A brief history of radio on British expeditions and bases in the Antarctic.

November 6th, 2019

I wrote this piece in October 2007, as part of the background research to my PhD, but it was cut from my final thesis. I rediscovered it on my computer whilst looking for something else! Because I was still learning about good research practice at the time, it’s not as well-referenced as it should have been. The sources were books in the BAS library and some documents from the Archives.

Radio was still in its infancy during the heroic period of Antarctic exploration. Marconi’s first long-distance demonstrations in 1901-2 occurred during Scott’s first expedition on board the Discovery, and the Marconi company didn’t begin a commercial transatlantic service until 1907. By 1912, when the RMS Titanic sent the first distress message, radio technology was on the edge of becoming mainstream.

In that same year, the Australian scientist and explorer Douglas Mawson installed the first radio system in Antarctica, installing equipment at the Commonwealth Bay base in Adelie Land and also on Macquarie Island, which was to relay the signals onwards to the headquarters in Sydney. The Macquarie Island station made its first contacts on 13th February 1912, with the Commonwealth Bay station becoming the following year.[1]

When Shackleton began his legendary Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914, he took with him a wireless receiving set which was supposed to allow his party to receive a monthly broadcast of news sent out from a transmitter in the Falkland Islands. It never worked, but radio was successfully used by the Aurora, the ship supplying the Ross Sea party, to call for assistance from Australia when dismasted and rudderless in the ice in early 1916.

In 1924, Marconi successfully developed HF (shortwave) transmissions, and successfully won a contract from the British Government to develop radio communications links with the dominions of the British Empire. The first of these links was between the UK and Canada, using a brand-new radio station built at Bodmin and opened in 1926.

HF sets were accordingly used on both the first Wilkins-Hearst expedition in 1928 (which was the first to use an aircraft in Antarctica) and much more extensively on the first US Antarctic Expedition, led by Richard Byrd that same year. Byrd’s team included five radio engineers and a total of 24 transmitters and 31 receivers, and managed to maintain regular contact with the outside world as well as with all flights and field parties.

Byrd’s second expedition in 1933 was the first to use voice communications in the Antarctic, and in fact the team from their base at Little America made weekly broadcasts which were carried on the CBS network in the USA.

Operation Tabarin established the first permanent British bases in 1943, and these communicated with the Government offices in Stanley using HF. All communication between the bases and Stanley was in Morse code, with messages being forwarded on from Stanley by telegram. Documents from the BAS archives[2] show that in 1944, permission was granted for the base staff to send personal telegrams, initially at full price and later at the discounted rate for members of the Armed Forces.

Communication by Morse and telegram continued into the FIDS era, but when the organisation became BAS in 1962, a programme of improvements was put in place, involving the installation of teleprinters at all the bases. Bases would then communicate with Stanley by radioteletype[3], where the messages would be forwarded on to their destinations. A dedicated “private” teleprinter link between Stanley and the head office in London was installed in 1969, over which much of this traffic passed.

From 1964 to 1966, a unique link was established between Halley and the CAA’s Birdlip radio station in Gloucestershire. This was a direct radioteletype link, and was used to help coordinate the installation and operation of a number of ionospheric instruments during the International Quiet Sun Year (IQSY). As the link was free for the discussion of technical matters, it was used extensively!

A paper[4] from the SCAR symposium on Antarctic Telecommunications in 1972 gives a list of all the equipment installed on BAS bases and ships that year. All the bases were equipped with Creed Type 54 teleprinters, operating at 50 baud. The two ships (the RRS Bransfield and the RRS John Biscoe) had newer Type 444 machines, again operating at 50 baud.

In 1974 the HF radioteletype links from Stanley to the bases were outsourced to Cable & Wireless. By 1984 the Inmarsat satellite system[5] had been installed on the bases, and this replaced both the HF links to the bases and the “private wire” teleprinter link between Stanley and Cambridge. Inmarsat was mostly used to send faxed documents, as this offered the most convenient and cheapest form of communication at the time. Later the system was modified to enable people on the bases to send and receive emails.

It’s worth noting that teleprinters don’t support any kind of error-corrective coding, so interference on the radio link would result in a garbled message.

Subsequent technology was able to overcome this drawback – in the early 1980s BAS installed the more sophisticated ARQ[6] radiotelex system on its bases and ships. This uses error checking to automatically request a repeat transmission of any corrupted data. Because sending data over Inmarsat was expensive, whereas ARQ was free (but slower and less reliable), it was mostly used for low-priority “chat” between bases and for the “metround” – a regular sched to collect weather reports from other bases and forward them on to the weather forecasting centre at the Chilean Frei base on King George Island. ARQ could also be used to communicate with Cambridge if the Inmarsat equipment failed: a message would be sent by radiotelex to Portishead Radio, a coastal radio station that offered an HF radiotelex service to ships. Messages sent to Portishead were then forwarded on to Cambridge using the public telex system.

With the introduction of the BASnet satellite links in 2003-5 the ARQ equipment is no longer routinely used. The HF radio sets are still in daily use during the summer season for voice communications with aircraft and field parties.

[1] It’s perhaps worth noting that whilst Mawson was setting up the wireless system on Macquarie Island, Scott and his party were making their final doomed journey back from the South Pole. Of course, wireless equipment would not have been portable enough for Scott’s purposes, but his expedition would be the last to operate without knowing of the benefits of radio.

[2] Document no AD6/1/ADM18

[3] Radioteletype (shortened to RTTY) is the system for sending teleprinter messages over the radio

[4] Peters, B.J. “ A note on the practical problems arising from Capt. T Busico’s review paper”, Proceedings of the SCAR symposium on Technical and Scientific Problems affecting Antarctic Telecommunications, Sandefjord, Norway, 10-16 May 1972, pp151-157

[5] The Falklands conflict in 1982 cut off communication via Stanley, which hastened the case for the installation of satellite communications on the bases in the immediate aftermath of the war.

[6] ARQ is short for Automatic Repeat reQuest. This particular system is also variously known as SITOR, AMTOR, NBDP or just “radiotelex”

Greenland fieldwork 2019 – equipment reviews

August 5th, 2019

I bought quite a lot of new equipment for my field trip to Greenland this year, and am going to blog briefly about the various things I bought and whether I thought they were a good idea. I’m going to also include a few “old favourites” that did particularly well.

