You can write books!

Posted on July 5th, 2016 in books,Electric vehicles,Opinion,Technologies,testing by Julian Edgar

Earlier this year I published my 15th book.

Now that might sound impressive, but you can do the same.

Yes, you!

How? Read on…

My first book, 21st Century Performance, was published in a very traditional manner in 2001. A print magazine publisher (who I’d done quite a lot of work for) suggested to me that he’d be interested in a book on car engines. I asked if that could be broadened to all things car performance, and he agreed.

I put a huge amount of work into the book – not just its content, but also working with its graphic designer. The production quality turned out to be excellent – the photo reproduction (off quality 35mm slides in those days) was outstanding and the general presentation of the hardback darned good.

I also think – and forgive my arrogance – that the content was very good. There are perhaps only one or two points in the whole book I’d now change – though of course I could now add a lot more to the content.

I negotiated a small up-front payment for the book and then sat back and waited for the royalties to roll in. I think that history records it as the best-selling automotive modification book ever published in Australia, but getting royalties out of the publisher wasn’t quite what I’d expected. Cheques arrived, but there were never any statements of sales, and the cheques were all round figures…

Maybe everything was above-board (I still don’t know), but it didn’t feel right.

And the royalty amount? I’d have to look it up but I think the book sold (15 years ago!) for around AUD$70 each copy – and I got AUD$3 a book. That’s a royalty of 4 per cent. (Incidentally, second-hand copies of the book now sell for up to US$350.)

I resolved then never to do another book on the basis of traditional publisher royalties.

My next book – in 2004 – was Performance Electronics for Cars, written with John Clarke for the publisher of Silicon Chip magazine, Leo Simpson. At that time, I was a major contributor to Silicon Chip and, while I subsequently decided that writing for Leo was the last thing I’d ever do on Earth, the book deal was fine. I asked for my normal up-front ‘article rate’ for each chapter of the book, and I was free to use the material elsewhere as I wished.

The book sold well – I think – and probably made the publisher a tidy profit. I got paid a decent amount, so we were all happy.

Time passed…. a lot of time.  In fact, it was about early 2013 when I started thinking about book writing again. I’d just read a really interesting book (On a Cushion of Air: The Story of Hoverlloyd and the Cross-Channel Hovercraft) and the authors had self-published it. I wrote to one of the authors (Robin Paine) and asked him about the process. At the same time, I also wrote to a few other authors currently publishing tech stuff.

Self-publishing, it appeared, meant stumping up lots of cash to pay for everything, while the authors publishing through traditional publishers (like I’d done) did it more as a ‘labour of love’ than a money-making deal.

Then I did some more exploring… and discovered CreateSpace, Amazon’s publishing arm.

At first I couldn’t believe it – just upload a properly formatted pdf and they’d publish the book (complete with ISBN) and list it on Amazon. As people ordered, they’d print on demand (POD). There were no upfront costs, the author could set their own price (above a certain minimum that took into account the printing costs and some profit by the publisher), and royalties would be sent to the author monthly…  And that was it.

To say it again: I just couldn’t quite believe it.

I developed a template (actually the biggest effort of the process) and put together a book from my published articles – it was Amateur Car Aerodynamics Sourcebook, published in 2013.

I followed that up with Inventors and Amateur Engineers Sourcebook, Home Workshop Sourcebook and DIY Car Electronic Modification Sourcebook, again all published in 2013.

I then wondered about a smaller book, and did DIY Testing of Car Modifications, also in 2013.

In 2014 came Tuning Programmable Engine Management, Hybrid and Electric Cars Amateur Sourcebook and Thoughts about Driving, Car Modifications and Life (the latter based on these columns – and bought by basically no-one!).

In 2015 I wrote DIY Suspension Development and then, putting on my other hat as a trainer in high-level writing, I produced Writing Effective Arguments: How to Write Strong Arguments in Business and Government.

Also in 2015, I wrote Using the Brilliant eLabtronics Modules!

This year, in 2016, I have written DIY Loudspeaker Building.

As a contributor not just to AutoSpeed but also to UK magazine Everyday Practical Electronics, I have lots of material available to me. That makes it easier to assemble books, although the effort in doing so cannot be understated.

But the advantage is amazing – it costs me nothing in terms of cash… absolutely nothing at all.

And the royalties can be set as you, the author, wish. Remember the royalty I got with 21st Century Performance – 4 per cent? I typically set my CreateSpace royalties at about 40 per cent (but it depends on the distribution channel that the customer buys through). Therefore, sales can be much lower for the same income.

