Avionics

Segmenting, categorising, and naming technical subjects has a long history. However, it’s not often there’s a back story to say what’s in each name. Numerous definitions exist. These are quite often an afterthought. Naming that evolves rather than can be traced to a single author.

The subject on my mind is Avionics. It’s a ubiquitous term in aircraft engineering. In fact, it’s applied much more widely than that because administrators, pilots and air traffic controllers all use it. So, let’s look at the history, etymology and usage of the word.

The word seems obvious, as to not need a definition. Bring the world of aviation and electronics together and there it is – Avionics. However, Avionics often extends beyond the world of aviation and into space. So, it may be better to say, bring the world of aeronautics and astronautics and electronics together and there it is – Avionics.

Notice that it’s electronics and not electrics that forms the definition. A loose distinction between the two might be to say that, in terms of electric current, electronics is anything below an ampere[1] and electrics is that above an ampere.

Marconi was the first to experiment with airborne radio. It was even available to pilots in the First World War. However, spark-gap radio was unloved, heavy, and awkward.

The name Avionics started being used in the 1940s. VHF radio communication between aircraft and ground stations was vital to an aircrafts’ operation. The fabrication of radio valves in high volumes and at low costs led to the use of numerous radio technologies: communications, navigation, RADAR and Radio Altimeters to name a few.

The science and technology of electronics, and the development of electronic devices has advanced faster than that of aircraft design and manufacture. Avionics engineering has been divided into numerous sub-fields as a result.

Where once an aircraft could complete safe flight and landing with a complement of defective avionic equipment that is no longer the case. It’s quite the reverse, as the current generation of both military and civil aircraft are highly depended upon the correct functioning of their avionic systems.

Often the more complex an aircraft and its operation becomes, the more complicated the avionic systems become. Aircraft flight-control systems can be of great sophistication. By contrast a VHF radio hasn’t changed much, in its basic function, for decades.

Although avionics is a common term, it doesn’t often find its way into legislation or everyday usage. There’re certainly great swathes of the population for which the word means nothing. It’s an unusual day if the six-o’clock news has a reference to this technical word. 


[1] https://www.npl.co.uk/si-units/ampere

Gaslighting

Any movie with Ingrid Bergman must be worth watching. If your evil partner is manipulative and you feel you might go insane then watch the 1940s movie “Gaslight”. Lamps dim for no reason and your grip on reality starts to slide. As the thriller unwinds so the process of gaslighting is unveiled.

It’s not uncommon that people are their own harshest critics. Naturally, if you are a psychopath that’s not the case. Similarly, if you have a mountainous ego where nothing much will shift you from thinking you are right, in any circumstances.

Gaslighting is an insidious form of emotional harm. It’s associated with abusive relationships. Where one person deliberately manipulates situations to undermine another. Motivations can range from being just plain evil to money or an insatiable desire for power over others.

It’s not individual relationships that these words will cover. What’s a phenomenon is the frequent use, particularly on social media, of the term “Gaslighting” to refer to current political manipulation. It’s way up there on the lexicon of how to describe the Conservative Party’s campaigning.

You don’t have to be a glamorous film star to suffer the effects of techniques aimed at undermining your perception of reality. It’s all to easy in the febrile world of social media.

Political villains’ intent on distorting facts are there to take advantage of the compelling nature of the small screen. You shouldn’t have to second-guess yourself when reading the News but its not so difficult to persuade people to do so.

Just now we have the nonsensical rhythm of double speak in the question – when a party is not a party. It’s almost got to the stage of asking the question – when a cake is not a cake.

In all of that, let’s recognise what’s happening. By deliberately muddying the waters and sowing doubt so a lot of Conservative MPs are gaslighting the public. The Prime Minister is gaslighting the public. It’s difficult to know what’s true when the sand is shifting so often. The manipulator can seem charming and as nice as pie, but their motive is to deceive you.

