Another Quarterly Recession

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 5 October, 2017.

It’s been 5 consecutive quarters now that Namibia has struggled in the grip of subnormal GDP growth. The figures released by the Namibia Statistics Agency a few weeks ago confirms that fact, but luckily shows some signs of abatement. Nevertheless, with the reveal that Namibia showed a contraction of 1.7% of GDP during the second quarter of the year, we still need to examine the data carefully. Let’s examine the report that Statistician-General Alex Shimuafeni released.  

To start off, let us examine the effect inflation has had on our country. After peaking at 6% during 2014, inflation consistently dropped on a year-to year basis until Quarter 2 of 2015, when it reached a low of 3%. Afterwards, it remained within the 3% to 3.5% range until the first quarter of 2016, when it shot up to 6%. Since then, it has climbed quarter to quarter, peaking in the first quarter of this year at 7.7%, before dropping by the second quarter to 6.3%. The good news is that inflation seems to be on a downward trend, having dropped to 5.4% by August already.

So let’s take a look at the different economic sectors before taking an overall view. The Agriculture and Forestry sector is a highlight for this quarter, as it managed strong growth of 17%. This is as a result of good rainfall, which saw an increase in crop farming (and in cereal production specifically) and resulted in the crop farming subsector posting 32% growth. Livestock farming also didn’t disappoint, with growth of 12.5%, while abattoirs and butchers recorded a turnaround, showing growth of 3.9% after having posted declines in the previous quarter.  The Fishing sector, however, did not do as well, recording a contraction of 9.8%, down from growth of 4.6% during the first quarter. 

Mining and Quarrying, fortunately, showed strong growth of 25.8% during the quarter, with all subsectors showing growth. In particular, the diamond subsector grew by 33.2%, due to an increase in carats produced, while the metal ore subsector grew by 20.8% off the back of zinc production that spiked to 38.1%. The uranium subsector is still struggling, off the back of weak demand and low market prices, but for a change the subsector didn’t contract. Rather, it posted strong growth of 14.2% due to increased production as a result of the new mine that came online during the quarter. The other subsectors also registered strong growth of 31% due to marble production that increased by 75%

The Manufacturing sector also showed signs of a turnaround, with growth of 2.9% compared to a contraction of 10.7% in the first quarter. This was as a result of superior performance in several subsectors, with diamond cutting and polishing up by 37%, beverages up by 10.8% and fish processing growing by 8.5%. Unfortunately, not all subsectors did well, with chemical manufacturing and products declining by 16.2% and non-metallic mineral products down by 4.1%. The Electricity and Water sector also started to feel the effect of muted economic growth, with electricity down by 0.5% and water down by 4.2%. The sector’s overall contraction of 1.1% is due to a decrease in volumes sold to distributors, most likely as a result of usage growth slowing in line with economic growth. 

The Construction sector continues its slide downwards, now in its sixth consecutive quarter of contraction. This sector has been reduced to about 30% of its size as it was at the start of 2015, and half the size it was at the end of 2016. It’s contraction of 44.9% recorded in the first quarter has been followed with a contraction of 51.9% during this quarter, mostly as a result of government construction reducing by 83.3%. There does appear to be at least some signs of stabilization, with the value of buildings completed increasing by two-thirds from first quarter figures.

Wholesale and retail trade continues to feel the effects of the prolonged recession as it records its third consecutive quarter of decline, contracting by 8.2%. The supermarket subsector went from a small positive growth of 0.6% in the first quarter to a contraction of 0.7% this quarter, with furniture sales similarly swinging from 4.2% positive growth to an 11.6% decline. The contraction in vehicle sales increased its contraction of 16.6% in the first quarter to 24.6% this quarter. Hotels and Restaurants, however, reduced its contraction to only 3% in this quarter from 9.3% in the first quarter. 