The downsides? There’re no publisher promotions, no placing of books on booksellers’ shelves (they can order it to sell, but often they won’t). On the other hand, eBay sellers often list your book, and you can buy copies of your own book at a discount and flog them off wherever you want… but you soon tire of that.

Me? I am happy writing books (good for my CV!) and receiving royalty cheques that result in monthly trips to the bank (CreateSpace won’t do direct bank transfers to Australia, so they’re always mailed cheques).

Am I making squillions? Absolutely not (though I would if more people bought my books!).

Is it worth it? – unquestionably yes.

If you have a story to tell, I think it’s the way to go.

If you’re interested, see my Amazon listed books here.

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Manufacturing decline not always as analysed

Posted on June 18th, 2016 in Economy,Ford,Holden,Mitsubishi,Opinion,Toyota by Julian Edgar

I have just finished reading a book on the manufacturing decline that has occurred over the last 60-odd years in the UK. It’s called The Slow Death of British Industry and is subtitled A Sixty Year Suicide 1952 – 2012. It covers, decade by decade and industry by industry, the decay in making things in what was once a great manufacturing country.

The industries it covers include car manufacture, ship building, aircraft design and construction – and also more obscure industries like pharmaceuticals. It describes the companies that fell by the wayside, were absorbed by others, or ended up being split into so many entities that their whole reason for existence simply disappeared…

Companies like Dorman Long (builder of the Sydney Harbour Bridge), Parsons (the inventers of the steam turbine) – and car brands like Wolseley, Triumph and Jowett.

The book catalogues in excruciating detail the union bloody-mindedness, the inept management, the worthless interventions of government, the confusion in direction and execution.

And visiting Britain’s wonderful technological museums (as I have done) where you can see Concorde; the SR.N4 hovercraft; the remains of one of the crashed Comets; the beautiful Jaguar E-type; the fastest steam locomotive in the world (the Mallard); the world’s first code-breaking electronic computers; the Sinclair electronic calculator – it makes this whole story of UK manufacturing success and decline come alive.

But there are some things missing in the analysis. They’re the same things missing in many analyses that occur here in Australia of our similar (but smaller scale) decline in domestic manufacturing.

Firstly, quoting massive reductions in the share of employment that manufacturing comprises in the economy is to miss the point that such changes have occurred in all first world countries. For example, that’s the even the case in countries like Germany and France that are often cited as manufacturing powerhouses we should be emulating.

In much the same way as primary industry (farming and mining) once dominated employment, these days, tertiary (service-based) industries now create most employment. That decline in the share of employment held in manufacturing jobs is exactly what you’d expect with greater mechanisation, use of robotics and so on. We wouldn’t want to be hand-building all our cars, one at a time, as was once done. Productivity would be terrible and cars would be unaffordable. So, of course machines will replace people, manufacturing productivity will improve and employment in the sector will decrease as a proportion of total employment.

Secondly, ignored is that the decline in local manufacturing is based entirely on a reduction in demand for those goods. If the pubic, the buyers, choose not to buy locally made goods – and instead buy imports – then of course (unless they are competitive in exports), local manufacture will decline.

In other words, to be brutal about it, uncompetitive domestic companies go broke. They may be uncompetitive in technology, in branding, in price, in innovation – in all cases, consumers vote with their wallets.

So we hold a major collective responsibility for manufacturing in our country declining. The person who blames the Federal Government of Australia for the loss of car manufacturing in this country – that is, the loss of Toyota, Ford and Holden – often has a Nissan Patrol in their driveway, or a Honda, or a BMW. The person who complains that the last Australian-built washing machine recently came off the production line is the same person who has never bought an Australian-made washing machine.

Thirdly, and as an extension of this idea, globalisation, free trade agreements and geographical shrinking of the world through information technology has increased the flexibility with which consumers can make choices. I source electronic modules on eBay from China; they’re bought from either the manufacturer or wholesaler of these products. I can remember when some such modules, able to be sourced only from local retailers, cost me over ten times as much and would take a month to be delivered.

I can very much empathise on a technological history level with the loss of once great companies, once great manufacturing enterprises.

But that’s a completely different perspective from saying that we should all have paid more for inferior goods– and so on a societal level have had a lower standard of living – to prop up manufacturing companies that had become uncompetitive.

I think that in the future, commentaries on the decline of manufacturing will appear to be as relevant as those that bemoan the fact that most people no longer till farms for a living.



A shortwave radio

Posted on May 2nd, 2016 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

It seems that about every 10 years or so I get excited about radios. No, not radios that can receive only AM and FM, but radios that can hear broadcast signals from all around the world.

