The Snow In The Summer or So-So

08/14/2006 - 08/20/2006

Mon 14 Aug 2006

Two Songs a Week 21 - Ruling the world

What was the well-listened person hearing ten years ago? The daughters of Brian Poole of the Tremeloes, naturally. Karen and Shellie Poole went up to the top of their mansion in Essex, laid down some music tracks, and went on to make one of the great neglected gems of the post-Britpop era. I am, I feel was the hit everyone remembers, though the group would go on to have four larger hits. Indestructible had a memorable cartoon toyworld video, and The incidentals promising great days ahead. They weren't to arrive, as the duo rather fell off the hit-making machine, at least as performers. Karen Poole has written for such stars as the Sugababes, Alex Parks, and Amy Studt; Shelly changed her name and suffered from the curse of the Popjustice Podcast.

Alisha's Attic secured a hat-trick of number 12 hits in 1996-7, plus a number 13 follow-up the next year. By a complete coincidence, Shelly's latest vocal project, the Michael Gray song Borderline lands in the charts at this week's number 12.

The sample song, and just about my favourite of the group's works, was the last of that triple twelve. The air we breathe: music and lyrics, Karen and Shellie Poole; performed by Alisha's Attic. This is the Synth String version, from the CD single release.

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posted 14 Aug 2006, 19.23 +0100

Two Songs a Week
Flying to-night

Back to the airport brew-ha-ha. One piece of information fell out of the Sunday papers - John Reid's speech on Wednesday was arranged at relatively short notice (the piece in the Sindie didn't say how short), and its topic was changed from immigration to the threats he poses to our liberty. This rather confirms my initial reaction, Mr Reid has been using the claimed threat for political purposes.

After four days of banning all cabin luggage, some will be allowed in the aeroplane once more. The reasons behind these decisions can only be guessed at, for they have not been adequately explained.

There will be one, and only one, carry-on per person, about half the volume previously allowed. Reason: presumably, to allow a greater throughput of people at the scanners.

No liquids, gels, pastes, lotions, or aerosols through the security checkpoint. Reason: the authorities (want us to) believe that this week's plot involves improvised bombs made from nail-polish remover, toothpaste, and Ipods.

Passengers boarding flights to the occupied provinces will not be allowed to take liquids on board, even though they have been purchased in the secure airside. Reason: these provincials still don't trust us. Where's our copy of the Treaty of Paris?

The Department of Transport says it will work closely with operators to introduce these new arrangements, seeking to keep disruption to passengers to a minimum, and it will keep these measures under review.

Pass the bomb blame

Airlines are chafing under the new restrictions. British Airways has lambasted the British Airports Authority, which operates Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, said that the BAA was completely unable to cope. Michael O'Leary of cheapo-airline O'Ryanair said that his airline "cannot keep cancelling flights and disrupting the travel plans of tens of thousands of British passengers solely because the BAA cannot cope with the new body search requirements."

"The goal of these terrorists and extremists is not just to kill but also to disrupt the economic life of Britain. The Government, by insisting on these heavy-handed security measures, is allowing the extremists to achieve many of their objectives," added the plain-talking Mr O'Leary.

Speaking before the rules were partially relaxed, Conservative security critic David Davis called for the government to throw some extra manpower - the army, or special police - at the problem. The government said that it had not received requests for military assistance.

Meanwhile, the government is meeting Syed Aziz, who is the secretary-general of the union of muslim organisations. Mr Aziz asked for islamic laws to cover family affairs. This is not news. The news is that he wasn't laughed out of the meeting by R Kelly, the boy blunder who has inherited the community relations brief from John Prescott. If integration and multi-culturalism means anything, it's standing by the values that each culture deems non-negotiable. Treating everyone equally before the law is just one such value. R said "he did not accept that British foreign policy should be dictated by a small group of people." Well, not those people, but the even smaller group from the oilfields. Still, what do we expect from a member of the extreme religious cult opus dei?

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posted 14 Aug 2006, 19.49 +0100


Tue 15 Aug 2006

Beware: bags on board
bags on board

Clearly, the restrictions on hand baggage make air travel unsuitable for many purposes. Only allowing enough medication for the journey presupposes a 100% delivery rate of checked baggage, or the easy availability of replacement drugs at very short notice. Forcing laptops to go as hold luggage will cause an economic impact for each laptop lost or damaged - we might estimate €3000 per laptop. And a Promenade concert has had to be cancelled as the musicians are unable to transport their instruments safely.