Garmin inReach mini satellite communicator

I bought this on Amazon for £265 in a sale – the full price is £299.99. Having seen a couple of other people on the trip using the “full size” inReach units, I think the Mini was a good buy for me. It’s very compact and the battery lasts a long time in part because of the small screen. Sending messages is easy through the companion app on your phone, but it’s very easy to read messages and request a weather forecast using the device directly. It does function as a GPS but only in a limited sense – I bought a separate eTrex GPS for navigating with. InReach airtime isn’t cheap but the Expedition Plan (£65 for the month for unlimited messages) did mean that I could send updates to family, friends and Twitter without worrying about the airtime charges. Definitely a morale boost to be able to just send and receive a few quick messages home every day, rather than making a weekly Iridium call.

Alpkit Koulin Trail Long Sleeve Zip baselayer top

I paid £25, currently on sale in limited sizes for £20. Straightforward synthetic baselayer, worked well. Allegedly non-smelly, but that was hard to judge. I did like the stretchy armpit panels which seem to make it more comfortable than some of my other baselayers. I like the fact that it has a chest zip for adjusting your temperature. Good purchase.

Mountain Warehouse Merino Mens Long Sleeved Zip Neck Top

I paid £25 each for two of these. They are currently on sale at the same price. To be honest I only wore one, and used it as a second layer over a synthetic baselayer – the wool is a bit scratchy and it wasn’t really cold enough to warrant wearing lots of wool. Might well come in handy for future ski trips though.

Mountain Warehouse Argyle Mens Half Zip Fleece

Cheap green fleece pullover, bought for £9.99 to make up free shipping on an order! Wore a couple of times, seemed fine. Mostly used as a pillow, to be honest.

Alpkit Griffon gridded fleece midlayer cardigan

I paid £42 for this, and they are on sale at the same price now. I actually wore this quite a lot, both at home for casual use and in Greenland. I didn’t use the hood much but I did like the fact that it was light and warm. The full zip makes it easy to adjust temperature for changes in the weather or changes in activity.

Alpkit Gabbro gloves

Big chunky ski gloves, bought for £40 last year. They’re more expensive (£50) this year and Alpkit have almost sold out. I suspect they’ll reissue them for the winter season. I highly recommend these for fieldwork because they are warm and waterproof but the leather construction makes them much more durable than a normal ski glove – almost as good as a work glove and much warmer.

Lomo Maxview dry bags

Lomo is a Glasgow-based company who primarily make wetsuits and watersports equipment, but who have diversified into outdoor gear. A lot of their products are excellent value for money.

These drybags are made of an unusual silicone material – has a slightly “squirmy” texture – which is translucent so you can see what’s inside. Genius! The small 3L one (£2.99) is great for keeping electronics dry in. I did also buy one of the 6L ones (£5.50) but found it less useful – it’s so large that you can fill it with stuff and not be able to see everything. Good drybag seal though.

Lomo Extra Large Microfibre camping towel

Having had several microfibre towels that aren’t large enough to dry myself with properly, I was very impressed with this one for £7.99. And it comes in High Visibility Orange, so you can use it to flag down a passing helicopter. Everyone should know where their towel is.

Lomo Mountain Walking gloves

Very light and inexpensive waterproof gloves (£14). I wore these a couple of times – they’re best seen as a backup pair to keep dry in case you get soaked in your main pair. I think I bought these slightly too small – should have paid more heed to the warning on the webpage that they size out a bit small.

Lomo bushcraft tarp

I bought this tarp (3m x 3m, £23) as part of Lomo’s bigger “bushcraft set” (£31) which includes extra tarp clamps, pegs and paracord. Whilst I did use the paracord, the rest was unnecessary – the tarp is great on its own. I’d originally thought I’d use it as a windbreak or for extra shelter when setting up equipment outdoors. What it turned out to be brilliant for was as a laptop shade. The dark green colour really cuts down the light, and the tarp is big enough to fold into two or even four so that you can get really good shade. I used it once outside as a shade, poking my head underneath in order to use the laptop, and then later rigged it up inside another light-coloured tent so as to make it easier to read my screen. It’s got lots of loops sewn onto it so I was able to attach it to the other tent with a few zip ties. Excellent purchase, will take on many future trips!

Lomo emergency storm shelter

Also known as a “bothy bag” – this is a handy zip up bag (£18.50) you can shelter inside in lieu of carrying and erecting a tent. I didn’t actually use it so I will reserve judgement on how good it is.

Lomo water-resistant fleece gilet

Lomo make a number of things out of water-resistant fleece fabric, and this gilet (£24) was a new product when I bought it. I wore it several times in the evenings as a simple extra midlayer when sitting around in the cold. I have also worn it on summer camping trips in the UK – it has a wonderful instant cosiness when you put it on.

Lomo 3-pack ultralight dry bags

Three dry bags for £7.50. I found these pretty handy, though their lightness makes them a little less durable than some I’ve used. I used one of them to keep a down jacket dry, and others to keep dry clothing in.

Lomo waterproof drybag rucksack

Easily the best £26.99 I’ve ever spent on a piece of outdoor gear. A big, simple 60 litre drybag with rucksack straps – including waistbelt and chest strap. Kept all my scientific gear dry when left outside in torrential rain. Much more useful than an alpine-style rucksack for a field camp environment. Even better – the straps can all be removed (by undoing velcro and buckles) so that you can check it into an aircraft. I brought mine onto the plane as a cabin bag, rolled down to half its full size.

Lomo waterproof messenger bag

I bought this in Lomo’s sale a few years ago, for £15, but still good value at full price (£29.99). This is basically a waterproof laptop bag – it’s not a drybag, but the waterproof fabric means you can put it down on the ice or in a puddle and not worry about the water soaking into your computer. It was a tight squeeze to get my CF-53 Toughbook into it, but it did go, and less chunky laptops will do fine. My one complaint is that it only has a shoulder strap and not a secondary carry handle, but this is really nitpicking.

Helly Hansen sou’wester

PVC rain hat, £12. Wore once – probably wanted breaking in as it was rather stiff. Glad it didn’t rain enough that I had to wear it more often.

