Sunday, 28 February 2016

Evolution of life

Eighteen years ago our son arrived in this world two weeks late, setting a pattern of behaviour that has carried on for his entire life so far. I suspect it was only the threat of being induced that forced him to cooperate, because no amount of curries or fast motorcycle rides on bumpy roads managed to prompt any sort of action on his part.
He was late walking too, but perhaps he couldn't see the point because he was an Olympic standard crawler.
Ending up an average student at school (could have done more but he had all his enthusiasm drained by bored and indifferent teachers) he at least left with good enough qualifications to embark upon a motor vehicle course at Cambridge Regional College.
Now he's happily settled in a job he enjoys, which is a major relief.
Thinking back to how we stumbled through those early years filled with confusion, wondering if we were doing things right, it's with a certain sense of satisfaction that on his eighteenth birthday we can sit back and be pleased with the way he's turned out. He may not be a Nobel prize-winning physicist, but he's not spending his days saying "Do you want fries with that?" either.

The shock to the system when the boy arrived in our lives was immense. Suddenly there was something more important to focus on and anything we wanted to do or have had to take a back seat.
Things were tight and although we didn't exactly struggle, it wasn't an easy ride either.
Gradually things got easier and over the years we've managed to claw back our own identities as individuals. I daresay most parents go through much the same cycle.
The boy is now a man with all the opportunities that legally becoming an adult bring - although the only advantages he'll be taking advantage of for the forseeable future are being able to drink alcohol in the pub and getting a tattoo.
Now our lives are pretty much our own without the restrictions of the past, and we're making progress with getting ourselves in the routine of doing our own thing as a couple.

We're looking forward to going on holiday on our own, trying not to wonder what state the house will be in when we get back. It's also nice to choose days out without worrying about a third party being bored and spoiling the atmos.
It's nice to be in that middle-aged period of life. The mortgage repayments are small and all other debts are gone. We're both working full time too which helps.
I've given up on commuting by bus now because I'm sick of waiting around for buses that may be late or not turn up at all, and I've had enough of sharing my personal space with people with loud music, even louder kids and questionable personal hygiene.
I've come to terms with never having another motorcycle, but at least after all these years of choosing a car based upon whatever happened to be available at the time that does the job, I've for the first time ever been able to buy one because it's what I wanted. Maybe that's some sort of compensation for all the new aches and pains that arrive on an increasingly regular basis.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Old dog, new tricks....

It has long been a theory of mine that the older you get, the harder it is to learn new things.
I still consider that to be true, which is why I'm always amazed when I accomplish something I've never done before.
I first did machining (milling and turning) back in the training centre at Marshall Aerospace in 1987/88, then didn't touch a lathe or milling machine until I started at Cambridge University's Department of Engineering in January 1996.
Since then, regular use has made me reasonably proficient with both machines, but soley manually controlled machines - not CNC (computer numeric controlled).
When (thanks to a half-million pound grant) we were recently able to treat ourselves to a new milling machine to replace the aged mill we'd had since the dark ages - a fantastically versatile machine but sadly worn beyond  limits - we ended up with a brand new XYZ SMX3000 mill which is a modern CNC machine that frankly scared the shit out of me.
I quickly got used to using it in manual mode, but the whole concept of CNC programming remained a mystery to me.

However, things move on and there comes a time when you realise you need to grasp new things before you get left behind for good. With the help of a colleague I'd had a fiddle around with the programming software and got to the point where I at least had a vague idea of what was going on.
Then yesterday came a point where I needed this facility to modify a component and the guys who were experienced with CNC were all tied up with other jobs. Down to me then. Oh well, here goes nothing.
Talk about throwing yourself in at the deep end. It wouldn't be so daunting to have a simple thing to machine for your first attempt at CNC, but the component I needed to modify was a supersonic wind tunnel liner that had already been machined at a considerable cost in materials and man hours, and here was my big opportunity to fuck it up.
Theoretically all I needed to do was a three step programme that would enable me to mount a window and its retaining flange into the liner so we can mount a GoPro camera into the liner enabling us to view flow visualisation inside the tunnel during a run, and potentially to use a laser sheet to illuminate particles in the flow for analysis.

