Tag Archives: Work

Symposium Poster Ideas

My paper was accepted for presentation at the INCOSE Symposium in Rome this summer – very exciting, although I’m going to have very little time for exploring.

In fact, the paper was accepted for presentation as a poster, so I need to rearrange it and get it ready as a single sheet poster, which I then stand next to and talk about. Like a mini-ad-hoc presentation, on my feet, with people coming and going. I’ve not done this before, and it sounds pretty interesting. I will be able to draw on my years of experience doing theatre and improv (except I was not that great at improv, so I was the compere instead).

The paper is also being held in reserve in case someone else can’t present, so I need to get that set up as well. Double the work for possibly half the result. Oh well.

The paper itself is about the custom database I developed to manage the requirements with respect to the Code of Federal Regulations for the California High-Speed Train Project. This is a big project, with lots of interest from all quarters, which means that as well as my own paper, I’ll be fielding questions about the whole project. I’d better swot up on some key details.

It has to stand out, though. I was talking to a colleague aboiut how to make the poster more interesting, and we came up with some possible improvements to a static poster.

  • Add pop-up book features such as
    • Rotating wheel with little window showing – different requirements scenarios?
    • Opening flaps revealing – result of data query?
    • Pull tabs to show – data flow?
  • Add visual effects to make it stand out
    • Prismatic animation like when a picture of Jesus blinks when you walk past
    • That thing where you move a film back and forth and the stripes make the horse gallop
    • Kaleidoscpe to imply project complexity
  • Introduce texture to increase interest
    • Sandpaper
    • Plush fur
    • Crinkly material
  • Introduce sound to grab attention
    • Squeakers in certain parts of the poster
    • Sound chips with various reward/punishment sounds
      • Klaxon warning sound in “Problem” quadrant
      • Applause sound in “Conclusion” quadrant
  • Scratch ‘n’ sniff


Write It Down

As an engineer, we are often reminded how important it is to write stuff down. Stuff that’s written down is more available than stuiff that exists only in someone’s head, or in someone’s private stash somewhere. In the UK, the warning was always,

“What if you fall under a bus tomorrow?”

– leaving the rest of the project in the dark about what you had planned.

In the US however, the version of the warning I hear more often is

What if you win the lottery tomorrow?

which is a much nicer and more positive message, typical of “sunny California”, perhaps. Of course, there are extremes in both places. One colleague in London would say

What if you get torn apart by wild dogs tomorrow?

– dark, but unlikely (although I can’t be sure about Tooting HAHAHAH). Another colleague in the US, when greeted and asks how he is, responds, “Top o’ the world, Ma!” which is fun and yet also dark when you realise where it’s from.

Actually, thinking about it, if winning the lottery meant you immediately quit and never saw any of your colleagues again and you didn’t go into the office to hand over to your  replacement – not such a positive message. It’s a good measure of how much you enjoy your job and like your team. I like to think that if I won the lottery and won a life-changing amount of money, I would have at least a few minutes for my esteemed colleagues. Send them a note at least.

Engineering An Agreement

I have worked in engineering now for well over 10 years. I don’t have any direct certification in a specific engineering discipline, like Civil Engineering (concrete and steel), Electrical Engineering (copper and insulation), Mechanical Engineering (pumps and valves), Software Engineering (code and networks). Because of this, don’t listen to anything I say. Also because of this, check out my incisive outsider commentary!

It’s been railways for me for the majority of that time. Not actual signaling, or rolling stock, but the peripheral stuff like configuration management, data harmonization. You know, all the stuff that gets left to the end when there’s no budget left because all the proper engineers used it up building tangible things.

I want to share with you a theory that has been simmering away for several years now, based on my experiences working on several large-scale projects. It combines mathematics, engineering, politics, psychology and a pinch of not having posted anything for a while.

If you ask a railway engineer how something is currently or historically done on the railway, they will give you two answers:

  • How they think it is done
  • How they think it should be done

This is equivalent to n*2, where n=number of Railway Engineers. There is no guarantee that either of these answers is how it actually is done.

