Thursday, December 17, 2009

Getting to the point

Continued from Short and to the Point.

What I found with organised open plan desks where teams are in tight clusters is that people can become quite tribal, defending nearby resources and establishing their own laws! Examples I saw were almost enforced silence except for agreed meeting times. Something that annoyed me was reduced interest in work in progress by some managers. They could now see who was at their desks working, so progress was assumed. Presumably these geniuses assumed that when progress hadn't been achieved in the past it was because staff were slacking off!

Anyway, the above hardly matters now because over time the need to adapt to new staff arriving, others leaving and projects ending, starting, etc. etc. means that many staff are sitting in spaces that became available rather than shoulder to shoulder with team mates. So 3, or maybe 4 moves on, I now find myself sitting by the entrance door. Not a popular spot, which was why I was able to secure it through a small number of swaps, but it suits me. One of the advantages being that it gives me some of the best notice board space in the building.

Most folks don't spend much time by my desk as they'd be blocking an entrance, but nearly all my colleagues will pass at least one each day, so they can't help but read any notice I put up. They're walking and I don't want them to stop to read, so I've established a routine of posting an A4 page with no more than 20 words in large font that I change frequently. Usually it's a quote from someone famous, but it could be anything that made me think, smile, or groan - depending on my mood.

So to get back to the point I was heading towards in my last post. I plan to extract short quotes from What Matters Now and post them on my desk to share with my colleagues.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Short and to the point

Just trying to think how to write what I'd like to say here... and I know already that it won't be short. Hopefully I'll get to the point eventually. But just in case I don't get there, or you get fed up and click "back" or decide to check your email again here's the important bit.

Today I read Seth Godin's excellent What Matters Now and felt moderately inspired by several of the contributions. (Seth is the editor, the material comes from a host of thinkers). Have a read, it's really very good, and will hopefully encourage many people to do meaningful stuff. As I read it I knew I wanted, as intended, to share the content.

Now for the story that is likely to take me drifting away from the point of this post never to return.

When my employer moved to a shiny new building near Exeter I was one of the first to move in, as I already lived locally and had been commuting to the old site in Bracknell. I was given a temporary desk in the first block to be completed. A couple of months later I moved to my proper desk with the rest of the team, as did all the other hundreds of small teams that make up our organisation. For most people it was the first time they had ever worked in an open plan office. The hope of management was that putting everyone in one building and teams in large open spaces would make us all more productive and better teams.

Did it work? More soon.....

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Random Hacks of Kindness

I keep thinking "Random Frequent Flyer Dent". But other than that I'm having mostly useful thoughts so far today.

As I didn't figure out how to actually get to be at the Random Hacks of Kindness Disaster Relief Codejam without spending a fortune I've set myself the task of following progress from home.

Here's a press release on the keynote speech by Craig Fugate of FEMA.

Here's the Ning social site for Random Hacks created by Patrick Svenburg.

Here's what I believe to be the official RHOK website on Google Sites. Which is where you'll find the problem definitions.

Here's an interesting blog post from Open NASA.

And now back to look for more useful snippets on Twitter with the tag #RHoK.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Valve amplifier components

Went shopping for old junk today and came back with some interesting transformers.

More info here -

Now I know that some of my colleagues read my posts from time to time and will wonder what on earth this is really supposed to be saying. All I can say is, to the best of my knowledge Google Analytics doesn't lie and it tells me that far more folks are interested in valve amplifier stuff than anything else I ever write about.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Disaster tech

I'll edit this post and add more links over the next few days ......

Broadband Global Area Network

EUMETCAST (weather data via satellite IP multicast)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Another time

Back in the summer I was recorded by the Antiques Roadshow with the Uniselector Clock. Unfortunately this segment won't now be shown on 25th October. The letter I recently received from the production team states "there are always difficult editorial decisions to make during the editing process to maintain the balance and variety of the programme and sadly, we cannot include every item that is recorded."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Natural disasters and weather

A recent announcement from the World Bank -
has me thinking once again about little nudges that could change the world -

Back when the Wepoco team (anarchists?) were trying to think of ways of getting weather forecasts to people who really could change the world - poor farmers - we deliberately chose to exclude weather warnings from the service. I'm not sure that we ever properly explained why. Well if you work for a government you very soon learn that governments are very protective of their right (responsibility?) to tell citizens when to panic (and how much).