Alpkit Dumo sleeping mattress

Big soft air mattress with an integral pump, £49. I didn’t use this in Greenland as SPRI provided a Thermarest Mondo King 3D XXL (£150) but I did try it camping in the UK and it worked well. The integral pump requires a little bit of brain power to work out how to use, but does work well.

Vital VW607 Ice Pack Safety Wellingtons

Everyone on the RESPONDER project recommended wellingtons, and suggested either Dunlop Purofort or Muck Boot Arctic Sport, both of which were upwards of £80 when I looked. These marine-industry safety wellies were only £60 and have a steel toecap – it’s worth noting that safety boots with toecaps attract 0% VAT which often can make them cheaper than non-safety ones. I think the soles weren’t quite as grippy as the Dunlops other people wore, but I didn’t have any issue with them and more or less lived in them for a fortnight.

Dickies Eisenhower Work Trouser

Nice durable pair of “carpenter” trousers with double outer pockets and space for knee pads, £36. I bought generic knee pads and used them a lot – being able to kneel down on the glacier without worrying about the hard, cold surface is very convenient (thanks to Nanna Karlsson for the tip there!). My only gripe is that the knee pads fell out until I worked out that there was a hemmed lip that was supposed to retain them. Also I think I bought a size too big.

Venitex VE702GR High Precision Work Glove

Fabric glove with a dipped rubber palm, £1.02 a pair. I wore these a lot and they were great – high dexterity, warm, not too constrictive. They come between the Skytec Ninja Lite gloves (which are incredibly thin) and much bigger and bulkier gloves. Can’t fault the price, either!

Skytec Ninja Lite work gloves

These I discovered when working for BAS last year, and they’re great for fiddly tasks. So thin, such high dexterity. £3.30 a pair.

CPC leather work gloves

Basic leather rigger gloves, £1.88 a pair. My first pair developed a hole within the first day, but the other two pairs I brought were fine.

Venitex Venizette 920 Latex Safety Gloves

Bought these and stupidly left them at home. They would have been great for handling icy water, which we did a lot for various domestic and scientific tasks. Basically an insulated Marigold style rubber glove.  £3.54 a pair.

Limitless Equipment EDC XL Utility Pouch

This seemed like a better idea than it turned out: a sort of handy tool pouch with lots of places to put different things. Unfortunately the tools I wanted to take didn’t fit into it very well, and the military-style velcro patches on the outside tended to attract bits of ice if put down on the floor. Not great, but not terrible either. A traditional tool roll would probably have been better.

Limitless Equipment TacFolder and StormPad notebook

A zip up folder for your waterproof notebook and pens, £19.99. Very handy and (I think) much more practical than a traditional surveyors’ notebook which generally doesn’t have anywhere to put your pen. Comes with one waterproof notepad included. The zip compartment on the outside I used for a Sharpie marker pen since you often need to write on boxes when doing logistics work

RUD Bergsteiger shoe chains

Still the best things ever for walking on snow and ice. These provide 80% of the benefit of crampons or microspikes but with less than 1% of the hassle. They’re just a set of stainless steel chains attached to a rubber ring that goes around your boot or shoe. The chain provides enough bite to grip into an icy surface, but because there are no spikes you can easily walk on ground that is a mixture of rock, snow and ice, or on and off tarmac paths. They don’t scratch floors unless you really scuff with them, and they don’t damage tents (unlike crampons and microspikes, both of which are torn tent doors and groundsheets waiting to happen). My only gripe with the Bergsteigers was that they tended to drop into the tread on my wellies, making them less effective, but I could easily rearrange them when I needed more grip.

Scuba Box XL waterproof box

A rigid plastic box with a waterproof seal. £26.99 + shipping (watch out, as the shipping can be a bit expensive) from Solent Plastics.  Holds 110 litres, proved extremely waterproof in the field, has a couple of little wheels to make moving it around easier. A++ would buy again.

Explorer box

A much larger plastic box, holding 185 litres. Not advertised as waterproof but proved to be in practice. Nice features: the lid can either hinge open or be removed completely, and empty boxes can be stacked. Best used for low density items as if totally filled would be too heavy to lift. Maximum load is apparently 60kg. £40 plus shipping (a further £25 if you’re not ordering anything else, because the box is massive and hence expensive to ship) from Solent Plastics.

Waterproof phone cover

£2.50 from Hema. Worked really well, and easy to remove the phone when needed – e.g. for taking a photo. Was a bit crumpled by the end, but then it was only £2.50!

Polycarbonate whisky tumblers

At the end of the day a glass of whisky from a tumbler, rather than out of a mug that previously contained coffee, makes everything feel a little bit more civilised. £9.94 for a set of 4 from Amazon.



Lakes of Cold Fen – a gay retelling of a folk song

January 28th, 2019

For a few years now I’ve been singing in the wonderful Timeline Choir, run by the multi-talented Stef Conner, who is a composer as well as a choir director. Much of the music we sing is new arrangements of old tunes, including many folk songs. I didn’t have much of a background in folk music until joining the choir, and I’ve enjoyed discovering many lovely pieces that I wouldn’t otherwise have heard.

For our concert in 2017, Stef produced a really beautiful arrangement of “Lakes of Cold Fen” for three female voices, which was genuinely one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. The tune and lyrics were taken from Mary Humphreys’ album “Cold Fen” – you can listen to a clip here  – and I became fascinated by the song and read up on it. It turns out to be quite an enigma – there are a lot of different versions, and the name of the lake varies from Shilin to Colfin to Cold Flynn to Cool Finn and eventually became “Cold Fen” in the Cambridgeshire version, despite the fact that there’s no such place. Nobody really knows where the song came from, though the best guess seems to be that it’s Irish and possibly based on a true story of a young man drowning in a lake whilst swimming. There are many different versions listed here on the Mainly Norfolk site.

Anyway, as I read several versions of the lyrics, I became struck by the recurrent details in the first verse in every version:

It was early one morning young William arose
And away to his comrade’s bedchamber did go,
Saying, “Arise, oh my comrade and let no-one know,
For it’s a bright summer morning and a-bathing we’ll go.

