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Sunday, January 1st, 2017 05:47 pm
[personal profile] sfred and I just kicked off 2017 by going to see Lazarus at the King's Cross Theatre, the 'David Bowie Musical, inspired by the novel The Man Who Fell To Earth, by Walter Tevis'.

It's a very singular piece of theatre. It has a Brechtian sense of alienation, and I found it hard to engage with. Bowie has done Brecht before - Baal, directed by Alan Clarke and an equally singular piece of 1980s TV - so it's unclear whether this alienation effect is deliberate or, as it could be, the result of someone unfamiliar with how to make theatre work seamlesly. The result is, deliberately or otherwise, disjointed, and means that while individual songs like Life on Mars and Valentine's Day carry an emotional punch, they're not anchored to any deeper emotional content in the rest of the play. I was affected by them, but I'd have expected to be in tears, and I wasn't. That said, that may have been what the director was going for - I've felt the same about some very good theatre elsewhere, and this wasn't in any way bad. I'd just quite like to have been able to compare it with an alternative production that took a more coherent approach, and seen which I preferred.

The look of the musical, with a lot of the acting done against or on a giant video screen in the centre of the mostly bare stage, was very reminiscent of early 80s pop videos, which is perhaps unsurprising. I could imagine them all being shot by David Mallet, as many of Bowie's from the period were. In fact, the whole thing as a sequence of pop videos also had something of the feel of Absolute Beginners the Julian-Temple-directed partial Bowie vehicle that helped to sink Goldcrest Films in the mid 1980s. Like in that film, a lot of the individual set pieces in Lazarus are powerful and impressive in their own right, but aren't really anchored in the rest of the narrative (IMO, Ray Davies's Quiet Life is a perfect example of this). If, in 50 years' time, what remains of Lazarus is a few online clips of some of the songs, it will seem as though the whole piece must have been amazing, where here and now it seems just the sum of its parts.

Bowie's songs are, of course, great, but the dialogue is unmemorable and creaky in places, and contributed to the slight feel of this being someone's A-Level Theatre Studies project. I realise that I'm sounding as though I didn't like it, but I did. If I'd missed it, and someone had later told me about it, warts and all, I'd still be kicking myself that I hadn't seen it. I've seen very little else like it, and I didn't feel restless in my seat once. Lazarus is an experience that I'm very glad I had, and will remember for a long time to come. I just can't escape the feeling that, good though it was, it could have been awesome.
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Sunday, June 14th, 2009 06:06 pm
Sustainable energy - without the hot air, by David JC MacKay (ISBN: 978-0954452933, web site)

Sustainable Energy - without the hot air, by David J C MacKay
In short: read this book. Now.

Every so often, when considering 'green' issues, I'll find myself pondering a question like 'compared to a car engine, how much CO2 does a person cycling give off?' or 'surely even inefficient light bulbs give off heat, which means that I have to heat the room less, so how do those savings compare?' When Top Gear broke the story about bio-fuels to the masses back in 2003, one of my first thoughts was: 'OK, that's great, but let's say we take every car currently running on diesel and power it from rapeseed oil instead, how much land are we going to need to grow the rapeseed, and will there be any space left to build roads on?'

Such questions aren't rhetorical. They're amenable to scientific analysis (I did actually make an attempt at looking up the rapeseed one from publicly available figures), and I always harboured a dream of sitting down and working out the figures. But now I don't need to, because David MacKay, a Professor of Physics at Cambridge, has done it for me. And much, much more.

His central simplification is to use a fixed unit throughout; he measures power in kWh/d, or kilowatt hours per day. If this seems odd to the physicists among us - he could just as easily have used a kW, 1kW = 24 kWh/d and doesn't have that awkward 'hours per day' bit - he justifies it by calling it a handy human-sized quantity. a 40W light bulb, for example, uses 1kWh/d when switched on, and allegedly it's also the sort of power you'd get from one human servant. Anyway, the important thing is to use consistent units throughout, which he does. This allows us to compare all the different ways that we use power with the different ways that we can generate it.

For example, someone driving 30 miles every day uses about 40kWh/d. If I fly in a fully-loaded plane to San Francisco and back once a year, I use 30kWh/d. Covering my roof with solar panels could deliver 13kWh/d of heating, or 5kWh/d of electricity (but not both). As the book goes on, he stacks up the per-person consumption of energy in a red bar alongside the per-person possible generation of energy from renewables in green.

I don't want to give away the ending, but basically unless we cover 5% of the UK with solar panels, 10% with wind farms (in the same places), enclose the North Sea in a tidal barrier and burn all our waste, we're buggered. Without reducing our energy consumption (back to the pre industrial era levels, and probably reduce our population to those levels as well), or start using non-renewable sources of energy, the sums simply don't add up.

The good news is that David MacKay has several suggestions for where to go from here. The bad news is that all of them have some aspect that most people won't like, whether it's relying on nuclear power, using 'clean coal' power stations, importing energy from other countries that can make better use of renewables or an expensive and resource-hungry programme of building wind turbines.

In a way, though, that's beside the point. If you have a better plan, this book will help you do the sums for it. This also helps to compensate for one of the other problems with the book, which is that it's very UK-centric - although this is just a narrowing of focus; he considers the global context where it's appropriate, and has a chapter where he does the same sums for the US, and for the rest of Europe.

It's also worth mentioning that this is very much a book about sustainable energy, not climate change or 'carbon footprint'. He does talk a little about both of those, but it's not the main thrust of the book, which is about securing an energy supply that's not going to run out in 100 years or so. Obviously, reducing or eliminating fossil fuels from the power-generating equation is a key component of that, so incidentally CO2 emissions will be reduced, but even if you think that the greenhouse effect is exaggerated, or just scaremongering, you should read this book. The unsustainablity of our fossil fuel use is very real indeed.

