Kim Stanley Robinson in (Virtual) Bristol

It being October, BristolCon is not far away. However, to whet your appetite, there is another science fiction event taking place on Tuesday the 19th. As part of the Festival of the Future City, Bristol Ideas is doing an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson about his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future.

Stan will probably in the the UK at the time, but that’s because he’s been invited to speak at COP26. He had no idea what his schedule would be in advance, so the Bristol Ideas folks decided to pre-record the interview. And they kindly asked me to set the scene by giving an overview of Stan’s career.

That of course means that I was present for the pre-record, so I can promise you that Stan and interviewer, Andrew Kelly, put on a great show. If you are interested in practical political and economic ways to solve the climate change issue, you will probably find it fascinating too.

The event is free to attend. Further details are available here. And you will be able to watch it on YouTube.

Thoughts on Extreme E

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I have a strong interest in motor racing. You mainly see comments on Formula 1, but there are other race series out there, and this year a new one has been unveiled.

Extreme E is an off-road series for electric cars, with the additional concept that the purpose of the series is not just entertainment and development of electric vehicle technology, but also raising awareness of climate change. In view of the latter, the races all take place in remote parts of the world where the effects of climate change can be seen, and the series has a philosophy of minimal carbon footprint and “race without a trace” — that is they tidy up after themselves. The commitment to the environment has attracted interest from some of the top names in the sport — Sir Lewis Hamilton, Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Carlos Sainz Sr., Sebastien Loeb — and there is a fascinating mix of drivers from different disciplines.

Unlike slick operations such as Formula 1, Extreme E is very much a seat-of-the-pants job at the moment. The team behind the series is still learning a lot about how to stage an entertaining race, and they are deliberately self-hobbled by their decision to minimise the at-venue presence. The inaugural race over the weekend was interesting, but showed up some of the cracks, not least in the TV coverage.

From a driving point of view, Extreme E is just what it says on the tin. The Al-Ula circuit in Saudi Arabia is a stretch of rocky desert that eschews even the dirt roads in the region. At one point the cars crest a blind ridge and drop 100 metres at a 45 degree angle. I certainly shouldn’t be let anywhere near roads like that, and I have huge respect for anyone who can actually drive it without crashing, let alone do so at speed.

Because the series is brand new, so is the car. The Odyssey 21 is an electric sports SUV designed specifically for the series by Spark Racing, the same people who build the Formula E cars. Inevitably with a brand new car there are teething problems, and the biggest issue with the Odyssey appears to be the power steering. Accoring to the good folks at Inside Electric, the teams basically have a choice of settings: you either run with full power steering and risk it breaking while you are out on track, or you run a lower setting and have to do a lot of the steering yourself, which on a track like this is seriously hard work. Failure of the power steering was apparrently why Sir Lewis Hamilton’s X44 team did so poorly in the final.

Also brand new is the battery, which has been developed by Williams Engineering (who also build an F1 car). I missed the first Qualifying session on Saturday because it started at 7:00am UK time, and when I watched the second session several drivers were commenting that they were running reduced power. The Sky commentary team had no idea what this was about, but again the folks at Inside Electric have been doing the work. Given the heat of the desert venue, the Williams engineers found that the batteries were not cooling down as quickly as they had expected, and consequently they could not be fully charged between the two qualifying sessions.

I shouldn’t be too hard on the Sky team, because they were not at the circuit. Commentating on something happening thousands of miles away is not easy. But I’m sure that if Ted Kravitz had been with the Sky team he would have wanted to find out what was going on, and would have found a way to get the information.

This sort of thing is important to the TV coverage because for much of the time there isn’t anything interesting going on. There are some fabulous camera shots from drones, and from inside the cars, but watching a driver wrestle with a steering wheel is never going to be as exciting as wheel-to-wheel racing. More about that later. For now I’ll just note that the commentators need to find interesting things to talk about.

