Sunday, 27 November 2011

20mph limits in Nottingham and Portsmouth -Pt1

Earlier this week, the Nottingham Post ran a series of articles on the Councils proposals to impose 20mph speed limits on some streets in Nottingham (Incidentally, the term “impose” is itself a loaded term (see here)).

The council has chosen Sherwood as the pilot area because it "includes everything throughout the city which could benefit from a 20mph limit, such as residential areas, steep streets, major bus routes, industrial areas and wide and narrow streets."

This is all well and good, but BFTF was interested in the evidence behind this proposed course of action. How have 20mph trials performed in the past? What criteria will the criteria use to decide whether the pilot study will be a success or not?

Let’s start with some terminology:
“20 mph Speed Limits” indicates the use of speed limit signs alone (without traffic calming measures)
“20 mph Zones” indicates indicates the use of signs and traffic calming measures.

Before moving on to what do the “pro” and “anti” groups say?
You can find out about the case against 20mpt limits at :

And the case in favour for 20mph limts at:

AAnd then looking at the evidence that 20mph limits work?
Much of the evidence for 20mph limits relates to the experience of Portsmouth, who implemented a 20mph speed limit (without additional traffic calming measures) in many of the city’s residential areas. A report on the effects of Portsmouth’s 20mph limits can be found here:
Interim Evaluation of the Implementation of 20 mph Speed Limits in Portsmouth
Final Report - September 2010

Before the scheme was implemented accidents stood at 183 per year, whereas afterwards they were at 142 per year, a 22%drop. During that period casualty numbers fell nationally by about 14% in comparable areas.

Vehicle speeds were also measured before and after the intorduction of the 20mph limits:

It has to be said that the report very carefully omits mentioning that the speeds of vehicles in the sites that had a speed “before” the trial of 20mph or lower actually INCREASED during the trial (BFTF estimates by perhaps 1-2mph).

Accident statistics were aslo presented "before" and "after":

It is important to note that some variability is to be expected when the number of annual accidents is low, so the increase in KSA figures is not necessarily significant. For a more extreme example of this, the report stated that the number of school children injured increased from 5 (3yrs prior to change) to 7 (2years after change). BFTF can see that Daily Mail headline now : “20mph speed limit results in 40% INCREASE in children being run over”.

If the Mail actually has someone on the staff who understands numbers then one can imagine them working it out on an annual basis “20mph speed limit results in 110% INCREASE in children being run over”. . .

Lastly, the report also compares the speed reductions achieved in Portsmouth with those in two other speed reduction schemes, in London and Hull. It is worth mentioning that these schemes included were much better funded than the Portsmouth scheme and included traffic calming measures:

So there you go, a bunch or relevant data all in one concise package. Shame the reporting in the mainstream media isn’t like this. . . .

BFTF will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the effectiveness of 20mph limits, as with most things in life, it’s complicated.

20mph limits in Nottingham and Portsmouth -Pt2

Following on from the post regarding 20mph speed limits, BFTF wanted to ask the council what their criteria would be for judging the trial in Sherwood a success, and also what the evidence was (in terms of accident reduction) for the claim in the Evening News that “"We have had considerable success with the 20mph zones around schools for at least five years – about 67 per cent of schools have them."

BFTF also sent an email to local mosques suggesting that this was an area where the Muslim community could find common ground with the wider society in campaigning for fewer road deaths (note that this does not nessesarily mean campaigning for 20mph limits). It might even be possible for Muslim organisations to be perceived as working for the common good and acting on the basis of the evidence available (It is sad fact that “Muslims” and “based on the evidence” are not statements that can generally be found in the same sentence).

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Mind Maps and Radio4

With some of the BFTF crew now well into his secondary education, BFTF has been looking ahead to see what English GCSE questions are like these days. This is, of course, a much easier job than it was a couple of decades ago as many papers and even answer schemes are available on-line. So, after downloading a suitable past paper, BFTF asked No1Son to have a bash at one of the essay questions.

No1Son decided to to take the option in which the student has to write a short essay from the following perspective:
"Write about a time when you had to stay with a relative."

Further instructions were:
"In this section you will be assessed for your writing skills, including the presentation of your work.Take special care with handwriting, spelling and punctuation. Remember that this is a test of your ability to write descriptively."

He certainly managed to write plenty of text, in handwriting that (embarrassngly) was neater than that wihich BFTF has ever been able to manage. Having said that, he seemed to have taken the question to mean that he should write about every aspect of the stay in chronological order and throw in the odd adjective or two, as opposed to actually writing descriptively.

So BFTF suggested that perhaps No1Son should write about fewer items, but do so in a more descriptive way. For example, instead of "The living room had a 32" TV", perhaps one of the following might attract more marks :

"A modern looking TV sat in the corner, dominating the room"

"The glass screen of the TV gazed back at me, as if urging me to pick up the remote"

"Dust lay on the top of the TV, suggesting that cleaning was not a priority for this household"

"Like an overbearing robot awaiting instructions, the TV lurked silently in the corner of the room"

"The TV seemed too big for rthe room, as though we were in some kind of "Alice through the looking glass" world."

Also, to help No1Son consider other aspects of a story, rather than just focussing on a visual description and chronological narrative, BFTF asked him to draw a mind-map of all the different points of a story that he could mention. It has to be said he did a good job of this, and a schematic of his resulting mind- map is shown below:
BFTF wondered whether he was going over the top in his shopping list compilation procedure...
No1Son's comment on the mind-map, after using it a couple of times:
"It's quite good, it hepled me write better English. It gives me better ideas"

One other suggestion that BFTF made was the perhaps No1Son should listen to the "From Our Own Correspondent" programme on Radio 4. The language used by the reporters who contribute to this programme is often very beautiful, concise and evocative - and is therefore presumably exactly what you need to get a good grade in an English GCSE.

To take a few examples from a recent report by Andrew Harding from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC):
"We were crossing into the DRC from the tiny, orderly Rwanda, these days it's the musical equivalent of switching from a Strauss waltz to Iron Maiden"

(Regarding the town of Goma) "It's a dirty, bad tempered, mesmerising place"

"In the forests and hills around Goma, a wretched cast of militia gangs, rebel leaders and army factions, the remnants of Congos long wars, continue to wrestle for power."

"The candidate, a local favourite named Vital Camerra, is trying, not unlike a professional surfer, to cling onto a chair on the back of a pick-up truck that is pitching and swaying violently"

Dear Reader, do you have any tips on helping teenagers with their school studies (especially their English Language). If so, why not leave a comment below. . .

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Commenting on Notts Budget Proposals

Nottingham City Council is in the process of setting its 2012/13 budget at the moment and is asking for comments from the public and from community organisations. Based on the feedback from a similar excersise last year, the council is trying to protect the following areas :

- Support for vulnerable people
- Anti-crime measures
- Street Cleansing
- Child Protection

BFTF attended a local public consultation meeting regarding the 2012/13 budget proposals. It was really interesting to hear a councillor - who was clearly very passionate about ensuring the best for the city - describe the funding pressures that the council is under.

