Tuesday, 30 November 2010

15,000 miles

I did a 16-mile walk yesterday, taking in Hengistbury Head and the coastline west to Bournemouth. It was a cold day, but there was no sign of the snow that had bedevilled much of the country. There were some great views from the cliffs in the morning, before the skies slowly clouded over.

The big news is this: as of yesterday, I have walked 15,000 miles since I started logging my walks in 1999.

I had expected to feel really exhilarated, as I did when I reached 10,000 miles. Instead I feel strangely numb. There are so many walks remaining to be done, and so many experiences to be had. I can't wait.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Cold house

We have lived in this house for a little over two years, and are just entering our third winter. It is a three-bedroom end-of-terrace house, built in the 1980s. Yet for some reason it is by far the coldest house that I have ever lived in.

The strange thing is that the house is also quite cold even on a still summer's day, with no breeze to create draughts. It feels like the interior of the house is a constant three or four degrees cooler than the exterior in summer. Perhaps we are haunted with shy ghosts whose only pathetic gift is to reduce the temperature.

In summer this is quite nice; in winter it is highly annoying.

We have tried all of the obvious things: we shut all the ventilation vents over the windows in October, and put the heating on timed. Yet whatever heat we have soon leaks out. The loft is well insulated, and it seems to be well constructed and has been well maintained over the years.

One problems are with the patio doors, through which a slight draught constantly flows when there is a breeze. All the windows are double glazed, yet it seems to have little or no effect. Another problem in the bedrooms is that the radiators are placed directly under the windows, meaning that the overhanging curtains divert some of the heat towards the window and away from the room.

We are both really fed up with this. If we owned the house, then we would consider giving it a firm makeover and try to upgrade the insulation and windows; unfortunately we rent, so that option is not open to us.

We will shiver again through this winter.

Sunday, 28 November 2010


We have just spent a questionably pleasant hour in the company of some friends (the friends being pleasant, the hour questionably so).

Three of the girls had just been on holiday to somewhere that is warm and hot in November. The name escapes me, but I am sure that it was not Skegness. Most of the resultant stories involved drinking copious amounts of sangria and staggering around. In short, they really enjoyed themselves. I have no problem with that; indeed, it was great to see them so enlivened after their trip. What annoyed me were the photographs.

There is something sordid about showing holiday snaps to a captive audience. It is like saying: "We were getting as pissed as fart beside a pool whilst you were all working your arses off. Ha ha ha." The three girls studied the photographs and chatted amongst themselves as the rest of the group politely studied them.

A few photos were passed around amongst the group: x and y pissed at the karaoke; y and z pissed by the pool; y on the toilet (I can only assume pissed as well as pi**ing). It was obvious that they were having a whale of a time, but pictures of a party lose a certain something - the heady fumes of alcohol, perhaps.

Then it got worse. I can cope with pictures being passed around showing a load of drunken women - stare at each one for the bare minimum of time and then pass them on to the next person, making sure you say something suitably erudite and incisive about at least one to show that you were paying attention. I am used to this; I can handle it.

Then a laptop was placed on the table, and I watched with horror as more photographs were shown. Another picture of y and z pissed at the pool; another picture of a tropical plant shot at a perfect skewed angle, as if sangria had allowed the photographer to create a perfect arty shot. More and more photographs were shown, each soon covering the same ground as earlier ones.

This is where the Internet comes in useful. It is simplicity itself to create an online web album, using Picassa or one of the many alternatives. Simple upload them, add captions and send them out to everyone who thinks they might be interested. They can then peruse as many or as few as they want.

For God's sake, let's end the hell of sharing photos in pubs.

Saturday, 27 November 2010


Rumours are coming out that WikiLeaks is going to publish yet more documents in the near future - allegedly they comprise of two million diplomatic wire messages between US embassies and the State Department.

The Government is putting a DA-notice on the data, meaning that British publications will not be able to publish details of the leak. It will be difficult to see how they think this will work as the WikiLeaks data will be available throughout the world. As the Spycatcher debacle showed, DA-notices are increasingly inapplicable in the modern world, where servers can be placed anywhere.

This presents many problems. Governments will have an obvious wish to keep embarrassing data secret, and whistle blowers have an obvious role in getting the truth out - the MP's expenses being a classic case to point. However, such data is also often complex to understand, and is often open to misinterpretation by non-experts.

