Monday, November 10, 2014

One short view of Climate Change

Climate change and mankind's contribution to it through industrialisation is a complex topic and it's easy to get lost in detail and miss the big picture. I've completed a Diploma of Sustainability with a Carbon Accounting elective - there's a lot of detail about climate change if one wants to drill down into it but I don't think it's necessary. We can infer the problem from scientific observations and high level information.

Human beings need to take action to arrest climate change and protect this earth for our future generations.

I worked at Microsoft during its best years when it was the undisputed leader in the tech sector. The technology world has always changed fast and we learned that if you wait until all the facts were known about a topic before making a decision that would be too late - you had to work with the available information and make the best decision. Most times it resulted in a good decision. Most  climate scientists (97%? - what a huge level of consensus) agree that global warming is caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions, largely CO2. I suspect the remaining 3% of scientists won't change their minds no matter how much new evidence is disclosed. If I had a potentially terminal illness and 97% of doctors I consulted recommended a specific course of action to address the illness that would be good enough for me, I'd follow their advice and act on it.

The Precautionary Principle says that if Something might cause harm to the public or the environment and there isn't scientific consensus that the Something won't cause harm, then basically don't do it (I'm paraphrasing here). Sadly, governments don't seem to be very effective at taking preventative action which could save significant time/money/grief from expected consequences, instead they apply costly band aid remedial solutions once things do go wrong. Lots of examples supporting this. Minister, invest in preventative health measures?... naw, too costly so let the next government pay for the mop-up later. Impose penalties on major polluters for their greenhouse gas emissions? Naw, instead let's provide them subsidies and hand-outs as It Helps The Economy. Sad that you can't eat money.

Another barrier to addressing climate change is that it's global and human nature is to reap the benefits from a shared resource but not to look after it - that's someone else's responsibility.  So who does look after the earth? We all should.

The earth's systems are closed loops. What is known as the carbon cycle or Greenhouse Effect is where carbon gets naturally emitted into the atmosphere and then reabsorbed from the atmosphere by the earth. If the emissions are below a certain level the normal carbon cycle can deal with emissions and the overall CO2 level stays manageable. The 'normal' carbon cycle is critical for life.

The developments from the Industrial Age have accelerated the carbon cycle through activities like burning coal and oil for power, propulsion and electricity that have been putting more carbon into the atmosphere than nature can safely reabsorb. The Industrial Age changed the world, generally for the better, but with consequences that weren't considered at the time. Developments from the Industrial Age resulted in the Enhanced Greenhouse Effect where the earth can no longer absorb the greenhouse gases that have and continue to be released at an ever greater level. As a result the level of atmospheric CO2 continues to rise. It's now the highest it has been in 800,000 years. Other greenhouse gases like methane, which are many times stronger greenhouse gases than CO2, are released from the consequences of other industrial processes like certain farming activities, and decomposition of organic material. Artificial refriderants have even higher Global Warming Potential than CO2 and methane. As the concentration of greenhouse gases rises in the atmosphere more heat released from the earth is reflected back to earth by the CO2 blanket. The temperature rises.

The scientists who we should be listening to tell us we need to reduce the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions - now! The scientists and others saying the human-induced climate change is all hog wash would probably have been spruiking the health benefits of smoking cigarettes not long ago.

If someone claims that the rise in atmospheric CO2 is not caused by human activity they are either ignorant or disingenuous. There's money and fame to be made by being on the minority side of a big argument.

Internal combustion engines release CO2 as exhaust gases, and coal-fired power plants release CO2 in burning the coal. Consider the number of motor vehicles running around the world right now, and the number of coal-fired power plants in use or planned. Then remember the world's population continues to grow and a large part of it will demand higher and higher standards of living through growing affluence (buying a car, eating meat, building a bigger house, creating more waste.) Watch the accelerating growth of the middle class in China with its increasing consumption. Unfortunately, the Sustainability mantra of reduce, recycle, reuse doesn't appeal while climbing 'the ladder of success.' What to do?

