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the tides – a massive potential resource?

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A floating tidal turbine, Orkney islands, as seen on Fully Charged

A recent episode of Fully Charged, the Brit video series on the sources and harnessing of clean energy, took us again to the very windy Orkney Isles at the top of Scotland to have a look at some experimental work being done on generating energy from tidal forces. When you think of it, it seems a no-brainer to harness the energy of the tides. They’re regular, predictable, unceasing, and in some places surely very powerful. Yet I’ve never heard of them being used on an industrial scale.

Of course, I’m still new to this business, so the learning curve continues steep. Tide mills have been used historically here and there, possibly even since Roman times, and tidal barrages have been operating since the sixties, the first and for a long time the largest being the La Rance plant, off the coast of Brittany, generating 240 MW. A slightly bigger one has recently been built in Korea (254 MW).

But tidal barrages – not what they’re testing in the Orkneys – come with serious environmental impact issues. They’re about building a barrage across a bay or estuary with a decent tidal flow. The barrage acts as a kind of adjustable dam, with sluice gates that open and close, and additional pumping when necessary. Turbines generate energy from pressure and height differentials, as in a hydro-electric dam. Research on the environmental impact of these constructions, which can often be major civil engineering projects, has revealed mixed results. Short-term impacts are often devastating, but over time one type of diversity has been replaced by another.

Anyway, what’s happening in the Orkneys is something entirely different. The islanders, the Scottish government and the EU are collaborating through an organisation called EMEC, the European Marine Energy Centre, to test tidal power in the region. They appear to be inviting innovators and technicians to test their projects there. A company called ScotRenewables, for example, has developed low-maintenance floating tidal turbines with retractable legs, one of which is currently being tested in the offshore waters. They’re designed to turn with the ebb and flood tides to maximise their power generation. It’s a 2 MW system, which of course could be duplicated many times over in the fashion of wind turbines, to generate hundreds if not thousands of megawatts. The beauty of the system is its reliability – as the tidal flow can be reliably predicted at least eighteen years into the future, according to the ScotRenewables CEO. This should provide a sense of stability and confidence to downstream suppliers. Also, floating turbines could easily be removed if they’re causing damage, or if they require maintenance. Clearly, the effect on the tidal system would be minimal compared to an estuarine barrage, though there are obvious dangers to marine life getting too close to turbines. The testing of these turbines is coming to an end and they’ve been highly successful so far, though they already have an improved turbine design in the wings, which can be maintained either in situ or in dock. The design can also be scaled down, or up, to suit various sites and conditions.

rotors are on retractable legs, to protect from storms, etc

Other quite different turbine types are being tested in the region, with a lot of government and public support, but I got the slight impression that commercial support for this kind of technology is somewhat lacking. In the Fully Charged video on this subject (to which I owe most of this info), Robert Llewelyn asked the EMEC marketing manager whether she thought tidal or wave energy had the greatest future potential (she opted for wave). My ears pricked up, as wave energy is another newie for me. Duh. Another post, I suppose.

As mentioned though in this video, a lot of the developments in this tidal technology have come from shipbuilding technology, from offshore oil and gas technology, and from maritime technology more generally, as well as modern wind turbine technology, further impressing on me that skills are transferable and that the cheap clean energy revolution won’t be the economic/employment disaster that the fossil fuel dinosaurs predict. It’s a great time for innovation, insight and foresight, and I can only hope that more government and business people in Australia, where I seem to be stuck, can get on board.

fixed underwater tidal turbine being tested off the Orkney Islands


Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2017 at 6:27 am

Why science?

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why is it so?

Ever since I was a kid I was an avid reader. It was my escape from a difficult family situation and a hatred or fear of most of my teachers. I became something of a quiet rebel, rarely reading what I was supposed to read but always trying to bite off more than I could chew in terms of literature, history, and occasionally science. I did find, though, that I could chew almost anything – especially in literature and history. And I loved the taste. Science, though, was different. It certainly didn’t come naturally to me. I didn’t know any science buffs and in fact I had no mentors for any of my reading activities. We did have encyclopaedias, though, and my random reading turned up the likes of Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur and other Big Names in science. Of course I was more interested in their bios than in the nature of their exotic researches, but in my idealised view they seemed very pure in their quest for greater understanding of the material world. I sometimes wished I could be like them but mostly I just dived into ‘literature’, a more comfortable world in which ordinary lives were anatomised by high-brow authors like Austen, Eliot and James (I had a fetish for 19th century lit in my teens). I took silent pride in my critical understanding of these texts, it surely set me above my classmates, though I remember one day walking home with one of the smartest kids in my class, who regaled me with his exploration of the electronics of a transistor radio he was pulling apart at home. I remember trying to listen, half ashamed of my ignorance, half hoping to change the subject to something I could sound off about.

Later, having dropped out of my much-loathed school, I started hanging out, or trying to, with other school drop-outs in my working-class neighbourhood. I didn’t fit in with them to say the least, but the situation worsened when they began tinkering with or talking about cars, which held no interest for me. I was annoyed and impressed at how articulate they were about carbies, distributors and camshafts, and wondered if I was somehow wasting my life.

