THE FIRST THIRTY YEARS ARE THE WORST! Featuring a glaring error and some terrified monsters

By 18th May 2015Presidents Log

Once again I find myself at Plymouth, teaching on the microscopy course this time.  All here is very much as before, which amongst other thing means a very warm welcome from the staff here, and also some seriously good lunches, for which the course is worth attending for these alone.  The lectures, with the probable exception of my own, tend to be pretty good too.  The only noticeable change was that the person on the reception desk, whom I had nicknamed “Mrs Battleaxe” in a previous blog, because her insistent reminders to wear our namebadges rather reminded me of one or two of the schoolteachers from my short-trousers era, has no longer been in evidence.  I ended up never wearing mine as a matter of principle, so since I haven’t been asked to at all so far this time, I’m actually wondering about starting to.  My life is full of tough decisions like this one.

 But the title of this particular blog commemorates an event we would have forgotten about until we received some “blurb” from one of those companies that try to sell the various more-or-less useless items, such as cuckoo clocks, as “rewards” for periods of long service doing something or other that, sadly, may have been similarly useless.  In our case it was “Congratulations to Cairn Research on 29 January 2015 for 30 years of being in business!”  My first reaction to this was that none of us had any need for a cuckoo clock, but my second one was that they must have got the dates wrong, since I very distinctly remember not leaving my “previous job” until Easter 1989 rather than January 1985.  How could this be?

1985 – 2015 Celebrating 30 years

I’ll return to that one in a bit, but meanwhile, back to the present day!  I’m accompanied here at Plymouth by not only Danielle and Joao to help with teaching, but also by our increasingly R&D-oriented engineer Tomas, whom we managed to enrol as a student by stapling a large number of used fivers to his application form.  In truth, we are indeed sponsoring him, but that’s in order to help fund the course rather than to get him on it, as he was easily accepted on his own merits.  That, by the way, is a reflection on Tom, rather than on the quality of the other students, which is always high!  This course is a particularly good home for our own necessarily limited sponsorship funds, for which we have many more requests than we can fulfil.  I’m afraid that a promise just to be mentioned in the meeting programme in recognition of our donation (large or small but preferably large) is generally not sufficient for us to turn out our pockets.  We would really like to come along too, please!

As for what we are showing here, it seems to be pretty much anything with an “Opto” in it, so that means Optoscan monochromator, OptoLED and Optosource light sources, Optosplit image splitter and Optospin filter wheel.  Pretty much everything, in fact, apart from the Optopatch patch clamp (which ironically enough is the originator of that “Opto” prefix), as its imaging qualities have always been terribly disappointing (wake up please, that was meant to be a joke).  But talking about the Optopatch, which we now seem to be, we recently confirmed for a couple of customers that its qualities in another area, namely bandwidth, knock all the competition sideways.  They have a type of probe scanning application that requires a bandwidth of over 100KHz, which no other patch clamp appears to meet, whereas the optical feedback in the Optopatch (hence its name) gives a response that’s still flat at 110KHz, where we ran out of test frequencies!  That’s not bad for a product that was developed way back in the last century.  As for the stuff we do have here though, it’s the Optospin filter wheel that’s really getting the attention.  After what literally was too many years of development (mainly involving me, so definitely my fault), we released it onto an unsuspecting public just a year or so ago, and the sales have taken off in a most satisfying manner.

 This gives me an opportunity for another “plug”.  What makes the Optospin such a “nice” product?  We recently hatched the idea of having a few “questions and answers” on the Cairn website.  These are intended to answer the sort of questions that people could usefully ask but perhaps wouldn’t think to, so at least part of the idea is to get people to browse through that section to have a look at what’s there.  As well as the Optospin, where we describe how unbreakable physical laws can nevertheless be bent a bit, topics there include the potential needs for and benefits of optical feedback for LED illumination, the pitfalls of using insufficiently flat mirrors in applications such as image splitting, and various beartraps for unwary camera users.  We’re very keen to expand this section, so do please let us know if you have suggestions for further topics.  Do please limit your questions to ones for which there is a potential answer though, so questions like “How can we stop Martin from writing these crazy blogs?” are not going to be usable.  You can find that part of our site HERE.

 For me, Plymouth is also an opportunity to escape from the increasingly frenetic pace at Cairn for a few days, where a very great deal has been going on.  I’ve been particularly b

usy in the last few months working on a potentially very exciting project that I’m afraid we’re not ready to tell you about yet, as well as keeping an eye on the progress of our new building, which finally acquired a roof a few weeks ago.  In some countries it is traditional to celebrate this in some way, which we realised when our New Zealand friend Kevin Webb (originator of the “Aura” concept of using rings of LEDs for phase contrast illumination) asked us if we were going to do what they call a “roof shout” in that part of the world.  Any excuse for a party, so we did open a few drinks one Friday afternoon.  I even offered to pour a bottle of champagne over the new roof, but for some strange reason my making this offer conditional on drinking it first was not found to be generally acceptable.

