Why become an engineer?

At times in our lives there are choices to be made. That is if you are lucky enough to be able to make those choices. What courses to study at different stages of youth, is a big question. My story has more pragmatism that idealism. I was a great deal better at maths, physics, and geography than history or english langauage. Underlying that was as much interest as natural ability. It wasn’t so much a typical divide between the arts and humanities and science and technology. I enjoyed art. I’d say it’s having more of a graphical mind than a one that’s tunned to langauage and words.

I had a fascination with machinery. Growing-up on a farm I had plenty of opportunities to work with machinery. Taking engines apart and fixing anything and everything that needed fixing. What I found frustrating was the make-do-and-mend approach. It’s the classic agricultural attempt to fixing everything with 6-inch nails or baler twine. When money is tight, it’s a question of keeping machinery going for as long as possible before having a big bill or to chuck it away.

It was evident that small family livestock farming wasn’t for me. That feeling gave me more incentive to study. I left school at 16 yrs. with a moderate number of exams under my belt. What to do wasn’t clear but it wasn’t an open book either. I applied for apprenticeships within commuting distance of home. Local engineering employers of the time, Westland helicopter in Yeovil, Racal in Wells and Plessey Marine in Templecombe were targeted with letters from me. That’s the businesses of aircraft, radar, or sonar.

I’m a great believer in serendipity. Events come together by chance and an outcome can be better than might have been imagined. In 1976, I got a positive response from Plessey Marine Research Unit (PMRU). That year, the company sponsored two apprentices. Me being one of them.

Westland helicopter had a large long-established apprentice training school. A couple of my school mates ended up in Yeovil. Then, so did I but at Yeovil college. It ran an Engineering Industry Training Board (EITB)[1] training programme. This gave a bunch of 16-year-olds their first exposure to machine tools. The 48-week programme was much more. Some skills are life skills, that like riding a bike, are not forgotten. Today, I can still make a reasonable decent weld.

Training within PMRU was a series of placements moving from department to department. Although I was employed as a drawing office trainee there were other possibilities opened. The mix included a day-release to continuing studying.

Back to the original question. Why be an engineer?

There were professional engineers I worked with, and who mentored me, who did much more than put up with a curious local youth. They were inspiring. I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to understand design. I wanted to know the theory behind Sonar systems. Those steppingstones in the years between 16 and 18 are of immense importance. My opportunity to cultivate fascination drove my motivation to study. It worked. It set me on a path.

It’s one thing to put STEM[2] in schools. It’s another to give students real experience, of real work in real workplaces. Both are needed.

[1] https://mrc-catalogue.warwick.ac.uk/records/WDP/3

[2] Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) the umbrella term used to group together the distinct technical disciplines.


We all met talented people throughout our lives. This can evoke a wide range of feeling. From the wide-eyed awe to the upset of the green-eyed monster of jealousy. Those blessed with a facility to achieve more, and the dedication to make the most of that talent, can have an immensely positive impact on their communities. It’s doesn’t always turn out that way but when it does our focus is attracted. We look on with admiration, joy, and hopefulness. Hopefulness that the joy will rub off onto others and inspire.

The passing of the Brazilian footballer Pelé is the passing of an era. If it’s an image of a screen or picture in a newspaper he had the capability to shine. It’s a heavy weight to be classed as the “greatest players of all time.” Such accolades can be the ruination of a normal mortal. Afterall we are not built to be super-human.

To anyone under 30 years old, it’s not easy to convey the transition of television from a Black and White screen to a Colour screen. It seems so primitive. The kick-off of Pelé’s fame took place in the monochrome world. That didn’t dim our amazement at his talent. The dynamics of his movement. His ability to outwit those around him on the football field. The delight of elegant goals striking the back of the net. This summed up to be special.

Who would have thought that a Brazilian professional footballer would make the world a better place. For generations of young people kicking footballs around hard-hit neighbourhoods there’s a star. It doesn’t matter that few will have such great skill to show-off. What matters is the inspiration.

World Cup glory came his way three times. That’s unmatched. The bar has been set for those to come. Good luck to those who try.

R.I.P. Pelé.


It hadn’t occurred to me at all. We’ll not as far as this person’s abilities to communicate a topic that clearly fascinates her. Yes, I know that part of that work is to promote a book just before Christmas.

I enjoyed Dr Lucy Worsley exploration of the life of the author Agatha Christie[1][2]. She looked, not just at the chronological facts but tried to piece together Christie’s motivations and the forces that were acting on her at different stages of her life. A well-crafted story was presented that was far more interesting than may have been commonly understood.

Now, I’m told that the reaction of some people is as “marmite”, that is you either love it or hate it, with little room in-between. It seems Worsley’s dramatisation of the incidents of Christie’s life are considered frivolous and superficial by some pedantry types.

As a presenter, Worsley loves to dress up and is not shy of debunking long-standing historical myths. It’s a style that leads viewers and listeners into the feeling that things were not as simple as our school textbooks had us think. That there’s a twist and tail in every story of the past.

