Thursday, 26 March 2009

mixed messages

This weekend, people all around the developed world are switching off their lights for Earth Hour. The initiative, facilitated by the WWF "acts as a worldwide call to action to every individual, business and community to take a stand against Climate Change" according to the website.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about the whole thing. Don't get me wrong... I think that it is a great idea, but I just wonder how much of a real difference it will make.

I remember during the 1980s in South Africa when I was one of a group of editors working on UpFront, the journal of the UDF and in many ways the mouthpiece for the then-banned ANC, there were some people within the organisation who were critical of the contribution of whites to the struggle. Their argument was that we could enjoy the adrenaline rush of putting up illegal posters or holding illegal meetings, but at the end of the day we went back to the cocoons of our safe homes in our white suburbs.

I feel a little like that now. Those lucky enough to have electricity (and cars and various other consumer-culture necessities) are contributing to climate change far more than those for whom electricity is a dream. Like people who are living in a yurt in the middle of Mongolia. Or a shack in any South African town.

So sure, we should register our support for climate change initiatives. We should call for action to stop further environmental damage. But sitting in the dark for an hour isn't really going to make a difference. We'll go back to our safe, electrified environment straight after the adrenaline rush has worn off.

And really, how many people are actually prepared to change their lifestyles because of climate change?

The big corporates certainly aren't. Shell and BP announced recently that they are no longer going to invest in renewable energy such as wind and solar power. Instead it will be looking at increasing biofuel production, where profits are much higher. Who cares about the implications! Biofuels have been criticised for a range of ills, including nitrous oxide emitting fertilisers and starvation of populations whose arable land is being turned into fuel rather than food production.

The world's biggest investor in wind power, Iberdrola Renewables, is cutting its investment in Britain by more than 40%, which means that 200 000 less homes will be powered by renewable energy.

So, while I absolutely support the idea of Earth Hour, and encourage all of you to sign up (there's a link on this page), I'm left feeling that it is just a show. Toyi toying because it is fun rather than because of any real commitment.

Real commitment will mean changing the way each of us live our lives. Every day. Without exception. And just how many of us are prepared to do that?

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Wednesday, 18 March 2009

in the eye of the beholder

I have one of those widgets on my Google home page that provides "today's reason to drink". Not, you understand, because I particularly need a good reason to drink. In fact, a father who was a part time alcoholic (he was great between the binges) and a very frustrating new allergy to red wine have conspired to keep me sober. Instead, I see it as "today's reason to celebrate".

So, when I saw that today is National Biodiesel day - I assume in the US - I realised that this was a day that I should certainly celebrate.

Until ten days ago I wouldn't have given it a second glance, but that was before I paid a visit to the Sasol Advanced Fuels Laboratory (SAFL) at UCT and discovered that there is a world of unexpected beauty inside every engine.

In a rather nondescript building tucked behind the maintenance department on the UCT campus, researchers are testing Sasol fuels and discovering some amazing things. I expected rather dour and nurdy chemists, but what I found when I visited there was a world of excitement and wonder.

Would you have expected the head of a lab dedicated to testing fuel made from coal to have been so inspired by the beauty of one of his students' discoveries that he reproduced it in a piece of jewellery for his wife?

The labs are filled with engines, but on the walls are pictures of the most amazing colours, captured by high speed film. Sprays of multi-coloured energy bursting out in a stream of light.

Even the apparatus is beautiful. In one lab, a sapphire with a diameter of 10cm plays a vital part in the combustion bomb, a piece of apparatus designed to measure soot, temperature and composition of fuels in the instant when the fuel combusts.

“Sapphires have special thermal properties,” head of the lab, Prof Andy Yates, told me, adding that the stone itself has been the subject of intense contemplation by students with more than just their studies on their minds.

In the picture above is the world's fastest fuel compression machine, built by one of the SAFL students. It looks at what happens when a known air : fuel ratio is squeezed very suddenly. The machine stops a piston which is moving at up to 40km/hr twenty times faster than a blink.

“It reveals a lot about fuel,” Yates explains. “What happens is that it 'thinks' about burning, starts to burn, stops burning and then explodes. These timescales are crucial to extracting the maximum capacity out of fuels.”