Our perception of reality depends on acquiring information that is accurate and reliable. In my aviation world, fatal accidents are caused by a loss of situation awareness. Even a lapse of awareness can get pilots into serious difficulties. Accurate and reliable information is needed to stay safe.

COVID has caused a great deal of social isolation. That is fertile ground for despicable political operators to disorientate people. We are players in a psychological thriller. We are people trying to make sense of the world. Trying to make a better world. We need to be able to recognise it because “Gaslighting” is a big danger.

Gap Grows

“One rule for them. Another rule for us.” It’s always an emotive slogan. It’s not my favourite saying in a time of great political polarisation. First you must see yourself as, one of us. Second you must see them as alien and privileged.

In a divided society this slogan gets thrown around like candy. However, it has a core truth in it. Inequality is a fixture in England. It was fine for Blair and Brown to say: education, education education, but they only shifted the dial a small amount.

Recently, I did a guided tour around a well-known English public school. Its history is fascinating, and some notable people have gone through its doors. The experience of schooling in that place is a huge leg up on prospects. There’s absolutely no way that a state school experience can match up.

One of the factors is the huge resources focused on creating opportunity for each pupil. Another, advantage is the closeted environment that creates a private network of lifelong contacts.

What then of “levelling up”? As a political slogan it seems to imply an almost communist attempt to increase the wellbeing, opportunity, and quality of life for every single citizen to a new common level. That makes me wonder why equivalents like eliminate poverty or prioritise education or fix climate change aren’t getting a look in.

Could it be that “levelling up” is in fact “covering-up”? Objective measures say that the gap between the richest in society and the rest of the population has widened over 10-years[1]. Rather than a natty political slogan surely corrective action to address this gap is needed.

This year household finances are going to be under extreme pressure. A cost-of-living crisis is upon us. It’s not just energy bills. It’s post-COVID-19 business failures. It’s supply chain chaos made worse by BREXIT. It’s incompetence and waste in Government responses.

Unfortunately, this Conservative Government has forfeited any trust people may have had in it. Trust matters if solutions to our challenges are to be met and overcome. Trust is broken when one privileged group demands the right to cling to power regardless of circumstances.

There’s need for urgent action. There’s need for a new plan. There’s need for a new Government.


[1] https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/bulletins/householdincomeinequalityfinancial/financialyearending2020

Tea or Coffee

I’ll grab a newspaper and flick through the pages. I can almost guarantee in all the thousands of words use to describe the events of the week nowhere will you see the word “determinism”. Now, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Or at least anyone who doesn’t spend their days in the systems engineering world. Yet, the basic idea of determinism is ingrained in everyday thinking.

Yesterday, I bought a new kettle. It works well. I can take cold fresh water from my kitchen tap, fill it to the two-cup line and press the button with confidence that within a couple of minutes I’ll have boiling water. Cause-and-effect are truly well connected. I pay my electricity bill and expect current to flow when the switch is thrown. I’d be really annoyed if my new kettle didn’t do what it said it would do on the box it was packaged in. My cup of tea is assured.

Now, let’s step into an imaginary future. Well, a future that not as imaginary as might first be thought. I’ll set aside my morning tea drinking habit and brew a coffee instead. I haven’t got one, but they are certainly being advertised. That’s a coffee machine that’s connected to the INTERNET[1]. It can be given voice commands to brew my favourite brew. It has an app where I can set-up my preferences. It’s a whizzy way to get an espresso.

I don’t say this function exists, only that as soon as the connection is made to an external service what happens next becomes just a little less predictable. A coffee machine with an integrated voice activation system will do as it’s told. At least we assume it will do as it’s told. Thus, cause-and-effect remain connected. Stand back. The door has now been opened. Let’s say, after I acquired the coffee maker the anxious manufacture changes the algorithm that runs the machine. They want me to drink the maximum number of their wonderful coffees but without going to the dark side.

