Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Book review: "A bit far for you dear", by Jannina Tredwell.

On January 1st 1996, Jannina Tredwell set off from the Cobb in Lyme Regis to walk around the coastline of Britain. She had the company of two dogs, the young Tressa and the older Jago, a motor home 'Beastie' and a plethora of volunteer drivers. Over the course of the year she raised £33,000 for four charities and lived a lifetime of memories. 'A bit far for you dear' documents her experiences.

First off, I should say that it is hard for me to review any book by a coastal walker.  Even the worst prose allows me to feel every blister, and any placename brings vivid memories flooding back. To be truthful, I am far too close to the experience to be fully objective. Yet this book is a particularly good example of its kind.

I could not read the first few pages of this book without remembering Spud Talbot Ponsonby's book about her 1994 coastal walk, 'Two feet, four paws'. Both were about women walking the coast with dogs (one in Spud's case), living in a motorhome that was driven by a retinue of drivers. Like Spud, she had trouble with some of her drivers: one disappeared after just a couple of days, and others seemed to find driving a large motorhome as much of a trial as she found the walk.

One problem with this book is that, unlike Spud and her dog Tess, Jannina did not walk continuously with her dogs. Jago was old and Tressa a little young; consequently sometimes she walked with both dogs, sometimes with just one or the other, and occasionally with neither. Therefore this book does not detail quite the same magical relationship between a woman and her dog as Spud's book, where Tess develops her own unique character. Jago and Tressa do not come across as being fully part of the walk, which is a shame.

Jannina's descriptions are pleasant and not overdone; long distance-walking is generally a gentle slog, and tightly-wrought prose can prove overwhelming. She describes the way that the seasons followed her around the coast, and the way young seal-pups quickly grew from little furballs to the lumbering beasts that are such a welcome part of our coastline.

Yet such a journey is not just about the challenge, or the scenery, or the events. It is about the people that are met, and the relationships that develop. Jannina draws vivid profiles of the friends and strangers who took time out of their lives to drive Beastie for her. Strangely Tom, her presumably long-suffering husband, remains a blank tableau in the book. I wanted to know how he felt about the walk, how their relationship coped with the strains of being apart for most of the year. The numerous acts of kindness by strangers are described fondly, from the ferrymen who took her across estuaries to the hundreds of people who donated money to her charities.

She ends the book by hinting that she wants to walk the coastline of Ireland; according to her website she intends to do that next year. I can only hope that she writes a book about those experiences.

This book is highly recommended. I award it four out of five stars.

Monday, 27 September 2010

MP3 players

I want an MP3 player. I already have two (well, one; my first has been snaffled by ┼×encan for her walks into work).

My current player is an Alba MP34GD11. This small unit is powered by a AAA battery, and it has an SD Card slot that can be used to expand the number of MP3s carried. Unfortunately for some reason playing from the SD Card uses the battery up rapidly; so rapidly, in fact, that I fear there must be a problem with this particular unit.

The player has suffered a little, especially from a drop onto a conveyor belt at Debenhams (yes, I do occasionally buy non-walking clothes). It is still working, but it is about time that I look for something better.

So what do I need? Well, the vast majority of the time I use it is when walking or at camp. I can easily use it for ten hours a day whilst out and about. The other time I use it is when on long journeys in my car, connected to the car radio via an aux in.cable.

Given this, what do i think are my requirements? Being somewhat anal, I shall separate them into three priorities; 1 being the most important and 3 the least.
1: Long battery life. I want to go on multi-day walks in the wilderness without running out of battery charge. This basically means that it has to be powered by AA or AAA batteries, which can be bought in many shops. A rechargeable battery is not good enough as I am often away from mains power for extended periods.
1: Lightweight. I do not want to be carrying a heavy device around with me. My walking kit is heavy enough already.
2: Main storage. I want at least 4GB of storage. I have 61GB of podcasts on my main PC, including 4GB of music and 14.4GB of audiobooks, the latter mostly from Librivox. (*)
2. Extra storage. I would like the ability to insert SD Cards containing extra MP3 files. Using these, I can carry vary what I listen to on long walks.
2. Robust. At the very least it has to be splash- and conveyor-proof.
3: Unfussy interface. My current MP3 player has an interface that is exceptionally non-intuitive. I can just about cope with it, but something that did not require several incantations to God (**) in order to find the directory I want.
3. An interface that will allow me to control the MP3 player from my in-car radio system.
3. An in-built AM/FM radio would also be a bonus, but not vital.

Of course, the best-known MP3 players are the various flavours of Apple iPod. Yet I shall not be getting one, for it does not meet the critical requirement of running from AA or AAA batteries. Neither, unfortunately, do any of the other modern players that I can find. I cannot be the only user of MP3 players who spends more than a couple of days away from mains power.

