Monday, January 15, 2018

Good, pure food

When I was a graduate student, I was allowed into the chemistry staff Tea Room. In those days, my degree had only just changed from Applied and Industrial Chemistry to Chemical Engineering, and we still had strong ties to the Chemistry Department.

In the tea room, there was lots of scientific reading matter. There were bound copies of journals, some in German, and some going back into the 19th century. One which fascinated me was "The Analyst", dating back to 1878 and still published by the Royal Society for Chemistry today.

Much of the early work had to do with the adulteration of food. There were ways of measuring the amount of chalk added to milk, or pigfat added to butter, or glycerine to wine. It was pretty horrifying what the Victorians came up with to enrich the butcher or grocer without killing the customer. Sweeney Todd was no joke!

Fast forward to today. I do quite a lot of cooking for myself, and rather enjoy it. A recent recipe for sauerkraut from the Economist has proven a great success, even if I had to visit the local spice emporium to find fennel. But I soon found there was something funny about chicken. When I cooked it, it oozed a white, unappetising goo. Then my supermarket had a special on Brazilian chicken, and when I cooked that, it didn't ooze.

Curious, I did a bit of digging, and found that the local chicken had "brine" added to it. Now brine is a colloquial word for salt water, and salt water doesn't contain goo. A bit more digging, and I found I was buying not just chicken, but chicken fattened and moisturized with chicken blood plasma in brine. So that was why it oozed and shrank.

Then I observed the same phenomenon in bacon. The commercial stuff was limpid and ended up half the size when cooked - if you were lucky. The German butcher sold me the real thing at a small fortune per kg, but it was firm and didn't ooze and shrink when you cooked it.

Soon I was finding ooze everywhere. The kipper that barely fitted into the pan, but looked like a sardine once it was done. The gammon that looked big enough for ten hungry mouths, yet had to be sliced very thin to celebrate Christmas.

I'm cross, and so should you be. Why do we allow ourselves to be ripped off in this way? To be sold something that contains about 30% that isn't what it claims to be? I see the poultry producers are complaining about unfair competition from imports. If they would stop adulterating our food, perhaps we might be more sympathetic.

Friday, December 1, 2017

There is no debate!

Three weeks ago I received an invitation from the National Science and Technology Forum - 
Show us the evidence for climate change
17 November 2017, Kempton Park, Gauteng

The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF
) is pleased to announce that Professors Bob and Mary Scholes will present on climate change. This is an interactive discussion on this critical matter.

I thought the opportunity to take part on an "interactive discussion" was too good to miss, so I registered for the event.

Then the programme came out, and I wrote to the NSTF:
"I see from the programme that only 20 minutes is set aside for discussion, which after 80 minutes of presentation seems rather unbalanced.Would it be possible to prebook five minutes of that time?  I have a very short presentation covering four of the issues that I believe the presenters will cover – and if they don’t cover one of them, I can easily drop that from my presentation."

There was a lot of scuttling around, and finally "Yes, we will make it possible" 

In the event, it turned out that the occasion was the Annual General Meeting of the NSTF, and Bob Scholes was effectively the guest speaker.  He gave what I would call the orthodox version of the climate change story. There were some very contentious bits - for instance, he believed the dendrothermometry behind the Hockey Stick, claiming that the author, Michael Mann, had been exonerated by eight separate hearings.  The fact that Steve McIntyre had shown conclusively that Mann's maths was wrong, and gave hockey sticks from random data, was ignored. Mann's "trick", of deleting the inconvenient data showing tree rings narrowing as the world warmed, was omitted. 

The lecture was about an hour long. Finally, then, there was to be discussion. There were a few questions, and when those slowed to naught, I was permitted to make my contribution. Scholes was allowed to respond and concentrated on the effect of 0.8 deg C warming - "The world was only 5 degrees colder at the depths of the Ice Age". - which surprised me. One ice core I know well, was several degrees warmer than today during the previous interglacial, and 10 deg C colder 20 000 years ago.

Over lunch, all the people at my table thanked me for my contribution. They felt it had been balanced, and showed that there was more to the orthodox view than they had been led to believe.

Two weeks went by, and there was a "Media Release":
and discussion can be found on the NSTF web site ( Please send information and comments to"

In hope I went to the website, and found Scholes' story there, and nothing else. Of my presentation, no sign.

