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March 2009

A Trip to Hospital

Nathan crashed out
Shattered, after shopping and feeding the ducks in Wetherby on Monday

We had a very scary experience on Thursday night with Nathan. He’d been a bit funny all week, slightly off his food and also snotty, but otherwise fine. On Thursday night, he came home from nursery (where he’d eaten very little) and wasn’t interested in food or play, instead sitting on Jill’s lap and watching ‘
In the Night Garden’ or ‘Piggle-Garden’ as he calls it. I’d just taken his temperature (which was high) and gave him some Calpol to return to the room and find him shaking and going blue around the lips. He also didn’t seem to be breathing (we thought he was choking and asleep). So, we took him to the kitchen, and gave him the pats on his back to clear his throat, and he came out of it. He was very glazed, and we decided to head straight to Harrogate for the out of hours surgery.

We talked to the out-of-hours team on the way and they sent us to A&E, and then he was admitted to the Woodlands Children’s Ward for observation. Predictably, he found this a reason to perk up, especially when he saw the toy car transporter and the train set. He was kept in for the night, and Jill stayed with him. By the morning, one of the trains on the set was being referred to as “My New Train”. We were all set to go home with him on Friday, when he woke from a sleep with an even higher temperature, so had another shot of Calpol and was kept back for a little longer to see if it dropped back. By the time that happened, the lunch trolley (or rather Thomas the Tank Engine Trolley) arrived with Fish and Chips, which he enjoyed.

Long and short of it was that the medics think that he either had a
febrile seizure (which is apparently quite common until children’s brains fully develop) or some form of rigors. Very scary, but also (apparently) very common. He only really got back to normal on Sunday night, and I’m glad that I missed Travcon to stay with him and Jill.

Today he’s been a star, enjoying feeding the ducks, eating lemon cake and generally being a tinker!

A Plague on Both Your Houses

I was torn on whether to use Shakespeare (as above) or to use something equally sharp as I started to write this. The classics won. I should warn you that this is a rant, so you may want to change channels now.

I’m getting increasingly fed up with the whole economic situation here in the UK – particularly as I watch companies which are fundamentally sound collapse as their markets collapse and funds to transition don’t exist (*) – and the finger pointing about who is most ‘sorry’ for the situation. That misses the whole point; rather than being ‘sorry’, why not put some substantive plans together on how you’d resolve it?

(*)unless you’re a failing bank, in which case the approach seems to be ‘have a blank cheque’ and ‘fill in number of billions that you want’.

Let’s be honest, the issue with the economy sits squarely in both the Tory and Labour houses for different reasons.

Labour cosied up with the big finance institutions as they were an excellent revenue stream (and avoided the need to try and fix manufacturing by actually, god forbid, encouraging it) and fell asleep on the job of regulation and oversight. Well, I suspect that ‘light touch’ regulation is gone for a generation at least (as it has related to safety since Buncefield), which is probably no bad thing.

Labour’s record with things financial isn’t that good, in reality. Anyone with an ounce of sense – or project management experience – could point out that just pumping billions into the NHS, education and public sectors was not going to be efficient, as the institutions had been cut to the bone and lacked the people and systems to manage the massive flow of cash. Inefficiency and waste was an inevitable sacrifice on the altar of improving public services quickly. That’s not to say that things haven’t improved, it’s just that things could have been done so much more effectively. I suspect that a lot of the systems are there now, but the horse has left the stable.

Were the years of growth real, or has it been one big financial bubble? If we find ourself in a depression like the 1930s then the latter is probably the case.

The Tories don’t get away with this blame free either; I can still remember the economics wunderkind I spent an hour arguing with on the train back from my interview at Cambridge. He was espousing the arch-Thatcherite stance that ‘manufacturing doesn’t matter, it’s financial services where the money is made’. He could never answer the question of where it came from in the first place; if I was being trite I’d say that we all know that now, as the Bank of England just prints some more.

He missed the point that even if money is an abstract concept, somewhere it needs to relate to the real economy. By ‘real economy’ I mean the economy where something is made, or extracted, that is physical and tangible. There may not be a direct link, but manufacturing underpins all this and the whole house of cards links back to it somewhere. That argument on the then-British Rail train was nearly two decades ago, and as a nation we’ve been tied to that view at high levels ever since. I suspect that people like that guy on the train, now in his mid-late thirties, are part of the reason we’re where we are.

Getting back to the Tories; they haven’t been consistent, have they? Their position started to change as Northern Rock happened to just find anything that opposed the government. Hypocrisy, position changes back and forth, none of this mattered so long as dirt could be thrown at Labour. Criticism, rather than ideas or solutions, is the order of the day. There’s not even the ideological approach of the Thatcherites; no vision, no solution.

