Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Greek financial crisis

This article in Vanity Fair frightened me. It details the background to the Greek financial crisis, and I read it with growing disbelief. The Greek attitude to money - amounting to outright fraud - is staggering.

I cannot say if all the facts within the article are true - I would not be surprised if there were exaggerations or misconceptions within. But the sheer scale of the Greek financial mess is well known. What is less well known is that the crash started when irregularities were found in the dealings of the Vatopaidi Monastery.

Much of the blame should be laid at the door of the EU. As a member of the Euro, Greece has its financial situation checked by the EU. Those accounts have now been seen to be false, a fact that the Greek government must have known about.

Perhaps instead of looking just at the books, other mechanisms should also be used. For instance, almost all doctors in Greece are officially paid 12,000 euros - under the taxable amount. This is a clear indication of fraud, yet the EU either did not detect it, or openly ignored it.

I reccommend that anyone who casually throws out reasons for the financial crisis - "it was all Brown's fault" or "it all started in America" should read the article and be very, very frightened. For the true reasons for the crisis are much more complex. And I fear that the lessons are not being learnt. In a global economy, a crisis in one country can cause chaos elsewhere, even in the innocent.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A coastal footpath for England - part 2

My previous post about a coastal footpath that had been in my 'draft' folder for a few months. I decided to finally publish it when the proposals for the first section of new English coastal path - from the Isle of Portland to Lulworth Cove- were published on the NaturalEnglland website.

Since I was negative about the legislation, I thought I would take a detailed look at the proposals. The first thing to note is that they have sensibly split this stretch of coast under consideration into different sections.

My first comment is about the odd start-point of the area - Rufus Castle, which is halfway down the eastern coast of the Isle of Portland. Many of the documents state that follow-on work such as realigning the South West Coast Path national trail would only occur when the rest of the island was completed, but surely it would have made sense to do the whole of the island, instead of just the part immediately nearest the Olympic sailing locations? This decision seems exceptionally odd, and makes this look all like an attempt at creating an Olympic legacy.

Perhaps the best improvements will be made on the northerneastern side of the Isle of Portland. New footpaths will allow access to the low ground on the northern side of the island, an ex-military area. It is undoubtedly a good addition, and includes the Merchants Incline (an old railway line). This change enables a circumnavigation of the island without having to retrace your steps down to Chesil Cove and Chiswell. There are some downsides; some fine views over Chesil Beach shall be lost from the high points at Verne Yeates.

Other changes are generally positive: converting the old railway trackbed that runs alongside the A354 and Chesil Beach will provide a slightly quieter route than the existing route along the road. However, the trackbed is currently walkable for much of the route, and could lose a great deal of its character if surfaced over - after all, there is a road and pavement just a few yards away. Fortunately it looks as though this will not happen (see in the documents.

However, it does seem that most of the route further east just comprise detail changes to the existing South West Coast Path. Indeed, some of their changes actually mark my GPS logs recorded from walking on the ground, showing that these alterations are already in common usage. The formalisation of the footpath may be necessary, but is expensive new legislation required for it?

Another point I like is that in places they are not going to show a defined path on the ground in some places (e.g. WBY-SO71 above Furzy Cliff), but just waymarkers pointing you in the direction. I was fearful that they were going to turn this stretch into something akin to a motorway, but that does not appear to be the case.

So, all in all it is not as bad as I feared. However, neither do the proposed changes really set my world alight. The changes off the Isle of Portland are basically very minor, and nothing that could not be achieved by other means. The only great advantage of the legislation seems to be the 'spreading room', and this is an area of coast where it could really be useful due to the high rate of erosion. Again, though, is it worth the cost? It should be noted that the Scottish and Welsh governments have not gone for this gold-plated approach.

The latest edition of 'Trail' magazine has an article stating that much of the open access land is not being walked as much as expected. If so, then this is a real shame, especially given the cost. Many beautiful areas of the country have been made accessible by the open access legislation, and that is a good thing. Unfortunately this initial stretch of coastline does not give the public access to any new scenic areas.

It is well worth having a look at the documents on the NaturalEngland website. The real test of the usefulness of this legislation will be in the next stretches of the coast to be looked at:
  • Whitehaven to Allonby in Cumbria;
  • Durham, including Sunderland and Hartlepool;
  • Sheringham to Happisborough Common in Norfolk;
  • Dover to Ramsgate in Kent;
  • Minehead to Stert Point in Somerset
I shall wait and see, with hope.

