Sunday, 20 December 2009

Climate change.

It should be obvious that I am in that much-pilloried camp of 'climate change sceptic'. If you believe some people, then I am a flat-earthist conspiracy-theorist traitor who should be put on trial for high crimes against humanity. Yes, those are all quotes from influential people or organisations (Gordon Brown, the New Statesman, Robert Kennedy Jr, and NASA's James Hansen). Climate depot has many more of these lovely, though-provoking claims.

Strangely enough, I do not agree with this characterisation. Firstly, what is my position:
  1. Climate change happens.
  2. Man is having an effect on the climate.
  3. That effect is caused by many things - greenhouse gasses (CO2, Methane, Ozone etc), black soot, water vapour and others.
  4. Splitting man's effect on the climate from the natural variations is extremely difficult and is based on vague assumptions. Although we are having an effect (see 2), we have no way of knowing with any accuracy what that is.
  5. Concentrating on CO2 ignores the other causes (see 3).
  6. We have little idea beyond vague estimations of the sizes of the land and sea carbon sinks.
  7. Scientists have proved extremely bad at predicting the future in complex systems - see the spread of bird flu, CJD, Swine flu, long-term weather forecasting and the financial systems.
  8. Best, middle and worst cases should always be being presented, with details on the confidence levels. The media only ever reports the worst case ("Oh my God! We're all going to drown"). Experts routinely outline the worst case when interviewed.
  9. I want a better climate. Simple laws like the various Clean-Air Acts have massively improved the lifestyle of people living in the relevant countries. Lower exhaust emissions from vehicles would likewise be a boon.
  10. They have got it wrong before. (Actually, Hansen's paper is good in that it does show three different scenarios. One of the the things under dispute is which one he meant).
  11. A great deal of the future effect of climate change will depend on the past variability of both temperature and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere - and the CRU emails show that such past data is hard to obtain (and, perhaps, easy to fiddle).
  12. Even the current temperature is hard to measure to the required accuracy.
  13. And finally, just to show I am an evil baby-killing real right-winger, I want energy security.
In the next post, I shall outline the way we *should* be tackling these problems.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Two well-deserved congratulations

I have written on a couple of occasions about Airbus's and Boeing's inability to get a couple of major projects into the air - Airbus's military freightlifter the A400M and Boeing's next-generation passenger airliner the 787.

Well, on the morning of the 1th the A400M made its first flight. Then, five days later, I set up my laptop to watch the first flight of the 787 unfold in front of me live.

So Airbus beat Boeing by a few days in this particular battle. Both projects are in trouble - the 787 is reportedly overweight, and the long delays in the A400M project is causing countries to pull out - but I send heartfelt congratulations to all the teams involved.

There is a long way to go before they can go into full production, and as the A380 projects showed, first flight is not a guarantee that the project will not hit other hurdles. Yet it is an important milestone. Well done to Boeing and Airbus.

Friday, 18 December 2009

My wife

I had an official sort of phone call today, during which I realised how much I love saying, 'my wife'. Not for the 'my' part, for I have about as much chance of possessing Şencan as I do the Statue of Liberty; no, I love the idea of having a wife as beautiful and as intelligent as her. I love being able to tell the world that this woman chose to marry me. And I am honoured by the fact that, in some moment of insanity, she chose to ask me to be her husband.

I love her utterly.

Looking at that photo, who can blame me?

P.s: And yes, the photo was taken at a dockyard. I know how to treat women well...

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Drink driving

There is a very moving, poignant story on the BBC News website. I do not think I need to add anything more to the article.

I shall go and dry my eyes now.

Friday, 4 December 2009

The black screen of death and media reporting

There is a brilliant article on zdnet that goes into the alleged Microsoft 'black screen of death' fears with Windows 7 that plagued Microsoft last week.

The article is a fascinating dissection of the way that an ill-judged and inaccurate article by a security firm spread like wildfire over the Internet, media and newspapers. Over a couple of days Microsoft suffered a great deal of bad publicity, only for the firm that released the statement to admit that the problem was not Microsoft's fault, but was caused by malware on the affected systems.

It smells like a well-planned, deliberate attack on Microsoft. The original article was released on the Friday, and IDG picked it up and released it on their tech websites just in time for the Monday morning after-holiday rush in the US. What was worded in the original article as 'Black Screen woes could affect millions on Windows 7, Vista and XP' became, on many websites: 'does affect'.

As the article says, IDG (who published the article on Monday morning) was not following the story, but leading it. This happens all the time in the media, and it is simply not good enough.

Microsoft had scorn poured over it throughout the media, for something that was fundamentally not its fault, whilst IDG got many hits to its website (many articles referred to it as the originating website, not the security firm). The security firm has increased its public visibility, but has suffered a major embarrassment. IDG wins, and Microsoft loses.

This reactive, inaccurate reporting is happening all the time at the moment. Any reputable media organisation should be morally obliged to check on original sources and weigh them up when writing articles. Instead, they repeat rumour and (in this case) ill-founded 'research' as fact. Worse, instead of copy and pasting the story, words get altered in the process (e.g. 'could' to 'does'), and the original source lost.

At a time when science is being wounded by the 'Climategate' scandal, the media needs to take a step back and take a firm look at the way it reports the news.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

The first frost of the winter this morning.

I'm quite excited. The first day of December dawned sunny and cold, with a light covering of frost in sheltered places. The last month has been very wet, including torrential rain, so the sunshine was welcome.

I quite like walking in winter; true, it is cold, but you can easily wrap up against that. The worst problem is that the short days means that I cannot walk as far, or otherwise not take a lunch break. Yet there is something magical about walking in the cold, with teh blue sky overhead and a thing white covering over the grass. I love it.

Another advantage of frosty days is watching Şencan scrape the ice off the car when she decides to drive herself in ;-)

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The CRU 'hack'

Last week, someone posted a great deal of data (emails and programs) from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. This has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth from within the relevant organisations. The leak has been picked up on by climate change researchers, sceptics and media organisations all over the world.

Firstly, there is the question about whether the data is really a 'hack'. Whenever confidential information gets out into the wild, organisations often respond immediately by saying that it was 'hacked' (another example was the email earlier this year that proved that people in the British Government were trying to smear members of the opposition). The reason for this is simple: a hack makes it look as though the organisation in question was a victim of a crime.

Yet in the case of the Smeargate emails, it was much more likely that someone passed them onto the person who publicised them. Likewise, it is eminently possible that the CRU data was collated and leaked (accidental or on purpose) by someone within the CRU or the University of East Anglia. Yet they automatically jump on the 'hacked' bandwagon as it makes them look like victims. This also diverts attention away from what the data leaked actually contains.

Much of the media comment has been on various small claims within the leaked data and emails - things like the hiding or deletion of data. This piecemeal information is easy to refute by claiming that the quotes were cherry-picked.

There is more important information coming out from these emails, however. Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to the CRU were made by several researchers, including some from Steve McIntyre, the Canadian man who runs the now (in)famous Climate Audit website. He is one of the individuals who has been trying to reproduce the results that the researchers have published.

Now, I am not a scientist (tm), but I do know a little about the scientific process (if you want a reader-friendly description of parts of the scientific process, see Ben Goldacre's excellent book 'Bad Science'). But I do know that reproducibility of results is vitally important. Any major research should be reproducible by others - this issue killed off Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons' cold fusion research.

So far, the scientists at the CRU appear to have been saying something like: 'our research papers have been peer-reviewed, so it is okay'). Well, that shows that they do not know, or do not care, about how the peer-review process works, or it's well-known deficiencies. Basically, peer-review is done before publication, where peers check the published paper for gross inaccuracies, unjustified or contradictory findings. What it does not do is try and reproduce the results given.

After a paper has been published, you can respond with comments to the journal that published it. This process can prove to be rather exasperating for the responder.

Therefore the peer-review process is just a sticking-plaster (albeit an important one) over the scientific process. What is also needed are other, independent teams of scientists to replicate, reproduce and validate important results. There have been many papers in the past which have been peer-reviewed and published, and yet the underlying research and science has subsequently been found to be incorrect.

So Steve McIntyre and others have been trying to reproduce the results. So far, there have been some notable discoveries; for instance Steve McIntyre discovered that some NASA data was incorrect. Although the people involved deny this effects the trends, surely discovery of *any* inaccuracy in science is a good thing, and McIntyre should be congratulated.

He has also been trying to reproduce some of the CRU results. For this, he needs the data they used and, ideally, the algorithms they applied to that data. Yet the CRU have been blocking him at every turn.