Try the Budget Simulator and show the Council where they are going wrong. . .

BFTF felt that this was an opportunity for the Muslim community - particularly its mosques and community centres - to positively contribute towards steering the focus of the council. So, after completing the survey, BFTF sent the following email to local masjids . . .

Nottingham City Council are canvassing for comments of the 2012/2013 budget proposal. If you wish to participate in this as a Muslim organisation you can do so here, and background information can be found here.Aside from it being the right thing to do, participating in the survey (and telling your congregations what you are doing) would have the following benefits:

1) Showing the council that the Muslim community can play a positive role in shaping policy

2) Showing, by example, to the Muslim community that providing a "critical friend" role to local government is part of being a British Muslim citizen

3) Showing the wider society that the Muslim community can work postively on issues that are not related to narrow self-interests.

This is, for example, an opportunity to tell the council that you want them to ensure that care for the elderly is of the highest quality and well funded.

Or, perhaps, that you want them to ensure that library opening hours are not cut.
Incidentally, the council has a budget simulator here - why not have a go and see if you can do better than the council!

Dear reader, you may wish to ask your local masjid to participate in some aspect of local governence, if so, it would be great to hear to see how you get on. . .

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Recipe - Edible Brussel Sprouts

Brussel Sprouts form part of the group of foods (which include mushrooms and blue cheese) that are liked by BFTF but not by the rest of the BFTF household.

Even for BFTF, just boiling sprouts (a la standard UK practice) results in a dish that is the very definition of the word "bland", indeed they are a reminder of what it is like to lose your sense of taste completely, such as when suffering from flu.

But BFTF is also aware that sprouts are good for you, so was interested so see a recipe on the telly that appeared to offer the opportunity of eating sprouts with flavour.

A dangerous concept, to be sure, but one that BFTF feels should be embraced.

Brussel Sprouts deserve your love too . . .

Edible Brussel Sprouts
Chopped onion
Crushed Garlic (BFTF confesses to buying this in frozen cubes)
1/2 a stock cube

1) Chop off the stalks and slice sprouts in half.

2) Chop onion and fry, together with crushed garlic, in a little oil until browned then put to one side

3) Add a little oil to frying pan and fry sprouts for 10minutes, 5mins one side then 5 side the other.

4) Add 1mm of water and the 1/2 stock cube and stit until water has evaporated.

5) Add onions and mix in for a couple of mins

Job done !

Probably works well with easy potatoes and easy mackerel curry, altough cooking all of them at once is perhaps stretching "easy" a little far. . .

This dish rates as "EASY" on the BFTF Washing up Index

Image source : Wikipedia

Recipe - Easy Mushrooms

Although BFTF is a fan of mushrooms, this is not something that is shared by the BFTF household.

So it is perhaps no surprise that the following recipe was given the empthatic rating of "not nice" by MrsBFTF

Now, MrsBFTF's cooking skills are, frankly, world class, so her opinion is not one to be treated lightly.

But BFTF thinks it is at least ok, and it is pretty darn easy.

So here goes, and if you have read this far, you will now understand why BFTF never went into sales. . .

Easy Mushrooms, don't knock it till you've tried it.

Easy Mushrooms
Salt (optional)
Pepper (optional)
Oil (a little)

1) Slice and rinse the mushrooms

2) Bung them in a pan with a touch of water and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, until the mushrooms start to release water.

3) Pour off the water, add a little more oil and continue cooking until no more water is released then pour off the water again.

4) Add a little oil, salt, pepper and ketchup and continue to cook for a further 5-10mins.

Job done !

Probably works well with easy potatoes and easy mackerel curry, altough cooking all of them at once is perhaps stretching "easy" a little far. . .

This dish rates as "EASY" on the BFTF Washing up Index

Monday, 21 November 2011

Where would you like me to find drugs today?

BFTF is fascinated by the many ways in which eyewitness identification can be mistaken.

Even so, BFTF was surprised to read in a paper "Handler beliefs affect scent detection dog outcomes" about how trained sniffer dogs would "alert" more often if their handlers thought there were drugs or explosives present.

Where would you like me to find drugs today, officer?

The findings were . . . er. . .found during a study in which a series of handlers and sniffer dogs were asked to find drugs or explosives in a training area. Some of the handlers were told that the locations of the targets were marked with red paper (the dogs were told nothing - perhaps they were put in a soundproof booth with earmuffs playing gentle music?). What the handlers did not know was that there were no targets at all in the training area, so any "alerts" would be false

The handlers reported that dogs alerted more at marked locations than other locations, presumably because the dogs were picking up cues from their handlers.

The authors conclude that:

"This confirms that handler beliefs affect outcomes of scent detection dog deployments."

So, if you want to avoid sniffer dogs marking you as a priority for a cavity search, wear a suit !

Image Source : Wikipeida

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Median Salaries for Chemists - 2010

Some interesting salary data on various careers in Chemistry was recently reported in the New Scientist magazine.

Based on the Trends in Remuneration 2010 survey by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the data describes the median salary (independant of gender and age) in various chemistry sectors:

Oil and Allied Products have a clear lead with a median salary of £53,600

Pharmaceuticals and University careers are close behind with medians in the range £47,600 to £49,500

Pharmaceuticals - Big Money !

Consulting and the Nuclear industry are next on the list at £45,000

Plastics, the Water Industry, Government laboratories and the Food/Beverage Industry come in with medians in the range £39,300 to £42,000

Food and Beverage Industry - Not-Quite-So-Big Money

Bottom of the list (although this is, of course, a relative term) are Schools, Research Institutes and Contract Research with medians in the range £34,400 to £36,000

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Power from Ocean Currents

The New Scientist recently ran an article on Tidal Power technology. This form of renewable energy generation is of interest because tidal flows are predictable and reliable - flowing in and out twice a day, every day.

Thar's energy in them there ocean-currents-and-tidal-flows !

This is in stark contrast to wind turbines, who can be left standing idle in the middle of winter if an area of high pressure settle over the UK.

Tidal water flows, at just a few metres per second, are much slower than wind speeds on land - but water is some 800 times denser than air, so the potenial for energy generation is certainly viable.

Of course, one would be entitled to ask that if this energy source is so good, why hasn't it been exploited before? There are a number of reasons for this, including the expense of contructing prototype generators, the cost of bringing the power back to land via cables and, perhaps most importantly, the relative lack of sites where the speed of tidal flows are fast enough.

With water speeds of 3metrs per second, the wates around Orkney are a prime testing ground, with five new designs having been tested there recently.

However, turbines that can operate effectively in lower water speeds, perhaps down to 1 to 1.5 metres per second, are a much more attractive proposition and could be used in many more locations, thus generating a lot more power.

A number of UK companies are involved in this field. You can check out their various designs at their respective websites :

Marine Current Turbines have a traditional "wind turbine" approach.

