Monday, March 28, 2011

Solar update

Today, the five-day moving average of electricity generated per day clicked over 5 kWh (and, for that matter, over 6kWh). We've had odd days when the amount generated has been up to nearly 8 kWh, but this has been the first time when the average has been consistently above the 5 unit point.

The significance of this is that, to make the money that Rayotec claimed for the system, we need to generate around 5 units per day, averaged over the whole year.

We've been monitoring energy usage closely as well, and it's interesting watching the falling trend here. This is partly due to the increase in generated electricity that we have been able to use, but also because as the days get longer and milder, less electricity is used generally.

The next interesting milestone will be when we see a day on which we generate more electricity than we use.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

"The Hunger Games" Parts 2 and 3 - Suzanne Collins

A nearly excellent book ... "Catching Fire" continues where "Hunger Games" left off. Without doubt, this is one of the most significant works of young people's fiction to have appeared in the last few years - with good characterisation, complex plot, moral depth, and enough of an interface with the real world ("Amusing ourselves to Death", literally) to stir discussion.

Personally, I didn't feel that this book was any weaker - it didn't suffer from "second book syndrome"; it has a good independent plot line. There are two parts in separate locations, but then, it is quite possible to divide even the Harry Potter books up into large almost separate chunks. There is an overarching narrative left hanging - but by the same token, it had its own plotline which did conclude.

That's not to say that I consider the book perfect. My quibbles are two-fold. Firstly, the issue that I had with the first book - too much cannon-fodder - hasn't changed. Too many people are introduced simply for the sake of being killed shortly afterwards. It wasn't quite as gory as "Hunger Games", and less time was spent building up our relationship with characters - but even so, I struggle with the sheer brutality of the book.

The other issue is that of suspension of disbelief. It irritates the socks off me when smug TV programmes show all the places where you can the film makers made a mistake and YOU CAN SEE that it's a film. I KNOW it's a film! But I come to see it because I want the film-makers and writer and cast to tell me a story. Similarly, I know that "Catching Fire" is only a story. But there are times when, despite the care that had gone into constructing the scenario, a part of me was just thinking - Naaaaah. It is this fact that, I think, means that Collins' books stand as young people's literature, when they came close to being literature with a dystopic vision in their own right.

However, I would still strongly recommend the book, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next in "Mockingjay".

Well, I must be the awkward one because in my opinion, this was the strongest of the "Hunger Games" trilogy. Having survived her own Hunger Games, and been snatched from the Quarter Quell, Katniss Everdeen finds herself being asked to become the figurehead for an uprising against the Capitol. But just how bad is the Capitol's rule? And is the alternative, offered by the head of the phantom District 13, much better?

This is a fine and subtle book, which has many resonances with issues that are live in our world - tyranny, media for entertainment, propaganda and news, the extent to which the end justifies the means - and this in itself makes it a good launchpad for discussion. On top of that, Katniss is not a simple, triumphant heroine. She is scarred as a result of the torment she has experienced at the hands of the system in the last two books. She is unable to choose between two boys who love her. The people around her are also complex - aspects of their characters which seemed almost by-the-by earlier in the series come to shape and define them, making clear their pathway in some surprising ways. People express dislike of the fact that as Katniss barely avoids total disintegration, we miss significant chunks of the story - but this is her story, not the account of the revolution. Like Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (The Ender saga), one could easily imagine a further series spun off from this one, filling in some of the other people's stories, but in the mean time, I was more than happy from a narrative point of view to live through Katniss's despair.

What of the criticisms I had of the earlier books? Yes, there are still a large number of people who die - but they are no longer "cannon-fodder" - simply placed in the story to be wiped out. Most of the deaths that impact Katniss in this book are no longer "incidental" - they have weight. And the other criticism - that too much of a demand was being placed on me to suspend disbelief - I also feel doesn't hold for "Mockingjay" in the same way.

Personally, I feel that this is the book that makes the series.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Job losses in the oil industry?

Oil companies claim that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost as a result of a £2 billion levy on the oil industry in the UK to pay for general tax cuts. I'm not convinced.

Nobody wants to pay more in tax than they have to, of course. However, the price of oil isn't based on what it costs to produce. It is a commodity, and whilst the price has been driven up as a result of speculation and some restriction in demand following the turmoil in the Middle East, the cost of its production hasn't substantially changed. Supply is largely regulated - both on a macro level (OPEC setting production quotas) and on a micro level (oil tankers reportedly delaying unloading to wait for the oil price to rise further).

