Monday, November 21, 2022

Escape From Model Land - Erica Thompson

 Escape From Model Land, by Dr Erica Thompson, is published on 24th November 2022.

Erica Thompson is a mathematician but this is a non-technical book with very few numbers and certainly no equations. Have no fear, it's easy to read, and at about 230 pages is not overlong, with every word and every sentence counting, no padding. Take it slowly, many of the sentences are worth reading twice. And there are jokes.

It's hard to categorize this book, what with it being the first of its kind, but put it on the shelf next to Nick Taleb's The Black Swan, because it deals with a subject of profound importance to everyone, but which has not been given anything like the attention it deserves, leaving us all exposed to misunderstandings and risks.

Mathematical models have become all pervasive, their outputs used by decision makers in all walks of life, affecting us all. Yet for the most part these decision makers do not have a good understanding of how models are constructed, how they operate, their limitations and how fit they are for the purpose assumed of them. Models can be invaluable, but inappropriately used can be dangerous. We need to know.

Erica Thompson explores how models have been used in three broad areas of public life, the financial services industries, health care, with particular reference to the covid pandemic, and climate science. She is at pains to point out the invaluable contribution that mathematical modelling has made in these and other fields, but the purpose of her book is to warn of their limitations and the dangers involved when decision makers use models with insufficient understanding. Her deep insights expose things which have been hidden in Model Land and she provides the tools and checklists needed to navigate the real world more safely. 

This is a book that should be read by all those involved in making decisions that are influenced by models, whether in business, science, or governance. And those of us not so directly involved, but subject to the decision-makers' decisions, would do well to read it too. That includes all of us.


Here's what other others have said:

A wise, lucid and compelling guide to how mathematical modelling shapes our world. Dr Thompson teaches us how to go from being unthinking consumers of models to sophisticated users, combining a rich variety of vivid examples and case studies with deep conceptual expertise, presented in a lively and accessible way
Stian Westlake, CEO, Royal Statistical Society

Carefully researched and beautifully written, Dr Thompson's Escape from Model Land reveals how our progressively complex world is dominated by well-meaning experts' use and misuse of increasingly impenetrable models . . . For an open-minded reader keen to expose, understand and potentially reconstruct their own worldview, Escape from Model Land is, at the same time, an uncomfortable and uplifting read. It shines a gentle light on many of our own norms and beliefs
Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change in the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, University of Manchester.

A brilliant account of how models are so often abused and of how they should be used.
How do mathematical models shape our world - and how can we harness their power for good?Models are at the centre of everything we do.
Whether we use them or are simply affected by them, they act as metaphors that help us better understand the increasingly complex problems facing us in the modern world.
Without models, we couldn't begin to tackle three of the major challenges facing modern society: regulation of the economy, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet in recent years, the validity of the models we use has been hotly debated and there has been renewed awareness of the disastrous consequences when the makers and interpreters of models get things wrong. Drawing on contemporary examples from finance, climate and health policy, Erica Thompson explores what models are, why we need them, how they work and what happens when they go wrong.
This is not a book that argues we should do away with models, but rather, that we need to properly understand how they are constructed - and how some of the assumptions that underlie the models we use can have significant unintended consequences.
Unexpectedly humorous, thought-provoking and passionate, this is essential reading for everyone.
John Kay

An eye-opening account of the limits and uses of mathematical models . . . Thompson offers a host of lessons, among them that every model depends upon value judgments to determine what's included in them, that models should be understood as "not an objective mathematical reality, but a social idea," and that models contain the biases of those who make them, so increased diversity among modelers is essential for "greater insight, improved decision-making capacities and better outcomes" . . . The result is a thoughtful, convincing look at how data works
Publisher's Weekly

Escape from Model Land demystifies the process of making the mathematical models that are increasingly used to make decisions about our lives, from the financial markets to the pandemic to climate change. A thought-provoking and helpful guide for data scientists and decision makers alike
Stephanie Hare, author of 'Technology Is Not Neutral'

The best place to buy the book is probably from Hive Books, who currently have it listed at £16.59 including postage. Just saying.


Here are a couple of pictures of Erica caught at work, at the London Mathematical Laboratory.

Some copies have already found their way to the London Maths Lab library.

If you are in North America I'm afraid you will find the cover is not quite as pretty. What does that say about the publisher's view of the difference between American and European audiences? 

Monday, March 28, 2022

Let's Talk About Sex

Biology is complicated. Kindness and respect don’t have to be. - Rebecca Helm.

Many people talk about sex and gender and most of them have very firm opinions despite having little understanding of biology. Many regard the issue as quite simple, as simple as the ‘obvious fact’ that there are two sexes and everybody is one or the other. Neat and tidy boxes make a simple life.

The biology most people encountered at school taught them that sex depends on a pair of chromosomes; if you have two X chromosomes (XX) you are female and if you have both an X and Y chromosome (XY) you are male. Easy.

It’s only in the advanced level biology class that we learn that there is one gene on the Y chromosome that matters to sex, the SRY gene. During embryonic development the SRY protein turns on male associated genes so having the SRY gene makes you genetically male. Sometimes, however, the SRY gene is not on the Y and sometimes it appears on an X chromosome.

If you have a Y chromosome but without the SRY gene then physically you will be female, genetically you are female, while chromosomally you’re male (XY). But if the SRY gene appears on an X chromosome you will be physically male and genetically male yet chromosomally female (XX).