The attitude of the CRU can be seen in the following snippet from Professor Phil Jones, the director of the CRU:
Even if WMO agrees, I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.
The answer is simple: because it is science, and not your own personal fiefdom.

Now, the ClimateAudit website has Willis Eschenbach's email correspondance about FoI requests, along with some of the emails that they generated within the CRU. it is not a pretty read. At best, some people at the CRU appear to have broken the laws on FoI, and at worst have not been doing science.

What is obvious is how combative the whole thing has become. There is obviously no love lost between McIntyre and the people at the CRU, yet that does not mean that the CRU can ignore him and the other researchers.

Therefore we have are some famous results, one of the cornerstones of climate change research, which are unverified. We have the organisation that made the results doing everything possible to prevent others from verifying them. Frankly, this situation makes the people within the CRU look like terrible scientists, and brings scorn down on the University of East Anglia.

What is worse, they have been trying to subvert the FoI laws to prevent the data being released, including apparent deletion of emails that have been requested under the FoI. They have cultivated the people dealing with FoI requests within the University of East Anglia to ignore requests from people who post on the Climate Audit website.

Climate change is rightly seen as being a massively important issue; for this reason the science behind it should be thoroughly open for replication and study. Personal fiefdoms of information is intellectually and morally wrong, especially when the results from that data is so important.

The people at the CRU may not like McIntyre et al; but these emails show that their behaviour has been reprehensible. It makes any reasonable person wonder if they actually have (or ever did have) the data and algorithms that can be used to replicate their findings. This could mean anything of the options below:
  1. They never had the data and/or algorithms, and they do not want to release them;
  2. They have lost the data and/or algorithms, and cannot reproduce the results they got;
  3. They realise that the information will show embarrassingly large holes in their findings;
  4. They are just being petty and small-minded.
  5. They genuinely believe they cannot release the data and/or algorithms. This does not appear to be the case from their internal (leaked) emails, which detail continued obfuscation and delay. Besides, climate change is such an important issue that such data *should* be open, especially so may years after the original studies were performed.
This is not science. It is a travesty.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Domestic abuse.

Headline news today is that the Government is setting up plans for school lessons to tackle domestic abuse. Surely this is all right and good, isn't it?

Well, no. Firstly, domestic abuse is just a small but personally significant part of a wider problem - violence in society generally, along with a disrespect for others. Cure the larger problem and you will cure much of the smaller problem.

Secondly, and in my opinion far more importantly, is the way this has been aimed. You have to dig deep in the BBC article, but the BBC Breakfast News trails it more - girls are to be taught about what to do about domestic violence, whilst boys are going to be taught not to do it.

Hang on. That presupposes one thing: That men are the abusers and girls the victims. Unfortunately that is not the case. Men get abused as well, and this whole scheme appears to ignore that fact. True, the numbers of abused men may be smaller (around a quarter - see below), and the types of abuse may differ, but it should not be ignored.

Apparently the Government's focus on helping women and children is because 'women disproportionately become the victims of crimes because they are women.' This is detailed in an article on the BBC news website. Yet look at the figures: there are 106 deaths a year caused by current or former partners, and 72 of these victims are women. There are many things wrong with drawing conclusions from such figures:
  1. The most obvious problem: How many victims were men?
  2. How many were in LGBT relationships? (i.e. people in same-sex relationships killing their partners)?
  3. It assumes you can base policy on the number of deaths. The vast majority of domestic abuse does not lead to death, and surely it would be best to focus on figures for the entire problem, not the small subset of deaths.
  4. 72 out of 106 is not an overwhelming majority.
As evidence goes, it is not strong. Besides, if the assumption can be made that 34 men were killed, 72 compared to 34 is not overwhelming. Basically, and this is sickening, the Government and the media are saying that murdered men can be ignored.

Take this quote:
Lisa King, director of communications at Refuge, welcomed the government's plans but said there was an "urgent need" for services for abused women and children.
True, she speaks for Refuge, a charity for women and children who suffer abuse. Yet is there an 'urgent need' for services for abused men? Apparently not.

Go to the Refuge website, and go to the 'Useful links' section, then click on 'support for men'. It takes you here, i.e. to links for male perpetrator programmes. Say I was a man who was being abused, and in desperation I went to Refuge's website as they are the most famous anti-abuse organisation. I see that they deal with women and children; fair enough. I then think that they *must* link to similar men's organisations, and I go to the links, and I find... that they assume I am a perpetrator. Thanks alot.

Likewise, go to the left pane and click on 'Help for men' under the 'Get Help now' menu. What happens? Two links come up, the first of which is 'I am an abuser'. Fortunately they have changed the webpage that appears so that help for abused men appears at the top. Strangely enough, there does not seem to be a link for 'I am an abuser' for women.

Additionally, they spend more time talking about pets than men. Is Refuge guilty of misandry?

And it is not just Refuge. As I have mentioned before, the Home Office's leaflet on domestic violence is written in such a way that it assumes that women are the victims. For instance:
If you think a friend or loved one is being abused, try telling her that you're concerned, say why you're worried and ask if she wants to talk to you about it. Let her know you want to help.
How can this be right?

Additionally, from the Home Office's PDF, the National Domestic Violence Helpline is run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge. How will abused men will be adequately represented by either of those organisations? There is an advice line for men (the men's advice line), but only 37% of the calls to the line get answered, as it is only open for 18 hours a week! They are going to open it 30 hours a week soon, but that is still not good enough, A National Domestic Violence Helpline should be available for both men and women. If you are going to seperate it, have a 'women's advice line' and a 'men's advice line', and call them such.

Some figures can be seen on the dewar4research website, taken from Home Office figures. According to this, around 25% of all abuse occurs to men. This means that a quarter of the crime is being ignored by the media and the Government.

And this matters; this really matters. It is symptomatic of the way that the Government and media are putting their fingers in their ears and labelling men as 'abusers' and women as 'victims'; convenient labelling that does neither side any good.

Perversely, another headline today is that Jane Andrews, a woman who killed her boyfriend because he would not marry her, has been recaptured after escaping from jail. She fatally beat and stabbed her boyfriend to death. Was that domestic abuse? Of course it was. Positive proof that women can abuse.

I am not calling for equal funds for domestic violence against men and women - that is perverse. I am not even calling for equal accessibility for men and women - although that may be nice. What I want is for the media and Government to admit and understand that both sexes can be victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. Only then can we start tackling the problems.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Thoughts on the electoral system

I have just been reading Winston Graham's book 'The Four Swans', the sixth book in the excellent Poldark series.

Part of this book plumbs the depths of the political scene in the mid 1790's, and it makes for fascinating reading. The utter corruption in having a few men sitting in a room to decide an election seems perverse from a modern perspective (although the selection of candidates for safe seats sometimes approaches this). Also abhorrent was the way that rich men (usually Lords) bribed and intimidated the small electorate to get their chosen men in. Rotten boroughs, a tiny electorate and the concept of selling seats to the highest bidder were all common. Such corruption makes the current expenses scandal seem almost irrelevant.

Reading this book has reminded me that, electorally, we have an incomparably better system than 200 years ago; the advantages of the current system are manifest and obvious. Good men and women have fought for change, and they are to be thanked. Enfranchisement has increased; not just to women, but to nearly everyone over 18. A vote from a poor unemployed woman counts for as much as that of a twelfth-generation lord (the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system aside).

So, although I am by nature hesitant about change, I would like to say this: the change to our electoral systems have probably been the biggest structural improvement to our country over the last two centuries. Yet I will still be cautious about other changes: some, like enfranchising prisoners, are probably right and should be done. I am more cautious about extending the vote to 16-year olds. Given the frauds that have occurred, I am downright nervous about postal voting and I am rabidly anti electronic voting. I am generally pro-FPTP and anti-PR (mainly because I believe in electing an individual and not from party lists).

On another note, the current situation in the House of Lords is abhorrent. There was an argument for removal of the hereditary peers, but the Government did not - and criminally has not in the last ten years - replaced it with a solid system. Instead, we have people being appointed into the Lords on what appears to be a free-for-all basis. At least the old hereditary system allowed for some true independents instead of yes-men who are beholden to vote for their appointees. This is where caution with change is needed - we abolished the hereditary peers with little idea of whether the replacement was going to be better. That was wrong; it was change for changes sake.

But generally, massive progress has been made, if slowly. So may I thank all the people who have fought for these changes, and I hope that future change - as there must be - are well thought out and not reactionary.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

I was just thinking of something that happened when I was on my coastal walk. It was near the beginning of my second month walking; I was in East Anglia, following a lane beside the Alde estuary towards the sea. It was a dry morning after heavy overnight rain, and the sun was shining down onto the wet tarmac through gaps in the large trees that bordered the lane. It was the sort of lane which cars pass along once in a blue moon. I was toiling along with my mind firmly entrenched on various topics. As I passed a farm I heard a quiet voice calling to me.