The question we have to ask: what is the point of maximum efficiency? Not the point of maximum safety, not the point of maximum convenience, but the point where we're not getting any significant improvement.

Let us suppose, as a simplifying argument, that we have reached the efficient point for both delivery and security of hold baggage. Delivery needs improvement, for any error makes it less efficient than cabin bags; security may well be near the optimum point. Would it be possible to replicate these checks for hand baggage, or for people?

The current situation. Oh.

To start any cogent analysis, we need to know the security measures currently in place for hold baggage. Instantly, we run into a brick wall, because the airport operators and governments are firm believers in security through obscurity, and won't release details of their security process. While this does make it a little harder for ne'er-do-wells to penetrate the system, it becomes almost impossible to conduct any sort of process review, or to suggest improvements.

That said, some information is available. (See PDF at that link.) Advanced X-ray processing, explosive detection systems, CAT scans, and opening up cases and rummaging around all have their places. The fastest machines can process 1200 suitcases per hour - that's three seconds per bag. Slower machines using CAT scans can get through 500 cases per hour, a nifty 12 seconds per bag.

However, that's for automated systems. Existing manual systems will process around 180 bags per hour, 20 seconds per bag. Here lies an opening for cabin baggage, which will rarely need to process bags at a breakneck speed. The current processes for bags, a simple X-ray plus manual searching, could be changed to a CAT scan plus directed manual searching as the existing X-ray units are replaced.

What's to do for the passenger, though? CAT scans are a complete non-starter, as they contribute far too much radiation and take too long. It is already possible to construct a small pod (chamber, if you like, though that is a very Loaded Word™) combining a metal detector with a Compton-scattered X-ray system, and some form of gas chromatography. This would be exceptionally expensive to install for everyone to pass through, but it could be possible for large airports to install one or two automated chambers per security gate to provide extra screening. Smaller airports may have to perform checks manually, at least for the moment.

This is where human intelligence comes in. Machines are no substitute for properly targetted searches, plus random searches to fill up the spare capacity.

To summarise so far: Gas scanning is the one technology that isn't used for cabin bags or passengers. Beefed-up scanning of cabin baggage, through enhanced X-ray and gas equipment, can be introduced on a rolling programme over the next few years, at a moderate additional cost. Setting up pods to scan the individual traveller would be considerably more expensive, but may pay its way by increasing the number of passengers scanned quickly.

Time for a change?

We must also consider time in this equation. Hold baggage has an hour or more to pass through the various review processes, so its progress is not that time-critical. It would not be good to separate the passenger from their cabin bags for more than a few moments, so processing the two must take roughly the same time. If there's a systemic bias, it should be in clearing the passenger faster than his bag.

Most importantly, the system must be able to handle the flow of traffic. A moderately busy airport (50 million passenger movements per year) would typically need to handle 80 people passing through all security checkpoints per minute; peak-hour traffic would be somewhere around 200 people per minute. We've said that existing manual technology is able to process 3 bags per minute, suggesting something like 15 lanes in operation round the clock, capable of expanding to 45. That sounds like a lot, but remember that this is per airport, not per checkpoint - ten checkpoints around the airport might only need two of four lanes operating to avoid significant queues.

This may not be a tremendous problem - screening each person through the existing metal detector gate takes 10-20 seconds, and additional searches will take perhaps a minute. A first-glance screening process using the current setup is sustainable, with additional screening available by taking the passenger and/or bag to one side. Whether this should be random, triggered by something suspicious in the contents, or by profiling, is a decision for the operators, not this economic analysis.

What's the cost?

The primary net cost of this proposition is, primarily, the development, construction, and operation of working gas-sniffing X-ray-pumping security pods. The basic technology exists already, tuning it to a system that can be used in the real world will take perhaps €100 million; given that European sales will run to a couple of thousand - maybe ten thousand if it's adopted world-wide, the purchase price of each pod should then be of the order of €1 million per unit, plus a similar figure per annum in staffing and operational costs. The upside is a return to the 2005 paradigm, of convenient and expeditious progress through checkpoints, with additional security in place. Is it worth the money? That's not for me to decide.

