Categories
HEALTH Science Technology Vision Wearable Technology

If You Thought Only Cars Had Anti-Collision Systems – Read On!

The wind was gusty, viciously throwing autumnal leaves into my face. It was almost as if the weather gods were deliberately insulting me, and I sighed as another gust blasted me, this time loaded with fine rain.

I do so love Guildford in October.

I continued to trudge up the hill to the hospital.

The Royal Surrey County Hospital was as busy as ever, and I had left myself plenty of time to get to the fracture clinic. Another trip to see the orthopaedic consultant for an assessment of my shoulder, recently the subject of arthroscopic surgery.

The Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford’s Jewel in the Crown

The main entrance to the RSCH is a congested and bustling area. To get anywhere in the hospital, visitors must run the gauntlet of the main corridor, which passes a large Costa Coffee shop, with a generous seating area and further along, a small branch of Marks and Spencer’s.

The crowded Main Entrance corridor in the RSCH, busy as normal

I made my way through to the fracture clinic. I checked myself in, using one of the touchscreens, and then found a seat to park up on.

I pulled a battered paperback book from my jacket pocket. I smiled as I looked at the worn, wrinkled and creased cover. Entitled “Three Cheers For Me” by Donald Jack, it told the story of a young Canadian pilot serving in the Royal Flying Corps in WWI. It’s an excellent read, if you like that sort of thing…

Old and worn, just like it’s owner

I bought this book (and it’s two sibling volumes) from the East Grinstead branch of W.H. Smith in 1974, whilst still at school. I must have read it twenty times over the 47 years I have owned it.

I had just settled into reading, when my attention was caught by a very loud regular clicking, and I turned to see an obviously blind chap, walking into the waiting area. He clearly could not check himself in, so I intercepted him, and offered to help.

I swiftly tapped his details into the check-in system, and found him an empty seat.

I sat next to him, and was about to engage him in conversation, when I was called in to see my specialist.

When I came out some twenty minutes later, he had gone.

I decided to have a quick coffee before leaving, and catch up on some of my book, when I heard the tapping again. I watched as the chap walked slowly down the corridor, his white cane constantly moving in front of him.

Several times he had to stop and on a couple of occasions he was jostled and bumped by others.

Whilst his white stick helped others to identify that he was visually impaired, it didn’t stop him from having to stop frequently whilst he was using the cane to detect obstacles.

The Long Cane in action…

I thought about this.

The white stick has been used by the blind for centuries, and has changed very little over the years. I think the only development is that folding models are now available – but other than that – not a lot.

A Long White Stick. Image by Sarah Chester under CCA 3.0

My curiosity was now piqued. I would explore what additional assistance was available to help visually impaired members of society during their daily lives.

I decided to specifically exclude guide dogs, as not all visually impaired individuals are fortunate enough to have one

I did, however, make the assumption that all will have a white stick to signify their level of impairment.

Having researched and written several articles on wearable and medical technology, I was very interested to find that there have been some developments in assistance for the visually impaired, or the completely blind.

Even more surprising was that it uses technologies that are direct spin-offs from aerospace and automotive technology.

It seems that a team of researchers at Stanford University have developed a prototype “Smart Cane”.

The Smart Cane developed by researchers at Stanford University

Using LIDAR1 , the cane can detect and identify obstacles in the path of the walker, and lead them around them safely

The tip of the cane contains an omni-directional powered wheel, controlled by a lightweight onboard computer.

The computer uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and specialised algorithms to analyse the incoming obstacle data. It then calculates which is the best way for the person to be led to avoid the obstacle. The powered wheel is then directed to the correct position, and the motor will then drive the wheel. This causes the tip of the cane to move left or right, giving steering guidance to the user.

The stick is also equipped with other sensors which refine the guidance.

It has a GPS receiver, accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes. The data from the additional sensors may be used to analyse posture, gait, speed, acceleration and deceleration and may also be used to programme a route to be followed, say to the local pub, shopping centre or gym.

Further refinements will no doubt be possible, such as using a smartphone as the processor, and maybe linking in other technology such as overall health monitoring.

Despite all the technology, the smart cane only weighs 1.3Kg (3 pounds), but remember, this is a prototype!

It is anticipated that such a cane could be available from about US 400$ (£290.00 as of 21st October 2021)

Another research group operating out of Harvard are working a slightly different angle on helping the visually impaired.

Currently, someone who is visually impaired, or blind, will carry a long white cane as their only aid in avoiding collisions. The smart cane is designed to reduce their collisions by actively leading them right or left using LiDAR as the primary detection tool.

The Harvard team are using optical technology to reduce collision risks amongst the visually impaired.

The alternative system uses a single video camera fitted with a wide-angle lens that is connected by Bluetooth to two wrist bands.

An electronic image processor, in a self-contained unit, is worn in a small backpack and the camera unit is mounted centrally on the chest strap of the backpack.

As the individual walks, the built in AI software analyses the streaming video footage, and uses algorithms to calculate the risk of a collision using real-time data on the relative movement and trajectories of approaching and surrounding objects.

If a collision risk is detected on the left side of the wearer, then the left wristband will vibrate. A risk on the right will cause the right wristband to vibrate, and should the risk be assessed as a potential head-on collision, both wristbands will vibrate.

The system is sufficiently sophisticated to only provide alerts for dynamic risks, and will ignore any other moving objects that do not pose a risk of collision.

A study concluded that the use of such a system reduces collision risks by about 37%!

The research, was published in Investigative Ophthalmology and Visual Science (IOVS)

Wearable technology, or in this case, portable technology can prove to be of great benefit to those that are less able, and to allow them to navigate their way around an increasingly crowded world.

Brave New World?

You decide.

Go Well…

[1] LIDAR – Acronym for Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging, which measures distance by transmitting a light pulse towards a target, and calculating the time for it to be reflected to the transmitter, allowing distance to be precisely calculated.

Categories
HEALTH internet Mobile Communications Science Technology Wearable Technology

Sweat-Powered Health Monitors? Whatever Next?

It was a very gloomy Sunday afternoon. It had been raining all day, and the wind was lashing the rain against the windows, through which I regarded my sodden garden.

Autumn was upon us, and I involuntarily shivered. We had just enjoyed a late lunch of warmed crusty bread rolls and Heinz’s cream of tomato soup, our go-to comfort food for afternoons such as this.

It was definitely a slobby Sunday, a day for curling up on the settee to enjoy a movie, or to catch up on the latest episodes of good TV shows.

We have currently been watching “Manifest” which appears to be a good show. Intriguing, and possibly quite plausible. I’m not sure where it’s going, but I will stick with it for the time being.

I picked up the remote and brought the TV to life. I was rewarded with a new advert for EE, one of the UK’s cellular networks. In this one, Kevin Bacon was promoting EE’s new 5G service.

In the advert, a barber was shaving a man’s face from a remote location.

To accomplish this, the barber, (located in Clapton in London, 250 miles away) was wearing a modified glove that was fitted with finger and wrist position sensors.

The man to be shaved, actor, Tom Ellis, was located on the top of Mount Snowdon in Wales, accompanied by a robotic arm, complete with articulated hand, capable of holding a shaving brush and a razor).

I was absolutley fascinated with this, watching as the barber, using a phone connected to the 5G network to see what he was doing, loaded a shaving brush with shaving soap, and then simultaneously saw the mechanical robot arm applying the soap to the man’s face, despite him being many miles away.

Subsequently, the barber picked up a cut-throat razor, and shaved the man’s face.

That’s a lot of trust, folks!

Now, I’m a bit of a sceptic, and am aware of how good CGI is, but it does link into my interest in the medical uses of 5G, so I decided to do some research.

My first port of call was the EE website, to see what they had to say about their latest campaign.

I was a bit blown away to discover that this was a REAL demonstration, and made no use of CGI, but instead used the EE 5G network and a custom-made robot arm.

Only recently, the world’s first (allegedly – you may know differently!) successful surgical procedure performed from a remote location was conducted in south east China, using the local Huawei 5G network.

5G is certainly going to change the way we live, but more about that in a later article.


The reason that I mention 5G here, is that it will no doubt have other uses in medicine and personal health care, especially when used in conjunction with wearable technology.

A few years ago, I carried a little more (lot more) weight than I do now, and my blood pressure was all over the place. As an incipient hypochondriac, I also suffer from a condition known as “White Coat Hypertension”.

I first discovered that I had this condition was at the renewal of my first Class 1 flying medical. My normally placid, mildly elevated blood pressure launched to positively near-death levels as soon as I sat on the chair in front of the medic.

Over the years, my blood pressure has been brought under control, and is consistently textbook normal.

Until I am having a flight medical. Then it’s at stratospheric levels again.

One of my doctors decided that I would need to undertake an ambulatory blood pressure check. This involved me wearing a bulky blood pressure monitor, complete with inflatable arm cuff, for a twenty-four-hour period.

During this time, the system would take recordings every ten minutes or so. I spent a miserable 24 hours walking round like Quasimodo.

At the end of the test, I was diagnosed with mild hypertension and was prescribed medication to deal with it.

Medical technology has advanced a lot since the early 1990s and now health monitoring systems have become a lot smaller and a bit more refined, but they still require a battery to power them.

However, digital wearable technology is now commonplace. Smart watches such as the Apple, Garmin and Fitbit models, which monitor many health factors including heartrate, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, sleep tracking, electro-cardiogram (ECG) and physical activity.

Apple Smart Watch 5 Image Courtesy Raralu444 under CCA-SA 4.0

As wonderful as they are, these smart wearables are still limited by their need to carry their own power source – normally a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery.

There are now developments that make this unnecessary.

A group of bioengineers working at UCLA* Samueli School of Engineering have developed a flexible magnetoelastic generator, that creates electrical power from the natural movements of the human body.

The principle is simple. If you remember your schoolboy (and schoolgirl!) physics lessons, you will probably recall that the interaction between magnets generates an electrical current.

The generator consists of a matrix of tiny magnets, woven into a stretchy, silicone sheet. When the sheet is flexed, the movement of the magnets against each other generates an electrical current.

Flexible, Stretchable, Self-Powered, Waterproof, magneto-elastic generator. Image Credit Jun Chen, UCLA

The sheet is flexible and soft enough that it may be worn comfortably against the skin. Movement of the muscles will flex the sheet, causing power to be generated. It’s even sensitive enough to create power from the tiny movements caused by a human pulse.

Impervious to sweat, or water, the system is quite capable of generating sufficient electricity to power a self-contained heart monitor, sweat monitor or thermometer.

Another recent system is a sweat-powered artificial skin, developed by researchers at Caltech’s Department of Medical Engineering.

Sweat-Powered Electronic Skin Image Credit – Caltech

This alternative method is based upon a soft electronic skin, or “e-skin” made of flexible rubber, into which are embedded several sensors together with what may only be described as bio-fuel cells.

Human sweat contains high levels of the chemical Lactate, which is a normal by-product of any form of metabolic activity, for example, from the activity of muscles when the body is conducting physical activity.

The bio-fuel cells built into the e-skin, absorb the sweat, and in the process capture the Lactate, which combines with Oxygen to produce water and Pyruvate. During the process, the biofuel cells generate electrical power.

The amount of energy generated is sufficient to power all the sensors woven into the e-skin and additionally, a Bluetooth© transceiver, which enables the e-skin to transmit sensor data to any Bluetooth© enabled device.

