Category Archives: Politics & Society

A Rush for Renewables

I have been using this phrase for about a year in talking to people and in newspaper comments. I want to counter that Dash for Gas. We have the possibility of a new sustainable economy where everyone can participate.

  1. Start a nation-wide project to insulate all buildings and make all new building zero-carbon. This will employ people all over the country and many people with little skill can be trained to do this work. This is really investment with a long term return in reduced power needs, better health, and a trained work force. Probably there will be a reduction in crime as well. During this process we will find people who can be trained further for ever more skilled jobs. As people in each area of the country earn more, there will be more to spend locally and new businesses will be able to grow in every town. This could start tomorrow if we made the investment. The return on investment is near immediate.
  2. I am in favour of nuclear (fission) power but this is contentious for many people and we need to regain the country’s pre-eminence in nuclear technology in order to develop new safe designs (which do exist). This is a long term project and we need to work on other zero-carbon technologies now.
    So, let’s go full ahead on solar. Solar power is clearly the future for at least the next 100 million years, after which we may need a rethink. Although people think of Britain as cloudy with short winter days, there is still enough solar energy input to power the needs of the country especially if we make energy use more effective, efficient.
  3. When solar and wind power are mentioned there are immediate objections that it is cyclical and we need power at night and in winter. This is the next issue to address. First we need to see that many things that we might want to do can also be cyclic. I cannot predict how societies will develop in the long term but, taking some evolution of how things are now, an example would be people driving to a place of work. If this used an electric car, that vehicle could be charged while parked during the day. Although there is flooding in the UK, we will also get drought and desalination of sea water could address that, being done during the daytime when solar power is at its peak. Manufacturing could be done during the day time though only in some industries. We need to be smart and flexible about how we optimize the resource just as we were before before the industrial revolution. Of course we can store energy, and that is already done for electricity to cope with surge demand by pumping water to a high reservoir and releasing it to drive a turbine generating electricity when there is a sudden peak in demand. There is a role for this mechanical storage. However, we should also be developing chemical storage as in batteries.
  4. Research and development of chemical storage technologies. This is high-tech investment. If we are to trade with other countries we need something to sell, and best to support what the world needs into the future. This research will cover hydrogen storage, fuel cells and evolution of current battery technology. I imagine that there will be a lot of distributed solar PV and therefore distributed battery storage; each building with solar PV would have its own battery storage pack. An advantage of this is that we will have a very robust and resilient power network with no big points of failure.
  5. These are not jobs that can be outsourced; insulation and solar PV installation will provide work for people in the UK for many years, and there will be ongoing maintenance and upgrades for ever. The work is distributed all over the country. We can innovate as well as anyone and make sure that there is a focus on best methods for the UK as well as looking to develop products for sustainable living globally. Each region of the world will need its own local expertise. Other new ventures will spin off from this. For example, with plentiful solar power we could do vertical farming where we grow fruits and vegetables in tall buildings using solar powered lighting in which we can make optimal use of water and control pests without pesticides. Whole new industries that we have not thought of will come into being.

Harry’s Last Stand

Harry Smith was 91 when he published this book. Born in 1923 he lived in poverty in the Yorkshire towns of Barnsley and Bradford. He experienced an older sister dying of tuberculosis and his father dying of destitution after a mining accident left him unable to get another job. He joined the RAF during WWII and experienced the security of a job, the camaraderie of working us others to achieve something important whilst seeing the horror of warfare. He  notes how he hated all Germans when he arrived in Holland and saw the starving children who reminded him of his own childhood destitution, but turned from that hatred when he arrived in Germany and again saw  starving children. At a time when it was forbidden to fraternize with the enemy he had a secret relationship with a German woman he met amid the destruction of Hamburg whom he later married when that became legal again in 1946. All the details of his early life give us insight into what a country is like without ‘society’. He witnessed the transformation brought about by the welfare state created by the Labour government post 1945 with the National Health Service and workers’ rights and unemployment support.

Harry emphasizes that people today cannot know what it is like without this real big-society state-organized mutual support. He despairs that the current government is in the process of taking this down. He makes a plea that, like him, people argue for keeping it and vote for keeping it. This is not against change, but for change to help the majority.

I found the book inspiring.


Notes after a year of blog

The blog is notes to myself that might sometimes be picked up by others who may find some useful insight.