That said, not all of the options he offers here are completely sustainable, largely because it's very, very hard to make the figures add up at all when looking purely at sustainable solutions. So he also considers solutions that 'will last us for the next 1000 years', as being close enough to sustainable as to be worth considering.

In part 1 of the book, the chapters alternate between power consumption and power generation, building up an overall picture of the balance. Part 2 considers possible solutions - these vary a lot, but some common themes are: favour electric transport, especially trains; improve the insulation of all buildings, but especially new builds; heat and cool houses through heat pumps. David MacKay likes heat pumps a lot, if I were at all suspicious that his research is being funded by an interested party, it would be a firm that makes heat pumps.

Part 3 goes into the technical details of some of the topics in part 1: the physics of deep-water waves, why aeroplanes are already about as efficient as they're ever going to be. This is a masterstroke - it allows him to stick to the calculations in part 1 without getting too bogged-down in where the figures come from, while giving details of the science behind the figures so that interested science-minded people can check his working. Similarly, there's a section at the end of each chapter where he lists references and further reading. He's separated these out very well, and there's usually enough information in the main body of the text to let you know what he's talking about without it breaking up the flow of the argument. Part 4 gives detailed figures and web links.

Actually, it's worth mentioning that this book is a great read. It's witty, the diagrams and tables are clear, and he comes up with some great analogies, like illustrating the problem with generating sustainable geothermal power by talking about drinking slushies. The whole book is available for free on the web site - if you like reading things on-line, by all means do that, but I found the book itself easier to flick backwards and forwards through.

I really, really like this book. If there's any justice, this book will become as popular a scince read as A Brief History of Time or The Blind Watchmaker, although I think it's both more accessible and more immediately relevant to day-to-day life than both of those. I'm considering buying ten copies and sending them to key politicians talking about the subject. I'm considering refusing to engage with anyone on the subject of energy policy until they've either read the book or demonstrated to my satisfaction that they're clued up enough on the figures not to need to. I like this book enough that I'm very wary of the happy death spiral with respect to it, but I think I can avoid it. At heart, the book is a set of numbers that either add up or don't, from sources that can be checked. I intend to check as many as I can.

And then to buy a heat pump.
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Saturday, June 13th, 2009 10:22 am
The Storm, by Vince Cable (ISBN: 978-1848870574)

The Storm - Vince Cable
In this book, Vince Cable (Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, in case you didn't know) writes about the economic crisis that's hit the world in the past year. He talks about what led up to it, what the UK and global implications are, and various possible ways we can respond.

Since Vince has been publicly warning about this since at least 2003, and was against the Conservatives' demutualisation of the Building Societies in 1996 partly because of the risk of the sort of crisis we're in now, he's extremely well-qualified to say 'I told you so'. It's to his credit - and greatly to the book's benefit - that he doesn't do so. Instead, he takes an almost non-partisan stance when looking at the crisis. Yes, he's a Keynsian, and the man who's been shaping Lib Dem economic policy for the past few years was never going to write a book that made it look silly, but he also praises Gordon Brown where he thinks he did the right thing and, more importantly, makes it clear that the situation is far larger and more complex than can be solved by UK party politics.

I'm not an economist, although I studied it for a year as part of my Engineering degree, so up to a point I have to trust that what Vince says makes sense. Certainly, where he's talking about areas that I do know anything about, or where I can check with other sources, his arguments seem well-founded. He writes with clarity, and organises his arguments well; even where I wasn't familiar with the economics going in, I felt I had a reasonable understanding of what he was talking about. Even so, I would have liked a glossary of terms, just so that I could be more confident that I was understanding correctly what Vince was talking about.

The section on the interrelation of the Chinese and western economies was especially complex. I 'm pretty sure that I understand it, but I still felt I needed to sit down and draw diagrams to get my head round concepts like China exporting $400 billion of savings to countries like the UK and the US. I did make the effort, though, because I believe that this is one of the most important sections of the book; the reactions of China and India to the global economic crisis seem crucial to what happens next, so understanding what they may do and how it's likely to affect us is vital. I did raise a wry grin from his conclusion of the section: 'What is needed is for the Chinese communists to behave more like communists and spend Chinese savings on social goods like healthcare and pensions instead of insisting on the privatization of those services.'

If there's an area that I'd have liked more detail on, it's that of protectionism. Vince is strongly anti-protectionist, and I suspect his instincts are right here, but he does at times come close to regarding it as an article of faith that protectionism will just make things worse. He points to history, but that's of limited use without a clear analysis of the history, and an explanation of why it made things worse. I don't feel I got enough of that here.

All told, though, this is a superb book. You won't find a magic bullet to get us out of the crisis because - and I apologise for posting spoilers - Vince doesn't have one. He has suggestions for approaches that might work but, as he makes clear in the book, there are so many things that could happen from here on, and so many ways that the countries involved could react to them, that any detailed plan will have to be torn up and rewritten many times before we find our way out of the crisis. Nonetheless, what I feel this book does provide is enough information to assess the different solutions proposed, and I think that's as much as could be hoped for. After reading The Storm, I have a far better understanding of the problem, and a good feel for some of the issues that any proposed solutions must address.

The cover's a bit odd, though; it looks as though Vince is worried about getting shat on by a passing seagull rather than considering the possible economic meltdown of the world's economies.

Here's a link to the book on Amazon (which I believe also makes the Lib Dems money for the referral, so if that bothers you or you don't like Amazon on principle, the book's still pretty easy to find elsewhere).