But WikiLeaks is going far too far. Their previous large releases - 'Collateral murder', 'Iraq War Logs' and 'Afghan War Diary' are widely believed to have included information that put both soldiers and civilians in danger. WikiLeaks claim to have redacted all such data from the release, but that is widely disbelieved. Many think that their parsing was done in chunks - they put similar documents together, inspected a few, and if they saw things they did not want releasing, then they did not release the entire batch. Otherwise, the documents were released. The problems with this are obvious.

Why batch the data. From Wikipedia:

According to statements by Assange in 2010, submitted documents are vetted by a group of five reviewers, with expertise in different fields such as language or programming, who also investigate the background of the leaker if his or her identity is known. In that group, Assange has the final decision about the assessment of a document.

The 'Iraq War Logs' comprised 400,000 documents. It would take years for just five people to go through this data. Say you can parse one document a minute: that means, with a ten-hour day, the five reviewers can do 3,000 documents a day. Given these very liberal constraints, it would have taken them over100 days to check and redact all the documents. In reality, it would have been much more.

Therefore WikiLeaks rely on what they call 'volunteer journalists'. Note the word 'volunteer': the more people you have, the more you require rules, procedures, checks and balances to ensure that all the volunteers are working to the same standard. It also begs the question about whether the volunteers are qualified to make such judgements. The release of names of soldiers along with Iraqi and Afghan collaborators led Amnesty and others to make official complaints to WikiLeaks.

The amount of data is massive. The Telegraph studied the MP expenses data and analysed it, looking for the juicy stories and the best way of releasing the information to keep the story going (and their circulation up). They parsed the data and published the things that were, in their opinion, in the public interest. These made and shaped the story, and they did not do too bad a job of it.

Secondly, this data is all about the US. WikiLeaks has published interesting data from other countries (for instance Peruvian oil and Scientology), but this year they have been concentrating on the US. It would be nice if they published similar data from (say) North Korea, Russia, China, Burma, etc. It is increasingly looking like an organisation that is solely concentrating on the US state.

These new documents allegedly number 2,000,000 documents. There is no way that they have adequately parsed these to check that it is wise or moral for them to be released. And that is exceptionally worrying.

Of course, the US has an obvious problem with keeping their data secret, but that does not excuse WikiLeaks' behaviour. Even one WikiLeaks' founders is deeply critical of the organisation.

WikiLeaks could be a force for good in the world. Instead, I fear it is becoming a force of evil.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Spiral of mistakes

There is an interesting story on Grough about two men who spent the night on Kinder after having got lost.

I used to go diving, and was a member of the British Sub-Aqua Club. Every month the club magazine, Dive, would contain a one-page story about a diving incident, usually from the first-person perspective. It always made interesting reading, as it told you about the mistakes other people made, and how they managed (or sometimes not) to recover the situation.

It is a shame that walking magazines do not do something similar. Perhaps Dive can get away with it because, whilst scuba is an inherently dangerous activity, walking is most certainly not. When diving it is always important to learn from other people's mistakes. The motto 'plan the dive, dive the plan' has no walking equivalent.

The problem is that when things start going wrong, they often continue going wrong. The more things that go wrong, the harder it is to correct all of them. This is sometimes referred to as a 'spiral of mistakes'. A mistake makes it easier for another mistake to happen; the more mistakes you make, the more panicked and more liable to make mistakes you are. The sooner you correct the problems, the easier it is to recover.

In this case, the men made several mistakes, all of which are utterly understandable. They got lost on Kinder Scout, and allowed themselves to get benighted. They did not call out mountain rescue immediately, before it got dark.

On the other hand:
  • They had a bivvy with them, which protected them from the worst of the weather;
  • When they realised that they could not get off the hill the next morning, they called for help (presumably using a mobile).
  • It seems like they were properly equipped for the weather.
How could they have improved their situation? Well, I assume that they did not have a working GPS with them. This would have helped them not get lost in the first place. At the very least it would have given the rescue services their exact position. Perhaps, if heavy rain was forecast, they should have considered not starting the walk, or cutting it short.

I do not mean this in any way to be a criticism of them: "there but for the grace of God, go I". British weather is notoriously changeable, and a good day on the hills can rapidly descend into absolute hell.  I had a minor fall off a mountain in Scotland years ago, and, although I emerged relatively unscathed, it taught me a respect (i.e. healthy fear) of the hills.

Yet I undoubtedly take risks. Mostly I walk alone, and although my recent walks have all been in the south of England, they can be surprisingly remote. I would undoubtedly be in trouble if I had a fall and got knocked unconscious, but that is a calculated risk that I am prepared to take.

