Friday, 29 March 2019


Just a very quick blog post to advertise another blog I recently wrote, as part of the SWEET project. You can see my post at

For those not in the know, SWEET stands for "Super Warm Early Eocene Temperatures" and is the current project I am working on at the University of Bristol. The early Eocene, roughly 55-50 million years ago, was a time when the world was very different from today, with higher global mean temperatures (of around 5°C) than today and, in particular, much higher temperatures at the poles (potentially up to 20°C higher than today).   This weaker pole-equator temperature gradient resulted in a world without ice, and where all but the driest deserts were covered in rich vegetation (including Antarctica).

The reason I am interested in this period is because, unlike other periods in the past that were also warmer than today (e.g. the mid-Holocene, ~6kya), the early Eocene temperatures can be directly attributed to much higher levels of atmospheric CO2. In fact, levels that could have been up to 4 times higher than today. Given that all future projections of climate change predict higher global mean temperatures due to increasing CO2, and the last time CO2 reached our predicted levels was during the early Eocene, it makes this period a highly appropriate analogue for future climate change.

My current task, as you can read in the above blog post, is to model it!

Friday, 29 September 2017

SMA Awareness Week: Some (possibly controversial) musings

For those of you who know me well, you will know that historically I have purposefully stayed away from all things related to disability.  This is partly because I reject the notion that if you are disabled then you should automatically be involved in that world - it would be extremely racist to suggest black people should only have black friends, yet a similar assumption about the disabled is commonly held.  It is also because, in my experience, the views of many disabled people I have met tend to diverge significantly from my own, and I therefore feel like I have little in common with them.  However, in recent years my once semi-militant views have mellowed significantly, and I am now tentatively becoming more involved.

As such, for the last year or so I have been volunteering for a couple of Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) charities, either by providing support and advice or by writing articles for them.  This week, beginning on Saturday 23 September 2017 is SMA Awareness Week, which culminates on the 30th with SMA Awareness Day.  In preparation, I was asked to write a short piece about SMA and why we should support research into it.  I will admit I had no idea what to write.  So, to get inspiration, I checked out all of the various websites, banners, flyers and the like.  I was overwhelmed, and indeed depressed, by the total negativity of absolutely everything I read.  Endless stories of dead children and babies, grieving parents, struggles at school, nasty operations, an inability to find work or form relationships, etc etc.  Very few stories of any people just getting on with it – the only stories that I found along these lines where written by people who have spent their lives banging the drum.  This, in my opinion, can also give a negative impression overall – because, unfortunately, in my experience the ‘disability brigade’ often go too far one way or another, EITHER saying how horrible everything is for them and how something must be done, OR saying how difficult everything is but “look at me and how well I doing despite everything”.  So, society views us either as wasters and whingers, or superhumans beating all adversity.  There is rarely a middle ground.

Therefore, I wrote this article.  My Godfather, himself a retired consultant anaesthetist, read an early draft and summarised my ramblings in one neat sentence: “Putting it simply the caring and medical services fit round the life rather than the life fitting round the services”.  However, as he correctly admitted, hospital doctors very rarely see it like that.  Perhaps, even if unknowingly, my piece was attempting to educate people along these lines.

So… As I said, I was invited to write a short article about SMA and why we should support research into it and raise awareness.  Although I fully intend to meet this brief, what I am about to say might be considered by many as controversial - if this causes offence to anyone, either those with SMA or their families, then I apologise.

In short - SMA is not necessarily always that bad.

Before I am bombarded with hate mail, a little bit of background about me: I am 36 years old and I have severe Type II SMA (borderline Type I).  With no exaggeration, I can only (just) lift a finger.  I use an electric wheelchair, need 24-hour non-invasive ventilation (NIV) and obviously require someone-else to do absolutely everything for me, 24/7.

However, despite this I am a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Reading and part-time lecturer at the University of Oxford, having obtained my doctorate roughly 11 years ago and working full-time in academia since then.  I am an internationally recognised scientist, have published significantly (including an undergraduate textbook several years ago) and have lectured extensively across the world.  I live independently from my family, employing a team of people that I manage myself with funding from my local Social Services.  Outside of work, I am an experienced traveller and am fortunate enough, either through work or pleasure, to have been able to visit countries within every continent.  I am lucky enough to have someone very special in my life, and we regularly indulge our passion for travelling and experiencing new cultures, languages and food.  At home, I am a keen foodie, enthusiastic home-cook and amateur restaurant critic, and am also an experienced yachtsman.

Now, I am most definitely not saying that my life is perfect - I have my fair share of problems.  I have bad days, like everyone else - regardless of whether they have extra needs or not.  I am certainly not writing this to boast.  The point I’m trying to make is that, if the will is there, then SMA is not always the barrier that many people assume.  Of course, I’m very aware that there are many worse-off people and children more affected by SMA than I - and many less so - but quality of life is a highly subjective concept and indeed some people, as has been reported in the news several times recently, would rather end their lives than live like I do.  Therefore, regardless of severity, SMA isn’t always the living hell that many people suggest, or rather it doesn’t have to be.

For those of you who are parents of someone with SMA - of course, I cannot speak for you because I am not yet a father.  I cannot possibly comprehend what it is like, as a parent, to be given that diagnosis.  But, what I can say, is that it is no longer the hopeless death-sentence that it was when my parents were told 36 years ago.  Research into SMA is progressing all the time, increasing rapidly with the introduction of treatments such as Spinraza, and this is one very strong reason to support future research into this field.  However, in the meantime, current technology (e.g. electric wheelchairs, NIV, eye gaze software, etc) exists to allow your child to lead a long, full and exciting life.  With your support, there is absolutely no reason why your child can’t achieve everything they wish, whether it’s a cracking education, successful career, a family of their own, etc etc.  Another thing I can say, connected to the beginning of that last sentence, is that the diagnosis of your child no longer means you have to give up your dreams and ambitions and be a slave to them (or rather, no more than any other parent).  My father, for example, has had a passion for sailing since he was 12, and now in their 60s my parents are only truly happy when out on the water.  He is, in the nicest possible way, a stubborn man - so the idea of giving up his passion just because he had a disabled son would have been completely ridiculous.  Fortunately, he is also a very resourceful man and pretty handy when it comes to DIY, so every single boat he has owned through the years has been modified slightly - a door added, a bulkhead removed, a seat fitted - to enable me to come along.  I was not always impressed by this, particularly as a stroppy teenager who wanted to see his mates rather than being dragged out sailing every weekend - but one of the many positives to come out of this was that I didn’t develop the sense of entitlement that, sadly, some disabled people possess.  Our family joke was, and still is, “the boat comes first”.  My parents did not treat me as special, unique or requiring bubble-wrap as protection, they just got on with it.  Therefore, your child’s diagnosis, although there will undoubtedly be difficult times, does not mean you have to forget about your own ambitions and treat them like they were made from crystal - you probably will feel like their slave, even after they turn 18, but that should have nothing to do with SMA.