I write things down to clarify and consolidate thoughts because I find that it is easy to have the illusion that you have a view or opinion which turns out not to be so when you try to articulate it. I have still not resolved what I should write about, though not things that are about my main activities. Probably there is 10% of general interest material that I would like to comment on, but where is the lifetime?

If I wanted to write about my main activities in depth I would have to start dedicated blogs, and how does one get the right balance of doing things and writing about the doing?

I marvel at the reams that some bloggers manage to post. Maybe are more talkative people than me.

I realise how little people read of what one writes because I read some other blogs and note how little I read, and I know how little my own friends read of what I write. It is worth giving thought to this to optimize one’s activities. I may start the optimize-blog blog.

Robert Fisk

I heard Fisk in person for the first time yesterday, after reading his books and articles over the past 20 years. He speaks as crisply as he writes. I find him one of the great reporters of the past decades. I did not learn anything new of his opinions, but there was one interesting comment. His driver in Lebanon is a Sunni Muslim who wishes him “Happy Christmas” in late December as honestly as Fisk wishes him “Eid Mubarak” during the Eid festival. Fisk’s comment was just what I also say to people; why are we so afraid of offending people in the multicultural UK by playing down Christmas celebrations as though people cannot tolerate the festivals of others. I hope to keep gaining a better understanding of Middle East matters from Fisk’s articles for many years still.


Many years (decades) ago in the pre-internet age when I used to go into book shops, on one visit to Blackwell’s science department in Oxford I suddenly saw a book by ‘me’ on cell biology; that was quasi-namesake-me. Because of this blog another quasi-namesake has contacted me, who has some of my interests in programming and music, though with a generational shift I guess of about -1.5 to -1.9. He has a well written blog:

The Robert who wrote on cell biology is and has now delivered nearly 10,000 babies. Oddly there was a point when I thought I might switch to medicine and do obstetrics.

I wonder if names influence people. If we were to take cohorts of quasi-namesakes would we find unexpected correlations? I know that my given name is a real namesake and was chosen by my mother because in the 1930s she saw movies with the actor Robert Taylor and found him attractive.

Inspiration that humbles

This is the most inspiring talk I have heard for ages: Anil Gupta: India’s hidden hotbeds of invention.

The TED summary just hints at what is being done: “Anil Gupta is on the hunt for the developing world’s unsung inventors — indigenous entrepreneurs whose ingenuity, hidden by poverty, could change many people’s lives. He shows how the Honey Bee Network helps them build the connections they need — and gain the recognition they deserve.”

One valuable comment Anil makes is that we often discard solutions to a problem because “they do not scale”. He reminds us that if people in a locality find a solution for an issue that works only in their area – that is enough for them. Probably we are better off with a million local solutions than one global solution. This is like Darwinian evolution; let’s develop what fits in each niche.

REWORK and the NHS

I read about Ramon Niekrash, a surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich, who was suspended for raising concerns about patient care: NHS targets and secrecy are hurting patients. He took his case to an employment tribunal and won. I was stuck by the information that, He was suspended on 9 April 2008 for “excessive” letter writing and because two senior managers from the surgical department had complained, in writing, on the same day, about his conduct, attitude and, most worryingly, his clinical competence. He was writing letters about his concerns for patient care. Apart from the personal issues and the patient safety issues something is seriously wrong when a publicly funded organization is determined to keep its problems secret. This fits with the book I read recently Putting Patients Last.

REWORK (in my reading list) has many recommendations that could be applied. I realize that there is a difference in scale between an organization of 10 people and one of 1.5 million but the NHS consists of hospital departments and surgeries where there are 10s of people that in many ways work autonomously, though linked for patient care. So there may be things to learn and apply from small organizations. One piece of advice is “hire managers of 1″, which in the context of the NHS would mean keeping management minimal and local to the department. It seems from the Ramon example that the department is in the service of the ‘higher’ management, whereas the ‘higher’ management should be in the service of the departments. This fits with the mission statement of putting patients first; the clinicians are in the service of the patients and the administrative staff should be in the service of the clinical staff. In particular this is not to imply a hierarchy of power merely a flow of service. REWORK has rough comment on Mission Statements!