Pulse Tidal use see-sawing hydrofoils.

Lunar Energy offer a ducted fan design.

Kepler Energy propose an unusual "lawnmover" bladed turbine.

Ocean Currents
The ocean currents around the world represent huge masses of water moving at up to 2metres per second. If generators could work effectively at these low speeds they may be able to tap into the resources of flows such as the Florida Current. Howard Hanson, from the Florida Atlantic University is involved in projects looking at the possibilities of generating energy from this water flow. He discusses the issue in an article in the Bulletin of the Americal Meterological Society. The article is fascinating and admirably frank about the challenges (past and present) of generating energy from ocean currents. Indeed it represents a refeshing change from the hype that one sees in the mainstream media (and sadly, to a degree in the New Scientist article)

A study by the EU entitled "Oceans of Energy: European Ocean Energy Roadmap 2010-2050" gives some context for the energy generating capacity of the oceans when it states that ocean energy generation could represent a mere 0.3% of total demand by 2020, although it believes that it could be a more respectable 15% to total demand by 2050. You can find out more about the European Ocean Energy Centre here.

Critically, the EU report has the good sense to distinguish between generating power (measured on MegaWatts(MW) or GigaWatts(GW)) and actual amount of energy (meansured on TeraWattHours (TWh) per year).

In case that has left you with a touch of brainfreeze, Mega is a million, Giga is a thousand million, Tera is a million million.

To explain why this is important, consider a turbine and a small gas fired power station, both having a power output of 1MW. If the turbine operates only 10% of the time (or all the time at 10% of maximum output) then it will only generate 3.1TWh per year, whilst the gas fired station will generate 31TWh per year.

Dear reader, when you see a report that only talks about power, and not about energy, worry that the wool is being pulled over your eyes !

Friday, 18 November 2011

Gettting excited about engineering

A very interesting interview in the Engineer Magazine with Prof Moshe Kam, the president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Prof Kam comments on how the decrease in interest of young people in an engineering career is a big worry, pointing out that there is no shortage of engineering students developing countries such as China and India - while a decline in interest is being seen in North America and Western Europe.

This Tram didn't design and manufacture itself you know

Prof Kam feels that much of the blame for this lies with the failure of engineering educators to inspire. A significant cause of this is the lack of people with science and engineering backgrounds in the pre-university education administration. Commenting on the fact that the pre-university educational establishment "are almost totally disconnected" from science and engineering, Prof Kam says that "if I had one dollar to invest and you asked me where to put it, it is here."

Aircraft are an absolute engineer-fest

In an effort to provide a more enticing view of engineering careers, the IEEE has teamed up with IBM to produce a website called Try Engineering to try and explain what engineers actually do.

Engineers needed to design, develop and manufacturing this too. . .

The website really is a fascinating read, and very inspirational. It is only a shame that this kind of positve message about technology and engineering is so lacking in the mainstream media.

In particular, check out the sections on Engineering Areas, Engineering Technology Areas and the "Life of an Engineer" sections. . .

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Do placements for the unemployed work?

To BFTF's utter and complete surprise, a status update with a link appeared on Facebook from No1 Son.

The surprise was the the link was not to a "poll" or a joke or a YouTube video - but instead to a serious story on the Guardian Website.

Where did that come from ???

Anyway, the story related to a policy of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) whereby young unemployed people were offered the chance of an unpaid work placement at companies such as Tesco and Poundland.

Critically, once the young people "express an interest", they cannot leave the placement without losing their unemployment benefit (currently £53 per week). Of course, the fact that they are receiving the benefit puts a different perspective on the placements being "unpaid" - but let us leave that to one side for now.

No doubt there are all sorts of legal and ethical issues related to this policy, by what really interested BFTF was one simple question :

Do the placements improve the employability of the young people?

According to the article, the employment minister, Chris Grayling stated that"Our work experience scheme is proving to be a big success with over half of young people leaving benefits after they have completed their placement."

Ok, but how many young people who didn't complete the placement got jobs? And are the ones who took the placement the ones who are most motivated and would have got jobs anyway?

It would be nice to know whether the policy, you know, actually worked. .

Finding it difficult to locate an appropriate contact at the DWP website, BFTF sent an email to the local Conservative association, the key part is shown below :

"...the merit of this policy lies in its effectiveness, which is something that is relatively easy to measure - Two groups of similar, unemployed, young people are compared, one group who took part in an unpaid placement, one group who did not.

The difference in employment outcomes for the two groups will tell you whether the policy is effective

My, question, at the end of this, is to ask whether this very simply piece of research has been performed and, if so, what were the results?"

Dear reader, if you see a news report or press release that looks a bit dodgy, you may wish to challenge the authors or organisation to ensure that they are not pulling the wool over your (and everybody else's eyes). Individually, we can't do everything, but we can all do something.

Update (10th Dec)
The conservative group at the city council recently responded to BFTF's question. Regarding the comparative data, they said:
"as we are still in the infancy of the scheme such comparative and meaningful analysis has yet to be completed."
And pointed out some thing that was a surprise to BFTF (and had certainly not been mentioned in the original media report):
"The Government has changed the Work Experience rules so that young people can do up to two months work and keep their benefits. Under previous rules it was for only two weeks. The intention is that young people who choose to take the opportunity of more meaningful work experience and can gain the experience that many employers insist upon even for entry-level roles."
Lastly, they promised to:
"endeavour to find some comparative statistics for you via the Department of Work & Pensions"

Sunday, 13 November 2011

New research on Cod stocks in the Grand Banks

You may be aware of the story of the Cod Fisheries off the Canadian Grand Banks. These were some of the most productive cod fishing grounds in the world until overfishing resulted in a collapse in stocks in the early 1990's, at which point (to the sound of a stable door slamming shut) cod fishing was banned in the area to allow stocks to recover.

A recent paper by Kenneth Frank et al entitled "Transient dynamics of an altered large marine ecosystem", published in Nature, described the results of recent research into the Grand Banks marine ecosystem. The results are fascinating and provide reassurance that, given time, fish stocks to recover. We'll get to that in a moment, but first let us set the stage, so to speak.

The marine ecosystem in the Grand Banks can be broken down into three main parts.

At the top of the food chain are the large predator fish such as Cod and Haddock.

Below them are smaller fish such as Herring, Sand Lance and Capelin (no, BFTF had never heard of Sand Lance or Capelin before either). There are known as "forage fish" species.

And below these are the many plankton species.

Thus Cod feed on Herring and Herring feed on Plankton (it's a bit more complicated than this, obviously, but life is short so let's stick to the essence of the story).

Unsustainable fishing practices resulted in overfishing and a collapse of cod stocks in the early 1990's. With no Cod to keep numbers in check, the populations of the forage fish species exploded by some 900% (see graphic below).

