Sunday, June 26, 2016

Let them eat principles

Oh dear. Just had a lovely week away in the Highlands, for the first time in 20 years. Unfortunately, recent events have rather pushed that out of my mind, but hopefully jules will provide some pictures in the near future.

Before that, however, the referendum. I can't avoid the conclusion that it's a massive problem and many people have made a huge mistake in voting Leave.

Most glaringly, there is no exit plan. That was, of course, fairly obvious before the vote itself, but the full extent of the problem was perhaps not sufficiently clear to all the electorate. Various factions have suggested that we might be able to negotiate some sort of associate membership a la Norway - i.e. still pay a fee and obey the rules including freedom of movement, in exchange for access to the single market. But have no say in the rules. That's clearly a worse option than where we were before last Thursday. Alternatively, we could simply terminate the relationship, and suffer WTO trade tariffs. Like, say, Japan, or the USA, or China. It's hard to see the UK being considered a viable base for international Europe-focussed financial or manufacturing industry under those conditions, as it is presently. Some banks are already planning to move jobs.

The Irish question hasn't been addressed at all, as far as I can tell. It seems near-inevitable that Brexit will rip up the Good Friday Agreement, since that is underpinned by free movement over the border and the primacy of the European Convention on Human Rights. Sinn Feinn are already agitating for reunification, and I can't blame them at all. Even a prominent Unionist politician is openly encouraging Northern Irish to apply for Eire passports (another outcome of the GF agreement) and the Belfast PO quickly ran out of forms. The Good Friday Agreement, which successfully drew a line under 100 years of terrorism and violence in Northern Ireland and the mainland UK, was the one remarkable achievement of an otherwise unremarkable Major administration and it's a great shame to discard it so casually and with so little forethought. I'd think the best outcome we could hope for there would be a relatively straightforward and peaceful reunification process for Ireland as a whole, but there will be a whole lot of unhappy people whatever happens, and the peace there was fairly fragile in the first place.

Scotland has a more straightforward position. If Sturgeon can get pre-agreement on some reasonable EU membership deal (which seems to be on the cards), then the second referendum for independence will be a shoo-in. The pro-EU vote north of the border last week was far stronger than the pro-UK vote was last year, and it's inevitable that a lot of the no voters from last time (when the UK was firmly in the UK, and an independent Scotland would have had no easy route to EU membership) will change sides now.

Not all Brexiteers are ignorant racist bigots, of course. But their votes have provided support to ignorant racist bigots who are already demonstrating in cities with hate slogans and chants, and distributing hate literature (not just according to the Guardian, but the Indy too). The intelligent, informed Leave voters (they do exist, we've met a few) seem convinced that "sovereignty" is the answer to just about everything. I'll be ok of course, I've not got a job to lose and will still be able to afford Booths artisanal sausages for tea. But a whole lot of people are going to find that sovereignty neither pays the rent nor puts food on the table. The economy will probably recover over time, and there is more to life than money anyway. More sadly, future generations may find that they are unable to enjoy the freedoms that we took for granted, such as the ability to hop over to France on a whim to work a season in a ski chalet, for example. Scientists are uniquely fortunate in being able to work pretty much where they please (visa requirements are usually quite easy for us to satisfy) and living and working aboard is in principle a very worthwhile and positive experience that I'd recommend to all. It would be a shame to make it the preserve of the privileged few. All the other stuff like environmental protection, workers rights and conditions (e.g. the contract stuff - which is just one minor case study), safety standards, and the rest are unlikely to be stronger out than in. The typical business lobby's whine "it will make us uncompetitive" has much more validity if we can only impose regulations unilaterally, rather than simultaneously with our largest trading partners. I should also mention the Calais border moving to Dover, the million pensioners in Spain who will need to come back for their free healthcare (a great swap for a couple of million young EU workers)...the list really is endless. 40 years of ever-closer collaboration will not be easily unpicked.