Now sex-related genes turn on production of hormones is specific areas of the body, and reception of those hormones by cells in other parts of the body. ‘Hormonal male’ means you produce a ‘normal’ level of male-associated hormones, and, similarly, ‘hormonal female’ means you produce ‘normal levels of female associated hormones. We are, however, into the situation of two overlapping bell-curves or normal distributions. A small proportion of females will have a higher level of ‘male’ hormones than a small proportion of males. And vice versa.

Summing the possibilities, as you are developing your body may not produce enough hormones for your genetic sex, leading you to be genetically male or female, chromosomally male or female, hormonally non-binary and physically non-binary. Actually, that’s still too simple. Cells have receptors to receive the signals from sex hormones, but they don’t always work. It all leads to a body that can be anywhere from male, through non-binary, to female.

Can we point to what the absolute cause of biological sex is? Can we safely label people? Is it fair to judge people by it?

We could appeal to the numbers, after all surely, it’s safe to say that most people are either male or female? As Rebecca Helm[i] put it:

Biological sex is complicated. Before you discriminate against someone on the basis of biological sex and identity, ask yourself? Have you seen YOUR chromosomes? Do you know the genes of the people you love? The hormones of the people you work with? The state of their cells? Since the answer will obviously by no, please be kind, respect people’s right to tell you who they are, and remember that you don’t have all the answer. Again: biology is complicated. Kindness and respect don’t have to be.

This has been a very brief and introductory comment, far from exhaustive as to the complexity of biology. There is much more.  And we haven’t begun to think about how our brain interacts with all this stuff – but that’s for another day, although it’s the most important part.

[i] Helm, Rebecca, from a thread on Twitter @RebeccaRHelm 12/19/2019

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Ukraine 05

Who owns our gas?

A few fields away from my house on the Lincolnshire Marsh is a small gas field that has been in production, albeit intermittently, for a couple of decades. It stopped producing when the Theddlethorpe Gas Terminal closed but work is currently proceeding to reconnect the field directly to the National Grid pipeline and then restart production.

And what do you know? Saltfleetby has its own oligarch in the shape of Patrick Meade, 8th Earl of Clanwilliam and inextricable links to Russia. Paddy Clanwilliam is the non-executive director of Angus Energy, the company that now operates the Saltfleetby gas field. He also chairs London-listed Eurasia Drilling Company, Russia’s largest oilfield services company, a non- executive director of FTSE premium listed Polyus Gold, Russia’s largest gold company. He has held the position of Independent Member of the Board of Directors at AFK Sistema OAO, since June 29, 2015. Sistema is one of the largest private investors in the Russian economy.

Paddy Clanwilliam is five years younger than Boris Johnson so their paths at Eton may not have been close, but he has been active in the Conservative Party, as a Councillor for Chelsea and Kensington and as a party donor.

The ownership of the Saltfleet gas field has been complex. Angus Energy has a partner in Saltfleetby Energy Limited. This company has undergone a few name changes over the years, Wingas Storage UK Ltd (owned by the Russian state owned Gazprom, via a German subsidiary), Roc Oil (UK) Ltd and Candecca Resources Ltd. Companies House lists Saltfleetby Energy as having had 59 directors, but 58 of them, including several Russians, have resigned, leaving just one, Paul Forrest. Open Corporates gives first in the list of ‘Ultimate Beneficial Owners’ as the Russian Federation.

The Earl of Clanwilliam's coat of arms.

As I suggested previously, it would be a good thing if the West stopped all payments for oil and gas to Russia forthwith. Let's add to the total embargo the removal of any possibility that the beneficial owner of Saltfleetby Gas Field, the Russian Federation, can profit from gas production in Lincolnshire.
Post script: Here is the letter that I have written to my MP, Victoria Atkins, and three Lincolnshire County Councillors, Martin Hill, Colin Davie and Daniel McNally.

The Saltfleetby Gas Field, on the Lincolnshire Marsh, is operated by Angus Energy, under the chairmanship of Patrick Meade, 8th Earl of Clanwilliam, and Saltfleetby Energy. The beneficial owner of Saltfleetby Energy is The Russian Federation, and Paddy Clanwilliam accumulated much of his fortune from his interests in the Russian oil and gold industries.

While it is appreciated that there is a strategic argument in favour of developing onshore gas production, under the present circumstances it is undesirable that the Russian Federation benefits from such production.

Gas production stopped in 2017 with the closure of Theddlethorpe Gas Terminal, which left the field stranded. Lincolnshire County Council granted planning consent to Angus Energy to reconfigure the site so that it could be reconnected to the National Transmission System. Production is expected to resume shortly.

Please outline what steps you will take to ensure that Mr Putin receives no money from Lincolnshire gas production.

16/03/2022 Post-Post script:
Further delving into Companies House revealed this document, which suggests that the Russian Federation may no longer be a beneficial owner of Saltfleetby Energy.

However, there is another company, named Saltfleetby Energy Europe, also run by Paul Forrest, the beneficial owner of which is still recorded as The Russian Federation.

Wednesday, March 09, 2022

Ukraine 04

 As we saw in the Nuremberg Trials, Hitler did not act alone. And neither does Putin. His power as a dictator rests on the support he receives from other powerful people. They are powerful because they receive support from a significant segment of Russian society that is steeped in a culture very different from that which prevails in the West.