If you get two railway engineers together, and ask them the same question, they will give you SIX answers:

  • How Engineer A thinks it is done
  • How Engineer A thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer B thinks it is done
  • How Engineer B thinks it should be done
  • How the two engineers uneasily compromise that it should be done

This is equivalent to (n*2)+2, where n=number of Railway Engineers. Again, there is no guarantee that either of these is how it actually is done, but the probability that one of the answers is correct is rising, along with your blood pressure.

OK, now it gets good. If you get three railway engineers together, and ask them the same question, they will give you TEN answers:

  • How Engineer A thinks it is done
  • How Engineer A thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer B thinks it is done
  • How Engineer B thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer C thinks it is done
  • How Engineer C thinks it should be done
  • How Engineers A and B uneasily compromise that it should be done
  • How Engineers A and C uneasily compromise that it should be done
  • How Engineers B and C uneasily compromise that it should be done

This is equivalent to (n*2)+(n!/2!(n-2)!)+1. In fact this also works for two engineers, because n!/2!(n-2)! = 1 where n=2.

Let’s try another, before exploring what is happening here. If you get four railway engineers together, and ask them the same question, they will give you FIFTEEN answers:

  • How Engineer A thinks it is done
  • How Engineer A thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer B thinks it is done
  • How Engineer B thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer C thinks it is done
  • How Engineer C thinks it should be done
  • How Engineer D thinks it is done
  • How Engineer D thinks it should be done
  • How Engineers A and B uneasily compromise that it should be done after lengthy mind-draining squabbling
  • How Engineers A and C uneasily compromise that it should be done, after hefty chunks of reminiscing about the Great Western Line
  • How Engineers A and D uneasily compromise that it should be done after using the phrase, “Agree to disagree”, and then starting again 10 minutes later
  • B and C really went at it. I had to leave the room.
  • B and D managed to agree despite long-standing bitterness over someone pulling rank during a design meeting 7 years ago.
  • C and D went for coffee and came back with something.

At this rate, if you got ten engineers in a room (at the same time, on time, which is a feat in itself), you could reasonably expect to get at least 66 answers out of them, as well as a lot of whining and bloodshed.

Hold on – at least? There could be more? I hear you. That’s where the mysterious and terrible OPTION X comes in. There is the danger that more than two railway engineers may agree on how something is done, but as this is not a theoretical mathematics blog, we can safely discount it. But there is the interaction between answers (in a form of semi-aware self-propagation), and the psychological issue of the engineers not actually answering the question you ask them, but rather the one you should have asked, or that they knew you actually wanted to ask, they just knew. But that is an issue for another time, i.e. not my lunchtime.

After all, whats the point? It’ll all be MAGLEV and PRT before you … ha ha ha sorry couldn’t resist.

Writing Things Down So I Don’t Forget

When I was employed in my first “proper” job, which in fact I have to this day, I was always trying to find ways to organise my thoughts and notes in such a way as to record everything I needed to know, and to remember, and to write up elsewhere. I would watch respected senior colleagues draw margins in notebooks, and scribble with pencils and fountain pens, and try to incorporate their methods. Now, finally, as I approach 38, I feel I have settled on a pretty decent system. It’s just a few things I do, and I don’t know if it’s perfect or even ideally suited to me, but I thought I’d lay it all out in plain sight.

The Tools

I use a regular hard-backed spiral bound notebook, with the spiral on the side rather than on the top. In the UK I would use a A4-sized one. Sometimes it would book-bound rather than spiral, which didn’t matter much. Now in the US I use some weird thing that is 7″ wide by 9 1/2″ tall. Doesn’t really matter. This book is my everyday notepad, work to-do list, sketchpad (I’m an engineer who thinks in diagrams), and everything else. I also use Outlook for email and calendar, but I carry the book around, to meetings and so on. It’s my record of everything. I have a shelf with about half a dozen of them.

