Caves, real and virtual

English: The Hall of the Mountain King, Ogof C...
English: The Hall of the Mountain King, Ogof Craig a Ffynnon, South Wales. Photo by Daniel Jackson, who has released the image under the GNU FDL. Subject in the photo is the submitter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was younger I did a bit of caving, spelunking, potholing, call it what you will. This mainly consisted of donning smelly boiler suits or wet suits and crawling, and in some cases, swimming through muddy, dusty, or wet caves, and later downing a few pints at the pub.

I and my friends visited caves in England and South Wales. Some cavers went further a field to places like Ireland, and places in Europe. I expect that most countries have caves of some sort, either limestone caves carved by streams and rivers, or sea caves blasted out of the rock by the waves, or even lava caves created by volcanoes.


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We always wore hard hats and carried lamps, and sometimes we would carry ropes and coiled ladders for the bits that we could not otherwise free climb. (This is not meant to refer to the technical sport of climbing without aids – in caving, the climbing is secondary to the prime purpose of exploring the cave).

Lamps varied from the usually reliable “carbide” lamps, through various type of “miner’s” lamps to sophisticated battery powered lamps. All were worn mounted on the helmet.

Brass carbide lamp by Justrite
Brass carbide lamp by Justrite (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The carbide lamps, usually reliable, burned acetylene created by dripping water onto calcium carbide. Starting them up was occasionally difficult and involved opening the water valve and lighting the gas thus generated. They were usually reliable (unless clogged with mud) and gave a bright light. However there were problems with the disposal of “spent” calcium carbide and many people didn’t like the idea of carrying a lighted flame on their head!

The “miner’s” lamps were usually second hand, sourced from coal mines. They could be recharged many times, but because they were second hand, they could be fickle and could discharge rapidly, leading to the user relying on his/her companions for light. They also contained lithium hydroxide, which is pretty powerful chemical and this could leak from the old rubber seals, possibly resulting in burns.

Caver with carbide lamp
Caver with carbide lamp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The newer lamps were electric, with batteries that could be recharged and I see that the newer ones can have battery packs that are mounted on the helmet, which could be useful. I suspect that one could take spare power packs and plug them in as needed. The older “miner’s” lamps had a cable that allowed the battery pack to be strapped around the waist.

Of course, all the lamps had a limited range. This did not matter too much as the view tended to be restricted to the back of the person in front for most of the time. When the group entered a larger cavern however, a caver’s view of it depended on the power of his/her headlamp.


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In general a headlamp could not easily distinguish details in the distance in a cave, but a group of people in a cavern could illuminate it pretty well, or enough to spot the things that needed a closer look, like cave formations and stalactites and stalagmites, and the next bit of the intended route.

Nevertheless, the beauty of some of the formations in a cave is breathtaking. Huge stalactite flows, hanging curtains and sheets, rimmed pools of mirror like water in glorious colours can be seen. I’ve several times seen delicate helictites, which are rarely to be seen in show caves.


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“Real” cavers scorn the show caves, but I’d guess that all have visited them at some time or other. For a “retired” caver they are a reminder of all those hours spent underground. The cave formations are pretty ordinary as compared to those found in the more natural caves, and the lighting and concrete paths, stairs and indeed the touristy commentaries by the guides seem laughable to those have experienced “real” caving.

When you visit a cave, at least those that have formed in limestone, they have been carved out of the rock by water (“phreatic”) and therefore have a distinct slope. There are exceptions but in most caves you go down into them and up out of them.

English: Scalloped limestone Limestone, now in...
English: Scalloped limestone Limestone, now in a stream bed but showing the typical scallop marks formed in a phreatic cave environment. (Ie indicating that it was once in a totally water filled cave) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When you are exploring a cave, you generally don’t have a map, but in most cases you will be following someone who has already visited that part of the cave that you are exploring. You look forwards and down going in, pointing your headlamp at place, generally, below you. On the way out you look upwards, pointing your lamp in the direction of the exit.

You look into interesting nooks and crannies which points your light into them. Interestingly, when I have visited show caves I have looked into nooks and crannies and unconsciously expected them to light up. Of course they don’t as show caves don’t supply helmets with lights on them!

