Friday, 25 May 2018


Ten years ago, on 25th May 2008, Gus, my friend, colleague, and erstwhile housemate, died in an extreme sports accident. He was 29. His death was untimely, violent and shocking to those who knew him in a professional capacity. It was also unusual enough to warrant an obituary in the Telegraph and a feature in the Mail on Sunday.

Above and apart from the understandable shock, grief and anger, my abiding memory of his funeral was how little we knew him. I lived with Gus for three years at the start of my career; worked alongside him for longer. We climbed together at least weekly, and drank beer together more often than that. At his funeral, I realised I simply did not understand what made him tick.

Eulogies were delivered in discrete little bunches. A senior manager talked about his professional life, using words that I had helped prepare. His family spoke, of course, but they were describing someone I barely recognised: a quiet choirboy, fiercely proud of his heritage. (In all the years I knew him, I never met any of his family until that day.)

And then his fellow BASE jumpers stood up to speak, en masse, in a robust defence of their sport and in defiance of we outsiders, who could barely comprehend how this happened, let alone why. According to the Mail article linked above, the BASE community subsequently met Gus's family and they made their peace. I had forgotten, I suppose, that they were in mourning too. But in the moment, it certainly felt like a crass move to be so brash at such a time. Yes, I was angry with them. I felt not only that they bore some responsibility for what had happened, but also that they were fooling themselves by defending and supporting an activity whose dangers had so vividly been illustrated. They would, I supposed, shortly be returning to jumping; and sooner or later, inevitably, somebody else's family, friends and colleagues would find themselves at the memorial for a life needlessly cut short.

I have often thought about Gus since. His death profoundly affects my understanding of, and appetite for, risk. It shapes my understanding of privacy: the sense that people close off parts of themselves, only opening up the facets that they want to share in tiny slivers to different audiences. But most clearly, it affects my understanding of ikigai, his reason for living. Gus was a man who most certainly had his work-life balance exactly where he wanted it.

In the seven years I knew him, Gus was an exceptionally positive influence. He was politically aware and gave generously to charity - neither of which had occurred to me as a self-obsessed recent graduate setting out in the world of work. He pooh-poohed organised religion (a fact that might have surprised even his family, who arranged his funeral in a traditional CoE setting) but was a staunch supporter of human rights and social justice. He appreciated artistic films, great obscure music, good food, proper ale.

He didn't spend his early paycheques on flashy goods, as most of us grads probably did. He bought a modest car, a modest phone. For the first year or so, he didn't even buy a bed for his unfurnished room. Rather, he was spending most of his money - and spare time - on a hobby, travelling most weekends from Guildford to Nottingham to skydive. Over the early years that I knew him, this hobby started to grow. He started shooting and editing short films containing skydiving stunts, and they were often rather good. Later, he started jumping in a wingsuit.

I can't recall the exact time that he told me that he had started BASE jumping. I do remember that he explained it all to me quite carefully: the hierarchy, the mentoring, the licensing system. I also remember that I once put my foot in it by describing his activities to some of our mutual colleagues, who he would have preferred did not know. BASE jumping is not generally illegal, but very often involves some form of trespass and possible public order-type offences.

Gradually, I realised that he was spending more and more of his time participating in ever-riskier jumps. Almost everything he did outside of work - including, as it turned out, his interest in rock climbing - was in service to this hobby. He relayed to me some of the scariest incidents and I expect I made it known that I did not well understand this passion of his. In fact, not even his friends from the conventional skydiving community necessarily understood or condoned it. He described being chased by police; coming close to electrocution on top of a radio transmitter; and, most harrowingly, getting his parachute caught on an antenna guy cable, ending up suspended at a lethal height with no obvious prospect of getting free. Typically, the part of this incident that troubled him the most was that his parachute had been ruined by the guy wire's lubrication oil.

Even before all this, I had noted and commented on his seeming fearlessness. It was visible in his climbing, and in other activities such as go-karting, where he excelled. He once scaled the outside of his shared house in Gloucester to retrieve his housemate's room key, climbing in through a second-floor window without harness or ropes. In other contexts, that calculated risk-taking might have made him a formidable entrepreneur or stockbroker. But work was always the necessary enabler of his lifestyle; however good he was at his job, he had no interest in climbing the corporate ziggurat for its own sake.

However, the detail that I remember most clearly from his early BASE videos was not that fearlessness at all. In fact, he appeared to be pretty much terrified every time he jumped. This manifested itself in meticulous preparation for every jump, checking his equipment carefully and planning every "exit" with precision. And he did regularly cancel jumps if the conditions weren't perfect, even if he had spent ages planning and travelling. Despite everything, he was not at all reckless.