I get really angry when I see politicians implying that manufacturing companies need to sort their own houses out, as Mandleson seems to think that the problem lies with inefficiencies and is the companies own fault? But how many companies can handle a 50, 60, 70% fall in demand overnight? How many places have dropped from a 7 day operational week to 5, 4, 3 and in some cases no-day week? The collapse in confidence of the banks has sent consumer confidence over the cliff edge, and sent a shock-wave through the real economy.

If you operate globally, can you also handle the exchange rate with the €uro and Dollar$ collapsing by 25 to 30%? You probably source from overseas somewhere, which means that you’ll be stung when getting raw materials. The devaluation of the pound is great for exports, but did I forget to mention that all the other major economies are in the same boat so the markets aren’t there? Even places like Germany, the European watchword for prudence and caution in finance, have been sucked into this situation. The vast financial house profits in the USA and London meant that the German banks wanted a piece of the action, and used their subsidiaries to bypass the regulations at home. Money moved to the Anglo-Saxon markets, and has gone with them. Talking to German friends and colleagues, many of them are furious about the situation.

I’m not recommending that subsidies are the way forward, but there have to be some clever options. Things like the German government’s payments for scrapping old, inefficient cars which are promoting demand. Things about finding finance to restructure, or some kind of support when short time working is needed over a period. If we don’t find something soon, then we’ll all be working in call centres which will then be outsourced to India or Eastern Europe because there will be nothing left.

I also think that in many ways, we’re to blame as well. The Great British public. The Lib-Dems and others warning on the credit levels, but as a nation, we ignored it, blindly believing the spin that everything was hunky-dory and the good times would roll. We should have spent a little less and saved a little more, and questioned more about what was going on, especially the rumours that used to go around about mortgage operators dubious actions. We all counted our paper gains on mortgages and felt good, rather than wondering why the prices were exploding upwards so quickly. The growth in the economy – or even in the population – couldn’t be the core driver but we ignored that because it was an inconvenient truth. The government bottled a reorganisation of the housing markets towards the more robust Scottish model, probably because of lobbying, and we all laughed all the way to our paper thousands while our youth couldn’t afford to buy a house.

We need to step up and take that responsibility. To manage our own houses, and pray that the political classes get their act together and stop a recession becoming a long term slump. We need to carefully consider who we vote for, because that will have the biggest impact on where things go longer term. I’m not convinced that we presently have a good option, so it may be the ‘least worst’ choice. But voting is important, as it our way to express our choice and authority. Robert Heinlein had it right in Starship Troopers (the book, not the near spoof neo-fascist movie) in that we have to take responsibility and do our part.

Normal service may be resumed. Thank you for listening.

Accidentally Touching Up!


The MacBook Trackpad, image from Apple.com

So, I’m slowly adapting to the world of OS X Leopard and much faster processors with the new MacBook that I’ve been fortunate enough to be given. The only thing that really throws me at the moment is overcoming 13 years of muscle memory which makes me constantly leave my thumb at the base of the Multi-touch trackpad where the button used to be.

Unfortunately, multi-touch means that as a result I find myself accidentally zooming in and out in Safari when I am actually trying to move the mouse around. Most of the time, I avoid it, but every now and again older instincts prevail. I wonder how long it will take me to adapt?

If Multi-Touch means nothing to you then Watch the video found on Apple’s site.

Apologies for the second geek post in a row, but I don’t feel much inspired to post on the last few day’s events.

Casual (Computer) Gaming

Tom Zunder has posted an interesting article on his blog about what the games are that he like to play casually to loose some time. At the end, he challenged us to respond with our equivalents, so here goes.



1. Brainpipe.
Currently top of my pops, Shrapnel Games’ Brainpipe is very strangely addictive. The blurb in the link describes it as “an addictive endurance run” game. It has no violence, except if you crash as you travel through the pipes in the game which will eventually finish you off. It reminds me very much of Tempest 2000 without the shooting, and much more trippy music rather than thundering techno-beats. It is available for Windows and Mac OS X, and has a playable demo. It’s only $15 if you do get hooked.


2. Defcon.
If you grew up at the end of the Cold War in the 1980s and early 1990s, then Defcon will have a strange attraction to you. Ambrosia software have produced a game of mutually assured destruction which is strangely hypnotic and addictive. It supports network play if you register the game, but I quite like the demo version which lets you play against the AI. You build and position your forces, and then decide when and if to attack. Obviously, a multiplayer game allows for alliances and doublecrossing. It’s Mac only, and $25 if you want to register for the full game.



3. Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space
For my third choice, I return to Shrapnel Games and the Digital Eel team. Weird Worlds lets you play out a complete space quest in around 30 minutes, and is wonderfully addictive. You are either a merchant, an explorer or a military commander on a mission to explore space and find as many treasures as possible. The only part which doesn’t seem to be very survivable – aside from flying into a black hole – is combat, but if you’re smart you’ll avoid this. Great fun. Again, there is a playable demo you can download, but it’ll cost $25 for the full version.