To begin to get a glimpse of what is driving Putin's Ukrainian war we might do worse than look at Aleksandr Dugin.

I don't suppose most folk have heard of him, but it's high time we did. What better place to start our education on Dugin than Wikipedia?

Why is he important? Because his ideas have encapsulated a particular strand of thinking within Russia and his 1997 book, Foundations of Geopolitics, has been used in the training of the Russian military leadership. To our Western eyes it may seem crazy stuff but for many Russians it is what drives them on, to create a global power that stretches from Dublin to Vladivostok. 

Much has been written about Aleksandr Dugin; the warnings have been clear, but mostly ignored. Here's some reading to catch up on:

Tuesday, March 08, 2022

Ukraine 03

Let us stop pretending that the Ukraine war is a local affair. The repercussions of higher oil and gas prices, fertiliser costs and grain exports make this a global war, even if the bullets and bombs are as yet only killing people in one country. This is World War Three; we need to admit it.

Allegedly, a very long time ago, probably before the invention of writing, a man came down from a mountain with a slab of flattish rock on which were carved the words "Thou shalt not kill", probably not in English. It's always seemed a good rule of thumb to me so don't expect me to support shooting people, even Russians.

Another good rule of thumb is "don't pay money to people who kill other people, even if it's to buy stuff you really really want". In last years prices, the West has got into the habit of paying Russia about $300,000,000 per day. That's more than double the Russian military budget. We in the west are funding Putin's war.

Today the UK Business and Energy Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng announced that:

Pathetic! This 'transition' will give Putin enough time to bomb every last building in Ukraine. 'Give the market, business supply chains more than enough time to replace Russian imports'? Why 'more than enough time'? They don't need any time. And if that means we have to have some energy rationing, so be it. At least we have houses that have not been bombed. A little inconvenience is survivable.

What will not be just a little inconvenience is the impact on global food prices when Russia fails to export grain and Ukraine fails to even grow any. This risks a collapse in the world's food supply chain in which the poorest of the global south will go hungry. The potential for famine is real and great, and could even dwarf the suffering in Ukraine itself. 

The war is global and we must all consider ourselves at war, sharing in the hurt and sharing in the effort to ensure it ends quickly. The least we can do is to manage without imports from Russia, We will then, and only then, cease to be funding Putin's war.

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Ukraine 02

With energy prices having risen a long way through 2021 and now rising faster still, and long term contracts only indirectly reflecting the spot prices, it's hard to know just how much western countries are paying Russia for their oil and gas imports, but a conservative estimate puts it around half a billion dollars per day, over $150 billion annually. To put that in perspective, Russia's annual expenditure on its military is around $60 billion.

We are paying Russia more than twice what they spend on their armed forces.

Governments fret about money held by oligarchs and create restrictions on air travel; civil society and business reduce sporting and cultural contact and withdraw from investments. But all this is detail, irritations that Putin will have factored in to his diabolical scheme. The big one is an embargo on energy imports. 

Western governments, perhaps unsurprisingly, are reluctant to plug the pipelines, fearing that energy prices will soar and real shortages will occur. A friend of mine just commented "For millions of people gas or oil is their only source of heating in the EU". I replied "For millions of people their home is their only home and the Russians are bombing it".

It's good and kind that people are donating their stuff and their money to help Ukrainians, but the real difference we can make is to stop buying their gas and oil. Governments must see to an embargo, but while they look for the political support to act we can show them by using less ourselves. That sends two signals, one to government, to indicate public support for action, and another to the market to reduce the price by lowering demand, and incidentally giving some relief to those least able to afford expensive energy.

We should turn down our thermostats and reduce our travel. That may be hard for some but nothing in comparison to the suffering in Ukraine. If we want to stand with the Ukrainians, as slogans and headlines proclaim, then we need to share the pain and stop benefitting from Russian energy imports.

And, in case it slipped from your attention, there's a Climate Crisis. We'd best get used to not using gas and oil.


Sunday, February 27, 2022

Ukraine 01

There was a brief window of hope, perhaps only real in some parallel universe, when war might have been avoided. If the west had recognised the People's Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk as independent states, Putin may have been content. Ukraine might have split between east and west and lived as neighbours happily ever after. But the moment the first shot was fired that hope evaporated.

We are where we are and there are no winners. Putin may have calculated that Volodymyr Zelenskyy would flee and a new regime, amenable to his requirements, could be swiftly installed, the hit to some oligarchs inconvenienced by token sanctions, factored into the gains that close association with one of the most resource rich countries on the planet brings.

Forecasts, especially about the future, usually turn out to be wrong, but from this moment it looks as though Putin has succeeded in uniting much of the Ukrainian population against him and any idea of ever having closer links to Russia in preference to Western Europe is for the birds. And Ukrianians appear willing to fight for every inch of their ground.

As a pacifist and totally unwilling to ever pick up a gun myself and point it in the direction of another human being, I'm not going to start advocating that anybody else should. But what I am more than willing to do is suffer the economic consequences, and I don't belittle them, of a complete trade embargo of Putin's Russia. 