They’re called shortwave radios.

In days gone past, shortwave radio stations were the main ways in which governments attempted to spread their gospel: Voice of America, Radio Australia, and so on. These days, streaming on the Web has replaced the need to listen to these broadcast stations – but there are still literally hundreds of stations on these frequencies.

This time I got excited when I saw how prices have come down for really exceptional radios that can work on these frequencies. Specifically, I bought a Tecsun PL-880, a radio with excellent reviews that can receive all the shortwave bands, in addition to being a very good (ie long distance) AM and FM receiver.

I can remember when a radio of this calibre would have cost around AUD$500: mine cost just over AUD$200, including delivery.

So what can it do? Well, there’re too much to cover here but the radio has 3500 station location memories, signal strength and signal/noise ratio meters, excellent sound quality and very good sensitivity.

It also has a built-in whip aerial, but as has always been the case for shortwave reception, better results are achieved by using an external aerial. Which is where this column comes in – yesterday, I spent most of the day putting up that aerial.

Antenna theory is complex – what with resonant modes for different frequencies and so on – but the simplest approach is to just put up a long wire, positioned as high as possible. I live on a few acres on the edge of a little country town, so there is room to put up a big aerial. Easing the process, there are also two tall gum trees on the block, located about 50 metres apart.

My tree-climbing days are past (especially when one of the trees drops boughs occasionally!), but I figured it would be easy enough to get a rope up into the trees from which the aerial could be strung. I ended up using a bow and arrow, the arrow weighted with sand (and then a bolt). A light line was shot upwards and over a tree branch, then this was used to haul up a heavier nylon rope.

At one tree, the nylon rope connected to an insulator I made from an offcut of high density polyurethane.

At the other tree, I hauled up a pulley through which another rope was passed. The rope holding the pulley was tied off. The rope running through the pulley connected to the insulator (and so aerial) at one end, and to a suspended weight at the other.  This weight keeps the aerial taught, even with the tree boughs moving in the wind.

Said quickly it all sounds easy, but it was actually quite a job to get the ends of the aerial positioned in the trees. (And, even then, they’re nowhere near as high as I’d like.) The end result is an aerial just over 50 metres long that is 6-7 metres in the air.

The aerial connects to a copper feed that in turn connects to a coaxial cable, which in turn plugs into the PL-880’s aerial socket. A ground connection is provided by an earth stake.

And does it work? Yes! Night time is best for receiving shortwave signals, and last night I reckon I could hear at least 100 stations.

But were they interesting? Well, not as much as they once were!

These days, with the rise of China in this part of the world, many stations are transmitting in Chinese. In fact, last night I think perhaps only one-fifth of stations I could hear were in English.

It still gives me a thrill though, listening to other countries on a radio.

(And, incidentally, the PL-880 is so effective that, using only its inbuilt aerial, on the AM domestic broadcast band you can hear at night a station on nearly every frequency – pretty good in Australia.)

No it’s not for everyone, but the idea you can hear the other side of the world using just a long piece of wire and a portable radio remains to me a thrilling idea. Yes, even with the Web.

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My new (old) car

Posted on January 12th, 2016 in BMW,Driving Emotion,Opinion,Skoda by Julian Edgar

It wasn’t that there was too much wrong with my 2006 Honda Legend, but maybe I was just getting a bit bored with it.  While I think the Legend is a fantastically under-rated car – what with its silky 3.5 litre V6 and active all-wheel drive – after three years I was also starting to hanker for something else.

The buying criteria varied on the day of the week: one day something spacious and frugal like a Skoda Superb wagon; the next day something fast and fun like a Jaguar XJR. Or, more conservatively, a Falcon G6E, Camry Hybrid or Subaru Outback. But in all cases, the budget was under AUD$35,000, and the car had to be brilliant on the 150km round trip that I do when, for work, I go into Canberra. (This trip might occur two or three times a week.)

Out here, the roads are rough and demanding; you need big lights and the ability to out-brake a kangaroo hopping across the road in front of you. And you also need a car that is easy over long distances – when you’re feeling tired, you want the car to do most of the work for you.

So I looked and looked.

The X350 model Jaguars (2003 to 2007) greatly appealed. These cars are aluminium-bodied, riveted and glued together. They also all have air suspension, and are available with a 3-litre V6, a 4.2 litre naturally aspirated V8 or the mighty supercharged V8. Incredibly, the massive differences in price as new cars is not reflected 12 years down the track… depending on condition and kays, you can buy any of them for much the same money.

