Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Attitudes to Surveillance in Public Places

Followers of Road Rage News will not be unfamiliar with this classic which has gone viral in the last few days, having first been picked up by the magnificent Bristol Traffic blog, then mainstream media outlets the Guardian and Telegraph. A business motorist was caught on camera verbally abusing a man who filmed her car blocking a busy road. She threatens to tell the police that he assaulted her.

The YouTube user, intrigued by a truly frightful example of arrogant motoring started filming on his vidphone. The motorist jumps out of her car, and starts pursuing the pedestrian down the street.
"You've been filming me. Gimme that phone - now! You've been filming me - it's illegal! It's illegal! Who the fuck do you think you are, filming me? I'm trying to get to my place of work - how dare you fat little lump?  
I want to know who you are, I want to know where you live or where you work."
She also threatens him with a fraudulent vexatious allegation (of assault) and a man (thought to be the motorist's husband) harangues and intimidatingly menaces the YouTube user.

Leaving to one side the appallingly ignorant and arrogant driving style of the business motorist who is the subject of the video and also leaving aside the harassment and intimidation she and her husband visited upon the pedestrian, what intrigues all the more is the attitude to surveillance in public places.

If Bath is anything like Aberdeen, everyone is almost always and everywhere in the town centre subject to video (and, increasingly, audio - oh, and tracking) surveillance. This surveillance is operated by civil authorities and, again - increasingly, by private security firms. As the driver of a high-ish end Audi, the business motorist who is the subject of the viral movie will doubtless be fully loaded with sat-nav and an anti-theft tracking device. All the information streams from these surveillance data gathering systems are transmitted to people (or AI expert-system statistical analysis and pattern recognition algorithms) in remote locations with unknowable proclivities and uncertain future outcomes. All of this our society has become accustomed to; if it bothers us at all, it does so only marginally. Yet, when the business motorist in the video spots that she is being filmed by a member of the public who is in plain view, who's face she can see and whom she can engage in conversation - she goes APESHIT. Why is that?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Energy Trap, The Bubble Market, The Capital Trap

Nearly a year ago, at the premier of filmmaker Fraser Denholm's documentary feature "Run Down Aberdeen", an open floor discussion with the audience followed the screening. During that discussion, local list Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald was heard to say that "high oil prices are good for Aberdeen". As, since the mid 1970's, the Aberdeen economy has become increasingly dependent upon the extraction of fossil fuels from the petroleum fields beneath the raging swells of the central and northern North Sea, for an MSP to make such a statement would seem to be - well - just common sense. Wouldn't it?

But, whenever we're confronted with something which appears to be common sense, as psychogeographers, we're apt to try to have a good look around the back. We're on the same page as grand old man of letters W. Somerset Maugham on this one:
"Common-sense appears to be only another name for the thoughtlessness of the unthinking. It is made of the prejudices of childhood, the idiosyncrasies of individual character and the opinion of the newspapers."
So, what of this common sense claim that high oil prices are good for our town? As an opener, we'd draw attention to our old blog-post "D is for Dutch Disease", in which we examined the inimical effect on our local economy of this over-reliance on the one business sector with particular reference to the resource-extractive aspect of that sector:

The A to Z of Aberdeen, D is for The Dutch Disease
The Dutch Disease is a concept in economics which explains how the development of a natural resource extraction business sector (like oil and gas) and its associated economic boom can over-balance an economy, causing decline in non-extractive value-adding sectors - particularly the manufacturing sector, but also in agriculture. The pathology of the Dutch Disease is accompanied by moral decline in the personal sphere (affluenza) and turpitude in the public sector (government) as it becomes entangled with big-money business interests. Hmm... sounds familiar? 
Since we wrote that, there have been an number of developments. And other than the bland "good for Aberdeen" assertion, we collectively must ask what high oil prices mean: what is the cause; and what is the effect going forward (as they say)?



Recognition of evidence that global oil production is reaching (or has already reached) the "undulating plateau" at it's historic peak is now no longer the domain of the tin-foil hatters. Today this recognition comes, not from the usual-suspect voice-in-the-wilderness Peak Oiler blogosphere (The Oil Drum, The Energy Bulletin, The Post Carbon Institute and such), but from the likes of the US military, Shell Oil, and the White House.


United States Joint Forces Command
Joint Operating Environment
>>>>>>> 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 [million barrels per day]. 


Shell Oil
"Signals and Signposts"

We believe that the world is entering an era of volatile transitions and intensified economic cycles. 
Supply will struggle to keep pace with demand. By the end of the coming decade, growth in the production of easily accessible oil and gas will not match the projected rate of demand growth. 


