Colin's Cornucopia

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Professional Development

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Chapter 8

Professional Development

After just eight weeks in Canada Colin was well established. He had an apartment, a car, two girlfriends and a good job. His company paid the air fares for his wife and child. They arrived on the 21st January, the coldest part of the year in a very, very cold Montreal. They were quickly installed in the apartment with most essential equipment and toys for the young child. His wife soon found herself a virtual prisoner in the flat. Although the local shops were only three minutes walk away, three minutes in 20 degrees below is a traumatic experience, especially for a mother with a young child. Weekends became time for family outings to relieve the boredom of life within four walls.

Colin went out with friends from work on most Friday evenings and used the occasion to see his girlfriend occasionally. Two years later she moved to a small mining town about as far north as is possible in Eastern Canada without living in an igloo. She wrote occasionally when she was coming to town and they would meet and make love. The mutual attraction never faded and the passion never failed.

When he had told her he was bringing his wife and child to Canada she had lost 14 pounds weight in a month. She never stopped pining for him and her move out of town was largely to enable her to throw off the torch she carried for him. He watched her emotional entanglement at arms length. He needed her but there was nothing he could do to ease her pain without destroying his own marriage and hurting his wife and child. His relationship with his wife was in the limbo in which it would remain for all time unless he could disentangle the emotions frozen on that fateful evening so long ago.

His relationship with his son, and later his daughter, was the source of the best things in his entire life. Much later his son  was to become his best friend and his relationship with his daughter was to become rather special. For now he had no intention of doing anything to hurt his relationship with his son.

Most of his effort went into his work. He worked for a company of about one thousand people. It had started during the war when the Mosquito fighter-bomber was produced under licence in great numbers by Canadair of Montreal. There was an acute shortage of manufacturing capacity and every source was utilised. Two French Canadian brothers who sold cars in Montreal started to produce hydraulic pumps in the workshop of their garage. They had been successful and when Colin joined the Company it was by far the largest company of its type in Canada.

Most of the engineering staff were English or European. In the office where he worked there were twenty people of sixteen different nationalities. It was entirely different to any previous experience and he thrived. He was placed in charge of the development work on a new and somewhat unusual project. The company dealt exclusively in the Aerospace field and this project was for a ship. But this was a ship like no other on earth. Although it appeared to float in water, it in fact flew through the water and its design owed virtually nothing to conventional ship design and everything to the aircraft company that designed and built it. Colin was now responsible for developing the actuators for the control surfaces that were much bigger than anything seen in aircraft before. A few years later the Boeing 747 and similar aircraft were to make large servo systems commonplace but at that time Colin and his colleagues were finding their way alone.

After six months the first units went onto test and it rapidly became apparent there were stability problems in the hydraulic amplifiers. This was a very specialized field and there were few people on earth who knew much about it. The man who had designed the system was pressurized to come up with some solutions to, or at least explanations of, the strange phenomena they were experiencing. He was a rather brilliant type of guy but also had severe emotional problems and he was not able to ask for the help that was so obviously required. He made demands for substantial changes to his own status before he would attempt to correct the technical problems. This behaviour was not acceptable to the boss and the designer left within a few days. He later was involved with the landing legs for the Eagle that became so famous in July 1969 when it landed on the moon. But his time in this company was over.

The project stumbled on for a few weeks. There were three different systems involved and a large number of new and unique parts to design, manufacture, assemble and test so there was plenty of work to do. But the project was now overshadowed by the simple fact than nobody knew how to get it to work. One of the systems had been much simpler and had been built and successfully tested so Colin had got a lot of useful experience under his belt by this time. Now it was essential to tackle the stability problems.

One day Colin was making a project report to the boss who mentioned the lack of leadership. Before the end of the meeting Colin had made his bid for the post of Project Leader. There were no other projects available to him at that time and there were no other people in the company who were available, willing and competent to tackle this project. His bid was accepted within 24 hours. There were plenty of people who thought the project was a white elephant or that they had been too ambitious and had bitten off more than they could chew. Colin never had the slightest doubt they could solve the problems although that proved to be more from ignorance than knowledge. Many times in later life he was to reflect that if all the problems of any endeavour could be foreseen then precious few projects would ever get started.

