The Anonymous Widower

An Untidy Railway

I took these pictures as I returned from Eridge.

You see it all over the railways and not just in the UK; general untidiness!

When I joined ICI in 1968, I went on a thorough and excellent induction course.

One very experienced engineer, gave a Health and Safety Lecture and one thing he said, was that a neat and tidy chemical plant was less likely to have silly accidents.

Some years later, I went to the United States to see some of Metier’s clients, of whom some were nuclear power stations. This must have been just after the Three Mile Island accident, which is described like this in Wikipedia.

The Three Mile Island accident was a partial meltdown of reactor number 2 of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (TMI-2) in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg, and subsequent radiation leak that occurred on March 28, 1979. It is the most significant accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history.

Artemis was involved in maintenance at the nuclear stations I visited. I can remember at AEP Donald C Cook nuclear station being shown a database of work to do and many of the actions were referred to as TMIs and checking them had been mandated by the US regulatory authorities.

I should say, the site on the shores of Lake Michigan impressed me, but another I visited later didn’t. I won’t name it, as it is now closed and it was the most untidy industrial plant of any type I have visited.

As we left, I gave my opinion to our support engineer and he told me they had a very large number of TMIs to process. I wasn’t surprised!

So why are railways generally so untidy?

 

June 23, 2020 Posted by | Transport, World | , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Coronavirus: How Realistic Is Crossrail Opening Next Year?

The title of thispost, is the same as that of this article on the BBC.

The article takes the form of the BBC’s Transport Correspondent; Tom Edwards interviewing Crossrail’s Chief Executive; Mark Wild.

This is an extract.

But the big challenge is the 40% of work left to do on the safety checks known as “assurances”.

The management team say it is working to the opening date of the summer 2021 for the Paddington to Abbey Wood section under central London.

To make up for lost time, Crossrail wants to carry out blitz testing in August and September.

I asked Mr Wild if he could guarantee 100% if Crossrail will open in summer 2021.

He said: “I guarantee that this project team and myself, will do everything humanly possible to do it.

“I must say we are working pretty effectively – 2,500 people working off-site and we are making great progress on the assurance work.

“Clearly we have to do that safely but there’s no doubt Covid has had an effect and we are working now on a plan to recover lost ground.”

Having watched many projects, that were in dire straits, being recovered by top class project management, I feel that there is a good chance that if Mark Wild and his team, are up to scratch that Summer 2021 could be a realistic possibility.

I remember the tale of British Leyland’s MiniMetro plant, that was recalled in Michael Ewardes‘s book.

  • The complicated machine, that assembled the bodies wasn’t working.
  • It was then found out, that it had hit a motorway bridge on the journey from Germany.
  • Good project management saved the day, by reorganising and accelerating the commissioning of the second line, so that it came into production early enough to save the day.

As British Leyland were Artemis customers, I do wonder how much the software, I wrote in a Suffolk attic, played a part in that episode.

Let’s hope that Mark Wild and his team have some good project management software on their team.

June 16, 2020 Posted by | Transport | , , , | Leave a comment

Surviving Lockdown

People ask if I am surviving lockdown.

I am lucky in several ways.

Housing

I live in a spacious house, which is comfortable.

Although, it does have problems.

  • It was built by a Turkish Jerrybuilder, who bought fixtures and fittings at the cheapest price possible.
  • It gets too hot.
  • The plumbing is suspect.
  • The air-conditioner is broken and the service company, have had my money to fix it, but won’t come.
  • The smoke detector above my bed is just hanging there, as I wrote in A Design Crime – The Average Smoke Detector

Hopefully, when we beat COVID-19, I’ll be able to move.

Finances

My investments give me enough to live comfortably. If you call, living in two rooms, never talking face-to-face with anybody living comfortably.

Exercise

I am still fit and can exercise as much as I need and is recommended.

I have a workout that I do twice a day, which includes movements like press-ups, stretches and single-leg stands.

I can do two dozen press-ups straight off or walk three miles, if I need to.

Health

My health is good, despite being a coeliac and suffering a serious stroke ten years ago.

  • I test my own INR.
  • I seem to have survived my fall of a month ago.
  • I only go to the surgery for B12 injections, drug reviews and the odd problem.

