Hopeful about solar

I vaguely remember reading an article a few years ago that discussed some of the effects of moving to en energy economy driven by solar and wind. Aside from the superficial environmental impact, there’s a fundamental change in moving from a world where energy plants consume fuel and therefore have high marginal costs, to a world where the marginal cost of energy production effectively drops to zero. (Apart from comparatively small ongoing maintenance costs.)

A sufficiently large quantitative change can easily flip over into a qualitative change. If electricity can be made abundantly and (effectively) “for free”, all kinds of things become possible that previously were non-viable. I think this is similar to what the availability of computing power has done in the cloud era. (Like how you can set up a tech company without owning your own racks of servers; machine learning; and, regrettably, blockchains.)

This blog post by Casey Handmer of Terraform Industries shows big ambition and presents a hopeful vision for a possible future where the bulk of the world’s hydrocarbons can be mined from the atmosphere as a result of this shift in cost:

Our process works by using solar power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, concentrating CO2 from the atmosphere, then combining CO2 and hydrogen to form natural gas. […] As far as any of the market participants are concerned, fuel synthesis plants are less polluting, cheaper gas wells that convert capital investment into steady flows of fuel in a boringly predictable way.

There is nothing particularly special about the technological approach we’re taking. Each of the various parts is built on at least 100 years of industrial development, but up until this point no-one has considered scaling these up as a fundamental source of hydrocarbons, because doing so would be cost prohibitive. Why? The machinery is not particularly complex, but the energy demands are astronomical. Yet as our atmospheric CO2 concentration creeps steadily ever upwards year over year, our ability to extract silicon from rocks and transform it in frankly magical ways continues to progress.

One of these ways has produced the cheapest electricity ever. Electricity so cheap that in an ever growing number of markets it now makes more sense to turn solar electricity into hydrocarbons, than to burn hydrocarbons to make electricity.

Casey Handmer, “We’re going to need a lot of solar panels”

Covid sucks

We were at a wedding two weekends ago, and used the busy Eurostar from Amsterdam to London to get there. The train journey was lovely, but that’s probably where I picked up the disease. When we got back on the Sunday evening I had a sore throat. The following morning it was worse, and I tested positive for the coronavirus: an angry red T line that appeared even before the liquid had crept up to the C. We’ve been very cautious over for the last two years, and attending the wedding was a calculated risk. We masked as much as we could, but the dice rolled against us.

Fortunately we have a guest room with an en-suite bathroom that allows us to isolate from the rest of the household. Although Abi’s test on the Monday morning was negative, she wasn’t feeling great. As a precaution to shield Alex and Fiona, Abi joined me in the isolation chamber on Tuesday evening, and by Thursday she was testing positive as well. We’ve used Albert Heijn home delivery to keep the groceries flowing. Without a fridge, we’ve been living mostly on mueslibollen, cheese, and dry Kellogg’s cereal straight from the packet.

This was a rough ride. It’s only in the last couple of days that I’ve been starting to feel like myself again. After a week of nothing, my sense of smell has partly returned. Yesterday I actually felt bored, which was interesting. Until then I’d had a hard time concentrating on anything for any length of time. I’ve had a couple of books in here with me, but I only managed to finish one of them. We’ve watched some movies & TV shows together in the evenings, but mostly I’ve been feeling too exhausted to move or think.

Yesterday was a psychological low point. As well as feeling bored, I was starting to despair that this would ever end. We’ve been testing every day, and although my T line was fainter than the C line, I wasn’t seeing much change from day to day. I was scared that my immune system just wasn’t up to the task of clearing the virus, and that I’d still be in this state for weeks: the line getting slowly fainter, asymptotically approaching invisibility. Fiona is moving out next week. I’m upset that I haven’t been around with them for the last two weeks, and the thought of seeing them off to the airport in a taxi on Tuesday morning was painful. I had wanted these last couple of weeks at home to play out very differently.

Today, however, I tested and it was negative. I hardly dared to get my hopes up when a few minutes passed and there was still no line. But when 15 and 30 minutes went by and the T was still clear, I felt cautious relief. I’m still coughing, but that’s normal for me. (I have shitty lungs. I’ve never met a respiratory infection that didn’t love them.) My sense of smell isn’t all the way back, but at least it’s recovering.

Progression of my recent Covid tests, from Day 7 (18 July) to Day 11 (22 July). Day 0 was day of first positive test, Monday 11 July.

