Category Archives: How things work

Grandmother’s clock

grandmas-clock-caseThe old hall clock struck four at twenty minutes to six this morning. And then five at six. It’s almost like a code – but, as my wife points out, without that element of consistency which codes require to make them really useful.
I mention this because, endearingly, the old thing behaved itself perfectly all through this Christmas. I had finally given up on it a couple of years ago (when it struck something like twenty five at something like seventeen minutes past three) and since then it had stood, a beloved but silent sentinel, in the hall of our home. But this year, when I was putting the seasonal holly and tinsel in its hair, I suddenly had a whim to give it another try.
I hauled the weight up on its chain and circled the ancient hands to set the time, and as I did so I noticed with surprise that the correct number rang out as they passed each hour. So I gave the pendulum its little push and tiptoed away, pleased that I had restored, if only for a short time, the house’s ticking heart. But, as I’ve just said, it then surprised us by keeping time and striking the hours correctly right through the new year, asking only to be wound each night on my way upstairs to bed.
The way this happened was really quite weird, because now the festive season is over and we have hit 2017, it immediately reverted to being just as erratic as ever.

Continue reading Grandmother’s clock

Technical gadgets and gizmos on the trip

I do have some technical experience to share if anyone is contemplating a trip of the kind described in these posts of the last four weeks. And the usual disclaimers apply that I am not an expert and this may all be second nature to many readers. However, here goes: Continue reading Technical gadgets and gizmos on the trip

How many books would fit into a modern solid state drive?

Book and SSD
That’s the new drive in its packaging down on the right

James Joyces’ Ulysses (a famously long book) contains 265,000 words
Formatted as a simple Word document without images it occupies 1.66 MB on my hard drive.
So, dividing 250 Gigabytes by 1.6 Megabytes: 250,000,000,000 ÷ 1,660,000
gives the answer:  = 150,600 copies of Ulysses would fit onto the 250GB SSD

Let’s try to picture that:
One copy of this nice Folio edition weighs 3.5 kg
Therefore that makes a total of 527,108 kg = 518 UK tons  (about 100 elephants) fitting in the SSD

Shelf Space
One copy is 5 cm thick
That makes a total of 753,000 cm = 7.53 km of shelf space

Area of Paper
This Folio edition of Ulysses has 735 pages, each measuring 18 × 23.3 cm, that is 419.4 cm² (0.4194 m²)
0.4194 m² × 734 pages makes a total of 308 m² of typescript per copy (halved if you use Roughly a 4.8km square on Londonboth sides)
Therefore – Total area of paper required for the number of copies which would fit into the little SSD drive = 46,423,805 m²

There are one million square metres in one square kilometre, therefore it would require 46.4 km² of paper to store that amount of text.
That is a square 6.8 km on each side.

Here is a square of that size over central London (the fine grid lines on OS maps – just visible here – are 1km apart)

Wow! Or as the grandchildren would say, ‘awesome’.

the biggest science scandal ever

The journalist Christopher Booker has a way of trumpeting his discovery of what turn out to be non-existent science scandals.  Here he is on February 7 this year:



This article, headed “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”, turned out to be a misleading account of perfectly proper adjustments to readings from outdated measuring equipment which Mr Booker mistakenly thought showed that scientists were tampering with the historical record and trying to deceive the world about the need for action over climate change. [Full explanation of his errors here].

Mr Booker is rather given to this kind of language. Six years ago he ran an article in the Sunday Telegraph with the eerily similar heading “This is the worst scientific scandal of our generation“. The full text of this article, dated 29 Nov 2009,  is still on the ST website  [here if you want it]

Christopher Booker in the Sunday TelegraphThat ‘worst scientific scandal of our generation‘ wasn’t a scandal either, although Booker wasn’t alone in trumpeting it and calling it by the ridiculous misnomer, Climategate. And in a curious coincidence of hyperbole (unless they were hand-in-glove) another journalist, James Delingpole, wrote an article in The Spectator the following week [here if you want it] referring to the same events as  ‘the greatest scientific scandal in the history of the world‘. Gosh!

