Monday, 28 May 2012

What country will I be living in in the future?

The Union Flag, made up of the flags of each memeber nation
There is in Scotland a desire by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) to set up a referendum to ask the Scottish people if they want to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent nation once more.   Historically Scotland was separate from England and still is a separate nation, but one that shares the British parliament at Westminster under one flag and has done so for the last three hundred years.  Prior to that both countries were independent kingdoms, each having a separate royal family and military arm and were at war with each other on and off, until some of the English rulers decided the Scots were a bit of a thorn in the side being a bit too independent and annexed Scotland and got rid of their king.  This at the time naturally created a lot of resentment which has never entirely gone away but under the flag of the United Kingdom, Scotland became part of a world power helping create the British Empire and becoming both rich and prosperous.   Whilst I and my ancestors alive at the time, as far as I am aware, had nothing directly to do with this, I can quite understand why there are many Scots who feel resentment towards the English. However, it is not so clear cut. My mother’s paternal family tree goes back to Scotland, so some of them may have been active on the Scottish side but we will never know.  Mixing of Scottish and English families could cause some issues with a division, because where do you stand if your family came from Scotland but live in another part of the UK? Which citizenship would you go for and would you have a choice? 
 The UK currently consists of England Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and whilst Imperial ambitions have become somewhat non PC, we have remained one of the major players in world politics.  Whilst not always loved by everyone, we have retained a degree of prestige and many peoples know who we are, particularly knowing the names Mrs Thatcher and Manchester United.
Also much of the world speaks English as its first language.
Now certain Scottish politicians want to try to change all this and are campaigning for independence, so quite correctly are to put it to the Scottish people if they want to opt out of the UK. 
However, what about the English, Welsh and Northern Irish, do we not get a say in what after all will change us from a united kingdom to something else entirely.  Do we want to become the united non-kingdom?  Only England is a kingdom, Wales is not and Northern Ireland is a principality. 
Has the SNP asked us? The answer is no they have not and whilst they see it as a purely Scottish issue, it will affect all the other three nations almost as much as them.  Currently they have a separate Scottish parliament and whilst Scots politicians can vote in either their own parliament or Westminster, all non-Scottish UK politicians are forbidden from voting in the Scottish parliament.  That seems a bit lop sided, but for some reason none of the other members of the UK have voiced any objections to this and it is not a surprise to find that silence includes all of the Scottish MPs.
An important question is what will Scotland become?  A republic, revert to being a separate Kingdom or what?   If the latter, they will have to revive the old Scottish line of monarchs, no doubt there are still some around who can claim lineage from Bonny Prince Charles, but would this sit well with the leader of the SNP who is behind this movement and does not seem to be a royalist?  Likewise if they become a republic or other any other kind of state with no royal family, would there be a move by closet royalists to produce a bona fide descendant of the Scottish royal family and campaign to get them crowned?  A situation that historically has not been unknown to lead to a civil war.  In Scotland there are already well defined divisions which lead to open hostilities, Glasgow v Edinburgh, Catholic and Protestant communities.  How would they decide which king to select, Protestant or Catholic and where would the throne sit, Edinburgh or Glasgow or somewhere else entirely?
 If Scotland did become separate and started to do all those things a sovereign state has to do, what currency would they use, the Euro, Scottish dollars, Scottish Pounds or Sterling, or something entirely different.  Scotland already has two Scottish banks which print their own notes, Scottish versions of Sterling, but one bank has been nationalised by Westminster’s parliament and is no longer the property of Scotland.

Some Scottish banknotes
Would they stay in the European Community or become separate altogether and finally how much would all this cost the poor old Scottish tax payer, because all these changes would cost money and they would no longer be able to tap the Westminster treasury as they do now, with their NHS funding, schools, universities and other aspects of the daily running of a country.
I always think of the old saying ‘divide and conquer’ whenever I see countries breaking apart into smaller states, something generally ignored by the people making these changes.   There may be internal differences but banding together has always been a great way of staying strong.
So I say, give the rest of us a say in this, it is after all it is our country they want to change and diminish.

What no Scotland?

