Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Why we need designer safety gear

As a nation, we Irish seem to be wedded to our cars.

No, this golfer isn't lost in the rough -- just commuting naturally between his home in Salthill and the local golf course. A lovely image by Galway-based photographer John Smyth that kind of says it all really.

Yes, we are a very driven nation. That's despite the fact that, for journeys of about 5 miles (and over 50% of car journeys are less than that), a bicycle is cheaper, quicker and more efficient, plus you get fresh air and exercise.

(And no, it doesn't rain that often, even in Galway.)

So, how to persuade people to get out of the car and occasionally push a bicycle was one of the topics we discussed in Galway at the recent very successful science cafe, co-hosted by the Environmental Change Institute at NUIG, and Galway's One World Centre.

The wide ranging discussion was fascinating, in part because so many of the people there had worked in or were from so many different countries, and could offer insights from other cultures, as far afield as Scandinavia, Canada and Eritrea.

It seemed generally agreed that we weren't just too posh to push, it was more than just snobbery: we were also too lazy and too affluent (at least until recently) to bother getting out of the car.

Coincidentally, earlier that day, some Manchester City multimillionaire footballer hit the news... when he was seen getting on a public transport bus.

One major issue is image. The problem (new to me!) of 'helmet hair', especially for young women, and untrendy, unattractive safety gear. Young people, it seems, don't want to be seen wearing bicycle helmets and ugly high-visibility jackets.

And it's not just young people: a Canadian lawyer explained that the dress code for legal professionals can rule out arriving in bicycle gear.

So here's a suggestion: commission a trendy fashion designer to design attractive safety gear for cyclists.

When we cyclists are knocked down and mugged for our hi-visibility jackets, we'll know we have arrived! And it'll be nice when a multimillionaire can get on the bus, and not make the headlines.

We also discussed recycling, and I was intrigued to hear about some innovative recycling-reuse schemes in Gort (Co Galway), Mayo and Dundalk, that produce raw materials for local industries, about which I plan to learn more.

My thanks to Sarah Knight and Trisha Buddin for organising the event and inviting me down.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Google predicts the ‘flu

The enterprise seminars threw up several unusual and counterintuitive uses for technology, as well as 11890’s fascinating decision not to use technology — instead of automating the directory service, they use people to help you find your number (more about that later).

Then I got back to the office to a Nature press release, that reminded me of another new and unusual use for a technology: using Google search queries to monitor ‘flu infections.

Google Flu Trends’ application, launched last week (and funded by Google’s philanthropic arm), tracks people’s searches of topics such as flu symptoms, to provide real-time surveillance of infections. Significantly, it can provide up-to-date information within a day — compared with one or even two weeks for current surveillance systems — useful for early warnings, and presumably could be expanded to other contagious diseases. Currently monitoring peoples health only in the US of A.

An interesting way of exploiting the fact that so many people now turn to the Web for health information.

Nature has put the relevant scientific article on public access, and you can read it here.

Meanwhile, even the latest rocket science couldn’t help a NASA astronaut with a greasey glove . . . and she lost her tool bag in space. Image, above, courtesy of NASA TV.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Britney Spears and the LHC

Remember when physicists included references to Britney Spears as a way of drawing readers to their websites? Well, how times have changed!

These days, general websites trap readers by including references to the world's biggest scientific experiment, CERN's LHC.

John Ellis, whose many businesses include suppliers.ie, told me at today's Enterprise Week seminar, that they added the LHC to their site's "News you can use" last month, figuring it would bring some readers.

Media pundits who analysed coverage of the LHC launch recently, reckoned CERN benefited considerably from the potentially negative story about concerns that the new experiment could create a black hole and swallow the planet. Who says there's no such thing as bad publicity? And we hear that the number of applicants for vacancies at CERN has gone through the roof.

There's a chance to learn more about the LHC when the incoming director gives a public talk in the RDS next Monday, November 24 at 7pm. All welcome, admission free, but booking advised.