For those of you with SMA, regardless of age - ditto the above sentiments.  Anything is possible, with the right mindset (both yours and those around you).  You have probably heard that many times before, as have I, and find it highly irritating.  You might be thinking “what does he know about what I’m going through, I’m different” - and my response would be “I don’t know what you are going through and yes you are different”.  I am not trying to be inspirational, and thoroughly dislike the often condescending tone of people who usually say this.  But the principle is the same.  Of course, don’t be unrealistic - if your ambition is to play up-front for Arsenal, you may have to modify your expectations somewhat.  But, being realistic, as long as the will is there, then no barrier is insurmountable - the problems only begin when the will is not there.  Working part-time for a disability charity does not have to be the best you can hope for, not if you don’t want to 4.  SMA does not have to define you, if you don’t want it to.  I will admit that I am often irritated by the numerous so-called ‘inspirational’ disabled people, who claim that they are not defined by their disability - yet spend every day talking about it, work in the field of disability, post on Facebook about it, etc.  I’m not saying you shouldn’t, just that it’s not the only available option open to you. 

Personally, I do not see SMA as something intrinsically separate - I have no sense of ‘me but with a disease’.  It is deeply ingrained into my DNA, as much as is being male or white, but that doesn’t mean it is the defining feature.  I do not really think about it, do not talk about it all the time (my Facebook timeline should confirm this), and certainly do not blame any of my problems on it.  I would probably have many of them anyway.

So, this SMA Awareness Week, I would urge everyone to absolutely spread the word and encourage people to support research into SMA.  Of course, pioneering research into SMA, to better understand it and perhaps one day find a cure, is a hugely worthwhile activity.  But it shouldn’t be the only aim.  In addition, I believe SMA Awareness Week should also focus on the positives, and all the good things people with SMA have done and are doing on a daily basis, some of whom go unnoticed because they are not constantly banging a drum.  In doing so, I believe it’s important to avoid the negative rhetoric of ‘curing this dreadful condition’ and rather concentrate on a better understanding of SMA, so that people with it are able to achieve as much as they want and parents of someone with it do not despair.  The overall point is just that sometimes, with the right mindset and a bit of luck, having SMA doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Was June really the end of May?

Following the media and political furore of Friday 9 June 2017, the day after the snap General Election, we all now know the outcome.  As always, the social media platforms were awash with comments and rants, pretty much straightaway.  After the EU referendum last year, I also began ranting straight away.  This time, however, I have purposefully waited at least 24 hours before commenting - I wanted to have time to digest and assimilate, think and contemplate, reflect and meditate, before making my opinions known.  So, here goes.

Although I began yesterday morning thinking this was a good result, and that a weaker Tory government and stronger opposition was the best possible realistic outcome, now I'm not so sure.

There are, of course, positives, of which there were many yesterday.  Here are a few:
  • Positive #1: May, and the Tories in general, got a well-deserved pounding, and May emerged yesterday visibly battered and bruised.  She made a massive gamble, and it spectacularly backfired.  She was arrogant and ran a complacent campaign, assuming that the people would simply fall in line.  She refused to interact with real people and U-turned on several issues.  She is now paying the price.
  • Positive #2: Corbyn did an amazing job.  I will admit I was against him at the beginning, and still am against some of his policies.  However, I will take my hat off and congratulate him on a really good campaign.  He galvanised the youth resulting in an unprecedented turnout, brought back politics from the traditional sleazy image and achieved a huge increase in support.  He, and Labour supporters, should see this as a big victory, and I will eat humble pie and think much better of him from now on.
  • Positive #3: The increase in left-wing support and decrease in right-wing ideology proved to the world that, despite Brexit, we are not all inward-looking self-serving citizens, and the virtual destruction of extreme right-wing parties (such as UKIP) is something of which we should be very proud.
  • Positive #4: On a personal note, my constituency finally got rid of that Tory bastard Rob Wilson - who has repeatedly ignored several personal pleas of mine - and we are now Labour.  A well-deserved end to a nasty piece of work.
However, I'm not convinced we should be celebrating as much as some people have been.

At the end of the day, no matter how well Labour did, they still lost - and not by a slim margin.  Admittedly, it was always very unlikely they would win - and they didn't.  Likewise, although my chosen party made small gains, we still lost.  We were always completely unlikely to win - and we didn't.  The other parties in the progressive alliance either stayed the same, or in some cases made losses.

I therefore fail to see how it is the good news that some people are claiming.  Corbyn can call for May's resignation as loudly as he likes, but she will ignore him.  The Labour Party can try as hard as they like to put together a minority government, but the Tories are still larger.  The people have spoken and have demonstrated a rise in left-wing ideology, but the Tories don't care.  Ultimately, they are still in power.  They will still be able to get through all of the nasty policies they proposed, some of which will impact upon me profoundly.

Even worse, their failure to secure a majority has meant that their only option is to request support from the DUP, and undoubtedly will have to make concessions in order to get this support.  Until now, not many of us knew much about the DUP.  However, this is a party that was founded by the Rev Ian Paisley, the embodiment of hardline Unionism, and has been described as "one of the most extreme political entities in the British Isles...".  This is a party that is anti-LGBT+ (and especially anti-gay marriage), anti-abortion, anti-climate change and pro-Brexit.  Of course, assurances have been made by May that these sort of divisive and nasty opinions won't penetrate into Westminster - but if you believe that, you'll believe anything.  Of course they will.