Three years ago, when I was deciding on the purchase that eventually led to the Legend, I also considered these Jaguars. However, the pick of the bunch – the supercharged XJR – was then around $50,000. Nowadays, they’re around $32,000. Unfortunately though, there were none available on my side of the country.

[And why have a budget of under $35,000 – in relative terms, not much money? Basically, I think that it’s now enough to buy a very good car. Why? Well, I am not convinced that there have been huge gains in new cars in the last decade or so. For me at least, the major technological improvements of the last 20 years were really good engine management (electronic throttle, variable valve timing, etc) and safety (lots of airbags, electronic stability control).  From a convenience point of view, I like navigation and a good sound system. Pick a prestige car of the last 10 or 15 years and you get all these. Pick a diesel and you’ll also get good fuel economy…]

So Jaguars were off the list, for now at least. So what about BMWs then? If old prestige cars fall badly in value, then 7-series BMWs fall catastrophically. We had a good look at one – huge diameter rims, massive interior space, very comfortable seats… and lots of broken bits and pieces inside. High kilometres too: this BMW reeked ‘money pit’.

And then suddenly one morning I made a decision. We were going to buy a 2010 Skoda Superb wagon, with the 125kW 2-litre diesel and all the fruit. There was one in Sydney (about three hours away) and it looked mint. At $22,000 (but negotiable) from a private seller, I figured twenty grand would get it. Roomy, reliable, reasonably quick point-to-point, well-equipped… yes, this was it.

We went and got $20,000 out of the bank, and off we went to buy the car. My wife, ten-year-old son and I, all very excited.

And in the metal, the Skoda looked really good. We already have a Skoda in the family – a diesel Roomster – so we’re familiar with the practicality built into these cars. The Skoda was huge inside and had lots of thoughtful touches – but it didn’t have navigation. Hmm, for me that’s a downer. (And yes I know I can use my phone but I much prefer inbuilt navigation.)

But what about on the road? I am unconvinced about the driveability of twin clutch autos and, as we moved away from a standstill, I could immediately feel the slightly unprogressive behaviour of this one.

“The transmission has been replaced by Skoda,” said the owner helpfully. He saw it as a positive, but with only 100,00km on the odometer, I just wondered.

The drive was around an industrial area, relatively new with well-surfaced roads. But even on these good surfaces, I could feel the bump-thump of the low profile tyres, and beyond that, the impact harshness was also high. Worse, the car pitched: in ride quality, it didn’t feel well sorted at all. Last time I considered buying a car, I deleted the Superb from the list because a local person with one has experienced dented rims on our bad roads….and driving this car, that wasn’t surprising.

So we said no, and off we went.

It had taken ages to get the money out of the bank (aren’t banks supposed to have money? – they never seem to make cash withdrawals easy) and my wife suggested that, rather than driving home, we stay the night in Sydney. I agreed: that meant we could spend the next day looking for cars – and so we hit the hotel.

That night, I browsed the web, creating a ‘must see’ list of Sydney cars for the next day.

There was a 2004 Mercedes E500 (V8 and air suspension), a 2004 Jaguar XJ8 (this one with the smaller 3.5 litre engine); a 2002 BMW 735i (perhaps this one would be in better condition); a 2004 Mercedes S430 (with V8 and 7 speed auto); a BMW 530 diesel from 2006; S350 and E320 Mercedes (from 2003 and 2004); and another Mercedes E500.  That’s right: no Camry Hybrids or Falcons or Subarus… they’d kinda gone from the list without conscious decision.

Incredibly – well, it seems incredible to me – all the prestige cars were at or lower than the $20,000 we’d got out the bank for the Skoda. I know that expensive cars have always dropped in value fast, but I don’t think in my whole driving life I have ever seen the quality of car now available for the price of an old Falcon or Toyota!

The next morning we were up bright and early – off to see the first on the list, an E500 Mercedes. From the W211 series (2002 to 2009), the E500 was the top of the W211 line (the supercharged AMG E55 excepted). It used a 5-litre V8 with 225kW (and an exceptional 460Nm from 2700 to 4250 rpm) and the first cars had 5-speed autos.

The car we were looking at was dark blue and had a black interior. It also had a panoramic sunroof and an interior that was mint. It also had full Mercedes Benz service history and had travelled just 127,000km over its 10 years of road registration. Surprisingly, it had the 7-speed auto – it must have been among the first E500s in Australia delivered with the better trans. Factory navigation, six stacker CD, nice mix of analog and digital instruments in the dash, superb woodgrain, full memory everything on both front seats. Even a split-fold rear seat (useful for us) and a large boot.

