A Scary Place

Yesterday I didn’t do much, so I had a bit of time/inclination to write. For many of the prepared posts I write (as opposed to responses), I like to just save them as Drafts, then put them live maybe the next day. This gives me overnight, at least, to think about any tweaks, and also means that the final proof reading will be performed with a fresh pair of eyes. So, the post got its final check this morning, and here goes.

From having read my posts, would any of you believe that I have been a published author since very early on in my working life? Okay, not really in that sense! Let me explain:

My very first job out of college was with the UK’s Atomic Energy Authority. It was basically civil service – you can imagine that in the early days, atomic energy was very closely linked to government and military. By the time I jumped on board, quite a bit of separation had happened, but a lot of the structures etc. still followed the civil service’s. By the time I was on board, the Atomic Energy Authority was looking very hard into how it could turn the skills it had picked up in the search for atomic energy, into skills which paid the bills. So I ended up working in a field completely unrelated to atomic energy, in the field of high-energy electricity.

In particular, I worked in the Space Applications Department. Yep. High-energy electrical appications for space-related activities. So I can quite truthfully say that I was once a rocket scientist!

Thinking about it, space-related electricity has developed along a very similar trajectory to autos, albeit with a lag in there. We started with chemical (i.e. petrol) engines, and are moving gradually (very gradually!) toward electric propulsion. Exactly the same in space. Back in the Eighties, there was a lot of development and testing going on of electric engines. Did you know that when a satellite goes up into space, it doesn’t just sit nicely in its orbit, but wobbles about a bit? In fact, it wobbles in a kind-of figure of eight. In theory, electric engines were perfect for reducing that wobble to a minimum. That is one of the areas where we came in.

One of the benefits of coming out of the atomic business was the amount of hardware we inherited. In particular, there were some very large testing tanks, which we could put under a very high vacuum, to simulate, er, space! And very large, in terms of being some of the largest in Europe. Ideal for testing electric engines!

During my time, personal computers were just starting to come along. Somebody had the bright idea of putting several probes into one of these tanks, then controlling them by computer. Of course, at this time, we had to do all this ourselves. Bearing in mind this was back in 1990, we were really state of the art – for example, we were using fiber-optic cabling to communicate between things, because using regular copper wire was just too slow. Current broadband technology, but thirty years ago! (It is a lot cheaper now.)

There were, of course, mishaps along the way. We started off with nylon belt drives, which promptly melted when put near one of these engines! It took a good twenty minutes before anybody noticed, by which time the probe had well and truly melted – in the promimity of one of these engines, you’re in a very nasty environment, and nobody anticipated the temperatures which would be involved. Or rather, nobody anticipated this probe being stuck right in front of one of these engines! When we finally got in to examine this “probe”, we just found a big, melted slab of aluminium! But once we corrected the mishaps, we ended up with a working system, complete with fully-functioning probes.

Within the company, I was employed as a graduate scientist. Lowest of the low – all I really brought to the party was a freshly-earned degree. On this project, I wrote the software to drive all these probes, and to collect data from them. I’d hardly even touched a computer before then, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I think back and cringe at some of the stuff I hacked out back then, but it all hung together (somehow), the project revealed to me that this was something I wanted to be doing full-time, and gave me a very solid mastery of the technology. And it only took me until my mid-twenties, to work all this out!

With all these probes on board, we started collecting data. Lots of data. It soon became apparent that my second software project would be to write something which could analyse all this data! And it soon became clear that this second project would be far bigger than the first. Bearing in mind that I was still very green, it was all good experience. God knows whatever happened to that software (I expect it ended up in a bin many years ago) but I found something on Wikipedia which gave an indication of the type of analysis I did:

Okay, the data in my plots would have been completely different, but the idea – turning it into a pretty graph – was the same. It allowed everybody to visualise what was going on – otherwise we were just presenting lots and lots of numbers to people.

Although the whole project was performed on a commercial basis – there was a lot we couldn’t talk about – we were able, at least, to discuss some high-level aspects of it, including at various industry conferences and spin-off publications. Some of my graphs were included in the papers, and so that is how I became a co-author!

Not bad for my very first job, eh? It’s funny, because I subsequently had jobs in banks which easily paid 10x that of the first job, but I look back on this job as having the most interesting subject matter. Maybe a case of rose-tinted glasses? But while a lot of work I have subsequently performed has been in a virtual world, imagining solutions to problems, this project was ultimately dealing with something physical, something real, something tangible, one of these electric engines.

I used this first job as a springboard to become involved, full-time, in software development, and after these projects, I moved on from the space industry, never to return. But I do wonder sometimes whether the stuff I did eventually helped these engines to fly.

So, next time you happen to be passing your nearest technical library, you might want to have a look through some old journals from the International Electric Propulsion Conference paproceedings, or from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and look me up! Which finally brings me full circle to my post’s title, for the internet is indeed a very scary place. It never forgets! I was going to round off my post today with a few references to the papers I once wrote, confident that this far downstream, nobody would take the slightest interest. But I typed each of them into Google, and found the original bloody papers themselves, from thirty years ago! Which of course, are published under my real name…

So, I’m afraid you’ll have to just take my word for it!


This is my first post since the New Year, so I’d like to start by wishing everybody a Happy New Year. I hope, if you did anything, that you had a good time.