The thing that I most obviously failed to understand was just how accomplished and respected Gus had become as a BASE jumper in such a short period of time, and also his broadening scope and ambition. His passion for BASE had taken him to Norway and ultimately to Switzerland. Less than a fortnight before he died, he had travelled to Scotland to climb and jump from the Old Man of Hoy, a staggeringly difficult feat that I had barely even acknowledged for totally selfish reasons (he had undertaken the challenge in preference to a far more mundane activity that we had been planning together for some time).

Gus's death was an accident. It was not down to a lack of skill, experience or preparation. Nor was it due to a failure to appreciate the potential dangers. He was participating in a sport that he truly loved. If I still can't understand why he'd take such risks, that's my problem alone.

I have since read reports of other extreme sports accidents that do, in fact, give me a glimmer of understanding as to the reward part of his risk-reward calculation. The challenge of the climb, the exhilaration of the jump, the camaraderie, the deep technical skills, the pride of achieving a world-first jump. All of these attributes sound vastly more appealing than, say, an adventure-sport-turned-tourist-attraction with the potential for freezing to death and becoming a macabre permanent landmark on a remote mountainside; or one in which a possible outcome is drowning in the claustrophobic darkness of a deep cave system. Both of these reports, while sensitively written, contain highly distressing details: they lay bare the grim reality of extreme sports gone very wrong despite the skill and precaution of the participants. (By way of slight relief, a recent Guardian feature describes a vanishingly rare successful rescue of an inexperienced diver from an underwater cave. Her survival clearly depended entirely the level-headed bravery of her rescuer and a huge amount of luck.)

It's taken me a long time to come to terms with what I perceived as the troubling and selfish causes of my friend's death and the seemingly blasé response of the peer group that enabled him. There is never a right way to mourn; yet of course when we lose somebody close to us, we should try to honour them as best we can. While I have never felt compelled to try skydiving myself, Gus clearly offered much to admire and to emulate: his generosity, charity, humanity, integrity, wit and intelligence, and his passion and dedication to his sport. I shall continue to try to be as mindful as he was; and I shall continue to uphold my tradition of occasionally pouring myself a White Russian, and toasting my friend Gus.

Gus was born on 19th April 1979 in Norwich and grew up near Cromer, Norfolk. He graduated from the University of Nottingham in 2001 and started working with me in Guildford, Surrey, in September of that year. In around 2004, he moved to Gloucester for work, later returning to Guildford. He died in Meiringen, Switzerland on 25th May 2008. In the accompanying Mail On Sunday article, the photograph of Gus is incorrectly labelled: Gus is centre of the three men pictured. In the linked Wikipedia article on the Old Man Of Hoy, Gus's surname is spelt incorrectly.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Four little changes to help save the planet

We were realistic about our aims
(we didn't believe claims of miracles)

I'd been mulling a brief blog post on the subject of efficiency and environmental awareness, when I stumbled upon the following energy-saving tip from a reader in a weekend tabloid:

Change your lightbulbs at home to LED versions. We did it and immediately saved £80 a month on the electric bill.

Source: The Sun, "Sun Savers", 30th March 2018; suggestion from Andrea Towler of Cleethorpes, Lincs.

This simple suggestion rattled me sufficiently to bring forward my planned post. Why? Because it's either hyperbole or an example of staggering waste. There's too much wilful ignorance in technology and mathematics already to allow this to go unchallenged. (Witness, for example, the number of celebrities who star on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown - a comedy quiz panel show whose game element is almost half arithmetic - and then shamelessly both proclaim and prove themselves to be hopeless at even very basic numeracy.)

As an occasional STEM Ambassador, it feels like obvious exaggeration such as this needs to be exposed and explained - not just accepted as fact. I don't necessarily have the academic clout to point out statistical flaws in over-hyped research papers or to counter-argue snake-oil salesmen; I rely on the likes of Ben Goldacre and Sense About Science to do that. But I can at least run the numbers suggested here and demonstrate that they are almost certainly fictional - whether a simple mistake or an outright sensationalist lie.

If we assume that the replaced lightbulbs were 50W on average (perhaps halogen, otherwise genuine old-style incandescent bulbs of 40W - 60W) and that the replacement LEDs were 5W, then that's an energy saving of 90%. Meaning that, to save £80, the reader was spending almost £90 a month, just on lighting. For context, that's almost twice what we spend on household energy in total - heating, laundry, cooking and all. The only house that uses this much electricity on its lighting is one that happens to have a massive cannabis farm in its cellar.