I'd really be interested to hear if Brexiteers think that the outcome has been good so far, or if they expect it to be good in the foreseeable future. Having both major parties in total disarray is great political theatre but is perhaps not the best background from which to enter 2 years of critical negotiations and push a lot of detailed legislation through parliament. Did anyone actually vote for this? It's amazing to see the string of idiots who are regretful that they won.

A few days before the referendum Nick Barnes predicted on farcebook that Cameron would immediately invoke Article 50 if he lost, but that always seemed improbable to me - so much so, that I bet him 10 quid (Nick's limit, not mine!) that it wouldn't happen within a week. All three options remain possible as I write (i.e., either he does, or does not, or something obscure and legalistic happens that makes it impossible to judge the outcome fairly) but Cameron's clearly stated intention is not to trigger it, but leave it to his successor. Which always seemed obvious to me - he can't now avoid going down in history as the twat that loaded the gun but he can at least avoid being the twat that pulled the trigger. Boris Johnson has already stated he is in no hurry either, but wants to make progress on negotiations first. This is patently ridiculous, as the rest of the EU has no reason to negotiate anything until A50 has been invoked. It is possible that the EU will lose patience and find a way to unilaterally start the process (as has already been threatened). Or else the forthcoming Tory leader will wake up in time and smell the coffee and realise that it's a completely unwinnable proposition. BoJo clearly never wanted to win the referendum in the first place and has no strategy, no goals, and no policy for the situation that he's landed us in. So much for his political instincts. He even spent yesterday playing cricket.

I can't help but conclude that the best outcome would be for the new Govt to reject the referendum result (and fight an election on that basis). There is no good exit plan or outcome that I can see. Of course it would inevitably destroy a few political careers and we'd have a bit of rioting, but that's better than the alternatives.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

What did the EU ever do for us?

Ok, I said I wasn't going to do the referendum, but there's nothing else to talk about and I think this is worth mentioning.

Way back in the mists of time when I was starting out in the workplace, it was commonplace for new employees, especially junior researchers and academics, to be employed on the basis of short contracts. Open ended positions still existed however, and different institutes had different attitudes towards moving contract staff to open-ended positions. My first employer did it by creating an entirely new open-ended position, which was widely advertised. This was of course pretty stressful for the internal candidate having to fight for “their” job, although in practice it was just a huge waste of time for the external candidates who were never really in with a shout for a job which was designed for someone else. Not to mention being pretty awkward for staff like me having to talk to and show around these candidates without letting on that the job was really meant for the guy in the adjacent office who happened to be away that day. My next employer had more of an internal review process, similar to but far less formal than the US university tenure review system. My internal review was the day after I'd just got my job offer from Japan, which made it more fun than it might otherwise have been :-)

Incidentally, “permanent” is not a great term to use for these positions. No jobs are permanent in the UK, it is not uncommon to make people (or to be precise, their positions) redundant, as the chemistry department at Exeter Uni learnt to their cost. But making positions redundant costs money and takes time: much easier, management thought, to just allow contracts to end efficiently and painlessly (for them). This was also in line with the long term trend for research councils to be more "responsive", ie quicker to follow new fashions and not be tied down with things like staff or institutes or facilities to support, or long-term strategies to think about and follow through on. But I digress.

Some people were stuck indefinitely on a succession of short contracts, with no guarantee of renewal. I think one of the Reading people who visited us in Japan had been on 1-year contracts for something like a decade. Of course, a succession of short contracts, even if there's some sort of likelihood of renewal, are no basis for buying a house, raising a family, or even building a career.

Along came the interfering bureaucratic EU, who observed that this was not really a fair or sustainable state of affairs. And at a stroke, in the admirably brief and readable Council Directive 1999/70/EC, they put an end to it. Short contracts are still allowed for a finite duration, or where they can be objectively justified. But the directive underlines that the normal form of employment contract is one of indefinite duration. In practice, the research institutes and universities have pretty much abandoned short contracts, employees may get one on initial employment or for a particular project, but this no longer carries on indefinitely.

