Cameron sinks to new levels of hypocrisy

Sometimes in politics, at least for those of us who have been around for a fair time and have long memories, you come across politicians who you can only assume must think people are stupid or inhabit worlds where recollection doesn’t stretch back more than a fortnight.

When I first started becoming involved in politics, nothing more exciting than a bit of leafletting in the 1987 General Election the attack lines of the Tories back then after having been in power for eight years was very much to concentrate on attacking Labour for events in the 1970’s.

That’s a little taster about this post. We’re going to rake up something that one would presume David Cameron should be aware of and if not then here’s a little history lesson to go with his latest publicity stunt, sorry, meant to say informed and well thought through policy initiative.

From the BBC today. Cameron announces how the development of ‘green coal’ or to be more precise systems that allow the capture of carbon emissions from the burning/gasification of coal and subsequent safe storage, yes I know, not quite as catchy as ‘green coal’ but more accurate.

Your humble Penguin takes a keen interest in energy policy, in particular energy related security issues and this announcement by Cameron brought back a few memories from a conversation I had with my father in the early 90’s.

My father and I don’t always agree on every subject but I respect him as a very intelligent man who has an uncanny ability to see things long into the future. He also has an amazing ability to recall conversations and information from decades past, something I myself seem to have inherited.

So back in 1993 when Michael Heseltine as Trade Secretary was announcing what was in effect the death of the British coal industry, my fathers reaction was this:

“The stupid f*ckers! You wait and see, in 20 years time when all the North Sea gas is running out and we’ll have to import it all from bloody Russia they’ll realise they’ve dropped a b*llock. It’s all very well saying these new gas power stations are cleaner than coal but we’ve (as in British) been developing clean coal technology for years and you mark my words if the b*stards don’t pull all the funding on that too. You watch, in 20 years time we’ll have to go back to coal and we’ll pay for it because the mines will have flooded and we’ll have to buy the technology that we started back off some other country because those b*stards (the Tories) are too f*cking stupid to see what’s coming.”

You can probably guess that my father felt quite strongly on the issue and no, he’s not an ex-miner.

OK, it’s now almost 15 years later but apart from the timescale, I think my father pretty much got it right. The Tories through what I can only deduce was a political motivation, brought about the demise of our coal industry. They didn’t foresee what, if it was obvious to my father back then, presumably some expert at the time might have told them. Put simply, policy decision made back in 1993 following on from what occurred in the 1980’s led us into a position where we as a country are in an increasingly difficult position regarding our ability to generate our own energy requirements and more specifically threatens our future energy security.

With this recollection in mind I decided to have a little look around about what happened and came up with some interesting articles well worth a read. First up comes from the archives of the New Scientist in April 1993. That June, this article also appeared in the New Scientist by Ian Fells, professor of energy conversion at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, of which I particularly like the final couple of paragraphs:

” For a country with extensive coal reserves, why isn’t Britain developing its technology by way of a demonstration plant? On the idea of building a clean-coal demonstration plant in Britain, the White Paper points out that such a venture would ‘not materially affect the number of coal mines kept in operation in the UK this decade’ and so could not justify supporting it.

So, Britain watches its initial lead in this vital area slip away to its competitors. Long-term R&D is the major casualty of the ‘short termism’ engendered by a market-led energy policy. Britain is in danger of destroying its innovative industrial base and becoming an offshore ‘banana republic’ buying licences for high technology engineering from its European partners. The government will be forced to balance the books by turning UK Ltd into a gigantic theme park with tourists visiting sanitised coal mines and gas works to see how Great Britain was in the old days.”

Couldn’t have put it better myself really.

So what did exactly happen to Britain’s leading edge technological advantage in the area of clean coal? The actual process wasn’t all that new. The original concept dates back to the 1960’s but in the days of the nationalised coal industry there was the Coal Research Establishment which formed part of the National Coal Board then British Coal Corporation. However with passing of the Coal Industry Act in 1995 it became the Coal Authority and was subsequently privatised.

