Thursday, 10 April 2014

A Great Day at the Office

You may have heard him on the radio or seen him on the television commenting on health issues, nutrition and medical research.

I first met Dr John Briffa in real life at a corporate well-being staff conference in Peterborough last autumn when he challenged delegates with the question ‘Are you putting petrol in your diesel engine?’
His new book, published at the start of the year, follows a similar theme. It is aimed at helping us all get more out of our working day and, just as importantly, having enough in reserve for the time leftover.
The premise of ‘A Great Day at the Office’ is to unwrap a series of simple strategies offering us the chance in the process to recharge our batteries and take our workaday effectiveness and productivity to new heights.
Sounds like just what we need in our modern world where potential stress points lie at every turn?
Drawing on recent studies and his own real-world experience, Dr Briffa’s purpose is to equip us with the knowledge required to run our body and brain as efficiently as a finely-tuned machine.
His book explores fundamental factors that determine our vitality, mental functioning and mood - and how to put them together to enhance performance and sustainability.
It offers a number of insights into a broad range of influential factors - diet, physical activity, sound and light exposure, breathing, psychology and sleep.
The key ‘takes’ from ‘A Great Day at the Office’ could be rounded up as follows:
  • A crucial dietary tactic that ensures sustained levels of energy throughout the day with no ‘mid-afternoon slump’.
  • Common but under-recognised causes of insomnia, and how to get the sort of deep, restful sleep that leaves us fully revived in the morning.
  • A simple breathing exercise that can induce a state of calm and focus in just a few seconds.
  • How to maintain health and fitness in as time-efficient a way as possible, and without the need for a gym or exhausting exercise.
  • How to use light technology to optimise sleep, mental functioning and mood.
  • Three simple psychological strategies that harmonise body and mind.
  • A mental ‘trick’ for banishing bad habits and establishing healthy ones – with ease.
By putting just some of the strategies offered into practice Dr Bfriffa suggests we stand to be rewarded with a tangible increase in energy and vitality, along with the ability to ‘get more done’.
To gain maximum benefit from his advice and assess its personal relevance you probably need to read the book for yourself.
But as a taster - and at the risk of being taken out of context - here is a para-phrased summary of some randomly selected hot tips:
Value sleep
This is not an unproductive time - it actually prepares the body both physiologically and psychologically for the day ahead. So, go to bed earlier because an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two after.
Brain dump
Write a ‘to do’ list for the next day rather than letting lots of anxious thoughts run through your head in bed.
Limit caffeine
It’s a stimulant. Alcohol too has the capacity to disrupt sleep and has been shown to suppress REM sleep, which may impact on mental functions.
Alcohol also disrupts blood-sugar levels - a peak in blood sugar caused by alcohol in the evening can lead to a trough in the middle of the night.
The body will then correct this by secreting hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, that stimulate the release of sugar from the liver. These are also major stress hormones – the last thing we need coursing through our system when we also need deep, restorative sleep.
Lighten up
Melatonin (which helps us sleep) is made from the brain chemical serotonin. Lack of sunlight during the day can lower serotonin and reduce melatonin at night.
Darken up
This includes the lighting from tablets, televisions and laptops. Set a time each evening for turning off all electronic equipment.
Regular readers of this blog will also be aware that excessive ‘light at night’ and the creeping effects of light pollution have been the subject of some of most popular Lighthouse Keeper posts. See Blinded by the night if you missed out and want to read some more.
‘A Great Day at the Office’ might not be for everyone because, if we had the time to really sit down and think about it, much of the advice could be classed as good old-fashioned common sense.
But in our time-hungry world we are all too easily cast drift and caught in the fast-moving currents of corporate business life and modern consumerism.
And sometimes it is helpful to have some practical answers, alternative solutions and justifications laid out before us - this is just such a book.

‘A Great Day at the Office: Simple Strategies to Maximise Your Energy and Get More Done Easily’ by Dr John Briffa is published in paperback by Fourth Estate, ISBN 978-0-00-754791-3 and is available from local bookstores and Amazon.
Note: title not to be confused with a previous Lighthouse Keeper blog ‘A good day at the office’ in which our Prime Minister David Cameron was adjudged to be having a bad hair day after bathing in the afterglow of Andy Murray’s historic Wimbledon victory.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Nine million bicycles

The first time I stepped onto the pavements of Beijing, the feted capital of the People's Republic of China, it felt more like nine million cars than nine million bicycles.

With over 20 million people, it is one of the most populous and ancient cities in the world, renowned for opulent palaces, temples, gardens, tombs, walls and fancy gates, as well as art treasures and universities.

It is headquarters to most of China's largest state-owned companies and a major hub for the national highway, expressway, railway and high-speed rail networks. Beijing's international airport is the second busiest in the world by passenger traffic.