This whole discussion pre-supposes two things. One, that we want the current model of relatively convenient air travel to continue. There is an argument that a slightly less secure, but massively more convenient, model would provide greater utility for the population as a whole. Is the optimum level of attempted hijackings and voluntary crashes actually zero? I'm far from convinced by it, but it would be intellectually dishonest to rule out the possibility entirely.

The other presumption is that we want to maintain air travel as a mass means of transport, rather than developing alternatives. The current situation could and should provoke a fundamental re-think of transport strategy, preferring land transport where possible, or properly taxing the air sector's significant negative externalities. To this extent, a significant deterrant to travel - in the shape of inhospitable cabins and long queues - could be a starting point for a larger debate.

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posted 15 Aug 2006, 19.25 +0100


Wed 16 Aug 2006

Space News

So, farewell,
James Van Allen
You wrapped a belt around the Earth,
And another around Jupiter,
Now you're off in space.

Solar system gains three more planets. The International Astronomy Union has adopted a common-sense definition of a planet - a body that does not shine of its own light, and that is pulled into a sphere by its own gravity. Joining Pluto are two new plutoids - Charon, which shares Pluto's orbit, and 2003 UB313 (Xena), a larger body on the fringes of the solar system. Ceres, the first asteroid discovered, also now qualifies as a planet.

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posted 16 Aug 2006, 18.34 +0100

Conservatives in We Have Values shock!

Normal politics is back: the Conservatives have launched their new "this is what we stand for" document. Filletting down the twelve-page pamphlet, we get the following principles.

* Encourage enterprise - stable economy, simpler taxes, deregulation, fewer central targets, more for pensioners.

* Build a strong society - more voluntary sector, much more for ex-drug addicts (because not all of them can go on to be leader of the opposition), more for special schools.

* Enhance the environment - reduce carbon (dioxide) emissions, better water use, flexible working, decentralised housing, integrated transport, more for the arts.

* Trust public sector workers - fewer targets, especially in the health service, streaming in schools, affordable housing.

* End global poverty - AIDS, aid, abolish trade barriers, arms trade treaty. Compare with Bjorn Lomberg's book How to spend €50 milliard to make the world a better place, which lists the top four projects as AIDS, vitamins, free trade, and malaria.

* Protect British values - enhance parliament, civil service, solve the West Lothian Question, border police, abolish identity cards (though not necessarily the register), introduce a Bill of Rights, army.

* Devolve power - abolish regional assemblies, introduce elected mayors, better devolution, oppose a European superstate, persuade rather than compel.

* Be amenable to change - more disabled ethnic women, seek cross-party consensus, social action, tackle apathy.

The full document (PDF) is worth a quick scan - most readers won't spend more than ten minutes on it.

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posted 16 Aug 2006, 19.34 +0100


Thu 17 Aug 2006

Two Songs a Week 22 - Smells spirited

From the category labelled WTF, we present Eläkeläiset. Since the rise and rise of that well-known cola brand Lordi, "The Pensioners" are now only the third most dangerous metalheads in Finland. This is Haulikkohumppa, their version of a moderately famous grunge song, and features lyrics that can be understood slightly better than the original.

Look, it was this or Le ragga des pingouins.

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posted 17 Aug 2006, 19.06 +0100

Two Songs a Week
The long tail

Ben Metcalfe on the rights and wrongs of a blogging A-list. "Many A-listers simply aggregate other people's work," suggests Mr. Metcalfe, and goes off on a particular rant against a site called Boing.

There's a lot to agree with in Mr. Metcalfe's analysis, though he does implicitly accept the presence of an A-list already. It may be that I move in completely different circles, but I have no recollection of reading this Boing thing previously; after giving it a once-over, I don't expect to be returning again.

Could this be an attitudinal difference? Mr. Metcalfe, and his post's inspiration Nicholas Carr, talk about the inlink ranking as though it were the single most important metric. I don't think that's the case - quality of writing, having a voice, having something to say - are all more important.

Mr. Carr's recommendation - to get attention from an A-lister, link to them - can only serve to cast the existing A-list in stone, as Mr. Metcalfe correctly points out.

