JUST WHEN MARTIN THOUGHT IT WAS SAFE TO GET BACK INTO THE WORLD, THE CRUEL JAWS OF FATE STRUCK AGAIN!
…….But at least the extra time here has helped launch our latest LED products, and an even bigger filter wheel is on the way too….
As I write this in early September 2022, the evenings are beginning to draw in, and the later sunrises are bringing crisper air and a clearer morning light to our nice farm here in Kent, which normally can mean only one thing – time to be off to Plymouth again! Except that sadly, we’re not. Actually it will be the third year in a row that we’ll have missed this trip, as the Cell Physiology Workshop that we’ve so regularly attended last ran there in 2019. Of course, Covid put paid to 2020, and last year it did “sort of” run, but only virtually, which just wasn’t the same. This year should have been back to normal, but for two things. First, the sudden sad loss of the course organiser David Ogden at the end of last year, and second, we were told that the teaching space wouldn’t be available for us this year, as it was all due to be refurbished. So as for next year? Well, we’ll just have to see….
More about “Plymouths” at the end, but missing out on a visit there this year has become part of an unexpected personal trend, where I’ve been hardly anywhere else either for quite a while now. Little did I realise that the one I made to the Paris Neuroscience Workshop in May was not only my first one for quite a while, but it has turned out to be the last for a while too. And just like the earlier hiatus, this one was also down to Covid, albeit not quite so directly.
The reason this time was that many people had newly acquired pets during the lockdown, so once the summer arrived and they wanted to go on holiday, this has booked out the kennels for months. I simply hadn’t realised the extent of the issue until I tried to book my two dogs in for a few days in order to go to the Paris FENS meeting at the beginning of July, and there was no space anywhere! Also the situation wasn’t helped by the fact that the kennels I’d been using for years have now closed down. I’d been friendly enough with them that they would probably have warned me about the pending demand, so instead I was quite unprepared for the situation. And since everywhere seems to be booked out until October, this could have been a problem for Plymouth this time too, so at least the combination of no Plymouth and no kennels has kind of cancelled itself out.
Of course I really blame all the people who so thoughtlessly breed from their pets, creating the supply of puppies and kittens that then overwhelm the kennels. Don’t these people ever appreciate the consequences of their actions? But meanwhile, my two Vizsla dogs are doing great. Latest addition Eddie, who joined us in spring 2021 following the sudden sad loss of Vinnie in November 2020, has shaped up very nicely. He is the half brother of my other boy Bertie, who joined us in 2017, and who has just had his first successful mating! He is therefore following the footsteps (pawsteps?) of Vinnie and grandfather Robi, who sired several litters each. (Hint: I am blaming myself for the kennels situation.)
But then there was a second kind of cancellation. I’d been very keen to go to the Paris FENS meeting in July, to show off our latest LED products that had already put in a preliminary appearance at the earlier Paris Neuro meeting, where they had achieved a gratifyingly high level of interest. So it was particularly frustrating that the kennels problems prevented me from going to FENS to show them off there too. However, this time the self-cancellation was down to Brexit. It has now become much more difficult to import things into the EU (it used to be easy!), especially on a temporary basis, and we’d already had a problem where our Andrew Allan wanted to show some of our products at the 46th EWGCCE meeting in Spain, but could only show himself instead (but I’m sure he looked fabulous). Since he is dogless, he arrived in Toledo with relatively few problems, but thanks to the new Brexit Customs hassles, our products did not. So, as you may have guessed from the way this one is going, we had the same problems with FENS, which meant that neither I nor the new LED system made it over there.
Yes, I know Brexit supporters say these problems will eventually sort themselves out, but as one of the few economists who seemed to get anywhere near to understanding the subject, namely one John Maynard Keynes, said “The long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” And he should know, as he has been dead for a fair while, but his point was that to persist with a policy that isn’t working now, in the hope that it might work later, is not a very meaningful argument. But never mind the politics! The Brexit practicalities for us were such that instead of waiting to die, we had set up our German Cairn GmbH subsidiary, and hence our CEO there, Felix Evers, was able to bring sufficient equipment over from our Heidelberg office to put some alternative food on our trade stand table. So we kind of muddled through, as you can read from Jez’s report on the proceedings.
But meanwhile, here is a little more information on these LED developments, as we’ve now done some costings, which has allowed us to make a couple of nicely straightforward sales and marketing decisions. First, adding our new USB interface does of course cost more money, but on the other hand, it also saves money. This is because the new alphanumeric display that’s an integral part of the interface is cheaper than even one of the two digital meters in the current OptoLED, and its more precise readout, as well as some other nice features that you can read about here SOON, means that we we no longer need to fit the (surprisingly expensive) multiturn pots and dials that we’ve been using up to now. So overall the cost to us is the same as before, hence we might as well switch to producing this version, and since the name is well known, we’re just going to continue to call it the OptoLED. Many thanks to Roz for pointing out that we didn’t have to change the name!
