“The Genius of Invention” watched

Here is the return of The Lad after an absence from cyberspace caused by an egregious failure by a new ISP. Let’s not go there; at the moment, at least. It is only a short comment on the first programme in a new series on BBC 1 called ‘The Genius of Invention’.

The first thought on looking at the title, was the familiar hobby-horse of The Lad: it’s not invention or inventors [or scientists – on another day], stupid, it’s engineers. Hold on a moment, though. It is perhaps not necessarily engineers who discover and investigate natural phenomena. It may, and often is, scientists like Faraday or even gifted amateurs who come up with the goods. So, let’s not go down that road this time. Let them have it as a title.

OK, now the programme. Visually and technically it was pretty good. Graphics that The Lad saw of the ideas behind the Newcomen and Watt machines were excellent.

With James [steam condenser] Watt at its centre, this edition promises well for the following three programmes. Each of which has at its centre one of Frank [jet engine] Whittle, Michael [electric power] Faraday and Charles [turbine] Parsons.

Fronting the presentations was Dr [medical not PhD] Michael Mosley. His ‘wingmen’ were Dr Cassie Newland, University of Bristol industrial archaeologist, and finally, thanks to the Gods of TV Commissioning, an engineer. This was Professor Mark Miodownik, engineer, materials scientist and Professor of Materials and Society at UCL. A skewed team; no doubt the producers think it rakish. So: not encouraging.

Moving on, though. At least it was set in a real place, Drax Power Station: currently the biggest coal-fired power station in the UK and providing 7% of the power for the whole of the UK on its own in this one place. It is a place that is both real and important in the everyday world and in engineering terms. Sadly the first real person representing engineers was in overalls. And male. He probably does wear them though for his work as he was the overhaul manager. Notice that. He was not the design engineer or the manufacturer.

The vast size of the building and the scale of the ‘set dressing’ imposed themselves on the viewer. It should give pause for thought for any “small is good” advocates. Consider the magnitude of the task for small scale power generation to replace this place and be a significant solution to power generation in the modern world. That is nearly 4000MW for 24 hrs a day, every day.

The distant views of the presenters talking to their cameraman was a bit gimmicky but at least it gave an idea of the scale of the Drax hardware that surrounded them and are part of the world of the power generating engineer.

The dalliance with a large Drax stop valve lost a bit in translation being as the hardware was lying on its side on the floor. Its height, The Lad guessed, was at least twice that of the human beings, if not more; a striking image that simply did not appear.

Yes, you are right. The Lad is jealous. Oh to be able to direct such forces toward his take on engineering on a prime time, main stream, TV channel.

The next programme is devoted to Speed. It will, one imagines, introduce Frank Whittle at least. Certainly Rolls-Royce will continue with another of its recent starring roles on TV. Money could not buy this advertising exposure.

Why and how: the dip stick dilemmas

The handbook says check the oil with the car on the level. On holiday: everywhere nearby was sloping a little. Sure enough: at each place the level on the dipstick seemed different. His Irritated hunt for somewhere suitable gave The Lad ample time to reflect that the measurement of the amount of oil in an engine seemed remarkably low-tech in this day of high-tech engineering,. It’s like having to use your finger in the dark to find out how much beer is left in the glass.

What does the engineer demand that the oil do in a car internal combustion engine (ICE)? We will come back to that question.

Most other features of the ‘driving experience’ are either electronically governed or satellite mediated and unlikely to be less so any time soon. What is it about the oil? Even that most complex and technically advanced of power plants, the gas turbine aircraft engine, has a sight glass. That is, arguably, less advanced still than the dipstick.

By definition when the engine is running, oil is distributed throughout the engine and there is instrument power enough to measure pump pressure. But pressure does not vary with the amount in the engine. Until it is too late, that is. How are you to discover how close it is to running out? Firstly, the engine designer has to send the oil to one place to give us the chance to measure it. Clearly, it can only be allowed to go to that one place when it hasn’t got anything better to do elsewhere. Only when the engine is stopped can the oil go for its roll-call.

But when the engine is stopped, we cannot afford any significant, power drain from the battery; neither for pumping oil to a tank, nor for a powered measuring instrument. There is only one force to do the jobs. So, gravity it is.