Back in 1993 the research arm, the CRA found itself in difficulty because a substantial amount of its funding came from the industry which with the massive closure of pits led to less income meaning that for a short period the Government injected some funding with the usual reassurances that come before things get closed down.

Questions were asked in Parliament, notably on the 22nd March 1994 where the clearest indications of the level of importance the then Tory Government had regarding the development of coal technology can be seen in the statement by the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP after the token bit about how much money the Government is putting in:

“Precise funding needs after that will be agreed following the planned review of the programme involving the industry in 1995. We are also establishing the new Advisory Committee on Coal Research, to replace the coal task force and advise on United Kingdom coal research needs across the board.”

For those of a cynical nature you’ll probably all know what happened next. Industry wasn’t interested in the research and development after privatisation. They’d got the assets that they wanted and true to form the CRE (actual research part of it) closed in 1995, I think it still exists in name as some quango but as for actually doing any research it’s long gone, along with the clean coal technology that we had a chance to lead the world in. If you’re interested in a visual representation of what the Tories did to our research into clean coal technology you might want to have a look here. Caution, it’s depressing.

Of course it has been developed by other countries, notably Germany where they implemented the first ‘clean coal’ station but there again, the German’s didn’t have a Government that systematically went about destroying their coal industry like we did. Sad to think that Britain was in a prime position to dominate this emerging technology and now we’re reduced to buying back the fruits of that technology from the development of other countries into an area that we started. Let’s not get on to tilting trains either shall we?

Disappointed

I have a sneaky liking for the Times newspaper. Not exactly sure why and it’s something that has grown on me over the past few years. It’s got pedigree and amongst the gradually lowering standards of British journalism I’d always thought it seemed to hold itself up. That was until today.

I just happened to be in New Cross hospital in Wolverhampton this morning and while waiting around caught the front pages. I had a little look to see if it was in their online edition but couldn’t find it but the article was fairly simple. A cross comparison between David Cameron’s wind turbine and Gordon Brown’s solar panels on their respective home residencies.

Upshot was a cost comparison of payback time between the two systems and hey ho Davy boys windmill turned out to be better paying back in 60 years compared to 100 years for Brown’s solar panels.

This got me thinking because about 6 months ago I did all the sums to try and weigh up what would I do should I ever be in the lucky position of having enough spare cash lying around to consider domestic generation.

From memory the Times article (and please correct me if I’m wrong) said Davy Boy’s windmill cost him £3,000 and Gordon’s solar panels cost £15,000. Now I didn’t see any cross comparisons for the actual output of the systems and if they were buried in the article then they would be interesting but I was rather distracted at the time.

So Gordon’s panels come in at 5 times the price of Davy Boy’s windmill. I assume they’ve done a few simple sums regarding the price of leckie and the relative outputs of the systems and come up with a nice little headline but it is just a little bit more complicated than that because using these calculations they’ve only considered a one-off installation cost and given the timespans involved, that is misrepresenting the facts.

We’re going to have to make a few assumptions here but as far as domestic wind turbines are concerned you’re not likely to get more than a 1kWh system and 0.7kWh is far more reasonably and that’s running at optimum strength. Solar panels are dependent on on surface area and the quality of the silicon but when I did my investigations 6 months ago £15,000 would buy you the equivalent of a 4kWh system, again running at optimum output.

Let’s be kind and say Davy Boy’s got a 1kWh system and it always runs at maximum output. Let’s also assume that Gordon’s got a 4kWh system and also runs at optimum. So installation cost wise we’re talking about £3,000 a kWh for Dave’s turbine and £3,750 a kWh so yes, on that basis Gordon has picked the pricier option.

However, and it’s a big however. What’s the life-cycle of the relative systems. Well you would be very hard pressed to buy any solar panels that don’t come with at least a 20 year guarantee. There is a simple reason for this. Solar power is the only source of electricity generation that requires no moving parts. No moving parts equals no wear and tear on the system meaning that some of the first solar panels produced are still going strong after 30 years with no maintenance.

