Slightly dizzy after 2008

A year ago, I predicted “2008 to be quite a ride“. What happened?

On holiday, Eddie Izzard’s voice guided me round Wales. As we drove, a box smaller than my hand sang songs by a band that broke up nearly 40 years ago, as if they were in the car.

The same part of the US military which created the Internet funded the rat-sized cortex simulations. Most such projects in 60 years of Artificial Intelligence have come to nothing. I wouldn’t bet on them all, always coming to nothing.

The world entered the predicted financial crisis that could “make 1929 look like a walk in the park”. The UK is still at the early stage where, for most, only friends of your friends have lost their job. Expect it to become your friends and maybe you in 2009.

The US President-elect selected a scientist as his Energy Secretary. Three countries and two US states announced their change to the electric car. In December, the company implementing this unveiled their first recharge point in Israel.

A thousand mirrors were lined up in a Spanish desert, to gather the energy of the sun. The new power station will be finished in January. Next up, one twice as large again. It will use tanks of salt to store heat and produce electricity at night.

Finally, the Large Hadron Collider may have been turned on, but they never collided any particles together. Readers still looking for more exotic ways to end our crazy human adventure, perhaps unsatisfied with methane fireballs, can continue to worry about negatively charged strangelets and microscopic black holes for 2009. Until summer, when the first collisions will happen and the world doesn’t end.

How wild do you think 2008 was, and 2009 will be?

Save our economy from Climate Change

I’ve written before about how I cherry pick campaigns that are most likely to be successful. You’d have thought that on such a large, difficult subject as climate change and our energy security, it would be impossible to cherry pick.

But it turns out there is a big gaping hole.

Nobody is running a single issue campaign for people across the political spectrum. One to lobby the UK Government to stop climate change destroying our economy and way of life, and at the same time to safeguard our supply of energy.

There are environment charities (such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth) doing excellent work, but they don’t really make the case properly as to why people who don’t care about the planet should be caring about climate change. There are international development charities (such as Oxfam and Christian Aid), but they don’t really explain why somebody struggling to make ends meet in the UK should also be very worried about it.

Nobody until now that is.

Please sign up to our new campaign, Serious Change.

P.S. We’re never going to whine about polar bears, or ask you to change your light bulbs. We’re always going to lobby and cajole so we all fix this problem together. The investment the UK needs to make will create jobs and a sense of purpose, from which everyone will benefit.

P.P.S. Pass this on to anybody you know who is worried about Climate Change but would never join Greenpeace.

2008 to be quite a ride

Travelling by car back from relatives yesterday, a woman’s voice, inside a box as small as my hand, knew exactly where we were at all times, and gave my mother detailed directions at every turn.

Earlier this year, a multinational corporation simulated a brain the size of a mouse’s on a supercomputer. This almost interactive simulation will help people learn more about the function of our own cerebral cortex, and hence how our minds work. They are moving on to a rat’s cortex, which is three times larger.

For a Christmas present, and on a whim, I gave two of my relatives a year’s education for a girl somewhere in Africa. Neither I nor my relatives will ever meet her or know who she is, and none of us fully understand the economic system that makes this either necessary or possible.

The chief economist for an economic forecaster worries that the world is on the brink of a financial crisis that could “make 1929 look like a walk in the park”. He tries to be reassuring that the central bankers will act correctly to avert this.

Last month, the spokesbody for British businesses released a report begging the Government to regulate them more (yes, more). They hope that a tough carbon pricing system and other measures will safeguard their businesses against chaotic worldwide weather patterns in coming years.

European and African politicians and engineers are planning to build hundreds of thousands of mirrors (image top left) in North Africa. These mirrors will focus sunlight into towers, and create steam to generate renewable electricity for Europe and fresh water for Africa.

Beneath the Alps, scientists are getting ready to turn on an arcane sixteen mile circumference machine in May (image right). It will fire particles with unspeakable energy, in order to unearth the fundamental laws of how our physical world works.

2008 is going to be quite a ride.

Let’s make it a good one.

Sometimes there are victories

Some people complain that all the activism, campaigning, trying to change the world for the better never has any affect. In the last year I can think of 4 major victories, all in campaigns I’ve had a small involvement in.

Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill – I posted about this boring sounding but deadly Bill at the beginning of last year. We had to set up a whole Save Parliament campaign to try and stop it. The Bill was still passed, but was much less dangerous partly because the Government rewrote it under public pressure.

Statute law database – At the end of 2005 I posted about the School without rules, explaining how the laws of our land are not freely available. This was fixed at Christmas by a new Government website. It’s not clear what affect our external agitation had on the decision not to commercialise the data itself, but I suspect it was some. Congratulations to the then Department for Constitutional Affairs for doing the right thing.

Reed Elsevier and the arms trade – At the start of 2006 I wrote up in two posts my trip to the London Book fair, where they tried to kick me out of a Freedom of Expression seminar. Last week, Reed Elsevier’s board were finally forced to abandon running arms fairs. This Guardian article explains how the campaign was won. I’m a bit miffed to be honest, as my T-shirt now doesn’t tell the truth any more!

Freedom of Information Amendment Bill – This recent Bill attempted to exempt Parliament and MPs from Freedom of Information law. We sent out a Public Whip newsletter which explains more. The Bill was passed by the Commons. But luckily our unelected Lords have more sense, and news just in is that the Bill has been abandoned because they can’t even find one Lord to support it. WriteToThem was used by the public to send over a thousand faxes to Lords telling them that they did not support the Bill. In my day job, we had to set up a second fax server to meet the demand.

So there you go, four victories. Never let anybody tell you it isn’t worth campaigning.

Oh, and of course I’m lazy, so I cherry pick campaigns. Those were all won because they were achievable and reasonable. Easy ground to fight on. I admire those who spend years on much harder campaigns. But even they have major victories.

Life

Three weeks ago my friend and colleague Chris Lightfoot committed suicide. He’d been taking anti-depressants for a long time. My mind flips like a necker cube between loving anger and complete compassion. Anger with anyone for deliberately leaving the privilege of being in this beautiful world. Compassion for the extreme pain that he must have been in, and that I am lucky enough never to have known.

I met Chris originally because he was my new ISP, and because of our shared interest in politics and computers. Tom’s written an excellent post summarising Chris’s achievements in software, politics and policy. He was argumentative, cussed, and super bright. He was loving and affectionate, for the world and his friends.

The picture is of Oggie (as many called him) with a friend’s baby. He loved the natural world, walking, cats, animals of all kinds. He had a dagger-like, cheeky, loving smile, which is how I’m remembering him, right now.

(Thanks to jfairbairn for the picture, click on it for others taken at the same time, and for larger versions. The official announcement is on Chris’s blog. You can find comments and links to other tributes there. And instead of flowers for the funeral, give money to no2id, a campaign close to Chris’s heart.)

Restricted shorts and newspaper hagiography

The unusual short film competition with board games which I was at two weeks ago was fantastic fun. Again, Mark has a bit to say about it. There’s also loads on the Really Restrictive Shorts blog which I wrote some of. Click the “1, 2, 3, 4… next… last…” links right at the bottom of the page to see more. There are photos and videos and so on.

Also today, there’s a good description of mySociety in the Guardian. That’s the, also unusual, charity that I work for. Given we’re anarchically structured, Tom Steinberg clearly can’t be my boss. Instead you could think of him as the person the rest of us delegate fundraising, client management and making sure the accounts balance to. I missed it, but they put me in the week before last talking about PledgeBank.

Cambridge is sunny today, and the snow has just melted from the roofs. Enjoy your this next precious year, wherever you are!

Short films and long journeys

I’m in Wales, helping out at a most unusual short film competition, with boardgames. I can’t do better than my flatmate Mark at explaining it, so if you want to know what we’re doing read his post on the subject.

Also since writing here last, I’ve spent a while in North America. New York ate all my money. I found the Statue of Liberty surprisingly moving – it’s original purpose, representing real freedom, is important to remember. Toronto was fantastic. I stayed with Martin Crawford, who knows the extensive and fun live music scene like the back of his hand. The food in Toronto is amazing, and the layout of streets with busy tram-field, small shop, main roads, and quiet cross streets of wooden houses all different. Canada really is the best bits of Europe and best bits of America mixed together in one country. I was quite surprised.

