Category Archives: Not Just Architecture

posts on topics not easily described by any of these other categories

Performance Beauty

It’s good to take a break from architecture every now and then. 

So one evening last week I powered down the laptop and fired up YouTube on the flatscreen. I was in the mood for opera!  “Sure,” you may say, “but opera’s still about organizing people and how they move and interact in and around a space!”  “True,” I would reply, “but it’s got music and singing and drama and merrymaking, all of which architecture tends not to.” I wanted modern staging with simple means employed to maximum effect. I’ve nothing against minimal stagings such as this one for The Metropolitan Opera‘s 2012 production of La Traviata


but object to starchitect product placement presented as either news or art, such as with this Don Giovanni set design by Frank Gehry

or this Cosi fan Tutte set design by Zaha Hadid.

I settled down to watch this production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte. It’s always inspiring to watch things done by people good at their game and Mozart was definitely one of those. 

It was jolly enough and the simple set worked well and didn’t get in the way. When it ended, I let YouTube suggest what next. It turned out to be Cosi fan Tutte again, but this time with a rotating set having three scenes. Now, the set itself became part of the action. It was interesting to see what two different directors and set designers can come up with when given the same brief of satisfying some necessary requirements yet at the same time make something seem new and fresh again.

For some years I’d been trying to identify a particular piece of music that turned out to be the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Christophe Willibald Gluck‘s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. I wanted to check it out and now was that time. My first find was this from choreographer Pina Bausch’s 2008 production. Pina Bausch is another person good at their game but, awesome as this is, it’s about dance not opera.

Now. In 1755, Francesco Algarotti had written his Essay on the Opera, calling for its simplification and for the emphasis to be on the drama instead of the music, dance or staging. Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi were the first to make it work. If they hadn’t, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) would no doubt have.

Orefo and Euridice was first performed in Vienna in 1762. Mozart’s fourth opera, Mitridate – Re di Punto from 1770 still had lengthy recitative and continuo bridges and is not as musically inventive or dramatically tight. He was fourteen when he wrote it though, and he had written only four operas before.

Gluck’s reforms were controversial at the time but they were good and timely ones that would change opera forever. The most important was to simplify the music. Gluck did away with long recitatives separating virtuoso arias. He did away with virtuosity – it was no longer about the star singers. Conductor Sir Roger Norrington said of him,

“Gluck’s significance is deeper than just his attempts at musical revolution. Gluck’s influence arose from his melodic genius as much as from his reforming zeal.  The touching honesty of his arias gives them tremendous power. I admire the way Gluck risks great simplicity in his musical methods, at a time when elaboration and show were taken to such lengths…” 

Keeping the music going was a major step in the development of modern opera but, more importantly, Gluck kept the plot moving. In the third act we even see a glimpse of that thing Verdi was to later perfect – the simultaneous singing of plural psychologies for dramatic effect. With Orfeo ed Euridice, the art was now in the drama and not in the dramatization. It was the first modern opera. The first version I came across had Janet Baker as Orpheus at Glyndebourne in 1982. Its staging seemed over-contrived.

janet baker

“Overly-contrived” is an accusation frequently leveled at opera staging. The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 production of Orfeo ed Euridice came in for a bashing on that count.


A 2008 French production erred in the other direction, also mistaking inadequate illumination for darkness. Drama is only dramatic if we can see it.

If anything’s going to be dramatic, then the scene where Orpheus pleads to be allowed to pass through The Underworld must surely be one of those instances?

“O, have mercy on me!

Ye Furies! Ye spectres! Ye angry shades!
May my cruel grief
at least earn your pity!

“Like you, O troubled shades,
a thousand pangs I too suffer.
I carry my hell with me,
I feel it in the depths of my heart.”

This production got it right. Along with everything else.


The film was shot entirely on location in the historic Baroque Theatre of the Český Krumlov Castle. The theatre dates from 1680, and maintains today the stage equipment and machinery from the 1765-66 renovation, making it one of the oldest functioning Baroque theatres in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is not a film of a staged opera production for a public audience. This is an opera production designed specifically for film. There was no audience, all takes were sung live, and the entire spectrum of the theatre was used, including the backstage space, the flyspace, hallways, cellars, and the auditorium itself.

It’s a joy. We get to wander around an old theatre, hear some wonderful singing and get our fill of drama. We also get to watch some people very good at their game. It’s a great night in.

  • The stage staging is genuine Baroque, not some trendy re-imagining. amore2
  • Another improvement Gluck would’ve approved of is the elimination of the extended dance sequences. Nobody knows for sure what Baroque dance actually looked like anyway. Dance of the Blessed Spirits, lovely as it must have been, had to go. This production is lean, fast, and more dramatic and drama is the currency of opera as we now know it thanks to Gluck.
  • The part of Orfeo was originally written for a haute-contra (high-tenor) voice popular in the Baroque era. It’s more common for the part of Orfeo to be sung by either a contralto, mezzo-soprano or castrato – all of which are, to my mind, cheating. This production restores the lead role to a high tenor voice known these days as a counter-tenor (a.k.a. contratenor) and the male equivalent of contralto.
  • Getting rid of the audience is another innovation. This production is sung live, but not for the benefit of an audience of theatre-goers but for us out here. Film’s immediacy and closeness intensify drama.
  • Every now and then, we’re jolted into modernity by a glance, smile, nod, hesitancy or shrug we can relate to. Drama isn’t dramatic if we can’t relate to it.
  • The Underworld seems human, The Furies a bit harsh at first but okay once you get to know them.
  • There’s no fire or gates in this production. Hell is other peoplethe only obstruction.