I do take precautions: even on day walks I often take a map (usually a 1:50,000 OS Map, and a computer print out of the route I am walking), a whistle, a plastic bivvy bag, a GPS, spare batteries, a mobile and a basic medical kit with bandages and plasters. This means that my daysack is always rather large, but I see myself as being able to get out of many sorts of problems with these items. Additionally, I try to carry enough money for a taxi and/or a B&B.

Of course, things can still go wrong. I can only hope that, like these gentlemen, I have enough kit with me to help myself get rescued, even if I had to spend a cold and uncomfortable night on the hills.

Thursday, 25 November 2010


I propose a new Olympic sport, one which requires strength, manual dexterity and cunning. It combines an ancient Japanese art with the beautiful British countryside. And I call it 'carto-origami'.

I first devised the sport on a walk in the White Peak. The 1:25,000 Outdoor Leisure map for the area is double-sided; when you go past a certain point, you have to unfold the whole thing and double it back on itself to be able to read the other side. This is always a pain, and doubly so in wet and windy weather.

So my sport is as follows: give competitors a White Peak map, and take them to a top of a blustery hill; Chrome Hill would do, or perhaps Stanage Edge in a brisk easterly. They are timed to see how long it takes them to unfold and fold the map in increasingly wet and windy conditions. Points are taken off for rips and tears on the map. Points are added if your map ends up in an adjoining county.

Perhaps then the Ordnance Survey would realise that double-sided maps are evil.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Irish Economy

The bail-out of the Irish economy is to be welcomed, at least for the moment. However, there are worries to be had over the way the bail-out will effect the other Euro-zone countries that have problems, in particular Portugal and Spain.

It is vital to remember the root cause of the Irish problem. The excellent ghostestates.com displays the half-built and unsold residential and industrial complexes on a Google map. You can click on one of the sites and use Google Streetview to drive around the abandoned developments. In some cases they make quite eerie spectacles.

Cuilin on the west coast is a case in point - half-built bare-block houses in a beautiful, remote location, yet with none of the ephemera of building around them - no scaffolding, diggers, cabins, supplies or people makes it appear a curiously apocalyptical world. In some, you see brand-new houses right alongside others that have been half-built and abandoned, the two separated by small wooden fences and a gulf of time and money. Sometimes the complete houses are obviously empty and unloved.

Someone had to pay for these developments, and it was the banks. The reason the developments were started was because everyone thought that they would make vast amounts of money from them as house prices rose unsustainably.

Greed mucked up the Irish economy. It is a salutatory lesson.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Walking plans

I am trying to work out what long-distance path(s) I shall tackle next year. I am mainly concentrating on backpacking trips.

There are various options:
  • Complete one of the National Trails that I have yet to complete (Yorkshire Wolds Way, Hadrian's Way, Cleveland Way, Speyside Way, the Southern Upland Way, half of the West Highland Way and a few odd-and-sods of the Great Glen Way). I do not count the Pennine Bridleway in its currently incomplete state.
  • Walk around the Isle of Wight. I was set to do this earlier this year, but on the morning of departure I developed an injury that prevented me going.
  • Rewalk the South West Coast Path.
  • Rewalk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.
  • Rewalk the Limestone Way
  • The Leeds and Liverpool Canal
  • London Loop
  • Severn Way
  • Complete St Cuthbert's Way
  • A randomly rural ramble in Scotland. Something I planned an age ago, staying away from the named trails, roads and popular mountains. The aim is to find solitude and test myself, ending up at Cape Wrath and then Durness.
All of these appeal in one way or another. It has been some years since I last walked in Scotland, so it would be nice to get another backpack done in the Scottish hills.

I also have a desire to finish off all of the National Trails - I have done the longer ones, and the Yorkshire Wolds Way, Cleveland Way and Hadrian's Wall would see me complete the English ones. That is really tempting, but would require a little more time than I have available at the moment.

So, which should I choose? It will probably be a case of getting a couple of short trips in the bag to test my kit and get my hiking legs back, and then choosing one to suit the time available. In the meantime, I shall continue salivating over trail guides and maps.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Book review: 'The White Queen', by Philippa Gregory

If history is written by the victors, then it is also mostly written by, and about, men. This is where Philippa Gregory's female-centric books come as a welcome relief. The annals of published history contain man after man, with the women acting as mere footnotes. Where they do feature, it is often because of their position rather than their skills - for example Queen Victoria or Queen Elizabeth. It is almost as though historians collectively shake their heads and say, "didn't they do well?" This chauvinism has produced thoroughly unbalanced views of history.