Next time, I go for a smart espresso the machine talks back: “Are you sure? You’ve had 5 coffees already this afternoon.” I have no knowledge of, or control over the algorithm that’s coming up with this talk back. The question might be fair, sensible, and looking after my health but, in that moment, I have no ability to predict what the machine will do next. Will it let me carry on regardless? Or will it say: “No, you’ve had enough. Come back and talk to me in an hour.” The simple cause-and-effect relationship I have with my new kettle is no more. Without being warned, I’ve strayed into the world of non-determinism.

I think you can now appreciate the purpose of this short article. It’s to point out that our quaint classical deterministic world is going to go through a shakeup. Think of the scenario above for a car or an aeroplane. It’s not inevitably bad. In fact, non-deterministic systems offer huge potential benefits. My message is that we’d better be ready for all aspects of this transition.

I’ve made the contrast between either one or the other. In realty, there will be a fuzzy zone between what’s deterministic and what’s non-deterministic. The tea or coffee drinker may have a choice in different places at different times for different reasons.


[1] https://www.lavazza.co.uk/en/landing/voicy.html

He must go

We are always faced with contradictions. Paradox is frustrating. Nevertheless, reality is littered with inconsistencies.

On the one side it’s often said that: a leopard can’t change its spots. Meaning that basic habits become so ingrained that changing them becomes all but impossible. Parts of a person’s personally are so deeply set that it’s difficult to imagine them ever being any different.

My Dad would occasionally say: you can’t teach and old dog new tricks. When I was younger, I used to find this annoying. It’s the kind of phrase that is used to avoid trying a new way of doing things. You could say it’s innately conservative with a small “c”.

These homilies run parallel to the general notion that everyone can change. It’s the Christian call for redemption. That all of us can choose a different path. That we have autonomy. Just like Scrooge we can wake up one morning and transform our lives.

What makes the difference is a matter of character. That’s a quality that is established over a long time. It’s the sum total of past actions. It’s the mark that a person has left on the world.

Now, the idea that Boris Johnson will change, or can change is for the birds. In the current crisis of trust in senior Conservative politicians, the defenders of those in power are trying to be contrite. These people are in fact reluctant or unwilling to change habits or long-held beliefs. In reality, they are hunkering down based on the ways and means that got them power in the first place.

This is a morning for proverbs. Johnson is a bad apple. Can you imagine any parent saying to their child – I hope you grow up to be like our current Prime Minister. Will his method of governance be taught in schools as the right way to do thing? I don’t think so.

People expect a British Prime Minister to be accountable for their actions. It’s a role of great importance in the life of our country. In the face of deliberate misconduct, intentional recklessness, or even criminal activity Members of Parliament must be answerable.

The negative consequences of Johnson’s actions are having repercussions throughout society. This Prime Minister does not meet basic standards of behaviour expected of a person in a premier leadership role. It is time for Johnson to step aside. He must go.

An Apprentice

Let’s face it, it’s entertaining although a bit of a Victorian freak show. The Apprentice[1] is back on the tele. The BBC have again given a platform for Lord Sugar and his workday philosophy. It’s deeply engrained in a City[2] centred British philosophy. Boy made good; you might call it. A South Easterner’s quest for the streets of gold that Dick Whittington[3] sought.

What’s on offer is a fast moving climb up a greasy pole in full public view. It’s like no other apprenticeship on offer. The classroom highlights are edited to make the viewer squirm and shiver. Slumped on the sofa we can all say, I wouldn’t have been so silly.

The BBC has a creed. The BBC’s founding purpose, “to inform, educate and entertain”, remains admirable. This includes an equal consideration of viewpoints, probity, popularity, and a commitment to public service. The Apprentice hits one of these buttons. But as we watch, does it inform us what real business is like? Does it educate us about how to conduct successful business? I’d say – not much. The show does, however, give the tie a better name. It’s not bad for pinstripes and power dressing too. Pile on the 1980s stereotypes. Even the wired phones in the Board Room.