Regarding Brexit: what sort we will have is still very unclear, as is the impact of the DUP on this process.  However, now that May has a stronger opposition, she will be forced to rely more heavily on her own MPs in order to get any agreement made.  Many of them, as we know, are hell-bent on a rock-hard Brexit.  So, in my mind, it's very plausible that she will be forced to go even harder than at present, just to get them on side.  The purpose of the election, according to May, was to destroy the opposition intent on confounding the Brexit process.  Another purpose however, much less publicised by May for obvious reasons, was to gain more of her own MPs, in order to be able to outvote the really hardline Tories.  This plan failed, meaning she now has to rely on these hardline Tories to get anything through.  So, for those of us against the process, this is a far worse situation then it was on Wednesday.  Moreover, she has now shown herself to be the exact opposite of strong and stable, which the Europeans know full well and will punish her for it.  She still believes she is the best person to negotiate, so I fear she will go into the negotiations next week and be eaten alive.  This will undoubtedly result in either no deal, or a terrible one.  I'm not sure which is worse.

So as I said, on balance, I'm now not so convinced that progressive liberals like myself should be celebrating yesterday's surprise result.  Corbyn said repeatedly that people, especially young people, voted for hope - however, sadly, hope lost.  If anything, this will just show the youth that their vote doesn't matter after all.  Labour might be a stronger opposition and Corbyn might be energised by this, but they still have no power.  Although bruised, May's control is still absolute.  She even managed to successfully retain her core vote, the older generations, despite seriously attacking them with a triple-whammy of the pensions triple lock, the dementia tax and winter fuel means-testing.  Yet they still voted for her.

So, returning to the title of this piece, I think the answer is absolutely not.  Whether or not she survives her own party over the coming months is unclear, but on the assumption that the Tories do make an agreement with the DUP, they are still in power and will be for several years.  Opposition is stronger, but still nothing more than that.  Therefore, how was yesterday cause for celebration?

Monday, 7 November 2016

We have a sickness - and it is spreading like the Martian ‘red weed’

I have been meaning to write this for quite some time however, as is the case for many people, there never seems to be enough hours in the day.  However, so many thoughts and ideas have been flying around in my head over the last few months that I thought it was about time I put them, as well as various Facebook and Twitter rants, into a more coherent and logical structure.

Please note that the following piece is not about Brexit per se - that is merely an example of the much wider picture, in my mind.  That being said, whilst I try to be as balanced as possible, in the first paragraph I make my feelings on Brexit very clear.  For those people reading this who voted Leave, you may not like this first paragraph.  You are, of course, entitled to your opinions, as am I.

It is no secret that I was absolutely devastated by the EU Referendum result on 23 June 2016, and continue to be utterly depressed as the farce that is Brexit continues to develop.  The recent High Court ruling that Article 50 cannot actually be triggered without a Parliamentary vote is a small glimmer of hope, but will undoubtedly be contested.  Whilst very serious, I am relatively less upset about the financial and economic ramifications, which are already starting to be felt as the pound continues to weaken; these range from serious impacts to each individual (e.g. rising petrol prices) to the less serious impacts to each individual (e.g. not being able to buy Marmite a few weeks ago).  I am more upset on a moral level.  As I said on Facebook the day after the result, I blame 3 separate bodies: i) the Rt Hon David Cameron and the Tories, for putting their own greed, political aspirations and careers in front of the country’s well-being; ii) the media and in particular the tabloids, for deceiving people and spreading xenophobia and racism throughout the country in a bid for higher readership; and, importantly, iii) the British people, for showing the world that, as a whole, we are a society of inward-looking, self-serving individuals, far more interested in what we can take rather than what we can give.  In a world full of global problems such as climate change, mass migration and terrorism, we have collectively decided that going it alone is better than coming together.  

Throughout history, that way of thinking has always led to disaster.

Obviously we are not all like that, and I would never dream of saying (although sadly some have) that everyone who voted Leave is racist - people voted that way for a number of reasons, including (but not limited to): making a protest vote against the government, never thinking they would actually win; harking back to historical ‘better’ times when Europe was weak and Britain was strong; naïvely believing the lies of the Leave campaign and tabloid newspapers; being overly centred on their own community and not seeing the bigger picture (either through ignorance or on purpose); and, sadly, a large number of people who ARE indeed very xenophobic.  However, whatever our motivations, the image that the world (and especially Europe) now has of us is the one painted above.

In many ways, there are a large number of similarities between the way Brexit developed and was reported in the media and the way climate change is developing and is reported in the media.  In both cases, our side (i.e. the Remain camp and those who know climate change is real and dangerous) is predominantly presented by the broadsheets, and argued by the younger generations, the educated (and often middle) classes, the academics and experts, and the majority of politicians who lean to the Left.  The trouble with these groups is that they are in a minority and are often not trusted by the majority.  I, and my colleagues, will never forget the statement by the Rt. Hon. Michael Gove: “people in this country have had enough of experts” - for an expert like myself, albeit not in politics or economics, this is a deeply troubling attitude.  Worryingly, though, it is probably true for a large number of people.  Another major problem with our side is that we are often not very vocal, instead citing facts and figures and being conservative (with a small c), balanced and cautious in our claims for fear of getting the science/facts wrong.  The Remain camp, in my opinion, lost because we focused on all the negative impacts of leaving the EU, rather than the positive impacts of staying in it - allowing the Leave campaign to shout ‘Project Fear’ after every announcement.  Likewise, those of us warning about climate change are focusing on the numerous negative impacts and, to prevent or at least mitigate these impacts, we are advising actions which will be painful at both the individual level (e.g. cutting down on car use) and the governmental level (e.g. reducing carbon emissions).  I’m not saying we should focus on the positive side of climate change - there are a small number of positives for certain countries, but these are greatly outweighed by the negatives - but that perhaps we need to be more vocal and work harder to get our message across better.

In contrast, in both cases the other side (i.e. the Leave camp and climate change sceptics/deniers) is predominantly presented by the tabloids, and argued by the older generations, the less educated classes, and the majority of politicians who lean to the Right.  This side, and in particular the tabloids, are very very vocal, and are also often in greater numbers.  When it came to Brexit, the Leave campaign and the tabloids spun numerous lies (many of which they have now openly admitted were lies) but with a positive and loud spin.  As a result, whether through ignorance, naivete or on purpose, a large number of people believed them.  When it comes to denying climate change, the tabloids are again citing unproven research, ‘experts’ that are either unrecognised or discredited by the rest of the scientific community, and theories that have been categorically disproven - however, and this is the point, they do it loudly and often it sounds very plausible.  Even as an expert in climate change, I sometimes have to think hard about a certain claim - so what chance does someone have who is not an expert?