Gregory is most famous for 'the other Boleyn girl', which was made into a TV series and film, along with its follow-up books about Tudor life. 'The White Queen' is the first in Gregory's new series about the Cousins War (the latter part of the War of the Roses, which ended the Plantagenet era). It features the life of Elizabeth Woodville, a Lancastrian lady - little more than a commoner - who used her beauty to marry the Yorkist Edward IV. Their ill-matched marriage was personally successful, but in the long-term proved a disaster for the Yorkist cause.

Gregory obviously knows her history, yet her painstaking research does not intrude. Because there are such large gaps in the knowledge of the period, she has chosen to weave fiction in with fact, forming an intriguing 'could-have-been' story. This particularly shows through in the 'Princes in the Tower'; Gregory has the youngest son smuggled out and replaced with a servant. This leads to an obvious question: is she playing fast and loose with history, or is it just as valid as any other guess about what happened to the two princes? Shakespeare's Richard III portrays the titular antihero as a hunchback, for which there was little historical evidence. Despite this, it has become the common image of Richard III. The fictionalistion of history matters.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Woodville does not come out of the book too sympathetically. Her scheming and boundless ambition forces her to form increasingly desperate and, with hindsight, foolish decisions.  She swaps sides with alarming regularity, trying to eke out influence with whoever is currently in charge; in the end no-one trusts her. The fate of her family is repeatedly placed in peril by her plots. It is to Gregory's credit that, despite this, you care deeply for Woodville and her family.

If you read this book to get high-powered, gory descriptions of battle, then you will be disappointed. Many of the battles occur off-scene, with Woodville knowing what happens via letters and messengers. This adds to the tension; she knows the battle is over, but has no idea how it has turned: will she still be Queen, or does she face another reversal of fortunes? It is good to see battles, the traditional focus of history, relegated in this manner.

Historical fiction based on well-known real-life characters has to be some of the hardest writing possible: not only do you need to get your facts correct (or bring the wrath of historians down on your head), but you also have to describe well-known events in a way that keeps the reader engaged. The fates of the major characters are known before the first word is read, and that makes the writer's task harder. It is to her credit that Gregory's writing carries you through the story; you grow attached to the two princes knowing full well what fate awaits them.

Woodville was an interesting character to choose for a book, and one that deserves the attention that Gregory bestows upon her. Gregory's next book, the recently-released Red Queen, focusses on one of Woodville's man competitors, Lady Margaret Beaufort. I can only hope that she proves to be an equally fascinating character.

The White Queen It is well worth a read, especially if you know little about the Plantagenets or the War of the Roses. One thing is certain: Elizabeth Woodville's story is an excellent example of how not to run your life.

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Paddles around Britain

Ian and Julia have given themselves an interesting little project - to paddle in the sea at every seaside town and village in Britain. Their blog at http://www.paddlesaroundbritain.me.uk/ details their efforts.

They have only just started, so a few places in North Devon, North Wales and Dorset have so far been completed. It must be a great way to see the coast of Britain.

Ice creams are optional.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Stupid blogpost comment of the day

The Internet allows anyone with half a brain to make comments and pronouncements on topics that they have not the least knowledge of. This blog is, of course, a supreme example.

I allow most inane comments to wash over me, but some are hard to ignore. Today I was browsing a FlightGlobal article about the A380 engine failure. FlightGlobal blog posts are often worth reading as knowledgeable people comment, and the signal to noise ratio is quite high.

However, a comment by someone called Jen made me both furious and amused:
RR do not have the metallurgy expertise that GE or Pratt & Whitney Rockedyne have unless they steal the technology. Advanced metallurgy is an extremely important factor in modern turbofan engines.
Which shows that (s)/he is just a fan boy who knows little about the industry. The last sentence is, of course, true: metallurgy (and especially the weird mechanics of crystal growth in superalloys) is essential in modern engines design. The idea that Rolls Royce could not do it without stealing the technology is the bit that gets my goat. S/he offers no evidence, just wild accusations.

Materials science is one area of technology that we Brits are particularly good at. It requires both scientific and engineering prowess, and the presence in the country of Rolls Royce and others has allowed us to be competitive. We should not rest on our laurels, however: China, Russia and others have the capability and desire to overtake the West in this and other areas.

This is where blind patriotism such as Jen's is so dangerous. The mere idea that another country might be capable of making competitive technology to America is such an anathema that s/he has to accuse them of stealing it. After all, only American engineers can do this cool stuff, okay?

And whilst s/he is in this happy la-la land, other countries will continue to make progress. And if they do a good job and actually beat American technology, then it can only be because they stole it.

