Christmas past

My interest in machinery goes back to an age of 9 or thereabouts. It’s not easy to be accurate about times past. Memories are moments in time that can get mixed up in a chain of events.

Christmas presents for me, and my brothers were a mix of new and second-hand. Someone the second-hand ones were more valued than the new ones. If I close my eyes, I can still see the auction sale room[1] in Gillingham, Dorset where a mysterious collection of toys and bric-a-brac where exhibited every December. A white painted outhouse building that was never warmer than a fridge. Full to the brim with cast-off items and curiosities.

In the afternoon, surveying the goods before the sale was an exciting moment for me. It was a time to say, “can we have that?” The answer would depend on how much my dad was prepared to bid. That was a good life lesson. Knowing that wants were not always going to be met.

That’s where my Meccano[2] came from. Not just the metal variety but there was a larger plastic type too. It was a junior range. More cherished was the classic metal version. Green strips of metal and boxes of nuts and bolts arranged in neat plastic compartments. Unlike current versions, these kits gave only the merest hint as to what to build and how to do it. So much was left to the imagination.

Cranes and bridges were one of the more basic designs, I liked to build. The cranes had strings and pulleys to lift and lower things for the fun of it. Bridge builds could be tested to see if they were strong enough to carry weight.

Inevitably, the more I played the more the small Meccano nuts and bolts went missing. The noise an upright Hover vacuum cleaner makes picking up those nuts and bolts was so distinct. It was like many large hail stones hitting a tin roof. Rummaging through the vacuum cleaner bag with a magnet ensured all the neat plastic compartments remained full.

Those long gone dusty sale rooms in Gillingham were also the source of more than one chemistry set. That’s when a boy’s chemistry set paid only scant attention to personal safety. As much as to say I had an experimental childhood with a degree of freedom that was wonderful. The more I reflect, the more I can see that was the case. Luckly, I learnt a lot and got through it relatively unscathed.

[1] Chapman Moore & Mugford



An instant reaction to Single Pilot Operations (SPO) is like the instant reaction to completely autonomous flight. “I’m not getting on an aircraft without a pilot!” Then to justify that reaction fatal accidents of the past are cited. Typically, this is to remind everyone of the tragic Germanwings accident[1]. It was 24 March 2015, that an Airbus A320 was crashed deliberately killing all onboard.  

However, it’s wise to remember that the likelihood of incapacitation[2] is much greater than that of the malicious behaviour of the pilot in command. Cases of malicious behaviour leading to a catastrophic outcome are truly shocking but extremely rare.

One fatal accident, that is still disputed is EgyptAir Flight 990[3] that killed 217 people in 1999. The possibility of inflight pilot suicide is unnerving, since on the face of it there is little any of the aircraft’s cabin crew or passengers can do to stop it.

This could be a future opportunity to use automation to prevent these scenarios occurring. Afterall the aircraft knows where it is and that a sustained high-speed dive towards the ground is not normally intended. A safety system exists to do this[4], but its outputs are not connected to the aircraft’s flight controls.

Humans being adaptable, extremely creative and capable of highly irrational actions, it’s unlikely that malicious behaviour resulting in aviation accidents will ever be reduced to zero. This is said regardless of the procedures or technology involved. The fate of flight MH 370 remains a mystery.

Thus, the prominent safety issue in respect of SPO is pilot incapacitation. Where the pilot in command is no longer able to perform as expected. That is, if the aircraft flown is not capable of safely landing itself. The objective always being safe continued flight and landing.

I’ve had the “1% Rule” rule explained to me by a notable aviation doctor, but I must admit I didn’t fully take it in. So far, the rule has stood the test of time. When the pilot in command of a Czech Airlines aircraft collapsed and died on route from Warsaw to Prague in 2012, the co-pilot took over and everyone got home safely.

Any automated co-pilot must be at least as capable as a human co-pilot in all aspects of operation of an aircraft. The key word here being “all”. It’s not enough to have the functions necessary to undertake safe continued flight and landing. Task such as communicating with the cabin crew and passengers must also be considered. Including preparation for an emergency landing.





Single Pilot Operations

Single Pilot Operations is not new. What’s new is considering this way of working for everyday public transport operations of large aircraft

Research is of fundamental importance. It seems obvious to say so given the benefits it has given us. When proposals come forward to exploit new technologies there needs to be that moment when everyone steps back and takes a long hard look at the implications of its use.

In basic technical research it’s not the most important consideration is to focus on the drivers for change. They can be multifarious: economic, environmental, social, safety, security, political, and maybe just a matter of preference. Policy directions are taken by the industry and governments not constrained by what is happening now as much as what might happen tomorrow.

Research has delivered incredible safety improvements in aviation. This is not only in the basic design and construction of aircraft but all aspects of their operation. So, to see that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) sponsoring research to study the implications of aircraft Single Pilot Operations[1] is a wholly good measure.