The Transport and Communication sector showed some recovery, growing by 3.5% this quarter, with port services contracting by only 7.6% compared to 23.6% in the previous quarter, while railway transport posted positive growth of 3.4%. The Financial Intermediation sector continued to show slow growth, with only 0.9% recorded this quarter, with the banking subsector contributing 1% growth and the insurance subsector contributing 0.8%. Finally, the Public Administration, Defence, Education and Health sector still shows a decline of 2.3% due to government consolidation. The Education subsector showed growth of 1.4%, while the Health subsector grew by 0.3%. 

It is clear from the data that we’re still struggling, but there seems to be a silver lining around our dark clouds that imply that with a bit of wind, the sun can shine again on our economy. We’ve got several sectors performing admirably, with a few stragglers showing signs of a turnaround, and others that are only struggling as a result of our substandard growth, and should recover once growth returns. With a bit of hope, and a bit of luck, our economy is on the verge of lifting itself out of this recession, and it will only require our patience and support to do so. Namibia has not let us down yet – let’s not let it down either.

The Grand Finale of Cassini

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 21 September, 2017.

On Friday, 15 September 2017, at 11:55:46 UTC, the Grand Finale ended. The spacecraft Cassini entered and crashed into the atmosphere of the gas giant Saturn, and signal was lost. This was the final of 22 orbits, its ‘Grand Finale,’ as it entered the atmosphere about 10 degrees north of Saturn’s equator at a speed of over 120 000 km/h. For 13 years, Cassini has been sending back its remarkable readings and photographs of Saturn and its moons, and now its mission was finally over. 

So what has happened over the last 4 months during Cassini’s Grand Finale? In the first orbit, the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) as well as the Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) produced a movie of Saturn’s north polar region, including the planet’s hexagon jet stream for a full rotation of the planet. The second orbit provided the opportunity for the magnetometer to make high-intensity magnetic field observations of the planet for the first time ever. The Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) simultaneously observed its rings while the sun was hidden, allowing the observations of faint ringlets. 

The third orbit provided the opportunity to use the Radio Science Subsystem (RSS) to perform gravity field measurements to study the interior of Saturn. The fourth has the ISS observe the most prominent ring propellers, while the RSS ran a gravity experiment to study the planet’s gravitational field. The Cosmic Dust Analyser (CDA) scooped up ring particles to determine their age. The fifth orbit continued the RSS and CDA experiments, while the ISS and CIRS observed and mapped the planet’s atmosphere. 

The sixth obit had the ISS takes pictures of Saturn’s rings, while the RADAR mapped the rings down to 100 meters per pixel. During the seventh orbit, the CIRS made high-resolution thermal scans of the rings while the RADAR continued its experiment. During the eight orbit, Saturn’s southern hemisphere was mapped. In the ninth orbit, the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph (UVIS) observes Saturn’s northern aurora, while the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) measures the density and composition of particles in the ring plane. 

During the tenth orbit, the CIRS observes Saturn’s A ring to compare its ice with those of its moons. During the eleventh orbit, the UVIS studies the edge of the atmosphere – airglow, auroras and hydrocarbons – while the CIRS maps the temperature of the north polar vortex and the VIMS captures a movie of the southern polar vortex. In the twelfth orbit, the UVIS studies small scale structures in the rings, and in the thirteenth orbit, the CIRS observes the A ring to determine its composition and structure, while the ISS makes a high-resolution scan of the B and C rings. By now, Cassini is within 50 000 km of the atmosphere, and the INMS samples the planet’s exosphere and ionosphere. 

On the fourteenth orbit, the RSS performs its last observations as Cassini skims the atmosphere, while feeling the gravitational pull of the rings, determining their mass very accurately, while the VIMS observes Saturn’s southern hemisphere at night. In the fifteenth orbit, the UVIS observes the auroral zones on both poles, while the Radio and Plasma Wave Science (RPWS) captures ‘whistlers’ produced by the planet’s lightning. During the sixteenth orbits, both the UVIS and VIMS focus to produce high-resolution auroral images. 

The seventeenth orbit sees the ISS targeting Saturn’s ring propeller features, and marks the start of the end for Cassini. Only five orbits remain – the final five that are low enough to start passing through the atmosphere. During the eighteenth orbit, the CIRS observes the atmosphere’s edge to determine temperatures at different altitudes. The ISS observes the mysterious streaks in the C ring, while the INMS performs the first ever direct sampling of Saturn’s atmosphere. 