The company was by this time a division of a large American conglomerate and two senior engineers from other hydraulics companies were seconded to them with a brief to solve the stability problem. The project was ultimately funded by the Canadian Government that eventually spent about 40 million dollars. Failure was unthinkable.

The two wizards arrived one morning and worked from the boardroom. They were both graduates of MIT and Colin was quickly to learn why American technology was so much more effective than its European equivalent. There were plenty of very clever engineers in the UK but they tended to get pigeonholed or sealed up in ivory towers. The guys who did the work were, by definition, much less able. Ability automatically absolved the holder from actually having to do anything. The Americans were totally different. There were few barriers here. Two of the cleverest guys he ever met gave freely of their time, ability and knowledge and explained every detail that his ignorant but searching mind craved.

Tests were quickly devised and implemented to test the various hypotheses and within a few days they were pretty sure they were homing in on the problem. The two guys stayed only three days and left for two weeks while new hardware was manufactured to test new designs and to allow the home team to become thoroughly familiar with the new ideas and techniques.

Colin’s best aid was a fellow engineer called Eero Tae. He had emigrated from the UK at about the same time as Colin. His father had walked from Estonia to West Germany just in front of the Russian army in 1945 and had settled in the UK. Eero was as English as Colin but was also modelled by his experiences. He had the ability to actually put his mind inside the valves and amplifiers to imagine what was happening. It was a technique that Colin learned from him and was to put to good use often in later life.

The consultant from California had owned part of the company that he had later sold to the conglomerate and had become quite wealthy as a result. His wealth had not made him lazy. He was still ready to work for his living and to join with the rest of the employees in after-hours activities. On his thirtieth birthday Colin and a few of the guys went downtown for a celebration and the guy from California came with them. It was also his fortieth birthday.

The following morning it was pouring with rain so Colin took his son to school to save him from a soaking and then went into work. He had to take the two consultants to the airport at mid-day for their flight home. They only came up for about three days a month to assess progress and results and to advise on future tests and developments. This day Colin had their notes and briefcases in the trunk of his car. The roads in the part of Montreal around the plant were laid out on a grid pattern typical of most North American cities. Every tenth road was a major highway with the intermediate residential streets being alternatively one-way north and one-way south. Occasionally one of these roads would be wide enough to be designated a one-way highway.

Colin was coming down one of these and approaching a major cross-road, the junction being controlled by traffic lights rather than the ubiquitous Stop signs on every other junction. It was a three lane road and he passed a taxi as he approached the lights. The lights were green and he approached the junction at about thirty-five mph.

Suddenly a bread van came from his left across a red light There was no chance whatsoever to avoid a collision. He swung the wheel to the right and the car broadsided into the van. Both vehicles came to an almost instant stop. The driver of the van went straight through his windshield together with about a hundred loaves of bread. The car had bounced back off the van and the two vehicles were standing next to each other facing the direction the van had been going. Colin immediately saw he was looking at a red light The traffic coming in the opposite direction to the van was sitting waiting at the red light. The van driver was standing amid the loaves wondering what had happened but was otherwise unhurt.

Colin got out of his car and walked immediately up to the driver of the first car at the red light. He asked him to stay as a witness and amazingly the other driver agreed. The police soon arrived and took statements and eventually Colin went to work and then to Hospital for a check up. He was never aware of any ill effects from the crash. He had been very lucky but it did teach him to drive much more defensively in future.

The car was a write off. Superficially the damage did not look bad but the repair costs exceeded the value of the vehicle. The worst problem was retrieving the briefcases from the trunk. Colin and his colleague got a crowbar and went to the scrap yard and forced the trunk open and all was eventually well.

Unfortunately some well-meaning person had phoned his wife to let her know Colin had had an accident but was not able to tell her whether their son had been in the car or not. It would have been much better to have left her in blissful ignorance until he could have called himself. The insurance adjuster eventually found in his favour and overall the incident passed into history.