My history goes back to the early days of fly-by-wire aircraft systems. This is where the mechanical and physical connection between an aircraft pilot’s actions and the control surfaces that determine flight are replaced by digital computers. Back in the 1980s, a great deal of research and experimental flying proved the technology to make fly-by-wire work. It first found favour with the military. One reason being that an aircraft’s capability could be extended well beyond what was formerly reached. This change was introduced with caution, analysis, testing and much detailed risk assessment.

At the time, there was a significant body of professional pessimists who predicted a diminishment of aviation safety. Today, four decades on, studies show that even as air traffic has increased so civil aviation safety has improved. A momentous achievement. An achievement that has, in part, been because of the well-regulated adoption of advanced technologies. 

It is important to look at potential changes with an open mind. It’s easy to come to an instant opinion and dismiss proposals before a detailed study has been conducted. The detailed technical research can then be part of the challenge and response that is necessary to before approval of any major change. First difficult questions need to be tabled and thoroughly investigated.



Ten years ago, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Word of the Year was a word that is as usable as ever. It wasn’t brought to the fore by social media. At that time, social media hadn’t bitten such a big chunk out of our attention time. We even had enough time to sit in front of the box on an evening. That said, the box hasn’t faded into the background entirely. The massive screens displayed in electrical stores remain a standard part of a typical living room.

“The Thick of It[1]” ran for four series and captured the insanity of Government spin-doctoring and fanatical incompetence. Unapologetically self-indulgent Ministers and their aides scuttled around reacting to every small vibration coming from the media. This was masterful fiction but it’s closeness to reality is the story of 2022.

In 2012, the media political arena adopted “Omnishambles” as shorthand for chaotic behaviour on a large scale. Although it started life as a way of describing the Labour Party’s muddles and confusions before 2010, it has a universal applicability. Westminster can be a whirlpool of volte-faces, embarrassments and unfathomable twists and turns. 2022 ends with none of this diminished.

So, what have we to look forward to in 2023? This winter of discontent[2] is mostly likely to escalate. The impact of inflation and energy bills are like an erupting volcano. A few minor earthquakes, then an explosive plum and finally the top gets blown off the mountain.

Brexit and the pandemic have left people feeling exhausted. So, to see their standard of living diminish as this Conservative Government shamelessly wobbles on regardless, then this becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The Prime Minister may try to mine what popularity there is in the public mind, but this is not the time when a new Margaret Thatcher[3] will step forward. This is where simple analogies with the past quickly unravel. In this case the Conservatives own the problems. There’s no denying their responsibility for the last 12-years.

To restore the hope, that things can improve, a new formula is needed. People are not looking for perfection but a convincing vison, some basic honesty, and robust resolve. 





It’s one of those things I do, most years. For the greatest part, I can predict what I’ll be doing in March-and April. It started back in the 1980s. At the time we lived in Cheltenham[1] town. Putting leaflets through doors. Knocking on doors. “Hello, I’m calling on behalf of …….” was usually the introductory line. With prepared words not only did I remind the town’s residents that there was a local election in May but let them know the name of the best candidate.

I’m writing this as credentials. Yes, I know a thing or two about the nitty gritty of local elections in the UK. My experience has been accumulated over nearly 40-years. Lots of cold early spring evenings and weekend delivery rounds to get a message out in a short space of time.

One of the biggest changes, in terms of practical organisation, has been a change that has affected all parts of life. In 1985, everything was paper based. If I said: “Shuttleworths[2]” to a 21st century campaigner there’s a good chance they will not have a clue what I’m talking about. These were paper pads used to record names and addresses of supporters.

Local campaigning has undergone a digital transformation. However, in the British electoral system paper is still at the heart of everything that is done. The ballot paper is sacrosanct. Voters put a cross in a box set against a name and a logo. It remains inclusive in that there are few people who cannot manage that basic act.

In all my time campaigning, I can remember no voter fraud or corrupt activities. Yes, over enthusiastic, or idiotic behaviours pop-up now and then, as they do in all walks of life. It’s always an important function but also amusing to check spoilt ballot papers at an election count. A small number of voters can be creative in the insults and images they draw on ballot papers.

So, listening to last night’s Parliamentary debate on new Voter ID Regulations was distressing. The Conservative Government plan is to spend £180 million on solving a problem that doesn’t exist. This law is being pushed forward aggressively at a time when local Councils are cutting services due to lack of funding. The Local Government Association (LGA)[3] is saying that there’s not enough time to make the demanded changes before next May.

Ministers are ignoring such advice. Additionally, these regulations seem nonsensical. They impose new requirements on the operation of polling stations but do nothing in respect of postal voting. The natural suspicion for the forceful timescale is that this act is to suppress votes at a time when Conservative candidates are expected to loose in great numbers next May.

