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Monthly Archives: November 2015

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Monkey Business at an Indian Wedding

We were privileged to attend a traditional Indian wedding at a marriage hall in Agra, just a stone’s throw away from the Taj Mahal. The chief cook was busy with two assistants in a couple of small enclosures adjacent to the main hall. They labored over a gas cooking fire, preparing sweetmeats and the main meal for the 300 guests expected to attend. Watching over the cooking fires perched on an adjacent wall were two handsome gray langurs who occasionally bared their teeth at someone or something in the distance.

Watching over the cooking fires: Hanuman Langurs

Watching over the cooking fires: Hanuman Langurs

They were watching over the cooking fires and keeping a troop of a dozen marauding rhesus macaques at bay. The two langurs belonged to the cook who kept them as pets for this very purpose.

Not invited to the banquet: Rhesus Macaques

Not invited to the banquet: Rhesus Macaques

These itinerant cooks are specialists who travel around during the wedding season carrying their large cast-iron vats, giant ladles and woks. They are in great demand during the wedding season from November till July, and are often booked out months in advance. They can churn out meals for hundreds at a couple of days notice.  A preliminary tasting convinced us it would be a meal to look forward to. More details after tonight’s banquet.

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Saving Trees: Grace in the South China Sea as a Kindle edition

20140926_180742“Grace in the South China Sea,” is now available as an e-book on Kindle. For copyright reasons, it won’t appear on the i-Tunes bookstore or Google Play books for 3 months, till mid-February. Potential readers are encouraged to buy the electronic edition rather than the paperback. One, it’s much cheaper, at US $ 3.21 (€3, or £2.30 at various Amazon sites), as opposed to $10.63 plus postage. Two, no trees have to die for the sake of a few hours of escapist reading pleasure. Hint. Trees play an important part in the story.

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For more by this author, see the Amazon page here.

Why Fossil Fuels are for Dinosaurs

Pity the poor middle management engineers at Volkswagen who are getting it in the neck for doing what their bosses told them to do, either explicitly or implicitly. There is a tremendous pool of superb engineering expertise at VW and at all the hundreds, if not thousands of ancillary companies worldwide that provide VW with components for the range of cars produced by the group. For decades they have been honing their skills, shaving ever-decreasing slivers of efficiency out of a mature technology that has been continuously refined for more than a hundred years. And now this technology has reached the end of a glorious innings. The automobile, driven by the internal combustion engine, has changed the face of the earth, has transformed the lives of every one of us. Let’s stand up and pay homage to all the brilliant men and women who developed and refined this means of individual transportation that gave us so much freedom to move, to explore the world.imgres

And before we sit down again, let’s observe a minute’s silence for all the thousands of people who will be out of jobs unless they are flexible enough to retrain, whose expertise will no longer be needed. The VW scandal shows, more clearly than any technical study, that the internal combustion has finally reached its limits. It can no longer cope with the air pollution standards demanded by the finite limits of our planet. Locomotion by means of controlled explosions within a confined space, the basis of internal combustion engines, cannot compete with the smooth power of an electric motor.

I first rented and drove an electric car six years ago. It was an expensive car, very basic, and the battery drained alarmingly quickly. Nevertheless, I could see the potential of the electric motor, and was immeasurably thrilled as the partially drained battery re-charged on a long hill descent, putting back nearly 50% of the power it had used to climb the hill. Not only that, but I hardly touched the brake. The speed of descent could be controlled by selecting between various levels of regenerative braking. That was the epiphany. Range anxiety is like fear of flying. Very real, but irrational.

For a conventional car company like VW, the imperative to continue doing what it knows best is irresistible. Otherwise what are they going to do with the hundreds of specialists on their payroll because electric motors are compact and virtually maintenance free? e-cars don’t need elaborate cooling systems; regenerative braking reduces wear and tear on conventional brakes; service intervals are much longer and costs are lower… the list goes on. What about batteries and range I hear you say? Yes. Batteries are a weak point, but they are getting better all the time. In 2010 my electric bicycle had a range of 25 kilometers with a 7-kilo lithium metal hydride battery pack (the battery pack was susceptible to the memory effect. i.e. it had to be completely drained before recharging). By 2012, my bicycle had a range of 50 kilometers, the lithium ion battery weighed less than 2 kilos and could be charged at any time without worrying about the memory effect. With ICE’s the fuel has to come from far away (often from troubled parts of the world). With an electric car, you can potentially make your own fuel at home and then it’s virtually free. Apart from concern for the planet, the biggest argument is when you think in terms of efficiency. The operating efficiency of an electric car is around 88%. For the best ICE’s after accounting for friction, losses in transmission, combustion, etc., the comparable figure is 15% to 30% (Energy Trends Report, 2008)

So if you have to buy a new car in the near future, project your thinking a little bit into the future and ask yourself: do I want to invest in a dinosaur?

The Island: Grace in the South China Sea

Grace entered the world yesterday. Readers take note. Grace entered without fanfare, a good omen in these days of multi-level international conflict, air disasters and general gloom. This is the first book in a trilogy.

Boats, sampans in Abderdeen Harbor, Hong Kong. Cover photograph by M. MacInnes

Boats, sampans in Abderdeen Harbor, Hong Kong. Cover photograph by M. MacInnes

Grace is a young woman of twenty-six when she discovers her unusual gift, a gift that enables her to find a lucrative job and acquire a modest fortune over the next five years. She sees at close quarters the environmental destruction caused by the company she works for, resigns from her job, and retires to an idyllic island in the South China Sea while trying to decide what to do with her life. A chance encounter with a lonely old woman grieving over the death of her beloved pet mongrel sets her unwittingly on a path where she has to use her burgeoning powers to avenge a murder and save her own life.

Although part of a trilogy, this is a complete novel  in itself. The second book about Grace, The Trees of Ta Prohm, is forthcoming in 2016. See the Amazon page here for more details. The e-book version of this novel will appear  in mid-November.