Come-on Australian government, pull your finger out and show real leadership - you are in danger of being the laughing stock of the world with your heads in the sand (or up something else!)

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Sunday, November 09, 2014

If it's June this must be France


We evaded part of Adelaide's 2014 winter by spending all of June in France with 3 nights in Dubai as a stopover.

Dubai: 30 May - 2 June
Highlights - a very, very expensive and indulgent lunch at Al Mahara (seafood restaurant within an aquariam) at Burj al Arab; 1 hour privately chartered water taxi tour of Dubai Creek.
Lowlight - 4wd Desert Safari trip (OMG/WTF to quote the kids).

Paris: 2 - 6 June
Stayed in lovely B&B 'Un Ciel a Paris' near Les Gobelins metro station, with Adelaide friends Vic and Rob.
Highlights - Segway tour of Paris; concert at Notre Dame cathedral; Musée d'Art Moderne & Contemporaine de Ville; dinner in theatre restaurant 'La Vieux Belleville' - a must do! Canal Saint-Martin boat tour.
Lowlight - none!

Nantes: (the afternoon of 6 June) to visit Les Machines de L'Île
TGV Atlantique train from Paris Gare Montparnesse - no air conditioning possibly due to striking SNCF workers, or it could have just been that way.
Les Machine de L'Île - a must see for parents with pre-teen boys. Beth was a little bored by it. Nantes looked lovely though!

La Rochelle: 6 - 9 June
Afternoon Coral Intercites train from Nantes.
Stayed at luxury B&B 'Entre Hôtes' with wonderful hosts and 'love-me' dog 'Happy.'
Highlights - A lovely, charming sea-side city, very attractive!; hiring bicycles for an afternoon pedal out of town - very bike friendly; lots of fun, good cafes to eat at; wonderful gelati that had people queuing for 15+ minutes to buy.
Lowlights - an impatient waitress who didn't have time for a foreigner trying to speak French; my lack of understanding that doing an international wire transfer from Oz to France would incur a 20 Euro fee for a 150 Euro transaction (read the small print!)

Bordeaux: 9 - 13 June
11:02am Coral Intercites train from Nantes delayed then again no air-conditioning once on board - lots of French people fanning themselves with stoic faces.
Stayed in B&B 'La Grenadine' a recently converted warehouse into B&B rooms, ours was an attic room with separate sitting room. Wonderful, thoughtful hostess Camille, very comfortable room (with air-conditioning!)
Highlights - Bordovino mini-van tour of Chateau Cantenac Brown, and Chateau du Taillon - excellent guide and experience; Segway tour #2 (see a lot of the city in a short period of time - beginning to feel cocky riding one...); easy to get around old city area on trams. Wonderful Miroir d'Eau, the world's largest reflecting water feature and so, so popular with kids and others to walk through.
Lowlight - CAPC Musée d'Art Contemporain was quite weird..

Toulouse: 13 - 18 June
Our Coral Teoz train from Bordeaux was cancelled due to the SNCF strike but we were able to take one 2 hours later.  Later SCNF workers picketed a government building down the road from our B&B but peaceful again.
Stayed at B&B in old Toulouse 'Côte Carmes' a lovely experience, wonderful, helpful hosts.
Highlights - seeing various exhibitions during the Toulouse International Art Fair especially Swiss artist Frank Gertsch's enormous paintings and prints at Musée des Augustines;  hamburger restaurant A L'exces with wonderful, helpful, friendly owner; free Rio Lobo outdoor concert because the workers were on strike and didn't collect admission fees;
Lowlights - 'Let's Visit Airbus A380' tour - while trying to find the factory others advised us, 'set your expectations low and you won't be disappointed' they were right; Rick crashing off a Segway halfway into the 2.5 hour tour, kilometers from anywhere! Well enough to remount the Segway and get back to base then hobble back to waiting Beth. Masses of scrapes and bruises including very swollen leg. Got too cocky. Note, the French say 'chute' for crash.