I have one blue and one black Parker Vector fountain pens. I find that my terrible handwrting (I’m an engineer after all) is at least partly legible if I use a fountain pen. Failing that, I have a couple of Pilot G1’s floating around. I also have a Staedtler Mars 780 lead holder for pencil sketches. I love the metal knurling, but wish it would stay sharper for longer – the lead pointer makes such a mess.

The Method

In the insde front cover, I write the date, so that I know when I started using the book. When the book is full, I write the date again. This gives me a record of all my notes.

I number the books pages in the top outside corner as I go, and give it a margin if it doesn’t have one, using the old hold-the-pen-with-fingernail-against-edge-of-book-to-get-straight-margin-line-method. My current book has margins, and date boxes and all sorts of good stuff.

As I write stuff down during meetings, I draw a little box next to each task, or other notes if they’re required. Then later I can go through, rewrite stuff, and check off the tasks. When everything on a page is done, checked, ticked, or otherwise finished with, I write a diagonal slash across the bottom outside corner. That way I can flick through and see that there is nothing on that page that needs my attention.

Once a bunch of pages is completed, I clip them together using a small foldback clip. If I have one undone task on a page which is preventing me from marking the page as complete, I copy it to a newer page, marking the number of the new page in the tasks little box. On the newer page, I also mark the task with the page it came from, to show that it  has been deferred, and should be dealt with quickly.

That’s it really. Pretty simple. Considering it took me years to settle on a method that seems to work, you’d think it would be more complex and profound. Nope.

Anecdote: A colleague used to use a small tape recorder to record thoughts on the way home in his car. It was quite amusing what he would do to mark the end of one thought and the start of another – when he had finished talking about one subject, he would make a long, low beep noise, “beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep”.

Later, when he was trying to find his various thoughts on the tape by using the fast forward and rewind buttons, he would be able to hear his speeded-up talking, interspersed with high pitched, “biiip!”

Alternative Schedule

I’ve signed up on the Alternative Work Schedule here in the office. It means I work 9 hours a day Monday to Thursday, 8 hours on Friday and every other Friday I get off. It was offered to me when I first arrived, and having thought about it and seen people doing it, I’ve taken the plunge. Tomorrow I have the day off!

It does mean that I have to get up earlier and start earlier if I want to get home in the evening at a reasonable time. This is not easy for me. I seem to be managing so far, by being orgainsed and laying stuff out the previous day. I’m barely human when I wake anyway. I’m reminded of an old Cornflakes ad, which showed “early man” (i.e. before his cereal) as being like a caveman. Thinking about it, it was probably the shower and cup of tea that got him going, rather than the milky flakes. Another illusion shattered.

This week I’m using my extra time to go to LA this evening. We have a busy plan laid out, things to see, people to do. Other times, we’ll see, maybe I’ll sip mimosas on the veranda. Or clean, run errands and buy groceries.

Yoorow Two Faasand And Fowah

There’s a sweepstake at work for the Euro 2004 football championships. Now, I don’t know anything about football, so I don’t know whether drawing Sweden is good or bad. “OK,” I was told. We’ll see. I stand to win about £30, so it would be nice.

*cliche alert!*

I do know enough to know that football is the game where you kick the ball with your foot, and American Football is a series of adverts, linked by footage of men wearing body armour throwing a small rugby ball with their hands.

*end of cliche*

*end of post*

*end of tether*


My Baby Takes The Morning Train

There’s a small problem with trying to get a good view from Blackfriars bridge at 8.45am, and that is the trains. There you are, nicely seated, while around you people jostle in that wonderfully English way, without actually touching. The opening bars of “Good Times” by Spiritualized is playing on the old MD (single version, ta very much), the mist is just allowing the Canary Wharf Tower strobe to show through, and what should hove into place but a sodding great Connex EMU.

Not to worry, it got out of the way in time to let me see the monochrome hell of Mondial House. Hooray!

P.s. graffiti perp ‘Tox’ – your tag is really boring. I mean, “Tox 03”? So last year.