Moving away from climate change and back to politics… as I said at the beginning, in my opinion Brexit is merely an example of the much bigger picture.  We are seeing similar attitudes across the world, be it the rise in right-wing parties in France and Germany, or the very real risk that Mr Donald Trump becomes the next US President tomorrow.  All of this, in my opinion (and I’m sure I’m not the first person to think this), is underpinned by the same thing.  We have a sickness.  This sickness has always been present, becoming very evident at certain times throughout history, and now it is being brought out by the likes of Mr Trump and the right-wing parties.  It is a sickness that each and every one of us has on an innate human level, but that many of us successfully manage to suppress, ignore and rise above.  

It is simply a fear and distrust of those who are not like ourselves.  

This is not confined and targeted towards any one minority group - since the EU Referendum in the UK we have seen an increase in hate crimes against numerous groups, including Muslims, the disabled, women and ethnic minorities.  It appears to have been legitimised.  Mr Trump, the right-wing parties and right-wing propaganda are slowly and surely bringing this sickness to the surface, and an increasing number of people are giving in and allowing their sickness to consume them.

The cause of this current epidemic is not just Mr Trump or the right-wing parties.  I admit this next statement might be controversial, but I would say that, right now, the so-called Islamic State is winning.  It is achieving all of its goals.  It is not winning on a day-to-day timescale, in that we are not all cowering at home, terrified to go out to public places; in contrast, whenever an attack does occur, there is generally a feeling of solidarity among those affected and the wider world.  But, on a longer timescale, they ARE winning - in that, through their attacks, they are causing the sickness to spread, insidiously and slowly, creeping into our minds like the red weed in Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.  Mr Trump and the right-wing parties, for political gain, are using and accelerating this process, and in my opinion this road eventually leads to only one outcome.

To lighten the mood ever so slightly, this outcome is scarily depicted by the writings of Gene Roddenberry, the original creator of Star Trek.  Gene Roddenberry died in October 1991 so, throughout his life although terrorism existed in smaller regions (e.g. the IRA or Basque separatists), the idea of global terrorism and IS was not yet around.  Nevertheless, the back story to Star Trek (which was first aired on TV in the US in 1966) is that at some point in the mid-21st century a power emerges and gradually threatens global freedom and democracy.  

Does any of this sound familiar?  

In the Star Trek story, this ultimately results in World War III and the death of millions due to nuclear warfare.  The Earth is left devastated and all governments are dissolved, with the world being divided into individual factions.  Eventually, many years later, First Contact is finally made with extra-terrestrial life and issues in an era of global peace, as we finally learn we are not alone in the universe.  Of course, I am not saying that the 2nd part of the story will happen (although it could), but in my mind the first half of the story feels very very familiar.  If Mr Trump becomes the next US President, if other countries in Europe follow Brexit, if existing alliances and groups break up, if people who want to threaten freedom and democracy are allowed to do so, and if the sickness is allowed to spread, then I fear this outcome is inevitable.

It’s difficult to conclude on a positive note, so instead I will conclude with a plea.  For any Americans currently unsure as to which way to vote, and for any Europeans thinking that Brexit should be repeated, and for any British thinking that Brexit was a good idea: I implore you to stop and think about the wider picture, and prevent the sickness from taking over.  For the Americans, I am very aware that Mrs Hillary Clinton has her drawbacks (as does any politician), but for the prosperity of the US and the world as a whole she is a million times better than her rival.  For the Europeans, breaking up a strong and solid Union only benefits one group of people - those who want to impose their own ideologies on everyone else and therefore threaten freedom.  For the British, it is perhaps too late for us and it now seems likely that, sparing a miracle, Article 50 WILL be invoked.  All we can now hope and fight for is a ‘soft Brexit’, in which we retain at least some access to the single market and, importantly, maintain freedom of movement and labour.  Stopping this would inevitably devastate every sector of the UK, ranging from science and universities all the way to pubs and bars.  It would be wholeheartedly giving into the sickness and, as already explained, that road has only one destination.

The day after the EU Referendum in the UK, I said on Facebook that I was ashamed to be British.  I have perhaps mellowed slightly since then, and have a little bit of hope and faith left in humanity - I believe it is still possible, if everyone made that extra effort, to stem the rising tide and cure the sickness (or at least suppress it, as it will never be completely cured).  For me personally, I still love Europe (and always will) and still plan to go there regularly - I just wish there was a way for them to know that.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

JULES Annual Science meeting, Lancaster, June 2016

Given that it's been a SERIOUSLY long time since I last posted to this, I thought that my recent few days in Lancaster to attend the JULES Annual Science meeting was a good opportunity for a blog entry.  To get wider readership, I will also post the following on my other blog,, as it strongly relates to the Climate Change Research Group, of which I am Chair.  For a less serious, and more food-related, account of the week, see a separate post from my alter-ego, The Peripatetic Foodie -

For those not in the know, JULES stands for the Joint UK Land Environment Simulator and is a community land surface model that evolved from the Met Office Surface Exchange Scheme.  It can either be coupled to the Met Office Unified Model (UM) and used as its land surface component, or run off-line as a stand-alone land surface model.  For full details, see

The meeting, running this year from 28-29 June 2016 at the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC), is an annual event designed to bring together the JULES community, to discuss the latest upgrades, simulations and ongoing work using the model.  There was then a training course immediately afterwards, from 29-30 June also at Lancaster, for those just starting to use the model and for anyone wanting to know more.

Tuesday 28 June
The meeting began around 10:30 AM to allow people to arrive, but we had driven up the day before (which, following a 6 hour drive, was a good thing) so we were able to have a fairly leisurely start, putting up my poster (see below) before the first round of talks.  The first session was an introduction to JULES, as well as an interesting outline of the various updates since the last meeting.  In short, in the last year we have moved from version 4.3 to 4.6, with apparently the latest upgrade to 4.6 being a major one and containing over 40 science additions and numerous technical changes and bug fixes.  We then had a couple of interesting talks on how JULES fits into the various model inter-comparison projects (MIPs), which are now being formed in time for the next IPCC report, as well as a discussion of some of the assessment and benchmarking tools used by the Met Office and others for various MIPs (e.g. iLAMB).