 Time does tend to go on, as that “anniversary” helped to remind us, so it is already nearly three years since the new building was first thought about.  As you can read from a previous blog (WE’RE GROWING), our planning application was passed in September 2013, but we’d been discussing the plans with our local authority quite extensively before submitting the formal version, so the process had effectively begun back in 2012.  Then we needed to get “Building Regulations” approval, and to find someone to build it at a price we could afford, both of which took a while, and we were in no mood to start early last year as it never seemed to stop raining (witness the destruction of one of Mr. Brunel’s railway creations as described in my “Be careful how you name your son” blog at that time).  In the end we didn’t make a start until last August, which was sufficiently late for the construction to be further held up by bad weather in the autumn and winter just gone.  So the hoped-for deadline, given in another previous blog (NEW BUILDINGS PAST AND PRESENT), of the end of last year for a weathertight structure was comprehensively missed!  However, that didn’t matter, because the new building is being financed by our own ill-gotten gains rather than dodgy bank loans or external investors, and our budgeting schedule called for waiting until our new financial year at the beginning of May before doing the internal fitting out.  Therefore we’ll be going ahead on the original schedule, but without the wait!

 The fitting out will go ahead at a fairly relaxed pace, with a view to finishing it by around the end of the year (famous last words?), as the new building will give us a lot of extra space, which we won’t need all at once.  However, we are actually ahead of schedule on one front, which is the installation of solar panels on the new roof.  As part of the Building Regulations approval process, we were strongly encouraged to do something positive on the “environmental” front (a good idea anyway of course), so that nicely fitted the bill there.  To our not inconsiderable amusement, our local Parish Council (not Swale Borough Council, who have been staunchly behind us), who had clearly been nobbled by our neighbours’ representation on it, had used these proposed panels as one of their objections to our new building – and which had forced our planning approval to go to a full Planning Committee meeting as described in a previous blog (WE’RE GROWING).  Apparently, “glare from these panels would endanger road traffic”!  Solar panels are, of course, designed to absorb light rather than reflect it, and in any case their angle is such that any reflected light is directed back up into the sky rather than across into the road.  Basic geometry was clearly not one of the Parish Council’s strong points, which gives your blogger the opportunity to say that they had clearly made a “glaring error” there.  Sorry.   However, this mistake hasn’t stopped me from going around saying things like “Gosh, the glare from those panels is really intolerable today, isn’t it?”  Nor did anything stop us making a formal complaint to Swale about the Parish’s “inappropriate” handling of our planning application, for which they duly got their knuckles rapped.  Oh happy days!

 Now back to that thirtieth anniversary!  I had described the birth of Cairn in a previous blog (WEIRDOS FROM ANOTHER PLANET) in the form of a homage to the horror writer H P Lovecraft, who wrote some truly spine-chilling stories about indescribable monstrosities breaking into this world from higher dimensions that held terrors even further beyond our imagination.  His writing style has often been copied but never equalled, and certainly not by my pathetic attempt.  But the point was that rather like those entities trying and sometimes succeeding in breaking through to terrify us all, the birth of Cairn was a long and difficult process, fiercely fought by the powers on this side of the divide.  However, I would like to think that instead of a monster, the strange being that was eventually brought forth from wherever it came from turned out to be rather well equipped to fight off the even more malign entities (such as venture capital, banks and hedge funds for starters) that we have brought into being ourselves on our side of the dimensional barrier.  In fact, I rather suspect that Lovecraft’s unspeakable creations are lurking in perpetual fear in their own dimensional realm in case Western capitalism breaks through to reach them!  That really would be horrific.

 So, my painful decision to turn down that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a superb example of the cuckooclockmaker’s art reminded me not just when Cairn first came into being, but how.  In my last blog (RANDOM THOUGHTS….) I related how for a while I had done some design work for someone who had set up an audio amplifier company.  As noted there, that company is still going, so a certain discretion is necessary in relating the following!  While I was involved, I got a handy bit of royalty money (enough to buy a car), and the company boss was making it increasingly clear that he wanted me to join that company full time.  However, there were two problems.  First, he wanted me as an employee rather than as a business partner, and I was already just an employee somewhere else, albeit at that doomed research lab, and I was looking for more than that.  Second, the world of audio was and still is full of hype, as I trust I also made clear in that blog (RANDOM THOUGHTS….), and I realised that I wouldn’t find it personally satisfying to make a living selling stuff to people with more money than sense (this was top-end audio, where many people exist on a diet of fruitcake).  No, I wanted to do something more “useful”, whatever that meant.

 I therefore decided it was time to strike out “on my own”.  My intention was to continue the audio amplifier involvement, at least for a while, but to get some other things going on my own account.  But I wanted to do this as part of a proper business, rather than as just a private individual, and a friend who had recently left those doomed research labs to do a PhD was of a similar mind.  Since you needed at least two people to establish a limited Company, as I wanted it to be, we set Cairn up together.  I am often asked “Why did you call the company Cairn?”, and the simple answer is that it was Andrew Thompson’s idea!  So please address all complaints to him(!), but the logic, with which I agreed, was by analogy with other companies (think Apple for example) whose name has no connection with their business activities, allowing them to get into any field they want.  I also figured that we could use some nice photos of cairns in the landscape as backdrops for our sales and marketing material, so this all sounded just fine.  We couldn’t register “Cairn” by itself, so we needed to qualify it in some way.  We were going to go for “Cairn Technology”, but the company registration people felt that was too similar to a previously granted name, so we went for “Cairn Research” instead.  That has proved a very useful and indeed appropriate choice, as we do a lot of R&D, for which there are generous tax advantages, and having “Research” as part of our name helps make that very clear to the taxation authorities!