The Hydrofoil ship for which the hydraulic control systems were intended was coming along well and pressure was increased to speed the development process. Colin was not prepared to commit to the manufacture of more expensive hardware until he was sure the design was correct but the development work was by its inherent nature slow and deliberate. The weeks changed into months and the progress was painfully slow. Each element of the system seemed to have a problem and each element also interacted with every other element. They would get one right by itself only to find it presented a new problem when married to another element.

Each change required the design and manufacture of new hardware that invariably required several weeks. Colin’s main task became keeping track of the work being undertaken and smoothing the ruffled feathers of his boss, who was always supportive, the customer, who had much at stake, the RCN that was anxious for its role and the Government that was the paymaster.

The control actuators were one of the most significant, and untested, part of the very sophisticated ship and the pressure was intensifying daily. Then their bacon was saved by a most unfortunate and expensive incident. A small fire started in a compartment and rapidly spread until the ship was almost completely gutted. The disaster was complete.

This was the height of the cold war. The Russians were building submarines by the hundred with the express intention of dominating the North Atlantic as the U-Boats had done so successfully in 1941 and early 1942. By this means they would isolate Europe from America, a precondition of any future war in Europe. Canada had traditionally played a large part in keeping the north Atlantic open to traffic. In 1945 Canada had had the third largest navy on earth as a result of helping to defeat Hitler's U-boats.

The Hydrofoil, no relation to other commercial hydrofoils, was designed as a submarine destroyer. There was not the slightest chance that NATO would let the project die. There was a verified threat that had to be countered and this looked like a good way to do it. The ship was designed to cruise at 15 knots using an advanced listening gear. When a target was detected it would literally fly through the water at over seventy knots and deliver a sophisticated anti-submarine weapon. The ship presented such a small target that it was virtually undetectable when on its foils. Nothing could outrun it. NATO was not about to let it die and the project continued despite mounting cost over-runs. The fire had given Colin a breathing space.

The complex iterative process of test, analysis, hypothesis, re-design, manufacture and re-test continued for many months with always another deadline to meet, another milestone to be reached. Eventually the hydraulic amplifier worked and a new series of tests were undertaken to ensure the system met the specification. Another serious problem became immediately apparent. The first stage amplifier was a proprietary item from the high-tech industry of California. It was here being used in a mode and over a range for which it had not been designed. Colin was dispatched to California to try to solve the problem.

Southern California was another new world to him. A guy who had left his company a year before entertained him and showed him the Mount Wilson Observatory and the desert and they watched the sun set on the Pacific. The land appeared fabulously wealthy but Colin was not seduced. The smog was pretty awful and the warm January sun too much of a contrast for his liking. They did some good work on the valve and managed to get three samples that appeared to have the required characteristics. After seven days Colin was not sorry to return to the subzero temperature of Montreal.

When the modified valves arrived they were tested on the equipment but still did not meet the specification. A lot of negotiation was done and theoretical analysis undertaken by the customer to see if the ship could live with the distorted output of the control system. It could not.

Several months later Colin was dispatched to LA again but this time the chief aerodynamicist and the Chief Engineer of the customer’s company went with him. The boss of the host company was an old friend of the Chief Engineer so things were quite different this time. Suppliers of proprietary equipment are understandably reluctant to let their customers look inside their products. But when the two bosses are old buddies everything is suddenly revealed.

The problem was solved in one afternoon. The three visitors together with an engineer and technician dismantled a valve and put it onto a test rig. They tried various experiments, testing the water. They discussed each element of the design in turn and learned rapidly how it worked. Then the Chief Engineer showed how he had earned the title. He suggested a simple modification to an element. The modification was quickly made and showed much promise. A firm plan was adopted and the visitors left the hosts to implement it.

The boss of the host company took them in his small private plane to visit another company a hundred miles away. The four of them flew over the Queen Mary that had recently been retired to Long Beach and then exactly over the centre of LAX just above the smog line. Ten miles to the east, the San Bernardino Mountains glistened brightly in the sunshine, while 3000 feet below they could hardly make out the shapes of the jets on the runway. It was like floating on a boat in a sea of brown soup. Colin has often questioned whether the technology he has used so avidly all his life has really brought so much advance to the world.