The roll call takes place in one place: that place is in a container at the lowest point where gravity can be relied upon to drive the oil. To save space under the bonnet and give suitable ground clearance, this container will be relatively shallow, probably wider than it is deep. If you have ever tried to carry water in a shallow dish without spillage, you will know how difficult it is. The liquid is very eager to migrate to one end or to the other.

As an aside, it is worth showing how some things are important over a wide range of engineering affairs. In another part of the engineering forest, this liquid behaviour, called the ‘free surface effect’ is also very important to naval architects who are designers of ships. For them, in tanker ships and ferries the free surface effect is not just an inconvenience: its management is a matter of life and death. In 1987, 188 people died and many more were injured in the Herald of Free Enterprise when it capsized in less than 4 minutes after sea water entered an undivided, vehicle deck.

The engines that power most cars and trucks on the road are reciprocating ICE engines; that is those with cylinders with pistons in them. The Lad has never been involved in their design. However, as an engineer, it became clear to him that this eagerness to migrate to the ends of its container is central to the dipstick problem. It is this that means that the dipstick level is different when a car is on the level or on a slope.

Is there a position then that means the variation with any slope is small or, at least, as small as possible? Yes there is. The Lad set up a toy demonstration of this effect. Below is shown a container with three [not very clear] red marks at the liquid surface. First, the surrogate tank is level and each red mark is at the liquid level.

Level tank overall
Model Oil Tank on the level

 The views expressed in this post are not necessarily those of Kempe’s Engineers Year-Book. No engineering book was harmed in this demonstration.

Now if we tilt the ‘tank’ down at the left as if the ‘car’ was on a slope, what do we see? The liquid level rises above its left hand mark and sinks below its right hand mark. Not surprising.

Down at the left

The next image shows the effect more clearly.

Down at the left enlarged

Now, tilting the ‘tank’ down to the right; the level on the left falls below its mark.

Down to the Right.

The point that we are making here is that levels measured close to either end of a tilted tank vary significantly. These images show [although far from Wallace and Gromit standards] within their limits, one important effect. There is one place to measure where the tilt has no effect. It is half way between the tank ends.

So: we see that breaking the liquid surface midway between the oil sump sides is the best place to site the dip stick. Then any slope will have no effect on the measurement.

Clever, eh? So, there we have it. The student interview syndicate answer! Right!


Here is the dilemma. How do we make it accurate in a real engine? The dipstick cannot go anywhere you like. It has to take account of the engine structure for one thing. The pistons and cylinders and valve camshafts tend to get in the way; not forgetting all the rest of the components, large and small, that pack the engine compartment these days.

Now The Lad is not an ICE specialist and the above is naive perhaps or too simple. So who would know?

The UK company, Ricardo is one of the foremost specialist ICE designers. They have been engine designers for nearly 100 years, working on a very large number of projects, Their market has included defence, motor sport and marine. They worked as part of teams with General Motors and Chrysler of the US to design a class-leading V6 engine capable of global implementation for GM and, for Chrysler, the Dodge Viper engine upgraded to 8.4 litres and a massive 600 horsepower for the ultimate muscular American sports car.

Ricardo engineers work on driveline and transmission system engineering. There have been cost-optimized manual transmissions for developing markets and advanced and high performance systems such as the dual clutch transmission of the Bugatti Veyron.

In short, they are proper engine designers; not ICE dilettantes like The Lad.

A Ricardo engineer put it this way. The dip-stick provides a rough estimation of oil levels in the sump but it’s not necessary that this is wildly accurate. We can tolerate the effects of slight changes in pitch/roll of the engine in comparison to the acceptable level between maximum and minimum recommended fill which is very large. In practice the dip stick is usually placed mid-way along the engine but again, this isn’t particularly critical provided that oil level is being checked on reasonably level ground (as specified by almost all manufacturers).

During the engine design, as the Ricardo engineer put it, the design engineer knows that it is essential that he or she ensures that there is enough oil capacity and enough oil circulating to maintain sufficient cooling to avoid overheating the bearings. These days, oil coolers are also commonly used for this purpose, especially in hot climates or where the vehicle is working under extreme loads (e.g. towing in mountainous areas).

During engine operation, the crucial consideration is that there is oil at an acceptable temperature available at the pump intake when the engine is operating – this will typically be drawn from around the lowest point on the circuit. On the other hand significant over-filling should be avoided as this only causes wasteful churning and possibly some oil reaching the combustion chamber. The quantity of oil specified for a given engine is not an exact science but a compromise based on the above comments – usually erring on the conservative side.

