Care for a Danish-Style Shower?

September 1, 2014

Have you tried showering 'Danish Style'?

Have you tried showering ‘Danish Style’?

A couple of weeks ago when I wrote about the continuing Californian drought, my friend Bernard Naylor commented that in many cultures people had adapted to a climate in which rainfall was scarce.

And he mentioned in particular ‘the Danish style’ of showering. He wrote:

Bermuda was settled by the British in the early 17th century. The island has no rivers or springs and is dependent entirely on rainfall. For hundreds of years, every building was required to be constructed over a cistern (to hold its water supply) and roofed so as to maximise water collection. People are encouraged to shower ‘in the Danish style’. That is,

  • You wet yourself all over,
  • You then soap/wash yourself,
  • and finally run the shower again to wash off the soap.

This struck a chord with me because I remembered reading that when Proctor and Gambol investigated the carbon footprint of their shower gels, they found that the carbon emissions arising from heating the water for the shower was massively more than the carbon footprint of the products themselves.

So over the last few weeks I have been giving Danish-style showering a try, and it is surprisingly pleasant.

  • Firstly, the soap lathers much more easily than when the shower is continuously running and this is very pleasurable.
  • Secondly, because the lather is so much thicker, I think I use less soap/gel than I did previously.
  • Thirdly, I think I spend less time than I used to in the shower. The simple act of consciously switching off the water somehow interrupts the dreamy warmth of the showery idyll.
  • And finally, I am saving a tiny amount money

My shower – which is typical of UK showers – uses about 7 litres of water per minute. (How do I know? I just measured it using a timer and a jug).

If the water is heated from 10 ºC to around 40 ºC (a hot shower) then pausing for just one minute saves approximately a quarter of kilowatt hour (882,000 joules) – which currently saves about a penny if the shower is gas powered, and between two and five times that much if the shower is electrically heated.

So this is a little thing that saves a little money and a little water. But it is actually quite pleasant.

Care to give it a go?


edaviesmeuk commented (below). How could I not have heard of this before!

  • Also called a navy shower:

    Don’t do it where I’m staying at the moment as the “instant” LPG boiler takes a few seconds to light as the water’s turned on allowing a big slug of cold water into the system to surprise you after the warm which was in the pipes. Will make sure to arrange the plumbing on my new house to allow restarting the shower at the right temperature for just this reason.


GCSEs, A levels, and degrees: Another Perspective

August 28, 2014

My friend Bernard Naylor commented on the last article and his comments seemed insightful and considered. So I thought they deserved re-broadcasting away from the ‘invisible’ comments section.

Bernard wrote:

The best thing to do with GCSEs is to abolish them as the school-leaving age is being raised to eighteen. The education of our children, and the children themselves, suffer from too much external examination and assessment. (Schools should of course be conducting assessments internally as an ongoing duty – as no doubt they mostly are.) Other countries, with more successful education systems manage without this incessant micro-management from a government department.

I think this is a fair point, and amplifies this recent Guardian article. Given the current mess, it is hard to argue against this, but I am still unconvinced.

If the abolition of GCSEs were coupled with a proper recognition that both academic and vocational training were important then I can imagine benefits at both ends of the academic ability range.

But this is a difficult balance to achieve and has been screwed up before. And until a clear alternative (???) is proposed that addresses current failures, I would prefer to stick with the status quo.

Why? Because one of the major problems with educational policy has been that it has not remained the same for more than a couple of years at a time – and this endless change is  in itself demoralising and counter-productive.

On no account should the government be setting syllabuses. It is a recipe for political interference with education. It may just about be OK in Physics, but in English Literature and History (for example), the recently departed Secretary of State has been having a pernicious effect, with (among other faults) too much harking back to what was OK when he was at school, donkeys years ago.

There should be independent statutorily established bodies with responsibility to determine overall course content and educational objectives – and professional teachers should be trusted much more at the detailed level. The function of the inspectorate should be one of monitoring and mentoring, It’s just a short time since Ofsted decided that ‘Satisfactory’ actually meant – well – unsatisfactory! Every school has room for improvement. Giving any school a judgment that doesn’t imply that is simply wrong. We can all get better!

And I entirely agree with you about the lunacy of having ‘competition’ in the examination system.

I think that is what I meant to say. My key point is that there should be only one body setting exams.

Publishers should compete to publish good books and other learning resources.

