Sunday, 27 November 2011

5-Things As Good As "Jesus Christ in Richmond Park"

I grew up in Richmond and have spent many happy hours playing, walking and cycling in Richmond Park. It is a centuries-old deer park and a place of sanctuary and beauty at all times of the year. The deer are a curious addition, generally content to be left alone, though cycling through at night you will often encounter herds of them on the road, their eerie silhouettes punctuated by reflective eyes, glowing in your headlights. The park welcomes all sorts of people, the old, the young, the disabled, the not-yet-disabled, intellectuals and, yes, downright idiots who are free to gambol within its borders. It therefore came as little surprise to me to see this video of a courageous canine called Fenton (no, it's clearly not "Benton" and I refuse to get into an argument about this) on Facebook. Arrogant dog owners whose pets can do no wrong are always letting their little devils off the leash to bother the wildlife of the park, so my reaction to the video was light dispair, but no more.

It did, however, come as a shock to me to see this video being portrayed by mainstream media as one of the best things off of that internet, with The Guardian , HIGNFY & The Now Show  all enraptured by this utterly unremarkable clip.  I'm not sure what combination of magic things this video has, but I'm guessing that middle-aged man shouting + animals + cars + out of control situation = COMEDY GOLD.  Therefore I present 5 of my hot and steaming ideas for this format:

1)  Downton Abbey - An Unseemly Occasion:
Elisabeth got dressed quickly that morning, leaving a little bit of ankle showing.  This distracts a randy cart driver, whose vehicle overturns, releasing all of the caged parrots inside.  In the ensuing confusion,  whilst he trys to recapture them, the parrots reveal scandalous truths about the Lord Mayor of Downton.

2)  Prime Ministers' Questions WILD:
PMQs are held in a safari park with each of the two main parties bellowing arguments at each other from their battle-buses.  The debate ends when a naughty monkey steals the windscreen-wipers from Nick Clegg's Vauxhall Astra.

3)  Top Gear - Hamsters to Hamburg:  
Jeremy Clarkson decides that he wants to one-up Richard "The Hamster" Hammond by driving in a hamster to Hamburg with a construction montage showing him carefully attaching an engine, wheels and license-plate to the unfortunate creature.  Sadly his journey ends in Dover, when the hamster overheats, at which point a frustrated Clarkson bellows at its tiny red face.

4)  The Extinction Factor:
10 of the world's most endangered animals must perform tricks for the judges, whilst Simon Cowell slags them off for their poor adaptibility to a changing environment.  Will The Pandas' cover of "So Lonely" by The Police save them, or will they be pipped by the audience-friendly urban-dance stylings of the Leatherback Sea Turtle?

5)  How I Met Your Plover:
A heart-warming sit-com about the ups and downs of a man driving across America, looking for love, before meeting the sea-faring wading-bird of his dreams.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Tales of Everyday Madness - Tywyn Bay

The people of Tywyn Bay, Wales, are fighting a battle with nature and themselves.  

“Tywyn” literally means “beach” or “sand-dune” in Welsh, an impermanent feature weathered and beaten by erosive forces.  Yet the people of Tywyn show none of the passivity of their namesake, choosing instead to build coastal defenses, creating their own eddy against this ineluctable tide of entropy.  Of course, they can only hope to do this for so long and it’ll become uneconomic long before the heat-death of the Universe makes it impossible.  So, for a while, they’ll carefully place rocks in the sea, their Canute-like protrusions offering momentary respite from the inevitable.

Against the backdrop of this tragic hubris a smaller madness presents itself.  The rocks that have been arranged in defense of the town have, themselves, been proscribed and labelled dangerous.  It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire for the people of Tywyn, with their homes saved, only for this new menacing threat to emerge.  The local authority thought that they’d decapitated the hydra of sea-side devastation only for “slippery rocks” and “man-made voids” to rear their ugly twin-heads.