From my perspective, the best of all, and the colour that so inspired Prof Yates, with its supreme beauty was the "mysterious blue" of the cool flame that burns in the fraction of a second before the fuel explodes.

I'll never look at an engine in quite the same way again.

Monday, 16 March 2009

the future is in Venus

Today's thought-provoking guest post by is Larissa

Numerous science fiction and Japanese animated films depict a horrific future where humans are ruled and overpowered by an army of power-hungry killer robots and machines. In reality, this is unlikely ever to happen. A future where robots can walk upright like a human, on two steel legs, let alone grip a pistol in their meagre, unbendable fingers is thousands of years away – especially when you take a look at the ‘best’ and most ‘proficient’ robots that have been designed so far. The most violent thing these inadequate steel beasts will do is blast away the dirt and grime in your home and call an all-out war on poor sanitation.

On the contrary, imagine living in a world enhanced by machinery and technology. Imagine living in a beautifully designed, fully-automated, sustainable house with a solar-panelled roof in a safe, energy-efficient city that has no prisons. Best of all, you wouldn't have any bonds or mortgage payments to make and you would never have to pay rent either. Sounds incredible, doesn't it? Well, it's the idea behind 'The Venus Project'.

Admittedly, the name conjures up images of dirty, barefoot hippies running around with goofy smiles on their faces, hugging trees and bunnies and professing 'free love'. However, the name 'Venus' merely applies to a town in Florida in the United States, where Phase One of the project is already underway.

The future is currently taking shape on a 25-acre piece of land in pristine, south-central Florida. Futurist, inventor, industrial designer and founder of the project, Jacque Fresco and his associate, Roxanne Meadows have already completed construction for the research centre in Venus to test their theories. The buildings are supplemented by pamphlets, books, posters, video presentations and even an upcoming feature-length film which will highlight the projects' aims and proposals in an informative and entertaining way.

Fresco is the project founder and director of The Venus Project and foresees a radical new resources-based worldwide economy. That's right, folks, Mr Fresco wants to do away with all forms of money, credits, barter and any other form of debt or servitude. In Fresco's design, all resources become "the common heritage of all of the (earth's) inhabitants." Fresco’s resource-based and extreme new civilisation will utilise existing resources from the land and sea to enhance the lives of the total population on earth. Emphasis is on a high standard of living and the use of technology to improve our lives.

Money won’t be the only thing left by the wayside – all professions based on the monetary system like stockbrokers, lawyers, bankers, salespeople and insurance agents will become null and void. (Imagine a society where you never have to deal with another one of these blood-sucking leeches! Sounds like heaven.) In this new world, lifestyles would inevitably change to a focus on the pursuit and realisation of happiness rather than the acquisition of wealth, property and power.

Fresco has designed safe, energy-efficient cities and advanced transportation systems. These cities will use clean technologies like geothermal, controlled fusion, solar photovoltaic, wind, wave, tidal power and fuel from oceans. Fresco imagines a world where machines will do all the sorts of jobs that humans don’t want to or don’t like to do – like cleaning and waste removal. Sounds good to me! These concepts are not unlike anything you would hear about in a technology programme like the popular, Tech Head, which claimed that “houses of the future will clean themselves” on one of its shows.

People are already living in intelligent, self-automated houses that run on a central computer system. The occupants of these houses ‘log in’ on their cell phones or other devices and voila! The houses magically change and adjust according to the users’ personal settings. In the bathroom, the central computer will run a bath for you, perfectly suited to your tastes, and change the light and temperature settings according to your personal needs. Counter tops in the kitchen are adjusted to the height of the person using it – ideal for all the little children in the household. Fridges have touch screens so that you can see exactly what’s inside without even opening the door. They are also connected to the internet, so that you can order food and drinks as soon as things are finished or have expired. These high-tech houses also have energy monitors, telling you exactly how much energy you have wasted and consumed.

The unifying imperative of The Venus Project is also to outgrow the artificial boundaries that separate people and nations. That means global governance, which can be quite a scary and imposing term to some people. Fresco is quick to explain his stance – “Our vision of globalisation empowers each and every person on the planet to be the best they can be, not to live in abject subjugation to a corporate governing body.” Nothing Orwellian about it.