At the time I started this article, there was one (identical) comment to each of Mr. Metcalfe's posts, wittering on about "adbitrageurs" and "a market for ad spaces". Then it hits me. My blog is a space where I can express myself. Other people - probably not Mr. Metcalfe, perhaps nor Mr. Carr, but certainly the people behind Boing - generate money from their blog. That's why the inlink ranking is so important - it's more eyeballs for the advertisers.

I suppose that's yet another reason to poke sticks and jeer at the advertising-and-search behemoth G****e. By making it moderately easy to turn a blog into a small income, the exact position on a long tail has become more important to some people; as no-one will be less interest in their place, it must be of greater interest to the world o'blog as a whole. From this perspective, it's slightly sad to see Mr. Carr saying that a post is a success purely on the G****e commercials it generates. That is putting the horse so far before the cart that it's not even in the same county any more.

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posted 17 Aug 2006, 19.21 +0100

Blogging| Intellectual| Shilling

Fri 18 Aug 2006

Hollywood does not represent real life

Calling "bollocks" on John Reid's unsustantiated claim of "mass murder on an unimaginable scale". O'raoiyaighnair threatens to sue the government over the new hand-luggage rules. The company's chief executive, Michael O'Tightwad, said,

The best way to defeat terrorists and extremists is for ordinary people to continue to live their lives as normal. Because of the additional security restrictions imposed by the Government last Thursday, the shambles at the London airports has been anything but normal... It is important that they now restore security at the London airports to normality and remove some of these nonsensical, and - from a security perspective - totally ineffective restrictions which were introduced last week.

The government is laughing into its sleeve. This may be a desperate attempt to boost O'raoiyaighnair's position in the inevitable market shakedown, or it may be that the company is tapping into a public sentiment - not represented in the media - that the restrictions are a gross over-reaction.

Which they are. The Register debunks the claim that any twit can create a successful binary explosive. If it were that simple, UK interior minister Mr. Reid and the person in charge of the country, Mr. Prescott, would have done it already.

The problem is that triacetone triperoxide (TATP, the net product of hair bleach, nail polish remover, and battery acid) will only produce an entropic explosion. There will be some energy produced when the solids turn into gas, but that's all it'll do. It's also a tremendously unstable substance, even more volatile than the combination of John Prescott and an egg-white.

More seriously, this ultra-volatility is the prime reason why TATP was almost certainly not the substance used in last year's successful explosions in London - it would have gone off in any moderately crowded commuter train. It may well have been used in the copycat attacks two weeks later, the defining image of a rucksack bomb turning into a damp squib is consistent with the weak remnants of a TATP batch gone wrong.

And, of course, this is yet another string to my bow that the movies are utterly useless. Their scientific falsehoods have permeated the popular consciousness so much that the primi inter pares are believing the impossible. Just as tornadoes cannot lift one over the rainbow, the binary bomb doesn't work like that. The day that John Reid stops confusing movie scripts with real life will be a blessing for us all.

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posted 18 Aug 2006, 19.21 +0100


Sat 19 Aug 2006

MIscellaneous thoughts this week

Max Hastings on his favourite pillock.

Howaerd forced to drop migration proposals. That's John Howaerd, the only vampire bat to sleep while hanging up.

Peter Preston on the disclaimers of politics.

The linguistic origins of Islamofascism. It's a shame that politicians don't have to pay a royalty to the first publication to use the world, otherwise a good newspaper would now be rich.

Game of the week: Can you see me now, mother?

As one might expect, Craig Murray has an interesting take on the recent flap. Mr Murray was the UK's ambassador to Uzbekistan, until he was sacked for having a conscience.

Glenda Jackson on why smart profiling is good and stereotypes don't work.

Crap - John Prescott.

I note the presence of a pressure group trying to ban the Caps Lock key from the keyboard. I also note that almost everyone who supports their position is from the failed colonies. Could this be because they use numeric postcodes, while the civilised world uses alphanumeric cyphers?

