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30 August
My boarded-up shopwindow

A question. What’s a personal website for? I’m interested to know.

When I got liberated into the world of freelancing a year ago one of the first things I did was to buy myself a website package, complete with my name and an easy-to-fill-out set of ready-made pages. For a couple of days, I busied myself putting a few details about myself and what I do up there. And then I rather left it. Every week or so, I’d go back and do a bit more. But after about May this year, I haven’t actually done anything there. I’ve been busy elsewhere – not filing much here, either, on account of that – and it’s not been a priority.

Not my priority, but not anyone else’s either. My lack of activity hasn’t, so far as I know, been noted. I haven’t had a clamour of people inquiring after my well-being or saying they’ve missed me. Well, OK, I wouldn’t expect that. It’s never had many visitors anyway and now why should people go there when there’s nothing new to see? In fact, why do I have it? I’m not sure.

When I started out, I was told in all earnestness that the website would be key to my future fame and fortune, the shopwindow for my future employment as a freelance. I could advertise my talents, lay out my portfolio, collect all the stuff I’ve had published elsewhere. Is this really true and am I missing a trick through my neglect? Perhaps someone could tell me. Or does it really make no difference, a vanity project that can safely be put on hold when I’ve no time for vanity? I’m feeling that that’s the case. So tell me if I’m wrong.

PS. I shall, of course, directly after filing this, hurry on over to the website just to check that it’s all still there and functioning. But probably only a quick visit.

PPS. It is, I should have said, www.johnpullin.com.

24 August
The gap in product innovation

I’ve mostly stayed away from writing about engineering stuff on this blog, lest I expose my ignorances too harshly. But, on the basis that people are mostly kind and will point to any errors in a gentle way, that’s about to change. Because it has seemed to me for a while that there’s a gap in the engineering market and I’d rather like to see it filled.

The gap is the one that lurks between product design and system design, though the terminology is not precise. I’ll explain.

By product design, I mean the kind of work where you take a blank sheet of paper, or a blank screen, and design something that will be made in a solid form at a later stage: a cup, a car or a wind turbine. Product design software, generically known as CAD (for computer-aided design) is very clever these days, and not only can you design the physical shape of the product in it, you can also do some physical tests on it for stress, strain and other things. And you can add in data about your choices of materials and you can extract information about how it should be made. And you can simulate it in a variety of situations and modes, so you can see what it would look like in different settings, and you can take all or any of the information and publish it in lots of different formats. And all the information links back into business systems and so forth. And… and… and… Clever, clever stuff.

What I call “system design” is, though, only partly covered by all of these wonders. This heading – and there’s probably a proper technical term for it, but I can’t think of it right now – covers whether the thing is actually going to work as intended. Patently with something as simple as a cup, it’s going to work if you’ve designed it so that it holds the intended liquid and if you’ve manufactured it so that the glaze covers all the requisite areas, not allowing any of said liquid to percolate through. And your CAD system will probably do all of these jobs.

But with something more complex, a system, say, that involves both mechanical and electrical engineering, where performance is a variable thing and where there’s a degree of operational balance going on – and especially where there’s software as an integral component – then it’s a different matter. There are very clever companies who do test and operational simulation in which they use real (or worked out) measurements to gauge how well something works and then fine-tune that performance. Measurement and real data are key to this, and the findings may have an effect on the physical design, but might equally affect the operational mode, or how various components work together.

The gap seems to me, though, to be between these two sets of very clever companies: the product design software folk and the system design people. There have been a few signs of these two distinct sectors coming closer together, but only a few. National Instruments, systems people of vast expertise, has worked with SolidWorks, a CAD company with a nicely iconoclastic approach, bringing motion control and a physical model together. Another group with CAD origins, PTC, recently bought a company called MKS which deals with integrating the software and performance optimisation side of things. But it’s all pretty much at an early and tentative stage.

