Friday, 16 December 2011

The risks of technology

A couple of weeks ago the US announced that they had lost contact with one of their exceptionally high-tech and modern RQ-170 Sentinel drones. Later the Iranians said that an electronic warfare unit had captured the drone.

The Iranians later showed detailed video of what appears to be an RQ-170. It seemed remarkably intact - although the underside and undercarriage could not be seen, the top seemed nowhere near as damaged as would be expected from a shoot-down or even a crash landing. However the video and pictures are far clearer than would be expected if they were trying to fake the images.

Naturally, some people have been in denial about this. One theory has it that the Iranians had a mock-up ready made, and when the US lost contact with their drone the Iranians used the mock-up to pretend they had captured it. Whilst it is likely that nations may construct mock-ups of aggressor craft - for identification training if nothing else - it would be an embarrassing strategy if the real wreckage was discovered.

Another is that a rogue Iranian agent in the US military had deliberately crashed the plane within Iran. This seems rather unrealistic.

Today it is alleged that the Iranians forced the craft to land. The control protocols for the aircraft are certainly encrypted (although embarrassingly some of the data such as the video may not be) and I doubted that they had actually taken control of it. However today's claim does make sense, at least to an armchair (in)expert such as myself.

The drones are controlled from stations that can be anywhere in the world; for instance Britain's Predator and Reaper drones are flown from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada (*). Control signals are encrypted and sent over to the drones, presumably by satellite. If the radio signal is lost then the drones are programmed to fly automatically to a friendly base for landing, using GPS for positional information (**).

The Iranians are claiming that they jammed the 'proper' control signals coming from the US. This is important; they are not claiming to have hacked and decrypted the control signals, just to have blocked them. Without the signals, the drones would have automatically flown back to a base. This is where the Iranians got clever. It is possible to block and alter ('spoof') GPS signals; this is believed to be what is going on when GPS and SatNav users are warned that their devices will not work. The Iranians are claimed to have spoofed the drone's GPS signals so that it thought it was flying back to a friendly base.

Damage possibly occurred to the drone's underside on landing as the strip in Iran had a slightly different altitude to the base the drone believed it was landing at.

This claim is more plausible than the other alternatives. No real 'hacking' in the traditional senses was needed; instead gaping holes in the security logic were exploited. As much as I dislike the Iranian regime, the engineers must be congratulated for a very clever coup. My only question is why they have shown their hand so early; it gives the west time to understand the problems and close the exploits.

Unfortunately this will have serious implications. The obvious one - that the Americans have lost some of their top-secret military technology - might not be the most important. It it alleged that, although new, the RQ-170 does not use cutting-edge technology as they expected to lose one over enemy territory eventually, either through accident or combat. Far worse is the fact that American (and indeed western) commanders will have large doubts about the chances of their drones reaching a target in battle. And that may mean more manned aircraft are needed, and more friendly lives put at risk.

I am less bothered about the Iranian's claims that they will be able to reverse-engineer the aircraft. Although they have very capable engineers - they have allegedly been keeping some F14's in the air despite US sanctions and lack of spares - it would be a major task and money better spent on more useful platforms. It would be much more likely they would learn important lessons about how the drones work and how they can be combated. The Russians or Chinese would be in a much better position to take advantage of the aircraft.

(*) There is a valid debate to be had about how much we really control these drones. We have purchased them; would the US allow us to use them in a campaign that was against US interests? I am amazed that we have not paid to have the control stations here in the UK for a truly independent system.

(**) I would be surprised if they only used GPS for positional information, but it is possible. If so it was a major lack of foresight.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Terraforming Kinder

Kinder Scout has a reputation of being an evil, otherworldly place. Much of this reputation is deserved: navigation is difficult  in the centre of the plateau, especially in poor weather, and the constant climbing up and down the groughs is wearying. Add in the bleak, black landscape and it is easy to see why some walkers avoid it like the plague.

I have written before about my love for the place, yet for various reasons I had not climbed up onto the summit for over four years. For this reason a camping trip to Edale seemed like a good opportunity to see my old friend.

Glorious sunshine bathed the summit, and as I passed Kinder Downfall I was surprised to see a black helicopter flying to and fro with what seemed like a skip hanging underneath. Shortly afterwards a white helicopter repeatedly flew low overhead, dropping white bags of what turned out to be chopped heather over the terrain.

All this activity was part of a scheme to re-vegetate Kinder. Acid rain and other problems have devastated the delicate ecosystem on the plateau, and the lack of vegetation has led to massive erosion (*). In places the peat has been worn down to the underlying bedrock and the presence of walkers and cattle has not helped.

As far as I can work out, the scheme involves tipping lime over the ground to reduce the remaining acidity, then spreading cotton-grass seed over the area. Finally chopped heather is used to act as a binder for the ground (so-called 'brash spreading'); some of the seed will sprout. A new fence has been erected to enclose a large expanse of northwestern Kinder to prevent cattle from damaging the new vegetation.

Some interesting details of the work can be found on the National Trust website.

So far the difference is amazing. The area around The Edge trig pillar has always been a black morass (see this picture); now it is green with sprouting grass. I can only hope that the effort (at what must be massive cost) is worthwhile.

The helicopter dropping off lime 
Bags of heather suspended under a larger chopper

Terraforming The Edge. This was once a black morass.

A green and pleasant land?

(*) Other hills have suffered from a sillier problem: the EU gave grants to landowners to cut channels off the hills to increase the agricultural viability of the land. Unfortunately the increased flow caused massive erosion, and the EU is now giving landowners grants to block off those channels...

Friday, 2 December 2011

Boots

The new and old boots
I have had a boot-related problem. My old and (very) trusted Scarpa Trek 2 boots have finally given up the ghost. After 2,000 miles of glorious life, of tarmac, grass, mud and sand, the leather split and the boots went to the great shoeshop in the sky. Despite the rather large split in the leather, they still kept the water out when I waded into the North Sea at Cullercoats.

I went to see the friendly lads and lasses at Open Air in Cambridge to see if I could get another couple of pairs. It was then the problem occurred: Scarpa have replaced the Trek 2 boots with a new model, the New Trek GTX.

Yes, I walk lop-sided
My first question is why it is necessary to produce a new version of a boot every few years: in the last nine years I have got through about six pairs of the original Trek boots and three of the Trek 2. Are the new Trek boots so much better than the original ones? Indeed, I find it slightly hard to keep track of the different types of the Trek boot I have worn over the last ten years - I think the order is Trek, Trek GTX, Trek 2 and now, finally, the New Trek GTX.

The split
This will not matter for many people, but for me it is important. Because I have metal pins protruding from my ankle bone then I am limited in the number or types of boots I can wear - wellington boots are right out as they flex right where the metal is, causing pain on the bad side of intense. For this reason once I get a pair of boots that work for me then I tend to stick with them, buying a few pairs in advance. The injury also means that I hyper-supinate as I walk, causing the outside edge of the soles to wear out quickly.

So I have bought a pair of the newly-styled boots from Open Air; so far, after about one hundred miles, they seem fine. Unfortunately this does not mean that will continue to be the case, as I had to get rid of a good pair of Saloman boots after about eighty miles when the fabric started flexing in the wrong place.

The size of the split
All my previous Scarpa boots have been excellent; on my coastal walk I could just slip on a brand new pair and walk without having to break them in. On that trip they would only last 900 to 1,000 miles; the toll of walking day after day without cleaning limiting their life somewhat.