What we hadn't considered is that once the s**t actually hits the f*n, it makes little difference to those affected who is helping them - speed and quality of service is everything.

So perhaps I can make up for not pushing hard enough on the original Wepoco concept by figuring out how best to use technology and weather forecasts to prevent bad situations getting worse.

Monday, October 05, 2009

sudo ifconfig lo up

Before I switch to English here's some more Linux gibberish -

0xb7fc2410: ????* Heartbeat Failure 2 (Step 3)

The above line and many, many others came out of the very useful Helix DNA server when I restarted it yesterday. Why? Because once again I'd forgotten than when I reboot my Ubuntu server it doesn't bring up the loop-back device. Hence the command in the title of this post.

VNC, Google AppEngine Java SDK are a couple of other things I use that fail to work properly without 'lo' up. In some ways what is more remarkable is that the Ubuntu distribution itself is so content to work without this widely used (essential?) virtual network device.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Going, going, gone!

Vintage technology up for auction. See

This story both pleases and saddens me.

It pleases me that old tech is being taken seriously. After all, this stuff changed the world way more than (almost) any book, painting, or tune ever did.

It pleases me that in future people might think twice before throwing old electronics into a skip and not consider if someone, somewhere, might like it.

It saddens me that as with so much collecting it is seen as ticking off items on a list - the first TV, computer, pocket calculator...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Another possibility is that either the squirrel or the bat were mentally off balance."

You couldn't make this stuff up -

Then again, perhaps it is made up -

Rodents are not known to eat meat or hunt animals, so it is unclear why the squirrel would launch such an attack.

Really? So insects aren't animals any more? When did that happen? Perhaps the reason rodents don't hunt "proper" animals is that mostly rodents are the smallest mammals (proper animals?) about.

Hell - what do I know? I just read stuff and observe things around me. I'm not a "proper" scientist.

Thankfully the web has a plentiful supply of "dead squirrel" pictures to maintain balance.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

News of the week - Nation shall speak unto nation

Here's how The Wireless World covered the outbreak of World War II.


Wireless and War

Services to the Nation

THOSE of us who have spent our working lives in the service of wireless must often have taken
encouragement from the thought that the part we have played, humble though it may be, has contributed something towards the good of humanity. The record of wireless is indeed nothing to be ashamed of : we think of the thousands of lives saved from the perils of the sea by wireless telegraphy and of the interest and widening of outlook brought to millions by broadcasting. But it has long been a cause for regret to many of us that the self-evident potentialities of broadcasting in the cause of peace have been exploited with such poor success.
"Nation shall speak peace unto nation" was an inspiring motto for those responsible for British broadcasting, and it was one which they conscientiously strove to justify. That it has so far failed to achieve results does not imply that any blame is to be apportioned, and, even if it were, this is no time for recriminations.

International Broadcasting

Although wireless may not have succeeded in this respect, it has performed a wonderful service to everyone during the dark days of suspense. Anxiety and uncertainty has been relieved, and the extraordinary calmness of the British nation must surely be due in no small measure to the thoroughness of the B.B.C.'s news service. Other organisations that deserve the thanks of the world are the great American broadcasting networks. Considering their position as neutrals and making allowance for the Transatlantic tendency towards dramatisation of news, the crisis
has been handled with admirable restraint. So far as broadcasts that we ourselves have heard or seen reported are concerned, nothing, has been done to exacerbate the European situation ; on the contrary, obviously genuine efforts have been made to play the part of peacemaker. The broadcasting of news bulletins from America in the languages of all potential belligerents has probably done good. Coming from a neutral country, such messages probably carry more weight than if they emanated, from a more directly interested and inspired source.
We must not delude ourselves into thinking that the kind of international short-wave broadcast to which we have just referred reaches a very wide audience. The number of efficient short-wave sets in use is still small, though the better types are now more readily available than hitherto. We can foresee a wide market for them when more normal conditions return. As a contributor says elsewhere in this issue, there is nothing like a good wireless set for collecting news ; it gives its owner the feeling of being in intimate touch with things as they happen, and he becomes something more than a mere spectator, remote and aloof from actualities.