Abi is still testing positive, but her line is faint now as well, and today her C line appeared before the T line did. Also progress! But because we really don’t want to run the risk of Fiona testing positive on Tuesday morning before their flight, or Alex testing positive on Friday before we head off on our big road trip, I’m going to stay in isolation until tomorrow. If tomorrow’s test is negative as well, though, I’ll exit. I’ll probably keep wearing a mask around the house. Risk management is all about impact assessments and trade-offs. The impact of Alex or Fiona getting infected in the next few days would be really high, so extra caution is warranted.

Kevin Kelly’s wisdom

For the last couple of years Kevin Kelly has been marking his birthday with lists of pieces of wisdom he has accumulated over the years: 2022, 2021, 2020. As one reads through them, some will resonate, some won’t. I often say that I get all my best ideas in the shower, but I also get all my worst ideas in the shower as well. The hard bit is figuring out which is which.

In the light of a recent car rental, I can say that these two pieces of advice from his 2022 piece are in conflict:

• Getting cheated occasionally is the small price for trusting the best of everyone, because when you trust the best in others, they generally treat you best.

• Don’t purchase extra insurance if you are renting a car with a credit card.

All car rental companies will try to extract money from you with extra charges and inflated damage waiver insurance. You’re always better off buying such insurance separately. However, this is still no comfort when the company decides to charge your credit card for spurious damage after the fact. The sense of betrayal stings.

The lesson I feel I should have learned by now is: avoid unattended drop-offs, because they will try to take advantage of you whenever they can. Always take photographs of the car (or any other rental item for that matter) when you take receipt and when you return it.

This piece of Kelly’s advice from 2021 is also relevant:

• What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals. At your funeral people will not recall what you did; they will only remember how you made them feel.

I’m more familiar with this cautionary formulation: “people remember how you made them feel long after they’ve forgotten what you actually said or did.”

Let’s say that car rental company Easirent is on my shit list.

On solidarity


If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Lilla Watson et al.

McNamara Fallacy

From Wikipedia:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.

Daniel Yankelovich, “Corporate Priorities: A continuing study of the new demands on business” (1972).

Marathon walk around Amsterdam, Sunday 17 April 2022

Amsterdam RAI, quiet on a Sunday

It’s almost ten years ago that I first accidentally did a marathon walk through London, and looking back on my blog history and walking records in the MapMyWalk app, it’s almost four years since my last one.

It’s been a strange few years. During that walk in 2018 I came across a poster advertising a 100km walk, and I felt enthusiastic about giving that a try. But later in the year I was felled by burnout, and I put more importance on getting enough sleep instead. Between the end of 2018 and the middle of 2019 I was trying to get my head together, and shifting gears at work, to deliberately move more towards a managerial role. This included enrolling in an MSc programme, which has occupied a lot of my spare time in evenings and weekends since October 2019. Oh and family stuff. Oh and pandemic.

My sense of time has become wildly distorted. It was in May 2018 that Fiona and I went to visit the degree show at Duncan of Jordanstone college in Dundee, which feels like it was a turning point for my attitudes towards art school; and now we’re at a point where Fiona is going to be finishing school and moving to Scotland this summer.

I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly relying on tools to anchor my sense of time. I bought my iPhone X at the end of 2017. It was a top-of-the line phone at the time, and it’s still going strong. I had been looking forward to taking more photos with its high-quality camera, and being able to run all kinds of new and fancy apps that were just too slow on my old phone. One of the apps that has stood the test of time is MapMyWalk, which I’ve been using to track my walks, and have stubbornly refused to “go premium” with. All I want is an ad-free thing that will allow me to track my location and distance on a map, and save those tracks. I don’t want challenges or badges or social features. MapMyWalk is still very good at these basics, although over time it has made the premium features more prominent. It’s what I still use as my default tracker, and it’s how I checked when I did my last big walk.

On this walk I decided to pause the app when I took breaks. Inevitably, I sometimes forgot to un-pause when I set off again. The data is missing about 6km between Schellingwoude and Het Schouw.

(Annoyingly, MapMyWalk doesn’t allow for an export of time-series data in GPX format, so I have to use another app, GPX Trail Tracker, to gather data for use in geo-tagging photos from my non-location-enabled camera.)