Incidentally, Japan is still struggling with this issue two decades later, in its own inimitable manner. Around the time we left, a law was coming in to limit contract employment to 5 years of continuous work, following which it would be regarded as open-ended. Prior to this new law, there was some sort of established precedent that after 9 years in the same job, you could claim open-ended status, but JAMSTEC had been careful to set up enough loopholes in our employment that there's no way jules and I were going to trust the legal system to actually enforce this in our favour. JAMSTEC's initial response to this new law was to state that all future contract employment would be on the basis of 5 years work and then a 6 month “break” (ie unemployment) followed by another 5 years work etc. I'm pleased to say that when my manager explained this to me, I laughed in his face and told him that he, and the institute directors, were all idiots if they thought that was going to work. Eventually they came up with a saner tenure review plan but excluded us from it, as I have probably mentioned here before.

So, the tl;dr version is that at a stroke, the EU abolished an unsustainable, abusive and unfair system of short-term employment, and this move has also had the benefit of making management think a little more carefully about the long-term sustainability of their institutes. The widespread RCUK fellowships (5 years of research which converts to an open-ended lecturer position) were one obvious response to the change in the law. Younger scientists probably don't even realise this, as the short contract era will have ended before they started work. But it has certainly made a big difference to scientific careers in the UK, and no UK govt had shown any inclination to do anything about it.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

[jules' pics] Let's Topiary

Levels Hall Topiary Garden

Working from home, one no longer has to sit in front of the computer waiting for the end of the day. The disadvantage is neglecting to play with photos, including neglecting to blog them. But the advantage is that instead one can go cycling, or swimming, or shopping, or do some gardening, or even watch other people doing gardening. When it is not raining in these parts, it is important to seize  the moments. Two days ago we visited the famous topiary gardens at Levens Hall on the way to doing a LaneQuest in the south Lake District. Must have done something right as we accidentally won (well, joint 1st) the teams category. This is worth remarking upon as we very rarely come 1st in anything.

Posted By Blogger to jules' pics at 6/09/2016 11:28:00 AM

Friday, June 03, 2016

EU referendum

This isn't a political blog and I don't intend to say much about the referendum. But I do think it would be far preferable to have a result which was decided by a large proportion of the electorate, rather than a small and unrepresentative rump of extremists. So I hope all eligible readers will make sure they are registered by the deadline of 7th June. And then go on to actually use their vote on the day itself. (If you don't know which way to vote, toss a coin to decide and then see if you are relieved/disappointed at which way it landed!)

Monday, May 23, 2016

"untrue" that excessive calories caused obesity

So according to the National Obesity Forum (as reported by the BBC), it is
There's usually a gram of truth underlying each new bit of dietary advice that pops up in the news every 5 minutes. But it's generally buried under a mountain of hyperbole. It now seems clear that the anti-fat advice that I grew up with was somewhat exaggerated. However, does the NOF really expect us to believe that this fine fellow:

built up his fine physique through a strenous regime of cold showers and beatings alone? Incidentally, he's not one of the really fat ones, but he won the one tournament that we went to.

Nothing about this on the NOF website, which seems a bit odd.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Open review vs open access.

Now that Boris Johnson has finally Godwinated the EU referendum debate I don't need to discuss that, and can talk about this instead. Though actually, it's about at the same intellectual level as Johnson's comments. Everyone agrees it's junk, the questions are why this stuff gets written, and how it gets published. I won't speculate here on the why (I already did here), just the how.

It has appeared in a new journal of unknown quality, the AGU (partnering with Wiley) seemingly jumping on the open access pay-to-publish bandwagon. It is worth noting, Bates has not previously published there, he didn't choose it out of familiarity or convenience, but had (apparently) been shopping around since at least 2014 with this idea trying to find a home. Pretty much everything gets published eventually, by the way. It just takes longer if it's either rubbish, or a revolutionary idea that is well ahead of its time.