This useful technology will allow the remote monitoring of blood glucose levels, hormone levels, cardiac activity, body temperature and neural activity.

The same scientific team at Caltech, (led by Wei Gau Assistant Professor of Medical Engineering at the Andrew and Peggy Cherng Department of Medical Engineering) have also developed a system that uses kinetic energy to generate power for biomedical sensors.

To put it simply, a thin skin is created using layers of Teflon, Polyamide and Copper. This is attached to the person’s skin.

A further layer of Polyamide and Copper is allowed to slide back and forth over the skin’s layers, and induces an electric current. In the prototype, the team stuck the Teflon/Polyamide/Copper layer to the subject’s torso, and the sliding layer was secured to their arm, so that natural movement would trigger the generation of current.

Triboelectric Generator Prototype. Image Credit Caltech

This is known as a “Triboelectric Generator”.

Most of us will have experienced this at some point, when we have walked across a synthetic carpet, whilst wearing synthetic clothing. We build up an electric charge, which can then discharge to earth – sometimes quite painfully!

Now, all these human-powered sensors are in early stages of development, but in due course, they will become part of the Internet of Things (IOT), and will be using 5G to send real-time medical data to your family doctor, your diabetic or cardiac specialist or medical consultant.

Maybe they will even send biomedical data to the emergency services should you get cut whilst going to the barbers!

Brave new world?

You decide.

Go Well.

*University of California Los Angeles

For Editorial Services contact: bluestarfishoffice@gmail.com

Categories
Ecological education Electric Transport English Culture Environment Motoring Science shipping Technology Transport Vehicle Safety Vehicles

Do You REALLY Understand Your Car?

Traditionally, the predominantly male operators of any form of transport craft confer a female personality to their vehicles. Down at a south coast yachting marina recently, I heard a proud owner boasting to a friend, saying “She’s truly beautiful”.

Pilots, including me, refer to their aircraft as “She”. “She flies nicely”, or “She doesn’t like being thrown about”, “She needs a touch of power when rounding out to land”.

Who could argue that She is beautiful. Supermarine Spitfire showing her elegance. Image courtesy Airwolfhound under CCA SA 2.0

It’s the same with cars, and it’s common to hear people, including women, referring to their cars as “She”. Before I get angry comments from my lady readers – yes, I am aware that many women own male cars, some that I know even name them.

The tradition of referring to a vessel as “She” goes back to ancient times. Nowadays, people may consider that this is somehow sexist, and objectifies women.

I prefer to believe that it’s more fundamental than that. Our early mariners were a superstitious bunch, and believed that the ship in which they sailed would offer protection and guidance, in much the same way that a mother or goddess would.

I refer to my aircraft as a “She”, as in my eyes she is elegant, pleasing to the eye, and demands to be treated with respect.

Today, there appears to be another reason.

Now, be honest. How many of you chaps out there believe that you don’t understand the woman in your life? How many long-suffering ladies out there are stupefied with their blokes’ methods and logic?

I have been happily with SWMBO for over three decades, but there are times when I am truly and utterly baffled by her. I know for sure that she experiences the same sense of bewilderment with my behaviour.

You may be wondering where this is going, but stay with me, dear reader.

If, like me, you own and operate, say, a five-year-old car, it will be fitted with some basic driver assistance systems. My car has rear parking sensors and steerable headlights. That’s it. Nothing fancy. It has standard Cruise Control, and an anti-lock braking system, like the one fitted to my previous 2002 Skoda Octavia.

If you decide to invest in a new car today, be prepared to be a little baffled by its behaviour and systems. (New cars are definitely female!).

In a previous article, I mentioned the Automated Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) that are fitted to modern vehicles.

It’s likely your new pride and joy will be fitted with Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Keeping Assistance, Blind Spot Monitoring, Autonomous Emergency Braking, Collision Avoidance Systems, Driver Alertness Monitoring, 360º Cameras and Intelligent Parking Aids.

To make the best use of these systems, drivers need to fully understand how they operate.

A few months ago, I decided to evaluate electric cars. I arranged to test drive cars provided by three of the main manufacturers, Kia, Nissan and MG.

Now, bearing in mind that all the vehicles I tested were fitted with some sophisticated systems, you would have thought that a full tutorial or some guidance would be offered by the salesmen before they let me loose on the road in one of their expensive cars.

Not quite.

All the dealers involved were more than happy to show me the boot space, and the clever stowages and storage areas, and gave me a very brief explanation of how to interpret the instruments and how to use the infotainment system, but not one discussed any elements of the ADAS in any real detail at all.

Luckily, I had conducted quite a bit of prior research, so I had a reasonable idea of how to change the level of regenerative braking, and how to use the different driving modes. However, there were many systems that, whilst I knew they were there, I had no idea how to configure them.

I have several friends who have recently purchased new cars, and when picking up their new vehicles, each one received no real training on how to use the systems correctly and effectively.

I have considered this, and it seems that this presents a bigger problem than I initially thought.

After collecting their new car from the dealer, proud owners will drive their new vehicle home, and maybe they will find the time to sit and wade through the Driver’s Handbook or Owner’s Manual. The onus is very much on them to gain understanding of the plethora of safety systems that their car is now loaded with.

More mature drivers, such as myself, will fall back on our “What’s to learn” mentality. We have grown up with cars fitted with few safety systems – maybe embryonic energy absorbing crumple zones, and collapsible steering columns. This is flawed thinking!


We had relatively unsophisticated in-car entertainment – maybe a push button radio, or a radio cassette player if we were driving a more luxurious model. I can remember being delighted with the fact that my first company car was fitted with a proper heated rear window and a fitted rear wash/wipe system.

Our cars were so simple that we just picked up the use of what systems we had as we drove. I think my biggest challenge was remembering on which side of the steering column the indicator control was located. The first few days of driving was always entertaining, with me switching the wipers on before making a turn!

So, for drivers of my generation, it is possible that we have a degree of complacency about the new systems, and maybe we don’t bother to sit down and read the book. (I do, but then I’m a bit geeky, having been a flight technical instructor for the past two decades!).

That may not be a good attitude to have these days.

In my world of professional aviation, we frequently refer to human factors, and even have training sessions on how simply being human affects the way in which a pilot interacts with an aeroplane.

There is a lot of automation on a modern aircraft flight deck. Autopilot, Auto Throttles, Flight Control Computers, Flight Management Computers, Automated Anti-Collision Systems, Ground Proximity Warning Systems, and Electronic Checklists and Diagnostics.

All of these systems must be understood, reacted to correctly, and effectively managed by the flight crew.

Despite high levels of safety-related automation, there are still incidents involving the crew falling asleep in flight, and flying past their destination. We still hear of aircraft being landed at the wrong airfields.

The same human factors will come into play in our increasingly automated cars.

There have been numerous reports of Tesla cars being involved in colliding with emergency vehicles whilst the Autopilot was engaged.

Most definitely human factors incidents, as the drivers simply assumed that the car was infallible, and therefore mentally disengaged and stopped supervising the on-board equipment.

A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) clearly showed that once drivers had engaged the Autopilot (or Adaptive Cruise Control) their focus of attention changed, and they spent much longer looking inside their cars, than paying attention to the road ahead.

Sometimes, drivers disengage to the point of falling asleep!

See this video of a Tesla driver, cruising and snoozing!

As a result, Nissan, at least, has incorporated what it calls an Intelligent Driver Alertness System. This system monitors the driver’s inputs to the steering wheel, and, using algorithms, it can predict the onset of tiredness and inattention. As arousal levels reduce, the chances of an accident increase, so the system suggests taking a break.

Screenshot of the Arousal Monitor. Wish my car would invite me for a coffee…

When I learned to drive, before making any manoeuvre, the mantra was “Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre”. That has become ingrained behaviour, reinforced with 44 years of driving and in the region of 1.1 million miles travelled.

Wow! I have never worked that out before.

As a result, before lane changing, I always throw a quick glance in the door mirror. I have also ridden motorcycles for many years, so I can’t get out of the habit of looking over my shoulder as well.

If all is clear, I change lanes. Lots of people don’t do this and I have had to brake heavily to avoid being sideswiped on several occasions.

Interestingly, the Blind Spot Monitoring (BSM) systems being fitted to cars now are really good. You may be lucky enough to drive such a car, and, in many cases, the door mirror contains an indicator that turns amber when another vehicle intrudes into the safety zone, and turn red if a collision would result in the driver changing lanes.

Another piece of research studied the rates of lane-changing accidents across 26 US States. It found that accidents causing an injury were reduced by 23% in vehicles fitted with BSM systems.

If every US vehicle in 2015 had been fitted with BSM, it is estimated that 50,000 accidents and 16,000 injuries could have been avoided!

The other aspect of Blind Spot Monitoring is that used when parking or reversing. Now, I use all three mirrors, even though my car has a rudimentary parking aid that sounds a tone with increasing frequency as I reverse closer to a solid object – including a person, although I have never tried this.

Now, a further study has shown that the drivers of cars fitted with rear view cameras and sensors do not look to the sides of their vehicle before commencing reversing manoeuvres

Surprisingly, the use of rear-view monitoring cameras only reduced accidents involving “reversing into or over something” (maybe a person??) by 17%.

Still, a 17% reduction, is better than no reduction at all.

So, it all boils down to training and gaining an understanding of the equipment fitted to our cars.

I decided to check what the UK Driving Syllabus includes for cars and light vans (Class B Vehicles).

What I found was of interest.

As the document is undated, but is on the government’s assets publishing service site, as at October 2021, I assume it is a current piece of guidance.

I quickly reviewed it, and found two main concerns.

Firstly, it only mentions one Automatic Driver Assistance System, and that is Cruise Control.

Secondly, it focuses totally on driving a fossil fuel-powered vehicle.

Not a single mention of electric cars.

I do understand that they haven’t been around for very long – I mean, the Nissan Leaf has only been on the road since 2010, and what’s eleven years when you are setting the standards for people to learn to drive?

Sarcasm aside, there must be a need to teach new generations of drivers about the features, advantages and benefits of their vehicle’s on-board safety systems.

Maybe they should also be teaching students about the limitations of both those very same on-board systems, and their limitations as a human being.

You decide…

Go Well.

Categories
Climate change Ecological Econonomy English Culture Environment local economy Poverty Relief Recycling Science Society

I Don’t Want to Eat My Vegetables is No Longer a Valid Excuse!

I leaned back in my chair with a feeling of contentment. SWMBO and I were sitting in the snug of one of our nearby village pubs, and I was now comfortably replete after noshing an exceptionally large Sunday Roast lunch. 

Ahhh. Sunday Lunch in a comfy local pub

This pub is renowned locally for its excellent food, well-kept ales, and quaint, comfy surroundings. The staff, all of whom were youngsters, were polite, attentive, and friendly.

Additionally, I had other reasons for using this pub. They have a policy of only using locally-sourced ingredients for all of their menu items. So, my roast beef was from a breeding butchery near Southampton, the vegetables were from a local farm, and the guest beers that I chose were from either the triple fff* brewery, based in Alton, or the Hepworth brewery in Pulborough, just across the county border in West Sussex. 

I am currently trying to persuade them to stock some of the really good ales made by the Firebird Brewery in Rudgwick, also in West Sussex.

I really like the idea of supporting local business, and helping to reduce my food miles, and my personal carbon footprint.