But these high populations of forage fish were themselves too large to be sustained by the available plankton, so they in turn collapsed and entered into a "damped oscillation" of population peaks and troughs (see page 3 of the paper). The authors note that the period (time from peak to peak) is related to the life span of the forage fish and that
"Such eruptions followed by crashes involving fast growing, highly opportunistic species are known to occur in other ecosystems freed from predatory control"

Critically, part of the diet of the forage fish was the larvae of the large predator fish, which is why the stocks of Cod remained depressed for so long after the population collapse.

With the stocks of forage fish now moving back towards historical levels, it has finally been possible for Cod and Haddock stocks to recover.

The researchers note that, prior to the collapse, the dominant predator species was Cod, whereas the dominant species is now Haddock. Indeed, Haddock stocks are back up to historical levels, the stocks of Cod are still only 35% of those prior to the collapse. Only time will tell whether this change in the relative proportions of Cod and Haddock is a temporary or a permanent phenomena.

The authors comment that there are a number of factors that could still delay fish stock recovery (e.g. jelly fish blooms, the appearance of invasive species or eutrophication). Having said that, however, the authors have the encouraging view that
"These uncertainties notwithstanding, the answer to the critical question of whether or not such profound changes in the dynamics of large marine ecosystems are reversible seems to be ‘yes’."

You can see a press release about this research here

Forgotton Heroes

The Muslim contribution to the Allied war effort in WW2 is something that us particularly worth mentioning given the current fashion for anti-Muslim media stories. So it is great to see this important Emel article on the history of Muslims in the British armed forces.
Related posts
Muslim Merchant Seamen in WW2
Noor Inayat Khan - Muslim SOE operative

Test Me

No1 son was practising a French text he had to learn by heart. As the number of French words that BFTF knows can be counted on the fingers of one hand - of a man who has had a nasty band-saw accident - BFTF did not really know what No1 son was talking about, other than it appeared to be about movies he liked.

Over and over he read it aloud, trying to commit it to memory. Eventually he thouht he had it nailed and, passing the text to me, said "Dad, test me!"

Without missing a beat, BFTF responded, "No problem son - what is the capital of Russia?"

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Best Thing about the UK - 2007

Guests on the "Building for the Future" Radio show on Radio Dawn 107.6FM generally get asked a "special question" at the end of the interview. The question is simply:

What do you think is the best thing about living in the UK?

The reason for asking it is an an antidote to the tendency that we all have to discuss what is wrong with the UK, rather the many things that are right.

Below are comments from guests who appeared on the show in 2007. BFTF hopes that you also find their words to be full of wisdom food for thought.

Rizwan Hussein (Muslim Youth Hotline) - 2007
The Weather. Everyone moans and complains about the weather, the weather being this and the weather being that. But at the end of the day, if the weather was always sunny and bright, we wouldn’t be living in the UK would we? Because that is what makes the UK what it is really, the mundane, raining all the time and cold weather

Celia Stevens (Bramley Apples) - 2007
Whether it is day or night you can walk out of your front door, look up and, in the night time you see the stars, in the daytime you see the blue sky. If you can’t open your eyes in the morning, open your window and listen to the birds. We live in a very beautiful country. Who could not just sit on a rock and watch the sea. What more wonderful thing can you do than to sit under an apple tree?

Tazeen Shah (Engaging Faith) - 2007
The social mobility aspect of the UK that really appeals to me. As a Muslim, if you don’t come from a priviledged family, if you come from a working class background – as long as you have a good education and you have a commitment, belief in yourself and dedication to try and succeed – you can succeed. You will be confronted by racism and everything else but it is up to you to try and combat that. So I would like to urge Muslim sisters and brothers out there that don’t give up, keep trying, set yourself a goal and go for it.

Ade Williams (Eco Teams) - 2007
The diversity of the countryside we live in. My background is very much looking at the countryside in the earth sciences and it is just fascinating that you can just go to some parts of the UK that are very flat, very open and have a character all of their own – and then you can go to other parts that are very hilly and mountainous and have a completely different view point again. I like that diversity. That’s the real character, for me, of the green England and the dry stone walls and that sort of thing.

Sajid Mohammed (Himmah)
This country had offered so much to people. We should not look at ourselves as citizens, not immigrants, we were once also citizens of the commonwealth as well and we are only collecting what was duly ours in the first place. We were citizens, we were invited etc. There are some absolutely incredibly good things about this country – the sense of fair play, the sense of helping the underdog, we always supported Frank Bruno, even though we knew he didn’t have a good chance of winning anything! The sense of the rule of law, even though at times, I have to say, there have been some problems in this country, especially by some people with an agenda of deep racism – but that’s not everyone. And theres a welcoming sense of people here, there is the infrastructure here – if you get ill you can go to hospital, free schooling – which has always been a feature of traditional Islamic civilisation. And the sense of the rule of law, that no matter where you are, or who you are, you could get a fair trial. Now I know that, with the laws that have been passed recently, there has been a degrading of social liberty and social freedom. But it is for us to remind the people of this country, as well as being people of this country, that freedom is an intrinsic right for all humans and it is worth more when times are difficult than when times are easy. We should never, ever give up our freedoms

Alisa Bashir (Asian Young Achiever of the Year) - 2007
That it is a multicultural society. I love that , in comparison to other countries there are lots of different religions, different cultures and the fact that we can tolerate each other and get along.

Professor Peter Usherwood (Neighbourhood Watch) - 2007
I was born in a very poor working class community and my father was a baker, a master baker. He worked for a company and he used to get up at 4.30 every single morning of his life until he retired. We weren’t well off, we were really quite poor, but through hard work I managed to get to University. And then I got married as soon as I graduated from University and I slipped back into a very poor environment. I went with my wife to Glasgow University and lived in a very poor part of Glasgow. We shared an apartment with drug addicts and with prostitutes. We had a small child at the time and it was extremely unpleasant and two murders took place in apartments nearby. Since that time, things have improved. I’m a research scientist an have been to most parts of the world, including many Islamic countries. I’ve had lots and lots of students – hundreds. Lots of people working with me and many of my friends come from Muslim parts of the world. So I have a very good knowledge of what goes on in many different parts of the world and the way people behave in those parts of the world and the character of those people. And I always come back to Great Britain with one thought in my mind, one word in my mind and that word is tolerance.
This country is a tolerant country, believe me, and it is quite a remarkable country in this respect.

Imran Akram (Muslim Writers Award) -2007
I was born and bred in the UK. I absolutely love the United Kingdom. I know there are issues around government, politics, foreign policy and that kind of stuff but, you know, generally I think the UK is probably the best place to live in the world. You have more opportunity here to do things than you probably would in a lot of the Islamic countries. What I really like is, and I know this may sound sad, but the manners of people when it comes to things like queuing. You go to Pakistan or the middle East and there is no such thing as queues and the strongest will win. Here (in the UK) they have a system in place, they appreciate queuing, they know what’s going to happen and it all comes back down to respect. There are things, obviously, which upset people about the UK but overall the manners of people, they are the most tolerant people in the world. They don’t like complaining; they’ll sit in a restaurant and eat something awful but not complain. They just won’t go back there again. These are the kind of things that only Britain could do, I guess.

