Tag Archive: technology

Oct 05 2013

Book Review: Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford

backroomboysElectronic books bring many advantages but for a lengthy journey to Trento a paper book seemed more convenient. So I returned to my shelves to pick up Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin by Francis Spufford.

I first read this book quite some time ago, it tells six short stories of British technical innovation. It is in the character of Empire of the Clouds and A computer called LEO.  Perhaps a little nationalistic and regretful of opportunities lost.

The first of the stories is of the British space programme after the war, it starts with the disturbing picture of members of the British Interplanetary Society celebrating the fall of a V2 rocket in London. This leads on to a brief discussion of Blue Streak – Britain’s ICBM, scrapped in favour of the American Polaris missile system. As part of the Blue Streak programme a rocket named Black Knight was developed to test re-entry technology from this grew the Black Arrow – a rocket to put satellites into space.

In some ways Black Arrow was a small, white elephant from the start. The US had offered the British free satellite launches. Black Arrow was run on a shoestring budget, kept strictly as an extension of the Black Knight rocket and hence rather small. The motivation for this was nominally that it could be used to gain experience for the UK satellite industry and provide an independent launch system for the UK government, perhaps for things they wished to keep quiet. Ultimately it launched a single test satellite into space, still orbiting the earth now. However, it was too small to launch the useful satellites of the day and growing it would require complete redevelopment. The programme was cancelled in 1971.

Next up is Concorde, which could probably be better described as a large, white elephant. Developed in a joint Anglo-French programme into which the participants were mutually locked it burned money for nearly two decades before the British part was taken on by British Airways who used it to enhance the prestige of their brand. As a workhorse, commercial jet, it was poor choice: too small, too thirsty, and too loud.

But now for something more successful! Long ago there existed a home computer market in the UK, populated by many and various computers. First amongst these early machines was the BBC Micro. For which the first blockbuster game, Elite, was written by two Cambridge undergraduates (David Braben and Ian Bell). I played Elite in one of its later incarnations – on an Amstrad CPC464. Elite was a space trading and fighting game with revolutionary 3D wireframe graphics and complex gameplay. And it all fitted into 22kb – the absolute maximum memory available on the BBC Micro. The cunning required to build multiple universes in such a small space, and the battles to gain a byte here and a byte there to add another feature are alien to the modern programmers eyes. At the time Acornsoft were publishing quite a few games but Elite was something different: they’d paid for the development which took an unimaginable 18 months or so and when it was released there was a launch event at Alton Towers and the game came out in a large box stuffed with supporting material. All of this was a substantial break with the past. Ultimately the number of copies of Elite sold for the BBC Micro approximately matched the number of BBC Micros sold – an apparent market saturation.

Success continues with the story of Vodaphone – one of the first two players in the UK mobile phone market. The science here is in radio planning – choosing where to place your masts for optimal coverage, Vodaphone bought handsets from Panasonic and base stations from Ericsson. Interestingly Europe and the UK had a lead over the US in digital mobile networks – they agreed the GSM standard which gave instant access to a huge market. Whilst in the US 722 franchises were awarded with no common digital standard.

Moving out of the backroom a little is the story of the Human Genome Project, principally the period after Craig Venter announced he was going to sequence the human genome faster than the public effort then sell it! This effort was stymied by the Wellcome Trust who put a great deal further money into the public effort. Genetic research has a long history in the UK but the story here is one of industrial scale sequencing, quite different from conventional lab research and the power of the world’s second largest private research funder (the largest is currently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation).

The final chapter of the book is on the Beagle 2 Mars lander, built quickly, cheaply and with the huge enthusiasm and (unlikely) fund raising abilities of Colin Pillinger. Sadly, as the Epilogue records the lander became a high velocity impactor – nothing was heard from it after it left the Mars orbiter which had brought it from the Earth.

The theme for the book is the innate cunning of the British, but if there’s a lesson to be learnt it seems to be that thinking big is a benefit. Elite, the mobile phone network, the Human Genome Project were the successes from this book. Concorde was a technical wonder but an economic disaster. Black Arrow and Beagle 2 suffered from being done on a shoestring budget.