Le Monde
Washington considers a decline of world oil production as of 2011

The Obama administration of Energy supports the … hypothesis of an "undulating plateau". Lauren Mayne, responsible for liquid fuel prospects at the DoE, explains : "Once maximum world oil production is reached, that level will be approximately maintained for several years thereafter, creating an undulating plateau. After this plateau period, production will experience a decline." 
Concern about the future availability of energy dense fuel sources, which will be required to create a transitional and then a sustainable energy infrastructure are beginning to be expressed in academic circles.


Do The Math
The Energy Trap

Our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap. 
In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!



New Scientist
Carbon bubble could threaten markets… maybe

After the dot-com bubble and the property bubble, prepare for the carbon bubble. Entrepreneurs meeting in the Maldives last week warned that shaky assumptions about future fossil-fuel use are buoying financial markets and that the collapse of this "carbon bubble" could trigger another crash one day.
"There is this suicidal river of capital flowing into fossil fuels," says Jeremy Leggett, a green entrepreneur ... based in London. "Let's get the risk acknowledged."
According to some studies, in order to have a chance of limiting global warming to 2 °C, humans cannot pump more than another 570 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere before 2050. Yet a report by energy-industry initiative Carbon Tracker, commissioned by Leggett and others, found that the proven fossil-fuel reserves of companies and countries would add up to 2800 Gt if burned for their energy.
That means up to 80 per cent of known reserves may have to be left in the ground if governments decide to limit total future emissions to 570 Gt.
Leggett's point, though, is that the carbon bubble is a risk that investors are overlooking. Pension funds, for instance, continue to put their money into gas, oil and coal companies without taking account of it.


It's not our intention here to examine the alarming geopolitical implications of this onrushing environmental degradation and energy supply bottleneck, chewy and crunchy though that will be. And, let us be clear, global oil production figures have never been higher. However, North Sea oil production is well past its peak, and is falling rapidly.



While the oil price per barrel in US dollars peaked at near $150 during 2008 and then fell sharply, the price of North Sea oil has 'recovered' (as they say) and is today trading at $110. And in the intervening period, fluctuations in currency exchange rates have meant that, when expressed in Pounds Sterling or Euros, oil has never ever traded at a higher price. The combination of this all-time record high price along with both record global demand and falling UK output is an unfortunate triple-confluence of global trends for our provincial town. The implications of this co-incidence for the sustainability of high levels of economic activity and employment in our town are troubling, for - as oil reserves diminish - the grinding certainties of geological happenstance and the imperatives of the profit motive insist that it is the more difficult, more expensive to reach reserves which are tapped last - and the cheaper-to-exploit resources are those which are extracted first. The high oil price, for this 'province' (as they say) hastens the day when those easier reserves are gone, and all that remains is the difficult stuff - the reserves which require a high market price for oil before the return on investment realises the cost of exploitation.  (Monetary costs only, that is. There are, of course, many externalities.) But worse even than that, the current excessively high return on investment acts like black hole for capital - sucking in investment which, as the necessity to stabilise and reduce carbon-dependency in our energy supply begins to bite, would be better reallocated towards putting our energy supply on a sustainable, renewable, decarbonised foundation.

Recently, news reports have pointed towards investment growth in support of a burgeoning renewable energy sector; Inverness, Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Orkney all beneficiaries. Alas, little of that investment is directed towards Aberdeen, distracted as our local capital and skill base is towards the glittering prizes of riches wrung from the high-value fossil fuels lying in the convoluted strata kilometres beneath the seabed.


The Courier
Enterprise area status a boost for Dundee's renewable energy hopes

Dundee's fledgling renewables sector has been given a major boost by being declared as one of Scotland's new enterprise areas.
It is hoped the dock's new status will encourage companies such as utilities giant SSE to progress plans to make Dundee a key focus of their North Sea renewables plans. The Perth-based company signed a memorandum of understanding with Dundee City Council, Forth Ports and Scottish Enterprise to explore options for a new manufacturing plant to be established at Dundee Port to service the offshore wind sector.
Any such development would create hundreds of jobs directly and in the associated supply chain. 

But here in Aberdeen the energy trap is compounded by the fossil-fuel-powered capital trap as investment disappears over the event-horizon of record oil prices into the black hole of non-renewable hydrocarbon extraction. And on the streets of our town, excessive pay rates in that extractive sector are visibly disappearing down the sink-sector drain of conspicuous consumption and a grotesquely distended housing bubble. Aspiration (as commonly understood) is all to often demonstrably mistaken for acquisition, and affluence is mistaken for wealth as late-stage consumerism mounts its final stand in the shopping malls of our inconsequential northern provincial town.


