Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Public Protector for food?

When I started studying chemical engineering, it was called "Applied and Industrial Chemistry."  Half way through the course, the name was changed to Chemical Engineering and that was how I started out in life.

The advantage of this was that I learned a lot of chemistry - we had to do virtually the full Honours course.  When I stayed on to do post-graduate work, we were still housed in the chemistry department, and had our tea each day with the chemists.  

The bookshelves of the tea room were lined with bound copies of chemical journals. One of the most fascinating was The Analyst. It started in 1876, and the early issues were largely devoted to identifying adulterants in food. There was chalk in the milk, mineral oil in the butter and limestone in the bread.  It was quite amazing how creative the early food producers were in flogging dirt as food.

Nothing has changed, except in many cases it has become legal. "Chicken" is mysteriously laced with a significant percentage of brine. I don't know what they add to "bacon" but I do know that as you grill it, it exudes white gunk and shrinks to less than half its size. I bought real bacon from the local German butcher just to prove to myself I wasn't imagining things - I wasn't!

Then there is the health story that fats are bad for you, and some fats are worse than others.  A recent investigation into the nutrition industry in the US concluded that "nutrition science" failed every test of being a science.  If you ever glance at a "health" magazine, you will see the result.  On page 1, there is a tale of the horror of salt; on page 11 there is "Salt - the most vital mineral."

This has spawned "lite" products. What "lite" means is "this product contains more water than the real thing" and sometimes the added water is as much as 50%.  Milk is the particular victim of this marketing ploy.  You pay just as much for "low-fat" milk as you pay for ordinary milk.  Either the producer has removed more of the fat to make butter, which he can then sell at a nice profit, or just watered down the product. The net result is a grey liquid.  The customer doesn't score, because you have to add twice as much to your coffee to get the same taste as you would with undiluted milk.

The latest scam of this kind to come my way is the watering-down of Marmite.  Now Marmite used to have a jelly-like consistency. It had to be spread on warm toast to get a nice even layer.  Now it is a thin gruel, and you need four times as much to get the real taste - and if you spread four times as much on warm toast, it melts and runs off to make everything sticky.

What I want for Christmas is a Public Protector for our food. Have a good one! 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Did they not see it coming?

The wassail in Warsaw ended yesterday.  As TS Eliot might have said:

This is the way the sea owe pea ends

This is the way the sea owe pea ends

This is the way the sea owe pea ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

As the thousands jetted their way home, they must have wondered how this came to pass.  The rich had issued a clarion call – “Wake up! We face doom! We face destruction! The seas are arising, the storms are worsening, the globe will soon fry! We must stop this pollution. Sea owe two is bad for me and you.” The poor heard this nonsense, and pointed their fingers. “If that is true, it must be YOU! Now PAY!”

In vain did the rich argue “But it is a global problem.  We are all in this together.” They even cobbled together a  meaningless phrase, “common but differentiated responsibility”, to try to justify their claim that, while they had emitted great gobs of sea owe two, the poor must share the burden of trying to cut the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Now they are landed with costs for which they hadn’t budgeted. Douglas Carswell, Tory MP for Clacton, summed it up:

We’re spending money that we don’t have to solve a problem that doesn’t exist at the behest of people we didn’t elect.”

What I have difficulty in understanding is how supposedly sentient politicians didn’t think, when they signed up to the global warming boondoggle, that because they had contributed most to the perceived problem, they would be asked to contribute most to the putative solution. Were they blind, blind drunk, or merely blinded by what they saw as a lifetime opportunity to claim that they were about to save the world?

Now the flights of fantasy are coming home. Reality is beginning to bite, and the teeth are sharp indeed. If sea owe two is a pollutant, then everyone pollutes with every passing breath. So of course it is not a pollutant, unless the word is to be redefined in some as yet mysterious way. 

Meanwhile the global warming hypothesis is looking decidedly tatty. The world steadfastly refuses to warm in the face of ever-growing sea owe two. The plants are doing just fine, the deserts are greening, and flimsy homes are collapsing under the onslaught of strong winds just as they have always done.

In the latest emanation from the Eye Pea Sea Sea, many scientists tried to warn the politicians that much of the observable warming was natural.  Would they listen?  Of course not!  They spun the message to say they were being told that sea owe two was the dominant cause of global warming.