I was stuffed full. Yet the side dishes containing more vegetables and condiments and sauces were also still stuffed full, despite SWMBO and I laying into them with such gusto. I felt quite guilty about this, and knew that I was wasting perfectly good food. 

Not the Sunday Roast in question, but you get my point? Serving for one – plus sides!

In my rural area, the waste wouldn’t be quite such a problem, as some of it would probably go back into the farming system to be used as animal feed, but in towns and cities, this would all go straight into landfill.

I wondered to what extent we as a nation were wasting.

What I discovered was truly staggering.

In the UK alone, we waste approximately 10 million tonnes of perfectly useable food every year! Alarmingly, less than 1% of that is recycled in any meaningful way. 

Food – Just chucked into a skip, and left to rot before going to landfill

At the top of our “oh, just chuck it out” list was bread, with 900,000 tonnes wasted each year – that’s about 24 million slices that are sent to landfill. A lot of sandwiches, by anybody’s standard.

Add that to 5.8 million potatoes, and a huge volume of other vegetables and fruits, and it’s easy to see that we have a serious problem.

According to research conducted by the University of Edinburgh, about 33% of farm produce is wasted for aesthetic reasons. Supermarkets usually have contractual requirements for their vegetables and fruit, that specify minimum sizes, dimensions, weights, and appearance. 

This is driven by their perceptions on customer requirements, but, to be honest, the shape of my carrots, or a blemish on the skin of an apple aren’t overly high on my list of priorities. 


As a side issue, I have never once been canvassed for my opinions by any supermarket chain. 

Ever.

A third of all UK-grown, perfectly edible fruits and vegetables are rejected by our supermarket buyers for not meeting their specifications, and so they are wasted. They are probably just ploughed back into the land – and all this in a country where we now run food banks for those who are in desperate need.

This MUST change. The global food system produces about 25% – 30% of global greenhouse gases (GHGs), and agricultural supply chains use up to 70% of our freshwater reserves. Every tonne of food waste that goes to landfill sites will generate about 4.2 tonnes of GHGs. We must grow less and waste less.

But I digress. So, back to my sumptuous pub meal.

The hospitality industry wastes over a million tonnes of food because of providing over-generous portions. This is a tricky issue to address.

The corporate mindset seems to be that customer satisfaction is better served by plating up too large a portion and having some waste, rather than serving a portion that is perceived by the customer as being too small. 

Maybe a mental reset is required. The hospitality sector, pubs, bistros, restaurants etc., should start serving smaller portions, and tell customers that if they would like more side orders of vegetables and sauces, then they may ask for them free of charge.

So far, most that I have written is related to commercial food waste. Now have a think about the amount of food that you personally waste in your own homes.

For every 13 million tonnes of food waste generated, 7 million tonnes is wasted by people like you and I!

That is the equivalent of throwing away one full bag of groceries in every five bags with which you leave the supermarket!

Various initiatives have been set up by several charities, such as Feedback Global’s “The Pig Idea”, which attempts to change the law preventing waste food products from being fed to pigs. 

This law was originally passed to prevent contaminated edible waste from entering the food chain for pigs, which was thought to have caused an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease. 

This was enshrined into EU law in 2002, but now that the UK has left federal Europe, it is possible for the UK Government to consider rescinding this law, subject to animal welfare standards being maintained to ensure the quality of any food waste to be fed to pigs.

Should this happen, the UK could simply revert to the centuries-old practice of feeding waste food to pigs.

A World War 2 Poster, urging the public to save food waste to feed pigs.

The food waste generated by the food manufacturing, catering and retail sectors (which would normally be destined for landfill) could potentially be reduced by about 2.5 million tonnes per year – a drop of 20%.

This is staggering!

The United Nations has stated that if all farmers globally were to feed their livestock on waste food and agricultural by-products, then enough grain could be liberated from the system to feed an estimated 3 billion people.

Supermarkets are also responsible for a lot of food waste at the opposite end of the process. Not only do they reject perfectly edible foodstuffs at the farm, but they also waste perfectly edible food that they over-order, and then just can’t sell!

We have all seen it. Yellow labels on food that is “out of date” being sold at heavy discounts. Like me, you have probably taken advantage of some low prices for food that is at the end of its shelf life.

Good Deals are often to be had, if you are willing to eat expiring food on the day you buy it!

Sadly, a lot of yellow-labelled goods remain unsold, and are therefore thrown into the skip (I have watched this happen at a local supermarket), destined for landfill somewhere.

This is a sad situation, especially as food poverty affects 8% of the UK population, some 5 million people.

To put this into perspective, my dear old Mum, who is in her nineties, volunteers at her local church, and as well as working in the café on a regular basis, she is also involved in the Church’s food bank. 

The food bank, like so many others, collects food and then distributes it to those who are in need. Having grown up during the Blitz, and the privations of rationing during World War Two (and afterwards – rationing didn’t end in the UK until July 1954) she hates waste of any kind, and always tries to live sustainably, well before such a word entered our vocabularies.

A Typical Weekly Ration for an Adult in 1940. 4 Ounces is 115 grams and 3 pints is about 1.7 litres

It still shocks her when she hears about waste of any kind, but she is a product of her generation, and some things are never forgotten.

There is hope though…

There are some wonderful charities that try to save food waste, and help those most in need of support.

Take The Felix Project. They collect surplus food, including vegetables, fruit, dairy produce, and meats, from food manufacturers, farms, supermarkets, and restaurants, and distribute it to those most in need. 

Then there is FareShare, which was started 27 years ago in 1994, as a joint venture between the UK Homeless charity, Crisis, and Sainsburys the supermarket chain.

Originally called Crisis FareShare, the charity collects and redistributes food to over 1,000 UK charities, and has partnerships with Tesco, Asda, and the Trussell Trust (which support the UK’s network of Food Banks). 

The “Feed People First” campaign that it ran in 2018 tried to ensure that it wouldn’t cost the food industry more to donate their surplus edible products to charities, than it would cost them to send it to landfill or animal feed manufacturers. 

By the end of 2018, the UK Government had committed to providing funding of £15 million to enable business to divert its surplus foodstuffs to charity.

Since it was started, FareShare has provided 236.8 million meals all of which were donated to people in need via a network of frontline charities. This resulted in savings to the voluntary sector (assuming they would have had to buy the same amount of food and drink) of about £180 million!

This is a fabulous achievement, but it still highlights a vast mismatch between food supply and demand – there is such a large surplus! It also shows that our society is broken in a sad way, when people living in a supposedly civilised country are suffering food poverty, despite our very generous welfare state.

They alone are responsible for saving tonnes of waste every year, whilst reducing human misery at the same time.

As climate change strengthens its grip on our world, we will have to make some serious changes. This is not only at a global and state level. This is also at local level.

I am not a great horticulturalist, and have little interest in growing things, but I think that in future more families will have to grow some of their own foods to reduce the need for intensive farming and food transportation. Maybe misshapen vegetables and blemished fruit will be more prevalent. 

In fact, Morrisons supermarkets have proven that even ugly produce is nutritious, edible, and has value.

Morrisons leads the way…

There is an alternative though, if, like me, you are a lousy gardener.

How about not only reducing waste for landfill, but also reducing GHGs, and saving money in the long run?

This is where a small, self-contained domestic biodigester plant comes into its own.

Biodigesters are designed to capture the methane given off by decomposing organic matter. 

A Typical Domestic Biodigester

For most people, organic matter would be food scraps including vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, dairy waste, cooking oils, pips, nuts, and bread.  Some folks may operate smallholdings, and may therefore benefit further by enabling a certain amount of manure from livestock to be used. 

For the truly environmentally-conscious, biogas lavatories are on the market that enable human waste to be processed as well. 

A Biodigester Toilet. Waste not Want not? https://www.homebiogas.com/product/bio-toilet-kit/

Biodigesters consist of a simple tank, which may be made of hard plastic, or out of very strong PVC sheeting. The waste organic products are simply placed into the tank, and within a short period of time, helpful, friendly bacteria will start breaking down the material.

There are two main by-products of the process. One is a good source of methane gas, and the other is liquid fertiliser.

The gas generation is simple, natural, and ecologically friendly, and the methane gas output may be used to operate a cooker. Once up and running, a typical biodigester will produce enough methane for two hours of cooking per day.

The slurry that may be drained off at the end of the process is full of nutrients that are essential for plant health, and are odourless and non-toxic.

I would add a word of caution here.  If you do decide to install a biogas lavatory, and use human waste, then you can’t use the by-product as fertiliser, and it must be treated as sewage and compliance with disposal regulations is essential. However, you can still tap off the methane!

So, maybe it’s time to buy less food, and to encourage our supermarkets to be less restrictive when specifying the acceptable standards for fruit, vegetables, and other produce.

Even reluctant gardeners should have a go. It’s possible to grow beans, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes in pots – even on a small balcony. Every little helps.

If you have a larger garden, maybe invest in a biodigester, and reduce your reliance on mains gas. You probably won’t generate enough gas to run your central heating, but you will be cutting down your GHG footprint.

I guess some of the answer lies in our own hands.

You decide.

Go Well…

Header Photograph – Surplus Tomatoes piled up to rot…

* Yes, It really is spelt that way!

Categories
Aircew airlines Airport aviation Flight Society Transport Travel Vehicles

East African Wedding – Part Two

We stood outside the hotel at 0900, with our bags by our sides, waiting for Pious and Gospel to collect us. Marvellous names! Pious and Gospel were two of the bride’s cousins, who had generously agreed to pick up the British contingent and drive us up-country.

It had been decided that we would stop en-route at Thika, so 40km (25 miles) to enable us to stretch our legs, and to enjoy the scenery. 

Some of my British readers of a more mature age group, may remember the TV series in the early 1980s, “The Flame Trees of Thika”, which was based upon the autobiographical novel of the same name, written by Elspeth Huxley. She was raised on a coffee plantation in this part of what was then known as Colonial British East Africa.

Thika lies northeast of Nairobi, and sits pretty much astride the main A2 highway.

Standing in the morning sunshine, we were enjoying the remains of our breakfast coffee, and chatting quietly amongst ourselves. The relative peace was suddenly destroyed, by the sound of straining car engines and grinding gearboxes heralding the arrival of our transport.

My heart sunk, as I looked at the two MoT[1] failures that pulled up in a swirl of dust and grey exhaust smoke.

Our transport…although this one is in much better condition

I glanced at SWMBO, and we shared a conspiratorial look, as she shot me a smile. “Oh, well”, I thought. “In for a penny, in for a pound.”

By this time, Pious and Gospel had opened the boots of their respective cars, and were now greeting us, with much smiling, shaking of hands and slapping of backs. They boke spoke excellent English, which they proudly explained they learnt in school.

Like most of the local Kenyans that we had met, they were happy, generous, and deeply religious, hence their names.

SWMBO and I gingerly climbed into the back of the battered old Datsun[2] Cherry, and the lads jumped into Gospel’s old Datsun 120Y, and with a mechanical groan, Pious started the thing up, crashed the transmission into gear, and we lurched off down the relatively well-maintained tarmac road.

I knew that it was relatively well-maintained tarmac, as I could clearly see it through the very large hole in the footwell, where the floor had rusted out over time.

It was a tribute to Datsun’s design engineers that the car was still driveable in such a hostile environment.

We continued to motor north, and we chatted amiably with Pious, who drove at a steady 55 miles per hour, regardless of the road surface, camber, or bends. The car therefore rattled, banged, jolted, and lurched alarmingly and we were soon pulling a rooster-tail of dust and smoke.

