Feedback - your letters

We open the floor to your letters; More consultation required to help engineers with disabilities, loosing engineering experience with the economic slow down, green energy takes a battering from you and with the increase storage capacities of modern devices should we be looking to retire the CD?

Interpersonal skills at work

Many of the points in John Dwyer's report on the UK government's employment organisation for disabled people, Remploy, ('Gimme Shelter', Vol 4, #6) explain the immense difficulties that I am now having trying to stay in work.

I have a mental condition called Asperger's Syndrome. It severely handicaps my interpersonal skills but at the same time gives me unusually good technical problem-solving and practical skills. I have been employed as an electronics engineer for about 20 years, but over more recent years have found it very difficult to continue to find jobs that do not combine technical skills with people skills.

I would blame this on the trend to move manufacturing outside the UK to take advantage of low-wage labour. Engineering jobs that remain in the UK are mainly to do with the management of the outsourcing of work. Unfortunately for me, for these jobs interpersonal skills are essential.

I was shocked to read how much it was costing the taxpayer to keep a disabled person in sheltered factory employment as I had considered this kind of work. I am now not going to bother as it is going to cost the taxpayer less money for me to stay out of work and be paid a disability living allowance!

The really worrying issue is that many types of disability, including people with my condition, appear antisocial or even offensive. I quickly get agitated and confused interacting face-to-face with large groups of people, and I have mental breakdowns when put under too much pressure. Epileptics are often regarded with hostility as people find the sight of their seizures upsetting. I know well a person who is physically disabled and has difficulty with such everyday tasks as eating or going to the toilet. This also has caused people distress.

Your article explains that Remploy is being restructured to employ more disabled people in the service industry or in outside companies. I find this very worrying as service industry jobs (your article mentions call centres and back-office services) involve far more contact with customers than do jobs in factories. Indeed, I cannot think of a service industry job that does not involve a degree of customer contact and where the effectiveness of the business is not going to be compromised by employing a person with an antisocial disability.

Unfortunately, Remploy's restructuring is simply going to result in a large number of disabilities that they will no longer be able to help out with, like my own.

Nick Frost MIET, Godalming, Surrey.

Grinding halt

I have already taken a pay cut; many have already lost their jobs. Engineering is now dying fast as the main industries cut back and fold. The construction industry is in trouble and despite all the actions of the government we have seen many public sector projects shelved.

Some engineers who have been offered suitable redundancy have taken it, so we are losing a large element of experienced engineers all in a short space of time. This is of serious concern to the UK. Engineering is a huge direct and indirect employer; all institutions should be making it known to the government that without support we will not survive.

At three million unemployed we can see that things are not good, but when we reach four million I can safely say that this element will be full of engineers, technicians and craftsman. When they are out of work things will definitely grind to a halt.

AP Rivans MIET, Sale.

Geothermal hazards

The article on geothermal energy in the 11 April 2009 issue of E&T ('Going Underground') considers only the micro effect on the area in close proximity to the energy source and ignores the effect on the wider world. It concentrates solely on the engineering problems associated with the change in energy states below ground and its transfer to the surface and fails to mention the hazards.

The effect on the wider surface environment, whilst having no CO2 content, still has a harmful local heating effect. Insertion of water deep into the Earth's crust and its extraction to use its energy content for generation has already been shown to have dangerous effects on the surface.

It has long been known that the Rhine valley is a fault line in the Earth's crust. The Swiss in Basel have recently taken advantage of this energy source and installed a geothermal generating station. I understand that this plant no longer uses this energy source as many believe that the insertion of water deep into the Earth was the cause of the strongest earthquake in the Basel area for 300 years.

A little further up the valley towards Freiburg, the village of Stafen (of Dr Faustus fame) recently introduced local-area heating from an underground heat source. Within a short period of time, the newly refurbished town hall moved several millimetres towards the famous restaurant of Dr Faustus in the town square. The townspeople hope that switching off the heat removal system will allow the area to stabilise. Initial results look favourable.

Significant money has already been thrown at geothermal energy as a solution for energy generation without CO2. As a member of the public, I now want assurances that geothermal energy extraction will not also have a long-term catastrophic effect for mankind as it is predicted CO2 will have on our climate.

Brian Lewis CEng FIET, Guenterstal, Germany.

Where's the wind?

I note from a news story in the 11 April 2009 issue of E&T that Irish electricity grid operator EirGrid thinks a 500MW Eire-UK interconnector will enable it to increase its reliance on wind power. They should brush up on their meteorology.

For four winters running the UK has enjoyed three anticyclones of ten days or so that affected our wind-power potential. There were also a number of two- or three-day periods. A power curve chart for UK wind covering the period from 30 November 2008 to 29 February 2009, based on UK-wide Met Office data and commercial wind turbine performance figures, shows how our government's wished-for 30,000MW would have performed. Half of that time it was producing less than 3,000MW; the average was 4,000MW, while the low point was 18MW.