They had them too, because Extreme E is the first series to insist on gender parity in the drivers. Each team has one male driver and one female driver (no place for non-binary drivers yet) and they drive equal numbers of laps, with the drivers changing places half-way through. What we (and by “we” I particularly mean female fans) wanted to know was how well the women were doing compared to the men. The commentators didn’t seem interested in that. Indeed, they often forgot the names of the women drivers, or referred to “the Button car” even when Jenson’s teammate, Mikaela Åhlin-Kottulinsky, was driving. I know that Jenson owns the team, but that’s a bit poor.

One thing that did catch the attention of the commentators was the performance of Catie Munnings for the Andretti United team during Qualifying 1. She got a puncture in her right-rear early on in the lap, but still managed to bring the car home with a respectable time. It was an astonishing feat of driving.

What we didn’t get were lap time splits. The timing screens only reported the joint time of the team. However, Matt Warwick of the BBC has been digging. He reports that Catie had a faster time than her teammate, Timmy Hansen, during the final. Also Christine Giampaoli Zonca of the Hispano Suiza team regularly out-paced her partner, Bristol’s Oliver Bennett.

What Warwick didn’t report was how the times recorded by Rosberg Extreme Racing’s Molly Taylor compared to the men in the other teams. Molly regularly beats male drivers back home in Australia, which is why she’s the national rally champion. She and Johan Kristoffersson were clearly the class of the field at the weekend. I’m sure she must have out-paced most of the men, in identical machinery.

You will have noticed that I mentioned two local drivers. Jenson Button is from Frome and Ollie Bennett from Bristol. There is a third West Country driver in the series: Bath’s Jamie Chadwick. Sadly she didn’t get to drive at all. In Quali 1 her teammate at Veloce, Stéphane Sarrazin, hit a large lump of desert grass and rolled the car. It was by no means the worst crash of the weekend, but by some freak accident it bent the roll cage on the car. That’s not something that the team could repair in a tent in the desert, so for safety reasons the Veloce team had to withdraw from the race with Jamie never having got to drive.

Qualifying was interesting, and included a couple of spectacular crashes, but it was Sunday’s races that most fans would have been looking forward to. The qualifying, and a couple of semi-finals, sorted the nine teams into three groups, who then raced for position within that group. (I am not going to call anything “The Crazy Race” unless Dick Dastardly and Muttley actually compete in it.)

The bottom three cars were actually only two because the Veloce team had withdrawn. That left the two other teams that had experienced crashes in Qualifying. It had become obvious in the semi-finals that serious racing would be impossible save for the long straight at the start. The cars were throwing up so much sand that visibility was zero for a car trying to follow close enough to pass. Kyle Leduc in the team entered by IndyCar mogul, Chip Ganassi, proved this conclusively by trying to overtake Claudia Hürtgen in the ABT Cupra car. He had no idea where she was on the road, and slammed into the back of the other car, ending the race for both of them.

The other races all settled down into the male drivers having a short race from the start to the first corner, and the two who didn’t get there first backing off to make sure they had enough visibilty to get to the end. This does not make for exciting racing. It also meant that the women drivers were under orders to bring the car home safety and not take any risks, because they had a 30 second cushion on the car behind.

Because each race takes place in a very different environment, this may not be a problem for other races. Alternatively the management may decide to make the series more of a time trial challenge. The series is young, and they have time to adjust. I’m sure they’ll be spending the month that it will take for the ship that carries the cars around the world to get to Senegal thinking hard about this.

However, as well as the actual racing, I do hope that they think a bit about the TV coverage. It wasn’t only covering the racing where they fell down. The stated purpose of Extreme E is to draw attention to climate change. Wherever they go, the drivers get to see and help with local conservation efforts (Jamie Chadwick posted pictures of her working on beach clean-up to Twitter). Also the ship carries a science team with a fully equipped laboratory. What were thet doing? We don’t know. The TV coverage relied only on pre-recorded material supplied by the Extreme E management. There was no reporting on the environmental issues from the venue.

If I had a hotline to Alejandro Agag, I would be telling him to get an science reporter out there with the teams, and ask her to do live coverage of each venue. I’d want to see what the drivers were up to off-track. I’d want to talk to the team crews about setting up and tearing down the paddock area. I’d want to talk to the science team and local conservationists about the local wildlife and the specific threats that each venue faces from climate change. This is your message, guys, get it out there.

