Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Applying Climate Information in Africa

I'm currently making my way through what seems to be a literature bible for applications of climate information in various African countries across sectors and scales: "Applying Climate Information in Africa, An assessment of current knowledge". The report was written by Anthony Patt of IIASA for NOAA. I would highly recommend it for anyone doing climate work in South Africa.

Runners paradise

Schlosspark is a runners paradise, there are multiple tracks so you don't get bored looking at the same scenery, its flats (none of that silly uphill stuff) and the scenery itself is breathtaking. I've been running in an effort to keep fit since I'm not dancing and to avoid the rumoured 5-7 kilos that apparently most YSSPers mange to pack on while here (Its all the deep-fried food, beer and cheese with a quick stop at the ice-cream shop for dessert)

The other very cool feature of the Schlosspark is the lake (very large pond) that has another Franzenburg Museum in the middle. A tower, a couple of turrets and instant castle lookalilke. There is also another 'Schloss' (Altes Schloss) in the park. We recently discovered that it isn't in fact an 'authentic' schloss. Still pretty cool though. I took my camera with me on one of my runs, its the perfect excuse to stop every few hundred metres for another scenic photo. People look at me weirdly here for running in the heat...its like 23 degrees C, oh well.
This last picture is my favourite. There is a lily pond separate from the lake (well connected by streams) that is covered in lilies of some kind right now and their flowers are yellow. The dragonflies seem love them and I managed to get a photo :)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Wicked Problem

Today's presentation on the Science on Global Problem Area: Energy & Climate Change by IIASA highlighted their second strategic research plan stream. Climate change was described as a "wicked problem": messy problem with different definitions, no single solution. Officially a "wicked problem" is a phrase used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. I think its appropriate.

ENE (Energy Program) presented the current energy challenges. There is a growing demand for energy services (globally) that are reliable and has a secure supply. There are currently 2 billion people with access to energy sources. IIASA is looking at energy policies, savings and options available. There is a Global Energy Assessment will be released next year of which IIASA is a coordinator and author. Should be an interesting coffee table book :) The slide comes from the presentation given and highlights just how many factors one needs to consider and all the complexity of integrated assessments.

APD (Atmospheric Pollution and Economic Development Program) reviewed how costly/ambitious the Annex I Mitigation Pledges are and are they comparable between Parties? The costs of these pledges range from -0.3% to 0.1% of the GDP of each country at 2020. It seems the Ukraine has the highest cost saving but New Zealand seem to be losing out.

RAV (Risk and Vulnerability)
Anthony Patt of the Decisions and Governance Group within RAV revealed the two paths within RAV, adaptation and mitigation. One study of interest to me was done on Mozambique and its disasters. Using two different techniques; linear extrapolation of current trends and coupled-model ensemble projections they looked at disaster frequency. Interestingly enough the ensemble model projections show that Mozambique isn't going to have an increase in disaster frequency but the statistical models do show an increase...what/who do you believe? The picture on the left is taken from the cover of Options Magazine, a presentation of IIASA and its research to a non-specialist audience. The last issue talks about looking beyond Copenhagen and the current issue explores Green growth.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Oper für alle: Festspiel-Konzert

The Opera is a funny story, during our night tour we happened upon the stage crew setting up an outdoor stage and as interested citizens asked what it was for. The answer: "Oper für alle" which we discovered was not actually opera but the Bayerisches Staatorchesters.

The program included:

Debussy: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (ATTACCA - Jugendorchester des Bayerischen Staatsorchesters)
Debussy: La mer
Strauss: Eine Alphensinfonie op. 64
Conductor: Kent Nagano

The first piece was performed by the Youth Orchestra, an initiative to train up the next generation of orchestra members. I found it very amusing and had to take a picture of the actual orchestra hanging out, waiting to play the next piece, in tails on the Opera steps. There was an encore by the main orchestra but I can't remember the name. I have learnt one very important lesson though, an open-air concert is wonderful but sitting for 2 hours on a cobbled stone floor is very uncomfortable.