Other than that I just suffer from the problems of a healthy man of 72, like arthritis and hay fever.

I do have a strange skin, that leaks a lot of water and doesn’t bleed, when I have an injection or a doctor or nurse takes blood. I never have a plaster after either procedure.

Food

I am a reasonable and very practical cook, or so my son and various friends tell me. These are some meals, I’ve been cooking under lockdown.

Sardines And Baked Eggs

Pasta With Yogurt Sauce For One

Goat’s Cheese, Strawberry And Basil Salad

Cod And Tomato With Basil

Lemon And Spinach Cod Gratin

Smoked Haddock And Curried Rice

I shall add more here.

I won’t starve!

Shopping

A Marks and Spencer food store is fifteen minutes walk away, so I can get all the food I need.

I also got plenty of Adnams 0.5% alcohol Ghost Ship beers direct from the brewers delivered last week.

Their beers have been a lifeline, as they are gluten-free, thirst-quenching and don’t get me drunk. Even in quantity!

I also have safe delivery without any contact, as the couriers just ring my bell, we chat through the window about three metres away and they leave the goods on the step.

I didn’t think about lockdown, when I bought this house, but it is ideal for safe COVID-19-free deliveries.

Lockdown Practice

There can’t be many people, now going through the COVID-19 lockdown, wo have locked themselves away so many times in their life as I have.

  • At the age of about six, I spent three months or more, in isolation because I caught scarlet fever.
  • For the summer before A-Levels, my parents went to their house in Felixstowe. For part of the time, I locked myself in my bedroom and read up on my A level Physics.
  • A couple of times at ICI, I self-isolated with a computer to get important jobs done. How many have used an IBM-360 as a PC?
  • I self-isolated to write Speed, my first piece of independent software.
  • Pert7 and other software for Time Sharing Ltd was written overnight sitting in the window of their offices on Great Portland Street.
  • Artemis was written in an attic in Suffolk, with no-one else around for most of the time.
  • The special PC version of Artemis, that was a combined project management, database and spreadsheet program, was also written under lockdown.
  • After Celia died, I wrote Travels With My Celia(c) under lockdown. You can download the pdf file here.

Lockdown has almost been a way of life for me.

But on past form, I certainly have the mental strength to get through lockdown unscathed.

Conclusion

There must be a lot of others in much worse situations than myself.

 

April 18, 2020 Posted by | Computing, Food, Health, World | , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

This Is My Second Lockdown

I can’t be the only person, but in the 1970s, I has locked myself away for nearly a year before. I did it to write the first version of the Project Management software; Artemis.

There are some differences between my situation then and my situation now.

  • My wife was alive then and we saw each other for perhaps two days a week.
  • I could drive and I occasionally went down the Clopton Crown for the odd pint and meal!
  • I hadn’t been diagnosed as a coeliac, as that happened in 1997.
  • There was no Internet or social media.
  • There was no Radio 5 Live.
  • I am a better cook now, than I was then.
  • I am within walking distance of a Marks and Spencer Simply Food store.

I think the rules for surviving are as follows.

  • Eat and drink enough.
  • Have entertaining radio or television on.
  • Break the day up with a bit of exercise.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Arrange good weather.

Let’s hope this lockdown turns out as well as the last.

March 31, 2020 Posted by | Computing, Health, World | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Importance Of Libraries For Research

I went to a fund-raising event for Book Aid at the British Library on Monday evening.

The main purpose was to raise funds for the library in Mosul, which has been wrecked by IS.

The event made me think, about the number of times in the 1960s and 1970s, I used libraries for research.

  • My undergraduate thesis was about analogue computing and I used information about how Lord Kelvin and his elder brother; James, were developing and using mechanical analogue computers in the late 1800s, that I had found in the Liverpool University library.
  • A few years later, whilst working for ICI, I found that by properly searching Chemical Abstracts in their library, I could find the solution to difficult problems. Nowadays, you’d use the Internet!
  • When I developed Artemis, I needed methods to improve the performance of the software. Some I developed myself, but one particular algoithm used for linking datasets together was found in a paper, written in the 1960s in IBM’s library. In those days, getting the maximum performance from not very powerful computers was more difficult and the algorithm was important.
  • These days, with everything on the Internet I use libraries less. Although, I regularly visit Hackney’s Records Office near to where I live, to browse old images, reference books and maps.

