Friday, December 31, 2010

Coalition politics

The country was left in a parlous state by the previous government. Ed Milliband has charged that the cuts put in place by the government since the general election are "born of political choice". My perception as a taxpayer is that the expenditure and tax increases of the previous government was "born of political choice", and in over a decade of Labour government, they failed to get on top of the fact that the departments of government were incapable of making competent spending decisions. They also, for political reasons, did nothing substantive about the appalling black hole in state finances that is the public sector pension deficit, whilst incapacitating the private sector pension industry. It used to be the case that public sector employees had worse terms and conditions than their private sector equivalents, but this was made up for with the pension. The balance shifted during the Labour government - not only did the public sector grow like topsy, so that there were many more people on state salary at the end of their period in government, but the terms and conditions improved at a faster rate than those in the private sector. At least, this is the perception. And through this period, the "productivity" in the public sector did not improve. Simply throwing money - my money! - at "problems" in education, health service, defence and so on did not fix the problems, and resulted in a bloated and inefficient state sector, that simply was not sustainable.

An example of this is what happened with university education. For ideological reasons ("all must have prizes") the government said that 50% of young people should go to university - with first degrees, at that stage, being largely paid for by the government. Needless to say, this was hugely expensive. But no real evaluation has been made, as far as I can tell, of the benefits of having three more years of "education" in general. There is value in doing a degree. Science and technology jobs need people who have learnt more than can be taught by the age of 18. And whilst it may be harder to determine the benefit to the economy of studying arts and humanities, there is, in fact, a need for people who are capable of higher level reflection and expression than is offered up to A-level standard. However, with respect to acquaintances of mine, none of these skills are obtained in a "degree" in Travel and Tourism, or Golf Course Management. If you want to learn about those jobs, just go and do them - don't expect the country to pay for you to study them.

Whilst companies have the right to seek to avoid paying more tax than is necessary, I don't think that personal "tax dodges" can be counted under this heading. So it needles me to see Philip Green in the role of efficiency consultant to the government, for example. But what is the alternative? The civil service has failed to get to grips with how they ought to be spending money - they have shown themselves far too ready to make the sort of spending decision that would lead to serious financial problems if carried out at corporate or personal level - they have failed to grasp the fact that this is not, fundamentally, "their" money, and they should be behaving in an accountable manner with regard to its expenditure. If the only way to achieve that is to employ a money-grabbing capitalist pig to bang their heads together, then so be it.

With regard to the coalition, to be honest, I think you have to pretty much disregard what was in the manifestos of both of the parties in the coalition. Neither expected nor planned for the form of government that they find themselves in now. As a consequence, the policy choices that have been made bear little resemblance to the commitments that either had. The key questions as far as I'm concerned are: would I rather see the Conservatives in power without the Liberal party having some input into their policies? No. Do I want Labour back in power? No, not at all, not at the moment. Would I like to see the Liberals in power on their own? No, not really - they are too inexperienced. The coalition has had to make difficult and unpopular decisions - and this has resulted in some of the cracks showing. But actually, that's the sort of government I want! I don't want one political party able to do whatever it chooses, and not have to take into account the opinions of anybody else. The Conservatives did that for nearly two decades, on the back of around 40% of the popular vote. Then Labour did it for 13 years, on the back of around 35% of the popular vote. I would much rather see the Conservatives and Liberals struggling to work on things together on the back of 60% of the popular vote than anything else I've seen in my lifetime.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Best PV day so far

Today was bright, though somewhat hazy for much of the day. However, it was still our best day so far from the point of view of collecting solar electricity. The peak output of our 2.3kWp system was 397 W, and the total power generated was 1106 Wh.