After lunch, the focus moved to vegetation and disturbance, with a number of talks on using JULES to look at biophysical homeostasis of leaf temperature, disturbance and mortality in global vegetation, and forest thinning.  There was also a very interesting talk of the incorporation of INFERNO into JULES, an interactive fire and emissions scheme.  The 3rd session, after coffee, focused on crops and ecosystems within JULES, but I admit I ducked out of this session as I had some urgent work that needed doing.  Unfortunately, although it would be nice to attend every talk, when you are working on multiple projects simultaneously, a whole day away from the computer is a big mistake.

I rejoined the group around 5 PM, just in time for the poster session in the LEC Courtyard (which was fortunately covered, as it was monsoon-like (only without the heat) outside.  Around 20 posters were presented, including mine which can be seen below and downloaded at

In my poster, which focused on the ability of JULES to simulate African river discharge under both present-day and mid Holocene (~ 6k years ago) conditions, I firstly ran JULES (version 4.3) twice, both for 30 years over Africa but with different rainfall datasets as input data.  The results suggested a general insensitivity to the forcing data.  I then ran the model again, this time with river routing turned on, under present-day conditions, comparing simulated river discharge with observations from the GRDC network.  The results suggested that the model was able to reproduce the seasonal cycle of river discharge for selected African rivers, but did less well in terms of magnitudes.  Lastly, I ran the model once more, but with the input rainfall forcing data modified slightly to represent mid-Holocene conditions (essentially an exaggerated seasonal cycle, with increased rainfall during the wet season and a drier dry season).  Initial results suggested a slight increase in the seasonal cycle of river discharge for selected rivers under mid-Holocene conditions, relative to the present-day.

The day concluded with a conference dinner held on the other side of campus.

Wednesday 29 June
The morning session focused on soil and urban processes within JULES, including the impact of carbon, but again I ducked out of this session as I had several things that required my full attention.  I rejoined the group later on that morning, to listen to several interesting talks on other applications of JULES - of particular interest to me was a talk on using JULES to investigate drought probabilities over East Africa, and another talk on using the model to look at the current and future water balance over West Africa.  This session concluded with a short discussion of practicalities: the date and venue for the next meeting, the committee, and planned updates over the forthcoming year.

After the official end to the meeting, and after lunch, the training course began.  This was held in a computer lab in the Management School, and the afternoon session consisted of a number of short talks (also broadcast live, as a webinar) to introduce JULES: what it is, installation and running instructions, how to interpret output, etc.  We were then given a worksheet with a number of tasks, and left to get on with the exercises whilst the demonstrators circulated and gave advice.  Although the talks and exercises were interesting, I will admit that (and this is not a negative reflection on the course demonstrators) it was nothing I hadn't already done, many times before.  This was entirely my own fault and, in retrospect, perhaps I should not have attended the course.  I registered for it soon after Christmas, because I only began using JULES in November and therefore thought it was worthwhile to attend a training course.  However, over the months in between, I used the model a great deal in a number of different configurations - undoubtedly helped by my 10 years experience of using the UM, which is significantly more complex - so things like FCM were already second-nature to me.  Nevertheless, despite having done many of the exercises before, the afternoon was interesting.

Thursday 30 June
The rest of the training course was simply an extension of the previous afternoon, giving us all more time to work through the exercises and ask any questions.  Perhaps a little selfishly, I latched onto this latter aspect, and brought up a reasonably high-level problem that I have been experiencing over the last few months; namely, my inability to run JULES in regional mode (over Africa) when using river routing.  Globally it was fine, but when running regionally it was generating a highly cryptic error which I could not resolve.  Fortunately, however, after much discussion and fiddling by several of the demonstrators, they fixed this problem.  So a very useful morning.

All in all, therefore, I enjoyed the science meeting and the training course afterwards, and the whole event was thought-provoking with some very interesting talks and discussions afterwards.  I just want to finish by saying a big thank you to all those who organised the event, and to all the demonstrators who ran the training course.  Much appreciated.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

India trip, February 2014

A bit belated I know, but thought people might be interested in reading all about my adventures in India - a week-long trip (as a mixture of work and play) to Bangalore and Mumbai, which happened at the end of February 2014.  Here is our joint diary…

Friday 21 February 2014
A fairly quiet day, preparing and packing.  Fortunately I had actually packed most things the day before, so was able to spend much of the day just checking everything and doing little chores ready for the following morning.  We had a relaxing evening eating curry and watching ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ to get us in the mood for what lay ahead.

Saturday 22 February
I didn’t sleep awfully well, suffering from insomnia from about 5 am, but perhaps that was always inevitable given the approaching trip.  Still, I felt fine by breakfast and, after the usual rush getting everything finally together, we left around 10:30 am. 

Traffic was light and we arrived at Heathrow soon after 11 am, waiting while Tony dropped off the car and then checking in without hassle.  We were all relived to find the suitcases were well under the weight limit.  Passing through security was uneventful, if slightly embarrassing as we were told to jump the queue, and after a bit of shopping we had our picnic in the airport lounge.  At the due time, we walked to the departure gate via the tube/metro; this was actually quite impressive, and we worked out later that the tube runs under the tarmac to a separate building, containing holding gate C.  The lounge was fairly empty when we arrived but filled up rapidly, and we had a quick chat to the Imperial people as they arrived.  When told, we were ushered through the barrier, again with some embarrassment at jumping the queue, and were amused to be sat with all the hostesses and pilots for our flight.  We learnt from them that our plane was delayed, slightly worryingly because they had to get a new/spare one out of the hanger.  However, eventually we boarded without incident and took off about an hour late. The flight was long but uneventful.  The meal – chicken tikka with rice and bean salad – was actually quite good and we passed the time watching movies or dozing.  Breakfast several hours later was less pleasant, consisting of a full English breakfast with some truly nasty scrambled eggs.

Sunday 23 February
We landed around 5:30 am local time (5 ½ hours ahead of GMT), and were hurried through the airport by two helpful men who, again, embarrassingly made us jump all the queues.  After a long wait at baggage for Tony’s suitcase to arrive – which it eventually did – we joined the others and found the cars waiting for us, after getting our rupees. 

