? If you did freeze beneath 1,000 tons of rubble and mud, the next person you’d meet would be your Maker.

This prompts two questions: will such a landslide happen again, especially at the now notorious blackspot, the ironically named Rest and Be Thankful? And, what can be done to prevent it? No doubt, the greatest engineering minds in Scotland will be applying themselves to this very point.

Of course, your response to this column will depend on where you stand on the whole issue of global warming, whether you believe the world is about to come to a very heated end or that the whole argument has been hyped by people who should know better, ie: scientists.

If they are right, climate change and pollution combine to make a dreadful legacy for future generations, for our children’s children.

Many of the consequences of the way we have ignored the delicate balance of our natural world, are already coming home to roost.

Years ago, meteorologists forecast intense thunderstorms; so bad they would bring flash flooding across the country. We have already witnessed these.

Equally, you may have noticed that, during the last few years, instead of complaining about damp, cloudy Scottish summers, we have been reduced to moaning about the excruciating heat and humidity, always followed by relentless, torrential rain.

The 2003 heatwave, remember, killed 27,000 people across Europe.

In recent years, The Scottish Government approved powers to crack down on wasteful homeowners and businesses; a move, incidentally, hailed as the world's most ambitious emissions targets – in some quarters. Measures voted through included the power to fine householders and companies if they do not take action to improve the energy efficiency of their houses and buildings.

We conveniently forget that so many of our daily activities affect the environment. One of the most important is how much carbon dioxide we emit because that is the gas which contributes to climate change. It is the same with water. We forget how lucky we are to have pure, fresh, water to quench our thirst when so many countries do not. We forget how central water is to our lives. We drink it, wash and swim in it, cook and clean with it and perform basic sanitary tasks such as flushing the loo with it.

We use litres of the stuff, thoughtlessly, day in, day out. When will we ever stop and think about the damage we do?

We have seen with catastrophes such as the Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, that when Mother Nature gets her dander up, there is not a lot trivial mankind can do to dissuade her. Hurricane Katrina tore its way through the beautiful city of New Orleans, destroying homes, people and cars. It uprooted houses, trees and power lines, leaving death alongside devastation.

The incompetence and indifference demonstrated by the US Federal Government was little short of a disgrace. People were frogmarched from what remained of their homes and bussed two or three states away, not knowing when or if they would ever return. Most of us watching the tragedy unfold couldn’t believe what we were seeing. These scenes must be coming from the Sudan or Somalia, but America? But would we, as a nation, cope any better?

We need to make dramatic lifestyle changes.

Take in this statistic: one long-haul return flight can produce the same carbon footprint as driving a car for a whole year. So, if the landslide I almost encountered last week WAS a sign of climate change, it is a warning shot across our bows which we must not ignore.

Forty-five years of the US Wilderness Act

Brilliant images on the Guardian website

Friday, September 11, 2009

Digging for victory again

Interesting article in today's Guardian by Madeleine Bunting:

Madeleine Bunting

In an era of profound anxiety, the great claims made for home-grown veg are more convincing

Some praise her dress sense, others her warmth, and others celebrate her as a powerful role model; but perhaps the most astute move of America's first lady was to plough up the White House lawn for a vegetable garden. Now she has her first harvest, with 225lb of food grown so far, and over 50 varieties of vegetables.

The role of the wives of world leaders is all about symbolism. They are tightly constrained by what they can say and how they can intervene in public life, but what they can do is communicate by example. And Michelle Obama chose an intervention which, as they say, was absolutely on the money. It shows a canny knack of how to identify and ride a growing tide of public sentiment.

Because over the last two years, vegetable growing has gone from being a grandad's hobby to hip. The most unlikely gardeners now regularly discuss their runner bean crop, how to keep slugs off the courgettes, and their preferred type of chard. People with hectic lifestyles and tiny urban gardens are still eager to discuss tomato seeds. This has gone well beyond a rural fantasy of self-sufficiency. The results are evident in unprecedented waiting lists for allotments (estimated at 100,000 earlier this year) and the sales of vegetable seeds, with UK companies reporting increases of 30% in 2007 and another 40% in 2008. There are similar reports in the US.