Putting your fingers in your ears and downplaying the competition is not a way to advance.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Review of the 2010 Formula 1 season

So it is finally over. 19 weekends spent glued to the TV, my heart racing as the red lights go out and 24 cars accelerate away. 19 weekends of joy, anger, excitement and hope; 19 weekends showcasing of the best in engineering (and HRT [*]).

In previous years I have said that I would stop watching Formula One. The politics and chicanery was becoming too much, detracting from the important thing: racing. Despite the threats, I have never actually stopped watching; there is always a drama awaiting. Fortunately 2010 repaid my commitment in spades.

It has been a truly great season, with six competitive drivers in three competitive cars. There have been crashes, brainfarts and controversy, but also some great racing.

For the final race this weekend, there was an unprecedented situation with four drivers in a position to win the championship. Alonso was in the lead, and Hamilton would have needed a miracle to win. My wish going into this weekend was for the following outcome.

  • Webber to win the championship. He is the older driver, and will not have many more opportunities to win. He had probably made less mistakes  than the other top drivers this season, but also found it hard to match the speed of his competitors, especially in qualifying. In my opinion, he would have been the most deserving champion.
  • Hamilton. He has done well in what is probably the third-most competitive car (behind Red Bull and Ferrari). He has made a few mistakes, and also had some poor luck, for instance his puncture in the penultimate lap of the Spanish GP.
  • Vettel. The young gun; I was full of admiration for the way he has handled himself before this year, but some arrogance has crept in during 2010. Blaming Webber for their collision in Turkey was by far the lowlight of his stellar year.
  • Alonso. I really did not want Alonso to become champion after the German GP team orders debacle. If he had won by less than seven points (the amount he gained from the enforced swap with Massa), then the championship would have been seen as a joke by many.

So I am satisfied, if not overly happy, with the result. Perversely, perhaps the biggest winner is Alonso, who has done an amazing job in recovering during the second half of the season. He will be remembered for a number of superb drives in the second half of the year that brought him right back into contention.

It has truly been a great season. Red Bull's early lack of reliability prevented them from romping away with both championships, and Ferrari and McLaren worked hard to catch up. I can only hope that the 20 races next season are just as exciting, despite the wide-ranging rule charges and a change in tyre supplier.

* I find it amazing that the newcomer Spanish team this year, Hispania Racing Team, named themselves in such a way that the abbreviation in English is the same as a treatment for menopausal women. Surely they realised the problem before they named themselves, or did they not care?

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Richard Noble

Richard Noble is a unique man. In 1983 he beat the land speed record in his Thrust 2 car, recording a maximum speed of 633.468 mph.

Thrust 2 was designed, built and run on a shoestring budget, much smaller than some of his rivals. Due to the work of his team, Britain regained the land-speed record.

Move on 14 years, and other teams were looking at breaking that record. This, of course, is the way that record attempts go: one team breaks a record, and other teams look at how they can respond; national honour is at stake. Richard Noble saw this activity, and wondered if he should try and increase the record, to put it out of the reach of the other teams. A milestone figure lies a short distance above 733 MPH - the sound barrier.

Thus Thrust SSC was born. On October 15, 1997, Thrust SSC, driven by RAF pilot Andy Green, reached a speed of 763 mph on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, breaking the sound barrier in the process.

In doing so, Richard Noble became a unique man in the annals of the land-speed record. Most holders of the record raise funding, build and drive the machine themselves, or lead the team that does so. That is utterly understandable; if you are going to risk your life, you want to be in charge. Yet Richard Noble, the fastest man on earth, knew that he did not have the skills to drive Thrust SSC. What it needed was someone who had reactions and experience far greater than his own. So a competition was started to find a relevant driver, and RAF pilot Andy Green was selected. In the process, Richard Noble organised for his own record to be broken by someone else.

It was an incredibly noble thing to do.

Move on another eleven years from Thrust SSC, and again Noble is working on the Bloodhound SSC project. Having broken the sound barrier, they are going for the next obvious target - 1,000 MPH. This is an amazing speed - 237 MPH over the current record, and it will be by far the biggest ever jump in the land-speed record.

Noble has not been resting on his laurels in the intervening years . In 1998 JCB, a British construction company (and based right under where I used to go to school), had a problem. For decades they had used engines provided by British company Perkins for many of their machines. Then it was announced that Perkins was being taken over by JCB's massive US competitor, Caterpillar. Not wanting the control of their engines to be in the hands of their competitor, JCB set about the task of designing and making their own. In 2004, the first JCB444 engine rolled off the production line.