Just a final point about universities’ calibration of examination marking, which of course I watched quite closely, from a detached standpoint, for about a quarter of a century. If anything above 70% is a first, and anything below 30% is a fail, that means that 60% of the calibration scale (i.e. above 70 and under 30) has no meaning. Calibration being one of your strong points, can you possibly justify that? I never heard a reasonable defence of it from any of my teacher colleagues!

Let me try to defend it. At the top of the scale there were occasionally students – less than one a year at University College London – whose average mark was above 90%. Such students were truly exceptional.

Although these ‘90%-students’ shared a degree classification with ”70%-students’ – the range of the scale allowed their exceptional abilities to be noted – and I promise you, their abilities were noticed!

At the bottom of the scale, one simply needs to pick a level represents ‘this student hasn’t got a clue’. Picking 30% – or 35% at UCL if I remember correctly – is arbitrary. Arguably it should be higher.

And talking of ‘academia’, one thing that impressed me during my academic career was the care taken in Exam Board meetings. I don’t think students had a clue that every single student’s mark and performance was considered – often at great length.

And the key question asked was whether the mark made ‘sense’. In other words, the Exam Board used the exam results as an aid to judgement – and not a substitute for it. It was very rare for the board to change marks – that would in general be unfair. But where fairness demanded it, we did it.

GCSE and A level exams: parental reflections

August 25, 2014

My two sons have just received the results of their ‘A’ level and GCSE exams. Thank you for asking: both did very well.

My elder son will be off to Bristol University to study Civil Engineering, and the younger son will be moving into the sixth form of a nearby school.

Parentally, I am vicariously proud. But mainly relieved.

Here are my reflections.


GCSEs are a mess. They are both too easy and too hard.

Too easy? Yes  -

  • My son got 100% in 5 exams. He is good, but not perfect!
  • He achieved A* in Music – the only child in his school to do so – but he is still being asked to study additional music theory to be allowed to continue to ‘A’ level music.
  • Similarly, A* in Maths is not sufficient to allow to him to study Further Maths.

In athletic terms it is as if sporting adjudicators simply refused to raise the bar in a high jump to find out just how high athletes could jump.

Too hard? Yes: Anything less than a grade C is counted as a ‘failure’ thus effectively categorising around 30% of students as failures and providing no opportunity to for them to demonstrate their abilities.

By ‘30% of students’ I mean one in three of us - the people who live in England and Wales. Do we really believe they are ‘failures’?

In athletic terms it is as if even the lowest setting of the high jump bar tripped up every third athlete.

Too Easy and Too hard? If we compound this fundamental problem with the way fluctuations in the results are used to attack teachers and schools then we have a recipe for dysfunction.

For the last year the majority of my son’s lessons focussed on passing exams, not on details of the subject under study. This has definitely helped his marks and helped the school, but has done nothing for his enthusiasm for the subjects he has been studying.

From a parental perspective I am just glad to be no longer involved.

‘A’ levels

One important purpose of ‘A’ level courses is to prepare students for University or other further study: they are not usually an end in themselves.

And the purposes of the grading system is to discriminate amongst the students, and in particular to discriminate amongst the most able students.

The problem is that – in Physics at least – the syllabus has been reduced and and there has been around two decades of grade inflation.

As a consequence many universities ask for A* grades. 

However  the grade A* needs ‘almost perfect’ marks – which requires a very particular kind of student and programme of study. In contrast, at University, a course average mark of around 70% is usually sufficient to gain a first class degree.

My thought is that ‘A’ levels are certainly challenging, but they are not challenging enough. And the marking scheme needs to change.


I have said this before, but please forgive me if I say it again: we need to change how we grade exams.

Efforts to ‘maintain standards’ from year to year to year to year are – regrettably – laughable.

Maintaining standards’ in the face of a changing syllabus is impossible and probably meaningless.

My suggestion is this: the grades A*, A and B should reflect only the ranking order of the student.

For example:

  • A* should indicate that a student is in the top (say) 5% of the student body. It is possible for this to have the same meaning from year to year
  • A should indicate that a student is in the next 10% of the student body. It is possible for this to have the same meaning from year to year.
  • B should indicate that a student is in the next 10% of the student body. It is possible for this to have the same meaning from year to year.

After this there could be grades in which the fraction of students can change – perhaps they should be called a merit or a pass.

The percentage of students who ‘pass’ would be allowed to change to allow more students to pass should teaching standards change

But the purpose of exams is to assess students. It is (IMHO) invidious to use exams for the additional purpose of judging schools and teachers.