Carcassonne: 18 - 21 June
Some nervousness while waiting on the train station platform for its imminent arrival when flare-carrying SCNF strikers walked across the tracks (but they kept on walking).  Train from Toulouse to Carcassonne then short taxi ride from the Gare to the medieval walled city. We stayed in funky B&B 'Chambre Le Grand Puits' in the Orange room (and it was!) Very convenient and inexpensive accommodation.
Highlights - getting lost in the tiny walled city; lots of cafes to chose from; tour of the castle within the city (wow!). Watching France play in World Cup on big screen tv across from our B&B.
Lowlights - Having lunch in a pizza restaurant (Cafe Latin) that didn't actually serve pizza? Two hour 45 minute canal boat tour of Canal du Midi which would have been fun except for the unpadded wooden seats that had everyone squirming.

Aix-en-Provence: 21 - 28 June
Train from Carcassonne to Aix via Marseille. Stayed in rented house with Melbourne friends Gary and Sandy, and Sandy's brother and sis-in-law Mark and Wendy from Perth.
Highlights - Spending time with old friends, meeting new ones; half day trip to Marseille, red bus tour with half hour stop at La Virge, and 'Visages' (Picasso, Magritte, Warhol) exhibition at Vieille Charité former nunnery; guided walking tour of Aix 'The Old City' with knowledgeable guide (beware, pickpockets target tour groups); Jean Planque collection at Granet XXe Musée - knockout!; cooking class with Chef Ronald for dinner at our rented home; seeing impatient American woman rush into automatic toilet and getting locked inside during the cleaning cycle ('Halp! John, I'm drowning!!!' bahahaha!); half day escorted tour to Cassis & 3 Calanques; visit to Les Baux to see Croiseres Luminiéres projection show in underground quarry.
Lowlights - none.

Dijon: 28 - 30 June
Early morning TGV train from Aix to Dijon - don't forget there are two Gares in Aix, and the TGV station is about 20 minutes by car from downtown.
Stayed at Mercure Dijon Centre Clémenceau, somewhat tired hotel that doesn't deserve 4 stars. Less than helpful staff during our stay. Easy to get into the city by tram.
Highlights - walking tour of the city from the Tourism office; Musée des Beaux-Arts medieval and renaissance collection in renovated section of the museum - quite a knock-out and puts the modern and contemporary section of the museum to shame (but it is scheduled for an upgrade); takeaway food and wine for dinner in our room; more World Cup on tv.
Lowlights - none.

Paris to Dubai to Adelaide: 30 June arriving 2 July
TGV train from Gare Dijon Ville to Paris Gare du Lyon, then RER D train from Gare du Lyon to Gare du Nord, and RER C train to Charles de Gaulle terminal 2. Don't forget that your metro tickets aren't accepted for the RER trains. RER ticket cost 19.50 Euro, beware the scam artists at the CDG RER exit charging underticketed travellers 100 Euro to get into the airport.

Twelve (and a bit) months following cancer treatments

In August 2013 my prostate cancer was treated using Low Dose Rate Brachytherapy (radioactive iodine beads permanently inserted into the prostate to kill the cancer); and my thyroid cancer was treated one week later with a 'central neck dissection and total thyroidectomy' followed by a clean-up procedure, again using radioactive iodine, to kill remaining thyroid tissue which could be cancerous.

Just over 1 year on and both treatments seem to have been effective, with my PSA score about 0.2 (below 0.7 is very good according to my urologist). And the thyroid treatment also seems to have been effective but will require periodic blood tests and appointments with the endocrinologist for ongoing management.

Side effects from both treatments are negligible with nothing that impacts my day to day life. Both Beth and I are pleased with the treatment option I chose for the prostate cancer. There weren't difficult treatment decisions to make for the thyroid cancer - in fact the surgeon said, 'if you have to have a cancer pick thyroid as it's the most straightforward and easy to treat.' A mere walk in the cancer park.

Make the most of what you've got.


Monday, July 28, 2014

CBA 'Travel Money Card' - Don't leave home without checking it...