Overall I enjoyed the Backroom Boys, it reminded me of my childhood with Elite and the coming of the mobile phones. It’s more a celebration than a dispassionate view but there’s no harm in that.

May 25 2013

Book review: Empire of the Clouds by James Hamilton-Paterson

EmpireOfTheCloudsEmpire of the Clouds by James Hamilton-Paterson, subtitled When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World, is the story of the British aircraft industry in the 20 years or so following the Second World War. I read it following a TV series a while back, name now forgotten, and the recommendation of friend. I thought it might fit with the story of computing during a similar period which I had gleaned from A Computer called LEO. The obvious similarities are that at the end of the Second World War Britain held a strong position in aircraft and computer design, which spawned a large number of manufacturers who all but vanished by the end of the 1960s.

The book starts with the 1952 Farnborough Air Show crash in which 29 spectators and a pilot were killed when a prototype de Havilland 110 broke up in mid-air with one of its engines crashing into the crowd. Striking to modern eyes would be the attitude to this disaster – the show went on directly with the next pilot up advised to “…keep to the right side of the runway and avoid the wreckage”. All this whilst ambulances were still converging to collect the dead and wounded. This attitude applied equally to the lives of test pilots, many of whom were to die in the years after the war. Presumably this was related to war-time experiences where pilots might routinely expect to lose a large fraction of their colleagues in combat, and where city-dwellers had recent memories of nightly death-tolls in the hundreds from aerial bombing.

Some test pilots died as they pushed their aircraft towards the sound barrier, the aerodynamics of an aircraft change dramatically as it approaches the speed of sound, making it difficult to control and all at very high speed so if solutions to problems did exist they were rather difficult to find in the limited time available. Black box technology for recording what had happened was rudimentary so the approach was generally to try to creep up on the speeds at which others had come to grief with a hope of finding out what had gone wrong by direct experience.

At the end of the Second World War Britain had a good position technically in the design of aircraft, and a head start with the jet engine. There were numerous manufacturers across the country who had been churning out aircraft to support the war effort. This could not be sustainable in peace time but it was not for quite some time that the required rationalisation was to occur. Another consequence of war was that for resilience to aerial bombing manufacturers frequently had distributed facilities which in peacetime were highly inconvenient, these arrangements appeared to remain in place for some time after the war.

In some ways the sub-title “When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World” is overly optimistic, although there were many exciting and intriguing prototype airplanes produced but only a few of them made it to production, and even fewer were commercially, or militarily successful. Exceptions to this general rule were the English Electric Canberra jet-bomber, English Electric Lightning, Avro Vulcan and the Harrier jump jet.

The longevity of these aircraft in service was incredible: the Vulcan and Canberra were introduced in the early fifties with the Vulcan retiring in 1984 and the Canberra lasting until 2006. The Harrier jump jet entered service in 1969 and is still operational. The Lighting entered service 1959 and finished in 1988; viewers of the recent Wonders of the Solar System will have seen Brian Cox take a trip in a Lightning, based at Thunder City where thrill-seekers can play to fly in the privately-owned craft. They’re ridiculously powerful but only have 40 minutes or so of fuel, unless re-fuelled in-flight.

Hamilton-Paterson’s diagnosis is that after the war the government’s procurement policies, frequently finding multiple manufacturers designing prototypes for the same brief and frequently cancelling those orders, were partly to blame for the failure of the industry. These cancellations were brutal: not only were prototypes destroyed, the engineering tools used to make them were destroyed. This is somewhat reminiscent of the decommissioning of the Colossus computer at the end of the Second World War. In addition the strategic view at the end of the war was that there would be no further wars to fight for the next ten years and development of fighter aircraft was therefore slowed. Military procurement has hardly progressed to this day, as a youth I remember the long drawn out birth of the Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft, and more recently there have been mis-adventures with the commissioning of Chinook helicopters and new aircraft carriers.