Early in 2019 I bought a Fitbit Inspire HR with the goal of using it to track my sleep. The heart rate tracking and step tracking were incidental, and I don’t use them much. I would have liked a “smart wake” function that tries to detect “light sleep” up to half an hour or so before your alarm clock is due to go off and then buzzes you awake, but it wasn’t available on the cheap models back then. (It’s on the Charge 5 model now, which makes me wonder about an upgrade…) I occasionally also used the Fitbit app for entering my weight, which has actually been quite useful in hindsight for seeing how I’ve fluctuated over the last tree years.

Photos are a big part of being able to situate my memories in time. I’m all-in on the Apple ecosystem, and the native “Photos” app does a fine job of keeping everything in sync and backed up to the cloud, with the option to do some light editing along the way. HoudahGeo is what I use on my laptop to associate GPX tracks with camera photos, and it looks Houdah Software’s new “Photos Workbench” app is going to be a nice new evolution there. I’m slightly obsessive about keeping my photos properly geo-tagged and organised.

Recently I’ve also been tracking my blood pressure in the Apple Health app. We’ve got a BP monitor here at home, and it’s supposedly bluetooth-enabled, but it requires a dedicated app which doesn’t integrate with Apple Health, and I just don’t feel like putting effort into glueing the two together. I’ll just enter the data manually. I don’t see myself going down the full “quantified self” route, though. The Apple Health app seems like a nice idea for bringing all that health data together. It’s just a pity that none of the tools I actually use for tracking right now integrate with it, and that when I asked my doctor if she could use the data I’d been gathering there she just laughed. I’m not planning to buy an Apple Watch, because I rather enjoy only having to charge my Fitbit once a week.

So, back to the actual walk yesterday. I set out about 08:20, later than usual, because I just don’t enjoy early mornings. The first leg was 5km to the Hempont ferry to cross the Noordzeekanaal from Zaandam to Amsterdam. Then an 11km stretch south the the locks at de Nieuwe Meer. (For future walking reference, there’s a public toilet at the control station for the locks!)

Westhavenweg, heading south
House boats near the locks at Nieuwe Meer

Stopped for a bit at the locks to eat and drink, then struck out east towards the RAI. Passed Fiona’s old school on the way. Beyond the RAI, I skirted the south-east bank of the Amstel (Amstelkwartier & Overamstel), which is lovely, and where I’d never been before.


Onwards past Jaap Eden ice rink, through the Amsterdam University science park (also surprisingly nice), along the Amsterdam-Rijkanaal for a bit, then over the IJ at the Schellingwouderbrug, familiar to me as a walking crossing from the Dam-tot-Dam walk.


I stopped to eat and take care of my feet just after the Schellingwouderbrug. My left heel had blistered up, and my right heel wasn’t feeling too great. Despite taping they got much worse in the following 6km towards the ferry at Het Schouw, and my gait probably changed in response, which made my calves feel like they were constantly on the verge of cramping up. Annoyingly, I’d also forgotten to un-pause the MapMyWalk app, so I lost the fine details of that stretch. On the other hand, all it would have told me was that my pace had gone off a cliff.

Landsmeer-Schouw ferry

The last 7km or so back through Landsmeer to Oostzaan were slow and painful. I had loved the stretches through Amsterdam (I love this city), and the legs through the peaceful countryside felt a “can we just get this over with” in comparison. Very pretty, but also much more familiar, and I was taking fewer photos along the way. I’d deliberately left my good camera at home, to remove the temptation to stop and take lots of photos along the way and lose momentum, but I can’t just not take photos at all, can I?

Got back home just after 17:00. My legs almost immediately froze up, and Abi & Fiona mocked me for not being able to stand up any more.

I see these spontaneous marathon-length walks as a casual test of my own fitness. If I can make it through a 42km walk on a weekend without prior training and planning, then I’m in “good enough” condition. I’m happy to have lost a bit of weight in the last couple of months, and that probably helps.

PS: After my black (2017) and then blue (2018) Asics Patriots shoes, I got a pair of red ones in (I think?) early 2019, and I went through the whole pandemic with them. It helped that I wasn’t spending much time walking, or out of the house in general. I loved their colour! But they were getting quite tired and worn, and I bought another pair in February. Blue again, this time. As with the earlier ones, they give my toes lots of freedom, and they’ve very breathable. The heels seem to be where I consistently end up with trouble.