English: This is a picture taken looking out a...
English: This is a picture taken looking out at the sea lions from inside the main cavern of the cave. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve played the game Minecraft quite a bit, and that has a feature which resembles caving. When you dig a mine in Minecraft you generally dig downwards. At first you might just hammer rocks to clear your way, but sooner or later you will hit a void in the ground. The trick here is not to fall into it.

You may hit the void or cave at any point – the bottom, the middle or the top. In any case you will initially see only darkness with maybe a a few blocks dimly visible in the gloom. To proceed further (and find all the desirable ores and minerals) you will need to get down to the bottom and root around.

A view of a set of steps in a Minecraft clone game
A view of a set of steps in a Minecraft clone game

This generally means that you carefully cut steps around the edges of the void until you reach the bottom. I generally leave torches attached to the walls of the excavation as I go, as a sort of “breadcrumb trail“. Eventually one reaches the bottom of the void and can go exploring.

At the bottom of a void, it is much like the bottom of a cave. A jumble of blocks and the occasional pitfall await. The only difference is that the blocks that form the virtual cave are all cubes and don’t move as you walk over them, whereas in a real cave there are all sorts of shapes, and they can move under your feet.

Trees in a glass building
Trees in a glass building

Interestingly coming upon a gaping void in Minecraft induces the same gripping tension as entering a large, unknown chamber in a real cave, at least to some extent.

Looking up from the depths at the bottom of the pothole
Looking up from the depths at the bottom of the pothole

Trains, boats and planes

Refugees arrive in Travnik, central Bosnia, du...
Refugees arrive in Travnik, central Bosnia, during the Yugoslav wars, 1993. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a horrifying refugee crisis going on in Europe where floods of people from the Middle East are trying to get into the richer and stabler countries like Germany and the UK. They are fleeing wars and persecutions in their own countries, and are paying ruthless individuals to transport them mainly in overloaded boats from Asia to Europe.

Tragically, people are being killed in this process, as people are stifled in trucks and drowned falling from boats or suffering similar misfortunes. I haven’t heard of cases, but it would not surprise me to learn that unscrupulous have been killing refugees and taking whatever small possessions that they have.

Children of the United Kingdom's Children's Mi...
Children of the United Kingdom’s Children’s Migrant Programme (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whether a person is a refugee or merely a migrant, they are leaving one country for another because they believe that life will be better in a new country. Such movements are older than the human race itself. It is believed that the human race evolved in Africa and relatively quickly spread though much of the then accessible world. Members of the “Homo” family of species at that time were widely spread in Eurasia as well as the home continent of Africa.

The Homo family of species spread through much of Europe and Asia probably as a result of their intelligence and their high rate of breeding. Being hunters and gatherers and increasing population would put pressure on scarce resources, forcing families and groups to travel further for food and resulting in migrations in search of food.

This is a recreated vector image in SVG. The o...
This is a recreated vector image in SVG. The original “Human_evolution_scheme.png” was made by José-Manuel Benitos. The following was stated by the original author: “Simplified scheme of human evolution, it does not try to be trustworthy, but a symbol of this process” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course there would have been many other factors, but I’ll not go into that as I don’t know much about early human migrations. One effect of the rise and spread of humanity was the decline of the other Homo species. I assume that there is a link between the two phenomenon as they happened, apparently, at about the same time.

Maybe a cleverer Homo Sapiens stole the resources that the other Homo species needed, or maybe the other Homo species succumbed to some influence that did not affect Homo Sapiens, such as a disease or a climate change. Maybe our ancestors destroyed the other species in a pre-stone age holocaust. I’ve not studied the literature on the subject, so I’m ignorant of what was the likely cause of the decline of the other Homo species.

English: Human evolution splitter view
English: Human evolution splitter view (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever happened in those early days appears to have left the human race the urge to keep moving on. This urge has prompted us to send people to the moon and to send spacecraft to all (local) parts of the universe. Of course refugees in general don’t have much choice in the matter. They need to move or they are dead.