Today on Ujima – Mexican Food, Poetry, Fiction & Renewables

Today I was in the studio at Ujima with lots of studio guests.

First up I welcomed Graham from My Burrito, a fabulous Mexican eatery in Bristol. We had a great chat about the glories of Mexican food. I was hungry by the end of it, as were Ben, my engineer, and Keziah, the studio manager. You probably will be too.

Next in the hot seat was Tom Denbigh, Bristol’s first LGBT+ Poet Laureate. I met Tom at an event that was part of Bristol Pride and loved the poem he read so I knew I had to get him on the radio. Sadly Ofcom rules about swearing on air rather limited what he could read. It’s about time the regulations caught up with everyday speech.

Guest three was Heather Child, who was no problem to interview as I had already done it last week at her book launch. We talked again about The Undoing of Arlo Knott and the various places where you can find out more about the book.

Finally I was joined by Jon Turney from Zero West to talk about local renewable energy projects.

Much of the music I played was inspired by my time doing the live coverage of Bristol Pride. The full playlist was:

  • Boney M – By the Rivers of Babylon
  • Pointer Sisters – Fire
  • Shea Freedom – Woman’s World
  • Nina – Calm Before the Storm
  • Jackson 5 – I Want You Back
  • Eddy Grant – Baby Come Back
  • Chi-Lites – Give More Power to the People
  • Boney M – Brown Girl in the Ring

You can listen to the whole show for the next few weeks via the Ujima Listen Again service.

Yesterday on Ujima – Cricket, Music, Blood & Activism

I was in the Ujima studio again yesterday to do another Women’s Outlook show. Here’s what went down.

My first guest was Lisa Pagett who is Head of Women’s Cricket for Gloucestershire County Cricket Club and also General Manager of the Western Storm, out local women’s T20 franchise. Lisa was there mainly to preview the Women’s World Cup, which will see 15 matches in the South West, split between Bristol and Taunton. Bristol has the England-Australia and England-West Indies games, both of which I intend to be at. (Tickets are only £10, available here.) We also looked forward to the Storm’s campaign in this year’s Kia Super League, and talked more generally about getting women and girls involved in cricket.

Next up I had some live music in the studio. I was joined by saxophonist Sabrina De Mitri and guitarist Paul John Bailey who have a gig coming up supporting Jon Gomme at the Hall soon to be Formerly Known as Colston. They played live for me in the studio. Huge thanks to Ben, my engineer, for keeping on top of the tech for that.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

The second hour began with Shai from No More Taboo, the menstrual health charity. We talked a bit about some of the issues surrounding period poverty in Bristol, and what No More Taboo is doing to tackle them. We also discussed what we would like to see prospective MPs commit to so we can get some action on this in Parliament. When I first talked to Chloe Tingle when she set up No More Taboo girls unable to go to school because they can’t afford sanitary products was problem in poor countries elsewhere in the world. That it has become an issue in the UK is evidence of just how badly the austerity policies of the current government have impacted British women.

My final guests were Deborah from Co-Resist and Joe from Solar Nest. Co-Resist is an organisation that does activism through art and public engagement, while Solar Nest is a start-up business based at the University of the West of England that aims to build more sustainable and affordable housing. Deborah is managing a public engagement event for the students so that they can get feedback from the people of Bristol as to what they want from such an initiative. She also has some other projects we talk about.

Obviously I’m interested in Solar Nest from an energy and environment standpoint, but the most significant part of this interview was when Joe commented that students today have no hope of ever being able to afford their own home, especially in somewhere like Bristol.

Oh, and Deborah assures us all that clowns are not scary, not one little bit, promise.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

The playlist for the show (excluding the songs that Sabrina and Paul played live) was as follows:

  • Boney M – Dreadlock Holiday
  • David Rudder – Rally Round the West Indies
  • Lianne la Havas – Tokyo
  • Parliament – Children of Productions
  • Pretenders – Sense of Purpose
  • Parliament – Mothership Connection

If you are wondering about the predominance of Parliament, it is because George Clinton & co. are playing Bristol on Monday and I can’t go because I have a previous engagement to host BristolCon Fringe starring the fabulous Clarke Award finalist, Emma Newman.

