Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Two more walks on the website:

I have added two coastal walks to my website:

863Wareham to Swanage 19.9 21/07/2010
862Poole to Wareham 17.6 19/07/2010

 Both were interesting walks, with moments of annoyance and exhilaration.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

BBC and Apple

I have long noted that the BBC appears to be somewhat in awe of Apple. Any Apple product release gets heavily trailed on BBC Radio, TV and Online, whereas those of its competitors do not. As an example: when the original iPhone was released in 2007, Radio 5 had a long segment in which a breathless technology correspondent lovingly and excitedly gushed over the newly-arrived phone. It was not edifying radio. A similar situation happened with the iPad release earlier this year.

The problem is simple: the iPhone is a smartphone, and Apple is just one player in that market. Smartphones are phones with capabilities that extend a great distance past simply making calls. They can run third-party applications, read email, take photographs, access the Internet and preform many complex tasks. They are the high-end of the mobile phone market, and this is important: the low-end (currently dominated by Nokia) is low-margin and is continuously being squeezed by volume handset manufacturers.

There are three other major companies in the smartphone market: Nokia, who are by far the largest handset maker in the world, RiM, who make the Blackberry, and Google, who have an open source and hardware smartphone system called Android. The figures are telling:Nokia sold 88 million smartphones globally in 2009, and 34 million Blackberry units were sold. Apple sold 24 million units in the same year. Android sold relatively few phones, a result of its recent release. To put these figures into context, Nokia sold 440 million normal (i.e. non-smart) mobile phones in the same period.

Therefore it is of interest that the BBC rarely report on developments to do with Nokia, Blackberry or Android. Worse, they seem only to repeat Apple news (or hype). Even when Apple comes under criticism - as it has done recently with the antennae issue - the BBC more or less report Apple's line without significant question. The BBC are experts in broadcast technology and have some brilliant engineers; surely they could have done their own investigation into the issue instead of parroting Apple's PR?

It is not the BBC's job to repeat Apple hype. If anything, the BBC should be strictly questioning the hype that lies behind the manufacturer. Yet that is not their way, and I wonder why this situation has arisen.

And unfortunately it gets worse. Recently the Government has stopped departments from spending hundreds of thousands of pounds developing applications for the iPhone and not those from rival manufacturers. This was an utter waste of public money when Apple's market was so small. (as an aside, the Labour party created an iPhone app before this year's election to keep in touch with their helpers; an odd choice due to the expense of the iPhone and its non-ubiquity).

The BBC have not learnt this lesson. It has been reported that the BBC have finally released an application that will allow iPhone users to access BBC News. The release was delayed over concerns that it would impact the rest of the industry (it does not say if this concerns refer to the media or technology industries). The BBC Trust have now overruled these concerns, allowing the iPhone app to be released.

I would like the BBC to answer the following questions:

  • Why did they choose to release an iPhone app first, instead of ones for Blackberry, Nokia or Android phones?
  • Have they done an impact statement to see how this would advantage Apple over other manufacturers?
  • How many BBC journalists and correspondents receive gratuities (monetary or services) from Apple and other manufacturers?
  • What advantages does an iPhone app give over web access to the same news? Most mobile phones can access the web nowadays, and the BBC already have mobile portals.
  • How much did the iPhone app cost to make?
  • Can this expense be justified?

These are important questions that need to be answered to ensure that the BBC are fulfilling their public service remit.

I have no side in this debate; my mobile phone is most certainly not a smartphone. Yet I think it is vital for the BBC to answer these questions; I fear that they will not. If this situation continues then the BBC will be swaying an entire technology sector towards one company.

I fear the true reason behind these decisions is that Apple and the iPhone are seen as being sexy, and this has swayed decisions and reporting towards them. If so, then this is a terrible waste of licence-payers money.

Friday, 16 July 2010

The ordination of women.

I have spent some time avoiding certain topics on this blog; some, because I do not have enough knowledge to speak with even the smallest amount of authority, and others because they are hot potatoes that can all too easily cause offence and hurt.

For the latter reason, I have avoided commenting on the myriad of problems that have beset the Catholic church recently. Yet I have finally had enough. What has so exercised my anger? Was it yet more evidence of cover-ups of sexual abuse within the church? No, that is, sadly, all too common. Another ruling on abortion? Again, that would hardly be surprising.

No, it is this article on the BBC news website.

Unbelievably, the Vatican has classified the ordination of women as being a 'grave crime' - the same category as sex abuse, schism and heresy. Whilst they say that this does not equate the 'crimes', putting ordination of women into the same category as sex abuse is a sickening act, and one that shows that they are totally detached from reality.