The voice was coming from my behind and to my left; I turned around and there was no-one there. I glanced through a gap in the hedge; there was no-one in the field. Then I heard the voice again. Only then did I see her.

A girl, scarcely over ten, was firmly embedded within the branches of a bald, autumnal tree. She asked me what I was doing, and we chatted for a few minutes. She was so high up that I had to crane my neck to see her, but at no time did I ask if she was okay, if she needed any help; her carefree tone showed that she was in no trouble. It was as if she had been up there for years, looking out over the flat land towards the estuary. The sun backlit her, giving her an aetherial, unearthly quality.

It is an image that has stuck in my mind ever since; a young girl, her back resting gently against the trunk of a tree. It was the very image of carefree childhood.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Brown's problem in a nutshell.

A story on the BBC News website really sums up the Prime Minister's problems. He handwrites person letters of condolence to relatives of servicemen and women who had died in Afghanistan or Iraq. This is undoubtedly a good thing for a PM to be doing in a limited war. Yet in the case of Jamie Janes, from the Grenadier Guards, the 'scrawled' letter misspelled many words including, unbelievably, the serviceman's name.

The original Sun article has more information, including the spelling mistakes that the PM made, and the poor quality of the handwriting. Misspelling 'colleagues' and 'condolences' in such a letter is not helpful.

This is, of course, a total non-story. The PM having poor handwriting is no problem - I can guarantee that it is not as bad as mine, and he is blind in one eye. Deliberately spelling a serviceman's name incorrectly would be political suicide. In short, I have no doubt that the spelling mistakes were just that - mistakes.

Yet these mistakes have become the number-three story on the BBC news website. If this had happened to Blair, or even Brown two years ago, it would scarcely have registered. Brown has lost all of his political capital. Like sharks circling an injured swimmer, the media sense blood. The story fits in with people's perception of our PM; uncaring (especially about our forces), messy, troubled, and mistake-ridden.

Jamie Jane's mother has a reason to feel aggrieved; she has just lost a son. But this is really a non-story. As much as I dislike Brown (and believe me, I do), I do not think that this was in any way deliberate. It does, however, detail the largest political problem that faces both him and his party. People are ready to jump on any mistake he makes, whether large or small.

My wife came up with an interesting (and, with hindsight, obvious) point that is more worrying: why is no-one in Number 10 checking these letters before they are sent out? Jamie's mother has evidently been upset by the letter; why was it not checked? All of this could have been avoided by just a few minutes work.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Crime and punishment.

Recently I was doing some editing of a story set in 1827. It is remarkably hard to get the voice and tone right for such a distant period, so I did lots of research; this included reading relevant books and novels that had been written at around that time.

Old newspapers are also a good source; both local papers from the time and the nationals. For instance, the Times has a brilliant if expensive online archive that gives lots of stories about what is going on in the relevant periods (or as long as the Times has been published).

I have, however, found another, free source. The Old Bailey Online Archive, which details proceedings of the court between 1674 and 1913. I started reading this a few months ago and found it absolutely fascinating. It details the cases that were held in the Old Bailey, and the results. As well as crimes, it gives lovely little period details; dialect, names etc.

For instance, here is a gentle description of a prostitute from April 1827:
" I sometimes take walks at night to maintain myself..."
Wouldn't that make a great line to use in a period book? It is both deep in meaning and sad. Another example is of hot to carry a sheep:
"...he had hold of the two fore-feet, the head hung before and the legs behind; "
Again, I would love to write that sort of detail into a book.

What is interesting is that in the nineteenth Century manslaughter may only get a three-month term in prison, whilst a crime that would be seen as being lesser nowadays, such as petty theft, could have the death penalty. Why this difference? Perhaps it is because, at least before the twentieth century, both the Jurors and the Judges would be from the propertied classes. A case of manslaughter amongst the working classes may have been seen as being morally reprehensible, but posed no direct threat the the jurors. However, theft was a threat. You can only steal from someone who has something to steal, and therefore cases of theft would be a direct threat to the monied classes.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Home-made spacecraft and the British technology industry

Here is a link to the latest video from Armadillo Aerospace: ... ndHeld.wmv

This shows a vertical take-off, hop to 200 metres, followed by a vertical landing. It is a very impressive feat by a small team who have only spent a few million dollars. They have managed a long list of achievements, including successfully completing both parts of the Lunar Lander Challenge - the hardest part of which involved being in the air for 180 seconds and translating to a landing pad 100 metres away. Masten Space Systems and the father-and-son team of Unreasonable Rocket deserve honourable mentions as well.

Armadillo Aerospace have been so successful that they actually developed a test liquid oxygen / methane engine for NASA. It sounds as though they are revenue positive, and are working towards manned space flight up to 100,000 feet. They are doing this by throwing the old rocket design methodologies out of the window - instead of designing and building final hardware, they are building many test rockets cheaply. It is an iterative process, and one that has given them a great deal of knowledge and experience very quickly. They have occasional spectacular crashes, but the costs are so (relatively) low that each crash is hardly a disaster, and each enhances their knowledge.

I would love for there to be a British team attempting this sort of thing (aside from Starchaser which, unfortunately, I do not hold out much hope for). AA have found the legislation and permit aspects difficult; I think they would find it next to impossible here in the UK. There are other groups as well, from those with small but remarkable aims - like Cambridge University Spaceflight, to the grand and potentially world-changing projects - Reaction Engines.

This really makes my blood boil. UK space is worth £5.8 billion, mainly in the form of services - this is not to be sniffed at. The PDF above shows the sectors that UK space operate in; not launchers, but satellites, support services and component supply. In comparison, the European Heavy Launcher Ariane 5 cost $7 billion over ten years to develop.

Yet instead of shouting our achievements from the rooftops, we mumble and act as though we are half embarrassed about it. Instead of showing the brilliance of British science and engineering, we show the X-Factor, Strictly Come Dancing and Big Brother. Even science television on the BBC has gone downhill - Tomorrow's World has been replaced with the risible Bang goes the Question.

Şencan is deeply concerned about the lack of women going into science and engineering. I agree, but expand the concern - the lack of people graduating in the hard sciences is a massive problem. We should be encouraging people to be doing insanely great things here in the UK, yet the entire system appears to be designed to actively discourage it.

So I would like to make a proposal. Set aside £100 million a year, and set it into 17 grant chunks :
3 £20 million chunks,
2 £10 million chunks;
2 £5 million chunks;
10 £1 million chunks.

These grants will be awarded to small- and medium-sized companies in order to help them develop certain projects. the £1 million grants would go to companies with less than 20 employees; the £20 million chunks to those with less than 100 employees. The money must be spent on specified projects over a two-year period. All research should be publicly released at the end of the 2-year period, and the British Government has a share in patents and other rights for the technology.

An example would be a company wanting to develop a new type of generator for wind turbines. they may have a working prototype or a potential, workable design, but not have the funds for development of it. The grant would be given towards a set project, and the Government would also help with other items - for instance putting the company into contact with manufacturers of components, or giving them access to Government wind tunnels, test areas or other resources.

Once a company has been awarded a grant, it cannot reapply for at least two years (i.e. at the end of the two years of the previous grant). The company will give full access to a small team of scientists and experts who will report on progress and check for wastage of money. £5 million a year should be able to attract a small, focussed team that contains good general specialists. Hopefully such a role would become very prestigious. Additionally, the Government team will help with legal aspects (everything from permits to patent law).

The technology areas that could be targeted are many:
*) Space-related (satellite systems, communication systems, launchers)
*) Engineering-related (carbon nanotubes, new construction techniques etc)
*) Green and environment (wave power, wind power, turbine tech, carbon capture etc)
*) Medical (new drugs, new uses of existing drugs, water cleansing techniques, field medicine)
*) Safety related (car safety research, food safety research etc)
*) Communications (new mobile systems, new radio systems, new TV systems etc)
*) Far-out pipedreams (new energy techniques, bubble fusion etc). However, the potential pay-off of these should be correspondingly large.

The sorts of people who I see benefiting from such schemes are the traditional British backroom boffins - people like Dyson in his earlier days and Trevor Bayliss. Some of the people helped will achieve insanely great things.

There will be some key aspects to make such a scheme a success: Firstly, the selection of projects will need to be handled with care and without political interference. A longshot project with only minimal chances of working may get a £20 million grant, but only if the potential rewards are great enough. Secondly, the companies will need to be watched carefully to ensure that the money is only spent on the defined projects. Strangely, this should be easier with small companies than with larger ones.