Another curious coincidence was the timing: these journalists, and a few others, broke the news of this 2009 ‘scandal’ – based as it was on a perverse interpretation of a ten-year-old stolen email, selected from thousands and quoted out of context – just three weeks before the Copenhagen Climate Summit of that year. It was therefore perfectly timed to undermine the political will so essential to making that crucial conference a success. What is certain is that Climategate – later described by Professor Sir Paul Nurse (see below) as ‘the scandal that never was’, did indeed play a part in securing the limp outcome which was so bitterly disappointing to all but climate change deniers.

At least four independent enquiries subsequently exonerated Dr Phil Jones and the Climatology Department of the University of East Anglia of all the charges of dishonesty which had been levelled so viciously against them. But the clearest description I have found of what actually happened was contained in a BBC Horizon programme by Professor Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society and Nobel laureate. This programme is no longer available online but I prepared a transcript of some crucial sections at the time and posted them [here]. This extraordinary account makes it clear that Dr Phil Jones’ Department was the object of a coordinated campaign to undermine its authority as a world-leading centre for climatological research, and to undermine the credibility of the warnings it, and by implication climate science in general, was giving.

That 2009 campaign by Mr Booker and others of his persuasion was all too successful. The worry is now that they have their (short) sights on undermining the climate talks which are scheduled for this year. They must not be allowed to succeed this time – the world cannot afford another Copenhagen. You might even say that the concerted effort in which they have played a not-insignificant part – either as collaborators or, hopefully, as dupes – to deceive the world over the most serious existential threat mankind has ever faced, really is ‘the biggest science scandal ever’.

Further experience of our electric Car

Our VW e-up! after 7 months/3,200 miles
Our e-car

Gorgeous to drive

It is simply gorgeous to drive. We absolutely love it.

Elastic. Like the wind. Sweeping up hills. Effortless. Gliding. Peaceful and docile in city jams. Like a little rocket when you put your foot down. Wonderful feeling of peace after a journey

And none of that old nonsense of ‘starting the engine’. Whatever the weather, you just touch your foot on the brake, turn the key, drive away. When you stop, the engine stops. No gears (this is the thing that seems to surprise everybody) and of course no clutch. Electric motors have their maximum power at rest, completely unlike ordinary engines which have to be ‘started’ (with an electric motor!) and then have to rev up until they have enough power to get you moving.  So the e-up! zooms straight off with a complete absence of fuss. Smooth from the first instant. No ‘warming up’ and none of the lumpy performance of many internal combustion engines when they are ‘cold’.

Under way the response is beautifully sensitive, especially while manoeuvring gently. There is an excellent hill-hold function which means you don’t need the handbrake to start on a gradient, either forwards or reverse. And the clever ‘recuperative braking’ function – which turns the engine into a dynamo as you lift pressure off the accelerator, reclaiming energy and feeding it back into the battery – means that most of the time you don’t need to move your foot onto the brake pedal at all to slow down. This has become so automatic and so convenient that it is the thing I find myself missing most while driving the diesel car.

On the road the e-up! has a solid, quality feel. It’s a bit bouncy on rough roads, especially in the back, but on reasonable surfaces it is smooth and refined and feels like a much larger car than it is .

Another thing people ask is whether the lack of engine noise is a problem – should there be some sort of warning sound instead? On the contrary, the quiet is nothing but a bonus. Many modern cars, especially hybrids, are virtually silent at low speeds and all drivers have to be careful near pedestrians and cyclists. At higher speeds road noise from the electric car builds up and the bright LED running lights wrapped round the ends of the front bumper are extremely effective in making the car conspicuous, even out of the corner of the eye. These lights, the easiest way or distinguishing the e-up! from the petrol up!, are a safety feature we appreciate very much, especially on country roads.  Much more relevant to the comfort of pedestrians, surely, is the wonderful absence of noise and fumes. This is something that is is likely to be appreciated more and more as people become used to it and increasingly expect it. (As a matter of fact the only time a pedestrian has stepped out in front of us during the eight months we have had the e-up! was when I was driving the other (diesel) car and the pedestrian was wearing headphones.)

There are a few irritating economies which hang over from the inexpensive petrol up! but are out of place in a premium vehicle. The electric version is highly specified with, for example, an integrated ‘info-tainment’ console, with sat-nav, radio, bluetooth phone link, aids to economical driving and charting of battery range and accessible charging stations. Yet it comes with only one smart key. We found that getting a second would cost us the best part of £200 and require a complex verification procedure requiring ID. Again, for a four door car it seems mean not to have an interior light for the rear seats or one in the luggage compartment/boot.