  • Elysium is made to seem as if it might become a bit tedious and start to get on our nerves after a while. This is nice to know.


  • Amor (a.k.a. Cupid) seems to just to screw people around.
  • But poor Orpheus! He goes through Hell only to find two new types of it after he’s reunited with his wife.
  • At the end, Euridice gets her priorities wrong, enjoying her moment of media glory to much. Orpheus walks away, leaving her to it. True hero.

Much of this art must be due to the Director, Ondřej Havelka and to to Bejun Mehta who sang Orfeo and was also artistic advisor, but something like this is the result of many persons’ skill, time, teamwork and dedication.

    Much use is made of candles but modern lighting is also used to dramatic effect – lights are dimmed for intense feelings, colour of light emphasises the difference between the dead and the living and in the same frame.
    The Baroque sets have a simplicity that’s charming in their quiet inventiveness but, as Gluck would have liked, are not the main event.

    Act 3The second time around for Eurydice, she ends up in the same place as the scenery whose time ‘onstage’ is over. This isn’t accidental – somebody devised it to be so. Somewhere, someone is thinking beautiful thoughts about the power of scenery and moving it around. It’s both delightful and shocking to see such quiet creativity at work – to see that there even still is such a thing.

    treesAlso, in nearly every frame you can see the colours red, blue, green and yellow. I don’t know why, but this seems to generate subliminal feelings of warmth towards a frame. (The last time I saw such an awareness of drama by colour was Paris, Texas.) The proportions of the colours of course change to intensify the drama of the scene. Hell is mostly blue, but never completely. There’s not much blue in Elysium and we sense something lacking. Also.

    Mehta’s costume is a balance of muted primaries – skin tone providing the yellow. The most striking colours in the entire performance are the ones most off balance. His red sash always denotes him on the stage as the most important character. Amor, as you would expect, is another important exception with her brilliant gold breastplate and bow.

An art of this kind is the result of a shared LOVE FOR THE ART – and working to produce a tribute to that art. As either architects or image consumers, we don’t get to see that very often.
The performance wears its art and its artifice lightly. We’re also unaccustomed to that. The power and – I will say it – beauty of this performance come not from some forced newness for the sake of it but from a respect for the fundamentals. It gets its priorities right.

• • •

The opera is on YouTube for me or anyone else to watch anytime. I don’t have a DVD player and don’t intend to get one but I purchased the DVD all the same. This won’t restore any sense of fair reward to the world, but these people already have my respect and admiration. I needed them to have my money as well.

Rocket Science

The Rocket Stove is the application of pure thought to solve a problem that affects the health and lives of about one third of the world’s population.

Smoke from cooking fires kills two million persons per year, mostly mothers and small children. Stoves and open fires are the primary means of cooking and heating for nearly three billion people. In India, some 400,000 people die each year from the toxic fumes. In Africa, 500,000 children under the age of five die from pneumonia attributable to indoor air pollution, according to the WHO. Most of these deaths are attributable to cooking indoors over a three-stone cooking fire.


• • •


The Aprovecho Research Center

For over 30 years, Aprovecho Research Center (ARC) consultants have been designing and implementing improved biomass cooking and heating technologies in more than 60 countries worldwide. The Center was formally established in 1976, and is dedicated to researching, developing and disseminating clean cookstove technologies for meeting the basic needs of refugees, impoverished people, and communities in the developing world. For decades, ARC has been the world’s leader in open source development of all aspects of improved cooking stoves.


Dr. Larry Winiarski works for the Aprovecho Research Centre. He’s known as the inventor of The Rocket Stove but it’s more correct to say he identified the principles that a Rocket Stove makes use of to work as efficiently and elegantly as it does .


  • Air flows in from the fuel intake and is pre-heated for better combustion
  • The fuel partially blocks the air intake, allowing for a better fuel/air ratio.
  • The intake air is preheated for more efficient combustion.
  • Fuel burns horizontally at the bottom of the combustion chamber. Any smoke is drawn upwards through a high temperature zone, ensuring more complete combustion.
  • More complete combustion means less smoke.

  • The stove can burn relatively green wood. Moisture near the surface of the wood turns to steam that, when it comes into contact with hot charcoal, forms CO and H2 which are both combustible. Their combustion reaction further increases the temperature of the high-temperature zone, to ensure even more complete combustion, and even less smokeDr. Winiarski explains the mechanisms of combustion and heat transfer in this paper.