They landed amid the canyons to the north of LA, did their business and were soon back at the plant to find a valve properly modified and tested. The aerodynamicist checked the results and announced himself satisfied. Problem solved.

They ate an evening meal in a pleasant cottage restaurant overlooking the sea at San Juan Capistrano where the boss dined on his favourite Abelone and the boss left the next day. Colin had the to wait until a complete batch of valves had been modified and tested before returning with them to Montreal. He had the weekend to himself.

When he had arrived in LA he had hired a compact car but the hire company had kept him waiting twenty minutes in the hotel lobby. As a profound apology they had given him a Lincoln Continental at the same price. This was only one small step below a Cadillac and Colin enjoyed the luxury. He drove down the Coast and up to The Mount Polamar observatory. There was thick snow on the ground up in the mountains that was a drastic contrast to the heat of Los Angeles.

On the way back it was dark and he got lost. He stopped to ask the way of a group of people outside a bar. A young girl in the crowd stepped forward and eyed him and his car with a look he had previously only seen in Hollywood movies. She was eating him alive. They spoke quietly for a few seconds and then one of the young men stepped between them and gave him the instructions he had requested. He put his foot on the gas and left without a backward glance. California was not for Colin.

When he reached the coast Road it was dark and he got lost again in road works and finished up in the middle of Camp Pendleton marine base. The soldiers were most polite and helpful and set him on the right course.

The actuators were assembled and tested and were on their final performance testing when the aerodynamicist rang to say he was not satisfied with the linearity. Although the first stage valve was now acceptable the second stage was adding more non-linearities that further distorted the control movements. The problem was associated with the temperature of the hydraulic oil. There was no problem at low temperatures but that was no use, they had to work properly at normal operating temperature.

Any possible solution would have meant a redesign of the complete amplifier and first estimates showed they were likely to finish up with the system with which they had first started. They knew this was unstable. In those days electronics was still in its childhood and although external electronic compensation would have been possible, no one wanted to get involved with trying it. Thirty years later the solution to the problem would have been almost trivial. But they had to live with what they had then. In the event no action was taken and the actuators were installed in the ship.

Colin had become friendly with the Chief Petty Officer who had been his liaison with the RCN throughout the project. The guy was competent and intelligent and the two got on well and spent some social time together. The guy could be surly and moody but was basically OK. One day he phoned to say he would be arriving the following day and was meeting a girlfriend who had a sister in tow. He asked if Colin fancied a double date and he readily agreed.

Three days later the guy arrived at work and Colin asked him what had gone wrong. It turned out the sister had declined the offer of a date and the three had spent two days and nights together in the same motel room. Colin was pretty peeved and jealous but also full of admiration for the man. Colin never worked out quite what his attraction for the ladies was.

This friend was the first test pilot for the ship and he reported that performance was like that of a sports car. It could be turned on a nickel and parked on a dime. Although there was a long and involved testing process the RCN were basically delighted with the ship.

About eighteen months later Colin left to join another company nearby. Alter a few days he decided to clear out some of the junk that had been stowed under his desk by some previous occupant. He pulled out a box with a strange looking device in it. He was advised to take it to a guy in the development laboratory. He got on well with this guy and they became good friends. It turned out that the device, when correctly installed in an aircraft, could detect submarines several hundred feet under water. It could not be jammed or avoided and was highly reliable. The prototype had been thrown together for a few hundred dollars.

At one stroke the concept of a fleet of fast hydrofoils had been rendered obsolete. Now the oceans could be reliably swept by aircraft and any submarine rapidly bombed into submission. The North Atlantic had been rendered safe and the RCN nearly obsolete by one minor piece of adeptly applied technology. Three years of Colin’s working life had been rendered equally obsolete. Such is war. The Hydrofoil, which had cost 40 million dollars in 1969, was eventually sold to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto for a dollar and is still on view to the public.