Friday, 29 October 2010


In the past I have written about the (in my opinion) puerile habit Labour has of calling the Liberal Democrats the 'Liberal party'. Not calling opponents by their proper name, and indeed calling them by a politically dead name, is puerile.

And they obviously knew it, because during the coalition negotiations after the election, Labour and Gordon Brown were notable for properly calling them the 'Liberal Democrats'. Since the formation of the coalition with the Conservatives, however, they are now back to referring to them as the 'Liberal party'. It is childish. Someone criticised me for this point, saying it was unimportant (something I obviously do not agree with).

For clarity, there is no problem with the Liberal Democrats being called 'Liberals'; it is an accepted shortening. Calling them the Liberal Party, however, refers back to another and much older organisation. In doing so, it ignores the Labour split that formed the SDP and then, later, the Liberal Democrats.

It has got worse, however. Many people are calling the coalition the 'ConDems', a term that has obvious negative connotations. It is playground politics; labelling the opposition negatively in a hope that it will catch on. It is not about politics; it is about playground name-calling.

I can understand the political laity doing it - such labelling is common in the playground, especially by bullies. However, it is worrying when MPs such as Chris Williamson engage in it. They may not like the Coalition or the Conservatives; there are many good reasons not to. However, both the parties (and the coalition) represent a large proportion of the population, and are hardly extremist. They deserve just as much respect as the Labour party. MPs should realise that when they disrespect another MP, they are also disrespecting that MP's constituents.

The media are not helping; they are allowing commentators, MPs and callers to refer to the coalition as the 'ConDems'. It should not be allowed. Any professional commentator referring to them as such should be cut off air.

Labour's hypocrisy on this is startling, even for them. There were angry howls when Jeremy Clarkson - not even a politician - called Gordon Brown a 'one-eyed Scottish idiot'. Yet Labour politicians and commentators feel perfectly free to call George Osborne 'Boy George', a nickname that infers not only inexperience but also perpetuates other rumours about him.

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me". Whilst that may be the case, names can shape debate, and that will happen if 'ConDems' is allowed to gain currency. Name-calling cheapens politics, and should not be engaged in by politicians.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The state of science coverage

I am not a scientist. Indeed, I am nowhere near a scientist. I am as likely to pen a scientific paper as my mother is to write a computer program to generate a website. (*)

However, I have a fair idea of what science is, and have always enjoyed reading about the latest advances. Indeed, when I was nine or ten I was designing simple PWR nuclear reactors. Yes, I was that sad.

Unfortunately, there is a great problem with science, and that is the scientific media. I used to read Scientific American avidly (especially for the bimonthly 'mathematical recreations' section), but that has gone really downhill. New Scientist always seemed like a joke to me, and it has just got worse.

The specialist literature is far better, but also much harder to get into.

Scientific American and New Scientist are faced with a problem: they are the public face of science. If you want to know what is going on, then they will tell you. Or that used to be the case. Nowadays (**), sadly, they are going for the populist vote, and covering stories from a headline-making angle. They depend on circulation, and they therefore want people to read them. To reach as broad a base of readers as possible, they dumb down and create sensationalist headlines. Sometimes they even forget basic science.

Perversely, the best general scientific coverage tends to be in, of all things, the Economist, especially in their technology quarterlys. It is good science written in clear, concise terms that is accessible to the layman.

The problem has also worked its way into broadcast media. Tomorrow's World was once a great program, making a good attempt at explaining science (and sometimes failing) was converted into a load of populist tosh before it was finally put out of its misery. Its eventual replacement, 'Bang goes the Theory', is risible and almost unwatchable if you know anything about the topics it is covering. It has been dumbed down to the point of insensibility.

Then there was the excellent QED, which they renamed 'Living Proof' (allegedly as no-one understood what QED meant). The quality of the programs fell at the same time. Channel 4's Equinox series seems to have died a death.

However, there is hope. Earlier this week there was a program on BBC Four called 'Atom', where Professsor Jim Al-Khalili talked about the history of the atom . It was great, thrilling watching. Even better, it was followed by the lovely Victoria Coren and 'Only Connect'; the only truly intelligent quiz show on the TV. So good scientific programming can still be done, but it has to be broadcast in quiet backwaters.

(*) I should stress that my mother is hardly unintelligent. It is just that her skills lie elsewhere; like managing three unruly children.