As a public funded national broadcaster, the BBC is aware of its commercial competitors. Tooth and nail, they are fighting over our eyeball time. Digitisation has increased the intensity of that fight. So, is it surprising that we get fed monster egos, inexplicable fails, and smug triumphs? Afterall this formula is remarkably entertaining. It creates those watercooler moments.

I’d like to go back to the creed mentioned above. The BBC should be committed to universality. I mean by that a commitment to all sectors of our society. If a public broadcaster is going to do a popular show about business success and failures it ought to cover more ground. Pounding on about the City stereotype is missing a big opportunity.

In a week when Apple[4] reaches a global size of unbelievable proportions, and we watch The Apprentice on their devices, how come we are so blind to the most successful entrepreneurs of the last couple of decades? Making thing matters. OK selling them matters too but both matters.

Having a rough vision in 1976, the year I left school to take up an engineering apprenticeship, a group of West Coast nerds started to shape our future. They shaped it far more than they could ever have imagined. It’s our digital world that continues to expand.

Again, I’d like to go back to the creed mentioned above. There’s would be entrepreneurs messing around with computers, strings and wires in garages and sheds up and down Britain. There’s schools and colleges with incredibly imaginative pupils and students dreaming up dreams and playing with the stuff of the future. Yet, the BBC gives no prime-time space for this corner of our society.

Let’s have a show called – The Innovators. Or even The Disruptors.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0071b63

[2] https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/supporting-businesses

[3] https://www.london-walking-tours.co.uk/london-history/dick-whittington.htm

[4] https://www.statista.com/statistics/265125/total-net-sales-of-apple-since-2004/

topsy-turvy

2022 is only a few days old. Yet, it seems a lot older. The bizarre confusion of last year has followed us across the threshold of the years. What do I mean? It’s an upside down, back to front state of almost permanent upset.

Go get tested we are told. Testing will help us avoid further restrictive measure to contain this 3rd wave of COVID-19 infections. So, I walked up to the door of our local Boots the chemist and right in front of me was a notice saying they had no test kits but were waiting for the next order to arrive.

Put on a mask[1]. Don’t wear masks. Children must wear masks. Masks cause mental illness in schools. So many contradictory confused messages bouncing off the walls. Constantly senior politicians are racing to say the opposite to their colleagues. It’s possible to see a relish in the discomfort that they cause their colleagues.

Plan B or not plan B. But what is the plan? It’s clear the pandemic is far from over. Wishfull thinking does not make a threat go away.  The reality is that very large numbers of new coronavirus cases have been recorded. Their impact is being seen in the NHS and on the High Street.

A record number of job vacancies remain unfilled[2]. We are told to be prepare for a quarter of the work force being off sick. Ministers put on a brave face and say: don’t worry everything will be hunky-dory. That bright red, much reprinted “Keep Calm and Carry On” wartime motivational poster is now Government policy.

By the way, I’m not talking about the 1961 film: “Carry On Regardless[3]” but maybe I should be. Comedy farce is as British as British can be. The cast of characters in that film would probably make a better Government than the one we have in office. I shouldn’t even go down this avenue of thought. It’s too tragic.

Prime Minister Johnson is thought to be delaying decisions waiting for new data to become available. By the time official COVID-19 data is available it’s clear it’s going to be way behind the curve. Omicron’s progress over Christmas has been rapid.

As an engineer, I wish we had politicians who had just smidgen of systems engineering knowledge. Just a tiny appreciation of how control systems work can go a long way. How we respond to feedback can have a determining impact on what happened next. An approach solely based on “let’s wait and see what happens next” has a huge potential to result in undesirable outcomes.

The topsy-turvy world of tabloid media and Conservative backbench thinking is blinding Johnson. Our peculiar British fairground ride is continuing.