I had to supress the urge to giggle, as I didn’t want to offend Pious, who was obviously very proud of owning a car. He had a job at one of the coffee bean processing plants locally, and his brother Gospel worked in the plantation as a supervisor.

I admired them both greatly for their pride, joie de vivre and happiness.

We eventually arrived in the town of Thika about an hour and a half later. The journey wouldn’t normally have taken so long, but Gospel needed to stop his car every five miles or so and top up the radiator with water from an old Coke bottle. Pious also stopped to lend moral support, mainly in the form of laughing, and clapping him on the back, and everyone seemed happy to potter our way north in a very gentlemanly fashion.

I had heard of the Flame Trees of Thika, and was a little deflated to see only a light scattering of the bright red blooms locally. I asked Pious if there were places to see the Flame trees, and he laughed, explaining that the trees only came into bloom in the spring, and that we were a week or two early.

The Flame Tree – Fantastic!

It didn’t really matter, as Pious had excitedly explained during the journey that they would be taking us to see the Chania Falls.

The Chania Falls are truly beautiful, and the smell of fresh oxygenated water purged the dust and car fumes from my head. We wandered up and down, taking in the splendour of it, finally sitting on some convenient rocks to enjoy nature at its best.

The Chania Falls.

Eventually, we decided that we should press on, up into the foothills to our destination, as we needed to get there for three o’clock for the wedding.

I glanced at my watch. It was already almost 1100, and we still had a couple of hours to drive.

We boarded the cars, and re-commenced our drive northwest, towards the Aberdare Range, to the tiny village where Njambi’s family lived.

The Aberdare Range from the Highway…

As we left the main highways, I looked down onto the road beneath my feet as it changed… first to broken tarmac, which gave way to old concrete, and finally, red earth. We were also climbing steadily – the Aberdare Range has an average elevation of 11,480 feet (3,500 metres), and it was noticeably cooler.

Passing a solitary and forlorn-looking roadside shop, both cars pulled over. Gospel needed to refill his water bottles, we needed a drink as well, and more importantly, I needed a pee. Returning to the cars, we started off, and all was well for about three miles, when Pious’s car suddenly started making some alarming noises from under the bonnet, and the smell of very hot oil permeated the cabin.

Gospel’s car was already out of sight, disappeared round the bend and probably halfway up the steep and winding hill that we were ascending.

Pious brought the car to a stop on the edge of the road, and opened the bonnet. Looking into the engine bay, we could see tendrils of vapour coming from the oil filler and dipstick, and steam was hissing from the radiator cap. Not good!

Pious clearly had limited knowledge of the mechanical working of his car, so I took over.

Pulling the dipstick from its port, I could see that the engine was almost totally devoid of lubricant.

Turning to Pious, I said “Do you have any spare oil?”

He looked at me blankly.

“It needs more oil, or it will seize up completely”

I saw the understanding on his face, and he explained that there was a garage in the next village, about a mile away, just over the crest of the hill that we were climbing.

Looking at the still smoking car, I doubted that it would make it the required mile, especially if it were carrying both SWMBO and I, and our hand luggage, so I told Pious to let it cool for ten minutes, and then he should get it to the garage. I stuffed a wad of shillings into his hand, despite his protests, and SWMBO and I started trudging up the hill.

Within 100 yards, I was wheezing like a Victorian steam locomotive. The air was so thin, and I was already drenched in sweat, despite the temperature being only 20°C.

SWMBO was also enjoying the same level of discomfort. I suspect that hefting a flight crew cabin bag behind me didn’t help too much.

Five minutes later, we could hear the old Datsun grinding laboriously up the road, and it passed us, belching smoke, exhaust, and red dust. It vanished around the bend, and we continued to plod very slowly up the steepening slope.

A few minutes later, I could hear another vehicle approaching us from behind. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw a very old, split windscreen VW Camper van come round the bend.

A VW Kombi Camper van, similar to the one that rescued us…

It passed us, slowed, and pulled to the side.

An elderly, grey haired local man hurled open the nearside passenger door, and yelled, “Where you goin’, man?”

I briefly explained our predicament, and he roared with laughter, and waved us into the passenger compartment of the old minibus.

We climbed aboard, and I pulled the doors shut and took a seat. Our new friend chatted to us constantly as we drove sedately up the rutted highway. When I say chatted, I really mean bellowed.

I don’t think it occurred to him to change gear, and the engine was howling in protest at being abused so badly. He must have picked up on my thoughts, as he slammed the old van into second gear, and we were jerked against the seat backs as he dropped the clutch heavily. 

The VW Kombi was made in VW’s Wolfsburg factory, after being designed by Dutchman Ben Pon. As a utility van, they were immortalised by the counterculture of the 1960s, when the minibus version became the vehicle of choice for young hippies all over the globe.

This one somehow survived in East Africa, and whilst rusty and clearly worn out, was still providing stalwart service over some of the roughest roads on the planet.

Five minutes later, we crested the hill, and followed the winding track into the small village, where, as expected, stood a garage.

Standing outside, under the corrugated iron roof, was Pious’s Datsun, with the bonnet open.

Thanking our good Samaritan profusely, we climbed out into the sunshine, and walked over to Pious with our bags.

Pious greeted us warmly, and explained that the engine was okay, and that the mechanic had just finished filling it. He looked sheepishly at the one-gallon oil can that stood in silent testimony as to the amount of oil that wasn’t in the engine.

We piled our bags back into the boot, and with a cheerful wave to the mechanic, Pious gunned the engine, and we pulled away, now lagging Gospel by a good half hour.

After a good distance, we swung left into a farm track, and looking out of the window, I could see a vast coffee plantation. Way off in the distance, I could see some farm buildings, and a large metal storage facility.

The car shook and rattled as we drove up the ever-narrowing farm track, eventually coming to a stop outside a very small, single storey building, constructed of breeze block.

Tiny, and made out of Breeze block….

Shutting down the engine, Pious grinned, and said “Welcome”

We thanked him, and got out of the car, which was now ticking like a cheap alarm clock as it cooled down.

Gospel’s car was already parked up, and we were shown into the tiny house.

The house only appeared to have two rooms; a bedroom and the room that we were in, which was crammed with people. Having only two small windows, it was very warm, and despite the breeze, was stuffy.

I looked around, and spotted the lads squeezed up into a corner of the floor, so we picked our way over the congested floor and squatted down with them.

Pious and Gospel came over to sit with us, carrying four large glasses filled with water. I was wondering if it was fresh water, and whether I should discretely pop a purifying tablet in it, when Gospel proudly told me that it was fresh spring water, as they had a pump in the garden.

Cautiously, I took a sip, and was surprised. Cold and with a pleasant flavour – not like the fluoridated treated water at home.

Pious leaned over, and whispered to me that most of the family spoke no English, and he would attempt to translate as and when needed. That was just as well, as my Kikuyu wasn’t up to much.

I had learnt the basic greeting “Ní Atía” and thank you (Ní Ngatho) but that was my limit.

In due course, the door opened, and Duncan appeared, wearing a brightly coloured ceremonial robe, and he walked slowly into the middle of the room. The packed room immediately fell silent.

Golden shafts of sunlight penetrating through the corrugated steel roof and simple awnings over the windows illuminated him as if he were a celestial being.

A soft click as the door to the bedroom opened, and Njambi appeared, looking quite radiant in a white gown.

Standing next to Duncan, they awaited as the minister came forward.

I was surprised to see that he was a Christian minister. That struck me as odd, as many of the guests spoke no English.   8 million Kenyans speak Kikuyu, and we were slap bang in the middle of Kikuyu territory.

And so it was, that we witnessed our friend marry his beautiful bride, in a tiny little cottage high up in the remoteness of the Aberdare Range.

The foothills of the Aberdare Range, Kenya

After the simple ceremony, all the guests went into the tiny garden, where the bride’s family had laid out a simple buffet of chicken and local foods.

SWMBO and I had several silent conversations with the family and guests, mainly with much signing, gesturing and laughter.

I personally enjoyed a silent, yet very rewarding conversation with the bride’s mother, who was clearly delighted that we had come. I managed to compliment her on her cooking – the chicken was delicious and had been coated with some subtle spices, and the vegetables and salad were full of flavour.

I even received a hug!

Eventually, the shadows started lengthening, and Pious and Gospel appeared at our shoulders, murmuring that we should be setting off for our hotel.

It was as well that we were leaving, as the house had no electrical power, and no lighting except for that of oil lamps. These lovely, gentle people had virtually nothing in the way of the creature comforts that are deemed as essential in the so-called developed world. No TV, cell phones, washing machines or even a refrigerator.

However, they were all happy. Proud, kind, decent. Maybe we were missing a trick, surrounding ourselves with material possessions.

Saying our goodbyes, we left, and our two cars clattered off down the track, into the African dusk, heading back to the road that would take us to our hotel.

We were staying at the Green Hills Hotel, some 15 miles (25km) from the village, and looking out of the car windows into the gathering gloom, we could see miles of coffee plantations.

Coffee Plantation, Aberdare Range, Kenya

Looking up, we could see millions of sparkling pinpricks of light – shards of celestial glass, strewn across the black velvet tablecloth of space.

The Green Hills Hotel

Green Hills Hotel had only been opened thirty or so years before, so was relatively new, but the area in which it was located was the setting of the infamous unsolved murder of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Errol, an expatriate Brit living in the area.

Later, the murder was dramatised in the 1987 film White Mischief.

Having settled into our room, we enjoyed a late supper, and drinks out in the grounds, listening to the sounds of the creatures of the night as they scurried around in the bushes.

Back in our room, we fell asleep to the rhythmic pulse of our ceiling fan, wafting the African night over us.

Waking up early, I decided to go for a walk around the place whilst SWMBO was still dozing, so pulling on my shorts and a bush shirt, and my boots, I made my way quietly out of the room, into the covered walkway. I enjoyed a half hour of wandering, returning to the room via the restaurant so that I could take a steaming mug of finest Kenyan coffee to SWMBO, to ease her gently into the final day of our holiday.

Having packed our hold baggage the night before, it was a fairly quick process to just finalise things, and then head for breakfast.

As our flight didn’t depart until almost midnight, we had decided that once we had checked out of our rooms at noon, we would relax in the hotel grounds, until our cab would collect us at about 1830.

We whiled away the afternoon chatting with the lads, reading, and, as soon as the sun was sufficiently over the yard arm, (about 3pm) we ordered Gin and Tonics all round, to officially draw our East African break to an end.

The Garden, The Green Hills Hotel. Just time for a large G&T…

Six thirty arrived far too soon, and the minibus cab was already waiting outside when we left the hotel, having paid our bills.

Our cab driver wasn’t the talkative type, so we quietly chatted amongst ourselves in the back as he drove us back down to Thika, and then on to Nairobi.

The airport terminal was quite full, despite the hour, and we patiently queued for check in and passed through security with delay. I think the fact that they spotted my crew tag on my bag helped, and we were waved through immigration swiftly.

Once airside, I felt I could relax a little. I love flying, but the stresses of getting onto the flight always made my stomach churn.

Standby travel is a wonderful privilege, but carries with it the risks of being “bumped” off a flight should a fare-paying passenger need the seat.

Furthermore, at some airports, they operate a policy of not allowing standby staff travellers through to the departures lounge until the check-in has closed, which gives very limited time to get through immigration, security, and out to the gate.

