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Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Dumbing down of skills

In my professional life I interviewed many graduates aspiring to become radio frequency (RF) engineers. Very few, in recent years, had what I would call "the knowledge". By this I mean a "gut instinct" for RF that does not come from an academic course, important though this is.  Rather, this "jizz" came by living and breathing RF through building radio things themselves, however simple. A great many "good" graduates in communications electronics knew little or nothing about radio or radio engineering, had never touched a soldering iron ever and were rejected.  A good RF engineer could usually be spotted within 2 minutes of the interview starting.

In the UK we have a growing, and very serious, issue with poorly educated science and engineering graduates who come out of universities without the skills needed to start work in industry. One answer was the sandwich course in which young A-level students were accepted on a company training scheme that married "on the job" skills training with educational training, usually to HND or degree level. People spotted young, with real RF "jizz" (easily judged in interviews) usually went on to become the best engineers we had.

The problem that I saw in radio engineering recruitment is also seen in other areas of electronics and engineering. We are risking our nation's future unless we educate young people well and equip them with the skills they need to live and work in the 21st century. Good creative and innovative engineers are essential.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Soul shards

Michael Rainey, a ham radio friend from New Hampshire posted this on Facebook today.   I thought I'd share it here too. It is the chapter called, "Soul-Shards" from Douglas Hofstadter's book, "I Am A Strange Loop", a book I have not read (yet).
"One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parents house and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, said to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does that photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remark set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering - soul-searching, quite literally - I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines.

“In the living room we have a book of the Chopin etudes for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad - and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists in turn have conveyed to many millions of listeners, including you and me, the profound emotions that churned in Frederic Chopin’s heart, thus affording all of us some partial access to Chopin’s interiority - to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Frederic Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards - scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Frederic Chopin. Each of those strange geometries of notes has a unique power to bring back to life, inside our brains, some tiny fragment of the internal experiences of another human being - his sufferings, his joys, his deepest passions and tensions - and we thereby know, at least in part, what it was like to be that human being, and many people feel intense love for him. In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again, but in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score to a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

Although the above is a bit more flowery than what I said to my mother, it gives the essence of my message. I don’t know what effect it had on her feelings about the picture, but that photo is still there, on a counter in her kitchen, and every time I look at it, I remember that exchange."

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Four Horsemen Cometh?

We increasingly behave like lemmings running towards that cliff edge. The question is when will we reach it? 2012, 2013?

In Europe there are no signs of solving the Euro crisis. In the USA the congressional committee tasked with getting bipartisan support for huge spending cuts has totally failed to come up with anything. The indebtedness of the UK has risen to 492% of GDP, according to new research.  World CO2 emissions were higher still last year and the rate of increase is accelerating.  When ARE we all going to wake up and realise all this is not a computer game, but for real?

Somehow  as individuals and nations we've lost our way and got our values all wrong. Maybe this is the big wake-up call we need to change our behaviours, individually and nationally, to sustainable and better ones. I can't see it happening without a lot of pain though. Rarely before have we needed innovative and creative thinkers, strong communities, and human kindness and generosity so much.

The alternatives are too frightening to contemplate: mass unemployment, resource shortages, poverty, civil unrest, lurches to the far left or far right leading to violent revolution on a scale not seen for nearly 100 years. And on top of that we have a planet that is being cooked.

Sometimes it seems the Book of Revelation was right and those Four Horsemen really are riding towards us. If this reads like a tract for the Jehovah's Witnesses then please forgive me. I am a rational person but the portends for humankind are not good unless we change and change fast. It is up to us. No-one else is going to save us.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Time travel in quantum universes?

Although not a particle physicist I am fascinated by the news that CERN scientists have repeated their recent neutrino experiment and yet again confirmed that neutrinos seem to be travelling faster than light, despite theory saying this is impossible. This work may still be in error and the results may yet prove false. More tests are being carried out at other research centres over a longer timescale to see if the results hold up.

If true however, it raises all sorts of questions about the nature of space-time and our ability to move about in its many dimensions. Will we, one day, be able to look into the past and future? Maybe not in a way that allows us to interact, but simply look at who are ancestors were and our descendents will be.

Theories will have to be re-written and who knows where this will take us.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Website design - Cambridgeshire Choral Society

My wife sings in a local choir called the Cambridgeshire Choral Society. They have had a website for some years but it had not been regularly maintained, so I was asked to create a new one. This I have just done using Google Sites. Although I am no website expert, Google Sites allows quite a credible website to be created without knowledge of HTML coding. I am quite pleased with the result and hope it encourages a few more people to attend the concerts and join the choir.