Julia Hawkins (Ethical Trading Initiative) – 2007
When my friends are complaining about things in this country, the commuting or the weather, I think that we are just so lucky to live in this country. Generally speaking, we have water, most of us have enough food, enough clothes. We are not in fear of our lives. We can vote, we can put governments in and we can kick them out – and that is actually quite rare in the world so I feel incredibly lucky to have been born in this country, to be living in this country - and I have lived in countries where you don’t necessarily have the same freedoms - and I think that (living in the UK) is something to be really happy about.

Yashrib Shah (Muslim Hands) – 2007
I think it is a state of gratitude, do you see the glass as being half full or half empty. The Prophet (PBUH) was always optimistic
I have been abroad and I have been into Muslim Lands and one thing that is extraordinary for those that have done that is the freedom you have to worship in the UK, which is bizarre because I have visited Muslim countries and I have felt oppressed actually and almost fearful of worshipping and being myself whilst here I can walk around wearing my prayer hat, having a beard and, I kid you not, if you have never experienced what I am talking about, maybe not so much in Pakistan, but if you go to parts of the Middle East as I have you will find there seems to be even an open opposition to Muslims studying, anything to do with Islam, they see you as a threat and I praise Allah that we have a country here (the UK) where there is a freedom to worship. I find it far easier to practice Islam in this country than in many of my travels to Muslim lands so I am very appreciative of that. I am also appreciative of the conservatism that we have in the UK, which is very different to that of mainland Europe, although many people may argue that that is being corroded and that it is maybe on the way out with the new generations which are coming possibly, I hope not, being a very conservative country which hold to high moral values. I am very well aware that they are deteriorating with the new generations but I really like talking to old English people because they have so much in common in terms of morality and they actually look at the newer generations like we do, from a very moral viewpoint. I agree with your comments in your email about queuing – In England people queue. I have not been on Hajj yet but I have heard stories about people just shoving past and, you know, the sabr(patience) is not even there and people are not having this good etiquette. You know, generally speaking, the British people are a fantastic bunch.

Konnie Lloyd (Notts Refugee Forum) -2007
I have to say that, when I am marching in London, protesting about the war in Iraq and saying some pretty rude things about our government – and I am a member of the Labour Party so I think I can do that with a great deal of force – I think we are able to protest here, we are surrounded by Police but they are there to protect us and to keep things in order, and are often quite pleasant about it. I think that in many other countries, to open your mouth and protest you will be beaten up by the Police and I am glad that we are still able to protest and are not beaten up for it, although I know that civil liberties have been impinged upon in the last few years. I think that is very important.

Mohammed Patel (Consumer Direct / Trading Standards) - 2007
The variety of food, in our family we do try to experiment with different types of food and we have just had a traditional English roast chicken meal with roast potatoes. To have that variety, that we may not have had in the subcontinent, is one of the things that I am very pleased with.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

PomeGreat PurePlus antioxidant effects

Read an article in the Daily Mail back in November 2011 about the alleged health benefits of a PomeGreat PurePlus capsule supplement derived from Pomegranates. The evidence for this is the results of a study performed by. . the company that makes the supplement (can you hear a bell ringing, or is that just me?)

AS this is a sciency topic, it has been shunted off to the Nottingham Science Blog, where you can find it here :

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Interview : Julia Hawkins (ETI) (2008)

Back in 2008, the "Ethical Trading Initiative" was featured on the BFTF Radio show on Radio Dawn 107.6FM. Having been kindly transcribed by a volunteer, the interview with ETI spokesperson Julia Hawkins can now be posted on the Interweb for perusal at your convenience.

To start at the beginning, could you give us a little background about the Ethical Trading initiative?

About 10 years we all started to become much more aware that the big brands were sourcing much of their production from factories in lots of far flung places across the world, for example in south east Asia and there were stories of exploitation, of workers being paid poverty wages, of children working and generally of poor conditions. The result was a lot of negative media coverage and consumer campaigns demanding to know what the companies who were sourcing these products were doing about this worker exploitation. The first response of the companies was generally to deny that they had any responsibility for these workers because they weren't directly employing them, then companies started to accept that they did have a responsibility but campaigners and others felt they weren't taking their responsibility seriously - for example they would adopt a code of labour practice, stick it up on their website and not really do much else.

The way ETI came about in 1998 was that a bunch of companies, charities and campaigning organisations got together to say 'Look, we know there are these problems, we know that companies have a responsibility towards workers, so lets work out what companies should be doing to address their conditions given that simply adopting a code of conduct is insufficient'.

So that was why ETI was set up - to work out what companies should be doing; to try and make sure that the workers who were actually making the products, (whether they be food or garments or shoes) were actually treated in accordance with international labour standards. That's what we are basically about.

It's quite unusual to have companies and campaigners around the same table. How did you persuade them all to come aboard?
That a good question! I think one of the major achievements of ETI in the early days, was to get these diverse organisations together around a table and I think it was just as hard to get the campaigners and the labour organisations to engage with the companies as it was to get the companies to talk to the people they are normally at loggerheads with. I think that the companies involved realised that this was not an issue that was going to go away and that there was a value in engaging with the people who were their critics, to actually understand their agendas and to work together with them rather than fighting them. I think that the companies with foresight realised that if they wanted to protect their reputation and protect their workers they needed to engage with the people who understood the issues of the workers and how to improve workers rights because this is an area that most companies don't focus on, they focus on making a profit. So its a way of going to the experts and saying that we are committed to doing this but we need your help in showing us how.

I understand that the ETI has a "base code" which is what the whole system revolves around, could you please give us a little background on that?
The ETI base code is a set of principles, for examples that that workers should not be forced to work overtime, or be harrased, that they should be paid a decent wage and that there should be no child labour. The code also covers basic health and safety so that workers can work in an environment that is safe and hygienic. They key thing that people sometimes forget is that this code is all derived from international labour standards and that it is the International Labour Organisation, which is a UN body, that sets these labour standards through UN conventions. These conventions are very wordy documents, and the base code is a way of putting those conventions into a code that companies can actually implement.

To take one part of your code, that part that talks about workers being paid a living wage (which covers living costs as well as providing some discretionary income) rather than any prevailing minimum wage, I understand that some companies have left the ETI because you they were unable to work towards this criteria. Could you give us some more information on this please?
I guess that you are referring to Levi Strauss, who recently resigned from the ETI over the issue of the living wage. Their position is that they won't incorporate the living wage criteria in their corporate code because they can’t see the workers in their supply chain being paid a living wage in anything like the near future and one of the reasons for this is that they do not believe it will be possible to come up with a suitable definition of what a living wage is, or a formula for working it out. Also it is difficult because if a company goes to a supplier and says that they must pay their workers a living wage then suppliers are going to be very worried that they will be lose out to their competition if they are the only ones who have to increase their wages so it has to be done on a very gradual basis. Our position is that a lot of the base code is very difficult to achieve in some countries and that it is not just the living wage aspect that can be hard to action. For example, one of the clauses is that workers must be able to join a trade union - but in China there are no independent trade unions so it is really difficult for a company who is sourcing from China to put that clause into practice. No company is probably going to achieve all the clauses in the base code in a short period of time but we expect them to aspire towards. We can't have companies picking and choosing which parts of the code they want to include or not.