Matt T ponders on the cost of comments. Back in the mid-90s, when I was an internet neophyte, there was a brief flurry of interest in micropayments. A penny here, a fraction of a penny there, all administered by a generally accepted internet bank. It's only a slight surprise that the exact mechanism hasn't yet emerged; though the building blocks - Paypal, in particular - are present, they're still predicated on moving pounds, not fractions of a penny. Sooner or later, the same architecture will extend to the odd tuppence, and make it worth while handling such small change. Already, it's possible to deal in micropayments of about 0.4p, by charging 1 Australian cent. But that involves foreign currency conversions, an annoying flaw.

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posted 19 Aug 2006, 20.14 +0100

Intellectual| News| Shilling

Sun 20 Aug 2006

Balls stop play

On Wednesday, Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in a tennis match. It's the first time that world leader Mr Federer has lost to anyone other than Rafael Nadal this year. The win helped Mr Murray rise into the world's top 20 players.

Wayne Rooney throws a strop. The potato-faced youngster, who is only able to kick a football if it's pointing the right way, has threatened to withdraw from commercial promotional activities for the FA. His reason - or, to be exact, his agent's stated reason - is not a yearning desire to roll back the creeping commercialism that's overtaken the game over the past couple of decades. No, it's, er, because he thinks he's got a divine right to play, no matter how much of a violent little thug he is. Mr Rooney is already suspended for the England side's next two competitive fixtures - against Andorra and Macedonia - after being sent off for being a violent little thug.

At Theoval, it's been another exciting day's cricket. After conceding a huge first innings deficit, England recovered to be 33 behind with four second-innings wickets down. Pietersen was out for 96, and England needed to bat well into the fifth day to-morrow to secure the draw. Bit like last year, then. Unlike last year, the ball was changed just before the tea interval, because the umpires believed that Pakistan had deliberately interfered with the ball. Pakistan took their time emerging from the changing rooms after tea, and the umpires appear to have deemed the match a forefit. The Pakistan players popped back out about ten minutes later, and were met with a chorus of booing. Some Pakistan fans are already criticising umpire Darryl Hair (Australia), who they believe to have a vendetta against them. Radio 5's Pat Murphy says this is a battle for the soul of cricket; more reasoned voices (Aggers on TMS) says it's all a bit of a mystery.

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posted 20 Aug 2006, 19.04 +0100

Music in week 33

The artist airplay list, first of all.

1. 5 automatic       9
2. 1 kasabian        8
3. 2 lily allen      6
4. 8 feeling         6
5. - primal scream   6
6. - pipettes        4
7. - pink            4
8. 4 lostprophets    4
9. - muse            4
10 - shakira         3

The Vibekings go into Germany's top 10 with Like the wind, a dance cover of Patrick Swayze's 1988 hit. Scandinavia's biggest hit, Boten Anna, is charging up the charts in the Netherlands, even faster than the hit by Lily Allen. France is suffering, as Titou Le Lapinou - yet another animated character - hits the top five. Anya was right - these bunnies are evil.

North Europe's Top Twenty

 20 20 Sportfreunde Stiller - 54 70 90 2006
 19 19 Pink - Who knew?
 18 17 Keane - Is it any wonder?
 17 16 Cascada - Everytime we touch
 16 15 Kelly Clarkson - Breakaway
 15 13 Depeche Mode - John the revelator
 14 12 Plage - Coup de boule
*13 NE Clitring Aguilera - Aintnootherman
 12  8 Kooks - She moves in her own way
*11 11 Lostprophets - Rooftops
 10  8 Paris Hilton - Stars are blind
* 9 18 Kasabian - Empire
  8  6 Muse - Supermassive black hole
* 7 10 Basshunter - Boten Anna
  6  7 Feeling - Fill my little world
  5  5 Gnarls Barkley - Crazy
  4  3 Lily Allen - Smile
* 3  4 Automatic - Monster
  2  1 Shakira - Hips don't lie
* 1  2 Nelly Furtado - Maneater

All change at the top end, Nelly returns to the top for a fourth week, and the Automatic's huge domestic airplay pushes them past Lily. A tip of the hat to the Lostprophets, stuck at position 11 for a fourth week running.

Last week, the official ROPRA top 40 should have been a top 47, for many best-selling records were excluded under one rule or another. The Automatic, Nelly Furtado, Orson, Gnarls Barkley, and Linkin Park / Jay-Z all outsold the number 40 record, but are excluded for deleting the physical single; Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado (again) should have been in there based purely on download sales of future physical releases.