Do we all underestimate the part books, play in our lives?

June 23, 2019 Posted by | Computing, World | , , , , | Leave a comment

My Latest Thoughts On The Boeing 737 MAX

I had this message read out on BBC’s Wake Up To Money this morning.

I have been involved in the programming of several first-of-their-kind computer systems dating back to 1969. They are always late ad usually need a couple of goes to get it right! Boeing didn’t do enough testing.

Although, I’ve been mainly involved in programming user systems and I’ve never controlled anything  by a computer program, I have worked with a lot of people who have. One team, I worked alongside, programmed the world’s first computer to fully control a large chemical plant.

But even, when I was writing something as big and complicated as Artemis, you had to take into account, that not everybody using the system, thought the way you did.

Those that fly aircraft differ in one area, that has nothing to do with sex, racial type or religion. Their experience of flying aircraft varies from a couple of thousand hours upwards.

It is no surprise to me, that some of the great aircraft stories of safe landings in difficult circumstances have been done by very experiences pilots, often with years of flying less reliable military aircraft.

They have used their experience to get themselves and their passengers out of trouble

It should be noted that the pilots of both the Indonesian and the Ethiopian planes, had several thousands hours of experience.

  • On the whole, human beings are generally risk averse and pilots are no different to the rest of us.
  • We also don’t like surprises.

How many times have you installed a new copy of a popular software system to find that it is radically different and it takes you several weeks to get used to it?

When I was writing Artemis, I made sure, that, I didn’t create any surprises for customers all over the world. The software was also tested to destruction.

Getting a calculation wrong in Artemis, would be unlikely to have had fatal consequences.

Conclusion

Have Boeing with their MCAS computer software fix to cure the inadequacies of an obsolete air frame, made two big mistakes?

  • They have created an airliner, that goes against pilot experience?
  • They didn’t do enough testing.

I will not fly in any 737 until the day I die!

June 17, 2019 Posted by | Computing, Transport | , , , | 2 Comments

World’s Top Wealth Fund Puts Billions Into Britain

The title of this post is the same as that of a news story on the front page of today’s copy of The Times.

There is a subtitle to the article.

UK will be stronger after Brexit, Norwegians say.

Some points from the article.

  • Norway’s wealth fund is worth £740billion.
  • The fund owns £62billion of UK investments.
  • Britain is the third largest market for their investments.
  • The fund works to a thirty-year-plus investment strategy.
  • The fund is co-owner of Regent Street.
  • The fund is a top five investor in companies.

I feel a smidgen of pride, that Artemis, which was the project management software, that  I wrote; in the late 1970s, had played small part in the creation of Norway’s wealth from oil and gas.

February 28, 2019 Posted by | Finance, World | , , | 1 Comment

The Bombardier Aventra And Brexit

You might think what is the connection between a radical design of train and the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union.

Great Leap Forward Projects

Both are projects that their promoters would say will create a Great-Leap-Forward for Bombardier and the UK respectively.

The Devil Is In The Detail

Both are in trouble.

  • Bombardier’s engineers and software developers can’t get software for the Aventra and particularly the Class 710 train for the London Overground, working in the way the train and its operator need.
  • UK and EU politicians, aided by some of the most able and expensive lawyers and consultants, can’t stitch together a workable Brexit agreement that is acceptable to all.

Does this mean that both projects are doomed?

Were The Original Plans Creditable?

I’ll take the Aventra first.

Bombardier had missed out on the Thameslink contract and needed to win the Crossrail contract to survive.

So virtually starting with a clean sheet of paper and knowing very well what technology was the best and could be used to advantage, set about designing a train that could adapt for every possible use.

Bombardier also spoke to all those, who would be using or dealing with the trains in some way, to ascertain what they needed.

The result was that Bombardier won the Crossrail order and have since sold fleets of Aventras to London Overground, Greater Anglia, South Western Railway, West Midlands Trains and c2c.

It should also be said that they probably sold some of these fleets before a large number of Aventras were actually running.

So at least Bombardier’s plans appeared sufficiently detailed and creditable to six train operating companies.