Into my twenties, living la vie boheme in punk-fashionable poverty among art students and amateur philosophers, I read and was definitely intrigued by Alan Chalmers’ unlikely best-seller What is this thing called science? It sparked a brief interest in the philosophy of science rather than science itself, but interestingly it was a novel that really set me to reading and trying to get my head around science – a big topic! – on a more or less daily basis. I was about 25 when I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, in which Hans Castorp, a young man of about my age at the time, was sent off to an alpine sanatorium to be cured of tuberculosis. Thus began a great intellectual adventure, but it was the scientific explorations that most spoke to me. Wrapped up in his loggia, reading various scientific texts, Castorp took the reader on a wondering tour of the origin of life, and of matter itself, and it struck me that these were the key questions – if you want to understand yourself, you need to understand humanity, and if you want to understand humanity you need to understand life itself, and if you want to understand life, you need to understand the matter that life is organised from, and if you need to understand matter…

I made a decision to inform myself about science in general, via the monthly magazine, Scientific American, where I learned at least something about oncogenes, neutrinos and the coming AIDS epidemic, inter alia. I read my first wholly scientific book, Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and, as I was still living la vie boheme, I enjoyed the occasional lively argument with housemates or pub philosophers about the Nature of the Universe and related topics. In the years since I’ve read and half-digested books on astronomy, cosmology, palaeontology and of course the history of science in general. I’ve read The origin of species, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and at least four biographies of Darwin, including the monumental biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. I’ve also read a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace, and more recently, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which traces the search for the cause of the random variation essential to the Darwin-Wallace theory. And I still read science magazines like Cosmos on a more or less daily basis.

These readings have afforded me some of the greatest pleasures of my life, which would, I suppose, be enough to justify them. But I should try to answer the why question. Why is science so thrilling? The answer, I hope, is obvious. It isn’t science that’s thrilling, it’s our world. I’m not a science geek, it doesn’t come easily to me. When, for example, a tech-head explains how an electronic circuit works, I have to watch the video many times over, look up terms, refer to related videos, etc, in order to fix it in my head, and then, like most people, I forget the vast majority of what I read, watch or listen to. But what keeps me going is a fascination for the world – and the questions raised. How did the Earth form? Where did the water come from? How is it that matter is electrical, full of charge? How did language evolve? How has our Earth’s atmosphere evolved? How are we related to bananas, fruit flies, australopithecines and bats? How does our microbiome relate to obesity? What can we expect from CRISPR/Cas9 editing technology? What’s the future for autonomous vehicles, brain-controlled drones and new-era smart phones?

This all might sound like gaga adolescent optimism, but I’m only cautiously optimistic, or maybe not optimistic at all, just fascinated about what might happen, on the upside and the downside. And I’m endlessly impressed by human ingenuity in discovering new things and using those discoveries in innovative ways. I’m also fascinated, in a less positive way, by the anti-scientific tendencies of conspiracy theorists, religionists, new-agers and those who identify with and seem trapped by ‘heavy culture’. Podcasts such as The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, Skeptoid and Australia’s The Skeptic Zone, as well as various science-based blogs like Why Evolution is True and Skeptical Science are fighting a seemingly never-ending fight against the misinformation churned out by passionate supporters of fixed non-evidence-based positions. But spending too much time arguing with such types does your head in, and I prefer trying to accentuate the positive than trying to eliminate the negative.

And on that positive side, exciting things are always happening, whether it’s battery technology, cancer research, exoplanetary discoveries, robotics or brain implants, more developments are occurring than any one person can keep abreast of.

So I’ll end with some positive and reassuring remarks about science. It’s not some esoteric activity to be suspicious of, but neither is it something easily definable. It’s not a search for the truth, it’s more a search for the best, most comprehensive, most consistent and productive explanation for phenomena. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the scientific method – the methods of Einstein can’t easily be compared with those of Darwin. Methods necessarily differ with the often vast differences between the phenomena under investigation. Conspiracy theories such as the moon landings ‘hoax’ or the climate science ‘fraud’ would require that scientists and their ancillaries are incredibly disciplined, virtually robotic collaborators in sinister plots, rather than normal, questing, competitive, collaborative, inspired and inspiring individuals, struggling desperately to make sense and make breakthroughs. In the field of human health, scientists are faced with explaining the most complex organism we know of – the human body with its often perverse human mind. It’s not at all surprising that pseudo-science and quackery is so common in this field, in which everyone wants to live and thrive as long as possible. But we need to be aware that with such complexity we will encounter many false hopes and only partial solutions. The overall story, though, is positive – we’re living longer and healthier, in statistical terms, than ever before. The past, for the most part, is another country which we might like to briefly visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. And science is largely to be thanked for that. So, why not science? The alternatives do nothing for me.