“One of the first things to recognize is that solid or liquid material does not burn directly. It must be converted to gasses in order to burn. Most biomass is hydrocarbons which, when heated convert to oil and oil vapors of many different types. Some oils such as fragrances, turpentine are visible or smelled even before the biomass is heated. Green, wet wood may contain as much as its dry weight in water and, in order to burn water, must be evaporated. Up to about 1000 BTUs of energy is used to evaporate each pound of water. At sea level and atmospheric pressure, the temperature of boiling water is limited to 212 degrees fahrenheit.

“Similarly heat energy must be provided to evaporate or distill each of the hydrocarbons formed from the wood. The lighter hydrocarbons are easier to change to the gas phase, heavier hydrocarbons like creosote take more energy, however if too much fuel surface is heated and the gases cool before they can intermingle and ignite with hot air or oxygen they will condense back into a fog our cloud of oil droplets. This is the smoke we see. It is analogous to the fog or cloud that forms when water vapor condenses. Heat must re-evaporate the oil droplets before they can burn. After the many different types of oils are combusted only charcoal remains. The hot charcoal first reacts with oxygen to form gaseous carbon monoxide. Then the carbon monoxide burns with the air to make carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the final result of a clean burn. Smoke and carbon monoxide are wasted fuel.”

  • Twigs and other types of low-grade wood scraps not normally classed as firewood have a proportionally larger surface area to supply fuel for these reactions.
  • Low-grade scrap wood works better than high-grade firewood.

  • The horizontal burning of the wood allows for better monitoring and tending.
  • The stove can be designed to have an angled gravity feed.
  • Variations can be made to have a secondary heating “element
  • The flue can be vented through a thermal mass element that functions as a heat storage device for space heating.


  • The stove can be made for practically nothing. 

  • You can make one yourself out of three cans.


  • Four concrete blocks.
  • About 30 bricks.


  • You can make a rocket-stove inspired architectural feature if you like.


  • But, judging by the size of that air/fuel opening and the type/size/shape of fuel, it won’t function as efficiently one made of mud and using twigs for fuel.


• • •


Dr. Larry Winiarski & The Aprovecho Research Center

for having an idea for an object that’s as perfect as an object can be
and for releasing it to the world to be used wherever it brings benefit

misfits salutes you!

Too Clever for Words

There’s a book – The Humument – by artist Tom Philips. What Philips did was take a book, The Human Monument (W H Mallock, 1892) and artistically deface it to make a new story with a new plot and new characters. More or less. It doesn’t matter. Each page is a joy.

[no title: p. 56] 1970 by Tom Phillips born 1937

I’m going to give The Humument treatment to Michael Sorkin’s article Critical Measure: Why Criticism Matters from the June 2014 issue of The Architectural Review. Here’s the full article. Like A Human Monument, it suffers from being a bit long, a bit longwinded, skewed by the author’s preoccupations and prejudices and – most damningly – having no illustrations.  

To me, the point of the article seems to be to position Mr. Sorkin as conscience consultant to the architectural profession. It had to happen I guess as part of the ongoing outsourcing of architectural skills, but what’ll become of those who can’t afford this service? More to the point, what’ll become of us because of those who can’t afford this service?! Will we be condemned to suffer shapes that haven’t passed Sorkin’s critical digestion? Will we even notice?

Another comical theme is to reprimand Zaha Hadid Architects for not setting a better example regarding sustainability.


I’ve neither the humour nor Philips’ talent so what I’m going to do is just delete the bulk of the text and keep only what amuses me or otherwise suits my purposes.

DISCLAIMERS: For all you Post-Modernists out there, I must state that Mr. Sorkin did not embed any specific text for me to discover. He did though embed meanings but for the most part they eluded me and I’m not sure whose fault that was. But for all you Deconstructivists out there, I should mention that my generated text was never a subtext of any kind. It follows its own path at times contradictory and at times parallel. And finally, if there’s anyone who actually bought into the recent attempt to resuscitate AdHoc-ism, a dictionary does not say all there is to say. Are we good to go?

• • •


I began this exercise intending to ridicule excruciating paragraphs such as this next. Make of it what you will. It doesn’t seem a great way to argue for why criticism matters. Oh to be paid by the word!



In the course of writing this post, I read between and across the lines and paragraphs in more than one direction. I saw and tested many juxtapositions of words and meanings. Some I played for cheap laughs and some I twisted to my own agenda. Some paragraphs I inadvertently paraphrased. The original meanings did not go unnoticed. I agreed three times at least with Sorkin and this I did not expect.

The Great Filter

Here’s a quick fly-through of The Universe. It’s fairly awesome.

We’ve recently found The Universe to be a bit more awesome.

Ahem… so then, WHERE IS EVERYBODY?!


This is the Fermi ParadoxThe apparent size and age of the universe suggests that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it. 

We here on Earth have been announcing our presence consciously since 1974 with messages such as the Arecibo Message that looked like this, colour added.