The Vatican's move is timed to put as much pressure as possible onto those Anglicans who are angry at the ordination of women and homosexuals. The pope has already offered a personal prelature to members of the Traditional Anglican Communion (a group of Anglican churches that are independent from Canterbury). They will be allowed to join the Catholic church, in a similar manner to Opus Dei. The Catholic church hopes that other churches and individual members will also leave the Anglican Communion.

I must admit to having had serious concerns about the ordaining of women bishops in the Anglican Communion. Not because I have any philosophical argument with it - indeed, I firmly believe that a church should reflect its full membership - male or female, black or white, straight or gay.

Rather, my concern lies with the risk of a schism in the Anglican Communion, and the effect that will have on churches in other countries. Deeply traditional churches that do not join the new Catholic prelature (for instance, the Church of Uganda) may choose to split from the Anglican Communion completely, and many of the reforms that those churches have undertaken may be lost. Put simply, the Anglican church will lose the ability to persuade the churches to reform, and they may even regress. That would be a social disaster in those countries.

It is almost impossible to weigh up the two issues: the undoubted benefits and moral righteousness of removing such traditional bars to ordination, and the harm that might be caused to societies in other countries if there is a schism. Is it better not to ordain women and homosexuals, and instead try to persuade the traditional churches into the 21st Century? Or should the progressive Anglican churches just plough their own furrow and hope that the traditional churches will follow?

The Anglican Communion moves slowly, but it is a positive rocket compared to the Catholic church, which is finding it increasingly hard to adjust to the modern world. Here are some examples:
  1. The refusal to allow couples to use condoms in areas with high prevalence of Aids. Indeed the Catholic church even claimed that condoms contained little holes that allowed Aids through.
  2. The Catholic church have still not banned the concept of Limbo, a theological kludge that will have caused anguish to millions of couples who have lost babies.
  3. In 1992 the Catholic church finally admitted that the Earth went around the Sun, as opposed to the biblical interpretation that the Heavens revolved around the Earth. This was 382 years after Galileo Galilei published his book advocating the heliocentric theory, and 23 years after man first walked on the moon!
I find it amazing that anyone could consider moving from the Anglican church to the backwards and repressive Catholic church. Anyone so considering should look at this announcement and ask themselves - really ask themselves - if they want to be associated with the Catholic church. A church that is against abortion even in awful cases of incest; a church that is sentencing millions in Africa to death; a church that chose to ignore paedophilia amongst its priests, and allowed those priests to abuse youngsters repeatedly.

They prefer all that over having women and homosexuals within their church?

If they do, then shame on them.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

BAe Taranis and the independent nuclear deterrent.

Yesterday the British aerospace company BAE released further information on their unmanned stealth aircraft, Taranis (see right). One of the aims of the project is to "explore and demonstrate how emerging technologies and systems can deliver battle-winning capabilities for the UK armed forces."
As such, all of the demonstrator has been built utilising only UK technology - unusual in these days of multinational, multi-billion projects. This prototype has cost £143 million to develop, but it is a long way from a production vehicle - it is purely a prototype. Yet that is remarkably cheap when compared to the billions the US has spent on their X45 experimental aircraft. (It should be noted that the aims and planned missions of the X45 and Taranis are not the same).

Many countries have developed unmanned aircraft (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) over the years, but Taranis offers a step-up in terms of capability. For one thing, current UAVs require a base-station where they are flown from, whilst  the Taranis can fly autonomously without user input. This is an exceptionally tricky thing to achieve, and poses many technical and ethical questions. This is also one of the first stealthy UAVs, although the term 'stealth' covers a multitude of sins, and is not the battle-winner that many people suppose.

This news has got me thinking. One of the biggest problems for our coalition Government has been the replacement of the Trident nuclear deterrent. The Liberal Democrat's manifesto said they were against a "like-for-like" replacement for the submarine-based system, which will cost many tens of billions over its thirty-year lifespan. The Conservatives, however, are vehement that the nuclear deterrent should remain.

The Liberal Democrat position is interesting. Obviously, they are not in favour of replacing Trident with submarines of similar capabilities, yet they are also not saying that they want to scrap the independent nuclear deterrent. But what could that non-like-for-like replacement be? Most commentators have suggested it could be as simple as having two submarines instead of the three we currently have (something the last Labour Government was already considering). I cannot help but wonder if there is a better alternative.