A Day at the Seaside

This afternoon Jo Hall had a signing at the delightful Books on the Hill store in Clevedon. Being a loyal publisher, I went along to support her. This also gave me a reason to visit Clevedon, a seaside town on the North Somerset coast just south of Bristol.

One reason for wanting to go is that the town is the birthplace of Jan Morris, a pioneering trans woman and brilliant writer. I don’t think there is a blue plaque or anything. Probably you can’t get one until you are dead. But Jan deserves one.

Clevedon is most famous, however, for its pier, which the poet, Sir John Betjeman, once described as the most beautiful in the world. As you’ll see from the picture above, it is a funny-looking old thing. It was built in Victorian times when steamships were still a common means of getting along and across the Severn Estuary. (If you look under all those clouds you can just make out Wales, and with better focus you’d be able to see Newport.)

Perhaps the oddest thing about the pier is its height. Why, you might think, is it perched so far above the water? Well, it isn’t. Clevedon has a maximum tidal range of 47 feet, second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada. It ought to be a good place to build a tidal power installation, but George Osborne decided it would be better to borrow billions from the Chinese to pay the French to build a new nuclear station down the coast at Hinkley Point instead. Presumably Brexit will put an end to all that and the government will re-open some coal mines instead. Get all those Welsh people off benefits and back down the pits. That’ll teach them to vote Labour, eh?

Which reminds me, my colleague Yaz did a great show on Wednesday, and among here guests were some people from Coal Action talking about this campaign. Aberthaw power station directly affects the air quality in Bristol, so it is a matter of concern to us as well as to people in Glamorgan.

Meanwhile, In Bristol – Enviroment & Race

My latest column for Bristol 24/7 is all about women in the environmental movement. In 2015 Bristol will be the European Green Capital, so you can expect to hear lots more green stuff from me through the year. This week’s article focuses on the fact that there are very many women doing important work in green organizations, but when it comes to public recognition, and especially to handing out money, it is suddenly white men to the fore.

One of the questions I asked in the piece, and I wish I’d had more space to go into detail (but hey, 500 word limit) was whether women are more predisposed to the message of the green movement. I based that solely on social conditioning: girls are raised to be cooperative and nurturing, boys to be competitive and self-reliant. However, I was interested to hear Stuart Lorimer say on the Radio 4 program about trans women that hormones do have a significant effect on how people interact with society.

Checking the Bristol 24/7 site today, I was delighted to see that David McLeod has won a victory of sorts in that the City Council’s education department has formally apologized for its insensitivity of hiring Gill Kelly and will be terminating her contract with them as soon as is feasible. I imagine that there is celebration all round at the Ujima studios today. Here’s hoping that the City Council takes race issues a little more seriously in future.

Today on Ujima: WWI, Music Courses & Fair Trade

I’m online at the Ujima studios because I have a meeting this evening and won’t be home until late. Getting some blogging done is a much better use of my time than going shopping.

Today’s show began with my friend Eugene Byrne talking about his new book about Bristol during World War I. Eugene has collected a lot of great stories. The book, Bravo Bristol!, is available on Amazon around the world, but if you want to get a preview of the material there is a website and a free app (which includes suggested walking tours).

The next half hour featured some people from the Trinity Centre who are running music courses for young people. As luck would have it, I had a studio full of teenagers on a National Citizenship Scheme course. They didn’t have a lot of interest in WWI, but once we mentioned music they all lit up and basically took over the show. One of them was even texting his mates getting questions to ask.

You can listen to the first hour here.

The second hour of the show was all about the Fair Trade movement, featuring our good friend Jenny Foster whom I have had on the show before. With her was Lucy Gatward from the Better Food Company. It was an interesting and wide-ranging conversation. Also I got to explain who Thor really is. Because it is radio you did not see me playing air guitar in the studio.

You can listen to the second hour here.