That’s my three, what are yours?


A Bit of Bond, Engineering Style.



007 wasn’t there, but we had the Tuxedos and the Casino. You can find him here.

Friday night was great, as we caught up with some old friends from the North-West when Jill & I attended the IMechE (the Mechanical Engineering Professional Institution for those who aren’t in the know) Annual Dinner for Merseyside & North Wales, held in Chester. It’s one of those James Bond style events, with black tie and fancy frocks, a formal meal, and then the fun casino (which Jill has won on two of the last three years).

We caught up with some old friends from work and beyond, and had a good gossip. Jill looked really glamourous (as she always does on these events) in her ball gown, and I did my best to accessorise to her!

The speeches on the night were okay, rather than outstanding. I was originally going to be a bit scathing about the local MP who was the second act on, but then I thought it was a little unfair. She’s a historian by education, and has worked in libraries and then for charities before becoming a politician, and now works in children’s affairs. That considered, she made a valiant attempt at engaging with the audience and being relevant, with only small one gaffe(*). I certainly enjoyed her more than the main speaker, the former football referee Dermott Gallagher.

In previous years, the after dinner speaker had been a cricketer (Geoff “Dusty” Miller) and a radio sports presenter (Gary Richardson recently famous for his under-the-stairs broadcast during the snow for Radio 4’s Today). Both managed to be funny, tailor their speech to the event, and clean throughout. Gallagher’s speech was somewhat disappointing in comparison. It was crude, lacking in depth, and the anecdotes were, to be honest, not very interesting. Better luck next time, I hope. I only wonder if I would have found it better if I had been drinking, and not stone cold sober? I suspect not, as most of the anecdotes just served to confirm that football is not a gentleman’s game.

The Casino went well, but we didn’t win this year! We deployed ‘the system’ again, but didn’t accumulate quite as fast as previous years as the variant of Craps that was being played was slightly more in favour of the house than in past years. We did build up quite a large stash, but then decided to blow it pretty spectacularly in a slightly mad-cap attempt to take the prize for best overall gambler. Ironically, the winner wasn’t too far ahead of us when we started to do this, so perhaps we should have stayed slow and steady! However, it was a bit of fun, and we’re both aware that the system wouldn’t work on a real table, as the statistics are somewhat less in favour.

All of a sudden it was nearly 1AM, and I’d managed to miss several of the people that I wanted to have a talk to, and not talk to others as much as I would have wanted, such as Brian, the production engineer I worked with closely on my very first job after graduating. I drove us back, and we were home for 2AM, and soon asleep. Nathan woke at 7AM, but fortunately my father played trains with him so we got a bit more of a lie in.

All in all, a great night out!

(*) She argued that engineers should have some formal protection for the use of the term ‘engineer’, something that the PM’s office was somewhat luke-warm about when e-Petitioned about this at the start of 2008.

March already!

Where on earth has the last month gone? It feels like someone has stuck the accelerator pedal to the floor, especially now that life is returning to normal with the usual round of work, weekends and swimming for Nathan.

I’m looking forward to the weekend, when we are at a formal meal with some old friends, which should be great fun. We’ll also get some good family stuff done as well. I may even try and get a little of “This Fear of Gods” prepared for Travcon, but that really depends on how much I can stand being at the keyboard and computer (like it has been a problem before!).

RANT
Getting really annoyed with all the stuff about Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension, especially the posturing by Ms Harman. To start to threaten to change laws or work outside them to nobble someone, no matter how odious their attitude, is really dangerous and a slippery slope. They should have got it right when they got rid of him in the first place. And if the RBS board misled them, which is being implied, then they should remove the individuals involved and make sure that they loose out appropriately. Lynch mobs to public disquiet is not where we should be.

I’m also getting annoyed about the fact that it’s okay to bail out banks to the tune of tens of billions, but when a manufacturer enquires about loans to enable restructuring of several million (made necessary by the bank’s failures crashing the market and the lack of available money from them), then it’s time for macho posturing about not bailing out failing businesses from Mandleson and friends. Hmm. Isn’t that what RBS, Bradford & Bingley etc. were? Failing businesses? I think that the government will pay for this at the next election, and we will be paying for it as taxpayers for years to come. However, I don’t see much in the way of options, or much in the way of difference between the alternatives. They’re all pretty much complicit in this.
/RANT

Thank you! Normal service now resumes!

Nathan is being a bundle of fun at the moment, and his language is really developing, which can be quite disconcerting at times. He’s also getting very bossy, a point that Jill and I point the finger jokingly at each other as being genetically at fault for. He’s also become much less clingy when I drop him off to nursery, especially when he sees his friends!

(Okay, so I was a month out with this and have updated the heading!)