Enterprise and sustainability

Got to a really useful session on technology and business this morning as part of Dublin city enterprise week. Useful both for the thought-provoking presentations, and the chance to meet with a wonderfully varied audience, all of whom were keen to do business, and share experiences and business cards.

Damien Mulley’s talk about blogging and social networks convinced me to give Facebook and LinkedIn a try, though I had previously decided they weren’t from me. Mind you, what helped clinch it was when the older businessman and serial entrepreneur next to me admitted that he was a Facebook fan.

Nicola Byrne told the fascinating story behind her ‘11890 — numbers direct business’ that will have convinced everyone in the audience to use her directory enquiries service, and not just because its cheapest.

Alasdar Browne gave and invaluable one-hour seminar on time management, efficiency and efficacy, which I am now putting into practice.

So, full marks to Dublin City Council. One suggestion for future events, and one comment: replace all that bottled water you were handing out with jugs of your own excellent Dublin Corporation sustainable tapwater. And I don’t know when I last saw so many free pens given away — to people who probably have loads of pens already.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Why I'd turn off the lights

Went to a talk about Dublin city energy last night, given by sustainability engineer Joe Hayden of Codema as part of the city library science week programme.

I'd heard about Codema before (City of Dublin Energy Management Agency), but hadn't realised the company was set up by Dublin City Council, and that there were some 15 other similar companies, set up by local authorities around the country.

Joe Hayden gave an interesting presentation about Ireland's energy use and our dependence on imported fossil fuels: 90% of our electricity, for instance, is generated from imported oil, gas and coal. As a result, Joe argued that 'peak oil' has major implications for Ireland, and arguably of more immediate importance than climate change. Especially as Ireland is the last customer at the end of a very long oil and gas pipeline, making our supplies increasingly vulnerable.

Dublin city spends (if took Joe's figure down right), €20,000,000 a year on energy alone. But an estimated 20% of all our energy use in Ireland is 'wasted'. That's a lot of money, and it doesn't include the money and fuel 'wasted' or lost, because of the inefficiencies involved in converting oil and gas to electricity, and the inevitable losses that happen when electricity is piped down the National Grid.

So, it was reassuring to see the ILAC library staff turning off all the PCs and lights as we left. Even if, 200 metres away on O'Connell Street, Dublin's new Christmas lights tree was left burning night.

It's made of very low energy LEDs -- cheaper and even more energy-efficient than the compact fluorescent lights being championed by the Minister for the environment. But that's another story.

Image: from http://www.dublinblog.ie/

Monday, 17 November 2008

The perfect Christmas present?

I have a couple of suggestions (below) that might help you to buy the perfect Christmas presents. . . suggestions prompted by thoughts about what we spend our money on each Christmas. Especially, as your local Chamber of Commerce wants you to get out and 'shop for Ireland' this Christmas and help rescue the economy.

(Lord save us, they've even turned the lights on a whole month early . . . low-energy lights, but still, hardly the right message, and this from a Green coalition.)

Irish households already spend rather a lot of money at this time of year -- regularly topping the list of big spenders. According to the latest Deloitte survey, even with the current recession and cutbacks, we still expect to spend more than our European neighbours: nearly €1400 all told, and half of that will go on presents.

Except that, up to one-third of those presents are not appreciated. That amounts to about €250 million in wasted money. Not to mention all the time wasted in crowded shops trying to decide what to buy. Simpler and cheaper, you might think, just to take some rubbish and wrap it, with a gift tag saying: Bin this!

So, instead, here are a couple of simple gift ideas that might help you to choose the perfect present.

The first tip, though it may sound obvious, is to buy something the person wants. And if you don’t know or you're too shy to ask, then simply take a lesson from the three Wise Men, and give them gold (in other words: money, or a gift voucher). They will make sure to buy the present they want.

The second tip, is to give something 'insubstantial' -- an 'experience' rather than a 'thing'. Could be a golf lesson, tickets for a gig, a night at the theatre, or a voucher for a massage. Let's face it, most of us already have enough stuff, but we all like a night out from time to time, or a special treat.