Currently the West sends some $300,000,000 every day to Russia in payment for oil, gas, minerals and other products. That trade should be stopped. Now. Europe would have to go on to something akin to a war-footing, but without the killing. There might need to be rationing of energy (allowing the price to go through the roof just forces misery on the poor while the rich carry on). As in war, industrial production needs to be switched, not to armaments, but to everything that reduces our dependency on Russian energy, from home insulation to alternative power production. The fighting may be restricted to Ukraine but the whole world should share the work and pain involved in defeating Putin.

The aim must be to swiftly demonstrate that Russia will be an isolated pariah, cut off from the rest of the world. Putin is not immortal and at some point the Russian population will find the strength to remove him. Our hope is that he sees this inevitability long before Kyiv is reduced to the rubble we have seen in Homs and Aleppo in Syria.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not use the same dressing up box as Boris Johnson, who favours the hi-viz look.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Energy Bills

Faced with the decarbonising imperative of the climate crisis, the talk had been of stranded assets, the fossil carbon industry holding coal, oil and gas that would have to stay in the ground as we moved to renewable energy sources. Big oil's days were numbered.

The industry has now pulled off a master-stroke. The increase in gas prices on the world market has been accounted for by increased demand in a post-pandemic recovery (we are not post-covid, but that's another story) with demand from China in particular being blamed.

There has been no sudden spike in the production costs of gas, or any other type of energy, so the increased prices translate directly to increased profit for the producers. In the UK 22 million households will be paying more cash to their energy providers for something that is costing no more to get out of the ground.

This may be the biggest, fastest, transfer of wealth from the many to the few, from everyone to the owners of the energy industry, ever, in all history. Even the 'oil shock' of half a century ago, which certainly had a massive long-term effect on global trade, did not impact households in such an immediate fashion.

And almost nobody has realised.

Increased energy prices are a Good Thing. The price of fossil carbon is far too low since the cost of the environmental damage done by burning it is externalised; the price we pay now does not reflect the price future generations will be charged for repairing the planet. So the increased price of our energy bills should be welcomed.


That there are poor people who will be unable to pay their bills, unable to keep warm is a Bad Thing. There are myriad ways and means to abolish poverty; it is for government to deal effectively with the issue before increased bills drop through letter-boxes.

We have to stop burning fossil carbon to mitigate global heating. Rolling out more renewable energy production is necessary but not sufficient. Currently the growth in renewables is barely keeping pace with growth in energy demand let alone replacing fossil carbon. Degrowth has to be established in the energy scene.

The low-hanging fruit of energy demand destruction in the UK is insulating our homes, but, absurdly, the Government is more concerned to put #InsulateBritain protestors in prison than to actually insulate Britain. The money is available; a windfall tax on the energy companies, to recoup all of the profits from the recent price rises, would go a long way towards rolling out a meaningful programme of home insulation, addressing several problems at one stroke.

It needs to be done before another winter arrives.

Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Dropping Net-Zero Targets

Back in 2008 James Hansen et al, in their paper Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? wrote:
"If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm."

But rather than reduce, the number has continued to rise by more than 2 per year and will this year pass 420 ppm. I was born at 310 ppm and for most of humanity's history, before the industrial revolution, the number was around 270.
None of this gets much of a mention in the targets promoted by politicians. The talk is all about target dates for 'net-zero'. How much CO2 there is in the air rarely gets a mention. But this is what counts. Global heating, and hence climate change, depends not on the rate of our emissions but on the atmospheric composition. We are aiming at the wrong target. If we do manage to stop emitting greenhouse gases the temperature will continue to rise, at least until equilibrium is reached. With climate sensitivity still somewhat uncertain, we're not sure quite when that will be.
To stop further global heating we have to not just stop further emissions but also remove much of CO2 that we have already put up there. We have to a target such as 'Back to 350'.
So why don't we?
Because it's really difficult. A 'net-zero' target, some considerable way off, when the current politicians are mostly retired and won't face the consequences of failure, and which can be managed by 'greening' industry, looks plausible. But actually reducing the CO2 in the air, actually doing what is necessary, is a whole different task. Best not mention it, pretend it isn't a necessary thing.

What to do?
Drop the net-zero targets and replace them with greenhouse gas reduction targets. Achieving them will require zeroing emissions anyway, but also going further by sequestering carbon. A halt to making things worse is necessary but insufficient, we also need to repair the damage.
And just how to do that will have to wait until the next episode...

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Coronavirus 61 A Great Wrong

In January 2020, Sarah Gilbert and her colleagues had done the work to show that a covid vaccine was possible and it was soon apparent that it would be needed. During that year production facilities should have been built on such a scale that by the time the vaccines had been demonstrated to be safe and effective, towards the end of 2020, doses could have been manufactured on a scale that befitted the task of vaccinating everybody, some 7.9 billion of us.

The task would have been unprecedented but so was the need. It would have involved the greatest switch of industrial effort, at least since World War II, but it would have been possible.

We have been taught to congratulate ourselves on the 'success' of the vaccine roll-out, but it is illusory. The world's governments failed their task in 2020. They failed to do it again in 2021. Most people in the poorer parts of the world remain unvaccinated. That has allowed the pandemic to continue, the virus to mutate to ever more infectious variants, and the disease to come back and bite us again.

Our lack of ambition in production effort and our greedy and selfish maintenance of intellectual property rights have been the biggest own goal in human history.

It has been a Great Wrong.