Trident's predecessor was Polaris, which itself replaced Britain's first nuclear deterrent, the V-Bomber fleet of Victor, Valiant and the infamous Vulcan. The reasons for this change were complex, but could perhaps be summed up as follows:
  1. Polaris was cheaper
  2. Polaris was safer (no planes flying overhead with nuclear warheads), and less risk of lost weapons (so-called broken arrows)
  3. Polaris was more strategically secure; the enemy knew where the V-Bomber bases were, whilst ballistic submarines can remain hidden until needed
  4. The V-Bombers had been made largely redundant by anti-aircraft systems.
The situation has changed since the Trident system was envisaged. The delivery system (the ballistic missiles and the submarines) are now far more expensive than the actual warheads.Additionally, the risks of an all-out nuclear war has receded significantly, slightly negating the third point. Stealth technology goes some way to negating the fourth point (especially when combined with cruise missiles).

The current Vanguard submarines will need replacing within the next decade, and work will need to start on that replacement soon. The Trident missiles are hired from Lockheed Martin, and the warheads themselves are now essentially American. The independent nuclear deterrent is far from independent. The British Government retired the WE.177 free-fall nuclear weapon in 1998, meaning that the nuclear deterrent could only be delivered by Trident. All our eggs are firmly in the ballistic-submarine basket.

Could Taranis' successor be used to replace Trident? This would meet both the Conservatives' and Liberal Democrats' aims: to maintain the nuclear deterrent, but not replace the submarines. I wonder if this is where this is all heading. We have time: Trident does not need to be replaced until the 2020's, giving us some breathing space to develop a successor system.

Of course, there is no obvious use for the nuclear deterrent at the moment (except for its use as a deterrent). The chances of all-out nuclear war are currently remote. Yet it is not something that you can develop easily once it is lost, and the lifespan of the systems can be over thirty years. Put simply: we have to develop a system that meets not only today's strategic requirements, but those that we will have in thirty years time. Can we guarantee that the world will be such a friendly place in 2040 or 2050?

Taranis is only a prototype, and much information is not known: maximum load, range without refuelling, speed at low and high altitude, maximum altitude, and aspects of the low-observability amongst many more. These questions will remain secret for many years; as the prototype plane has not flown then many will not be currently known.

So, what shape would the system take? I envisage a series of Taranis planes heading towards enemy territory, their stealth technology helping them evade the enemy's air defenses. Stand-off weapons such as cruise missiles could be used to penetrate further into enemy territory. Use of multiple planes and decoys could help overwhelm defences. Effective range for an attack can be doubled, as there would be no need to get the airframe back after an attack (unlike manned aircraft, although strategic air bombing of Russia was often seen as being a suicide mission - the crews knew that they were unlikely to return).

Such planes would also be multi-use; they could be nuclear-capable but also be used for attacks with conventional munitions as well. Indeed, this would probably (and hopefully) be what they are only ever used for. This would make them far more cost-effective and useful than ballistic missile submarines, which generally have only one use. The capabilities of the planes would make them useful to both the air force and the army, giving those forces buy-in to the scheme. The Navy would, of course, complain.

This is, of course, a simplistic pipe dream. Yet I wonder if the coalition's thinking lies in this direction. It would require a massive change in strategic thinking, but perhaps that is what is needed at this time. Ballistic missile submarines are fascinating, complex beasts, but I cannot help but think that they are not the best fit for a future nuclear deterrent that is more likely to be used against single rogue states than in an all-out nuclear exchange.

Monday, 12 July 2010

More walks on the website.

I have put more walks onto the website - up to #861. I suffered a slight injury in early June, and this has meant that I could not do any of my planned backpacking trips.

861Bognor Regis to Lancing 18.2 07/07/2010
860Southampton to Hythe 14.6 30/06/2010
859Bath to Avonmouth via Bristol and the River Avon Trail 26.3 26/05/2010
858A circular walk around the Isle of Portland 13.8 22/05/2010
857Westbury to Bath 22.8 20/05/2010

There have also been many other changes:
1) All walks have Google maps showing the route, plus ascent / descent details and profiles.
2) All walks have been tidied and moved to a common template.
3) The latest walks all pass W3C tests. For an example, see the W3C validator. Further walks shall be corrected to pass in a similar manner.
4) More maps on named walks (e.g. the Grand Union Canal walk).

Friday, 2 July 2010

Book review: "Map addict", by Mike Parker

This book was one of two we picked up when visiting the British Library's excellent exhibition on maps, 'Magnificent Maps'. I was unaware that it was on, and only went because we were visiting a couple of friends in the capital. After an unexpected view of the Queen's Birthday flypast and lunch in Chinatown, we made our way to St Pancras.