The snobbery that can be directed towards those who step outside the box and challenge, even with great care, embedded assumptions, and folklore is not nice to see. It’s not limited to academic historians who have a fondness for telling stories. There is a little too much of this trend in the aviation world too. Ten minutes on Twitter and you’ll be convinced.

I remember one of Quino’s cartoons[3] showing a university professor sitting in the middle of a room. In true cartoon abstract his head was a big arrow that pointed towards the roof. Sitting around him was a group of smiling acolytes. Their heads were extended too. They each wrapped around the professor’s head like a vine. The message being that it’s all too easy to give up independent thinking and follow a classical or standard line. An illustration of “group-think”. That tendency for people to cling to an ideology regardless of its sensibility.

Here’s a Christmas message. If tempted to be a pedant or a snob, even with the best intentions in mind, count to ten before launching reactions to the creative and more demanding thoughts of others. Especially, when thoughts and ideas step on your own cherished field of expertise.

It’s worth a try.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001g91r

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0d9cd6n

[3] https://www.quino.com.ar/homequino


One Minister say we want more immigration. Another Minister says we want less immigration. One Minister say we want to tax less. Another Minister says we want to keep taxes. One Minister say we want shale gas. Another Minister says we do not want shale gas. One Minister say we want more building everywhere. Another Minister says we want less building everywhere. One Minister say we can put tackling climate change on hold. Another Minister says we must act on the climate. One Minister wants to privatise the NHS. Another Minister supports public health provision. And, so on and so on.

What we have is an unsustainable UK Government without a mandate. No wonder the financial markets have been spooked. The more Ministers zigzag, U-turn, and twist and turn the more damage they do. In Truss and Kwarteng’s first month of Government chaos, it is reported that around £300 billion has been wiped off value of UK assets.

The UK is facing its biggest crisis since the Second World War. The threat is the Conservative Party. Their abject inability to set-out what they stand for has left the Conservative Party vulnerable to volatile knee jerk reactions and being led by the nose by fringe interests.

Poltical parties contain people with different interests and views. When there’s no alignment and common purpose holding those people togther then the fabric of a party fails. Trying to head this off, leaderships often get louder, more irrational and clutch at straws. Prime Minister Truss received Conservative Party conference applauds to her “anti-growth coalition” slogan but this is crazy in the context of recent Government preformance.

What is observable across the globe is that right-wing populist politicians love confrontation. They enjoy shouting down opponents. They like controversies of their own making that they can then attribute to others. The Conservative Party is broken.

Our immediate concern needs to be that this Government is sleep-walking into a mass of avoidable catastrophes as we move into the winter of 2022. Sadly, now, they are practicing the cartoon pose of an ostrich with its head in the sand.


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


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


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/

Meldrew – not by a long way!

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.

The great man is not the origin of the idea that human life can be partitioned into phases. He’s the one who captured the idea in the best poetic of language. 

It was an on the sofa conversation that brought my attention to the “Viewpoint” in the Radio Times. That tells something of my stage in life. Who reads the Radio Times anyway? I don’t as a habit. On this occasion Sue pointed out a short article by Charlie Higson titled: “Old people don’t feel old”. 

I think he hit the nail on the head with that one. The COVID pandemic has brought out the worst in parts of the British media. It’s as if anyone over the age of 60 lives in their slippers, is bent double and hardly ever goes out of the house.  Call it ageism if you like. It’s all over the place.

Yes, I do watch shows about gardening, so the stereotypes are not entirely without foundation.  But just as Charlie says, the notion that people of my age are computer illiterate or never used an App in their lives is downright insulting. After all, for good or ill, we are the generation who invented the digital era.  The silicon revolution happened on our watch. 

It’s true that I often see other mature people acting as grown-ups.  Off the peg at M&S and quoted saying sensible and wise utterances. But I’m convinced that some of that’s a front. Carved to confuse younger people to give them the impression of the possession of superior knowledge. 

I have real difficulty in thinking of myself as over 60. I guess, it’s a stubborn rejection of the images of the over 60s that I had in my head 40 years ago. The world has changed beyond recognition in that time.  The kind of jobs people do, their expectations and what was considered “normal”. 

Next time, I see an advert for retirement flats where the eligibility is for the over 60s, I will speedily pass by in abhorrence.  You will not catch me anywhere near such a place until my 90s. 

So, stop it British media. Stop putting us in the later stages of our seven ages before our time. 

*Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man

Lock-down the sequel 2

Lock-down 2.0 is only days but it already feels a lot longer. The News cycle adds more COVID-19 cases day by day. It’s too early to tell if this restraint on liberties is having the desired impact.

Wearing a mask has become so much of a habit its going to be difficult to shake when this is all over.

Mild weather is opening the opportunity to be outside. Much as this is pleasant there’s places where people naturally congregate. Being socially distanced isn’t so easy in places. My recent walk along the ridge of the North Downs was busier than it would normally be. Coming to the car park near Junction 8 of the M25 it was crowded. Since take-away coffee and a wonderful view come together it was a magnet for many people.