It's a shame Bates didn't have the guts to try ACP or ESD, where his manuscript would have been shredded by reviewers in short order. It is all too easy for a lazy or overstretched editor at any journal to simply use the author's “suggested reviewers” without also looking for an independent view. At least in the case of the EGU open review process, an incompetent reviewing process is in principle discouraged by the fact that it's out in the open, and there is of course the opportunity for other interested parties to add their views. Score +1 for open review.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 Oh Vienna redux

It’s April, so it must be EGU time again! No Vienna marathon this time – the race was the same date as Manchester this year, a week too early for our trip – so we went purely for the science. Well, the science and the schnitzel. The plan was to go over on the Friday before the conference started, with the intention of enjoying a weekend of sightseeing and relaxing in the sun, but both jules and I contrived to come down with flu again after the Manchester outing, so instead we spent the weekend mostly lying in bed and coughing our lungs up, failing even to attend the Vienna Phil for which we had (cheap standing room) tickets on Sunday morning.


Monday morning started with jules’ paleo modelling-and-data session, including talks on the effects of changing ocean tides, the green Sahara problem, state dependence of climate sensitivity and other things. After a lunch meeting we were both pretty much wiped out for the day and sidled off home without staying for the evening posters. Tuesday had a session on some minor revisions to the the 19th/20th century record, and then climate prediction including my talk on model independence. As jules keeps telling me, it’s time that was written up. In the afternoon we went to one of these funny debate things (nominally about resource depletion), where a bunch of people said how awful everything was, and one token panellist played Devil’s Advocate and argued that we could technologise our way out of it all. He almost managed some decent points, but unfortunately was more of a journalist/writer than scientist so didn’t really have anything much to back up his rhetoric. As expected, he was ritually disembowelled both by the other participants and the questioners from the floor, so all went away happy that indeed we really are all going to die. Can’t help thinking it was a bit of a missed opportunity for a real debate though. A further session that afternoon on open access publishing was cancelled, so I didn’t hang around for the medal lecture later on that evening. Unfortunately this is also not one of the handful of streamed talks – I think the EGU could do better with this.

Wednesday was data assimilation day, as usual a mix of highly technical and irrelevant stuff, interspersed with a handful of interesting and useful details. Sadly the medal lecture this year was all about turbulence which isn’t really my thing, but overall the session was worthwhile. Finally managed to stay long enough for a beer in the posters, though there were not many relevant ones to look at. On Thursday I decided to expend my horizons with sessions on renewable energy (good idea, but some limitations) and tsunami,  which was interesting. Somehow missed the debate on open access publishing, which I have now played on the webstream, and it wasn’t really that exciting. Lots of standard comments (including the usual crop of irrelevancies) and fairly smug “but it works” replies. The Hansen paper got a lot of discussion, but whatever you think about how that was handled, one example out of thousands of papers does not amount to much really. I’m sure we can all point to stuff that shouldn’t have happened in any journal we care to mention (though of course in many cases it’s hidden away). There was another publishing party in the evening, it seems that they manage an excuse for a celebration just about every year!

By Friday people were starting to drift off home as always. However jules had been roped into talking about models in the geosciences, (this was also streamed) so I thought I ought to turn up and show support. Probably the most interesting talk for me was the last one by Charlotte Werndl, on “double-counting” data for both tuning and validation. It is rare to find a philosopher with enough of a mathematical background to be able to back up their rhetoric. By the afternoon I was pretty much wiped out, we did manage to attend the convenors’ party but didn’t stay long.

Overall, I didn’t find the EGU quite as exciting as usual, though can probably put that down to being ill for most of it, as I definitely picked up some useful bits and pieces. The days are really long when you are not feeling 100%, running from 8:30am potentially to 8pm then with dinner to follow. Needless to say, we didn’t do many full days this time. In fact we barely went out in the evenings and my first and only schnitzel was on the last Saturday night just before flying home.

