Photocopiers – A Salesman’s Nemesis

This is a modified extract from a chapter of my forthcoming book – A Salesman’s Story (or Don’t Spend the Commission)

It was a rainy day in mid-April. The year was 1980, and I was approaching my 21st Birthday. Despite the overcast day, I was feeling happy, contended and confident. I was sitting in a queue of traffic, which, as was normal for the small West Sussex market town of East Grinstead, was at a standstill. Light drizzle was spattering the windscreen, distorting the outline of the cars ahead.

I idly flicked the wipers, and they stammered their way across the window in a reluctant arc, redistributing the greasy water around the glass. Out of boredom, I turned on the radio. Martha and the Muffins were extolling the virtues of Echo Beach. I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, and checked out my image, which was faintly reflected in the window of Baldwin’s, the local Hardware store.

I congratulated myself on my obviously cool look. Despite the gloom and the rain, red framed mirror-finished sunglasses, and a snappy beige three-piece suit can’t fail to impress. You can’t be too under dressed working as an Office Equipment Field Sales Executive can you?

My first appointment was to see the Chief Purchasing Officer of the local Borough Council, who was interested in buying a small photocopier for the planning office.

I do not trust copiers, they are fickle and I am sure they are fitted at the time of manufacture with a malevolent force.

In the early 1980s, the choice for copiers at the low volume end of the market were limited. For very low users, 3M manufactured a small machine that used specially treated paper and a thermal imaging system, and copies were performed individually.

For medium users, there were compact copiers from a variety of manufacturers, but whilst they all operated on a photographic process, some required liquid toner to produce the image, rather than the dry black powder toner used today.

An early Liquid Toner Photocopier, circa 1979

Arriving at the Town Hall, I informed the receptionist that I was there to see Mr Maskell, the Town Clerk to demonstrate a copier.

A few minutes later Mr Maskell arrived, looking a little like a flustered Secretary Bird.  He showed me to a large open plan office, which had been freshly decorated, and still smelled of adhesives and paint.

The floor had been laid in black and white carpet tiles, and I felt as if I were a pawn in a forthcoming chess match.

Brand new black and white carpet tiles – what could possibly go wrong?

I realised that all was not well when Mr Maskell started getting an odd look in his eyes. He was desperate to interrupt, but I was in full flow, and he was a courteous man, so the first inkling that I had that there was a problem, was when toner fluid suddenly gushed from the machine, vomiting out in a greenish stream, soaking my hand, trouser leg, and flooding onto the carpet tiles below.

“Oh God!” he shrieked, “It’s a brand new carpet –tell me it won’t damage or stain the carpet!”

I decided to play it cool and unflappable.  “Of course it won’t Sir” I replied, hoping fervently that I was right. “It’s completely inert, and won’t hurt the carpet.”

He calmed down visibly, and remaining in position, I completed my demonstration.  Having seen the quality of the copies, he seemed impressed, so I moved in for the kill.

“Will you be purchasing or leasing the copier?” I asked. 

“Oh, outright purchase” he replied airily “We never rent anything at the Council”

“Come this way, and I’ll see that Doreen raises the requisition and the necessary paperwork” He strode off towards the stairwell, and I moved to follow him – and almost fell over.

With sickening realisation, and a sense of impending doom, I looked down, and realised with horror, that I appeared to have a black carpet tile stuck to my left shoe, and a white tile struck to my right.

I furtively tugged at it, but it seemed that the fluid was in fact a solvent, which had bonded the plastic sole of my shoe to the acrylic surface of the tile. Looking round anxiously, I slipped out of my shoes, and attempted to rip them free, but all I succeeded in doing was pulling both tiles from the floor.

At that moment, Mr Maskell reappeared, concerned that I wasn’t following him.

He immediately assessed the situation and was evidently not happy to see a red-faced suited bloke apparently wrenching his floor up. He escorted me to his office, where Doreen kindly cut round the shoes with scissors, leaving each one with a new sole, one white, one black.

With profuse apologies, I withdrew from the Town Hall, embarrassed and sweating, assuring Mr Maskell that the company would pay for the damage.

He did eventually forgive me, and ultimately I did get the order but lost most of the commission in repair bills.

My second brush with copiers came about two weeks later when Geoff Brown asked me to help him demonstrate a Mita Copystar DC-161 copier to a firm of solicitors in Horsham.

I was always keen to help my colleagues, as I learned a lot at these sessions.

“The Mita DC-161 is a beast” I looked at Geoff and wondered quite what he meant.

“It’s VERY heavy, and you need to keep a straight back to lift it. You must lift with your knees. It’s very definitely a two man lift, and it’s not very maneuverable, particularly up and down stairs, so we always take the lift”

I eyed the pink and white monster with a degree of trepidation. It was large, measuring about 4 feet long, by 2 feet tall, and about 3 feet deep. It had a state of the art control panel on the right hand side, and a large plastic cover over the copying bed. It also cost a whopping £3000, so would attract commission in the region of £600.00!

The mighty Mita DC-161 copier – a beast at 117kg (258 pounds) – a definite two man lift!

Geoff continued, explaining that in order to carry it, we would need to use his car, a Ford Cortina Mk III Estate, and use the Demtruck, which was a small trolley that could be swiftly dismantled to enable the copier to be slid in and out of the vehicle without breaking the backs of the staff.