In days gone by, rulers would shoot the messengers of bad news. Now they put a spin on the message, and hope that it will go away.  In this case, it won’t. Did they really not see it coming?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sweet mystery of Life!

I recently found myself gazing at some plaques commemorating the dead from the First World War. There were four plaques side by side, in white marble with incised black lettering, and gold edging. I glanced idly at the names, nearly all from families still familiar in the town.  

Then I was struck by something that was at first beyond comprehension - only two-thirds of the first plaque held the names of those killed in action. The remainder of that plaque, and the whole of the other three, held the names of those who had died of disease while on active service. Five times as many had died from illness as had died from wounds. 

There is a thesis that our present way of life is somehow unhealthy.  We are damaging our environment, destroying the very basis of life, if the doomsayers are to be believed. Yet less than a century ago, people were dying from diseases that today we regard as perfectly curable.  Those able to afford the privileges of clean air, clean water, clean food and prompt medical services that our cities provide, can confidently expect to live more than the biblical three-score-and-ten. They are not exposed to the microbes that caused such havoc only a few generations ago.

That is not to say that life is not tenuous.  By any measure, we ultimately depend on six inches of topsoil and a few inches of rain. But we have managed to improve the topsoil, and find ways of bringing water where rain is low.  The quantity of food available to us is growing faster than the population, and the rate of growth of population is slowing. So more and more people are able to look forward to a full lifespan.

This should be cause for great happiness.  Yet many agree (and in this case I am one of the many) that there is a remarkable level of unhappiness in our world.  People are discontented, and seem unfulfilled, even when their lives are apparently filled with a richness that their grandparents could only dream about.  

What do people feel is missing from their lives? I wish I knew the answer to this conundrum. Some complain of boredom, the sameness of each new day - yet they regularly go off on holidays that must surely break the very monotony of which they complain.  Some express deep envy, that they are not as rich as their neighbours, or perceive themselves to be at a disadvantage, in spite of the fact that their lives are visibly improving daily.  Some have wealth beyond my wildest dreams, yet have totally dysfunctional families that no riches can assuage.

I am being driven to concur with Abraham Lincoln - "People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be."


Monday, October 7, 2013

Just who are the denialists?

People have the nasty habit of giving their opponents names.  Those who are convinced that humans are wrecking the world by burning fossil fuels call those who don't believe them "denialists." It implies that they are close to the Holocaust deniers, and so are clearly beyond the pale.

I have come to the conclusion that they are wrong. The true denialists are those who believe in global warming, and who will go to any lengths to deny the evidence against that position.

For instance, this last week has seen the release of the final draft of the IPCC's Working Group 1.  Working Group 1 concerns itself with observations of the climate and how it might change in future.  

Within minutes of it being released, the sceptics had noted that a key figure, which compared predicted temperatures to measurements, had been drastically altered after the second draft had been approved.  In the second draft, the observations lay below the lowest range in the predictions, and seemed to be getting further from the predictions as time went by.  In the final version, the measurements had been pushed up and the predictions had been pushed sideways and Voila!, the revised measurements now fell within the range of the changed predictions.  Really!  Grown men did this!  Consciously! And honestly thought that no-one would notice.  

That's the trouble with calling people names.  Before you know where you are, you have convinced yourself that they are stupid, too.

And there were lots of similar examples.  In the Summary for Policy Makers, the scientists had said "It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together."  The politicians did not like this, so they added a juicy version "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." Suddenly "more than half" had become "dominant cause." That way, no one might be left with the idea that the scientists had actually said there was a reasonable chance that quite a lot of the warming was entirely natural. 

My own contribution concerned the warming of the upper troposphere.  In the previous Assessment Report, the IPCC had said "Upper-tropospheric warming reaches a maximum in the tropics and is seen even in the early-century time period. The pattern is very similar over the three periods, consistent with the rapid adjustment of the atmosphere to the forcing. These changes are simulated with good consistency among the models." They even had some figures to show just what they meant:

These are sections through the atmosphere, from the South Pole on the left to the North Pole on the right. Instead of altitude they give the pressure in 'hectoPascals" which is sort of unfamiliar to most people, but 400 is around 8km up and 200 around 12km.You can clearly see the flattened 'bubble' getting hotter as the century goes by.  The models suggest that that bit of the atmosphere should warm at about 0.6 degrees Centigrade per decade, far faster than on the surface of the Earth.