Whatever the days ahead may have in store for us, there is one thing that we can face with the most serene confidence. The wireless service, though young in years, has already established a tradition of steadfast devotion to duty on the part of its personnel of which we are all justifiably proud. Maintenance at extreme efficiency of all forms of wireless communication is now vital to the successful prosecution of the war ; the various branches of the service may meet with difficulties that none of us can yet foresee, but, whatever these difficulties may be, communication will be maintained.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

It's alive!

The Wireless World Monodial is now working again. I've not checked the alignment, but it pulls in LW and MW stations just fine. The silent tuning feature works, but probably doesn't justify the extra cost then (or now). The tuning indicator isn't right. The resistor controlling it had been changed, maybe my replacing the weak vari-mu pentode affected things. More investigation required when I do the alignment. But first I need to order parts to build a suitable amplifier.

I'm thinking of using a 1940s pentode, e.g. KT61 rather than a 1930s type.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

How to innovate like a robot

Over on Innovation in Practice it's suggested that machines will most likely never be able to innovate - Automated Innovation.

Granted such discourse can be quite dull - computers/machines cannot think/love/walk properly/chew gum/...../invent seems to be for my generation the equivalent of the ancient "how many angels can dance on a pin?".

What saved this post for me was the description of what innovation is -

For a machine to innovate, it would need to:
  1. Take a product or service and break it into its component parts
  2. Take a product or service and identify its attributes (color, weight, etc)
  3. Apply a template of innovation to manipulate the product or service and change it into some abstract form
  4. Take the abstract form and find a way for humans to benefit from it

Surely not. This is the blogosphere, at a minimum 4 should be "... find a way for cats to benefit from it."

More seriously if the process of innovation were to be simulated in a worthwhile way, some benefit would probably need to be delivered to the innovator. What I'm saying here is that feedback is required. I'd also argue that for a machine 2 and 3 are probably not required either. After all if a machine was capable of generating prototypes at a fantastic rate - consider synthetic drugs - and then test them for good and bad effects, it is quite likely that useful new drugs could be developed. For all I know this is happening right now.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Eckersley on public sector pay for technical staff

"The conditions of service are not such as to attract people who think that informed enthusiasm deserves bigger rewards than are paid to civil servants. All honour, then, to those brilliant people who accept the conditions ; there could be more of such people if the pay were more attractive."

P.P. Eckersley, December 1942.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

There is crisis in Europe

I've got many copies of Wireless World magazine from the 1930s and 40s, including the famous A C Clarke issues. Mostly I find these of interest for the technical material, but there are a few adverts that can take your breath away for various reasons. Here's one from November 1935.
Giving you - in addition to ordinary programmes -
Political Propaganda Broadcasts, in English,
from the Dictators of Europe

TO-DAY there is crisis in Europe ... and the air is alive with the broadcast news and views of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini ! But the dictators of Europe use the SHORT WAVES for the propaganda, and you cannot hear them on an ordinary radio set.
At this critical moment Burndept have produced an ALL-Wave Radio Receiver for everybody—and at NO extra cost! For £8 8s. you can buy the Burndept All-Wave Battery Receiver which not only gives you all your favourite home and Continental programmes as usual, but receives as well the world-wide Short Wave stations on which you get the dance-bands of New York direct, the politics of Europe, the last-minute news of all the world. The Burndept All-Electric All-Wave Receiver costs -£10 10s.
It requires no extra skill to receive the Short Wave stations, on this Burndept All-Wave Radio. You tune them in like any distant ''foreigner " -- and you have at your fingertips a new and never-failing source of radio interest and entertainment. Ask your nearest Burndept Accredited Dealer or POST COUPON BELOW for full details.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Other folks projects

When I wonder if the time I spend on my projects is worthwhile it's great to read about daft/strange/incredible things that others are doing.