The SGU team – science nerds fighting the good fight

Written by stewart henderson

October 7, 2017 at 6:18 am

On electrickery, part 1 – the discovery of electrons

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Canto: This could be the first of a thousand-odd parts, because speaking for myself it will take me several lifetimes to get my head around this stuff, which is as basic as can be. Matter and charge and why is it so and all that.

Jacinta: so let’s start at random and go in any direction we like.

Canto: Great plan. Do you know what a cathode ray is?

Jacinta: No. I’ve heard of cathodes and anodes, which are positive and negative terminals of batteries and such, but I can’t recall which is which.

Canto: Don’t panic, Positive is Anode, Negative ICathode. Though I’ve read somewhere that the reverse can sometimes be true. The essential thing is they’re polar opposites.

Jacinta: Good, so a cathode ray is some kind of negative ray? Of electrons?

Canto: A cathode ray is defined as a beam of electrons emitted from the cathode of a high-vacuum tube.

Jacinta: That’s a pretty shitty definition, why would a tube, vacuum or otherwise, have a cathode in it? And what kind of tube? Rubber, plastic, cardboard?

Canto: Well let’s not get too picky. I’m talking about a cathode ray tube. It’s a sealed tube, obviously, made of glass, and evacuated as far as possible. Sciencey types have been playing around with vacuums since the mid seventeenth century – basically since the vacuum pump was invented in 1654, and electrical experiments in the nineteenth century, with vacuum tubes fitted with cathodes and anodes, led to the discovery of the electron by J J Thomson in 1897.

Jacinta: So what do you mean by a beam of electrons and how is it emitted, and can you give more detail on the cathode, and is there an anode involved? Are there such things as anode rays?

Canto: I’ll get there. Early experiments found that electrostatic sparks travelled further through a near vacuum than through normal air, which raised the question of whether you could get a ‘charge’, or a current, to travel between two relatively distant points in an airless tube. That’s to say, between a cathode and an anode, or two electrodes of opposite polarity. The cathode is of a conducting material such as copper, and yes there’s an anode at the other end – I’m talking about the early forms, because in modern times it starts to get very complicated. Faraday in the 1830s noted a light arc could be created between the two electrodes, and later Heinrich Geissler, who invented a better vacuum, was able to get the whole tube to glow – an early form of ‘neon light’. They used an induction coil, an early form of transformer, to create high voltages. They’re still used in ignition systems today, as part of the infernal combustion engine

Jacinta: So do you want to explain what a transformer is in more detail? I’ve certainly heard of them. They ‘create high voltages’ you say. Qu’est-ce que ça veux dire?

Canto: Do you want me to explain an induction coil, a transformer, or both?

Jacinta: Well, since we’re talking about the 19th century, explain an induction coil.

Canto: Search for it on google images. It consists of a magnetic iron core, round which are wound two coils of insulated copper, a primary and secondary winding. The primary is of coarse wire, wound round a few times. The secondary is of much finer wire, wound many many more times. Now as I’ve said, it’s basically a transformer, and I don’t know what a transformer is, but I’m hoping to find out soon. Its purpose is to ‘produce high-voltage pulses from a low-voltage direct current (DC) supply’, according to Wikipedia.

Jacinta: All of this’ll come clear in the end, right?

Canto: I’m hoping so. When a current – presumably from that low-volage DC supply – is passed through the primary, a magnetic field is created.

Jacinta: Ahh, electromagnetism…

Canto: And since the secondary shares the core, the magnetic field is also shared. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it, and I think we’ll need to do further reading or video-watching to get it clear in our heads:

The primary behaves as an inductor, storing energy in the associated magnetic field. When the primary current is suddenly interrupted, the magnetic field rapidly collapses. This causes a high voltage pulse to be developed across the secondary terminals through electromagnetic induction. Because of the large number of turns in the secondary coil, the secondary voltage pulse is typically many thousands of volts. This voltage is often sufficient to cause an electric spark, to jump across an air gap (G) separating the secondary’s output terminals. For this reason, induction coils were called spark coils.

Jacinta: Okay, so much for an induction coil, to which we shall no doubt return, as well as to inductors and electromagnetic radiation. Let’s go back to the cathode ray tube and the discovery of the electron.

Canto: No, I need to continue this, as I’m hoping it’ll help us when we come to explaining transformers. Maybe. A key component of the induction coil was/is the interruptor. To have the coil functioning continuously, you have to repeatedly connect and disconnect the DC current. So a magnetically activated device called an interruptor or a break is mounted beside the iron core. It has an armature mechanism which is attracted by the increasing magnetic field created by the DC current. It moves towards the core, disconnecting the current, the magnetic field collapses, creating a spark, and the armature springs back to its original position. The current is reconnected and the process is repeated, cycling through many times per second.