The exhibition itself was fascinating, with maps varying from an exquisite copy of the Mappi Mundi to Grayson Perry's funny take on that ancient map. Most of the maps on display were hand-drawn objects of art. As with the best art, the deepest beauty lay in the detail, some of which was distinctly non-cartographic: a solitary soldier awaiting battle, or a self-study of a group of surveyors. It was a fascinating way to spend an hour, especially for a self-confessed map addict.

Mike Parker's book "Map addict" is very much about the author's private relationship with maps, interwoven with the history of the Ordnance Survey and mapping in general. As such you expect the book to be very much tailored around his own personal experience. On occasion this grates. For instance, when talking about the way that the OS was run by military officers and the 'Establishment' (note the capital 'E') he says:
The organisation has, after all, been pretty thoroughly decontaminated...
'Decontaminated' is a very loaded word to use, especially when those very people created the works of art that so captivated him as a child. Broadened, certainly; opened up, yes; but saying it was 'decontaminated' seems fairly squalid, as if anything that has been touched by the military needs a thorough cleansing before it is suitable to be seen by the public.

Other parts similarly rankle - he describes with disdain a preserved railway on a certain map. He wants them to have a different symbol, and talks in almost nasty terms of the people who travel on them.
There should be a special symbol for these toy trains that doesn't confuse them with the real thing: my suggestion would be a pictogram of a grinning old man dragging a reluctant grandson along. Such an image could be misconstrued, I realise, but perhaps not entirely without justification. 
Firstly, this is plain nasty rather than funny. Secondly, there is just such a symbol; a blue steam train. This section seems odd when he also talks about the way that maps have to cater for the diverse interests that are found in society and, increasingly, the leisure sector. Just because you are not interested does not mean that others are not. I have little use for knowing where to fish or sail, yet I do not begrudge the symbols on the map. He continues later in the book:
And if you consider that the only other probable outcomes to such a start would have been to end up as a Neighbourhood watch coordinator or a volunteer on a steam railway, I may well have got away relatively unscathed. 
 He certainly has a thing about preserved railways and their volunteers. He also has a thing about Harold Shipman lookalikes and stereotypes about women not being able to read maps (although he later readily accepts that women are better at visualising a city - apparently, invented stereotypes are fine one way but not the other).

Mike Parker is on firmer ground in other areas. His description of how maps are closely allied with identity, both national and local, is excellent. A different projection of a map can cause howls of anguish; for instance the BBC got in trouble when their new weather map made the southeast of England seem bigger than Scotland. He details these travails well, including a well-written discussion of the battle between the Mercator and Peters projections of the world map. Strangely enough, these things matter, and he discusses the somewhat complex issues in a light manner.

The last chapter, 'Going off-map' starts as a description of how disorienting it can be for a map addict to try and do without a map. It then languishes in a discussion of travel guidebooks and the author's trip around Eastern Europe, the only point of which seems to be to promote his wish for Britain to be split up into its constituent countries. Frankly, it had nothing to do with maps - maps and guidebooks are very different beasts.

Then there are the things that are missing from this book: there is no description, however wittily put, of how these maps were created; Jesse Ramsden is mentioned briefly, and so is the creation of the baseline along Hounslow Heath. However, there is little about the many different surveys that have been made of Britain, or of how succeeding generations have worked to get ever more accurate maps until we have reached the current ultimate with differential GPS. There is no real mention of the men who for decades climbed remote, windswept mountain peaks, waiting for skies to clear so they could take measurements. The work of generations of surveyors demands a mention. Neither is there a mention of levelling, almost as important a factor in surveying as the actual two-dimensional location. There is no mention of Newlyn (the Cornish town is the home of the official tidal benchmark, from where all heights in Britain are taken 'above sea level').

He also details his dislike of satnavs. His case is overstated: he mentions a friend whose satnav directed him the wrong way down a motorway sliproad. Yet that is not the fault of the satnav: they are only advisory devices, and the driver should use his own common sense in combination with the device's instructions. Blaming the device is only an excuse for bad driving and lack of attention.

In the end this is a disappointing book- what is described as mixing 'wry observation with hard fact' really mixes nastiness with the author's personal prejudices. It goes distinctly off-topic in several areas, something I can only assume was done as a space-filler. Several of his attempts at humour were highly misplaced. This book was a pleasant read, but it could have been a great read. It is a missed opportunity to write an accessible book on mapping and map-lovers.

I award this book two out of five stars. It is so nearly a really good book, but it gets lost on its way to the target.