It shows how intelligent we are by indicating

  1. We can count from (1) to ten (10)
  2. We know the numbers of protons of the elements in DNA
  3. We know the formulae for the sugars and bases in the nucleotides of DNA
  4. We know the number of nucleotides in DNA and how they form,
  5. A selfie of a human, the dimension (physical height) of an average man, and the human population of Earth
  6. A graphic of the Solar System indicating where the message is coming from
  7. A graphic of the Arecibo radio telescope and the dimension (the physical diameter) of the transmitting antenna dish

The message has ten-fingered DNA-centric written all over it but it doesn’t matter – by the time it gets to where it’s been sent, its intended destination will have moved – which is not so clever. [Perhaps other “intelligences” are trying and missing as well?] In any case, SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence hasn’t turned up anything. Nada. Niente. Nanimo. We seem to be, for all intents and purposes, alone in the universe.

In 1968, Erich von Däniken didn’t think so.


His book Chariots of the Gods? suggested that the technologies and religions of many ancient civilizations were given to them by ancient astronauts who were welcomed as gods.



And so on. I haven’t heard much of von Däniken’s “WHO ELSE BUT ALIENS COULD POSSIBLY HAVE DONE THIS!” jumpy conclusions recently so they’ve probably been debunked by later books such as this.


In 1996, Robert Hanson returned to Fermi’s question of “Where are they then?” and gave it some thought. He concluded there must be something stopping life from spreading throughout the universe as we feel it ought to. His line of thinking went like this.

With no evidence of intelligent life other than ourselves, it appears that the process of starting with a star and ending with “advanced explosive lasting life” must be unlikely. This implies that at least one of the following steps must be improbable. 

  1. The right star system (including organics and potentially habitable planets)
  2. Reproductive molecules (e.g., RNA)
  3. Simple (prokaryotic) single-cell life
  4. Complex (archaeatic and eukaryotic) single-cell life
  5. Sexual reproduction
  6. Multi-cell life
  7. Tool-using animals with big brains
  8. Where we are now
  9. Colonization explosion.

He concluded:

This is bad news. Really bad.


It means that instead of developing warp drive and boldly going, it’s more likely that intelligent life in the The Universe invariably discovers industry and destroys their environments out of greed and poisons themselves to extinction. Alternatively – and this is no better – they discover nuclear weapons without first overcoming their ideological and/or tribal differences and thus manage to annihilate themselves. Evidence? Well, we’ve nearly managed to do both in our short time on the planet.

It’s not all gloomy though. Glimmers of hope are provided by counterarguments relying on the “it’s just that we see no evidence” loophole in the Fermi Paradox. Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, they say. It’s a weak argument, but possible. It might just take too much resources and time for any civilisation to colonise the Universe. Earth might be too far out of the way or not worth a visit. Earth might be considered too troublesome or primitive to bother. Or any or all of these. The only counterargument that really interests me is

“Truly intelligent life might just want to keep to itself.”

The idea that intelligent life would by definition want to endlessly explore and colonise as much as possible is typical of us projecting our own aggressive and colonial history upon other inhabitants of The Universe, driven by our belief that appropriating other people’s habitats and exploiting them is A GOOD THING.

This is our prehistory of human life spreading across this planet. It’s our documented history of civilisation, and it’s also our modern history of conflict and aggression. It’s all our histories but we can’t assume other intelligences might or might want to act in the same way. In fact, we scare ourselves when we do imagine it.


1950s stories of alien visitors doing to us what we would most likely would have done to them are routinely interpreted as the Cold War fear of “The Other” with the added frisson of impending annihilation due to the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).


The 1996 reworking of 1984’s V was the most recent outing of our fears of being done unto.


Friendly or otherwise, we seem programmed to not like people who are not like us.


We don’t look forward to actual meetings but nevertheless continue to scan space for radio transmissions that don’t appear random. This is what SETI does. 


Do we really expect a truly advanced society to want to build engineering mega-structures visible from other planets or galaxies? Surely a truly intelligent society would turn off unnecessary lights at night?


We can’t understand why a truly advanced society might not want to get to know us. We can’t comprehend that intelligence may be inward looking rather than outgoing, or more interested in quality over quantity, or value comprehensive performance over visual appearance. This is the position of Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute. He says

the possibly flawed assumption is when we say that highly visible construction projects are an inevitable outcome of intelligence. It could be that it’s the engineering of the small, rather than the large, that is inevitable. This follows from the laws of inertia (smaller machines are faster, and require less energy to function) as well as the speed of light (small computers have faster internal communication). It may be–and this is, of course, speculation–that advanced societies are building small technology and have little incentive or need to rearrange the stars in their neighbourhoods, for instance.

In other words, advanced societies might simply just get on with sustaining and improving their societies, keeping to themselves, and developing the technologies they need in order to function in harmony with their neighbours and in balance with their resourcesThis is difficult for us to comprehend. When we try to visualise it we tend to appropriate the look and feel of primitive societies we think achieved that,


or, less convincingly, ancient civilizations


or, more recently, the Amish.