But what would it be like on the road? We took it for half an hour, allowed out with the car sans salesperson.

And the E500 was simply a revelation.

It had three settings for the air suspension; most of the time we left it on ‘comfort’. You could hear the impact of the tyres on small irregularities but could feel nothing. On large bumps, the capacity of the suspension to absorb vertical accelerations was extraordinary. And handling? Hard to find out on a half-hour city test drive, but I threw the car around a few roundabouts and it stuck well, body roll surprisingly low for the apparent softness of the suspension.

But I think that my wife and son were sold the minute I put my foot down: for the V8 cars with the 7-speed auto, the quoted factory time is 6.0 seconds for the 0-100 km/h… and it felt just like that.

We kept staring at each other in disbelief.

How could this old car, that inside felt and looked so modern, a car that went like a cut snake and rode like a limousine – how could this car be stickered at just $18,500? Hell, even if in the future you needed to replace the air struts, or the air compressor, or – well, whatever – you’d still be getting an incredible machine… even for the total outlay.

We offered $18,000 of our cash and the car was ours. That’s less than the price of a new Toyota Yaris….

A big trip

Posted on December 9th, 2015 in AutoSpeed,Driving Emotion,Opinion by Julian Edgar

So in about 3 weeks we’re off on what has become, over the last few years, an annual trip: heading to another country to see the best engineering, automotive and technically interesting sights.

This year, though, it’s more than just ‘a’ country; the plan at this stage calls for travel through seven countries.

So where are we going – and what are we going to see?

The trip starts in Oslo, Norway. We don’t expect there to be long – just a day – before we head to Sweden. In Sweden we will go to the Saab museum in Trollhättan, and Volvo museum in Gothenburg. Also in Gothenburg is the Aeroseum aviation museum – a museum housed in a Cold War era underground bunker.

From there we head across the Oresund bridge (one of the most spectacular in the world) to Denmark, and then down to the Netherlands. In the Netherlands we’re going to the Louwman Museum in The Hague. With 250 cars on display, this should be stunning. We’re also going on a dusk tour of the Rotterdam harbour, the world’s busiest port. The Erasmus bridge, a gorgeous cable-stayed design, should able to be sighted.

From Holland we enter Germany, going back to see a museum we missed last time we were in that fantastic country. It’s the Technik Museum Speyer, an extraordinary collection of aircraft, cars, locomotives, a submarine – and so on. If it’s remotely as good as its sister museum in Sinsheim, it should be a fantastic day.

We then head to Switzerland, passing through the Simplon railway tunnel, one of the oldest and most famous railway tunnels in the world. In Switzerland we’re going to the Swiss Knife Valley visitor centre, where my 11-year-old son very much hopes to make his own Victorinox pocket knife. The Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne is Switzerland’s best-visited museum and looks spectacular – at least in the pictures! We also hope to have time to take the train to Jungfrau – Europe’s highest mountain station at 3454 metres.

Italy is next, with the Museo Auto Italy in Turin. It has what looks to be a quite awesome collection of cars. You’d expect that we’d also go to the Ferrari and Lamborghini museums, but I’d rather see cars that caused profound social and engineering change rather than supercars that, in the grand scheme of automotive things, have achieved little.

We’re also going to Pompeii and Herculaneum. We’ve become interested in Roman ruins as a result of watching an extraordinary series that covers the engineering design of these constructions. (Do a web search under “Great courses: Understanding Greek and Roman Technology”. And note that they discount the course periodically.) From there, it’s back to more Roman ruins… in Rome.

France is next – the Millau Viaduct (that I expect to be the most impressive bridge I have ever seen) and the Pont de Gard (that should be another stunning bridge, this time a Roman-era aqueduct). While in France we’ll also be attending the Cité de l’Automobile and Cité du Train museums.

Something else I am really looking forward to are the WWII Nazi submarine pens at Lorient, huge concrete constructions designed to prevent Allied bombers destroying the German submarines then berthed there. Of the same era in terms of historic interest are the Normandy landing beaches, the location at which Allied troops started their reclaiming of occupied Europe. We also hope to go to the Eiffel tower and the Louvre in Paris. Less well known but also in Paris is the Musee Air + Espace that we plan to visit.

From France it’s to our last country – the United Kingdom. There we will visit the Birmingham Science Museum (the home of the superb Mobil Railton Special Land Speed Record car), the Air Force Museum at Cosford, and the Cardington airship sheds – the latter almost the only remaining evidence of the major engineering effort the UK made over 85 years ago in lighter-than-air craft. I’d also like to go back to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu (we’ve been there once before but I’d love to see the Donald Campbell Bluebird Land Speed Record car again) and then to the Haynes Motor Museum at Sparkford.