Some money will undoubtedly be wasted. But the resultant knowledge will not be wasted, and the calculation is simple. One successful project alone may earn the country billions of pounds.

To put it simply: The Olympics is costing £9.3 billion for something that will (despite what the Government says) have negligible 'legacy'. That could fund the above scheme for nine years.

So let's do it.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Summer Glau

I showed Şencan this link on the BBC website. I thought that it may be of interest to her; a radio-nuclear power source that may be small enough to be used to power MEMS and NEMS devices. We are both fairly fascinated by MEMS (Şencan as she works in RFIC (*) design, myself because I'm fascinated by cool tech), so I thought that this would be of interest.

Her reaction:
"That's it! Terminator! Yummm, Summer Glau."

Sometimes my wife scares me. No, scratch that. She frequently scares me.

(*) Radio-Frequency Integrated Circuits. Basically analogue silicon chips that are used for various radio functionality. RFIC chips will be in virtually anything modern that needs to use radio signals in digital chips; radios, TV tuners, mobile phones, sat-nav's etc. When I went to QMW 18 years ago, I used to hang around the VLSI design lab marvelling at the brains of the people who designed digital chips. Frankly, to design a digital chip you need a brain the size of a planet. Then I met a few analogue chip designers. If digital chip designers do braniac-boffin stuff, then analogue chip designers are high priests and priestesses (***) who invoke weird black magic (**) - and sometimes the magic black smoke.

(**) Seriously. Digital, in theory, is simple. Imagine a switch; it can go on and off. Put in a few logic gates, OR, AND, NAND, NOT, etc, and you can design a circuit. There are complexities, but you could easily teach an interested ten-year old the basics. Analogue is different. Analogue varies, interferes and generally screws with your mind. Which is good, because a screwed-up mind is perhaps the main reason why Şencan asked me to marry her.

(***) We were lucky enough to have some of the top RFIC designers in the country at our wedding. For a horrid moment, whilst the photographs were being taken, I was worried that they were scheming out some new chip. Fortunately they were just trying to calculate the draught of the ship. If HMS Warrior had sunk that night, then radio design in this country old never have been the same again.

Monday, 21 September 2009

25 years of Elite.

The BBC website has a page dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the computer game Elite.

This game, created by Ian Bell and David Braben in 1984, has to be one of the best games ever. In it, you play the captain of a Cobra Mark-III spacecraft, flying around space either trading or fighting. The 3D-wireframe graphics were very advanced for the time, and had a definite wow! factor. A novella, 'The Dark Wheel', was released with the BBC version by science fiction author Robert Holdstock - this was virtually unheard of for a computer game.

The game was revolutionary in several aspects - most games before Elite were heavily scripted, with linear game flows. Instead, Elite was open-ended. You could fly around the star systems of eight massive galaxies, either trading or shooting other ships. There were various upgrades that you could buy for your ship, including items such as fuel scoops or the near-obligatory docking computer. All of this was fitted into just 32kB on the BBC B. It was a superb feat of programming by Braben and Bell.

Unlike most games of the time there was no score - instead, the aim was to become 'Elite'. Initially you started off as 'Harmless'. As you destroyed other ships, your ranking would grow, through 'Mostly harmless' (a reference to the Hitchhiker's Guide the the Galaxy, perhaps?), to dangerous, and then finally Elite.

I dread to think how many hours that I have spent playing the game. I became Elite on the BBC Master 128, and also on the superb Archimedes version, ArcElite. Over the years I must have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours have been spent pretending that I am some superb space-trading pirate.

It very much got me into programming - I remember programming spinning wire-framed 3D objects, initially in BBC Basic and later 6502 assembler. It also gave my imagination a spur - my friend, Jamie, and myself would pretend to be spacemen whilst it loaded off tape. I doubt any children would do such a thing nowadays, if only because most games now load almost instantaneously.

Last year Şencan and I attended a meal celebrating the 30th anniversary of Acorn. It was good to see so many old faces, including some people that I had not seen for many years. David Braben was there, and he gave an impromptu demonstration of docking on a BBC B that had been put on display. It is a sign of the almost mystical aura around the game that he had a large crowd around him as he did it.

If you wish to give it a go, have a look at Oolite, which is heavily based upon the original game. I deliberately do not have it installed to avoid wastage of too much time.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Utter madness

The Times has an article that claims the Government is considering changes to the civil law so that, in the case of a traffic accident, the person who drives the more powerful vehicle is seen as being the guilty party. It is then up to them to prove otherwise. This has mainly been introduce with respect to cyclists on the road.

According to the article, the reason for this bizarre proposed change is:
The move, intended to encourage greater take-up of environmentally friendly modes of transport ...
I am a walker, and I also do some cycling (as the weather was nice we both cycled to the Hiltingbury fair today). As such, I have got a great deal of experience on all of the main forms of road transport. My over-simplified summary of what I have see: There are terrible cyclists, pedestrians and drivers on the road. However, there are also thousands of brilliant ones as well. In this area of North Baddesley, children on those small-wheeled bikes ride on and off the pavement, sometimes jumping off the kerb into the path of traffic. Then again, there is also some interesting driving exhibited as well, from the minor infractions (failure to indicate) to the serious (exceeding the speed limit).

Unfortunately, at times I am guilty of all of these (as are most drivers, probably). It is so easy to let your speed creep up to 35 MPH in a 30 MPH zone, or just run a light that is changing to red as you are a few yards away. However, I see a difference between occasional, accidental incidents such as these and the people who routinely drive badly.

This proposed change is vastly unfair. My dad (a pensioner) driving his Range Rover will be judged guilty by default in any collision against a boy racer in souped-up hatch. The assumption that the size of your engine has a relationship to the cause of an accident is, frankly, a vast over-simplification. I drive a 1.4-litre automatic Honda Jazz, so am hardly a boy racer ;-)

There is also the question of how people will take advantage of this. There is a scam where some drivers brake suddenly and heavily at junctions, causing the car behind to crash into the back of them. They then claim that they are injured, and get very large compensation awards from the insurance of the driver of the rear car. This was because the assumption by insurance companies was that, in the case of a read-end shunt, it was the fault of the driver of the rear car. This fraud was so widespread that insurance companies were considering changing this assumption. I can see this new change giving fraudsters a whole new area to exploit.

I think the main reason that I dislike this proposed change to the law is that it confuses two issues. The first is nominally a 'green' issue - that more powerful cars cause more pollution. The second is the responsibility for an accident. Since there is no causal connection between the two things, then it is wrong to make a connection.

There is a connection between the power of the vehicle and the damage that can be done by it. But since you can be driving a powerful car perfectly safely and still have an accident that is not your fault, under this change you will have to prove that it was not your fault. Quite simply, this is not right.

A much better job would be to further strengthen the application of existing driving laws in two areas:
  1. Uninsured drivers. The number of uninsured drivers has increased by 33% over the last year, up to a fifth of all drivers. It is illegal to drive without insurance, and this should be stamped down on, hard.
  2. Drug driving. This is a massive problem. From the BBC News website:
    The Department for Transport (DfT) estimates that one in five drivers or riders killed in road accidents may have an impairing drug - legal or illegal - in their system.
Additionally, I would stamp down on cyclists riding bikes on pavements on roads with a 30MPH speed limit. It is done all the time, and is dangerous for pedestrians (I have nearly been hit on several occasions). However, I would also allow cyclists to ride on the pavement in 40MPH zones or above. The traffic speeds are so much higher in these zones and the consequences of a cyclist being hit so much the greater. In my experience, the pavements are also less used. It would be the responsibility of the cyclist to ensure that they ride safely.

These are, in my opinion at least, much more important areas to be looked at before this fraudulently 'green' policy.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

The unexpected consequences of doing great things

Sencan and I went to the Southampton boat show today to have a look around. I went there on my own last year, and ended up signing onto a tall ship sailing to Dublin. I think Sencan came along this year to prevent me doing the same thing again...

The show was absolutely bustling, and there was lots to see and do. It was also fairly hot, especially in the oven-like temporary exhibition halls, and we eventually left after four and a half hours because we had started wilting.

If you have never been, the show is massive. it was a bit smaller than last year's show (part of the land has been earmarked for development), but the temporary marina built into the Solent seemed as large as it had been last year, and was filled with lots of shiny boats. This in itself must be a massively complex thing to set up, yet it only lasts for the nine days of the show.

Neither of us saw much sign of the recession there - with high-end boats selling at well over a million euros, I would reckon that some money is spent during the nine days.