This last example is interesting. Check out those houses! The problem of shelter appears solved as best it can for available levels of technology and resources. This Divergent imagery makes a virtue out of not making of statements of fashion and individuality. It’s fiction, but encouraging nonetheless.

abnegationActually, It’s been what Misfits has been saying all along, but it’s good to see these ideas get out into society from a different angle. Consider this next photo from our collective image bank.


To be fair, these buildings were once thought of as virtuous but, for many then and since, these were boring buildings and, by association, the people who lived in them were boring people for whom individuality and artistic sensitivity meant nothing. The surrealism of the Divergent imagery comes from wrongly assuming that human virtue is only possible in the presence of artistic architectural invention. This is the default position of many architects. It’s questionable.

We can accept an advanced society being defined as one that’s found a happy equilibrium between existence and resources, but we’re still not used to the idea that such a society could be achieved far easier than we can imagine and at a level of resource expenditure lower than we expect. But it’s a start. The idea has been planted. Once again.

Architecture still has a long way to go if it is going to improve our chances of surviving a Great Filter of the climate change sort. Even the words we use to talk about buildings mirror our colonialist, capitalist and militaristic mindset. All of the following are seen as for the GOOD. These are the words that change descriptions into narratives.

EXPLORE is the preferred verb to describe the act of finding solutions.
EXPLOIT is what the solution does, particularly with topography and views.

STRATEGY is what a plan for achieving something is now known as.
INTERVENTION is something thought to be desperately needed, and that one feels one ought to be thanked for having done.
WAR on poverty, homelessness, etc.

DEVELOPMENT is always positive, a good thing
ADDING VALUE is losing its abstract shades of meaning.
STAKEHOLDER is gaining abstract shades of meaning.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF is the clever application of knowledge and intelligence
VIBRANCE / VIBRANCY is the ambient bustle and hum of low-level commercial activity.

The very words we use to talk about architecture exemplify a mindset that might not be compatible with the long-term survival of the human race. This mindset is everywhere.


The use of “we”, “our” and “America” makes this message no more than a local wish for a global problem. There’s the implication that the planet is somehow at fault and that the cause of its warming is external. As we know, anything external is threatening, and necessarily destructive. It is the mindset of war, once again. It’s like those nasty polluting Chinese are out to get us this time.


Scaremonering? Of course. What I like about the concept of the Great Filter is how it forces us to focus. To talk of “saving” the planet for future generations misses the point. If the Great Filter exists, there won’t be future generations.

The Great Filter takes no prisoners. There’s no such thing as semi-annihilation. The concept of The Great Filter restates Pascal’s Wager for our times in terms of actions and consequences that have no ambiguity.

The Great Filter either exists or it doesn’t. If it exists, then it’d be prudent to do the right thing so we don’t get filtered out of existence. If it doesn’t exist we’ll never know and so we have no choice but to believe it does and to live accordingly. There’s nothing to lose except a few luxuries. 


“… to live accordingly.” This is a philosophical justification for not only environmentally responsible building construction but for an environmentally responsible architectural aesthetic as well.

If the Great Filter exists, then it’s not that such an architecture will serve us better in the long run, but rather that it’ll help ensure there is a long run.


Let’s ignore dark matter – we don’t know what it is anyway. Let’s hear it for Helium! It’s the second most abundant element in THE Universe. So YAY! PARTY ON!, and etceteras. Helium is 24% of the mass of all elements. Most helium in the universe is helium-4 resulting not from the Big Bang but the nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars – not unlike our own – also creates large amounts of new helium. Your voice would sound very funny on the surface of The Sun. Post a video. I dare you.


Hydrogen is the only element lighter than helium and its increased buoyancy made hydrogen an economical choice for airships. In hindsight, this was not a good idea.


The use of helium in more recent, smiley airships is well known. Hurrah!


We have treehugger to thank for this rundown on what airship proposals are currently on offer. HybridAirVehicles are responsible for the Airlander.


Worldwide Aeros Corp is also doing some good work. The attraction of these craft is that they require much less fuel to take off and stay airborne. Their disadvantage is that their necessarily less streamlined shape limits their speed.


Greendiary presents us with some less-grounded visions of future airship transport but we’ll stop it there.


One new use for helium is in hard drives. Solid state memories may one day make hard drives obsolete but, until then, helium-sealed hard drives have advantages over conventional ones.


The lower density of helium lets the disk spin with less turbulence. Less turbulence means less vibration and less noise. Lower turbulence means less friction which means less heat which means less cooling which means lower power consumption. Nice.

Regardless, the currently most important use of Helium is to cool certain metals to the extremely low temperatures required for superconductivity. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN requires 96 metric tons of liquid helium to maintain its temperature at 1.9°K.


The most vital example is the superconducting magnets used for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A typical MRI scanner uses 1,700 litres of liquid helium, which needs to be topped up periodically. You may need one of these one day.


Helium is useful.