We’ll be taking trains, doing one internal European flight, twice hiring cars – and no doubt walking a lot. The travel, accommodation, money – all the logistics, really – will be in the immensely capable hands of my wife Georgina. (And thank God for that!)

Have we bitten off more than we can chew? We’ll see – people have implied that about our other overseas trips, but we’ve always managed to get through everything on the itinerary.  On the other hand, there’s never been quite so much on the schedule as for this trip…

Next year I hope to bring you in AutoSpeed a ‘diary’ series on the trip, and no doubt in later articles I’ll be covering specific cars, aircraft and technical sights that I’ve seen.

Seeing Buzz Aldrin

Posted on December 7th, 2015 in Aerodynamics,AutoSpeed,Driving Emotion,Opinion,Technologies by Julian Edgar

The other day I went and saw Buzz Aldrin.

Yes, that’s right, the second person to walk on the Moon, the pilot of the Lunar Module, and a man who today is 85 years old.

I don’t think in my life I have ever gone to ‘an evening with’ type of show, let alone one hosted by Ray Martin (a local Australian TV celebrity).

I had no idea what to expect, but my wife, 11-year-old son and I all went down to the Melbourne Town Hall. There were two chairs on the stage, and a large backdrop onto which stills and video could be shown.

The show started at 8pm and finished – I reckon – at about 10.45…. so it was no 10 or 15-minute chat.

Ray asked questions – largely banal, and at times ill-researched – and Buzz occasionally answered them. Usually, though, he treated Martin with veiled, slightly amused contempt – and talked about whatever he felt like.

The first half of the show – all about the Moon landing – was just riveting. I have a technical and biographical library on space travel (perhaps 50 books) and so many of the names and events that Buzz mentioned I knew something about.

But this was from the man himself!

Whenever I started to half relax, Aldrin would come out with something that entranced me.

Earth from the Moon looks about twice as big as the Moon looks from Earth.

On the day of the launch, Aldrin paused near the top of the mighty Saturn rocket. He looked down at the tens of thousands of spectators, and thought: I need to remember this; I am going to the Moon.

I liked the man’s humour – very, very dry – and his absolute lack of the need to say something that big-noted himself.

After the break, he returned to talk about how he’d like to see people travel to Mars. A man who did his Doctor of Science in lunar rendezvous, he had plenty to say about rendezvousing on the way to that planet. Martin was completely out of his depth – he didn’t even understand stuff that was explained to him quite simply – but kind of tried to hold on. Buzz got excited – he’d obviously rather talk about the future than the past – but I am more interested in what he did, than what he thinks we can do.

The evening drew to a close, but not before some questions from the crowd. Buzz again tended to ignore the questions and just say whatever he liked, but the questions were sufficiently open that he could do that and get away with it. He leapt to his feet and prowled the stage, gesticulating and motivating.

An old, feisty, out-spoken man, brilliantly intelligent, funny, warm and… and… one of the most extraordinary explorers we have ever had.

He was just wonderful.

Strange travel approaches

Posted on October 26th, 2015 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Perhaps it’s because I live in Australia, a continent far from many other places. Or perhaps it’s the same the world over, but I just haven’t experienced it.

What am I talking about? Well, it seems to me that many Australians travelling to distant lands do so in a really strange way.

There seems to be a few different modus operandi.

One approach, seemingly confined mostly to young people, is to back-pack or party-bus around Europe, or the US, or – more rarely – South East Asia. The common aspect is that the tour comprises a succession of bars and other night-spots, and the main game seems to be to meet people. The exotic locations are just stage sets seen in the background.

When asked what they saw in these countries, the replies are invariably about the people they met and the good times they had.

(I wonder why they bothered travelling far at all; they could have just as easily done it all at home.)

Another approach, more the inclination of older people, is to go on tours. Invariably, these people see many sights that are of no apparent interest to them. This is most easily demonstrated by the fact that, here at home, they’d never go and see anything of a similar nature.

The mere fact that it is in another land, despite the lack of interest they have in it, appears to make it worthwhile to spend money in seeing.

When asked about these sights, they invariably can tell you nothing about them – not surprising, when they have no interest in them.

Yet another approach is to pick a famous city and then go and see it. New York or Berlin or London. I find this perhaps the strangest approach of them all.

“Oh it was fabulous”, they say, “New York!”.

I ask, “What was good, what did you see?”