The next major project Colin worked on was a high-reliability control system for an “automatic” helicopter. He played a large part in the development and testing of the system that controlled the rotor blades and gave the helicopter its lift. The propeller on an aircraft simply gives the plane thrust. On a helicopter the blades give both lift and trust and also control the flight attitude. This is a major stability exercise and requires much ingenuity in its successful implementation. The purpose of the project currently in hand was to provide helicopters for the war in Vietnam that could be flown by relatively unskilled persons. A normal helicopter required a highly skilled pilot with many months of training. Lost helicopters could be replaced, Pilots were much more difficult to find. An automatic helicopter that could be flown by relatively unskilled people would solve this problem. Any reasonably competent soldier would be able to fly it. This was the theory.

The prototype control system was almost unbelievably complex even when viewed from a quarter of a century later during which technology has advanced immeasurably. Colin’s part was to analyse and test every possible failure mode of the control system. He did this as part of a small team and the end result was a system that worked well for several years afterwards.

At this time he left the company where he had worked for five years and moved to a new company but remained working on the same project. There he spent some time analysing and testing a system that allowed the pilot of the helicopter to disconnect the automatic system and revert to manual control in the event of a malfunction. The pilot typically had less than a half second to do this so the he had to be extremely fit and alert and the system had to be right.

After three months work Colin was certain he had analysed every possible failure mode in the control system and had ensured that control would always revert to the pilot when required. A large meeting was held to discuss the system at length with the test pilots, all senior project managers and a telephone link to some unseen questioners in the US. The result was positive and a decision was made to hook up the system and fly the next day.

After the meeting one of the pilots asked Colin a question about a specific item and he gave an unconsidered answer. The pilot was not pleased with the answer and promised that Colin would be on first flight if he could not produce a better answer before dawn. Colin learned well a lesson in discretion.

In the event the reversion system failed and disconnected within one second of first engagement. Fortunately the pilots had been up to the job. The disengagement system had totally malfunctioned in a way no one had foreseen. Helicopters suffer extreme vibration at certain natural frequencies. The bulkheads shake in a quite frightening manner. In this instance the complete control system had been fastened to a bulkhead that vibrated at the same frequency as the relays in the control system. Each and every relay, instead of being open or closed as its design required, went into vibration and the relay contacts simply sat in mid air - being neither open nor closed. No form of analyses could have described this condition. The solution was to isolate the control from the vibration after which no problems were encountered.

The extremely complicated problems that had to be so solved to design and test this system allowed Colin to develop a facility for mind experiments that led to him being able to analyse the most complex problems through to solution without recourse to testing or reality. His mind became a laboratory in its own right. He was to use this facility good effect later in his professional life.

The next and last project Colin worked on concerned high- reliability systems for a major aircraft manufacturer. There was a lot of excellent work in place in the industry at the time but a lot of semi-competent people were pushing hard to extend the techniques far beyond their capabilities. Virtually every system Colin analysed showed serious shortcomings. Most of the people he dealt with showed serious ignorance of the subject, even to the point of insisting that Colin was wrong even when he had committed himself to writing to prove he was right. Company and even national politics was more important than the truth.

The “politicians” within the company typically seized upon a good idea and pushed it into every circumstance they could imagine as the solution to every problem. Not one of them actually understood what it was they were pushing. When Colin analysed the systems correctly and minutely he often discovered their arguments were invalid. He was never thanked for this. On the contrary he was treated as a pariah. He was never thanked for saving vast amounts of wasted effort or perhaps saving the lives of thousands of airline passengers who might have been exposed to the stupidity. He was regarded as a bringer of bad news - and treated accordingly.

Fortunately other counsel were in place and it is doubtful if any of these ill-advised designs ever got into service, but as a leader in the analysis of multiple redundant systems Colin found himself very unpopular for showing they were not the universal panacea some thought they ought to be.

This was when Colin decided he would be better off working for himself. He had never been afraid to stand by his own judgment and to accept the consequences. But he became sick of the politicians who knew little except how to curry favour with other politicians who knew how to wrest power from yet other politicians.

It was around this time that Colin read a story which revealed to him a little of the nature of men. It was claimed that in the Bronze age, the village blacksmith was so important to the success of a village that when an apprentice blacksmith had served his time he would be hobbled so that he could not run away. This is a polite word for smashing his ankles with a hammer. Exactly how they ever persuaded anybody to take an apprenticeship in the first place is not clear but the devious ways of man’s inhumanity to man are legion.