So, having loaded the beast, we cruised over to Horsham, and parked up outside the solicitor’s office. It was an old building, so there would be no lift to assist us, and worse still it was a three-storey building.

We wheeled the trolley into reception, and were instructed to carry the machine up to the third floor.

Geoff motioned me to one end of the machine, and I pulled the carry handles from their concealed recesses within the copiers body, and keeping a straight back, and a rigid posture, we hobbled our way to the foot of the stairwell.

Geoff then manoeuvred me so that I would have to ascend the steep flight of stairs in reverse – and, to my chagrin, I realised that he had also slyly ensured that I had the heavy end of the machine containing the bonding rollers.

I began to dot and carry myself up the stairs, puffing with the exertion. Each step was an act of faith, in that my foot would land squarely onto the stair tread. I couldn’t see down, as the copier impeded my view; I couldn’t look behind me, as I was rigid, and my arms were locked straight down

“Am I at the top yet Geoff?” I grunted.

“Couple more mate” He panted

I shuffled a further two agonising steps, and asked again “Am I there yet Geoff?”

“Yep!” came his wheezing response.

Instead of then lifting my foot, I moved it straight back, and immediately discovered that Geoff had lied to me…

There was another step.

At this moment the twin laws of gravity and impetus conspired against me, and I gracefully and inevitably toppled backwards, still holding the copier, which now slowly settled upon my chest.

I was now trapped, lying flat on my back, pinned to the flight of stairs by what felt like half a ton of copier.

“Gerrritoffme!” I shouted to Geoff. 

 “I can’t mate, he replied, I can’t let go of this end, or the whole sodding lot lands on you or carts us both off down the stairs.!”

The situation got worse, as I suddenly saw the funny side of my predicament, and I started laughing which was a bad move as the copier now lovingly wriggled and pressed harder into my chest.

“HELP!” bellowed Geoff, “Help”

After a couple of minutes, the partners appeared at the top of the stairs. My heart sank, as all of them, appeared to be somewhere between eighty and death – how could they help?

With much huffing and puffing, and the help from an amply bosomed matronly secretary, we got the copier into the office where Geoff proceeded to demonstrate its capabilities. 

An hour later, and we were happily wandering back to the car.

“So what finally persuaded them to take it?” I asked. Shooting me a big grin, he replied “I told them that if they didn’t order it, then they would have to help me carry it back down the stairs to the car!”

A few days later, I received a call from Neville Fuller, who asked me to supply him with a copier. Having discussed the various models and price options with him, we decided that a re-conditioned Sharp machine would do the trick, and I made an appointment to see him that Tuesday.

Now, I should explain here, that Neville Fuller was a courtly “Old School” gentleman, a retired accountant who now ran a small consultancy from his home. His wife was a very elegant, house-proud woman, somewhat reminiscent of Miss Marple – even down to her fondness for wearing tweed two-piece outfits and pearls.  They lived in a beautiful custom-built bungalow at the end of a very quiet cul-de-sac on the outskirts of East Grinstead.

Before going further, I should tell a little about my company car. I was given a 1978 blue Vauxhall Chevette estate car. It was, to put it bluntly, an amazingly, stupendously awful car. It was a true bitch to start, especially in the wet, handled like a trifle, and leaked water. Its only redeeming feature was a radio-cassette player, and even that was highly temperamental. Unreliable, despite the best efforts of Whites in Redhill, it broke down regularly, and was referred to as the Vauxhall Shove-it.

The latest fault to afflict this self-propelled scrap heap was that the parking brake could not be fully applied, despite the handbrake lever being applied so much that the handle pointed vertically at the roof. I was therefore quite cautious as to where I parked.

The truly appalling Vauxhall Chevette – Spent more time in the workshop than on the road.

On the day of the appointment, I swung the car into the cul de sac, and executed a precision three-point turn, smoothly reversing down the drive.  I stabbed the radio switch, rendering Sad Cafe silent.

I threw open the door, and grabbed my jacket from the hanger behind the driver’s seat.  Patting my hair down, I strode to the front door, and pressed the doorbell.

Neville Fuller opened the door, and I proffered my business card, and introduced myself, whilst stifling a degree of incredulity. 

For a second I was totally nonplussed – he was wearing what I can only describe as a Victorian Gentleman’s smoking gown, complete with a cravat in a lurid paisley design. Regaining my composure, I put my briefcase down, and stood patiently in the small porch.

Neville took my card, and peered at it, “Ahhh, the copier man. You’d better come in” he said, standing aside and indicating the chintzy hall beyond.

At that moment a loud, dull, echoing, thud interrupted the birdsong.

As if in slow motion, we both turned to see what had caused the noise, and I was astounded to see that my car had decided to make its way down the remaining 6 feet of the drive, and had now come to rest with its rear bumper lovingly contained in the warped embrace of the once pristine up and over door.

“Ohmigod I’m sorry Mr. Fuller” I blurted, I will move it….”  

I jumped into the car, started it up, and gently eased forwards, amidst the sound of rending plastic and distorting mild steel.

Resetting the hand brake, I took the precaution of engaging first gear, to prevent my car further raping my customer’s garage.

Neville was busy inspecting his door, so I joined him to review the damage.

“Is it bad?” I enquired.

“No – don’t worry, its popped back into shape, and the paint is just a bit scuffed, but it needed re-painting anyway”

This was very generous of him, as the glossy almost mirror finish clearly indicated that the door was virtually brand new.