The Scotsman
Scots can cash in on £375bn oil bonanza

SCOTLAND’S North Sea oil and gas industry can deliver a £376 billion bonanza over the next 40 years and secure Aberdeen as “one of the global energy capitals” of the future, according to a report published today
The PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study said the oil boom was there for the taking if government and industry leaders can “grasp the many opportunities”. 
Mark Higginson, senior partner at PwC in Aberdeen, said: “We have a remarkable – and potentially unrepeatable – opportunity to position the city as an international energy centre of excellence… However, this isn’t simply going to fall to Aberdeen by right. We need to shape our own destiny and the journey must start now, with everyone focused on a single, definitive strategy that embraces core objectives of maximising oil reserves, exploiting the new frontier areas west of Shetland and the Arctic, becoming a talent magnet and more effectively serving the needs of industry...” 
The study, titled Northern Lights: a strategic vision of Aberdeen as a world-class energy capital, advised stakeholders to collaborate more to build on the city’s long track record in oil and gas, without which there was a risk that the opportunities within reach may slip away.

Aberdeen City Council
Alternative Energy Strategy for Council Owned Public Buildings


Whilst each project to develop alternative energy technologies will require detailed analysis and evaluation before being progressed, this strategy will provide the overall context in which future projects will be developed. 

May 2011 Version 4Appendix 2: Overview of Available TechnologiesThis strategy will consider a number of alternative energy technologies some of which are outlined below. It should be noted that for Council owned public buildings planning permission for alternative energy technologies is not required unless the equipment is valued over £100,000. 

[our emphasis]


Time and again we are frustrated when we see clean, sustainable energy sources, which are available to exploit in abundance all over and around Scotland, referred to by Aberdeen's people and businesses as "alternative energy". The use of that phrase "alternative energy" is telling. It tells you everything you might want to know about the people and businesses that use it. Rather than use words like "sustainable" or "renewable" or "clean" when discussing non-polluting energy sources they instead label these sources of energy as "alternative". In the UK, the use of that word has pejorative connotations, usually to do with "alternative" lifestyles like strict veganism, communal living, far-left political beliefs or religious cults or other hippy-dippy stuff which is to be mistrusted, feared, scorned and therefore belittled whenever possible. By using this kind of language the people and businesses of Aberdeen show that their default position associates clean energy sources with questionable fringe actives and beliefs which are to be scorned. This sets the context in which they frame their discourse and actions, for language is never neutral.

And thus we despair that it's becoming increasingly unlikely that significant capital will be reallocated away from the atmosphere-threatening hydrocarbon industry to build a sustainable local economy based upon clean energy sources here in time to secure the vaunted title "Global Energy Capital" [sic] which local business development companies claim for our town. For the one-way-bet certainty afforded by an oil-price which, despite globally defective demand; despite recession or depression, remains proudly above the psychologically significant $100 per barrel mark is a huge distraction to capital, which (as we have all seen since 2008) always discounts the future.

Flashing like the urgent "HOLD NOW" buttons of a slot machine stuck on a jackpot payout, this ton-high oil price militates against any thought of significant reallocation of capital crossing the minds of the oil companies and their executives here. The certain play of continued and renewed investment in the oil-bearing strata beneath the seas of the UK's continental shelf satisfies the needs of capital oh so much more than adequately. Why would capital (the need to increase itself being its primary reason for existing - integral to its true definition) redeploy away from so certain a one-way bet into something a just little more risky?

The tickers tick up on global heat budget, CO2 concentration, social inequality, species extinction, deforestation, ocean acidification, resource depletion and political instability and conflict. But the ticker also ticks up - ever up - on the free-market price of a barrel of oil. That same ticker begins to look like a countdown to the deadline for establishing a sustainable economic future for Aberdeen. The high oil price an obstruction, a distraction. It's in the way of the future.

Local labour politician Lewis Macdonald stated at the screening of 'Run Down Aberdeen' that "high oil prices are good for Aberdeen". Politicians, it seems, also discount the future.

Unfortunately, we have to live there.