Being bumped is a very real possibility, and it has happened to me before. On a previous flight from Los Angeles, I had stowed my cabin baggage in the overhead, and had been happily quaffing the pre-flight champagne, when I heard a cabin announcement “Would passenger Charlwood please make himself know to the cabin crew”

This could mean one of two things.

I was either being upgraded to first class, or I was being offloaded.

The look on the crew-member’s face as she approached me told me it was the latter.

I was asked to collect my bag, and follow her.  Gloomily, I had followed her up the cabin, and was met at the door by a ground agent, who told me that they needed my seat.

On that occasion, I was lucky, as there was another flight departing an hour later, and it was going to use the same gate, so I was immediately checked in, and later enjoyed my flight, meeting SWMBO in London.

But that night, the universe decided that all four of us would get on the flight, and all of us were able to have Club class seats, so a good result all round.

Night departures are always interesting. Nairobi is extra interesting.

To put this into context, I need to explain a little about aircraft performance.

Aircraft operate more efficiently in denser air. Air density reduces as altitude increases, so the higher the elevation of the airport, the more the aircraft performance is reduced.

The other factor that reduces air density, is temperature. The warmer the temperature, the less dense the atmosphere. In my profession, we refer to such airfields as “hot’n’high”

Many equatorial departures are scheduled for as late in the day as possible, in our case, 23:50. At this time, the local air will have cooled to its lowest, so the aircraft will perform marginally better.

Jomo Kenyatta airport is 5330 feet (1624 metres) above mean sea level, so during summer, when it’s at its warmest, there is double the impact on the aircraft’s performance.

This means that flights may be weight-restricted, and there is less scope for carrying non-revenue standby travellers.

It also means that the aircraft will need a much greater runway length to reach safe flying speed.

Our B747-400 used up a huge amount of Runway 24 which is 4,200m long (13,570 feet, or 2.6 miles) to get airborne, and the ground roll seemed to last forever. Even as an experienced flier, I was starting to get a bit concerned, when finally, I felt the nose lift, and the pounding rumble of the gear reduced, and finally stopped. shortly thereafter, I had the whines and clunks of the gear being retracted.

Eventually, we dipped a wing, and entered a climbing turn, and looking out of my window, I could see the lights of Nairobi slipping away below.

The rest of Africa disappeared into the dark, mysterious night, as we winged our way home.

Footnote: For those of you that would like to see the view from the flight deck during a sunset landing at Nairobi, watch this video clip of a KLM/Martinair B747-400!

[1] MoT – Is a legally required annual roadworthiness inspection of any vehicle over three years old in the UK.

[2] Datsun was the brand under which Nissan cars marketed vehicles into emerging markets such as Africa.

Categories
Uncategorized

East African Wedding – Part One

The 747-400 crept slowly forward, coming to rest with a soft jolt. The four Rolls Royce engines wound down, the noise diminishing quickly, drowned out by the simultaneous scrabbling for bags from the overhead lockers, the mass of humanity completely disregarding the seatbelt signs, which were still illuminated.

The Mighty, altough now retired Boeing B747-400, with the African Tailfin art.

After over thirty-two years in the airline industry, this still irritates me, but I digress.

Rescuing our bags from the locker, we stood in the aisle patiently until eventually, the passenger door was opened, and we slowly trudged forwards.

At the aircraft door, I was assaulted by the warmth immediately, and the hot breeze carried the unique smell of Africa into my nostrils.

A short walk, and we were in the terminal building of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.

Surprisingly, we were processed by Immigration and Customs very quickly, and we wandered out into the arrivals hall.

I noticed that security was mainly conducted by members of the Kenyan Army, who surveyed us with disinterest as we moved past them. I did see that their rifles appeared to be rusty, and un-serviced, and had obviously seen better days.

So, why were SWMBO and I standing in the arrivals hall of an East African airport?

We had been invited to Nairobi to attend a wedding. One of SWMBO’s friends was the Station Manager for a competitor airline, and he had met and fallen in love with a local Kikuyu lady, and as he had no living family, he invited us, together with a few of his other British friends to attend the ceremony.

Nairobi sits virtually on the equator (1° 16′ 0″ S, 36° 48′ 0″ E), yet the temperature isn’t quite what you would expect. It was one of the dry seasons (Kenya has two, one from June until October, the other is from December until March.

It was February 2002, so bang in the middle of the dry season, and average temperatures during the day were 27°C (80°F) and 15°C (59°F) at night.

So, shorts, bush shirts and boots during the day, and an additional fleece at night.

SWMBO and I were scanning the concourse, looking for the promised driver, but the multitude of meeters and greeters made this challenging to say the least.

Eventually, I spotted a tall noble-looking Kenyan, holding a battered piece of cardboard bearing my name.

I called to our other travelling companions, Nick and Graham, and we lugged our bags after our driver, who was striding swiftly towards the exit.

Outside Arrivals at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport

Clambering into the battered old Toyota cab, our driver, George wrestled with the transmission (which whined alarmingly), and shouted over the noise of the roaring engine, that he was taking us to our hotel.

The roads were navigated with much swerving cursing and swearing, and soon we were weaving in, out and through the traffic, and several times I thought we would collide with incredibly overloaded minibuses (matatu), which were not only filled, but also had dozens of people hanging on outside – for a reduced fare no doubt!

A Typical Matatu minibus. Think I’ll stick to cabs…


Eventually, we arrived at our hotel, which from the road looked almost passable. Once inside, my optimism crashed and burned like a shot down bomber, and I regarded the dilapidated reception, wondering if it was possible to catch a terminal disease from just being there.

SWMBO nudged me hard, muttering “This is a good, cheap and cheerful hotel organised by Duncan, and will only cost us a few US Dollars – and its only for two nights!”

Having registered, I was given a large metal key, and we made our way down the gloomy corridor to our room.

I unlocked the door, which swung open forlornly, as if embarrassed to reveal the room beyond. The cockroaches also seemed to be embarrassed, as they scuttled into the gloom as quickly as possible.

“Cheap and cheerful?” I exclaimed. “More like cheap and very dismal.”

The room was lit by a single incandescent light bulb hanging from a cable. The mattress was rolled up at the foot of the iron framed bed, and some moth-eaten blankets were stacked upon a rickety chair that looked like it had been stolen from the local Sunday school.

The shower was filthy, and I shuddered.

“I think I will take only combat showers[1] whilst we are here.

Looking at SWMBO, I could see that even her extensive travel experience hadn’t prepared her for staying in a one-star hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Looking at my watch, I decided that whatever the time, I needed a beer, as it was bound to be five o’clock somewhere – Thanks Jimmy Buffet.

Walking back to the reception, we made our way to the hotel restaurant, which was made up of several tables designed to look like chuck wagons from the old wild west. The tables were arranged in a circle around a small dance floor.

I was thinking that this was all a bit surreal.

I spotted Nick and Graham sitting at a table, looking decidedly unsettled, so we swiftly joined them.

Within seconds, a waitress arrived and took our order. I decided long ago, that wherever I was in the world, I would always order the local brew rather than buy European or American imports.

In quick order I was presented with an ice-cold bottle of Tusker beer, which is made in East Africa. It wasn’t a bad brew either.

Sitting laughing and chatting with the others, I suddenly had the distinct impression that I was being, how shall I put it, interfered with in the trouser department. Looking down, I could see a slim brown hand engaging in what I can only describe as undoing my flies.

The involuntary yelp I let out made everyone jump, and Nick said “Oh, lucky you, seems like you have become the latest target of the night fighters”

I should, perhaps mention, that Night Fighters is the flight crew nickname for prostitutes – and it seemed that our table, being occupied by three white male tourists, was a designated and legitimate target.

I have to say, that the owner of the hand was a strikingly beautiful woman; elegant, tall, and very statuesque. She beamed at me, looking me in the eye, saying that for 500 shillings she would make me a Masai warrior. She told me her name was Elizabeth.

At the time, 500 Kenyan Shillings was worth about £4.00. Crazy. This woman would sell herself to me for so little. I was deeply saddened by this. When I said no, she persisted, and SWMBO came to my rescue, repeatedly telling Elizabeth that I was not available. Elizabeth, seeing that she was in a no-win situation re-targeted Nick and Graham.

SWMBO managed to drive off Elizabeth and her squadron, by being cousin to one, and sister to the other.

Looking back, it was quite amusing in a very English way, with Elizabeth with hands like an octopus, and SWMBO having to beat her off with a metaphorical stick.

It was the same later in the evening when Duncan arrived, and we ended up on the tiny dance floor. Elizabeth came cruising in on my six o’clock, and murmured in my ear that the cost of access to the ranks of Masai warriorhood had now reduced to 300 shillings.

Eventually, she lost interest, and wandered off into the gloom of the night, and we returned to our room, both eager for the morning.

I slept only fitfully, woken at intervals by the sound of doors slamming, and at one point hearing a woman’s voice yelling “I give you jig-jig, now you give me 200 shillings”

I was glad when daylight crawled into the room with me.

SWMBO was still asleep when I got up, so I decided that I would go and have a coffee whilst waiting for her to wake up.

The chuck wagon restaurant was almost deserted, so the waiter invited me to take any table that I wanted.

I plonked myself down, and ordered a large mug of coffee. I idly flicked my paperback book open (no iPads or Kindles back then!) and half-heartedly attempted to pick up from where I left off on the aircraft the previous day.

The waiter returned with a mug of simply monstrous proportions, filled to the brim with fragrant black coffee, and a large stainless-steel pot filled with milk. “Asante” I said, and he smiled, and scuttled back to his small podium.

I leaned back and took a sip of the coffee, which was strong, and full of flavour. I savoured the taste, rolling it across my tongue.

At that moment, I was distracted as the doors at the other end of the restaurant were flung open, and three men strode purposefully through the dining area. The one in the lead was about six feet three inches tall (1.90m) and must have weighed about 250 pounds (114 kg). He had the sort of face only a mother could love. He was scarred, pock marked, and had a nose that a Rugby prop would be proud of. Totally bald, he looked very intimidating.

His mate was equally sinister. He was shorter, very compact, and musclebound. He too was bald, had a livid scar which ran like a furrow from just beneath his left eye to his larynx, and was covered in tattoos. his head was entirely shaven except for a ponytail about a foot long.

Bringing up the rear was – surely not????

Bringing up the rear was a man whom I last saw eight years ago at Long Beach airport, when I was learning to fly – let’s call him Pieter Dirkmann.

Pieter was completing a Boeing 737 type conversion as I was plodding through the Californian skies in a humble Cessna 150. He was an affable bear of a man, with a very strong South African accent, and a love of proper beer. He lived in the same condo community that I did, and we would often share a brew at the communal barbeques that happened every Friday.

SWMBO used to fly out to see me regularly, the lovely woman was hauling suitcases filled with Newcastle Brown ale, and IPA to keep me sane. American beer back then was pretty dire to the English palate, and the only choices available locally were Budweiser, Coors, or Michelob. Things have changed over the years, and there are now some very good US craft beers available. But not back in 1989.

Pieter was particularly fond of Newcastle Brown, and he and I used to chat about the future whilst watching the sunset over the rooftops of downtown Redondo Beach.

He was hopeful of getting a job with South African Airways, and I aspired to work with the mighty BA.

He completed his type rating whilst I was midway through my course, and flew back to Jo’burg.

That was the last I had seen him.