So another question: many people talk about pairs of boots lasting well over ten years; I can easily get through a pair in a couple of years. Is it normal for boots to split near the toes in this manner with enough (ab-)use, or is it a problem with the Treks? If it is a common problem, is there any way to prevent it happening?

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Nine more walks on the website.

In which I:
  • Re-walk the Limestone Way
  • Spend a couple of days on the Devon coast with Sencan
  • Go for a wander on Kinder
  • Spend a couple of days on the Angles Way
No. Location Distance (m) Date Walked
941The Monsal Trail from Bakewell 18.5 17/11/2011
940Edale to Kinder, Brown Knoll, Rushup Edge and Mam Tor 17.7 16/11/2011
939The Limestone Way: Castleton to the Waterloo Hotel and back 19.9 15/11/2011
938SWCP: Exmouth to Starcross 15.6 08/11/2011
937SWCP: Sidmouth to Exmouth 15.5 07/11/2011
936Limestone Way: Matlock to the Waterloo Hotel 18.7 02/11/2011
935Limestone Way: Rocester to Matlock 24.6 01/11/2011
934Angles Way: Bungay to Oulton Broad 21.7 26/10/2011
933Angles Way: Diss to Bungay 24.7 21/10/2011

I am probably going to take it easy in December; I just want to do a single walk to finish off the Angles Way and a couple more to re-walk the southern end of the Viking Way. In the meantime the demands of family and Christmas will undoubtedly get in the way.

I have some big plans for 2012, if only to avoid the Olympics.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Money

The rather excellent XKCD has a brilliant depiction of the American and world economy at http://xkcd.com/980/

Double-click on the image and start exploring how the dollars add up to thousands, millions, billions and then finally trillions. I only wish that I fitted on the right-hand side of the page rather than the left...

Friday, 18 November 2011

The speed limit

The coalition government recently announced a consultation into raising the speed limit on motorways to 80MPH, and some groups used the recent tragic crash on the M5 to decry the idea. This sickened me. The fact is we do not yet know if the speed limit had anything to do with the crash, and that if smoke was to blame - as looks possible - then other issues rather than the maximum speed limit were probably causal. It is best to wait for the report before using the accident for political ends.

I am agnostic about raising the motorway speed limit - what I would like to see is evidence. The 70MPH speed limit on UK roads was introduced in December 1965 as a temporary measure (there being no speed limit on motorways before then). Since 1965 the survivability of vehicles has increased massively, something that EuroNCAP and others needs a great deal of thanking for. Additionally, the braking systems of cars are also much better, as are the tyres and other parts of the system. In 1965 many cars struggled to reach 70MPH, yet alone 80, and I have yet to see any evidence that the 70MPH limit was based on any scientific evidence. It was essentially plucked out of thin air 45 years ago.

Earlier in the week we drove up the M5 from Exeter to the M42 on our way back from a stroll along the South West Coast Path. The southern part of the motorway was very quiet and 70 MPH seemed ridiculously slow once we got out of the bad weather. This was in a Honda Jazz, which is most certainly not a speedy car.

So perhaps it is time to reconsider the speed limits in this country. However, that should be looked at in all directions: lowering as well as raising. Some of the questions that would need answering are:
  • How much would raising the speed limit for cars improve the economy (an often-claimed benefit)?
  • Likewise, how much would lowering the speed limit affect the economy?
  • How many deaths and injuries would an increase in the speed limit be expected to cause?
  • What are the comparative accident rates in countries with a higher speed limit?
  • How often would a 80MPH limit on motorways be applicable? There are some parts of the motorway network that are near-permanently congested and have lower speed limits as a result.
  • What effect would a rise or decrease have on congestion?
  • What would be the environmental impact of increasing the speed limit?
  • How can technology improve speed-related safety and economy?
  • Can education (e.g. the fact that the speed limit is the maximum speed and not necessarily a safe speed) improve safety?
These questions (and more) are at the nub of the matter. If increasing the speed limit on motorways caused a gain to the British economy of £100 million per annum, would that be worth ten extra deaths? Likewise, if lowering the speed limit to 60MPH saved 30 lives per annum but cost £500 million, would that be acceptable?

Safety improvements on road, rail and air are already taken as part of a cost/benefit analysis that can count lives saved as part of the formula. I would want to see such analysis in the consultation. We need facts, not guesswork. Most of all we do not need people blindly using a tragedy for their own political ends.

Finally, it is best not to forget the tragedy itself. RIP those who died, and may lessons be learned.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Meditation


An ex-colleague of mine posted the following on his Facebook account:
From Osho:
'There are only two types of people in the world: those who try to stuff their inner emptiness, and those very rare precious beings who try to see the inner emptiness. Those who try to stuff it remain empty, frustrated. They go on collecting garbage; their whole life is futile and fruitless. Only the other kind, the very precious people who try to look into their inner emptiness without any desire to stuff it, become meditators.
'Meditation is looking into your emptiness, welcoming it, enjoying it, being one with it, with no desire to fill it –there is no need, because it is already full. It looks empty because you don't have the right way of seeing it. You see it through the mind; that is the wrong way. If you put the mind aside and look into your emptiness, it has tremendous beauty, it is divine, it is overflowing with joy. Nothing else is needed.' (Osho, The Book Of Wisdom, Osho International, 2009)
To which my reaction was:
Then there are people who split society into 'good' and 'bad' according to random attributes. Coincidentally enough they always seem to place themselves firmly within the 'good' bracket.
I hate such behaviour (although I have no doubt that I succumb to it at times). It splits the world into 'them' and 'us', 'good' and 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong', when the truth almost always lies somewhere in between. Take the snippet above; I have no problem with the writer claiming that meditation is good; where he crosses the line is in implying that people who do not meditate are somehow lesser beings.

We can all play the game:
From David:
'There are only two types of people in the world: those who spend their lives indoors, and those very rare precious beings who experience the countryside. Those who remain indoors remain empty, frustrated. They go on collecting garbage; their whole life is futile and fruitless. Only the other kind, the very precious people who go and walk in the countryside become better people.
'Walking is about filling your emptiness with grand vistas and the sensation of the sun, wind and rain on your face. The mere act of walking fills your soul. Do not see the countryside through your eyes; that is the wrong way. Put your sight to one side and pause to experience the countryside, breathe it in; it has tremendous beauty, it is divine, it is overflowing with joy. Nothing else is needed.' (David Cotton, The Book Of Bull**it, Discjirm, 2011)
Okay that is a bad example, but I think you can see what I mean.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

An artefact

I love seeing strange things, scenes or items that grab my interest and get my mind going.

One such thing occurred as a result of a stroll along the Waveney on Wednesday. There had just been a heavy shower and a rainbow appeared across the river. I took a couple of quick snaps, but when I got home I discovered an artefact on the pictures:

Immediately before

The artefact
The artefact close-up
The rainbow's colour smear does not appear on the photo taken a few seconds before, or the one immediately after. As far as I can recall the sun was somewhere behind me. I cannot recall seeing it at the time, so I am guessing it is something to do with the photographic process.

So does anyone have any ideas what may have caused it?

(an aside: this blog post led to a debate between Sencan and myself about whether 'artifact' or 'artefect' is correct in UK English. It turns out that both are applicable, although 'artefact' is preferred. We are that sad).