Fresco also, perhaps somewhat idealistically, believes that as soon as you eliminate scarcity in a society, most crimes and other social ills will naturally disappear. In his new world, prisons will no longer be necessary. A lot of Fresco’s radical ideas are not unlike the beliefs of the Bahai’ faith – a monotheistic religion which was founded in 19th century Persia. Bahai’ teachings emphasise the unity of all the world’s major religions and talks about the spiritual unity of all humankind. One of the fastest growing religions, Bahai’ underlines peace, justice and unity on a global scale. Currently, there are more than six million Bahai’ around the world in more than 200 countries.

You probably won’t be the first person to point out that designing, building and implementing these new cities, houses and transport systems will – very ironically – cost a lot of money. Fresco is aware of this paradoxical fact. In any case, no system can change abruptly over a very short period. For the Venus Project to be successful, it will undoubtedly need to be a gradual and carefully implemented process. Keep your eyes and ears peeled to this link: for any news and developments.

In addition, you won’t be the first cynical capitalistic to say that the project will never work because of humankind’s inherent greed / bloodthirsty competitive nature / self-indulgence / power-hungry desires / [insert negative adjective here]. Do yourself a favour and research the project, read all you can about it and then draw your own conclusions. Granted, it may not be the best option for everyone, but at least it provides an interesting alternative to the cut-throat, ruthless, money-obsessed, consumer-driven, wasteful and gluttonous poor excuse for a society we currently live in.

Friday, 13 March 2009

come away with me

To celebrate the second Friday the 13th in a row, and because I feel like its time to get off my soapbox and take a breather, today I'm getting away from it all. Well, virtually and vicariously anyway.

This is Bassas da India, an uninhabitable atoll in the Mozambique channel between Africa and Madagascar. Uninhabitable because it is underwater for the three hours before and after high tide.

According to Wikipaedia, "Bassas da India (also called Basse de Judie) is an uninhabited, roughly circular atoll about 10 km in diameter, which corresponds to a total size (including lagoon) of 80 km². It is located in the southern Mozambique Channel, about half-way between Madagascar (which is 385 km to the east) and Mozambique, and 110 km northwest of Europa Island. It rises steeply from the seabed 3000 m below. The reef rim averages around 100 m across and completely encloses a shallow lagoon that has a maximum depth of 15 m.

"The atoll consists of ten barren rocky islets, with no vegetation, totalling 0.2 km² in area. Those on the north and east sides are 2.1 to 3 m high, and those on the west and south sides 1.2 m. The reef is completely covered by the sea from 3 hours before to 3 hours after high tide. The coastline of the reef measures 35.2 km. The region is subject to cyclones. The atoll has long been a maritime hazard and is the site of numerous shipwrecks.

"Bassas da India was first recorded by Portuguese explorers in the early 16th century. It was first named Baixo da Judia, "Shoal of Judia". "Judia" was the name of a Portuguese ship that ran aground on this reef. This ship was named "Judia" (Jewess in Portuguese), because its owner was a Jewish trader from Portugal. Apparently this reef was renamed Bassas da India by subsequent cartographers owing to mistakes in their writing the word "Judia" by confusing letters while copying former maps".

The only reason that I know if its existence is because my son Ben is there at the moment with a group of fishermen. The yacht The Adventurer that he works on as assistant engineer and chef (strange combination, but its ok, his mum taught him to wash his hands before touching food) is there at the moment.

You can read more about The Adventurer here and here. It held the record for the fastest round the world but is owned by a different guy now and spending a bit more time at interesting places.

I know Ben will be baking fresh bread every morning and I suppose they are also eating fish, although most of the fish that are caught will be thrown back. Scarred, surprised but otherwise unharmed.

Wanna go there too? The Google Earth coordinates for Bassas da India Atoll are 22º15’02.06” S - 37º18’19.70” E

There are some pretty amazing islands in the area. Go here to have a look. I think I'd like to be whisked off to Îles Glorieuses. Who's coming with me?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

who really cares?

I've been wondering how many people need to die before ordinary people sit up and recognise the silent genocide that is happening in Southern Africa?

I'm not talking about the outrage or wringing of hands by governments or humanitarian organisations. I mean, what does it take for you and me to actually, honestly weep for the thousands who are dying? What changes them from faceless numbers to individuals? Is it only when death comes knocking on the doors of our cocoons?