The weather outside was cooler than expected, with a grey and misty start to the day which soon burned off as the sun come up.  It was light as we drove away from the airport, and we had our first view of India – actually remarkable similar to driving into Accra, the capital of Ghana, with numerous billboards, construction sites and either developing or derelict tower blocks.  The drive took about 40 minutes and was a suitably scary experience, but we arrived safely and turned into the guarded campus which was quiet and green and peaceful.  The guesthouse was a functional building, and our room (or rather mini-apartment) was basic but spacious and perfectly adequate for our needs – big double bed with ensuite bathroom, then a small kitchen and actually a second bedroom and bathroom which we didn’t use.  All rooms had a large ceiling fan, making it nicely cool as by now outside was already warming up.  We also had a nice little balcony at the front.  We had a brief breakfast in the visitor centre dining room – although we weren’t really hungry – after which the Tony and Judi left us in search of their hotel.

After a much needed sleep, we had a simple but good lunch of dahl, rice and chapattis, and then we left the others to be nerdy with their laptops while we went for a walk through campus.  This was lovely, with the now very hot sun nicely shaded by tall trees.  The place was fairly busy, and we passed numerous people on motorbikes or rickshaws, as well as several people just chatting outside their homes – which varied from lavish houses to much more run down apartments and shacks.  As I suspect will be a continuing theme, the juxtaposition of very rich and very poor side-by-side was evident and stark.  The university buildings in between were also a mixture of rundown buildings next to ultra modern glass blocks.  After a nice stroll, and watching some monkeys scavenging in the dust bins, we returned to the room and spent a pleasant afternoon reading our books on the balcony and writing this.

Monkeys scavenging on campus
We had agreed to meet the others at 7 pm and find somewhere for dinner.  However, at the agreed time we learnt that we were meeting at 8 pm instead, so to kill some time we went on a beer finding mission.  This proved to be quite exciting and perhaps, in retrospect, unwise.  Upon leaving the serenity of the campus, we were faced with a manic street of non-stop cars (all hooting at once), motorbikes, tuk-tuks and bicycles – and the odd dog or ten.  The pavements were almost non-existent or were massive broken slabs of bricks, and were also strewn with vendors selling coconuts, clothes and earthenware pots.  The shops were what I would imagine a blend of UK and Africa would be like, if possible, with glass fronted shops selling familiar brand names of shoes and clothes next door to open fronted shacks and stalls selling food, fruit or trinkets.

After walking around a bit and narrowly avoiding being hit by tuk-tuks, we found an open-fronted liqueur shack and bought some beer.  We returned to the peace of the campus (not before we’d mistakenly tried to enter the hospital on our way back!) to realise we didn’t have a bottle opener.  After several attempts involved keys, a lighter and the table, we finally opened a beer and sat on the balcony until it was time to meet.  At 8pm we were met and taken by one of the Indians in our group just around the corner, to the nearest place she knew of that served beer (she clearly knew all about the English).  We had a really good meal of selected curries and dahls, before returning to our room for a much needed early night.

Monday 24 February
After a horribly early start, and not a huge amount of sleep (due to a combination of jet lag, unfamiliar bird noises and what we thought was a monkey outside our window) we had a good Indian breakfast (as well as an omelette for Amy) and were driven across the campus to the meeting room.  This, unfortunately, was on the first floor, but we had lots of helpers so no problem.  The meeting was long, but fortunately the room was well air conditioned by fans and there was a regular supply of very sweet coffee and various snacks.

Lunch was remarkably good, outside under a red tent and consisting of a clear soup followed by various dahls and chapattis.  The meeting continued, and finally ended late at 7 pm.  We were given a short while to ourselves back at the guest house, before being picked up again and driven to another nearby restaurant.  This was much smarter than the previous night and very good, although we possibly ate too much of the starter as things just kept arriving – chicken, fish, pork, sweetcorn etc.  The meal as excellent and the number of speeches became slightly silly as people drank more and more beer or Indian wine – or both.  Finally, we were driven back to the campus and fell into bed.

Tuesday 25 February
After another early start but another good breakfast, we returned to the meeting and passed another long day talking about work.  Lunch again was good, and the day finished a little earlier, at 6 pm.  After a short rest and another beer on the balcony, we were again taken by car to another nearby restaurant, this time open air and on the rooftop of a tall building.  For us British, it was quite incredible to be sat outside during the evening in February - the temperature was cool, as the heat and humidity of the day slowly dissipated by a gentle wind - but very comfortable.  Apparently Bangalore is known as “the ventilated city”, because it’s relatively high elevation (roughly 900 m above sea level) means there is usually a cooling breeze and so it is less stuffy than other Indian cities.  The view was impressive and the meal very good, and we were slightly wiser this time to save room for a variety of curries.  Again felt a bit sorry for Andy, who insisted on sticking to a vegetarian diet and therefore missed out on a lot, in my opinion.  His rationale, probably completely correct, was that this was the only way to avoid becoming ill - on the other hand, I ate meat on several occasions, and was perfectly fine.  After a good meal and quite late finish, we were driven home.

Wednesday 26 February
Another early start and a breakfast of paratha and yoghurt, after which we were once again driven to the meeting.  The day was much sunnier than the previous.  The meeting only lasted for the morning, so finally at around midday we said our goodbyes and left the group, who were all returning home the following morning.

We returned to the guesthouse, and had a slight panic as Tony and Judi’s taxi driver struggled to find us.  They did eventually however, and once packed we all piled into one car (which was a bit of a squash) and were driven to the airport.

We always knew the domestic flight to Mumbai would be the most challenging, and indeed it was.  After a long argument at check-in, during which several supervisors had to be summoned, we finally persuaded them to let us keep the chair all the way to the door.  Getting through security was also a picnic, as they wanted to take away the chair and scan it separately.  Eventually security were satisfied, and we were allowed through with just enough time to wait in the departure lounge.  At the due time, we boarded the plane, which was smaller than I would’ve liked, and the chair was taken away with the promise that it would be returned upon arrival.  The flight was mostly uneventful, despite some turbulence in the middle, and to our surprise we were served some food (chicken tikka).  We landed without incident and, surprisingly, were met by my chair.

Walking out of the domestic terminal, once we had collected our bags from a carousel heaving with people, was everything the books had described – hot, humid, loud and crowded.  The heat, even at 6 pm, was like a blanket, and we struggled to get a pre-paid taxi.  In retrospect, this was a mistake.  We were shown to the oldest, smallest and crappiest car I’ve ever seen, and somehow managed to get everything in, with bags and pieces of chair lashed to the roof with bits of string.  The driver was helpful but surly, as were several other boys who then demanded, quite aggressively, a tip.  First schoolboy error of Mumbai.