Stift Melk

Stift Melk (Melk Abbey) is approximately an hour's drive from Vienna and can be seen from the freeway. It is a massive abbey built on top of a cliff reigning over the town Melk below and the Danube. Stift Melk takes its name from the river Milk that runs along the west base. Melk was originally a Slavic word meaning "slow-moving stream".

The site is believed to have had a spiritual community on it since the 11th century and was reconstructed in the 18th century in the Baroque style. There is some major reconstruction at this time which obscures some of the walls. There is an English Garden attached to the abbey with a Baroque Summer House. Much of the time you spend looking at the ceilings, there are the beautiful frescoes gracing the soaring spaces.

The photo above is the view to the Danube River (in the distance) from Terrace after visiting the Imperial Corridor. The Imperial Corridor is a treasure trove of religious relics dating from the 11th century. There is a book from the early 9th century in the library (transcription of works of Venerable Bede). The Melk Abbey library contains approximately 100,000 volumes (from 9th century to current date) of which only 16000 are on display in the library.

The staircase from the library to the church is unexpected artists delight, the small photo is from the top down and the larger taken from the bottom showing the art on the ceilings.

The church itself is an ostentatious display of wealth but it the atmosphere is one of peace and respect. Almost everything is coated in gold (my camera cannot capture the true spectacle. I would highly recommend an afternoon at the abbey (and buy the guide book).

Munich: The tale of 19

The (Hopefully) Sunshine Day Tour of Munich started at 9am and an S-bahn trip to Schloss Nymphenburg "Nymph's Castle" for a walk around the English Garden. Munich is incredibly proud of its parks and it has every reason to be. Nymphenburg Palace has the main summer residence of the Bavarian rulers. The central pavilion was completed in 1675 and later rulers added extensions in each direction.

The gardens are rather extensive and we only explored a small section of it (apparently its a rather time-consuming activity).

Moving on from yet another schloss (I'm racking up rather a collection) we moved on to Hirschgarten and the largest beergarden in Munich. Hirschgarten still has some deer in the park, but the main attraction is now the beer and "Bavarian breakfast". We stopped for a typical Bavarian snack of pretzel, potato salad (vinegar instead of mayo) and cheese and butter spread.

After our very 'nutritious' snack we visited the site of the Oktoberfest which is currently being prepared for the hoardes (last year they sold 6.5 million litres of beer). The statue of Bavaria watches from above and it is possible to walk to the top of the statues head. 124 steps later we reached the top to get a view of the city.

Next stop on out whirlwind tour was the Olympiapark. Home to the Olympics in 1972, it is nestled in hills constructed from the remains of buildings from the wars. The Olympic Stadium has a very unique roof, constructed of acrylic glass stabilised by steel cables that is meant to imitate the Alps.

The sights just keep on coming, next on our checklist was the English Garden complete with Chinese Tower housing a German beergarden...confused? So was I. By this stage we stopped at a different beergarden(noticing a theme?) for a brief break. Did you know that Munich has its own surfing area, its rather bizarre to watch as the river is probably 7m in width max.

We're slowing circling to the centre of the city with only a few sights to go. The women's church, St Peter's Church, Hofbrauhaus, City Hall for the clock chimes, the market and lastly the Opera. I'm going to skip most of these but must remark that St Peter's Church has the best 360 degree view over the city and is well worth the climb (all 313 steps - I counted). For a full photo reconstruction see FB as I can't post everything here.

Finally I can explain the tale of the 19. It took us 19 hours from start to home again and according to Google Maps, 19kms.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Munich at Night

Markus kindly offered me a ride to Munich on his visit home. We arrived rather late (left after work and its a 5 hour drive) to enter any buildings but I managed to get an overview of the city centre by night.