JCB wanted to do something to publicise this new capability. As well as having the JCB 'Dancing Diggers' display team (which I saw on several occasions when I was a child), they also built the JCB GT, the fastest digger on earth, capable of easily reaching 100 MPH. But JCB wanted something extra, and decided upon the diesel-powered land speed record. But who could they get to run such a project?

Step forward Richard Noble and Andy Green. They and their large team designed, built and drove the JCB DieselMax car. In 2006 this got them the diesel-powered land speed record, a speed of 350 MPH, and improvement of 90MPH over the previosu record. In doing so they only ran in the fifth out of six gears - the limitation on the speed was down to the tyres. If they had wanted, they could have pushed the car further.

So I wish Noble the best of luck with the Bloodhound SSC. Not all of his projects have worked out, but I hope this one will. We can all dream impossible dreams, but it takes a special man to make them possible.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Moorlands and City Railway

On Saturday Sencan and I went on a little train trip in the Peak District. This was the first day of operation (as part of a gala) of the old Leek to Cauldon Low railway line. Regular passenger services last ran along this route in 1935, and freight operation ended in the early 1990s.

The track was left in place, but by earlier this year it was a mess, with young trees growing between the rails, and the track itself was invisible through the vegetation. The Cauldon Low quarry is at the northern end of the quarry, and the twenty miles of line between Stoke and Cauldon Low were bought by a new company called Moorlands and City Railway. Their website has some pictures of the work in progress.

The gradients on the newly-reopened lines are severe, and an indication of the late construction of this line - it opened in 1902, when locomotives could cope with these gradients, even with long trains. The trains on Saturday had a banking locomotive in the form of a diesel-electric Class 33. What is more, I got to see 'my' 8F steam locomotive, 48624, running for the first time (I am a very small shareholder in the 8F).

It was an interesting day, and their plans look interesting but expensive. If you had told me last year that this route would be reopen by now then I would not have believed you - a great deal of monry must have been thrown at this project. The train was absolutely packed, with standing room only, but the fantastic scenery more than made up for the crush.

They have future plans to extend their lines north into Leek, and south towards Alton, the latter of which will connect Alton Towers with the national rail network for the first time. The next work will connect their lines with Network Rail at Stoke next year, after that stretch of overgrown track has been renovated.

It is interesting work, but poses one obvious question: where are they getting all the money for all of this work?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Hacked websites

I have often heard of various websites being hacked, but I have never accidentally stumbled across one. Today, however, whilst looking for a campsite in Stanedge, I went to the Carriage House Inn website (http://www.carriage-house.co.uk/). Their site has been hacked and the front page replaced by a pride screen.

This appears to have been done by a group based at king-hack.com who, I guess, are Saudi-based. Quite why a small pub in the middle of the Pennines caught their ire, I do not know. Perhaps it was just easy game.

Strangely, the website of the White House Inn on Blackstone Edge also appears to have been hacked, not necessarily by the same group.

This sort of thing always makes me slightly nervous about my own website. Web security is difficult at the best of times, and there are many attack vectors that the unscrupulous can use. Writing secure software is exceptionally difficult, especially when using legacy languages such as C that were designed to produce efficient, rather than secure, code. Then you have the problems in  correctly configuring server software, ensuring that software is up to date, and the inevitable human factors play a large part.

At uni a lecturer, seeing that I was already a competent coder (I had worked as a freelance programmer for several years), tasked me to write a simple worm that would spread around the network of computers in the room. This proved to be exceptionally easy using assembler and well-known bugs in the Novell software. Within half an hour, the other computers in the lab all displays my 'Hello World!" message. It was harmless, and I was careful to place limits on what the worm would do.

That was the last time I ever attempted to do anything like that. It just does not interest me, and there is little you can do that will be meaningful and not cause harm. I understand the excitement of hacking, but wish that they would put their energies into more constructive pursuits.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Inspirational songs when writing

Below are some of the songs that I can listen to over and over when writing; songs that do not distract me, yet take my mind soaring to undiscovered places.

Many of these take me back to previous times and places; this seems to disconnect my mind if I'm having trouble writing.

Kate Bush, the Wedding List.
This video is particularly weird, in a way that Kate Bush could only achieve. It is such a shame (albeit understandable) that she only ever toured once.

Al Stewart, Old Admirals.
I have admired this song for some time. It is about the life and times of Admiral Fischer, who revolutionised the Royal Navy. Sencan and I got married on HMS Warrior, which was one of the ships that Fischer served on early in his career.

Al Stewart, Roads to Moscow
This song is about a Russian soldier's experience in the Second World War. The acoustic work on this song is superb, as are the lyrics: "Two broken Tigers on fire in the night flicker their souls to the wind."