Less than a month is now left for Cassini. In the nineteenth orbit, CIRS observes temperatures in Saturn’s southern pole, while the VIMS stares at the southern auroras to produce a mosaic. During the twentieth orbit, the CIRS maps the northern hemisphere to study temperatures in the troposphere, while the VIMS maps the equatorial regions. The RADAR studies the atmosphere in active mode, while the INMS performs a second direct sampling of the upper atmosphere. In the twenty-first orbit, both the VIMS and the CIRS work together to study Saturn’s atmosphere, while the INMS made its third direct sampling as well. 

During the final, twenty-second orbit, the CIRS and VIMS together focused to determine the amount of helium in the atmosphere, while the INMS performs its fourth direct sampling from the atmosphere. The RADAR was focused on studying the ammonia in the atmosphere, while the ISS captured an iconic image of the rings as seen looking outward from Saturn. And so, the Cassini-Huygens missions that started on 15 October 1997 came to a close.

On 12 September, 2017, at 5h27 UTC, Cassini’s final plunge began. During its final days, data from the CIRS and UVIS were transmitted to Earth in real-time, seconds after each observation. By 15 September, 2017, at 10h31, thrusters were activated to maintain altitude control for its final minute. Thereafter, Cassini started to tumble into Saturn’s atmosphere, unable to maintain radio contact with Earth. Its final signals were received, after the 84 minute lightspeed delay of radio signals, at 11h55:46 by NASA’s Deep Space Network.

The total cost of the missions was a mere US$ 3.9 billion over the 20 years, costing about US$11 per American, US$1 per European and US$ 3 per Italian, the mission’s three main sponsors. A small price to pay for the wealth of information brought back. Cassini programme manager Earl Maize described the probe as a ‘superb machine’ that ‘to the very end did everything we asked.’ He continued, ‘Cassini has ended its mission high over the clouds of Saturn. Thanks and farewell, faithful explorer.’

Smoke and Vapour

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 7 September, 2017.

During the past week, the Cancer Association of Namibia has responded to requests for information about the habit of ‘vaping’ or e-cigarette use, and appears to have only furthered the cause of the tobacco industry by creating even more fear, uncertainty and doubt. I rather doubt this was their intention, and rather attribute this to a rather convoluted message that did not clarify the facts they wished to present. As such, allow me to clear up the smoke and vapour surrounding this subject more clearly. 

Smoking is a serious health risk to Namibians. It is estimated that about 11.5% of females and 39% of males in Namibia smoke. Smoking increases the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke by 2 to 4 times, and the risk of developing lung cancer 25 times. This is a significant burden on any healthcare system, and specifically for a developing country such as Namibia. Any potential solution to reduce this burden should be strongly promoted. 

The health effects of tobacco smoking is thought to be well known, but even the Cancer Association does not make it clear that it is not the nicotine in cigarettes that cause cancer! After all, if that was the case, why would nicotine-replacement therapy devices be sold as an alternative? Nicotine patches, chewing gum – these have all been sold as ways to cut down on smoking. However, lest I be unclear – NICOTINE IS EXTREMELY ADDICTIVE. It is the reason why smokers keep on smoking. DO NOT TRY IT! 

Rather, it’s the other components of cigarette smoke that cause cancer – the so-called ‘tar’ in cigarettes, which in reality contains over 7000 different chemicals, some merely additives, some proven cancer-causing chemicals, and of course, the by-products of combusting the tobacco to consume it, namely carbon monoxide. The inhalation of carcinogenic substances is the obvious cause of the increased risk of lung cancer, but what about carbon monoxide?

Well, it’s rather well known that inhaling high concentrations of carbon monoxide is lethal, but low levels? Research indicates that carbon monoxide competes with oxygen to bind with haemoglobin, the cells that transport oxygen through the blood. Thus, with carbon monoxide binding to haemoglobin, there is less oxygen available to the body. Even worse, when haemoglobin releases the oxygen to myoglobin in the muscles, this causes carbon monoxide to be released instead, reducing the amount of oxygen the muscles can absorb and decreasing their ability to contract. This might not sound like much of a concern, until you consider that the heart is a muscle as well, and that this is how heart disease can gain a foothold. 