A Crookes tube showing green fluorescence. The shadow of the metal cross on the glass showed that electrons travelled in straight lines

Jacinta: Right so now I’ll take us back to the cathode ray tube, starting with the Crookes tube, developed around 1870. When we’re talking about cathode rays, they’re just electron beams. But they certainly didn’t know that in the 1870s. The Crookes tube, simply a partially evacuated glass tube with cathode and anode at either end, was what Rontgen used to discover X-rays.

Canto: What are X-rays?

Jacinta: Electromagnetic radiation within a specific range of wavelengths. So the Crookes tube was an instrument for exploring the properties of these cathode rays. They applied a high DC voltage to the tube, via an induction coil, which ionised the small amount of air left in the tube – that’s to say it accelerated the motions of the small number of ions and free electrons, creating greater ionisation.

x-rays and the electromagnetic spectrum, taken from an article on the Chandra X-ray observatory

Canto: A rapid multiplication effect called a Townsend discharge.

Jacinta: An effect which can be analysed mathematically. The first ionisation event produces an ion pair, accelerating the positive ion towards the cathode and the freed electron toward the anode. Given a sufficiently strong electric field, the electron will have enough energy to free another electron in the next collision. The  two freed electrons will in turn free electrons, and so on, with the collisions and freed electrons growing exponentially, though the growth has a limit, called the Raether limit. But all of that was worked out much later. In the days of Crookes tubes, atoms were the smallest particles known, though they really only hypothesised, particularly through the work of the chemist John Dalton in the early nineteenth century. And of course they were thought to be indivisible, as the name implies.

Canto: We had no way of ‘seeing’ atoms in those days, and cathode rays themselves were invisible. What experimenters saw was a fluorescence, because many of the highly energised electrons, though aiming for the anode, would fly past, strike the back of the glass tube, where they excited orbital electrons to glow at higher energies. Experimenters were able to enhance this fluorescence through, for example, painting the inside walls of the tube with zinc sulphide.

Jacinta: So the point is, though electrical experiments had been carried out since the days of Benjamin Franklin in the mid-eighteenth century, and before, nobody knew how an electric current was transmitted. Without going into much detail, some thought they were carried by particles (like radiant atoms), others thought they were waves. J J Thomson, an outstanding theoretical and mathematical physicist, who had already done significant work on the particulate nature of matter, turned his attention to cathode rays and found that their velocity indicated a much lighter ‘element’ than the lightest element known, hydrogen. He also found that their velocity was uniform with respect to the current applied to them, regardless of the (atomic) nature of the gas being ionised. His experiments suggested that these ‘corpuscles’, as they were initially called, were 1000 times lighter than  hydrogen atoms. His work was clearly very important in the development of atomic theory – which in large measure he initiated – and he developed his own ‘plum pudding’ theory of atomic structure.

Canto: So that was all very interesting – next time we’ll have a look at electricity from another angle, shall we?


Written by stewart henderson

October 1, 2017 at 8:14 pm

heroes of another kind: the Matildas

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It might surprise some people to learn that I’m a bit of a sports tragic, though I follow sport in general a lot less than I did as a kid. Nowadays it’s a more or less guilty pleasure as I always feel, when watching a soccer game, that I should be  spending my time getting my head around cosmology, electronics, molecular biology or anything else that doesn’t come easily to me.

I say soccer – and that’s what I’ve always called it – because that’s almost all that I follow nowadays, though cricket, tennis, Aussie rules (not to be called AFL), golf, hockey, table tennis and even basketball, were all sports that I played, with extremely varied proficiency, as a youngster. And as a female supremacist, I’ve gone over to the bright side in recent years, and if I were to choose a sporting team to follow out of the many and varied, it would be the Matildas, our national women’s soccer team. And I’m only one of many jumping on the Matildas bandwagon at present. Their most recent home match, against Brazil in Newcastle, drew a record home crowd of nearly 17,000, remarkable for a Tuesday. Their previous record was set only a few days before, against Brazil again in Sydney, when 15,000 attended, just pipping the crowd for the GWS v West Coast Eagles AFL semi-final, a real indication of the rise of women’s soccer here, and it may it go on rising.

So, a little history. The first national women’s team competed in the Asian Women’s Championship in 1975 (the first ever held). Of course it was all pretty amateur in those early days and playing opportunities were sporadic for all women’s soccer teams. It’s fascinating that there was an FA ban on women’s football in place until 1971, according to Wikipedia (I think they’re talking about Britain, but in most places there wouldn’t have been any need for a ban, it just weren’t ladylike en it?). The first women’s world cup was held in 1991, and Australia made its first appearance in 1995, but lost all three of their group games, including a 5-0 loss to Denmark. Throughout the nineties, the Matildas (the name was adopted in’95) were unheralded and unpaid, and even resorted to posing for a nude calendar in 1999 to raise funds. The 2000 Sydney Olympics raised their profile, with large crowds attending their games for the first time, though their results were disappointing. A bit of a lull followed, though they managed to qualify for the 2003 world cup, and reached the quarter-finals in the 2004 Olympics. Gradually they were becoming recognised internationally. In 2007 they reached the quarter-finals of the world cup for the first time, and in 2010 they won their first international championship, the Asian Women’s Championship, now called the AFC Women’s Asian Cup. At the 2011 world cup they again reached the quarter-finals – and again in 2015. Earlier this year they defeated the USA for the first time in their history (after 27 attempts!). This has been their most striking year, with their victory in the inaugural tournament of nations, including a dominant 6-1 defeat of Brazil. As of September 1, the Matildas are ranked 6th in the world, though recent victories may have promoted them further. In any case it’s a ranking the men’s team could only dream of.