The effect of the rise in oil price has been a huge rise in profits for oil companies - Shell alone made a profit of over £10 billion in 2010. Certainly whilst they are making this money, they are likely to continue to plough it back into R+D (creating more jobs), and higher dividends. Certainly the companies who have this money available to them are likely to use them as engines for growth of the company. But to say that jobs which might be created in the future are dependent upon such windfall profits is misleading. And I'm not convinced that it is better overall for the oil companies to keep all of that money than for the government to redistribute a proportion of it.

The real problem perhaps lies with the capitalist system that seeks above the welfare of individuals to return a profit. But since the underlying motivation of the capitalist system is to look after the money of those individuals, I suspect disentangling this lies far beyond the competence of any government - and most of the alternatives have proved themselves to be no better.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Will religion die out?

A model suggests that, in nine countries, religion is headed for extinction. A similar model has given realistic results in predicting the disappearance of endangered languages.

Some quick thoughts. This model could not have predicted the appearance of religions. What social benefit was there, for example, in becoming a Christian in the early years? Even before the might of the Roman empire was unleashed against it, in social terms, "no one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number." Once persecution broke out, what mileage was there in being part of Christianity? And yet within 300 years, Christianity was the institutional religion of the Roman empire.

Incidentally, although I'm writing this from a Christian perspective, the same could be said, I think, about the social dynamics associated with Islam in the early years, and for that matter the Mormons.

Secondly, the model is based on a social or utilitarian analysis of the role of religion. There are some aspects of religious observance that fit this - for example, religion as a cultural or national phenomenon. However, it is misleading to say that this is all there is to religion - it's the liberal secular approach to religion, so beloved of the comparative RE classes which shape our perspective in school, and it's all a census form (which was used for data capture in this research) can really pick up.

Whilst religious affiliation in the UK is declining (though the UK is not one of the nine countries examined in which religion is set to die out, apparently), this hasn't taken place uniformly across society. Social religious observance is, sure enough, seeing particularly strong reversal. But certain religious groupings are seeing numbers steady or increasing. And these have their own, "counter-cultural" or "sub-cultural" social dynamics, which makes it less likely that they will disappear.

I'm very interested in this research, and will probably read the paper fully. However, I suspect that reports of the death of religion are exaggerated.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

More about where we are with solar power

Up to now, the peak time of electrical generation for our system has been roughly between midday and 3pm, when the sun is shining directly onto the panels. Increasingly over the last few weeks, as the sun has got higher in the sky, the solar panels have been reaching their "peak" earlier in the day. The peak on a sunny day corresponds to an output of between 1500 and 1800 W, though we have measured outputs close to the maximum output possible of the inverter (2000W). The power tends to drop off after around 3pm, as the sun gets close to the treeline behind the house. Again, this should get better as the sun gets higher in the sky.

The most effective way of using the generated power would be for us to use as much of it as possible. We are paid (3p per unit!) for half the units we generate anyway, regardless of how much (or little) goes back into the grid, so we might as well use what we can.

Our house seems to have several "modes" of using power, and none of them really fit with the output of the solar system. During the day, the house tends to tick over at somewhere between 300W and 500W, assuming nothing much is happening. At night, once lights go on, it tends to sit between about 600W and 800W - though there's not much the solar system can do about that. As soon as appliances are on, this increases - but appliances rarely draw power continually, even if they need quite a lot. The kettle, for example, uses around 3kW - but only runs for a couple of minutes. The washing machine, ovens, the iron and so on can draw around 2000W, but not for the whole time they are on. The electric shower is by far the most demanding electrical thing in the house, but it's not used a large fraction of the time (fortunately!!).

So assuming the solar system is producing a healthy output, even having appliances on is not likely to consistently use all of its output. Unless a load of things are on at the same time, a significant amount of the power is likely to end up going into the grid.

However, on even a reasonably bright day, within three months of the summer solstice, the solar system seems to be able to cover the bulk of the "background" power use from say around 10am to 3pm - 1.5-2 units, and perhaps some of the use of appliances during the day. So we are trying to shift our behaviour - to put the dishwasher on after breakfast, to delay the washing machine and dryer to later in the day, or run it at weekends. The difficulty of managing our electricity usage to get the most out of the solar system during the daytime highlights how significant the feed-in tariff is in making the cost of the system bearable. Micro-generation of electrical power is an asset, however small, for the country as a whole. Whether it is worth 41p a unit is debatable, but without the FIT encouraging the take-up of such schemes, it would be hard for a person to justify its take up in economic terms.