There is probably a spectrum stretching from migrant to refugee that covers all people who change countries or even regions. At the one end you have the forced movement of people between countries, by the authorities or an invader, through people fleeing war or persecution, to those who flee unpopular regimes which won’t actually kill or persucute them, to those who choose to migrate for political, cultural, reasons, right through to those who like to experience a different living environment.


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I’ve changed countries myself, and though my migration was voluntary and for a better life, it was a huge upheaval to move countries. You have to leave friends and relatives, all the things that you have known, much of which you may miss, to pack up your life and relocate it to a new country, where the culture is different if not in type then in detail, and you do not know how you will cope.

Of course, voluntary migrants have it easy in comparison to the refugees. They often cannot bring any possession with them, and they may not like the culture (which may espouse a different religion of course) and the likelihood of them returning to their original homes is remote. As refugees they will almost certainly miss their countries more than a person further up the migrant-refugee spectrum would.

Remains of an Orthodox church in the city cent...
Remains of an Orthodox church in the city center. The church was destroyed during the war but has since been reconstructed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless, some voluntary migrants suffer at some stage from home sickness. Perhaps when an elderly relative dies and they cannot return for the funeral, or when a sibling who has remained in the “homeland” has a child. I’ve seen home sickness triggered by a simple treat brought by a visitor from the “homeland” that is unavailable in the new country.

I’ve not suffered very much from the syndrome myself, but I’ve known people who have and it is not a trivial thing. Home sickness can make a person physically ill, and if they are frail, it can even kill them. It can seriously disturb a person’s mental health, especially if they are prone to depression or similar mental illnesses. I’d say, however, that almost every single person who leaves one country for another suffers from it, except perhaps those of a persistently roving disposition.

"Homesickness Can Be Cured" - NARA -...
“Homesickness Can Be Cured” – NARA – 514527 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some voluntary migrants cannot cope with living in a new country. These are the ones that pack up and go back “home”. It may be culture, it may be relatives, it may be what you can buy in the shops, but these people make the decision to return from whence they came. I used to wonder why they did it, until I went back for a couple of years, and found that I hated it and couldn’t wait to get back to the new country. After that I had more sympathy for those returning migrants.

This contrasts strongly with refugees, who, although they see their target countries as being better than their homelands, are going to face a hugely different culture, possible religious and racial intolerance, all without the safety net of being able to return to their homelands. Even if they are able, at some time in the future, to return, it is likely that their homelands would have become strange and alien. Likely other people will be living their, with new customs and even religions.

We have a phrase which describes the process of settling in a new land, or adapting to local customs, to making friends and watching children forming bonds with others in the new country. It’s called “putting down roots”. Let’s hope that the refugees all find a place where they can join happily with the local society and put down some roots. Not to forget their homelands totally, but to rejoice in their new homeland. Those of us who are voluntary migrants should welcome these “involuntary migrants”.


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Electric Cars

English: Three converted Prius Plug-In Hybrids...
English: Three converted Prius Plug-In Hybrids Charging at San Francisco City Hall public recharging station (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a perception that electric cars are greener than petrol-driven cars. While I would not like to give the impression that I am against electric cars, as I am actually in favour of them, long term, in the short term I see some issues with them.

Firstly, consider the auto mobile. There are 250 million of them in the United States alone. That require a huge infrastructure which we don’t often consider. Firstly the crude oil is extracted from the ground using huge drills. While the technology is fairly basic, a lot of planning goes into a well before the hole is drilled, and then the drilling rig, and the workers are brought in and eventually crude oil flows.

Detroit Electric car charging
Detroit Electric car charging (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It flows, ultimately to refineries where, apart from fuel oil, many other oil based products are extracted. The fuel is then trucked around the country or to other countries and ultimately to petrol supply stations (or gas stations as they are referred to in North America). Special equipment, the bowsers, are used to load the fuel into the cars.

The cars also require lubricating oil, which can be purchased in the petrol supply stations. More often the lubrication oil is supplied at special workshops set up to cater for the auto mobile users. These have special equipment to attend to and repair internal combustion engine. Replacement parts are manufactured and distributed to these workshops.