(**) I really hope that I do not sound like an old codger.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A resurgent China

It is easy to forget that, before 1700, China and India combined accounted for about half the world's GDP; now they account for just 17%. Factors that changed this were the growth of the populations of the countries, massive industrialisation of Europe and the rise of America. People who decry 'the rise of China' conveniently forget that China has historically been a world powerhouse.

It is rapidly getting back into shape. In 2008 the town of Beichuan suffered a devastating landslide after an earthquake. Since then, a new town called 'Yongchang Town' has been created 25 kilometres away.

Just think about this for a minute: the scale of the work is amazing, and the quality... well, from the pictures the construction quality and architecture seems more than reasonable; there is no sign of the brutalist Communist tower blocks that blighted so many cities. The Chinese have learnt a great deal about construction over the last twenty years; the Olympics was not a one-off.  The old town (once home to 20,000 residents), the site of so many deaths, is going to be made into a museum. Imagine moving a town larger than Romsey; it would not be done quickly, to say the least.

There is no way construction on this scale, this rapidly, could happen in the west. Firstly, most western countries have strict planning controls that delay any construction projects, yet alone ones of this size. Secondly, we do not have strong central control that pushes things through 'for the greater good'. Thirdly, politicians have to listen to many disparate voices. From our perspective, this is a good thing. The Chinese must look at it and shake their heads in bemusement.

That is one thing about authoritarian and/or communist states - when they get their act together, they can really achieve things on a massive scale. I am seriously impressed. Of course, there are downsides, one of which is *choice* and *freedom* for the population.

We in the west have made our choice, and I am glad that I do not live in China. Despite this, I cannot help but be impressed by what China can do when it really feels a need. Yet I am also well aware that many people in the 1930s were proclaiming Germany's massive growth in similar terms - for instance with the construction of the autobahns. It is a frightening (and hopefully inaccurate) comparison.

This throws up many questions: can China continue its rapid growth? Can the Chinese government continue riding roughshod over its citizen's rights (for instance, see this story about resettlements at the Olympic site)? How long before the Chinese citizens demand more rights? Can we compete with a government that is so willing and able to force through the right thing? Should we be worried about a resurgent China, or accept it as a world superpower with open arms?

Whatever the answers to these questions, Yongchang Town is worthy of admiration.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

HMS Astute

So the Royal Navy has had a little embarrassment with their latest submarine. However, I have found the media's rather dramatic reaction to be rather overstating the case. These things happen.

After all, running aground at low speed on shingle in a friendly 'home' area is about as minor an incident as it is posisble to have. For instance, have a look at for pictures of what happened when the USS San Francisco collided with a seamount at flank (i.e. full) speed in 2005. Unfortunately one sailor died, and the submarine was close to sinking. Nearly half the crew suffered injuries of one sort or another, 23 seriously enough to be evacuated from the ship. Below is a picture of the damage.

Interestingly, they replaced the entire forward section of the San Francisco with that cut off USS Honolulu, a sister ship that was scheduled to be retired. The San Francisco has recently been refuelled, and the Honolulu had not. Despite the damage, it was cheaper to fix the San Francisco than to refuel the Honolulu!

Submarines work in a hostile environment, and accidents will happen. The key is to reducing the number and their impact.

Monday, 25 October 2010

BBC Weather, part 2

Without meaning to sound like a weather bore, the bug with the BBC online weather system that I noticed last week occured again this morning. Last night the forecast for today was bright sunshine; a few minutes ago it showed heavy rain:

 Drilling down, the summary forecast for today was heavy rain:

Yet the detail shows bright sunshine, as expected from last night's forecast.

I sent in a complaint about this last week to the BBC, and have yet to receive a response. I can fully understand why weather forecasts may be inaccurate - predicting the future is an enormously complex task in a system as complex as weather. However, there is no reason for it to be internally inconsistent in this manner.

How many people are getting confused and altering plans because they are reading the summary and seeing rain is forecast, when in reality sunshine is expected?

I set my location to Glasgow, and the same problem occurs - the summary forecasts heavy rain, whilst the details forcasts sunshine.

York was more interesting. Tomorrow's weather for York shows 'sunny intervals with light rain forecast for 10.00', yet the detail shows cloud and light rain all day, with no sun. This shows that the problem is far more complex than just displaying heavy rain for forecast sunny days.

Something in the summary->detail translation is seriously mucked up. It makes me wonder what sort of system they use to generate the summary weather from the detail. The problem seems to happen in the early hours of the morning (I have ye to see it in the evening), so it could be a problem with the way they update the forecast.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Measuring walks.