Sunday, 22 January 2012

Unacceptably Intrusive Covert Surveillance

In the UK, it's a regrettable fact that we're used to being visually surveilled by closed circuit TV at all times and everywhere in public town-centre spaces - either by civic authorities when in public realm space, or by private security contractors when in commercially-operated space. Very often that commercially-operated urban space gives every appearance of being public realm space; a good example being the plaza on the top deck of Aberdeen's St Nicholas shopping centre, which connects pedestrian access between St Nicholas Street, the historic St Nicholas churchyard and Schoolhill/Upperkirkgate. It looks very much like public space, it provides a vital pedestrian access thoroughfare in the heart of the town and it just feels like a public realm space. But it isn't; it belongs to and is operated by Land Securities plc (LandSec, as they are known to insiders, is the UK's largest commercial property developer). Similarly, the border between public realm space and commercially-operated space is often ill-defined and it's difficult for the casual pedestrian to discern at what point his or her rights of way and freedom of assembly have been extinguished in favour of commercial exigencies. One of the most striking examples of this phenomenon in Aberdeen is the interface between the Rail Station and the Union Square shopping centre. The developers of the site have designed the commercial 'offering' (as they say) around pre-existing desire lines so that it's not easy for someone arriving by train in Aberdeen to find his or her way into public realm space without first passing through space which is part of the Union Square commercial venture and as so is operated by a private company.

Anyone who doubts that we have a good reason to be concerned about this; anyone who's prepared to trot out the old "if you've nothing to hide then you've nothing to fear" excuse for kowtowing to those who would surveil us at every possible opportunity should read this, and this, and this, and this. Oh, and this and this.

While we have serious concerns about the normalisation of blanket surveillance in urban space (at the risk of sounding starry-eyed naive) we at least preserve a hope that civil authorities do what they do in service of the greater good, on behalf of us all and answerable to our elected representatives. By contrast, surveillance undertaken by private security firms on behalf of the commercial operators of privately-owned urban space do so only in the service of profit, enhanced shareholder value (as they say). Still, though, at least we get warning of such surveillance - CCTV operators are obliged by law to display signs letting us all know that an area is covered by surveillance. These signs are indeed visible (adding ever more to streetfurniture clutter) in both town centre public and private realm spaces.

But now news reaches us via The Scotsman newspaper of an insidious new form of surveillance being 'rolled out' (as they say) across the shopping centres of Aberdeen.

Movements of shoppers tracked by 1984 phone technology
...unsuspecting shoppers who enter a shopping centre are now often tracked on a screen by retail staff – using their mobile phone signals to locate their path through the shops. 
Many Scottish centres are using the technology – which has been adopted by property giant Land Securities, which owns a large number of major shopping centres and has installed the tracking devices in ten of them – as well as rival Hammerson, which operates the technology at the Silverburn shopping centre in Glasgow and plans to install at its Union Square development in Aberdeen this year. 
The Buchanan Galleries in Glasgow, the Bon Accord and St Nicholas shopping centres in Aberdeen and Livingston’s The Centre are also among those north of the Border using FootPath, created by Path Intelligence, which is behind a range of technology to help shopping centre bosses plan their layouts. 
Path Intelligence chief executive Sharon Biggar refused to admit whether the technology was even in use in Scotland for “data protection” reasons – although she did acknowledge that it was utilised in centres in the UK and six other countries around the world.“We are not allowed to reveal the names of any of our clients because of data protection laws,” she told The Scotsman. However, while the company fiercely protects its paying clients, it does not give shoppers the same privacy. 
The refusal to list where this technology is in use means that shoppers are unaware that they are being tracked – unless they spot the small signs alerting them to the practice. However, even if they do see the signs, there is no option for them to opt out of the scheme without turning off their mobile phones. 
To which we'd add that the great majority of today's mobile phone handsets cannot be fully powered down without removing the battery, and so your phone will respond to a tracking ping even if you might think you've turned it off. 

This same Ms Biggar, of Path Intellegence, manufacturers of the intrusive surveillance technology, is also quoted in the Aberdeen Citizen freesheet ("BEST [sic] free newspaper in Scotland"):
"We are very open with the public. We ask our clients to have signage up where the system is operating. The signs are exactly the same as the ones for CCTV"
Yet, when we pass through Bon Accord and St Nicholas shopping centres, while we can see the signs which warn us of CCTV surveillance, we see no signs whatsoever warning us that we are to be subjected to this new form of distasteful electronic-tracking intrusion. The only indication of this novel and intimidating privacy-busting technology you get is if you manage to spot the sensors themselves. Here's one, it's about the size of a hardback book:

See if you can spot them next time you visit the Bon Accord and St Nicholas shopping centres! 

