Wednesday, 30 September 2015

the oh! zone

Amid the scandal that has erupted over Volkswagen following the discovery that it has been cheating on tests of emissions from its diesel cars in the United States, reporting has been misleading and/or inaccurate. For example, there has been confusion over the nature of the pollutants emitted by diesel engines, and over the emissions that are being tested for.

I have not been able to confirm this, but it has been reported that the pollutants being tested for were NOx, an umbrella term for the three oxides of nitrogen, nitrous oxide, nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide. Nitrogen is a fairly inert gas, which explains why it makes up almost 80 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. And there are only two natural ways in which it can combine with oxygen to produce NOx or nitrate ions: during electric storms and by nitrogen-fixing bacteria on the roots of leguminous plants.

But there is a problem. The sparks that ignite the fuel/air mixture in a petrol engine create an electric storm in miniature, which leads to the conversion of some nitrogen to NOx. However, diesel engines do not have spark plugs, so I cannot see how oxides of nitrogen can be produced in such an environment.

Of course, I may be wrong, and diesel engines do produce NOx, but there has been no discussion of the nature of these pollutants in the mainstream media. Although nitrous oxide is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, the real danger from these gases occurs in locations with copious amounts of sunshine and a lot of cars. The oxides of nitrogen and unburnt hydrocarbons are converted by ultraviolet radiation to peroxyacyl nitrates (PANs), which are severe eye and respiratory irritants and key ingredients in photochemical smog. This is a different kind of smog to that for which London was once famous, and unsurprisingly the type location is Los Angeles.

Four days ago, I came across an article on the BBC News website by the corporation’s environment correspondent Matt McGrath under the title ‘Concern over hidden diesel pollutant’. I thought that this article might be discussing PANs, but it turned out to be full of vagueness and inaccuracy, not the kind of thing I’d expect from a science journalist. Here is one particularly egregious piece of nonsense:
Researchers found that long-chain hydrocarbons are significantly under-reported in car manufacturer’s [sic] data.
These hydrocarbons are a key component of two of the worst air pollutants, ozone and particulate matter.
Oh really! The last time I checked, ozone was a form of molecular oxygen formed by three atoms instead of the two in the gas we breathe to stay alive. It is possible that long-chain hydrocarbons perform some kind of catalytic function in the production of ozone, but this is not what the quoted statement is suggesting. They are not ‘a key component’. Ozone contains neither carbon nor hydrogen, even in trace amounts.

The mistake is made again, in different words, later in the article:
But diesel also contains more complex, long-chain hydrocarbons, whose role in air pollution has been little understood until now.
They can form dangerous air pollutants, especially ozone and particulate matter, which are emitted into the air as unburned fuel or diesel vapour.
This re-statement of the error is made worse by the grammatical chaos of the second sentence. Leaving aside the annoying journalistic habit of making each sentence a new paragraph, the real problem in that second sentence is the relative clause. It is probably intended to qualify ‘dangerous air pollutants’, but I’ve reached this conclusion only because the statement would be untrue if the relative clause was intended to qualify ‘ozone and particulate matter’, which I have every right to expect it to do given its position in the sentence. And to cap it all off there is the pleonasm: is there really a difference between ‘unburned fuel’ and ‘diesel vapour’?

Of course, long-chain hydrocarbons are the main constituents of particulate matter. By the way, I do wonder how well the average person understands this phrase. Perhaps ‘soot’ could be used instead. At least it would help people to form a concrete image of the problem, which in turn might encourage more people to give up their cars. These are—regardless of their manufacturer or of the possible ubiquity of fiddled tests—the real problem.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

memory games #2

In Memory Games, posted earlier this month, I suggested a way to alleviate the tedium of commuting to work in trains so crowded that it is impossible to use a smartphone. Here’s another. This time, the objective is to produce the longest possible ‘story’ using only three-letter words. As the name implies, you have to commit the expanding story to memory.

Unlike in the earlier game, you are allowed to use words more than once. A dictionary is likely to be of little use, even if you could access one. This is what I came up with before I decided to stop and write it down:
His wig did not fit, was far too big and now hid one eye, but the old man did see his son hit the fat dog and run off via the red tin hut and the big oak. Why did the boy hit the dog? For fun, you may say, but yes his act was bad.