The playlist for today’s show was:

  • My Heart Belongs to Daddy – Ella Fitzgerald
  • It’s Too Darn Hot – Billie Holiday
  • Hot Stuff – Donna Summer
  • Boogie Nights – Heatwave
  • It’s Raining Men – The Weather Girls
  • Purple Rain – Prince
  • Higher Love – Denise Pearson
  • Dr. Meaker – Dr. Meaker

The final two tracks were recorded live on the main stage at Bristol Pride and appear courtesy of Shout Out Radio.

Yesterday on Ujima – The Green Power Show

What I should have been doing yesterday was sleeping. What I actually did was host a 2-hour radio show on climate change and green power issues.

We started out with a pre-recorded interview with Tobias Buckell whose new novel, Hurricane Fever, is just out (and is a lot of fun). I have a longer version of the interview that I’ll be posting on Salon Futura in due course. The reason I had Tobias on the show was that his latest books talk a lot about the effect of climate change on the planet, and in particular on the Caribbean.

Next up were Tasha & Tin from the Avon Coalition Against Big Biofuels. This was mainly a discussion about how all biomass is not equal. Chopping down rain forests in South-East Asia and transporting the wood to the UK to be burned is not, by any stretch of the imagination, green.

You can listen to the first hour here.

At 1:00pm we were joined by Steve Norman who is part of a group protesting about existing activities at Avonmouth. Any wonder what happened to your household refuse? If you happen to live in the South-West of England much of it got baled up and stored at Avonmouth docks waiting to be shipped to Scandinavia for incineration. The local seagulls got rather excited about this, and once the bales had been pecked open the local flies took an interest and started breeding. It got so unpleasant event the Prime Minister was moved to comment. And as there are not enough incinerators in the UK to cope, the stuff is now going into landfill again.

This is, of course, a complicated issue. Ideally we’d throw away less refuse, but recycling facilities in the UK are dreadful and the amount of packaging on things we buy keeps going up. Incineration is better than landfill, but incinerating safely is challenging and companies are tempted to cut corners. Also the ash left after incineration is nasty stuff. So we end up exporting refuse to countries who are prepared to pay for proper incineration, or whose inhabitants don’t protest incinerators as loudly.

My final guest was Harriet from the Centre for Sustainable Energy because I wanted to end by talking about what we can do to help with the energy issue. The CSE does a lot of good work helping people reduce their energy use, and even generate their own. I was particularly interested in Harriet’s comments that people are much less likely to protest green power schemes (such as wind and solar farms) if they are community-owned, and supply power direct to the community, as is generally the case in Germany and Scotland, rather than being owned by multi-national corporations and feeding into the Grid, as is the case in England.

You can listen to the second half of the show here.

The music for the show was chosen by the guests, mostly by Tin. The songs were:

  • Breathing Underwater – Metric
  • 007, A Fantasy Bond Theme – Barray Adamson
  • Green Garden – Laura Mvula
  • Appletree – Erykah Badu
  • Everyday Life Has Become a Health Risk – Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy
  • Electioneering – Exit Music feat. Morgan Heritage
  • Sleeping In – Postal Service
  • The First Cut is the Deepest – I-Roy

And here, just for you, Tobias, is Barray Adamson once again.

Some Bristol Politics

Those of you who listened to last week’s Women’s Outlook show will remember that we were visited by Tasha from the Avon Coalition Against Big Biofuels. She talked about plans for new biomass power stations at Avonmouth. There was day of action yesterday, and it seems to have got the attention of the city’s Elected Mayor. Here is George Ferguson writing to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to add his voice to the campaign. Tasha and George are quite right. While it is perfectly possible for a biomass plant to class as renewable energy, one that relies on importing wood cut from rain forests in South East Asia is another matter entirely. George says in his letter, “Bristol has loudly and very clearly said ‘no’ to these developments, yet the UK Government has chosen to override our local decision-making process.” I’ll be interested to see what sort of response this personal intervention gets, and I’ll try to get Tasha back on the show so we can discuss the issues in more detail.

Talking of mayors, you may remember me waxing lyrical about Bristol Lord Mayors. We have had some good ones during my time in local radio. Two years ago we had Peter Main, the city’s first gay Lord Mayor. Last year the Council appointed Faruk Choudhury who is the city’s first Muslim Lord Mayor. I’ve met both of them as part of the work I have done for Out Stories Bristol and local radio, and they are lovely people.

