Thursday, January 19, 2012

I Wasn't There - Days of Wonder

BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live used to have a slot titled ‘I was There’ featuring interviews with people who were at auspicious events, failed to recognise celebrities, had brushes with royalty and the like. My contribution to such a series would be more likely to reflect a number of notable occasions I missed:

In the 70s I was half the road crew of a rock band touring UK clubs and colleges promoting their first album 'High Street'. The band played a rocky-boogie style, in the Humble Pie vein and the audiences were mainly young men with long hair, trench coats and a propensity for head-banging.

Very macho, very geezer, very 70s
A 'novelty' single [Get Outa Me 'Ouse] strayed into the charts and led to a spate of TV appearances squeezed into a busy touring schedule. After one such recording in Birmingham (which may have been Lift Off with Ayesha Brough or some show involving the word 'Cue' with Mike Mansfield) we went to the hotel and retired to the bar for a beer or several. Our keyboard player, Kenny, doodled around on a baby grand piano in the corner of the bar to the general enjoyment of our fellow guests and a bit of a sing-song ensued. It looked like they were settling in for a session, so around 11pm, unable to keep eyelids apart, I sloped off for an early night. 

Kenny Daughters, one time truck designer and ivory tickler
At breakfast next morning amid the general hubbub of conversation I heard several references to a brilliant night, some great music and a wonderful performance. Bloody hell! I thought, these people must be really hard up for live music. After all, much as I liked the band and enjoyed their music, only their most ardent head-banging fans would pile such praise on the a few bar tunes from our keyboard player. It seems I was wrong.

It turns out that about half an hour after I had left the bar, the assembled multitude had been treated to an impromptu session on the bar's piano by another hotel guest, also in town for a TV show, Stevie Wonder.

1975? somewhere between top right and bottom left, I guess

Of course he wasn't the God-like legend he is today, just your ordinary run-of-the-mill international million-selling superstar who seldom played live - bugger!.

Keep an eye open for more tales of stuff wot I missed...

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Internet Strike

 18 January 2012
The Internet is closed for the day


SOPA: Stop Online Piracy Act

This is a protest against proposed US legislation. It's stated aim is to prevent piracy but in effect it will curtail free speech, reduce online security, grant more power to already powerful Internet companies and have a shit load of unintended consequence for the rest of us.

Normally I would put a link to Wikipedia here to help you find out exactly how this piece of misguided legislation can be so damaging but they are closing too - so you may just have to wait until tomorrow. 

For more details visit:

Other websites will be covering the issue so you could always Google it - assuming they are open.

See you tomorrow - probably.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Something in the Air

There is a proposal to plant a wind farm just up the road in the Lot. I would not be surprised to learn that the Tarn et Garonne is being surveyed for something similar. It seems that having seen off high-tension power lines a few years ago; maybe having done away with fracking; and probably getting a local prison, our quiet corner of France is about to generate a quantity of emotional energy discussing the pros and cons of wind farms. 

These discussions tend to cover a wide range of related topics like comparative methods of generation, safety and security of nuclear waste, fossil fuels and global warming, security of supply of imported fuels, dead birds, noise and being decapitated by 20m razor sharp blades breaking off in high winds and flying into densely populated areas. Discussions are not always conducted with the accuracy and attention to detail that the topic deserves. 

Elegant generators of clean power...

...or death-dealing killing machines.

Somewhere in all this the wind turbine debate loses focus. This blog is an attempt to try and find one.

There seem to be three main thrusts of the debate, aesthetics, environmental issues and economics. Aesthetics are, I contend, a personal matter and not subject to anything as grubby as facts. There is something glorious about  great swathes of countryside untouched by the modern world. But to my shame I also find something attractive about a railway winding its elegant curves through the very same countryside, crossing valleys on splendid viaducts and avoiding hills through cuttings and tunnels. Nor do I find wind turbines as offensive as pylons or McDonald’s. It’s difficult to argue either side of the aesthetic debate convincingly when I don’t even agree with myself….

It could be worse, but I'm not sure how.
The environmental issue is surely a balancing act, after all the whole raison d’ĂȘtre of the things is to save the environment. The question is whether the environmental benefits are worth the environmental price. This is a matter which can be put off for a paragraph or two as we may not even need to go there. 