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Tape out

My wife has been at Company X for about nine months now, and is undergoing a process that is known as 'tape out'. It is a time of extreme stress.

After a computer chip has been designed, the plans are sent off to a fabrication plant for samples to be made. These are then received back and tested before going to production. Unfortunately fabrication is a time-consuming process and production slots have to be booked many months' in advance. This all adds up to a wait of many months to see if your chip works; if it does not then you have to find the fault, fix it and go through the whole hellish process once again.

This means that it is important for the plans that are sent to the fabrication plant is as near perfect as possible. I am lucky; in software we can almost always do a change and see the effects of that change within a few minutes. In my wife's job it can take months and cost a small fortune.

I once was involved with a team of people working on a digital chip. The first ten samples came back from the fabrication plant on a Monday morning; no time was wasted in placing some into test boards. The news quickly spread: they were Dead On Arrival and would not even power up. I watched during the week as the engineers got increasingly frantic until, on the Thursday afternoon, they discovered the problem. The fault was not with the design but with the manufacture (*). I have rarely seen engineers more highly stressed.

So what is 'tape out'? Imagine a chip as being a bunch of lines representing the circuits. The final plans of a chip form a spaghetti-like mess of interconnecting lines called a 'mask'. In the early days of silicon chips the scale was so large that the mask could be altered by simply adding black sticky tape - you literally got the tape out. Although modern techniques have long outgrown this method the term is still used to represent the point at which the chip is finally designed.

Tape-out is an incredible stressful period for everyone involved. Any mistakes that are left after that stage may not be found for many months, delay the project by many more and cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds. Incredibly intelligent people have left the industry because they cannot cope with the stress of tape-out and the wait for the chips to return. To compensate, tape-out is also a time of slap-up dinners for the development team and any hangers-on who might come along :-)


The construction of a chip is an immensely complex process; terms such as photolithography, finite barrier quantum wells and valence bands all add up to form a nearly-impenetrable barrier to comprehension. This is true for the design of digital chips; it is triply so for designers of analogue chips such as my wife. Digital chips are digital; they belong in the domain of ones and zeroes. Analogue chips are variable and utterly indeterminate; they are designed by magicians and witches.

So this note is a rather long-winded way to say to my wife how much I am so proud of her, how much I am amazed by what she does for a job. Not only is she a witch, but she is a damned good witch.

And not many husbands could get away with saying that...



(*) The silicon part of a chip sits in a piece of material (often plastic) called packaging that connects it to the outside world. The chips had been packaged 90 degrees out of orientation, meaning that the pins did not line up. It was someone else's problem and, even better, it was easy to fix...

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

16 new walks on my website...

Sixteen new walks are on my website, in which I:
  • Start the Angles Way
  • Complete the Viking Way
  • Walk the Great Glen Way
  • Walk the Speyside Way
  • Walk Hadrian's Wall Path
No. Location Distance (m) Date Walked
932Hadrian's Wall Path: Newcastle to Wallsend and on to Cullercoats 17.2 27/09/2011
931Hadrian's Wall Path: Chollerford to Newcastle 26.9 26/09/2011
930Hadrian's Wall Path: Greenhead to Chollerford 20.2 25/09/2011
929Hadrian's Wall Path: Carlisle to Greenhead 22.2 24/09/2011
928Hadrian's Wall Path: Bowness-on-Solway to Carlisle 15.5 23/09/2011
927Speyside Way: Cromdale to Aviemore 21.2 21/09/2011
926Speyside Way: Cromdale to Aberlour 23.0 20/09/2011
925Speyside Way: Buckie to Aberlour 26.2 19/09/2011
924Great Glen Way: Drumnadrochit to Inverness 20.4 17/09/2011
923Great Glen Way: Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit 15.0 16/09/2011
922Great Glen Way: Laggan to Invermoriston 20.1 15/09/2011
921Great Glen Way: Fort William to Laggan 23.8 14/09/2011
920Viking Way: Barnetby le Wold to Barton Upon HUmber, and across the bridges 19.4 31/08/2011
919Viking Way: Market Rasen to Tealby and Barnetby le Wold 21.9 30/08/2011
918Viking Way: Donington on Bain to Tealby and back 22.0 29/08/2011
917Angles Way: Thetford to Diss 23.6 19/08/2011

I'm intending to take things a little easier now that the winter months are approaching, but I'd still like to get another couple of hundred miles done before Christmas. If my lovely, gorgeous wife allows me, of course...

Monday, 17 October 2011

Happy 100th birthday...

... to the Middlesbrough Transporter bridge.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-tees-15080564



















I have never been over it, but passed it during my coastal walk nine yeas ago. It is a fascinating structure (as is the other example in Britain at Newport in South Wales). It's good to know that the old gal has life in her still.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Dennis Ritchie, RIP

With the media obsessing over the sad news of Steve Jobs's death, the passing of a man who had much more of an effect on the computer industry has gone virtually unnoticed.

You will certainly not have heard of Dennis Ritchie. His was not a household name, and he was not eulogised in the same way as Jobs. Yet he undoubtedly altered the world. I first heard of him when learning the programming language, 'C'. The bible on the earliest incarnations of the language was known colloquially as 'K&R'. As you may have guessed, the 'R' refers to Ritchie, who co-authored the book with fellow engineer Brian Kernighan.

Ritchie created the C programming language whilst working at Bell Labs in the early 1970s and, later, co-wrote the Unix operating system with Ken Thompson. C and its successor C++ are two of the most popular programming languages in use today, and Unix is used in a massive number of devices (even Apple's computers are based upon it).

Both inventions are far from flawless. They were created in the 1970s, when the computing world was very different. The C programming language is particularly flawed, and its extreme flexibility makes it difficult to write secure software. Yet that same flexibility led to its success, whilst many other technically superior languages have come and gone.

Someone once told me: "Anyone can program in Java, but C is for real men". If that is true, then Ritchie was a God.

The Register had a good obituary of the great man.

RIP Dennis Ritchie, and thank you.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

I'm in trouble.

My wife didn't appreciate my comments about her baking.


Yep, I'm definitely in trouble...

Friday, 7 October 2011

Nothing says fail like cliff fail...

Just watch this video, showing the failure of a cliff in North Cornwall:



Absolutely spectacular.

Tyrannosaur

Paddy Considine's new film, Tyrannosaur, is out today. It stars Peter Mullan (Children of Men, Harry Potter) and Olivia Colman (Peep Show) in a gritty story of violence, friendship and love.

Rotten tomatoes has given the film a rather stellar 91%. So if you have a spare hour and a half and want to see an intelligent film, then you could do worse. It has certainly has better reviews than Johnny English Reborn.

Why, you may ask, am I mentioning a film that I have not seen? There is an ulterior motive: my cousin, Dan Baker, co-wrote the music for the film. Sadly it does not appear to be showing on many screens, so I might be making a journey into London soon...

Friday, 30 September 2011

I am not an adrenaline junkie. Some people I know thrive on adrenaline, but all it does to me is add a brown lining to my boxers. This does not stop me from admiring people who do mad things. For instance, take Paul's trip to the Lakes during the recent bad weather:

http://paulswildcamping.blogspot.com/2011/09/failed-wild-camp-on-great-mell-fell.html

The video at the end is amazing. I have erected my beloved Westwind in some fairly bad weather over the years, but nothing like that.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

What a ba**ard

I am used to hard walking. I am used to ankle-deep mud, paths that double as streams, slippery stones, barbed-wire fences and all the things that nature and landowners combine to throw at walkers.

