For some time now I have been worried about the present batch of “Alternative Energies”, their biggest problems are to do with efficiency and their ability to deliver energy when it is needed rather than just when it is available. Great savings can be made in energy efficiency in order to reduce our need for energy but fundamentally in order to achieve a low-carbon existence we need ways to make “Alternative Energies” work for us, and by “Alternative Energies” I mean taking advantage of natural sustainable sources of energy such as wind, wave and solar power. Making best use of these sources is even more important since the German Government decided to shut down all of it’s nuclear power generation earlier than planned, because now European fuel prices have to rise dramatically because Germany will now be vastly more dependent on Fossil Fuels until they can fill the gap with viable alternatives.

Currently the way we store energy if there is an excess in the grid is to convert the excess electricity into potential or kinetic energy until it is needed again later. There are many water storage facilities in the UK which pump water up-hill to large reservoirs in a technique called “Pumped Storage Hydroelectricity“. By pumping the water up-hill when you have excess energy you can then let it come back down again and recovery the energy with hydroelectric turbines. Each time you do something like this you waste some of the energy because of energy conversion inefficiencies.

Wind energy is interesting, when the wind blows we get a fair amount of energy returned by the gigantic wind turbine. The most you can ever capture from a wind turbine is 59% of the available wind energy passing through, this is a fact of physics proved by Albert Betz in 1919. However that is the upper limit, in reality there is conversion from kinetic energy (the motion of the wind) to electrical energy and such conversions always result in a loss of efficiency in gears, dynamos and power couplings. Because this energy is available “When The Wind Blows” and at no other time there have been issues where the National Grid has had to shut down turbines because they weren’t needed and this is a great waste of their potential.

Solar energy is another area of great interest to many people and I struggle to get excited about what should be a great source of energy because everyone gets excited about Photovoltaic (PV) energy which uses chemically doped materials to directly convert sunlight into electrical current. The reason I struggle to get excited is that PV isn’t very efficient, typically high quality solar panels are about 14-17% efficient and that really isn’t very much. Also solar PV cells need various exotic chemicals in their production of which only a portion is recycled and they aren’t exactly “low carbon” in their transport around the world. Solar energy is logically only available during the hours of sunlight and again, logically, is subject to the intensity of the sun in the location.

In an “Off Grid” environment, where a home owner has no access to mains electricity from the grid, it is quite common to store energy in batteries so that the peak energy availability can be disbursed over a longer period. Not everyone has access to a source of large quantities of water and a reservoir pond (or two) to store it in. Batteries are great for our mobile phones, they store energy in chemical form for good periods of time and release it on demand. Some batteries can release their energy quickly or some can release it slowly over long periods of time. But fundamentally batteries are flawed because they depend on harsh chemical processes which break down the components over time and can result in failure of the cell. Also you can only really discharge a deep cycle battery to 70-80% before you start causing premature damage to the battery cell, thus you need to be careful with your management of supply and demand.

Some time ago I started to wonder: why don’t we store more energy as directly coupled kinetic or potential mechanical energy? Wind farms, for example, I wondered if it wouldn’t be a good idea to install giant clock springs under them (or in their stems) so that we could regulate the release of all of that good mechanical energy. Now, giant clock springs sound silly at first, but actually many companies use kinetic energy storage as a power backup medium. In computer data centres, when you have a power failure it takes time to start the local on-site diesel generators and you need something to keep all the equipment going until the generator is up to speed. Some companies use giant banks of batteries which they carefully maintain and monitor, but I have seen a few UPS failures and they get rather messy and expensive. Plus batteries can release hydrogen gas which could cause harm to operatives working in the UPS battery room. The alternative that some companies really do use is to use a motor to spin a giant “fly-wheel” on a very efficient bearing, when the power fails that mass still has a great deal of momentum, and as the motor is no longer supplying force to keep it spinning it can be used as a generator to take that kinetic energy and turn it back into electricity. There can be enough energy in the momentum of a large enough mass to keep a data centre alive until the generator is ready to take the strain. This spinning mass technique however somewhat depends on the problem that you can’t store such kinetic energy for long periods, the friction of the bearings causes momentum to be lost over time and affects efficiency but it is great for short-term non-toxic energy storage. Some buses around the world are now using spinning masses as a means of kinetic energy recovery in breaking and they can then use that energy to help move the bus away from the stop before the engine takes over again, a nice and clean “Start-Stop” technique.