A further reason to be sceptical that Voter ID can prevent instances of electoral fraud is that convictions for voting offences have overwhelmingly related to postal votes, not personation at polling stations. Measure that create a barrier to voting in person will lower local election turnout. That’s a voter turnout that is as low as 29% of registered voters in my Borough.

This is a sad day for British democracy.





There’s a mismatch. It really is the case that there are more demands for attention than any normal person can address. Certainly, social media has a habit of burning up time. TV channel numbers expand like prolific rabbits but ironically there’s nothing worth watching or so it’s said. Daily newspapers are in decline, but supermarket shelves remain covered with expensive colourful magazines packed full of advertising. So many demands for our attention but the 24-hour day is much the same as it was in stone age times.

I did start a “to do list” in the assumption that it would help. Get me organised. Problem is that such lists fill up quickly and each task linger like a sword of Damocles[1]. Due dates slip into the past. It’s not a good way to reduce a dynamic stack of e-mails or clear a cluttered diary. Such lists are more a source admin than they are a source of free time.

One descriptive word that’s more than familiar to an engineer is that of “Bandwidth.” In this case lack of it. In the technical world it’s a range of frequencies within a set band. That notion of a limitation exists because a band is not boundless.

For my e-mail list. The contemporary form of an in-tray full to the brim with paper. This means that time is not expandable in such a way as to address everything that demands attention. Even though, it’s true that a great deal of time-wasting junk is quickly consigned to the waste bin.

As a species we have not evolved to cope with the ever changing digital world. The speed with which information can move is unrelenting. Harsh weather, day, night, the global expanse, nothing slows it down. Anyone with an internet connection is quickly hooked. Disconnection become imposible.

The difficulty is the mix. Irrelevant drivel takes the same path as communications of great value. The job of sorting this out, to make stuff usable, takes time that squeezes out new contracts or new projects. Finding energy and mental capacity to deal with digital clutter drains the batteries.

The new art is knowing what bandwidth, to manage this deluge, you can muster and for how long. Then being disciplined enough to use the delete button more often. To be less bound by a drive to answer every question. To be less impacted by views and opinions that pass by like rocket ships.

[1] The expression comes from the Roman politician, orator, and philosopher Cicero (106-43 BC). And I thought it was Biblical.

Step on the Moon

This coming Wednesday it will be 50-years since the last human footstep was made on our Moon. On 11th December 1972, Apollo 17 arrived on the surface of the Moon. Although 10 Apollo missions were planned to step on our Moon only 6 were made. The last man on the Moon left on 14th December 1972. Eugene Cernan was the astronaut who made that last footprint[1].

This last week, I listened to an online lecture called: “Return to the Moon: “Apollo” for a new generation”. Professor Craig Underwood gave that lecture[2] at Surrey University. He reflected on the success of the Apollo moon landing missions between 1969 and 1972.

Just as he did it gave me cause to reflect on the impact that space adventure had on my boyhood self. Those years from age 9 to 12 must have had a profound impact on not only Eugene Cernan but Professor Underwood and me. We each became electrical engineers.

We became captivated by the unbounded capacity of engineering to change the world around us. It’s true that’s a double-edged sword in that both positive and negative transformations can occur. Notably, we can see that with the current use of airborne drones. On the one hand they can be used to deliver medical supplies on the other hand they can deliver devastation in war.

Here in the UK, we have a lot to thank Gerry Anderson[3] too. The creator of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Stingray, Joe 90, UFO and Space:1999 had a market impact on both the Professor and me. Colourful fantasy it may have all been, but those stories captured the imagination a generation.

The British TV series UFO and Space:1999 envisioned a permanently stationed Moon base. The leaps of the imagination in the 70s were partly due to the real achievements of the Apollo missions. Maybe it was beyond us to have a working base on the Moon by 1999 but now it’s starting to become a practical possibility.

Today, Sunday, NASA’s Orion capsule arrives home[4]. All being well, the spacecraft will splashdown in the Pacific Ocean after a 3-week trip around the Moon. I wish the project good fortune. 

POST: Sunday 17:40 GMT. The Orion spacecraft, which is to carry astronauts to and from the Moon, has splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after its test flight


[2] The Institution of Engineering & Technology



Cold Data

It’s cold. The numbers on the energy meter keep clocking up and getting to new highs. Compared with last year my energy bill is going to be horrendous. Add to that inflation on just about everything else and it’s hard work to make it a winter of good cheer. Smart energy meters are useful in that they give real time feedback on household energy use. I’m not sure they have an impact on behaviour, but meters do forewarn of astronomical bills to come. Comparing Christmas past, present and Christmas future gave author Charles Dickens an idea.