It may be reasonable to use a school’s or teacher’s exam results as an aid to judgement of a school or teacher – but hateful to use the results as a substitute for judgement

Our schools are full of hard working and inspiring teachers who are continuously being worn down by perennial threats. We should be supporting and not threatening these precious souls.

The Scandal

The scandal is that the government has outsourced the entire exam system to a number of bodies entirely controlled by multinational publishing companies.

By controlling the syllabus and exams the publishers create a ‘market’ for their text books in which no other company can compete. This is very profitable, but not obviously in the interest of the students.

IMHO the government should write the syllabus for exams and a single independent body should write the exams. We do not need ‘competition’ between publisher-owned exam boards.

Publishers should then compete with each other, without insider knowledge, to create the best text books that teach the subject – and not how to pass ‘their’ exams.

This would drive down the cost of both exams and text books and end the current ‘almost corrupt‘ system

Personally I can’t wait to have nothing more to do with the system.

How hard did it rain last week?

August 22, 2014

Hardcore Protonistas – and that’s you if you are reading this – will know that I love measuring things.

I love the way that measurements allow an extra level of wonder at the intricate detail of the world around us.

The rate of rainfall at NPL Teddington on 14th August 2014. The rainfall rate initially exceed 100 mm per hour. The first event resulted in 28 mm of rain and the second 18 mm of rain.

The rate of rainfall at NPL Teddington on 14th August 2014. The rainfall rate initially exceed 100 mm per hour. The first event resulted in 29.3 mm of rain and the second 18.4 mm of rain.

Last Thursday 14 August 2014 there were two torrential rain events at NPL.

They were kind of event that makes you stop what you are doing, go to the window and just stare. Personally they evoked memories of my childhood home and the security of being indoors and protected.

All very nice. But how much rain fell? And was it exceptional? These questions can only be answered by looking at data.

So I downloaded data from a weather station on the roof of one of NPL’s buildings. The graph at the top of the page shows the key features of the data.

  • In both events the rate of rainfall was initially over 100 millimetres per hour
  • The first event deposited 29.3 mm of rain and the second 18.4 mm of rain.

These data show that these were indeed powerful weather events.

Over the main NPL site, which comprises approximately 400 m  x 100 m = 40,000 square metres, the first event result in the deposition of approximately 1160 tonnes of water in approximately 50 minutes. Wow!

But were the events exceptional? The Met Office keep a record of extreme weather events (Link) which states that the most extreme UK rainfall events have been:

  • Highest 5-minute total: 32 mm on 10 August 1893 Preston (Lancashire)
  • Highest 30-minute total: 80 mm on 26 June 1953 Eskdalemuir (Dumfries & Galloway)
  • Highest 60-minute total: 92 mm on 12 July 1901 Maidenhead (Berkshire)

Assuming these historic measurements are indeed reliable – which is not always the case – then the events in Teddington last week  were not technically ‘extreme’.

However they were astounding – and in the very best sense of the word – wonder-ful.

Would you like to measure the surface temperature of the Earth?

August 18, 2014
Our estimate of the global mean temperature is derived from analysis of around 30,000 individual station records such as the one above. This graph shows how a single station record must sometimes be pieced together from fragmentary data in in different holdings.

Our estimate of global mean temperature is derived from analysis of around 30,000 individual station records such as the one above. This graph shows how a single station record must sometimes be pieced together from fragmentary data in different holdings. Data from Geoscience Data Journal 30 JUN 2014 DOI: 10.1002/gdj3.8

Every few weeks an e-mail filters through to me from NPL’s web enquiry service. One arrived last week:

  • We seem to be taking far reaching conclusions (climate change) from temperature measurements taken around the world over the last 300 years. Taking into account the geographic spread of such readings and the changes in methods of measurement over the years is this scientifically robust?   

I wrote a rather long-winded  reply which you can read below, but after I sent it I realised I had forgotten something: I could have invited the enquirer to work out the answer for themselves!

That might have been a bit cheeky, because it is not a simple task. However, the data is freely available and its provenance has never been better established than in the databank released by the International Surface Temperature Initiative (ISTI).

ISTI is an effort to which I have myself contributed minimally by sitting on its steering committee and occasionally answering questions related to calibration and the fundamentals of temperature measurement.

