Monday, January 28, 2013

HS2 – the Cosmological Cost?

[Is it really almost a year since my last post? Whoops!]

So, we now know the UK government’s preferred route for Phase-2 of the proposed “High-Speed” railway. (Given it’s unlikely to be actually up and running by 2032 - even with a favourable tail-wind - one might question the choice of moniker, but that’s another story!)

We also have an estimate of how much the entire project will cost: approximately £32.7bn.

This prompted me to do some thinking about what that means. It can be difficult to get your head around super-huge numbers, but maybe these two pieces of information will help to put it into perspective:

• current (2013) world population = 7bn (approx.);
• age of Universe (time since the Big Bang) ~ 13.7bn years.

We could therefore think of the project as costing about £4.60 for every man, woman and child on the planet.

Alternatively, the government proposes to spend - on a railway, for goodness sake - about £2.39 for every year the universe has so far been in existence. Of course, that’s ignoring inflation. (Economic, rather than cosmological!)

And this when we are apparently entering a “triple-dip recession”.

As far as the “benefits” are concerned, I would have to admit I’m no expert, but it seems to me that shaving off a little more from an already respectable journey time from London to Manchester (for example), is a poor return for the investment. The UK is not exactly a vast country (though it is crowded, of course).

Moreover, who is likely to benefit? If I were cynical I might say “the small number of Fat Cats who will be able to afford the (no doubt) astronomical fare”. But I’m not, so I won’t.

And, being naïve on such matters, I would have thought that seriously upgrading our local public transport infrastructure would have provided more tangible benefit to a far greater proportion of the population. (The rolling stock on my local line, for instance, is embarrassingly out-dated compared with its counterpart in most EU countries I have visited.)

There will of course be a “public consultation” exercise. In conclusion, I would simply ask this question: approximately how many times, since the birth of the Universe, has a public consultation process resulted in the plans of a determined (if misguided) government being thwarted?

I suspect you know the answer!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Allotment Thief? Poltergeist? ... Or joker?

I hadn't been to the plot for a week or two, owing to bad weather and other commitments. When I arrived there this morning, at first all seemed normal ... until I entered the shed. Then I noticed that a cane was lying at an angle from floor to ceiling. I couldn't remember it being like that the last time I was there. On further inspection I realised it was a cane that is normally suspended horizontally from cup-hooks, just below the ceiling. I use it for hanging odd bits and pieces from. (In fact, you can see it in the photo below, which was taken after I'd put it back in place.) So had I accidentally knocked it down on my previous visit? I didn't think it likely. Nor had there been any significant wind since then, that might conceivably have rocked the shed so hard as to bring it down. In any case,  that never happened during the numerous strong gales we've had over the last few years! A bit of a puzzle.

I thought I should make a closer inspection of the inside of the shed. To begin with, I didn't spot anything amiss. But then, on glancing up at the tool rack, I noticed a couple of empty slots at the back, near the corner of the shed. It then dawned on me that there should be a yard brush hanging there: an old, fairly decrepit - and certainly not valuable - broom. How odd! Had I used it somewhere on the plot last time I was there, and forgotten to put it away? The only part of my plot for which a broom is useful is the shed's "decking" (which consists of two old pallets), and it certainly wasn't there. The only conclusion I could draw is that it had been stolen. Very strange indeed. What a peculiar item to nick! And from the back of the shed - not immediately to hand.

It was at this stage I became aware of a couple of other weird things:

  • When I was last at the shed there had been (I think, though to be fair, I may be wrong in this) a plastic tub containing a very small amount of Growmore fertiliser, and this had been standing just inside the door, against the left-wall ... well not any longer!
  • My maple-syrup jar had gone!!!! This was a "souvenir" of our 2001 trip to Massachusetts - only a plastic flagon - and filled with water rather than the sweet stuff. I'd placed it as a sort of decoration on the decking, where it had stood, untouched, for at least a year. You can see, in the next photo, where it should be ...

So I am now in no doubt whatsoever that something untoward has taken place. But ...

Who was the culprit? 
When did it happen?
Most puzzling of all: why?

It's not as though the items taken had any intrinsic value. Nor was there any obvious damage. That could have been due, in part, to the fact I've never locked the shed - just fastened the door to with a bolt: I was originally advised that if the door is locked it indicates there may be something of value inside, and vandals will simply break it down. Well I've now fitted a padlock. (The door really needs replacing anyway!)

Update: the "plot" (get it?) thickens

Later the same day I encountered one of my allotment neighbours, and told him about what had happened. Intriguingly, it immediately rang a bell with him, and he recounted a tale concerning a series of seemingly similar (and equally inexplicable) occurrences - about 10 years ago! In one case, it appears, late one July night during a torrential rainstorm, several shed doors had been carefully removed. No damage had been inflicted, and nothing was apparently stolen. In another instance, a neighbour discovered a very subtle alteration to the arrangement of items inside the shed. Again, nothing of value was actually taken. My friend didn't go into much more detail, but hinted there'd been suspicions at the time that the culprit was one of the other allotment-holders "having a laugh". 

If that is the case it leaves a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth: as anyone familiar with allotmenteering will know, there is usually a remarkably generous community spirit, where everyone supports everyone else on the sight - very often lending a hand with jobs or donating surplus seeds, crops, etc. True, as in any organisation there will no doubt be political issues and underlying grievances; but these odd events appear not to be specifically targeted - ie are random - and so seem to make no sense.