Now Colin realized that to show ability meant to accept responsibility and shoulder burdens that other men shrugged off. The men of little ability managed to wangle themselves positions and, having little practical work to do, could spend their lives scheming how to improve their own lot at the expense of the competent men. Those who did the work were so busy they never had time to scheme or petition on their own behalf. This state of affairs manifested itself in the division of technical staff and management. The technical staff who had the knowledge and ability were, and still are, effectively hobbled by the management staff who generally have not the faintest idea what the technology they manage is about. There are some who claim the system works well. Personally I think this schism is responsible for much woe in our society. To paraphrase a well known saying, “Those who can, do; those who cannot, manage.

The only way Colin could see to fight this rotten ethic was to refuse to support it by withdrawing his labour - or more correctly his mind. That meant not using his ability to support the incompetent and the corrupt. The only way he could see to come anywhere near doing this was to become self-employed.

Opting out of society completely was not a practical option but working for oneself might at least offer the option of choosing for whom one worked. A year later he returned to the UK to take over the family business from his ailing father. One of his main purposes was to avoid perverting his talent to support the incompetent.

Before that there was one further event that reinforced his convictions. He was involved with preparing a specification for a proposal or quotation for the flight control system on the European Multi Role Ccombat Aircraft that later became known as the Tornado. The specification for the flight control was initially presented as a series of statements dictated by test pilots as a result of their experiences in flying a test bed aircraft These men had been Dutch and the specification had been translated to English with the consequent stilted phrases and strange colourings inevitable in direct translations.

When this was presented to the Engineering team everyone shrunk back and looked at Colin. He had established a reputation for logical analysis and it so happened he had just completed his current project. He and a Dutchman, who knew the pilots, set about analysing the fifty or so statements that described how the aircraft should work. After three days work and a few phone calls to Holland they were satisfied they understood what was intended.

Colin and Peter Van Roon then made a painstaking analysis of each sentence describing mathematically how each part of the flight control system should act in order to achieve the requirements of each statement. Some sentences had both explicit and implicit requirements. Colin defined each of them mathematically. The result was around fifty mathematical statements in the form of Boolean algebra. A few hours work were required to reduce these statements by the elimination of redundant requirements and judicious combining of other specified events.

The end result was a set of five Boolean equations. Colin then transformed these into a Truth Table containing only fifteen entries that defined every possible relationship of every possible movement of each element of the flight control system. Colin had reduced three pages of bewildering detail to just 15 entries of “1” or “0” in a simple table. Colin was both surprised and pleased with the result. The physical design that resulted from this analysis was simple indeed.

The proposal was duly submitted and Colin was very pleased three months later at the second go round to find his table a part of the official specification. The downside of this was that he would not have minded if they had rewritten it or presented it in a slightly different way but they had actually photocopied the original document. He could clearly recognize the distinctive type of the office typewriter. Word processing had not yet been invented.

The customer had plagiarized their submission and stolen his ideas without even acknowledgement. Writers have for years complained about their work being stolen. In industry it is considered normal. Colin learned to play his cards closer to his chest and reveal as little as possible. This event was especially galling as the Euro Politicians were to ensure that there was no chance whatsoever of this contract leaving Europe. They had simply stolen the technology. This was the first time Colin had reason to wish he had withdrawn his labour.

Colin has met many people in all walks of life and of varying competence who withdraw their ability as a matter of course. Hardly one of them could have explicitly explained why but they all withdrew their effort because someone else would benefit more than them.

The first example Colin ever came across was when he was sixteen years old. The father of his friend Paul refused to work on Saturday mornings. He was a man of competence and had a very well paid job and a good rate of overtime pay. Colin was very puzzled and when Colin asked he explained that with the cost of getting to work and the imposition of “Supertax” which was then payable at about 80% he finished up working five hours for about two shillings. That was another lesson Colin never forgot.

The reality is that most people spend much of their lives withdrawing their labour to protect their interests or, sometimes, their sanity. The reality is that we have a perfect right to enjoy our lives as individuals to the full but are very rarely able to achieve that ideal because of the imperfect philosophical and political systems in which we live.

But that’s another story.

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