I wrote to the NSTF - "I distinctly recall making a presentation, but I cannot find it on the website. When will it appear?" To date I have had no response. 

Clearly what I had to say must have been very subversive.  You can view it via:

I cannot help but think that the NSTF needs to wake up.  There are two sides to every debate. Presenting one and censoring the other isn't science.

About ten days after the above appeared, I had a very nice letter from the NSTF. Most apologetic that my presentation had been overlooked, but it was posted now. Perhaps all is not lost! 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Zeitz Mocaa

I am not an art freak.  Nevertheless, the transformation of a 1920's grain silo into a modern art gallery sounded sufficiently unusual to deserve at least a visit.  
I still had qualms. To my eyes, too much of what passes as "African Art" is naive at best, childish at worst.  Would this have any level of sophistication?
I should not have worried. I entered a very ordinary loading platform, complete with rails still on the floor. A metre or so inside, and I was in a cathedral of a space, with the old silos sliced in graceful curves.
                                                       Image courtesy Zeitz Mocaa
Overhead was a glass roof; some of the silo remnants were dangling threateningly; some housed spiral staircases, and others, lifts. I took a lift to the sixth floor, and stepped out into a sculpture garden. Stepping was gingerish at first, because I was walking on the glass roof, and very aware of six floors of drop beneath my feet.  My head told me it was perfectly safe; the pit of my stomach told me quite the reverse!
There followed three hours of visual stimulation. Round a circuit of cubical galleries, some containing no more than a small picture on each wall, then down a floor. There was a wonderful triptych involving a zebra, by Athi-Patra Ruga - a great example of the technique of using high-definition ink-jet printing. Kudzanai Chiurai was prolific;  his protest posters were a hoot, and his Lyeza film explored a sort of Last Supper theme very creatively. Nandipha Mntambo did magical things with cow hides - some of her creations could have graced grand balls. Mary Sibande's Opportunity was superbly sculpted, with a charging horse to end all charges.  It did not matter that a room full of hanging bricks (Kendall Geers) and another of hanging beer bottles (Lungiswa Gquanta) were trite, or that Penny Siopsis had a whole wall which would have been better covered by graffiti - there was enough creativity elsewhere to take away the bad taste.  Towards the end, William Kentridge's Dance was 12 minutes of sheer bliss - a vast panorama covering three walls, inviting total immersion and succeeding brilliantly.
The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art is a fantastic addition to the list of Cape Town's attractions.  Don't miss it!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

How green WAS my valley!

We are all "green." We love nature. We will do all we can to save it from being ravaged by mankind. But there is a problem. As Einstein remarked Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber boshaft ist er nicht,” roughly translated as "The Good Lord may be subtle, but He is not malicious."
This should be a warning that you must at all costs avoid being what I call a "galloping green." There is no point in plunging ahead when you think you have spotted a problem. Just remember, there is always a simple, straightforward solution to virtually every problem, and that solution is invariably wrong. You have to think before you act. Gut feeling for nature could do damage, not solve the problem!
There is a wonderful example in the latest Nature journal, Down in Puglia, the heel of the boot which is Italy, some olive trees started dying.  The plant pathologists identified a foreign bacterium, Xylella fastidiosa, as the culprit. They recommended uprooting the infected trees and everything within 100m of it.
But the local green movement was against this.  They "knew" all about diseases of olive trees, and were not going to allow 1 000 year old specimens to be uprooted. They chained themselves to the infected trees to prevent them being taken down; they went to court to stop the "massacre." They convinced the Puglian judge that the problem was fungal, not bacterial, and that they were expert in handling olive trees attacked by fungi.  The judge believed them.
And so the problem has spread through the whole of Puglia, some 200 000ha of olive groves, and is moving steadily north.  It has taken six months, but the judgement has been reversed - probably not too late to save the rest of Italy's crop. 
But Puglia is doomed, dead trees everywhere.  And the bacterium seems to have spread - to coastal Spain, across the Adriatic to Greece. All because the tree huggers thought they had the answer. Sometimes one thinks green is the colour beloved by the Devil himself!