Met Office surface pressure charts for 14-17 February 2009 show the classic anticyclone, with widely spaced isobars indicating the shallow pressure gradient, which is why the winds are light. It stretches from the Azores to engulf Euope, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the UK and Ireland.

Of course, we could subsidise 30,000MW of solar power as well, to cover the failures of 30,000MW of subsidised wind power. But at peak load times during that winter quarter, around 5-6pm, solar power is, well, zero. Of course we could have 30,000MW of subsidised wave power as well. But Pelamis needs 5.5m waves for full power, and delivers only 2.9 per cent with waves of 1m. I don't see 5.5m in those light winds.

However much energy renewables produce, they will fail to produce enough power again and again. And if we have carbon dioxide-free nuclear as backup, we don't need renewables. What will we export to Ireland, as we progressively close our real power stations?

WJ Hyde CEng FIET, Offham, Kent.

Why not in the UK?

The automated metro system in Lille ('Driverless in Lille', Vol 4, #6) is a truly remarkable achievement and has inspired other cities to build similar systems. But not in Britain. I fear this will be another example of an appropriate technology not being adopted in the UK.

In the same issue, John Harwood mentions natural gas vehicles and their absence from British roads. If these are suitable for Sweden, France and elswhere, why not in Britain? An article on geothermal energy makes no reference to continental European practice; here in France, even some family homes are fitted with geothermal systems. To me it is a continuing bewilderment why experience close to home is not taken into account when designing Britain's future. Are we afraid of seeming to be copycats rather than world-leading inventors?

John Jaques CEng, Izeaux, France.

Get into it

Ian Henderson (E&T,vol 4, #6) says "Engineers should consider a move to IT as a positive career step". It is perhaps worth noting that this consideration that has been put into positive effect within the formerly IEE membership since at least 1959; ironically, via funding at that time through a scholarship founded by a leading mechanical engineer, Sir Joseph Whitworth (1803-1887).

By the mid-1960s, career transition from analogue control systems engineering to digital computing systems analysis, design, programming, or application roles was here to stay. For instance, a Russian engineering delegation visiting the UK at that time was most interested to learn how the English Electric Company had converted its electrical engineers into IT systems analysts for designing and installing the then innovative multi-computer network for on-line production planning and process control at the Park Gate Steelworks in Rotherham.

George Kelly, Applecross, Western Australia.

Severn Barrage

I have watched the discussions about the Severn Barrage project over the years and feel that someone has missed a trick. A suitable location can surely be found in the Bristol Channel for an offshore energy farm combining tidal, wave and wind sources.

A diameter of 10km could include a useful lagoon area, and protected water of 75km2 to contain an appropriate density of, say, four turbines per km2, tidal range, say 5m, gives average level difference through the tidal cycle of +/-2m. With an effective lagoon wall length of 30km, there is plenty of room for tidal turbines. Tideflow turbines located externally to the lagoon would take advantage of enhanced tide velocities caused by the presence of the structure. Open sea facewidth of the lagoon of 10km would provide plenty of wave energy.

The government could provide the lagoon and civil works infrastructure, the power industry the collection, consolidation and transmission, while contractors lease areas for installation of their preferred technology of generation.

In the long term a better overall load factor is achieved and a continuing development of energy farming technology is allowed to flourish as obsolescence takes place. Load smoothing technologies can be installed and trialled as developed.

And there is no loss of shoreline and associated habitat.

Tim Farquhar CEng MIET, Henfield, West Sussex.

Signalling lessons

Those responsible for designing the mud-communication systems described in 'Glorious Mud' (Vol 4, #6) might find my book 'Principles and Practice of Multi-Frequency Telegraphy', which was published by the IEE in 1985, useful.

It describes in detail the signalling technique developed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office Communication Engineering Department in the 1960s and 1970s for 70bps audio telegraphy over low-power ('tactical') medium-to-long-range HF radio links which habitually operated on marginal signals, suffering from high interference and in-band noise, severe frequency and phase distortion, multiple echoes etc. It would give high-accuracy communication on a signal 6db lower than the noise power in its own bandwidth.

It proved extremely successful and was in service on the whole of the Embassy HF radio network from 1963-93, when it was superceded by satellite. Versions were developed for the first moon-bounce system in 1961, for marine research telemetry etc. Theoretical proposals included communication to supersonic aircraft during extreme manoeuvres and undersea sonic telemetry.

John D Ralphs, by email.

Sounds better

Now that 50GB blu-ray discs, multi-terabyte hard-drives and half-terabyte solid-state 'drives' are available, surely the time has come for digital audio to progress towards the highest, most transparent quality?

While CD offers 44.1kHz/16bit audio; DVD at 48, 96 or even 192kHz/24bit can easily demonstrate higher fidelity through even a reasonably priced audio system.

Further, the fact that there is still a considerable jump in quality from 192kHz/24bit DVD to DXD at 352.8kHz/24bit shows that there is much more to come once our expectations of what is possible are raised beyond 'CD is perfect' and MP3 (or even MP2) is 'perfectly good'.

This is hardly surprising as CD substantially fails to meet the requirements of Claude Shannon's sampling theorem.

