Viva! (from the other side)

Today was the third viva I’ve been in. The first was my own. The second was about a year ago when I was asked to be the independent chair, which most of the time is a very easy and straightforward job. This was my first time as an examiner. Ulp.

When I agreed to be the internal examiner I underestimated how much time it would take.

  • It took me about one and a half days to read the thesis in detail.
  • Probably another half day, spread over a time, to arrange the date and the venue, catering and parking, etc. (catering actually ended up as “I go to B&M and spend a fiver on water and biscuits”. Because although the university should cover it, I gave up on trying to actually get a cost code from anybody)
  • The exam itself took a few hours, but it’s intense and mentally draining so the amount of other stuff I was going to get done that day was limited.
  • And now I have a fair bit of paperwork to do to follow up.
  • Then in a few months time the student will send me his corrections and I’ll have to spend some hours checking that they are satisfactory.

It’s essential work, without which the system would collapse – but there isn’t actually time for it in the diary.

It’s also really enjoyable work, at least with a good candidate who clearly knows their stuff. It was a really rewarding few hours talking about interesting research, and I learned a lot from both the candidate and the more experienced external examiner. Then I spent the evening in the pub with the student, the external examiner, and the supervisor 🙂

I’m glad I did it, but I will be careful of agreeing again during the main teaching semesters.

Posted by simon in Professional updates


So, Mastodon . I’m on it. After a little wandering I’m currently at That instance feels comfy for now, but I might move in future. Somebody has set up, which is nice, but they have no moderation or federation policies, which makes me think that they haven’t thought through running a social media instance, and that they might not be prepared to respond when (not if) something abusive happens (example here. Content warning for highly offensive language.).

I don’t know yet how much I’ll use it. A lot will depend on how both it and Twitter develop; it’s hard to find time to participate in both. If you are also on Mastodon (or something else in the Fediverse), feel free to give me a follow.

Cute model of an owl, wearing headphones and using a tiny laptop
Photo: Public domain.
Posted by simon

A Psalm for the Wild-Built

I try to keep this blog focused on the professional, or at least the energy-related, and so I doubt that I’ve ever mentioned my love of speculative fiction (a broader term for what might, in the past, have been named “science fiction and fantasy”). But in the last few days, after many recommendations, I’ve been reading Becky Chambers‘s “A Psalm for the Wild-Built“, and that deserves mention here. So here’s this blog’s first book review. Sort of.

The book is short, and enjoyable, an easy read, and excellent in many ways that I won’t get into here. I’m not going to discuss most of its themes, nor even its plot; what has made me post is the world in which it’s set. It’s “bright green”, but beyond bright green. It’s what some would now call “solarpunk”. It’s a society that has de-industrialised and become sustainable, and has completely changed in order to do so, but rather than doing that by reverting to a pre-industrial way of life it has done something new: it has retained technology, but without consumer culture or (we assume) mass production.

“It was a good computer, given to them on their sixteenth birthday, a customary coming-of-age gift. It had a cream-coloured frame and a pleasingly crisp screen, and Dex had only needed to repair it five times in the years that it had travelled in their clothes. A reliable device built to last a lifetime, as all computers were.”

This is, I assume, the kind of world that many environmentalists yearn for – especially those who want to decentralise, for villages to live locally and within their means, and so forth. This is sometimes expressed, at least by those in the first world, as a yearning for the past, for pre-industrial society, which is something that I can’t get behind for fairly obvious reasons. But some also see it as a brave new future, as something that hasn’t been tried before. The huge missing piece is usually a plan to get from here to there…

Anyway. The book is lovely, and provided me with a calm and enjoyable few hours. You should read it, not just for the setting but also for the many other things it explores.

“Farmers and doctors and artists and plumbers and whatever. Monks of other gods. Old people, young people. Everybody needed a cup of tea sometimes. Just an hour or two to sit and do something nice, and then they could get back to whatever it was.”

A glass cup of herbal tea, presented on a hemp mat.
Photo:, CC0 public domain
Posted by simon in Reflective, The wider world

The name of natural gas

I’ve seen some recent tweets, and partisan websites, claiming that calling geologically-stored methane “natural gas” was a major greenwashing achievement by the fossil fuel industry – that it’s meant to imply a benign fuel.