I am fascinated by the metrics of my walks. When I started walking in 1999 I had a GPS, but back then I only turned it on occasionally in order to record my position in a notebook. At that time, I would measure walks using a map measurer on paper maps. I spent many a happy evening measuring the route of my coastal walk by this method.

However, map measurers would frequently underestimate the distance, mainly due to the wheel skidding on the surface of the paper and the difficulty of accurately following a route. I also started using a pedometer, but I found that this overestimated distances on hilly routes or rough terrain as my stride length reduced.

Nowadays, I use mapping programs such as Anquet or Memory-Map to measure walks before I do them. I also leave my GPS on for the entire walk in order to get a detailed log of where I walked.

Of course, none of these systems will be 100% accurate. In the past I have carried two GPSs with me on some walks, and the resultant measured distances, even when spurious track points have been removed, have been over 1% different.

However, I thought that I would have a little fun by comparing the following methods of measuring a walk:
1) The pedometer.
2) The GPS
3) A map-measuring wheel.
4) Measuring on a computer map

My first task was to calibrate the pedometer. To do this, I did a flat, level road walk for a fifth of a mile, the distance measured using a GPS. I averaged 3.1 MPH with no pack.

This was using a Silva Pedometer Plus. The 0.2 miles was completed in exactly 400 steps.
0.2 miles is 1056 feet, therefore my stride length is (1056/400) = 2.64 feet. My stride length when I last used a pedometer in 2000 was about 2.6 feet, showing that my stride length has not changed over the years.

For the main test, I thought that I would use a route local to me along relatively flat roads. I decided to measure using the following methods. All measurements were performed on a 1:50,000 map:

1) Measure the distance with a map measurer;
2) Measure the distance using a mapping program;
3) Walk and measure using a pedometer;
4) Walk and measure using a GPS (same time as (3) above).

After the walk, my pedometer showed 11723 steps, or 5.86 miles.
The GPS showed 5.92 miles
The distance measured on a 1:50,000 computer map was 5.87 miles
The distance measured on a 1:50,000 paper map using a measuring wheel was 5.9 miles

I am actually surprised by how the values from the GPS, pedometer, map measurer and computer map are all within a hair's breadth of each other. This was not what I expected from the test.

So for short walks with no real hills, there is little to be chosen between these systems.

Because the route was so short and relatively flat, I managed to keep a good pace and maintain a constant stride. My guess is that these would not be the case if I was carrying a full pack or on a longer walk over mixed terrain. These factors shall form the basis of my next series of tests.

Saturday, 23 October 2010


I like creating words; arranging random syllables and letters to construct new words with weird meanings. As of this week, I have a new one: womiting. 

I did a 24-mile walk last Monday over slight hills whilst carrying full camping gear. I had not been well the night before, and was not 100% when I set off. The walk was a strain on the system, especially as I had not done a proper walk for five weeks. Near the end, when I was running out of energy, I was sick behind a startlingly convenient bush. After swilling my mouth out with water I continued on, feeling significantly better.

This is a phenomenon that I have experienced before, always whilst carrying a pack on a strenuous walk. It does not seem to be related to how much or little I have drunk or eaten, or my general well-being. It usually happens near the end of the day. The nausea comes on quickly, and after vomiting, I feel fine.

I have therefore defined this as 'Womiting', or walking whilst vomiting.

When I was on the coastal walk, it probably occurred about once a month. Usually I feel fine afterwards. Monday was a different matter. I finished at the Sliver Plough in Pitton and had a pint whilst I waited for Sencan to pick me up. We went home and I had a bath; I was aching, but aside from that had no unusual problems. However, on Tuesday morning I woke up and was violently sick several times. Whatever the problem was, it knocked me sideways for a couple of days.

I wonder if other walkers suffer from similar symptoms. 

Friday, 22 October 2010

Internet encryption and the Clipper chip

A recent announcement about the invention of public-key encryption has made me think about encryption and the Internet. I have been watching development in encryption for over twenty years, and it is interesting to see how it has - and has not - developed.

Almost all residential encryption on the web uses Secure Sockets Layer (SSL); a secure webpage is often denoted by a padlock in the URL bar of the browser. Common strengths of SSL encryption are 40-bit, 128-bit and 256-bit. The numbers represent the strength of the 'key', or the security pass. If you know the key, then you can decipher the information being sent over the Internet. If you do not know the key then it is extremely difficult to decipher the message.