For my week-long visit in October 2013 this enormous and spectacular city was also host to a number of major conferences, including the 64th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) which I was reporting on for one of the host organisations, the International Astronautical Federation (IAF).

Beijing is certainly enormous and spectacular. In the northern quarter lie a cluster of westernised hotels, a stone's throw from the sprawling China National Conference Centre (CNCC) and the Olympic park with it's Bird's nest stadium and Cube' swimming pool.

Further south is the ancient city centre and the historic Forbidden City, while to the North, the historic Summer Palace and the Great Wall.

But it is air pollution that piques my interest today - not only the appalling and choking smogs that descend ever more frequently on this city but now disturbingly close to home (Paris) and, very much closer to home, (London). What are we to make of this?

Smog has long been a problem in Beijing. Whilst perhaps better than it was in the past now that much of the city's heavy industry has been relocated, it remains a problem. In fact, most of the smog is now caused by vehicle traffic.

During my week-long stay the smog and pollution were so bad on at least two days that the effects - stinging eyes and uncomfortable breathing - were noticeable after only a few minutes in the open.

The notion that this was a thing restricted to far off countries, or certainly something of the past in the UK, has certainly been dispelled this spring.

In March recorded levels of pollution in Paris were higher than in many of the world's most notoriously polluted cities, including Beijing.

Calm and warm spring days left a chemical soup hanging above the City of Light, choking the famous boulevards and leading the French government to implement an alternating driving ban and offer free public transport for a time.

For the past few days I too have been living in smog land (otherwise known as East Anglia) as record levels of air pollution plagued many parts of the UK.

Domestic pollution (largely nitrogen dioxide originating in traffic fumes) and emissions from continental Europe, combined with dust from the Sahara and low south-easterly winds, caused air quality and visibility to plummet.

The smog-like conditions of this week have shown that the UK is far from immune.

Even before this latest episode the country faces fines of up to £300m a year after the European commission launched legal proceedings against the government for failing to reduce ‘excessive’ levels of nitrogen dioxide despite 15 years of warnings.

Other European countries have also failed to meet the air quality directive that should have been adopted in 2008 but the EU environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, has singled Britain out for its 'persistent breaches'.

According to the commission, air pollution limits are regularly exceeded in 16 zones across the UK - Greater London, the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, Teesside, the Potteries, Hull, Southampton, Glasgow, the east, the south-east, the east Midlands, Merseyside, Yorkshire & Humberside, the west Midlands, and the north-east.

Air pollution itself is currently attributed to 29,000 premature deaths a year in the UK and the World Health Organisation has confirmed that it can also cause cancer.

Like climate change - and there would appear to be a natural connection - this is a global problem and one that won’t be blown away by any amount of political hot air. Real action is called for.

The blog title is taken from ‘Nine Million Bicycles’,a song written and produced by Mike Batt for the singer Katie Melua's second album, ‘Piece by Piece’. It was released as the album's first single in September 2005 and reached number five in the UK Singles Chart. According to Melua, the inspiration for the song came during a visit to Beijing with Batt after their interpreter showed them around the city and stated there were supposedly nine million bicycles in the city.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Always look on the bright side

The headlines this week have all been about how Britain will keep the lights on in the midst of the government’s failure on long term energy policy and blatant profiteering by the country’s big six energy suppliers.

But this evening an estimated 10 million people in Britain will turn their lights off voluntarily as part of Earth Hour, a symbolic gesture to show support for environmental issues.

Now in its eighth year, the mass participation world-wide event comes as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prepares to launch its latest report in Japan on Monday, outlining how climate change will affect wildlife, food supplies, water and the weather.

"It's fortuitous timing that as millions of people around the world take part in WWF's Earth Hour, the world's leading scientists release the latest IPCC report, which highlights the various impacts of climate change," said Colin Butfield, director of public engagement and campaigns at WWF-UK.

"The significance of these two events is massive. Climate change is the biggest environmental threat facing our planet – it's real, it's happening right now, and we need to act fast."

Among the world's famous landmarks that will dim their lights are the Empire State building in New York, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow, the Bosphorus Bridge in Turkey and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

In the UK, the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and the London Eye will all dim their lights, with an estimated 10 million Britons expected to take part.

Launched in Australia in 2007, WWF says Earth Hour has now grown to become the world's biggest environmental event, mobilising people around a range of issues from deforestation to energy efficiency. Last year saw more than 7,000 towns and cities in 154 countries take part.

A survey commissioned by WWF-UK this week found that almost half (47%) of respondents said they would be willing to switch their political allegiance to a different party based on the strength of environmental policies, with 73% saying the leaders of the UK's main political parties are not currently giving enough emphasis to the environment.