I can see why people think that. It’s the sort of steering of language that the modern fossil fuel industry might try to do. But in this case, I don’t think that happened: the term “natural gas” is older than “greenwashing”, older than most of the people using it, and arguably older than the environmental movement as a whole.

When natural gas was introduced, it was called that to distinguish it from “town gas” or “coal gas” – a nasty, noxious and somewhat toxic substance made from coal in each town’s gasworks, which used to cook our food and perhaps heat some homes. When the UK switched to natural gas in the 1970s there was a huge, co-ordinated campaign of technicians visiting every gas-connected home to adjust or replace appliances ready for the switchover… and that shift is why the old, often Victorian, gasworks in most cities – eye-catching for their “gasometer” storage systems – are no more. Calling it natural gas, rather than just gas, is also helpful when in the company of Americans, lest they think that we fry our eggs on petrol 😉.

None of this means, of course, that the fossil industry doesn’t benefit from the terminology. This paper (paywall), reported in Vox, suggests that people feel more positive about “natural gas” than “fossil gas” or “methane”. But in this case, so far as I know, it wasn’t a cynical ploy by the industry to call it that. They just lucked out with what it was already called.

Atmospheric view of gas being flared into an evening sky.
Image: Blake Thornberry, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
Posted by simon in The wider world

How droughts can cause energy shortages

An exposed riverbed rock with carvings of dates visible back to 1616. Some people are resting their bare feet against it.
Image: Libor Elleder (distributed via, licensed CC-BY-3.0

Today I learned about “hunger stones“. These are rocks in the River Elbe that are submerged in all but the lowest water conditions. Carvings on them commemorate historical droughts back to the fifteenth century and warn that if the stone is visible, famine will follow. One of the most poignant inscriptions translates as “If you see me, weep”. As Europe faces what may be its worst drought in 500 years, these stones are appearing… and while famine is less inevitable in a world of globalised food supply, it’s interesting to see the knock-on effects on energy.

Shipping companies have been warning for some time that water levels on Europe’s rivers have been approaching a level at which cargo traffic would have to stop. Indeed, when I was sitting by the Rhine on holiday two weeks ago I noticed that the laden barges were sitting higher in the water than usual – that they were sailing with reduced loads to cope with a shallower river. Since then parts of the river have effectively closed as predicted, as shipping companies decide that there is not enough water to operate safely or economically.

The closure of major transport routes is concerning for supply chains in general, but one of the major cargos carried by these rivers into inland Europe is coal, for power stations. So a shortage of water can translate to a shortage of energy.

Over in France, meanwhile, the country’s major rivers are at historically low flow rates… and that, combined with high water temperatures from this summer’s heatwave, has obliged nuclear power stations that rely on rivers for cooling to reduce their output to comply with environmental regulations. With reduced outputs on top of a lot of maintenance shutdowns this year, the country most famous for embracing nuclear power has become an energy importer.

Norway is another nation that is traditionally energy-independent: while they do have a lot of oil and gas, they use little of it domestically because their electrical grid runs almost entirely off hydro power, and on top of the fossil fuels they are usually a net exporter of clean electricity. But without rainfall there’s less hydro power, and with their reservoirs at unseasonally low levels the Norwegian authorities are considering restricting electricity exports to protect their domestic supply.

None of that affects the UK directly: we don’t use inland waterways for cargo, our nuclear plants are all on the coast, and we only have a small amount of hydroelectricity. But the knock-on effects of a worsening energy shortage in Europe will certainly be felt here, in the form of higher wholesale energy prices.

I mention all of these things together because they’re a clear demonstration of the interconnectedness of the systems that we take for granted. Our power and other industrial infrastructure was designed for the time in which it was built, plus forseeable changes – and nobody (a figurative nobody) foresaw parts of the Loire running dry, or the Rhine becoming impassable to coal barges.

This is a part of something sometimes referred to as the “Energy-water nexus“: the idea that energy supplies depend on water, and water supplies depend on energy, and that developing more of one usually requires more of the other. It’s interesting to think about whether this interdependence might be weakened by increasing use of renewable energy. Wind and solar probably rely on water less than thermal plants do… but in the future, will we see drought-related curtailment of freshwater hydrogen production?

Posted by simon in The wider world