We've used the Travel Money Cards for accessing money while overseas. You pre-load them with a specific amount of money in one or more different currencies then use it like a normal MasterCard or ATM card. Australia Post has a similar product as do the two big airlines in Australia. They are pretty common.

Once the TMC is set-up it works pretty well. But if you get one do check that it actually works before you leave home. The customer service rep at a close-by branch got our cards and set them up on the bank's system but she miskeyed an important number making the cards useless. It wasn't until we were overseas in the US and tried to use it that we discovered something was wrong. We were using cheap overseas cell phones as Aussie mobiles run on different systems than those in the US. The cheap phones we used didn't produce an audible tone when you pressed the keypad, so we weren't able to use the TMC touch-tone navigation system. Very frustrating and we complained to the CBA about it on return and they were very apologetic and implemented procedural changes to keep the situation from reoccurring. But it is cheap insurance is to check the card before you leave home.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sobering reminder

The last post of mine was about the mysterious loss of MH370, which still hasn't been found. The relatives of passengers and crew lost on MH370 haven't had closure on their loss. And now MH17, shot down over Ukraine. The news shows body bags days after the plane fell from the sky, and reports of looting by the pro-Russian separatists. Just terrible. A small consolation is that we know the fate of those who were aboard MH17. May they rest in peace.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

MH370 lost at sea. Finding and recovering things underwater.


It's very sad that Malaysian Airways flight 370 has been confirmed lost in the southern Indian Ocean with no survivors. But some closure must come to the family and friends of the crew and passengers knowing that the plane has crashed. The most plausible theory about what happened that I read was in Wired and explained how an electrical fire might have resulted in the loss of the plane and those aboard.

Conspiracy theories were thick in the absence of any factual information. This is a pet peeve of mine and was a partial motivation for making my sculpture, 'It became personal - Catharsis'' that's currently exhibited at the 2014 Heysen Sculpture Biennial until April 27. Sometimes bad things just happen, they aren't always the result of a terrorist activity. Remember the Asiana flight 214  plane crash on landing at San Francisco airport last year due to pilot error - the news channels were immediately saying that terrorism wasn't suspected. Well, if it wasn't suspected then why say it? It's so front of mind. Have the terrorists won, consider all the intrusions to our everyday lives by the increased 'security' measures in place to 'protect us.' The other motivation behind making that sculpture was in response to two separate cancer issues for me last year.

One of my many careers in Australia was working as a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) pilot/tech for a diving company called Solus Ocean Systems. I was part of a three man crew providing drill support to the drilling company aboard the Diamond M Epoch. The Diamond M was a semi-submersible exploration rig. It had two huge pontoons that were submerged beneath the surface and when mainly filled with water they would stabilise the rig in the ocean. When the rig was being towed to other exploration sites the pontoons were mainly pumped-out to increase the buoyancy of the rig making it float higher in the ocean. The pontoons could also be completely flooded causing the rig to sink, if necessary. That was an option the Company Man considered one night in Bass Straight when problems caused the rig to list to one side which could have resulted in capsizing. That was an exciting night. This book could be the report on what caused that situation.

Diamond M Epoch from helicopter

When the rig was on site it was held in place by huge anchors put-out from each corner of the rig. Some of the anchors weighed 13 tonnes and were massive. When bad weather hit the rig the forces were so strong that the chains holding the anchors could break. 

A condition of exploration drilling in at least some Australian coastal waters was that after the rig finished its exploration and moved onto a new location the ocean bottom had to be as clean as it was before the exploration drilling. Remember that the number of productive wells producing commercial quantities of 'hydrocarbons' is a tiny fraction of the number of wells drilled. It's an expensive business, and risky.

This is where the connection between a drilling rig and an airplane lost at sea happens. Now that the authorities roughly know where the plane was lost they'll search for it and if possible recover what they can find. 