I had a quiet time last night. I don’t go much past 9pm these days, I managed until about 10pm last night (thank you, Arnie, but I gave up and am watching the rest this morning!) but was sound asleep by midnight. Even some local fireworks (apparently) didn’t stir me. But last night, I also had a little help…

One thing I do like to do on New Year’s Eve is to crack open a nice bottle of wine. I’ve never drunk large quantities of wine, even less now, but it is something which always fascinated me. I used to love going over to France to visit the wine regions and maybe add something to the collection.

Probably our most successful trip was down to Burgundy in 2002. Not only did we all have a brilliant time, it was very warm, sunny weather and the gite had a pool, but I managed to bring back a few cases of superb wines, direct from the producers. My daughter, who was then about three, even enjoyed coming tasting with me (although her sips were limited, and I was driving)! And Burgundy is hallowed ground in wine terms. There is a road between Dijon and Beaune, the D974, and the villages and vineyards along the road read like a who’s who of world-class wines. Before God invented road numbering, it was simply known as the Route des Grands Crus, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

© Ecrivin.fr

But because I found learning about wine preferable to drinking it, once I returned from France, my collection would only decrease very slowly. So this was my treat last night (or, two glasses of it. The rest is there for today, to enjoy with my cheese sandwich):

Don’t let the grubbiness of the label fool you – it is grubby because I have let it sit, untouched, for twenty years. This is actually a bottle of grand cru wine, 1995 vintage. In (Burgundy) wine terms, a grand cru is the highest reputation vineyard. It refers to the vineyard rather than the particular wine or the year, although the vinyard gains its overall status, of course, based on the wines produced there over the years. A grand cru is about as safe a bet you can get for a good wine.

The grower, the Louis Latour company, owns plots in several vineyards in the region, and the Chateau Corton Grancey ranks high among them. I always liked the French appellation system because just these few labels narrow the origin to a specific couple of fields – in the world – not just for wines but all sorts of other foods too. Plus Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) status guarantees a certain standard. If we think there is any merit in identifying regional foods, we should be using that system too. In the UK, it exists for very few things but is not widespread – we’ve usually no idea where our food has come from.

Ahhh… nothing better than remembering a decent holiday over a delicious glass of wine! Delicious? I’ve got to say more than just delicious. How about sublime? Burgundy is my personal favourite region in any case – surpassing even Bordeaux – and something like champagne is vinegar in comparison. When I taste a Burgundy, I expect to be transported back, and fortunately this wine did not disappoint. So, let’s say that by bedtime, 2019 was looking better, and New Year’s Day, at least, doesn’t look bad either! I’m sure it’ll start going downhill tomorrow!

Lastly, my featured image. Orange tart. Wine was not all my daughter managed to try out!

Song Lyric Sunday (22 December 2019) – Christmas

Last week, Jim Adams (NewEpicAuthor, A Unique Title For Me) set a theme of baby (my choice). This week, with only a couple of days to go until the big day, he gives us the subject of Christmas.

When I was a child I used to belong to a church choir. I blogged about that once here. I sang in the choir for four or five years, so it can’t have been that bad.

A few things about the choir were regular events. Every year, we had a choir’s annual outing, from our church in Liverpool out to the local “resort” of Southport for the day. Southport is actually not all that far from Liverpool, but is a different environment – it has a beach and is beside the seaside, although in common with many other seaside resorts in the UK, has known better days – probably very few people holiday there these days. But it had a pier and a fairground and in my day had a large, outdoor, sea-water swimming pool. So it was an escape from the city for the day.

Another event was an annual holiday, for one week every year leaving on the same day that school finished for the summer. In fact, we just stayed in the choirmaster’s cottage in north Wales, in the countryside outside of a place called Mold, less than an hour away from Liverpool, but there were fields and cows… Ten or twelve of us would have sleeping bags on the floor, so very low budget indeed.

Every Christmas Eve, too, there was a ritual where we walked the wards of the local Sefton General Hospital, singing carols as we went. Sefton General was one of those hospitals which was inherited by the NHS, having formerly been a workhouse. It was an old building which closed its doors for good arond 1990, but around 1980 was still a functioning hospital. This one event, rounded off with a mince pie in the nurses’ quarters, marked the start of christmas for us. And marked the start of a busy evening, because we would also be singing in the church’s Midnight Mass just a few hours later.

As a child, I was pre-teen so didn’t realise the significance of this visit. As an adult, having once spent time in hospital, I do.

I was reminiscing about these visits and thought it might be a bit novel today to choose a christmas carol. This one happens to be my favourite. As a grown-up I’m not at all religious any more but I can appreciate the carol and the performance even so.

You probably all know the story behind Silent Night, so I will be brief. The words were written by Austrian pastor Joseph Mohr in 1816. Mohr subsequntly moved to Oberdorf bei Salzburg, where local schoolmaster Franz Xaver Gruber composed the music, and the carol was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818 – it is 201 years old. So, I present this carol today in its original form. The King’s Singers are a known British sextet, formed way back in 1968 by some scholars of King’s College, Cambridge, and achieved the height of their popularity (in both the UK and USA) in the 1970s and early 1980s.

If you celebrate christmas, I hope you have a good one. If you have young children, I hope they appreciate all your efforts.

Stille Nacht

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Silent night, holy night
All is sleeping, nothing wakes
Only the close, most holy couple.
Blessed boy in curly hair,
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds just informed
By the angels’ hallelujah,
It rings out far and wide:
Christ the Savior is here!
Christ the Savior is here!
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, oh how laughs
Love out of your divine mouth,
For now the hour of salvation strikes for us.
Christ, in Thy birth!
Christ, in Thy birth!
Music: Franz Xaver Gruber (1818); Words: Joseph Mohr (1816-8). In Oberndorf, Austria