The average UK electricity price is 14.37p per kWh, so this reader was allegedly spending wasting almost 21kWh on lighting every day. That is virtually impossible for a normal house. That's more than forty 50W lightbulbs left on for ten hours every single day. If nothing else, that would be an incredible strain on the occupants' eyes, and the house would be uncomfortably warm in the summer. It would surely imply that the occupants leave all the lights on during the daylight hours, even in rooms that are unoccupied.

OFGEM says that a typical house consumes 3,300kWh in a year making these claimed savings sound even more implausible. Really, the only way that this story makes any sense at all is if Ms Towler meant to say that she saved £80 per year, not per month.

That all said, I did want to write a self-congratulatory blog post on energy savings because my household has done some good things to improve our environmental impact this year - without the expectation of miracles:

We changed our energy provider

The most common advice for saving on household energy costs - yet surprisingly rarely followed - is to shop around for a new supplier. (And shop around again when any introductory period ends.) Switching is genuinely easy. It takes about a month to process but both our old and new providers kept in touch throughout.

But we went further than simply trying to save a bit of money. There are now a decent number of smaller energy companies that not only offer better value unit rates than the big incumbents, but also provide electricity from 100% renewable sources. Our new provider also offers a welcome bonus for referrals, so get in touch if you're interested in switching.

And, of course, the more people who sign up to such a tariff, the better the market for renewable energy will be in the future. The UK is quietly doing pretty well at generating electricity from renewable sources (including nuclear). The fascinating Electric Insights shows how much of Britain's energy is being generated by different fuel sources in real time, and you can plot graphs showing generation (and demand) over different time periods.

But it's sad that even the relatively uncontroversial position of celebrating Britain generating all of its electricity for a three-day period without the use of coal, for the first time since the 1880s manages to get more than its fair share of scientifically-illiterate commentators attempting to disparage this milestone.

We got rid of the most energy-hungry appliance

Sometimes it's quite hard to identify which appliances are causing problems, which makes it hard to figure out where to make efficiency savings. Not in our case. We had an energy meter and it was pretty clear that there was one single thing that was energy hungry way above everything else in the house: the power shower. So we replaced it.

The energy meter worked by being clamped around the main electricity cable into the home; it did not need any specialist wiring. It then transmitted instantaneous and daily consumption data to a display unit. The display showed, without any doubt, that the shower was consuming some 7kW. Even a couple of relatively short showers in a day could easily account for half of our electricity consumption.

We could compare days when we weren't in the house (because we were on holiday, for example) with those that we were. Even when away, the house obviously uses some electricity for running the fridge, say, and the heater in our fish tank. On the days we were present, almost 100% of the electricity we used above top of this background level could be attributed to the shower. Everything else barely registered.

We offset all of our carbon emissions

Carbon offsetting is not just something that is done by large companies; individuals can do it too. Sometimes it is offered as an add-on to flight bookings. For everything else, individuals would need to pick a project to support that would provide the right level of offsetting.

The World Land Trust is a reputable charity that can help with this. By "reputable", I mean that it is a UK-based charity that is endorsed by high-profile conservationists who ought to know what they are talking about. The Trust provides a simple calculator for household energy use - including travel - that converts to a suggested charitable donation. The Trust then uses donations to buy land and plant forests in various places around the world, in conjunction with local charities and managed by local people.

Now clearly, not everybody can afford to make a one-off payment to offset a year's carbon emissions. But if it's a cause that you care about, you can use the offsetting calculator without commitment; and you can send charitable donations (which, being a UK charity, may include GiftAid) in smaller or regular payments, if you prefer. In our case, we found that the offset value was similar to the amounts that we were already donating to several other causes we care about.

We changed our search engine

Indisputably, it's easier to be virtuous when it's free. Sometimes a simple change of habit can make a big difference at no cost. Ecosia is a search engine that uses its advertising revenues to plant trees - so that you can literally help to save the world every time you search. Search results are good and come with the added bonus of adding a thin layer of privacy. You can easily set Ecosia to be your browser's default search engine (they provide full instructions on their site). They also have an app - essentially a branded version of an open-source browser - so that you can continue to support them from your mobile device.

At the time of writing, Ecosia earns enough money to plant a tree every 1.1 seconds. That's improved even in the couple of months that I've been using the site.

With current concerns over privacy on the major search engines, lots of people are looking to switch. Some of the other suggestions are as good at searching, but none are as good for the planet.