Australia has a national women’s soccer league, the W-league, which comprises nine teams, but many of our top players also play overseas – in Japan and the US in particular. Current players Lisa de Vanna and Clare Polkinghorne have been capped over 100 times for Australia, but the national side has generally managed to combine youthfulness with experience – for example defender Steph Catley already has 62 caps at age 23, Alanna Kennedy (defender) has 57 caps at age 22, Caitlin Foord (midfielder) has 58 caps at age 22, Emily van Egmond (midfielder) has 66 caps at age 24, and Katrina Gorry (midfielder) has 58 caps at age 25 (and those figures are already out of date). This extraordinary combo augurs well for the team’s future.

It’s probably fair to say, though, that Australia’s young star striker, Samantha Kerr, is garnering most of the plaudits at the moment. First capped for Australia at the age of fifteen, she became the all-time leading goalscorer in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) of the United States earlier this year, though she’s only just turned 24. Many of her goals have been spectacular – she’s a great header of the ball, and she certainly has the striker’s killer instinct. She also has great positional skills and her reading of the game and her assists are a joy to watch.

So it’s likely that the Matildas’ phenomenal recent success will continue for a while yet, and it’s quite plausible to see their ranking rise to the very top. The next world cup is in France in less than two years. Unless something disastrous happens in the intervening period, which is highly unlikely, Australia will start as one of the favourites, for the first time. Can’t wait!

super-striker Sam Kerr

Written by stewart henderson

October 1, 2017 at 7:31 am

three quite pleasurable little rants and rallies

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Bai Ping Ting

on Chinese women, fantasy and reality

I’ve been watching The General and I, a charming if generally ludicrous multi-million dollar Chinese historical fantasy series about a woman whose leadership abilities all men defer to. Fat chance of that happening in the real China, where the dictatorship of macho thugs has reigned supreme for decades. But could today’s fantasy – minus all the superhero powers – ever become tomorrow’s reality?

China, like every other country, has traditionally been highly patriarchal, and to be fair the dictatorship (I refuse to endorse the charade of calling the country a people’s republic) is moving with the times in calling for greater gender equality. However the political reality is clear. China’s dictatorship is essentially based on the nine members of the ‘Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party’, and of course these individuals are regularly replaced over time. No woman has ever been Standing (or even Sitting) on this Committee, and according to Wikipedia, ‘since 1997, China has fallen to 53rd place from 16th in the world in terms of female representation at its parliament, the National People’s Congress, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’.

Soong Ching-ling

It’s a disastrous situation, especially considering that in terms of women in the workforce, China is one of the world’s most egalitarian nations, outdoing the USA, Japan and many other developed countries. There seems to be little motivation to encourage women into the really important political jobs – the jobs they’d be best suited for as the more collaborative gender, and Angelababy’s Bai Ping Ting (actually not the most collaborative of females) is unlikely to change the situation. There doesn’t seem to be any woman of anywhere near the political stature of Cixi or Soong Ching-ling today. So I’d urge the smart women of China – there are millions of them – to rise up and demand their government to open its doors and let them in. They can’t do a Tianenman Square on you this time!



on the archbishop of everywhere and nowhere

The same-sex marriage/marriage equality no-brainer has dragged on for far too long here. The other day I heard a fat archbishop of somewhere-or-other being introduced by the ABC to put the nope case. He started on about marriage being meant to be between a man and a woman, and I switched him off. Ahhh, but to have spent some time alone with him…Ok, I’d promise to have my hands tied behind my back. I’d ask him, how may female archbishops are there, mate? I mean, throughout history? In round figures? How many female bishops? Cardinals? Popes? You don’t think that’s relevant? Are you prepared to admit that your organisation’s hierarchy is extremely patriarchal? Like, the most patriarchal institution in the western world by a million miles? No, don’t blether on about your Mamma Superiors, I’m talking about the big decision-makers, you know that. And have you noticed how the most patriarchal societies in the world – look at the Middle East, Africa, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe – are also the most homophobic? You think that’s coincidence? Bullshit, patriarchy and homophobia hang together like a pair of testicles, and if you were a female archbishop, as you should be, you wouldn’t be sitting there spewing shit. But no, the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church would rather collapse under the weight of its own criminality than appoint a female to high office. So let me now turn to women everywhere, but especially to educated women who identify as Catholic. What the fuck are you thinking? How can you sleep at night? How can you more or less passively support the most retrograde and destructive institution in the western world? If you haven’t the sense to recognise your own interest, do it for other women, straight or gay, religious or no, and make a stand, surely you can do no other.