Our protagonist – variously Billy, Willie, William – rises early and goes straight to the bedroom of his (male) comrade, bidding him to get up and come swimming with him, but to “let no-one know”. Why are two young men going swimming secretly early in the morning? Well, it wasn’t much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that they might have a secret tryst, and so I wondered if I could re-tell the story of the song but giving more details of what Willie and his comrade got up to. In the traditional versions, we never know “dear comrade”‘s name, and he disappears off the scene as soon as Willie dies, with the rest of the song focusing on the reactions of his family and the details of his funeral.

So, I’ve told the story of what really happened at the lakes of Cold Fen. You may need a hankie by the end!

The score for the tune is available here

T’was early one morning Willie Leonard arose
Straight to his comrade’s bedchamber he goes
“Arise my dear comrade and let no-one know –
Tis a fine summer’s morning, and a-bathing we’ll go”

Willie and Aidan they walked down the lane
And there they did pass by a keeper of game
He said to the boys, “don’t go venturin’ in –
There is deep and false water in the lakes of Cold Fen”

So Willie stripped off and he swam the lake round
He came back to Aidan, his feet on the ground
“Oh it’s safe as houses, ignore the old men”
“Enjoy the sun and the swimming in the lakes of Cold Fen”

They swam to an island and when they were done
Without a stitch on they both lay in the sun
Willie saw Aidan’s fine shoulders and chest
He looked and he knew that he loved him the best

Their eyes met each other’s and then they both knew
That Aidan loved Willie, and Willie him too
They kissed on the shoreline and decided right then
They’d be true loves forever at the lakes of Cold Fen

“But what of my father?” our Aidan did say
“He wants me to marry a woman one day
Run the farm and have children, he wants me to wed
A nice local girl and take her to my bed”

Willie replied that he’d thought of a plan
They’d fly the country, move to fair Amsterdam
“there we’ll be happy, us two in one bed
we must go quite soon or else you’ll be wed”

And so they decided they’d leave at full moon
They’d take ship to Holland in the fair month of June
They swam back to shore their minds full of their scheme
Excited and happy to share in their dream

But Willie had strayed into lilies and reeds
His feet became tangled in the thick water-weeds
“Oh Aidan, my love, please don’t venture in”
“There is deep and false water in the lakes of Cold Fen”

Aidan turned back and just then saw him drown
As his head dipped down into the lake water brown
He cried as he lost him, his beloved young man
He swam to the shore and to the village he ran

And it’s down came his mother like one in despair,
All a-wringing her hands and a-tearing her hair,
Crying, “Oh Willie dear Willie, why did you go in
To the deep and false water of the lakes of Cold Fen”

Our Aidan he ran to the Hollander hoy
He left Willie’s family to bury their boy
They wrapped him in white and they laid him in clay
And the village all cried on the funeral day

But every midsummer our Aidan returns
He sits by the lake in the grasses and ferns
“Oh Willie my lover, why did you go in
To the deep and false water of the lakes of Cold Fen?”

This is my copyright (2019) but if anyone would like to perform or arrange it, please let me know! I’m grateful to Mike Lee for his idea for the plot of the song.

A couple of notes: I’ve tried to reuse some of the traditional verses and imagery from other versions. The idea of the two of them running off to Amsterdam and being happy perhaps seems a bit fanciful in a period setting, but the Netherlands are not far from Cambridgeshire by sea, so would have been a realistic place to travel to in order to escape, and homosexuality was decriminalised there in 1811, which is around the time the original song appears to have been written. A “hoy” is a small coastal ship, obviously used here to rhyme with boy…

Do you need a passport to go to the Republic of Ireland from the UK?

June 20th, 2016

It’s a simple question. The answer is “probably”!


To explain a bit more: I went to Dublin today for work. I flew Ryanair from Stansted, and presented my UK driver’s licence when asked for my ID at the gate. “Sorry, we don’t accept those”, said the gate agent. Fortunately, I had also brought my passport, knowing that whilst it’s theoretically possible to go to the Republic without a passport, Ryanair are nearly always arsey about these things.

The UK and the Republic of Ireland have something called the “Common Travel Area”, which is like a watered-down version of the Schengen agreement that allows passport-free travel in most of mainland Europe. Unlike Schengen, it came about not from a high-minded view of the free movement of people, but more from administrative convenience (how British!). When southern Ireland gained independence in 1923, the UK government was extremely reluctant to introduce and police a “hard” land border across rural Ireland, and so ever since we’ve had arrangements that you can cross the land border without a passport. During the Troubles, of course, there were checkpoints, but since the peace agreement the land border is just a roadsign. If you travel between the Republic and the UK by sea or air, you are not technically required to have a passport – just some proof of your ID. Unfortunately, the specifics of this are left to the carriers, and so they all implement slightly different policies. Ryanair, predictably, have taken the option that is most convenient for them, which is simply to insist upon seeing everyone’s passport. So, your cheap flight with Ryanair may “have cost you 50p” but you’ll need to shell out £72.50 for a passport if you don’t have one already! All the other airlines will accept some other form of ID, and a draft bill was presented to the Irish parliament to require that carriers accept alternative ID – but it failed to pass.

On arrival at Dublin airport, arrivals from the UK are treated the same as all other international arrivals: you queue up for immigration and present your documentation to the officer on duty (or use the electronic gates if your passport is compatible with them). So, I can enter Ireland by land from Belfast and not show documentation, but if I arrive by air from the UK then I must. Even more unusually, the situation is not symmetrical – upon arriving at Stansted, all passengers from the Republic are bussed around to a special arrivals door on the end of the terminal (also used for domestic arrivals), which leads directly to the baggage reclaim and avoids the immigration control.

Next time you go to Dublin, take your passport.


The trouble with GPP pension schemes

March 28th, 2016

My current employer’s pension scheme is what’s called a Group Personal Pension scheme, or GPP for short. I’ve been a bit sceptical of the way these schemes operate for a while, but a recent letter has pushed me into blogging about them.

A GPP scheme is very simple. I join the scheme when I start work, and the company deducts a percentage of my salary every month and pays it into my pension. It also contributes a bit more on top – which is money I wouldn’t otherwise get paid if I didn’t participate in the pension scheme. Both payments are invested by the pension provider, and when I retire, I cash in the investments and take the money  – either as a big pile of cash, or as a monthly income for life (an annuity) or  a bit of both. Because saving for retirement is seen as a Good Thing, the government also offers a tax incentive: the money that gets paid in each month (both mine and my employers’ contributions) is paid in free of tax. The investments attract no tax whilst they remain in the pension scheme, and when I retire I can claim 25% of my resultant pot as tax-free cash, with the rest attracting income tax if it generates a big enough income.

