Friday, December 20, 2013

Musings on the Business and Romance of Windmills

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Last I was in The Netherlands on client business, and with meetings at Europoort in particular.  The word means gateway to Europe, and is part of the Port of Rotterdam.  En route from there to Amsterdam, I noticed wind turbines lining the highway.  My kind driver Robert noted that Rotterdam housed numerous companies in the oil and gas industry, but I inquired about these wind turbines.  Yes, they do help power these companies' operations.  Europe has impressed me as being advanced with alternative and renewable energy, much more so than the US.  Gasoline there is so expensive, so as to make it cost-prohibitive, I imagine, for many citizens and perhaps for many companies as well.

Then I stumbled onto this comic by Randall Munroe, a guy with unusual, more geeky notions of comics:
I'm just this guy, you know? I'm a CNU graduate with a degree in physics. Before starting xkcd, I worked on robots at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. As of June 2007 I live in Massachusetts. In my spare time I climb things, open strange doors, and go to goth clubs dressed as a frat guy so I can stand around and look terribly uncomfortable. At frat parties I do the same thing, but the other way around.
It is his allusion to Don Quixote, the legendary epitome of chivalry, courtesy of Spanish novelist, poet and playwright Miguel de Cervantes:
Just then they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that rise from that plain. And no sooner did Don Quixote see them that he said to his squire, "Fortune is guiding our affairs better than we ourselves could have wished. Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them. With their spoils we shall begin to be rich for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless." 
"What giants?" asked Sancho Panza. 
"Those you see over there," replied his master, "with their long arms. Some of them have arms well nigh two leagues in length." 
"Take care, sir," cried Sancho. "Those over there are not giants but windmills. Those things that seem to be their arms are sails which, when they are whirled around by the wind, turn the millstone."
`Tilting at windmills has a decidedly negative connotation.  But in Don Quixote's world, it means the persistence of nobility and the romance of imagination.  So if the things we fear are merely illusory, as psychologists and would-be psychologists quickly lead us to believe, then who better else can we entreat to defend our comfort and peace than Don Quixote?

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I've been to Amsterdam numerous times, en route back-and-forth the US and the Middle East, especially when I was working for an international consulting firm.  The images I associate most were of windmills and tulips.
The evidence at present is that the earliest type of European windmill was the post mill, so named because of the large upright post on which the mill's main structure (the "body" or "buck") is balanced. By mounting the body this way, the mill is able to rotate to face the wind direction; an essential requirement for windmills to operate economically in north-western Europe, where wind directions are variable. The body contains all the milling machinery. The first post mills were of the sunken type, where the post was buried in an earth mound to support it. Later, a wooden support was developed called the trestle. This was often covered over or surrounded by a roundhouse to protect the trestle from the weather and to provide storage space. This type of windmill was the most common in Europe until the nineteenth century, when more powerful tower and smock mills replaced them.
There is great ingenuity in humankind, and windmills are among its longstanding example.  There was little aesthetics to those wind turbines I saw between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, none of the romance, nobility and imagination of windmills of old and chivalry of Don Quixote.  But business often calls far louder for utility and efficiency, instead.  

Thank you for reading, and let me know what you think!

Ron Villejo, PhD

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