Yesterday, however, I discovered one of, if not the, worse stretch of path I have ever encountered. To make matter worse, it was on a National Trail. The section of the Speyside Way between Cromdale and Ballindalloch is hideous, a real ba**ard of the highest order. There is no geographical reason for this: the ascents and descents are all easily manageable and the terrain offers some good, if not stellar, views down the river. But the landowners have forced the path between two narrow fences for mile after mile, with frequent ankle-biter stiles. So many stiles, in fact, that there are often three in a few yards, and I counted five within view from one location.

Because it has been forced between the fences, the ground between is frequently boggy and churned up. To ease this problem, boulders- not slabs - have been placed in the worst stretches. Unfortunately they are uneven and slippery, causing your feet to slip off and into ankle-deep water and mud. Again I am used to such stones, but not hundreds of yards of them.

There is something seriously wrong with this stretch of trail. My guidebook states that the double fences are to protect walkers from cattle; in which case I wonder what sort of genetically-enhanced super-monster walker-eating cattle exists in the fields? 

To make matters worse, one particularly boggy stretch of double fence protected... a corn field.

It is not good enough. 

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Drumnadrochit to Inverness

Another day, another walk. This 20-mile stroll featured a red squirrel and one of the more interesting people that I have ever met on a walk...


                Well, another trail finished. I had a great night’s sleep in the hostel despite partaking of one too many pints of Fraoch last night whilst chatting to someone about walking – he wanted me to have a whisky chaser and in the morning I was glad I had abstained. As it was I felt a little sluggish as I drove to the car park in Drumnadrochit so that I could start the day’s walk. To be honest I was not looking forward to it – a glance at the map shows that it did not promise to be a classic day’s walk, and I am keen to get started on the next trail. Despite this I had little choice but to do it, so after nipping into the little post office to buy some snacks I headed off.
                Initially the trail followed the main road as it skirted the northern side of the glen, passing a couple of Loch Ness visitor centres on the way – a nearby house had a green Nessie on a trailer, presumably some form of float. Sencan rang, and we chatted as I walked. Soon the trail diverted off, claiming to pass above a house at Temple Pier, and soon the path started climbing, soon entering an area of woodland. It was a path of many gates; indeed, it felt like there were more gates than I had seen on the rest of the trail so far. Gate followed gate followed gate as the path slowly rose.

                Then a red squirrel ran onto the path about five yards in front of me. It stopped, stared at me for a moment, than leapt for the nearest tree (I seem to have that effect on people as well as wild animals). Despite all the time I have spent on the hills I have yet to see a red squirrel in the wild, and this few seconds meant that whatever else happened today, I would be happy. Ecstatic, I walked on. The path made a big zigzag up the hill, the steep gradient causing me to puff and sweat despite my lack of fleece. Mushrooms and toadstools abounded in the woods alongside the path, making the floor a carpet of browns, reds and whites.
                It was a relief when the path joined a track and the gradient slackened. I had not expected any views over Loch Ness today due to the forest, but there were a few places where the tree cover was such that magnificent views presented themselves, with mist rising up off the water far below. Again this made me feel exceptionally happy and I walked on up the slope.
                At one point a small path led off the trail, and I followed this to investigate. It led to a viewpoint where there was a little memorial to someone called Stuart; there was no way to know who he was or who had made the memorial, but the setting was delightful. A little further on the trail left the woodland and headed across some exquisite moorland, with a little croft at Corrryfoyness a short distance away to the right. I love moorland walking, and I had not expected to find any on this trip so it was a welcome bonus – so far today was turning out to be the best of the trip.
                All too soon the trail passed a large fence with a sign on it stating that the next few miles were a water catchment area, and that we were not to breathe near it. After this a winding path led through the woodland, approaching a sign that proclaimed the highest point on the entire trail – a good touch, although the views were non-existent due to the surrounding trees. The track then became straighter and better underfoot as it passed a car park hidden in the trees and eventually reach a road.
                The next stretch of path was absolutely marvellous as it passed through an area of low, shrubby bushes and empurpled heather. The colours were mesmirising and my sprits soared, especially when I started passing signs stating ‘campsite ahead’, ‘tea’ and ‘toasties’. I was intrigued a cafe was not marked on the map – indeed there were no buildings in the immediate area. Eventually I reached a little junction with welcoming signs and I followed these up a muddy path.
                Soon I came to a booth where a man with long grey beard welcomed me. He somewhat gruffly told me that there was no food on, and took me to a damp table set literally in the middle of nowhere. The tea cost two pounds fifty, which was rather a lot, but I felt like a rest so I sat down on a chair as he went away. A few chickens came along to say hello as I sat admiring the views. The man returned ten minutes later with the strangest tea apparatus I have seen in years – a large florid teapot that seemed to be made of pewter, a tea strainer, a pot of milk covered by a doily weighted by coloured stones, and a plate containing a solitary shortbread biscuit.
                I had become rather reticent about this ‘cafe’ during the wait, and this unusual arrangement did not put my mind at ease –for one thing it was the first time in years that I have been served proper tea (i.e. not teabags) in a cafe. Yet as I drunk I started to feel better; everything fitted in with the extremely rustic setting, and I felt as though I had somehow been transported back a hundred years to some remote crofter’s cottage, and that I was being offered tea from their best service.
                After a few minutes the man came back and sit opposite me. His name was Rory, and he runs the cafe and the adjoining campsite whilst looking after the acres of surrounding land. We chatted about the wildlife in the area, the harsh winters he gets up here and even the RAF planes that frequently fly over. It was a surprisingly fulfilling chat, and I left feeling deliriously happy at having met a man who was truly of his place – this place.
                Soon afterwards the trail joined a road and slowly started to climb once more. Good views unfolded on either side and I was tempted to cross the moorland to the nearby summit of An Leacainn; in the end I decided not to as there was still quite a way to go. The trail was following an old drover’s track, and had been well surfaced with grit. A jogger ran past me, her black Labrador joyously bonding by her feet, and I took her to be a sign that I was slowly approaching civilisation once more.
                The trail entered woodland once again, but this was nothing like the dark lines of trees that had straddled the trail earlier. Instead they were widely spaced, with grass and heather between them; it seemed an altogether more natural type of coniferous woodland, and I think it is a remnant of the old Scots Pine forests that once covered this area. It was pleasant to walk through, and I munched on a couple of apples as I strode along.
                Soon it became obvious that I was following an old track, with a low stone wall on my right and a ditch and bank on the left, the area between narrowed by scrub. This skirted the edge of Dunain Hill before dropping me unceremoniously out at a small reservoir. Several couples were walking around, again making me feel like I was nearing civilisation. This was proved true around the next corner when Inverness became visible far below.
                A good stretch of path took me steeply downhill towards an old hospital complex, the main buildings bearing magnificent turrets and seeming of their place. These were disused, but activity made it seem as though they are being converted to some other purposes. Less appealing was a modern building, only a few years old – a sign stated that it was the most energy efficient building in Britain, but from a distance it looked hideous, with the specially-treated windows looking like the metal sheeting that gets put over pub windows when they are closed. In contrast the turrets of the old hospital building looked just right.
                The trail tried its best to find a grassy route through a small housing estate, before passing through an underpass under a road. It passed a golf course on the right and some playing fields on the left, both of which were busy with people trying out various sports, then climbed up some steps to reach the banks of the Caledonian Canal.
                It felt strange to walk along this as it was followed in the wrong direction, i.e. back towards Loch Ness and not the sea. Soon I reached a swing bridge, but just as it was starting to open. I took some photographs as it swung open with remarkable speed, then hurried across the road before the traffic started across. After passing a sports complex where an athletics meet seemed to be going on, I nipped into a cafe for an ice cream, praying that I would not upset the rain gods by doing so.
                What followed was a pleasant walk across footbridges and along Ness Island, which is strung out in the middle of the river. I had walked this route before as part of my coastwalk for some reason (it is not exactly coastal), and it was as pleasant as I recalled. Soon after passing a long suspension bridge over the river, the trail headed off to the right and climbed up towards the castle.
                At first I could not find the finishing point and walked around the outside of the castle. Which like Nottingham Castle is far too recent and brash to really be called a castle. Eventually I found it right at the entrance, on the other side of an information plaque; a stupidly blind mistake that I put down to not having wanted to finish what had been a superb day’s stroll.
                A bus was due to leave for Drumnadrochit soon, so I hurried towards the bus station, stopping only to buy a guide to the Speyside Way in the tourist information office. I reached the bus stop just five minutes before the bus was due to leave and so there was just time to buy a packet of crisps before boarding, a shame as the food in the cafe looked appetising.
                The Great Glen Way had been a varied walk; I had walked the centre section before, and would feel no real wish to do it a third time. This last day’s walk, however, had been an unexpected gem of a stroll and one that I would feel very happy to repeat in the future.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Invermoriston to Drumnadrochit