Then I went to Georgia, the one in the Caucases between Russia and Turkey. This was initially on work, a project to do with Georgian Parliamentary informatioon. It’s a very harsh place to travel in December. I went to Stalin’s birthplace, Gori, and to Borjomi where a mineral water comes from (the one the Russians have recently banned import of). Georgia was (roughly) the second country to become Christian, and it has its own orthodox Church. There were gorgeous, and sometimes very remote, old churches. It’s also a very European seeming country. Despite its poverty, it felt familiar in the way that only European countries do.

Enough for now, I think I have to write a blog post about the board games we had this evening for the Really Restrictive Shorts website…

Quadruply offset

So, I just bought a return flight from London Heathrow to Boston (Massachusetts, not Lincolnshire, cheap short haul flights haven’t got that crazy yet!), leaving the day after tomorrow. This cost a mere £308, which is very cheap. Today is the day the Stern Review came out, which means it was impossible to do anything other than go directly to Climate Care‘s website and buy some carbon offsetting. Or think of it as a voluntary aviation fuel tax, whatever.

Now, in the past, companies like Future Forests (now the CarbonNeutral Company, and quite corporate) offset CO2 emissions by planting forests. This doesn’t work, as you have to plant new forest which is guaranteed to be kept as forest forever. Every tree that dies and rots one hundred years hence has to be guaranteed to be replaced by a new tree, and so on into the infinite future. Otherwise all the CO2 the tree took out of the atmosphere to make itself just gets released again when it burns or decays.

It’s much much more efficient, by which I mean easier, to stop people burning fossil fuels which they definitely would have otherwise burnt. Of course, that’s a fuzzy thing to define, and open to abuse. Climate Care have an “approach” to this which involves selecting projects in countries which aren’t in the Kyoto treaty (to avoid double counting of other CO2 reduction commitments), which are verified by a third party, and which perform intervention that they can be confident wouldn’t otherwise have happened. This seems to mainly involve replacing ovens with more efficient ones in developing countries. But see for your self, there are quite a few projects.

Climate Care it is then. Nobody has any better suggestions. I guess you could give the money to Rising Tide, but you may as well just give it to David Cameron, who has done more in the last year than anyone else in the UK to make it politically acceptable, important and normal to be concerned about Climate Chaos.

So I enter in my flight details. It will, apparently, extract the energy from ancient sunlight stored in sufficient oil to spit out a huge 1.445 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide. That’s including the return journey. Total cost to offset it? Just £10.85. I was shocked, it’s hardly anything. OK, 3.5% of the cost of the flight, so substantially more than the 1% in the Stern Review. But even so! All this whinging from Climate Change sceptics about the cost of mitigating Climate Change is just that. So much whinging. And not only does my money, at least in theory, compensate for CO2 emissions of my flight, it’s also a donation to 3rd world economies in capital, and thence in long term savings for them in the cost of energy.

Of course, part of me knows this must be nonsense. £10.85 is really not much, and can I trust Climate Care at all, or their criteria? Already feeling guilty before buying the flight, I was going to doubly offset it anyway. But seeing how cheap it is, instead I went for quadruple, or £43.40. Still very reasonable, especially given the insanely cheap price of the ticket. Well, compared to getting a train to Manchester (about 70 quid return) anyway.

Meanwhile, if you know anybody in Boston I should meet or can invite me to a cool party or something, then do mail me! I’ll be in the US for the next three weeks.

(Photo by A@lbi and licensed for reuse)

Sand and clay

For three years now I’ve subscribed irregularly to a box of fruit and vegetables from Cambridge Organic Food Co. On Sunday or Monday, If I’m going to be at home enough later in the week, I leave them an answer phone message. Then on Wednesday afternoon there’s a knock on the door, and a friendly man gives me a crate of freshly selected seasonal goodness. (Photo right is illustrative and actually in New Zealand, it is licensed for free reuse by darren131)

A few weeks ago, on a Saturday, Mark and I went on their organic farm tour. We had Duncan from COFCO as our guide, and there were two stops. I didn’t take notes, so any truth below is damaged by the forgetfulness of the mind, or the dangers of fact checking with Google.

LEAFs and Clover

Russell Smith Farms is 2000 acres nestled around the Imperial War Museum at Duxford. His posh country clothes, accent and manner, along with the fighter jets passing overhead, led me to stereotype Robert Smith as a Tory farmer gentleman, in the nicest possible way.