Tonight from 08.25 pm the WWF website will be live-streaming highlights of Earth Hour, from the spectacular London and global landmark switch offs to a special performance from Sophie Ellis Bextor -

For further illuminating reading see - The end of night and Fear of the dark

Monday, 24 March 2014

Word perfect - almost

It is confession time. The Lighthouse Keeper has ended his short affair. Well, maybe you’d describe as more of a fling.

But I’ve dusted things down and listed it as one of life’s experiences. Sometimes you just get caught up in these things and, blinkered by the moment, fail to appreciate that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

You see, my beautifully slim and elegantly crafted MacBook Air laptop - purchased from the online Apple store at the turn of the year - has now gone off to a new and loving home where were all things Apple are properly appreciated.

For now, I’ve made up with my trusty and familiar Toshiba Satellite laptop and, along with it, Corel’s WordPerfect office suite.

I tried to make things work - even emulating the Windows 7 operating system on the MacBook using a trial version of the rather neat Parallels program.

And all went reasonably well. But WordPerfect, my bread and butter program, was still not quite the smooth operator it should have been.

The number of people worldwide who prefer WordPerfect is an almost unnoticeably tiny fraction of the millions using MS Word - but those that do tend to be intensely loyal.

In the United States, especially, the suite is widely used in law and government offices, and also by writers and editors who have drafted and amended their pros in WordPerfect since the time before Microsoft.

Without going into tedious detail, Word Perfect remains one of the best and most intuitive instruments for writing and formatting text.

Nothing matches its ability to pull together multi-chapter documents from separately editable files, or import research from multiple sources without compromising pre-set formats. And, of course, there is the classic Alt F3 ‘reveal codes’ feature...

Operating systems and word processor programs aside, the MacBook Air had another surprise in store - delivering a seemingly innocuous but frustrating omission for a writer and editor.

The stylish, backlit keyboard lacks a proper one-stroke ‘delete’ key - it’s single direction only version working like the Back Space key on a Windows keyboard.

Despite being tempted by the ‘Apple’, I eventually decided it wasn’t all about looks - or even a battery that would go the full distance of a trans-Atlantic flight.

Life is complicated enough without the bother of sticking plaster operating systems, software incompatibility and keyboard quirks, even before I get down to doing any real work. So, it’s back to what I know and trust.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Space without frontiers

Preparations for tomorrow morning’s landing in Kazakhstan of two Russian cosmonauts and an American astronaut continue unabated against a backdrop of increasing tensions over Russia's armed incursion into Ukraine.

And NASA is once again confronted with the nightmare of a potential diplomatic roadblock thanks to its reliance on Russia for transporting its astronauts to Earth orbit and back.

Nearly two dozen NASA officials and medical personnel are in Kazakhstan to greet the three man crew, which is led by veteran Russian commander Oleg Kotov, a native of the Crimea region.

The NASA team joins the Russian-led recovery crew, a fleet of helicopters, fixed-wing surveillance aircraft and all-terrain ground vehicles to quickly reach the Soyuz capsule after it parachutes to Earth.

This month's comings and goings at the International Space Station (ISS) highlight the interdependence of the US and Russian space efforts.
Just two weeks after tomorrow’s landing NASA's Steven Swanson is to ride another Russian Soyuz craft up to the station, again in the company of two Russians.

Under current arrangements, NASA astronauts can only get to and from the ISS with Russian help, due to the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet in 2011 before an alternative US launcher was in place. Russia charges NASA $70 million for each astronaut round trip.

If Russia's confrontation with Ukraine and the West does develop into the worst diplomatic crisis of our generation it could have potential consequences for space exploration, though based on past experience it looks unlikely - at least for the timing being.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden stated last week that the space station programme had so far been “resilient to international crises” since Russian formally joined the effort in 1993.

"I think people lose track of the fact that we have occupied the ISS now for 13 consecutive years uninterrupted, and that has taken us through multiple international crises," he said.

The three returning space farers – Kotov, his fellow Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy and NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins - have now completed their final weekend of a 166-day mission aboard the ISS.

They launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 25 September and arrived at the 450-ton orbiting outpost six hours later.

The first phase of their return to Earth starts this evening when they will enter their Soyuz TMA-10M capsule and close hatches with the space station at around 2045 GMT.

Undocking is set for two minutes after midnight, followed by a burn of the Soyuz rocket thrusters at 0230 GMT to slow the craft's velocity enough to fall back into the atmosphere.

Touchdown - southeast of the town of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan - is scheduled for 0324 GMT (0924 am local time at the landing site).

Monday, 3 March 2014

Gravity - it's the real thing

The technical prowess of Alfonso CuarĂ³n's sci-fi drama ‘Gravity’ meant it took seven Oscars at the 86th Academy Awards last night, including visual effects, sound editing, sound mixing, cinematography, editing and original score. 