The pseudo-disaster of dropping the Paris Accord

There has been an outcry over the American decision to renege on the Paris Accord.  Indeed, one professor went so far as to describe it as a “deeply immoral reprehensible act.”
Yet no-one who read President Trump’s speech can have been left in any doubt that there were sound economic reasons behind his decision. “Compliance with the terms of the Paris Accord and the onerous energy restrictions it has placed on the United States could cost America as much as 2.7 million lost jobs by 2025 according to the National Economic Research Associates.  This includes 440,000 fewer manufacturing jobs. . .”  “the Paris Accord … includes yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States through the so-called Green Climate Fund — nice name — which calls for developed countries to send $100 billion to developing countries all on top of America’s existing and massive foreign aid payments.”
When you realize that  China is America’s greatest trading rival as well as being a ‘developing country’, you can understand the American reluctance to send it aid.  
The good Professor even suggested America could not “opt out of the laws of physics.” Again, it is clear that he is ignoring large sections of what President Trump actually said. “Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100.  Tiny, tiny amount.  In fact, 14 days of carbon emissions from China alone would wipe out the gains from … America's expected reductions in the year 2030, after we have had to spend billions and billions of dollars, lost jobs, closed factories, and suffered much higher energy costs for our businesses and for our homes.”
The people who are ignoring the laws of physics are those on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  They are interpreting the laws of physics in such a way as to attempt to convince us that climate catastrophe is just round the corner.  It clearly isn’t.
None of their longer-term predictions have come true. The Arctic ice didn’t disappear in 2010. The greenhouse gases have shot up in this millennium, but the thermometer has barely budged.  The actual records of rainfall show no significant global trends, and there is a statistically insignificant drop in the number and violence of cyclones.  Yes, it’s got warmer – which mean that fewer old people die in winter.  Yes, there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so plant life is flourishing and the planet, seen from space, is measurably greener.
Our Professor claims “The effects of climate change will hit … poorer communities … more than the rich.”  What he overlooks is that the Paris Accord in effect asks nations to avoid fossil fuels, even though for many they are the cheapest and most effective primary sources of energy. China is building some 200GW of new coal-fired power stations; India is building nearly 600GW; Africa has 120GW planned; and Pakistan, which has long relied on hydropower, is building 60GW. Even Germany, practically the home of renewable energy, has recently built 10GW of coal-fired power. For comparison, South Africa’s total capacity is about 45GW.
Yes, renewable energy is now on a cost parity with many other sources of energy; but renewable energy makes up only a tiny fraction (<2%)of the world’s energy supply and is already proving more difficult to distribute than the dispatchable sources. So it is the Paris Accord that will impact poorer societies, not climate change – particularly as the Green Climate Fund appears a dead duck.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The scourging of the denialist

It is a remarkable phenomenon, that if you say you doubt that human beings have much of an influence on the climate, you are treated as a kind of pariah. In the US, for instance, a very nice, intelligent woman called Judith Curry has recently walked out of her academic post. She has merely expressed doubts, and has done so clearly and honestly for a number of years.  I have watched several hours of videos of her addressing professional societies and government bodies, and have been struck by her ability to communicate her doubts succinctly and openly. Yet she has been vilified by many of her colleagues, struggled to find funding for her research, and had her students unfairly criticized in turn.

There was the infamous case of two American physicists, Soon and Baliunas, who wrote a review paper, summarizing the literature on global temperatures around 1400CE. Review papers are generally uncontroversial; they merely pull together a range of findings by other people. Soon and Baliunas dug up some 200 peer-reviewed studies of medieval temperatures, the great majority of which found that it had been significantly warmer than it is today. Wine in Scotland, tropical fruits in Rome, worldwide such evidence of the Medieval Warm Period.

However, a group who depended on the human warming hypothesis had produced a graph which failed to show any such period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had seized on their graph to show unprecedented warming in the 20th century. The graph even acquired a name - the Hockey Stick.  The inconvenient review had to be killed! And killed it was.  By the time the dust had settled, even the journal which had allowed the review to appear had disappeared.

Just to make matters worse, the Hockey Stick showing no Medieval Warming Period was found to be faked.  The underlying mathematics had been wrongly applied, and there had been reliance on the width of tree rings to estimate the historical temperatures - but the tree rings went the wrong way when measured against modern temperatures.  So the modern tree-ring data was deleted, and replaced with the temperature record.  As scientific chicanery went, it has few equals.