Kate Bush, Pi
A song about a man obsessed by numbers, sung by Kate Bush. How can it get any better (or geekier).

Pet Shop Boys, Fugitive (Richard X Extended Mix)
There is something about this song (especially the intro) that sends my mind soaring.

Phil Oakley, Together in electric dreams
Gloriously dated, dreamy, ecstatic electro-pop.

Momus, The Homosexual
A great song by the king of perverted pop music

Momus, the Hairstyle of the Devil
My wife gave me a CD years ago, whilst we were working together but not in a relationship. She specifically pointed out this song to me - I wonder if she was trying to send me a message? Again, it is a song that can be playing in the background as I write, the words and tune just sweeping over me.

New order, 1963
No-one seems to really know what this song is about, yet it moves me every time I listen to it.

Suzanne Vega, Tom's Diner
A simple, gentle song, which the music (literally) does not get in the way of. It takes skill to make a capella work. Unusually, the D.N.A. remix (which includes music) is also eminently listenable.

The Beautiful South, The Table
For many years the Beautiful South were one of my favourite bands, and it is hard to pick the one song that means the most to me. Yet, for listening to whilst writing, there can be only one. The Table is a simple song about an ordinary table. The official video (sadly not currently online) - featuring the table being dragged all over Ireland - is instantly memorable, and when I hear it I think of long journeys and the coast.

The Beatles, She's leaving home
I am unsure why this story helps me write - McCartney's speaks rather than sings most of the song, yet it sends my mind flying, although not necessarily to good places.

Joan Armatrading, Love & Affection
A song that takes me back to a walk that I was doing along the Grand Union Canal in London in 1994; I had just talked to my then-girlfriend on my mobile, and was looking across the water towards a canalside supermarket. This song always transport me back to that time, when I was a very different person. The song never fails to bring tears to my eyes.

Pet Shop Boys, A man could get arrested
One of their early songs from the mid-eighties. Somehow I can disregard the heavy electro-pop beat and the words take me away. Usually best when I am writing a fight scene.
The linked video has the song liked marvellously to the recent 'Sherlock Holmes' film.

Kate Bush, Babooshka.
The favourite song of an ex of mine, for years I could not listen to this song without crying. Oh, and Kate Bush is absolutely gorgeous in the video.

Madness, the Bed and Breakfast man.
Another little-known song by a famous band. This is another song that should not really help someone concentrate, but for some reason it really sends my mind soaring.

So there you go, a fairly strange mix of pop songs. And yes, I am a child of the eighties.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Wild camping

The laws on walking in Scotland and England are radically different; they mirror the differing land uses and histories of both countries. England tends to be much more heavily populated with heavier land use.

One of the things I hate is having to divert off a trail to head to official campsites or B&Bs, especially if I am carrying all my camping gear. Worse, some campsites charge £20 or more for a single person with a tent and no car. This is wildly extortionate.

Therefore it is often tempting to wild camp instead; to find somewhere out of the way and put my tent up as near to the trail as possible. And so I do. The problem is, though, that I rarely get a good night's sleep whilst wild camping. I go to sleep worried about someone coming along and turfing me off the land or worse (having an active imagination can have downsides), and wake up early, wanting to get away before a farmer comes along with his shotgun.

Despite these fears, I have never had a problem, and have never once been told to 'get orf me land'.  Indeed, once a Yorkshire farmer actually invited me in for a lovely (and massive) cooked breakfast. There are several reasons for this: I always try to camp in as hidden a place as possible (despite having a bright yellow tent); I never leave anything scattered around and put all my belongings in my tent, and I never, ever, camp where this is livestock. As you can imagine, it sometimes takes me a while to find a good camping spot, especially in lowland areas.

For these reasons, I would love for wild camping to become legal in England and Wales. Of course, there would have to be caveats and restrictions that gave landowners some security. Scotland has recently clarified the laws on wild camping. The new rules are (reproduced from the Mountaineering Council of Scotland):
Camping lightweight, in small numbers, for only 2 or 3 nights in any one place on any land where access rights apply is also a right. But to help limit problems for local people and land managers, use common sense and avoid enclosed fields of crops and animals, keep away from buildings and roads. If there's no alternative seek the owner's approval. Wherever you camp, Leave No Trace.
Which all seems reasonable, and would be applicable to England and Wales as well. Gardens would have to be added as a restriction, and I would also add 'out of reasonable view of houses' and 'no camp fires'. Risk of pollution by human waste would also have to be addressed.