In an end of year discussion on DiEM TV Yanis Varoufakis invited Noam Chomsky to reflect on the situation. Here is a transcript of Chomsky's response

Take Omicron, it’s perfectly clear why this happened and why it will happen again. The rich countries have monopolized vaccines for themselves and have insisted on preserving the outlandish property rights agreements, patent rights, assigned to the basically monopoly pricing rights, assigned to the pharmaceutical corporations in the mislabelled free trade agreements, which means that, for example, Moderna, which was a small company, was able to use extensive government funding, government research. To develop a very effective vaccine. Propelled several of the management up into the super billionaire category. But they will not permit South Africa, which has a pharmaceutical industry to produce their vaccines. It means that South Africa could not vaccinate the population sufficiently to withhold the ongoing mutations. It means that in the unvaccinated South there’s a potential for a mutation which can lead to serious consequences. Of course, will spread back to the west. The wealthy and the powerful are – who recognize all this, they understand it – are willing to place the profits of the major pharmaceutical corporations and their prerogatives - given in the improper trade agreements – place that above the lives of many millions of people and even the welfare of their own populations. It’s an interesting value system.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Coronavirus 60 Two Choices

How do you get to Birmingham? I wouldn't start from here.

We should have stopped the virus spreading in January 2020 before it became a pandemic, but the same argument still applies.
We have choices.

1. End the pandemic.
2. Allow the pandemic to continue.

Let's look at option #2 first. By continuing with the government policies and citizen behaviour adopted so far in many western nations we can look forward to a massive spike in omicron cases. Even if the death rate in a population that is largely vaccinated and/or has some natural immunity because of earlier SARS-CoV-2 infections, is an order of magnitude lower than earlier in the pandemic, it will still result in thousands more deaths.
Importantly, it will do nothing to prevent a new variant. There is an evolutionary advantage for a variant that is more infectious, better at escaping natural immunity within the population or the vaccine. There is no evolutionary advantage to become either more or less pathological. That could go either way. That a new variant is milder is wishful thinking, that it becomes worse is something the precautionary principle demands we prepare for.
Covid so far has shown a case fatality rate of less than 1%. Omicron in a mostly vaccinated population may have a case fatality rate an order of magnitude less, but a future variant could plausibly have a worse outcome. MERS has a case fatality rate at least an order of magnitude greater than the worst outbreaks of SARS-CoV-2. Ebola, albeit a very different virus, has a mortality rate nearer 50%.
There's no easy end in sight to the arms race between variants and our vaccination programme. It would mean learning to live with the deaths and morbidity that the virus causes, a very different world to that we have previously known.
It's a bleak outlook, so let's turn to option #1.
But we can't 'End the pandemic'! Oh yes we can. The pandemic ends in a few weeks if nobody meets anybody outside their own household. That, of course, is impossibly hard to achieve, but with proper planning and support, a very strict lockdown could be acceptable, driving R well below 1 and keeping it there. The pandemic would then inevitably come to an end. It would require people's trust in their governments, earned by sufficient and appropriate support from governments. It involves the rigorous application of what we have long known to be the effective route to infectious disease eradication: a combination of finding cases, isolating with sufficient support, and vaccinating.

The other option really is too bleak to contemplate.

Picture attribution: W. Carter

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Coronavirus 59 Omicron part 2

In the fortnight since my first blog about Omicron we have learnt a little more and little of what we have learnt is good news. 

Firstly, let's dismiss the reports, based on wishful thinking rather than science, that this variant is 'milder'. Here's a sketch by Dr Natalie Dean that explains a quirk of the data. 

If it's not immediately obvious, read her explanation here.

Of course it might turn out to be milder, but we don't have the evidence for that and there's no particular reason why it should be. While uncertainty rules let's not base action on wishful thinking but stick to the precautionary principle.

Effectively, Omicron adds an extra pandemic to the Delta pandemic that has been producing some 40 to 50 thousand new covid cases per day. Delta has been spreading with an R close to 1 since the fateful 'Freedom Day' last July. Now we have a virus that appears to be doubling in less than three days, with an R closer to 4. Adding this to the underlying Delta, Professor Christina Pagel, at the Indie-SAGE briefing on Friday 10th December, presented this graph:
She points out its simplicity, but while all models are wrong, some can be useful. This graph shows that unless we take quick and decisive action to change our behaviour we are heading for a disaster on a similar scale to that seen at the start of this year.

Unfortunately, the UK Government has demonstrated, repeatedly, its inability to take swift and decisive action. It persists in ignoring the advice of those who know what to do, such as the scientists contributing to Indie-SAGE. Here's their latest report, spelling out just what should be done:
And to underline the urgency, here's a new paper, an unreviewed pre-print, as is the way of things these days, from the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine by Rosanna C. Barnard et al.,
"In all four main scenarios, we model a policy of compulsory mask wearing in shops and on public transport from 30th November 2021, as well as introducing “Plan B” measures from 12th December 2021. Under these control measures, our most optimistic scenario projects peak daily hospital admissions of 2,400 (95% projection interval: 1,700–3,600) in England occurring in January 2022. Our most pessimistic scenario projects peak hospital admissions of approximately twice the size of the January 2021 peak."

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Coronavirus 58 Omicron

"I would always prefer that we take decisive action now and have to scale back if Omicron turns out not to be serious, than that we under-react and it turns out Omicron is as bad as feared. Act early and act decisively. We should have learned this by now." Tweeted by Kit Yates, who knows about this sort of stuff.