Now, here he was, striding towards me accompanied by two heavy duty types in a seedy hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi.

He recognised me instantly, and he grinned.

“Mark! What are you doing here friend?”

“I’m here for a wedding,” I explained. I waved him to sit down, and called the waiter over.

He sat down, looking at me levelly.

“You want a coffee?” I asked, and he nodded a yes.

“Small world” I said. “What are you up to? I wouldn’t have thought that SAA would use this as a crew hotel”

He laughed. “Ahh, that. It didn’t work out with the big boys, so I am flying a Dornier 28, running freight between Dar es Salaam and small strips round these parts.”

“I won’t ask…”

He gave a tired smile.  “Let’s just say that some parts of this damned country need more than the local policeman to give them protection.”

So, my old friend was now possibly operating as an arms smuggler, and I suspected that he was running guns and maybe other contraband in and out of East Africa.

He drained his coffee, and reached across to me, offering his hand. I shook it firmly. “Gotta split mate” he said, and he stood up, and walked briskly out of the restaurant, and out of my life.

I haven’t seen or heard of him since. It is true that aviation is a very small world.

I was still musing about how life changes when SWMBO appeared at the table and started happily chatting about our trip up country to the foothills of Mount Kenya, for the wedding.

Finishing a surprisingly good breakfast, we decided to have a look around Nairobi for the day.

The cab dropped us obligingly in the city centre, and we spent a leisurely day just wandering around the place, soaking up the atmosphere. It was certainly a lively place, but by mid-afternoon we were ready to get back to the hotel.

Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi

I was hot, dusty, and thirsty, so despite my misgivings, I decided to take a shower. To reduce my exposure to potential terminal illness, I completed my shower in less than two minutes, and came out feeling refreshed, and ready for the evening activity.

We had decided to visit Carnivore, an open barbeque restaurant, specialising in meats of all kinds.

The cab dropped us off outside the venue, which was brightly lit, and we could hear happy voices as we trooped down the short path into the place.

The entrance to Carnivore…

We were welcomed by a smiling waiter who found us a table located away from the main fire pit, so the temperature was fine.

The large wooden table was round, and easily accommodated our party of six. In it’s centre stood a circular two-tier tray, upon which were pickles and sauces, and salad vegetables.

In the middle of the upper tray stood a small wooden pyramid, bearing our table number – 33 in this case.

Having caught our attention, the waiter explained that it was a buffet meal, and that the waiters would continue bringing food to our table all the time our flag was flying.

I looked around, wondering what on earth he was talking about, and thinking that I may have misheard him. My fellow diners also looked a little nonplussed.

Laughing, the waiter produced a small white paper flag on a stick which he deftly inserted into a hole in the top of the pyramid.

Effective…Keep ’em coming Solomon!

He went on to explain that he recommended the Game Menu, which would give us a true taste of Africa.

All of us were, to a large extent, either foodies or adventurous diners, so we opted for the Game menu.

Whilst we were still considering our forthcoming meal, our drinks arrived, in the case of the chaps, it was Tusker lager, and SWMBO had a Gin and Tonic.

Well – It IS called Carnivore, after all…

We relaxed, and regarded our surroundings. The woodsmoke from the barbeque was fragrant, and we could hear birds and insects in the trees outside through the unglazed windows.

My Tusker was ice cold, and was just what the doctor ordered for accompanying an African meal.

Another smiling waiter appeared, holding what looked like a mediaeval combat sword, impaled upon which was a huge haunch of meat.

This is where the action is…The Barbeque itself!

“Zebra?” he asked.

We all nodded, and he proceeded to carve thick slices onto our plates.

How can I describe Zebra meat? Far less fatty than beef, but with a delicate, “gamey” flavour[2]. I helped myself to a portion of green salad, and cleared my plate. It’s just as well that we had done a significant amount of walking, as I was already up for sampling the next meat being proffered by our waiter.

This time, he proudly announced, we were to try Hartebeest. I intercepted him before he had a chance to dump a pound of meat on my plate, so enjoyed just two thin slices. The taste was good – moist, tender, nicely flavoured, and with only a light suggestion of gaminess.

I decided to lay off the salad, as I needed to keep some spare capacity for more beer, and other meat types.

By now, the restaurant was starting to fill up with more patrons. When we arrived at just gone 1730, it was nowhere near busy, but it was now 1830, and people were arriving to eat so that they could be done by 2030, when the restaurant closes.

We all chatted happily, and everyone had been adventurous enough to try all the meats offered so far.

It wasn’t long before our waiter, Solomon re-appeared, bearing yet more meat. With a big grin, he asked “Who wants to try Crocodile?”

Crocodile, Sir?

I looked across at SWMBO, but by the look on her face, she was up for it, as was I and the other chaps, so I allowed Solomon to place a couple of slices onto my plate.

I cautiously loaded my fork with a morsel, and took my first mouthful of reptile meat. Strangely, it had a meaty texture, somewhat reminiscent of chicken or pork, but with a mildly fishy taste – which is hardly surprising.

I am not particularly fond of fish, and only eat very mildly flavoured species such as cod, and bass, and then only occasionally, if SWMBO serves it up. I was therefore quite surprised to find myself enjoying eating Croc, as much as they evidently enjoy eating us, should we fall in the river with them.

I was now beginning to feel a little stuffed, and conscious of the need to taste the last dish on offer – Ostrich, I left the salad alone, and settled for another bottle of Tusker.

Solomon reappeared at our table, and presented his sword, this time loaded with Ostrich.

Ostrich tastes very similar to high quality lean beef. It was mouth-wateringly tender, and beautifully flavoured, and I enjoyed it and hoped that I would be able to buy it back in the UK.

By now, all of us were replete, and could eat no more, and so with a triumphant flick of the wrist, SWMBO plucked the small white flag from its place at the top of the table.

Solomon spotted this as he approached our table with yet another haunch of meat on a sword, and immediately slalomed off to another table, without missing a beat.

Fantastic service, and good food. What more could I want?

As we approached the hotel, my heart sank, and I realised that I could want more, by way of a better hotel, but we were only here overnight, and would be checking out next morning.

SWMBO and I exchanged our goodnights with the boys, and made our way to our forlorn room, and we hit the sack immediately.

This account will be continued in the next episode, so watch out for it in due course…


[1] Combat Shower – No water used at all, spray on deodorant only

[2] Zebra meat contains just 0.5% fat, about one tenth the amount found in a similar-sized portion of beef, and 33% less calories, just 148 compared to 230 in rump steak.

Categories
Aircew Airport aviation Creative Writing English Culture Flight Nostalgia pilots Politics

The Hangar Rat

RAF Kenley, June 15th 1974, Cdt. Charlwood on the retrieve with Cadet MkIII WT875. Photo ©Mark Charlwood

I’ve hung around small airfields, since I was just a lad,

A hangar rat, an Air Cadet, I was aviation mad,

Sent solo in a sailplane, when I was just sixteen,

Soaring over English fields, a  quilt of gold and green.

A Kirby Cadet Mk.III 615 VGS, RAF Kenley, in an original hangar. Photo courtesy Allan Mellmore under CCL

Sweeping out the hangars, polishing the props,

Cleaning all  their windshields, hanging round in ops,

Topping up the tanks and tyres, mowing taxiways and strip,

Befriending all the pilots, to see if I could blag a trip.

The hangars I worked in weren’t this tidy… Oh for the chance to hang out here regularly!

I worked hard at my day job, slaving nine til’ five,

Then pumping gas, and cleaning, to keep the dream alive,

When I wasn’t working, I was studying the sky,

Reading all the books I could, on learning how to fly

Every Day is a School Day. There is always something to learn… Mostly ending in an examination of some sort. Photo Mark Charlwood © 2021

Then as I got bigger, the airfields did the same,

And I was thrilled to hang around, much bigger aeroplanes,

In flight operations, now planning flights and fuel

Working out performance, and briefing all the crews.

Oooh, The Joys of Performance Schedule A. All done by computer now… but we had it tough… Photo Mark Charlwood © 2021

Now older, greyer, wiser, and thicker round the waist,

I stopped working at the airport, moved to a weirder place,

A full-flight simulator, is now how I cover my outgoings,

Teaching pilots how to fly their Airbuses and Boeings

A State-of-the-Art Airbus A380 Full Flight Simulator

I’ve worked at many airports, on many a different fleet

An aviation specialist, some would say a geek,

Now retirement calls, my airplane waits, as does my flying hat,

Once again, I am a lad, a happy hangar rat!

G-BTBU Piper PA-18 Super Cub, Redhill, EGKR (Redhill) Known to everyone as Betty Bu.

Mark Charlwood 2021 ©

Categories
APPRENTICE biographic accounts College Comedy English Culture Humour Nostalgia Telecommunications Training Work

Oh, I do like to be beside the Seaside!

The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”

Over the next few weeks, I was to work closely with Ben, learning how to fit everything from direct line phones, small private exchanges, and office extensions. 

However, in line with the requirements of apprentice training, I was to move to a new duty within a few days, and would be working with another section of installing engineers.  

It was a bright, sunny morning in early January, as I cycled into the yard, whistling cheerily. I had enjoyed a very drunken and debauched Christmas, culminating in me ingloriously puking my guts up in the toilet at one o’clock on Christmas morning. Needless to say, my parents were somewhat unimpressed with the conduct of their sixteen year old son.  

I had risen very late on that day in order to make a very feeble and half-hearted attempt to eat some Christmas lunch. Unlike my parents, my younger brother found my delicate state very amusing, but I rose above it in a very dignified manner, and retired to my chambers as soon as I could excuse myself from the table. 

I think Mum and Dad forgave my transgressions by New Year’s Day, and I subsequently launched myself enthusiastically into 1976. 

The morning of the first of January dawned, and I woke to find myself in a strange room, laying on a strange sofa. Next to me was a strange woman, and by our nakedness, and the way she was draped across me, I can only assume that we had shared the New Year’s celebrations in a very favourable fashion.

I gently disengaged myself from her sleepy clutches, and pulled my jeans and sweatshirt on.  After a good deal of silent searching, I finally found my beaten up old trainers in the oven.  This was somewhat bemusing, as I could have sworn I left them in the fridge. 

I spotted my mate, in whose parent’s home we had been partying. He was still unconscious, clutching a bucket and was semi-naked. 

The lounge looked like a scene from a B-Grade zombie movie, and in the gloom, I could make out several bodies, laying in the debris of our partying. I had never seen so many empty beer cans and wine bottles. The ashtrays were overflowing, and the place would take forever to clear up.

I eased the front door open, and recoiled from the bright, crisp, sunlight of the day.  Squinting, I unsteadily tottered up the garden path, trying to remember how I got here. 

More importantly, where was here?  

I was in a strange part of the town that I was unfamiliar with.  I finally remembered that I had ridden here on my bike, and that I had dumped it in the garden shed.

I pulled the shed door open, and disentangled my bike from the couple asleep on the floor. It looked like they had both passed out whilst on the job, and I grinned, regretting to hell that I didn’t have a camera. 

I did have a paintbrush though, as it was laying on the shelf, so I quietly opened a tin of paint at random, and proceeded to decorate the chap’s buttocks.  He didn’t even stir.  I wondered how long it would take to remove.

With a chuckle, I swung my leg over the bike, and pedaled precariously up the road, hoping to find a familiar landmark from which I could navigate back home.