There, now, you really do have it!

The engineer’s emphasis was that these are the key points in the mind of the ICE designer; not agonising over the height to a mm of the oil surface. Good ideas, even clever ideas, are not enough. Engineering for the designer is to have, backing her up, real experience of the components in the gritty world. The engineer is always pragmatic at heart and the real-life solutions are usually complicated and not always tidy. Engineering teams, like Ricardo and others like them at the top of their game, have this experience. If you want to be an engineer, seek them out.

If you are really in difficulty finding a level surface, there is an approximate solution. Check the dip stick with the car facing one sloping way, then turn the car till it is facing in precisely the opposite direction and note the dip stick again. Half way between the highest and the lowest is a good reading.

You would be right but only partly so if you said the job of the oil is to lubricate bearing surfaces. An equally important task is the cooling of the core components of the engine that external coolant flow cannot reach.

Engineering is one of the three drivers advancing the human race. This blog describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world. It is not well served by the current media. An engineer is posting: not a ‘scientist’. The Lad is entirely independent of any organisation mentioned. The target of the blog is the career seeker and the general public.

Naming Convention 02 – The Answer?

The Lad held forth in the last post on the use of the name of Engineer in IT. This was based upon a self-awarded mandate. This stemmed from his being a coarse engineer: alumnus of an ancient school who, since time immemorial, have wrestled with forces in the natural world. The conclusion was that there were engineer practitioners in certain IT fields such as chip and disc drive design. He argued that the practitioners in those other IT fields of software design and systems analysis are not engineers.

Some will find this stemming from woeful ignorance or, at least, patronising. Both will tend to ignore any views from here and are fully at liberty to do so. But let us not take this hard line for a moment.

It’s all very well to knock something down; it is at least courteous and professional to make an attempt to replace it.

The name ‘cyber wrangler’ will, quite likely, be dismissed as not serious. The Lad quite likes it as It does seem to have a certain ring to it; besides, he invented it. Trouble is; that ring seems to be like something from the Discworld of Terry Pratchett.

in the view of David Evans Membership Director of the British Computer Society [BCS], It helps when searching for an accepted name, to have a significant back history to survey and learn what one’s profession is about. He seems to be right. He tells a story showing a complete dichotomy of approaches.

In my first IT role during a year out before University, I remember vividly the MD of the company telling me we were Lloyd’s of London people first, IT people second – and he had a background as a claims manager and was a Lloyd’s name. We deliberately dressed, acted, spoke, and to some extent thought like our customers, while the companies such as ICL (who we were competing with very effectively) had people who deliberately identified themselves away from the customer – wearing Mickey Mouse ties and other things like that which almost offended their customers. Our customers treated us as partners and more like fellow human beings than they did other suppliers who they saw more as a necessary evil. Sure, we knew the technology, but what made us special was that we knew the business of our customers. I’d imagine that’s an experience shared by a lot of people in this sector.

David points out that, contrary to the IT workers, all engineers have a centuries-long list of role models. Amongst these Isambard, The Lad’s Master, is relatively recent in that long line. The dichotomy in the story that David told seems to be evidence of an accepted role model.

David goes on to say

[The Lad identifies himself] with an engineer born more than 200 years ago…and it is a positive, emotive identification and one I’d imagine is shared widely amongst engineers who otherwise might have little in common. What identity or figure unites the IT profession? It’s too early to tell.

He mentions as a possible role model Sir Maurice Wilkes. He, on the far right in the picture below, was supervising post-doctoral students as early as 1937. He played a part in much computer development throughout the latter half of the 20th Century; yet who died only in 2010 aged a mighty 97. He certainly influenced many people in IT over many decades.

Maurice Wilkes et al
Maurice Wilkes and his post-docs. By permission of Wikipedia

The machine in the picture was a prototype, Meccano, analogue, Differential Analyser. This was only some 5 yrs before the first electronic machines were conceived and would consign the Analyser to oblivion. Or at least to that vale of mathematical oblivion that consists of a New Zealand Meccano club that has sought to rebuild the machine.