So I shall probably have to put up with the wonderful idiosyncrasies of my current player. But if anyone is listening from any of the numerous electronics box-shifters, please see the above requirements as an outline specification for a new MP3 player target at long-distance sportspeople. You could even call it the i-Plod. Or perhaps not.

(*) It is hard to calculate the duration of all these MP3 files, and I could find no public-domain tools that does the job. At 128kbps (a decent, if not stellar sound quality), then 61GB would be about 44 days of podcasts if played continuously. This is a very inaccurate finger-in-air estimate, as many of the MP3 files will be 64-, 256- or variable- bitrate.

(**) whichever deity you believe, or do not believe, in.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

David Milliband

So, after what feels like an eternity, the Labour party has a new leader. The years of strife and division under Gordon Brown can hopefully be put behind them. Whatever else you say about him, Ed Miliband is not Gordon Brown.

He inherits a bruised party, but one that is in a far better state than the Tories were after 1997. Labour's defeat in the election was nowhere near as great, and although the electorate did not want Labour, they did not want the Tories much either. After 1997 Labour had the New Labour experiment and Tony Blair, which was virtually bullet-proof for the first few years, whilst Labour have the all-too-evident fractures within the coalition to work on. New Labour inherited a glowing fiscal position; the coalition have inherited a mess. All of this means that it is perfectly feasible for there to be a Labour PM in 2015.

So whilst Miliband junior has problems facing him, it is nothing compared to those that faced William Hague in 1997. It will be interesting to see what happens next. However, I am more intrigued by his brother's situation.

David must have been devastated on Saturday. The media have been talking of him as the next Labour leader for years, even before the various failed coups against Brown. He was the most obvious 'heir to Blair', and, as Foreign Secretary, had filled one of the major offices of state. He is a serious political operator, bananas excepted.

So will he ever become PM? Personally I doubt it. He is 45, easily young enough to be PM sometime in the next twenty years. However politics is getting younger; the leaders of the main three political parties are the first, second and fourth least experienced leaders of their parties in history in terms of time as an MP. Ed Miliband has only been an MP for five years, and has only fulfilled relatively minor cabinet positions. One thing appears to be clear: the public like young politicians (or, worse, politicians believe that the media think the public want young politicians). The days of the elder-statesman PMs appear to be long gone, killed off by Brown.

It seems probable that Ed Miliband will be leader of the Labour party at the next election, probably to be held in 2015. If he wins, then it is likely he will serve several terms, meaning that Labour will next want a leader in the 2025 timescale. By that time David Miliband will be sixty. Too old, perhaps? Or would he still be keen after he sees the travails his brother, like all leaders, face. Politics has the habit of chewing people up and spitting them out the other side.

So what happens if Labour loses in 2015? Well, Ed may stay on (Kinnock stayed on after the 1987 loss). If he does go, then would the Labour Party really want the failed leader replaced with his elder brother? One of the great valid criticisms facing Labour in the Blair to Brown handover was that it was a coronation; replacing Miliband Junior with Senior would seem more like an inheritance. Additionally, if David is a part of his brother's cabinet, then the failure will also reflect on him.

Perhaps that problem would be overcome by having another leader serve in between the two brothers, but that would push back the time that David Miliband can become leader. Whatever happens, I cannot see him becoming Labour leader - yet alone PM - before 2020. And several other young and hungry Labour MPs will be snapping at his heels by then.

For these reasons I doubt that he will ever become PM, barring any serious changed in circumstances. And that has to be a personal tragedy for him.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Quality journalism

I read this story on grough (also at the Northern Echo) about a journalist who, at the height of the Cumbrian floods last year, made a hoax call about a stranded walker on Skiddaw.

Such hoax calls happen frequently, and are bad enough. However, the mountain rescue team were suspicious, and called in the police. Whilst investigating, they found a pre-written story about the incident on her laptop. Her crass stupidity led to a mountain rescue team being called out during a period when genuine need of such services was high.

Apparently the 'journalist' (if she deserves such a title) was trying to see if the volunteer services could cope with 'usual' incidents at a time in which they were at full stretch due to the floods. Which makes as much sense as, say, starting a fire during the Blitz 'to see if they could cope'.

She did not attend the trial due to illness, and that a warrant has been made for her arrest.

This has to be one of the worst cases of irresponsible journalism that I have heard of for some time. Whilst no harm came of it, it shows an utter disdain and lack of appreciation for the work of the mountain rescue teams.