This application in buses and the idea of the hydroelectric storage leads me to another angle. The disadvantage of water as an energy store is partly because it can’t be compressed, it takes up a great deal of space and the disadvantage of kinetic energy is that the spinning mass can’t spin forever. Well, what about storing energy in a static way, under compression which can be quickly released on demand. This leads us neatly to: Compressed Air Energy Storage. Now of course I don’t declare to be the first to propose such an idea, because it is already in industrial use around the world to a limited degree. But what I would like to do is highlight the concept because it deserves more attention and also because I think it might have some interesting applications as a battery replacement technology.

In an off-grid situation we could see a tank being placed in an out-building which has a store of highly compressed air, this is generated through wind, solar or other inconsistent energy supply. In addition I think that some kind of Sterling Engine arrangement could supply the mechanical work for solar energy without needing to waste energy on conversion to and from electricity just to achieve compression. What about automotive situations? Many companies are installing very expensive and potentially unreliable batteries in cars, what about compressed air tanks which could be used as a kind of compressed air transmission instead of a gearbox? Directly drive the gears with the compressed air perhaps? Just put a 600CC compressor in and regenerative breaking, should have a snappy little number!

Having previously worked in education and still maintaining an interest in life-long learning I find it interesting to read what people have to say about the state of modern education. Regularly I see tweets and blog posts from the likes of @Euan and @MMetcalfe about teaching and learning. Not specifically from the aforementioned people, but one thing I often hear maligned is lecturing, the process by which teaching is done from the front and experience is shared, essentially lecturing to the audience. This is in compliment to the Socratic Method, in which lecturing is used with questioning to establish a pattern of feedback to measure student understanding and pace.

Recently The London Evening Standard has been doing a series of articles about literacy in London and how it affects us. Apparently four in ten job applications are now rejected on the basis of poor grammar and spelling and I saw this in action when I was lecturing because I would mark reports that I could barely understand. I was occasionally told that I shouldn’t mark a student down because of their ability with English but I never respected that view, if you can’t communicate then you deserve a lower mark people need to be driven to success. I’ve often discussed this with friends and family, and it seems to me, and a few others, that one of the biggest problems that we are having today is discipline and respect. I don’t mean in a Victorian punishment kind of way, but in terms of the way those in authority are respected, or not as it seems now. No longer are teachers and the police given the veneration that they need to do their jobs. Parents and guardians no longer tell their children that they must respect and obey teachers and policemen.

Now, I know there have always been disruptive students, there have been since the beginning of time, but once upon a time students knew who the boss was and these days it is politically incorrect to have a boss. I am not the most disciplined person in the world, but I know who is in charge and I like to think I also know how to take some authority when needed. Learning the basics of language really takes routine and practice, boring repartition and positive re-enforcement. Sometimes children need to sit down and try, and fail, and then try again because if at first we don’t succeed… Looking from a far there is a great deal of effort going into finding ‘alternative’ ways to teach children, when actually if that effort was spent doing boring stuff then the children might learn the virtue of doing mundane tasks. Because there are virtues in learning to do mundane tasks that a person in authority requires you to do and you shouldn’t always question authority.

Of course children need to be educated in critical thought, analysis and debate, I feel this more now than I have ever done, but they must also learn about self-discipline and motivation. In school my Design and Technology (metal and woodwork) teacher, who was very much old school, insisted that we couldn’t leave the class at the end until we had correctly answered a multiplication-table question. This forced us to look it up and learn them, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to leave and we would be a little embarrassed. Some might see this as bullying, I don’t, I think it was a cleaver way of motivating us and remember this man wasn’t a maths teacher he was just a man passionate about ensuring we had the right level of numeracy, which is more than I can say about some mathematics teachers I have known.

Perhaps I am getting more conservative in my old age (;-) but I look at society and the way that the suitability of employment candidates has fallen in recent years and I think it is a shame. I want the world to thrive and I don’t want the Western states to become the new third-world. Remember that in many third world countries children can’t all go to school but a child will do as much as they can just for the chance to be educated, yet in Europe they children will happily commit crime just to avoid going to school! So, I believe parents need to take an active role in ensuring that children respect teachers and uniformed authorities, this is quite controversial in itself and then I think teachers need to start concentrating on getting the basics sorted through routine not through time-wasting creativity. I feel teachers should be inspiring through their leadership and enthusiasm, not so much through dressing up and entertaining students, after all teaching should be engaging but it doesn’t have to be entertaining. It would take years to get back into some sense of order in schools, but perhaps then students would start turning up at higher education who can actually write something which makes sense and companies wouldn’t have to do remedial education for their students.

