Thursday, 17 March 2011

Solar thermal power a viable alternative

Thermal Tower power plant
It seems that many are unconvinced at the viability of renewable sources as a source of electricity to power South Africa. Many are still convinced that Nuclear energy provides the answer. 
Solar energy arrives on Earth in two forms - light and heat. Light is converted to electricity using photovoltaic panels. Solar heat or thermal power has been used for many years to provide people's hot water needs. 
There has been some progress towards turning the sun's light into electricity using photo-voltaic cells joined into a series of panels. This type of technology has proven effective to power street lights and traffic lights. At present it is far too inefficient to provide a real alternative to grid electricity. 
Many people around the world have been using solar thermal power to provide hot water for their homes and offices. South Africa has only recently joined this trend. 
The latest trend in producing electricity from the sun uses the sun's thermal energy rather than light. Solar thermal power concentrates the heat from the sun by using mirrors to focus the power onto a single point. 
Solar thermal energy is fast proving itself to be the most cost-effective means of producing electricity, but cannot yet compete with coal in terms of cost. Coal wins the race of negative environmental impact by miles over any other source of energy. However, the cost of solar thermal power generation is falling fast, and will probably soon be cheaper than coal. 
In Solar Thermal Energy - an Industry Report the author states that "major solar thermal industry players such as eSolar, Brightsource, or Abengoa, have already beaten the price of photovoltaic and natural gas, and they have plans to beat the price of coal in the near future."
Currently, a 392 megawatt thermal power plant is under construction in California. Solar thermal power is being used in a number of countries with Australia and Spain taking the lead. 

Tuesday, 08 March 2011

Technology in London of the late 1960s

Swinging London: A Trunk Full of 60s ExoticaThe late 1960s was the era of flower power, hippies, the alternative society, folk music, free concerts in Hyde Park, Carnaby Street, Twiggy, the Beatles and the Stones, Pink Floyd and the best popular music ever. It was also the time that I arrived in London at the tender age of fifteen. 
Those were the days of pre-history in technology terms. There was no technology as we know it. There were a few items that we used that had been unchanged for years, but generally there wasn't much. 
Naturally, what we didn't have we didn't miss, and what we did have didn't change much from one year to another. 
We had cars in those days. Some of the cars were awesome, but the electronics were almost non-existent. No central locking, remote controls ... Today's most basic features were real luxuries.
Electronic calculators were still quite new and generally unsophisticated. We had just changed from the bright red LED display to the more gentle (and battery friendly) LCD display. This was the very beginning of the personal computer. 
At the shops and in business much was manual. Computers were used by large insurance companies to process large quantities of data. An insurance quote took weeks and was done by a person with a piece of paper, a calculator and a book of tables. All bank transactions were manual - nothing was online at all! 
We had the transistor radio. This was a portable radio that played radio stations. They sounded tinny.  Decent sound could only be achieved with large speakers. The transistor was replacing the valve in hi-fi components in a big way and there was much debate about which was better. Cassette recorders were replacing reel-to-reel tape recorders. The quality was not great and was often accompanied by a hissing sound. 
Telephones had large round dials with a hole that corresponded to each number. Inside was a real bell. 
The recording industry was able to produce remarkable quality on vinyl. Stereo was not as much a novelty as it had been just a few years earlier. Record companies and Hi-Fi technology manufacturers began producing quadrophonic LPs, a trend that didn't catch on. 
Colour TV was brand new and the colours were prone to go wrong often. TV sets were bulky. 
The closest you could get to a cell phone was a walkie-talkie as used by the cops, or a beeper - a call would forward a message to the device. 
There were no cell phones. You could go away and no-one would find you. There was no GPS. In an emergency we sent a telegram. 
The US managed to put a man on the moon with computers that used less than one megabyte of RAM. 
The microwave had been invented but was still unusual. South Africa did not have TV and all radio was state controlled. The UK had just started Radio 5 to replace the pirate radio stations. 
The call-centre had not yet been invented (now I see a touch of envy!!!). 
We used film in cameras and the closest we could get to a video was a 16 mm movie film. A 3 minute film cost a small fortune! 
There were no CDs, no DVDs. There were huge TV cameras at the huge pop festivals. These were able to shoot excellent footage of the events. 
There was no Internet! NO INTERNET! The closest we had were the emerging "underground press" in the form of it (international times) in the UK, OZ (a magazine) and Rolling Stone magazine in the US. A little news-sheet called Time Out in London had just begun and told us about gigs and other events. This hippy publication soon became a prominent weekly must have in London. 
I could go on ...

Microsoft fails the customer service test

After running a computer with a legal copy of Windows Vista Home Basic for three years, a message in large bold type suddenly appears on your screen. "Your copy of Windows is NOT GENUINE". 
This is what I was faced with just after 12:00 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. Windows Security Essentials highlighted the error, informing me that it would stop working within 30 days if the problem was not resolved. There was a link to check the problem with Microsoft Genuine Advantage. The link did not work. 
I called the Microsoft help-desk. A few trials later I managed to connect to Microsoft. I had to get my copy of the installation DVD and the validation key. After three years, the key was showing signs of wear and not all the characters show that clearly. Luckily, I managed to decipher all of the characters. We then checked the version of Windows that was installed and that it was activated. 
Then it was time to transfer me to Microsoft Technical support. After a long wait, the help desk got back to me. All the technical staff were busy, and would get back to me within a few minutes. 
40 minutes went by, and at 1:40 p.m. I called again. The same call centre lady transfered me to the right person. Another set of questions and a set of options as to how to fix it. Technical support would have to put in a call to the Engineers. They would call me back in an hour.  
I was still talking to technical support when my cell phone rang. No matter what I did, I could not answer. An issue with my Nokia phone that has become ever more frequent. I restarted my phone and went out for a short time. 
When I got back, there was a message on my cell and on the landline. I had to call the engineer back. We tried first this, then that. Eventually we removed the key, restarted the key and activated the computer again. Now the message on the screen was gone, but Security Essentials still displayed the prominent warning.  
We tried to resolve, but experienced great difficulty. IE8 just kept going through to Bing when trying to run the Genuine Advantage software. We changed the DNS setting from auto to one that he gave me. 
We had to run it using Chrome. 
Then we restarted the machine and the messages and warnings were gone. It seemed that the problem was gone. It was now after 5:00 p.m.
I received another call this morning. Everything was fine except that I could not access any local sites and many international sites as well. 
Eventually I remembered the DNS setting and changed it back. Like magic everything worked perfectly. At last. 
Although the problem has been resolved, the resolution falls far short of a satisfactory solution. There never was a problem, and I should not have been "accused" in this most terrible way. Luckily, I did not have any clients with me at the time. What if it was on my laptop in front of a client? Thought ... "mmm, the consultant doesn't buy a genuine copy of Windows".  It could have cost me a deal and much more. It did lose me the entire afternoon! 
The client support staff were all friendly and helpful. I do not have a problem with them at all. My only issue is that this incident should never have happened. How can I regain the respect of friends or clients that may have seen this happening? How can I regain all that wasted time? 
As far as I am concerned, this is nothing short of customer abuse.