Once we had satisfied them, off we drove in a scary and extremely hot and humid hour and a half ride of heavy traffic.  Looking back, I’m pleased we did it that way as it was quite authentic, but at the time it was hot, sticky and long.  At every traffic stop, which was virtually all the time, the driver would jump out to re-tie the roof or boot.  The car itself was knackered, and I am still amazed it made the journey.  Despite being dark, the streets either side were everything I had expected – slums, extreme poverty but at the same time brightly covered fairy lights and music everywhere.  With our windows open (to get at least some air) and turning away numerous sellers walking down the road, the smells were intense – traffic, sweat and sewage.  From reading this, it sounds horrendous - but it really, really wasn’t.  After a slow journey, we arrived at the hotel and experienced the full contrast that only India shows – from poverty stricken streets to an extremely posh hotel – one of the smartest I’ve been in.  We instantly felt under-dressed to the extreme.  The cars parking outside the lobby went limo, limo, our shitty taxi, limo.  Amid smartly dressed men in black tie and women in evening dress, and immaculate doormen (dressed in full Indian/Raj uniform), we literally fell out of our taxi, dripping in sweat and looking a complete mess.  No-one seemed to mind however and we checked in with no problem.  The rooms were lovely, not massive but very comfortable and with all the usual luxuries.  It was nearing 10 pm by this point, so after a quick refresh, we popped down to one of the several bars and had a light snack (albeit extortionately priced by anyone’s, let alone Indian, standards) and fell into bed, exhausted.
Our hotel, the Trident

Thursday 27 February
Although the room was comfortable and extremely luxurious, by far the best thing about it was the view that we saw properly first thing in the morning.  From out of our 32nd floor window, we looked out over the whole of Back Bay, following the Queen’s Necklace up towards Malabar Hill, with clear blue sea and tiny fishing boats.  Early in the morning it was still hazy but that burnt off as soon as the sun came up. 

Gateway of India
After a good breakfast of both Indian and continental food – made more exciting by a very angry man shouting about something when we arrived – we left the hotel and walked for about half hour towards the Gateway of India.  The sun by this time was hot, but there was plenty of shade from many large trees - meaning one minute we would be in intense heat and the next pleasantly cool.  The roads and pavements were better than in Bangalore, but the constant speed of cars and motorbikes made it an exciting walk at times.  We found the Gateway, an impressive structure resembling a little the Arc de Triomphe (only more Indian), and joined the crowds of tourists in taking photos.  Like everyone else, we were constantly hounded by people selling pictures or other tat, as well as a group of monks who gave us a blessing – but then, of course, wanted money for it.  After a quick stroll along the harbour side and past numerous boats, small ships and expensive yachts, we walked back inland and found Leopald’s, the café and favourite place mentioned in the book ‘Shantaram’.  It was a lively, busy place and perfectly as described, and we enjoyed a lassi and a beer along with everyone else.  The road outside was covered with market sellers and, after buying some clothing, we had another long and hot walk to the main train station, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST, formerly Victoria Terminus (VT)).  This was an impressive Victorian building and a popular site among tourists.  We carried on walking in a big loop back to our hotel, stopping for a quick coconut water before reaching the beach surrounding the bay.  Before reaching the sea however, we stopped for lunch in a nearby restaurant, enjoying a quick snack of various vegetarian curries.  After a short walk back to the hotel, along the fairly smelly beach front in the afternoon heat, we spent a relaxing afternoon sitting by the pool in the outside area of our hotel.

Chhhatrapati Shivaji Terminus

After a good rest, and a drink in our room watching the sunset, we walked out to find a restaurant recommended by the hotel as traditionally south Indian.  This was amazing – very busy and excellent food, including Thali and non-stop endless vegetarian curries.  Far too much, but all excellent.  Stuffed, we returned to the hotel along fairly busy streets, including a small funfair, and went to bed after a really good day.

Friday 28 February
Crawford Market
We awoke to another bright hot day and, after another excellent breakfast, we again walked out, this time heading north towards the Crawford Market. 

This was quite a long walk, along some rather scary main roads, and we survived, just, working our way along narrow streets - all stuffed with tiny shops, stalls and open air stores, selling a variety of things from electrical appliances to fresh fruit to lingerie - and finally reaching the large covered market.  This wasn’t as busy or hectic as we had expected, and it was certainly quieter than the African market we had experienced in Kumasi.  It was still large, however, with a bewildering choice of stalls selling spices, vegetables and clothing.  There was also a large animal stall, selling everything from chickens (presumably meant to be eaten) to cats, dogs and birds (presumably meant as pets).  We spent an interesting hour or so browsing, and after buying a load of spices and looking at the various birds in cages, we left the market and started the long walk home.  We went the same way as the day before, this time stopping at a row of food stalls and trying some excellent street food - bread, and a tomato and lentil based bhaji.  It was packed with people, most of whom (perhaps unsurprisingly) had never seen a party such as ours, least of all braving street food, so we received a fair amount of attention while we ate, perched on the side of the pavement.

After that brief intermission, we carried on walking, stopping for a beer almost opposite where had had lunch the day before.  The bar, named Gaylord, also looked like a nice restaurant, so we booked a table for later.  We spent another pleasant afternoon back at the hotel, sitting around the pool in a surprisingly strong wind and deciding not to swim because of the breeze.  We also looked around the hotel’s shopping mall, buying a couple more scarfs and pashminas.  The mall was quite different to the ones at home, being a long narrow corridor with each shop hidden away and a man in the doorway trying to entice you in. Some were quite pushy.  

After a final drink in our room watching the sunset, we walked back along the beach to the bar from before and had an excellent meal inside – various veggie dishes and a superb Goan fish curry.  After a good evening, where we perhaps didn’t eat quite as much as the one before, we strolled back along the now very busy promenade that was crowded with other tourists and people out for the evening.

Saturday 1 March
The last day, and yet another long flight awaited, so spirits (at least mine) were not high.  After quite an early start and a quick bit of packing, we went down for our final Indian breakfast - Indian for me, and more westernised for the others.  Breakfast was lovely, with me having a Masala Dosa and Judi and Amy having boiled eggs.  Have to say, we were all quite impressed when the waiter produced another boiled egg from under each egg holder.