don’t ban, just abandon


on the history of marriage

‘Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, and I see no reason to change it.’ These, from memory, were the words of our former PM Julia Gillard, who was otherwise a good leader. Of course, even it it were true that marriage had always been between blokes and sheilas, that wouldn’t be sufficient reason to continue with that exclusive system. It’s a bit like saying ‘blacks have always had to sit at the back of the bus and use the back entrance and eat the leftovers…’ But has marriage always been between men and women (or little girls)? Or even between humans (I’m sure I’ve heard of a few blokes marrying horses and such). Who of us has witnessed the first marriage? Or the second or the fiftieth or the 500th? Where and when did they take place? Ten thousand years ago? Fifty thousand? Presumably at the time of mitochondrial Eve, some 180-200,000 years ago from memory, humans – and she was most definitely Homo sapiens – didn’t marry. There was little need for it as far as I can see, as there wouldn’t have been much in the way of property to protect and hand down to your legitimate heirs. And that’s interesting because, since mEve definitely had children, and we’re all descended from them, that makes us all bastards.

We don’t even know if humans were particularly monogamous at that time – we know sweet FA about their sexual liaisons, though it seems likely they were more free and easy than they are now – together with plenty of fighting over best mates. Of course the romantic in me likes to think that a twist of fate could’ve taken us the way of the bonobo, but there’s still time, and I’ll fight for that twist for the rest of my days. Meanwhile, marriage, if we must have it (and I’d rather not) is always what we make it, and making it as inclusive as possible is surely the best for us, and will maybe bring us full circle…

love isn’t blind, just blinkered

Written by stewart henderson

September 27, 2017 at 10:53 pm

Limi girl: part 4

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Canto: In the next scene, Heigo returns home to find Shugio helping his mother with some chores, and accuses her of sucking up. She cheerfully acknowledges the fact, and mocks his sense of outrage. Heigo tells her he hates her, Shugio says she likes him. When Heigo’s mother sees them disputing, Shugio makes light of it. Next, we see Xiumei selling her collected fleece-flower and gentian, while Heigo dolefully watches her.

Jacinta: We might say ‘stalking’, but it seems a mite unfair in the context. She’s travelling through the rugged neighbourhood with her laden donkey, he’s following at a distance. Then, while fording a stream, she drops her bag in the water. Heigo to the rescue! They both chase the bag downstream, but Heigo gets to it first. Xiumei has no option but to be grateful, and she lets him accompany her…

Canto: It doesn’t really look like a reconciliation. They arrive at a kind of trading post, with young women exchanging goods for money. I think Shugio’s one of them. Abuse and admonitions rain down on Xiumei and ‘Shugio’s Heigo’ for being shamefully together. Xiumei is tearfully mad… She arrives home in a fury, having apparently shaken off her wannabe lover.

Jacinta: Her parents, sitting together husking corn, see something’s up. Her mother goes to her, and Xiumei just bawls in her arms. But soon after, she’s back at work, sorting out her baskets of herbs and roots, while her father watches from behind, at a loss as to how to help his daughter.

Canto: And in the next scene the father is visiting a school. We find that he’s asked her former teacher to come and talk to Xiumei. So the teacher comes to her home, expresses sorrow that things haven’t worked out for her, and offers her work as a substitute teacher. But she declines, she wants to pass the exam and leave her village once more. ‘It’s not easy for you or your father,’ he says, but she’s determined, though apologetic, even fearful.

Jacinta: So our brave heroine is next seen on the hills, dancing with young Gaidi, finding reasons to be cheerful, but of course Heigo is lurking. He approaches them, and Xiumei tells him the good news that her old teacher has promised to help were with a student loan if she passes her exam. Heigo looks none too happy about this, but Gaidi invites him to dance.

Canto: And surprise surprise, there they are innocently dancing when who should happen along but Shugio…

Jacinta: Some cinematic conventions are inevitable. Ahhh, but it turns out not to be Shugio… these village girls look much the same in their native costume. It’s another village girl who then hurries back to tell Shugio that ‘her’ Heigo is dancing and hugging with Xiumei – something of an exaggeration. Shugio jumps on her motorbike…

Canto: So it’s her motorbike after all. At least we’ve sorted one thing out…

Jacinta: But it won’t start. So she heads off on foot. She finds the three of them dancing together, and tries to separate them, talking of shamelessness, which naturally riles Xiumei. ‘Who do you think you are?’ yells Heigo. ‘I’m your fiancée,’ is Shugio’s tearful reply, (so goes the translation, though I suspect the romantic French word doesn’t quite capture it. Maybe betrothed?). Heigo looks put-upon and unimpressed, Xiumei, doesn’t want to know, and Shugio just runs off. It’s becoming tragic.