2016-04-23 18.47.24

Next year, the Vienna Marathon is scheduled for the Sunday immediately prior to the EGU again. Watch this space…

Monday, April 11, 2016


Another spring, another marathon. Manchester this time. My entry of which was really borne out of my plan to do the 3 Peaks fell race this year. With all the training that's necessary to get round that in reasonable shape, it seemed a good idea to slip a road marathon in for no extra effort, which I could count as training/race practice. Also, this would give me two bites of the cherry in case the 3P went pear-shaped for any reason. When the date for Manchester - flattest and best marathon in the UK, no less - was announced as 3 weeks before the 3P, a plot was hatched...

Winter training went well, consisting of my usual Jack Daniels marathon stuff with an added helping of fell running. Jules and I did 3 of the Kendal Winter League events, and I did some of my long training runs on the peaks themselves - partly to learn the course (I'd not even been up either Whernside or Pen-y-Ghent before) and partly to get a bit of practice at running up (and down!) steep hills on tired legs. Well, walking up and running down. But I didn't really have much idea how this off-roading would translate into pace on a flat marathon. The Haweswater half marathon in early March was too hilly to be a great guide and that very day I came down with what I thought at first was a cold but what with hindsight I think was a persistent though fortunately mild flu-like illness. Took a full 3 weeks to get properly back up to speed (ie Easter weekend, a mere fortnight before the race) and I was really unsure what to aim for until I got wind of some people on a running forum aiming to run 2:55. So I decided the best option was tag along with them, at least to start with.

Booked a hotel in Salford Quays for the night before, and arrived early enough to have a wander round the Lowry, which was worth a visit. Jules had more recently come down with flu and was still recovering but came along anyway as supporter/tourist and, as it turned out, sag wagon. Dinner was booked in a local restaurant - a good move as when we turned up, there was a big queue of hungry runners (you can tell by the shoes) waiting for tables. I think I've got the answer to pre-race feeding sorted now - similarly to Chesterfield, I worked my way through a platter of BBQ ribs, with half a chicken on top this time, all washed down with a couple of pints of Boddies. Who needs pasta when you've got this much meat?

The last supper

As a result of this (and a quick bowl of cereal in the morning) I hardly felt like eating all the way round the race, though I did make myself force down a few of the gels that were provided, plus two whole pieces of home-made Kendal mint cake, just in case I needed them.

The hotel was undergoing substantial renovation but would have been fine, were it not for the person who came back to the room next door and started up a party at about midnight. To be fair, he wasn't actually very noisy, the problem was that our rooms had a (locked) connecting door that wasn't adequately soundproofed. After a while I asked him to quieten down and he was very apologetic, but I could still hear him/them until about 3am or so. Not the best pre-race night I've ever had.

The morning dawned sunny and chilly, just what we'd hoped for. The plan was to wander straight down to the start area just in time for the race, with jules later taking my bag to the baggage drop where I could pick it up at the end. However we were a bit early and decided to do the bag drop together first. It got more and more crowded the closer we got, until I panicked, left the bag (fortunately only a medium sized rucksac) with jules and jogged back to the start as a warm-up. She then had a closer look at the queues and gave up on them, and ended up carrying my bag along with hers all morning. Just as well, as apparently the bag collection was even more chaotic than the drop, with people having to queue for literally hours to retrieve their clothes (and in many cases wallet/phone etc). A warning for next time. The obvious alternative is to carry all valuables, only bring old/cheap/worthless clothing and be prepared to just stash that somewhere around the "race village" aka stadium. Which we've done often enough at other events. We could have left some stuff at the hotel too, it was only a mile away.

Found my internet running mate Dave along with a few others at the start, had a quick chat to confirm plans and pushed our way in front of the 3h pacer who was surrounded by a huge rolling road-block of runners. The race itself went really well, though the course was certainly a bit suburban and boring compared to the sights of Vienna. We were just a bit up on pace through the first half, which was feeling really comfortable for me.

The easy bit, about 5 miles in.