Brexit was sold to the British public, in much the same way that evangelists sell you the latest religion, political philosophy, magic cancer cure or con. Is there any difference between the four?

Was any thought given to the serious problem like the Irish border? If anything was, I don’t remember hearing or reading it!

The major policies I remember was that all the money we give to Europe will go to the NHS and that immigration will be cut to almost zero.

Everything that said you should vote Remain was dismissed as Project Fear!

But the philosophy was enough to win the referendum.

What Were The Risks?

The Leavers would have lost, if they had got the estimates of any of these wrong.

  • The power and delivery of their philosophy.
  • The dislike of immigrants.
  • iThe hatred of all things European, except holidays in the sun.
  • The weakness of the Remainers message.

It was an easy sell and a majority of the British public bought it.

Forty years ago, when we created Artemis, we followed a route similar to Bombardier with the Aventra, but on a much smaller scale.

  • We did an extensive survey of users of Project Management Systems.
  • We laid out our objectives, which I have somewhere on a single A4 sheet of paper.
  • We researched and defined what hardware we would need.
  • I was then able to program the first system.

And guess what! The software was late, by several months.

But at least, when I got it right, systems were able to be delivered. And the orders started to flow!

Based on my experience, the software that runs the Bombardier Aventra will be the biggest risk in the design of the train.

If I’d put this risk to the engineer in charge of Aventra development, I would have been very surprised, if they didn’t agree.

Getting Back On Track

Bombardier will probably do what I did forty years ago.

Keep at it, until the software is perfect and the Class 710 trains run as it says in the brochure.

As happened with Artemis, once you have one system going, on the signing off of the software, you can create other systems or in Bombardier’s case; trains.

Bombardier can add the software to the scores of trains they have already built and stored and start testing, certification and delivery of individual trains.

Software, is like a magic elixir, that brings inanimate objects to life.

Will a magic elixir be found to solve the Brexit logjam?

Bombardier have to create software, that does the following.

  • Controls all parts of the train, so they do as promised.
  • Connect all train systems together.
  • The software must also work flawlessly.

It only needs to work in one language.

The philosophy and structure for a Brexit deal are more complicated.

  • There are a lot more issues to be solved.
  • Twenty-eight countries, their governments, parliaments and people must be satisfied.
  • How many languages will be involved?

Anybody, who reckons they could get a deal is probably a fantasist.

Why Was Artemis Developed?

We knew that there was a need for a small Project Management System.

But look at the date we started development; 1976. James Callaghan had just taken over from Harold Wilson as Prime Minister.

  • The country was not doing well.
  • The government didn’t have a large majority.
  • Everything was doom and gloom.
  • Tax rates were as high as eighty percent.
  • There was a housing crisis.
  • Many were worried about their jobs.
  • There was a lot of industrial unrest.

Surely, it wasn’t the time to risk all on a new venture?

But we were not of the herd and we didn’t hold back and went for it. And the rest as they say is history.

It is now 2019 and many of the issues I listed about the mid-1970s still apply.

  • The country is not doing well.
  • The government doesn’t have a large majority.
  • Everything is doom and gloom.
  • There is a housing crisis.
  • Many are worried about their jobs.

But there is one big difference. If you have an idea that is worth developing, raising money to develop it, is a lot easier to find.

To me, Brexit is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many to develop an idea and/or create a business to overcome the myriad number of problems leaving the EU will bring.

  • As leaving the EU without a deal will create more problems, it might be preferable for job creation.
  • Brexit may also create opportunities in Europe for new and innovative businesses.

It will be large industries, that will find times harder.

 

 

 

February 2, 2019 Posted by | Computing, Transport, World | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Structure Of Artemis

Some claim, that Artemis was the first relational database. I don’t! Although, I must admit, it would be nice to have invented something.

When the system was being designed, we realised that we needed to use a small computer that could fit into a desk. This would differentiate us from the competition, which was inevitably based on large mainframe computers like the IBM 360.

We all had experience of dial-up time-sharing computing using a teletype, but we knew of the limitations of dial-up lines and wanted a project management system, that could fit into a small office, possibly on-site or at a remote location.

In my mind, I had an image of a computer system like the IBM 1130, I’d used a few years earlier at Liverpool University.

This had a processor, a keyboard, some rudimentary data storage and a printer in a desk-sized unit.