Getting to a junction, I spotted a house that I recognised from my paper round many years ago.  Having gained a mental fix of my position, it took me a further twenty minutes to pedal my way groggily home.  

All in all, my start to 1976 had been great fun.  I had enjoyed a great party, had a very good time with a not unattractive woman, and managed to cycle home without either falling off, spewing up, or being killed. 

Still thinking these thoughts, I strolled into the yard office, to see Ben talking with Nick Nixon. Nick was to be my new mentor, as Ben was attending a training course at Bletchley Park. Nick was plump, tousle-haired and very loud. In my opinion, he was also a certifiable lunatic.  

“What Ho!” He said, noticing me, “Grab a tea, and meet me by my van….it’s the Bedford HA parked by the bike shed”

Bedford HA Van – A True Gutless Wonder

I made a quick cup of tea, and stood by the window, idly watching the traffic meandering up and down. I smiled. I could see my old school across the road, and I smugly imagined the glum faces on the kids as they filed into their classrooms for registration. A few short months ago, that was me.

I swilled my cup out, dumping it on the draining board, and strode out to the car park, collecting my toolkit from my locker en-route. 

When I got to the van, Nick was leaning against it, rolling a cigarette. “Help yourself lad” he said, throwing me a battered tobacco tin, and some green Rizla papers.

Old Holborn, My Go To Tobacco… Golden Virginia as a Reserve!

I caught them adroitly, and opened the tin, relishing the rich smell of the moist tobacco. I pulled a paper from the case, and rolled a fairly inexpert tube, and ran it across my tongue.

I was a recent newcomer to smoking, and had smoked a few Players No 6 with friends at school, but was always short of money, so was not a smoker in the true sense of the word. 

Now I was earning money. £18.35 per week to be precise. After tax, this was about £14.00 a week. I gave my Mum £7.00 a week for keep, leaving me £7.00. From this, I was able to buy my lunches, and clothes, and still have enough to buy a book, or a music cassette. Beer was only 32p a pint, so I could afford to go out on a Friday night with my friends and have a very good evening.

I was also able to afford to smoke. I started off buying tailor-made cigarettes, mainly Guards or Embassy as they were cheap.  However, most of the blokes at work rolled their own. 

Now just a memory, but back in the 70s, I was getting through 20 a day…

I soon came to see the logic of this. Ready-made cigarettes are treated with chemicals, and once lit, they continue to burn all the way to the filter. 

As engineers, we are frequently using both hands – wiring up equipment, and building up systems. Tailor-mades tend to be wasted. Roll ups on the other hand, go out if they are not being actively smoked. So, you can Stoke up, have a couple of drags, put it in the ashtray, and continue working. Ten minutes later, you would have finished a task, and could relight the Rollie

So, now I had my own ‘baccy tin, and could roll a cigarette. Not a pretty one, but I had finally learnt the correct amount of tobacco to roll, and how tightly to roll it.  Too much tobacco, and it won’t draw.  Too little and it burns like a forest fire, and is done in 2 minutes.  Just enough, and it’s ideal.  

However, I had yet to perfect the neat cylindrical tubes that my workmates could roll, some using just one hand to do it. – whilst driving I might add!

Having rolled a ciggy each, we jumped in the van, and Nick fired up the engine, and hurtled in reverse out of the parking space. Flinging the wheel on full opposite lock, he gunned the engine, and we screamed out of the yard, accompanied by the sound of skidding wheels. I could hear equipment being thrown around in the back. 

I was soon to discover that this was Nick’s normal driving style. Everything was full acceleration, and full braking.

The Bedford HA was truly gutless, and he had to really work at it to get it to 50. Ben’s Ford Escort van could run rings round it. 

At this point in time, I was about to start learning to drive. I would be 17 in May, so I was observing all I could about how a car was operated. So, as Nick was driving, I was trying to anticipate his gear changes, mimicking his use of the accelerator and clutch pedals, moving my feet around in the footwell. 

I had been doing this for a few days, and thought I was being discrete, until Nick yelled “Not yet, lad, I’m still accelerating”. He laughed as I squirmed with embarrassment. “When do you start learning?” “May” I responded. “Ok…….when we get on farm tracks, dirt roads and lanes and such like, you can have a go” He glanced across at me, still smiling. 

We chatted amiably as he drove us to Copthorne.  We were due to fit a House Exchange System 4 into some of the buildings at the Copthorne School. The job was big enough for us to be there two days in a row.

The HES 4… Cutting Edge Technology back then!

We pulled up outside the main school building, and the caretaker wandered out from the gloom to meet us.

The self contained exchange equipment was to be fitted in the cellar, with the main switchboard phone to be located in the school secretary’s office. Further extensions were to be fitted in the staff room, the kitchen, the maintenance workshop, and the caretaker’s office. 

As I hadn’t attended the course for wiring up the exchange yet, Nick suggested that I run the cables to the various rooms, so I spent the next few hours running cream cabling around the building. It was undemanding work, and I had two of the runs neatly pinned to the walls by lunchtime. 

Once we had wolfed down lunch, kindly provided by the school, Nick and I settled down to a post prandial cigarette. Eventually, we could avoid it no longer, so we went back to work.

I had the time-consuming job of bringing a cable to the caretakers house. This was a long run, and I needed to suspend a span of cable across the playground. I’m afraid that this took the rest of the afternoon. 

Well, until half past two anyway. 

We had to be back at the yard for 1500, as we both needed to do a bit of shopping. So we threw the tools into the back of the van, and went back to East Grinstead. We were coming back tomorrow anyway. 

The next day, we completed the job, and were back in the yard by ten o clock. After a cup of tea, and a cigarette, Nick phoned control for our next job.

In the mid nineteen seventies, Post Office Telecommunications operated a simple work allocation system. Faults and job control was located in HQ in Tunbridge Wells, and every morning, the engineers  would call in and would be given a job number and details of the nature of the work, and the tests that had been carried out. Each job was allocated a number of units. 

Each unit was one man hour. So, a simple job, say, fitting a single exchange line into a suburban terraced house would probably carry 1.5 units.

Naturally, larger jobs would carry more units, so a big installation at an office could carry maybe 16 units.  One man for two days, or two men for one day.

It was a simple and effective system.

On this occasion, Nick came off the phone looking glum. “It’s a biggie lad” he said, “Empty offices in Church Road. Recover a private exchange system and 18 extensions. It’s 8 units. That’s all day. You don’t count” he said.

That was true. As an unqualified apprentice, although I could assist, my labour wasn’t included in the calculations. 

“Let’s go and check the job out then” he said. He dug around in his pocket, looking for his lighter. I proffered mine, a shiny new Zippo – we all used them, as they were better in outside windy conditions.

Zippo – Able to light a roll up in a 30 MPH wind, on top of a 40 foot Telephone Pole…

Stoking up, he wandered to the van, with me following on. We drove up through the High Street, and cruised slowly past the war memorial. 

I have always loved the “top of the town” as it has a feeling of permanence, and is steeped in history, with many of the buildings going back to the Middle Ages. The old jail goes back to the early 1400s. We turned left into Church Road, and screeched to a stop outside the empty office.

We were on double yellows lines, and I mentioned it to Nick. He laughed, and said that “Happy Jack” would be ok with it, but to be on the safe side, he asked me to switch on the bar.

I looked at him blankly. “Bar?” I repeated…….

“Yes. – Bee Ay Ar. Beacon, Amber, Rotating”. Ahhh.  Now I understood. 

I reached back into the cab, and switched on the beacon, and could hear it’s motor grinding away on the roof.

We opened the dull red door to the old four storey building, and wandered around, looking at the wiring we would have to recover.  The exchange system was downstairs in a grimy cold and damp cellar, and the last two extension phones were located in tiny offices up in the eaves. 

Nick sucked his teeth, and sat down on an old box, fishing his cigarette kit out of his jacket pocket.  Swiftly rolling a cigarette, he tossed it at me, and rolled another. We lit up, and after snorting twin plumes of smoke, he said

“We’ll go back to the yard, have lunch, and then come back and make a start…..if we work quickly we can get most of it completed by close of play, and just finish off tomorrow.”

So saying, we ambled back to the van, and drove back to the yard, quite slowly, as Nick was obviously preoccupied with his thoughts. 

When we arrived at the yard, it was empty. We were obviously first back. 

The phone was ringing as we wandered into the office. “Bet that’s control” said Nick, picking up the phone.

I lit another cigarette, and put the kettle on, knowing that a brew is by far the most important activity that a good apprentice should master. 

“Well I’ll be fu*$ed!” Exclaimed Nick, putting the phone down.

“What” I asked.

He shot me a look, and waved the pink flimsy that he had jotted the next job upon under my nose. 

I read it out “Supply fit and install private exchange with 18 extensions, Church Road, East Grinstead………..isn’t that where we’ve just been…..” Nick clamped his hand over my mouth “SHHHHHSH!”

He leaned towards me, quietly explaining that we had both flimsies. That means we had the decommissioning and the re installing. A total of 16 units. Two days. 

Two days when we can account for our time. Yet need do nothing.

The penny dropped. I grinned. “so, what will we do tomorrow?”

“Pick you up from the end of your road at 0830. I reckon a day or two in Brighton would do us the world of good”

Brighton Seafront from the Palace Pier – Photo Courtesy of Benreis under CCA-SA 3

Let me know what you think… Is it worth me bashing out more chapters? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Thanks for dropping by…

Stay safe…

Go Well!

Categories
Climate change Ecological Econonomy Environment HEALTH Living Organ Donation Local Authorities

The Wonderful World of Three-Dimensional Printing

I started work in 1975, as an apprentice communications engineer. During that wonderful autumn, I spent my time happily cruising around the local area with my supervising engineer, learning the art of installing and repairing telephones to residential addresses.

In the sleepy West Sussex town of East Grinstead (which was reasonably affluent), and the surrounding villages, many of the houses were large, and a number of our calls were to fit extension phones, extension bells or small House Exchange Systems.

House Exchange Telephone, circa 1970

Several customers worked from home, and their business needs in terms of equipment were relatively simple. Most had a second telephone line, and extension phones running from each. Some had a Telex machine, and some even had a very basic facsimile machine.

A good old fashioned Telex machine, circa 1970

No computers – all documents were created using typewriters, and I saw anything from a basic “sit up and beg” manual machine through to upmarket IBM “golf ball” typewriters.

IBM Selectric Electric Golfball Typewriter

It may appear strange to think that a home office could be so simple.

Surrounded by high tech, virtually every modern home has equipment that would make a 1975 businessman green with envy.

Inkjet printers that deliver reasonable quality may be bought in your local supermarket for under £100, and a home computer (with a massive 1 Terabyte of memory) will cost only £279.00 from PC World! Wi-Fi connectivity, and the ability to stream feature films in high definition is now commonplace.

My first printer was a Canon Bubble Jet printer, which occupied a corner of my desk. It was hard wired to my very basic desktop PC.

My latest set up is a full colour laser printer, which is attached to my home network by Wi-Fi, meaning that I can send a print request from my iPhone or iPad from anywhere in the house. It also has its own email address, so I can even send a document to be printed from anywhere in the world – not that I see much demand for this feature.

Laser printers used to cost thousands. They can now be obtained for a few hundred pounds.

Advances in software and computer processing, and a good deal of lateral thinking has enabled the development of three-dimensional printers.

In a previous article, “What do Mars and Bicycles Have in Common?” I asked whether science fact followed science fiction, or vice versa.