Effectively, each employee’s pension is a completely separate account – which is why it’s called a “personal pension”. However, because the employer is bringing the pension company a large number of customers, the pension provider (usually a large City firm – mine is BlackRock) gives a discount on the fees based on the number of employees in the scheme. Fees? Yes, fees. Pension funds cost (some) money to operate, and this money is taken from your total invested funds in the form of an Annual Management Charge (AMC). If I go and buy a personal pension scheme from a high-street firm, the AMC will typically be 1% of the fund (for example, here’s Virgin Money’s personal pension). My current employer’s GPP scheme charges 0.6%, which you can see is a significant saving. I still have a GPP from my previous employer too, which was a larger company and charged 0.38% because it was able to negotiate a bigger discount.

Most GPP providers allow you to choose how you invest. This is often rather poorly presented and explained, and they frequently conceal the fact that different funds you might invest in attract different AMCs. For instance, my employer’s default fund charges 0.6%, but it’s possible to change to a fund that charges 0.4%. Whether the latter fund has better or worse performance is hard to say, but a reduction in AMC is potentially going to save you some money.

My firm’s scheme defaults to an actively-managed fund. This means that a specialist fund manager is choosing what the fund invests in and aiming to produce a good return for the investors. The alternative is a passively-managed fund (sometimes called a “tracker”) where the fund simply buys shares in every company in the index so that the fund “tracks” the value of the index overall. Passive funds are pretty much run automatically by computers, and hence are cheaper to manage as you’re not paying for the fund manager’s salary and overheads. The overwhelming evidence is that active management doesn’t actually convey any benefits (in the long term, it’s not usually possible for fund managers to “beat the market” by choosing shares) and so it’s actually less risky to choose the passive fund.

The letter I received this week is from my pension provider, saying that they are “very pleased to announce” that they are reducing the AMC on my pension funds. That’s very nice of them. Reading a bit further down, it becomes clear that the pensions advisors, a local firm called NW Brown, who my employers use to administer the pension scheme, have been being paid a commission out of the AMC, and that new government regulations have stopped this. This commission was 0.1%, so out of every thousand pounds in my fund, I was paying a pound to NW Brown every year!

I’m glad this has been regulated out, but it does bug me that the increasing popularity of GPP means that the pensions industry is now something of a stitch-up for the individual employee. In order to access the extra pension contributions my employer offers, I have to invest the money with their chosen pension provider. The pension providers restrict the funds that I can invest in to a shortlist of a few dozen, as against the hundreds that are available on the open market. They provide relatively skimpy information about how their funds work, and take a management fee – some of which until this year was commission paid back to the pensions advisors! I think this is quite anticompetitive: why can’t I take the money to any pension provider? Also, there’s no reason for the AMCs to be so high – there are passively-investing funds available on the open market charging less than 0.2%, but my pension provider doesn’t list them. I can’t help feeling that the whole thing is set up to provide a steady flow of clueless capital into the City firms, for them to do as they please!

A game of phones: VoIP at home

August 31st, 2015


Our house has three stories, with our bedroom on the top floor. It’s not really possible to achieve a direct shout from there to the ground floor, and since my beloved likes to wander the house in his pyjamas without his mobile, using mobiles is not really an option. So, like a proper engineer, I developed a massively overkill solution: install an internal phone system!


I’ve chosen to use Mitel phones because they are readily available secondhand in good condition on eBay, and we have them at work so I’m already familiar with them. The newer models support SIP, the open VoIP protocol, and they can be powered over Ethernet, meaning you don’t need a power supply to each handset. Our current inventory consists of:

  • a 5304 – newest and smallest of the phones. Despite appearances, it doesn’t support handsfree or on-hook dialling. This one has had “hotel” firmware put onto it so that the bright blue backlight turns off when the phone’s not been used for a few minutes – so we can have it on the bedside table without disturbing our sleep. Mitel firmware is available rather haphazardly on the internet, and I found that once I’d upgraded this phone to have the backlight control,  I could only find a French-language UI for it.
  • a 5212 – this is a cut-down version of the 5220: it’s a bit smaller and the user interface is a bit more limited. It has a more subtle blue backlight.
  • a pair of Dual Mode 5220s. These (and the closely-related 5215s) are the oldest Mitel phones to support SIP, but there are two versions: if the phone does not say “Dual Mode” on the sticker on the back, it does not support SIP, only Mitel’s proprietary Minet protocol.

All the phones take 100Mbit/s Ethernet, and I supply power to them via a cheap TP-Link POE switch. They have a downstream port to provide 100Mbit/s Ethernet to another device too. Note that they don’t support gigabit: Mitel sold a “Gigabit Stand” which was effectively a PoE-extracting three-port gigabit switch that fitted onto the back of the phone, but these are relatively rarely found second-hand, and can be expensive.

There are a few gotchas with Mitel phones. The SIP firmware is a bit finicky to set up, though Voip-Info has lots of details on how to configure them. You need to switch them from Minet to SIP, and then configure the SIP settings so that the phone knows its extension number, password and the IP address of the server. The web interface is relatively straightforward though it sometimes appears to fail to update silently when run from modern browsers: I’m using an old Windows XP virtual machine to access it via IE6 (joy!). Don’t worry too much about updating the phones to the latest Mitel firmware: if the version they come with works, don’t fiddle with it! I’ve wasted several evenings upgrading mine to very little benefit.


After several false starts, I’ve had success with MiniSipServer, which is available for Windows or Linux. I’m running their Raspberry Pi edition on a spare RPi that happened to already be on the network. MSS is a relatively easy system to set up, certainly when compared with Asterisk, but is not open-source. They give away a free trial, but you can claim a free licence for personal use if you review it in a blogpost. A commercial licence is $200 for 20 users, and there are free licences available for nonprofits and OSS projects.

Because my RPi is “headless”, I’m using the web-based configuration for MSS, which seems relatively well laid out. I did have to guess the default password, which turns out to be “minisipserver”. I’ve created three local users (i.e. three extensions) one for each phone, and put them all into the same Ring Group so that they ring together when the external line rings (more on setting up the external line later).