A small, ocean-going rowing boat was moored at the end of one jetty, and a very tanned, muscular young woman stood alongside it. She was Sarah Outen, and she had just completed a 4,000 mile, 124-day row across the Indian Ocean from Fremantle in Australia to Mauritius. In the process she broke three world records. The boat had literally only arrive back in its container the previous day, and she still appeared to be more than a little overwhelmed.

I can only sympathise. Although my walk around the coastline of the UK amounted to not even a quarter of what she has achieved, it still took me two or three months to really get back into normal life. I still had a vacant, far-away look in my eyes when I joined Frontier three months after the walk finished, and being around so many people felt strangely enclosing after a year walking the coast. Yet I had the wonderful Sam to keep me company during the walk, to be my friend and spur when I felt down. Goodness knows, she did a great job for me, and I'm not sure I ever thanked her enough.

Sam's companionship each night (and her wonderful cooking) helped me through the walk. Although she rarely walked alongside me, her care and attention made it possible for me to finish the walk. Before I set off, I told BBC Radio Cambridge that such a walk was 20% physical effort and 80% mental effort, and it is true - it is all too easy to mentally give up. Having someone there with me each night made all the difference. Then I think of Louis, who walked the coast a couple of years after me. He was eighteen when he did it, and he camped for most of the way, doing up to 30-miles a day with full kit. He had incredible mental strength, and I am in awe of him.

Yet Sarah went through so much more. She rowed on her own for four months, spending days and nights alone on the turbulent seas. There was no-one to give her a massage when her muscles were aching, and no-one to give her a hug when she was feeling down. Her own mental strength made up for that deficiency and kept her going. Talking to her proved to be a humbling experience.

During our chat I asked her what she wanted to do next. As I asked her the question her eyes flicked out into the Solent. Something tells me she may be voyaging out again sometime.

The thing is, I feel the same. I am just raring to do another walk, to go out for two or three months on my own, to explore and see the world; to push myself to my limits. I have spent much of my life being told that I cannot do things, and, now that I can, it is so tempting to do what I can. When I go to the coast (and it is not easy to avoid here in Southampton) I get this creeping urge to keep on walking, to 'do another lap', as I call it. I stare out at the breaking waves, and my mind wanders to the sights that I saw in that year. It is the same thing with television - I see places and I wish I was back there once more. Even seaside postcards in the local library can set me off; whether they depict the majestic Lulworth Cove or the beautiful, rugged Northumberland coastline.

In the sequel to her excellent book, "Two feet, Four Paws", Spud Talbot-Ponsonby says that she managed to put her walk around the coast into a handy mental container labelled 'the walk'. I have never managed that; my walk permeates through my mind and body, ready to jump out at the most inopportune moments. Yet I would not have it any other way. Like an aged general talking about famous battles, I cannot let it go.

Yet I have a beautiful, loving wife, and I just cannot bring myself to think of being without her for such a long time. Being apart from her would literally break my heart. So I get my maps out and look at Land's End to John O'Groats; the Pacific Crest Trail and the various GR routes in Europe and dream. And that is all they will be; dreams. There is a good chance that we may be blessed with children, and that would be another excellent reason to stay at home. Maybe when I'm sixty and the kids have all flown the roost I will put my walking boots on once more, lug a large pack onto my back and head out once again. It is something to look forward to.

Part of the problem is, I did my walk when I was thirty. I did the most amazing thing I will ever do when I was relatively young. Sarah will have the same problem. Most people wait until retirement and then do something like Land's End to John O'Groats or a sail around the world; something that they have dreamt of for all of their life. I know that there just has to be another challenge awaiting for me out there, and it has to be bigger than the one I did previously. So I dream. And there is no harm in dreaming... Is there?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Art galleries

Recently there has been a great deal of discussion about plans for Southampton Council to sell two pieces of artwork for £5 million in order to fund a new museum dedicated to the Titanic. These proposals are very controversial, and are provoking a great deal of discussion in the local area.

My question is simple: What is the point of council art galleries? Every council from the Orkneys to Cornwall will have their own art collections, with galleries dedicated to displaying them to the public (although sometimes only a small proportion of the available artwork is displayed). They also employ curators and general staff to care for the artwork - hardly a core business for a council.

Art galleries are undoubtedly necessary, in the same way that museums or parks are. I would say the aim of such galleries is to educate the local population in art and to embrace the imagination of the viewer. Yet one of my abiding memories from going to the Derby City Council art gallery as a child was one of staleness. You would go back six months' later and see exactly the same exhibits. It was, frankly, a turn-off.

My proposal is simple: The central Government slowly buys all artwork held by councils and puts them into the national collection. In return, the national collection produces a large number of coherent exhibitions - for instance exhibitions of paintings by Turner, Lowry or Monet. These can then be 'loaned out' to council galleries who are part of the scheme. These exhibitions could be large or small, or could focus on periods rather than individual painters. They could be tailored to an individual area - for instance, 'East Anglia in the 1800's'. Such an exhibition could display many paintings that are currently held in many different collections.

What local art galleries need is a regular churn of exhibits, where things change every few months, causing both publicity (e.g. 'come and see the exhibition of Joseph Wright paintings; in the art gallery until the end of October!') and interest for the public. This will hopefully cause people to visit them more regularly, as there will often be something new to see.

As they would be part of complete exhibitions, the context and information on each painting could be presented in a much more holistic manner. It also means that councils can stop doing something that is certainly not a core job for them - acquiring and maintaining artworks - and instead concentrate on something that should be their core job - bringing artworks to the people.

If an area has an indelible link with a particular painter - say Suffolk for Constable, Lowry for Liverpool or Wright for Derby - then permanent displays can be made for them, as long as individual paintings within can be re-loaned temporarily to form other exhibitions. For instance, there might be a temporary 'Lowry' travelling exhibition, using items in-store in Liverpool along with some of the gems of his work.

It has an advantage for the national collection as well. At the moment the national collection has far more pieces that it can possibly display. It also loans many pieces out to other galleries around the country. Instead of loaning individual pieces out on demand, it will make entire, contextualised exhibitions that can tour the country. There will still be many pieces in store, but hopefully it will give them many more opportunities to be displayed.

Will this happen? I guess not. There are many practical considerations, with cost possibly being the most pressing. Space would also be a problem - art galleries around the country would differ in size, and an exhibition that was ideally-sized for a larger one would be too small for another. Yet, despite these (and other) problems, anything that gets more people to visit the galleries would be worthwhile.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


I have just finished reading a complete set of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. And what a read they were! A series of great stories, well told by a master story-teller. I had read a couple of the stories when I was a teenager, but I freely admit that I had not appreciated them - my mind was more tuned towards stories of derring-do. Since then, my mind had been polluted by the varying standards of the TV and film adaptations (I am awaiting with apprehension Guy Ritchie's latest film, Sherlock Holmes, which I have the most tremendous fears for).

It was therefore with joy that I reacquainted myself with the series. They really are superb, and well deserve their reputation. It was a long read - 1,400 pages of small type in a large book - but it was well worth the perseverance. Very few, if any, of the collection of stories were disappointing.

The stories and writing led me to consider several things. Amongst these was the way that the English language has changed over the last hundred years. A while back I was chatting to someone about dialogue attributions, and I said that it always amused me when I saw 'ejaculated' used as an attribution in old texts. He had never seen it, and I had to admit that I could not recall where I had last seen it.

Well, the 'Sherlock Holmes' series of books are filled with them. Here are some examples that caused me to snigger:
  • "What on earth does this mean?" I ejaculated ...
  • "Not the Countess of Morcar's blue carbuncle!" I ejaculated.
  • "It was a confession," I ejaculated.
  • "My dear Holmes!" I ejaculated.
  • "Joseph!" ejaculated Phelps.
The problem is that the verb has two meanings. The first is, well, the one used commonly nowadays. The other is to utter something suddenly. Both of these come from the same historical root; to eject suddenly.

Obviously such usage of the verb was perfectly normal at the time, but it would be thought odd to write any of the above nowadays, Indeed, it probably could not even be safely used in a historical piece set in that period.

Of course, it should be used. So I say freely ejaculate when you write! Ejaculate from the rooftops! Ejaculation is good!

Or, on a more sexual note: "Oh God, I'm coming!" he ejaculated...

Yes, you can see the problem.

On a more sensible note, if you wish to read Sherlock Holmes' books and you do not want them in dead-tree form, I suggest going to the 'Project Gutenburg' website and downloading them.

Also, whilst writing this piece I found a good website on Sherlock Holmes - the Sherlock of Peoria website.

Thursday, 27 August 2009


On Saturday, Şencan and I got married on HMS Warrior in Portsmouth.