I mentally batted around some figures, to see if I could calculate from this whether the estimates made by the installing company were reasonable. We are at 50° north (near enough), and since we are at the winter solstice (near enough) the Sun was at 22° south. That means the highest it gets into the sky (at noon) would be to an elevation of about 18°. In the summer, with the sun at 22° north, it will reach an elevation of 62°. Assuming the relative amount of incident radiation varies with the sine of the angle of elevation (from zero at 0° to 1 at 90°), the sun will be (0.883/0.309), 2.85 times more intense on the basis of its angle of elevation in the summer. With the sun flatter in the sky, its radiation will also be attenuated to a greater extent by the depth of atmosphere through which the light has to travel. The modelled estimate of a 1600-1700 W or thereabouts peak in the summer - around 4 times the level we saw today - seems to be a sensible ballpark. We shall see.

Happy Christmas!

Monday, December 20, 2010

More PV information

The scaffolding to put the solar panels up hadn't been removed yet, and hadn't quite been properly blocked. So I climbed up to the roof this morning and had a go at sweeping the five inches of snow away that was sitting on the panels, and stopping them from working. In combination with a slight thaw (2 degrees during the day) and doubtless the dark colour of the photocollector helping to warm the surface up, a lot of the snow and ice on the panels was removed. As a consequence, in some weak winter sunshine, we reached a peak power output of 134 W, and managed to harvest about 112 Wh - still hardly impressive, but a step up from the zero that had been generated in the last few days.

Some more technical details about the installation. It uses 10 x 230Wp Schott panels - it is thus a 2.3 kWp (kilowatt peak) system - and a StecaGrid 2010+ inverter. The efficiency of the inverter is pretty high - even at a 5% load, it is nearly 80% efficient; its published efficiency is given as 93.3%, which is the efficiency it achieves at 30% of its nominal power, 2000W.

Rayotec give a written quotation of the expected performance of the system. They estimate (based on a mathematical model) that the irradiation of the PV array over the course of a year will be about 16,400 kWh, and the amount of power generated will be around 10% of this, 1,683 kWh. This equates to about 729 kWh/kWp.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Quick PV update

I had a look at the data gathered so far - it was only on for a couple of hours fairly late this afternoon. The peak power generated was 181 W, and it has generated 90 Wh so far - enough to run an old-fashioned lightbulb for an hour and a half, in other words.

I'm wondering now about whether it's possible to get the PC/Ethernet interface card added post-installation.

Solar panel installation - photos

Under the stairs - big red isolation switch, and meter. Since we now have two sources of power, both the mains electricity and the inverter need to be switched off prior to any work being carried out. The solar supply feeds a line into the consumer unit, as far as I can tell. Incidentally, in the event of a power cut, or loss of AC for other reason (such as the main RCD tripping), the inverter is switched off, and waits for three minutes after power is restored prior to being re-energised.
The inverter, in the roof space. I may regret having it installed up there. The inverter generates and stores lots of data. Even in the fading light, there was something quite fascinating about watching the changing power output of the system. But I'd rather not sit in the loft and do that ....

Monday, December 13, 2010

Solar panel installation

... this started happening today.

The scaffolding team arrived last Tuesday. They had rung on Monday to say that they couldn't make it in on that day, but would come on the Tuesday. This was something of a surprise, since I was pretty sure they weren't due to be there till Wednesday. However, since they were happy to install it without our actual presence, it didn't matter that much.

They rang again on Tuesday morning, to confirm they would be there at 11ish. We were both out at work by then. By the time we got home, the scaffolding was all in place.

Despite potential disruption due to weather, the roof installation team arrived at 9am this morning. The electrician rang at 9.30, to say he'd be there a little later - which he duly was. The installation has proceeded smoothly so far, the only slight complication being that the panels on one section of the roof don't fit in a tidy array, so three will be lined up "portrait" and two running along the bottom of the roof section "landscape". The panels aren't up yet, but the metal framework that will support them is.

As far as cabling is concerned, the inverter will be in the loft, mounted on a board next to the chimney breast. A cable runs from there close to the boiler and then down to the consumer unit area, using cable ties to fix it to the pipe that takes gas up to the boiler. A meter has been mounted, along with a meaty isolation switch - there will be photos soon!