Perhaps this is the final evidence for the non-existence of God.  The justification for blighting the rocks with warnings was “the headland breakwater is a man-made structure which poses a risk to those who attempt to climb onto the structure.”  Given everything deliberately constructed with agency must be labelled and risk assessed, then God could not have created anything.  After all, if there were a God, the Grand Canyon in Arizona should be accompanied by an ancient sign, 10-metre high letters carved into the very rock itself beseeching us “CAREFUL! 1-mile-deep ravine poses extreme health risk”.  Similarly, Captain Cook arriving in Botony Bay in 1770 would have been welcomed to Australia by stones laid out in the pristine beach reading “NO ENTRY: Most things here will kill you” and above us the very stars themselves would read “DANGER: Anoxic environment”.

One day the coastal defenses of Tywyn will wash away and all that will remain will be those dual-language toughened-plastic signs.  I like to imagine they’ll be buried in sediment where they’ll remain for millions of years before being exposed by weathering atop some mountain and surprising a goat.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

A Tale of Two Engineering Buildings

I received this fascinating e-mail today:
We are a group of fourth year Civil Engineers currently undertaking a final year design project. Our brief is to design a link and additional structure between Queen's Building and Merchant Venturers Building. The aim of this 'link structure' is to provide much needed space for the Engineering Faculty whilst aiming to develop an enhanced sense of community between the comprising Schools.
We would like to hear your views on what kind of spaces should fill this new link structure. We would be very grateful if you could spend 2 or 3 minutes of your time to complete the survey at the following link:

Your input is greatly appreciated.

Chris, Ed, Gemma and Matthew
It got me thinking.  Engineering at the University of Bristol is split between the Merchant Venturers Schools of Engineering (MVSE), predominantly computer scientists and electronic engineers, and the Queens Building School of Engineering (QBSE), containing everyone else.  Woodland Road runs between the two, splitting us cruelly in twain from our engineering brothers and sisters from other disciplines.  A cross section of the problem looks something like below, with the MVSE on the left and the QBSE on the right.

It seems to me that there are a number of viable engineering solutions to this engineering problem.

What would your solution be?

Friday, 18 November 2011

What Happens Next?

The room was stark and sterile, strip-lit with the harsh light of my presentation illuminating the dust over my left shoulder.  I produced my prompt cards from my bag and nervously began to give my first ever conference speech.  As I delivered my talk, my pace slowed down and I relaxed into it as I realised that it wasn’t all that intimidating at all - but for all the wrong reasons.  My amplified voice boomed across the 400-seater venue to a total of about ten people dotted about, peering disinterestedly from the gloaming at the periphery of the hall.  As I finished, polite applause was followed by an pregnant pause as the session’s co-chairs asked the assembled lost-souls if they had any questions for me.  They did not.

If I’d had an inkling that academic engineering was not for me, then that was the nail in the coffin.  Life is punctuated by those moments which make the effort worth it, courting a lady to be awarded your first kiss, enduring maddening revision sessions to be awarded a good degree and rehearsing your interview performance to be awarded that dream job.  After 3 years of reading, researching and collaboration, my conference presentation was a thoroughly dunked, doused and drenched squib.

So, I’m coming towards the end of my PhD, writing up my work and hoping to get that out of the door as fast as possible.  What jobs could I do?  One of my colleagues approached me the other day, “here is a job that only you or I could do,” he enthused.  “It’s at Land Rover and requires knowledge of RF, analogue systems and FPGA programming.”  Interested, I pressed him on what sort of work was being offered.  “Touch-sensitive door handles.”  I responded with a look of confusion.  “Here, let me show you.”

“Hmm,” I mused, “I could do that, but I would have to live hating myself forever.”

Where are the great British engineering feats these days?  The government has promised “more infrastructure” but a couple of power plants and a bit more broadband are hardly the bold, visionary projects like the motorways or National Grid of the Great Depression era.  The Severn Barrage has been killed off and capital spending has seen the deepest cuts.  Most appropriate to my skills would be developing systems for 4G wireless technologies like WiMAX and LTE.  However, business interests have meant that these systems won’t be ready in the UK until 2013 at the earliest, as the networks demand extra time to bleed the revenue potential of their 3G networks dry.

In the past, my favourite jobs have been for SMEs whose directors are passionate about what they are doing and whose employees are interesting  eccentrics.  The sort of people who will listen to my random thoughts and rants for at least a minute before glazing over.  Maybe I should join Bristol Cycle Couriers, I like cycling around Bristol and they’re clearly mad!