I wanted to set up a dial plan to avoid the traditional “dial 9 for an outside line” scenario, as most people don’t expect a household phone to need a prefix to dial out. The MSS FAQ gives some hints and shows that you can disable the dial-out prefix and instead look for certain numbers as externals. I’ve gone for a very simple approach. Here in the UK, all “full” phone numbers begin with a leading 0, so it’s easy to set up a dialplan rule to route all numbers beginning with 0 to the external line. In MSS you go to Dial Plan-> Analyse Called Number and define the prefix as 0, and then set the route type to External Line. I then created similar dialplan rules for 1 and 9 (since there are lots of service-related numbers beginning with 1, and 999 is our code for the emergency services) and indeed for every number except 4. I looked at Cambridge local phone numbers and none appear to start with a 4, so I’ve set my local extensions to start with a 4.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a bug in MSS: once I’d added more than a few dialplan rules they all disappear from the web interface – but they do appear to still work…

External line interface

Our household router is an AVM Fritz!Box 7390, which is a very all-singing-all-dancing unit that includes its own VoIP server and can interface to the voice line. We used its internal VoIP server in a previous setup, but it has a few key limitations, one of which is that it can’t transfer a call from one extension to another, which quickly became irritating. However, it does work just fine as an external line interface to MSS: I just created an extension on the FritzBox and put the relevant details into the External Line settings in MSS.

Why making things is hard, part 2: stock and suppliers

August 18th, 2015

Second in a series about why running a successful manufacturing business is more tricky than running a successful software business. Part one is here.


Holding stock is a problem that affects both manufacturers and retailers: you could be holding stock of raw materials, or stock of finished or part-finished products. That stuff represents money in limbo: you have paid out for it, and you hope to sell it eventually, but right now it’s taking up space and running all sorts of risks: pilferage, accidental or deliberate damage (these three are collectively known as “stock shrinkage”), the risk that it’ll just gather dust and eventually get sold off at a loss or be thrown away. The longer your stock is on the shelf, the more money you’re losing because the money is tied up in the physical stock and not available to do other things with. The elite ninjas of manufacturing – Toyota – have gone to great lengths to avoid holding stock, setting up whole supply chains that are designed to ensure that all their suppliers deliver exactly the right parts at exactly the right time.

Of course, there are business for whom holding stock is their whole business: this is what distributors (and to some extent retailers) do – they buy goods wholesale, hold the stock and sell it out in smaller quantities for immediate delivery. They accept the risks associated with stockholdings in order to buy in high volume at low prices, and sell in smaller quantities at higher ones.

Accountants, and particularly auditors, really, really hate stock, because it often forma a large part of a business’s assets and there’s always some uncertainty over how much the stock is really worth. It’s only really “worth” what a customer will pay for it, and that may turn out to be less than you had hoped!

So: try not to hold too much stock, and look carefully at the price breaks on your materials to decide how much to order. You can outsource, too: some contract manufacturers (Newbury Electronics, for example) will supply common components for you from their stock so that you don’t have to – in Newbury’s case, passive components they have in stock are free, included in the price of the board manufacture. If you’re making small volumes and don’t have the storage space, this may sway you to a more expensive manufacturer offering a full kitting service rather than using someone cheap and having to manage it all yourself.


Suppliers can be astonishingly difficult to deal with. Compared with the world of retail, where you take a product off the shelf, or choose it from a real or virtual catalogue, the world of business-to-business (B2B) suppliers can be excruciatingly opaque and inconvenient. You will rarely find that manufacturers give pricing on the web, preferring instead that you get a quote from a salesperson. Even some distributors can be astonishingly reluctant to give you a price unless you hand over a huge amount of detail about your business and all the details of your new product idea. Generally, if a company gives you prices upfront after a short conversation with a salesperson, it means they’re keen to deal with you and will probably be quite good to deal with generally. In electronics, semiconductor vendors can be astonishingly fussy about who they deal with – particularly if the IC you want is a new one, the chances are that their production process may not actually be producing all that many good ones to start off with (i.e. a low yield) and they may be “rationing” the ICs for their biggest customers. Apparently when Intel first made microprocessors, the yield was 1% – the other 99% went back in the furnace to be recycled!

The other reason for IC vendors to be awkward is “application support” – the time and effort spent by their engineering team in helping you to incorporate their product into yours. This is effectively free consulting you get bundled into the price of the chips, and so companies are often keen to restrict supply to “serious” customers only. One chip vendor I dealt with (when working for a big multinational) actually refused to deal with me in a rather brusque automated email – I’d filled in a web form asking for prices on a particular IC and giving some details of my product design programme, and they came back and said pretty much “no, we’re not interested in selling you our chip”. I was astonished at how rude that was!

So beware. You can waste weeks just getting prices for the parts you may or may not end up using in your product. It’s vital to know your “volume”, and a good rule of thumb (for electronic products) is that if you are intending to make fewer than 10,000 units a year, you are probably going to be buying everything from a distributor, as manufacturers won’t be all that interested in orders of that size. 50k or 100k volumes start to make people take notice, and buying more than a million of anything generally gets you the best prices and attentive salespeople. A keen salesperson will often offer you free samples of the product for your prototype, or free evaluation kits, and will generally make an effort to support you. There is an encouraging trend for the more customer-focussed electronics firms to sell sensibly-priced (<£100) evaluation kits via the major distributors (RS, Farnell and Digikey are the three I use most often) so that you can try out their product right away, whereas in days of yore you were often charged several hundred pounds or more for an eval kit to make sure that you were a “serious” buyer…

One final useful rule of thumb: if you are pricing a prototype, it’s fair to assume that the wholesale price for 100k/year is roughly half the distributor’s price for a one-off. Never make the schoolboy error of trying to write a business case based on the cost of making your one-off prototype, as your product will appear to be much too expensive!

The charmed life of the software business – or why making things is hard

July 28th, 2015

Software businesses have a charmed life. In almost no other field can you turn your own knowledge, skill and perseverance into a successful, profitable product quite so quickly and easily. That’s not to say that building a successful software business is child’s play – but you are at a significant advantage compared with almost all other forms of business. As someone working in embedded systems, I come into contact with a lot of people with very naive ideas about the challenges of making and shipping a physical product, and I thought I might summarise some of them and look at how best to overcome some of these obstacles. Read the rest of this entry »

Stations galore and electrification, oh my!