While George was elected by popular vote, Lord Mayors are appointed by the City Council. The major parties take it in turns to put forward nominees, who are generally accepted unopposed. Peter was put forward by the Liberal Democrats, while Faruk came from the Labour group. It is almost time to appoint a new Lord Mayor, and the turn of the Conservatives to put someone forward. Their choice, Councillor Chris Windows, was known for his opposition to LGBT people. Most notoriously he tried to stop Sir Ian McKellen (yes, Gandalf) from visiting Bristol schools as part of Stonewall’s gay awareness campaign.

Understandably the local LGBT community was not best pleased. A petition was started. I didn’t think it had much chance, because there is a strong tradition that Lord Mayor candidates are unopposed. The fear is that if one party starts trying to interfere with another’s choices then their next choice will probably be opposed regardless of who it is, and the whole thing will descend into petty bickering.

On Friday, out of the blue, Cllr. Windows withdrew his candidacy. As per this BBC report, he blamed an “unpleasant and slanderous attack upon my character” by “a very vocal minority”, and said he was withdrawing to avoid further distress to his wife. It was a classic piece of victim politics, but one I was rather suspicious of because I know a lot of the people involved in the petition, and they are sweet and lovely folks.

Yesterday Daryn Carter, the Director of Bristol Pride, got his chance to put his side of the story in the local paper. While you can argue over whether slanderous things have been said forever, the key point in the story for me was this:

It has also emerged today that Bristol’s Labour councillors yesterday withdrew support for Mr Windows’ nomination.

Labour Chief Whip, Cllr Chris Jackson said: “We had initially believed that Cllr. Windows had genuinely learned after his offensive comments in the Council Chamber, but regrettably this does not seem to have been the case.”

There’s a lot more from the Labour councillors in the paper. So it seems that while Cllr. Windows and his family may indeed have been distressed by the campaign, he didn’t actually withdraw until he had already lost the support of a significant part of the City Council.

It so happens that we have a bunch of city councillors on Women’s Outlook this coming Wednesday. I may ask them a question or two.

Today On Ujima: Er, Everything!

Well that was a bit mad. Today we had a very busy show.

We started off with some ladies talking about fostering and adoption services in Bristol. Apparently there is a major shortage of families willing to foster or adopt children from ethnic minority backgrounds, especially as the authorities would like to place them with families from similar cultures so as to make them feel more comfortable.

Then we had the fabulous Rita from Bristol’s Palestinian Museum, which is allegedly the only physical museum of Palestinian life outside of Palestine (please do correct me if I am wrong here, but it is the first one that comes up on Google). It is a real shame that we didn’t have TV because the embroidery that Rita had to show was beautiful.

Next up we had Sian and Cezara from Bristol Women’s Voice and the Bristol Woman magazine, talking about all sorts of woman-centered projects (and NOT pulling faces when I mentioned intersectionality — Yay Bristol!). Ovarian cancer was one of the main topics.

And finally in the first hour we were joined by Tasha from the Avon Coalition Against Big Biofuels to tell us all about how Bristol power stations are involved in rainforest destruction.

Yes, that was all in the first hour. You can listen to it here.

In the second hour I was joined by Lucy from Stand and Stare, an amazing company that is revolutionizing museum exhibitions by making them much more interactive. (Off air Lucy and I talked quite a bit about augmented reality and hacking QR codes — I wish Tim Maughan had been there.)

Also in the studio with Lucy was Ade, one of the back office volunteers at Ujima. She has kidney problems, and is running a campaign to make people in Bristol more aware of the need for donors, especially if they are from ethnic minorities. People like Ade find it much harder than white folks to find suitable donors when they need them.

I sent Lucy and Ade off talking about interactive exhibits to educate people about organ donation, which I was rather pleased with.

In the final half hour we had three ladies in from the Bristol & Avon Law Center. Paulette came and tormented them. Do not worry, they are good friends of ours. Indrani runs a regular immigration clinic from our offices, and Noopur has a regular slot on Paulette’s Thursday show.