Now let us consider e-cigarettes. These devices work by heating a liquid containing nicotine until it vaporises, and can be inhaled. Notably, this still delivers nicotine, and I cannot stress this enough, NICOTINE IS EXTREMELY ADDICTIVE. It is considered as addictive as heroin. And it is the reason why smokers can transition from smoking cigarettes to smoking e-cigarettes – the core of the addiction is transferred.

But what about the other health effects? Let me then refer you to a paper – “Nicotine, Carcinogen, and Toxin Exposure in Long-Term E-Cigarette and Nicotine Replacement Therapy Users: A Cross-sectional Study,” by Lion Shahab, PhD; Maciej L. Goniewicz, PhD; Benjamin C. Blount, PhD; Jamie Brown, PhD; Ann McNeill, PhD; K. Udeni Alwis, PhD; June Feng, PhD; Lanqing Wang, PhD; Robert West, PhD, and primarily funded by Cancer Research UK. 

Their conclusion: “Former smokers with long-term e-cigarette–only or NRT-only use may obtain roughly similar levels of nicotine compared with smokers of combustible cigarettes only, but results varied. Long-term NRT-only and e-cigarette–only use, but not dual use of NRTs or e-cigarettes with combustible cigarettes, is associated with substantially reduced levels of measured carcinogens and toxins relative to smoking only combustible cigarettes.”

In other words, e-cigarettes, which do not combust tobacco to deliver nicotine, and as a result also don’t produce carbon monoxide, also significantly reduces the amount of carcinogens and toxins relative to smoking, as without combustion, it also does not deliver the ‘tar’ which contains said toxins. In other words, as reported by Public Health England’s 2015 report that the Cancer Association cited, e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than tobacco. 

Note, however, that this does not mean SAFE. A 95% reduction in harm is significant, but that still means 5% of the harmful effects are still present. If you are currently a non-smoker, this does not mean you should try starting with e-cigarettes. As a reminder, NICOTINE IS EXTREMELY ADDICTIVE. E-cigarette still contain nicotine, and will leave you just as addicted as if you had started with cigarettes. It is here I believe the Cancer Association stumbled. In their attempt to discourage non-smokers from starting up a habit via e-cigarettes, they did a massive disservice to current smokers and, ironically, their own bottom line. Because, yes, if you’re currently a non-smoker, e-cigarettes are NOT something you should try. 

HOWEVER, if you are currently a smoker, for Celestia’s sake, PLEASE CONSIDER SWITCHING TO E-CIGARETTES. They are not completely safe, yes, but they SIGNIFICANTLY reduce the health risks associated with smoking. If you have smokers in your family, encourage then to rather switch to e-cigarettes for their health. Smoking cessation is difficult – after all, as we’ve established, nicotine is as addictive as heroin. I believe even the Cancer Association of Namibia would welcome a 95% reduction in lung cancer cases, and the public health infrastructure in Namibia would welcome a reduction in their caseload as well. 

Yes, cessation would be the best solution, but we do not live in an ideal world. We cannot do nothing if the best solution fails. Tobacco harm reduction is becoming an acceptable strategy worldwide to deal with the adverse health effects of smoking. Let us apply it here, in Namibia, as well – after all, if we can reduce the 1 700 estimated yearly tobacco deaths in Namibia to a mere 85, we’d have saved a lot of lives. A quit or die approach helps no-one.

Shadow of the Moon

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 24 August, 2017.

On 21 August 2017, a rather historic event occurred – a total solar eclipse occurred that was visible across the entire contiguous 48 states of the United States of America, across a narrow corridor about 110 km wide. This is the first time since June 8, 1918 that such an event has occurred, and only the second time in the history of the United States. However, the previous time a total solar eclipse exclusively made landfall on those land was back in 13 June, 1257 – several hundred years before the US was even founded.