Which brings us neatly to economics. Do wind turbines make any economic sense? If all the costs of wind farms can be established, a cost benefit analysis would be quite straightforward. If it is unanimously agreed that wind farms are not economical the debate can, and will, end there. But if it can be clearly demonstrated that the things are an economical way to make electricity then the other aesthetic and environmental considerations come centre stage.

Wind Farm or 100% Guaranteed Olympic Sailing Venue?

Funnily enough, the cost is probably the easiest element to be objective about, but after thousands of turbines have been built, there still appears to no general agreement as to whether they are economically viable. 

There are two financial elephants in the room, and they are both asking questions:

1. Are there more economical ways of generating the same amount of power?


2. Who stands to make how much from the construction of wind farms?  

The questions should not really be posed in that order as the answer to the second affects the answer to the first. No private company is going to invest in the building and maintenance of the infrastructure unless it includes an acceptable element of profit. This will affect the cost of the power produced and thus the overall economic viability of wind power. If there is not enough profit the things will not be built by private investors. No government is likely to stump up the cash on a non-profit basis in today’s economic climate of cutting back on social spending and generally telling everyone there is no money. Also, sometime within the timeframe of a wind farm development, there will be an election on the horizon. So that’s a nationalised wind farm blown out of the water. 

The obvious sub-question then is what is an acceptable level of profit for private investors?

This leads to the question of the financial structures behind the energy companies’ deals with government; or, in local French terms, the government’s deals with the Department du Lot; or the Lot’s deal with the Cantons where the wind farms may be built; or the Cantons’ deals with the various Mairies? And the myriad other possible combinations of financial and political arrangements about which mere mortals can only speculate. Personally I would not trust most of them to boil an egg, let alone be transparent about their dealings.

There is not so much wrong with a bit of profit, but the gaz de schiste issue exposed the principal interests of our local licensee as raw greed. It also exposed the damage they were prepared to wreak in order to satisfy their avarice. The jury is still out about the governments motives for sneakily granting the gaz licenses in the first place. Whatever, it will take a considerable degree of transparency to persuade local residents that the same sort of dispicable motives does not lie behind any wind farm proposal.

It always seemed sensible to me that the best way to make a robust case is to argue it with more fact than emotion. Arguing a case with a modicum of emotion can lend your position a degree of passion and conviction, but relying on it exclusively, and refusing to look at the maths will do little to convert the heathen. Therefore, surely, the best debating ground is one where established fact, seasoned with ideological fervour to taste, can be used – and I reckon this has to be the economic case.

As mentioned above, the problem that seems to causes the log jam is an inability to establish the true cost of wind farm generated power, and thus their economic viability, especially compared with the alternatives.

I may not be able to deconstruct the financial deals, and will happily leave that to others better versed in these disciplines. But I should be able to understand the underlying practicalities and apply some comparative logic to decide if wind generated power is an economical option. Indeed we all should be able to have this discussion based on facts rather than the vague and unsubstantiated opinion which seems to have dominated the debates I have heard so far. If wind power can be economical then we can all move onto the other aspects such as aesthetics and the environment. If not we can just move on to the next item on the agenda of life.

And guess what? I have a proposal for establishing some facts – not all the facts, granted, but we have to start somewhere. Read a book. Jane Austen tells a good tale but is a little out of touch with modern-day energy supply and demand. JK Rowling is guaranteed to get a massive readership but is unlikely to thrive in an atmosphere where magic is considered close to cheating. Jeffery Deaver is clever but a brain-chillingly dull read. [That’s enough. _ Ed.]

The book I propose as required reading is David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air

It is a dispassionate attempt  to discover if it would be possible to maintain an acceptable lifestyle based on renewable energy. It does this by reducing the options to meaningful numbers, rather than vague, emotive adjectives - and it does it in plain English. 

Probably the most attractive aspect of the book is that it applies a common unit to the various ways we generate and consume power. The ‘power per person, per day’ unit makes it easy to visualise the output of various generation sources and our power usage at a human scale - and more importantly it allows us to compare alternatives. Among other things it allows us to make a direct comparison between different methods of generating power. 