Now try getting a 20 year guarantee on a domestic wind turbine. 10 years yes, 20 years, forget it. At best a domestic wind turbine might last 25 years before needing replacing with a new unit. On top of that add in maintenance costs and replacement parts (primarily the bearings as they wear out) and the Times article starts to look a bit shoddy.

Whereas Gordon’s solar panels could last in theory easily over a hundred years, Davy boy will have gone through at least 4 turbines in that time and assuming relative prices that’s £12,000 to produce a quarter of the electricity of Gordon’s £15,000 solar panels.

Plain simple long term economics. Solar works out better in the long-run compared to wind turbines.

Now there’s an important factor to consider. I had a little look around and Gordon apparently installed his panels in 2005. I’m not sure what the market price then was but whereas the relative cost/efficiency of wind turbines has not improved dramatically, solar panels have in recent years so bear that in mind.

Final point. I did all the sums 6 months ago and the answer was simple. Given the choice and available funds, I wouldn’t touch a wind turbine with a barge pole. Solar is simply a far better option and as the market develops and costs are driven down further, solar is a far better bet for domestic electricity generation than a turbine. Doesn’t make any noise either to miff the neighbours off, which is nice.

A session on the environment and corporate responsibility with Hilary Benn

Just got back from the first session of the 2007 Co-operative Party Annual Conference. Got 20 minutes or so to get back and find some supplies in the process so I’ll keep things brief.

The conference opened with a discussion Chaired by Gareth Thomas MP (He always seems to chair everything at conference) with a panel of Hilary Benn, a representative of businesses called Patricia and a guy from the Coop Group and someone from Friends of The Earth (yes I have an appalling memory for names I know).

There were a few key issues brought up in the discussion of which I’ll touch on.

The need to involve businesses particularly on the Research and Development side in driving forward greener technologies. An importance not to rush towards seemingly ‘green’ policies without thinking them through in particular relation to the marking of flowers flown in from Kenya that despite them being transported by air, would actually be more efficent than growing them in greenhouses in Holland. (The guy from Friends of the Earth mentioned that one, I do recall Hilary Benn saying something about it in February). That although there is good intention to label such flowers as having been transported by air, that it has led to consumers stopping buying such flowers and that not just the issue of the environment is important but the effect that it is having on Kenyan farmers.

The guy from the Co-op Group pointed to the big ambitions that it had set itself over ten years ago when such ‘green’ issues were not prevalent in the mainstream political discourse but even then the group took the decision not to invest in fossil fuel companies and I think what’s most important to note is that although that was the thinking of the Co-op Group a decade ago, the realities of future economic development and potential for long-term sustainable companies mean that the issues it was addressing then are now the issues that all businesses need to think about.

All in all things are going quite nicely. Met up with some familiar faces, got into an interesting conversation on home-made solar water heating systems and learned there’s a Black Country and Birmingham Inventors Society, might just have a look at that. Back in a Bit.

Got one

It’s taken a while, been truly frustrating that such a simple bit of kit isn’t readily available from the likes of B&Q or Homebase but while on holiday in Germany I picked up one of these.

rainwater-diverter

It’s a rainwater diverter that simply fits into the down pipe and diverts rainwater via a hose to wherever you want it. When I’d first been perusing the guttering/piping section in the local DIY store I’d completely missed them but after having another good look they were staring me in the face all along and 16 EUR later I’m finally the proud owner of one.

It is interesting to compare the easy availability not to mention difference in price of such environmentally friendly bit of kit in Germany compared to the UK. I had a commitment to a certain project of which I’ll do a proper write up another time but finding the various elements has not necessarily been easy. I would hazard a guess that German society is simply more geared towards a market of consumers who do undertake such projects to save energy and resources.

In some ways that is a sad indication of how far we have to go in the UK to changing our living habits to conserve the environment around us. However is this a case of the market not responding to demand or the demand not being there in the first place? In my case the demand was there but the market supply wasn’t. I was lucky enough to just happen to be in Germany and have the ability to pick up the specific item that I wanted but that’s not an option for everyone.

Lets just hope now that the rainwater diverter fits. I haven’t measured the pipe yet but it looks about right and I’m sure I can fiddle it if I have to.

