Friday, 24 April 2015

Kentucky Mack

I was in one of the McDonalds in Laval the other day.  Choosing quickly from the illuminated list of options above the counter I marched up and announced my choice.  I was politely invited to go and place my order at one of the automatic machines installed for this purpose.  I don't know about you, but although I can see the cost-saving logic behind minimising the number of staff employed in a fast food emporium, my emotional reaction is similar to what I would get if I had been politely told to sod off.

Laval boasts a KFC and at least two McDonalds, so if I'm up for fast food, and I'm in Laval, I normally make a choice between the two.  In my view, there's not a lot between them.  Chicken and beef are equally acceptable proteins; I prefer the McDonalds chips but KFC give you unlimited drinks.

I saw that there were quite a few chicken options to be had in this McDonalds, and chose one.  I didn't like it much, but there you go, you live and learn.   I wonder if they're trying to fight competition by offering both beef and chicken,  combatting the idea that you go to the other place for chicken if that's what you want.  Assuming that they can find a way to prepare chicken so I like it, then the choice for me will be determined between the quality of the chips and the availability of unlimited drinks.

With this in mind, I note that the idea is being floated by French politicians to ban the sale of unlimited refill drinks, in an effort to "combat obesity".  Interesting.  The reaction of the populace seems to be either "Haven't they got better things to do with their time", usually followed by a spirited description of better things they could be doing, or "Why can't they just eff off and leave us alone".

I can't find anything that tells me that low-calorie or sugar-free drinks would be excluded from this ban, which I find strange if the intention is to "combat obesity".  Is it cynical of me to wonder if I'm not seeing the results of some deft political lobbying on the part of my favourite burger chain?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015


Ok, so it comes out every year, and I blog about it every year, but, well, it's out again now and it's gorgeous.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Well whaddya know?

It was way back in 2010 that I mentioned in a blog post that I had seen some rather strange flowers on one of my walks, and I wondered what they might be, asking anyone who knew to tell me.

As it happens I was looking at the blog post just the other day, feeling just ever-so-slightly sorry for myself that no-one had answered it.  Well today I got an answer from an anonymous commenter. This is what they said:

"I came across this plant in France as well and was just as curious. After a bit of search I found what it was, this is an LATHREA CLANDESTINA, a really interesting plant. There is a nice article about it here:"

So there you go.  And thanks to my anonymous commenter.  Here's a free pic that has nothing to do with anything.

Best of a bad job

I reported in February 2013 on the bourse aux greffons, a market in which grafted apple trees were made and sold.  A graft fair rather than a craft fair, if you like. I bought four different trees and planted them.   It was not what you would call a success.

None of the grafts took.  Two of the rootstocks I bought grew vigorously, one is growing weedily, and the other died.  Oh well, live and learn.

However I have no need for random rootstock apple trees, so I figured I can leave the growing rootstock in place and graft my own trees onto them.  I have Granny Smith and Gala apple trees elsewhere in the garden, and I took a cutting from each and did my own grafts.  It was only a few minutes' work, and it might just get a good result.  After all, I can't possibly do any worse than the experts can I?

So the grafts are in place.  Nothing is happening yet, but then the parent trees are only just starting to swell their buds, so it's probably too early.  On the other hand, and completely off the subject, the asparagus is coming up. Good.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Clivia in bloom

The Clivia that my Mum gave me is making a magnificent display, it's currently in the hallway to show it off.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

On cables and sound

I posted just a little while back about my project to build some new amplifiers for my stereo.   I had a little problem with the power supply for one of the amps - it gave off a spark when switched on.  I sent it back to Hypex, who told me that they couldn't reproduce the problem, but they sent me a new one anyway.  So I installed it, fired up the amps, and they worked fine.  So now they form part of my stereo.  Here's a picture - the new amps are the two side-by-side silver boxes halfway up.

One of the things that I noticed is that they new amps have a bit more top end that I'm used to - they're a bit trebly.   I don't know if that's because the amps have to be run in - that's a common enough phenomenon.   But as it happens I have a set of very fine audio interconnect cables that I have used on systems in the past, that tame a slightly wild top end, and I swapped them into the system. Perfect.