“Oh but it was New York”, they exclaim, looking pityingly at me.

I’d rank that with getting excited at seeing a passing movie star in the street. WTF?

Our family choose to do things very differently. Obviously we think the outcome is vastly superior to the above – but of course it depends on what you want to gain from your travels.

Firstly, we research the hell out of things that we could see. What man-made or natural features. What culture. And so on. (I once asked on a discussion group about good engineering and technical things to see in the US. The replies immediately asked: “Where in the US are you going?” I said: “Wherever the best things to see are!” Utter confusion followed – it was apparently unheard-of to pick the sights first.)

After we’ve come up with a lot of great specifics to visit, we organise an itinerary that incorporates these within the available timeline and funds.

We go on the trip. We see a huge number of fantastic things of great interest to us. Along the way, we experience the culture, the language, the people, the food, the ambience of the places we are visiting.

In my life it took me a long time before I travelled to distant places, primarily because I couldn’t believe how little of any real value other travellers got.

Example from traveller: “I just love Italy!”

Me (thinking of a specific like Pompeii): “What was good about it?”

Them: “It was just wonderful. We had glorious pizza at a darling little restaurant.”

Me (thinking): Who cares?

A friend of ours suggests that we don’t go on holidays – instead we go on study tours. That may be right, but it seems to me we then get all the intangibles that others believe to be the essence of overseas travel, but we also get to see wondrous specifics, things that have changed my whole appreciation of life…

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Posted on June 4th, 2015 in Opinion,Suspension by Julian Edgar

I think that suspension design is one of the most complex areas of automotive engineering. I am not thinking here about just spring and damper rates – but those are of course hugely complex in themselves – but of changes that occur through suspension movement.

For example, a wheel experiencing bump and rebound is likely to have a designed-in change in its camber – going into negative camber when in bump. This helps keep the wheel more upright when the body rolls in cornering (or at least the outside, most important, wheel anyway).

But what about something like anti-dive geometry? This set of suspension angles causes the car’s front springs to resist compression when the car is being braked.

So how does this work? Imagine a very simple front suspension system with a leading arm per wheel – an arm that runs longitudinally to support the wheel. (A Citroen 2CV is the only car I know of with this approach, but that’s OK.) The brake is mounted on the wheel, so the torque loads of the brake are fed back through the suspension arm.

The car drives along, and then the brakes are applied. The brake load causes the longitudinal suspension arm to try to rotate around the wheel, so applying an upward force on the suspension pivot. This prevents that end of the car from compressing its springs as much – more of the car’s weight is being dynamically taken via the suspension pivots than through the springs.

The result is that the car dives less under brakes.

Now as mentioned, not many cars have longitudinal suspension arms, so this arm is often actually virtual, being in effect created by (for example) the front wishbone mounts not being parallel when viewed from the side. If they form an angle that converges towards the rear of the car, anti-dive will occur.

So anti-dive sounds great… but there are also downsides.

Under brakes, the car does not behave as many expect it to – it doesn’t dip its nose as much.

Under brakes, the suspension is less springy – more of the weight (and so vertical acceleration of bumps) is fed through the suspension pivots and not the springs.

Under brakes, in many cases the geometry is such that the wheel moves forward, so meeting bumps more harshly. (And there’s already a higher effective spring rate, remember.)

And it goes on: under brakes and when hitting a bump, the steering geometry (eg castor) may not adopt the same angles as would normally occur if anti-dive were not present… so the car may react to bumps differently when being braked.

So should anti-dive not be used? No – in cars with soft suspension and a high centre of gravity, it can be very effective.

But then again, the amount of brake dive also depends in part on the stiffness of the slow-speed bump damping provided by the shocks.

You see? Every aspect relates to another aspect: not one suspension design criterion can be viewed in isolation.

It’s all very complex….

The end of hobbyist electronics magazines?

Posted on March 2nd, 2015 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

For  more than 20 years I have contributed to various hobbyist electronics magazines – including as a columnist, feature article writer and co-designer of electronic projects.

Hobbyist electronics magazines are interesting publications. Over a long period, they have evolved a business model that is based around specialist advertisers. These advertisers, often those selling electronic project kits and parts, form a major component of the income that keeps the magazine alive.

How it works is this. The staff at the magazine design a DIY project (say an audio amplifier); the businesses that advertise in the magazine source and stock the amplifier kit – and the magazine readers buy the kit from the advertisers. And while they’re in the shop, no doubt pick up a lot of other bits as well.

This is superficially all well and good – an interesting magazine is produced, the readers get access to better quality DIY electronics than they otherwise would, and the retailer prospers.