 Cairn’s first income was going to be the continuing royalties from that audio amplifier company.  Sadly, the owner took it very badly that I had set up something with Andrew rather than going to work for him, which meant an abrupt end to our association.  A very great pity, since I had admired him greatly, and I had learned a huge amount from him about the practical aspects of setting up and running a small business.  But with that experience, coupled with my parallel one in my “day” job of others not knowing how to successfully run a rather larger one, I felt that I deserved to be taken out and shot if I couldn’t make a success of Cairn!  Meanwhile, the one good thing about the situation at that time was that I wasn’t breaking the regulations of that company by doing something else on the side, just so long as there was no conflict of interest, which I was of course particularly keen to ensure as Cairn had just lost that first source of income.

 However, as time went on I found myself working very much on my own rather than with Andrew.  I’m pleased to report that we remain very good friends, but it turned out that he had too many other interests to make the contribution that I’d hoped for, so our professional association waned and eventually ceased in the following years.  Also a pity of course, but no bones broken this time!  There is potentially another story to tell about what I tried to do next, but in retrospect it was probably too ambitious for what was then effectively a one-man business, so in the end I found myself using my established research interests to get into the optical instrumentation area for which we are now so well (I hope!) known.  Again, there will be stories here for another time, but once more I found myself doing something on my own, in this case filling a substantial order for a complete fluorescence instrumentation system, with which another company had promised substantial assistance.  In the event, a reorganisation and buyout meant that no such assistance was forthcoming, so a particularly steep and busy learning curve ensued. To my surprise, it all turned out well, but perhaps my reasons for saying that the birth of Cairn was a difficult and traumatic one with those Lovecraftian overtones are now better understood!

 Key amongst all this though was my desire for financial independence.  Since I was effectively just a one-man band at that time, I was not a suitable candidate for venture  (referred to as “vulture capital” by yours truly, as you’re likely to be left with just a few bones at the end of the day), which I would have avoided with a ten-foot battle lance anyway.  I expect to say more about those guys in a future blog!  And as for banks, well my bank manager at the time was happy to lend me money, but he would need a personal guarantee.  But as I explained, if I had to give a personal guarantee I might as well put the money in myself.  He had no answer to that one.  Cairn was therefore funded by my keeping that other job for several years longer than I’d liked, plus the increasing revenue from the stuff that we were eventually selling.  By the time I felt it safe to leave, I’d already been employing someone else for a year, and had enough of a war chest to keep going for months if need be.  In fact we got another order on the very first day I went full time, after which things took off like a rocket!  Nevertheless, that long and frustrating delay while building up the business means that even now I dream from time to time that Cairn is as big as it is now, but that I’m still working for that previous employer, and wondering when it will be safe enough to jump ship.  I’d hate to think what a psychiatrist would think of that one, but I expect that any attempt to analyse me could well endanger their own sanity, so I keep well away from such people for the sake of all concerned.

 Finally, back to Plymouth!  In a previous Plymouth blog (PLYMOUTH MBA), I had extolled the virtues of a rather tucked-away pub by the name of the Fisherman’s Arms.  However, only weeks later it was closed, so I couldn’t help but feel in some way responsible.  It had remained, boarded-up, with a “Freehold For Sale” sign on both my subsequent Plymouth visits, so I assumed it was going the share the fate of all-too-many pubs and become just another house.  But no!  During this visit I heard one of the lab technicians talking about the place, and on questioning he told me that it had opened again a few months ago.  A visit that evening was therefore essential, and it ended at a satisfyingly late hour.  I only hope it will survive my giving it another plug here!

By the way, the title of this piece actually comes from two people (one of whom was my father), who when asked how difficult they had found it to quit smoking, independently gave this same response.  For my part, I have tried on a number of occasions, and for a number of reasons best not gone into here, to quit not smoking, but fortunately without success.  These things are certainly difficult.

Commiserations (or perhaps congratulations?) to Tom for not quite winning the jellyfish prize for being the best student.  This is usually won by the same laboratory, whose representative is told on pain of death to return with it.  There is a rumour that they didn’t win it one year, but I couldn’t confirm this as the body was never found.  This year, in response to our sending Tom, they sent two students, who had to put in a joint entry to the exercises in order to be sure of winning.  It’s therefore official; Tom isn’t quite as good as two other people put together, so the cloning experiments will be continuing.  However, it was actually in everyone’s best interests for those two to pool their resources, as Cairn has a collaboration with that same laboratory, so we were all keen to avoid any further deaths.