Too easy, really - if I'd been by myself I would probably have pushed a little harder. Pulse was in the low 140s to half way (which we hit just a few secs under 2:55 pace), at which point I decided to press on a little and left Dave behind. I was building up a bit of a cushion of time, cruising past loads of people and at one point thought that 2:53 might be on the cards. However, the last stretch was mostly into wind and this, together with my by now rather sore legs and foot, soon put paid to that that idea and I settled for my original target. The last straight is interminable and the finishing arch was visible for about a mile, seemingly not getting any closer for minutes on end, so it was a relief when the clock eventually came into focus and I realised that I really was going to get that sub-2:55 time. According to the official results, I was 307th at half way and 182nd at the finish. Or 16th male of a certain age, if you prefer.

Even with being relatively early home, the finish area was quite crowded with spectators, and I was lucky that jules managed to do a great job first of spotting me (earlier than she'd expected me to arrive, optimist that she is) and then meeting me just past the finish line with my clothes etc. There followed a slightly tedious and tiring afternoon waiting for trains which are a bit sparse to Settle, particularly on a Sunday, and we only finally got home arond 7pm. Perhaps that's a reason to splash out on a second hotel night, but it might seem a bit of a waste when we, or certainly I, would be too tired to enjoy Manchester properly and still have to take half of Monday getting home.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Climate sensitivity is 5.3C?

Too late for an April Fool, my eye was caught by this headline in the Guardian:
 With the article itself containing the odd phrasing:
Researchers said that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s
atmosphere compared with pre-industrial times could result in a global
temperature increase of up to 5.3C – far warmer than the 4.6C older
models predict.
4.6C seems a strangely high value to start with, it's some way from any consensus value (and it's not even the upper end of the oft-quoted undcertainty range of 2-4.5C).

Sadly, the paper is paywalled, so I can only see the abstract. But it seems that the authors are arguing that models have a bias in the way they represent clouds (too icy, not wet enough), and correcting this bias will shift their sensitivities up a bit. 4.6C is the most sensitive model in the AR4 and it seems to get shifted up a smidgin to 5.0-5.3C (there is presumably some uncertainty in the adjustment to each model). The paper also says the sensitivities shift by "up to 1.3C" which must therefore be the largest potential shift of any of the models, and probably some way above the mean estimated change. It doesn't look like such a revolutionary change as to justify the headline, even if one accepts that the result is right.

Of course, if the models were more sensitive, it would (other things being equal) result in greater warming not only in the future, but also in the past. Which would make it more challenging to reconcile with what we've observed. Kevin Trenberth (who has presuably seen the whole paper) doesn't seem that impressed. Maybe I'll manage to find a copy somehow...

Update: seems like several others have weighed in similarly (Gavin, ATTP). The Yale puff piece is particularly misleading, constrasting the old 2-4.6 model range with a new range of 5-5.3 which is surely nonsensical. Even without reading the paper, it's obvious enough that 5-5.3 does not represent a new range that would contain all the models, since they only move by "up to 1.3C". I'm fairly confident that my interpretation above must be correct.

I don't want it to sound like I'm determined to reject any attempts to change our estimate of sensitivity. But any substantial changes will have to be supported by significant evidence to overturn the weight already accumulated. In this case, what I'm really objecting to is the hyped-up presentation of what is actually a pretty small change anyway.

Saturday, April 02, 2016


Lovely GingerNuts only lasted 3 weeks before a GingerLady came and took him away to his new life hunting GingerRabbits around the legs of the GingerHorses on a farm deep in the Lune Valley.  All is well, but when we got the cats back from the rescue after Easter we found that GingerNuts' ghost had somehow stowed away with Spice and Pepper:

Being much lighter than GingerNuts, GingerGhost floats around the furniture, and has a tendency to waft to the top of the house. He's friendly, nimble and elegant, and Spice and Pepper are a lot less bothered by him than they were by his predecessor.  Can't say more yet as I haven't played with him much due to being down with 'flu for the last few days. 

He was originally called GingerTip at the rescue, but maybe that was a made up name. They changed his name to Benson, because he, apparently, likes the bed. We don't let the cats in our bedroom. Hope this won't be a problem; he seems to have taken well to the upstairs sofa instead. But, does this mean I have to rename him 横浜ワールドポーター (Yokohama World Porters), which is where we bought that sofa?