Until the late 90s they were a conventional, that is to say industrial, farm. Amazingly, it is Waitrose who persuaded them to start converting to organic. There was me thinking they were a posh, expensive supermarket, when actually they’re leading a national food revolution. OK, same thing. Waitrose also promote the, new to me, LEAF marque, which indicates that a farm is nice to skylarks, and counts how much pesticide it uses. This is quite separate from being organic, and something to watch for.

When the current set of field conversions are finished two fifths of Russell Smith Farms will be organic. I think Robert said it takes 5 years to convert a field, during 2 of which it produces no produce at all. Instead you grow grass and clover, and plough them back into the soil. To my surprise clover is nitrogen fixing, a legume. That is, bacteria in its roots magically turn the most common gas in the air into what an industrial farmer would get from fertilizer.

Robert Smith was fascinatingly excited about his farm. He talked about modern hoeing machines used to clear weeds from between rows of organic crops. He constantly gave costs in thousands of pounds per acre, of how much was lost one year when a crop was blighted, or how much is spent on Polish labourers. He talked about bore holes and building reservoirs. Of badger banks and field margins. He was glad they had converted parts of their farm to organic as it made his job much more interesting, dealing with living breathing, rather than sterile fields.

Loam and bumblebees

Most of us think of organic farming in the negative, by what it doesn’t do compared to the industrial farming that we’re used to. So, organic farms use no pesticide or fertilizer. Put like that it can sound foolish, mad, inefficient. Actually, organic farmers think of it in the positive, as a totally different way of farming. Organic farming is about soil, growing crops in sustainably maintained, high quality soil. It’s not about exact control of nature, but about manipulating nature to our advantage, while working with the grain of her needs.

Our next stop was at Adrian Izzard (who we didn’t meet, but photo of him right, taken from COFCO’s website), a small organic farm in an area where every house has a huge plot of land. Most of them now are used as paddocks for horses, but Adrian’s is a thriving business. Greenhouses full of the most delicious cherry tomatoes, forests of cucumbers surrounding us. We walked through them snacking, and looking at the curious insect pods. You can buy, in packets in the post, little pods of insect eggs. These hatch, and eat the pests which you would otherwise have used pesticides on. There were also tiny hives of bumblebees, it was most curious.

One last thing that Duncan showed us at Adrian Izzard’s farm. Soil, put simply, is a balance between sand and clay. A quick way to test quality of soil is to grab a lump of it and then pretend you are a small child. Roll it into a sausage-shaped lozenge, and then try and bend it. If you can’t even roll it in your hands, then it is too sandy. If when you bend it, it breaks up, then it is just the right mix, known as loam. If you can bend it round, and mould it into whatever shape you like, then there is too much clay.

In conclusion

The nicest thing about getting an organic box delivery? I can’t remember exactly why I originally started ordering one a few years ago. Perhaps it was for ethical reasons – to treat the countryside better, to reduce food miles and hence carbon emissions by buying local food. But actually, the best thing is this. It is good being given seasonal fruit and vegetables, without having to select them yourself. An antidote to option paralysis. It is good being forced to work out how to cook things whose name you don’t even know. Tasty, fresh and fun.

In March the gypsies returned

I have a rule, implied in the text at the top of this page, not just to post links to other stories and websites in this blog. But these crazy American artists are too much fun not to.

“This summer we are building rafts and floating down the Mississippi River. Here’s the plan: We meet in Minneapolis in late July with sections of our raft in tow. We piece together our pontoons and fill them with salvaged blocks of foam. We make it beautiful and tie on anything that floats, adding it to our junk armada, our anarchist county fair, our fools ark. Our precious cargo is everything we hold dear: pieces and parts of the culture we are already creating. Our zines and puppets, sewing projects and poster campaigns. Mutant bicycles and punk rock marching bands. Plus our thoughts and dreams and irrepressible energy. Together we float down the Mississippi river, as far as we can — anchoring here and there to perform, give workshops, and create the big huge spectacle we wished would have stopped in our hometowns. And at each place we invite anyone to contribute performances or workshops of their own.” – Miss Rockaway Armada

I’m reading One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and this reminds me of the start of that. A quiet distant place, no contact with the world. Until the gypsies returned.