Monday, 9 December 2013

Spring and Autumn Annals

The trouble with Spring is, it's becoming too unreliable.

It has always been the case that it will lure you out under false pretences, whether you're a tree that blossoms in early sunshine only to have your finest artwork destroyed by late frost, or a Lunchista who steps out into the bright new day in a teeshirt only to have her limbs bitten by a cold wind.

But now there's a new dimension to the unreliable-ness of spring: will it be drought or flood? Or, like last year in these parts, both?

And that is why I have taken to planting seeds in the autumn instead. Put it this way: most seeds appear in the autumn. Where, then, does Mother Nature in her wisdom suppose that they should spend the winter? Should they nip over to the Southern hemisphere and reproduce twice as fast? Dematerialise altogether for six months? Lay up in a friendly kitchen drawer somehow, in the billions of years before kitchen drawers were invented?

There's a Kale plant in our front garden that's been there for so many years it has practically turned into a tree. Including the winter two years back when the front garden got down to 8 below zero. Just this year it decided it had had enough of producing lots of lovely green leaves, and went to seed: perhaps because some Celebrity has declared Kale to be a Superfood, and got it running scared.

And so the seeds find themselves planted on the Plot, next to the bed where the broad beans have just come up, and just down from the purple sprouting broccoli (which has also just come up), because it was a ludicrously lukewarm 11 degrees today and I could dig the bed in my shirtsleeves.

The one concession I have made to the fact that winter can be tough (and birds can get hungry), is to cover them with black netting.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Economic Growth

Apparently some Economic Growth has been spotted. But since it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer who allegedly spotted it, and his job depends on producing it, I think we can discount that as pure fabrication.

Unless, of course, they have been looking into the kitchen of Chateau Lunchista, wherein stand cases of newly-bottled Rosé wine from the kit I bought all those months ago. 

They can't tax it, but the quid pro quo is, I'm not allowed to sell it. Welcome to the Gift Economy.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Unsportsmanlike behaviour

Here is a model of an ideal, competitive market in, for example, the banking sector. The "winners" are those who make lots of money from sensible business decisions, and whose assets are deemed, by a referee, to be sound.

Note that the field is level, and that all players are starting from the same position, are unarmed, and none is attempting to bribe the referee. Like I said: "ideal".

Shortly after this picture was taken, however, things started to go awry. The three pigs on the right obtained an AK-47 and used it to extort extra money to compensate for terrible business decisions they had made in the past. There is also a distinct possibility that one or more of them passed the referee a backhander with a polite request to declare a rival's assets unsound (the brown envelope is just outside the picture).

Bacon buttie, anyone?

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Where has all the Weather gone?

There exists the phenomenon of "whiskers" in electronic circuits. This doesn't mean that the cat will spill food all over them, but rather that the solder joints and other tiny metal bits will, for reasons best known to themselves, grow microscopic spindles in the same way that crystals do. Over time these spindles change the way a circuit performs, and eventually a pair may touch, causing a short-circuit and the end of life as we know it for the device. By a horrible irony, the more complex and compact the device, the smaller are the gaps between circuit components and the sooner this breakdown is likely to happen.

This may, or may not, have been the fate that overtook our little weather station after a decade of faithful service. And so when somebody asked that usually unanswerable question "Is there anything in particular you'd like for Christmas?", for once I had an answer.

Meteorologically speaking, Space has gone up in the world. Besides temperature, humidity and pressure trend, the new device also measures wind speed and direction, and rainfall. The last two months, though, had been so full of all these things that we didn't have a chance to install the various pieces until last weekend.

But since then there's been no rain, no wind and no change in pressure.

It was exactly the same when I bought the newest water-barrel: its delivery and subsequent installation ushered in a drought of legendary proportions, meaning that it was several weeks before I learned whether it worked at all. Since then it has spent some of its time frozen solid (to its credit, it survived intact) and most of the rest of the time full but surplus to requirements.

The solar panels, when first put up, were privileged to meet an historically sunless August. The Plot, likewise, has just seen two of the worst years out of the past generation for actually growing any food.

There are times when I feel I ought to install or acquire some appliance which can only work in the event of something dreadful happening. It would be a sort of three-dimensional equivalent of Insurance.

All ideas wecome.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

For my Valentine

The Redcurrant-and-Strawberry was bottled today.

In the interests of scientific research, it has had a taste-test, and I have even managed to procure a Hydrometer. More accurately, the same friend who bought me the winemaking book for Christmas spotted a lot of wine-making apparatus being sold at knockdown prices in a shop I'd usually associate with bedclothes and cushions, and rang to ask what I'd like.