In the Warner Bros movie two astronauts find themselves adrift in space and struggling for survival after their spacecraft is destroyed by space debris. 

The scenario makes for gripping Hollywood entertainment and is not million miles from reality - NASA actively works to protect its astronauts and vehicles from such dangers and has occasionally had to adjust its orbit to avoid colliding with items in its path.

From protective material coating the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) to meticulous training on the ground and in space, covering everything from spacewalking to fires or decompression inside the station itself, NASA's ground crews and astronauts are as prepared as they can be for potential anomaly.

Back in September NASA astronaut Cady Coleman (Expedition 26) spoke with actress Sandra Bullock to discuss Bullock’s character in the movie. The two had previously conversed while Coleman was onboard the orbiting space station.

Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning 'Gravity'.
Of course, featured alongside Bullock and George Clooney, ‘Gravity’ has another major star - the International Space Station itself. 

Look closely during the film’s interior shots of the space station and you may get a glimpse into what’s really going on 240 miles above Earth. 

To focus on the facts behind the fiction, Coleman recalled her own experience living and working in space aboard the orbiting laboratory after an advanced screening of the film.  “This isn’t a documentary - it’s a movie,” she said.  “It transports people from this planet into space. I am really lucky, as an astronaut, to get to go and live there.”

Observant viewers of the movie may have noticed that free water forms spheres in space. Although special effects helped this occur in the film, this is a true phenomenon and is the result of surface tension.

Onboard the space station and experiment called the Capillary Flow Experiment (CFE) is helping predict liquid behavior in microgravity. 

Such findings provide help improve ground water transportation on Earth, better cooling capabilities for electronics using heat pipes, as well as benefiting the design for fuel tanks in spacecraft for long duration exploration.

Fire also plays a role in the movie, and two studies underway on the space station touch on this topic - the Burning and Suppression of Solids (BASS) investigation and the Flame Extinguishment Experiment (FLEX). 

Findings from BASS may contribute to improved fire suppression methods for spacecraft and FLEX may lead to improved fuel efficiency on Earth and minimise pollutants associated with combustion in Earth’s atmosphere.

Space station research will continue for years to come as the findings from the many studies build on the current collection of human knowledge. The work done aboard the ISS goes far beyond entertainment value, Coleman pointed out, touching on the nature of the human spirit. 

“Our planet sits in a neighbourhood within the universe, and we are all space explorers," said Coleman. 

"I think space movies, in general, bring that message home to us. Whether we live with our feet on the planet or whether we live on the space station, we are all space travellers and we are a people of space exploration.”

A bright sun greets the International Space Station in this view from the Russian 
section of the orbital outpost, photographed by one of the STS-129 crew members in 2009.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Moon rover awakes

China's lunar rover - the first spacecraft to land on our nearest planetary neighbour in 37 years - has awoken after its troubled dormancy.

But scientists are still trying to find out the cause of a mechanical control abnormality that occurred as the craft went into a scheduled two-week hibernation period during the lunar ‘night’.

After several days of uncertainty Pei Zhaoyu, a spokesman for the Chinese space programme, announced this morning that the country’s moon rover had been restored to its normal signal reception function.

The problem emerged on 25 January before Yutu (Jade Rabbit) entered its second period of planned dormancy on the moon as lunar night fell.

"Yutu went to sleep under an abnormal status," Pei said, adding that experts were concerned that it might not be able to survive the extremely low temperatures during the lunar night.

"The rover stands a chance of being saved now that it is still alive," he said.

Its deployment on 15 December 2014 was the first successful landing on the Moon since 1976 and it was expected to operate for about three months.

Earlier reports in Chinese media had suggested that it had been declared dead on the surface of the moon.

In a report entitled ‘Loss of lunar rover’, the China News Service said that the rover "could not be restored to full function on Monday as expected" and was "mourned" by Chinese social media users.

China’s ‘Jade Rabbit’ lunar rover on the moon's surface
as seen from the landing platform in late December 2014.

The six-wheeled rover is designed to hibernate during the lunar night, when the sun dips below the horizon for two weeks and temperatures plunge to minus 180C (-292F).

The rover carries plutonium heaters to keep the rover's delicate electronics warm at night and is fitted with solar panels to generate power for the vehicle's science instrumentation, radio transmitters and other equipment. 

Before the sun goes down at Yutu's landing site, it is programmed to fold down its camera, antenna mast and solar panels. It is while executing these the rover ran into trouble 

Unofficial accounts posted on Chinese websites claimed it was unable to stow one of its solar panels over the retracted camera mast on top of the robot's instrument deck.

The Chang'e 3 lander and its rover (see Sleeping satellitemarked a milestone in China's ambitious long-term space exploration programme, which includes establishing a permanent space station in Earth orbit.