More importantly it allows us to do what our American cousins insist on calling 'cool stuff', like comparing the power used by a phone charger left plugged in when we are not using it, and running a car. It turns out that the energy used in leaving the charger plugged in and unused for a year is the equivalent to running your car for a second. This may support your view that chargers should not be left on when not in use or confirm your view that the energy saved is so small your efforts would be better employed elsewhere. Even with the admitted inaccuracies (type of phone charger, size of car, travelling or idling, petrol or diesel etc.) it is probably the nearest we are going to get to a 'fact' to argue that particular case. A ‘fact’ of this sort, one that we can all relate to, can change the conversation from the cul-de-sac of dogma to the open road of imagination, in this case ways to knock the odd second of car use, which must be a step in the right direction.

I am aware that promoting a single treatise on an important topic can be dangerous. We have all witnessed the results of obsessed bigots who wave their chosen tome as justification of their fallacious arguments. It is possible to place too much faith in a single source be it a holy tract, political manifesto, diet book or Wikipedia. But try as I might (and I have tried) I cannot find a bad review of this book. The nearest I found was a specialist who argued some of the minutiae of his specialism. And even he said that his were “minor comments.” adding  “On the whole, this book is an impressive intellectual achievement.” There may be some really bad reviews but I can’t find any.

Go on, read it, I dare you. It may not agree with your preconceptions, but then again it might. And it will give you some facts to argue with.

You can download a 10 page synopsis from:

The whole 2 part book is a free download from:

Or, if you prefer to cuddle up with a real book it is available from all good book stores (and Amazon)

So, that's some of the facts sorted, all I have to do now is decide what I think about the aesthetics of wind turbines, if there is a more efficient way of slicing a goose…

…and the proposal for a Tesco superstore in the Grotte de Roland.

NOTE: For balance, the least-good review I could find is here:

If you find any bad review, share them in the comments box below.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Favourite Bottle Topper

I didn’t know I had a favourite bottle topper (as distinct from corkscrew which I may tell you about later) but it turns out that I do. 

It is from East Germany. I bought it on a Fischer-Z tour a year or so before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the wall, the unification of East and West Germany and before the ideological forces of capitalism finally pissed on the Commie’s chips for once and for all.

It is no work of art. But it has not gained a place on my list of favourites as a thing of beauty. It is because it is a tangible reminder of a political system that really tried to be an alternative to the worst of capitalism. This unassuming item has one explicitly political feature which alludes to the notion of a 10 year plan and bears witness to the idea of a sound economy with no inflation. 

What is he banging on about? I hear you ask.  Good question to which the answer is the price of the item. Despite being around 20 years since I bought it I know exactly how much I paid for it. It was three-quarters of an East German Mark or 75 pfennigs. I do not claim to remember the price, but there is a permanent reminder on the item itself. We are not talking about a price label clinging tenaciously to the topper thanks to superior quality Soviet gum. It is through the simple expedient of moulding the price into the plastic itself. 

You do not do this in a free market economy where the seller will charge whatever he thinks he can get away with and will want to pricemark it himself. But the goverment of the GDR was more interested in giving the impression that their currency was stable and inflation did not exist than making a profit. One way of underlining these virtues is to make the price an integral part of the product. Of course you can only do this where manufacture and sales are run by the same party.

In addition to the primary function of topping bottles, there is a second element of utility as a replacement stopper.

Having been to East Germany on a couple of occasions I can honestly say that I have never seen a bottle requiring such a gadget. And without wishing to dwell on the stereotype of the communists as a bunch of dour alcoholics, the ability to seal an unfinished bottle was more a by-product of government aspiration than consumer demand. 

On one trip east, I stopped at a petrol station on the drive down the corridor to Berlin and bought a half-litre bottle of a clear sprit that looked interesting. It had dispensed with a measure of ‘alcohol by volume’ in favour of an octane rating. I did try drinking it but it was just too brutal to swallow. 

I kept it for around 15 years and used it to clean switches and remove the sticky residue of gaffa-tape from cables and the like. In a strange coincidence, during the very month that it ran out, I was given a 2.5 litre bottle of carbon tetrachloride (a similarly strong solvent) which was surplus to the requirements of its previous owner and which should see me out - in every sense. But I digress.

The GDR topper is not a looker, but it is more than just a utensil and every time I use it I think, "mmmm beer..."