Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Street lite

Photo: Clive Simpson

On the road home the night-time light has changed. We are in the heart of South Lincolnshire’s farming landscape approaching the interestingly named hamlet of Cowbit, midway along the old main road between Crowland and Spalding.

The road bends gently along a raised bank, originally built to stave off flooding from the plain of the nearby River Welland, and the lights cut through the night like harbour beacons around a vast concave seashore.

Tonight, I notice that the familiar curve of orange-glowing street lights - picking out the homeward route ahead against the flat Fenland horizon - have been replaced by the cool and dazzlingly bright light of modern LED technology.

Definitely cheaper to run - and therefore more energy efficient - these lights are an increasing part of our night-time scenery up and down the country.

But after five miles of driving along dark, unlit roads the clinical brilliance comes as a shock to night-adjusted eyes.

All this is part of local authority plans - in this case Lincolnshire County Council - to replace and update all our traditional street and road lighting over the coming years.

Energy and cost savings aside, the new kind of lighting is defined by its brightness and intensity, like spotlights on a West End stage show. But at least there is less apparent spillage into the heavens above.

LED luminance is potentially much more controllable than traditional sodium light and so one might reasonably ask the question of our lighting engineers - is it necessary (and even safe for approaching motorists) to have these beams on full luminance at the point where we suddenly cross from dark to light?

There are increasing complaints from across the country where such shiny new lights - installed in normal streets and cul-de-sacs - have cut through curtained windows to illuminate living and sleeping spaces, playing havoc for those in the vicinity.

Bright is not always best for human health and there is obviously a need for more research into the potential risks from the glare of LED lighting.

Already it is well documented that exposure to LED light suppresses melatonin production by up to five times more than exposure to sodium-based light, disrupting our biological clocks and affecting sleeping and rest periods.

Recent research in Spain has indicated that long-term exposure to LED street lighting could, as a result of the high levels of blue band radiation, cause irreparable harm to the retina of the human eye.

And last year a report by the French government stated that a luminance level higher than 10,000 cd/m2 causes visual discomfort whatever the position of the lighting unit in the field of vision.

As the emission surfaces of LEDs are highly-concentrated point sources the luminance of each individual source can be 1000 times higher than discomfort levels, making this intense glare a tangible problem.

Which brings me to reflect on the familiar orange, phosphorescent glow that has been part of our night time scene for so long.

Despite its intrusion, particularly into the night sky above, will we come to rue the day of its disappearance?

At the ending of DH Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ the book’s central character Paul Morel is drawn ‘towards the city's gold phosphorescence’.

Signifying corruption and decay, ‘phosphorescence' was to become one of Lawrence’s jargon words in subsequent novels.

‘But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city's gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness... He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.’

For Paul Morel, the ending was something of a false epiphany. That 'gold phosphorescence' was an emanation of the mechanised life of the industrialised world - the glow of false promise.

In the end Paul’s tragedy was that he was only able to move in the direction of the city, humming not with the natural activity of a hive, but with machinery, and glowing not with sunshine and warmth but with the ghastly phosphorescence of street lamps and decay.

That familiar orange glow in our night-time skies does indeed represent something of the past, industrial age - whereas the clinical, white light of LEDs is symbolic of the modern, sanitised world.

Our continued attempts to tame and banish the natural darkness and rhythms of life only serve to deepen the shadows around us. What, I wonder, would Lawrence have made of this?

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

In praise of Sherpas

Photo: Clive Simpson

The world it seems is always full of tragedies - the recent loss of a Malaysian aircraft with all its passengers and crew, the South Korean ferry disaster and, a few days ago, a deadly avalanche on the slopes of Mount Everest in Nepal.

They are different in scale but on the human level all have unique and very individual impacts on families, friends and communities.

Tragedies on the world’s highest mountain are nothing new and are almost expected at this time of year, which is deemed the most ‘favourable’ time for commercial expeditions to guide fee-paying clients to the summit.

As rescuers abandoned their search for three Sherpas believed to have been killed along with 13 others last Friday, the Nepalese government is still considering cancelling all expeditions to climb Everest this year.

The avalanche happened at about 5,800 m (19,000 ft) - some 500 m above Base Camp - as Sherpa guides were hauling gear through the Khumbu icefall, a treacherous terrain of crevasses and enormous chunks of ice.

The men were near an area known to climbers as the ‘popcorn field’ - because of its bulging ice - when an enormous piece broke away from a high glacier and crashed down the mountain, setting off an avalanche of ice and rock.

This latest incident has raised concerns in Nepal about the scale of the climbing business and the inherent dangers to the Sherpa guides - as well as the low levels of compensation paid to families by the Nepalese government.

For 2014, some 334 climbers from around the world have permits - costing almost £6,000 each - to climb Everest. Filming rights and other fees bring in more money to the government and if the expeditions are cancelled fees will have to be refunded.

For the Sherpas themselves - a once-obscure mountain people whose name has become synonymous with Everest and whose entire culture has been changed by decades of working as guides and porters for wealthy foreigners - it was a brutal reminder of the risks they face.

On well-travelled, high-prestige climbs like Everest, the Sherpas are the ones who go up first, breaking deep snow, laying fixed ropes and carrying heavy equipment and supplies. Avalanches, altitude sickness, lack of oxygen and brutal cold are part of the deal.

A year ago British climber Jon Griffith and two colleagues abandoned an attempt to climb Everest by a new route after a dispute about the treatment of Sherpa guides.

"There's an underlying feeling among the Sherpas that they've been treated quite badly by westerners and that clients don't have any respect for them," he said afterwards.

"If you look around at how incredibly luxurious some base camps are, you can see their point."

Sherpas are an ethnic group in Nepal and have helped foreigners climb the country's towering peaks since before Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Sir Edmund Hilary became the first to reach the top in 1953.

But in the muti-million pound business of summiting Everest they have all too often been treated as the poor relation and only time will tell if this latest and worst single tragedy on the slopes of the world's highest mountain will address the imbalance.

In my own experience of trekking to Everest base camp, Sherpas have always been friendly, helpful and very supportive. And, as I wrote in ‘Postcard from Namche’, their cheery demeanour and willingness to serve is a lesson to us all.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information or to get in touch click here

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 diesel in your petrol 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.
The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information or to get in touch click here

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Nine million bicycles

Photo: Clive Simpson
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 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. The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information or to get in touch click here