Now, I know that audio signals fall into the lower end of the frequency spectrum that cables might have to deal with, and that measurable effects on cable performance only start to come in at radio frequencies.  I have debated with friends of mine about whether or not  choice of cables can impact the sound of a stereo.  The only proof is by demonstration, and I have shown puzzled scientific friends that two different types of cable, both of which should be perfectly adequate for audio, give very different results.  And they then sit and debate what might be happening.  As far as I'm aware, right now, no-one really knows.

As a listener to music, I really don't care what's happening, as long as I like the result.  As a scientist, I'd like to know.  And the trouble with no-one knowing, is that there tend to be forwarded all sorts of nonsensical explanations, most of which relate sound quality to the price of the cable.

Never mind.  Enjoy the music.

Friday, 20 March 2015

On energy

Here in the Mayenne there is a problem with water pollution.  There is enough fertiliser run-off going into the rivers and streams that the Powers That Be are worried about it.  I don't strictly know if the water fails to meet EU standards, but, evidently, Something Must be Done.

There used to be many water mills along the rivers that thread through the Mayenne, and each one had its dam and sluice gate for water management.  The mills have fallen into disuse but the dams and sluice gates remain, and these slow down the flow of water enough, apparently, to cause the pollutant concentrations to reach unacceptable levels.    The solution being proposed (and, by degrees, inplemented) is to destroy the old dams to speed up the water flow in the rivers: the rivers will flow more swiftly, the water levels will drop, there will be less time for the pollutants to accumulate and they will be carried away faster.   I believe that part of the argument for this approach is that sunlight on the pollutants causes chemical reactions that increase toxicity, and the less time the water is exposed to sunlight, the less the danger.

Well, fine.

The problem that I have with this approach is that, in energy usage terms, it's short-sighted.  Water mills are a low-tech and reliable source of mechanical energy that can be turned into useful electricity with a combination of three (relatively) low-tech and easily-available electrical components: an alternator, a battery and an inverter.  Given the way that electricity is becoming more and more expensive, and in greater and greater demand, I'd be looking for ways to exploit reliable water power rather than to destroy ways of making it.

The moulin du Gô just down the road, I am told, would generate about 7 kilowatts.  If it were my mill, that's what I'd be doing with it.  I reckon that with good energy management, you could run a reasonable-sized flat in a building like that with no need for a connection to mains electricity at all.

Heating the place in Winter would be the biggest concern.  7 kilowatts (peak) is not enough to heat and cook with, using traditional methods, even if the building's thermal insulation were of the best.  You could use a heat pump that would give you about a three-times return on the electrical energy you put in, but the problem with heat pumps is that they are less efficient in cold weather, and the last thing you need is a heating system that, as an innate characteristic, doesn't work well when it gets really cold.

So I'd go for burning wood as a source of heat.  It's renewable and carbon neutral (over the life of the tree) and also extremely low tech.  If all else fails, you can probaly still light a fire, and if necessary cook on it.   That leaves the electricity to do the lighting and, usually, the cooking.  With 7 kilowatts you would have to be careful about having the oven, microwave, kettle and hob running at the same time (of these the hob would consume the most), but with a bit of forethought you could prepare any given meal.  And perhaps with some electricity stored in batteries, you could exceed this consumption at peak times.

And as for burning wood, the gîte here, and the house (and the pool) are all warmed tht way.  You can get raw wood in the form of a felled tree, for 16 euros the cubic metre - you have to cut it up, transport it and dry it out yourself.  5 cubic metres will warm our house for the Winter (we needed less than that this year since it has been mild).  My pal Leo has found a local source of oak, and yesterday we were chopping up a tree into manageable bits.  A nice way to spend a sunny morning, and (give or take the petrol-powered chain saws) low tech and carbon neutral.

I've been keeping an eye open for water mills for sale.  Ideally it would have to have a functional wheel, but with buildings in need of a full renovation so that you could insulate them effectively without trashing too much functional finishing.  I'd have to sell this place first though, and that's a possible long-term, rather than an immediate, plan.  Here's an example mill for sale.  It has possibilities, but I think they're asking a bit much.

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