Identity and Narrative

There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.

For anyone who puzzles about how random or intentional our behaviour really is or the power of self narrative to create apparent identity and coherence, then this article by the philosopher, Galen Strawson is a thought provoking read.

As I get older, I’m more comfortable with fragments than coherence. Not sure why.

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Natural energy storage

It’s good to be reminded every now and then how plants do energy storage over long time periods much more effectively than we ever can with batteries. The process is less efficient but the lengthy time shifting is invaluable from summer to winter, say.

A Lapland farmer, for example, is growing enough rapeseed oil in the perpetual summer daylight to provide power for his machinery all year around and he can still export a surplus. “People are shocked when I tell them I grow rapeseed and mustard but because of our geographical position we have an extra growing month. In the summer the 24/7 light means that the rapeseed shoots up by 2cm a day.

But there’s no mention of solar panels because they, coupled with battery storage, wouldn’t make any sense when you have 6 months of daylight and 6 months of night. But 12,000 litres of rapeseed oil grown and harvested in the summer sunshine can store 100MWh of  energy for operating his machinery throughout the entire year.


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Open eyed or open minded?

Are you open to new experiences and interpretations? Able to see both sides of an argument or imagine a different way the world could be? Do you quickly spot the humour of ambiguous situations?

At one time in my (increasingly) ancient past, I was a visual scientist and remember running experiments on binocular rivalry. Binocular Rivalry occurs when two different images are presented to our two eyes simultaneously. What tends to happen is people’s perception flips between one image and the other as their brain completely suppresses first one image then the other. But occasionally it can result in the two images blending into one.

Binoc Rivalry

Binocular Rivalry stimuli

A fascinating recent study has explored whether people who are high on the personality trait of Openness to Experience (as characterised by more flexible and creative thinking) are more likely to blend the perception of the right and left eye images in binocular rivalry experiments.

And it seems they are!

Presented with red versus green striped images in either eye, people who scored higher on a standard measure of Openness to Experience reported seeing a combined left/right eye image more often than lower scorers.

So, the question which fascinates me is which comes first – the visual system’s facility to combine two competing images into a single percept or one’s wider social and cognitive comfortableness with such unresolved ambiguity?

Read the original study (June 2017) here.


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Enjoying disorder

Having published my own research on messy desks and knowledge workers an age ago in  1994, it was pleasing to see that people are still exploring this fascinating subject. This more recent article explores some of the benefits of living and working without being too over orderly, tidy or over-prepared.

A degree of jumble between projects, activities, ideas, conversations and objects is certainly a guaranteed way to spot new and surprising connections.

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1 Year domestic solar storage data

Bert DisplayWe have now had our 6kWh Wattstor solar battery (nicknamed ‘Bert’) for a full 12 months. (It actually holds 12kWh but only half of that is used by the system.) It was installed by Gwent Energy CIC. Previously, we simply had a 4kW array of solar PV panels on our house in the Brecon Beacons so only benefited from using the power generated whilst the sun was actually shining. The rest was exported to the grid.  Our PV panels face WSW and we do have a large hill and some trees behind the house. There are two of us living in the house and we work from home. We cook on electric Twizy at Tor-y-foeland also have a Renault Twizy which does ~3000 miles a year (all our local journeys) which consumes around 430 kWh a year.  As it happens, the Twizy also has a 6kWh battery and there are times when Bert and the Twizy are in direct competition for the solar power. We try to avoid the Twizy charging directly from Bert, the Wattstor battery, as that would involve two lots of battery cycles. But managing charging the two to optimal effect is complicated. Certainly it has left us questioning the practicality of using one’s electric vehicle as one’s domestic storage.

So firstly, here are the kWh totals for the year (May 2016 to April 2017).