I can remember drawing up a list of three possible computers, that could be used.

I think, we thought that the DEC would be favourite.

  • It was the market leader in small computers.
  • Our chairman, had spent a lot of money buying PDP-10 computers for his company; Time-Sharing Ltd.
  • I had a lot of experience, with their Fortran compiler on the PDP-10 and it was very good.

But, they just didn’t want to know and felt our plan was an impossible dream!

DG tried hard, but to get the computing power, I estimated we would need, their offering would be expensive.

Luckily HP were more interested.

I remember the day, that their two salesmen, gave the Chairman and myself a presentation, by his swimming pool on a very hot summer’s day in possibly 1977 or 1978.

HP  gave me a lot of help and I was able to use a machine at their premises in Wokingham to thoroughly test out the 21MX computer and its Fortran compiler.

We ended up using a computer with a specification like this.

  • A 21MX processor.
  • 64 Kb of memory
  • A five megabyte hard disc, with a 5 megabyte removable disc.
  • A VDU and a printer.

It all fitted into a custom-built desk, about the same size as a typical office desk.

I’d now got a computer and ~I could start to design Artemis.

All complicated software systems need access to some form of tables or arrays.

If you have ever used a spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel seriously, you’ll know that you can create a series of worksheets in a workbook.

But this was the 1970s and the first spreadsheet program; VisiCalc didn’t launch until 1979.

For Artemis, I needed arrays to hold the following during processing.

  • The activities
  • The events
  • The calendar details
  • The resource details

And I didn’t think small, so the maximum-sized project was going to be 16000 activities.

For a time, it looked as if, I would have to write a sophisticated database structure to access the data on the limited five megabyte hard discs.

But HP had just released a program possibly called DSMP, that could handle up to 16 tables of up to 16,000 records.

So I used this program to handle the data that I needed.

Activities

In a PERT network, activities are entered for each task in a project.

I used two tables for this. The main one held the activities themselves and a secondary one held details of the resources needed for the activity.

Both tables had a 16,000 limit.

Calendars

Artemis had a comprehensive calendar structure and these were stored in another table.

Each activity was linked to the appropriate calendar record.

Resources Available

Another table was used to list the resources available to a project.

Working Tables

One working table contained all the event names used by the activities.

Linking Them All Together

I used a variety of techniques to link these tables together.

In some cases, I used simple pointers, which used the record number, but in other cases, I wrote very sophisticated and fast software to generate the links on the fly. Incidentally, the algorithm was based on research I found in IBM’s library on the South Bank, that dated from the 1950s.

I had taken HP’s DSMP program and effectively created a relational structure, that created links as it needed them.

Building On The Original Structure

In my view, I made the right decisions technically, as it enabled the scope of Artemis to be expanded.

The Multi-User Version

This was designed in an alcohol-fuelled session with Nobby (Richard Nobbs), in either Suffolk or Amsterdam and basically involved Nobby creating a version of DSMP for HP’s multi-user operating system.

Linked Datasets

I was able to use the structure to create other tables in the projects.

Again the linking was on the fly and it greatly increased the applications of Artemis.

So Was Artemis A Relational Database?

It is true to say, that from the earliest days in the late 1970s, I used relational techniques deep in the program to link all of the data together.

Working on such a small computer, I had no choice!

 

 

January 18, 2019 Posted by | Computing | , , | 3 Comments

Deep Insights Into Crossrail

London Reconnections is a web site, that often gives deep insights into rail projects in the London area.

Recently, they have published two articles about Crossrail.

I have read every word of both articles and feel that, the Project Management on Crossrail has been severely lacking.

If I go back to the days of Artemis, Project Managers were always using our innovative graphics to communicate all of the details of project costs and status to managers and stakeholders.

I can remember in one case, we were the bringers of terrible news about costs to a major company. One of our project managers had distilled a very large project to a series of graphics on a single sheet of A3 paper, so senior management couldn’t avoid our message.

Today, the company would probably shoot the messenger, but we went on to sell the company over a dozen systems.

I know nothing of modern Project Management systems, but surely they are more capable than Artemis, which was largely written by myself and others in the 1980s.

 

 

January 18, 2019 Posted by | Transport | , , | Leave a comment