February 22nd, 2015

It’s almost certainly because there’s an election coming, but a lot of announcements have appeared in the local media about rail improvements in the Cambridge area. Some are vague promises or very early stage investigations, and some are a bit more concrete.

Let’s start with stuff that’s actually happening right now.

Cambridge station area redevelopment (aka CB1): this is now in full swing. The old police station, the Swiss Laundry, the various buildings in the carpark (the CityRoomz Hotel and Station Cycles) and quite a lot of the old carpark have now been knocked down and torn up. Work has started on the hotel/cycle park building, (which is adjacent to platform 5, occupying what was partly carpark and partly the police station, and the new office/retail building One Station Square is being built where the old short term carpark was. In the mean time, we have a hodgepodge of pedestrian and cycle routes through the remaining carpark and through part of what will become the new access road. I’ve got to say that I’m very disappointed by the way that Brookgate, the developers, have totally failed to engage local people or rail users with what’s going on. Their website is mostly marketing material, and there’s no project timeline or progress blog anywhere. Even worse, big changes have been made to road layouts, cycle parking, car park and pedestrian and cycle routes at very short notice with only quite perfunctory laminated signage. Other works are going on inside the station, but Abellio Greater Anglia and Network Rail are giving out little or no information either. There is supposed to be a larger ticket hall and various changes to the passenger flow through the building, but nothing appears to be published about exactly what will be changed and when.

Cambridge Science Park station: the access road and busway works are due to wrap up pretty soon. The County Council’s project page gives a few details about the project, though mostly concentrates on the access issues. They seem to be very slow to publish the minutes of their liaison meetings, and again there’s no project progress website. The latest news comes from the local paper, with a story saying that the project has been put back by six months, with completion now ready for the December 2016 timetable change. The actual details of rail services to the new station are still “to be decided”, though the “probable service” included the London-King’s Lynn trains, the Stansted-Birmingham, Cambridge-Norwich and the Liverpool St stopping services. I note that the Melbourn, Shepreth & Foxton Rail User Group have been told that “from 2018 our stopping service will terminate at the new station”. 2018 is the year that the stopping service becomes a Thameslink service to Tattenham Corner in Surrey (via central and south London), so it seems likely that the new station’s bay platform will be used for terminating at least one of the two Thameslink train services. Nothing has yet been said about the other Thameslink service from Cambridge to Brighton via Gatwick – that may yet remain at the main station.

East West Rail: the Oxford to Bicester section is nearly finished, with trains due to start running to Oxford Parkway in September. Following a rejig of the trackwork and signalling north of Oxford station, trains will run through to Oxford from the May 2016 timetable change. The construction website is rather poor on progress reporting, but it does make an effort to keep local residents informed about road and path closures and the like. The Bicester-Bletchley section is still at the stage of investigating the state of the existing infrastructure and ecology, but there are now site compounds set up and much more of the trackbed has been cleared. Trains are due to run on this section from March 2019, though only the Oxford-Bletchley section will be electrified at this stage. This might mean an Oxford-MK electric service connecting with the existing Marston Vale Line service to Bedford until the electrification reaches Bedford.

Several new-ish ideas have been firmed up somewhat by an announcement by David Cameron in Cambridge last week. These are:

  • exploring the case to electrify the Felixstowe to Birmingham railway line, launching a new competition for the new East Anglia franchise, considering reviving the Wisbech-March-Ely line and welcoming £260m new private investment at Felixstowe Port
  • government will also extend the study already underway of the East-West Rail (Bedford to Cambridge) to explore the options for the Eastern section of the line and consider the possibility of a new station south of Cambridge at the new Addenbrookes campus. Specifically the study will consider how East West Rail could connect Oxford with Ipswich and Norwich.
  • a “task force” to look into ways of improving the Cambridge-Liverpool Street line, which is currently at capacity.

So, all this points in the direction of improvements in infrastructure and services. Electrification of freight routes to the major ports has been on the agenda for a while, but there are lots of potential passenger benefits from the Felixstowe-Birmingham upgrade. First and foremost it would mean that the line from Cambridge to Peterborough via March is electrified, and that almost certainly will allow for a better passenger service on that route. If completed, it would give Cambridge an all-electric route to the ECML northbound, and also to the soon-to-be electrified Midland Main Line at Leicester and West Coast Main Line at Nuneaton. This gives the potential for electric inter-regional services.

The Wisbech reopening campaign gets useful endorsement here, which is encouraging – and given it’s actually a pretty short branch from March this would again make sense for electrification at reopening if the wires are already going to reach March.

The Felixstowe electrification would also mean that the Ely-Ipswich line would be electrified, and since the Newmarket-Cambridge section is an obvious “infill job” it seems likely that Cambridgeshire and Suffolk will be much better connected with faster electric trains.

The East West Rail announcement is interesting, too – this reads to me like the existing paper studies will be re-run to look at ways of providing more benefit to Norwich and Ipswich. The existing report notes that the top demand for journeys of an hour or so is actually Cambridge-Northampton, and no journeys from Ipswich or Norwich make the “priority journey” rankings. If the study is re-run assuming that the Cambridge-Ipswich and Cambridge-Norwich lines can be upgraded (with higher linespeeds and electrification), it may bring them more into scope. An interesting exploratory report from Network Rail has already mooted the idea of a Norwich-Cambridge-London service which would operate along the same lines as the King’s Lynn service – using the existing hourly fast service from London to Cambridge, with a front portion that continues to Norwich. If this connects well with the eventual Cambridge-Reading service, Norwich gains a second fast route to London and connections across the whole of southern England.

