Monday, 18 June 2018

Book Review


I have just read "Ignition!" by John D. Clark. It's an informal history of liquid rocket propellants and while it's a great read I'd have probably enjoyed it more if I had a degree in chemistry. Some great authors send multiple characters (or generations of characters) through similar trials, or have recurring themes that affect all the characters. (I'm looking at you Hugo, Dumas, Tolstoy, etc.) In Clarke's book  you get something similar, but the characters are hard to relate to and have difficult names like C-stoff, S-stoff, N2O4, Mixed Oxides of Nitrogen, Inhibited Red Fuming Nitric Acid and Unsymmetrical Dimethyl Hydrazine. The recurring themes are eutectics, equilibrium mixtures, toxicity, corrosion, unacceptable freezing points and the tendency to explode unexpectedly.

Asimov writes a gushingly complimentary foreword and compliments Clarke's short stories handsomely. Ignition is also really fun to read, it contains some great stories, and wicked phrases.

I learned most from the chapter on rocket performance and I now have a much better understanding of Specific Impulse. It's normally defined as the thrust of the rocket (in pounds) divided by the rate that the rocket consumes fuel (in pounds per second). It comes out in seconds. I've never been particularly happy that the quality of a rocket motor is measured in time, but I have manage to justify it to myself by thinking that it's sort-of how long a rocket could hover before it runs out of fuel. Clarke shows us that it's a ridiculous measure brought about by the horrific ambiguity of force and mass in American scientific units. If you just apply Newton's Laws, common sense, and basic algebra you can see that all the fuel being consumed is coming out the back of the rocket (or there's something badly wrong with your design) and that the force applied to your rocket is the same force that's accelerating you exhaust stream.

Specific impulse becomes the velocity of the exhaust of a rocket divided by the standard acceleration due to gravity. Clarke correctly points out building a rocket whose sole purpose is to get away from earth and then expressing its exhaust velocity in terms of the gravity of earth is "parochial and extremely silly". He prefers to think of Specific Impulse as a velocity expressed in units of 32 feet (or 9.8m) and while that works well it offends my dimensional analysis sensibilities. I now think of Specific Impulse as the length of time that a stone dropped in a vacuum takes to gain the same velocity as the exhaust stream.

The book is rather dated. It doesn't cover any developments past the late 60s and it amused me when he talked about Boron Nitrate and discussed the theoretical possibility and the early research that suggests it might have a hard cubic form analogous to diamond.

Richard "8 out of 10 would read again" B

Monday, 11 June 2018


A couple of weekends ago I took my sports car to a track day at Donington Park (GP layout). It's a great track and we had a wonderful day. There was also a couple of very unlikely coincidences (or we're living in the matrix, there was a segmentation violation and my private memory area spilled out into the general simulation).

We were there on a Friday, but the paddock was already filling up with cars that would be racing at the weekend. One of the races was "Mighty Minis" and we had great fun peering at the race-prepared classic minis. One of my more disparaging comments was "I don't think much of their fusebox". A circuit board full of fuse holders was screwed straight onto the shelf above the passenger's knees (if there were a passenger seat) with no cover or protection of any kind. About a minute later when we had walked back to my car, the glue on the back of the velco that holds my luxuriously appointed fusebox cover in place failed. The fusebox cover fell clanging into the passenger footwell. "I don't think much of your fusebox" said my friend.

During that same short walk across the paddock I overheard one of the mini racers say "He'll be here tonight, he's getting a lift up with Paul Inch". I said to my friend that that was someone else coming up from Plymouth. "How do you know he's from Plymouth?" "Paul Inch is an engine builder in Plymouth" "That's just a man's name, I bet there's more than one. He could be from anywhere". The next mini we passed had the bonnet open and a "Paul Inch" sticker was clearly visible on the rocker cover with an 01752 (Plymouth) telephone number.

At the same time, 150 miles away, the postman was delivering a Hillman Imp fanzine to my friend and both the racing cars on the front cover had "Paul Inch" header strips on their windscreens.

Richard "coincidence or something more?" B

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Happy Birthday

This year I have had a couple of delightful things drop through my letterbox. In the middle of April I got a birthday card from one of my friends. It was unexpected because my birthday is in July (his other friend called Richard, who's birthday is in April didn't get a card this year) and it really made me happy.

I've always been interested in rocketry. As a child I tried and failed to make my own rockets, but kept all my fingers. As soon as model rocket motors were available in the U.K. I was using them, and I managed to do the final year project of my computer-science/electronic-engineering degree in association with the space science laboratory.