Can you give some examples of how the ETI code has practically helped some of these workers in the developing world?
A major research study on our members activities was published last year and that study pointed to the fact hat in some cases workers are benefiting from a safer working environment, in some cases workers are being paid more than before. The study also found that there are fewer children working in the upper parts of the supply chain. There is still a long way to go with other parts of the base code, for example the parts that deal with freedom of association. To look at specific examples, one thing that our member companies recently did in Bangladesh was to call on the government to increase the minimum wage because, as you may be aware, the minimum wage in Bangladesh has not been increased since 1994 and is the equivalent of about £7/month which is pretty scary, even taking the low cost of living in Bangladesh into account. The minimum wage has now been increased to about £13/month, which is still not adequate but at least you can point to it as being something concrete that the ETI member companies have helped to achieve. One reason they have done this is that they see a long term future for their business in Bangladesh but still want to make a difference.

It's interesting that you mention Bangladesh as there has been a lot of strife in the garment industry in that country over health and safety, pay and so on - but the disputes have not had any particular impact in the media here in the UK. I wondered if you had any comments about that and any advice as to what we, as consumers, could do to help the workers over there.
As you say, there was minimal if not zero, coverage of the garment protests in May and June last year despite that fact that the ETI sent out press releases saying it was a wake up call for everybody involved in the Bangladesh garment industry to address shockingly low pay and poor working conditions. It was quite staggering that there was no coverage until War on Want released a report in November on conditions in factories that supplied various UK companies that the issue moved up the agenda.

In terms of what can we do as members of the general public, I think that one thing that is really important is that where you have a country like Bangladesh, where 20 million people are dependant on the garment industry, it is really important that companies keep sourcing from that country, despite the fact that there will be further media exposes, because you can't solve these issues overnight but what companies can do is to stay there and continue sourcing and to use their buying power to get leverage with the Bangladeshi government and with the manufacturers to work together to improve conditions. As consumers I think it is very difficult for us to have the kind of information that you need to be able to make informed decisions but I think what is important is to keep on asking questions of the companies - what are conditions like for employees in your supply chain? Are you monitoring their working conditions? Are you working with other companies and with other organisations such as trade unions? Also you can ask them if they are a member of the ETI or a similar organisation.

What is your perception of the response from companies to consumers who make these kinds of demands? For example we can look at the food sector and see how quickly the supermarkets responded to consumer pressure on GM foods. Do you see a similar effect taking place in relation to worker rights and conditions in the garment industry?
I think that issue about GM foods is very straightforward, either something is genetically modified or it isn't. It is the same with Fair-trade, either something is Fair Trade or it isn't. But in the case of ethical trade it is just a bit more complex than that because we are looking at a companies overall behaviour towards all the products in their supply chain. For example as a consumer, I want reassurance that whatever I buy, whether it is a t-shirt or a pair of jeans, is made by workers who were not exploited and unfortunately, at this point in time, we can’t provide any guarantee of that and actually, to us, what is more important is that a company stays sourcing from a supplier who may not be perfect but is willing to improve rather than just cutting and running to source from somewhere else because you are not helping the workers concerned if you do that. The challenge for organisations like us is to try and get that message across to consumers, that the problems of low pay are endemic across many countries and what is important is that we try and get companies to use their buying power to make a difference wherever they can.

We often hear about clothing companies who do the exact opposite of what you just mentioned, who chop and change suppliers all the time and seem to have a policy of preventing long term relationships being developed. What can we do as consumers to move against this?
I think one of the challenges for any company is that, if you are only buying products from a supplier for one season and perhaps only purchasing 2% of that companies’ output then how on earth can you have any leverage over that supplier to improve conditions? It is certainly true that if you have long term relationships with suppliers then you can build trust and confidence and invest in providing management training and advice, but if your relationship is very fleeting it is difficult to do that. This isn't just a problem for budget companies, and companies are certainly starting to look at how they can build longer term relationships with a few key suppliers whilst still getting the right products in store at the right time.

What do you think you have achieved over the last few years and what are you focussing on for the future?
The first few years of the ETI were really a process of learning what kinds of tools and methodologies were most appropriate for the kind of audits we were likely to be undertaking. In terms of our achievements, the first thing to mention is that getting agreement on the ETI base code was no mean feat! But also getting consensus about the best approach to auditing and developing tools for companies to use. Since 2004 we have started to shift focus towards giving companies practical tools to help them do their jobs, increasing our membership and also trying to ensure that the member companies are taking on board the learning that we have developed as part of ETI and are implementing it throughout their supply chains. We are also trying to increase our presence in major sourcing countries, for example we now have a full time representative in China to help our member companies to do the work they are performing on the ground there perform their auditing and we are about to recruit a full time representative in India as well. We are also much better able now to use our collective weight to lobby governments and broker solutions. In fact we have helped to resolve some really quite major disputes in our member companies sourcing factories over the last twelve months and I think that is a rally good, really practical achievement.

Now, I know the ETI is not just about the garment industry, so could you give a little flavour of the other kinds of products that it gets involved in?
The main areas are foods, toys, the garment industry, flowers, shoes, electrical goods and so on. The focus is on industries where there are a large number of workers who are being paid very low wages. These are industries where the processes involved are relatively simple - wages and conditions tend to be better in the more complex industries such as car manufacture. In terms of asking questions, a good rule of thumb is that the companies that are honest about the problems they are facing are the ones that are most trustworthy. If a company says that their supply chain is 100% perfect - that's just not true. Take for example the case of Nike who were vilified in the press and by campaigners. Nike were one of the first companies to admit that their supply chain is not perfect. And they have put the details of all their suppliers on their website so that you can check them out for yourself if you want to - a really good step.

Lastly, every guest on the show gets asked the “Special Question” : What do you think is the best thing about living in the UK?

I think I always say to my friends who are complaining about things in this country such as commuting or the weather that we are just so lucky to live in this country, we have water, most of us have enough food, enough clothes, we are not in fear for our lives, we can vote governments in and kick them out and that is actually quite rare in the world and I feel incredibly lucky to be born in this country and to be living in this country. I've lived in countries where you don't necessarily have the same freedoms and I think that it is just something to feel really happy about.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Sustainable paper at Orion Books

Just sent this pretty self-explanatory email to Orion Books, publishes of the Horrid Henry series:

This Sunday (6th Nov) was the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Adha, during which it is traditional to give children presents.

Which is why I was in Tesco on that day with £20 burning a hole in my pocket, asking my niece what should like.