I'm therefore left with three possibilities:

1. A genuine thief/vandal from the local area or beyond - unlikely, in view of the minimal impact;

2. A poltergeist - not very likely!

3. An on-sight jester - either the original, a "descendant" or a copy-cat!

Sadly, I fear the last of the three has the highest probability of being correct. Whatever, I felt I had to do something in response, so now there is this sign in the shed window:

We'll wait and see. I'll keep you posted!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A New Look for a New Year

Well,  sort of!

Happy 2012.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Just Checking In

Today I noticed, with some embarrassment, that my most recent post - with the exception of this one - was April, 2009. Methinks much has happened since then. Not least the fact that I retired at the end of December, 2010. And since approximately Feb 2010 I've been the proud keeper of an allotment plot.

A further major endeavour has been to have solar PV installed on the house roof: 14 panels, for a nominal capacity of a little over 3.2kW. That was last February, and so far, the signs are very promising indeed. Less than one year of operation, and we've already clocked up in excess of £1250 worth of electricity. It has to be said, though, that this is largely due to the rather generous Feed-in Tariff of 43.3p per kWh. If the current proposal to half this for new adopters is allowed to go ahead then I fear, as do many, that it could deal a fatal blow to this important, but still fledgling, industry.

However, to return to my original purpose: having made lots of rather scruffy notes of a diary nature relating to my various horticultural activities, I'm looking to find a convenient way of recording them on-line. I'm toying with the idea of using my blog site for this. The problem is, it would have to be retrospective. That is, I would need to be able to post up entries from the past. I would also want it to be searchable. For instance, I might want to know when I sowed leeks in previous years, so I'd put "leeks" in as a search term. I suppose the obvious way would be to use tags.

Anyway, ideas always welcome.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Carbon-Capture Carbonundrum?

Photo Credit: NASA

I posed this question in a posting way back in December 2007. It appears to remain largely unanswered (or possibly ignored?); but, in the light of the recent announcement by our government regarding proposals for a new generation of coal-fuelled power stations, I feel it could stand another airing. The unease I feel is this: quite apart from the whole raft of concerns raised by others in various places, there is the fact that for every 12 tonnes of carbon burned in fossil (or any other carboniferous ) fuel, approximately 32 tonnes of oxygen is extracted from the atmosphere. The scale of this
"oxygen depletion" may, admittedly, be exaggerated somewhat because many fuels actually have a bound-in oxygen content to begin with, but still it is probably a good order-of-magnitude figure.

Now if the fuel is from a renewable source, then I suppose we can generally assume that the usual biological processes such as photosynthesis will eventually return the consumed oxygen to the atmosphere and, on balance, there is no adverse effect; if the fuel was from a fossil source, then although there will be an excess carbon dioxide input to the atmosphere, it is still conceivable that a proportion of it will also be "metabolised" by the ecosystem: for example, there may be accelerated/enhanced growth of vegetation, algae, etc in some land/sea areas, which could partially off-set it ...for a while.

Some of the excess carbon dioxide will surely not be recycled, though, and it is that fraction that we get concerned about with regard to global warming, of course. But as well as this hazard, there is the associated potential problem that a portion of the oxygen removed from the atmosphere by combustion is lost permanently. That would be bad enough in any case, but if all the carbon dioxide from a power-station were to be sequestered below ground then all of the oxygen consumed in its combustion process would go with it - for good; or at least for "... five thousand years at least ..." (which of course begs its own questions as regards the really long-term future of the planet).

So on this basis, it seems to me that what we should be aiming at, if anything, is true carbon-capture, and not capture of carbon dioxide. We should in other words be separating out the oxygen first and returning it to the environment.

And here we encounter a further little niggling problem: splitting carbon dioxide into its elemental components takes ... yes, you guessed it - energy! Logically (one assumes) this should not come from the burning of yet more coal, but maybe it could be provided by truly renewable sources such as wind, solar etc, or - if we really must - nuclear fuel.
So, why not just invest in them properly in the first place?

To be fair, there is now apparently an experimental plant in Germany that "cooks" sewage anaerobically to drive off the volatiles, which then become "new" fuel without comsuming oxygen. The only true waste is basically carbon black (charcoal) which actually has a commercial value in its own right, but does not present a global-warming risk. Of course, this approach is a rather different proposition from the coal-fired argument discussed above.

Now don't get me wrong - I am a firm believer that we face a lethal threat from human-generated global warming, and that all proposed solutions need to be examined properly and fairly. But that means identifying potential drawbacks too.

Perhaps I am being overly naive in my arguments relating to oxygen depletion, and maybe the effect will never be great enough to cause us concern. I just don't know. But I'd be really glad to hear other views. What do you think?

[Of course there are plenty of other arguments against this carbon-capture approach. For one thing, it doesn't avoid continued plundering of the earth's resources; and the supposed (by some) unsightliness of wind-turbines is surely as nought compared to the huge and visciously ugly scars left behind by open-cast mining operations? Then there is the matter of security of the energy supply. We would continue to be at the mercy of off-shore providers. Or am I very much mistaken?]