Friday, 25 May 2012

Some thoughts

Recently there has been a move to improve energy efficiency, particularly here in the UK, where you can no longer buy filament lamps over 60W in power consumption. So for my contribution, when I boil a kettle for coffee or Tea, I tend to take the kettle off the power base a second or so before it automatically switches itself off.  This is not entirely altruistic, it saves me money too. 
I have found that the residual heat in the heating element in my kettle is sufficient for the kettle to come to the boil up to around three seconds after removal of the power, if you time it right.  In this way I am saving almost three kilowatt seconds every time I make a hot drink.  This does not sound like much, but if my idea catches on and only 3,600 people in the UK do the same, between us we will be saving three kilowatt HOURS every second we all do this.  It does not need to be all at the same time, because the power efficiency saving will still be the same in total even if it is spread over the day.   TBH and I make coffee or tea at least three times a day and more if we have visitors, then on average a little over 9kw will be saved per second in a day by us.  If more people do it the savings will increase in proportion, so come on all you energy savers, take the kettle off the power base or switch the wall switch off just as the kettle changes from a heating up sound to the quieter bubbling of water about to come to the boil.  A sound change you must all be familiar with. 
For those of you who have bought a power hungry coffee maker, chuck it away you energy wasters and if you really cannot stand instant coffee, buy a cafetiere, so that you can use an ordinary electric kettle and save the world.

A fair wind and calm seas
Whilst on the subject, we hear a lot about sustainable energy sources and wind power.  Wind power has become the de facto thing for our government but to my mind there are a number of snags to this form of energy.  Whilst it is fine when it is working and we are getting energy apparently for free, there are a few factors that are never made much of.
First, how much power is consumed in the manufacture of these things? These massive machines do not spring out of the ground ready formed.  They consist of highly refined materials which need to be mined, smelted and precision engineered.  All these stages are high energy processes, the smelting alone using hundreds of Megawatt hours of energy.  They have a life expectancy of twenty-five years I have been told, so do they produce as much energy that it took to build them in this rather short lifetime?
Only if the wind blows consistently - and it doesn’t.    Anyone who sails for a hobby can tell you that there is a strong chance you won’t always be able to indulge in your sport just whenever you feel like it, it depends on the weather.
On cold frosty mornings, when we all need a bit more power, where is the wind? This kind of calm and very cold winter weather happens quite regularly in the UK.  Likewise when gales rush in off the Atlantic, the turbines have to be feathered down so that they do not overload and sustain damage, they are not able to produce electricity under these conditions either.
So when the weather is at its worst, they do not produce any power so we need some conventional backup power generators to fill in for those times when there is no wind power, but the demand is going to be at its highest.
 You cannot just switch on a one hundred Megawatt generating station in an instant when the wind power falls off, it needs to run up in stages which takes several hours, so in order to compensate for lack of wind power you either need some very accurate long range weather forecasting, which does not happen, or you need to keep the backup generators running on standby.  This will waste power all the time wind power is available, but it must be available or there will be a serious brown out if the weather changes suddenly. 
So how much power have we gained so far from wind power?   Some maybe, but not a lot.
Lastly, many wind farms have been built on the West coast of the UK, because we receive our prevailing winds regularly from the west, so other than dead calms and gales we stand a fair chance of getting a reasonable amount of power from these offshore farms.   However, I have been asking this question for some years and no one seems to have an answer.  Based on the universal fact that you cannot get something for nothing, if you take energy from the prevailing winds, what does that do to the weather?
Since these farms have been in existence we have had several years of very dry winters.  This may just be a coincidence and have nothing to do with the wind farms, but looking at this long term, as more and more wind farms are built, it must have some effect.  You really cannot take energy out of a system and expect it to make no difference, so what will be the result long term?
I have no answer and it seems that no one else does either.  Should someone be looking into this?  A nice subject for an under grad’s thesis perhaps.

Monday, 21 May 2012

The world according to Snafu - What is in a name?