“Would you like a coffee?” he asked as we walked into his smart bungalow.

“If that’s not too much trouble, that would be good. White with two please”

“I say Daphne, bring a coffee, white with two” he bellowed into the inner sanctum of his home.

He ushered me into his office, which was quite compact, and quite dwarfed by a huge desk, literally strewn with papers

“Where would you like me to demonstrate the copier?” I asked.

“Oh, just on the desk there will be fine” he said, swiftly gathering up stacks of paper, thus clearing a space on the desk.

Luckily the model of copier that I was about to demonstrate was a refurbished Sharp machine, one that used a black carbon powder to create the copies. It also had a bed that moved left and right upon which the original document was placed.

Being a fairly current model, it was light enough to be carried by a single person, and it had a reasonably low profile, but as a result, it was also quite wide – certainly not wide enough to be carried in a flat level upright manner through a standard UK internal doorway.

I discovered this as I was attempting to carry the machine into the office. 

Approaching the doorway, I found that the copier was too wide by about 6 inches, taking my arms into account. I smoothly turned my body through ninety degrees, and tilted the copier towards my chest, thus giving ample room for me to shuffle in sideways through the door.

And that is where the plan came unstuck.  Tilting the copier so far from its normal horizontal caused the black carbon toner to spill from the machine.

I heard a loud dull thud as about a kilo of toner hit the pristine white carpet at my feet, and I was temporarily enveloped in a cloud of cloying black dust. Mr. Fuller made a small squeaking sound, and through the stygian haze, I could see that his eyes were bulging, and he had a stricken look on his face.

I was frozen to the spot, not wanting to move, for fear of further contaminating the snowy white floor.

“Darling!” he croaked, “Would you please fetch the vacuum cleaner – quickly please”

I was impressed with his sang-froid. I had just obliterated about two square metres of luxury Persian carpet with fine black dust – carpet-bombing in its purest form. 

I gingerly placed the sooty copier on the desk, and looked at the devastation.

Mrs. Fuller arrived with the vacuum cleaner, and took in the scene with one glance. “Ohh! She exclaimed – I’ll go and get the Shake and Vac!”

“No!” I yelped. You mustn’t rub it or it will bond to the fibres of the carpet”

I plugged the vacuum in, and gingerly sucked up the vast majority of the toner,  leaving only a small patch of carpet with dark black staining, – the original point of impact.

Completing my task, I looked up to see Mr. Fuller looking at me in a bemused way over the top of his half-moon glasses.

“Err…. I don’t suppose you will still want to see the copier after this” I said, gesturing to the mess on the floor.

“Well – you’re here now” he said, “So you might as well show it to me”

Generous gesture, that.

So, I plugged in the machine, and eventually had it producing crystal clear copies of ledgers, letters and forms.

I plucked up the courage to ask if I could “fill in the paperwork”, and to my amazement, he happily filled in the Rental Agreement, thus committing himself to a three year contract, and earning me just over eighty pounds in commission.

I left a darn sight happier than his insurance company would be, having to shell out for a repair to a garage door, and the cleaning of most of the downstairs fitted carpets – all of which had been contaminated to a lesser extent, despite our care in not walking in the insidious powder.

And this is how I know that copiers are most definitely the work of the devil…

Go Well…

Escaping to Colditz

The three of us had last flown together as a crew was when we decided to fly to Ostend in Chris’s Piper Warrior Light Aircraft. 

Piper Warrior 180 four seat light aircraft

The purpose of that trip was a simple one. We all shared an interest in military history, and all of us had relatives who’d served in Passchendaele and Ypres during the First World War.

That trip is the subject of another article, but suffice to say, on the way home (feeling quite subdued and humbled by our experiences) our conversation turned to other potential trips.

We all decided that the Normandy Beaches were fairly high on the agenda, as was a suggestion to fly into some of the French airfields that the Luftwaffe operated from during either or both of the two world wars.

I happened to mention that I’d heard somewhere that Colditz Castle had been re-opened to members of the Public.

Now, for those that don’t know, Colditz was used as a maximum-security Prisoner of War camp, predominantly housing repeat escapers.  This generated quite a bit of interest, as we had all grown up reading about the exploits of the escapees, and we all revered these men as heroes during our respective youths.

Colditz was also a very successful BBC TV series, and I remember avidly watching every episode, so I was greatly interested in going.

Nothing more was said, but then one afternoon in early March, I received an email from Chris – he had been doing some research into making the proposed Colditz trip a reality. The big question was – how could we schedule it? Chris is a 777 Captain, I work shifts in the Flight Crew Training Centre as an instructor, and Barrie is a “Gentleman of Leisure”.

Eventually we decided to fly out on the 3rd April, Easter Saturday, and come home on Easter Sunday.

It was a grey and overcast day as the Ryanair 737-800 touched down at 1030 local time at Altenberg Airport.  Altenberg, like Colditz is stuck in the middle of nowhere, which is probably why Ryanair chose to operate there. Leipzig is about 54 miles south, and Colditz is about 40 miles in the other direction.

Not exactly a busy airport, but well equipped and only a 40 minute journey by road

Looking out of the window as we taxied to the terminal, we could see the hardened concrete aircraft shelters that twenty-one years ago would have housed MiG 21 fighters of the East German Air Force. Today they are dismal looking and overgrown with weeds, a sad casualty of the outbreak of peace.