The installation team have been pleased with how smoothly it has gone, and hope to have finished early - they are implying lunchtime, rather than school pickup time.

How exciting is "arsenic-based" life?

The Guardian reported commentary on the discovery of bacteria that utilise arsenic thus:
A bacterium discovered in a Californian lake appears to be able to use arsenic in its molecular make-up instead of phosphorus – even incorporating the toxic chemical into its DNA. That's significant because it goes against the general rule that all terrestrial life depends on six elements: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, sulphur and phosphorus.
To be fair, many scientists seem fairly conservative in their analysis. The most bullish commentary in the article comes from Professor Paul Davies, who says that the find is
surely the tip of a big iceberg, and so has the potential to open up a whole new domain of microbiology.
Personally, I think this is an overstatement. Arsenic-based life didn't evolve separately, it seems - although the bacterium (known affectionately as GFAJ-1) can use arsenic in place of phosphorus, it actually thrives better in a phosphorus environment. Further, it didn't evolve as a separate lifeform - it has a place on the tree of life that all earthbased organisms are part of, being one of the class of gamma proteobacteria. And whilst phosphorus may be one of the "big six" elements, I suspect that arsenic is much more like phosphorus than any elements are like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen or sulphur. It is always quite remarkable to discover life at "extremes", but it doesn't really change our fundamental analysis of the requirements for life.

Life has proved itself able to adapt to hostile environments, and to "evolve" to develop the ability to metabolise unusual chemicals, even including ones that don't exist in nature. In an interesting quirk of fate, this month sees the publication of the latest paper by Michael Behe, author of "Darwin's Black Box" and "The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism." In this paper (published in a peer-reviewed journal, please note), Behe reviews research on evolution at a molecular level, and demonstrates that most observed evolutionary changes represent loss or modification, rather than gain, of Functional Coded Elements (FCTs). The inference, which isn't drawn in the paper, is to highlight the gap between the claims that are made for evolution and what experimental work has actually been shown to be capable of.

That life is able to adapt to use arsenic in place of phosphorus demonstrates again how remarkable it is, how adaptable and well-designed (or well-designoid, if you like) it is. But the idea of "arsenic overlords" is more than a little premature.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Solar electricity

A possible new strand to the blog - though it should be said that many other new strands have turned out to be very short. We're having solar PV panels installed in the next couple of weeks - assuming the foot of snow that is currently on the roof has gone in time - and I (obviously!) have a vested interest in seeing how this goes.

I've been interested in the potential for using the sun to generate energy locally for a while - both hot water and electricity. Investigations into the costs using the sort of supplier through whom it was possible to get the government subsidies up to relatively recently has made me decide not to do it. The price seemed to be based on the money you would save over the lifetime of the equipment. Here's another way to look at it. If economically the systems were good, companies wouldn't be selling the systems: they would be buying land to install the systems on.

With the feed-in tariff, this has changed. For solar photovoltaic electricity, you have always been able to generate your own electricity, and sell unused power back to the grid (albeit at a ridiculously low price - it's far more worthwhile to use it to reduce your own bill rather than make money back). Now, to encourage people to take up the scheme, the government is also paying a feed-in tariff, which is a much larger fixed amount per unit. The consequence of this is that it is now worthwhile for companies to basically install the systems wherever they can, and use the feed-in tariff to pay for the system. So there are quite a few companies who are now prepared for you to have a system installed "for free" and get free electricity from it, in return for them collecting the government tariff.

The company who we have gone with, Rayotec, discourage customers from doing this. They point out that, given the amount of the feed-in tariff, you are actually better off borrowing money (if possible) to install the system, as you will recover the cost early in the lifetime of the equipment. The equipment has an expected life of around 25 years - their PV panels are made by Schott, who have a 24 year old panel on the roof of their factory, which is still running at 95% of its designed capacity. And with the feed-in tariff, the cost of the system can be expected to be repaid in around 10 years.