The motivation for ISTI was to make sure the entire databank was publicly available. This was back in 2010 when global warming sceptics were claiming that the global warming was a hoax. Since then sceptics have changed to believing all the data and claiming its fluctuations are of profound significance. In any case, making the data publicly accessible and free allows even small research groups – or even you if you are not too  busy – to make their own analyses.

The paper linked here describes the structure of the databank and the way it has been constructed. It is a long paper and here I only want to draw your attention to the detailed scrutiny paid to every station record in the 30,000 records.

Each station record has a latitude, longitude and altitude associated with it. But one needs to decide whether a short record from one source is a unique record – in which case  it must be included – or  a duplicate of some fraction of a nearby station. Alternatively – as the graphic at the top shows – different parts of an individual station record may be available – possibly with mis-spelt names – in different data holdings.

This kind of analysis is tedious in the extreme, but is actually essential in creating a databank that people can trust. I am filled with admiration for the achievements of my ISTI colleagues. Now anyone can work out the surface temperature of the Earth for themselves.

So what are you waiting for?


My Reply to the NPL Enquiry

Hello. I am an NPL scientist specialising in temperature measurement. Amongst other claims to fame, I have made the most accurate temperature measurements in human history, and also sit on the steering committee of a group ( that has established an open-source data base of surface temperature records. And I have been asked to respond to your message which reads.

  • We seem to be taking far reaching conclusions (climate change) from temperature measurements taken around the world over the last 300 years. Taking into account the geographic spread of such readings and the changes in methods of measurement over the years is this scientifically robust?  

The short answer is ‘Yes, it is scientifically robust’ but it is not at all obvious that it should be so.

Let me give a slightly longer answer.

You are quite right to be concerned but in fact the data are analysed in a careful way which we believe eliminates most (if not all) of the inevitable distortions of the data.

First of all, the data

Typically this consists of twice daily readings of the maximum and minimum temperatures taken inside a Stevenson screen. Typically these are average to produce a daily ‘average’ and this is then further averaged to produce a ‘monthly mean temperature’. Because of this averaging the monthly mean temperatures have rather low variability and enable trends to be seen more easily than might be expected.

This met office web site shows typical data from the UK

Secondly, the analysis.

The monthly mean temperature data from around the world has been analysed by four different teams and – very substantially – they all agree that the air temperature above the surface of the Earth has warmed substantially in the last century. One key part of their analysis is that data from a station is compared only with itself. So we look back through a single station record and ask “Does it have a rising or falling trend?”. If life were simple – which it never is – all we would have to do would be to extract the trends and average them over the correct area of Earth’s surface. But life is never simple.

As one look’s back through a record one sees many ‘glitches’ or sudden changes, and typically there is no explanation for why they occurred? Were they real? Should we leave the glitch in the data? Or try to correct it? And if we correct it – which way should we adjust the data? Typically these glitches occur when an instrument is changed, or when a station is re-sited e.g. from one side of an airfield to another. Different teams take different approaches, but all of them take great care not to distort the data.

Let me give you one example. This is called the Pair-wise Homogenisation Algorithm (PHA) and works especially well in places such as Europe or the USA where there are a high density of weather stations. Since we are looking for a signal of ‘climate change’ we would expect this to show up on all station records in an area a few hundred kilometres across. So if we detect a glitch – we can compare that individual record with all nearby station records one pair at a time. In this way we can see whether the glitch is real or just affects that one station. And we can correct it if we choose to. The PHA can also  detect the so-called ‘urban heat island’ effect.

Thirdly, geography.

So the PHA can allow us to extract a trend from around 30,000 weather station data records. But these are not distributed uniformly around the globe, and critically Africa and the poles have relatively short data records. Nonetheless, based on reasonable assumptions, the warming trend does seem to be widely distributed.

And finally.

The weather records that we have were not compiled for the purpose of climatology, but we have adapted them for that purpose. But we can look at other records, such as the dates of first blooming of particular flowers. This data is not so easy to interpret but also is much less prone to numerical manipulation. And critically we can look at the extent of the melting of artic sea ice. Many different things we measure tell a story of warming that is consistent with what we would expect from carbon dioxide emissions.

The Berkeley Earth Project web site has particularly nice graphs and is well organised if you would like to investigate this question further.

If you have any remaining questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.


Dr. Michael de Podesta MBE CPhys MInstP

Principal Research Scientist
National Physical Laboratory
Teddington, TW11 0LW
Telephone 44 (0)20 8943 6476


Sine qua non

August 11, 2014
The view of Lake Mead from the Hoover Dam. The water level is 36 metres below its level at the time of my last visit in 1986.