One of the original “Pulp Sci-Fi” magazines that my dear old Dad used to read, and give to me… 2/6d (12.5p)

It seems that in the case of three-dimensional printing, fact followed fiction.

The first documented reference to three-dimensional printing, (as far as I can prove) was made in the Sci-Fi story entitled “Tools of the Trade”, written by Raymond F Jones, and published in the November 1950 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. In the story, the author describes 3d printing as molecular spraying, but the principle was similar to what we now commonly refer to as 3D Printing.

During the early 1970s, a patent was filed by Johannes F Gottwald which described the principles and processes of 3D printing using liquid metals to form reusable structures, however, the technology and materials to develop the concept was unavailable.

It wasn’t until the 1980s, that the concept of 3D printing was seriously considered, and a number of early prototypes were under development from different designers and printer manufacturers.

As the technology was in its infancy, costs were very high – a basic 3D printer in the 80s would have cost upwards of 300,000 US$ (£217,000). In today’s money that would be in the region of 742,000 US$ (£539,000) – so not a realistic proposition for a home office.

By 1993, however, 3D printers using inkjets that sprayed liquid polymers were being manufactured, and by the 2000s, the technology was being developed and refined, and industrial applications were launched that enabled metals to be printed.

Think for a moment, about the way that many metal items are manufactured. Molten metal may be poured into a mould, and the resulting casting must be machined to create the shape of the part required. This is normally performed by using lathes, milling machines under computer control, from a computer-produced 3D design. (CAD/CAM – Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing).

This may be referred to as subtractive manufacturing, where unrequired material is machined away, leaving the part completed. Whilst the waste product may be recycled, this takes effort, and incurs cost.

On the other hand, using a 3D printer to produce a part, say an engine mounting bracket for a car, is an additive manufacturing process, where the part is created from nothing, and built up in the correct shape, layer by layer.

No waste, and incredibly flexible, the 3D printing process allows complex shapes to be created in one hit, rather than a number of different milling machine processes.

3D printing is rapidly penetrating all sorts of new markets, some of which may surprise you.

How about 3D printed food?

Sound crazy?

Maybe not – several companies have developed 3D printers that print Vegan “Steaks” using vegetable proteins. If a mass-produced artificial steak has the same texture, taste and appearance as an animal steak, then many people may switch to the alternative, which may be better for personal health in terms of eating less red meats.

From a sustainability perspective, globally, livestock produce 14.5% of climate change gases, so if meat consumption may be reduced, then there would be a proportionate reduction in intensively farmed cattle.

A 3D food printer which uses plant proteins as ink, and mimicks the texture and taste of meat….https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giuseppe_Scionti

Would I try one?

Yes, without a doubt, and if they truly were a realistic alternative, and didn’t taste like Linda McCartney’s sausages, then I would no doubt enjoy the experience.

What else then?

How about using a 3D printer to build a house? Already, large scale 3D printers exist that extrude concrete, and 3D house are now being built as new developments, particularly in the USA.

This is quite groundbreaking, and an exciting development. Printed homes can be simply built in a fraction of the time that a conventional house takes. 3D printers can not only build floors, and walls, but can precisely extrude integrated channels for utilities, and mould ducting for air conditioning and electrical services.

A Concrete 3D printer constructing the walls of a building. How cool is that?

They also require far less labour to construct and are considerably cheaper than a conventional home of the same size.

The medical industry is also interested in 3D printing. Imagine being able to print a tablet which contains multiple medications, custom built for each patient. Instead of taking several tablets, a single multi-purpose pill could control a variety of medical conditions.

Imagine constructing an artificial heart, made of medical proteins and stem cells to recreate an exact replica of the patient’s original?

Prosthetic limbs printed quickly that precisely match a patient’s physiology!

Severely burnt individuals treated by repairing damage using artificial skin contoured and printed using a 3D printer delivering layers of bio-ink…

Science fiction?

No – Science Now!

Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh USA) have printed a 100% accurate replica human heart, which exhibits the same levels of elasticity as human heart tissue. Only as a pilot project so far, but this technology can and will take off.

A 3D printed human heart – Pilot now, future of transplants? Photo Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University PA USA

So, from the humble inkjet printer for bashing out a letter to Great Aunt Maud, to printing a three-bedroom house, 3D printing is here to stay.

Thank goodness for technology, eh?

Go Well…

Categories
aviation Climate change Cycling Driving Electric Transport Environment Exercise Flight marine pollution Motorcycling Motoring Science Sport Technology Transport Vehicles

What Do Mars and Bicycles Have in Common?

It’s a lovely day.

The sky outside is an impossibly brilliant blue, with just the occasional cloud to add texture and remind me that nature is hard at work, even if I am not.

This is an absolutely perfect day for flying. Definitely VMC (For my non-aviation friends and readers, that is Visual Meteorological Conditions, meaning that navigating and staying in control of the aircraft is performed by looking out of the windscreen – rather than flying in cloud or above the cloud, thereby having to fly by using the aircraft instruments, known as Instrument Meteorological Conditions).

The perfect day for a fifteen minute trundle over to the airstrip, to pull my aircraft from the hangar. A quick but thorough pre-flight inspection, and then away up into the sky, to meander through the air, with no particular place to go.

Maybe a leisurely buzz south to the coast, then east to Beachy Head, and then back over the sunlit rolling chalk and downlands that make up large swathes of Sussex and Hampshire.

So, why then, am I sitting here in my den, hammering an article into my keyboard.

Well, for one thing, my aeroplane is currently being reassembled after a major rebuild. It’s sitting forlornly in the gloom of the hangar, its wings rigged, and its engine and systems all fitted. However, with no flight control surfaces rigged, she might as well be a boat.

Fully rigged, engine and systems up and running – but no flight controls…

Secondly, I am awaiting the arrival of the technician from Autoglass to change the windscreen on my car.

Travelling back home from work one afternoon, I thought that I had come under machine-gun attack, and the volley of stones that hit the screen might as well have been real bullets, as they plunged deep into the laminated glass, and with a noise like a pistol shot, three long cracks propagated across the screen.

A short phone call to my insurers and £75.00 lighter, and the windscreen would be fixed. It appeared that as I had previously had two chips repaired, this would be a brand new screen.

Well, I was expecting to have to make an appointment to drop the car off at a repair station, but no, it would be changed on my drive, and all in about an hour.

So, staying with the vehicle theme, some of you may have read my previous article on the levels of pollution that is caused by the interaction of car tyres on roads?

No?

It may be worth a read if you are interested in sustainability, climate change and pollution.

Vehicle tyres degrade with use, and the erosion of the tread causes the release of micro-particles that wash into waterways, and ultimately into the seas and oceans.

So, a new piece of space-age technology caught my eye.

My first exposure to NASA[1] was as a barely-ten-year-old boy watching the launch of Apollo 11 on the 16th of July 1969, and subsequently watching recorded footage of the lunar landing on school TV on Monday 21st July.

To say that I was awestruck was an understatement.  Subsequently I couldn’t read enough about space, and became an avid reader of the science fiction pulp magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories that my dear old Dad used to buy from the secondhand bookstall not far from the tube station.

I think that by the time I was 13, I had the complete works of the mighty Isaac Asimov on my bookshelves, and was familiar with all of the Sci-Fi greats; Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick.

A few days before the launch of Apollo 11, the BBC aired it’s first episode of Star Trek, and I had become a fan almost instantly.

The Crew of NC-1701 Starship Enterprise – Star Trek the Original Series

And I have been a real fan of quality science fiction (not to be confused with science fantasy such as the Marvel Superheroes) ever since.

There has always been, however, a blurring of the lines between science fiction, and science fact. Which drives which?

In Star Trek, (the original series) we saw Captain Kirk being presented with what looks like an iPad tablet for him to sign. Uhura, the Comms Officer wears what looks like an ancestor to a Bluetooth earpiece, and Motorola designed a flip phone that looked suspiciously like a Star Trek communicator.

Lt. Uhura, wearing her early Bluetooth earpiece… Photo Courtesy ViacomCBS

I have to admit, that I am REALLY looking forward to using a dematerialisation transporter. Imagine just setting the co-ordinates of a friend’s house in California, and hitting the button and arriving microseconds later.

A universal replicator that ends poverty, and makes the use of money totally redundant…?

I digress…

So, it seems that Science Fact is now about to follow what was Science Fiction up until a few decades ago.

The continuing exploration of Mars has been conducted to a great extent by the Mars Rover vehicles, which have been sedately pottering over the Martian landscape since 1997. Kitted out with sensors, cameras and communications equipment these vehicles have been surveying our nearest planetary neighbour.

Perseverance, the Mars Rover – Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

In order to traverse the hostile terrain, the current rover, Perseverance, is equipped with six 52.5cm (20.7 inch) wheels made from aluminium and springy titanium spokes. The wheels are fitted with cleats for additional traction.

Well…

It seems that the NASA-developed tyre technology may be coming to a vehicle near you – well, initially, a bicycle near you!

NASA – Not just a Space Agency! Designers, Developers and Scientists

These highly advanced tyres are designed by the SMART (Shape Memory Alloy Radial Technology) Tire company, and manufactured by NASA using a highly elastic material called NiTinol+.

The Rover’s wheels – Light, and very robust! Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-CalTech

Virtually all elastic materials will stretch, and then they may almost revert back to their previous shape and strength. Most will lose their resilience and potency – think of a well-used bungee strap.

The clever thing about the metal alloy used in the construction of Perseverance’s wheels is that it actually changes its molecular composition when it is flexed or distorted. Once no longer subjected to any loads, the material simply returns to its prior profile, and the molecules are rearranged to their previous composition.

Tyres constructed from this material would no longer need to have inner tubes, or be inflated with air – no more punctures, less weight, and the added strength of Titanium.

The outer surface of the “tyre” may be coated with a highly resilient synthetic rubber called Polyurethanium.

The robust nature of the tyre combination means that a SMART tyre will probably exceed the life of the vehicle to which it is fitted! There will be no risks of punctures, and deflations, no need to use sealants or carry a spare wheel.

In comparison to conventional steel, this new alloy, known as METL, is thirty times quicker to recover to its original profile. This made it ideal for use in the hostile environment and rugged terrain of Mars.

Now the good news!

These revolutionary tyres are about to be launched – initially for bicycles, which will enable further development to be carried out for heavier vehicles.

SMART Tire prototype clearly showing woven metal construction, Photo Courtesy SMART Tires

SMART Tires has already collaborated with the Micro-mobility scooter provider, Spin (owned by the Ford Motor Company) to develop tyres for electric scooters.

Currently, this is a small-scale project, but in due course, it will become a primary challenge for the $250 billion global tyre industry to adapt to and deliver. This will be driven, in part, by the ever more urgent need to reduce emissions of any kind.

SMART Tires aims to launch their range of tyres to the cycling community by 2022, and once in full production, will no doubt start developing wheel/tyre units for the automobile and motorcycle industries.

Prototype SMART Tyre designed for a bicycle – Photo courtesy SMART Tires

I imagine that the launch range of bike tyres will be expensive initially, and will appeal to only the upper echelons of competition cyclists, but the economy of scale will undoubtedly reduce prices to the level where they may be bought in your local high street bicycle shop.

So, in the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard…

“Make it so!”

Well, Maybe buy one of these after I have bought the tyres! If I have any cash left!

[1] National Aeronautics and Space Administration