Disembarking from the aeroplane, we joined the meandering crocodile of passengers casually wandering towards the low concrete building of the terminal.

This was a stark difference from the way things are done in the UK. At home, the passengers would have been bullied and shepherded by airline staff all in high visibility jackets; however, to be fair, the Ryanair flight appeared to be the only aircraft on the windy and damp tarmac that morning.

We had arranged to be met at the Airport by Peter Werner Taxis, and the forty-minute ride would cost about 45 Euros each way to take us to Colditz Castle. The driver of the cab spoke no English, but we managed to communicate by virtue of some schoolboy German that Chris and I had learnt some 40 years ago.

We all bundled into the people carrier, and sat back and enjoyed the scenery – Small well-kept villages, pretty towns, and thick greenwoods. The road, whilst obviously a minor rural thoroughfare was extremely well-maintained, with absolutely no potholes. Maybe we could send some of our local council bureaucrats here to be trained in civic amenity management.

Eventually, we arrived in the outskirts of Colditz, where the taxi driver generously agreed to let us drop off our bags at the small hotel we were staying in.  Once we had dropped the bags off, the taxi drove us the short distance to the castle itself.

Looking up at the castle which sits broodingly crouched atop a rocky crag, it was easy to imagine the feelings of those Prisoners of War who were marched up the steep incline to the castle entrance.

Colditz – silently holding it’s nine hundred years of secrets

Colditz Castle has been associated with incarceration of one type or another for many years.  Building was started in 1158 AD, and by 1694 it had expanded to become a 700-room castle, and was the home of regional royalty and nobility.

During the early 1800s it was destined to become a workhouse for the poor, the ill and local criminals, and became quite run down.

From 1829 until 1924, it was a sanatorium for the rich, and was home to some notable residents, including Ludwig Schumann, the son of Robert Schumann the composer, and Ernst Baumgarten, one of the inventors of the airship.

In 1933, the Nazi Party came to power, and they swiftly saw the potential of Colditz as a prison for Communists, Jews and other dissenters, and by 1939 it had become a Prisoner of War Camp for Allied prisoners.

Due to its remote location the Wehrmacht decided that they would use Colditz as a holding camp for troublesome prisoners, and those that made repeated escape attempts. It became known as Oflag IVC (Offizierslager –Officers Camp), and housed Douglas Bader, Pat Reid, Airey Neave and Desmond Llwelyn, (better known as “Q” in the James Bond films) to name but a few.

The camp Kommandant and his guards appeared to be relatively humane, accepting that the prisoners would attempt to escape, and operated fully under the terms of the Geneva Convention.

The prisoners, however, were also under a sworn duty to escape, and used the long empty hours of captivity to dream up ever-more sophisticated ways in which to make their way out.

These included tunneling out, walking out disguised as German officers, and exit by subterfuge.  In order to facilitate these attempts, a sophisticated support network was created. Counterfeit papers were produced, fake uniforms and civilian clothes manufactured, and diversion tactics employed.

We were all looking forwards to wandering round, and seeing for real the places that we had read so much about.

The castle is accessed through a pair of doors into a steeply sloping cobbled courtyard. A small door leads into the official entrance, and we entered the cool interior. Climbing the stairs to the first floor, we arrived in a well-lit room housing a small gift shop and ticket desk, which led onwards into a bright area containing museum exhibits.

Stout wooden doors – and a stout English visitor!

Glass cases displayed a great selection of artefacts ingeniously fashioned by the prisoners; digging implements, printing equipment, and even a wooden typewriter for creating work permits and travel documents!

The size of the museum is quite small and occupies only a tiny percentage of the castle itself.  The only way that access can be gained to other parts of the building is by engaging the services of an official guide.

Chris had thoughtfully organised a guide for us, and at just 45 Euros for 2 hours, Lottie was great value. She was extremely knowledgeable, and had a great sense of humour, the result of spending three years living as a student in London no doubt.

Under Lottie’s guidance, we were led out into the courtyard and were shown the impossibly tiny coal hole that Airey Neave hid in during one of his breakout attempts.

The restored coal hole from which Airey Neave MP made his escape.

From Lottie’s explanations, it seems that after the war, and the Soviets took over the administration of the region; the history of Colditz was totally ignored, and local children like Lottie grew up accepting that the Castle was nothing more than a mental asylum.

The Soviet government chose to do nothing with the castle, which became more and more decrepit and derelict as the decades marched on.

The worst casualty of this willful neglect is the Chapel, which was virtually derelict at the time we visited back in 2012, but it may well have been restored by now. As guests of a tour guide, we were actually allowed in, and could see that prior to the war, it would have been a beautiful building, but for the neglect.

Escape tunnel deep under the Colditz castle

Having come back into the bright light of the courtyard, I asked Lottie if we could see the loft where the glider was made.  She sighed theatrically, and told me that due to Health and Safety we couldn’t see that part of the castle as it was being renovated.

I then asked if it would be possible for us to visit the theatre where the prisoners put on plays as part of the diversion strategy to keep the guards occupied as they conducted escape activities.

She smiled at that, remarking that we were the first group of visitors who even knew of the theatre.  This surprised me, as I would have thought that many of the visitors to the castle would either be ex-military or as interested in military history as we were.