One small point is that the plastic flap that covers the charge point sticks out and can be broken off if you walk carelessly by it the wrong way.

Overstated range

The most serious criticism we have is that the range is consistently overstated by the instrumentation. When you have got used to this you make allowances but this is very much the wrong way round! If, instead, you always got a longer range than indicated it would do wonders to combat ‘range anxiety’ and make a huge difference to how positive people felt about the whole experience. It seems an elementary mistake for VW to have made, possibly reflecting their own wishful thinking about their exciting new baby.

So, with the battery fully charged we get an indicated range of between 70 and 80 miles, which seems to be calculated from our driving style  over the last few journeys. This indicated range jumps to about 90 miles when we switch to eco+ mode (which turns off the climate control and restricts the performance a bit). But on the road, using a combination of driving modes (the touch of a button toggles through normal, eco, and eco+ modes) we can only rely on a range of 70 miles in the summer and 60 miles in winter (when the battery is less efficient and you need more heating and lights).  And another problem is that there is no way of finding out how much leeway you’ve got before you would actually run flat. Short, that is, of having a friend with a low-loader follow you until you roll to a stop. We suspect the car would actually go further than it says, but have no way of being sure. And you do need to be sure.

Which is why the e-up! is not, in our opinion, a practical only car. It is an absolutely fabulous second car, but you need something else for the longer journeys. Which brings me to the issue of charging the battery.

The nuts and bolts of the electricity bit
Charging at home from an ordinary 13 amp square-pin plug in the garage is practical, convenient and cheap. This is a huge advantage of the VW models – you simply don’t need a special charging point, whether subsidised or not. When the technician came to install ours we talked it through with him and decided not to go ahead.

Charging from a 13 amp plug in the garage. You can just see the green lights of the charging unit on the far wall beyond the wing mirror.

Our e-up! adds about 8 miles range for every hour of charging at home. During this time it draws about 2 kilowatts, less than an electric kettle and well within the output of our solar panels during more than half the year. To the extent that we charge like this our motoring is entirely cost-free and carbon-free. For people who worry about this sort of thing this benefit is very significant indeed.

The display on the e-manager app

Anyway, for these reasons we try to charge during the day.The VW Car-net app (another premium feature) allows us to monitor the state of charge remotely and switch the process on and off at will. Connection can be lost at times but usually it works brilliantly.

Staying with friends we can plug into their household supply just as easily as into our own – another big advantage of the VW way of doing things. Sometimes they have solar panels as well.

In the eight months we have had the electric car we have spent £481 on petrol for the Skoda diesel compared with £889 for exactly the same period last year when we had the same Skoda and a petrol Ford Ka. Which extrapolates to a saving of almost £700 in a full year, less 14p per kWh for any charging which isn’t covered by the solar panels. So, with the free road tax,  free car parking permit in the town and freedom from congestion charges if we went to London, we are already eating quite substantially into the premium price for this gloriously premium vehicle.

Using public charging points is another thing entirely. In fact it is a jungle. Fortunately, having the diesel Skoda to use for longer journeys we have hardly had to use public chargers at all. But we are beginning to get our heads around the options available and gain a little confidence.


To start with you can’t just go to a charging point, plug in and make any payment necessary with a credit card. Oh no. That would be far too sensible. The charging points are all run by networks for which you need different access cards, sometimes purchasing payment credits in advance. The exception is EcoTricity – you do need to apply for their card but it is free and charging is all free as well. The excellent SpeakEV electric car forum lists seven different networks at the present time. All their comments speak of the lunacy of this way of doing things. But you just have to decide which networks you need depending on where you live and where you want to travel.


And the next problem is that there are at least four types of connector and two categories of charging speeds. Low speed AC (Alternating Current) charging is relatively easy, it uses the Type 2 connector which seems to be pretty ubiquitous. But when we tried it at a garden centre 14 miles away and measured the charging rate it only charged at the rate we get at home – about 8 miles added each hour. So if we had arrived there with a nearly flat battery (which of course we didn’t) it would have taken two hours to add what we needed to get us home.