Although there will be many instances within a typical sound recording when the full resolution of DXD (or even higher) can make a real difference to the overall integrity and realism of the captured sound, information-content based (entropic) compression can very effectively be used to reduce the average data rate considerably without throwing away information.

In this manner, high sampling rates can be used to avoid any in-band temporal artifacts of anti-aliasing filters without producing a correspondingly high average data rate.

For example, with no compression, 352.8kHz/24bit DXD produces a raw data rate of about 8.5Mbps per channel, or around 60Mbps for a 7.1 channel system. A 50GB blu-ray disc could capture around two hours of this uncompressed 7.1 channel DXD recording, while entropic lossless compression of around 10:1 would provide around 20 hours of high-quality sound. If this isn't enough, fortunately four-layer 100GB and eight-layer 200GB blu-ray recording was demonstrated several years ago, and Pioneer have already demonstrated twenty-layer 500GB recording, so one could easily envisage a 100GB disc (for example) with high-resolution audio to match the high definition [1080p] video, while 200GB discs could easily support super-high [2160p] or ultra-high definition [4320p] video.

James Morrow CEng MIET, Belfast.

Car charging

BBC News on 16 April showed an electric car flex being plugged into a kerbside pillar which accepted a BS1362 plug. Surely the same regulation should apply as for caravans and fork lift trucks namely the blue BS4343 socket protected by RCD?

Similarly, why do lawnmowers and hedgetrimmers not have BS4343 plugs which must be protected by RCD? Whereas ground floor ring mains frequently used for garden appliances can suffer nuisance tripping if protected by RCD when water heaters and freezers are connected.

Christopher Penfold CEng MIET, Salisbury.

Are job specs too precise?

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is quoted as having said, "Nothing is impossible for an engineer", which is an excellent motto for showing the qualities engineers possess for solving problems as they occur using a wide grounding of theoretical and practical knowledge from applied sciences. We deal with future developments and unknown difficulties very well because of our professional training and innate capabilities.

Why is it then that human resources departments and recruitment agencies have become so keen on filtering applicants by the past experiences they have with particular brands of software or makers of equipment? The vacancy descriptions they publish are becoming so long and so specific that they rule out intelligent applicants in favour of anyone with only those items on their CV. Having a broad experience also rules you out.

It makes a nonsense of the engineer's basic skills of successfully dealing with the unknown by nature of his or her professional skills. Recruitment seems to have been taking this direction over the past ten years, treating engineers more like a set of spanners rather than as intelligent, learning professionals.

Surely engineering is about confidently dealing with the future, not looking into the past for limitations?

I was made redundant in 2002, applied for 80-90 jobs all perfectly suited to my skills and experience but resulting in about four failed interviews. I eventually found work via colleagues, and spent several exciting years at the cutting edge of digital cinema and later with high-definition broadcast equipment, none of which I had worked with previously. I wouldn't even have been considered if the posts involved a CV and a recruitment agency or HR department.

Rod Duggan CEng MIET, by email.


What they're talking about on the Internet

A contributor to the management discussion forum on the IET website asked: "I have been involved with some discussions lately at work and have heard some complaints about people who do not respond to requests for decisions, even when the same requests have been made multiple times. I adopt the attitude myself of making a request three times over about a month and if I still don't get an answer then I either forget it or raise the issue with another party. I wonder what the general consensus of opinion is about trying to get answers out of people. Is my 'three strikes' method fair?"

Two approaches, depending on relative rank and importance. Copy second and third request to his and your managers, or, after the second request, say you will do so and so unless he tells you another course by x. And copy this to both managers. In other words, you make the decision and make them say what you are to do otherwise.

I used to add to my request "Nil response means acceptance of my proposal". I found that worked. However, I will say that I do get emails from colleagues that are long, rambling and I'm not sure what they are asking from me. If people do not understand what is being asked of them they tend not to ask for fear of appearing stupid.

My advice is to think how you present the request. For example, if it is particularly important then visit them or pick up the phone. Be prepared to explain your request in simple terms but be very clear what you need from them. I don't mind email requests but they usually only tell part of the story I may need to know before I can make a decision. Finally, people are egotistical; they like to feel valued and important, so pamper to that.

I often find the most productive way is telling the party you are asking what you think/or will assume if they don't reply by a given time. I also find it useful to outline the key alternatives that I can think of as such almost giving them a menu from which to take their choice. I tend to ask for this sort of thing via email, if for no other reason than it gives me a record to refer back to. You would be surprised how many people don't read half of their emails though so a quick phonecall a few days later can quickly get you the answer you need. I would then advise you to send another email detailing what was agreed verbally so as not to rely on memory.

I tend to ask face-to-face when I can; I am not too fond of using emails and have been critised for using them in the past. The main issue with face-to-face is that some people will always go down the old route of "I don't remember you asking me". I can also see a point that some of the techs raise that their engineers don't provide them with assistance and the engineers are really the ones that should be providing the answers. That unfortunately leaves them trundling to my office for advice.

Join the debate, or start one of your own [new window].

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