Of course, the recipient of the message also needs to decode it, and therefore needs the key. If a key needs to be transmitted, then it might be intercepted. For this reason, SSL uses a complex system called public-key cryptography. The theory behind this is not necessary for this post, but basically it allows the recipient to decode the message without having the full key; the public key is all that is needed.

The ability for people to send messages with only the intended recipient reading them is the basis of Internet commerce. It allows me to order a few books on Amazon, or to check the balance on my bank accounts without third parties seeing what I am doing. Such encryption is an essential part of modern life.

That same ability has frightened security services for the last couple of decades. In the days of postal letters, laws were passed allowing the authorities to open and read the contents. Phones could be tapped, subject to t a legal process. Both of these had obvious privacy issues, and the law had to tread a difficult line between privacy and national security. They did not always get it right.

Unfortunately, public-key cryptography meant that, although the messages could still be intercepted, they could not be read. 40-bit messages were just about feasible to be cracked using massive computing power; 128-bit was essentially impossible, and is still very difficult. This left the authorities with an obvious problem: what would happen if organised crime, terrorists or any other ner-do-wells started using unbreakable encryption?

Initially they tried to ban the technology for export. A decade ago I attended a few export control meetings in London. Export of SSL technology was limited to 40-bit, which was weak, and the company I was working for wanted to export 128-bit to secure Internet banking. As our customer was in Scandinavia, we needed an export licence.

This would all have been very amusing if it had not been so time-consuming and pointless. The code for 40-bit SSL was freely-available open-source, which must have spread all over the world before anyone had even thought of slapping controls on it. Adding support for 128-bit was quite simple for anyone with good mathematical and coding skills.

For this reason, the US Government came up with the idea of Clipper. This was a chip and associated architecture that would allow encrypted phone calls, but would also give the US Government a back door to listen to conversations if required. An associated chip, Capstone, would be used tom encrypt data on computers.

Think about the problems involved with this: it involved the public trusting the US Government to use the system properly (i.e. only listening to messages when there was a real need); the protocols and encryption standard was secret and could not be evaluated; and there was little idea what the rest of the world would do. Indeed, the mere threat of Clipper led to the creation of more open-source publicly-available software systems to enable encryption.

Clipper seemed like an advanced concept in the early nineties. Yet its critics rightly sought its abandonment. So would the world be safer if Clipper had been introduced? I doubt it. Public-key cryptography had been invented long before Clipper, and criminals would surely have used it instead of Clipper-enabled systems. How could the US government have forced, say, the Iranians or other governments to use Clipper?

For these reasons, the Clipper proposal was really a non-starter. The project was abandoned in 1996 after three years and a great deal of money had been spent.

Instead, some countries have introduced laws that say it is illegal to fail to produce an encryption key when demanded. In the UK this is enshrined as part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, otherwise known as RIPA. RIPA has led to arrests. Although imperfect, this seems like a far better system than any Clipper-type system. It means that the authorities have to go though a legally-defined process to read encrypted messages (*).

The mathematics behind public-key encryption is fascinating, but so are the legal and moral dilemmas that it produces. If you want to read more about cryptography and encryption, then you can do worse than read Simon Singh's The Code Book. If you want a web resource, then Greg Goebel's website has an excellent primer to codes and ciphers, and also a guide to codes, ciphers and codebreaking that has a chapter on public-key cryptography.

(*) It may be possible, perhaps even probable, that GCHQ and others have computer systems capable of breaking all encryption using brute-force or other techniques. If so, then it is little known, and it is doubtful whether data from such systems could be used in a court of law.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

In memory of Benoit Mandelbrot

The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has died, aged 85.

Although hardly a household name, he is known amongst mathematicians and computer scientists as the father of the fractal. Fractals are mathematical constructs that states that something can be split into small parts that are similar to the larger object.

Fractals would probably have remained a mathematical curiosity except for the fact that fractal geometry can explain many of the things we observe in nature - a classic example is a fern frond, where the entire frond consists of small parts that resemble the whole. Ice crystals and clouds exhibit fractal characteristics, as can some financial systems.

This means that a fairly complex system such as the shape of a leaf can be controlled by very simple rules; understand the rules and you can recreate the shape.

Fractals can be used to generate images of startling beauty, for instance the Mandelbrot or Julia sets. These can be zoomed into, each level of zoom producing images of startling beauty. They are the best of maths: relatively simple in theory, with vast implications for the real world, that can also produce startling beauty.