The new option of a domestic fuel cell is potentially very interesting. This adjusts its supply of electricity to match demand - day or night - and when it can't supply enough, the grid supplies the shortfall. The grid will get a lot less from this form of micro-generation - but the proportion of a household's electricity that it is likely to cover would be substantially higher.

Where we are with solar power

What makes micro-generation worthwhile is the UK government paying a Feed-in Tariff (FIT). Every unit of electricity that we generate we get paid 41p for - this dwarfs the amount that we would save by using it ourselves (around 13p - though this is at a historical high). If we don't use electricity, it is given to the grid. In principle, we are paid 3p per unit for electricity returned to the grid in this way - which is pretty rubbish, but standard. In practice, the electricity companies aren't particularly interested in accounting for little bits and pieces, or metering it separately, so they simply pay 3p for half the units generated.

I sent in my first meter reading for FIT payments on 1st March - a hefty 45 units (kWh)! We certainly won't be getting rich on that. However, things have changed substantially since. In the week following this meter reading, we generated as much as we had in the preceding two and a half months. Yesterday - a clear day all day - was the first day when we generated over 7 kWh. The company that installed the system reckoned that we would expect to generate 1500-1600 units per year; to do this, we would need to generate an average of about 4 per day. The 5 day moving average is currently at around 2.5-3 units per day. As we get closer to the summer solstice, the performance of the system improves markedly - the sun is higher in the sky and therefore more intense; the weather improves so there is more sunshine; the days are longer.

The price of solar electric systems is also falling, as the availability of them rises following an increased demand. Sainsburys, in conjunction with British Gas, are offering a 2.1 kWp system from £10,000 - significantly less than we paid. It also sounds as though the government are interested in continuing to encourage the take-up of micro-generation by households - a report in The Times yesterday (paid for service, no link) suggested that the government was likely to cut the FIT offered for new medium and large installations.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

"One of our Thursdays is missing" - Jasper Fforde

Well, I loved it, as always.

The thread that has bound the series (TN1-5) together has, obviously, been Thursday Next, but given this, Fforde has not confined himself to a particular formula. The focus to begin with is on SpecOps, and only gradually shifts to the imaginative masterpiece which is Bookworld.

In this book, another bold narrative shift takes place, in that "the" Thursday Next spends most of the book out of the frame, and the first person is now the Thursday Next character within Bookworld - or is it? - who has to see if she can find Thursday Next in time to prevent a genre war from taking place. The distinction is a little arbitrary, of course - the fictional Thursday Next is trying to live up to the reputation of the real Thursday Next - but it does make for different relationships with other characters. (Is the "real" Thursday Next any more "real" than the fictional one?! One of the many fascinating things about Fforde's books is that they raise such complex philosophical questions so playfully.)

The imaginative landscape is reconfigured - Bookworld is redrawn - and a significant number of the characters are the fictional versions of the "real" characters in the earlier book. This may be disappointing for those people who have grown to love them - well, I have too! - but better to stop before they become cliches, or worse, are unable to sustain a further book.

Given the quiet revolution, the story itself is as good as ever - a whodunit/thriller with plenty of red herrings and cliff hangers (hmm, I don't think we've met Cliff in these books yet), a fantasy world which is coherent to surprising depths, a huge amount of fun with language and literature, and everything falling into place only when I thought there was no way it could all be resolved in the number of pages that I had left.

In summary, another outstanding book from Fforde. But as before, come with a clutch to allow your paradigm to shift smoothly ....

Thursday, March 03, 2011

I don't particularly like ...

... the media influence of the Murdochs. However, in a capitalist society, people have the freedom to choose what they do with their money, whether they are paying 20p for an issue of the Sun or £12 billion plus for 60% of the company. Also ...

... At least this is "private" money, not "state" money. I didn't like the fact that Labour government "increases" in education spending were channelled to companies selected by the government, and this happened with no public scrutiny.
... I have more of a problem with the expedient "accommodation" of unsavoury politicians of other countries.
... it all pales into insignificance in comparison to what is going on in Italy.

Surprised by Joy

"Well," said Pooh, "what I like best -- " and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn't know what it was called.
A.A.Milne - The House at Pooh Corner
The very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction between having and wanting.
C.S.Lewis - Surprised by Joy