After spending significant time getting the workpiece set up so that the surface error was within a thousandth of an inch, setting up the cutter and programming the CNC controller, I got my CNC-familiar colleague to double-check my programme.
With my heart in my mouth I started the process.

OK, so in the scheme of things this is small potatoes, but once the milling was done and I'd fitted the other components I'd already made, I did feel like I'd achieved something quite big for me.
For someone who has clung on desperately to the old-school manual methods for so long, assuming there would always be someone else to deal with the complicated CNC stuff, it was immensely satisfying and has kindled a wee bit of excitement at the prospect of having another go.

Not all new things have filled me with this sort of dread though. 3d printing has been something I've taken to like a duck to water. About the same time as we got the new mill, we also purchased a Stratasys Objet 24 printer which cost about twenty grand and has proved to be an expensive to run and hugely temperamental pain in the arse. But when it's behaving itself, it's a fantastic piece of kit which has enabled us to manufacture parts that would be difficult or even impossible to make with conventional techniques. Thanks to a course that taught the basics of SolidWorks, I'm now able to design a part on the computer and create it on the printer, and given that almost everything we make is a unique prototype and definitely not available off the shelf, this capability has made things significantly more interesting.
Obviously the old saying 'All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy' is as true here as anywhere else. In the same way as the nozzles in an inkjet printer get gummed up if it's not used for an extended period, the Objet 24 needs regular use to keep it running smoothly, so if there's no legitimate use on the horizon, it's open season on 'private' jobs.
The latest of these has been my 'Multipass' as seen in the brilliant movie 'The Fifth Element'.
Sometimes you just have to get your geek on.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Run away from The Smoke

We made a plan and the plan was good. Or was it?
On Sunday, to celebrate our 21st wedding anniversay, we'd decided to go to London to have a day out (just the two of us, without dragging a sullen 17 year old around) and visit the National Gallery, with lunch somewhere nice.
Committing the cardinal sin of getting up early on a Sunday, we made our way to Ely railway station and waited around for a while because I'm a bugger for being early for everything.
When the train turned up it was already rammed solid so we were forced to stand, squashed in like sheep heading for slaughter for the 70 minute journey.
It seems Arsenal were playing an important home match that day which would explain some of it.

The tube from Kings Cross to Leicester Square was even worse, but exiting the station didn't quite bring the relief I expected. The streets outside were lined with crowds of people - clearly some sort of parade was going on. We took a slight detour to avoid the congestion and made our way back towards Trafalgar Square, only to be confronted by a sea of people. Then the penny dropped - we'd unwittingly arrived at the hub of an immense Chinese New Year celebration event.
The whole of Trafalgar Square was fenced off, containing what appeared to be China-related stalls and activities, and it was difficult to even make progress through the crowds.
We decided to find some food before going round the gallery, and went into a restaurant where we ordered a big cooked breakfast and coffee.
After half an hour of waiting without even being brought our drinks, we picked up our coats and walked out. We wandered the nearby streets in search of somewhere that had service as well as food, but literally everywhere was full - even the takeaways had queues out the door.
Eventually we found a cafe inside the gallery where we were ripped off for a small salmon salad and coffee.

Feeling slightly more human with food in our stomachs, we set off to look around the gallery.
Hopeless. Every man and his dog was in there making it impossible to relax and spend time enjoying the paintings. Clearly everyone who had turned up for the Chinese new year thing decided they might as well kill two birds with one stone - it's free after all.
So we gave up and walked to Covent Garden which was also packed with people milling about, drinking coffee at little bistro tables, and laughing at the prices in the numerous designer goods shops.
There were a lot of cordoned-off areas and trucks with satellite dishes on top, and it wasn't until that evening that I realised it was in preparation for the BAFTAs. Maybe if we'd hung about we might have seen a couple of famous faces,but by this point we'd both lost the desire to spend any more time in 'the smoke', and beat a hasty retreat to Kings Cross to catch a train home - this time with the novelty of being able to sit down.