I’m trying to leave the car at home and go by shank’s pony. Building up lock-down legs is an investment for the winter. Getting out before the cold hits. Although, I’m reminded of being told that there’s no such thing as bad weather just bad clothes.

We all need human interaction, so it was nice to have a chance meeting with some friends while out walking. All the time we stopped and talked I was conscious of the perception that we might be doing something wrong. These strange feelings were especially crazy as we more than doubled minimum 2 meter spacing.

It’s sad to hear that there are people taking advantage of the rules and a few being crooked. I overhead of one case where a consignment of PPE was stolen. Businesses may be shut up but those with a criminal mind have found ways of profiting out of the situation.  Junk mail has risen as cyber criminals have upped their game to snare people. 

There’s a level of general public trust in the science but the politicians handling of the pandemic is poorly regarded.  Faith in the Government being stretched paper thin.  The use of incorrect and exaggerated data has contributed to this position. 

It has been said that if lockdown goes on one day beyond 2nd December then it’s curtains for PM Johnson. His own MP will turn on him with scorn and vitriol. This may happen regardless of the pandemic statistics at the time.

All Change

Disproportionate effects play a bit part in life.  It’s like the story of waiting for a bus. Nothing happens and then three turn up at once.  This week’s news is of Joe Biden’s electoral victory in the United States (US). My congratulations and best wishes to the people of the US.

For the last four years there has been a continuous drone of incoherence and self-absorption coming from Trump. It looked as if this was going to go on forever. In just a few days that unpredictable regime has been unseated even if they haven’t yet accepted the fact. Now, there’s a chance to strengthen transatlantic relations and rebuild after all the bluster, buffoonery and time wasted during the Trump era.

Joe Biden’s electoral victory means a shift of direction.  Climate change is back on the agenda.  There’s likely to be more multilateral efforts to solve common international problems. Most of all there’s the need for healing and to no longer drive wedges between peoples. 

Clearly it’s a time to be optimistic but a moment of caution is necessary.  There’s a couple of reasons for me thinking this way.

One, although over 70 million people in the US voted for change a considerable number didn’t. Where in the past, polarisation was a political tool used by the populists, the damage caused will not be fixed instantly. Considerable effort must be expended to reach out and heal wounds. So, how much time will the administration have for international relations?

Two, the ability of an administration to get things done depends not just on the Presidency in the US system of governance. The Republicans held a 53-47 majority in the US Senate chamber heading into this election. The Senate race in the State of Georgia has become pivotal.  If Democrats gain control of the Senate, this shake-up will have major implications. 

What happens next isn’t so clear. Populism gave the world Trump, and in the UK, it gave us Brexit. It’s given the UK an incompetent Government during a pandemic.  Will the changes going on in the US have powerful ripples and bring about positive changes in the UK? No one knows – yet.

Lock-down the sequel

It’s obvious? Certainly, seems obvious to me. This lock-down has a completely different feel to it from the springtime one. Then a wave of solidarity swept over us all. Back in April – May the days were getting longer. Tulips were flowering. For a while it did feel like we were are all in this together.  A great national effort to pull together and beat this ghastly virus. Then as we got into the summer a cautious clam settled. It looked, for a while as if a sense of normality had been restored.

Where did it go wrong? Such has been the general incompetence since that there’s a sourer atmosphere with this latest incarnation of a national lock-down.  No longer can we turn a blind eye to mistakes made in haste. A succession of Ministers over promising and under delivering has erased credibility and undermined public confidence.

Autumn can be colourful. If there’s an aspect of lock-down that lifts the spirit, it’s those misty mornings when the sun burns off the fog and the full glory of the leaf fall is revealed. Finding time to be outside is a plus.  At least if the weather holds. 

Wandering around there’s an air of confusion. More commercial premises are open. Traffic is way up on the springtime lock-down. Looking for a logic in what’s open and what’s not is perplexing. I can walk into a shop and buy a newspaper. A book on the other hand is an online purchase.  If I want Christmas decorations, it’s best to go to a garden centre and mingle with an older generation.

Forget a coffee and a sandwich unless I’m happy to sit in the park and eat them alfresco. Having missed the window for a haircut, I’ll come out of this lock-down as a yeti. A well-fed yeti. Supermarkets carry on with no sign of difference or special measures.

It’s an impression but I don’t think this national lock-down has the serious attention of the past one. People know that policing is focused of the attention-grabbing breaches of rules. Everyday skirting around the rules and mirror infringements have become habits.

Rules, although written simply, need a lot of interpretation. Moving to a new house is in scope. But what about the ancillary tasks like traveling to meet agents or dispose of possessions no longer needed. Even knowing that charity shops are shut-up for the duration.

The urgency displayed as a justification for this national lock-down isn’t being followed through but Ministers. I’m reminded of the advice for speakers: tell them what you are going to say, tell them and then tell them what you have said. There needs to be repetition of urgent communications. For a message to stick and be taken seriously by the public the Prime Minister must be more visible.