Give insubstantial gifts like these, and you're essentially buying people (or at least, some of their time), rather than things.

You don't waste time or money or packaging or wrapping, it's more sustainable and, perhaps most importantly at the moment, you'll be directly supporting Irish jobs. What's not to like.

Image: this year's Beauty and the Beast pantomime at Galway Town Hall Theatre.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Where are the Irish science bloggers?

Irish scientists seem to be a particularly shy species.

Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, who will blog at the drop of a hat, scientists in Ireland are keeping a low profile. Perhaps they are just too busy doing research and writing reports? Or perhaps they are blogging anonymously??

I've started a list of science bloggers over at my Science@Culture bulletin, but have found very few Irish ones. Those I have tripped over include a teacher, TV producer, UCD's science librarians (!) and, intriguingly, someone from within the walls of Science Foundation Ireland. But no researchers as of yet.

If you know of any, do pass on the details. I'm keen to make this a comprehensive list of Irish science blogs.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Green me

Here's a new website, online community, directory and eco-project that has been winning awards and grants from State agencies, and is well worth a look.

GreenMe, based in Co Leitrim, provides "straight-talking, uncomplicated and convenient tips on how to green your lifestyle" and will help you achieve a more sustainable way of living, with "no guilt trips or sacrifices" -- something that chimes well with the approach I've taken in the new book.

The site includes a comprehensive online directory with 8,000 business listings across 17 sectors, from DIY to eco fashion, plus news, gossip, weekly tips and the all important blog.

Which is where yours truly comes in: delighted to report that I've joined the team of guest contributors, alongside renewable energy expert Robert Kyriakides, architectural engineer Les O’Donnell, sustainable designer Nicola Jones, and food writer Ollie Moore.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Are we too posh to push?

George Lee, RTE's economic editor, is an excellent economic analyst. So I was surprised to discover that he doesn't seem to know the value of money.

How else to explain the fact that he spent €6,000 on a high-tech gizmo to do his walking for him?

George, as revealed on Ryan Tubridy's radio show, has bought a Segway, and is using it to commute. (Using it illegally on bicycle lanes, what's more -- Segway Ireland recommends sticking to private property, until the legislation changes.)

Yet, for a fraction of the cost, George could have another sophisticated two-wheeled commuting vehicle, and one that would be legal too. But, when I debated this with George (listen to the podcast here), and suggested he use a bicycle, and could save over €5,000, and what's more would not need to charge it overnight, his answer was... his other car is a Merc.

George, it seems, is too posh to push. And he is not alone. Irish streets are clogged with like-minded motorists.

Yet, visit any European city -- Amsterdam being the extreme -- and you will see lots of posh business people (and no doubt lots of economists) who are happy to use a bicycle for short journeys.

So what is it about the Irish? Why are we so wedded to cars and status symbols? And how can we persuade more people to ditch the Merc and discover the joys, and savings, of a bicycle?

That's just one of the topics I'll be exploring in a special science cafe in Galway later this month. Hope to see you there.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

What to do with recycled materials?

There must be something we can do with all the recycled materials now piling up in the country?

A dramatic drop in the prices paid on international markets means that Irish waste companies have rather a lot of material which they are currently storing, presumably with more arriving every day.

(Image: enviro-solutions.com)

The cost of storing all this waste presumably means that companies will need an even better price if they are to recover their costs. Hence the suggestion that waste collection charges would have to go up.

But surely, since these are useful materials, there is something creative we can do with them? Some new businesses that could be started?

Suggestions on a postcard please to the Environment Minister's new action group, which has been given until mid-November to come up with some options.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Who do you buy your electricity from?

Veteran environment journalist Fred Pearce has started a new Green Wash column at The Guardian.

His opening salvo examines the question of green electricity supply, and green energy tariffs -- the scheme that lets British energy customers pay a premium for green energy. But, as Pearce reveals, there is no guarantee that the extra money is used to generate green energy, or to pay for the installation of additional renewable generators (e.g. wind turbines).