On our beloved planet, Helium is only 5.2 parts per million in the atmosphere. Helium-4 nucleii formed by the natural radioactive decay of mainly thorium and uranium are trapped with natural gas in concentrations of up to 7% by volume and extracted commercially by a process called fractional distillation. Like oil and gas, Helium is a finite resource and is one of the few elements with escape velocity, meaning that once released into the atmosphere, it escapes into space. Never knew that. It cannot be artificially synthesised.

A company called Cyrogenic has developed a way to use far less helium to cool superconducting magnets. Apparently.


On the left side of the image above, you can see Helium produced by the decay of Uranium and Thorium. Much of this gets trapped in natural gas reserves and is extracted as a by-product when the natural gas is tapped. A natural gas source must contain at least 0.3% helium to be considered as a potential helium source.


Helium Resources (Billion Cubic Meters)(from USGS Mineral Commodity Survey)

United States 20.6
Qatar 10.1
Algeria 8.2

Russia 6.8
Canada 2.0
China 1.1

Here’s where it is in the US.


Here’s the trends for its extraction, production, export and consumption. It’s running out. We’re using it faster than the planet is making it. By 2050 there won’t be any more. I’m not the first to point this out, but I’m in good company.

Another Cambridge lecturer, William Nuttall, called for the establishment of an International Helium Agency to prevent squandering the resource.

Royal Institution’s 2012 Christmas Lectures, Peter Wothers, will use the series to argue against wasting valuable helium gas in party balloons.

Don’t want be a party pooper, but it might be an idea to save some.


Whimsical media fillers aside, architecture has little dependence upon helium.


• • •

• • •


Waste . . . zzzzt . . . Energy.

Waste disposal’s suddenly gotten sexy! Here’s the lowdown, with much thanks to

Plasma arc gasification is a high-temperature process whereby the waste solids (a.k.a. carbon-based material, organic matter, shit, etc.) are superheated in the absence of oxygen and converted into a synthesis gas – syngas – that is mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Leftover inorganic materials and minerals produce a vitrified slag. The required high temperature is created by an electric arc that converts a gas into a plasma. [FFS!] The reactor temperature is typically 4000°C – 7000°C (7200°F – 12,600°F). FFS.

FYI, the average surface temperature of the Sun is 5505 °C ( 9941 °F). Here’s what a plasma arc gasification plant looks like. It’s not so horrible.

originalHere’s the process.


Here’s the plasma arc gasification reactor/furnace. Not much to it, really.


Here’s the full plant.


You needn’t use syngas for electricity if you don’t want to. You can use chemical processes to extract elements and fuel compounds, or biochemical processes to extract fuels such as methane and ethanol. Let’s not forget the original Ford T could run on either gasoline or ethanol but the motor industry chose to go down the gasoline route. This wasn’t a good idea, in retrospect.


Main advantages of plasma technologies for waste treatment are:

  1. Thermally efficient
  2. Can process a variety of different solid wastes
  3. There is minimal pretreatment and presorting of solid wastes
  4. The syngas can be converted into other energy sources such as steam, electricity and/or liquid fuels
  5. There is environmental appeal as syngas can produce various energy products
  6. There are no toxic emissions. The extreme temperature of the plasma followed by quick cooling inhibits the formation of dioxins and other nasty stuff called furans.
  7. Unlike competing technologies including conventional incineration, there are no environmental issues regarding the disposal of slag.
  8. The slag can be be used to produce value-added products such as metals, construction aggregates and abrasives.
  9. It either minimises or eliminates the need for landfill.
  10. Existing landfills can be mined.

Here’s a comparison of plasma arc gasification with other technologies courtesy of waste-management-world. MSW stands for Municipal Solid Waste.


PAG delivers the most energy per tonne of MSW. Here’s a cost comparison.

pennwell.web.600.390PAG comes out on top.

What’s not to like?

  1. large initial investment costs relative to landfill[18] and
  2. the plasma flame reduces the diameter of the sampler orifice over time, necessitating occasional maintenance.[19]
  3. Some environmentalists say the ability to fully dispose of waste will discourage recycling and the development of renewable products.

I’m not sure what to make of the third disadvantage. If somebody makes themselves a business recycling rubber tyres into beach sandals or such then good for them.

sandal-sandalz-za-pixiePAG recycles compounds, molecules and atoms. I don’t think that’s a negative for this is what Our Universe does. It can’t be a bad thing. PAG is the closest we’ll get to throwing all our garbage down a black hole. If PAG does becomes incredibly inexpensive then goods handmade from recycled and reused goods and/or repurposed products will gain the status of value-added craft goods. They’re sort of going that way now. A 150,000 tonne/year PAG plant will employ 42 full-time operators. Let’s keep it real.

The second disadvantage can be discounted. A PAG plant is not clever enough to maintain itself and it’s unfair to expect it to. Here’s what a plasma torch looks like btw. The anode is good for 1,000 hours, the cathode 500. It’s the price one pays. No problem.


“Courtesy of PyroGenesis Canada Inc.”