Canto: Not to mention claustrophobic. In the next scene we see Xiumei’s father, feeding the donkey, and Shugio turns up – presumably straight from the dancing altercation, saying ‘Uncle’. So they’re all a bit close for comfort. He invites her to come inside, and that’s where the scene ends. We can imagine… And so in the next scene Heigo is sitting having a drink with a friend, in the dark, under a full moon. ‘Wumulong is so beautiful’, says the friend, and I think he’s talking about their village. Heigo says, everyone wants to leave, and then they come back, then they want to leave again… He’s talking about the younger gen, no doubt. His friend (or is it his cousin), though, gives him no comfort, saying it’s natural for people to miss their homes. Heigo goes on, speaking about why people leave, but his friend keeps bringing him back home, to the right place, to belonging.

Jacinta: Outside of this dark circle of conversation is a young child, and, presumably, a wife, his friend’s wife. The woman, barely seen, is saying ‘go back to sleep’, but the child says no, no, no, no, louder and louder, and the defiant sound rings in Heigo’s defiant ears. It’s a nicely-caught moment from the director. I like this director.

Canto: The talk turns to Xiumei and Shugio, and again Heigo’s advised, in spite of his feelings, to stick with Shugio as ‘your daily necessity. You’ll understand in the future’. The whole scene emphasises Heigo’s isolation.

Jacinta: We next find Heigo arriving at Xiumei’s place – it’s quite confusing who lives where in this film, and their actual kin relations! Xiumei has locked herself in, and her mother is trying to interest her in some dinner. Heigo addresses Xiumei’s mother as ‘aunty’, and she tells Heigo that, after Shugio’s visit in which she told ‘everything’!?, Xiumei’s father scolded her (Xiumei). Heigo tries to communicate with Xiumei, but gets nowhere, and then her father asks to talk to him. Clearly this isn’t going to turn out well for poor Heigo.

Canto: Yes so Heigo has to endure the expected. Family reputation is the most important thing for Limi people, the elder says, and one day Xiumei, too, will marry (assuming of course that Heigo must marry Shugio. So, the elder says, if you really feel for Xiumei, you must simply help her towards a bright future.

Jacinta: Though what about Heigo’s future, forced to marry someone he doesn’t love? But Heigo, who is generally respectful to his elders – apart maybe from his mother – says that he understands, and the conversation ends. Has he really given up on Xiumei? As for that ‘family reputation’ thing, it makes me think of honour killings and the like. But this is how marriage was in other times, and is in other places…

Canto: And the elder’s statement that Xiumei too will marry, as if it’s the family’s decision, not hers, that’s kind of chilling to a western viewer. In the next scene, the wedding is being arranged by the adults, with Shugio present. The snare is tightening. And we learn in this conversation that Heigo’s father died when he was young – this explains his obstinacy, his mother apologises.

Jacinta: Next we find Xiumei visiting houses with her donkey, wanting to buy medicinal herbs for some reason. And then we switch to Gaidi in another part of the neighbourhood, being teased by some children as a ‘Szichuan girl’, but then Heigo arrives saying he’s bought a new ‘car’, though it’s actually a motorbike, and he offers her a ride, which she gladly accepts. The point of this scene, I now realise, is that Heigo has asserted his independence from Shugio by buying his own bike rather than riding hers. Switch back to Xiumei, who encounters another young woman on the mountain trail. It’s someone who was her classmate in elementary school, though Xiumei doesn’t recognise her at first. It’s been ten years. They walk the trail chatting, talking about Xiumei’s studies and the problems of working and studying, and the gossip about Heigo. It’s Xiumei’s classmate who does most of the talking. After a while, Xiumei tells her she should go, back to her husband. Her old friend complies, and then she turns back, and says, ‘Xiumei, you must go back to college, don’t end up having a life like mine!’ I’ve seen this film a few times now, and this scene gets me every time. The music comes on to heighten the significance of the moment, and it’s painfully effective, damn it.

Canto: Yes it’s a key moment, Xiumei watches her friend’s retreating back, no doubt feeling she’s carrying more than her own hopes into the future. So Xiumei wends her way home, to find Gaidi waiting for her. Uncle is sick, she says, and he’s been taken to the hospital.

Jacinta: That must be Xiumei’s dad? She rushes off to the hospital, and we see her confusion as she negotiates the wards. She finds Heigo and her mother. The doctor says he needs an operation, and asks for payment. Xiumei rushes off again to make the payment… is this money she has saved?

Canto: But we don’t see her make the payment, all we get is that it costs 1600 RMB, and next we find her visiting Shugio, in a desperate bid for money. Shugio is drying herbs and tries to ignore her, but when Xiumei kneels before her, Shugio quickly relents, and pays her 500 RMB for a few herbs. She has to force Xiumei to take all the money, and then turns her back when Xiumei tries to thank her.

Jacinta: Though of course she’s concerned. So back at the hospital, Xiumei is feeding and tending to her father. Devotion and tenderness, with all the underlying tensions…

Canto: So here ends part 4 of our near-endless review, or walk-through, of this very interesting movie. We will wrap it up in part 5.


Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2017 at 8:52 am

stand-alone solar: an off-grid solution for Australia’s remote regions (plus a bit of a rant)

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According to this article, Australia is leading the world in per capita uptake of rooftop solar, though currently South Australia is lagging behind, in spite of a lot of clean energy action from our government. The Clean Energy Regulator has recently released figures showing that 23% of Australians have installed rooftop solar in the last ten years, and this take-up is set to continue in spite of the notable lack of encouragement from the feds. South Australia is still making plenty of waves re clean energy, though, as it is continually lowering its record for minimum grid demand, through the use of solar PV. The record set a couple of days ago, interestingly on Sunday afternoon rather than in the middle of the night, was 587MW, almost 200MW less than the previous record set only a week or so before. Clearly this trend is set to continue.

It’s hard for me to get my head around what’s happening re disruptive technologies, microgrids, stand-alone solar, EVs, battery research and the like, not to mention the horribly complex economics around these developments, but the sense of excitement brought about by comprehensive change makes me ever-willing to try. Only this morning I heard a story of six farming households described as being ‘on the fringe of Western Australia’s power network’ who’ve successfully trialled stand-alone solar panels (powered by lithium-ion batteries) on their properties, after years of outages and ‘voltage spikes’*. The panels – and this is the fascinating part – were offered free by Western Power (WA’s government-owned energy utility), who were looking for a cheaper alternative to the cost of replacing ageing infrastructure. The high costs of connecting remote farms to the grid make off-grid power systems a viable alternative, which raises issues about that viability elsewhere given the decreasing costs of solar PV, which can maintain electricity during power outages, as one Ravensthorpe family, part of the trial, discovered in January this year. The region, 500 kilometres south of Perth, experienced heavy rain and flooding which caused power failures, but the solar systems were unaffected. All in all, the trial has ‘exceeded expectations’, according to this ABC report.

All this has exciting implications for the future, but there are immediate problems. Though Western Power would like to sign off on the trial as an overwhelming success, and to apply this solution to other communities in the area (3,000 potential sites have been pinpointed), current regulation prevents this, as it only allows Western Power to distribute energy, not to generate it, as its solar installations are judged as doing. Another instance of regulations not keeping up with changing circumstances and solutions. Western Power has no alternative but to extend the trial period until the legislation catches up (assuming it does). But it would surely be a mistake not to change the law asap:

“You’d be talking about a saving of about $300 million in terms of current cost of investment and cost of ongoing maintenance of distribution line against the cost of the stand-alone power system,” Mr Chalkley [Western Power CEO] said.

Just as a side issue, it’s interesting that our PM Malcolm Turnbull, whose government seems on the whole to be avoiding any mention of clean energy these days, has had solar panels on his harbourside mansion in Point Piper, Sydney, for years. He now has an upgraded 14 kW rooftop solar array and a 14kWh battery storage system installed there, and, according to a recent interview he did on radio 3AW, he doesn’t draw any electricity from the grid, in spite of using a lot of electricity for security as Prime Minister. Solar PV plus battery, I’m learning, equals a distributed solar system. The chief of AEMO (the Australian Energy Market Operator), Audrey Zibelman, recently stated that distributed rooftop solar is on its way to making up 30 to 40% of our energy generation mix, and that it could be used as a resource to replace baseload, as currently provided by coal and gas stations (I shall write about baseload power issues, for my own instruction, in the near future).

Of course Turnbull isn’t exactly spruiking the benefits of renewable energy, having struck a Faustian bargain with his conservative colleagues in order to maintain his prestigious position as PM. We can only hope for a change of government to have any hope of a national approach to the inevitable energy transition, and even then it’ll be a hard road to hoe. Meanwhile, Tony Abbott, Turnbull’s arch-conservative bête noir, continues to represent the dark side. How did this imbecilic creature ever get to be our Prime Minister? Has he ever shown any signs of scientific literacy? Again I would urge extreme vetting of all candidates for political office, here and elsewhere, based on a stringent scientific literacy test. Imagine the political shite that would be flushed down the drain with that one. Abbott, you’ll notice, always talks of climate change and renewable energy in religious terms, as a modern religion. That’s because religion is his principal obsession. He can’t talk about it in scientific terms, because he doesn’t know any. Unfortunately, these politicians are rarely challenged by journalists, and are often free to choose friendly journalists who never challenge their laughable remarks. It’s a bit of a fucked-up system.

Meanwhile the ‘green religionists’, such as the Chinese and Indian governments, and the German and Scandinavian governments, and Elon Musk and those who invest in his companies, and the researchers and scientists who continue to improve solar PV, wind turbine and battery technology, including flow batteries, supercapacitors and so much more, are improving their developments and disrupting traditional ways of providing energy, and will continue to do so, in spite of name-calling from the fringes (to whom they’re largely deaf, due to the huge level of support from their supporters). It really is an exciting time not to be a dinosaur.


Written by stewart henderson

September 20, 2017 at 9:32 pm