The view of Lake Mead from the Hoover Dam. The water level is 36 metres below its level at the time of my last visit in 1986. The two towers are structures around the intakes for water extraction and electricity generation.

During my recent holiday in California I received NASA’s Natural Hazards ‘weekly update’. It arrived on my phone while I was in Los Angeles, relaxing by a gurgling water feature.

The following sections have been updated in the past 7 days.

— CROPS AND DROUGHT (1 updated events, 1 new images) –

A serious drought settled over California in early 2014.
 *** Image from Jul 07, 2014 (Posted on Jul 23, 2014 4:32 PM)

Natural Hazards is a service of NASA’s Earth Observatory.

I was shocked to find that I was apparently on holiday in a ‘natural hazard’.

The e-mail highlighted recent research that tried to assess the net long-term reduction in water resources in the Western US, including not only above-ground reservoirs but also underground water. The basin of the Colorado river is apparently down by 65 cubic kilometres in the last 14 years. It may seem unnecessary to say – but a cubic kilometre is a truly phenomenally large amount of water!

These measurements – based on detection of minute changes in the gravitational effect of ground water on satellites (!) – are very difficult. And so it is hard to know exactly how much one should trust their detailed conclusions. But their general conclusion seems pretty sound: California is drawing on its water resources at a faster rate than those resources are being replenished.

This is news to nobody. While in California we saw many adverts and heard radio anouncements urging water conservation. Even amongst the extravagance of Hearst Castle, there were no fountains, the swimming pools were empty, and the toilets were replaced by chemical toilets

Sign on the door of the Hearst Castle Visitor Centre, near San Luis Obsipo, California

Sign on the door of the Hearst Castle Visitor Centre, near San Luis Obsipo, California

But nothing conveys the magnitude of the problem more powerfully than the declining level of the largest reservoir in the US: Lake Mead, trapped behind the Hoover Dam.

Since my previous visit in 1986, the level of water in the 600 square kilometres of Lake Mead has fallen by approximately 36 metres, representing the loss of 21 cubic kilometres of water storage. The lake is now less than 40% full.

Graphing the elevation above sea level (in feet) of the surface of Lake Mead. The 'error bars' shows the annual variation. WHen the level reach 1075 feet, water withdrawals will be automatically scaled back.

The elevation above sea level (in feet) of the surface of Lake Mead versus year. The ‘error bars’ shows the annual variation. When the level reach 1075 feet, water withdrawals will be automatically scaled back. The fall in 1965 resulted from reduced inflows due to the filling of an upstream reservoir – Lake Powell. Click for a larger version.

This level represents the balance between the water drawn from Lake Mead, and the inflows from snow-melt in the Colorado mountains.

Inflows to Lake Mead are typically 10 cubic kilometres annually but annual outflows have been around 11 cubic kilometres.

The low level of Lake Mead in some ways represents a triumph – this is why the Hoover Dam was built: to allow water users to be able to rely on water being available through a drought.

But the prolonged decline results from poorly-drawn water ‘rights’ that allow states to withdraw water at a rate exceeding the long-term average.

When the level reaches 1075 feet – the red line on the graph – then water restrictions will be automatically implemented and presumably the level will stabilise and hopefully recover.

What struck me powerfully on my visit to Las Vegas and the vast metropolis of Los Angeles was that water is the sine qua non of civilisation. And these cities have been built in a natural desert.

Of course all that is required is a reduction in water usage, which will probably equate to an increase in the price of water.

It is hard to see how this situation will evolve – but the first rule of futurology is that the future is likely to be similar to the present day, but different.

And perhaps all that it will take is for the growing of crops less suited to the desert (such as rice!) to move to other parts of the world.

Live Fish; Live Music; The importance of being there.

August 1, 2014
This picture shows a gigantic tank of jellyfish with people silhouetted in the foreground. Picture taken at teh MOnterey Aquarium, California.

A gigantic tank of jellyfish with people silhouetted in the foreground. Picture taken at the Monterey Aquarium, California.

I hope you like the picture above. As you look at the picture you probably can’t tell if the vivid colours are on a screen or whether I took the picture of people in front of  a real tank of jellyfish

But I was there. And the jelly fish were very real.

I gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the delicacy of the structure of their bodies. And I desperately wanted to capture something of the experience.