Anyway, suffice to say that she led us up the stairs and along some gloomy corridors that were still decorated with the original flock wallpaper, and with an all-pervading smell of mustiness and damp.

Once into the theatre, we chatted amongst ourselves, discussing the scene in the Colditz film where prisoners put on a show to disguise the noise of tunneling and excavation whilst an escape attempt was in progress.

The inventive escapees staged a play, and invited the German Officers and senior NCOs to watch the performance and whilst they were on stage, some of their brother officers were making good their escape.

“Is there any chance that we could stand on the stage” Chris asked.  “Ja, of course you can” grinned Lottie. “Would you like that I take your picture?”

We gleefully mounted the stage, and adopted a group theatrical pose, and She snapped away.

Having exhausted the inside of the Schloss, we were led outside into the grounds, to the places where the prisoners played football. Lottie pointed out where Michael Sinclair was shot trying to escape.

He was the only prisoner to ever be shot escaping from Colditz. This in itself was a sad accident, and was apparently unintentional.

According to Lottie, he attempted to run during a football match. The guards ordered him to stop, but he continued sprinting away. The guards opened fire, apparently aiming to hit his legs, but a bullet hit him in the elbow, and then ricocheted into his heart, killing him instantly.

Eventually, Lottie bought us back to the courtyard where the tour ended.

We thanked her profusely, and gave her a handsome tip – she had done a splendid job, and we left the castle in far better spirits than some of those men from 70 years ago.

We strolled down to the town, and wandered back to our hotel, where we enjoyed some excellent German cuisine – and a few steins of strong lager in the deserted restaurant.

By now, we were all quite tired, and so after a couple more beers in the bar, we said our goodnights, and retired to our rooms.

Next morning our taxi arrived promptly, and we meandered our way back to Altenberg, catching the Ryanair flight back to Stansted.

Our weekend was both historically rewarding and great value for money. Our flights were £135.00, accommodation was £35.00, Entrance fees and tour guides £35.00, £30.00 taxi fares, and £35.00 food. A total of £270.00[1] for an incredibly interesting and moving weekend.

So, having scratched that particular itch, we will now have to plan our next journey into history.

Go Well.


[1] At March 2012 prices.

Mobile Communications – The Big Question Part 2

What to believe?

Whilst researching for my previous article covering the climate change impact of mobile communications, I came across further research which claims that mobile communications enables an overall reduction in Mega tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year (mtCO2e/yr).

Very odd.

My previous article presented facts that appeared to prove that the ever-increasing use of smartphones and mobile technology communications was responsible for contributing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

It would be useful to define mobile communications at this point. It covers quite a wide range of systems including mobile telephone networks, public Wi-Fi networks, Wide Area Networks, and Satellite networks.

To be fair, most of the carbon footprint was directly related to the extraction of materials and the subsequent production of the technology itself. The remaining contribution was as a result of the use of the equipment and the supporting infrastructure, such as powering data processing centres and the associated communications networks.

The research appeared to take no account of the societal changes caused by the use of such disrupting technology, and the reduction in the carbon footprint of mobile communications.

The counter arguments presented in this article are as convincing and fact-based as the arguments that mobile communications are climate change’s bad guys.

According to a report commissioned by The Carbon Trust, the use of mobile communications actually leads to an abatement of the carbon emissions generated by the use of that technology – approximately five times as much carbon emissions are abated as the emissions generated.

That’s quite a factor.

Use of mobile communications in the EU and the USA is currently enabling a reduction of about 180 million tonnes of CO2 equivalence per year – an amount greater than the annual carbon emissions generated by the Netherlands.

Part of the UK Mobile Communications Network

So how does this pay-off happen?

A significant percentage of the total reduction in COe – about 70%, is generated by what is known as Machine to Machine (M2M) systems.

Mobile communications have enabled our infrastructure to become “smart”.  

“Smart” buildings are fitted with several types of systems, such as those that monitor occupancy levels and turn lighting on or off as needed, and control heating, ventilation and temperatures according to programmed levels. Sensors fitted throughout the building communicate wirelessly to the controller to enable precise control of energy use and therefore costs.

In some cases, several buildings may be communicating with a server-controller located remotely, and if this is the case, it is likely that the internet or the cellular communications system may be the data carrier.

This type of technology is not limited to just commercial premises.

Flick through some of the glossier housing magazines, and you will find references to “smart homes”

Smart homes are designed and built to encompass the latest control systems. Many household systems may be configured and controlled using nothing more than a standard smart phone using simple software.

Owners of a smart home may be able to control heating, unlock or lock doors, operate lighting, close or open curtains, respond to the doorbell, play music, or switch the TV on or off.

A Typical Smart Home kit, with Heat Control, Lighting, Doorbell and Power Sockets

Some systems will have algorithms that learn the users tastes and preferences and will detect when the house has become un-occupied, and will back off the heating, and control lighting as needed.

This is often accomplished by the detection of system-recognised mobile phones. When the mobile phone(s) leaves the home for more than the programmed time period, the system decides that the house is now un-occupied.

When the homeowner leaves work and gets within a predefined distance or time from home, the phone will autonomously communicate with the house, and the system can put the heat on, close the curtains, put the lights on, and be playing music on the owners’ arrival.

So, whilst data is being exchanged (at an environmental cost) the more intelligent use of power and energy compensates for this. In the world of commerce and business the savings may be truly on an industrial scale.