I say ‘superficially’ because there are deficiencies in having such a close relationship between advertisers and editorial content. Indeed one such deficiency has started appearing – and it’s something so major that I think it potentially spells the end of this type of print magazine.

What happens to that business model when, through eBay, you can save perhaps 80 per cent of the cost of buying hobby electronics kits and parts? To bypass the local retailer and very cheaply buy a pre-built or kit amplifier module, or remote control module, or even just parts like plugs and sockets and integrated circuits… just by going to eBay and importing them direct from China?

The cost of pursuing electronics as a hobby has just fallen through the floor – but how can hobbyist electronics magazines trumpet that? If they did, they’d lose most of their advertisers – and Chinese eBay sellers aren’t going to be stumping up the same amount of cash to take their place.  

Rather like has occurred with traditional bricks and mortar department stores, the speed of change in Web-based retail has caught-out these magazines.

From someone who likes electronics hobbyist magazines, are there solutions?


Moving to a purely web-based medium will reduce publishing costs – but of course, readers will need to be prepared to pay real money to access the content. (And despite all the talk, you can still expect to lose a lot of your readers if you move from print to being pay-walled web-based – consider, a loss of paying readers AND a loss of advertising income…)

Or what about just embracing the change in manufacturing and retailing? How could this work? The magazine staff design kits and modules; these are then featured in the magazine; manufacturing of them has been tee’d up in China; and they are then sold directly from that source to readers. This would give the best outcome for readers – who would have world-class electronics design along with low costs. The magazines would lose the advertising income from retailers – but they’d get more readers.

But taking this approach would represent a very major philosophical change for those who own and run electronics hobby magazines – I doubt it will happen.

In the meantime, these magazines will keep publishing as if nothing has changed, designing and featuring kits that few will  buy, pretending that electronics as a hobby is how it all was 10 or 15 years ago.

Well, to put it more precisely, they’ll keep doing this until they run out of money…

We didn’t like the US

Posted on January 20th, 2015 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

I am just back from spending 5 weeks in the US.

In a few issues’ time we’ll start our USA Diary series – covering the best technical and other sights we saw.

Our previous travel diaries (based on trips to the UK and Germany) have been popular, and we had high expectations of what we would see in the US.

And we certainly saw some fantastic things – Hawaii’s amazing volcanoes, the quite unbelievably good Smithsonian Air and Space museums in Washington DC, and the extraordinarily historic place at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina where the Wright Brothers first flew a powered aircraft.

I also very much enjoyed the Simeon car museum in Philadelphia and the Tampa Bay car museum in Florida.

But I have to say that, overall, this family of two adults and a 10 year old did not enjoy the trip.

Why not? Well, there are two ways of looking at that.

You could say that our expectations were unreasonable – or you could say that we found the US very unlike its portrayed image.

The most major dislike that we developed was for its social inequity. In the US, black and Hispanic people have a level of wealth that is not just less than whites – it’s catastrophically less.

Some figures I’ve since found indicate that the median wealth of white households is 13 times as much as black households, and 10 times as much as Hispanic households. Not double, or triple – 10 and 13 times!

In fact, the quoted median net worth (that’s total household assets minus household debts) of black households in the US is just US$11,000. That figure includes house, car – everything. That number has also declined by a staggering 43 per cent in the last 6 years.

So what?

Well to our eyes, that social disenfranchisement and impoverishment was blindingly obvious in the beggars and the homeless in every place we went. It was obvious in the pay rates (US$8 an hour for an adult working in a fast food place); it was obvious in the housing; in the mad and the mumbling unfortunates that we saw on every bus and city train we took.

Now of course in our five weeks we couldn’t travel to every square kilometre of the US, but we did go to Honolulu, Chicago, Buffalo, Niagara, New York, Washington DC, Raleigh and Orlando. In most of these cities, we took public transport to outlying centres; and we often took long-distance trains between major centres. There was plenty of opportunity to observe the passing landscape – some places were worse than others, but none were good.

There are 95 million black and Hispanic people in the US – about 30 per cent of the population. So the statistic that the median wealth of these households is under $US13,700 doesn’t apply to just a tiny minority of people – it applies to a hugely significant number of people. And all this in one of the richest countries in the world…

No country is perfect, and Australia certainly isn’t. But I can say with certainty that based on what we personally observed, and based on the reputable statistics on wealth that are freely available, Australia is vastly more socially equitable.

We found it very hard to turn a blind eye to such unjustness – as most tourists and many US residents apparently do.