A second strand to the industry’s failure was the management and engineering approaches common at the time in Britain. Management stopped for two hours for sumptuous lunches every day, it was often autocratic. Whilst American and French engineers were responsive to the demands of their potential customers, and their test pilots the British ones seemed to find such demands a frightful imposition which they ignored. Finally, with respect to civilian aircraft, the state owned British Overseas Airways Corporation was not particularly patriotic in its procurement strategy.

Hamilton-Paterson’s book is personal, he was an eager plane-spotter as a child and says quite frankly that the test pilot Bill Waterson – a central character in the book – was a hero to him. This view may or may not colour the conclusions he makes about the period but it certainly makes for a good read, the book could have been a barrage of detail about each and every aircraft but the more personal reflections, and memories make it something different and more readable. There are parallels with the computing industry after the war, but perhaps the most telling thing is that flashes of engineering brilliance are of little use if they are not matched by a consistent engineering approach and the management to go with it.

Nov 25 2010


kindleAnother in an occasional series of gadget reviews, and more general thoughts on books. This time I look at the Amazon Kindle, my latest gadgety purchase – I have the WiFi only version with added leather carry case. The Kindle is an electronic device onto which books can be downloaded from a range of sources. In a sense the device is a side issue, Kindle software is available for smartphones (I have it on my HTC Desire), and computers. The main action for the Kindle is in the ecosystem: it makes it very easy to spend money on Amazon!

There are quite a few books available in the Kindle Store on Amazon, both free and paid. The paid offerings are a little cheaper than their paper equivalents but not hugely so. In addition PDF files can be read using the device, it will also play MP3 audio files. The Kindle Store also has links out to places where free content can be downloaded. For example, Project Gutenberg holds a wide variety of out of copyright material in a variety of e-book formats.

As long as you’re prepared to compromise a little you’ll not run short of things to read –  I’d like to read the Patrick O’Brian Aubrey-Maturin series but they are not yet available for download. Only three of the top ten Amazon bestsellers are available in Kindle format at the moment. So far I’ve bought “Trilobite!” by Richard Fortey and “22 days in May” by David Laws. I also have “Sustainable Energy – without the hot air” by David Mackay which I got as a free download, and converted to an appropriate format using Calibre e-book Management, this is available as a community conversion of the original HTML files. Books can be transferred to the Kindle by WiFi, or direct cable connection. Buying books is magically easy – press button, wait a minute and you’re done!

Compared to an HTC Desire the Kindle interface feels rather clunky, I kept wanting to change pages by touch! Having said this moving from page to page is ergonomically easy: there are a couple of handy page forward / page backward buttons suited to either handedness. Page changes feel ever so slightly ponderous with a bit of a flash as the page changes. The battery life is very good, the display is e-ink based and so static display takes no power, only switching pages requires power. The display size is about right and it is very nice to read from, when I first opened the device I assumed the picture on the screen was a piece of paper for display purposes. There are a range of options for adjusting text size, spacing and so forth, although I found some glitches with text size control.

The Kindle is ideal for plain text, however for text with diagrams it is a bit hit-and-miss, although the quality of the display is good enough to show quite detailed greyscale images in the case of the Fortey book these have simply not been included by the publisher. The Mackay book includes figures but the placement of the figures in the text has largely been done automatically and is a bit wobbly. I’d really like to try a book with illustrations which have been done properly – any recommendations then please comment.

The benefit of the Kindle with non-fiction is that searching, bookmarking, and highlighting are all relatively straightforward. I have religious objections against making marks in paper books – I think as a result of using the library as a child. It’s also possible to add notes to a book and to see the “favourite” notes of others.

The problem is the Kindle misses the display aspects of book owning and reading; my house is full of books collected over 20 years. They are my extended phenotype; they tell you something about me. If you visit my house you can see my books – you might want to borrow one. The Kindle cuts this away, you can’t see what is on my Kindle, and if even if you could, you couldn’t borrow it. I’ve tried to replicate the bookshelf aspect in my Shelfari account, where you can see what I am reading and what I have read. I’m also missing the pile of books beside my bed. I’m an old-fashioned animal that misses physical objects.