What's more, some companies can apparently sell their "green energy" several times (ie sell more than they generate).

In Ireland, we can choose from two electricity suppliers: ESB and airtricity . The latter owns several wind farms and, as a result, claims its electricity is 79% renewable. But, given that all of Ireland's electricity is distributed down the same national grid, how can airtricity customers know that their supply is indeed 79% renewable?

Does switching to airtricity really help to drive the move to renewables in Ireland, or just make us feel good?

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Einstein's fridge and the Aga cooker

I hadn't known that Einstein had invented a novel type of fridge in 1930, together with Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. I was even more intrigued to read that engineers at Oxford are reviving their elegant design, because it has no moving parts and is ideal to run on solar power.

The physics fridge uses ammonia, butane and water, rather than freons, and exploits the fact that liquids boil at lower temperatures when the air pressure around them is lower.

The green Oxford physics fridge would be low maintenance and ideal for rural locations, but it's still at the prototype stage.

The news reminded me of another kitchen appliance invented by yet another Nobel physicist: the Aga cooker was the brainchild of Swedish physicist and inventor Gustaf Dalén in the early 1900s.

He set out to make an energy-efficient, multi-purpose cooker that could be used for baking, boiling, grilling and warming, and that would need little watching or attention. Aga, by the way, stands for Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator

Monday, 22 September 2008

What's green, and earning money?

Expect to hear more about the Danish island of Samsø which, thanks to a massive community effort over the past decade, is now self-sufficient in renewable energy.

The 4,000 inhabitants spent €54 million (raised in local taxes and investment), to install nearly a dozen wind turbines on land, and the same again offshore, plus banks of solar panels, and some biomass generators.

The scheme has been so successful it is selling electricity to the mainland and generating an income for the locals -- albeit about €68 per household a year.

Shows what can be done. Looks pretty idyllic too -- we predict a boom in ecotourism there.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Irish firm makes CleanTech top 100

An interesting list of the 'companies of the future' has just been published by the Guardian and Library House. It spotlights 100 private firms around the world working to develop new clean, renewable and sustainable technologies.

Interesting to see Irish firm OpenHydro tipped among the 100 hottest to watch.

The Dublin company, one of only a few picked out in the marine power section, was selected for its innovative turbine design. This is already generating power off the Scottish Orkney Islands, and the four-year-old company plans to be the first in Britain or Ireland to produce tidal power for the National Grid.

The full 100 listing makes for interesting reading -- as might be expected, rather a lot of German companies listed, but also quite a lot of British firms (surely not a national bias there?!)

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Do you count your carbon?

If you knew a product's carbon footprint, would it influence what you buy? Could carbon-labelling help reduce a country's greenhouse gas emissions?

Tesco and other British high street multiples are introducing carbon labelling on selected products, and the Japanese government recently announced something similar.

But, I'm not convinced that this carbon labelling will work.

First, counting carbon (and the other greenhouse gases) isn't easy: accurate calculations are difficult to come by, and specific to each context (change what you feed the chickens on a particular farm, and the carbon count for the supermarket chicken korma dinner changes dramatically). Then, there is the problem of what to include -- only carbon? Other greenhouse gases? And how do we take account of the 'virtual water' contained in products?

Food product labels are already littered with data (calories, 'nutritional' information, and 'may contain nuts' allergy warnings . . .) and at a time when shoppers are probably most interested in what something costs.

Printing calorie information on food products hasn't exactly stemmed the rise in obesity. And if we can't as a nation manage a lo-cal diet, what chance for a lo-CO2 one? Meanwhile, Tesco has just announced a big drive to introduce yet more cheap ranges of low-cost products. Guess we can say goodbye to the organic aisle.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Hotel towels and 'green wash'

Hotels worldwide have cottoned onto the benefits of not changing guest towels every day. Usually, there is a sign inviting us to join them in doing our bit to help the environment.

But are they really helping the environment? Or hoping to save money on their laundry bills?