FootPath Technology 

The Path Intelligence FootPath system consists of a small number of discreet monitoring units installed throughout the centre. These units calculate the movement of consumers without requiring the shopper to wear or carry any special equipment. The units measure signals from the consumers' mobile phones using unique technology that can locate a consumer's position to within a few metres. These units feed this data (24 hours a day 7 days a week) to a processing centre, where the data is audited and sophisticated statistical analysis is applied to create continuously updated information on the flow of shoppers throughout the centre. At any time the shopping centre management can access the data via PI's secure web-based reporting system.
The FootPath technology is the only system available on the market today that can gather information on shopper paths continuously and accurately. FootPath can be installed in one centre or across a portfolio, providing you with quantifiable information to help you monitor your centre and assess the impact of your business decisions.
[our emphasis]
Interesting to note that the system is not closed; that is to say that it is not an discreet network within only the building it serves. Rather, the data that the system gathers is transmitted to a Path Intelligence central processing facility. (Who knows where? Most probably this function is itself outsourced to an offshore number crunching data centre.) The data, once analysed, is then distributed via the internet back to the subscriber. We cannot know whether this is local Bon Accord or St Nicholas centre management, or some central management facility of Land Securities plc. In any case, it's not just the shopping centre security contractor, nor the shopping centre management or owners who have access to information about your movements, the providers of the tracking technology also gather that data. We have to ask ourselves how we feel about this. Did you like the bit where they said that shoppers are "not required to wear or carry special equipment"? We suppose we should, at least, be thankful for that!

It is telling that, even as the operators of our shopping centres fail to notify us of the fact that this intrusive surveillance is taking place, the providers of the tracking technology make capital of the fact that the monitoring units are discreet. Why, unless they fear a backlash of public disgust and outrage, would the unobtrusive physical footprint of the tracking units be regarded as one of the benefits - the unique selling points (as they say) of this highly intrusive development in our cities? It's as if they're trying to keep their data-gathering activities as covert as possible.

Someone should tell them - if they've nothing to hide, then they've nothing to fear.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Union Terrace Gardens or City Gardens Project - A Final Thought or Two Before You Decide

OK, there's so much in the media about the ongoing controversy surrounding oil-tycoon Sir Ian Wood's vision of comprehensively redeveloping Union Terrace Gardens and imposing a new building on precious, protected green space in the heart of Aberdeen that there's not much for us to add other than to tie up a few loose ends.

If you live in Aberdeen, you'll know well that you're about to be asked to take part in a postal referendum which will determine the future of our only town-centre park. The choice will be to retain the park - Union Terrace Gardens - or endorse carbon-mogul Sir Ian Wood's City Garden Project (the real-estate boosters of the project used to call it the "City Square Project", but that name didn't play too well in focus groups). If the people of Aberdeen choose destruction of the existing park, the park will be comprehensively redeveloped, and the valley it currently occupies (much like a small-scale version of Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens) filled with a new building which has become known as "The Granite Web". This new building appears to be a catwalk-bedecked semi-outdoor concert venue and shopping mall. We used to say "shopping centre". Do you remember when we used to say "shopping scheme"?

Existing - Union Terrace Gardens

Proposed - The Granite Web
Anyway, there's little we can add to the overwhelming dissent, disgust and indignation which characterises the discourse about the comprehensive redevelopment proposals in new media outlets and social media forums, so we present some samples here:
STV Local
[Aberdeen] Youth Council’s official view [is] that the City Gardens Project is an environmental, social and financial gamble.
Blouin Artinfo
It’s a fabled and oft-pursued “Bilbao Effect,” or in this case, High Line effect, that we strongly caution against. Recent failures to create this coveted tourist-draw include Oscar Niemeyer’s shuttered cultural center in Spain, and Rafael Viñoly’s critically pummeled “Golden Banana” in Colchester, England.

Lena the Hyena

Aberdeen did have a park in its centre. It does have a park; Victorian gardens. And it is reasonable to see why someone with disposable income measured in millions might want to influence improvements to the centre of his home town (although that in itself calls into question the morality of influencing policy just because you have more money than most) but the motives behind the proposal have shifted since it was first envisaged. [...] Suffice to say that by creating a piazza (and that was the term in use at the beginning of this whole UTG episode) the city would attract business is specious. I don’t for a moment imagine that Mr Wood ever moved his business into anywhere because of the look of the place, whether or not it had a piazza, but because of the economic returns his company hoped to bank.