Overall: not at all bad, reading raw text is comfortable, the whole buying new text is frighteningly easy, and a range of formats can be read. I’m looking forward to using the Kindle to avoid my mortal holiday fear – that I might run out of things to read!

Aug 03 2010

Bamboo Pen and Touch

This is a tiny technology review. I recently bought a Wacom Bamboo Pen and Touch tablet, I say recently – I picked it up from the post office a little over 2 hours ago!

I used a Wacom tablet extensively as a mouse replacement at work some years back, and rather liked it. I only gave up because I moved into industry from academia and they are a bit more fussy about what I attach to the PC with which I am provided. At home the pen interface didn’t work quite so well because at the time I was quite keen on computer games, first-person shooters in particular, and controlling the little man in such a game using a pen is exceedingly challenging, to say the least.

The big benefit of a pen interface to my mind is that I can hold the pen whilst typing, then when I need to do some “mousing” I don’t have to scrabble around for the mouse. The whole process is just much smoother.

Unlike my original Wacom tablet this model will accept both pen and touch (with your fingers) input – I must admit I’m not really anticipating using the touch input. It appears to support the range of multi-touch gestures that a smartphone will accept. The active area of the tablet is roughly journalists notepad size which makes it small for an artist type tablet.

In terms of software, the installation attempts to guide you into some spoken tutorials which treat you like a moron – praising fulsomely your every successful pen-stroke. None of this is actually necessary since using a pen is largely intuitive and all you really need to learn is what the right-click simulation is (it’s the button on the body of the pen) and what the configurable buttons on the tablet do.

I have the tablet installed on a Windows 7 system, which is “ink” aware – it understands interacting via a pen: A little palette will pop out wherein the miracle of the “handwriting recognition” is performed – being able to read my scrawl is impressive but it’s a bit like a talking dog: it’s very clever but ultimately pointless on a computer with a keyboard. Office 2007 is also ink aware, you can open up a document and scribble on a separate layer – obviously the first thing I did was draw a big circle around something and wrote “bollocks” next to it.

The tablet also comes with some little mini-apps in which you can doodle and play games, you can also download more mini-apps. They don’t look fantastically useful.

All in all I think we’re going to be happy together – holding the pen feels just like old times!

Apr 03 2010

A brief history of gadgets

This is a post about gadgets and my relationship with them, spurred by my purchase of the latest gadget: an HTC Desire smartphone aka “Shiny”.

I have a suspicious relationship with telephones, basically I consider talking to people at a distance a form of devilry and if you expect me to type messages in a 26 letter alphabet using a 12 key keyboard you’ve got another thing coming. Telephone use at SomeBeans Towers is simple: most nights Mrs SomeBeans rings her dad, once a week on Sunday my mum rings me, roughly once a month my dad rings me with a list of computer problems for solution and once every three weeks I ring Majestic to arrange wine delivery : “Simples”. All phone calls beyond this are a cause for chaos, consternation, confusion etc. I appreciate this makes us “anomalous” but I’m too old to care.

Mobile phone use is even more occasional, whilst skiing we sometimes arrange slope side meet-ups via mobile phone. Mrs SomeBeans was reduced to hysterics watching me typing a text message, moving my lips as I did it and eventually giving up because of cramp. When buying a house use of the devil’s mobile speech-horn is inevitable. At the start of the last house purchase I sat on the train with my mobile phone ringing from my pocket thinking: “Why isn’t that person answering their phone? It sounds an awful lot like mine (I think)”, on the previous house buying occasion I attempted to recharge my phone via it’s headphone socket, it died.

My last trip to the phone shop was rather embarrassing for all concerned, I bought a Samsung E250 slider phone. I completely missed the point of the “slider” bit and asked the phone-geek whether it was a touch screen phone: “No, sir”. I expressed a desire for a phone embedded in an SLR camera lens, at which point the phone-geek claimed that the picture from some phone was as good as an SLR, so I like to think I wasn’t the only one to come away from the experience looking like a complete idiot. The Shiny was bought over the internet to avoid embarrassment.