Local Authorities also benefit from M2M communications and are able to control street lighting and municipal lighting based on pedestrian or vehicular activity. Street lights may be able to communicate with each other and be able to adjust to lower light levels when there is no detected activity. This not only conserves energy, but also prevents light pollution from degrading the night time landscape.

Smart Street Light, fitted with LEDs and clearly showing communications antennae. And Three Pigeons

Some towns have introduced smart refuse bins, which communicate their fill state to the local authority waste processing system. This enables real-time assessment of refuse collection requirements and enables collections to be scheduled only when needed. This has the net effect of making the collection of household waste much more efficient, saves money, and reduces the number of truck journeys made.

A Smart Refuse Bin, capable of sending it’s status to the Waste Collection System

Furthermore, intelligent use of M2M enabled traffic signals can change sequencing according to traffic levels and ease delays, in turn reducing the emissions levels from vehicle exhausts. In the future, as vehicles become internet enabled, they will be able to communicate directly with both the infrastructure and each other, leading to more efficient use of the road system, lowering fuel requirements and hopefully reducing accidents.

Traffic Signal capable of interacting with other signals at other junctions to improve traffic flows.

Mobile Communications has really come of age with faster, secure networks that have enabled a huge number of individuals to work at home.

According to the Office of National Statistics (UK) in January 2014 there were about 4.2 million people working remotely – an impressive 14% of the UK’s workforce. That’s a good few cars and their associated emissions taken off the road.

With growth in the self-employed “gig economy” the number of people working from anywhere (WFA) is bound to have expanded, which is good for the environment, and better for both the employer and the employee[1]

Working From Anywhere – All that’s needed is a Tablet or a Laptop and an internet connection
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Using mobile communications, it is possible to attend meetings remotely, using systems such as Skype, which are sophisticated enough to enable delegates to share their computer screens with other team members working at the office or from home.

Mobile comms also cuts down on wasted paper, saving trees. Simple smartphone-based apps enable an employee to submit their expenses remotely, simply taking photos of receipts, and submitting them electronically.  This reduces postage costs, as well as saving paper and time.

The rapid acceptance of smartphones and their associated technologies, has also stimulated behavioural changes in people’s personal lives.

Today, an average person may unwittingly reduce their carbon footprint by using video calling to talk to friends and family. In many cases this saves a time consuming drive to each other’s homes.  It’s not quite the same as visiting, but enables better use of time, and again, takes another polluting journey off the road network.

Mobile comms also impacts on the provision of healthcare.

Individuals with serious and chronic health problems will often require frequent visits to hospitals and clinics in order to monitor their conditions, or to discuss their symptoms with a healthcare professional.

Personal Health Monitor linked to a Smartphone

Smart phones and wearable technologies such as smart watches and fitness trackers are already beginning to enable a far more consistent capture of healthcare data. Suitable software programme can then transmit this over the mobile networks to the individual’s doctor.

Wearable Technology is getting evermore sophisticated…

Whilst this may not have a huge impact at current levels, as this become more accepted in the medical community, it will save journeys to hospitals, for both patients and visitors. It also enables patients to be potentially cared for at home rather than in hospital, which reduces consumption further.

Even agriculture and forestry benefits from the use of mobile communications.

Arable farmers may make use of smartphone and laptop-based systems to monitor crop conditions and target which areas of fields may require dressing with fertiliser. Natural fertiliser is an animal by-product which subsequently releases methane into the atmosphere.

Smartphone App to pre- plan an Aerial Survey conducted by a Drone linked to the Smartphone itself!

Applying less fertiliser and targeting it where it’s needed is far more effective and eco-friendly than just applying a regular amount onto a crop that may not need it. This also saves runoff from fields polluting the water table – so a double benefit!

Animal farmers are already using smart apps that monitor the health of pregnant cattle, and herds may be monitored by GPS trackers – all enabled by mobile communications. This allows farmers to reduce veterinary call-outs, and simplify herding journeys, saving both time, money and the environment.

Moo Monitor – A mobile based animal health monitor.

Having researched the information from both sides, my personal jury is still out on this subject. It has to be borne in mind that the report produced by the Carbon Trust was supported and funded by EE, BT, Telefonica (Who own O2 in the UK, and provide mobile comms globally) and Vodafone.

I am, however, a firm supporter of reducing traffic wherever and however possible, and working remotely using mobile comms is an obvious way to do this.

Go Well…


[1] A key takeaway from our research is that if a work setting is ripe for remote work – that is, the job is fairly independent and the employee knows how to do their job well – implementing WFA (working from anywhere) can benefit both the company and the employee” The Harvard Business Review

Timeslip – and the Absurdity of Twinning…

I recently visited my elderly Mother in the sleepy West Sussex town that I grew up in. She still lives in the same house, which, despite being redocorated several times, still seems familiar to me in a way that is almost impossible to describe.

I am a frequent visitor, but I still get catapulted back to my youth when I arrive.

I carried my lightly-packed wheelie bag up the stairs to “my” bedroom.

I can remember when we moved to the house back in 1971, my parents offering me the choice of bedrooms, as I was the eldest child, at the ripe old age of 10…(Seniority rules!). I did a quick recce of the rooms, and promptly chose the room with a northerly aspect.