Now when I look at the picture I recall that feeling of wonder but I don’t really know what you feel.

Two musicians playing Jazz at 'The Melt' a small cafe on Columbus AVenue, San Francisco.

Two musicians playing Jazz at ‘The Melt’ a small cafe on Columbus AVenue, San Francisco.

The picture above shows two musicians who happened to start playing at ‘The Melt’ on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco just after we stopped in for a snack. As you look at the picture you probably wonder what they were playing or if they were good.

But I was there. I remember being so happy that we had chanced upon this place.

And I remember my son’s happiness when we all recognised the beginning of ‘So What’ by Miles Davis. I left a $5 tip for them.

I mention these two occasions because  as I looked at the photographs I realised that the photographs did not capture my happiness or wonder.

And I just thought I would make a note – largely for myself – about how pictures communicate something – but what they communicate is not always the experience of the photographer.

And that there is really no substitute for ‘being there’.

Why headlines matter

July 22, 2014

Consider the following:

  • Imagine a hypothetical country in which the president made a decision to change the rules by which medication for heart disease was prescribed.
  • And suppose that in this country a woman died from a heart-related problem and her grieving son blamed his mother’s death on the President’s decision.
  • And further suppose that a reporter interviewed the son who said: “I feel as though the President has stabbed my mother through the heart”.
  • And finally imagine that a newspaper ran this reporter’s story with the headline at the start of this article:

President stabs woman through heart

Now if I read that headline I would assume that it was an assertion of a fact. But in fact it isn’t. And once I read the article and discovered that this was a quote from a grieving individual I would ask:

  • How did that headline, with its misleading and negative view get written?
  • If the newspaper wanted to highlight this important issue, why did they pick this misleading headline which undermines their own credibility?

So back to reality, and a letter from Thom Davis (reproduced in full at the end of this article) who thinks that I have been unfair in my comments on his article in The Independent.

I called attention to the fact that the article’s headline asserted that as a result of the Chernobyl disaster there were ‘cemeteries the size of cities’. This is completely untrue. And to me it raised the same two questions I highlighted above.

I am not sure of the timeline, but as I recall it, when I tweeted the author for more details he went quiet and when I looked again at the article, the headline had changed to something which was not an untruth. It may have been as a result of my questioning that the headline was changed. The newspaper made no record that the article had been changed.

Months later Thom wrote to me arguing at length that I should conclude nothing from the fact that a misleading headline was placed above his article: that it was just an editing mistake. I beg to differ.

Reading the article itself, without the misleading steer of its headline one can hear Thom’s genuine concern for the plight of these refugees. And I am happy to accept that the headline was indeed not of his choosing.

But in what Universe could a junior editor claim the existence of hundreds of thousands of dead people? The answer is: only in a Universe where nonsense is believed and propagated as easily as in a school playground. And I find it hard to believe that anyone in that profession could be unaware of its potential impact on UK readers.

The point of my article was to highlight this misleading headline and the fact it was changed without any record of the change. And that The Independent has a history of doing this.

The Independent did Thom a disservice in choosing a headline which exposed their own editorial prejudice and undermined his article’s credibility.

The headline of an article sets the tone and expectation for an article. And it matters.

P.S. (A blog is not a newspaper article, but for the sake of accuracy, I edited the text in red on Tuesday 5th August 2014)


  • My original article is here
  • Thom’s article – with its modified headline – is here
  • Thom’s reply to my article is reproduced in full below

Dear Protons for Breakfast,

I am the author of this article.

I did not choose the original title. As I believe I pointed out in a following tweet (not shown above).

As Vanessa rightly suggests, it is standard practice in journalism for the titles and taglines to be the choice of the editor. As soon as I read the title, I immediately emailed the editor to get it changed. Which he promptly did, within minutes. I agree with you, to put “cemeteries the size of cities” in the title like this is obviously misleading, as this is not what the article is saying – and precisely why I had the title changed immediately. It seems in your critique of the article you have focussed upon this.

For what it is worth I do not think the editor did this on purpose as some kind of anti-nuclear (or in your words ‘Nuclear Nonsense’) agenda – but was merely the consequence of a misreading and rushed deadline. As Vanessa suggests:

“An alternative approach might be to acknowledge the possible devaluing of an otherwise informative article from a specialist author by a flawed editorial process – and perhaps even to credit the editors for the fact they changed the headline quickly.”