More to the point, if landfills worked perfectly nobody would even think of deconstructing waste into atoms. It’s the landfill thing that’s stopping PAG becoming more mainstream. Dumping stuff in a hole and forgetting about it isn’t without its problems. For an accurate comparison, we need to cost landfill to the stage where all toxicity has been removed and the land can be safely built upon or cultivated.

Despite these downers …

The onboard system is known as a PAWDS (for, Plasma Arc Waste Destruction System – what else?) and is manufactured by Pyrogenesis Canada. They’re on facebook. Check it out. You can find out interesting things like this. Note the military-friendly language linking winning the war on waste to winning wars.

We shouldn’t be surprised by such language. Everyone wants to flog their product to those who can pay the most. Frank Lloyd Wright tried to market his low-density Broadacre City to the US government as patriotic insurance against atomic attack. Mies van der Rohe wanted Hitler to adopt (his) Modern architecture as a symbol of a progressive regime, as Mussolini had done in Italy. It still happens today with architects trawling China, the Middle East and the former Soviet states for clients with deep pockets. It’s one of those facts of life. 

The bigger problem I see with Pyrogenesis Canada talking the same language as the US Navy is that they have less incentive to make their system cheaper for non-military use. 

The bottom line

Waste-management-world tells us the break-even point when income from electricity sales covers running costs is 180–270 tonnes waste/day (200–300 tons waste/day). Economy of scale matters. Pyrogenesis Canada also make a PAWDS for military land use. [Download the brochure.] It fits into five 20-foot containers and can process 400lbs (180kg) of MWS per hour. Sounds fab. It’ll easily sort out a medium-size apartment building generating the American average of 4.4lb (2kg) of waste per person per day.


“Courtesy of PyroGenesis Canada Inc.”

Misfits would like to see one PAWDS per building. We’d also like it to include the energy recovery module that’s currently optional for the military.

Footnote: Here I’ve only mentioned what PAG can do for waste disposal. Not only does it destroy waste but it converts it into energy and other userful stuff. It can run off of existing landfill if we can be bothered. It can also help clean up our planet in other ways such as destroying refrigerants and the nasty fluorinated chemicals. That’s not a bad thing. PAG’s wonders never end. These things also eat chemical weapons for breakfast. Two mobile 20 foot containers can safely destroy up to two barrels of CWA per day. This is more than waste disposal, it’s the righting of wrongs.

The Internet of Things

You know sometimes I wonder if I haven’t fallen asleep and woken up in some strange world where new things aren’t invented fast enough to keep up with our desire for them and we don’t notice the blindingly obvious being fed back to us as innovation.

Behold my July 7-14 issue of TIME magazine purchased out of misplaced nostalgia for the magazine itself and also for the rosy future it promised.

timeThe house of the future will have

  • Walls that can weather a hurricane!
  • A garden that filters your air!
  • Solar panels that eliminate your energy bills!
  • A yard that keeps you active!

The cover image doesn’t inspire. Nobody’s expecting the future to look like The Venus Project but, as illustrated, the house doesn’t make a very good case for a beauty of performance. It gets worse. Step inside.

Smart 2 Before we go any further, can I just object to the position of that toilet relative to the kitchen, dining table, and living room?

Inside we have:

  • Energy saving shades
  • A customizable lightbulb
  • Hurricane-proof walls
  • A home controlling hub
  • A filterless coffeemaker
  • Natural air purifiers
  • A 3-D printed shelf
  • A hands-free toilet
  • An all-knowing plant monitor

Walls that won’t blow down, curtains that save energy, a filterless coffeemaker … are all epically underwhelming and because of that all the more worrying.

The only feature that might interest me is the “all-knowing” plant monitor. I don’t really need or expect an oracle. I’d be happy with a few sensors linked to a water source and if they came with the package, a mobile app and webcam so I can supervise and enjoy my plants in remote realtime. Currently, lacking this technology, I usually ask a friend or neighbour if they wouldn’t mind watering my plants when I’m away. It’s a soft and social way of solving a problem. The Internet Of Things will eliminate the need for such soft solutions and erode our capacity to devise them.


It used to be called Home Automation but home automation came to mean stupid switches and sensors acting as they’d been set to act, unable to be changed from our mobile phones via the internet. After that came Smart Homes but pretty soon everything was a smart something and all value-adding cachet vaporised like snowflakes in hell. Now, with the all-encompassing Internet Of Things, Everything That Matters (or that you’re being asked to care about – a.k.a. consumer electronics) is going to be connected via the internet. Let’s see what your home is going to be doing for you.

Smart 1 Gadgets will be triggered into action when you open the door, IF NOT BEFORE! Walk in the door and get ready to enjoy your life.

The cat will have been fed so it won’t pester you as soon as you walk in. You don’t have to worry about nurturing this creature you’ve chosen to keep for company. Mind you, my experience of cats is that a fed one is no guarantee of additional quality time either avec or sans cat.

