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.