Here in Namibia, we’ve also not seen any total eclipse since the founding or our nation – but to be fair, it’s been a scant 27 years. Not to worry however – shortly after our Nation’s 40th birthday, we will be able to witness one. On 25 November 2030, at 6h24 in the morning, just after sunrise, the sun will seem to start going out again. By 07h18, the sun will be completely obscured by the moon, and Windhoek will be in the moon’s shadow. At 07h20, we’ll breathe a big sigh of relief as the sun becomes visible again, and full visibility will be restored by 08h21, when the sun will appear normal again.

How can I possibly know this? Why, science! It works! Of course, it helps that humanity has been observing and recording eclipses for over 2000 years. It became much easier with the invention of writing, which is why it was the Mesopotamian civilization that first determined the length of a Saros cycle – or 18 years, 11 days and 8 hours. This is the amount of time it takes for the sun, moon and Earth to return to the approximate same relative geometry – quite simply, it’s the time between one eclipse and the next when the three celestial bodies line up in the same straight line. 

As a result, they were able to determine with relative accuracy when an eclipse would occur – but not why or how it does. First the Greeks entered the scene – they felt you cannot understand something unless you can explain it. Their observations established that that planets and the moon where spherical, and thus, that the eclipse is that shadow of the moon cast by the sun onto Earth. Of course, the Greeks had one fundamental flaw in their approach – the assumed the Earth was the centre of the universe. A perfectly understandable assumption, for it is one we all tend to make when considering our lives. 

The same kind of work was being done in China, and it is even speculated that the Mayans measured eclipses, though their data was lost due to the Spanish Conquistadors. But in 1543, that changed due to the work of one Nicolaus Copernicus, in his “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium,” or “On the revolution of heavenly spheres.” Here he postulated that unlike what was assumed by Aristotle and the other Greeks, the Earth actually orbited the sun. But Copernicus’ model still had significant shortcomings. But soon, they were addressed…

For in 1687 a young man by the name of Isaac Newton published a work known as the “Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica” or “The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.” Not only did this introduce to the world Newton’s Laws of Motion, and his Theory of Gravity, but the this volume of his treatise, “De Mundi Systemate” or “On the system of the world,” he applied the propositions he made earlier to the motions of the planets and moon as observed in the solar system, and ushered in modern astronomy. 

By the time telescopes were invented, these calculations could be done with much greater accuracy, and by the 1700’s astronomer Edmond Halley even published a path of a coming eclipse in the hopes that people would not panic when it happens. It ushered in the era of the modern eclipse watching. In 1824, Friedrich Bessel invented the method used for calculating the occultations of eclipses – or the movement of the shadow and its shape over an irregular object such as the earth, allowing for calculations to show the precise location of the shadow accounting for latitude, longitude and elevation above sea level. 

Of course, these methods all assumed that the moon was a perfect sphere – and today we know it’s not. Charles Burleigh Watts spent most of the time during the 1940’s to 11963 to mapping the variations in the moon’s surface, allowing predictions to get even more previse, as now the shadow wasn’t a perfect oval. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter was later used to refine Watt’s work, as it was able to capture the moon’s topography in much greater detail than would have been possible from the surface of the Earth.

So how precise is the predictions now of eclipses – specifically the one I mentioned for Namibia, due in 2030? Well, not 100% - after all, we still don’t know all the variables quite that precisely. Neither the moon nor the Earth is perfectly round, and that ‘squashiness’ is only known to a certain degree of precision. Furthermore, the movement of the Earth and the moon are not constant. While the Earth revolves around the sun once every 365.24219 days and the moon around the Earth every 29.530575 days, a number of forces could speed or slow it by minute fractions, throwing calculations off. 

But even so, this means the calculations are at most a few seconds off. Back in 1932, the New York Times warned astronomers that the eclipse due on 31 August 1932 was the last one that they could reliably see from US until August 21, 2017. I propose this – save this paper, and we’ll have a discussion on Monday, 25 November 2030 at 07h21 about the predictive power of science.