I have never needed their help and, touch wood, I shall never be in need of their skills. But if I do, then I would want them available and rested, rather than out on the hills answering a hoax call.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The speed of light is too slow!

The speed of light is too slow. No, seriously. This marvellous giver of life, the sustainer of every living thing, is just too darned slow.

Okay, I know you think that I'm mad. But it is true, for computer chips at least.

Almost all (*) digital computer chips rely on something called clock signals. These are the timekeepers of the chip, keeping all the operations synchronised. Want to add two numbers? Do it now. Want to fetch something? wait... wait... now! It is vital for operations to occur in the correct sequence, and the clock signal helps control this.

These clock speeds are the 25 Megahertz (MHz) or 33 MHz numbers we used to see in the early to mid-1990s. These numbers mean that the 386 or 46 chips of the day performed 25 or 33 million operations a second.

Both light and electricity travel at a smidgen under 300 million metres a second (**); that is 300 thousand kilometres every second. In the 33 millionth of a second that the fastest chips that the bearded engineers of the early 90s could design, light would travel nine metres. This is considerably larger than the roughly 16mm longest side of the chip.

However, modern chips operate much faster. A 2 Gigahertz (GHz) chip performs 2,000,000,000 operations every second (***). In this case, light can only travel 15 centimetres between each tick of the clock. That is getting very near to the physical size of the chip. Consider what this means; if the distance light can travel in a tick of the clock is less than the size of the chip, then it is impossible for the chip to use a clock signal to control all its parts. Things become much more complex. In many cases that effective distance is much less due to the convoluted path that signals have to take through the chip.

This is one of the reasons why the increase in clock speeds is slowing down. Until recently chip manufacturers proudly displayed the clock speeds of their chips; a consumer knew that a 66MHz chip would, everything else being equal, be faster than a 33MHz chip. Unfortunately clock speeds have stalled around the 2 to 3GHz mark. One of the reasons for this are the problems caused by the speed of light within the chip.

Chip designers are constantly pushing at the limits of the possible. In many cases new technologies or materials can push those limits a little further away, buying a few more years. In the case of the speed of light, however, there can be no improvement. It is a fundamental limit that cannot be broken.

(*) Some attempts have been made to make asynchronous, or unclocked chips, such as the Amulet project at Manchester University. These are rare and can be ignored for the purposes of this discussion.

(**) This is the speed of light in a vacuum.The speed in most electrical circuits is somewhat less.

(**). This is not quite true; modern chips have some parallelisation that allow multiple operations to be performed at the same time. The controlling clock still operates at this speed, however.

Monday, 13 September 2010

A Wellington in a day.

There is a fascinating article on the BBC news website about how workers in 1943 manufactured an entire Wellington bomber in under 24 hours - from parts to a flying aircraft.

Such records are, of course, largely false. Much preparation of parts goes ahead before them, and the work is just a case of assembling the constituent parts into a whole. Much more famously, the US did a similar thing in the war when they assembled an entire Liberty ship - the Robert E. Peary - in under five days. In the latter case, the ship was not ready for sea after those days, and much other work needed to be done.

However, saying such things is slightly parsimonious. Both cases were extraordinary achievements in organisation and willpower. The women and men working on the Wellington should deservedly have been proud of their record.

It also exemplifies one other point: unlike Germany and America, Britain and Russia put all of its might into winning the war. mobilising all of their industrial and human resources into winning. In comparison, Germany did not mobilise all of its industry until late-on in the war - Hitler was concerned that Germans would be demoralised if they could not get their cars or new cookers.

In comparison, Britain and Russia put all their effort into winning the war. There was little done in Britain between 1939 and 1944 that was not focussed on the war. America mobilised its industry, but such was the scale of their industry that they did not have to mobilise it fully.

The article begs one question: I wonder what happened to that Wellington bomber? Did it survive the war, or did it fall victim like so many of its brethren?

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Extension to the West Highland Way

Many years ago I walked the northern half of the West Highland Way as part of a walk from Crieff to Fort William. I joined the path at Bridge of Orchy and headed north through some spectacular scenery. It is Scotland's most popular path and it is obvious why - both ends are easily accessible, it can be walked in a week, and the walk is not too hard - it is certainly within most people's capabilities.

After descending down from the hills, it joins the valley floor near Ben Nevis and heads towards Fort William, ending at a fairly dingy roundabout on the outskirts of the town. It is hardly a fitting end point for the people who have struggled 95 miles over the hills. Many people walk it as their first National Trail, and their achievement deserves something more.

Now, thankfully, the Way has been extended by a mile into the centre of Fort William. Although I am guessing that this means a fairly uninteresting walk through the outskirts, it is still an improvement. For one thing, the vast majority of people will be making their way into the centre to get accommodation or transport back home.