This is the 58th blog in my series on Coronavirus. The first was written on the 7th of February 2020 and began with this line:

When it was first suggested that UK nationals should be flown out of Wuhan, I remarked that it might be better if all international flights were grounded.

Had my suggestion then, and my further suggestions over the next 20 months, been acted upon there would never have been a pandemic and millions of lives would not have been lost. Such was Cassandra's fate.

This looks like another moment when humanity generally, and the UK Government in particular, get things wrong again. The new variant, B.1.1.529, renamed Omicron, was identified in South Africa, where it appears to have spread rapidly. There is a diligent programme of sequencing in South Africa, unlike some other African countries where such facilities are lacking, so we don't know for sure where the mutation originated, or even where its prevalence is greatest.

Several countries have, gradually and piecemeal, introduced flight bans from South Africa and various other African countries. This has been too little and too late to stop the spread of Omicron, though any reduction in travel will help to slow that spread.

This is a good moment to remind ourselves of the basic imperatives of infection control. Stop travel, particularly any travel without strict and effective quarantine. Test, track and trace to identify all cases. Isolate all cases providing sufficient support to make that isolation effective. The reproduction number will then remain well below R=1 and the infection outbreak will, inevitably, disappear. There is no need for a pandemic to ever happen. A pandemic is the avoidable failure of good governance.

Even after catastrophic errors, such as have occurred, and have led to millions of avoidable deaths, it is never too late to do the right thing and introduce a zero-covid policy. Indeed, it is the only way in which the disease will be overcome. In an ideal situation, 'lockdown' would mean that nobody met anybody outside their own household for two two reproduction cycle times of the virus, maybe about six weeks. Of course, some people need to meet; food distribution, electricity generation, water and sewage, health care and other vital services need to keep going. But that amount of contact is compatible with keeping R<1 if an effective find and isolate system operates. The disease will be eliminated in short order.

What the world needs to do now is to stock up with the essentials for survival and then stay at home for the rest of 2021. Then we will all be able to get on with our lives, devoting 2022 to addressing that other existential crisis, global heating.

Tragically, I don't think this advice will be adopted, the pandemic will continue to ruin millions of lives and the planet will continue to heat up, eventually ruining billions of lives.

Thursday, November 25, 2021


In May 2018 I curated an art exhibition entitled 'Across the Seas' in which works by two dozen artists, dealing with human migration, were exhibited. The online catalogue shows it all. Among the works was The List, by Banu Cennetoglu, comprising 48 sheets of paper on which were printed the names of 33,293 people who had died trying to reach Europe. You can download it here.

In a quiet moment, I noticed there was just one woman in the gallery, standing in front of The List, quietly weeping, tears on her cheek.

Yesterday we saw the crocodile tears of our Prime Minister and his Home Secretary as they sought to blame the French and the so-called 'criminal gangs' of 'people smugglers'. Anything but admit that the deaths in the English Channel that afternoon were the direct result of their policy.

The blood of these desperate men, women and children, are on our politicians' hands. But not on their hands alone. Blame, responsibility, culpability, is shared by every citizen who has supported Mr Johnson and Ms Patel, their Conservative Party and the UK Government. And more than that, blame, responsibility and culpability must be shared by every citizen who has supported policies of immigration control, even the very concept of borders as barriers to human movement.

The solution to the immediate crisis in the Channel is obvious: give would-be migrants train and ferry tickets. Human lives come first and then we can work out what to do with them.

The UK could be the world's ethical leader rather than a pariah, shaming other countries into action. As it is, we are shamed, having taken far fewer migrants than most of our European neighbours, never mind poorer countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. We could open our borders and welcome the stranger. 

The coming decades are going to see migration forced by climate change on a scale that has not yet entered the consciousness of most people. From North Africa, across the Middle East and through much of South Asia, a vast swathe of land will become effectively uninhabitable within the lifetimes of today's children. The British Isles, its climate tempered by ocean currents, will remain a green and pleasant land.

We need to get used to a very different world. We need, today, to choose between life or genocide.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 06

I attended one of RWM's events at Theddlethorpe Village Hall a couple of weeks ago and had a long discussion with their geologist and chief policy adviser. A couple of things struck me.

As I've explained in previous blogs, the key reason why Theddlethorpe does does not work as a location for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for nuclear waste is the likely presence of fossil carbon resources, gas, oil and coal, in the rocks underlying the prospective site. A future civilisation may seek to exploit these resources and inadvertently breach the integrity of the GDF. Nowhere in the poster and video displays on show could I find reference to this key issue. It was as if RWM did not want the public to know about this problem.

In my discussion with the RWM geologist I was alarmed to hear that in his view this would not be a problem because such resources could be accessed by drilling sideways under a GDF without disturbing it. He apparently did not appreciate that a future civilisation might not know of the existence of the GDF. He had completely missed the point that was fundamental to the siting of a GDF.

Another point that surprised me was to learn that their preferred target geological horizon was Oxford Clay rather than the deeper and thicker Mercia Mudstone Group. They are going for the shallowest (and cheapest) possible location, ignoring the greater security offered by deeper geology.

Another surprise turned up yesterday with the release, following a freedom of information request, of the daily pay-rate for the 'Independent' chairperson of the 'Working Group' set up by Lincolnshire County Council and RWM. Jon Collins is expected to work for two days per week and be paid...