Sometimes it feels like it would be nice to go out and do something different, but for some reason it rarely turns out as enjoyable as you expected it to be.
We often think we should make more effort to go out and do stuff and spend less time holed-up at home, but on the other hand, why bother if being relaxed and contented in our cosy little home is what we're happiest doing?

Trafalgar Square on a more normal day

Friday, 12 February 2016

Us and them

Apartheid was a very bad thing. We all know this. But certain aspects of segregation are perhaps not completely without merit.
Obviously any sort of divisions based upon racial, sexual or religious differences are to be avoided, but having been using public transport for a while now I can see that this is an area where segregation could be beneficial.
The dividing line could be set with reference to social factors, and I'm not talking about wealth or whether or not someone went to university, but how a person functions in society, how they relate to others, and their level of social conscience.

Let's break it down:

Assume we had two bus companies operating side-by-side.
We'll call the first one 'Conscientious Travel Co' and its passengers will be ordinary pleasant people - those who sit quietly on comfy seats causing no aggravation to others, perhaps reading a book, listening to their music discreetly, or just watching the world pass by until they reach their destination and exit the bus, making sure to thank the driver.

The second company would be called something like 'Pleb-Bus'.
Their vehicles would have straw on the floor and spittoons in the corner. The passengers will be people who talk loudly on the phone, teenage mums with screaming kids hyped up on sweets and fizzy drinks, headphone addicts with their music so loud the whole bus knows exactly what they're listening to, and those who have the kind of body odour that would stop a charging rhinocerous at twenty paces.

It's quite simple - put all those who don't give a shit about others in the same place, where the only people they can annoy are those who are also very annoying. That way, the rest of us can get on with the tedium of travelling without having the lowest social denominators inflicted upon us.
Bus travel isn't exactly convenient. If you want to get where you want when you want, reliably and with minimal fuss, then bus travel is not for you.
It does however have the benefit of allowing you to get from A to B without having to deal with rush-hour traffic yourself; just switch off and let someone else have the hassle.
What you really don't want added to the misery of waiting around in the cold for a bus that's late and having to share your personal space, is the presence of people you'd generally cross the road to avoid.
This is why I'm seriously considering buying another car. While it means having to cope with driving the commute myself, it's probably easier than waiting for the gene pool to be cleaned.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Home Sense of humour

Today has not turned out as planned. It was supposed to be a gentle sort of muddling around day involving a small amount of housework followed by a walk to the garden centre in the next village for tea and scones, then back home to make a batch of carrot & parsnip soup.
That was the plan until the boy announced that he needed a lift to Cambridge because he'd arranged to see his cousin. Great.
So rather than have to do the journey twice, we turfed him out of the car at his destination before going off to kill a couple of hours on our own.
After a snack in Scotsdale's cafe and a gentle stroll around Cherry Hinton park, it was still a bit early, so we ended up in a retail park. Will we never learn?

After wandering aimlessly around a couple of places, gradually losing the will to live, we walked into a place called 'Home Sense' which was full of what some might call 'interior design' stuff, but I think a more accurate description would be 'useless shit'.
I honestly could not imagine anyone wanting to fill their homes with the crap in that place, and yet the queue of people at the checkout suggested otherwise.
A couple were trying to figure out which mirror to buy, having a conversation that went something like:
HER: "I like this one best" (holding up an ugly great plaster moulding about three foot diameter with a little 10 inch mirror in the middle)
HIM: "It's alright but I prefer the first one" (indicating an even bigger lump of plaster with a slightly larger mirror inside)
HER: "Well I don't mind - you decide" (careful mate, you know that's code for 'choose the one I want or else')
HIM: "Babe this mirror business is doing my head in..."

By this point I was ready to run screaming for the exit, but then I spotted this, and it turned my train of thought on its head.