The management’s concern for the good of the universal NHS (to steal a recent (mis)quote from somewhere else) is clearly more to do with self protection than public protection. By this I do not mean to blame individual managers anymore than one can blame any creature that finds a niche from growing and protecting itself. We are all to blame for not doing what Ramon did and demand openness and honesty in public organizations.
A wonderful comment has come from the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, Sir Norman Bettison: I’m not worth £213,000. This wage bill is mad. He comments on the Sheehey recommendation that top public sector jobs should match private sector CEO pay: “What nonsense! Furthermore, it now looks to have been costly and irresponsible nonsense. People join, and remain in, the public sector because of a sense of vocation — to make a difference to society or to the quality of people’s lives. The best leaders are those who can secure long-term public value and a vision for their staff. Not some mercenary performance manager peddling a short-term fix.”

And out of iniquity came forth goodness

Founders of British obstetrics ‘were callous murderers’ and The incredible story of the most important woman in the history of modern medicine. The research on which the first article is based presents circumstantial evidence that the pioneers of obstetrics, Hunter and Smellie between 1749 and 1774 procured the death of women (probably rural girls who had come to the city and could disappear without questions) in various stages pregnancy in order to study the details of the anatomy of the process. The second article is about cervical cancer cells taken from a slave descended woman in 1951 at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. The woman died but these cells have been propagated for research ever since as they propagated aggressively in culture, with an estimated mass of cells to date of millions of tonnes. Neither she nor her children have had any benefit from this use, but commercial companies have enjoyed large incomes and the cells have been invaluable in helping develop treatments.

These histories bring to mind the Christian hymn, God moves in a mysterious way, written by William Cowper who wrote an anti slavery poem, The Negro’s complaint, and was a friend of John Newton at one time a slave ship commander (after spending time as a slave himself) who wrote Amazing Grace and who presided at the funeral of William Cowper. The tortuous sentence is meant to match the tortuous history.

Scientists as mere humans

Having read many biographies of scientists and mathematicians, after my school and university days uncritical admiration of scientists, I know they are a mixed lot of personality types like any other grouping of people. From Galileo to Newton to Einstein one finds behaviour that is not always admirable. Newton was especially ruthless in trying to eliminate rivals; the comment about standing on the shoulders of giants (in a letter to Robert Hooke) that is often used to show his humility was also a put-down for Robert Hooke who was a person of small stature. Newton is thought to have destroyed the painting of Hooke at the Royal Society. Etc.

The revelations about scientists studying climate change is therefore no surprise to me: Climate scientists shut out sceptics by turning down data requests. See Simon Jenkins in full swing too: Scientists, you are fallible.

But Newton and others did have deep insights that have proved true (rather partially true in the way that all science is) inspite of their personality failings. So just as some sports people have unorthodox personal lives but play amazing games, let us not throw out the science when focussing on the personality frailities of scientists.

I agree with Simon Jenkins that the humanities are being seen as mere entertainment value yet they are also vital to our survival.  The human natures that we can explore though literature and history are neglected to our detriment: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq showed a profound lack of historical perspective. Here is sad news that another world-view has been lost; that which comes with each of the world’s different languages: Ancient tribal language becomes extinct as last speaker dies.

Tony Blair’s War

I remember Bryan Gould from the early 1960s and liked his approach when he became an MP. Here he has come up with something that I gave my view on in this blog some weeks ago. He has had some insider experience so it is comforting to know that his view is the same as mine – Tony Blair saw himself as a World Statesman and wanted to consolidate that position: The real reason for the Iraq war. We never escape our inner nature. Here is a small comment on the outer natures of some politicians that relates to Brian’s point: Don’t give up the day job – how artists make a living, ‘ A recent waitressing shift at the Houses of Parliament didn’t go quite so well: “It was one of the most ­horrendous days of my life – everyone treated you as if you were scum. I wanted to cry, and on my way out I said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t make tomorrow’s shift.'” ‘. This points to the same inner natures that lead to some making unjustified expense claims.

I wonder what inner nature drives the target policy: This social work by computer system is protecting no one. I think we need more human-human interaction than human-machine interaction [message to myself!] The two humans can also both be oneself in introspection.

Yet some tick boxes can be good: The doctor taking safety to new heights. The problem is that we cannot avoid having to make judgements; there are no eternal rules. Some religions think there are, some don’t. My favourite Buddhist story is where Gautama is told by people that some come and tell them one thing and others come and tell something different so what does he think they should believe. He tells them to think it out for themselves.