As is quite clear is you read the text, the cemeteries quote comes from an interview with a research participant who was stressing how Evacuation and forced displacement has killed more people, in his opinion, than living with the constant threat of radiation. Like many others who live near the Exclusion Zone, he believes more people have been killed through forced evacuation than from staying to live with the radiated landscape.

It is a widely held opinion that the stress of becoming an environmental refugee has negatively impacted the lives and health of the hundreds of thousands who were forced to abandon their homes. Something supported by other academic research on other disasters, and from many interviews I have conducted with evacuees.

The revised title, made minutes after I emailed the editor now reads:

“Ukraine’s other crisis: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl – where victims receive just 9p a month and are left to fend for themselves”

This is something I stand by 100%. And I am grateful for The Independent’s swift action on this.

I am guessing your following critique is based on the briefly shown original erroneous title:
“by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?”

It is clear (from reading the main text) that the original title is an editorial error. If you believe other parts of the article are in anyway hyperbolic or unjustified I would very much like to hear, as this is a topic I take incredibly seriously. I very strongly dispute for example that what I have written counts as ‘Nuclear Nonsense’. It is based on three years of in-depth ethnographic research with communities throughout Ukraine.

Your assumption that the point of the article was “to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK” is also unfounded. As the author of this article, I can tell you that the point – would you believe it – was to draw attention to the plight of people I have spent years getting to know in Ukraine, who are continuing to suffer from nuclear disaster. Something I believe this article achieves.

You say that the “article [is] seeking to conjure a horrific vision, which is just nonsense, and not true.” I would love to know on what basis you think what I have written is both ‘nonsense’ and ‘not true’?

I am glad this article, for whatever reason, has caused a discussion, as I believe it is an important subject, especially for those involved.

If you are interested further in my research on this subject, I can suggest reading this peer reviewed academic article:

Best wishes,

Thom Davies

Cradle of the best and the worst

July 19, 2014
One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

One of the three solar concentrators from the Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power Plant.

I am on holiday with my family in Nevada and California, and while shopping for beer and clothing in Las Vegas, I was reminded of the words of Leonard Cohen:

It’s coming to America first.
The cradle of the best and the worst

Lenny’ was speaking of Democracy,  but I feel that the phrase can be extended into environmental, technological and cultural realms. And in his blog I wanted to record a few thoughts about the ‘best’ of the things I have seen.

Amidst the hyperbolic kitch of Las Vegas, we stayed in the walls of a gigantic hollow pyramid that is a truly astounding architectural and engineering achievement. For example, the elevators obviously cannot run vertically but instead run at angle along the slanted edges of the pyramid.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel - which is pyramidal in shape.

View from the upper floors of the interior balconies of the Luxor Hotel – which is pyramidal in shape.

Housed underneath this beautiful roof were any number of gaudy distractions. But amongst them was the Bodies exhibition. I found the exhibition dignified, tasteful and astonishingly  educational. I left with renewed wonder at my body.

We visited the Hoover Dam in which the barely mentioned reality is that the water levels are running low. But there is no denying the engineering genius and boldness of the ambition behind it’s construction.

The Ivanpah Solar Power plant may be on the wrong-side of a historic divide between solar photo-voltaic and solar thermal. But the engineering is awe-inspiring: three giant towers concentrating solar energy – one resource which is not in short supply in this part of the world.

In Los Angeles we have used the excellent public transport rail system, which is easily accessible and welcomes bicycles. Over long stretches it has been built to use the inner lanes of freeways or major roads to minimise construction costs. And nearly all the buses have bicycle carriers attached to their fenders.

An LA Metro Train. Teh station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

An LA Metro Train. The station has been built in the centre lanes of one of the wide Boulevards.

Many freeways have car pool lanes – in which only cars with more than one passenger may travel. Some freeways use a road pricing system –  long-discussed in the UK – in which the price to use a ‘Fastrak’ lane changes minute by minute – reaching peaks of 10 times the minimum charge at times of peak congestion. These lanes also allow fast buses to speed public transport as advertised in this excessively positive advertising video.

Of course road traffic defines LA. But driving speeds are slower in suburban streets  than in the UK’s narrower and more congested roads. In the suburban area of LA in which we are staying (El Segundo) traffic is dramatically better than Teddington.  And contrary to myth, there is excellent provision for pedestrians. And of course, California is a world-leader in legislation to control vehicle emissions.