There is one other reason why Mandelbrot appeals to me: one of his first papers on fractals was called "How long is the coast of Britain?", published in 1967. In this, he details how finding a 'correct' length for the coastline of Britain is next to impossible, as it depends on the scale you measure it at. The closer you look, the more detailed and longer the coastline becomes.

I first wrote Mandelbrot and Julia set creation programs a couple of decades ago, when the computer power required meant that the zooming was exceptionally slow. I loved both the maths and the resultant images. So, courtesy of Wikipedia, here is a Mandelbrot set:

And why not discover the beauty for yourself: have a play at Yale's website.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

BBC weather

I keep a close eye on the weather forecast when I go walking. The handiest of these is on the BBC website, although I have found that their web-based system is, frankly, odd. It seems to change randomly, and also bears little relevance to the broadcast weather updates (or, indeed, the actual weather when it happens).

I have considered writing a utility to automatically grab the BBC weather forecast every six hours, logging the changes and comparing with the Met Office's record of what really happened with the weather. This has remained low down on my to-do list.

Today, however, I got firm evidence with none of the hassle.

Last night, before I went to bed, the summary forecast (with home area set to Romsey) showed sunshine for the next three days. This morning, the summary showed heavy rain, as seen below. All images were made within a period of five minutes shortly after 08.00 this morning.

The forecast for heavy rain was strange, as a glance outside the window showed a cloudless sky and the first ground frost of the year. Of course, it may rain later, so I drilled down further to look at today's weather in detail:

Note, bright sunshine and no sign of the heavy rain. The location is still set as Romsey. And Thursday's details:

Finally, on Thursday evening, we get a light rain shower (not the 'heavy rain' forecast). So the summary predicts heavy rain for the next two days, but the details show bright sunshine. Obviously these both cannot be correct. The questions is, how can we rely on the weather forecast when it is not even internally consistent?

Monday, 18 October 2010

Typhoon costs

Thanks to the excellent ThinkDefence, here is a parliamentary answer to the costs of running our fixed-wing military fleet. It shows the four main aircraft types, along with how much it costs to run them per hour. It can be found near the bottom of this parliamentary answer.

The table is reproduced below:
Aircraft Cost, financial year 2010-11 (£/hour)
Tornado GR4 35,000
Typhoon FGR4 (previously known as F2) 70,000
Harrier GR7/GR9 37,000
Tornado F3 43,000

These figures include forward and depth servicing, fuel costs, crew costs, training costs, cost of capital charge, depreciation and amortisation. The Typhoon cost per flying hour reflects the build up of the fleet with smaller numbers of aircraft currently in service; this cost is expected to reduce significantly over the in-service life of the aircraft.

I have been looking for figures like these for some time. As expected, the figures are very large. The Typhoon's cost is well over double that of the Tornado GR4, but then the Typhoon is still early in its life - running costs tend to reduce as service length increases, only increasing again when the machine nears it end-of-life. However, I doubt the hourly cost will be halved. The Typhoon is an eye-wateringly capable aircraft, but it comes at an eye-wateringly high price to run.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

A coastal footpath for England

The previous Labour Government pushed a bill through Parliament enabling the creation of a coastal path in England. When implemented, this will allow access to large parts of the coastline that are currently inaccessible. The scheme is estimated to cost £50 million, with the first stretch opening in 2012. Unfortunately it looks as though this scheme will be amongst the current Government's cuts. Yet I am not too bothered.

Why? Firstly, the £50 million would not be spent all at one time; perhaps the project can be put on the back-burner for a couple of years, with minimal spending. Negotiations with landowners could be going on in the meantime.

Secondly, the Labour Government hardly acted speedily in implementing the act. In comparison, the Welsh and Scottish governments have made rapid progress with their less ambitious scheme.

Thirdly, I believe that the focus of the act is all wrong. There are many sections of coast that deserve better access - one of my favourites would be from Watchet to East Quantoxhead in Somerset, which would connect the South West Coast Path with the paths leading east to Highbridge. Another would be the spectacular stretch of coast south from Berwick towards Bamburgh. There is no coastal access in these areas.

Instead, the first section is planned to be the 'Olympic Way' in Weymouth, which is scheduled to open in time for the Olympics in 2012 (see the Natural England website). The stretch will run from Portland to Lulworth, which already has a very good coastal path. So instead of picking a useful section that would allow brand new access to the coast, they decide to upgrade an existing path. It was truly a terrible decision.