Also, testing and exams might not be pleasant and they don’t represent everyone’s abilities, but when combined with practical work and essays I think they are effective measures of students. The idea of not being competitive at schools is ridiculous, I want people to be acknowledged as being a bit thick so they can be motivated to succeed. I wasn’t much use at sports, but discipline forced me to participate more than I would have done of my own free will and I even found some things I was good at in sports. Everyone has something they are good at, I believe this, but some people are better than others. This doesn’t have to be a Plutocracy in which success is dictated by wealth, but it doesn’t have to exclude people from doing well and it seems to me that it is unacceptable to push one group ahead because it might offend those who are less able.

That is my rant, you are welcome to it.

My brother saw a link I posted about Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story from Channel4 and was inspired to Blog about it:

I was so concerned when I saw the original video and now I am absolutely flabbergasted that this MP believes we should be using our money (the taxes we pay) to fund holidays for those on benefits. If the old adage is that “a change is as good as a rest”, then these people don’t need a change because they already have a rest. I am sorry if this seems mean, but while my brother hasn’t had a real holiday in nine years and we (my partner and I) have to work long hours for our breaks.

I feel that we cannot continue in the way we have for the past three or more decades, and none of the governing parties are offering anything more than just squeezing everything we have (and didn’t really ask for). And while we are at it, just because the children ask for something doesn’t mean you should give it to them, so if we did ask for the extent of government involvement we shouldn’t have been given it because at the end of the day ‘the people’ are children! The government doesn’t need to tighten budgets it needs to do what any company in serious trouble would do, reduce its scope. If you aren’t successful as a company (we do call it UKPLC!) then you don’t just slim down the budgets, you should downsize!

So, where is the proposal from a serious politician to deal with the national debt and not just the budget deficit?! Where is the proposal to deal with the £4,800,000,000,000 of debt? (count those zeros!) The £77,000 that is on the head of ever man, woman and child in the UK!? I want to see some serious action, no matter what the political difficulty. I was really ashamed of the way the government dealt with Lord Young recently:

This is a man who has seen so much and has so much experience, if he says we’ve ‘never had it so good’ then I am inclined to agree. With all the social services, and this massive government debt how could the nation have anything but an easy life. Especially as the minority of the population are actually paying for the majorities lifestyles (watch the Channel4 documentary if you don’t know). The government couldn’t publicly support Lord Young because the media wouldn’t let them, the media wants to pounce on any deviation from the previous message of austerity and drama. Quoting Gary O’Donghue, Political Correspondent for the BBC:

“…his unguarded comments threatened to undermine months of carefully-honed strategy aimed at persuading the public that ministers felt your pain and that we were all in this together.”

So, driven by the journalists, the innocent man was hung out to dry because the government couldn’t admit to the public he was right. The news hounds shape the politics and the politicians are too fearful for their jobs to do what needs doing.

How can we resolve the situation? What can be done to solve the trillion pound horror story and give it an outcome that allows us to sleep well at night!?

I am now on my second Lenovo machine and I have to say I love the physical build quality and capabilities of these products. However one thing bugs me and that is the bundled productivity software that comes with a new laptop, most notably on the Lenovo products is Think Suite. This is a set of tools that comes with a Lenovo (formerly IBM) computer and deals with things like the function keys, the on screen display of indications (such as display brightness and volume) and most significantly network connection management. It is worth noting that almost every Microsoft Windows laptop sold, from Samsung to HP, has some sort of detritus installed to increase your productivity. I think it was about 13 years ago a friend asked my family to help him buy a really top-notch PC, and the best thing on the market at that time seemed to be the IBM Aptiva Stealth and thus we facilitated the purchase. It was really impressive, in matt black with a separate monitor base/stand with a CD-Rom, a disk drive and a power switch all built-in matching the very good (and very black) monitor. After wrestling with the Windows 95 and it’s extensive IBM customisations they actually returned the unit and we custom built a “beige box” with twice the performance for the same price. Now we are in the era of Windows 7 and the problem is that the productivity tools seem to have grown more tentacles and seem to fight even more with the Windows native tools than ever before. Continue reading “Lenovo Think!”

Before Christmas I had a parcel to send to Greece, rather than abuse the company TNT account I decided to send it myself and that the safest way to send it was with good ol’ Royal Mail ParcelForce. Mistake… click ‘read more’ to hear my tail of woe..
Continue reading “ParcelFarce Fail!”