After breakfast we did a final bit of packing, before loading up our taxi ready to leave by 10 am.  We had asked the hotel to arrange a car this time, so waiting for us outside was a large, modern, air-conditioned people carrier – nowhere near as exciting as the journey to the hotel, but much easier and less scary.  Dramatically different to our taxi to the hotel, we were relieved not to have to tie anything to the roof, nor worry about the taxi breaking down.  Traffic to the airport was heavy but not as bad as 2 nights ago, and it was really the first time we had fully seen the slums, having driven into Mumbai in the darkness.  The slums appeared much more civilised and organised than images we see about Indian slums (mostly at school).

The drive was thankfully uneventful and we arrived at the airport in good time, getting to check-in within the hour.  Thankfully the check-in through security was considerably easier than it had been at Bangalore, and we were quickly through to departures.  We’d all saved some money to spend getting some last-minute gifts and tat, however we soon realised there were only about 2 shops that would take our rupees (the rest trading in dollars).  Basing ourselves in these shops, I bought some bits and bobs and Amy got a few scarves and a little elephant statue.  Shopping complete, we headed to the street food café for a quick bite to eat.  This in itself was a bit of a fight, with the airport café staff clearly used to stroppy tourists and were therefore stroppy themselves.  After several attempts at getting food, we finally succeeded.  After a lot of waiting and running out of different meals, I ended up with a mystery meal and Amy had her final samosa.  With full stomachs, we started the hike to the plane.  The queue onto the plane was quite difficult, due to everyone trying to pile in.  However, we finally got to our seats.

The flight itself was long but uneventful, and we passed the time reading, eating, dozing or watching a movie.  After a smooth takeoff, we were offered a drink and then a meal of (what I think was meant to be) roast chicken, so slowly getting us adapted to Western food again.  It was a bit of a let-down, being my first non-Indian meal in almost 3 weeks, so was remarkably bland and dull.  But it was edible, at least.  Whilst long and dull, the plane journey was fairly smooth, and having watched a film and played with the entertainment system, we were then offered another meal - which, this time, was somewhat hard to identify, just being described as ‘Chinese chicken’.  I think it was chicken in a sort of sweet and sour sauce. 

After food, and roughly 9 hours after leaving, we landed at Heathrow at around 6 pm local time, and were told it was 4°C outside.  As feared, walking out of the plan was very unpleasant - an average of 30oC in India to suddenly close to freezing.  But we survived.  Having located our bags, we then sent Tony off to find the car, whilst we braved sitting outside departures.  To our relief, it didn’t take too long for Tony to find us, and the drive home was very simple and stress-free (in comparison to all the driving we’d experienced in India).  Finally home, after a long day of travelling, began the dull task of unpacking.  Obviously we were all tired, but pleased that it had all gone so well.  Farewell Mumbai...

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Out out on New Year's Eve

Happy New Year to all!

In the spirit of blogging, I thought I would jot down a few thoughts about a night out on New Year's Eve.  I should say at the outset that I am not (or at least wasn't until this year) a fan of New Year's Eve.  Quite the opposite in fact.  However, much to my continued disbelief, as midnight came and went this year I found myself in the middle of a rather trendy and extremely busy bar/club in the middle of Brighton, a little baffled as to how this had happened.

I have never been out on New Year's Eve before.  When I say out, I mean out out - I have been to lots of house parties, but never out out ie. "on the town".  However, when my friend said she would like to spend the evening with me and suggested going out, how could I possibly refuse?  My first thought was London, but in the end (for various reasons) decided on Brighton - my stomping ground during 8 years of university.

The question, then, was what to do and where to go.  Being a bit of a newbie when it comes to going out on New Year's Eve, I was mildly surprised by everyone's reaction when I told them I was going out in Brighton that evening: "Really???!!!".  I guess, in my naivete, it hadn't occurred to me that the city might be a tad busier than usual.  As it turned out, most people's surprise was unfounded - yes, it was busy, but I don't think much busier than a usual night out in Brighton.

My friend had suggested the theatre, which seemed like a good idea.  Looking at the listings of the Theatre Royal, I saw that 'Priscilla: Queen of the Desert' was on that night.  I'm not a massive fan of musicals, but she is, so why not?  What a good decision that was.

The show began at 7:45 PM, so we had an early dinner in a nearby Italian restaurant, Pinocchio's.  I hadn't been there for years, but it was as good as I remembered.  Naturally it was very busy, but we had an excellent meal of a couple of pasta dishes followed by an enormous ice cream.  It was clear that lots of other people were also theatregoers, because as the showtime approached a lot of people decided it was time to go.  Fortunately the restaurant were clearly used to this, and we made it into the theatre in good time.


The show was excellent.  Essentially it's a story about 3 Australian drag-Queens, who travel from Sydney to Alice Springs on a bus called Priscilla and obviously get into various awkward situations.  It was extremely funny, very irreverent towards Australians (despite being originally written by an Aussie) and probably as camp as its possible to get.  Virtually every (even slightly) camp and extravagant song you can think of was included - lots of ABBA, Elton John, Kylie and, of course, "It's Raining Men".  The audience was well into it, and a good proportion of people were also dressed in drag.  We weren't, however I don't think that spoiled the atmosphere and it was a thoroughly good show - and the perfect choice for New Year's Eve.  I had rather hoped it would be a good introduction to Brighton (with all its connotations) for my friend, and it certainly surpassed itself and all expectations.

The show ended around 10:30 PM, and we wandered passed several pubs which were all packed.  I had been unsure whether to book tickets into somewhere in advance or just hope to find somewhere, and in the end we did just that - a very modern bar/club, complete with metallic tables, purple fluorescent lighting, pounding music and an impressive cocktail bar.  It wasn't that busy when we arrived but it certainly filled up - although, as I said, I don't think it was excessively much busier than normal night out in the city.  The rest of the night is a slight blur, no doubt helped by lots of wine and numerous cocktails.  I remember midnight which, as usual, was a bit of a nonevent - there was a countdown of course, everyone cheered, and then almost immediately forgot about it and went on with a normal night out.  I have a vague memory of someone using the back of my chair as a pole to dance around/against, but she seemed happy so it didn't matter.

So, my first New Year's Eve out out.  Certainly a night to remember…