Moved to Comment


Sterile, stale and uninspiring are just three of the words that have been used to describe the scheme – a cross between Tellytubby land and a ’70s skatepark with myriad opportunities for graffiti artists and multiple jumping off points for the suicidal. Contempt for heritage is shown by the fact that the historical features of the gardens are wiped away with the distinctive (and listed) granite balustrades going the same way as the mature trees.
We would also recommend the incisive commentary, spread out over many many posts, on the wonderful Blerr de Blerr Blerr blog from videographer of Aberdeen, Fraser Denholm

And we too have covered some aspects of our own objections to the proposed comprehensive development:

... our personal greatest vexation with this proposed redevelopment was the way than an opportunity to anchor a progressive arts and creative sector in Aberdeen was so thoughtlessly as to appear maliciously squandered. The City Square proposals caused the collapse of the Peacock Visual Arts Northern Light initiative which would have created a new contemporary arts centre for Aberdeen and the north of Scotland.

We are concerned that ACSEF's [local business-interest quango/lobbying group, boosters of the project] top-down agenda to impose one single expensive solution to what they perceive to be Aberdeen's town centre problems runs the risk of putting all our civic eggs in one heavily-indebted basket.

To all of which, let us add the reminder that this proposed comprehensive redevelopment and building project is on common-good land (pdf) - sometimes referred to as "burgh commons" - as established by land rights campaigner Andy Wightman in his 2011 paper Union Terrace Gardens - Historic and Legal Status (pdf). This is land which is owned exclusively by no-one and generally by everyone, and which is held by the town authorities in trust for the people of Aberdeen.  The Wikipedia entry for "burgh commons" states: "By the early 19th century, most burgh commons had been appropriated by the wealthy landowners who dominated burgh councils, and very few have survived." At the risk of appearing churlish, should we applaud the fact that the affluent capitalists of Aberdeen are at last making this effort to catch up?

Permission granted for entry
No public right of way constituted"
In all seriousness, though, this proposed development is of course an attempt by business interests to privatise public-realm space for profit. Or "adding shareholder value" as they tend to say - why use one straightforward word when you can use three obfuscations? Should the development go ahead, we will be able to visit these "gardens" only by the grace of the private sector owners and/or operators of the new building. Experience confirms that those private-sector operators will impose arbitrary restrictions on behaviour and appearance, and will undertake intrusive surveillance on all passing through. Indeed, our town has form in allowing the private sector to extinguish public rights. Where once a public right-of-way south from George Street continued all the way south to join with Market Street via St Nicholas Street, today a huge real-estate company called "Land Securities plc" grant permission for pedestrian access through their Bon Accord and St Nicholas Centre shopping malls only under the condition that no public right of way is (re)established. Where once we had a right of free access and passage, association and discourse, now all we have is consumer choice, that choice itself from a diminishing handful of shargar shoppies. 

When old-media outlets, such as our local press, provide a forum for the boosters of this project which would build commercial and retail premises on the site of of our only town-centre park, they inevitably invoke a loathsome and cringing insecurity, a needy aspiration to "attract" businesses and businesspeople to the town and a perceived necessity to make the town an "attractive prospect for future mobile investment". Over the last two years, ever since emission-monger Sir Ian Wood first caused the collapse of the proposed Northern Lights arts centre, which would have created a home for local creative forum Peacock Visual Arts in Union Terrace Gardens, we have had many misgivings about what comprehensive redevelopment of the gardens would mean - we have always had the feeling that the wool was being pulled over our eyes, and not in the obvious way. But it is only today, only now that the people of Aberdeen (despite already once having said "no" to carbon-magnate Sir Ian's vision) approach the final zero-hour decision time that we can put our finger on one source of these misgivings. The City Garden Project, as proposed by CO2 baron Sir Ian Wood, is not for the people of Aberdeen. It's for the much more important people who aren't here yet. It's not for the likes of you and us - we don't count, we only live here already. We are the pre-existingly inconvenient legacy community.

We therefore urge you, if you have a vote, to reject the proposed destruction of the town centre garden in favour of business profits (sorry - enhanced shareholder value). The moneymen of this town, with emission-monger Sir Ian Wood at their head, have made the mistake of believing that a town is nothing more than the sum total of all the business activity which takes place within its borders, and so they then go on to compound their error by thinking that the town should be run like a business. We at OtherAberdeen know that the truth is much much broader than that pencilneck narrow vision promoted by pollution-king Sir Ian, ACSEF and our town council. Towns and cities are communities - places for people, places for association and interchange of all kinds, not just commerce. Show them that you know this too. Vote to Retain Union Terrace Gardens.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Explosive Lows, Sting Jets, Blocking Events and Resilience


Two weeks ago today, on Scotland's extra New Year bank holiday, you might remember a nasty winter storm caused extensive damage to property and infrastructure all over the country. In other parts of the UK there were a couple of deaths caused in one instance by a falling tree and in the other by adverse conditions at sea. While these human tragedies happened in the southernmost part of Britain, the greatest rage of the storm was visited upon the central belt of Scotland, where, due to the extra New Year's bank holiday, most folk were enjoying a day off work at home and so thankfully there were few injuries and no fatalities. The central belt is the most populous part of Scotland; an area of relatively low-lying land situated between the Highland massif and the southern uplands, it comprises the valleys of the River Forth and River Clyde with Scotland's two major cities - Edinburgh and Glasgow - at either coast along with all the concomitant housing, transport facilities, businesses, infrastructure and population density associated with them. The central belt is the cinch for Scotland's waist, giving the physical geography of the country that distinctive and familiar hourglass figure.