It's easy to put this down to a straightforward response to tough times and the recession. But there's more to it than that, because – let's be realistic – by the time you've bought your seed, slug repellent and compost, you're unlikely to have saved that much money. This is not primarily driven by economic need.

The point at which this zeitgeist really struck me as curious was when an acquaintance – a successful property developer – told me she was keen to sell her home-grown cucumbers on her street with an honesty box. There is something much more interesting here than a search for cheap food.

Obama has linked her digging with the importance of healthy eating; a fifth of US children are reported to be obese. Can growing veg shift eating habits? Thousands of UK schools have developed vegetable gardens in the hope that growing a vegetable can encourage a child to eat one: a moot point, but probably worth a try. (My results have been mixed given my tendency to serve up a healthy portion of insect life in the veg.)

Great claims are made for home-grown veg: in particular, that it generates a better understanding of the food production process and the natural resources of soil fertility and water on which it depends. Under this rationale, a crop of leeks is a crash course in environmental awareness. Similarly, the considerable effort required to nurture a crop of tomatoes on to the dinner table brings a new dimension to food waste (the promises that growing veg is simple are wide of the mark, and one presumes Obama's success has been dependent on some expert advice). One has a much better sense of the effort and resources required to produce food and the horror of all that going to waste.

Also lurking in the background of this fashion is a profound anxiety that the future looks so uncertain that the produce of our window boxes may be all that stands between us and hunger. There are still plenty of people who remember digging for victory in the second world war, and their children and grandchildren now feel the need to make sure those gardening skills, once common, don't go to the grave. The example of Cuba is held up as the model: Havana managed to produce much of the food it needed within its city limits after its oil-based agricultural sector collapsed in the early 90s. Whenever oil prices edge up, it probably prompts another jump in the demand for seed potatoes at B&Q.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Deutschland ist Europameister(in)

Bericht in der Frankfurter Rundschau und Taz:
Das Transparent war schön zentral postiert. Genau in der Mitte der Gegentribüne, dort wo die finnische Spätsommersonne die Menschen immerhin bis Mitte der ersten Halbzeit richtig wärmte, hing das weiße Laken – und gefährlich rote Farbe hatten die Autoren für ihre pfiffige Botschaft sehr passend auch noch benutzt. "10.9.09 – England’s Nightmare" stand da geschrieben, wobei das "Night" sorgfältig durchgestrichen und durch die vier Buchstaben NEID ersetzt worden war. Beim Schlusspfiff des EM-Finals zwischen England und Deutschland prangte der Spruch noch immer auf der Tribüne – und die DFB-Auswahl mit Cheftrainerin Silvia Neid war, wie schriftlich angekündigt, tatsächlich zum Albtraum für die Engländerinnen geworden. Ein echter Tiefschlag war die 6:2-Flut von Helsinki, ausgelöst durch die deutschen Fußballerinnen, für die Kickerinnen von der Insel. Die Gegner der deutschen Fußballerinnen sind Kummer ja gewöhnt – der gestrige Titelgewinn der DFB-Elf war schließlich der fünfte in Folge. Aber nicht an solche, zumal in einem Finale.
Revanche für das von den deutschen Fußballmannen erlittene 5:1-Debakel von 2001?

Translator ('fixer') dies in Afghanistan

I'm not familiar with the circumstances, and I'm simply posting the links to the Guardian reports entitled "Journalist rescued in Afghanistan pays tribute to translator who died in raid" and "British journalist's rescuers left dead Afghan behind" as examples of yet another thought-provoking episode in the 'Afghanistan saga'.

Professor David Elliott, Open University, criticises New Labour Policy On Nuclear Energy

Published on the Claverton website


Nuclear expansion? Not in my name

The public debate and the government consultations in 2006 and 2007 on nuclear power were framed in the context of a replacement programme for existing reactors scheduled to close. On this basis it has been suggested that there was if not a clear consensus then at least a majority in favour.