But then he goes on to say things that seem to be significant in terms of whether it is engineering. This is David again:

Some people may identify themselves as engineers to differentiate themselves from others they see as cowboys. Some IT people view themselves as hybrids – do they work in IT or in financial services, for example. … all I know is that people have differing views and seem to hold them for reasons linked to emotion as much if not more than a rationale.

I think for the average IT professional it is so much more about people and organisations. An over-focus on the technology can be a major encumbrance, because most of the issues we see are not to do with the technology. … For many IT people what they are doing is shaping their organisations, and shaping experiences. …

… They enable other professionals to have the right resources at the right point. For example, better use of information is one of the biggest opportunities in clinical practice – from research to safety to decision support. The legal profession will be radically altered by technology, enabling new business models and supply chains (it just hasn’t happened yet).

These aspects seem to be about making organisations work more efficiently through the use of IT. This is not engineering.

The Lad helped to create a small MS Access database application to reflect the existing Garden Design business tasks as it was carried it out. He had also been swept up in the rolling thunder of the introduction of an entirely new organisation in a global company to accept SAP. Two different projects indeed.

Where do we go from here?

The Lad was recently reading a fascinating book called Turing’s Cathedral – The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson. http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780718194505,00.html?strSrchSql=Turing/Turing’s_Cathedral_George_B._Dyson .

In the very earliest days of the USA side of computer development in 1944, some of the guys working on ENIAC were Eckert, Mauchly and Goldstine who all went on to great things in the industry that later developed. With them [according to Dyson’s book, p74] was “28 yr old Arthur Burks(a logician and philosopher turned electronic engineer for the duration of the war)” That was it! It struck me like a hammer-blow. That was exactly what the software design profession is: the profession is entirely that of practical or Applied Logic.

There it is. A descriptive title dating from the earliest IT days adopted, I believe, by one of the pioneers. The name has a fantastic pedigree where it could be used to describe the greatest ancient philosophers who rank with Newton and Einstein.

Software professionals: not engineers but Logicians. Is there any support for that name?

Let us draw this thing to an end as it is getting to sound too much like politicking. This is just what the tasks of engineering are not about. Good Lord! The Lad is almost regretting seeing the Eric Schmidt, Google speech. Almost.

What’s the Naming Convention 01?

The Lad was delighted to read that the head honcho of Google – no less – was pressing the importance of engineering. This was still true even in the present world, said Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, in his speech the other day at the Science Museum, London. To many of his clients that present world is cyberspace. The only way seemingly to get a copy of the speech is to approach Anoek Eckhardt, Communications & Public Affairs Manager, Google UK & Ireland at Email:anoek@google.com

It was very wide-ranging of course but it was in a part towards the end that his very words were:

“Pure Science is a crucial ingredient, but it’s only when theory is applied that you have the recipe for economic success. As Edison put it, the value of an idea lies in using it.

That’s why engineering is so important – it is, by definition, applied science. While astronomy inspires us to reach for the stars, we rely on avionics experts to take us there.. Physics helps explain the behaviour of subatomic particles; nanotechnology uses them to make things. Materials science determines the properties of things we build with; structural engineers apply that knowledge to design things that won’t fall down.

Unfortunately, engineering still has an image problem. It’s high time to move beyond the oily tag stereotype and show engineering in its true modern light.”

What a marvellous statement, as a whole, to emanate from Google. The Lad had a minor quibble about ‘space flight relying on “avionics experts”. Avionics is a shortened form of ‘aviation electronics’. It is an important component of the space project but a wide range of disciplines is needed to get anywhere in Space. But let us move on.

But then The Lad noted also that he referred to

“…the role of engineers in developing ….. video games, texting and social networking,….” as well as “Only 2% of Google engineers …”

This blog is about topics in such as mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, etc., etc. It has a working definition for such as these which involves natural forces in the world. This blog has addressed this before. Go to ‘The Engineer as Rock God’   http://isambardkingdom.com/?p=4 .

The Lad then asked himself the question whether it is generally accepted, not just in Google, that every professionally qualified IT professional in any speciality [coder, circuit designer etc., etc.] is titled an Engineer? His first thought was that coding is more akin to mathematics or accountancy or the Law rather than engineering.

But then chip design on the other hand seemed clearly an engineering discipline grounded on electrical forces and a type of production engineering. The design of hard disc drives, with their seemingly never-ending increase of storage size, he thinks must involve components of the highest accuracy and of minute size but is engineering nonetheless.