Yet the wee boy was not the one who hit the cat. The rat was the one who hit the cat, who ate the hot eel pie. The dog did not eat the pie, and the rat got the bag out for the cat.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

the lighter side of pollution

When I started photographing oil/petrol stains on wet roads several years ago, it was in response to a glut of such images in and around the village where I live in Hong Kong. Several of these images have since appeared in various instalments in my Photographic Abstraction series, but both literally and metaphorically, the supply of new images soon dried up. At the time, I conjectured that the stains were caused by just one vehicle, and that its owner had either sold the car to someone outside the village, had had it repaired or had himself moved out of the village.

However, this conjecture may not be correct. This summer in the UK, although I cannot produce figures to support my observation, there have been many more wet days than the long-term average, but the total rainfall during the past few months has been below average. This apparent anomaly can be explained by pointing out that there has been a lot of mizzle this year. If you’re not familiar with this term, it is a portmanteau word for a type of rain that is intermediate in character between mist and drizzle.

Clearly, heavy rain will wash away a stain very quickly (and the pollutants will end up in the local river system), but mizzle merely provides a thin layer of water upon which any pollutants can float, so stains remain in situ for longer than is usual, which explains why I’ve seen so many this summer. Colour Field Analysis, which I posted in June, was the result of a mere ninety-minute stroll around town, and two days ago, I took almost forty photos on a similar walk (some of these are featured below).

The lighter and more volatile hydrocarbons, such as petrol and diesel, provide the most colourful pictures. Engine oil, by contrast, produces only a silvery blue smear. There are several different types of stain. The commonest type is what I refer to as an undisturbed point source. These appear to have come from stationary vehicles, and a good example is The Wow Factor:

the wow factor

The title of this photo refers to the way I came across it. It occurred at the entrance to a busy roundabout, and as I was crossing the road my attention focused on seeing if there was any traffic coming. When I turned to face the direction in which I was walking, this stain was right in front of my feet, prompting me to utter a not-so-silent ‘wow!’ and reach for my camera.

Another type of stain involves a fairly substantial amount of pollutant, which appears to have come from a moving vehicle. The next photo is a good example:


Large amounts of pollutant can get spread out over time by the wheels of other vehicles, as seen in the next photo:

the dragon’s breath

A rare form is shown in the next photo: an actual river of petrol. The vehicle leaking this petrol must have been haemorrhaging it by the gallon. This photo was taken directly in front of my house.

rivers of babylon

The remaining photos show more variations on the point-source theme, with additional comments where appropriate.

asexual reproduction

cross-eyed mary

The title of this photo references a track on Jethro Tull’s classic 1971 album Aqualung.

under the sea


smoke on the water

The title of this photo references a track on Deep Purple’s 1972 album Machine Head. Smoke on the Water describes a notorious incident during a Mothers concert in 1971 in which a member of the audience fired a flare into the roof. It contains the following words:
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Had the best place around.
But some stupid with a flare-gun
Burned the place to the ground.
the mysterious east

I see hints of Indian iconography in this image, although others may not.

the screamingly obvious

In case you don’t understand the title of this picture, it’s staring you in the face. This photo appeared in the ‘yourpics’ section of the BBC News website on 27th January 2016.

Finally, here are three images to which I have not given titles, mainly because I couldn’t think of anything appropriate. You might like to suggest suitable ones.

untitled #1

untitled #2

untitled #3

On a technical note, you will not be surprised to learn that oil stains don’t look like any of these photos. I use Microsoft’s Picture Manager to crop the images to a standard shape, then to crank up the contrast and the colour saturation and finally to reduce the brightness. However, if colours are not visible in an oil stain before it is photographed, then no amount of manipulation will produce the colours you see here. All that will result is a fuzzy blue haze, hints of which can be seen around the edges of some of the images above.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

songs of praise

Last week, the newly elected leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, was roundly criticized in the British press for not singing the national anthem at a service to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of the Battle of Britain. I didn’t join in the criticism, because I’ve never sung the UK’s national anthem either, although I suspect that my reasons for not doing so are not the same as Corbyn’s.

I’m not a republican—imagine having a mountebank like Tony Blair as head of state—although I don’t have a sense of fealty to the monarchy either. I do have a problem with making a supplication to an entity that probably doesn’t exist, although I can happily sing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen at Christmas—because it has a stirring tune.