I’m pleased to see that an Addenbrooke’s station has been formally “considered”, too – the County Council have it in their development plans, and the land has been reserved for it in the present development. It should help take pressure off the main station, provide a better service for the new housing in Trumpington and people in South Cambs, and probably also presents a nice opportunity to enhance Cambridge’s southern rail approaches. At the moment, the two lines from London converge at the confusingly-named “Shepreth Branch Junction” just north of Great Shelford. The four tracks briefly become three, and then merge down to two (an unusual case of where facing points on running lines have been used in place of a double junction – this is unusual because it’s considered less safe, as a train could end up routed down the “wrong line” into a head-on collision, though the interlocking should prevent it). Just north of Long Road, the line becomes three tracks again to approach the station. A new station at Addenbrooke’s is likely to cause a bottleneck if it was just built as-is (especially given the increased services once Thameslink starts, and even more so if the East West Rail route ends up being via Royston and Hitchin as seems most likely to my mind), so it seems likely that the whole area would be remodelled, with the two main lines becoming four parallel tracks as far as Addenbrooke’s, and then three or four tracks from there to Cambridge. This allows fast trains to pass slow ones and gives a lot more resilience.

Just to mention the Liverpool St line – it currently feels like the poor relation compared with the King’s Cross route, because the Cambridge services stop everywhere, with no real fast service. The line’s actually completely maxed out in the Lea Valley south of Bishop’s Stortford, not least because the Stansted Express is using a lot of the available paths. There are all sorts of ideas about how to solve this, a lot of which are expensive and involve trying to widen an existing two-track railway into four, which will take a long time to happen. There seems to be some traction around the ideas though, so it may well happen.

What are universities for?

February 16th, 2015

I have been riding a bit of a hobbyhorse about the shortcomings of universities (particularly those in the UK, I’ve less experience of those elsewhere in the world) for a good few years, but it’s taken me a while to settle it into anything like a coherent argument until recently. So, here goes…

What are universities for? I think we might traditionally argue that they are about the pursuit of knowledge, and the distribution of that knowledge to wider society – both via teaching, and via outreach, consulting, spin-off companies, research collaborations, media appearances, expert witnessing and all the other ways that practicing academics share their knowledge with others. They have their origins in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, and the lecture, with one person speaking andh students taking notes, was originally the only cheap way by which books could be copied: the lecturer dictated from the original, and the students wrote it down. Of course, lecturers took to sharing their margin notes and other thoughts and this evolved into teaching.

But what are they really for? My suggestion is that the 21st century British university is in the business of the pursuit and distribution of reputation rather than knowledge. Let’s unpack that. As an undergraduate student, I apply to study a subject at university partly because of my intrinsic interest in the subject, and partly because I hope very much that having a university degree will help me to get a job. In fact, I choose to apply to the University of Somewhere Famous, because I know that having a degree from U. Famous enhances my reputation much more than a degree from U. Nowheresville would ever do. The admissions tutor eyes my application with a view to deciding whether I, the prospective student, am likely to enhance the reputation of the university in the short, medium and long term. If so, they award me a place. Having worked to complete the course, and hopefully learned something about the subject and some transferable skills along the way, I leave the university with my BSomething from U. Famous, and find that indeed, the borrowed reputation of the university helps to open doors. Once I begin my paid work, the reputation transfer starts to go back the other way – my career helps to enhance the reputation of U. Famous, especially if I go on to be a Notable Alumnus. But even in a graduate level job, the positive experience of my colleagues and managers of my skills and knowledge shapes their impression of U. Famous, and thus I start to pay back the reputation that was loaned to me on my degree certificate.

Of course, universities also undertake postgraduate study and research, but I would argue that these, too, are now about the pursuit of reputation. PhD students are the indentured apprentices of academic research, undertaking much tedious gruntwork on behalf of their supervisors whilst being paid relatively little, and all because of the pursuit of the reputation that a U. Famous PhD will bring them. The lucky few will enjoy the experience, and the majority will feel that it was probably worth all the sleepless nights, frustration and despair in the end (you can tell that I’m a little bitter about my PhD!). But the transition to postgraduate study makes the reputational transaction more complex – if the research results in published papers, that enhances the university’s reputation as being a centre for research (and, in the UK, can directly influence the amount of funding it receives). The new doctor that leaves and seeks a job outside academia benefits from the university’s reputation, and the reputation of the institution of the PhD itself, in their new career, and again repays that reputation to the university as their career progresses.

For those that stay to be post-docs, and those appointed to be faculty, it has become ever more clear that their role is to enhance their personal reputation, and that of their group, department and university, as quickly and effectively as possible. This means bringing in more and larger research grants, publishing more and more peer-reviewed papers, and (perhaps also) speaking in public or in the media where they will of course be credited as “Dr X from U. Famous”. The actual research outcomes matter not – in fact, the overwhelming majority of academic research is in obscure and niche fields specifically so that they can ensure ease of publication. Generating reputation allows the university to enhance its income through sponsorships and donations, build nicer facilities, attract better undergraduates, and (in many places) charge higher fees. There are several cases now where academics have been sacked for failing to generate sufficient grant income – that is, failing to enhance the reputation of their institution sufficiently quickly – and so the idea of the pursuit and sharing of knowledge plays very much second fiddle to climbing the reputational greasy pole. The deepest irony is that the pursuit of research reputation often means that the best and brightest researchers can ill afford time to teach the undergrads and supervise the postgrads who come expecting to benefit from their knowledge, experience and reputation.

I should also briefly mention that the plight of the post-doctoral researchers, caught on short term contracts with very little job security and precious little hope of being appointed to a permanent role. Most university departments give menial jobs to post-docs (writing and indeed printing and stapling lecture notes for a professor, in the case of a friend of mine) because it looks better to employ more post-docs than it does to employ proper support staff (or to pay for the university’s own support departments on the internal market). The universities exploit the need for post-docs to continue working in their field for the sake of their own personal reputation in order to swell the reputation of the university itself.

So, what’s to be done? I might suggest that we break apart the “teaching” and “research” aspects of universities into separate but closely-linked institutions. The teaching institution concentrates on undergraduates, and employs those who primarily enjoy teaching. The research institution undertakes research and employs researchers. There will be those who enjoy both, and they are primarily employed by one institution and have part of their time bought out by the other. The management and funding structures are separated, so that neither aspect can be crowded out by the other. On the research side, I would end the pursuit of heavily metric-based management of research, and ensure that research institutions have a steady flow of basic funding to pursue “national capability” research, with project grants awarded on top. I don’t have all the answers, but I don’t think the present situation is sustainable for too much longer. Universities need to be freed from the pursuit of reputation to re-focus on sharing knowledge with wider society.