It must surely be a welcome improvement to one of our best-loved trails.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Four new walks are up on the website

Finally, and after a delay of over a month (due to holidays, other work, apathy, and a reinstall of Windows 7), four new walks are up on the website.

867A circular walk from West Bexington to Langton Herring 15.7 08/08/2010
866Ringwood to Fordingbridge and back along the Avon Valley Path 18.8 05/08/2010
865Ringwood to Christchurch and back 21.4 03/08/2010
864Lancing to Newhaven Town 24.1 28/07/2010

 The 1st and 4th are both coastal walks, and the second and third are both along the Avon Valley Path.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Margaret Moran

I am absolutely bloomin' furious.

The ex-MP for Luton North, Margaret Moran, gave up her seat at the last election. Her reasons for doing so are easy to see: she had a very embarrassing expenses claim for a second home near Southampton (when her constituency is in Luton). She then said she was standing down as an MP, and went on long-term sick leave. There were other accusations about the misuse of House of Commons' stationary. Then, during a sting for Channel 4's Dispatches program, she said she was available for lobbying work immediately, despite not being available to help her constituents. 

Yesterday I listened to the Home Affairs Select Committee interview Assistant Commissioner Yates of the Metropolitan Police about the hacking of voicemail messages. During this, I heard a familiar name mentioned: Margaret Moran. Unbelievably, despite no longer being an MP and disgraced, she was able to ask questions at the committee. Her name is not on the current list of members of the committee.

This is not good enough. She has been disgraced, and is no longer a member of parliament. Why is she on the committee? Allegedly there were also other ex-MPs there: Ann Cryer, Janet Dean and Martin Salter.

If this is the case (and it has proved hard to find who was there, but Margaret Moran was mentioned by name several times), then serious questions need to be asked. I can understand the need for a changeover period after an election, but it has been months; plenty of time to reorganise the committee. But Moran's presence particularly rankles. It makes any inquiry performed by this committee look more like a Labour whitewash.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Spikes of popularity

The BBC series 'Undiscovered Britain' featured a long segment tonight on Kearvaig, a beautiful beach on the Parph in the very northwest of Scotland. I had a look at the live logs on my website and the hitrate went up massively - over 100 people accessed the site in a couple of minutes, and all were going to the same two pages - walks http://www.britishwalks.org/walks/2003/523.php and http://www.britishwalks.org/walks/2003/524.php. To put this into perspective, I usually get about 1,000 distinct visitors a day.

The reason for this spike in visitors? I have the first hit on Google for 'Kearvaig' and the common mis-spelling 'Kervaig' (*).

This is obviously good for me, as it pushes more people to my website, and hopefully a few may stop for a while.  However, it is also slightly concerning. Kearvaig and the nearby Sandwood Bay are stunningly beautiful places, even in bad weather, and part of that beauty is down to their very inaccesibility. Programmes like this may encourage more people to go there and spoil it. But worse, it is a tough area. People die up there - literally, and a journey should not be undertaken lightly. Then again I can hardly complain too much, as the whole point of my website is to encourage people to visit places around this wonderful country.

I have noticed such spikes in popularity in the past, but this is the first time I have actually seen it happen live (indeed, I anticipated it happening and watched the logs as the spike built up and then retreated).

(*) I say uncommon, but local sources use both, and the name appears spelt in several different ways on OS maps over the years. And no, I cannot pronounce it properly.

Friday, 3 September 2010


In a previous life I spent many an hour laying railway track by hand. There is an old saying: "the lightest thing on the railway is the pay packet." Believe me when I say that this saying is true, especially as I was working as a volunteer.

Say you have a perfectly flat area of land that has already been improved with adequate drainage and a good bed of ballast. First you have to lay sleepers (timber or concrete) at the right spacings, then attach chairs, lift the rails into the chairs, key the rails into the chairs and then attach the rails together with fishplates (*). That gives you a basic track layout. It then has to be aligned perfectly according to the plans, and then ballasted and packed (the ballast forced between and underneath the sleepers) by hand.

Add in other tasks, such as cutting the rails to length, greasing the joints, and adding shims, then you have a job that is both lengthy and time-consuming. This is a worst-case example for cash-strapped oganisations who use second-hand materials; machines can do some of the work (such as packing the track), and brand-new materials can make the entire process less bothersome.

This is what makes this video so fascinating (also see here and here). It is a train that literally lays its own track, then pulls itself along the track to lay the next stretch. This takes place in a continuous, seamless operation. Of course this only lays the basic track that can be run along at minimal speed. It then needs to be ballasted, and there are other machines that both lay the ballast and pack the ballast between the sleepers.