When the storm came, its greatest intensity was funnelled by this topography into the central belt. This being the area of maximum human habitation and activity, the storm had greatest possible impact upon the human geography of Scotland. This is the second such notably intense storm to hit Scotland this season, the first being European Windstorm Friedhelm Hurricane Bawbag which famously caused a social-media sensation when unilaterally re-named by internet gobshites on Twitter.

Notwistanding the fact that it was more the location of maximum intensity rather than the intensity itself which was newsworthy (conditions like those two weeks ago - had they happened, say, in the Cairngorms or on Shetland would not have attracted much reportage) there were a couple of terms used by TV weatherfolk which drew the attention. Firstly, before the storm hit, forecasters scrambled suddenly to intensify their weather warnings, as the incoming low-pressure weather system became subject to a sudden deepening to become what they called an "explosive low". After the storm had passed, meteorologists noted that the storm had been characterised by a "sting jet", a phenomenon first identified after the Great Storm of 1987 which affected the south of England.


A sting jet is a meteorological phenomenon which is believed to be the cause of the most damaging winds in European windstorms.
Following reanalysis of the Great Storm of 1987, led by Professor Keith Browning at the University of Reading, researchers identified a mesoscale flow where the most damaging winds were shown to be emanating from the evaporating tip of the hooked cloud head on the southern flank of the cyclone. This cloud, hooked like a scorpion's tail, gives the wind region its name the "Sting Jet".
It is thought that a zone of strong winds, originating from within the mid-tropospheric cloud head of an explosively deepening depression, are enhanced further as the "jet" descends, drying out and evaporating a clear path through snow and ice particles. The evaporative cooling leading to the air within the jet becoming denser, leading to an acceleration of the downward flow towards the tip of the cloud head when it begins to hook around the cyclone centre. Windspeeds in excess of 80 kn (150 km/h) can be associated with the Sting jet.

The Sting Jet

The preceding three winters here have also been characterised by unusual conditions. In the winter of 2008/9 and then again but even moreso in 2009/10 a rare and persistent omega-shaped kink in the high-altitude jet stream (a high-speed river of air which girds the earth and flows west-to-east) caused high-pressure anti-cyclonic weather systems to become "stuck" over Britain - blocked from continuing their more usual west-to-east progress. The attendant clear skies associated with high-pressure weather systems allowed heat to escape directly into the stratosphere and so the country those winters was characterised by rime frost and morning fogs, starry nights and windless calm. For the sharp-eyed and patient, rare atmospheric phenomena like moonbows and sun dogs and parhelic arcs became commonplace daily sights. In 2010/11 a similar jet stream "blocking event" occurred, but that season's high pressure system got stuck over the central North Atlantic with the effect that weather systems marched in formation one after the other down from the high arctic, causing record snowfall and record low temperatures all over Britain. Nasty. These blocking events are becoming more common, and can be dangerous. Summer blocking events over Russia are responsible for thousands of heat-related deaths and the destruction of land, real estate and habitat by wildfire.

No blocking event over Britain this season (so far at least) and the winter, while rough and windy, has been unusually mild. So, selfishly, in Scotland we might feel thankful for the mild temperatures. But that gratitude comes with a sense of unease, for how many seasons in a row can we experience unusual weather and continue to label it "unusual"?

A BBC Scotland weather-news special - Storm-Force Scotland - was broadcast last weekend, and as I watched, I felt that there was a bit of a "Keep Calm and Carry On" air about it. Archive footage was shown to demonstrate that, yes, from time to time damaging winds can occur in Scotland and the participants appeared to be under special orders not to use the terms "Global Warming" or "Dangerous Climate Change".