We have consumed 2,842 kWh of electricity in the year (averaging 7.8 kWh/day on a fairly consistent basis). As it happens, our solar PV has generated almost exactly the same amount as we’ve used (2,965 kWh). We have imported 1,248 kWh from the grid and exported 1,096 to it. Our batteries are currently lead acid. With a larger battery pack plus a more efficient type, then we would be able to capture and use more of the solar energy generated and export less to the grid. Lead acid batteries only use 50% of their capacity and protect themselves by stopping providing power to the house long before they are empty.  We hope to upgrade the batteries at some point in the future.

The next chart shows the overall percentage of power which has come from each source.

Whole Year 1

Effectively, the introduction of the battery store has doubled the amount of solar PV energy which we use compared to previous years when we only had the solar panels. So that’s good. In terms of savings, we buy our electricity from Good Energy at 14p/unit so the battery store has saved us £110 this year meaning that the addition of storage isn’t currently an economic winner but does mean that you get twice the benefit from the solar you generate.

The next 2 charts show the performance pattern across the year from last May.

Year averages

Our demand has stayed relatively steady across the year apart from when we have been away from home. The solar generation inevitably falls right down in the winter months – December’s nadir being a mere 2.3 kWh/day (however that is still more then 25% of our demand). The best month for solar generation happened to be May last year but May/June/July are all fairly similar with the length of day and the angle of the sun high in the sky. April is now getting back up to those levels. As the solar drops, the amount we import from the grid inevitably rises. The only slight surprise (and disappointment) for us was the proportion we exported to the grid in the depths of winter as we’d obviously prefer for all excess to be stored by the battery. This happens because the batteries mostly operate on absorption charging and any excess is therefore exported despite the battery having plenty of storage capacity.

The final chart shows the percentage of power from each source month by month over the year.

Year percentages

From May to August, we were happily living off grid for days at a time with the solar PV covering all our demand during the day and Bert-the-battery supporting us through the hours of darkness. And in deepest darkest December, the solar plus battery still covered 16% of our demand moving up to just over 30% in February and 50% in March.

One side effect of having solar PV plus storage, is it makes you much more aware of the energy you use in the house – especially when cooking supper (for example) rapidly empties a battery that you spent most of the day filling! In particular, it certainly makes one less blase about owning an electric vehicle. The good news is that the Twizy (because it’s so small and light) consumes only 140 Wh/mile. Given the power and weight of a Tesla Model S, for example  it would happily wipe out Bert’s 6kWh store in minutes!

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Oblique or Obscure – Psychology & Art

For the past couple of years, I’ve been part of a small artist group, the Larks and Ravens. My personal interest, as ever, is psychology – in this case exploring  how visual art can trigger new  ways of viewing our everyday world and disrupt accepted thinking and behaviour. Our focus is social and environmental issues.

AnimalEyes-http_www_futurity_orgFrom early student days, I’ve been interested in the way the structure of our human visual system generates just one possible image of the world. A different structure generates a different image & different behaviours (or the reverse in evolutionary terms).


I see some of what the Larks & Ravens are trying to do as the equivalent on a conceptual level – can we play with structures which mean we glimpse the ‘normal’ world around us differently – even if just for a moment?

In parallel, I’m on a learning curve trying to grasp what visual art is, how it engages people (or not) and what role it can play in triggering social change. As part of that process, our group visited Tate Modern last week and saw 3 different exhibits. Each had a very different effect but each seemed to have something lacking (at least for me).

First we visited the Wolfgang Tillman exhibition. Here the aesthetics and technical sophistication made an immediate impact on my art colleagues but (I admit slightly shamefacedly) little impact on me.  I struggled with what Tillman “was trying to say” especially when I was aware of gallery visitors earnestly studying the exhibition booklet more than they were studying the art on the walls. To a large extent, this is probably my problem of not yet comfortably reading the language of art but, in any field, I find this level of obscurity off-putting. The definition of ‘obscurity’ is “not clearly expressed or understood“. Is that sometimes the artist’s intention or does it not necessarily matter if he or she has expressed their own ideas? I don’t know but I don’t want our Larks & Ravens’ art to be obscure, i.e. to require explanatory booklets for the uninitiated. I want our work to be accessible but ‘oblique’ (i.e. “expressed indirectly“) or it won’t offer new understanding or insight. How hard is that to do?