[1] https://www.who.int/news-room/questions-and-answers/item/q-a-children-and-masks-related-to-covid-19

[2]https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/jobsandvacanciesintheuk/latest

[3] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054727/

2222

As we welcome in 2022 with the hope that it will be an order of magnitude better than the last 2 years, it’s a good time to look ahead. Better that is for general wellbeing.

I’m a fan of Science Fiction. Maybe it was my years of childhood influenced by Gerry Anderson’s imagination. “Space 1999” envisioned a fully functioning moon base[1] before the 21st century had begun. It was a popular UK TV Series between 1975 and 1977. That’s me at age 15 to 17.

Now, here we are in the 2nd decade of the 21st century and space travel has a long way to go. There’s no first moon base in prospect in 2022. It maybe 50 years before imagination becomes reality. Rare examples of predictions that got the future right do exist. However, there’s a lot more cases where fanciful ideas, plausible in their day are lost in the mists of time.

As we enter 2022, I wonder what 2222 will look like. Naturally I’ll never see that day. That is unless a magical means of extending life is discovered in the next decade.

Projecting forward 200 years is mighty challenging. Before I go there let’s look back 200 years. A long time in human terms but a short time in so far as the universe is concerned. That was a time when the secrets of the Rosetta Stone were deciphered.

In the year 1822, Englishman Charles Babbage publishes a plan for a difference engine. That could be said to be the start of the computing era. He got support to build a working computer but sadly it was not completed in his lifetime.

French microbiologist Louis Pasteur was born in 1822. Today, as we struggle out of a pandemic, we have a lot to be thankful for his work.

In that year Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was on the bookshelves. Thus, the notion of a “mad scientist” conducting dangerous experiments with technology was on the streets. That could be said to be the start of the science fiction era.

Given an acceleration of technical advancement, looking 2 decades ahead the scope opens for some dramatic and transformational changes to take place. Without getting bogged down with dystopian futures that will see humanity on its knees I’ll consider some positives.

Unlike Frankenstein there will certainly be “nice” autonomous robots that work alongside humans in every setting. The extent to which these companions will be self-aware and free to do as they wish is potentially the subject of an endless debate. I think they will be constrained by some well-considered fixed laws.

Life will still be a mystery. That said, the microbiologist 200 years hence will be studying lifeforms discovered on other planets. No other intelligent life, evolved as far as humans will be communicating with Earth. That’s not to dismiss the likelihood that they are out there somewhere.

The word computing will have lost its meaning in 2222. Abstract and virtual worlds of immense capacity, performance and realism will be part of everyday life. It’ll add new dimension to physical life. It may bring us to value our physical environment much more.

Travelling through time will still be science fiction. But simulated time travel will be available to all. In 2222 it will be possible to step back into a realistic simulation of 2022. That will make history lessons a warp around experience. I’m wondering if such a high-fidelity knowledge of our past will make us better people or not. Who will be the keeper of the truth of the past?

The political world of 2222 is likely to exhibit new versions of past problems. 200 years isn’t much in human evolution so we will still be struggling with our place in the universe. Granted the knowledge of how it works will be off the scale when measure in comparison with 2022.

I’m confident that a human colony, or more than one will be up and running as industrial enterprises on the Moon. It will be there to facilitate every kind of space travel. Human will not venture much beyond the immediate vicinity of Earth. Our automatons will be spread throughout the solar system. Some to explore and some to extract valuable elements and harvest fuels.

The Earth’s population will have stabilised at about 15 billion people. There will not be much uninhabited or underpopulated land surrounding established mega cities. To compensate there will be massive parks and reserves under global governance dedicated to preserving environmental diversity.

This is just a flight of fantasy. The most remarkable changes in 2 centuries will be the ones that are impossible to predict. Today. we have taken to the smart phone and social media in a decade to the point of dependency. That’s one busy decade. Multiply that by 20 and who knows?


[1] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0072564/