When you get to Rapid DC (Direct Current) charging the fun really begins because there are three incompatible systems.

SSE ChargePoint
SSE ChargePoint at The Rapids, Romsey
CCS – AC – CHAdeMO connectors
CCS connector
CCS business-end

As a Volkswagen our e-up! uses what is intended to be the new standard – CCS

Using this it should draw 30 kW and charge to 80% in 15-20 minutes.  More of these points are coming online and we now have a good range at about the right distance from home – Andover, Romsey, Farnborough, Fareham. Ringwood, Beaconsfield, Crawley, the M4/A34 junction and Reading.  So far we have not had a chance to try one, but it is looking good. Another advantage of rapid charge points is that they are unlikely to be occupied for as long as AC points.

As I understand it, Renault’s and Nissans use the CHAdeMO connector and the up-market American Teslar range use a third, completely different kind of its own, sited in places like hotel car parks. These last charge at an almost incredible 120 kW and give the cars a range of  200 miles.

Our first impressions of owning an electric car

Our e-car
Our e-car. Note the distinctive running lights

Buying an electric car was something of an act of faith for us. There is still very little experience of them and even the dealer said it was only the second they had sold. A friend had shown us a Renault Zoe and his enthusiasm was infectious and persuasive, but we liked the fact that the new VW models have an option to charge from an ordinary 13 amp household plug.

But we didn’t, for example, know how well the electric VW would cope with hills. We were quite prepared for it to struggle a bit going up the steep incline from our garage to the road, and similarly on the steep zig-zag up the hill to where we live.

That just shows how little we had gleaned from our short test drive – we couldn’t have been more wrong. The way it gently, silently slips out of the garage and up onto the roadway, and the way it sweeps effortlessly up hills, absolutely ‘like the wind’, is a complete revelation and an intoxicating joy. We can’t resist going out at the slightest excuse to do it again. And we do that knowing that it isn’t costing anything at all: It doesn’t cause any noise; it doesn’t make any pollution. That’s because, charging on a reasonably sunny day, it draws less power than our solar panels are generating. So it  literally runs on the sunshine which would otherwise have heated up our roof tiles.  And – almost too obviously to point out – it doesn’t have an exhaust pipe, so it couldn’t emit exhaust gases if it tried.

With no gears the engine picks up strongly from rest and carries on pulling smoothly right through any amount of acceleration. This feels incomparably superior to the smoothest and most sophisticated of automatic gears. Apart from Park, Reverse, Neutral and Drive you can select one further mode, B, by pressing momentarily on against a spring. This engages the recuperation system which, provided the battery isn’t absolutely fully charged (when there is presumably nowhere for the electricity to go), the motor operates in reverse when you lift off the accelerator, gently but increasingly-firmly retarding the car as it puts energy back into the battery. This means that 1) you rarely have to move your foot onto the brake pedal and 2) at the end of a long descent you find you have several miles more range than you had at the beginning.

It all takes a bit of getting your head round, something so new. The motoring journalists in the reviews I’ve seen missed it completely. The one in the Telegraph, although he said he liked the e-up!, seemed to think the only reason anyone would actually buy one would be to save money, and he declared the issue settled when he found that most people wouldn’t. No economic case at all: QED. It is hard to imagine him applying the same criterion to a Porsche – ten times as expensive and in my opinion ten times less fun. Not to mention immeasurably less sustainable. But then that would only count in the equation if he worried about sustainability, which as a rule motoring journalists tend not to.

So the general impression is that it is an incredibly refined vehicle, uncannily quiet and unfussy, and a complete joy to travel in. It is hard to pin down what is quite so special about it, but it reminds me of a trip I once had in a glider, or of that wonderful sense of peace you get in a sailing boat when you get out of the harbour and kill the engine. As you slow down and stop, the engine stops. Silent, still, cool. Cars whose engines keep running until you turn them off begin to look a bit ridiculous. It could be quite soon that people come to see the internal combustion engine as crude and unsophisticated, and those exhaust pipes – no less than four huge ones on a Lamborghini I saw in a service station the other day – as frankly disgusting.