Compost envy

I’m a keen gardener. I’m proud of my humble little garden and we try to live a fairly ‘green’ lifestyle in our house. Apart from all the recycling and re-using of items we also compost as much as we can.

I have one of the Dalek style composters in the corner that I managed to pick up in the days when Walsall Council actually used to give them away for free. It suits the size of our garden and the household waste we produce which is why I’m completely envious of this.

Compost-heap

This is Mrs Penguin’s father’s compost heap and it’s not far off the size our our entire garden. It’s got pumpkins growing on it and everything. Must buy a house with a bigger garden. With a compost heap that size and the amount of heat it throws off I could run the central heating through it.

German roofing

I like doing these comparisons between different countries, after all comparative systems (primarily social welfare) are my academic background although I’m quite rusty these days.
The one thing you notice in Germany, or at least I do which probably says something about my love for buildings and architecture is the roofs. When I think about the roofs on buildings back home they seem drab, boring and unimaginative in comparison. Even on our older buildings that in other ways are beautiful to behold, it seems that the roofs are an afterthought, something plonked on top to keep the rain out but not utilised to their full effect.

When we get into housing estates that most of us reside in the picture gets worse. From the late 60’s onwards to the present we seem to have become addicted to lifeless and drab concrete roofing tiles as if there were no alternative. Mark this against slate which for obvious reasons dominates Welsh roofs and emanates a sheer natural beauty of its own.
However in Germany, the traditional baked terracotta, a design and style that stretches back to Roman times is the one that is favoured.

German roofing example

It’s not used uni-formally though in a single style. There’s multiple styles and shapes of roofing tile, of different colours and textures. Personally I quite like the glazed tiles which shimmer in the sun and you can see here.

German tile showhouse

I wish I had more time to get around and take more photos, I don’t think we’ll be going back into the city centre before we leave but some of the roofs there have been imaginatively used to almost artistic extent. Even in the suburbs there’s a great sense of individuality about roofing which probably stems from it being more traditional in Germany to buy a plot of land and build your own house as opposed to our get a developer to put up a lot of homogeneous lifeless boxes mentality that we have in the UK.

[Timestamp altered]

Recycling – the German way

In my current location there’s two wheelie bins outside, a 240 litre and a 120 litre bin. I’ll just do a little disclaimer. I know next to nothing about how waste disposal is organised in Germany but I’m enquiring. Whether my current location is typical of the whole country or whether there is great difference between the different states of the Federal Republic I don’t know so what we’re doing here is just taking a snapshot of this particular bit of Brandenburg that I happen to be in.

The 240 litre bin, akin to the one that sits outside my front door back in Willenhall is solely for paper, nothing else. Its smaller counterpart is for generally non-recyclable materials. Also out of site in the outhouse are a further two other 240 litre bins that are yellow and are for plastics.

This sparked off a thought I’d had for a post before I left that I simply didn’t get round to. There was an article in the Express & Star about fortnightly collections in Walsall. A couple of weeks previously, our wonderful Cabinet Member for Environment in Walsall, Cllr. Rachel Walker had announced that Walsall would not implement fortnightly collections when the Express & Star did a survey of the local authorities in the Black Country. However just before I left she announced that Walsall Council would be looking at fortnightly collections and there’s going to be some public consultation on the issue.

By the way, when we say public consultation, we actually mean according to the article in the Express & Star that Walsall Council will ask residents whether they want a 240 litre bin that will be collected once a fortnight or a 120 litre bin which will be collected once a week.
This poses some interesting questions some of which are specifically related to Walsall given its other policies.

Now for myself personally, we never get anywhere near filling our 240 litre bin primarily down to us already being quite conscious about recycling and avoiding as much packaging on the things that we buy as we can or to the annoyance of Mrs Penguin, my own obsession with finding ingenious ways to re-use the packaging for other purposes.