Their next major concert is in Ely Cathedral in March 2012 when they will be singing Elgar's famous "Dream of Gerontius" which is a wonderful choral work. They are also singing Britten's "St Nicolas" in late January 2012.

Eye contact (or lack of it)

Have you noticed how people avoid eye contact in the streets these days? Years ago one could walk down the street in any village, town or city in the UK and be sure of saying "good morning" or whatever to anyone walking the other way. Nowadays this is increasingly hard as people seem to want to avoid eye contact. This is less so with older people, who still say a cheery "hello", but with younger people (locked into their iPods and MP3 players) it is increasingly difficult to engage in the social niceties we all took for granted. I find this very sad.

As an experiment, the next time YOU walk down a street see how many people you can make eye contact with and say something like "good morning" or similar. It is not so bad in my own village but I am convinced people are now more "in their own worlds" than even 10 years ago.

I tried this experiment in Stoke Newington, N.London a  few months ago. In walking for 15 minutes in leafy residential roads I managed to get just one grunt from a very surprised Hasidic Jew and one friendly response from an Afro-caribbean man. Everyone else was too busy to notice or just preferred to keep their privacy.

Sunday, 6 November 2011


Last summer my wife and I enjoyed a 10 day holiday traveling around Iceland by car. We had expected a rather barren country with lots of lava and little vegetation and were pleasantly surprised by just how incredibly beautiful the country was. Everywhere below mountain level was green and the wild flowers were in bloom everywhere. Wild lupins were the most common flower seen growing wild all over the place. Of course there were glaciers, volcanoes and hot springs but the overwhelming impression was of a spectacularly wonderful and very beautiful country. There were also a lot more trees than we expected.

The people of Iceland were incredibly warm and welcoming and we enjoyed the holiday immensely. It is on a par with New Zealand for beauty.

One surprise when we were there was a chance visit to a little church in north Iceland one evening where we saw an Icelandic male quartet sing. The group is called Út í vorið. They were incredible and the music probably as good as any male quartet we have ever heard. We immediately bought one of their CDs and a few weeks later we wrote to them to get the others they have recorded.Like all Icelandic churches it was warm and cosy, heated by geothermal energy.

Iceland suffered in the financial crisis of 2008 but chose to declare themselves bankrupt rather than seek bailouts and help. In effect they said, "stuff the bankers", and I have some sympathy with this attitude and approach. The policy seems to be working: they have good natural resources (free geothermal electricity), plentiful fishing, aluminum reserves, wool, a healthy tourist industry now the exchange rate is better and a hardworking people keen to rebuild their economy. I wish these good people well.

For more information on Iceland I can recommend Iceland Review online.

I wish the Icelanders all the very best and hope to return to their fine country before too long.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Nuclear Fusion

For over 50 years researchers have been struggling to make the dream of relatively clean, nuclear fusion energy generation a reality. It has been a long and uphill struggle and at times the chances of succeeding seemed low: there were just too many technical problems to overcome. At long last there are some hopeful signs that the technological breakthroughs are almost there. Even if sustained nuclear fusion is achieved soon in research environments, it will be many years before this translates into commercial scale nuclear fusion plants. Nonetheless I am very hopeful that within my lifetime we may see the first nuclear fusion test reactors built and commercial reactors in place within 30-40 years. The changes to the world's energy situation as a result of this will be immense: raw materials needed are plentiful and inexpensive, radioactive waste will be negligible and immense amounts of low cost energy should be possible.  Let us hope that we all invest in the research and commercialisation of nuclear fusion rather than waste resources on trying to extract the last fossil fuels from the ground.

The future of Europe and the west - downhill?

There was an excellent article in The Times today by Matthew Parris entitled, "Face it. There is no answer to the eurocrisis". I'd like to link to it but don't subscribe to the Times app yet.  In summary, his thesis is that we have now past the best times in the west and our only route is downhill. We are kidding ourselves about our current fate by evasion.

We are kidding ourselves that the problems were created by the bankers whereas it is fundamentally down to our excesses in the last 50 years or more.  We elected our politicians. We allowed a system that rewarded bankers huge bonuses and allowed them to gamble our money for their gain. We could have seen the writing on the wall, but we chose to ignore it. We were all aware we were living beyond our means on money that didn't exist, but we all believed the myth that growth was making the world better for everyone. Now our chickens have come home to roost and we'd better come to terms with the new age we now face.

My own view is this new age is also an opportunity: one in which sustainable living within our means and personal happiness will be more important than growth and the culture of excessive consumption.  Just maybe we'll get our values more in focus and see the last 100 years as an aberration. It is up to us.