I've been pondering this since reading about how hotels can make their 'towel reuse signs' more effective by wording them carefully. You can read about the study in the enjoyable and generally thought-provoking book Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion.

Sure, less laundry is 'a good thing' -- it translates into less water wasted, less energy and detergents used, and less linen trucked around the place. But let's have a little honesty here.

I have yet to see a hotel announce that, thanks to guests reusing their towels, the company saved €xxx on its laundry bill last year, which it donated to a named environmental charity*, and with your help they'll save, or 'raise', even more this year.

Now, that's a wording that would really convince me not just to reuse my towels -- but even bring my own.

*With the receipt displayed proudly in the hotel lobby

Monday, 1 September 2008

Motoring tips from Ryanair?

It's not often we agree with Ryanair's environmental strategies. And no, we don't know about the safety implications of asking pilots to carry at most 300 kg of extra fuel (nothing about it on Ryanair's news page, so here's an Irish Times report).

But carrying extra fuel adds to the weight of any vehicle, so it makes fuel-efficiency and environmental sense to carry as little as possible. Which is why motorists should take Ryanair's recommendation on board.

Driving with a tank full of petrol means you get fewer kilometres per litre when your tank is full, it costs you money, and your car produces more pollution for every mile that you drive.

If the price of petrol dropped after, say, the first 25 litres, then it might make sense to bulk buy. But it doesn't. Instead, your fuel efficiency drops. Put another way: bulk buying is costing you money. Better to half-fill the tank instead.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The latest in environmental tourism?

It would take the French.

A tethered gas balloon in Paris's 15th arrondissement has been taking tourists up for aerial views of the city since 1999. Now, it has been coupled to an air quality monitoring and display system, to give real time information on air quality in the city and at major traffic junctions.

Sensors will monitor levels of nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter. And, if we understand this correctly, 'Ballon Air de Paris' will change colour depending on air quality: red for highly polluted air, through to yellow for 'mediocre', and green for very clean.

Perfect, you'd have thought, for keeping an eye on air quality in Beijing in the run up to the Olympics? No, you're right. It would never take off!

Friday, 11 July 2008

How many people are there in the world?

6,681,394,380 . . . and counting . . . rather fast.

Today, July 11, is World Population Day, inaugurated in 1988 by the United Nations to mark the day when the world's population hit five billion, July 11, 1987.

The counter is at www.worldometers.info, where we learn that the absolute growth in population today (at the time of writing) is 135,468. Watching all the numbers spin around can be mesmerising. And worrying.

Some of the counters clock up slowly -- the number of women who died in childbirth, for instance, although that depressing total is already over 330,000. Reassuring, on the other hand, if we can believe the statistics, that world expenditure on education is nearly twice military expenditure.

Other eye-catching comparisons: as a committed city cyclist, it's nice to see that twice as many bicycles have been produced as cars this year, although I'm intrigued to see that there are three times as many computers as bicycles.

And can there really be nearly half a million new book titles so far this year? (Enough to humble any author who will soon be adding to the pile!)

Monday, 30 June 2008

What to call the new book?

Since I'm hoping you might buy the book when it comes out in the autumn (!), I'd value your comments on possible titles (see shortlist below).

Whatever about judging a book by its cover, a good title certainly helps. In the four years or so since I had the idea for a book of tips on sustainable living -- subtitle: '101 ways to save money, time and some of the planet's other scarce resources' -- it's gone through several working titles. The current shortlist includes:

Drive like a woman, shop like a man
Swedish researchers found recently that women travel and drive less than men, and men buy fewer things than women. Currently my personal favourite working title -- but don't let that influence your comment!

Borrow this book
Can't see the publisher and booksellers liking this one!

Live like granny
May be a bit too 'sandals and lentils', and harking back to the bad old days?

Do things by halves

Live life unplugged
But already commonly used e.g. for blogs

Lights on, and nobody home?
Too widely used to mean somebody is not all there?

Still, sparkling . . . or sustainable?
Not sure that a question works in the title

Shop naked
Hmm. What people would find if they Googled for Mary Mulvihill + naked?!