The lights will get turned on. My primitive apartment has some light switches next to the front door and sometimes I flick them on when I come in. And sometimes I wait until I decide what I’m going to do and how much and what kind of light I need. I’m not a candle person. Dimmers are okay. In one apartment I lived in, the downlights had a remote control. First world problems.

The room will be warm. Or, depending on where you live, cool. My A/C takes about a minute to return my apartment to 23.5°C from a max. of 26° without. It’s not a big deal but, having lived in London, I can see how it’d be a good thing not having to keep your overcoat on for 30 minutes until your flat gets warm. Some air conditioners now come with a phone app for REMOTE remote control. You might have seen this air conditioner advertised.


My music will be playing. Again, for me this isn’t a game changer. How will the home hub or even me, for that matter, know if I’ll want to listen to anything, let alone what, when I get in? It amuses me when, based upon my purchase history, iTunes makes all the wrong recommendations.

A cup of tea will be brewed. Pass.

Dinner will be “finished”.  Once I had a slow cooker and it was good to come home to the smell of a soup or stew cooking and/or ready to eat. It still required preparation but it was in no way onerous, just transferred to the morning or the night before. Overcooking was an issue at first and I mildly regretted not buying the one with the timer. First world problem.

Your refrigerator can do your shopping. We’d been hearing this for a while so TIME magazine doesn’t go into too much detail. Some of us have the knack of remembering stuff. Some of us have a habit of making shopping lists. Some of us might phone the store and get something delivered. And some of us may phone a significant or convenient other to pick up something on their way home.

What I’d like to know is if, like British supermarket online shopping, your refrigerator will tell you the store didn’t have X in a small size so it got you a big X, or that spinach had sold out so it bought kale instead and here’s a fab recipe? Unless you keep your olive oil, whisky and laundry detergent in the refrigerator, you’re still going to have to keep track of all that stuff. We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to let our faculty for remembering things slip away from us. There’s precedents.

  • Late 19th century building technologies such as the elevator enabled the intensive exploitation of property via high-rise buildings. We didn’t take the stairs anymore. We grew fat.
  • Early twentieth 20th century domestic technologies were driven by the desire to save on physical labour – partly due to lack of domestic help. This gave us washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and other domestic appliances. Jobs got done faster. We grew weak.
  • With all this time of ours freed, later 20th century domestic technologies focussed on convenience. The automatic record changer, the remote control, the built-in. We grew lazy.

The stakes are a lot higher with this new round of communications technologies.

  • For even the short time that we’ve had mobile telephones, we’ve managed to lose our ability to make appointments to meet people at specific places and times. We’re becoming selfish.
  • If, at 5pm, our refrigerator asks “Don’t you think it’s a bit early?” as you reach for the ice cubes or, not much later, say “Isn’t that your third?” then we’ll lose our capacity for autonomous decision-making.
  • If we don’t need to remember what we need to buy in order to eat, we’ll grow stupid.
  • If we won’t need to remember to water the plant, feed the cat and, by extension, the children we’ll lose empathy for other living things.


My doubts about where this is going all have to do with neuroplasticity.

The brain responds to training. It rewires itself to make it easier for it to think about things it thinks about a lot. It makes no judgment as to whether those thoughts are good for you or not. So if you think bad thoughts then bad thoughts will become easier for you to think. If you think certain thoughts for long enough, then you will become less receptive to thinking alternate thoughts. Your thinking becomes “set”, your opinions more difficult to change. People often say this about old people and, although evidence seems circumstantial, it does seem to appear that the older we get, the greater the danger we’ll get stuck in a groove that keeps getting deeper.

What’s worse is that brain resources that aren’t being used are deployed for other matters. The most serious one that’s been identified so far is our capacity for making creative associations between diverse bodies of knowledge. The internet is threatening our capacity to do this.

How often have you come across something on the internet that looked interesting and, rather than reading it and perhaps making a few notes of what you found interesting, simply bookmarked it so you can find it again?

Links between related pieces of information saves us the trouble of making our own AND POSSIBLY BETTER OR MORE CREATIVE links between perhaps more diverse sectors of knowledge. Have you never woken up with a solution to some problem or seen it in greater clarity than before you went to bed? Have you never experienced that brief endorphin rush from remembering something or making some connection you had never seen before? We’re losing that.

Skyworks Solutions makes the semiconductors and amplifiers, attenuators, circulators, demodulators, detectors, diodes, directional couplers, front-end modules, hybrids, infrastructure RF subsystems, isolators, lighting and display solutions, mixers, modulators, optocouplers, optoisolators, phase shifters, PLLs/synthesizers/VCOs, power dividers/cbombiners, power management devices, receivers, switches and technical ceramics analysts say are going to make all this possible. 

It’s not supposed to be good to get emotional about share dealings, but I did have some shares in Skyworks Solutions.


I got rid of them as soon as I saw the TIME magazine article. I don’t think I want anything to do with The Internet of Things. I don’t want to see our capacity to make decisions and care for things go the same way as our capacities for walking, bending, remembering things, keeping promises, and getting up and crossing a room. I took a modest profit and walked away.