I have noticed of late a certain interest in some kind of sporting event taking place here in the UK.  It is just a hunch you understand but I think this event is going to take place in London sometime this year.  The organisers have been doing their bast to keep it quiet having suppressed the use of the name of the event by everyone in the UK, forcing owners of a certain Greek cafĂ© in London to change its name and a certain chain of restaurants to re-name their larger portioned breakfast to something less like the name of the home of the Greek pantheon. 
This is so that people, presumably only those that are hard of understanding, will not be confused by the similarity in names and will mistakenly believe that eating a huge fried breakfast with the same name as the unmentionable event will suddenly make them into a supreme athlete and will take all the gold medals in the forthcoming events.
The organisers also seem to have got a bit confused about the route their people will take to get from Lands End to London. Apparently they want to light a big gas lamp for some reason, and this makes me wonder as to the age of the organisers.  I would like to point out to them that things have moved on a bit since the first of these games and electricity has been around for some time now in the UK.  Electric lighting is much more efficient and a good deal safer than gas.  Also if they really must use such an antiquated from of lighting, for the last millennium or so it has been possible to light a gas flame at any time, you do not need to carry a naked flame around with you anymore.   Because no one seems to have told the organisers this, they have organised a vast team of people to carry a lit torch for miles, seemingly following a route planned using a GPS, which will take this incredibly dangerous flaming torch all over the country.  After days and days of wandering around seemingly lost, some poor exhausted runner will get to light the gas lamp.
 I personally think this is an outrageous waste of money and have posted a box of matches to the organisers with a note explaining to them that if they insist in using gas lighting, this is a much more cost effective way of lighting their gas lamp and is a method that has been satisfactorily used ever since Victorian times when the gas lamp was leading edge technology. 
Another aspect of this strange event is the logo one sees here and there in surprising places, such as on a packet of biscuits, my credit card and other unlikely places.  For some time I assumed it was representing a pile of rocks, but someone pointed out it is supposed to say 2012.   Well, I can only say is if I had written that number in such wobbly way when I was at primary school, I would have got 0 out of 10 for my writing.  It is not even on one line, the 20 is above the 12, actually making it 20 divided by 12, which is 1.666 recurring.  Maybe this is not a coincidence, since it turns out awfully like the number of the beast from the Book of Revelations.   This would actually account for a lot, in particular the draconian way in which the name of the event has been proscribed by the organisers, even though these names were in existence decades before this event was to come to the UK.  This may also account for the ancient technology they want to use, since they will be very old if they are the group I think they must be and they have not kept abreast of changes in the world.
So beware the 2012 un-nameable event, it is surely a trick to capture the souls of the unwary and I for one will avoid it like the very devil. 
Mind you I never was that much into sport anyway.  This I assume was a result of my school days.  Sport always meant humiliation to me since I had a puny body which was always hopelessly out classed by my peer group.  Nonetheless I was always forced to compete as if I actually stood a chance against my huge and heavily muscled classmates and I now realise this must have been because our sports master was kin to the organisers of the 2012 un-nameable event. I always thought he had a funny name with all those forenames and a strange set of initials, Mr Brian L Z Bubb.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

A thought provoking book

When Life Nearly Died by Michael Benton 

I have just read a very interesting and topical book on current thinking on the evidence for a series of mass extinctions presented to geologists in the rock strata all over the world.
The concept of mass extinctions has been popularised ever since Luis and Walter Alverez, the father and son team, published their research on the end Cretaceous or KT event, which resulted in the death of the dinosaurs.  Their work produced strong enough evidence for their concept to be widely accepted and as a result of the media publicity this work received, we are now all familiar with the idea of a huge meteor smashing into the Earth with devastating results.   
Added to the media reporting, several movies have used that image to produce disaster movie themes, so it has sunk into the popular psyche.
Luis and Walter Alverez standing by the KT boundary - dinosaur bones below no dinosaur bones above
It is hard to realise that before their publication in 1980, conventional wisdom insisted that no such thing had ever happened and geology was a slow multi-million year process with gradual changes and regular extinctions of older species making way for the new in some kind of steady progression culminating in humankind.  The dinosaur killer theory has swept aside this idea and we now understand that life on Earth is very precarious and there is no steady progression at all, but a series of quiet periods interspersed by terrible catastrophes randomly destroying large numbers of living things and often wiping out entire species.  Survival is just a chancy thing and it is more by luck than any adaptation that our particular line ever survived at all.