Once the Diamond M Epoch finished drilling in Bass Straight an underwater survey would happen to check for any potential industrial rubbish left on the ocean floor. I was told that some of the areas where the Diamond M drilled were commercial fishing zones where huge nets were dragged behind the fishing boats. If one of the nets caught on an abandoned rig anchor it could cause major damage to the fishing gear and result in costly damage repairs.

Bass Straight is very shallow compared with the southern Indian Ocean, so any exploration and recovery work there is many times more difficult if MH370 is located.  The deepest that we operated in was about 800 feet and we thought that was deep.

To scan the bottom in shallow water a small survey boat cruised the target area using a specified search pattern. The boat used a side-scan sonar that would indicate if there were unusual objects on the bottom. When something was found the location was noted for visual inspection by us.

Normally our ROV was mounted onboard the drilling rig with a winch lowering the submarine within a cage through the 'moon pool' hole in the rig's floor down to the water. When the caged sub reached the working depth the winch would stop and the sub was 'flown' out of the cage to the work site. A stainless steel sheathed cable about 40mm in diameter containing power and electronics cables ran from the winch to the cage. In the cage there was another winch that had a smaller and neutrally buoyant cable running from it to the sub, providing a certain working area from the cage.

Sub in cage aboard Diamond M Epoch
The motors on the sub were powered by 3 phase 440 VAC and you don't want to mix AC electricity with salt water. There are depth limits to which you can use air-filled containers before they get crushed by water pressure (the pressure increases by 1 atmosphere for every 10 metres of depth.) The electrical motors on the cage and sub drove hydraulic compressors that provided liquid power to the fans that moved the sub around in the water, and to power the actuators that we used to work with items on the drill machinery or objects on the ocean floor. We were sometimes called-on by the rig's welder to find and retrieve his chipping hammer when he dropped it over the side.

Author with submarine (it was a long time ago)

In the photo above we fitted a hydraulic-powered cable cutter on the left arm of the sub. The right arm shows a sample bit of cable. At one point during my deployment on the Diamond M we had to have a replacement submarine, cage and winch flown from Singapore to the rig as we lost ours over the side. Long story but I'll just say that once the replacement equipment was installed we sent the new caged sub to the bottom to recover the original equipment. With the cable cutter we could cut the old winch cable and sub cables into manageable pieces then attach a lifting line from the rig to pull them up to the rig. It would not have looked good if we'd left an entire ROV system on the bottom of the ocean when were supposed to be cleaning-up the bottom. 

Our crew chief did have some major explaining to do to his boss in Singapore during his call, 'Tim, I've got some bad news.' 

'Ya Robert, I hope you're not calling to say you lost another fucking submarine [this does happen in the process of doing drill support]?!' 

'Well Tim, um, it isn't just the submarine this time. It's also the cage and the winch...' 

You don't want to hear the rest of that exchange. Robert did continue with a successful career with the company and I don't know if he ever lost another submarine.

So after the sidescan sonar finds something on the bottom the submarine, cage, winch and control booth and a big generator are installed on a work boat and sent to to investigate. We lower the caged sub over the side of the workboat and if we find something we bring it back.

Control booth: Crew chief Kevin flying, George in foreground


When were were flying the sub we had two video feeds from the sub, and one on the cage. The latter made it easier to return the sub to the cage when we'd finished the underwater work and had to bring it back to the surface.

The two arms on the sub are pretty dextrous. Once, while bored and doing a Blow Out Preventer inspection in about 800 feet some very slow fish lived near the stack because the water was warmer there due to the drilling mud and fluids pumped from the surface, and we caught one of the fish with the sub's actuator. We were probably as surprised as the fish was! The victor writes the history.

One of the arms on the sub has a rotating end effector that lets you do things like tighten-up a shackle pin on a chain. The image below shows the ROV pilot moving one of the arms to attach a hook from a lifting line from the workboat to the shackle at the end of the anchor chain. We were working in 201 feet of water at the time. See the 'OIL' indicator on screen that would indicate any leaks (bad news!)


On this occasion we did locate the lost anchor and were able to attached the lifting cable to it. After a lot of straining by the workboat winch as it had to break the suction of the anchor in the seafloor, they lifted it to the boat and recovered it.