David Evans Director, Membership for British Computer Society, http://www.bcs.org/ , [BCS] which is the Chartered Institute for IT, answered the questions whether the BCS has an official position on the title or whether it could advise on current usage. It transpired that here, with this question, we were stepping lightly into an area freighted with emotion. Highlights of what, in a very full and exclusive discussion, he told us are:

“Interesting question! This is without a shadow of a doubt a very emotive topic for our members, our sector, and for the engineering community as a whole. …

 We offer CEng [Chartered Engineer as offered by many other Engineering Institutions] licensed through the Engineering Council, but as a Chartered body ourselves we offer Chartered IT Professional [CITP]. http://www.bcs.org/content/ConTab/79 … There are … people who are very clearly in the CITP domain and others who are clearly in the CEng domain.

We are very clear that it is necessary for us to have CITP, as there are people who are IT professionals who would have no affinity with or interest in CEng, but are very much the sort of people who should achieve a Chartered status.”

The highlights of what a member also told us are:

“While UK-SPEC lays out the competencies for an engineer, … being an engineer is as much about identity and attitude as it is about competency … to some degree a state of mind. … for the average IT professional it is so much more about people and organisations. … IT professionals enable organisations to function, change, grow and adapt. … engineers will always be part of the profession, and engineering will always be the close cousin.”

Dame Wendy Hall is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton and was Head of the School of Electronics and Computer Science.  http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/wh/  She is clearly a power in Global IT and, with her current research interests being the Web, her views carry great weight. She wrote directly to The Lad that:

“I am convinced that software engineering is indeed a branch of engineering. Software engineers build things. The things they build have to be robust, reliable, efficient, effective etc., etc

The robustness and reliability of software is of vital importance in many applications (can mean the difference between life and death) and so software engineering as a discipline must be taught in accordance with the principles of what it means to be a chartered engineer just like any other branch of engineering.

… being CEng means more [than CITP] to me. … we teach a degree called Computer Science but it is to all intents and purposes a Software Engineering degree and I’m very proud that … our students are qualified achieve the award of CEng.

Computer Science is … both a science and engineering. … it has a proper place in the panoply of engineering disciplines.”

Here is an intellectually powerful, highly distinguished academic who is, both a CEng and, also wants to be an engineer. Respect! Genuinely, engineers must be very grateful for this, and accept it graciously. The Lad certainly does. Lord knows; there are so few engineers of the status of Professor Hall apparent to the popular consciousness.

Well there you have it. We have three distinguished practitioners regarding themselves as engineers and two of them have taken significant time to wrestle with our question for us. What are we to make of it? What is there to be said?

Statements and questions follow. Discuss.

Robustness and reliability in the practice and drafting of a law can mean the difference between life and death but is not engineering.

Is not the ‘art of the possible’ in coding governed mostly by the mathematical logic of the mathematician?

Does a hard-nosed, results-oriented attack on obstacles in any endeavour make it engineering?

Can the chip manufacturer or the designer of a high speed printer be a member of the same profession as coder or designer of a server operating system?

Is the cabinet maker a member of the same profession as the toolmaker of her planes and chisels.

No more an author is a printer or bookmaker.

How true is it that “Software engineers build things.”? Should not “things” have more substance than software “objects”?

Has the title ‘School of Electronics and Computer Science’ got it about right?

It has been more difficult to write this post than any other so far. The Lad moved easily into pompous sermonising: there came rolling phrases and solemn cadences about misuse of language, naming conventions, wanting being not enough and so on for several, heavy paragraphs without end coming into sight.

But to hell with it: it’s really simple.

The word ‘engineer’ began with those who began devising and building structures to generate or convert existing forces to replace human, animal or wind and water power with something more convenient. Engines, see?

To repeat: up until recently all those engineers (undoubted engineers – such as civil, electrical, mechanical, hydraulic, etc. etc.) have each waged the one common, fundamental struggle. It is that of dealing with forces already existing in the natural world to bend them to the benefit of humankind. This common feature must, therefore, be the fundamental criterion for inclusion under the aegis of the term.The only exceptions have been those writers who would, describing individuals or tasks, use the term to picture a practical person in some sort of analogy.