Since about 1991 I have been trying to read a particular book about the development of rocket fuels. It's no longer in print and I have never seen a second hand copy for sale in real life. Since the rise of internet shopping I sometimes look for it, but it's too expensive. A tattered paperback is nearly £100 and a nice one or a hardback can be several hundred pounds.

Last week there was a pristine copy of this book on my doormat in an Amazon package. No receipt, no explanation, no clue who paid for it. As best as I can tell I haven't made an expensive mistake with "one-click-ordering" and I haven't got drunk and bought my sober-self a generous gift.

To my mysterious benefactor: Thank you very much, I'm delighted with the book, I have no idea how you can have known how much I wanted it.

If the valuable-and-hard-to-come-by-book-fairy reads my blog, let me say this: Milliken and Milliken "Race Car Vehicle Dynamics" ISBN 1560915269

Richard "Thank you" B

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Trigger Warning

I always worry about murders and violent crimes that have more than one perpetrator. How does anybody invite somebody to join them without fearing that they’ll just ring the police instead? "What do you fancy doing tonight?" "Oh I was going to beat a prostitute to death, want to come with?" It's hard enough to find out whether your closest friends would condone very minor law breaking, yet I find myself in a tiny underground that does something that is completely unacceptable to the public at large. You'd probably call it "Un-PC Chicken".

I grew up in a golden age of language when "spastic" "homo" and "joey" were workable and useful insults. Since then the education establishment, the media and all public discourse has been filled with talk of inclusivity, tolerance, egalitarianism, individuality, antiracism, antisexism, and the horrors of offence-taking. To put it another way, I have barely read, heard, or seen anything that doesn't strongly imply that I'm just a stone's throw away from being a violent, sexist, racist monster.

The game, which contains no malice and is played in private, just involves using proscribed words and idioms, generally as a source of comedy. Most of it would probably be illegal if I wrote it down here. As a mild example I was recently on a flight to Spain with one of my co-conspirators. We were flown by a lady captain and that was the first thing we told the chap who picked us up. "Was she able to park it up at the stand?" he asked. Not because he thinks women are any worse at parking cars and aeroplanes than men, but because we've all been told so many times that they aren't.

A few weeks ago I though Un-PC Chicken was going a bit far, but I had misunderstood what was being said. I was in the kitchen, my friend was watching TV in the lounge. "My god look at his hair, he looks like a monkey". "That actually is a bit racist". "No. A Monkee" "eh?" "Davey Jones, Mickey Dolenz, The Monkees".

Richard "PC" B

Tuesday, 22 May 2018


Apparently I am sometimes an entertaining storyteller, but usually I'm precise and concise in my speech. A couple of weeks ago I was at a wedding in Spain, but the bride and groom and most of the guests were from Seattle. I knew some of them from the many times that I've visited Seattle (there was a girl involved). One of the guests had been primed to ask me about all my previous visits and had been told to expect "a wonderful romantic story full of tension and texture and local colour". He was disappointed when he got talking to me, asked me about it, and I told him "Yeah, so I used to date a shop assistant from Fremont".

When I got home my mum asked me all about the wedding and apparently "a white dress" wasn't a detailed enough answer to the question "what did the bride wear?"

Richard "quite the raconteur" B

Thursday, 10 May 2018


At the weekend I have to give a short speech at a wedding so I have been talking about speeches at weddings. One of my friends was embarrassed by her cousin's lesbian wedding because there were readings with childish and poorly disguised sexual overtones. One of my friends got married on Star Wars Day (May the 4th be with you) to make it easier to remember his wedding anniversary. His best man's speech was brilliant - funny, personal, mildly insulting, and all tied together with a really positive message. I'm still not sure if it contained the best camouflaged dirty joke I've ever heard or if I've just got a dirty mind. The best man talked about how much time the groom spent playing "Football Manager" on his computer, he'd played so many seasons that his computer was simulating the premier league in the year 2083. The best man said, therefor, he was very pleased when the groom met his bride because he could spend less time alone, locked in his bedroom with his laptop.

My "invitation" to speak included the exact length of the speech, a whole range of topics that I'm not allowed to cover, what the general message should be, and how the speech should end. I believe I can give a speech that they'll like, but I was sorely tempted to write a more traditional speech and then bleep out (or mumble) the vast majority of it.

Richard "This time I won't wrestle the bride to the floor" B