C9W_vEdV0AAUYZ_Next up, we visited the community engagement exhibit organised by the new Tate Exchange programme – “A space for everyone to collaborate, test ideas and discover new perspectives on life, through art“. For me, the art in this exhibition went to the other extreme. Its strength was that the interactive exhibits had been created collaboratively with a variety of artists working with community groups. But the exhibits seemed obvious and somewhat playschool in style. The advantage is that they afforded immediate physical engagement – balloons to blow, coconuts to throw, a hammer to wield and post-it notes to draw or write on – all of which appealed to children. But the disappointment was that most of the exhibits failed to elicit deeper thinking or emotional engagement with the underlying concepts of money, value and exchange. With the odd exception, the concepts seemed rather superficially realised. Clearly the depth of the socio-psychological concepts as well as the power of the visual art does matter.

IMG_20170413_164642Finally, we stepped outside and witnessed the Fujiko Nakaya’s immersive fog sculpture where, every 5 minutes or so, the outside  arena was submersed in dense fog for a period of 5-10 minutes before it cleared again. This made everyone smile. The visual effects were powerful as people were transformed into ghostly outlines or faded from view completely. But the thing which was most striking was the crowd appeal. Every time the fog started, people rushed out of the building and into the fog. Children raced around with delight appearing and disappearing and the adults took selfies with their ‘phones. So, the  fog experience was compelling and playful in a way it would be great to be able to reproduce. Ironically, whilst “obscuring” in its visual effect, it wasn’t “obscure” in its tangible realisation. No explanatory booklet required. But is it OK for it to feel more a form of art entertainment than a thought piece? It’s certainly a crowd puller.

So, our experiences at Tate Modern on one day have given me plenty to think about and ponder on with my Larks and Ravens.

My dream, as a psychologist working with visual artists, is to create experiences which have real visual and visceral impact, which enable people to see their ‘normal’  world differently and which trigger new thinking and conversations about important socio-political issues. I want to avoid work that’s so obscure it requires an accompanying booklet or so obvious that it doesn’t challenge or surprise. I’d like to create work that’s oblique but grabs attention – a combination which I’m learning is hard to achieve.

Meanwhile, my learning curve continues to bend…….


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May 2016 to March 2017 Solar Storage Data

As the days get longer, our solar generation increases. March actually generated about the same as last September but the Wattstor battery control system is cautious about allowing the batteries to discharge beyond 70% or so until it’s confident there’s enough light hours in the day to fill them. Our lead acid batteries perform better and last longer if fully charged, but they won’t charge at high power for the last 15% or so of their capacity, so won’t reach 100% until the days are several hours longer. We think this explains why, despite there being as much solar generation in March as in September, this month saw both much higher grid export and import as the batteries were not maximising their storage capacity to the same extent.

We hope April 2017 will see our first 100% charge, possibly on the same day as we hear the first cuckoo.

As usual, the charts below show (i) our updated daily averages for our various power sources, and (ii) the percentage of our power usage coming directly from the sun, directly from the grid, or from the sun via the batteries.

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Underground Energy Storage

The Glyn Rhonwy pumped storage scheme has apparently received the go-ahead, overcoming objections to any development like this in a National Park.  It uses a disused slate quarry for the upper reservoir, which should make the overall development cheaper, and limit any new environmental impact.

Pumped hydro storage is efficient and good value for money so it’s a shame that the best places to do it tend to be wild uplands where we are most uncomfortable about industrial intrusions of this type.

Here’s an idea for a pumped storage scheme using abandoned coal mine workings.  It could offer even greater capacity than Glyn Rhonwy, with even less environmental disturbance.  If it could be made to work, it should be readily reproducible elsewhere in Wales.