Everybody asks about the range. Well, a full charge takes it just over 80 miles. Another ten or so if you change to Eco+, which turns off the air conditioning and restricts the speed until you do a deliberate kick-down with the accelerator. Eco mode is somewhere in between. In Normal mode the e-up! zooms along the motorway and keeps up with and overtakes almost anything if you want it to. The instrumentation tells you exactly how much power you are using and the range remaining all the time.

So, we already do return trips to towns 35 miles away in complete confidence. [ADDENDUM – this should really say ‘in summer, using Eco+ mode’ –  see note added at the bottom*]  We have yet to try, or need, a rapid-charging station on a longer journey, but the thoroughly-integrated Garmin ‘Info-tainment’ centre tells us where they are when we do. We are registered with Ecotricity  and we have our swipe card, and charging will be free and take up to twenty minutes. The VW models use the new CCS connector which is currently being installed in charging centres. As far as we can tell we can also use the more common Type 2 connector as well. But I will edit this post to give clearer details of the practicalities of using these stations as we find them out. This is where the lack of people experienced in using the technology is so apparent. There is certainly a pioneering element which is probably part of the fun.

For the time being I would have two major reservations – I do not think we have reached the point where electric cars are practical as an only car for people who need to make long journeys. The extra range of the VW e-Golf might make the necessary difference but I think that remains to be seen.  And secondly, you really do need a garage where you can keep and charge it. I see no solution at the moment for the many people who have to keep their car in the street, and not even in a fixed position outside their house.

Otherwise, I’ve seen the future, and it works…

* Further note on Range 24 August:
Yesterday evening we took four adults on a 63 mile round-trip to the theatre.

Starting  with a full charge and on Eco+ mode the indicated range was 98 miles. As we started home it was 48 miles – battery charge dial showing between half and three quarters full. About ten miles from home we changed to normal mode, turned on the heating and stormed up a couple of hills to show off the car. Arriving home there were 8 miles remaining range indicated.

Full statistics of the journeys, from the VW Car-net e-remote smartphone app:

Out (Daylight, late afternoon)
31 miles in 53 minutes av 35 mph
Av. e-motor consumption 4.1 mpkWh (miles per kilowatt hour)
Av. recuperation 19.5 mpkWh
Av. secondary consumption (heating/lights, etc) 155.4 mpwWh

Return (Dark, temperature  <10°C)
32 miles in 57 minutes, av 33 mph.
Av. e-motor consumption  4.0 mpkWh
Av. recuperation 18.3 mpkWh
Av. Secondary consumption 28.3 mpkWh


New love affair

It takes time to get your head around having your own solar power.

Our PV roof panels were switched on three days ago and we have already generated (…gets up to look at the meter behind him on the wall…) 57.1 kilowatt hours. That’s much more power than we have used in that time. That’s a lot. Much more than I imagined.

Our system has a little bonus gizmo so that when we are not using all the power we generate (most of the time) the excess is fed automatically into the immersion heater in our hot water cylinder. So we switched off the gas boiler when the PV came on stream and we still have piping hot water for showers each morning. (That means zero energy cost, folks.)

But the thing which is so novel and which takes some really believing is that during the day we can use as much hot water as we like and there is absolutely no cost whatsoever – not to us and not to the planet: we are just using the heat from the sun that would have fallen on that part of the roof anyway.


Why isn’t everyone doing this!

Another thing: When the energy performance certificate for our house was done just six months ago the assessor estimated that a 2.5kW solar array would cost future owners (i.e. us) between £9,000 and £14,000. In fact our state-of-the-art array, installed with meticulous care and attention to detail last week, actually cost us £6,500. And it generates 4kW, getting on for twice as much as that estimate, for less than half the price.

Bottom line – even the experts have not understood how quickly solar power is becoming hugely cost effective.

And our bottom line is the profound satisfaction we are getting. We even have a new electric lawnmower, which – wait for it – gets used in summer and always during the day – isn’t that just beautiful.

Our system was generating 1kW at 8.00 this morning and 1.3kW at 6.00 this evening. And it is early April in supposedly dark and dreary England. Isn’t that beautiful too!

Oh yes, it peaked at just over 3kW. Eight panels on the East sloping roof and another eight on the West.

Am I becoming a  bore? Not to me. It’s wonderful!