Thursday, 31 January 2013

I thought I liked living wild...

The Smithsonian Magazine has a rather amazing story about a Russian family that lived in the wilds for forty years, not having had any Human contact for all that time. Having fled because of religious persecution, they allegedly did not even know about the Second World War.
Famine was an ever-present danger in these circumstances, and in 1961 it snowed in June. The hard frost killed everything growing in their garden, and by spring the family had been reduced to eating shoes and bark. Akulina chose to see her children fed, and that year she died of starvation. The rest of the family were saved by what they regarded as a miracle: a single grain of rye sprouted in their pea patch. The Lykovs put up a fence around the shoot and guarded it zealously night and day to keep off mice and squirrels. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop.
Once contact was regained with the family, they had to cope with modern innovations. Cellophane was amazing. However they had seen satellites whizzing across the sky. Their explanation:
"People have thought something up and are sending out fires that are very like stars."

One of the daughters is still out there, alone.

Monday, 28 January 2013


I am not a pet person. I was raised amongst animals - my sister had a Cocker Spaniel and a plethora of semi-wild farm cats. But aside from sharing a couple of goldfish with my siblings, I have never had any pets.

I have managed to maintain this happy situation for nearly forty years. I do not mind animals, but have never felt any desire to get a pet, the practical elements always outweighing any pet-related urges. What do I do when I go on holiday? Will I be a good owner? Can I face cleaning up after them?

Sencan is exactly the opposite. Her childhood home was filled with cats, and her mother collected a menagerie of semi-feral street cats that she still feeds to this day. My wife loves cats, heart and soul.

Last Saturday afternoon, Sencan got a call from out neighbour, saying a cat had been wandering up and down the street, trying to get into houses out of the snow. After watching it for an hour, he let it into the warm. Sadly it did not get on with his cat, so he wanted to know if we could help.

Sencan almost ran next door, and a few minutes later we had an eight-month old cat roaming around. It seemed reasonably well-kept and knew its way around a house - it was soon racing up and down stairs, and found its way into Sencan's lap within a few minutes.

The cynic in me kept well away for a while, but within a couple of hours I was playing with it. It slept downstairs with a kitty-litter tray provided by our neighbour, and in the morning I let it upstairs as I worked in my study. Within half an hour I had abandoned my work and was playing with the cat. In the process it walked over my keyboard and found a debug mode in Google Chrome that I did not know existed. How could I not like it?

Mid-morning, our neighbour came around with a travel-case and took it to the excellent Wood Green Animal Shelter. Since then, it has been successfully rehoused.

I was amazed to find that I missed the cat. It had only been in our lives for eighteen hours, and yet it had firmly inveigled itself into our household. Added to this was a regret and sorrow for a family somewhere nearby who had lost a kitten.

How can such a little ball of fluff change my mind so quickly?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Boeing's woes.

Further to my last post,  the FAA in America have grounded all the Boeing 787s currently flying after two battery-related incidents this year (1). This includes an in-flight fire (2) that took fire crew forty minutes to extinguish whilst the plane was on the ground.

The 787 is revolutionary in several ways - most prominently the extensive use of carbon-fibre, but also for it's 'all-electric' architecture. Amongst other things, this means that pressurisation is not performed by bleed-air off the engines, but by using compressors.

A desire to reduce weight led to lithium-ion batteries being used, which allow the batteries to be smaller and lighter than those used in other planes. This technology is relatively new in aerospace, and lithium-ion batteries carried as freight are suspected to have caused at least one crash already and numerous other problems. (3)

The administration building of the firm who created the charging system for the 787's batteries burnt to the ground in 2006 after a battery caught fire. Additionally, a 787's Power-Control Panel caught fire during flight testing in November 2010 (4), causing further large delays in its entry into service. Whilst such problems are to be expected in flight test, it does look worrying with hindsight, and asks serious questions about Boeing's knowledge of the 787's electrical systems.

So what does this mean for Boeing? it is unlikely that the flight ban will be lifted until the reason for the battery fires are understood and fixes developed. These fixes (they can be fairly simple or massively complex - we should not prejudge) then need applying to each airframe. This will certainly take time and be costly.

Initial suspicions are that the batteries are overcharging. If this is the case (and it may take some time to know for certain and to reproduce), then there are issues of why such problems were not experienced or anticipated before. Boeing will not want to replace the lithium-ion batteries with alternative batteries that are heavier and bulkier.

Worse, the FAA certified the use of Lithium-Ion batteries on the 787, a first for civil aircraft. If the certification process has been proved wrong, their burden of proof for safety will be much higher this time around. As well as alterations to prevent the batteries from catching fire, they may well insist on systems to negate the effects of any fire.

In the meantime, the uncertainty means it will be hard for prospective purchasers to arrange funding for 787s. And this gives an advantage on Airbus, who were massively behind with their competing A350, but who are catching up due to Boeing's woes. Although they have plenty of time to develop their own problems with the A350...


Friday, 11 January 2013

Further 787 problems

Previously I have written about the problems that Boeing had in getting their new passenger aeroplane, the 787, into service. The pane eventually made it into service over three years late, and at massive expense to Boeing.

The introduction of any new aeroplane will be subject to issues; their complexity is such that there will always be teething problems. Part of the aim of any design process is to try to anticipate and reduce these problems before they happen.

Sadly, the introduction of the 787 has been far from problem-free. Firstly there was a serious in-flight fire during the testing phase that contributed to the in-service delay. And since then there have been a series of other problems, several of which have occurred in the last week. There has been another fire, although fortunately when the plane was on the ground, a significant oil leak and a cracked windscreen. There have also been reports of incorrect wiring in some planes. There must have been a few sleepless nights in Seattle.

All of which are perhaps understandable problems - after all, the Airbus A380 has had problem of its own, from a grenading engine to structural wing cracks. But there appears to be more danger in Boeing's current woes. The problems appear to be much wider spread than the A380, and potentially much harder and expensive to fix. 

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a review into the design and manufacture of the plane.Whilst this is unlikely to lead to a grounding, it cannot be helping Boeing's bottom line or order book.