We exited at Karlsplatz (yes another Karlsplatz) and started our night stroll through one of the threeMunich Gates. This apparently the most impressive. The stroll continued past closed shops (surprise surprise its past 7pm) and onwards to the City Hall. I have to confess I like the Munich City Hall more than the Vienna City Hall. They have a clock that puts on a show :P

The photo is a statue on one of the four corners of a fountain in the city centre of which there are many. Have you noticed the large grey storm clouds in the background of each photo? The wind started blowing rather hard and the lightning illuminated the buildings quite dramatically, thankfully the rain didn't fall on us :)

The Residence is under construction (its seems every old building is constantly in a state of repair) but they have the most fabulous screen with a photographic scene of what its meant to look like shielding the scaffolding from view (same as St Stephen's Cathedral). The inner courtyard of the Residence is currently hosting a market complete with beer garden and touristy gimmicks. As I have now discovered you cannot go to a tourist sight in Bavaria without finding a Beer garden in the vicinity.

Sometimes the German logic confounds me, when buying our city transport pass for the night, it was cheaper to get the 5 person all-area pass than buy 2 return trip all-area pass tickets...

Something that confounds me constantly here is the concept of country size. Cape Town to Johannesburg is a 14 hour drive and you're still in the same country, Vienna to Munich is 5 hours and you're in another country or another example is an hours train ride gets you to Bratislava the capital of Slovakia (day trip coming soon complete with sunset cruise back up the Danube).

Friday, June 25, 2010

IME: Coping with Uncertainty: Concept of Robust Solutions

Tatiana Ermolieva (IME/LUC) presented what will probably be one of the most useful lectures of the YSSP for my research. Uncertainty is inherent in every decision one takes, how do you design a system that copes with it?

There are two types of systems (processes), one is the traditional natural system like physics that is governed by fixed relations, the other is human-related systems governed by old and new policies dependent on decisions of various agents/actors. From this we can distinguish knowable and unknowable (inherent: natural systems) uncertainties.

Human-related systems require a new approaches to stability (security) analysis. There are multiple reasons, the lack of observations, the expense of experimentation, observations contaminated by old policies and observations of results/impacts may come with a delay or cause irreversible change (climate change for instance)

Although its impossible to predict human-driven systems, it is possible to find robust solutions good against all uncertainties. These robust policies assist in the long-term stability of systems performance.

Popular security analysis includes aggregate analysis, least-squares analysis etc but these are not robust solutions, all are sensitive to outliers. I've appropriated the image above because it is one of the best examples I've ever seen of a mean/median/mode argument. The mean is in red, the median in green and the mode in maroon. Notice how most of the information is lost in the case of the mean. Remember: the mean is MEANINGLES! The median is more robust.
A common feature of most systems is a range of possible outcomes resulting from different scenarios or the variability (eg weather). The uncertainty is which scenario comes next?

I'm currently making my way through 'Coping with Uncertainty: Robust Solutions'. Its written by the IME group at IIASA and works through various techniques for robust systems mostly through real-world applications. The UCT library is in the process of buying a copy, it should arrive sometime in the next year :P

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Project Umonya: CS4HS Workshop

Project Umonya is an realisation of a lot of hard work by the UCT Algorithm Circle. Umonya means Python in Zulu, Python being the language of choice for teaching beginners. The UCT Algorithm Circle submitted a proposal to Google for its Computer Science 4 High School (CS4HS) funding grants. AC proposed to run 4 courses across the country for up to 250 school children between grades 7-9 in each location. This is the most ambitious undertaking of the AC yet. An article from the Monday Paper on the most recent course we ran shows the 75 high school students we coached through the basics of programming and algorithms, which at the time we considered rather large. The next course is set for August and we're scaling up to 100 high school students this time.

Google accepted the proposal last week and agreed to partially fund it and thus we are forging ahead with plans, logistics and redesigning our course content (theory, examples and exercises). The next step is to recruit more tutors into the project. We have a wonderful mix of postgraduate and undergraduate students (and a few very bright high school students) working as both tutors and lecturers, the entire project is run by students, a feat in itself.