We are expecting a 10-panel system to be installed, which should give us a 2.3 kWp system. In addition to this, the system needs an inverter (which converts the DC output of the panels into mains frequency AC), and the gubbins to connect it to the mains and metering system. The scaffolding should be arriving within two weeks, and the system should be installed early in the following week.

I'll keep you posted, dear reader....

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Feminism - radical versus liberal

Having done sciences at university I was never terribly politically "enlightened", so although I have grown increasingly sympathetic to feminism over the years (largely due to a growing awareness of the shortcomings of many men, including myself!), I'd never had any terribly coherent framework for understanding these beliefs on a more organised basis. One of the "blessings" of the book The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy: Hogwarts for Muggles (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series) - and there were many! It is another book I'd recommend - was a brief introduction to radical and liberal feminism in an essay by Anne Collins Smith, on the fact that the Harry Potter books "resonate with the values of radical feminism".

Liberal feminism, she explains, is grounded in the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill and John Stuart Mill. This holds that women are people, and should be treated as such. This draws inspiration from the Enlightenment philosophy, emphasising individual rights and responsibilities. As a reformed Christian, of course, I'd point out that individual rights and responsibilities are something that flow out of a recovery of a biblical view of humanity, and in actual fact whilst the Enlightenment might have popularised this perspective, it had neatly severed it from its epistemological foundation - as demonstrated by the impact of the French Revolution. But put that to one side for now ....

The liberal feminist view turns out to be "surprisingly problematic". When we say that "women are people too", we are in fact expecting women to conform to a pattern of behaviour established in a world where intellectual life has been dominated by male values. Liberal feminism then, argues Smith, leads to the possibility that women are expected to become "just like men".

Radical feminism approaches the issue differently. It holds that the
root cause of women's oppression is the 'sex/gender system,' a set of social expectations that force identities onto people in such a way that a person's physical sexual identification necessarily determines that person's personality, permissible social roles, and acceptable economic occupations. In a patriarchal society, these expectations will tend to privilege men and disempower women.

"The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy," p.84
Some radical feminists argue that our society would be better if people felt freely able to mix and match "male" characteristics (control, independence, competition)and "female" characteristics (interdependence, community, sharing). The greater adoption of "female" characteristics would benefit society as a whole.

Smith then argues that, although there are relatively few strong female role-models in the Potter books, the values that lead to Harry's victory over Voldemort - love, interdependence, self-sacrifice - are actually "female" values - and that the agenda which is presented in Rowling's books is in fact consistent with a radical feminist agenda.

Again, I'd point out that love and self-sacrifice are, in fact, Christian values, as much as female ones - and community is something that the church should offer. In other words, a radical feminist should look at a church being "done properly", and find much about it which is consonant with his or her own values....

More nerdy fun with Google Instant Search

Following on from my earlier post, it follows that every single concept that Google knows about can be defined by the number of letters of it that have to be typed and its subsequent position on the list. So here's a little challenge - kind of the opposite of Googlewhacking (remember that?). What is the largest number of letters of a concept that you need to type before a concept appears on the top 5 list of possible searches (as Google Instant now seems to have settled on this display format)?

Conditions - either or Google UK, not signed in: say the number of letters (1-12?) you need to type, and the position in the list (1-5) that your target phrase appears. The phrase your looking for does need to be on the list - if it doesn't show up at all, it's not there, and doesn't count. Answers in comments, please ....

There are nearly 39 million combinations of 7 characters (counting letters and spaces), and 1017ish of 12 characters - similar to Googlewhacking, I think you'll have to be pretty obscure to need much more than 7 characters - or for your actual target phrase to be masked by more common long possible search phrases.

"Susan Pevensie" required eight letters (and appeared fourth on the list). I think this is the first search I've thought of which has needed eight letters.