A few years ago, the SA National Energy Association [SANEA], local representative of the World Energy Council, did me the honour of awarding me their Energy Award. Shortly after that they had a presentation at one of the monthly meetings in Cape Town from a True Believer from Johannesburg. What he had to say was highly questionable, but in the few minutes after the meeting there was no time to ask the really searching questions. So I asked the SANEA Secretary if he could find me a slot to respond to the highly charged material the True Believer had presented. At all the meetings, there were requests for future topics and speakers, so I felt the request was perfectly reasonable.
Three years down the road, I am still waiting. 

There's none so deaf as will not hear.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The end of the year

2016 has not been the best of years - that is generally agreed. The Middle East has been really bad - I recall visiting Syria a few years ago, as shown in some of the first blogs here.  The people were friendly and good looking, the food was great, and Aleppo was an exciting city in the midst of rejuvenation. And Israel has seen fit to use the nearby chaos to grab some more Palestinian territory, potentially adding more fuel to the fire.

And then there have been the political shocks. Britain's decision to leave the European Union was the first. I started out thinking it was a good idea as I learned more about the Union and the gross bureaucracy in Brussels, but as the vote drew near, I changed my mind because of the implications of leaving. Then there was the US Presidency, and amazement that the system could not find candidates of real calibre. The final choice is "interesting", and it remains to be seen if his obvious deficiencies will be overcome by the expertise of his support team. The one ray of light for me is what I would call greater realism about environmental issues. It is just not true that we face catastrophe from more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and policies designed to save us from the putative disaster are very expensive and most unlikely to have any detectable effect. 

Then in South Africa there has been the growing dysfunction brought about by corruption. The Gupta saga just grows and grows. Zuma should no longer be president - I can no longer refer to him as President Zuma, because he does not deserve the honorific. The longer he stays, the greater is the damage to the ANC, which is the only good side of the story. The local elections this year gave early warning that the next national election is likely to see the ANC majority slashed. The local elections also have given the DA the opportunity show that it really can govern.  The accounts for 2015 tell the true tale - in the Western Cape, under the DA, some R30 million was poorly spent or went missing; in Gauteng, under the ANC, the figure was R4.5 billion. To put that in perspective, Gauteng lost the Western Cape's annual loss every two days! 

But there are rays of light in the world. One of them is the war on poverty. As Johan Norberg wrote in a recent issue of Sp!ked "At the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, the world’s countries set the goal of halving the 1990 incidence of extreme poverty by 2015. This was met five years ahead of the deadline. And even though the world population grew by more than two billion between 1990 and 2015, the number of people who live in extreme poverty was reduced by more than 1.25 billion people." Today, slightly fewer people live in extreme poverty than in 1870, in spite of the massive increase in population. 

Linked to less poverty is a growth in energy consumption.  I have a serious paper being reviewed, which links energy consumption to life expectancy. Below a certain level of per capita energy use, life expectancy at birth is less than 50 years; above about four times that consumption, life expectancy is over 70.  So if you want, for example, India to start cutting its carbon dioxide emissions, you are in effect asking many of their population to accept an early death. I don't think all the agreements in Paris or elsewhere are going to work.

At the other end of the scale, of course, is the phenomenon of the super rich. They are not many in number, but they hold an inordinate proportion of the world's wealth. Great is the gnashing of teeth over their very existence. Yet ultimately wealth is not a moral issue - it is merely the provision of opportunities.  There are only so many things an individual can accomplish, so many meals a day s/he can eat, so many guests on so many superyachts, and then - -? After that, what you do can be good or bad, which is where the morality comes in. And by and large the super rich try to do good - the Gates Foundation, the Rhodes Trust, the numerous Carnegie philanthropies are part of a long history. To me, it is obvious that their spending must trickle down - or where else must the funds have been found to lift millions out of extreme poverty?

There is great fixation on the Gini Coefficient, a ratio between the richest and poorest fractions of the population. South Africa is regularly cited as being really bad, but if you take our 18 million on social support into account, we are perfectly normal. One study I made this year looked at drivers for Gini. I couldn't find any, but there was a slight preponderance of openly socialist societies at the lower end of the Gini's, and rather more capitalists at the higher end. But there were socialists at the higher end, too, and capitalists at the lower. There is insufficient Gini data to show how it changes over time, but the reduction in poverty must surely mean a lowering. I can only conclude that we should worry unduly about differences in wealth - making sure everyone has enough is more important. 

So for 2017 I wish for a growing economy, both locally and globally. 2016 has been a real bad year; 2017 can only be better.