Shakira holds on at the top of the singles chart for a thousandth week, but six new releases crack the top ten. Chamillionaire (19-2) and David Guetta (28-3) we slammed last week; the Arctic Monkeys (4) are up to the fourth release of their career, and it's probably the least hummable. Cassie is up 23-6, Clitring Aguilera finally charts at 7 on downloads alone, and Micky Modelle lands at 10.

Other new entries: Alesha, formerly of Mistake, is new at 14 and is dull. Ronan Bleating has the first top ten miss of his career, as his crap karaoke version of Iris creeps in at 15; the original made 23 on its second release, and would be around 100 were ROPRA honest. Maria Lawson, X-Factor failure, warbles her little heart out at 20. Beyonce and Jayzee at 21 on downloads alone - it's as bad as it sounds. One-man Cheeky Girls Chico covers Ottowan's DISCO in his own inimitable style. It's number 25, so twenty-four places lower than last time out. Young Knives is that "Hot summer" track they've been playing to death on the X. There's some dance nonsense at 39.

Lower down, relative failure for the Futureheads (Xfm) and Spinto Band (6Music) will irritate the decent music stations. Matt Willis (Cube) and Lazy B (Radio 1) are hits on downloads alone, which bodes well. Divine Comedy has a top 75 hit.

On the albums, Clitring has the new number 1, with Keane and the Feeling returning to the top 10. The Mamas and the Papas come in at 21 with a full-price re-issue of their 1997 mid-price hits collection; new band Captain make a not-bad 23. Shayne Ward gets a small bounce from the X-Factor highlights, and a large bounce from reducing his album to fork wid; he's at 36. Lambchop lands at 43, and Miles Davis at 69.

Here's the good stuff on the singles listing:

 1  1 Shakira - Hips don't lie
 4 NE Arctic Monkeys
  - Leave before the lights come on
13  7 Lily Allen - Smile
18 11 Kooks - She moves in her own way
19 16 Kasabian - Empire
28 15 View - Wasted little deejays
30 17 Mousse T / Dandy Warhols -
  - Horny as a dandy
35 NE Young Knives - Weekends and bleak days
36 27 Orson - Happiness
37 30 Zutons - Valerie
38 32 Pink - Who knew?
40 24 McFly - Please please
48 41 Feeling - Fill my little world
50 42 Kooks - Naive
52 NE Futureheads - Worry about it later
53 35 Peter Bjorn and John - Young folks
54 NE Spinto Band - Oh Mandy
58 43 Captain - Glorious
60 44 Muse - Supermassive black hole
61 ** Matt Willis - Hey kid
63 54 Orson - Bright idea
66 39 Panic At The Disco -
  - Lying is the most fun a girl can have
   without taking her clothes off
67 NE Divine Comedy - To die a virgin
69 ** Lazy B - Underwear goes inside the pants
70 50 Lostprophets - Rooftops
71 64 Keane - Is it any wonder?
75 68 Jose Gonzalez - Hand on your heart

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posted 20 Aug 2006, 19.28 +0100

Weather in week 33

Westerly winds have been the order of the week; a southerly drift on Thursday and Friday brought spectacular thunder showers and intense cloudbursts, including 10mm falling in 30 minutes from 3.20 Friday.

14 Mo cloud to sun        13/21
15 Tu sunny spells        11/20
16 We cloud, showers      10/22, 2.0
17 Th thunder showers     13/21, 6.5
18 Fr thunder showers     12/20,12.5
19 Sa sunny spells, shwrs 13/22, 1.5
20 Su sunny spells        15/20, 3.0

We got the six degree cooling days to take this summer's total to 311, and past that of 2003. The last three years: 181/237 last year, 160/184 two summers ago, and 250/310 in 2003. Oddly, this week was warmer in each of the past three years. Almost a full inch of rain; the total of 40mm is 55% of the average August total - we've now had 65% of the month.

The sunshine and showers continue, in a broadly westerly airflow. Worst of the rain should be from Tuesday night to Thursday morning. The outlook for next week-end is surprisingly promising, but it is a bank holiday week-end, so do wrap up.

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posted 20 Aug 2006, 19.33 +0100


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