We haven’t been out to the theatre for a while and we really wanted to get something in before year end. The cinema was really the easiest choice so we decided to catch a film which has been making a fair bit of noise lately: “Avatar” by James Cameron staring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver.

Continue reading “Avatar 3D: My Opinion and Review”

This question was posed on LinkedIn recently and I responded in my usual disruptive style. Arguments were made against film because 4k sensors potentially don’t have enough dynamic range because of the photon capture well sizes. I think I covered that in my response reproduced below:

While I agree that the dynamic range issue could be a problem, I think that the argument can get a little confused because you can also shutter more quickly and thus you don’t have to fill the electron well. You can shoot at 50Hz progressive frames instead of the archaic 24Hz progressive frames. You then achieve much better motion rendering and make it much easier to shoot motion than with film.

With film the intermediate process immediately reduces quality, even with the finest sensor you can never do a 1:1 transfer of analogue media without loss of ‘signal’ or introduction of noise. Celluloid noise is a nature of the structure of the molecules deposited on the base, as well as the base itself, so while this noise is ‘analogue’ and thus more acceptable to us than digital noise, it is still present. CCDs are not without noise, but it can be more predictable and controllable as many TK’s demonstrate. I think digital origination has more advantages than resolution in presenting an image that is potentially clearer and more reliable than film.

Furthermore I have walked out of films because of the poor state of the print and so I welcome digital cinema for reliable theatrical presentation as well.

If you want to see a picture that can meet of exceed that of a 1950s cinema epic then take a look at SHV from NHK in Japan (demonstrated at IBC in Amsterdam last year with a real live link from London). Their prototype camera uses four 2.5 inch (64 mm) CCDs each with a resolution of only 3840 × 2048. Using two CCDs for green and one each for red and blue, they then used a spatial pixel offset method to bring it to 7680 × 4320. Aptina/Micron are now making a CMOS sensor for NHK’s next camera which is 4112 (H) x 2168 (V) and that can capture at up to 60fps. I dare say four of those will do the job!

OK, SHV will be another 5 years away before it is practical, but it is leading the charge towards very high resolution capture at decent frame rates and someone has to do the bleeding edge development to set the bar.

D-Cinema is here, it has many advantages which balance out and for me the most important issue is doing away with people saying they need to shoot a “filmic look”, Cinema is my favourite medium but film is a legacy and we need to move on. I have no doubt offended someone with this post, but I think it needs to be said 24p should be put behind us as soon as possible.

One of my former students has emailed me with some questions about an assignment. So to be fair I will publish my answers for all to see in this blog. You can select more to see the questions and answers, I also would love to have more questions on this subject in the comments…


Continue reading “SNG questions from a student”

The essence of customers’ expectations is about customers’ needs and requirements. The needs are harder to identify as they are more profound than the requirements which are pretty obvious and straightforward. Therefore, we need to identify the degree in which these elements are present through a survey. We need to quantify customers’ perception about the quality of our service given that customers do not (or should not) always expect ‘the best’ from us as this is subject to the cost and time available for completing the project rather than our capability and experience.

Any questionnaire should consist of quantifiable/measurable elements rated in a scale of 0-100% tolerance against customers’ standards. The same survey should then form part of our service benchmark completed by the client (benchmark the demand for service). This means that we should ideally carry out a customers’ expectation survey once we undertake the project, then using the same survey for having our performance measured by the client so we can check how well we perform through the customer’s eyes (customers shouts) and identify the areas of improvement prior to getting on site. Lastly, on the project’s practical completion we need to carry out the final satisfaction survey.

Three are the key elements to the customer’s expectations.

  1. Cost/Time
  2. Quality
  3. Competitive advantage (the wow factor that differentiates our brand from the competitors)

The questions is how elastic/inelastic are the above from the customers’ perspective? Meaning: 

  • What factors the customer feels as essential, prerequisites? Must have, the basics? (for example: H&S issues)
  • What factors add value to the service/product for the customers? It is about good performance, deliver what we promise (for example: min cost and time, higher quality)
  • What is the ‘wow’ factor of our service? Do we add value that the customer doesn’t expect? (Satisfy the ‘greedy’ customers. Once the basics, or expected requirements are met then they ask for more!)
  • Being successful means that not only we should offer what customers expect but also what they don’t expect.

The input would be: customers’ requirements and lessons learnt which are turned into the output: improved quality approach and structure, calibrate the service to meet demands

Knowing our customers needs, requirements and expectations provides us with better visibility thus, better forward planning avoiding bad surprises and implications which can put the project’s quality at risk.