Bless her, she chose a Horrid Henry Book entitled "Horrid Henrys Big Bad Book". I was ever so chuffed that she had chosen a book rather than some vacuous toy (my own sons would NEVER voluntarily buy a book !) and wanted to know a bit more about the publication.

So I had a look at the book, then put it down and walked off with my niece to choose something else entirely.

Orion, I can see the pain in your face. "Why?" you are asking yourself, "why did he walk away, it makes no sense!"

Let me explain. The reason I put the book down was that there was no indication within it that it was printed on sustainably sourced (e.g. FSC certified) paper, which probably means that it was printed on UNsustainably sourced paper.

And buying a child a book made from an unsustainably managed forest - effectively betraying their future - doesn't seem like a very sensible thing to do.

I hope that Orion can change their policies in the future to ensure that the paper used in their books is from a sustainable source, at which point I will jump at the opportunity to purchase them. Until then, I'm afraid the best I can do is to keep a look out for Horrid Henry at second hand book shops. . .

UPDATE : 8th Nov
Within 24hrs, an email arrived from Orion Books. It explained how they were committed to using FSC paper and gave an example of how a typical publication (SF Masterwork "A Scanner Darkly") used FSC certified paper, made by a company with a strong envoronmental policy. They also supplied BFTF with the environmental policy of the printer and also pointed out that their distributor had been awarded the ISO14001 environmental managment standard recently.
Most persuasively, they provided a link to the environmental policy of their parent company, Hachette - and it has to be said that this policy is very impressive. Here are a few extracts from it:

"We will not knowingly use paper sourced from any ancient or endangered forests and we are committed to the phasing out of any particularly controversial sources of paper fibre."

"Where practical and viable, we give preference to post-consumer recycled fibre and we aim to ensure that any virgin fibre used is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®)"

"Most of the board used in the production of books published by our trade divisions is FSC-certified via the relevant supplier."

"While we consider that FSC certification is the highest available standard, if we are unable to use it in the short term we universally apply other standards to ensure that our paper sourcing does not run contrary to our environmental principles. The Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC) provides a framework for the mutual recognition of different national and regional certification schemes."

Winningly, the policy even has an endorsement from Belinda Fletcher, Senior Forests Campaigner at Greenpeace:
“By choosing recycled fibre and paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council for their books, Hachette UK is making great strides towards being a truly forest friendly company. Greenpeace welcomes Hachette UK’s ethical and environmental policy – once implemented, it will be great news both for the environment and for consumers.”

With BFTF's eyes now filling up with emotion at the good job that Hatchette were doing, the following (slightly tearstained) email was drafted up and sent to them:

Thank you for this very prompt reply. The comments clearly demonstrate that Orion Books has its heart in the right place and I am heartened to see that you give such strong support to using FSC certified paper. I have a few comments, which I hope you will humour me by reading:

Regarding PEFC : Whilst I know that FSC is your preferred certification standard, I understand that you may use PEFC certified paper on a temporary basis. I believe PEFC to be a much weaker standard that FSC. Seeing PEFC on a publication does not particularly encourage me to buy it.

Regarding ISO14001: I understand ISO14001 to be a standard that does not mandate any specific environmental standards, rather, it encourages companies to consider and document their environmental practices. I place no weight at all on this standard as evidence that paper has been made with sustainably sourced wood (perhaps the best evidence for taking this approach is that the notorious Indonesian paper producer, APP, has ISO14001 certification), although I can understand how ISO14001 helps you in ensuring that your supply chain is documenting what they are doing.

Regarding "Policies" : As a general rule, I find myself getting wound up when I read a company's environmental policy. And the appearance of the word "committment" in the first line of the Hachette environmental policy suggested to me that this was another document that would result in me needing a lie down in a darkened room.

But I was mistaken.

The environmental policy, possibly uniquely amongst those I have seen, conveyed the impression (backed up by concrete actions) that Hachette are aiming for the very highest environmental standards and that ensuring the paper you use has come from a sustainable source is a priority for you.

Given all of the above, I think that the next time I am in a niece-present-buying-situation, a Horrid Henry book is a likely candidate for purchase.

(It would still be nice to see a FSC logo inside the cover though. . .)

Dear Reader, is there a company whose ethical policies you want to challenge. If so, why not just get on with it and send that email ?

It would be great to hear your experiences of challenging retailers and manufacturers, just leave a comment at the foot of the post (you can even do it anonymously!)

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Interview - Dr Deborah Kays -Chemistry Lecturer

The Building for the Future Radio show was chuffed to have the opportunity to have Chemistry Lecturer Dr Deborah Kays on the show last week.

The interview kicked off with a few questions about how Debbie had become interested in Chemistry. Debbie recalled how, as a youngster, one of the books that she possessed had a section on chemistry which included an article on how two very reactive and dangerous chemicals, Sodium and Chlorine, react together to form safe, edible, inert table salt (sodium chloride). This left a deep impression on Deborah and was one of the reasons she later took up Chemistry as a career.

It was also worth noting that Debbie “only” took the standard double-science GCSE exam (although one suspects that her grade was far from standard !) which shows that you do not need to take the three separate sciences at GCDE to make a career in the sciences.

Debbie obtained both her graduate degree, PhD and initial postdoctoral research post at Cardiff University, with her research work focussing on the chemistry of Boron and on investigation the nature of chemical bonds. After a spell at Oxford University she was appointed Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Nottingham in 2007.

BFTF asked Dr Kays for her top tip for students as whatever strategy she was using had celearly worked. Debbie's response was that students should practice, practice, practice as there is a significant component of the study of Chemistry that is simply rote learning of facts, tables and reaction schemes.

Regarding her time at Oxford, Dr Kays mentioned that one unusual aspect of Oxford University was the college system. Usually, after spending the working day with other chemists, the evening meal would be at the college and one could end up sitting next to a historian, engineer or physicist !

This was quite different from more conventional universities, where one easily spend all ones time surrounded by people from a similar technical background.

A large part of the interview involved a discussion covering the basics (in layman's terms) of what atoms are and how they bond to each other. So let's get down and dirty with the basic components of all the materials we see around us. . .

All the matter you see around you, the chair you are sitting on, the metal case of the computer you are using, the muscles and blood in your body, even the air around you - is composed of basic building blocks called atoms.

Atoms are very, very, very small. 10million of them lined up end to end would form a line just 1mm long.

They are composed of a small nucleus (containing protons and neutrons) which is surrounded by a cloud of electrons. It’s probably easiest to see an example in pictorial form:

As you can see, the number of +ve and -ve charges balances out.

It’s worth mentioning that the nucleus is typically just 1/10,000th of the size of the atom, so the overwhelming majority of an atom is just empty space !!