Looking at media reports this year’s Christmas looks more Dickensian than ever. That is without the transformation that Mr Scrooge[1] underwent. It’s certain the attitudes of Ministers resemble that of Mr Scrooge. Protect the moneymen in their obsession with money and penalise the ordinary working soul. This story is being played out up and down Britain.

The fact that it’s not seen as strange to be talking of freeing up the City of Lonon from regulation at the same time as restricting and controlling working men and women is a bad indication of these difficult times. The Prime Minister may look like a busy light-hearted mouse, but he has a heart as cold as the winter mists.

As the Government has said it wants to collect data from our smart meters, I wonder what can possibly flow from that intrusion into our privacy. In so far as it might guide national policy and reminds Ministers of the benefits of insulating homes, data collection could be helpful. However, there’s a dangerous precedent set when Governments collect every bit of data homes produce.

There’s a creeping tendance to always ask for more data. Mr Scrooge can then compile a leger on the comings and goings of every citizen. Don’t believe for one moment that GDPR will protect our data. Personal information such as names, addresses and bank details are not stored on a smart energy meter. However, computing capability being as powerful as it is, relating energy data to its point of collection and thus bill payer isn’t so difficult to do.

To me, this recalls the saying about knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing[2].

[1] Ebenezer Scrooge, character in the story A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens

[2] Oscar Wilde’s famous definition — someone who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”


The UK’s recent political calamities make it look like we have a long-run soap opera rather than an example of effective governance. There are examples of good governance. Look at the role played by select committees in holding decision makers to account. That’s a rare example. One reason for the last six years of turmoil is that stultifying lack of innovation and blockheaded belief in MPs superiority. Gradually, Parliament has become disconnected from everyday life. It mimics a theatre of the absurd in its form and manners. 

Parliament will be relevant to people if it’s seen to work for people. Today, any claim that it works raises laughter and sullen looks.

So, I welcome Labour’s former Prime Minister proposing a rewiring of the UK Parliament. The House of Lords (HoLs) in its current form is “indefensible”. Naturally, the tabloid media uses the word “abolish” for its dramatic impact. Better to say that there’s a transformation to be undertaken to bring our democracy into the 21st century.

This is not as new as detractors might suggest. Here I sit not far from a rotten Borough[1] that returned two Members of Parliament at a time when cities like Manchester returned none. Gatton’s disfranchisement was agreed on 20 Feb. 1832. Yes, that’s 192 years ago but in terms of the evolution of the British constitution that isn’t that long ago.

The arguments against the current HoL should not be based on an attack against all its members. There are many who take their role extremely seriously and perform the scrutiny of Government bills with care and diligence. However, out of the large number of members many do little.

It’s the legitimacy and structure of the institution that are highly questionable in the 2020s. The form of the HoLs does not represent the country. It’s manner of working is stuck in pre-history. It’s a sign of reward for a tiny minority.

Both Canada and Australia have a Parliamentary system. Their second chambers are based on a more rational, democratic and effective structure. They provide regional representation as well as scrutiny.  A Senate of the UK makes sense to me.

It’s well overdue that the “Mother of Parliaments” stepped into the world we all inhabit.


Pet Peeves

We all have annoyances that set off a cringe. Some of these are individual and some are widely held. A 19th century term sums up these irritations. We can group them together and call them “pet peeves[1]”.

Adding ingredients can make a better bake. It’s the right ingredients, and the right proportions that make the bake work. If words are the ingredients there are some phrases that taste bad regardless.

In German the habit is to composite words. To take two ingredients and add them up to make something new. I think “Fernsehen” for Television is a wonderful example. But here both German and English do the same thing.

Adding words together to convey an idea or emphasis can backfire in producing ambiguous baloney and irritation.

One of my recent pet peeves is the overuse of “laser like focus.” It’s meaningless even though it tries to say that a person focus is heightened in some way. It’s a politician’s favourite.

Back to ingredients. It’s like, instead of saying: it’s a carrot, say it’s a carroty carrot. So, let’s keep one’s eye on the ball and make a mental note of the need for complete and utter focus. Excluding everything else is not only dangerous, but also a deception.

There’s a pollical combination of words that makes me cringe every time I hear it echoed. The two words are “world-beating.” It’s trying to capture the notion of unparalleled superiority. Putting an achievement, policy, or idea beyond comparison, which is clearly nonsense.

Another pet peeves, that’s come up this week is “technology agnostic.” I know what it means but it’s like taking vagueness and making it vaguer.

As the word get ever more complex so words like “sociotechnical” pop-up. In fact, lots of words get composited with tech or techno or technical. Some make sense and other are pure baloney.

There’s “tech enabled” where a thing is boosted by new technology. That’s not so bad. This then means there are such things as “enabling technologies” which is a leap of faith. Point being that all new technology can be enabling something or other.