A short fifteen mile day today, following the Great Glen Way as it heads over the hills along the southern edge of Loch Ness.

                Last night’s sleep was sadly interrupted by some French guests at the hostel talking animatedly downstairs for half an hour at about two in the morning; they did not stop even when asked to by the owners, and this interruption meant that I was very tired by the time that I awoke at about five thirty. I slumbered on for another half hour, then got up and went downstairs to get dressed for the day’s walk.
                The forecast was for light rain early on, and so I was keen to get up and going. A brilliant red sky greeted me as I parked up in the car park beside the visitors’ centre in Drumnadcorchit, and I spent an age getting my kit together; in the end I only had five minutes to get across the road and wait for the seven o’clock bus. It was a surprisingly pleasant journey, with Loch Ness gleaming in the sunshine below as the road wound around it’s edge. The bus dropped me unceremoniously off in Invermoriston and I was slightly surprised to find the small shop in the village open, so I nipped in before heading off along the trail.
                Today’s walk promised to have the most ascent of any day on the trail, and it started as it meant to go on – a long climb along a minor road that zigzagged into the forest. There were no views to speak of, so I phoned up Sencan and her dulcet tones helped me get the miles under my belt. It was quite a climb, and it was a relief when a track took me off to the right, the ascent slightly less steep and far easier to attack. Occasional glimpses of the loch far below enlivened the stroll, and after crossing a stream a long descent started towards the main road and Allt-sigh, where there is a youth hostel.
                On the way the trail passed a little stone hut built into the hillside, its roof a stone slab. I had sheltered here nine years before and I was unaccountably delighted to see it again, as if it was an old friend that I had not seen for years. I went in and hunched down on the low bench, remembering how the rain had dripped down the entrance on my previous visit. The low roof persuaded me that a troglodyte’s life is not for me, but the shelter is a wonderfully simple feature.
                After descending to Allt-sigh, a long climb started northeastwards along forestry tracks. The gradient was steep enough for me to attack without stopping and I was soon getting high up into the forest. Views started to become available through the trees, and a couple of these were grand indeed, and all the better for their scarcity. It is a shame that my biggest complaint the last time I did this stretch of trail – the lack of views over the loch – seemed not to have improved over the years.
                A couple of zigzags took me higher up the hillside, some with more views. The increased altitude allowed me to get Radio 5, and tears started rolling down my cheeks as I heard about the miner who has died in the Welsh mining tragedy; it is silly, but sometimes being out in the wilds causes me to be a great deal less hard-hearted than I normally am and small bits of news of no real consequence to myself effect me considerably. I wished the remaining trapped miners well and walked on, feeling slightly angry at the presenter’s almost cheery desire for news on the disaster and at my own listening to it. The Chilean mining disaster showed the best of people, but in some ways it showed up the worst of the media - just look at the massive numbers of journalists the BBC sent to cover it.
                The top of the second zigzag marked the high point both of the climb and of the day, and what followed was a long descent, initially along the track and then along a footpath. I remembered from my previous walk (which had been the week before the trail officially opened) that the stretch where the track turned into path was a steep drop for cyclists, but the area was much less barren now and seemed softer, as if nature had tamed it. Nearby was a relatively flat area of land and the remains of a fire, one of the few places I saw today where wild camping was possible due to the precipitous nature of the trail and hillside.
                Views vanished once again as the path headed downhill, becoming a track before climbing uphill once more along another path, crossing a stream to reach a road beside a car park at Grotaig. What followed was a long and gently climb along the road; the views towards Loch Ness were blocked by the surrounding hillsides and there was little to commend this stretch; even the small patches of surrounding heathland were spoilt by the weather, which was becoming grimmer by the minute. One positive is that there are several stretches of path paralleling the road, although this was not busy enough to be classed as dangerous.
                It was a relief when I reached the point where the trail dove off to the left, leaving the road behind. This particular piece of woodland was dark and gloomy and the descent seemed to last forever on feet that had become tired; in particular, a little problem I have been having recently with my left foot had come back with a vengeance. The gradient eventually slackened out and a track was joined; this paralleled the Rive Coiltie before reaching the main road on the outskirts of Lewiston.
                From there it was simply a case of following the main road back to the car park in Drumnadrochit, where I arrived just five minutes before a shower started. The forecast for tomorrow looks fairly miserable and Sunday is worse; for this reason I may give myself a day off on Sunday and go around Inverness and try and work out the best way to do the Speyside Way, the next trail on my list. The day off will also give me extra time to drive to either Buckie or Aviemore, depending on where I want to start. Public transport on the Speyside Way looks terrible; it might have been better to have chosen to backpack it.  
                After having had a long shower and generally mimbling about, it was still well before three. The threatened rain had not started in earnest and so I decided to visit Urquhart Castle, which I had driven past on many occasions and never gone into. There seems to be a mythology around the castle (perhaps due to Sir Walter Scott), but I was less than impressed when I got there. True, its setting on the banks of Loch Ness is spectacular, but I have been around far more interesting castles in Scotland, yet alone Britain. One thing to note is the lovely stone: the reddish sandstone seemed to glow on the few seconds that the sun deemed to peep out of the clouds. Still, it whiled away a couple of hours as I walked amongst throngs of Chinese visitors, several of whom seemed to mistake me for David Bailey.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Laggan to Invermoriston

                Another day, another walk along the Great Glen Way, and possibly another regretful Fraoch-fuelled posting... For those who love stats, today's walk was just a smidegen over twenty miles.