English: Inspector on offshore oil drilling rig
English: Inspector on offshore oil drilling rig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In contrast the fledgling electric car industry is small. There are few recharging stations, and the repair stations for electric cars are currently few and far between. Technicians who can work safely on electric cars are rare.

For electric cars to compete directly with petrol engined cars the infrastructure for electrical cars needs to match the current infrastructure for the petrol cars and that will require significant investments from someone. New electrical charging stations will need to be created or petrol supply stations will have to give up some space to electrical charging stations.

Shell gas station Uddevalla
Shell gas station Uddevalla (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While charging stations are being created, there are less than 10,000 world-wide and a few thousand in the US. In the US there are approximately 3 charging points per station, so there are relatively few places to charge electric cars.

Charging an electric car at an outlet takes a minimum of 10 minutes and to do it this fast requires special equipment, for which special expertise is required. To provide this expertise requires special training, comparable to the expertise required to deal with petrol bowsers. Cross-training of petrol bowser experts in electrical outlets is of course possible, but the expertise is sufficiently different that a whole new pool of experts will need to be built up.

Bowser at Ariah Park, New South Wales, Australia.
Bowser at Ariah Park, New South Wales, Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When an electrical car requires repair for any reason, it will need to be taken to a mechanic who knows how to deal with one. It’s likely that some repair locations will switch to electric rather than petrol, since the equipment is so different, though these days the petrol repair locations already use sophistic electronics in the diagnosis and repair of petrol engined cars.

So, in summary, electric car facilities will have to replace petrol car facilities as electrical cars become more common. This will not happen quickly and easily as the industry supporting petrol cars will no doubt resist. The electric car industry will have an expensive fight on its hands as all new equipment will have to be provided and a fledgling industry wont have a lot of financial backing.

English: Road sign indicating a power station ...
English: Road sign indicating a power station for electric cars Deutsch: Verkehrsschild: Hinweis auf Elektrotankstelle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is needed is for the costs of the petrol car industry to climb significantly, and that will cause other significant societal problems. Then it will make sense to invest in the electrical car industry.

Another issue as regards electric cars is related to the charging of them. It takes significantly longer to charge an electric car as opposed to filling up a car’s tank with petrol. In a fast charging station, with special equipment in the charging “bowser” and special connections in the car, it could take anything from 10 minutes upwards.

English: GM EV1 home charging station
English: GM EV1 home charging station (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cars can be charged at home, and from standard electrical connections, but this would normally have to happen overnight when there is less other usage of electricity in the home. However, if you charge a car from a standard electrical connection, it will take a long time, up to eight hours or more. So those who charge their cars at home can expect not to use the car in the evening, and a flat battery is more of an issue than a flat battery in a petrol car.

The cables both in the house and in the supply connections needs to be robust because of the inevitable heating from the continual high current, and if you be chance draw too much current, either the car charging or the house will be temporarily cut off. If you were to have medical equipment in the house then this could be life threatening.

A CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter's downwash kick...
A CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter’s downwash kicks up a dust cloud resulting in brownout (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course there are mechanisms that can be ensured to reduce the impact of these problems, but that means that the wiring infrastructure in the house needs to be upgraded. It’s not a big problem until you multiply it by the number of houses that would need to be upgraded.

A bigger issue is that the electricity infrastructure is built for, really, quite light usage. If everyone in the street were to get an electric car, then the local infrastructure would come under stress. There are already “brown-outs” and “black-outs” of the infrastructure in the US at times of heavy demand. Add onto that the charging of numerous electric cars and one wonders if the infrastructure could be upgraded in a reasonable time or whether blackouts and flat batteries would become common.

The Blackout! The Blackout! The Blackout!
The Blackout! The Blackout! The Blackout! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This problem goes all the way back to generation, which currently depends mostly on fossil fuels in many parts of the world. It’s not much good if reducing fossil fuel usage at the consumer end results in increased fossil fuel usage at the generation end.

So while electric cars and fossil free generation should eventuate, at the moment there are high barriers to widespread adoption of electric cars and reduction of dependence on fossil fuels.


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