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.