                I awoke early this morning and got changed into my walking clothes ready for the drive to Invermoriston. This was long, and took longer than expected due to the dark and a surprising amount of fog. The latter was somewhat welcome, however, because it meant that the fairly persistent drizzle of yesterday was replaced once the fog lifted with wall to wall sunshine. There was plenty of time for me to potter about at the car park in Invermoriston before my bus at twenty past seven, although two busses came at once and initially I got on the wrong one.
                The bus dropped me off at the little layby near the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel just before eight, and I was soon striding off down the trail. Initially this did not see much of the water as it headed high above the canal off to the left; the path underfoot was good, the gravel crunching. Soon the main road was crossed, and the path followed a road before joining the old railway line to fort Augustus. The platforms here were remarkably large for what was a small branch line, and some very large trees were growing out of them; the parts of concrete faces devoid of vegetation seemed to be in a good state, however.
                Soon the trail dropped off the old railway line and headed below it, following the course of an old military road. Some works appeared to be going on the old railway line, and a sign later said that investigation works were being down to see if the line could be made into a Sustrans cycle path. A little later on the old military road climbed steeply before falling once more, passing the rather ornate portal of a tunnel.
                The trail did nit stay on the military road for long afterwards, and it crossed a large stream using the old railway bridge, Some of the views across Loch Oich had been superb when the surrounding vegetation had allowed them, but from now on the views down the loch were exquisite. Two Scotsmen – the first I had met doing the trail – had camped overnight at what must be one of the best spots in Scotland, the loch stretching away behind them. It was a magic view, and I strolled out onto the water as deep as I dared to take some photos.
                Soon afterwards I got to the Aberchalader Bride that carries the A82 over the canal and the river. What interested me most, however, was the superb Oich bridge. Although this initially looks like a suspension brudge, it is actually a double cantilever, each half of the bridge supporting its own weight so that the cables in the middle are far fewer than those nearer the towers. I diverted off the trail to study it, took some photos and then rejoined the trail.
                Initially this followed the eastern bank of the canal; a yacht motored past me and I turned around to watch as the swing bridge opened for it to pass through. The trail changed over to the western bank at Cullochy Lock, and what followed was a fairly uninteresting four mile walk into Fort Augustus, the only items of interest being the few boats that passed and the picturesque Kyltra Lock.
                I was in need of a rest by the time I reached Fort Augustus, and I nipped into the Lock inn to have a break. I ended up having a couple of pints of Belhaven and a wonderful meal of Haggis starter and a Beef lasagne main; I really need the food, as my energy levels had been rather low after my McDonalds last night. The two pints rather went to my head, and I set off on looser legs, nipping into the tourist information centre in the town to see it chocabloc with Nessie souvenirs.
                A looping climb up and down a road took me back towards the main road, after which a steep path headed uphill to meet a forestry track. This was followed for well over six miles; there were not too many nasty gradients and the walk was enjoyable enough, with occasional grand views over Loch Ness where the trees had been cleared. At other times, however, it was more of a drag and it as a relief when the track started to curve inland along Glen Moriston, as it meant that Invermoriston was just a short distance away.
                And then came the words which no walker wants to see – ‘footpath diversion’. A sign stated that due to fallen branches the direct path down to Invermoriston was closed and that the indirect diversion would add two miles onto the day. I was not too dismayed by this, but sadly the diversion was along a track that headed down through a gloomy valley that felt like it never saw the sun. It was a fairly dispiriting stroll, and it was a surprising relief when it dropped me out onto a track at the bottom.
                This rose and fell slightly, but was a better stroll than the track through the forest had been. I soon reached the place where the direct route joined the track and it was clear to see why it had been closed – the path was obliterated by fallen trees. I was thankful that for once I had obeyed the diversion sign instead of continuing on.
                A worthwhile diversion at Invermoriston is to go down to see Telford’s old bridge, which seems to spring out of the craggy riverbed. The path down to it was a bit rough, but the views down the craggy river were superb; the new bridge (built in 1833) dominates the valley, but Telford’s structure seems to be almost part of the living rock, working in harmony with nature rather than overpowering it.
                My car was only a few yards away, and I was soon driving to my nigght’s bed at the Loch Ness Backpackers in Lewiston. I had stayed here ten years ago and had really enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to a good night. After a shower I want for a walk to see where the bus stop was for the morning, then went back. The hostel was now fairly full, and the room I was in had been invaded by severl other Great Glen walkers. They had set off on Monday from For William, and had walked from Fort Augustus today; one of the men’s feet was severely blistered; so much so that I worry about his ability to do his final day tomorrow.
                The hostel has changed a little since I last stayed here in 2002 – it is bigger and now serves food – and drink, thank God – as a standard each night. Yet the same friendliness that I saw on my last trip is still here, and the staff are very welcoming. These independent hostels are so much better than the authoritarian YHA ones...



Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Fort William to Laggan

I am sitting in a rather comfy seat in a hostel in Fort William, looking back at a good (if rather wet) 23-mile walk along the Great Glen Way. I've just finished typing up a first draft of my notes, and thought that I would post them here for your amusement. Given that this was written after a couple of pints of seventy shilling and a whisky chaser, it might be absolute tosh...