This is my objection to the national anthem of the country where I was born. It’s a dirge, a tune that without its words would not be out of place at a funeral. I probably haven’t heard all the world’s national anthems, but God Save the Queen is easily the worst that I’ve heard. A revolutionary anthem like La Marseillaise would be a big improvement, but we haven’t the same revolutionary history as France, even though we did once cut off the head of a king.

And I wouldn’t want a sentimental ditty about my country’s flag, like The Star-Spangled Banner. In fact, a national flag is only slightly less pointless than a national anthem. We even have a national drink, the very idea of which is ridiculous. And I would have chosen bitter beer rather than tea. As for our recently named national bird, the robin, which was selected by popular vote, I would have chosen the peregrine falcon. Most of those who voted have probably never seen one.

If we are to have a new national anthem, then there are three candidates, all of which have superior credentials for the job. We can probably discount Parry’s Jerusalem because of the overt references in Blake’s words to England rather than Britain, so it would have no more legitimacy as a national anthem than Flower of Scotland or Land of my Fathers.

However, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 in D major, popularly known, in this country at least, as Land of Hope and Glory, would be a good choice, except that as a relatively recent composition, it has been appropriated in the USA for graduations and similar solemn but secular ceremonies, which has the unintended effect of trivializing it.

Rule Britannia may seem unduly boastful, but if Germans can sing Deutschland Über Alles, then a little in-your-face nationalism can surely be justified for the British, who at least until 1945 had more to boast about.

Whichever anthem we choose, the one thing we must avoid is bombast, as exemplified in the past by the anthem of the Soviet Union and in the present by that of China. If only someone could come up with a tune as good as Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika, which is the national anthem of no fewer than three countries. Of course, I have only the vaguest of ideas as to what the song is about, but I imagine the citizens of Tanzania and Zambia will be just as puzzled, given that the words are in the South African language Xhosa. If we did have a brand new anthem, perhaps we could get a Geordie choir to sing it, complete with Geordie dialect words and accent.

Finally, perhaps I can offer a few words of advice for Mr Corbyn:
Sing the bloody song Jez! It doesn’t mean anything.

Friday, 11 September 2015

memory games

I’m fortunate that I’ve only ever had to commute to work for two short periods: from Highbury in north London, where I lived at the time, between 1979 and 1981; and from Sai Kung in the eastern New Territories to Aberdeen on the south side of Hong Kong Island, between 1985 and 1987. Nowadays, most people fill these utterly empty minutes by fiddling with a tablet or smartphone, but in those days, there were no Angry Birds, no Candy Crush, to while away the time, and although I no longer work, let alone commute, I still employ the same strategy to pass the otherwise empty minutes whenever I travel on public transport.

The idea is to construct the longest possible sentence using only words that begin with the same letter. No word may be used more than once, a dictionary or thesaurus may not be consulted, and the sentence cannot be written down (hence ‘memory games’) as it grows longer. I can no longer remember the exact sentence I came up with at the time, although I do recall that it involved ‘alarmingly aggressive alligator armies’, but I would say that the longest possible sentence uses words that begin with the letter A—there are several conjunctions and prepositions beginning with this letter—so for the purposes of this post I’m going to use the letter O.

The sentence will grow in stages, but the obvious place to start is with the main verb and its subject. The existence of the conjunction or means that the subject can be a list, and the verb should be transitive to allow for an object. This is my proposed starting point:
opticians, optimists or onlookers offer opinions…
Obviously, each of the four nouns needs an adjective to complement it:
obese opticians, obsessive optimists or ordinary onlookers offer orthodox opinions…
This can be expanded by adding adverbs and a preposition:
only outrageously obese opticians, obstinately obsessive optimists or otherwise ordinary onlookers offer orthodox opinions on…
I won’t go through all the iterations, but this is what I eventually came up with:
Originally, only outrageously obese opticians, obstinately obsessive optimists or otherwise ordinary onlookers offered orthodox opinions on officially organized operations, occasionally opposing oppressive orders of obnoxious oafs.
Remember, you shouldn’t be writing anything down or consulting a dictionary if you try this game. To do either of these is to render the exercise pointless. You may think that it’s already pointless, but when you’re crammed so closely to other people that it’s impossible to do anything other than think, what are you going to do?