Mum was surprised about this, as the room was quite a bit smaller thatn the room facing south. She pointed out that I may prefer the larger room as I would need to do homework there.

I stuck to my guns – I wanted the northerly view, as this gave me a fantastic view of the aircraft descending on the glideslope into Gatwick airport, some eight miles to the west.

I smiled as I dumped my bag on the old wooden chair in the corner. I stood by the window, adopting almost the same position as my former boyhood self did fifty years ago.

A flash over the spire of St. Mary’s Church caught my attention. Even with my age-inhibited eyesight, I could still make out the colour and shape; a Norweigian Boeing 787, respendent in it’s red and white livery.

Norweigian 787
Norweigian 787 on Approach to Land

Back then I used to spend hours in my bedroom, armed with pair of Prinzflex 10 x 50 binoculars – a 10th birthday present from my Grandma. I am pleased to say, that despite several housemoves and a number of foreign holidays I still have these in my posession, and they still function perfectly.

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I was also the proud owner of a Vantone Airband Radio, My dear old Dad got it for me up Tottenham Court Road. I was thrilled to get this. It had Police, Public Service Broadcasts, Air Band, Sea Band and VHF so after a lot of trial and error I was able to tune the Gatwick Approach frequency and the Tower, and monitor the aircraft arrivals. God, I wish I still had that old set now. The hours I used to sit there, transfixed, listening to the exchanges between crew and air traffic control.

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No 787s then. My regulars were Air France Caravelles, British Island AIrways 748s, Tradewinds CL-44s, and the Braniff 747 – The Big Orange.

E21E78E0-D47C-4B13-B7F8-48F9CBE4F51C Tradewinds Canadair CL-44 at Gatwick Airport

All the registrations that I saw and heard were dutifully recorded in a battered notebook, together with scrawled notes of times and dates.

I have to face it. At that time in my life I was a certifiable addict. I needed my aeroplane fix every day,

Going to school was just an inconvenient interruption to my passion, and I spent many lessons just gazing into the sky. Sorry Mister Clifford. It’s not that you didn’t make Physics interesting, its just that my mind was always elsewhere.

Mr Woolcock, you tried so hard to fire my imagination up with chemistry, but moles and millimoles weren’t my thing. 707s and 747s were my thing.

I was so fired up with this disease called aviation that I even cycled the 9 miles each way to London Gatwick Airport every day of my school holidays to watch aircraft.

It was all so innocent by todays standards. I would park my bike by the simple chainlink fence, and climb up the steel emergency steps on the side of the gate building. Once up on the roof, I could walk all the way down the building and set up shop at the end of the pier.

From my vantage point I could actually look down at the BIA Herald aircraft sitting on the ramp below – not something that could be done now.

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So – visiting my dear old Mum caused a bit of a time slip – and I momentarily dropped through the temporal rift back to 1971.

Getting back on track then…

Knowing that my Mum is a regular church-goer, I took her to the Sunday morning service today. The church has been thoroughly modernised, but the congregation and the format of the service has not.

I recognised a good few of them. Many were the then young parents of my contemporaries back in the day. Now old, stooped and struggling, but still happy to belt out the hymns, most of which were unfamiliar to me. I nodded to some, and exchanged a few words with others.

It was when I visited the loo to wash my hands that I discovered what is probably the most unusual cultural exchange.

Let me explain…

After World War Two ended, the  Council of European Municipalities (as it was then) promoted the twinning of communities from different member states as a way of bonding the fissures created by the war – a war which effectively ripped mainland Europe apart.

From the Town Twinning website, I found this descriptive quote on “Twinning”

“A twinning is the coming together of two communities seeking, in this way, to take action with a European perspective and with the aim of facing their problems and developing between themselves closer and closer ties of friendship”.

The medium sized community of East Grinstead in West Sussex covers just under ten square miles and has a population of just under 26,500.  The town has been here since the 1300s, and lies on the Greenwich Meridian – so stand in the right place, and you can have a foot in either hemisphere.

It is twinned with Bourg-de-Péage in France, and has other twins in Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain. This is heralded on the signs at the boundaries of the town.

This is all a very lofty ideal, and I have been to various events in the past including a French Market, and a German Beer Festival hosted by the town twinning association.

What I saw in the Church toilet though made me laugh out loud.

There, on the wall hung a framed photograph of a very basic toilet facility somewhere in Tanzania. Apparently, this toilet was twinned with the clean facility here in the Trinity Methodist Church.

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Toilet Twinning – The Way to Go?

Stifling my laughter, I decided to check the other lavatory in the foyer, and sure enough, that one had been twinned with a latrine in South Sudan.

I decided that I needed to check this out, and I visited the Toilet Twinning website, and it turns out that this, whilst initially amusing, has a serious aspect to it.

According to the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, about 2 billion people on this planet have no access to a safe and hygeinic lavatory.

Furthermore, almost 1,000 children die every day from preventable diseases that are linked to dirty water and unsafe lavatories.

From the website, it seems that anyone can twin their toilet with a latrine somewhere in the developing world, and the money raised goes to the International Relief and Development Agency’s “Tearfund”.

The money is used to provide clean water, hygeine education and basic sanitation.

I know which Twinning Association I prefer…

Have a good day…

Mobile Communications – the Big Question

If, like me, you have embraced new technology, you will, in all probability have a smart phone. It is likely that you will also own either a tablet computer, or a laptop. Some of you may also have a smart watch as well.