It is probably a phrase that is overly used about such occasions, but it was a perfect day. The weather - threatening rain in the morning - was sunny by the time the ceremony occurred. The venue, HMS Warrior, the first steam-powered, iron-hulled, armoured warship, was fantastic, and it was great being surrounded by all of our family and friends, most of whom had travelled a long way to be there.

Our only regret is that we did not get a chance to spend as long taking to everyone as we would have liked. So many people came, yet the evening was so short. Still, I think that we managed to talk to most people, and our apologies to those who could not make it.

Şencan looked beautiful in her dress and I; well, at least I did not have mud on my trousers for once. The memory of that dress shall be emblazoned on my memory forever.

My brother, the best man, and his wife, the chief bridesmaid, did a wonderful job for us. The evening went smoothly, with not a little thanks to the two of them.

It was a superb evening. Photos will inevitably follow.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


As I have travelled through the journey of my life, I have learnt many important lessons. For example:
*) Treat people as you would like to be treated yourself.
*) Do not judge people by first appearances.
*) It takes years to build up trust, and only seconds to destroy it.
*) Wherever possible, do not give in to pain. Fight and master it.

Now, I have a new one to add to this illustrious list:
*) Do not keep the jar of gravy granules next to the similarly-shaped coffee jar.

I shall not go any further.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Hampshire Tigers parade in Romsey

On Tuesday I decided to go into the centre of town to see the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (1PWRR) parade through on their homecoming from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The parade was due off at 16.00, and so I headed down three-quarters of an hour early. I did not know quite what to expect, and was amazed to find that the town was bustling - so much so that I had to park on the verge of the bypass outside town, along with dozens of other cars on either side of the road.

A quick walk into town showed that there was little point in staying around the market square, where medals were due to be given out after the parade - the crowds were already five or six deep. I have never seen Romsey so busy. I made my way along the High Street, then up Latimer Street - still crowded - then cut across towards the abbey, where I finally managed to find a quieter spot. It seemed like the whole town - and more - had turned out.

The parade passed; a band in black trousers and scarlet jacket; then the desert-camouflage clad soldiers and finally the veterans.

After they passed I ran back to Latimer Street, where I got a glimpse of them passing again (there were too many people to see clearly).

What was remarkable about this was the numbers of people who turned out. There were thousands, literally, in a town not quite designed for such numbers. Whether you agree with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or not, it is good that so many people appreciate the valour of these brave men and women.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Arguments and writing

Do you know when you've spent too long writing historical fiction?
That's right, when you start arguing in an eighteenth-Century manner.
"Don't grin at me in that manner, it is most unbecoming!"
What on earth made me say that? Not only is it demeaning, it's also hilariously outdated. I'd just been editing a scene set in 1827, so it's probably down to that. What's next?
Forsooth, I can do little but disagree with the proposition that you have put forward.
or perhaps in dialect:
What'cha sayin' that for; stop or I'll scat yer 'ead.
It is, however, a great way of ending an argument, as we were both too busy laughing to continue.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Cuts, the CSR and future tax rises

The battleground for the next election looks as though it will be cuts. Labour want to send the same message that they did so successfully in 2001 and 2005; that the Tories will cut public services (on this occasion, by 10%). This time, however, the Tories have a strong counter-argument - that, due to the economic crisis, cuts are needed. Even Labour's own figures seem to point towards this.

Currently the Government is making it very hard to see where we stand. They are not going to hold a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), which is due this year, and which will cover the Government's spending plans up to 2013. Their stated reasons for not doing one - that times are too uncertain to hold one - is farcical; any scheme that tries to set out plans for the future has to face uncertainties.

Labour are trying to force the Tories' hands; they want the Conservatives to detail their public spending plans, and then Labour will criticise those and come up with their own, less draconian ones. Yet that is not the way it should work; Labour is in Government, and they have access to much more data than the Tories, and they should be coming up with the plans.

The Government should govern, and the opposition should criticise, amend or support any proposed legislation. What we are getting is a stupid waiting game; the Tories waiting for Labour to release figures; and Labour, who are in much more of a position to release figures, are waiting for the Tories.

This will simply not do, and the ball is firmly in the Government's court.

The worst thing is that Brown is trying to define the Government in relation to what he says the Tories will do, not what Labour wants the Government to be doing. This is exceptionally important and is a sign that the Government has few genuine ideas. Just listen to Prime Minister's Questions: The only questions that Brown answers are the planted ones from Labour MPs. To everything else (and indeed some of the questions from his own party) he goes on a rant about what he says the Tories would be doing.

This is not good enough. He should worry less about what he thinks the Tories will do, and more on what his Government would do. Yet, as seen in the recent U-turns (and the part U-turn on ID cards this week), his Government appear to have very few policies.

It is still possible for Labour to win (if they do, I sincerely hope that it is not under Brown's leadership). If so, they will be faced with a choice: cuts to services, or tax increases. And I reckon Labour's post-election message will be as follows:
"We're cutting some areas (defence, transport, etc), but we will continue to grow core services such as education and health. Therefore we will put up taxes to pay for this growth and to help deal with the debt burden. There are too many inequalities in the country, and we will sort that out. The have's have to help the have-not's."
The next election may well be a choice between cuts to services and an increased tax burden. Yet there is no way that either side can say the latter of these, as increasing taxes is seen as being an election-losing issue. One of the policies that I used to agree with the Liberal Democrats on (with caveats) - the 1p income tax rise - has now been abandoned. It was a policy that, if they had firm spending constraints in place for the extra income, put clear blue water between them and the other two parties. Yet Nick Clegg abandoned it, right before the recession when that money might most have been needed.

Times are tough, yet the Government is not giving us the lead that we need. That lead is the truth on their own policies.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Kinder Scout

A friend once complained to me that all her friends wanted to do when they visited Derbyshire was climb Kinder Scout. This patch of bleak moorland seems an odd choice of destination considering all the joys that the Peak District has to offer; the stunning Limestone valleys of the south, and the gritstone edges on the east and west. However, it is only odd to those who have never been there.

Kinder Scout is a magical place. Yet it is hardly a mountain - its highest point is only 2,088 feet high, and its flatness makes it resemble an irregular-shaped table rather than anything a child would draw as a mountain. It is more akin an ironing board than an Alp. Yet despite having climbed many hills and mountains in the UK, it is the one that my heart most yearns for. If in idle moments my mind casts back onto the hills, it is almost invariably Kinder Scout that it wanders to. Why should this be? What magic does it hold over me?

My first memories of Kinder are of one of many school trips, climbing up one of the steep sided cloughs to reach the top. This trip was to test our navigation, and navigation on Kinder is difficult at the best of times. Although from a distance the plateau is flat, with scarcely a hundred feet elevation across it, the reality close-up is very different. The surface of the peat is riven with large steep-sided, snaking drainage channels - some up to ten feet deep - called groughs, and these make navigation perilous at best. You can be standing on the surface and set your compass on some distant rocks. Yet in the way are a couple of these groughs, so you slip and slither your way down and pull your way back up to the top on the other side, only to find yourself pointing in totally the wrong direction. In low visibility the task can quickly become hopeless. The only alternative to going around in circles is to follow the drainage channel downhill until you meet the path that circuits the edge of the plateau.

Descend down one of the steep-sided groughs and your feet will make marks in the peat, contributing to the slow denudation of the hillside. Standing at the bottom, the view is a distorted thirds-rule. At the bottom, the cold, black peat, essentially lifeless; and at the top, the sky, sometimes blue, but more often white. Sandwiched between the two is a thin layer of life, the sparse greenery that manages to subsist in this harsh world. Under your feet there will be grey rock and black peat, sometimes with brown, peat-laden water swirling past.

It is an undeniably hard place. In summer, people climb up in trainers and sandals, only to find the weather close in on them. Edale can be in sun, whilst the tops are firmly embedded in a layer of cloud that is invisible from the village. People occasionally die on Kinder and the surrounding hills, and it is only thanks to the volunteer mountain rescue organisations that many more do not. There is something elemental about being in the mist on Kinder Scout that rarely occurs on other mountains, a feeling that somewhere ahead of you the ground could - and will - swallow you up.

And the hill has been the graveyard of machines as well. Kinder Scout and all the surrounding high ground have seen numerous air wrecks over the years. Once, when walking over the eastern edges near Margery Hill, I came across an ammunition shell just lying on the ground. Was this from a crashed plane, or was it left over from when the moor was used as an artillery range during the war? The heavily-corroded metal seemed strangely at one with the moor, as though it was trying to camouflage itself against the vegetation.