However when it comes down to it, there is no choice that Walsall Council is giving residents. Whether you want a big bin or a little one, you’re going to be limited to producing 120 litres worth of waste a week as opposed to the current 240 litres and that is what it amounts to, nothing more, nothing less, Walsall Council wants to cut down on the waste it collects. I myself would prefer one of the small bins and I am rather keen on weekly collections. Some local authorities have switched to fortnightly collections and it’s obviously an issue that certain sections of the media are building up as an issue to bash local/national Government with.

When the likes of the scream sheets are building up a bit of a bandwagon against fortnightly collections and in defence of weekly collections it almost sparks off a questioning of my own views but we’ll deal with thatanother day, back to Walsall Council’s policies for a bit.
What does intrigue me about this plan by Walsall MBC is that Cllr. Rachel Walker appears to be indicating that people will have a choice between two systems that are in essence the same in terms of what you’re going to be able to chuck in the bin in terms of quantity, halving it to be precise. I have for a long time taken a great interest in public policy implementation. Those that know me well, know I’m a stickler for efficiency, I don’t like waste so please indulge me while I get my head around this policy.

As a resident of Walsall MBC, I can choose and I probably would, to ditch my 240 litre bin for a 120 litre bin that Walsall Council will empty every week. Lets say hypothetically that my neighbour and for arguments sake, everyone else in my street retain their 240 litre bin that Walsall Council will empty every fortnight.

If I’m due for a weekly collection that means the binmen have to come to my street every week just to collect my bin but nobody else’s. That at least from my perspective smacks of a very inefficient use of public resources. So will there be a quota? A set percentage of properties needed in a street to justify a weekly collection, if so then that’s not real choice or as this humble old cynic suspects, is this a case of attempting to introduce fortnightly collections by the back door without the Tories in Walsall having the bottle to go to the public openly with the policy at an election or stand up and justify it?

Then we move on to the issue that is very much an individual case for Walsall as it doesn’t affect any of the neighbouring authorities.

In Walsall, residents who require a new/replacement for broken/stolen wheelie bin have to pay Walsall MBC

Comparative economics, carbon off-setting and Kyoto targets

Yes, I’m getting back to a little bit more on the serious issues again but please don’t be put off by the title.

A while back I intended to write a long article that never happened and this issue was going to play a part in it.

The primary inspiration for it was an article on the BBC’s website which I really can’t be bothered to hunt out now which reported that only Britain and Sweden in the EU were on target to meet the conditions of the Kyoto agreement as regards carbon-emissions.

Good news of course to us conscientious environmentally aware and active Brits that we’re leading the world on this issue. I remember too well the news back in the 80’s when Britain was branded the ‘dirty man’ of Europe with our factories belching out sulphur dioxide that was destroying the forests of Norway, Sweden and Finland. We’ve obviously come a very long way since then. Or have we?

Now we’ve had a bit of news the last few days that actually the UK’s carbon emissions rose last year but I’m not going to jump onto that issue to take an all too easy swipe at the Government. I’m more interested in longer term trends and patterns which, at least as far as your humble Penguin can surmise, have gone completely unnoticed.

Here’s where we get into a bit of economics. I want to introduce the concept of comparative competitive advantage. It’s a well established economic theory which basically means one country can produce some goods better or more efficiently than the other so if countries trade the goods they are both best at, the whole system is more efficient, productive etc etc etc.

The classical example of this is to consider two countries. Country A is somewhere say in the Caribbean, nice hot climate but not much in the way of industrial raw materials. Country B is somewhere in northern Europe, much colder climate but relatively rich in terms of mineral and energy resources. Country A can produce Bananas a lot better than country B because it’s got the right climate. However country A requires various agricultural equipment and tools that country B is better placed to manufacture. So they happily produce what they’re best at, trade the goods, everything is more efficiently done and everyone’s happy.

With that in mind I’d like to return to this Britain seeming to be doing quite well on the old Kyoto targets compared to everyone else except Sweden.

I know we’re doing a lot in the UK on this, we should be doing more but we are in terms of our environmental regulation on industry a lot better than most. However this did puzzle me as to why some of the other EU countries weren’t up there particularly those who have been seen to be more ‘green’ than us in the past.