We (the students) volunteer our time as we feel strongly about increasing the country's capacity for computer science and allowing early high school students the opportunity to experience CS to make an informed decision in choosing it as a subject. We hope to provide encourage and enthusiasm for the subject we all love. If some of them go on to win CS competitions, even better.

The format going forward is to train a core group of lecturers and tutors from UCT and then bring in the university students as additional tutors at each location. This provides them an opportunity to share their passion, talk about their experiences and hopefully build teaching capacity to expand the project even further in future years (long term goal).

If you know of anyone who you think would be interested in the project (high school student, uni student wanting to tutor, sponsors, printers etc please spread the word)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Nordic Mid-Sommar Party

I celebrated my first ever Nordic Mid-Sommar Party this afternoon organised by the Nordic YSSP delegates and a few assorted extras.

The party included herring, meatballs, schnapps and a mini traditional pole decorated in flags and flowers. Each person had to bring a flower to decorate the poll.

There were drinking songs, dancing around the pole and apparently a strange occurrence at a mid-sommar party: sunshine :) The Nordic countries normally have rain, very different from a Cape Town mid-summer with blistering heat. In true South African spirit I appropriated Elisabeth's head gear for the party.

MacDonalds goes classy

In one of the main walking streets of Salzburg the shop signs have been integrated with the old trade announcements. Its a very touristy street and the signs caused great amusement such as the one above. Who knew MacDonalds could be classy?

Science on Global Problems Area: Food & Water

IIASA has defined three new strategic research areas: Food & Water, Energy & Climate Change and Poverty & Equity.

Food & Water has been shared by a few groups within IIASA's research groups; Forestry, Ecology and Land Use Change. They reviewed current research activities and highlighted a few key challenges in this global problem area. These include:
  • Widespread hunger and rising global food demands
  • Agriculture needs to increase 70% globally and 100% in the developing world
  • Agriculture currently uses 70% of all anthropogenic water use.
  • Fishing currently feeds 1 billion people but won't be sustainable with the current overfishing
  • A need for robust expansion of food and bioenergy production with sustainable regulating ecosystem functions protecting the global gene pool.
  • Strategies for copying with climate change needs to be location specific.
Each group expounded on possible research avenues. Its quite fascinating what some of the proposed solutions entail. One worrying fact is that the capacity for rain-fed agriculture in Africa is decreasing by 2050, which given that 95% of the crop-land in Africa is rain-fed and contributes 35% to the GDP and 70% of the employment and 40% of the exports (according to FAO in 2000), maybe that should be a major focus on the African agenda.

A glimpse of Salzburg

We had a very quick stop off in Salzburg on our way home from Zell am See and the Salzburg Global Seminar on Monday afternoon. By quick I mean an hour. I did manage to run around the "City Centre" as the tourists brochures describe it. There is a river running through the city, making for some gorgeous riverside views. Salzburg is nestled at the foot of a cliff/mountain and the castles at the top are definitely something I am going back to visit.

The gardens of Schloss Mirabell (yes I know yet another Schloss :P) are picture perfect with manicured flower beds in artistic patterns, a rose garden, sculptures to represent the elements and a statue of Pegasus with the biggest smile I've ever seen on a winged horse.

As you move from Mirabellgarten you get a glimpse of copper domes at seems to typify church architecture here. For a country that is not that religious they have an amazing number of churches per square kilometre.

As we moved into the official city centre we started noticing a few familiar buildings (at least if you're a Sound of Music fan). The fountain I'm sitting on the edge of is where Maria takes the children (that open square) and behind me is the Residence building. After the SGS Schloss and this I can state I've visited about 90% of the places the filmed in.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

PPA: Actors and Venues of Policy-Making

Today is the second Public Policy Analysis seminar by Stephen Ney where we discussed actors active or passive in policy making, these could be individuals or institutions at various levels. The diagram below shows the output of the seminar, an idea of the policy network and how they influence each other. Mine looks largely hierarchical and rigid, not as fluid and open as others. Mine also maps funding and knowledge exchanges (in red). Its interesting when writing up your research results with the anticipation that it is policy relevant one can see who to target and possibly how.