So far, that is. I think there’s merit, though, in pushing rather harder to get these things integrated as much as possible. Still when engineers develop new products, particularly complex products involving different types of engineering and different combinations of hardware and software, there seems to be a gap between determining the physical format of the product and optimising its designed performance. And the gap shows itself in slowness to market, pauses in the innovation process while things are tested, or products that frankly don’t perform as well as they should – like many wind turbines seem to, for instance.

I think closing this gap is the next big challenge for engineers in product innovation. But what do engineers think? Is this a real problem? Or just the way things have to be? Form and function, function and form: which comes first? I think both of them should come together. But that isn’t easy.

12 August
Politics in a time of disturbance

Still not keen to add my own pomposity to the verbiage that’s being written about the riots in England. But I did notice that when I tweeted this on Twitter on Tuesday…

“How to convince young people crime doesn’t pay when they see what City slickers got away with for years? Oh. That wasn’t crime. Of course”

…I got some fairly sharp retorts from people who said one shouldn’t use events such as these to make political points. I didn’t respond. Maybe I should have done. Because I think it’s perfectly valid to see that there’s a culture of greed and grabbiness that’s pretty widespread, not just in the UK, but that manifests itself in different ways according to the level of opportunity individuals have to indulge themselves. And some of it is “crime” and some of it isn’t.

Is that a political point? And what of it if it is? Shouldn’t politics be about this kind of thing?

Anyway, I’m reassured that two commentators from pretty different starting-points seem to have similar thoughts. Russell Brand was in The Guardian yesterday and you can read him here: http://t.co/oLW4lmJ. Peter Oborne is in The Daily Telegraph today, and it’s online here: http://t.co/93dOPdB. I’d have been proud to have written either of these articles.

11 August
This weekend's football experiment

I live in the inner city and I don’t consider myself well off (though by a lot of people’s standards I probably am at least comfy). But despite these qualifications, I’m going to resist the temptation to sound off about the riots that have been the main topic of the news across the week. There’s enough people spouting about that kind of thing already.

Tangentially, though, the disruption has affected me so far only in that the shelves of Sainsbury’s, where I did the weekly shop yesterday, seemed easier to navigate than usual – my problem, in a supermarket, is normally too much choice, but that wasn’t the case this time. No deliveries from the warehouse meant you bought what you could get. No wavering over five or fifteen different varieties of prepacked salad: there was one sort, and I bought it. It was like going Christmas shopping at 2.30 on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. People get not the presents they deserve, nor the presents they want, but the presents that are available. This week we’ll eat the food that I could get. It will be fine.

There’s potentially another consequence to my well-ordered routine, though, that’s apparently likely to happen this coming weekend. It’s my habit to go off to a football match of some kind most weekends. Now that I’ve bought a ridiculously good-value AFC Wimbledon season ticket, that’s no difficulty for half the weekends, but this is a non-Wimbledon weekend, so I’m mulling somewhere else local. Crystal Palace, perhaps. Or Millwall.

Except that there’s a good chance that these matches won’t happen. Because policing resources are stretched, there’s debate how many games will take place. I can see that Tottenham might well be difficult, though more because of tottering buildings and a lack of infrastructure (kebab shops etc). But the others? Most other football stadiums aren’t close to the high streets where problems have occurred.

I haven’t decided where to go this coming weekend, but I think I’d be particularly disappointed if the Millwall match is called off. I’ve been going to Millwall, off and on, for lots of years, back before the current modern stadium. It’s always a robust experience, and my Anglo-Saxon vocab is usually refreshed when I go there. But I’ve always thought the place is dramatically over-policed: large contingents of them with horses and dogs, every game. And trouble? Oh, lots of shouting and bravado, but nothing much that I’ve ever seen that warrants such a heavy-handed operation.

So this weekend is maybe a chance to put that right. What’s the minimum number of police that need to be on hand for a football match to meet the safety regs? Tell people that’s what’s going to happen. And then rely on common sense and common decency. I think it would work.

SMALL ADDENDUM, Friday: So far it’s only the Spurs game off, which is understandable. Cheltenham v Swindon has been on-off-on. But let’s see if there are colder feet tomorrow.

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