Here's a couple -

The Toaster Project - hey the electric toaster is 100!!!
Maybe the end result will have a retro look - how about these? 1920s Toasters
See the Toaster Museum at

The Impossible Project - "shake it like a Polaroid picture"

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Beat Generator

Not sure if the Marconi Beat Frequency Oscillator in my "lab" is the one shown in this picture, but it's probably from the same batch.
This week I got it working again. Not sure if it was built to last, or just to prevent theft. It's very heavy - lots of iron components and plated thick brass sheet for the chassis and control panel.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Smeaton's method

This week I'm on holiday; one nice thing about living in Devon is that holidays can be very cheap, as there's no need to go away. So I get to relax, reflect, mess about, enjoy the countryside, fresh air.... without leaving home. As I sipped a beer in the late afternoon sunshine I thought about what I might do tomorrow and the "engineering method" came to mind.

For those who believe the "scientific method" lies behind the modern world, perhaps they also need to sip a beer and reflect on the genius of John Smeaton.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Modern Quality Receiver - 1935 and today

Another W.T. Cocking design from 1935. Unlike the 1934 Quality Amplifier it would be asking a bit much to build one of these from scratch today. Getting the valves would be fairly easy, but all those special variable selectivity transformers - not a hope.

Fortunately all sorts of things show up on Ebay......

The Wireless World 1936 Monodial A.C. Super

Saturday, June 27, 2009

New (to me) loudspeakers

The latest refinement to my Quality Amplifier is a pair of loudspeakers designed for use with valve amplifiers. I've been looking for something suitable on Ebay for some time. This week I managed to pick up a pair of original Leak Sandwich speakers for £32 locally. Large heavy items often don't make high prices here in the UK because shipping is very expensive - it would have been over £30.

So what are they like? Well at first they sounded great, then after a day one started to sound rough. I did a bit of Googling, took a close look at the sandwich driver and decided that gravity had probably got the better of the cone and surround. Though the cones and surrounds all looked to be in great condition there was a slight tilt downwards. This is apparently a known problem. So I tried standing the speaker upside down - it sounded fine again. So all the was required was to remove the driver and turn it through 180 degrees!

History of the Leak Sandwich here

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Music to code by

For many years I've had SlimServer (now SqueezeCenter) installed on my Linux server and found it very good for streaming music to my Nokia tablets. These tablets have excellent sound quality so I often plug one into the hi-fi. These days it's usually the Quality Amplifiers.

But I wanted more music - what to do? I tried "tuning" the N800 to but the results weren't good. Nokia tablets run Linux and have limited computing power, they are great at streaming audio and video, but not so good at running Flash, and can't run any Windows software. So I had an idea...

How about running Spotify on my laptop and streaming the audio to the hi-fi? Simple - well - simple-ish. I used a Pinacle USB TV thing to grab the audio from the laptop headphone socket and Helix-producer on the laptop to convert it to a Real Audio stream. From there to Helix-server running on the Linux server and via wi-fi to the media player on the Nokia tablets.

From this description it's probably hard to believe that the results sound very good indeed. No dropouts, no machine being loaded too hard; each can carry on with its normal duties.

Very happy! I'll wait a while before I think about paying to not hear adverts.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mobile communications to revolutionize African weather monitoring

Weather Info for All

From a press release by Ericsson today -

* Global Humanitarian Forum, Ericsson, WMO, and Zain and other mobile
operators to deploy up to 5,000 automatic weather stations in
mobile network sites across Africa, where less than 300 are
reporting today

* Partnership will increase dissemination of weather information via
mobile phones to users and communities, including remote farmers
and fishermen

* First 19 stations deployed more than double Lake Victoria region
weather monitoring, where 5,000 people die every year due to storms
and accidents

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Stereo quality amplifier

Late last year I started building a Wireless World Quality Amplifier.  The original design for this amplifier (mono) was published in 1934 and it became the reference British hi-fi amplifier - holding this position until the Williamson replaced it in 1947.

As my intention was always to create a useful working piece of equipment I was going to need a preamplifier suitable for use with modern sources - OK maybe LPs aren't considered modern any longer.

The solution was to build a stereo pre-amplifier to the 1950s Mullard design, but subsituting 1930s style octal valves for the 1950s 9 pin EF86s.  Plus I needed to add a phase splitter.   Six of the the excellent EF37A  made a quality pre-amp.  Now I just need to complete the cabinet.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Although computers were developed during (and slightly before) WWII, they weren't widely available. Most likely they weren't even capable of many of the things we use computer for today. But there are other ways of doing real time data processing and even simulations.
How about this -

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Designed for repair II

Here's another example of a piece of test equipment designed for repair.