I did wonder about the touch screen aspects of the Shiny, I believe there a two types of people in the world: those that are happy to smear their horrible, greasy fingerprints across displays, and those that wish to kill them. I fall into the second group, so there was some risk I would have a touch-screen phone which I was psychologically incapable of touching. Fortunately this has turned out not to be the case, whilst transferring over numbers from the old Samsung I repeatedly tried to use the screen as a touch-screen, to the chagrin of all involved.

Why the HTC Desire? I do a bit of programming and the Android operating system on which it runs is relatively straightforward for me to program on (the iPhone requires you to use a Mac). Android has such magic software as Google Goggles which carries out picture based searching – it works too: it successfully recognised “Luncheon of the Boating Party” by Renoir on our wall, as well as a rather more obscure photo, and Tasty by Kelis (front or back cover). It has a radio too (you notice phone functionality is pretty much the last thing on my mind here). Chatting to friends of a more phone-friendly nature I got the impression that the Desire was the way to go. Blackberries looked a bit serious and business-like (and don’t have radios).

The predecessors of the Shiny are my Psion 5mx, a fabulous PDA with a lovely almost proper keyboard and built-in software which did not need to be supplemented, I gave it up after many years because the connector between screen an keyboard started to break regularly, I followed this with a Dell Axim x51v which I never really loved. My phone history is completely unmemorable, my first mobile phone looked like a toy bone for a dog, and made young people laugh. I’ve had two other phones since then but I scarcely used them. In other gadgets I got a bluetooth GPS to talk to my PDA so I could geotag my photos, then I got a Garmin GPS60 which did it rather more robustly.

I joined the digital camera revolution rather early with a Kodak DC210, this was a revelation to me since previously my photography experience was limited to taking a few shots on film in a weeks holiday, finally filling a film after 18 months having completely forgotten where I was or what technically I had done to achieve the effect I had. After the Kodak I got an Olympus C750UZ, in parallel I also had a Casio Exilim S20 for it’s extreme compactness, then I went SLR picking up a Canon 300D from my father-in-law on which I became completely hooked, upgrading to a 400D shortly thereafter. The reason for going to the SLR was that even with a reasonably good point-and-shoot I was finding there were photos I knew I just couldn’t take because I couldn’t control the camera. An SLR gets round this problem by having a decent set of real controls, like a focus ring on the lenses, rather than some buried menu options and octopus-friendly button pressing. The thing with an SLR is that the camera body serves the function of a gateway drug, your dealer makes the real money on the lenses*. There’s probably a business model in giving away SLR camera bodies and making your profit solely on lenses and accessories. I’ve subsequently got a second Casio Exilim S10 to fill my dinky camera needs, this camera will take photos when people smile and claims that it can recognise different people and prioritise snapping according to your preference. This seems like a new way of offending friends and family, is making your wife anything other than top smiling priority grounds for divorce?

Returning to the HTC Desire: it’s fantastic! It can replace phone, pda, GPS and dinky camera: all in a beautiful package. The interface is a joy to use, wave your finger around on it and you go skittering off to different parts as if you’re skimming across the surface of a large desk. My old PDA felt like you were peering into a tiny fixed porthole on it’s innards. Tapping buttons on the screen gives you a touch of vibration feedback. Even the internet is pretty usable, as is the 200 page PDF manual.

I have a bit of a mixed attitude to gadgets: things that are nice to use like the Psion, Canon 400D and Shiny, I really like. Things with crap interfaces, I can’t abide: programming video recorders and central heating systems I hate for their horribly kludgey 20 random keystrokes with no user feedback nastiness.

And now, if you don’t mind, I will return to fondling Shiny.

*For the camera fans I have the 10-22mm50mm f/1.8, 18-55mm kit, 28-135mm, 100mm macroEF 70-300mm lenses.

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