               Just over ten years ago I walked the middle two-thirds of the Great Glen Way as part of my rather altered plans to walk from fort William to Cape Wrath. That journey was slightly more adventurous than I like, and I have always wanted to complete the top and bottom segments of the trail. I therefore set off from Cambridge yesterday in what turned out to be a ten-hour drive to Fort William. The Bank House Lodge was full, so I travelled a couple of miles out of the town to a rather good hostel in Banavie, had dinner at the Lochy Inn and then went to bed, dead tired.
                I awoke early in the morning but waited until after seven before heading off. Sun  had been streaming through the hostel’s window when I set off, but by the time I parked up in the long-stay car park (1.50 per hour) by the station in Fort William it had started drizzling, the only upside being a rather lovely rainbow over Loch Eil. Because it was only a light drizzle, I headed off wit just my black fleece on as I walked to the start of the trail, marked by a stone monument on the grass in the old fort.
                The rain started to get heavier as I took photos of the startpoint and it seemed like a good idea to head off. Unfortunately the downpour increased, and I was soon hiding under a petrol station canopy as I got my coat on. I then made my one and only mistake of the day – I took the wrong path out of the town, following a road that I had walked along on a previous visit instead of a path – I soon rejoined the path proper at a shinty pitch.
                Shortly after this the path crossed the River Nevis and soon afterwards there was a split in the paths; the main path was guarded by warning of floods, and the other a wet-weather alternative. Despite the rain I chose the former and was soon heading through a delightful area of sparse woodland. I soon came across the floods – two footbridges that were so close to the water that the planks sploshed down into it as I crossed. Crimson carriages soon became visible off to the right, above which was some smoke – I guess a steam locomotive getting ready for a journey.
                Both the path and the weather had dried out by the time the Soldier’s Brudge came into view – this wooden structure spans the River Lochy beside a rather more substantial railway bridge, and it took me safely across the water to a road on the other side. There is not much to be said about the next mile or so of the walk, which took me along roads and past the start of Loch Linnhe. Two boats were heading towards land, and the summit of Ben Nevis behind me had its head firmly in the clouds.
                This path led me onto the main objective off the trail – the Caledonian Canal. I stopped to take a few photos of the loch and then headed off. After passing the Lochy, where I ate last night, I approached the two swing bridges that take the railway and the main road to Mallaig over the canal, an then reached Neptune’s Staircase. This set of locks is really quite special – they are far broader than most locks in this country (having been designed to take sea-going ships) and stride imperiously up the hillside. It is a magnificent sight, although it is a shame that the best views can only be obtained from the air.
                Sadly the top of the incline was the start of what was a fairly ordinary six mile stroll along the towpath of the Caledonian Canal. Some of the views over towards the hills to the left were superb, but the ones down towards the river far below were sadly blocked by trees, with only silvery glints visible. The sun had come out, however, meaning that I was soon roasting in both my fleece and coat. I did not bother to drop down to examine either of the two aqueducts on the route, but I was impressed by the superb iron swing bridge at Moy. This is the only non-automated bridge on the canal, and as it is in two halves the operator has to go across the canal in a boat to open the other side! An information board beside the bridge told of how a captain of a ship had been fined when he had gone through the bridge without it being officially opened – one can only assume he opened it himself.
                I was thankful when the canal took me out to the lock and swing bridge at Gairlochy. Two men were lifting their canoes out of the water at the bottom of the lock,a nd I met up with one of them at the swing bridge that carries the main road over the river. They were both rowing the canal, and were planning to take four days in the process – the same time it would take me to walk it. I had heard rumours of a cafe here, but I knew that I was pressed for time if I was going to catch the 16.06 bus and so pressed on.
                Initially the path followed the road, but soon it was heading up above the road, before diverting down to cross the road and on towards the shoreline. What followed was the best bit of the trail I saw all day – a rollercoaster of a path that granted superb views across the length of Loch Lochy. The small pepperpot whitewashed lighthouse was visible behind, guiding boats into the lock, and ahead the clouds threatened more rain. For the moment, however, I was in heaven as I strolled confidently along. Sadly it had to end, and it did so as the trail dumped me unceremoniously out onto a road.
                This took me on towards Achnacarry, where I knew that there was a museum dedicated to the Clan Cameron that I would not have minded visiting. Sadly a sign stated that this did not open for another hour, and instead I strode on along the road, which passed through a area with a very colourful collection of broad-leaved trees; yellows, greens and vivid reds all being visible. The road soon led onto a track at Clunes, which passed a forest school before heading on.
                Last time I walked this way – over ten years ago – I had done so in the company of an American who, instead of a rucksack, was carrying a large roll-bag in each hand. It looked terribly uncomfortable, but his insistence on asking me the Latin name of each tree we passed proved incredibly grating. I soon overhauled a couple walking in the same direction, and we walked together for the rest of the day. They were from Belgium and annoyingly young, but I could forgive them that as they turned out to be absolutely A1 company. We chatted as we walked along, admiring the occasional views across the loch when gaps in the trees allowed them, and also the rushing water that burst down the hillsides.
                They had started off from Fort William on Tuesday, and therefore had caught the worst of yesterday’s rain. A kind landlady had dried all their clothes after they realised that their rucksack covers were not quite as waterproof as they should have been. The miles just flew by in their company, which was a good thing as the track itself was far from interesting. Gaps in the trees offered occasional tantalising glimpses over the loch below, but these were few and far between. Instead we chatted away – perhaps I should try doing less solo walking in future...
                The rain kept on coming and going; it was never particularly hard and only proved annoying. Eventually civilisation intruded in the form of wooden holiday huts, and I had t explain to the Belgians what a cattle grid is! It is surprising the way that something that can seem ever-present and obvious can be unusual for someone with even slightly different life experiences. I left them behind at Laggan Locks and walked on, but they caught me up as I left the trail and joined the main road.
                They were spending the night at the Great Glen Hostel just down the road, but my stopping place was a bus stop, which, according to the timetable, was 150 metres north of the hostel beside a postbox. This seemed a rather specific location and more like instructions from a spy novel than a bus stop. However there was a postbox at the right place, next to a muddy layby. There was no sign of a bus stop, however, and so I was nervous right until the bus pulled up beside me. The journey back was enlivened by part of the ceiling falling off and hitting a passenger; fortunately she was not injured, but it looked like a painful hit. I must remember not to sit under large signs in the front of a coach...
                Once back in Fort William, I walked the short stretch of path that I had missed off yesterday, then headed off to the nearby McDonalds. I am not really a fan of their food, but sometimes I have a creeping desire for it. It had been a good, long day’s walk, and one that had been enlivened by some good company.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Ten years ago

Many people are writing about the hideous events of ten years ago today.

I feel slightly voyeuristic in writing this. After all, no-one I knew died during the attacks, and I don't even know anyone who was in New York at the time. It has had no immediate effect on me, my friends or my family. How can any words of mine even begin to acknowledge the pain people must feel? I can only hope that this posting is suitably elegiac.

Yet I feel I must write down my memories before they fade further. I was at work at Pace in Cambridge ten years ago, working downstairs in my cubicle. At the time I was frequently on Mono, a text-based bulletin board, and a message came through to everyone on the system: "A plane has crashed in New York."

Soon I was flicking through the news channels to see pictures of smoke pouring out of a skyscraper. Elsewhere in the building we had a demo area (which I dubbed a 'Wow!" room) that had a series of TVs in it. Several of us went into the room to watch the devastation, and we were watching as the second plane went in.

More people joined us, our attention focussing on the TVs. We watched as the broadcasters, as dumbstruck as us, wondered if it could still be an accident, as if they could not admit that anyone could deliberately do such a hideous act. We watched as the first tower fell, a cloud of dust rising up and expanding outwards. I refused to admit it and muttered some asinine comment like :"It must still be there!" even as the dust cloud lowered to reveal just one smoking tower.

Then the second tower went; I was no longer dumbstruck and just swore loudly and verbosely. Then the news came through about the Pentagon, and Shanksville, and reports of other hijacked airliners that thankfully proved to be false. So many images from that day stick in my memory, from the impact of the second plane to the ghost-like wraiths covered in dust from the collapsed buildings. One in particular sticks in my mind: a suited man sitting on a kerb, his briefcase open and his head in his hands. The world around him was concrete grey.

The next day proved hard for me. All the staff were called out at eleven the next morning for three minutes' silence. For some reason the management asked me to announce and time the silence. I waited for the last stragglers to come through the door, said a few words and timed the silence. Not a single head was raised and I concentrated on my watch as the seconds passed, preferring that to thinking of the horrid events.

Then it was over. My voice broke as I said, "That's it. Thankyou everyone." and people started shuffling back indoors. I felt honoured to have been asked to time the silence, but it harrowed me.

To everyone who died in the attacks; we will remember you. To those who lost someone they loved: I hope that the years have helped blunt some of the pain that you feel. To the brave men who went into the buildings and who lost their lives trying to help others: God bless you.

And to the people who did the act, to those who supported them, and to the conspiracy theorists who slander the dead: we will win. Not by bullets, not by force, but by thought. We are right, you are wrong. You believe in fear and hate; we believe in love and understanding.

You are weak. We are strong.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Google do it again...

As you probably know, Google have got into the habit of adding doodles onto the front page of their website to mark special anniversaries.

A full list of the doodles can be seen on their website. In particular, note the brilliant playable game of Pac-man. These doodles vary from country to country, and it is fascinating to see the doodles that are chosen for different countries.

Today they have excelled themselves. To mark what would have been Freddie Mercury's sixty-fifth birthday, they have gone for an all-out multimedia extravaganza. Go to google.co.uk and click on the 'play' icon within the golden medallion. A very suitable tribute to a brilliant singer.