The smartphone has invaded all our lives, and research suggests that there are more than 79 million active mobile phone subscriptions. A recent report by xxx shows that Smartphones have penetrated 71% of the UK market – about 57 million units, all of which are sophisticated handsets capable of streaming video, internet surfing, emailing, and even making telephone calls and humble texting.

Business has been quick to see the potential in such technology, with banks and financial institutions offering account access via self-contained mobile applications – “Apps” in common parlance.

With a smartphone and the correct apps, it is possible to buy railway tickets, check bus times, take photos or video film, and plan a route to walk, cycle or ride.

Smartphones are also able to monitor health, run a diary, shop online and remotely control domestic systems such as heating, lighting and manage solar power generation systems.

Not bad for a device that’s smaller than a reporter’s notebook![1]

Mobile communications are not just limited to cellular telephones, but also incorporates laptops and tablets, and as any customer of a high street coffee shop will attest to, enables work to be conducted just about anywhere where there is an internet connection.

Work isn’t just limited to processing documents. I have been unlucky enough to be seated next to a very loud woman who was conducting a Skype meeting with her team from the normal genteel environment of Costa Coffee in Haslemere. Not only is this rude and inconsiderate, but she was also revealing an awful lot about her company and its confidential details.

I digress…

For the price of a coffee, it is possible to hook into a reasonably stable Wi-Fi connection, and work for an hour or two, writing and responding to emails, conducting research, and creating reports and presentations.

No commuting either – so its got to be ecologically sound to either work from home, or from the local coffee shop.

So, you would think.

Its not quite as simple as that though, but to be fair, it never is.

Have you ever thought about the invisible carbon footprint generated by mobile communications?

Let’s forget, for a moment, the environmental costs of producing a smartphone in the first place. Concentrate purely on the actual communicating

 

In order for your simple SMS text message to be sent, the message must be digitised and transmitted over the cellular telephone network. Your phone sends this using microwave frequencies to the nearest cellular base station. These are easily recognisable as they normally have several antennae mounted upon a mast.

At the base of the mast, is a small building that contains all of the necessary electronics systems to enable the mobile elements of the network to interface with the Public Switched Telephone Network.

The message then has to be processed by one or more data centres, and forwarded back out into the network for onward transmission over the cellular network to its intended recipient.

All of this infrastructure consumes power, and has to be resilient enough to provide secure, continuous and reliable service 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

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Photo Credit E S Wales – Cellular Base Station

The same system supports mobile voice calls.

So – you want to read your emails in the coffee shop?  Surf the web?

Emails require multiple data servers, and more computer communications centres, all of which consume massive amounts of power.

Maybe as you glug back your vente white americano you want to order that item on Amazon, or eBay…

More data servers, more computer communications centres, but now with the addition of financial data processing centres, with yet more power-hungry servers.

Here are some sobering facts.

Data Centres and Communications networks together with other parts of the infrastructure were responsible for in the region of 215 mega tonnes of CO2e/yr back in 2007. By then end of 2020 this will have risen to about 764 mega tonnes of CO2e/yr, with data centres accounting for about 33% of the total contribution.

The entire carbon footprint of Canada in 2016 was about 730 MtCO2e/yr! 

According to research conducted by McMaster University,[2] the relative contribution to climate change from information and computer technologies (ICT) is predicted to grow from 3.5% (2007) to about 14% by 2040.

Quite shocking when compared with global transport’s contribution of 23%! (World Health Organisation figures)

Relative emissions generated as a result of smartphone use has risen from 4% in 2010 to an expected 11% by this year.

Absolute emissions (which include the production footprint; manufacturing energy, mining energy for extracting rare metals and gold and end user activities) from these much loved ‘phones will therefore jump from 17 mega tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (Mt-CO2e/yr) to 125 Mt-CO2e/yr in the same period! That’s a massive 730% growth.

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Take out the production emissions, and we are looking at 12.5 mega tonnes of CO2 per year just to use our smartphones.

Our Mobile operators (In the UK, EE, O2, Vodafone, Three) have an unintended impact on emissions. Many of their mobile plans encourage their customers to upgrade to a new phone every couple of years.

I resisted this in the past, and kept my old iPhone 6 for almost five years before I decided to change phones. I would have kept it longer, but the 16GB memory was full, and the software was in danger of becoming unsupported by Apple.

Encouraging and incentivising customers to change phones when their previous model was more than adequate is a good model for enhancing a corporation’s profit, but the negative impact on our environment is unsupportable.

There is only a limited number of ways that we, as a society can stop this.

At a societal level, State intervention and Corporate Governance must ensure that all data centres are powered solely by renewable sources of energy.

As individuals, we must take a bit more responsibility.

It’s all very well for climate change protestors to exhort us all to ditch our cars, and to stop using plastics.

Equally important is not buying a new product unless the old one is either worn out, damaged beyond economic repair, or no longer supported by the manufacturer or network requirements.

Upgrading to a new phone every time one comes out is nothing but technological vanity.

Remember too, if you must upgrade, then recycle your old phone.

Shockingly, less than 1% of all smartphones are being recycled.

 

Despite this, for the time being, Life’s Good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] iPhone XR dimensions 150.9mm x 75.7mm x 8.3mm 174gm

[2] Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations, L. Belkhir & Elmiligi