And what is it that makes some genocide internationally recognised and deplored while others fall through the cracks?

I was reading recently about the genocide that occurred in Burundi at the same time as the Rwandan crisis. It was another case of violent conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, but unless I've missed something, it has never received anything like the publicity that the Rwandan conflict has. In fact, in 1972, Burundi had the dubious honour of being the first country in the Great Lakes region to see genocidal conflict. Conservative estimates put the number of Hutu victims somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 while an estimated 2,000 to 5,000 Tutsi died. The genocide flared up again in 1988, to international censure, but peace has been short lived. Some commentators estimate that a further 300 000 people have died in ethnic cleansing in Burundi since 1993.

Irin, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has an interesting report here about the causes of the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe. It highlights the fact that only 440 cases of cholera had been recorded in Bulawayo, out of the 88 000 cases WHO is reporting. Why so few?

It seems that mad uncle Bob and his evil henchmen realised that the MDC's strongholds were in the cities, so they "attempted to dilute the power of MDC municipalities by transferring the provision of services, and their budgets, to parastatals under the control of central government".

Bulawayo managed to hold out, so they avoided the fate of Harare, where, the Zanu-PF water authority Zinwa admitted to pumping raw sewage into Lake Chivero, Harare's main water source.

With reference to "Mad Uncle Bob", I asked a Zimbabwean NGO worker at the SUD-Net conference recently about Mugabe.

"Does he have syphillis? Is that what's making him mad?" I asked.

"No" she replied. "There's nothing wrong with him. He's just evil".

To get back to the genocide. In South Africa, a couple of recent research papers have shown that more than 330,000 people have died unnecessarily and that 35,000 HIV-infected babies were born who could have been protected from the virus and would probably have a limited life. This in spite of an offer of free Nevirapine by its German manufacturer.

According to a SciDev Net report "Mbeki became convinced in 1999 that HIV was not the cause of AIDS, in line with a group of dissident scientists. Those who disagreed with him feared reprisals if they spoke out, and those who did were humiliated and derided. Later, Mbeki conceded that HIV could be one cause of AIDS alongside malnutrition and other diseases. He also believed that ARVs were toxic, and the scientific consensus was based in racist views and driven by money- and power-hungry drug companies, governments and scientists."

It may not meet the normal definitions of genocide, but surely so many deaths caused by negligence and pig headed stupidity deserve more international reaction? I know that international health bodies and others have spoken out, but I can't help wondering if genocide happens because we ordinary people do not see those numbers, those hundreds of thousands who have died terrible deaths, as real people?

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

How Do I Know What I Think Until I See What I Say?

Today's post is by guest writer Skoorby

Listening to the radio today, I heard a story about the use of “clickers” in a classroom at Cleveland State University. Listen here. So it appears that the clickers increase engagement and enable instructors to assess students, but do they help learning? I thought back to my experience in teaching.

I always annoyed my classes at the beginning of term (and so had small class sizes) by telling students that I would be “cold calling” – i.e., calling on them without prior notice to answer substantive questions in class, and that their participation grades would be influenced by their responses.

My rationale was that if you’re constantly trying to keep yourself ready to answer, you’re more likely to pay attention, but more importantly, you’re likely to think beyond the material to form your own view. From my exposure to cognitive psychology, I figured that cold calling would increase something called “depth of processing”, known to be an important element in shifting the content of short term memory into long term memory.

So when I heard about the clickers, I thought that they might be another way to increase depth of processing. As you think about your answer, you have to go beyond the facts. You have to express an opinion.

Then I remembered my muse, Karl Weick. A social psychologist, he once used the question “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” to explain something about learning and acting. The point is that people don’t really have points of view on things until they have had occasion to express them. And sometimes we surprise ourselves by the opinions we express on things we haven’t previously given much thought to. Clearly, having occasions to express opinions is a prerequisite for having opinions at all.

This is where I think the clickers would work well. Normally, students don’t move beyond passive observation of course material until there’s an examination, or until a cold-hearted professor demands an answer to a question. With the clickers, they get to express opinions many times in each class. In the process, they will discover how they relate to the material, and I think they’ll learn more.