This is where I would like to introduce a ‘new’ concept. Now I have been looking around quite a bit for relevant information and personally I can find no one anywhere who has touched on this issue and it is very important if we are serious about building a long-term sustainable world for the future of our species. As I can’t find anyone who has contemplated this issue then I’m going to claim it as my own although I’d be happy to defer to anyone who can find mention of it else where.

I’m going to call it ‘comparative false carbon off-setting’. Bit of a mouthful I know but bear with me.

This is the theory that by off-setting swathes of economic activity, individual countries can appear at least on the outset as being ‘greener’ than others. So here goes, a brief overview of the UK as an example.

Back in the 70’s, Britain had quite a large industrial base producing goods that were consumed by the British people in Britain. Along comes the Tories and a few million people on the dole later Britain now has a far smaller industrial base which has continued to shrink ever since.

Now have the British become ever more less the consumer. No, and from my own personal experience in comparing to other countries I think it is fair to say that the Brits are some of the most voracious consumers out there. We love all the latest things, clothes, consumer electricals, cars etc etc. So although our ability to produce the goods at home as it were has declined, our desire to purchase has not, and if anything it has increased considerably over the last 30 years.

This means we have to import the goods from elsewhere. We afford to do this by shifting our economic activity to the service sector and here’s where the problem is. However you want to look at it, our economy is built on a service sector that comparably produces less pollution/carbon-emissions than industrial production. Good for us in terms of needing less specific energy for manufacturing, processing raw materials and so yes, when taken from that perspective the UK is doing quite nicely in terms of cutting carbon emissions.

The problem arises from us still wanting the manufactured goods which as they are no longer produced at home come from other countries. Countries that do not have as good environmental standards as ourselves. I’m going to single out China as an example of a country that over the past few years has become a major exporter of goods to the UK. Nothing personal against the Chinese but they have come in for some stick on their environmental record, the rapid growth of manufacturing and their willingness to use high carbon emitting energy sources such as coal to fuel their economy.

Here’s where I find that us Brits put ourselves in a position of being a bit on the hypocritical side because we are happy to blame countries such as China for not doing enough to curb their carbon emissions but that very rise in emissions is of a direct response to the demand for goods by our good selves that the Chinese produce.

We have, through poor economic policy started in the 1980’s left ourselves with the inability to feed those demands at home and thus require not only that the material goods we consumer be manufactured in a way that produces more carbon emissions than it would in our more highly regulated economy, but equally then have to be shipped from the other side of the world incurring yet more carbon emissions.

While countries like France and Germany who aren’t on target to meet their Kyoto targets but still retain large manufacturing bases to supply local demand of their consumers. We have in effect off-set the pollution/carbon-emissions of the manufacturing process required to meet many of our own consumer demands which creates a false image of the relative ‘greeness’ of the economies of different countries.

If we were to try and address this issue by compiling carbon footprints based not just on the economic activity within one economy but by analysing the carbon emissions generated by what is actually consumed then I fear that the UK may not come out in quite so rosy a light as it has done.

Anyway, there’s a thought to consider.

Something serious now, finally.

No, not the post I meant to write which is critical of my own Government but something that’s come up in the last few days.

Now just for the record, it seems I have to put disclaimers before posts now, this isn’t having a go at the Tories although I will file it in the Tory Bashing section. I’m interested in the issue and the practicalities of implementation.

Right, on Sunday the Tories release some plans for environmental issues which would have been an exclusive with the Observer but hey, shit happens and it got leaked. I was a bit disappointed in the sense that they didn’t seem too well thought through.

Haven’t got a problem with higher fuel duty on domestic flights apart from the obvious problems it’s going to cause carriers in terms of competitiveness against foreign firms but hey, we do seriously need to do something about the environment and global warming so I won’t criticise that the good intention isn’t there.