Michael Benton has a very open way of writing, unlike many other popular science book writers, he does not state his ideas in any dogmatic way, but presents each stage of his book as a series of possible reasons as to how rock formations occurred the way they have and how different geologists and palaeontologists have interpreted these findings.  In this fashion he builds up a picture which shows how recent thinking is derived.  He never states that any of the ideas are incontrovertible but simply shows what has been discovered.
His book is not just about the KT event, early on in the book he tables five major mass extinctions that the fossil records seem to show, including several lesser extinctions and the main theme of his book is the most significant of these.  This is an event known as the End Permian extinction, which took place, it is currently believed, 251 million years ago.  The fossil record shows that practically all existing species were wiped out in a massive event which seems to have killed off almost every living thing both on land and in the sea. 
He explains that palaeontology has undergone a big jump in knowledge recently.  The opening of many borders in recent years has made many more of the world’s geological sites are available for exploration and a lot of new material has come to light, whilst exchanges of ideas have been increased too.
He also reaffirms why planetology and geology are important and why many governments will fund research in these dry seeming subjects.  Once you can identify any fossils found, you can predict what minerals you are going to find with them, so it is not just the province of some dry old academics collecting old bones, but vital to the wealth of any nation.
After discussing the history of this field of endeavour and new developments in geology and planetology to bring us up to date, he presents the evidence for the end Permian extinction and then looks at the possible causes.  One puzzle is that unlike the end Cretaceous event that killed the dinosaurs,65 million years ago, there is no evidence of a major meteor strike, so another cause must be found.  He explores the possibilities like a detective story, presenting all the evidence and eventually coming to a conclusion of what is most the most likely cause.
Having wrapped this up he looks at why we want to know all this and moves from the academic past into the immediate present.  It has long been reported that humans are wiping out many species of life on an on-going process which should be stopped at least and reversed if possible. This he calls the Sixth Extinction.  He points out that knowledge of past extinctions will show what can happen and most importantly how long it takes for life to recover from any such an event.  Biodiversity is a real issue and we do not actually know how many species there are alive today.  Current estimates range from between 10 million to some 200 million different species, and more are discovered day by day.  So we have no real idea exactly how much damage we are really doing.  Again most  importantly, if past extinctions are anything to go by, at some point this reduction in biodiversity may trigger a major ecological crash and since we do not yet understand the world’s present ecology fully, we have no idea how imminent this is and what it could do to the biosphere.  We can only be sure that that whatever occurs, it will not be good.
A very readable book with much more significance to our daily lives than you may first expect from the rather headliney title and the basic subject. 

Monday, 14 May 2012

Almost there

Well the en suite is still not complete, but it is almost there.  A long bank holiday has delayed things, particularly since it should have been finished before the break.  We are now waiting on some new fittings to arrive that have had to be tailor made to fit and these are a little slow in appearing meanwhile here is how it looks now.
The new wash basin and mirror
 Like all projects, it has risen in budget and we are currently in the overspend stage, but once spent, it will not need anything further done for another decade or so, so the pain long term is minimal.
The progress went more slowly because several things went wrong, as in my little rhyme, but there were more problems than those listed in that.
Once the room was stripped out, a leaking roof was discovered which has to be fixed.  It was fortunate that it was a wet week, or we would not have known. When the room was being altered, the builder opened up a panel into the roof space and saw the water trickling down a joist.   If he had done it on a dry day, we would have been none the wiser.
The house had been carpeted all throughout when it was built and we wanted to get rid of the carpet in the en suite, so this was removed early on, but the carpet had been all that was preventing the badly built floor from collapsing and so once removed a floorboard gave way and the heating pipe below it was bent.
This had to be repaired and the floor re fitted so that the floor board was actually supported by the wooden beams intended for that purpose and not just the fitted carpet preventing enough weight to go on the board to break it.
This delayed everyone.  The flooring specialist was due to fit the new flooring after the plastering was finished but the plasterer could not work until the floor was finished so for the want of a nail etc.  Or more properly the Flanders and Swan song, The Gas man Cometh.  If you are unfamiliar with this oh so true song, follow the link.
Eventually the floor was mended and walls were plastered and the new flooring could be laid.  