Those who design and build physical computers or components are wrestling with electromagnetic forces in electronic components and materials. They are, thus, engineers. However, those who conceive the software structure and write the instructions are not dealing with forces in the natural world. They can only be engineers in some analogy: treating with ‘forces’ of logic in some Platonic world of Ideals.

Then, consider the infinite plasticity of Turing’s Universal machine. What could be more remote from the challenges of the natural world and its real, physical working materials? These challenges and materials comprise the world of the engineer. Ergo! The workers in Information Technology systems design and software programmers are not engineers.

This is not to suggest in any way that the software and systems tasks that they face are easy. Indeed, in some ways, due to the almost infinite size of the field of endeavour; the logical intensity of a complex program and the consequences of error [NatWest, 2012 and spacecraft – say no more] the tasks provide the highest intellectual challenge.

Sorry, not to say bold, to turn Google away,

What to call them is the topic of the next post. Here is a teaser: in what way will this image will be part of it?

In the Public Domain (EU and US)

The Go-to People for ship shifting

Spoiler alert! A bilious fragment of truth follows. It is not the whole story but The Lad will defend it from those who will feel that it must be attacked.

The ‘slebs’ of high and low culture are celebrated in the media with acres of print and hours of video coverage. Those who harness the natural world so that it has some surplus, to support the rest of the  human race go relatively unsung.

Driving along the North Wales coast at Easter 2012, The Lad caught a glimpse of a ship, the MV Carrier, grounded in a storm a few days before. The TV news announced that they would seek to re-float it after they had emptied the tanks of fuel oil. It was not a large ship but it was the size of two or three cricket pitches sat against the rocks and weighed perhaps a couple of thousand tonnes. “Shift that ship!” Who do we go to? We go to the men and women who matter. They are the engineers and mariners. They, as far as is possible in this harsh world, are the ones who apply methods beyond the ken of most others to pull irons from the fire.

There are a million possible examples those who have supported the Human Race in its battles with the harshness of the World. Here’s just two at random.

Championed by my guvnor, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Sir Joseph Bazalgette designed and built the great sewers along the London Thames Embankment. This vanquished both the killer, cholera, which threatened the inhabitants of London and also the stench that violated the Houses of Parliament. It allowed that vast city to continue to thrive and move on to organise mercantile trade and the Empire that brought wealth to England. Building ships on a production line in the Venice Arsenale, a place in itself strangely unreported in English, that on the other hand was well reported, brought wealth to the Medici’s and supported the artists and musicians of the Renaissance.

Without those who make things the artists would be found only in the depths of a cave scratching and smearing colour on the walls. The writers reduced to muttering tales to the tribe by the light of a flickering fire whilst hunching a stinking skin closer round their shoulders. That is before they are dragged out to help the community hunt down or gather some food.

I am briefly embarrassed by being reminded that this piece was written one hundred years to the day that RMS Titanic set sail on its first, and tragically, last voyage. Is this fact a hostage to fortune and the literati? All I can say is that no product of the human mind can be perfect especially when under the control of another human being.

We know that this piece has just been a cameo irritant. Lighten up! It’s scratched that itch for the moment and we need to move on to something more considered.

Here you can see the Dutchmen, Smit. What a marvellous, blunt, simple name for engineers! They are the real marine engineers, naval architects and mariners who do amazing things. No connection , by the way, except of admiration. The Lad has seen, at a distance, some of the things that they can do in moving enormous structures across the sea and then, believe it or not, a mile or more across the land. They have done some work on the notorious ‘Costa Concordia.

Some machines swim

One, unseen, already-submerged diver was filming near to a hole in the thick ice sheet above: as the elegant cylinder dropped vertically at high speed through the still, -1°C, water below. Immediately, as though alive, the vehicle swung gracefully into level flight towing a tail of yellow cable behind it. Ministering to and checking on the machine on this, one of its early test swims, was a black-clad, scuba diver.

The Lad was transfixed by the magic sight in the vast under seascape of a thousand shades of blue and green. The voyager looked as though it had been born there instead of being designed by human beings. Tell-tale features, though, were the lights: a white searchlight beam for a camera and a pair of scarlet, laser beams lancing through the gin-clear water from each side of the nose of the vehicle. Another was the complex internal structure clearly visible with, not the fluent curves of a living body, but the lineaments of straight lines and exact circles of a densely packed machine. It was about 2m long and 20 cm in diameter.