You can listen to the second hour here.

The playlist for today was:

  • Feelgood by Numbers – The Go Team!
  • Codeine Blues – CN Lester
  • Talking ‘Bout a Revolution – Tracy Chapman
  • Back Street Luv – Curved Air
  • The Man With the Child in His Eyes – Kate Bush
  • Theme from Mahogany – Diana Ross
  • Irreplaceable – Beyoncé

Catch-Up Linkage

Because I have been busy for the past three days…

– One of the reasons I love cosmology is the timescales over which things happen. This story, about a star eating a planet, explains that the poor planet may only have 10 millions years left to live.

– Over at Deep Sea News Dr. M discusses what the effects of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might be.

– Oliver Morton has a round-up of interesting discussion about the “artificial life” story, including Ken MacLeod’s article for The Guardian.

– Rose Fox has a fun new book out.

– That “gay couple” prosecuted in Malawi? Apparently not a gay couple at all. Natacha Kennedy explains.

– There will be a Tolkien Art Exhibition in Gloucestershire in August.

– Tero explains why Åcon is so much fun (hint: chocolate!)

– There’s a new issue of Yipe! out.

Some Brief Linkage

Because yesterday I was offline most of the day and the RSS flood backed up again.

– My friend Roz gets her poetry published in The Guardian. Cool stuff!

– My friend Neil gets the first chapter of his Hugo Award winning novel, American Gods, published in The Guardian (which is, of course, all to do with the One Book, One Twitter thing).

– Michael Moorcock has a new non-fiction book coming out, and John Coulthart has done some utterly amazing design work on it.

– The BBC has been to Sci-Fi London and reviews a Swiss science fiction film (though sadly the director is dreadfully ignorant about science fiction in Switzerland — how can he not have heard of Maison d’Ailleurs?).

– And finally, Deep Sea News has a depressing but probably accurate assessment of how BP will get off the hook as regards environmental damage from the Deepwater Horizon spill because the Bush Administration gutted the country’s environmental agencies and fostered a climate of disbelief in science. (Then again, maybe because BP are “foreigners,” the Rethuglicans will support going after them. I’m waiting for Sarah Palin to demand that all foreign oil assets in the US be nationalized.)

A Million Fuel Cells Bloom?

Work on fannish projects ground to a halt this evening when I discovered my Google Reader account was full of links to an interesting energy story about a product launch by a Silicon Valley start-up. As some of you will know, my day job is in energy economics. Specifically I study electricity generation. So any new development in that business is of interest. Given that The Gubbernator turned up for the press conference, that Colin Powell is on the board of the company, and executives from the likes of Google, eBay, Walmart, FedEx and Coca Cola were on hand to express support, this could be a game-changer.

The product is essentially a cost-effective fuel cell. A fuel cell (very simply) is a device that takes in oxygen and a fuel, passes them over an active surface, and causes the fuel to combine with the oxygen creating electricity. Chemically it is the same as burning the fuel, but practically it has the potential to be much more efficient. Bloom Energy claims to have realized that potential. It claims to have technology that will connect to your existing natural gas supply and generate electricity for less than it costs to buy it from the grid.

Economically there are still questions to be answered. Google has been testing the devices, and claims to be very happy with their reliability and efficiency. Whether that will continue over a number of years, and in climates less balmy than California’s, remains to be seen.

Environmentally the jury is also out. The Bloom Box, as it is known, currently consumes natural gas and emits CO2. Because it does so much more efficiently than doing the same process in a power station it could drastically cut emissions, but it doesn’t do away with them altogether, not does it solve the problem of reliance on a limited natural resource. It is possible that the device could be made to work on a different fuel, for example hydrogen, but I haven’t yet found any discussion of that. Also the manufacture of fuel cells is a complex technological process that may involve other pollutants. One thing I can guarantee is that somewhere an environmental campaign group is busy putting together a press release denouncing the Bloom Box as a disaster for the planet.