However I’m not too convinced on two other proposals. Flight tax linked to carbon emissions and a tax on ‘frequent’ fliers. Here’s why:

If taxes are linked towards carbon emissions then by and large it’s the firms with the older planes that are going to get hit worst. Those carriers with newer fleets with more efficient planes won’t. Good if you’re EasyJet or Ryanair with sparkly new planes less than a decade old ironically the carriers that are being blamed because of their business approach. Not so good if you’re BA and other carriers with planes approaching 30 years old. Turnover of fleets is slow in the aviation industry, 50 years is a regular lifespan of a plane and as much as I might wish to see the Tories cause themselves problems, someone might have suggested this proposal will annoy quite a lot of business people who normally have a predisposition to supporting them.

However it’s this idea about taxing frequent fliers that I’m more interested in. Apart from frequent fliers generally being business people, a pillar of Tory support and people they might not want to annoy if they intend getting back into power any time soon, it’s the implementation and practicalities of the issue that I’m more concerned about.

Recently there was a bit of bandwaggon jumping by the Tories regarding the issue of road pricing, tracking cars and making people pay by the mile, personally I think it’s a bit of a crap idea too but for a start this is effectively the same thing, it’s just in the air instead of on the ground. What it does require is the ability to track every single man woman and child in the country to see where they’re flying to and keep a record of that so as to tax them appropriately. This of course poses a big challenge for anyone wishing to implement such a policy as the only feasible way would be through a logging system and hey presto we’re back to the idea of ID cards and there being some Government department somewhere tracking exactly where you’re going. Not wishing to be rude but the Tories have said they’ll scrap ID cards and have played up their concerns on how it will restrict individual liberty. By proposing such a scheme this does make them sound rather hypocritical.

Anyway, today comes an announcement by Gordon Brown. Where the tact on meeting the challenges of reducing our countries carbon emissions is focused not on aviation but on households and, party politics aside as regular readers will know I’m quite keen on environmental issues, I think Gordon’s got it right or at least more right than the Tories.

Aviation is a very small proportion of carbon emissions yet it receives vastly more attention than it deserves. Yes it is an area of growth but even in the context of transport carbon emissions it’s nothing compared to cars, an issue the Tories have diligently steered away from.

Homes and businesses on the other hand are where we can make a real impact with probably the minimum level of investment and change to both lifestyle and living standards. If we accept that we may not be able to achieve complete carbon zero housing but address the inefficiencies in our nations housing stock then we can make a massive dent in the carbon footprint of our country. Some of these can be by incentive in terms of grants for insulation and others can be by diktat by regulating out the use of standby buttons on consumer electricals and how about banning the sale of incandescent light bulbs. If memory serves me correctly Australia or New Zealand has, pretty sure it’s Australia. The amount of energy and therefore both our countries carbon footprint and it’s reliance on outside power sources can be dramatically reduced.

It doesn’t take some complicated scheme of tracking everyone’s movements. It’s relatively easy to achieve change and not only will it be beneficial to the environment but also to our pockets in the long run.

So on that basis, and as there’s been a bit of a media circus focussing on who’s the greenest; Brown or Cameron then I think on balance Brown is attending to a more serious problem and in a much more straight forward and easier to achieve way than Cameron at the moment. However I will concur with Tom Watson on this one. I know how he feels having been digging this weekend and getting ready to plant my crops to feed the family, this being green ain’t arf painful at times.