£1000 per day

That's a lot of public money to be spent chairing a group of people talking about something that is never going to happen. We used to think corruption was what happened in Nigeria.

Here are the details:

Ref: FOI 3795
Thank you for your information request received on 25 October for the following:

Details of how much the Independent Chair of the Theddlethorpe Working Group is paid and how that amount is broken down, whether per meeting or if it’s paid as a lump sum.
I have treated your request under the Freedom of Information Act. I confirm that RWM holds the information you have requested and this is provided below.

The Independent Chair of the Theddlethorpe Working Group is paid a day rate of £1,000. The amount paid depends on the number of days worked which is estimated at 2 days per week.
Information Commissioner's Office
Wycliffe House
Water Lane
Cheshire SK9 5AF

Friday, November 12, 2021

COP26 In a Cave

A man was injured in a cave and needed to be carried out on a stretcher by a long and tortuous route. The caving clubs far and wide sent delegates to the rescue. Some cave experts continued their work on cave studies.

On the misty hillside a convention of cavers assembled to negotiate how each club would play their part, declaring the importance of the rescue and announcing their Caving Club Determined Contributions (CCDCs). A Finance Committee was set up to agree who would pay for ropes, torches, hard-hats, wet-suits and the stretcher.

They argued long into the night, some claiming they were too poor to contribute and it was not their fault that the accident had happened. There was discussion on timetables; just how quickly should the casualty be carried, some arguing that it would be better to wait till summer when water levels were lower.

On the Friday, children left their schools and gathered at the cave-mouth demanding that the rescue starts immediately, while caving club leaders congratulated each other on their plan to send a packed-lunch down to the victim.

Meanwhile, a man in the pub, declared that the accident was a hoax, the alleged victim had actually found a different path out of the cave and gone home. Somebody in America spread a rumour that caves did not exist but were an imaginary creation by makers of torches and hard-hats.

Picture source

Friday, November 05, 2021

Killing Whales was a Bad Move

The thing is that we killed most of the big Blue Whales. Blue whales eat krill and then whale poo provides fertiliser for the phytoplankton, which photosynthesise, taking carbon from out of the atmosphere. But since we killed the whales there's no fertiliser for the phytoplankton that the krill eat. When the few krill that do live, die of old age instead of being eaten by whales, they just drop to the bottom of the ocean, removing nutrients out of reach of the phytoplankton. So then there's less carbon sequestration and then there's less food for the krill. So there's less krill. That means there's less food for the few whales that we didn't manage to kill, so they don't thrive. So there's less whale poo, which means there's less nutrient recycling for the phytoplankton so there's less carbon sequestration and less food for the krill and so less food for the whales which means.... hang on... I think we've been here before. This is just going round in ever diminishing circles. Except for the carbon dioxide in the air above the ocean, which keeps increasing, that causes global heating and the carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean that causes ocean acidification. That's bad for sea-life that needs a high pH, such as phytoplankton. And we know what happens when the phytoplankton don't do well; it's just one thing on top of another.

We really shouldn't have killed the whales. Bad move.

Gaia Vince and her interviewees do a better job of explaining all this in this week's episode of Inside Science on Radio 4.

Sir David King, former UK Chief Scientist and general good bloke, is on the case.
Here's the latest news.

The plan is to add some fertiliser to the ocean, particularly the iron that phytoplankton are short of, what with living in the ocean instead of soil on land where there's plenty of iron.  The phytoplankton will grow better, sequestering carbon dioxide and so slowing global warming and ocean acidification and the krill will thrive because there's phytoplankton to eat again and then the whales will thrive because there's krill to eat and the the whales will do their poos and recycle the nutrients to the phytoplankton and... well you can guess the rest.

We really ought to support Sir David King and his friends at the Climate Crisis Advisory Group. They are coming up with answers.

Here's a picture of a Blue Whale and here's some things to know.

This is a painting of Sir David King, when he was looking sad, perhaps thinking about the whales.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Biscathorpe Eight Years On

Over eight years ago I wrote this piece on my blog, the first of many about oil and Biscathorpe: How to Make Money from Fracking

In it I described how one could make money out of not finding oil but convincing people that you would find oil in the future. Egdon's executives and employees have managed to do just that for eight years at Biscathorpe, a particularly idyllic hamlet in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

Today, with a majority of seven to four and two abstentions, the planning committee of Lincolnshire County Council refused a planning application from Egdon Resources to drill another well. They had already drilled one earlier but it had not struck oil. The first full day of COP26 was an auspicious day to hold this planning meeting, but whether this was what changed the minds of some councillors, or whether it was the opposition of the local MP, or an article in The Times, or the petition they had just received from their electorate, or the tireless campaigning of so many people over recent years, we cannot know. Perhaps some of them have actually realised that the black stuff needs to be kept in the ground. When all the people with money to invest realise that the oil industry will lead to their assets being stranded, and hence worthless, then the industry will collapse and the planet can breathe a little sigh of relief. And when all the people with money to spend on stuff that the oil industry has produced, realise that we must stop burning fossil carbon, then we will once again have a planet worth breathing on. But for tonight, we can celebrate a small victory. Well done all who made this possible.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

COP26 Too Many Numbers

What is 3?

Mathematician: The third positive integer.
Physicist: A value between 2.5 and 3.5.
Engineer: Three’s three but let’s call it ten to be on the safe side.