It was the 30 November 2011 and “The Frozen Planet” Part 6, ‘The Last Frontier’ on BBC Television that was the unexpected carrier of the strikingly beautiful images of this example of the art of the engineer.

Then the vehicle darted straight ahead at least twice its previous speed into a corridor among the irregular blocks of the ice pack above. It gave an impression of a shark but without any sweep of a muscular tail but with a rapidly accelerated spin of a propeller.

The Lad was captivated and vowed to find out more of this masterpiece. A search only just begun and the results will be reported here. This machine seemed to The Lad to encapsulate what engineers do.

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race. This blog aims to give to career seekers and also to the general public a taste of how this might be so. They are not well served by the current media. It is an engineer posting: not a ‘scientist’. It describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world usually in the present and occasionally as it was in the recent past.

Not in the Media


The movers and shakers of the media live by the word and the image: therefore they attend only to those with a rich word stock or some excited footage. Discuss.


The Lad is in one of his periodic bouts of surly introspection about how the world owes engineering, if not the continuous, close attention that his ego suggests, at least more frequently a proper look.

Today – a random day – triggered this when he noticed some randomly spaced topics in the press.

Eight hundred or so smartly written words are given over to a theatre director and an actor performing a version of Macbeth single handed in Gdansk, Poland. It spoke of how they both got there, the problems of the rehearsals, the highly strung performances and, finally the relief when it was all over. Deeply realistic, technical, and actorly detail there was on the struggles of the actor. The worries of the director radiated from every word.

One thousand words and five full colour images [two being full page] tell us about  a music radio station broadcasting a wide variety of pop and jazz globally from the UK. The pivot of the article is their disc jockey. Oh yes, by the way, the DJ is young ,female with long blonde hair of course.

A review noted that a book had been published of a lost novel by Jack Kerouac, “The Sea is my Brother”. He, at the age of 20, had sailed with the American merchant navy for all of three months. Hallo? The insubstantiality of this miniscule scrap of experience bearing the weight of the title and plot of a first novel claiming realism was accepted without comment.

Trying to avoid being too patronising or obnoxious, these are solemn delineations of the fine detail of transitory matters. The Lad wants to know how we get frequency of media attention devoted to the less transitory engineering.

An easy answer is that the topic is not ‘interesting’ or that such a question “tells us more about the questioner than about the world”. Too slick: we need a more thoughtful answer. It’s not “Culture” you say? But it is or at least should be when the machines and their makers shape our world or fill our field of view in some places or modify our behaviour. Another easy answer is ‘It’s boring.’ Or ‘It’s not interesting.’ This may well be true but why is it not interesting or boring? It needs to be more than an answer of better writing: provide constructive detail.

Real engineers have struggles and triumphs. They are of every technical, personal and gender stripe: there are chemical, civil, mechanical, electrical, stress and production engineers There is an end-product or sometimes a dramatic failure: a true, rich textured creation to end on.

Hell! Is it back to the rich verbosity and the exciting or excited footage?

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race. This blog aims to give to career seekers and also to the general public a taste of how this might be so. They are not well served by the current media. It is an engineer posting: not a ‘scientist’. It describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world usually in the present and occasionally as it was in the recent past.

Ignorance, quarrels and the feedback loop

Or people shouting at each other

Some commentators are a constant irritation. The grand panorama of modern media allows any ideology by any believer to be broadcast. This is a complex world and some have little underpinning of demonstrable truth and others have an unwavering fixation upon only one of several alternative world views.

There are those who advocate a particular belief system. Some such are militant proselytisers for religious beliefs. Others are those, finding the world behaving incorrectly, setting out to drive everyone down the ‘correct’, usually narrow, path

Then there are those who are driven less by unwavering urgency and more by a plan to make a comfortable living from the commentating process. They have a facility with words; access to the prints; and no restraint from knowledge of their ignorance. They do like the sound of their own voice and their words in print are, for them, like a nice, warm bath.

These latter, articulate writers are insidious in their effects when they comment on engineering topics. None are engineers and many are politicians. Too often it is here that the irritation develops due to a faulty premise.

Faulty premise.             If some project is not yet completed then it is obvious that it cannot be done or will be too difficult.