By the way, the simplest element is Hydrogen, which has just one electron and one proton:
There are about 90 different types of naturally occurring atoms. These are the elements we recognise from everyday life (oxygen, iron, carbon, gold etc). Each element is known by its “chemical symbol” (Oxygen= O, Iron=Fe, Carbon=C, Gold=Au etc)

Different elements have different numbers of protons in the nucleus (the number of neutrons also changes but it is the number of protons that is key)

For example, Oxygen has 8 protons (and thus also 8 electrons) while Iron has 56 protons (and, wait for it, 56 electrons)

Importantly, the electrons form distinct layers (known as shells) and elements that have full shells are inert and will not react with other elements.

The innermost shell can hold 2 electrons. As you have seen, Helium atoms have this shell filled nicely. This is why Helium does not react with anything (and why Helium airships are much safer than Hydrogen ones).

The next two shells can hold 8 and 18 electrons respectively. Let’s take a look at the example of oxygen:
As mentioned previously, atoms want to fill their electron shells. One way they can do this is to bond with other atoms and “share” electrons.

When two or more atoms bond together, they form a “molecule”

To take an example of how bonding can do this, let us look at water, a simple but oh-so-important molecule. In the diagram below, you can see how the Oxygen forms a bond with each of two Hydrogen atoms. The bonds allow the Oxygen and the Hydrogen to share electrons, thus filling the spaces in their respective outer shells.
The two Hydrogen atoms share their single electrons with the Oxygen, thus giving the Oxygen a full outer orbital of 8 electrons, whilst the Oxygen shares two of its electrons with the Hydrogens (one each), thus giving them a full outer orbital of 2 electrons (remember, the first shell only holds two electrons)

The picture painted here is, in reality, quite a simplistic one. There are many types of bonding (e.g ionic bonding, double bonds, metallic bonding, delocalised bonding) and the behaviour of electrons is actually more like a wave than a hard particle moving around a nucleus. However, this simple approach does have the tremendous advantage of being intuitive and of explaining a fair amount of basic chemistry.

As you may have worked out, Oxygen will often make try to make two bonds with other atoms. And in just the same way as this is characteristic of the Oxygen atom, so other elements have their own characteristic number of bonds that they will try to form. For example:

Hydrogen 1 bond
Chlorine 1 bond
Magnesium 2 bonds
Nitrogen 3 bonds
Carbon 4 bonds

Often, the bonds between atoms are represented by lines, so water could be represented as :
It’s worth mentioning that Carbon has the interesting property of being able to form long chains. For example, Polythene (as used in carrier bags etc) is formed of molecules thousands of atoms long and has the structure below (remember, Carbon wants to make four bonds, Hydrogen wants to make just one):
Another, somewhat less laborious, way of writing the structure of Polythene is like this :
Lastly, when chemists draw structures, they often don’t bother putting all the Hydrogen atoms down, and sometimes just use kinks in the line to denote where the carbons are (chains of carbon are genuinely kinked like this, so it’s not an arbitrary convention). For example, the Polythene molecule shown above might be notated as :
By the way, you can read the fascinating story of how Polythene was discovered here. Dear reader, if you have gotten this far, I salute you. The hard work is now over, and it’s payback time.

You should now have the tools to understand, more or less, the structure of many of the chemical compounds that are around us.

To kick off, why not check out these bad boys at Wikipedia (one tiny note, if you see bonds that are wedges or dashes, it just means that they are bonds angled towards you or away from you respectively)

Lactic Acid.This is the chemical that causes the burning sensation in your legs or arms after very vigouous excersise.
Vitamin C

Whilst the compounds above are pretty straightforward, the proteins that are produced by plants, animals and bacteria are staggeringly complicated.

Have a look at Haemoglobin, the protein that transports oxygen in your blood.

Or Testosterone, the hormone that makes males. . .er. .. male.

Or Fibrilin, a building product of elastic fibres in connective tissue

Lastly, check out these protein image galleries. Literally awe-inspring.

Now, to be fair, we have drifted some considerable distance away from the discussion in the interview so let us get back there by mentioning Dr Kays' comments on the research that she undertakes.

Given that Dr Kays' work in very much in the “blue sky” area, with no immediate compounds or industrial applications on the horizon, BFTF asked how the research was funded. Debbie explained that the work was investigating the nature of chemical bonds and this improved understanding would be of value to chemistry generally. Having said that, these “complexes” as they are known, may lead to improved catalysts in the future.

Dr Kays then went on to explain how the process of making (or synthesizing) new chemicals works. Firstly, the researcher looks at the literature to see what kinds of reactions, or combinations of reactions, are likely to get them from their starting compounds to the molecule that that wish to make and study. At each step of the process, they will assess what chemicals have been made before filtering, distilling or otherwise processing the material to remove unwanted compounds (or unused reactants) before moving to the next step. Debbie commented that some reactions may work well, with 100% of the reactants being converted to the chemical required for the next step in the process whereas in other cases only a small fraction of the reactants may be converted. In the worst case, the reaction may not give the researcher what they want at all !

On the other hand, Debbie said that it is a wonderful feeling to produce a new chemical, perhaps a chemical that no one has ever seen before and that this had been one of the highlights of her PhD work.

Wondering whether this was something that you or I could share in, BFTF mentioned a recent article by Ben Goldacre which described how an ordinary member of the public had been able to show that the “'Threefold variation' in UK bowel cancer rates" reported by the BBC was very largely the effect of small health authorities having more variable cancer rates that larger health authorities (in the same way that a people tossing a coin twice will have a much more variable rate of “heads” than people tossing a coin 100 time). Debbie was certainly supportive of the public getting involved in this kind of “Citizens Research” activity

BFTF was interested in the kind of jobs that chemistry graduates might end up in. Debbie responded by saying that a degree in chemistry was highly values across many careers because it was perceived as being difficult and in requiring a numerate, organised mind. Thus graduates could move on from their initial degree to a further qualification, or to industry or to a completely different sector such as banking.

Moving towards the end of the interview, BFTF asked Debbie to name a chemist that she particularly admired. Expecting a response along the lines of Curie, Rutherford, Mendeleev or Ibn Hayyan, BFTF was surprised to hear Debbie choose Professor Phil Power.

With his name not being one that could be described as “household” (and the subject of scientists not being as well know as footballers is something that we could perhaps discuss another day) Debbie explained that for many years the maximum number of bonds that had been produced between tow atoms had been four and that many chemists had believed achieving a “quintuple” bond was impossible.

But Prof Power only went and did it, didn’t he !! His development of a Chromium complex that contained 5 bonds was a real breakthrough. You can read about it here.

Penultimately, this is perhaps a good time to mention a few pointers towards more information about Dr Kays and her work. You can find out more about her research here and she appears in one of Nottingham University’s groovy “Peiodic Videos” here

Lastly, every guest on the show gets asked the “Special Question” : What do you think is the best thing about living in the UK?

Dr Kays had clearly thought about this and felt that the best thing about living in the UK was that “you could be whatever you wanted to be” and that she had been able to achieve as much as she was able to.

Which sound like a pretty good reason to be in this country to me !