Charles Darwin included no numbers whatsoever in his The Origin of Species. Good science does not have to include numbers. Today one would have difficulty finding a piece of writing about climate science that is not peppered with numbers. If it is a scientific paper the numbers will usually be accompanied by measures of error and probability ranges, but these are usually ignored by journalists reporting for a lay audience, often leaving values with too many significant figures, giving a spurious degree of precision.

Forecasting, especially the future, is always difficult and models are always wrong, though some can be useful. The ‘Butterfly Effect’, whereby small changes in initial conditions can produce large changes in outcomes, is well known. Less well known, but more dangerous, is the ‘Hawkmoth Effect’, caused by unknown errors in the model that result in unknowable errors in model output. Wisdom must be applied when dealing with any numbers derived from modelling, as Erica Thompson explained in her Escape from Model-Land.

Unfortunately, in climate science errors are not evenly distributed between good news and bad. If tomorrow’s weather forecast is for 1mm of rain, there is little scope for error on the sunny side, just 1mm. But on the wet side the possibility range of error is boundless.

The most frequently mentioned number is 2.0 (1.5 is already for the birds), the number of degrees centigrade of global heating that the Paris Agreement said we should not exceed. It is an arbitrary number, no more special than 1.9 or 2.1, plucked from the air as thought, by some, at the time, to be a danger threshold. It is a rise since an arbitrary date, and one over which there is disagreement, some favouring the beginning of the industrial age and others favouring 1880, which hides the earliest anthropogenic heating. The global temperature is not a number that can be read from any thermometer. Rather it is an average of thousands of measurements from instruments distributed across the planet, calculated after weighting for local factors and known errors. It does not well reflect actual temperature change experienced by people. Land temperatures have risen faster than over the oceans, the Arctic heats faster than the tropics. Changes in the frequency of extreme weather events are not reflected in this average, yet it is extremes that kill. There is no way to relate that 2.0 figure to actual detriments. We don’t have any direct quantitative link between the average global heating number and storms, floods, droughts, plagues and wars. We just have a qualitative idea that the hotter it gets the worse it will be.

COP26 is very much a numbers based exercise, with countries declaring what steps they intend to take and when they might take them. We know it will all be too little and too late to avert disaster for many, yet it will be built on a great edifice of meticulously calculated ‘carbon budgets’ that imply perfect knowledge of the link between emissions, temperature rise and harm. We do not possess that knowledge.

We have only a very hazy appreciation of the effects of the many potentially big feedbacks in the climate system and some have not been factored into the COP26 discourse at all. Take, for example, greenhouse gas emissions from thawing of Arctic permafrost. It is happening today, with a mere 1.2 degrees of global heating and will continue for centuries. The rate of thawing and consequent emissions will increase as global heating proceeds. If all the nations achieve what they promise and more, and the temperature rise is constrained, the permafrost will still keep thawing, adding more greenhouse gases, undermining the best laid plans and making nonsense of all those calculations that contributed to the Nationally Determined Contributions. The scale of this problem may be equivalent to the emissions of a major economy, USA, China or the EU, and continuing far into the future. Big numbers but not counted.

So what to do? Put the numbers aside. Tell our governments to stop negotiating on the basis of numbers but instead put all their efforts into avoiding burning any more fossil carbon. Each has to do everything they can without looking over their shoulders to check they are not doing more than others. Lead, don’t follow.

If there’s one thing to read next it’s the State of Cryosphere 2021 report, particularly chapter 4, Permafrost. There are some numbers, but not so many that it becomes unreadable.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

COP26 Has Failed

Failed? But it hasn't even begun yet! And anyway, what does success of failure mean?

The object is to prevent global heating and the way to do that is to stop emitting greenhouse gases. A big part of what happens at COP26 is that governments present their 'Nationally Determined Contributions' (NDCs). And this is where the failure sets in. The whole panjandrum is wrongly framed. Almost 200 countries will be saying what they hope to do to reduce their emissions and when they hope to do this. It is all too little, too late, and too slowly.

The new climate denialism, rife wherever one turns, is the idea that limiting heating to 1.5 degrees is achievable. It isn't. And yet Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK's Chief Scientist, said it was still achievable though we will have to "fly a bit less". That's about as much use as saying that singing Happy Birthday while washing one's hands will prevent a pandemic.

Here is the nonsense that Vallance and his international colleagues have come up with: Statement by International Senior Scientific Advisers ahead of COP26

The best meme doing the rounds of social media is this:

We're not even reaching for a mop. What we have is almost 200 countries each with their own tap and plughole. They are coming to Glasgow to tell us at what speed they are going to turn the tap off and whether they intend to ease the plug a little bit to let some water seep out.

What the climate crisis requires is that all countries turn off their taps immediately and pull their plug out. 413ppm CO2 needs to be pushed back below 350. But next year it will be 415 and the year after it will be 417. That's why COP26 has failed.

Unfortunately there are bad consequences if we all stop burning fossil carbon by Day 1 of the COP. Machines in hospitals will stop working and lorries won't deliver food. People will die.

So what COP26 should be doing is having nations determine and declare the maximum possible rate of emission reduction that is commensurate with their citizens not actually dying. The taps need to be turned off almost completely and the plugs fully pulled out straight away. Then we can can watch the water go down to a safe level.

When we see the Keeling Curve turn downwards we can start measuring success, but while it continues to rise we can be certain we are failing.