Weather balloons have flown into that region for 60 years.  Airliners have carried commuters at those altitudes for 40.  The temperature can be inferred from satellite measurements.  None of these methods have managed to find any evidence of warming at anything like 0.6 degrees Centigrade per decade.  The thermometers suggest slight cooling; the satellites slight warming.

This huge discrepancy between model and measurement has been the subject of intense discussion since the 2007 Assessment.  When I read the first draft of the latest report, I said "Heh! You haven't mentioned the problem!" Along came the second draft - same difficulty.  This time I read out to the IPCC the actual papers from the peer-reviewed literature that they should be using -  
Allen, Robert J. and Sherwood, Steven C. (2008) Warming maximum in the tropical upper troposphere deduced from thermal winds. Nature Geosci 1 (6), 399- 403,; 
Lanzante, John R., Melissa Free, 2008: Comparison of Radiosonde and GCM Vertical Temperature Trend Profiles: Effects of Dataset Choice and Data Homogenization. J. Climate, 21, 5417–5435. doi:;  
Singer, S Fred, (2011). Lack of Consistency Between Modeled and Observed Temperature Trends Energy & Environment, 22, 375-406 DOI  - 10.1260/0958-305X.22.4.375 ; 
Douglass, D. H., Christy, J. R., Pearson, B. D. and Singer, S. F. (2008), A comparison of tropical temperature trends with model predictions. Int. J. Climatol., 28: 1693–1701. doi: 10.1002/joc.1651
Titchner, Holly A., P. W. Thorne, M. P. McCarthy, S. F. B. Tett, L. Haimberger, D. E. Parker, 2009: Critically Reassessing Tropospheric Temperature Trends from Radiosondes Using Realistic Validation Experiments. J. Climate, 22, 465–485. doi:
(I mean, how pedantic do you have to be?)

I concluded my review saying "not even the satellite data comes near the predictions that were made in AR4 - the discrepancy between ALL the data and the models is wide. This debate MUST be reflected in the text."  So the IPCC had been told where to look - it is their job to review the peer-reviewed literature - and had been told that there was a debate because the measurements disagreed with the models. What did they do?

Nothing!  Absolutely nothing (apart from quoting Titchner in a different context). The Summary for Policy Makers says:
"It is virtually certain that globally the troposphere has warmed since the mid-20th century. More complete observations allow greater confidence in estimates of tropospheric temperature changes in the extratropical Northern Hemisphere than elsewhere. There is medium confidence in the rate of warming and its vertical structure in the Northern Hemisphere extra-tropical troposphere and low confidence elsewhere."
Section 2.4.4 says:
"In summary, assessment of the large body of studies comparing various long-term radiosonde and MSU products since AR4 is hampered by dataset version changes, and inherent data uncertainties. These factors substantially limit the ability to draw robust and consistent inferences from such studies about the true longterm trends or the value of different data products."
So the data were apparently wrong! 

There is a Table 2.8 headed:
"Trend estimates and 90% confidence intervals (Box 2.2) for radiosonde and MSU dataset global average
values over the radiosonde (1958–2012) and satellite periods (1979–2012). LT indicates Lower Troposphere, MT
indicates Mid Troposphere and LS indicates Lower Stratosphere"
Notice that?  No Upper Troposphere - none, silence! Likewise, there is a Figure 2.24 which shows some Lower Troposphere trends, but is equally silent on the Upper Troposphere. 

And that is the full extent of the discussion of the problem in the latest Report.

Now you could well ask "So what?" The significance is that this goes to the heart of the physics on which all the models used to make predictions are based. If you watched "The Great Global Warming Swindle," you will have seen the critic, Richard Lindzen of MIT, speaking about how the Upper Troposphere should be warming.  The physics of the atmosphere, as generally understood by all scientists of whatever global warming persuasion, require it should be warming.  There is consensus - but the data show the consensus to be wrong.