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The divisive nature of referendums

We’ve experienced two referendums in the UK in the past 2 years (first Scotland’s Indyref and then the UK’s Brexit). Both have proved socially divisive – across and within countries, across and within regions and neighbourhoods and even across and within families.

Unlike General elections, referendums offer a binary choice – black or white? Whereas what we are choosing to vote for in elections is nuanced because of the mix of manifesto policies and leadership qualities about which one might hold a mix of views. And our lives don’t change irrevocably when one government replaces another and, if we don’t like what we get, then there’s a chance to review and vote differently in 5 years’ time.

In contrast, referendums force us to make a binary choice which (at least in the two most recent cases) will make a huge and irrevocable difference to all our lives. Consequently, having voted we feel challenged to justify the choice we made – particularly if friends, colleagues or even families voted differently. Cognitive dissonance operates and soon we have amassed a whole set of reasons why our choice was right and others’ choice was both wrong and ‘stupid’. The more our ‘rationale’ is challenged by others (or by subsequent events) the more the opinions supporting our behavioural choice become entrenched. It’s easy because we engage in such post-hoc rationalisation all the time and largely unconsciously.

But it might actually be more fundamental than that. Psychology studies (‘the Minimum Group Paradigm) have shown that, even when people are allocated to one of two groups on a purely ad hoc basis, they exhibit in-group versus out-group behavior. They behave in ways which favour members of the same group over members of the other group even if this costs them and their group. If members of one group  are subsequently transferred to the other group, they aren’t treated as favourably as the ‘original’ members  – they have to serve their time as effective  outsiders or ‘migrants’!

So, hypothetically speaking,  even voters allocated randomly into two groups labelled those who voted ‘A’ and those who voted ‘B’,  would start to view those in the ‘other’ group less favourably than those in the their own group. If asked to justify why they thought they were allocated to A rather than B, they would happily generate convincing ‘rationale’ which made them feel their allocation was definitely right and their group was superior even though the selection was actually random.

So, if we think that people who voted differently from us in either referendum are less worthy or even ‘stupid’, let’s remember that, as primitive emotional beings, we are quite capable of developing such views and accompanying ‘rationale’ even if our initial group membership was allocated randomly.

mirror people

How could you lot be so stupid?

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May 2016 to Feb 2017 – Solar Storage Data

Spring is in sight and we have just done the analysis of February’s performance with our solar PV (4kW) plus Wattstor battery (6kWh) system.  The longer days and the sun being higher in the sky have started to make a significant difference despite much of February being gloomy and wet. Some of our evening cooking and lighting (once the sun has set) is now supported by Bert-the-battery rather than from the grid.

Chart 1 shows the daily Wh averages for each month since May 2016. Our daily consumption is staying relatively steady at just over 8kWh/day. (It does vary somewhat day to day depending on the significant effect of charging our Twizy which also has a 6kWh battery to fill. We try to charge the Twizy when the sun is contributing the most to avoid either taking from the grid or depleting Bert-the-battery in order to fill another battery. In the winter, that’s hard to manage.)


Chart 2 shows the percentage of our daily electricity consumption which comes from each source – the solar panels directly, the solar via the battery or directly from the grid. In February, 31% of our consumption was covered by the solar and battery combined – the best performance since October. The battery alone contributed 12.5% of our consumption. Because the lead acid batteries spend most of their time on absorption as opposed to bulk charging (to protect themselves), we aren’t capturing as much of the solar into the battery (for later use) as we would like. As Chart 1 shows, the actual solar generation was up to 50% of the overall consumption but the amount of the solar generated power which the battery could absorb in real time is restricted so roughly 25% of it was passed to the grid for others to use. We try to view this in a generous spirit!


We now look forward to the long sunny days of March (typical weather here in Wales of course..).



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