Initially the devices will sell to business such as the ones that turned up at the press conference. The cost of electricity is a major headache for most businesses, and the current $700,000+ price tag puts the boxes well out of the reach of the average householder. However, the company will continue to develop the product, and economies of scale are bound to make manufacturing cheaper as the business ramps up. According to the Financial Times, Bloom hopes to have the cost down to $3000 in 10 years.

One other thing of interest is that the reaction between natural gas and oxygen has another by-product: water. This may be of interest to people in California which, as I’m sure you know, is a desert, and likely to become more so if climate forecasts are correct. I have no idea whether the quantities will be significant.

It is all too early to jump to any definite conclusions, but it does look like interesting times may be ahead for the electricity industry.

Mashable has a long report from the press conference, and Knowledge Problem has a good round-up of news links.

Living in a Desert

We all know that California is a desert, right? But we irrigate, and as a result we support rich farmland and big cities. What happens, however, if we take too much water, or if the amount of water coming into the Sierras falls (as global warming experts predict it will)? Well, the desert comes back, of course.

This article reports from a meeting of the American Geophysical Union this week in San Francisco. It states that the Sacramento and San Joaquin drainage basins have shed more than 30 cubic kilometers of water since late 2003. That’s a staggering amount of water, and the losses are likely to continue to grow as long as we take out more water than is coming in.

Interesting measurement technique too – they have satellites “weighing” the planet.

Hell Comes to Helsinki?

Via Lynne Kiesling I discovered this story about a data center in Helsinki being located underneath Uspenski Cathedral so that the waste heat from all of the computers can be used to keep the neighbourhood warm. Like Lynne I am impressed by Finnish initiative when it comes to environmental issues. But then I wondered which one of my Finnish friends had come up with the idea of putting something very hot in a cave beneath a church…

Come on, own up, I know it must have been one of you.

More on Hormonal Pollutants

There’s an article just gone up in The Guardian about the presence of anti-androgens and estrogen-like substances in common household goods. This being science journalism in a popular newspaper I’m a little skeptical, and I’ll try to find the EU report on which it is based. However, this paragraph did catch my eye:

Research has suggested that male foetuses around 8-12 weeks after conception can be effectively demasculinised by exposure to such chemicals.

Just in case anyone needs reminding, our understanding about how the physical and psychological aspects of gender develop is very poor, and if that process is being disrupted it becomes even more important that we move beyond the simplistic, and in many cases cruel, straitjacket of a binary gender system.

Big Science Cannot Save Us

Ask science fiction fans about global warming and there’s a good chance they’ll start waxing lyrical about massive engineering projects that will Save Us All. We are, after all, used to the idea of terraforming planets so that humans can live on them. Why now terraform our own (deliberately rather than accidentally). Greg Benford is a big advocate of the newly minted discipline of geoengineering.

Well, not to be thought fuddy-duddies, the Royal Society, Britain’s premier science club, launched an investigation. Their report has just been published. Oliver Morton has a summary of it here, and the top finding is, “none of these options in any way takes the place of emissions control.” Sorry Greg. That’s not to say that such methods can’t help, but in the opinion of the Royal Society we still need the economic and political measures that are currently being put in place.

Oli and the Climate Feedback blog have both done round-ups of how the UK press has managed to (mis)understand the report.

The Sea Is Not Flat

And I don’t just mean waves. What with things like planetary rotation, prevailing winds and marine currents, “sea level” is by no means the same everywhere in the world.

Why does this matter? Well, global warming is going to change a whole lot of things. Yes, in general, sea level is going to rise, but also currents and even wind patterns will change. As a result, the actual increase in sea level will be different in different parts of the world. I’m relieved to note that London and San Francisco look like they’ll do OK. If you live in New York, don’t look. (And I suspect something similar applies to Boston.)


There is a big climate conference going on in Copenhagen at the moment. The Nature crew, including Oliver Morton, have been blogging it. This new post from Oli is going to give me nightmares:

The studies suggest that a) there is a threshold level of warming beyond which much of the Amazon forest is committed to die back (probably being replaced by savanna) and b) that for significant parts of the forest that threshold is alarmingly low. Indeed it is quite possibly either unavoidable in the near future or already dwindling in the rear-view mirror.