It pays to shop around – Part I

I took a little trip to Wolverhampton today. I didn’t really go with any particular thing in mind, it was simply a ‘get out and about a bit’ impulse.
While I was there however, I decided to do two things. The first was to check out the new Windows operating system Vista. I’ve written the odd thing about it but thought I should at least have a play with it first and try and give it a fair evaluation despite my predisposed position of not being too keen on it.
So I wondered up to Curry’s in the Manders Centre and tried to fiddle around with it.
The computers showing it off were pre-configured with nice sales stuff about the system but ultimately I wasn’t able to actually get to the system itself.
What I wanted to know was how it worked and felt to use. Plus, boot and shutdown times.
I wasn’t able to do this in Curry’s and apparently they’re not too keen on letting customers turn their machines on and off so I tootled up to PC World on the ring road.
There I actually got into a system and my first impression was what’s the difference. They seem to have changed the menu’s around a bit, renamed things so you don’t know what you’re looking for but that’s about it.
PC World didn’t seem to mind me shutting their computers down and rebooting them, although they simply may not have noticed.
Now the PC that I was on was a reasonably good specification. An Intel Core Duo processor, a gig of RAM, fairly tasty graphics card so obviously should have been no slouch when it came to doing things but the first thing I noticed was, even given this quite good specification, it did take rather a long time to shut down and reboot.
One thing they have seemed to have sorted out and this is something XP users will probably be familiar with is the old fiddle that Microsoft pulled to speed up boot times.
When you boot up XP, your desktop appears but you’re unable to actually do anything because although you can see it, the system still hasn’t loaded properly yet. This is a marvelous example of trying to appear to be quicker but actually not. However with this in mind as soon as the desktop came up I went straight for the ‘start’ button which is now a sort of circle with the Microsoft logo on it and it came straight up so that was good. Apart from it actually took a fair time to load in the first place.
The next thing I wanted to try was multi-tasking. Windows has been historically quite poor on this but although it was hard to guage given the few number of programmes available and them not being of the more hungry variety it did seem to be an improvement on XP, but that’s not really saying that much and my Linux machine is still better at multi-tasking despite it only being an old 1Ghz Celeron with 512Mb of RAM.
The final thing I wanted to check out was the graphical user interface.
Microsoft have been playing this up for ages, the whole 3D desktop with Aero glass windows. This was a bit problematic to work out but in fairness to Vista, it’s help menus are better than previous Windows operating systems and a few minutes later I had it set up to do the whole Aero 3D thing.
The 3D desktop I quite liked. It was nice, a bit fiddly to get used to; requiring pressing the Windows key, Ctrl and Tab in various orders while scrolling the mouse but it is nice, accurate and pretty. Of course you could already flip between programmes like this in XP simple by holding Alt and clicking Tab but it is nice, I’ll give it that so there’s a really big tick for it.
Then I tried Aero glass windows. This is apparently designed to make the windows semi-transparent so you can see the things behind them. It’s crap, simple as that, it doesn’t work. The transparency is so bad that unless the text behind the window is 20pt or higher it’s completely illegible. It is the equivalent of trying to read the newspaper through a frosted glass bathroom window and this is one of the reasons Vista requires state of the art graphics cards?
There’s been a GUI (graphical user interface) for Linux systems for the past 18 months or so that does this, plus a lot more which doesn’t require half the graphics capabilities and it pisses past this. If you’d like to see it in action, try YouTube and search for ‘XGL’ personally I like the whole cube desktop thing, it’s cool.
So what’s my final evaluation of Vista?
Microsoft appear to have made multi-tasking a lot better which is a big plus. However this was a clean system not running anything particularly strenuous. How it would be after a years of use and all manner of different things having been installed and uninstalled on it, well that may be another thing.
The 3D thing is good, I will give it that. Aero is a pile of rubbish so in so far as improvements to the GUI gained, marked against the significant requirements of the graphics card I don’t think they really justify the extra expense for what you get.
Shut down and boot times are pretty poor too. I didn’t time it with a stopwatch but I’d hazard a guess it takes 4-5 times longer to load and probably the same again to shut down than my Linux box despite the vastly differing specification of the machines.
How would I sum it up in comparison to my Linux system?
I think a good analogy would be to compare US to European cars. Vista can do the stuff, it can get up to speed but it’s carrying so much extra weight and therefore needs a good 5 litre V8 engine under the bonnet to achieve it. My Linux system, it does the same thing, actually quicker, but does it with the equivalent of a 1.1 litre Volkwagon Polo engine. Which is not a bad comparison because just like a car, a Vista system requires a lot more juice. OK, maybe not a big difference in cost for a home user with one machine, but businesses and schools with whole suites of machines would be different. Vista has a bit of bad form for costing more, not only in new hardware but in the increased need for power and therefore knock-on problems for the environment.
Final word. I’m sticking to Linux. Plus, it’s free, I don’t believe in paying lots of money for crap.