This premise is applied widely but has appeared in connection with safe burial of nuclear waste and, more recently, Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

Forsaking the phrase “Let us be clear that….” destroyed by politician when matters are obscure or untrue, let us go for a bald statement instead.

Correct premise.           Engineers create something when it is needed and has some apparent economic basis. If a project does not violate one of the laws of physics or thermodynamics, it can probably be done.

If you ask them in advance, engineers will take the line boldly, and not unreasonably in the evidence of the historical record, that if a project does not violate one of the laws of physics or thermodynamics, it can probably be done.

What is it that inflames this irritation by lathered ideologues or flushed commentators? There is heat when each holds forth in isolation. But it is the process of interaction with each other that increases the din greatly due to the engineering effects of positive feedback and synergy.

Feedback is a widespread and important operation in control engineering. Feedback is the process of measuring changes in a process as it proceeds. There is negative and positive feedback. Negative is changing a process to reduce the measured change. Positive feedback is changing the process to increase the size of the measured change. A problematic feature of positive feedback is that it is frequently unstable sending a process rocketing to some far off regime. Thus it is with the irritating commentators.

There is also synergy which is defined as increased effects produced by combined action. Working together, even if it is in opposition, means that both sides of an argument work each other up to a frenzy.

There is a interesting example roaring away in the field of climate change where all these features can be seen. There are a multitude of websites. Just visit one of each and you will be rapidly flung into many others There is Greenpeace of course at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/science/ for those who discuss how worrying are the changes and what should be done to reduce them. Then there is another, The Global Warming Policy Foundation http://www.thegwpf.org/ , that believes that climate change is not what it appears and that many plans to modify the changes are misbegotten.

Speaking above of Carbon Capture and Sequestration, this is a topic of the next post.

Engineering is one of the three drivers in the advancement of the human race. This blog aims to give to career seekers and also to the general public a taste of how this might be so. They are not well served by the current media. It is an engineer posting: not a ‘scientist’. It describes real professional engineering as it is in the real world usually in the present and occasionally as it was in the recent past.

One place that computers go to die.


The Lad was getting rid of a dead little flat bed copier and a sandwich toaster. Not one device, you understand, but two items. Anyway. To the local Council Waste Recycling Centre.

There on the top of the skip for electrical equipment scrap lay a BBC computer. He was amazed that they were still around. Not that he is an expert in these things. When they, along with the Acorn [was it] and the Amstrad using Basic, were in their prime as the cutting edge of domestic computing his children were too young and he was too attached to his Sinclair hand held calculator. The Black Watch digital watch was also the latest thing then.

Are there any, outside of a museum, still operating? What did they do? Are there any emulations of them that can be downloaded and operated on the PC or the Mac? The Lad supposes that the answer to that can be found on the net. He can’t go looking for it as, if he did, nothing would ever get done.

Don’t come in from the cold.


There was an item in the Sunday Times gossip column-cum-Diary on Sunday 6 February 2011 that caught the eye of The Lad. He cannot give you a hyperlink to it because the website of the newspaper seems to be subscription only. He does not subscribe and probably nor do you.

A man in the UK Lakeland was boasting that he had a refrigerator that was 55 years old and still going strong and he hoped to pass it on in his family. It crystallised a feature that, as an engineer, The Lad has often noted: the longevity, usually without any maintenance, of the domestic fridge.

In his view this is simply because most fridge’s components are lowly loaded and the loads and temperatures are almost constant. The electric motor and its pump are very quiet which indicates that they are not running highly loaded and at their limits. The rest of the components such as the radiator at the back and chilling coils inside pretty well stay warm and cool respectively throughout the day and, indeed, its life. High loads and big temperature swings are frequently the cause of failures in engineering.

Contrast this with the domestic washing machine and spin drier. The Lad makes the point that these machines tend to be less reliable than the fridge. This, he says, is due to the different duty imposed on their components. The washer drier does not operate, like the fridge, continuously. It is always being switched on and off. The drum and motors are frequently powered up and down and operate at quite high loads. The drum and the bearings are spun up and down to high speeds under high, frequently off balance, forces. The systems within the machine frequently see high temperature spikes due to the heating of the washing water which is rather corrosive due to the detergent loads. The rubbery seals are pushed to their limit during every wash cycle. On top of all this, every component of an increasingly complex machine design is packed tightly in a hot, vibrating environment.

Unless somebody out there can disagree with The Lad.