But what do you think -- do any of these catch your book-buying eye? Make you want to read more?? Comments (just click below) welcome.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

What price cheaper food?

What would you do to bring down the cost of food?

Rising food prices are a worry for many, but for impoverished people living close to the edge, more expensive food could mean starvation.

Writing in New Scientist, Deborah MacKenzie argues that one of the main factors driving recent price hikes is the growing demand for meat among increasingly prosperous people in developing countries. (Other factors include demand for biofuels and the fact that food production has not kept pace with population growth.)

The options? New Scientist argues that the answer is government-funded science to increase yields, and infrastructure to get the resulting technologies to farmers, even though that can take 15-20 years to happen.

Now don't get me wrong -- I'm a meat-eating, former agricultural research scientist . . . but surely it would be much quicker, cheaper and simpler if people were encouraged to eat less meat? I, for one, am happy to start today. What about you?

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Misleading energy ratings

Buy A-rated electrical appliances, we are told, because they are more energy-efficient.

Not so, says Brendan Boardman of the UK’s Environmental Change Institute, writing in the latest edition of Chemistry & Industry magazine. It seems that it is easier for larger devices to achieve an A-rating, even though they consume more electricity on average than smaller ones. The problem arises because energy levels are calculated on relative values (kWh/litre).

The net result is that manufacturers make ever bigger appliances, and consumers are encouraged to buy them.

Moral of the story? Remember that every appliance has two price tags: the purchase price, and the price you will pay for all the energy it will consume during its lifetime. And an A-rated appliance is not necessarily the best buy, financially or environmentally. Caveat emptor.

Monday, 23 June 2008

'Smart' solution to Dublin traffic?

Hm. Call me sceptical, but . . . A report by Harry McGee in today's Irish Times, reveals that the Department of Energy is working on a hi-tech 'smart' system to cut commuting times and make journey times more reliable, and to enable more people to work from home, the ultimate aim being to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

All well and good, but the 'workflow' system, unveiled by Minister Eamon Ryan at a meeting in Korea last week, will incorporate broadband, GPS and sensors, and hot links between workstations at home and in the office, among other things.

Can't help thinking this is taking a very heavy technology hammer to crack a small transport nut. If the minister really wants to make commuting more reliable and cut journey times and emissions, then a simpler, cheaper and quicker option is to enforce moderate speed limits.

In a trial on England’s M42 motorway in 2007, journey times improved by over 25% when
the rush hour speed limit was cut to 50 mph and the hard shoulder was opened to traffic. Calmer speeds meant fewer accidents, hold-ups and diversions, shorter more reliable journey times and much lower emissions.

At the very least, it must be worth trialling two proposals already long talked about for Dublin: a 30 kph limit in the Dublin city zone, and opening bus lanes to cars carrying at least two people?

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Electricity use and prices soars

Bad news but also some good news in yesterday's report from Sustainable Energy Ireland on our soaring electricity use, and the ESB's application for a 30% increase in the price of electricity.

First the bad news. There are nearly 1.5 million households in Ireland now (up 43% since 1990); our homes are larger on average than elsewhere in the EU, and thanks to the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, packed with power-hungry appliances such as American fridges and large-screen plasma TVs, and constellations of recessed lights. We are also heating our homes more than before -- a toasty 6° warmer than in 1970, if UK trends also hold here.

The net result is that Irish people are now using 62% more electricity per person than in 1990; which is a staggering 27% more than our British counterparts, and over 30% more than the EU average. We are a small country, but clearly punching way above our weight when it comes to consumption and emissions.

The good news? Well, if British households can survive on significantly less electricity, then there may be hope for us. And while no one likes to see electricity bills rise by 30% -- especially with 10% of households already experiencing 'fuel poverty' -- a price hike might prompt us all to economise. More effective at reducing consumption than the government's promised ban on incandescent lightbulbs. Maybe we could start by turning the thermostat down 6° -- back to 1970?!