Nestled in a 'V' on the western edge of the plateau is Kinder's infamous tourist trap, Kinder Downfall. The name 'downfall', like many of the other place names in the area (for instance Black Hill and Bleaklow), is suitably dour. At times it is also highly inaccurate. The Downfall is a waterfall that takes the tiny River Kinder over the edge of the plateau. The brown, peat-filled water pours over the edge and, if the wind is westerly, blows straight back up onto the hill. If the wind is from the right direction and the river is in spate, it is possible to stand above the waterfall and get soaked by spray. It feels as though the water yearns to return to its mossy bed.

The water in the moors of the northern Peak District are the lifeblood of northern industry - the reservoirs on the eastern side of the plateau - including Ladybower - provided the Sheffield heavy industries with water, and those on the west provided the mills of Manchester. Kinder and the surrounding hills are like giant sponges, soaking up the water and gently releasing it over time. To a certain extent, this wild landscape powered the industrial revolution.

The edges of the plateau are covered with wind- sculpted rocks that stand proud of the surface like grey sentinels. The twisted, malformed shapes of these give power to the imagination as can be seen by their names - Pym Chair, Noe Stool, the Woolpacks, Seal Stones and my favourite, the Madwoman's Stones. Some of these massive structures look as though giants could use them as a seat for a quiet rest, whilst others have large coverstones balancing precariously on much smaller basestones. They look scarcely capable of staying in position for a day, yet alone the hundred or thousands of years that they must have remained poised, seemingly defying gravity. In misty, cloudy weather, these grey shapes will loom out like monsters ready to devour the unwary. The stones often serve as impromptu windbreaks for walkers in poor weather, and you will often see groups huddled beside them, in the lee of the wind like sheep.

Edale, below the southern edge of the plateau, marks the start of the Pennine Way, the 250-mile trail through the spine of England to the Scottish border. Look on a map and you will see two routes across Kinder; one, the main route, picks its way across farmland before ascending the western edge of the plateau and heading past Kinder Downfall. The other dislikes farmland, and instead climbs straight up Grindsbrook Clough - an ever-narrowing, steep-sided valley, and then cuts across the plateau. This is the original route of the Pennine Way, and it is hard to think of a more difficult start to a National Trail. In recent years, however, the western route - originally only a bad-weather alternative - has become the official main route. In essence, the Pennine Way has been neutered.

There were good reasons for the change. Not only is the western route via Jacob's Ladder easier, but it also avoids going over the roughest terrain. Long sections of stone slabs (ex floor slabs from the northern mills) have been laid down over the boggiest stretches, taming the hill and making it more akin to a motorway. Yet such work (which many see as vandalism) has advantages; it keeps the ill-prepared on the route to Kinder Downfall, and leaves the interior to the more intrepid.

In summer the ground is relatively dry. After prolonged wet weather, however, it takes on a very different nature. One minute your feet are on firm ground, the next you are up to your knees or waist in a thick, foul-smelling concoction of peat and water. There is often no warning, and once you are in extrication can be difficult. Yet, as many bog-trotters will tell you, that is half the fun.

My grandfather - once a great cyclist - told me of an attempt he and a friend made to get a tandem bike up the hillside. They set off from Derby one morning in the late '30s, and rode along the then-quiet A6 into the Peak District. The ascent was by Jacob's Ladder, before it had been tamed with the irregular stone steps that are so hated by 'proper' walkers. His description of getting the bike through the deep mud on the ascent - two steps forward, one step back - detailed their determination to experience the hill.

Perhaps there is a murky place in my DNA, a solitary piece of my genetic code, that makes me want to climb Kinder too.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

More 787 delays.

Back in November, I wrote a blog post about delays with Boeing's latest passenger plane, the 787 Dreamliner. It was, I feel, a balanced and sympathetic piece on how incorporating a step-change in technology can be a painful experience.

The 787 will be a beautiful aeroplane, and has a number of firsts - most notably, it is the first large-scale airliner made mostly from carbon-fibre. There has been some disquiet about this, with concerns ranging from the behaviour in lightning strikes to the effects of carbon-fibre dust in the event of a fire.

This afternoon Boeing announced the fifth delay to the aeroplane. It was due to take to the skies before the end of the month and now, with a week to go, they have suddenly announced that it is being delayed once more. The reason, apparently, is that they found a weakness during testing of the static airframe. A static airframe is a plane, representative of the plane that will fly, which is put through a series of stress tests. For instance, they loaded the wings of the 787 test airframe to 150% of the maximum stresses they will encounter during flight, and they did not fail. Static testing is vital to ensure that the real aeroplane matches the design and is strong enough to fly.

Yet it appears that the area where the wing joins the fuselage is weaker than expected. Some are putting two and two together and noting that this area was redesigned a while back to reduce weight; it could be that the weight was reduced too much, weakening the plane. It is already alleged that the plane is 8% overweight, and this will not help matters. Being overweight reduces the range and/or the amount of passengers and cargo that can be carried, meaning the plane is less economic to run.

Whatever the details of the problem are, this is an absolute disaster for Boeing. The plane was rolled out back in July '07 in a stunt that gave a false impression of the rate of progress. Yet it will not have made a single flight two years after that date. There are already rumours of customers cancelling orders for the plane, and the new delays will hardly instil confidence. Worse, it will cast doubt on both the performance and safety of the plane.

This is a design problem that should have been spotted and fixed earlier on in the process. There is a truism in engineering; the earlier a defect is spotted, the cheaper it is to fix. All of the problems with the 787 shows that there is something seriously wrong within both Boeing's engineering and management.

I was willing to give Boeing the benefit of the doubt before; not now. They are in serious trouble,

Friday, 19 June 2009

A different perspective on vegetarianism.

Şencan is a vegetarian (actually, at the moment, temporarily a pescetarian). Whilst I love nothing more than a Sunday roast dripping in gravy, our difference in food requirements scarcely causes us any problems. For instance, this evening I have prepared a salad, and I may have a few slice of ham with it, whilst Şencan may have something quorn-based. We even cook Sunday roasts - I have a pork or beef joint, whilst Şencan has some meat-substitute. Everything else is cooked as vegetarian. You know what? It works really well; the only problem being that it is hard to get a meat joint small enough for one person.

It really is not a problem. A friend of mine once said that she could not see me going out with a vegetarian; well, mainly due to Şencan's forbearance, it works.

It as therefore with some interest that I saw a headline on the English-language version of the Pravda website: "Vegetarianism proves to be perversion of nature" (warning, link not necessarily safe for work).

Take the following quote:
Furthermore, cosmetologists say that a typical vegetarian has dry and fragile hair, dull eyes and unhealthy complexion. They can hardly stand criticism and have a low boiling point. They raise their voice, swing their arms and splutter when arguing. They are weak even in their logic.
I swear, this is genuine. I'll see if Şencan matches the above when she gets home from work...

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Meaningless high priorities.

An interesting advert in the latest Economist for HM Treasury.

It is advertising jobs in 'The Prime Minister's Delivery Unit', and says:
You will have specialist knowledge of delivery in one of the Government's priority areas - Education, Health, Environment, Crime, Employment, Global Conflict or the Economy.
If these are the Government's high-priority areas, what are their low priority areas? The above must encapsulate most of what the Government does. It cannot be a list of high priorities; it is far too well-spread.

It will be interesting to see which of these are the real priorities when the time for budgetary cuts comes. My guesses: Education and Health will be least affected. Global Conflict (whatever that includes) and Crime most affected.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The problem with Gordon Brown

There was a Labour MP on BBC Radio 5 at about eleven this morning, repeatedly talking over the other people in her attempt to say how good a person Gordon Brown is. In an attempt to make him sound compassionate, she said that he even sent flowers to a female MP who was ill. It says a great deal that it was necessary for this story to be told - I doubt anyone would have thought it necessary with Tony Blair.

My reply to that is simple. It is easy to be kind and considerate to your friends. It is much harder to be thoughtful and considerate towards the millions of people who are not your friends. It very much seems to me that Gordon Brown is someone who has no time for anyone who does not agree 100% with him - as far as he is concerned, it's my way or the highway.

For this and other reasons, he has never come across to me as being a likeable fellow.

People will complain that I do not really know him, and the description of him portrayed above is wide of the mark and a travesty. But the problem is, it is the image he projects. I disagreed with some of what Tony Blair stood for - although there is much that I agreed with - yet I can easily imagine going down to the pub with him and having a drink. We might discuss politics, and the discussion might get heated, but at the end we would agree to disagree and get on with drinking the beer (or, more possibly in his case, wine).