Trophy shot: 13 tonne anchor recovered by Solus Ocean Systems ROV crew: Rick, Clay, Robert, Doug

In favourable circumstances debris from MH370 might be recovered using an ROV or even divers, but it gets more and more complicated with greater depth and currents. I wish them all the best and hope the cause of the crash is determined. My condolences and thoughts go to the families and friends of those lost on MH370.







Wednesday, November 27, 2013

3 month check-point following prostate cancer treatment

... and the news is good. My PSA is now down to 0.85 (a low number is good, high is bad.) I must have my PSA level monitored quarterly for a year, then it becomes less frequent over subsequent years. My radiotherapist said the PSA level may drop to as low as 0.1, which is as low as they measure.

I'm happy.

Now if only I could get Google to stop pushing incontinence pads and single-use catheters advertisements to me! I don't need them, everything works. Bloody computers!

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Friday, September 20, 2013

Post-treatment - Prostate cancer + 1 month; Thyroid cancer + 3 weeks

Prostate first then I'll work up the body: I had my one month post-procedure check-up with the urologist this week and everything is going very well. The temporary side effects caused by my body reacting to the radiation inside my prostate have almost disappeared and everything works as intended. So now I go into the monitoring phase where I'll have regular blood tests for Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) and those tests will become less frequent if the treatment has been successful. The cure rate for low dose rate brachytherapy is about 95% and it is about the same as that for radical prostatectomy where the prostate is surgically removed. Important point when considering a prostate cancer treatment - surgical removal of the prostate does not guarantee a cure, and if all goes well from the brachytherapy treatment any side effects are considerably less than even the best case of those resulting from surgery. That appealed to me.

Thyroid time: yesterday I had an appointment with an endocrinologist to discuss treatment post-thyroidectomy. The surgery can't guarantee that all thyroid tissue is removed and some might even contain cancer cells. So the normal follow-up is to 'ablate' any remaining thyroid tissue (including cancerous thyroid tissue) by internal radiation therapy. The patient drinks a liquid containing highly radioactive iodine that is taken-up by any remaining thyroid cells in the body. This dose is quite different than that of the brachytherapy and requires the patient to remain isolated in a shielded hospital room for two days, and then a need to keep a specific distance from other people for a short while afterwards. If I go ahead with this I'd almost pay someone to say, 'Man, you be lookin' HOT!'

My thyroid surgeon strongly recommended having the Radioactive Iodine treatment as a normal course of  treatment. But the endocrinologist said that I have a choice of whether or not to do so, or I could do it in 6 months or so if I wanted to get past the prostate cancer issue first. The risk factor that makes the doctors recommend that I proceed with this follow-up treatment is that I'm over 45 years of age.

So now it's yet another cancer treatment decision time - to treat or not to treat. What is the risk/reward trade-off in having the radioactive iodine treatment? If I have the treatment then it's easy to determine if the cancer reappears by an easy blood test as any activity of thyroid would indicate a new thyroid cancer development as all the thyroid cells would be 'ablated' by the Iodine. But a side effect is that I could end-up with a 'dry mouth' if the treatment damages the salivary glands. I don't know how bad a 'dry mouth' would be in this case but a dear friend of mine suffered from it terribly following external beam radiation for throat cancer. He also had terrible pain in swallowing and ended-up not being able to eat due to that pain. His was not a good result although his treatment was very different than what I'm facing. The doctor yesterday said the 'dry mouth' generally doesn't appear unless a patient has had multiple treatments with radioactive iodine. A scary potential side effect that I read about on the Internet (from an official cancer information site) was a very slight chance of developing leukaemia. But the doctor said that is something that he hasn't come across.

So next Tuesday my case will be discussed by a cross-disciplinary panel of doctors at Flinders University to determine the dosage and other details of how my radioactive iodine treatment would take place if I go ahead with it.

Ugh. One cancer treated and out of the way but another big decision to make about this second cancer treatment. What's another decision, right?

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