The floor fixed and the plastering done
The next problem was our fault. We had not originally planned on opening up the roof space to give us some more room.  For some time I had realised that there was a big open space between one wall and the roof and whilst the builder was there we got him to look inside this space.  To be able to use it the floor boards had to extend inside this empty space and they did, so he agreed to open it up and extend the en suite into this, giving another couple of feet of floor room.  However, what we forgot was that  the a new flooring was planned on a smaller square footage than was now needed, so more flooring which had to be ordered and this delayed the new floor even more.
Meanwhile the weekend was upon us and no work was being done.  So that the plasterer had a source of water, the shower had been left plumbed in even though the old shower tray and drain had been removed.  This dripped a bit so a bucket had been placed under it to act as a drain and the shower head left hanging down with the head in the bucket.  We were told to check that it did not overflow whilst they were gone.  It did not fill up much at all and anyway, we had bailed it out so that it was almost empty and left it.  Unfortunately the shower pipe was touching the edge of the bucket and so instead of the little trickle of drips that had been very slowly filling the bucket, they started to run down the side of the bucket and onto the wooden floor instead. 
The offending bucket and shower hose just visible lower right
 On Saturday we found a wet patch on the landing carpet outside the en suite and traced it back to the shower.  The floor had got wet and the water had passed under the wall to the landing.  It had also dripped through under the floor so the hall ceiling was damp and stained too. 
We mopped this up, identified the taps in the airing cupboard that turned off the shower and over the following day the floor dried out.
Next week, the new floor was laid down and covered in dust sheets so that the rest of the work could continue.
The wash basin and toilet were fitted and tested.  The loo worked fine, but the wash basin did not drain! Something had blocked the drain pipe between the basin and the down pipe.
The pipes had been in use for eleven years and there was a certain amount of horrible crud which can often be found in any waste pipe (if you care to look) and this the plumber told us must have dried out, flaked off and collected at a bend in the pipe.   After much use of hot water and a patent crud remover chemical, it started to flow again but by this time it was well past the plumber’s usual bed time and the poor man went home to a late supper.
Horrid black crud lining the inside of the waste pipe
The next impediment to progress came when the electrician came to fit the new lights. First off the bedroom light had ceased working when the original light fittings were removed.  No one thought too much of this since lighting loops from one fitting to the next and it was assumed that the wire had come out from the en suite ceiling light, thus disconnecting the loop to the bedroom light.  This turned out not to be the case.  After a frantic search throughout the house’s trunking and other secret places where wires could be run, the electrician found a bad connection in a hitherto unsuspected junction box up the loft.  So now the lights worked but the earth, a safety requirement of any electrical fitting to be installed in a bathroom, was not working.  This meant that the electrician could not provide a certificate for his work until this was fixed.   Again there was much running from room to room identifying where the wires went and in the end a loose connection in an entirely different room was found inside a light switch.  The earth wire here had been fitted into a small terminal which had then been over-tightened and the terminal screw had fallen out leaving the earth wire dangling and doing nothing. 
This must have happened during the building of our house eleven years ago.  Presumably the builder’s electricians had fraudulently certificated their wiring or had in fact never tested it and then fraudulently certificated it.  In any case we might have been electrocuted at any time in our completely unsafe bathroom.   I had found other problems with our house wiring over the years and one notable occasion had saved us from a fire once when I found a loose terminal screw.  The connection had been arcing and had already melted the plastic insulation behind one of the kitchen lights by the time I looked.   If I had ignored the occasional flickering of the lights for another week or so, the insulation may have got much worse and the house may well have caught fire.
So do not buy a house built by our house builders if you want something even approaching perfection.  I will not mention their name but you can ask me in person if you are thinking of buying a new house and I will happily name names.  The snagging list of the things we noticed before moving in was over two pages of typed A4 and the term ‘jerry built’ often sprang to mind.
Anyway back to the en suite.  Things moved on better after the plumbing and electrics were sorted but a lot of time has slipped by with each problem so we were a lot later in completing than we had hoped and we are still waiting for the cupboard fronts and plinths to be fitted.  TBH worked like a navvy on painting and has made an excellent job whilst I have fitted the mirrors and the bathroom cabinet to the walls.  TBH is a whizz at painting walls and skirting board, she is able to do something I have never mastered and that is to paint a straight edge.   If I try to paint a skirting board or door frame for instance, I will get it about 80% OK but  have wandered a bit for about 20%, so I will re paint the bit where I got it wrong and most of that will be OK, but I will have introduced some new wandering edges, so I will now have to repaint out the errors of this corrective phase and then again to get rid of the new errors and so on in a case of diminishing returns until I throw down the brush in disgust and just give up on ever getting it right and live with uneven edges.
TBH on the other hand plods on at it steadily, getting it right first time and never throwing her brush down in frustration because it is perfect every time, so by being so good at it she gets to do all the painting, unless it is a big space with no edges and then I can join in the fun.
Looking towards the shower and loo

The new semi walk in shower
 So all that is needed to complete the job enough to move in is for a new soap rack to be found that will fit into the shower.
So there it is folks our en suite back in use and the Snafu houshold is back to what passes for normal.