Preparatory Readings:
Atkinson and Coleman (1992), “Policy Networks, Policy Communities and the Problems of Governance”,Governance, 5(2): 154-180.
Chris Ansell (2000), “The Networked Polity: Regional Development in Western Europe”,Governance, Vol.13, No.3, pp.303-333.

Salzburg Global Seminar

The Salzburg Global Seminar is an institution that attempts to train future leaders in a diverse range of fields. The YSSP participants had the opportunity to hear Edward Mortimer talk on 'Communicating the Global Agenda', a topic he is well qualified to pontificate on. As chief speech writer for the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan he shared his views on the global media, the pillars of the UN and provoked a quite lively lunch time discussion on how to bridge the gap between global problems (or the UN buzz word "challenges") and local politics.

The SGS is housed in yet another castle, Schloss Leopoldskron. I'm getting used to working in grandeur, going back to boring brick and concrete is going to be tough.

Not science related at all, Schloss Leopoldskron's exterior was using for all the garden shots for the Sound of Music (including the gazebo scenes and lake scenes). We had a chance to explore Salzburg in the late afternoon and spotted a few more Sound of Music sights.

After lunch and our exploration of this highly detailed schloss we entered into a very lively debate on the 'Public Understanding of Science & Public Engagement' led by Ian Brown and John Lotherington. This topic was centred around the "Climategate" incident in November 2009 that called into question the validity of climate science and the public's right to data.

Some of the chief points for and against the engagement of the public in science that emerged from this debate are summarised below (in no order):
  • Will the public have more trust in scientists if they are more transparent in their methodologies and data acquisition?
  • Greater engagement with the public improves the overall level of education
  • Peer-review is a process with its own checks and balances and would be undermined by the public
  • The allocation of funding is already decided by and large by the public through political appointments (in the case of some countries like USA but not China)
  • The extra time and energy commitment needed to reply to all public criticism would hinder scientific progress
  • The role of scientists is already mandated by society
  • There are drawbacks to the public having access to data, it would become a popularity contest as larger institutions can release more data
  • Who holds the Intellectual property rights to data produced by simulations at an government institution and the models developed there?
  • Would a premature release of data create more chaos and prepared and filtered data?
  • The public has a right to review any tax funded research project?
Any thoughts from fellow scientists? Are the public demanding too much?


Sunday we scrapped our hiking plans (drowned rat is not a good look) and visited the Salzwelten, a salt ("white gold") mine in the mountains near Salzburg. The group has the most amazingly humourous experience of climbing into white protection suits, shown in the pictures. We resembled the KKK with our hoods up or Smurfs depending on your school of thought.

After donning these highly fashionable outfits we were proceeded to the railway entrance into the mine. The railway benches encourage one to get very friendly with one's neighbours (in other words squished) as we journey deeper and deeper into the mountain and the mine. The temperature was meant to drop to 10C but seeing as the outside temperature was 6C it warmed up for us ice blocks.

The tour takes one through the history of the mine and the "new" process of leaching salt from the rock using water. One has to remember new is relative, the first mining by hand was started in 500 BC by the Celts. We even got a boat ride on the 'Titanic' over an underground lake (all of 70m long and 2m deep). The tour came complete with cheasy movies on the history of the mine owner and cut-out cartoon characters pointing to sights of interest.

The best part of the tour were the slide sections, one of which was called "Highway to Hell" (42m long). You speed down the slides at a fast pace with your legs up and leaning back. We started racing amongst the YSSP group (the normal tourists attached to our group were highly amused). Ben and I beat the YSSP Coordinators down Highway to Hell :)

This tour does come with a hefty price tag attached, 18 euros for adults or 16 euros for a group of 20 or more.