Fourthly, I am concerned about the costings. Remember Right-to-roam? It was scheduled to cost only £28 million, but the eventual costs came out at £69 million. The National Audit Office (NAO) criticised the organisations responsible. It looks as though there will not be a pilot coastal scheme, which was one of the NAO's main complaints about Right to Roam. Whilst there is an obvious conflict between pilot schemes and speedy work, I do not trust the current £50 million costing.

Compare this with the Welsh Government's speedy (and relatively cheap) work on their path.

The English bill allows a movable corridor to be created around the coast meaning that as erosion occurs, the path automatically moves. This is in contrast to Wales and Scotland who have gone for a much more ordinary scheme. In this, erosion will be dealt with when and if it occurs. It strikes me that negotiating a simple path with landowners is far simpler than trying to negotiate a movable margin.

As someone who has walked the coast, I am guardedly in favour of the new legislation. Right-to-roam has been a success from walkers' points of view. However, I am concerned about both the cost and implementation of the coastal scheme.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

The impossibility of cuts

The coalition are taking some tough decisions on reducing the budget deficit; this is seen by most of the population and even the media as a necessary evil.

Yet I fear that they will fail to win the argument.

It is far easier to increase spending than it is to reduce it. The previous Labour administration tried to have it both ways: they increased spending without increasing taxes to the same extent. This led to people being happy about the increased spending, but not so unhappy about increases in taxes. The downside, of course, is that the deficit increases, but that is a long-term consequence that can be put off to the future.

Of course, those chickens have come home to roost, but Labour are no longer in power. It is easy for them to deny responsibility and attack the people having to make the hard decisions and sell the hard message.

There are three strands to the cuts argument. The first is that the deficit does not matter, and that no cuts are needed. The second is the position of the previous Labour government: that cuts will be needed, but not for another few years. The final position is the coalition's: that harsh cuts are needed more or less immediately.

It seems that almost all credible economic opinion falls on the second and third option, and the timing of the cuts is the major point of debate. Of these, most economists appear to be backing the coalition's viewpoint that cuts need to start immediately.

So cuts are necessary. The problem is the media's reaction to them.

When a political party says that they will increase spending, the media ask where the money will come from. However such questions are easily diverted, as Labour did so successfully over the last decade. Increased spending is invariably seen as a good news story, and the questioning tends to be less than robust.

Reductions, however, are a different matter. It is easy for the media to find men and women who will be affected by proposed changes, and many of these cases deserve sympathy. Try telling someone who is struggling to put food on the table that they have to take a reduction in income 'for the greater good'. Yet any change (and especially cuts), however small, will by their very nature disadvantage someone.

The removal of universal child benefits is a case in point. I can see no reason for anyone who earns a large amount of money should get these benefits. Yet the media have been busy inventing realistic yet rare scenarios that point to unfairness. They have a point, but the alternatives all look expensive or even more unfair.

Cuts are a bad new story, and the media are jumping on each and every one. Therefore, unless the media narrative changes (and there is no good reason why they should), it is going to become incredibly hard to push the cuts through without watering them down to the point of insensibility.

So I ask all the media organisations a simple question with an impossibly complex answer: what would you cut to save just one biillion pounds per annum? You can choose any department, but are not allowed to use the weasel words 'efficiency savings' It has to be a real, tangible cut. Then tell me that it does not hurt anyone, that I could not find a man or woman whose life will be made harder by that cut.

Cut Trident? It would save billions, but would cost thousands of jobs, many in rural areas of high unemployment.
Tax the bankers even more? Risk losing the tax income from them as they offshore.
Increase student fees? Reduce the ability of many people to access universities.
Reduce the health budget? Wait for the headlines about lack of beds or nurses.
Increase the retirement age? This is unfair to people who will have to work for longer than the previous generation.
And I could continue.

The media need to get real. There is no such thing as harmless cuts. By all means criticise and press the government; but also try to produce a balanced debate. Yet I doubt they will for one reason: bad news stories make good news.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A good new story

There is little to say about this story about Josie Russell on the BBC website, except for the fact that it is good to see that she has recovered from such severe physical and mental trauma. I remember the media coverage of the original case well, and it is so heartening to see that the surviving daughter is doing so well.

It is so easy to let traumatic events take over and control your life, especially when the physical effects linger. Fortunately Josie Russell has chosen not to go down that road.