I cannot see this with Brown. Going to the pub with him would be an excruciating experience. He does not seem capable of accepting that other people have a different opinion to him. If you disagree with him, then you are persona non grata. That is the cause of part of the problem he has found himself in - he has alienated and pushed away many people in his own party, sometimes over trivial differences.

This is important. True, I do not want him pulling silly publicity stunts like the YouTube debacle - that is not his style. He could do statesmanlike seniority very well, but again, he does not try that. Instead, he comes across as extremely argumentative. He also seems incapable of admitting when he has made mistakes. The self-belief he has in his own skills comes across as being highly arrogant.

He is undoubtedly extremely intelligent. Yet that intelligence is hard to see through the rhetoric and party line that he spins. A good way of showing intelligence is to debate - take in another person's contrary point of view and argue your point. Unfortunately, he does not try that. Instead, he trots out the same tired lines repeatedly. Prime Minister's Questions used to be great fun in the days of Blair and Hague, both good orators. Now it is a frustrating bore, as Brown refuses to attempt to even answer questions and just repeats the same rhetoric (sometimes which is not even related to the question).

These are not the skills that the Prime Minister of the country should have, and it does not project a good image of the country.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Manufacturing and the environment.

There's a very good series of blog posts on Bunnie's blog about manufacturing electronic consumer goods in China. In a past life I was heavily involved with such work, although fortunately only from a UK perspective. Conference calls with Japanese customers in a warm, stuffy room on a bank holiday Monday are all, thankfully, in the past.

I think it is important to realise how the consumer goods we buy are made. There has been a great deal of talk over the last few years about how our food is grown; we should also be thinking about the way all of our goods are made. This makes sense not only from an environmental point of view, but also an economic one. That little MP3 player that you buy for fifty pounds in the shop has been for a massively long and convoluted process to get to market, one that few people know and even fewer understand.

Just making the plastic case and ensuring that it meets all the required environmental and other regulations is a time consuming and expensive process. Moulds have to be made, tested, and any alterations prove to be very expensive. Injection moulding (a common way in which plastic cases are made) is detailed in another of Bunnie's postings. The videos are quite astounding.

Have you ever bought a cheap electronic product with buttons that do not work on that particular model, or a space where another button could be fitted? This will almost certainly be because they are using the mouldings of a different, more expensive model, and the manufacturers have just altered the number of buttons fitted. This keeps the price down, but can make a product look unrefined or even ugly.

Fortunately, although the mouldings are expensive, they can be reused many times. This means that the expense is front-loaded. That is, it may cost £40,000 to design the case and make prototypes, but once that process has been gone through, each additional unit may cost only 20 pence. If you make 100,000 units, then that up-front design cost is 40 pence per unit. Thus the true cost of each case is 60 pence (20 pence manufacture and 40 pence for the mould). The more cases you make, the more the up-front costs gets diluted amongst them.

And remember, this is just for the case. I can see many components on my laptop: the case, the buttons, the LCD screen, the battery, the power cable, the DVD drive, the USB connectors, the power connectors, the touchpad, the buttons, the volume slider, the case catch, the network connectors and the PCMCIA slot. And these are only the things visible from outside. Inside there will be the processor, the memory, the motherboard, cabling and many discrete components. Each of these will have been individually designed at massive cost. Then a plant has to be created or altered to create them in bulk. I would reckon my single, rather elderly laptop would have enough embedded costs in it that, if you were to make only one, it would easily cost you several billion pounds.

Sounds incredible? Think of this; computer chips are made in what are called fabrication plants (fabs). Intel spent £1.3 billion making just one fab in China. The fabs produce multiple chips on a single wafer of silicon, sometimes 30cm in diameter. Making the wafers is only one part of the process.

If you want to know more about the technical aspects of how chips are made, see Britney Spears' Guide to Semiconductor Physics. It appears as well as being a celebrity, mother and singer, Britney is also a highly intelligent lady. In particular, I can recommend the page on photlithography (now there's a word I don't get to type every day!).

The distance travelled during manufacture can also be amazing; a chip that Şencan was working on at our old company had a work flow something like this: the wafers were made at a fab plant in China; they were sent over to Austria for packaging (i.e. the wafers were split up and converted into chips). These were then sent back to China for the final finishing work. Only then were some of the chips sent to the UK for testing. This rather laborious route was taken as it was too expensive to have a packaging plant in China, and the wafers were small and cheap to transport.

The economies of scale allow such expense to be split over millions of products. This is a world that few of us get to see, but is vitally important to all of our lives. Many TV programs and adverts show robots working inside car factories, yet car purchases are few and far between when compared to all of the other manufactured goods that we buy. Yet, unlike cars, it is seen as being unsexy, and therefore uninteresting.

Think of this, and multiply similar workflows and processes through all of the components of just one consumer product. Think of the time, money and effort that has gone into making your £50 MP3 player, your £300 TV or even £800 fridge-freezer. Think of how everything in your house (and even the components of the house itself) have been designed and manufactured. Think of all this, and realise how much unseen effort goes into modern life.

The public needs to be educated about this. Many people want to live a more green lifestyle whilst maintaining their current standards of living. They may change all their bulbs over to be energy-efficient, then go out and buy a new mobile phone. After all, mobile phone chargers hardly use any power. Yet how much energy was used when making that phone? The answer would be frightening. It would not surprise me if it was many more times than the energy the mobile phone would use during its life.

Unfortunately, a green lifestyle may have to be an anti-consumerism lifestyle.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Michael Martin

So, he has gone, and not before time.

The seeds of this debacle were sewn back in 2000 when Betty Boothroyd stepped down. She was pretty much unanimously seen as having done a good job as speaker. The convention was that the speaker comes from the opposition, and this is a convention that the Conservatives kept to throughout their reign (even Margaret Thatcher did so - boo, hiss).

Yet when it came to Labour's turn, they overturned convention and voted one of theirs in, and what is worse, someone who was patently incapable of performing the job. This was ignored by much of the media at the time, yet has had large implications.

Over the last few months (probably since the Damian Green affair) it has been obvious that he has lost the confidence of a significant minority of the house. yet the speaker can only be removed by a vote from the members. If he was from and opposition party, then it would have been easy for the Government to allow a vote (as they would have had a majority). However, they could not be seen to do that as it would have been a vote against one of their own. So they kept him in place as his time as speaker slowly descended into farce.

His speech on Monday was cringe worthy. The chamber seemed to be expecting him to make a sensible, honourable speech, perhaps detailing that he would stand down as speaker at the end of the parliamentary term. That may not have been enough to save him, but it would have diverted much of the fire off him. Instead, he totally ignored the members' valid concerns.

So, what has he done wrong? I would suggest the following list:
  1. He seems incapable of looking up from pieces of paper as he talks. The speaker needs to be a good orator. Although he is undoubtedly a better public speaker than me, he is terrible. I am not talking about accents or other such fripperies here, but his presentation.
  2. The speaker needs to be impartial. In my (perhaps also impartial) eyes he has failed this test.
  3. He has had his own problem with seemingly extravagant expenses claims in the past.
  4. He has made personal attacks on other members within the house.
  5. The Damian Green affair. The full truth of this has not yet come out. Michael Martin had the responsibility, yet he passed the blame onto his Serjeant-at-Arms.
  6. The fees office is run directly by the speaker's office. It is the fees office that has allowed many of the spurious expenses claims. This alone was enough reason for him to go.
  7. Finally, he tried to block the freedom of Information request. This was a spectacularly ill-judged move.
From an article on LabourList:
One of the main bits of information that they have all fallen over themselves to identify about him is his past. The fact that he used to be a flat sheet metal worker and a trade union shop steward as though this is in effect the very reason why he is not up to the job! Not one has bothered to find out why he would make the statements he has made to the House.
And my rebuttal:
I care little what his previous job was. Betty Boothroyd performed the role of speaker well, and she was a dancer in her earlier years. People mention it as background information - in the same way people on the left mention Nick Clegg's and David Cameron's previous jobs, or their education. It is rich for a Labour supporter to say 'oh, they dislike him for being a sheet-metal worker', whilst simultaneously deriding Cameron because he went to Eton.

The other claim - that he has been made a scapegoat - is harder to rebut. There is probably some truth in it; however, an MP would have to be very out-of-touch to believe that just changing the speaker would solve all of their woes. Instead, this seems to be used as a mantra by his supporters, allowing them to ignore the absolutely terrible job he has done as speaker.

So: who to replace him?

It is time for a change; not a time for hurried, reactionary legislation (which rarely, if ever, has the intended consequences), but well considered, thoughtful legislation. It needs to be got right first time, and the new speaker will have a significant role in shepherding this through. There will be many candidates, but few will have the required skills. All I ask of the house is that they choose wisely.