However, subsequently the government began to talk about going beyond replacement. For example, in May 2008 Prime Minister Gordon Brown commented ‘I think we are pretty clear that we will have to do more than simply replace existing nuclear capability in Britain’ while Secretary of State John Hutton said, that, although it was up to the private sector developers, he would be ‘very disappointed’ if the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear did not rise ’significantly above the current level’. In Aug 2009, Malcolm Wicks MP, the PM’s Special Representative on International Energy, produced a report calling for a UK nuclear contribution of 35-40% ‘beyond 2030?. Currently the UK gets 13% of its electricity from nuclear sources.

The government has also indicated that it saw a major role for exporting UK nuclear technology and expertise. Gordon Brown has indicated that he believes the world needs 1,000 extra nuclear power stations and has argued that Africa could build nuclear power plants to meet growing demands for energy. In 2009 a new UK Nuclear Centre of Excellence was announced to ‘promote wider access to civil nuclear power across the world’ with an initial budget of £20m, along with ‘up to £15m’ for a Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

I cannot support any of the above policies or views. As a lifelong Labour movement activist and long standing Labour party member, I have struggled to live with various New Labour policies to which I have been opposed with increasing difficulty, not least in relation to the Iraq invasion. The new policies on nuclear will I believe lead to major long-term global security problems, in terms of the proliferation of nuclear weapons making capacity and the potential for nuclear terrorism. The policies on nuclear could also undermine energy security and environmental sustainability, since money, manpower and other resources will be diverted away from renewables and energy efficiency, which I see as the only long term options for a sustainable energy future, nationally and globally.

I have made these points regularly in various forums, including SERA, of which I was a founding member. But the commitment to an expanded nuclear programme seems set in stone and indeed is deepening. A Policy Statement on Nuclear is due soon. I doubt if it will go much beyond what the government has already said- that it welcomes the 12GW or so of proposal that have come so far from the private sector. In fact the various contenders- EDF, E.ON etc, have ‘reserved’ a total of 23.6GW of grid links for new nuclear capacity with National Grid. That’s about the same as the wind power capacity we are aiming to have by 2020. But as EDF have pointed out, there are operational and economic reasons why a major expansion of nuclear would be incompatible with a major expansion of renewable electricity generation.

The Labour leadership, and I fear many party members, cannot see the lunacy of this approach. I have therefore, reluctantly, decided to resign from the Labour party, not least since I find it impossible to canvas on its behalf.

This will coincide with my retirement from the Open University after 38 years trying to relay rational and sustainable approaches to technology and energy policy to a wide audience. But I wont be going quietly into the night! For example, Iíll be continuing to produce Renew, the bimonthly newsletter on renewable energy development and policies, on an independent basis: see

David Elliott,
(soon to be Emeritus) Professor of Technology Policy,
The Open University

50 things that are being killed by the internet

Thanks to Steven Marzuola for passing on the link to this article in the Daily Telegraph.

Re. item no. 8, I'm not going to mourn the end of phone books - see also my letter in the Leicester Mercury.

Item no. 14 is quite alarming: "The internet's draw on our attention is relentless and increasingly difficult to resist", although come to think of it, I was probably quite restless even before the Internet...

Item no. 29 is the reason why this post ended up in my translation blog rather than my other blog. It says "Sites like Babelfish offer instant, good-enough translations of dozens of languages". I'm not sure about that.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Peter Maffay wird 60

Bericht in den Deutschland-Nachrichten des Auswärtigen Amtes:

Friday, September 04, 2009

How the collapse of Lehman Brothers pushed capitalism to the brink

The Guardian has an interesting account of how the global financial crisis unfolded.

Bundestagswahl, Wohnsitz im Ausland

My application to register as a voter in the forthcoming German elections proved to be quite an 'educational' experience, especially if one is interested in the finer technical details of PDF forms.

LinkedIn Crowdsourcing Translation Controversy

Thanks to Iwan Davies for pointing out Rachel McRoberts' excellent presentation describing the background to the recent LinkedIn crowdsourcing translation controversy.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Proportional Representation

Disappointingly, William Hague never bothered to reply to the open letter I sent him back in May.
Meanwhile, pressure to reform the British voting system and make it more democratic will hopefully keep mounting.
Another example of such pressure was published in today's Guardian.