I look at the ease with which the machine lays the track and cry. For an example of the manual way of doing things, see here (and they are cheating by using a pneumatic hammer to help with the packing). For the mechanised version of this, see a ballast tamper in action, along with a far smaller version. If you have ever tried packing ballast with a shovel, then you will know how much effort this saves. The machines may be expensive, but so is manpower.

I love automation.

(*) This is for bullhead track; there are many other combinations of rail and sleeper, for instance flat-bottomed continuously-welded rail on steel sleepers.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Alternate Vote

As is well known, the coalition government have announced that there will be a referendum on a new voting system for the House of Commons. The referendum on the Alternate Vote (AV) system will take place next May, and if passed will replace the First Past The Post (FPTP) system that is currently used. Under FPTP, the candidate who gets the most votes wins the seat, and the votes for the other candidates are ignored.

Many people see Proportional Representation (PR) as being the ideal system. Under PR, parties get a number of seats that is in direct relation to their percentage share of the vote. For example, if a party gets 25% of the vote, then they would get 25% of the available seats. Although good in theory, it has other problems, for instance in breaking the link between an MP and a constituency.

Under AV, instead of voting for one individual, the voter selects first, second, third and more preferences by writing numbers against a candidate's name. If no candidate gets over 50% of votes on the first preference, the candidate who comes last is eliminated and his second preference votes allocated to the other candidates.  The candidates are repeatedly eliminated until one candidate has over 50%. See the LSE website for a good guide on the different voting systems.

The big argument for the change to AV is that it gives small parties a more representative share of the vote, although not as much as would be the case under PR. But is this the case?

Interestingly, Australia is the largest country that uses AV (for their federal elections), and they have just held such an election. So what do the results tell us about AV? (there are minor differences between the Australian and proposed British systems, but these do not affect this analysis). The Australian results (from abc.net.au) show that there are 150 seats in total.

Labor: 72 seats, 38.2% of vote, 48% of seats
Coalition: 73 seats, 43.7% of vote, 48.6% of seats
Greens: 1 seat, 11.5% of vote, <1% of seats
Others, 4 seats, 6.6% of vote,  2.6% of seats

As cane be seen, Labour is over-represented in terms of seats (they got 48% of seats from 38% of votes), the Coalition less so, and the Greens are massively under-represented. From this, it can be seen that AV hos produced a massively disproportional result.

So what happened in the 2010 UK elections? This is not a simple calculation due to the nature of the country - parties such as the Scottish Nationalists only stand in seats in Scotland and therefore skew the results (therefore they get more seats than their percentage share of vote over the whole of the UK shows). For this reason I have used the England-only figures off Wikipedia. On this basis, England has 532 seats (excluding the speaker, whose seat is treated in a special manner).

Conservative: 297 seats, 39.5% of vote, 55.8% of seats
Labour: 191 seats, 28.1% of vote, 35.9% of seats
Liberal Democrat: 43 seats, 24.2% of vote , 8% of seats
Green: 1 seat, 1% of vote, 0.2% of seats

As can be seen, both the Australian and UK election results show the same problems; the two major parties are all over-represented, and the remaining parties are startlingly under-represented. This shows that AV goes nowhere near proportionality (where the number of seats a party receives is in direct proportion to the percentage votes cast for that party).

So why the change? The fact that AV is not proportional (and indeed can even be less so than the existing FPTP system) is well known to politicians. The obvious reason is that the Liberal Democrats want Proportional Representation (PR) as it gives them more seats and power, but know they could not get the Conservatives to agree to it. They therefore want to change the system to AV as part of an ongoing process, the end result being PR. This seems a costly and slightly mendacious way of getting such a change.

Interestingly, in the early days of the Labour party they were in favour of PR. They rapidly went off the idea when they became a majority government.

Governments like change (except, of course, for a change in Government). A change to AV may be a change, but it is not progress. What we need is a discussion about the future shape of politics within Britain, including all the things that need changing. What happens about the farcical situation in the House of Lords? How do we get more female and ethnic minority MPs? How do we resolve the West Lothian question? How can we have more proportionality in the House of Commons voting system? How do we prevent the 'jobs for the boys' syndrome? How can we get more experts and less career politicians involved in politics? How do we break the power of the political parties? How do we prevent lobbying (surely soon to be next scandal)?

A change to the voting system for the House of Commons should not be seen in isolation, but in relation to all of the above questions. If politics in Britain is broken (as many claim after the expenses scandal), then a change to AV will not fix it; the problem is much deeper. We need to look at the totality. Applying a sticking plaster to the wrong injury will not help.