Well done, Google.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Wikileaks

I have written about the WikiLeaks farrago before, but recent developments have made the story much more serious, and have cast serious questions on the behaviour of the protagonists.

Last year WikiLeaks got hold of 250,000 US Diplomatic cables that had been sent between US Embassies and the State Department. Several newspapers (the Guardian in Britain and the NYT in the US amongst others) did a deal with Assange and WikiLeaks to publish the data. They also said that they would redact any data that would prove dangerous to individuals before publication. Since then we have had a trickle of information coming out from these newspapers.

Much of this information has been fairly uninteresting. However a great deal of it involves third world or dictatorial regimes, and the redaction was necessary to protect people mentioned in the cables.

However, because of a series of stupid actions, the full unredacted cables are out in the public domain. Now anybody can read the full detail of the cables. And that can only be a really bad thing.

(A note: below I am using the term 'password' when it should really be 'encryption key' or 'passphrase'. I have done this to make it more readable to the layman).

As far as I can tell from various good sources, the following occurred:
  1. Assange and the newspapers came to a deal to publish the cables.
  2. The papers wanted to publish the data in redacted form; Assange reportedly did not like this.
  3. Assange encrypted the data and placed it onto an obscure ('hidden') area of a server. As it happens, this was not very hidden.
  4. He met with the Guardian journalists. He handed them most of the password on a piece of paper and told them the rest of it verbally.
  5. The Guardian journalists decrypted the data, redacted pieces and started publishing.
  6. The original file was not removed from the WikiLeaks server.
  7. Meanwhile, a split occurred in the WikiLeaks organisation. Someone took a copy of all the WikiLeaks data - including the 'hidden' file - and published it on servers belonging to their new rival organisation. People downloaded all the data, including the hidden file.
  8. Two Guardian journalists published a book that included the 'real' password of the file. They claim that they had been assured that WikiLeaks would remove the file once they had downloaded it. 
  9. The Guardian and Assange had a falling-out after they investigated the claims of rape against him.
  10. It takes a few months, but someone eventually realised that the password given in the book is the *real* password and managed to find and decrypt the file.
The password was, apparently, based on the following: 'ACollectionOfHistorySince_1966_ToThe_PresentDay#'. Assange also verbally instructed the journalists to add the word 'Diplomatic' before the word 'History', the idea being (wrongly) that the information on the piece of paper would be worthless without the verbally-given modifier word.

It was an atrocious password to be used in something of such importance (although not as bad as Rebekah Wade's hilariously poor password for her News International email account). True, Assange's password is long, but length does not equate to security. It is a spectacularly poor choice given Assange's paranoia about security - I would hope that his 'insurance' file has a better-conceived and executed password.


Ordinarily I would not have published the password in this posting myself, but given that it is available in a printed book and is on many other websites, I see little harm.


Even if the Guardian journalists had changed the password, the other information given in the book would give someone attempting to crack Assange's passwords an idea about how he generated them. For instance, it is clear that he thinks security is added by writing down a partial password then having a word that can be added to complete it - indeed, a word that makes sense in the context of the whole password. Such knowledge can help people work out what any particular password might be, and it was exceptionally stupid - nay, gormless - to put any such information in the public domain.

There is so much fail in this:
  • WikiLeaks should not have relied on 'hiding' the data on a server.
  • WikiLeaks should have kept the data much more secure. Once the Guardian had a copy of the data, it should have been removed from the hidden location.
  • WikiLeaks should have used a more secure password (there are plenty of programs to pseudo-randomly generate passwords.
  • The Guardian journalists should never, ever have published the real password in any public form.
  • The Guardian journalists should have checked that the data had been removed.
  • The Guardian and/or WikiLeaks should have realised that the password was publicly available and made attempts to mitigate the problem.
Strangely, the Guardian's take on this is that it is all WikiLeaks' and Assange's fault. I would agree with this, except for the mind-numbingly stupid behaviour of their journalists in publishing the actual password. Why was this necessary? Why not just say that Assange gave them a printed password and told them verbally how to alter it? Is the actual password of much interest to the reader? (of course, in the end it was as the file was still extant).

Assange seems to think of himself as a professional, but he has shown himself (and WikiLeaks) to be rank amateurs who evidently know little about security or the underlying technology. The Guardian journalists are meant to be professional, but have shown themselves to be dangerous amateurs.

WikiLeaks have now released the full unredacted form of the cables, which, it is suggested, Assange wanted to do in the first place. They can do this without being *blamed* for the data being made public, as they are blaming the Guardian for that. And the Guardian can blame WikiLeaks. Rather convenient, really...

People may well suffer or die because of this. There should be a special circle of hell reserved for people capable of such negligence.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Scale

Sencan pointed the following webpage out to me this morning:
http://primaxstudio.com/stuff/scale_of_universe/

I have seen several versions of this sort of thing before, but I have never seen such an impressively interactive version. Seeing the scale of man in the middle gives a good idea of our insignificant view on the universe, both to the micro and the macro.

There is so much remaining to be learnt at both ends of the scale - the science behind subatomic particles is still hotly debated, and we are still finding new frontiers in our knowledge of the wider universe.

It is awe-inspiring. I want to be a scientist.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A strange critter.

I came across the following strange critter on the road near Diss on Friday. I shepherded it out of the range of tyre tracks before taking some photographs. It was very small - for scale, the pebbles are in the road surface.

I think that it may be a Common Lizard, possibly a juvenile due to its colouring and size. I'd love it to have been the much rarer Sand Lizard, but that looks unlikely.

Sometimes I wish that I knew more about the flora and fauna that surrounds me as I walk...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The money shot

My sister and her husband run a classic tractor-spares company up in Staffordshire. They were down to visit earlier this week, and on Monday I took them and their two children to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford to have a look around.

Considering the museum is about planes (admittedly with a few tanks thrown in for good measure), Duxford proved entertaining not only for the adults, but also for a boy in his early teens and his younger sister. There was enough for them to see and do as the adults went round looking at things, at least until they started to get tired.

What amused me was the way my sister and brother-in-law went off to examine almost every tractor they could see; they could even identify the models them from a distance. There is a lot to be said for being an expert, even in seemingly esoteric subjects.

Then, at the end of a long day, we saw a Spitfire having an engine test. What is more, a Fergie tractor was being used to tow the plane to and from the hanger.
My sister and her husband were in heaven. Two classics - the Ferguson tractor and the Spitfire - together. They did not know where to look.

The first vehicle I ever drove was a Fergie, and my parents have a photograph on their wall of me sitting behind the wheel, my feet barely long enough to reach the pedals. So I too was slightly awestruck.

Naturally enough, lots of photos were taken.I have seen lots of Spitfires in the air, and have even seen a large formation of them flying overhead whilst they were on their way to an airshow in Duxford. Yet for some reason this scene moved me - perhaps because it showed an unsung part of the Spitfire's wartime existence. We tend to think of them soaring gracefully through the air, the magical noise of the Merlin engine penetrating our bones. Yet those flights would never have happened without the thousands of men and women who did mundane but vital tasks on the ground.

At first the above picture might be seen as a classic wartime photo - a Spitfire and a Fergie with a yellow bonnet (apparently airfield vehicles were painted  in such a way so that planes flying overhead could see when they were blocking the runway). Yet it is false - the first Fergie was produced after the war in 1946, and the Spitfire in the picture - known as the Grace Spitfire - was originally a single-seater. Still, it is a wonderfully evocative picture.