The Hollywood Bowl

The Hollywood Bowl  is aunique cultural venue combining excellent music with the  friendly ambience of the proms and the ability to picnic as the Sun sets over the Hollywood Hills.

Culturally, the Getty Centre and Villa, the California Science Centre  (which houses the space shuttle Endeavour) and the Griffiths Observatory are among the best museums I have ever visited. And they are free.

The Disney Theatre is breathtaking and the Hollywood Bowl provides a venue for music that is unique – it felt like ‘the Proms with picnics’

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a modern day secular temple to the stars.

The Griffiths Observatory looks over LA like a secular temple to the stars.

So forgive me if I pass on reciting the sins of this resource-gobbling satan. In this ‘cradle’along with ‘the worst’, are some things that I find inspiring and well-worthy of the epithet ‘the best’. And I hope that like many Californian innovations – such as vehicle emission limits – many of these will leave this cradle and spread around the world.

And to my friends: forgive me if I forgive myself for this carbon-heavy holiday.

My body is a machine

July 12, 2014

This song is the best song ever written about glycolosis: the basic mechanism by which the ‘engine’ of the human body takes in ’fuel’ and enables ‘it’ to do ‘work’. 

Although I never studied it at school, I have known for a long time about the basic mechanism by which the ‘engine’ of the human body takes in ’fuel’ and enables ‘it’ to do ‘work’.

But only recently I have become aware of how the ‘engine’ of my body works, and what it feels like when it doesn’t.

As a slightly overweight (86 kg, 1.75 m) 54-year-old male I am aware that I am entering my prime heart-attack decade. Exercise is apparently the key to reducing my risk, but I have not been doing much of that lately: you know how it is.

And whenever I had tried to exercise by jogging at what felt a comfortable pace, I would find that after maybe half a mile I would find my heart racing, I would be out of breath and would need to slow down dramatically – even stop. I assumed that this was a symptom of early-onset death.

However, recently I decided to try this running lark again and popped into the local ‘Sweatshop’ where a very enthusiastic young man took pressure patterns of my feet as I stood on a glass plate, and then made videos of me running on a treadmill. All very high tech. He then sold me a pair of embarrassingly expensive running shoes.

And as an afterthought I bought a £50 heart monitor. It consists of band that goes around my chest – which detects the electrical signals associated with each beat of my heart – which is wirelessly linked to a watch which displays my heart rate.

Suitably equipped, I began to investigate how the engine of my own body was behaving.

The first number I looked for was my resting heart rate. I tried the monitor out throughout one whole day and found that – perhaps surprisingly – my lowest heart rate did not occur lying in bed in the morning (67 beats per minute or bpm) but instead at a planning  meeting at work (60 bpm). This is a healthy number and I was relieved. But maybe I need to contribute more to meetings.

All the web sites frame heart rates for exercise in terms of maximum heart rate. This number varies from person to person, and declines with age. A little reading told me that the typical value for a 54 year old male is around 170 beats per minute (bpm) And based on this I should be exercising at around 140 bpm.

And so the second  number I had to find was my maximum heart rate. This turned out be closer to 195 bpm which I think is basically a good thing. And based on my maximum heart rate, the web sites say I should be exercising at a much faster heart rate.

The sites predict that I should experience a transition from aerobic to anaerobic exercise at around 165 to 170 bpm. And when I ran I could feel that change exactly where it was supposed to be.

Using the monitor I found that if I jog at 165 bpm I don’t go very fast, but I can sing to myself and feel barely out of breath. I can basically run until I am bored.

But when my heart rate reaches 175 bpm I find myself shorter of breath and can either tough it out or relax back to a more manageable 165 bpm.

So the key to understanding my experience of what my body was doing was to make a measurement not of my speed of running – but of my heart rate. I guess it is equivalent to watching the rev-meter on a car instead of the speedometer.

And as result I have been able to run local roads on a course that lasts 5 kilometers: further than I have ever run before. And at the end I still have energy for a not very impressive sprint. (It’s not the time that I care about – its just I would like to give my neighbours the impression that I have been running at that speed all the time)

And the reason I am writing this is because the experience has left me feeling mildly empowered and slightly relieved. Understanding what I was experiencing and being able to relate it to what other people experienced was comforting. It’s just another example of Kelvin’s maxim that until you can ‘put a number’ to something, you do not truly understand it.

And the good news is that the device is telling me that, rather than being close to death, I instead have the heart of younger man. So as long as he doesn’t want it back any time soon, that’s great!


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