So here we are as I carefully unwrap the little glass tube...the further the gauge sinks, the less dense the wine (why doesn't the English language have an antonym for "dense"?), and the more alcoholic it is. So I lower the device in, twist to remove the bubbles sinks right past the scale!

And it tastes pretty good too!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A change of air

As far as I know no-one, no matter how fond they are of our present fast-paced and high-powered lifestyle, is arguing with this graph*.

The red line, which spends most of the interval from April to October each year descending, tells us that there are more plants, busily taking Carbon Dioxide out of the air and using it to build things like leaves, in the Northern hemisphere than there are down South.

The black line tells us that the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmsphere we know and love will very soon (i.e. by the time the black line reaches the top right-hand corner of the graph) have increased by a quarter when compared to the amount that, say, Elvis was breathing in to sing "Heartbreak Hotel".

The Green line (not visible on the graph) tells us that this matters, that we all have a hand in what is going on, and that there's a good chance it will end badly for us if we don't change our ways. Worse still, the Green line also tells us that once beyond a certain point, the level of Carbon Dioxide is likely to go on increasing, taking the temperature with it, no matter what we try and do to stop it. Like rolling a rock off the top of a ridge, a small change could cause matters to get out-of-hand.

But you knew that already, so let's park Carbon Dioxide for now and turn our attention to a different gas.

The proportion of Oxygen in the atmosphere has been just under 21% for as far back as anyone cares to remember. But it was not ever thus. Some of the earliest life on Earth, about 3 thousand million years ago, lived and worked in anaerobic conditions, the only Oxygen around at the time being a small amount that had outgassed from the oceans. Just as our hard work today produces the "exhaust" gas Carbon Dioxide, theirs produced Oxygen.

It's possible that these Cyanobacteria (also known, confusingly, as "Blue-green Algae") are the greatest success story ever on the planet: they're still here, both "outdoors" in their own right, and "indoors" photosynthesising within the cells of plants, still merrily chucking out Oxygen. There are both Aerobic and Anaerobic versions, and some can even fix Nitrogen.

Why, therefore, isn't the Oxygen level still rising? There are theories. I like this one:

At Oxygen levels under about 20%, it is impossible for anything to burn. It also turns out that, a few percentage points beyond this, it is difficult for anything remotely inflammable, such as a tree, to resist the temptation to spontaneously combust. So, forest fires start themselves if the level is too high: nothing burns at all, and possibly the entire Animal Kingdom works on a go-slow, if the level dips. Like a rock sitting at the bottom of a valley the Oxygen level will, if given a push, come back to the same old place.

So the atmosphere (including the trees, the Cyanobacteria and us) is in an odd state of equilibrium. Push it in the direction "Change Oxygen" and it comes back. Push it, on the other hand, in the "Change Carbon Dioxide" direction and it does something else altogether. Just like a boulder sitting pretty on a mountain pass (thanks Davison Soper, Particle Physics expert, for the picture).

In fact, unless we can adapt to a new atmosphere as thoroughly as the Cyanobacteria did all those aeons ago, and don't mind the inevitable billions of casualties, you could say we have reached a pretty pass.

*(Technical reference Dr. Pieter Tans, NOAA/ESRL ( and Dr. Ralph Keeling, Scripps Institution of Oceanography (

Monday, 21 January 2013

Wine: more space needed

It is now almost a year since he first winemaking efforts began here at Space.The apple wine which was started last February remained a little cloudy but was bottled up nonetheless. As the spring came, the Plot broke out in Dandelion flowers: we picked them all one sunny day, and as luck would have it there were just the right amount of flowers ("enough to fill a pillowcase", said the recipe) for one batch of wine. In summer the redcurrant bushes in the front garden excelled themselves, and there was exactly the right weight of fruit (if we added a punnet of strawberries which had got a bit squashed in transit...), to put together a "redcurrant and strawberry" must. Later in the season we were spoiled for blackberries, and last of all came the elderberries.

Bottling the apple wine turned out to be a bit scary. Well, scary in that sense that somehow gets to the backs of the knees. I bought professional corks and soaked them as per the instructions, but in spite of the massive mechanical advantage given me by the corking-device's long levers, it took practically all my body weight to press the corks in: a stunt interrupted by the unwelcome thought "What if that bottle shatters under the weight?.."

I haven't dared use the corker since. 

After deeming it not quite smooth or clear enough for actual drinking, we discovered that the apple wine made an excellent, and very cheap, substitute for the Chinese cooking wine which we use for marinading the meat for stir-fries. 