She is an inspiration.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Features I would like to see in Google Maps

I have been spending a little time recently playing with Google Maps, looking at new ways of representing walk data. It is a flexible system that allows many different methods of representing data.

Firstly I should say that the Google Maps API is very feature-rich, and it must be exceptionally hard for them to produce all the features that are requested from the multitude of users. My requirements are very different from, for example, the AA's route planner. Having said that, the features below are the things I would like to see:

1) Access to Ordnance Survey maps here in the UK, the 1:50,000 scale maps, but ideally the 1:25,000 maps. Britain has perhaps the best mapping in the world, and the maps Google uses are unfortunately a massively regressive step. I am interested in footpaths, and they are brilliantly detailed on OS Maps but are totally absent in Google Maps.

2) Dotted ploylines. A polyline is a multi-node line that can be overlaid on the map; I use them to represent my walks. I am having to represent ferry and alternative routes, which ideally would be represented by a dotted line. Unfortunately the API does not manage these. I could munge an overlay onto the map myself, but that is a complex task that could be much more easily handled as part of Google's code.

3) Polylines are clickable; i.e. a user can click on them to perform an action. There are also mouseover and mouseout events, which detail when the mouse moves into and out of the polyline. I wanted to produce an information bubble showing which walk the mouse is currently over. as the polyline mouseover event does not return a mouse position, then I have had to kludge this.

Because the API seems to be constantly changing, coding maps is constantly chasing a moving target. I particularly believe that item 3) will soon be implemented, meaning that I have done a fair amount of coding and testing for little effect. Still, better to chase a moving target than not having a target at all.

I have also had a look at Open Streetmap (OSM), the organisation producing open, free mapping of the entire world. So far, these are not particularly good enough, and nowhere near as good as OS Maps. I am currently considering if I should contribute data to the OSM project.

Microsoft has a similar system called Bing Maps. This is also an advanced system, but after weighing up the competitors I chose Google Maps. Fortunately it should be feasible to swap round to Bing Maps or another system if the need arises.

Friday, 1 October 2010

The British defence industry

The letter from Liam Fox to the Prime Minister that was leaked on Wednesday has really set the cat amongst the pigeons. The country's finances are in a mess, cuts are having to be made, and this includes to the MOD's budget. The only problem is: what to cut? The Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) was meant to come up with some of the answers, and some people within the MOD are understandably concerned about the results.

Of course, long-term strategy has to be at the forefront of the SDSR. The decisions made will shape the armed forces for a decade or more, long after we are meant to have left Afghanistan to its own devices. Therefore the varying long-term risks have to be enumerated and decisions made, an almost impossible task to do with any accuracy (after all, who could have foreseen the Falklands or Afghanistan wars? The causes are easy to see with hindsight, but few, if any, people were saying they were a possibility before the trigger events started them off).

In reality this is an ongoing process that was started with Option for Change, if not before. Yet at a time when our boys and girls are fighting foreign wars, cuts to the military are an exceptionally hot potato.

One frequently-said comment is that we are to protectionist of our own industry, buying expensive locally-designed and built products rather than better ones from abroad. BAE are often castigated for delivering poor equipment late and over-budget; sometimes this criticism is valid, at others they are convenient fall-guys for mistakes made by others, especially the MOD.

For these reason, the following article on the brilliant ThinkDefence website is well worth a read. In it, the defence capabilities and industries of several front-rank countries are compared, and the results are not quite what the critics of MOD spending are saying.

The results show three ranks of countries. The first, such as the US and Russia, buy nationally-developed weaponry. The second rank, such as Britain, France and Germany, have some multinational and internationally-developed weapons systems. The third rank, such as Canada and Australia, buy most of their equipment from abroad.

Our position is about where it would be expected - we have a vigorous defence industry, yet there are some areas in which we do not compete and buy foreign systems. We are not as protectionist as France, and do not specialise like Germany. Critics who say that we need to buy more equipment from abroad may have a point, but they also need to look at the other consequences, in terms of jobs, security and long-term costs. We are far from the only country whose defence projects go over budget.

The defence industry is a convenient scapegoat, yet one that employs thousands of highly-skilled people in the country, often in areas of high unemployment. Can we afford to fully open our markets when our competitors refuse to open theirs? Is the short-term gain to the MOD worth the long-term pain of having a weakened indigenous industry? Or is treating defence procurement as a job-creation scheme a stupid way of spending our limited government finances?