Therefore the models are wrong.  It only takes one clearcut observation to destroy the integrity of a scientific thesis. The physics underlying all the models is wrong - and we don't know why. Moreover, the IPCC is demonstrably skirting the issue, telling us that "the observations substantially limit the ability to draw robust and consistent inferences."  What utter nonsense!  They lie.

By any measure, the IPCC and its supporters are the true denialists, but it would be wrong of me to use such a word to describe them. So let's just use a good, old-fashioned word - call them liars, and have done with it. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

When biofuels are FUN!

You have to love it when the best laid plans of bureaucrats gang agley, as the Gaels would have us say.

The latest example to have come my way is the tale of ethanol in the US fuel pool.

The US EPA introduced a Renewable Fuel Standard, which required refiners and importers to add a predetermined quantity of ethanol to every gallon of gasoline. 

When they mix ethanol into gasoline, or import fuel already blended with ethanol, the refiners/importers get a credit from the government. That credit can be sold to other companies that don’t blend ethanol. To monitor compliance, each gallon of ethanol is assigned a 38-digit Renewable Identification Number, or RIN. Six billion of them were generated in the first six months of this year.

RINs started in 2005, when the Bush administration passed an energy bill setting out renewable fuel standards. The law was broadened in 2007, creating a requirement for the amount of biofuel to be blended annually. In 2013, refiners and importers are required to blend 13.8 billion gallons of ethanol, up from 13.2 billion last year. For 2014, the figure is 14.4 billion.

But there is a problem - the quantity of gasoline sold has been falling in recent years.  Cars have become more fuel efficient, and Americans are driving less.  You can only stand so much ethanol in the fuel.  Too much, and fuel systems gum up, both at the pump and in your car.  So the poor gasoline blenders have to put more ethanol into the fuel than necessary, or buy a credit for not blending ethanol. They have been buying credits like crazy, to avoid gumming up the works.

But this is America, right? They aren't all like George Bush.  Someone saw it coming.  They bought up credits.  Now they are selling them into a buyers' market, and making a big fortune.  Who is "they"? The banks, of course, and a few Mafia guys, and anyone who could think faster than the Government.

The net result is that fuel prices are rising even as shale gas and shale oil bring down input costs.  The US EPA is appalled. The official responsible is reported as saying “The last thing we wanted in implementing this program was to get price increases for the consumer.”[New York Times]

Yet another Green Dream bites the dust of reality!


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Arctic laughter

The scientific study of the basis for humour finds that it stems “from a benign violation of the way the world ought to be.”

An excellent example is the Chinese proverb “There is no pleasure so great as watching a good friend fall off the roof.”

In the same vein, I found the story of the Mainstream Renewable Energy Project, which set out in June to row across the North-West Passage in order to draw attention to climate change ( ), the source of a great deal of laughter. The North-West Passage closed solid with ice before the end of August, and the rowers had to abandon their attempt.

“Over the past 54 days we traversed more than 1500-kms of the Northwest Passage from Inuvik, NWT to Cambridge Bay, Nunavut and have come away humbled and awed by the experience. We had hoped to make it to Pond Inlet, Nunavut by early September but this has proven impossible. Severe weather conditions hindered our early progress and now ice chokes the passage ahead.”

“Our message remains unaffected though, bringing awareness to the pressing issues of climate change in the arctic.”

Errr!  Hang on!  The Arctic turns Arctic, and you have to draw attention to some change?? What change?? Seems to me the Arctic is what it has always been, bloody cold, bloody inhospitable, the sort of place that would humble and awe the strongest. Are you trying to tell us the place is getting cold?  We knew that.  You should have known that. What an absolutely futile mission you went on.

But, of course, there were all those True Believers who financed this futile exercise.  So they have to be told the Good News – “Floyd Roland, the former premiere of the North West Territories and the current mayor of Inuvik speaks of winters that now begin a month later than when he was a kid, of strange and inconsistent weather patterns that were once far more predictable. Elders Billy and Eileen Jacobson of Tuktoyaktuk speak of winters shortened by a fortnight at either end.”  Except that for our intrepid explorers, the winters came sooner and were longer, and the weather patterns were only too predictable.

You have to laugh – if it weren’t true, the self-deception would be quite sad.