Then Christmas came, and with it the present of a vintage book on winemaking, which proved the perfect sequel to the practical little tome that had been my only guide so far. Reading it through shed much-needed light on several mysteries: why had the apple wine been cloudy? (Pectin in the fruit: you can get enzymes to destroy it) How can corking be made easier? (thread a plastic-coated piece of wire down the neck of the bottle so that you are no longer pushing against the air trapped within...then pull out the wire) and finally, how can you tell the strength of a wine from its density? (by using the book's conversion table). 

But the serendipity hasn't ended there. Browsing for kitchen stuff in a charity shop, what should I spot but...THIS!

There's anough space in there for no fewer than thirty bottles of wine! The exact number, in fact, that can be made using the kit I bought last year. Which is a perfect pot-boiler for the winter, until the dandelions come round again.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Hot space

There exists a school of thought which contends that, hidden within each and every electronic appliance sold to the public, there lurks a small timing device which is primed to trash some crucial function the day after the guarantee expires.

And so, the very day after its guarantee expired, the boiler here at Space started supplying lukewarm water to the shower. And then went on to cease supplying any warmth at all to the radiators. Just as the Met Office began to put out Amber Warnings for ice and snow for the weekend.

We took it as a bit of a challenge. How warm can you keep a (rather large) house, with no central heating? And how warm, in any case, do we need to be, to be comfortable? Or socially acceptable?

Of course, we went and found the convector-heater (every home should have one for just such emergencies, or indeed for softie guests: ours lives in the spare bedroom), and set it up in the kitchen. Its continuous efforts, along with sunshine during the day and cooking during the evening, kept at least one room of the house, almost, in the style to which it was accustomed.

Fils was offered the chance to light the woodburner if he were to put in a couple of hours of revision for GCSEs. This forfeit was pretty soon changed, to the more immediately useful (and fun) "if he would help chop up some more wood".

After that, GCSE revision was done communally (Fille is also in the throes) in front of the roaring flames, instead of the more usual set-up in front of the computer, interspersed with Facebook chatter.

I put on my warmest kit and carried on chattering on Facebook regardless. Neighbours saw my witterings and offered heaters, meals-over and sleep-overs. Most offers were gratefully taken up, and much appreciated, as by the Saturday the cold really began to bite. The house seemed to have been living on stored warmth for the first day or so.

Towards the end of Sunday the mood turned philosophical. Fille mused how people got by in days of yore before the comforts we take for granted. Fourteen degrees had been a normal room temperature right up until about 1970, and is still what is meant by "room temperature" when, for example, serving red wine. It occurred to me, as I listed some of the historical coping strategies (hot-water bottles, extra bedclothes, extra food, extra woollen clothes, including hats, indoors...), that I personally had used several of them, both during the 1970s power cuts and later in various cheap student digs. No-one else in the family, it dawned on me also, had lived anywhere, ever, without central heating.

The very nadir of the whole experience came on the Monday morning (so what's new?). A combination of having to get up early and leave the house quickly meant a cold, dark start for those who were to work or study a normal 5-day week. The neighbours' heaters really came into their own. The temperature in our (un-heatered) bedroom got down to single figures.

But the working week also brought us the repair team, and with them the return of Civilisation. It didn't even cost anything: some enthusiastic sales staff once upon a time had managed to persuade us to renew the guarantee automatically every year.

I must admit it felt a little odd, almost stuffy, with the heating back on. In its abssence I had spent most of the time with the urge to run around and do one thing or another: possibly a survival mechanism to avoid getting blue hands. In a way, it had been refreshing. Now it was warm enough, I just wanted to go to bed. Except that, complicated thought processes are a lot easier when you're warm enough. Like that job application I had been putting off...

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Mind the Gap II

Let us swiftly pass over the "summer" of 2012, because that's probably the best thing to do with it. Unless of course you happen to be a slug. Or the river, which found its way into pastures new, including some of the lower-lying plots on our site, devastating the bees and hens.

We come now to the misty autumn morning which finds my other half on his daily run down the path alongside the Plot. Looming out of the fog, in the corner by the western wall, is...nothing! No shed, just charred remains, sitting in the middle of which are the warped remnants of a barbecue-stand.

By an amusing irony, the only two objects that survived the conflagration had both been brought to the shed, over the past 18 months, by previous trespassers unknown. Something about their survival ("Bread and Buddha") made the whole thing bearable. Along with the fact that no other parts of the Plot, including the two wooden compost-holders, and the free apple tree from the City Council, had suffered any damage at all.

Far from it! Though it has lost a shed, the Plot has gained a lifetime's supply of Terra Preta. Mayan apocalypse? Pah!