From gadgets
This is a painted brass plate from the rear of a signal generator. It shows the complete circuit diagram on the left and operating instructions on the right.   Of course it makes lots of assumptions - e.g. not everyone can read circuit diagrams,  and there were many perfectly good substitutes for the valves used.  The positions of valves are shown, but there's no indication of normal voltages to be found in the circuit - the easiest way of locating a fault.  Even so much better than is generally provided today.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Designed for repair

Last weekend I collected a van load of very old electronic junk from a very nice chap in Cornwall.  He had a barn full of stuff he was clearing out so for a few quid I got some quite interesting stuff.  All of it was in a pretty poor state, rust, woodworm, that sort of thing.  It's hard to store things in the West Country climate.

Included were a couple of old Marconi signal generators -
  •  one a BFO audio generator - a pair of RF oscillators on slighlty different frequencies mixed to give an audio signal,
  • the other an "ultra short wave" signal generator - 10Mc/s to 150Mc/s.
The Ultra Short Wave Signal Generator had a small wooden storage unit fitted to the back of the case.  Originally it had a spare lamp, fuses and set of valves.  Though some were missing - pressumably used during its working life a couple of valves and fuses remained.

From gadgets
This is such a nice idea I plan to copy it as I add the finishing touches to my Quality Amplifier.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Thoughts on British foreign aid

Over on William Easterly's blog I posted the following as a comment. You can read the article here -
Back in 2007 I visited Ethiopia, it was my first, and so far only visit. I'll not go into too much detail here, but just that one visit, preparing for it, and what happened next taught me a lot about Ethiopia, aid, and how my own country - I work for the UK Met Office, fails to help the poor. The reason for the visit was the realisation that I and some colleagues had that providing "developed country grade" weather forecasts to Ethiopian farmers would enable them to produce more food, perhaps as much as 10% more for the whole country. So we wanted to see if the infrastructure there could support delivering the right information to the right people, and as far as it went the answer was yes. Though as with so many things related to aid, the sensible thing didn't happen, so the farmers still don't get the forecasts. What happens instead is of course entirely rational if aid is being provided by a democracy. Except of course much of the aid is wasted - since there's no reason to be efficient, or effective, just as fair as possible. It seems likely that those who identify where UK aid goes don't want to be providing aid to people who could be helped by their own government. Hence aid goes to the poorest countries. Once the country has been identified the aid is then directed towards the poorest regions, and quite possibly to the poorest communities and eventually to the poorest people. In many ways I'm entirely happy with this arrangement if it doesn't stop development. Trouble is my own experience is that it does inhibit development. To trial improvements in agricultural productivity in Ethiopia our project needed to work with farmers that weren't on the edge of famine but who produced a surplus and had the necessary networks to market an even greater surplus and invest in their community. There are many such farmers in the more central regions on Ethiopia, that of course never get discussed when aid is the topic. We haven't given up, and after quite a lot of grief from our bosses, we didn't even get sacked - I suppose that's one bonus of being a UK civil servant. So if all goes well the project will restart later this year, but working with farmers in Nepal.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Invention of communication satellites

Over on my Google Sites wiki I've added a page on how Arthur C Clarke developed the idea of the geostationary communication satellite.  The idea resulted from the question I posted in an earlier blog, but as I could find no other mention of this earlier letter on the web I felt I ought to post copies of the pages and a little background information.   

As always one thing leads to another, and now I'm tempted to find out more about the BBC Brains Trust radio programs on which the Wireless World Brains Trust was based.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

New Year 2009, in a 1930s style

From Quality Amplifier

Largely ignoring this credit crunch thing with "experts" comparing the present situation with the 1930s I've been reading through magazines and books of the period, brushing up on my retro-electronics skills.    The latest result of which is this, my shiney new Wireless World Quality Amplifier, based on designs from 1934 to 1945.

The transformer to the right is an old Varley phase splitting transformer, I'm using this for now while I decide what style of pre-amplifier to build.  I'm torn between another 1930s style project, or using smaller valves such as EF86 and ECC83 to build a stereo pre-amp and phase splitter to drive two Quailty Amplifiers.