Second, the further cost savings in putting four LED channels into a box rather than two, coupled with the four-channel version of the alphanumeric display, have turned out to be substantial. Not only have they opened up further LED marketing opportunities for us, but they have also killed off another internal Cairn project for what was going to be a relatively low cost unit with four LEDs integrated into a single head, and driven by a simplified version of our LED electronics. We already had a name lined up for that product, namely the MultiLED, and we were intending to call THIS one the “QUADLED”, which is why you can see that name on the photo. However, since the MultiLED name is now available for it, we decided it was going to be the better choice. Also, it’s perhaps more of a “top of the range” name rather than an “economy” one, just as the Multisplit is our top of the range of image splitters, so we’re very pleased to have made the switch! Thanks to Production Director Neil’s expertise in such matters, a bit of front panel relabelling for these first products will be no major task
Another factor in this decision was that the prototype four channel LED head was quite complicated in design and construction, and didn’t allow LEDs to be interchanged. It also didn’t offer any performance advantages over combining the outputs from our standard LED heads, whereas the new LED coupling and alignment system that I described in my Paris blog now provides a simple and cost-effective way of doing so.
A key design goal for these new LED products has been to ensure that they don’t have to be connected to a computer in order to work just like the original OptoLED, but of course much more becomes possible if you do, and thanks to our Technical Director Andrew Hill, there is a very nice Graphical User Interface (GUI) for them, together with Micromanager support. As I explained in my Paris blog, we think that to offer four readily-interchangeable LED wavelengths makes much more sense than offering a supposedly broad-spectrum LED source, as LEDs in the 500-630nm range still aren’t bright enough and really need to be supplemented by other sources, as 89North do in their very nice (but expensive!) LDI products.
So what else has been going on here?
So what else has been going on here? Rather a lot, it seems! As previously announced we are now an Employee Owned Trust, but this is so that we can carry on as before rather than make any changes. We are far from complacent of course, but we’re currently in both a strong financial and trading position, which means that we can carry on as before. The systems side of the business is doing well, and our OEM activities are doing nicely too. OEM is a strange acronym, standing for Original Equipment Manufacture, but it basically means designing and building equipment for other Companies. Since everyone seems to want to have their own Company nowadays, but they often don’t have the infrastructure to actually make anything themselves, this has turned out to be a nice little goldseam, especially as we can often base these developments on our own products and components. How different this is from the “old days”, where at least in the UK I always felt I was being marked down by my then elders and betters for having such interests! It certainly is a crazy world, but one that hasn’t worked out entirely to my disadvantage….
But although that’s all going well, my personal interests have always been in designing, building and selling our own products, and we’ve been doing very nicely there too. I’ve been especially pleased by the increasing sales of our Optospin filter wheels – yes, plural because our original design that takes 25mm filters has been joined for the last couple of years by a 32mm filter version. And now, if only because it “can be done”, I’m waiting for delivery of prototypes of a 50mm version. However, that could open up a range of new possibilities, since 50mm is big enough to to take other optical components such as lenses as well, so we shall see where this may lead!
One of the great features of what I guess we can now call the Optospin “range” is that these units are compact as well as fast, allowing them to be easily incorporated into optical systems where most other filter wheels simply wouldn’t fit. The photo below should illustrate that rather nicely. As I’ve blogged before, I seem to have had an involvement with filter wheels ever since my postdoc days in Boston , where I spun one at high speed with compressed air in order to make differential absorbance measurements. And yes, the Optospins DO still spin as well as step, although not everyone seems to be aware of the fact! Well worth considering for even faster filter changing, although the Optospins can happily do ten or so steps per second if that’s fast enough for you.
"Another new product that’s doing well for us is the openFrame"
This is one product (or more correctly, product range) that I’ve had relatively little to do with, which could of course be a major reason for its success. However, I did manage to make a small contribution, in the form of a revised system for holding the individual “layers” together. The original system was fine for lab use, but shippers tend to treat our products with rather less respect, so it was nice to be able to come up with something that was strong enough to defeat even their best efforts.
Finally, back to Plymouth, or sadly, once again not. We were last there in 2019, but our history with these workshops reaches all the way back to their inception in 1984, as I have related before. I was there to give a talk at that first workshop, and once I was with Cairn full time in 1989, I’d been able to come along and teach every year since, and usually with one or more other Cairn people in tow, so it was really THE central point in our calendar.
But time passes! The reason for holding the course there was because of the groundbreaking work done there by Hodgkin, Huxley and others on elucidating the principle of nervous conduction. That was carried out on the “giant axons” of the (sadly NOT giant!) squid, which could regularly be collected at Plymouth. The major work was carried out during the 1940s and 1950s, although some continued through to the 1970s. An important introduction to the course each year was the so-called “squid film”, made in 1975, and starring the major figures of stage, screen and physiology of the era. Thanks to the wonderful world of digital media, you can see it for yourself right here!
And it really was a different era then! You can see from the film that some of these leading scientists of the day were even smoking in the lab! As I said in an admittedly spoof section of that blog, these people are now all dead, which clearly demonstrates the importance of properly complying with Health and Safety Regulations at all times.
But the real point is that this all was a long time ago now. This film is nearly 50 years old, and describes work that was being done a quarter-century before that, whereas back in 1984 for that first course (now nearly 40 years ago!), it was all that much more recent. Research interests at those Plymouth labs have long since moved on, so perhaps nobody there now remembers even the most recent of those days, in which case all that remains is probably the commemorative plaque by the front entrance.
Will the course ever run again? There is still some funding available, so there is a chance for 2023, and the reasons for running it are stronger than ever, but without David Ogden to champion it I think it may be a struggle. But Cairn will be full square behind all efforts to do so, and fortunately our transformation to an Employee Owned Trust should ensure that, whatever the future of the course, WE are going to be here for the long term!