But Alex Reid, the Scottish Government's special meteorological advisor let the mask slip…

We should not be surprised that these unusual weather patterns continue to surprise the authorities, for the disruption they bring takes a different form each time. And as this pattern-with-no-pattern continues we hear much from Government spokespeople talking of the need for "resilience". When, two years ago, freezing conditions and a shortage of grit/salt made Scottish roads unusable, a Transport Secretary lost his government position and steps were taken to ensure future superabundance of grit/salt. This year, those stockpiles lie unused. And then when floods swept low-lying areas of Moray and Perthshire tens of millions of pounds were spend on flood defence measures. Bunds and dykes and gates now lie unneeded, silent witnesses to wind-felled chimneystacks, and roads and railways closed by fallen trees. It seems that when the state and big business talk of "resilience" they mean "hardening" - a futile enterprise, for all human effort is ever dwarfed by the magisterial power of nature.

On the Isle of Bute, in that first week of 2012, the storm had cut the electricity supply from the mainland. The chainstores and supermarkets, reliant as they are on Kanban and PLU systems were unable to operate. They closed their doors to customers. Despite the fact that there might still have been stock on the shelves, the employees felt so disempowered by being un-powered that they could not take their customers ready-money - for the tills were not working. Without electricity, the threads of big-business commerce unravelled. But by contrast, the sole trader and small-scale local enterprises (which that island community remains blessed to retain) - the butcher and baker, ironmonger and inn - remained trading perfectly well. Marking their accounts by pencil in notebooks, locking cash taken in a strongbox in a cupboard. But what about people with no cash until the banks are back online? Well, they had no worries - the community-based enterprises were the local heroes who knew their customers by name. A little note; an IOU on a post-it pad written by candlelight - and trust - was their currency.

Resilience is not to be found, cannot be found, in engineering projects which jut their chin at nature, hoping to stand fast against the storm, or the cold, or the desertification, or the flood, or the heat, or the landslide, or the drought or the tide, or whatever combination surprises us next. Hubristically strengthening our civil-engineering defences merely increases the severity of the impact when those defences will be finally, inevitably breached. "Look upon my works ye mighty and despair". No - resilience is, rather, to be found in those activities - those systems - which fail-safe, which are unaffected by cascade failure, which are discreet nodes unconnected to artificial dependency networks. This true resilience stands founded in the strength of our communities and operates within the envelope described by the sustainability of our activities. We should take note of the sole traders of Bute and how they reacted during the time that the island was off the grid at the start of 2012. We should study carefully how they sustained their community for a whole week without electricity - without missing a beat, for there is a real lesson of true resilience for our future contained within their sustainable activities and self-reliant attitudes.

That's Entertainment!

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Silent New Year

And now this is the first day of another year in Aberdeen. Happy New Year everyone. 

At the sounding of the midnight bells and the ringing-in of the new year with a toast to loved ones, down in time every year from when I was a young boy in Aberdeen, one of the things I first remember about Hogmanay in this town was my dad taking me out into the back garden and us listening together to the boats in the harbour sounding their horns. For fifteen minutes or half an hour they blared their airhorn hoots in paradoxically mournful salutation of the celebration. The droning tone of these horns blown for joy fitted the duality of the Hogmanay festival, which marks the funeral of one year and the birth of a new one. All the streets in the double-estuary-amphitheatre of our maritime town resonated to the different tones, and the people of the town listened in wonder - cocking an ear to this freighter and that anchor-tug, this supply-ship and that tanker. Which tone went with which sort of ship? Which was louder, and which shriller?

And every Hogmanay since, the ships' horns sounding out in the harbour at midnight at the turning of the year has been one of the things that has marked the season for me. An annual punctuation, something to expect, a tradition; personal and civic. And a few years ago, the tech embodied in the horns evolved - and the Hogmanay sound across town changed from being that saraband of pneumatically driven hoot to a more upbeat polka sequence of digitally-generated beeps and tones, not an unwelcome change. Rather than the mysterious mourn in slow-time darkness, the soundscape of our town on Hogmanay came to resemble more the climactic sequence of tone-communication depicted in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, fascinating and other-worldly; a sensory impression reinforced by the recent fashion to use firework displays to help mark the turning of the new year.

But suddenly, oddly, this year, no boats in the harbour or ships in the bay horned their toots or beebed their blare for Hogmanay. No sound came from the basin to accompany our celebrations as 2011 turned into 2012. The harbinger of this new year was silent - foreshadowing shame? Boding infamy? Presaging an ill-starred fate? We don't know why this traditional aspect of Hogmanay was absent from our town this year. Maybe there's a good reason, maybe just a trivial one. Maybe it's trivial of us to complain. But one thing is for sure, it's another one of the little erosions which bit by bit leave us with fewer and fewer reasons for remaining here. It signifies one of the many many Zeno corrosions which little by little threaten to burn away this town's soul. What other little denudations have passed us all unnoticed?