Monday, 19 January 2009

Darkness at noon

I'm just chomping through Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler and came upon this little gem:

"A mathematician once said that algebra was the science for lazy people - one does not work out x, but operates with it as if one knew it. In our case, x stands for the anonymous masses, the people. Politics mean operating with this x without worrying about its actual nature. Making history is to recognise x for what it stands for in the equation."

Friday, 9 January 2009

How the candles are made at Power Down

Since Power Down began, the lighting we employ has gone through a number of incarnations. I scoured the internet looking for the best source of lighting for our needs, and found many possible solutions. Clearly the motive behind Power Down is the looming energy crisis and man's contribution to global warming, so it was imperative to bare this in mind when choosing the solution.

The first thing to address is the inefficiency of candles over electric light. For the same amount of calories that a typical candle would burn to produce light, an incandescent light bulb will glow 39 times brighter. Imagine then using a Compact Fluorescent Light, or even LEDs, and you'll have an greater degree of efficiency.

However, the beauty of the atmosphere at Power Down is the low luminosity of candle light. There would be no vibe whatsoever if the audience and performers were bathed in a blazing grey light from a ceiling array of LEDs. Not to mention, the name of the night alludes to zero power usage, regardless of the source.

So candles it was. Though actually, at first it was oil lamps. I asked my local fish and chip shop in Holloway, the Odeon Fish and Chip Shop, whether they had any spare vegetable oil I could have. All they did with the oil was to leave it outside for collection by the company that delivered fresh supplies. This would most probably be thrown on landfill or worked into pet food. Something to consider the next time you bite into one of your dog's biscuits.

I then began making these fiddly little contraptions, oil lamps made from glass jars, water, the oil, paper clips, and wicks made from platted string. They burn very well, and if just a few, they're quite manageable. With 70 of the blighters, it turned out that there were just too many to attend to all night.

If you can imagine, there was water in the jar about 7/8ths to the top. Oil filled the final 8th, and a wick would be held in the centre of the jar by a paper clip hanging from the side of the jar lip. The wick would hang from it's position, through the oil, and down into the water. When lit, the oil would be sucked up through the wick by capillary action to the tip, where it would be burned by the flame, and heat, light, soot, and carbon dioxide would be produced. After a while, the decrease in oil would be noticeable, by exposing more of the wick, creating a bigger and dirtier flame. This was combated by one of 3 ways: 1 - Trimming the wick in mid burn, 2 - Topping the jar up with more oil, and 3 - Topping the jar up with more water. The third choice was the most practical, and hence implemented. This had me rushing around with a small watering can delicately filling up the jars to keep the flames at the optimum size. Whilst trying to arrange the performers and host the evening, you can imagine this was quite a task.

Not only were they hard to maintain in great numbers, but when kicked over by an appendage under the influence of delicious organic beer, sending oil and water flying in all directions, they made a bloody mess! So the design of the lighting had to improve to be more independent and be made of a less capricious substance.

I was inspired by margarine. It is made from vegetable oil and yet is semi solid. How do they do that? I researched the hydrogenation process and found that it's done by heating the oil to hundreds of degrees centigrade and at a huge pressure. Not something I could feasibly do on my stove at home.

Buying candles was not an option, as it would be creating demand for raw and often finite materials, such as crude oil which refines to paraffin, found in candles. Candles made from vegetables, soya etc would be made from crops likely to be taking the place of food crops, or precious rainforest, not to mention the transportation of the stuff, likely to be from the other side of the world.

The conclusion I came to was to use the second hand vegetable oil I already had, and mix it with redundant wax from candles that have had their wicks burn down, and then make them into new candles. The solidity from the paraffin in the candles would be compromised by oil diluting the wax, but it would make more candles, and so increase efficiency.

I had to extract this redundant wax from the well crafted under-sink cupboards of Islington somehow, and I did so through Freecycle. Many donations came through, after the specific plea that they should not create a demand for new candles to be purchased in the shops.

Once the harvest was sufficient, I took a large saucepan, filled it with the second hand vegetable oil, and began to heat it slowly. I then added some of the broken and redundant wax from the donations I'd received, until it had melted. I never measured anything accurately, but I would hazard a guess that the ratio is one part of wax, to five parts of oil. I then ladled this out into myriad containers, with short lengths of string for wicks. These were anchored to the bottom of the container by a thin metal square from a beer can with a split cut halfway in that held the bottom of the wick. The containers were a collection of sardine tins and mince pie cups. The liquid would take roughly an hour to cool properly, and would then of course harden. The candles were now ready for transportation or use, with no mess. The little maintenance that is involved is a simple wick trim with a pair of scissors, but this is far less frequent than with the oil lamps.

If you've been to a Power Down before, you may notice that there are some very smart looking white church candles adorning walls and podiums. These are not the candles described above. They were donated from a company in the City that, despite their generous nature in this instance, do not warrant any form of advertising. They had bought all these candles for the tables of some award ceremony, which were burnt during, and after became useless to them. It seemed an awful shame to melt down such good candles into the mucky brown pallets, so I left them intact. They've been lighting the churches for over a year now.

So hopefully, this riveting read has mildly absolved Power Down from the guilt spawned from the culture of waste, if not because of a reduction in emissions. It is hoped that for every Power Down that is staged, the nightly carbon footprints of 200 people are considerably reduced, by choosing our night of entertainment over something more traditionally profligate.