I looked around again to check this wasn't actually a joke shop we'd been browsing but no, this stuff was actually for sale. I mean seriously, who the hell would want to pay twenty five quid for this monument to bad taste? It was at this point I started to laugh.
Looking along the nearby shelves I suddenly realised that what we had here was a whole new form of entertainment. Seeing the potential for a blog post, I pulled out my phone and snapped some pictures to illustrate my point:

 What appears to be a black baby dressed and posed like a buddhist monk
with a sash of tiny mirror squares. Why?

 WTF??? A dog with pink headphones riding a Vespa?
Now I've seen it all.

 A handy chair that will never need cleaning because any stain or
spillage will look like it's supposed to be there.

Words fail me.

This sort of material suggests that there is a previously untapped source of humour to be explored here. One could easily have a competition to find the most ghastly items on sale, and this shop is the perfect starting point.
We did another lap of the place with this new found approach and instead of wondering what the f**k we were doing in there, we actually had a damn good laugh. God knows what the CCTV operator must have made of us.
I was reminded of a bit from 'Absolutely Fabulous' when Edina is intending to open her own shop:
EDINA: I'm opening a shop, darling.
PATSY: Ooh lovely, what are you going to sell?
EDINA: Oh, just lots of gorgeous things.
PATSY: Expensive things?
EDINA: Of course.

It's good to have a laugh at something, especially as BT still haven't sorted out our broadband problems. Having to converse with someone in a bloody call centre in India is enough to destroy anyone's sense of humour.
Wake up BT, it's supposed to be BRITISH Telecom!!! I have nothing against India or its people, but is it really too much to ask to speak to an English person rather than struggle to comprehend someone with an accent so thick you could use it to mend the potholes in the road?

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Back in time

"It was better back in the good old days..." people say. I say bollocks.
We've never been as well off as we are now, and however much we gaze longingly at the past through rose tinted spectacles, we will always blot out the reality of how things were.
This is a strange phenomenon. In general we find it so easy to complain about the things that go wrong, like the bus not turning up, the supermarket not having your favourite cheese on the shelf, or selecting a drill from the set only to find it's blunt or bent.
Yet when things are going well and we have nothing to bitch about, do we say as much to others?
No. We just muddle along because whether we realise it or not, things going right is pretty much normal.
Maybe we should take stock more frequently and appreciate it when life isn't doing its best to hammer us into the ground - finding happiness in the good times might restore a little balance to the times when life is less than perfect.

For example, I'm typing this at work because my internet connection at home has become so crappy it's basically unusable.
We've been on to British Telecom who thought it's because our router is faulty, so we agreed to a new 12 month broadband contract in order to get a new router for nothing. That was supposed to be with us on Monday, but has yet to arrive. The wife tried repeatedly to call BT yesterday, but couldn't get through, and now it looks like there have been thousands of people left with no broadband thanks to a major hardware fault.
What this means is that for the past few days we've effectively been hurled back to pre-internet times; so no email, no Netflix, no Playstation Network and no porn.
When your internet access is good, you pay no attention to it. When it fails, you wonder what the hell to do. However good the 'good old days' were, it's not so much fun when you find yourself back there.

When the council started replacing all the sodium streetlights with modern LED ones, I was not happy. Leaving aside the fact that the existing ones still worked just fine and any energy saving costs would probably take an eternity to realise given what it must cost to carry out the replacement, I found the more directional, piercing light they emit distracting when driving along the street at night.
Then a couple of days ago I drove down a street that still had the old sodium lights and was surprised at how strange it seemed. Amazing how quickly we get used to things.
There are times when I really do wish we could turn back the clock for a while, but not when it comes to things like healthcare and medicine, cars that were always breaking down, and long cold winters when we actually had snow.
In the days when everything was shut on Sundays we often moaned about how dull it was, but in the modern world where everything is 24/7, I sometimes think having one day a week when everything just stops would be wonderful. As long as I still have wifi of course....