A downside would be the effect on the local economy. Many B&Bs in rural areas rely on the outdoor trade, and this would necessarily reduce the numbers. However, I would guess that the number of people willing to wild camp would be dwarfed by the number of ramblers who book into B&B's each weekend. Additionally, even wild campers need to find somewhere to wash and shower occasionally.

Perhaps (and I am loathe to say this), we could even have a licence to wild camp. To get this, you would have to complete a course about how to camp responsibly. Only then can you take advantage of the wilds. This is probably a non-starter, and could well be unnecessary.

I know that, however responsible I personally may be, that others will not. Someone will always abuse laws, and this is why camping has been banned on some areas of the West Highland Way. So, could a wild camping law in England and Wales work?

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Three heroes

What do the locomotive cow-catcher, Lord Byron's daughter, and the standardised screw thread all have in common?

Answer, the first computer.

And all three involved heroes of mine.

Firstly, the easy connection. The locomotive cow-catcher was one of the less well-known inventions of a certain Charles Babbage. Anyone who knows about the history of computing (or has been to London's Science Museum) will recognise the name. Charles Babbage designed the first computer, the mechanical Analytical Engine.

The connection with Lord Byron's daughter? Her name was Ada Lovelace, and she wrote a mathematical description of the Analytical Engine, in the process becoming the first ever computer programmer. Her fame is entrenched in the fact that Ada, a computer language used by the military and others, was named after her.

Then the third connection? What does the standardised screw thread have to do with Babbage and Ada Lovelace? At first sight, nothing. The standardised screw thread is something that we take for granted nowadays; we expect a nut and bolt to fit together well enough. Yet nothing was further from the truth in the early nineteenth century. You could go to a local blacksmith and get a 1/2" nut and bolt, but the pitch and depth of the thread could be very different from those made in the next town. This was of little relevance until the start of the nineteenth century, when the industrial revolution required precise engineering.

One man, Joseph Whitworth, saw this problem, and in 1841 came up with a very simple idea: a standardised screw thread, which became known as the 'Whitworth' standard. He not only had the idea, but also designed and manufactured machines capable of making them and other high-tolerance parts. In the process he made a personal fortune and started an engineering colossus - the Whitworth company.

The Whitworth standard was later replaced by metric threads, but you can still find Whitworth nuts and bolts in the strangest places - for instance the thread that attaches a camera to a tripod.

So what is the connection with Babbage and Lovelace? Whitworth spent some time working for engineer Joseph ClementWhile at Clement's workshop he helped with the abortive manufacture of the Difference Engine. The parts of the Difference Engine required unheard-of tolerances, and the failure to mass-produce the parts was one reason it failed. It is utterly conceivable that Whitworth's work was a response to all that he had learnt working for Clement.

Two replica Difference Engines have been made; one is visible in the Science Museum. John Graham-Cummings has launched Plan 28, a project to actually build Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine. It is an ambitious, some say impossible project; but I have pledged my £10.

If you want to see Babbage and Lovelace in cartoon form, then the Sydney Padua's excellent 2D Goggles is a muse-see. I am just waiting for her to include Whitworth in cartoon form.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Affordable unmanned aerial drones

It may have been noted that I have a deep love of both engineering and technology. For this reason, I would like to bring some attention to the Parrot AR Drone. This is an unmanned helicopter comprising four rotating blades in a square that is suitable for both indoors and outdoors use.

There is some really cool stuff in the specifications. It has two cameras, one downward-facing and the other forward-facing; it can use the downward-facing camera to automatically maintain a position, even in breezes. It can be driven from an iPhone, iPad or IPod Touch. You can even dogfight multiple numbers of them.

Finally, the code is open source, allowing you to alter it as you see fit.

It is an amazing device. Just watch the videos on the website to see some of the things that it can do.

There is one problem, however: because it is currently driven by Apple devices, you cannot record the video that the drone transmits. You can watch, but not record, which really reduces the usefulness of the device. This is apparently due to Apple not having authorised this function. I hope that this problem will be resolved when the controlling application gets ported to non-Apple platforms.

Of course, this is little more than a toy, especially with the short battery life. Yet the technology is suitably impressive, and can only improve.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Pushing the limits of the possible

Rolls-Royce powered Airbus A380's have been in the news over the last week after a suspected fire caused an uncontained engine failure during a Quantas flight.

However, Boeing have also suffered a significant setback. On Tuesday, one of their flight-test 787s had to make an emergency landing when smoke entered the main cabin. The fire caused the primary flight instruments and auto-throttle to fail. Emergency chutes were deployed after landing to allow the 42 engineers on board to evacuate. Fortunately, no-one was injured during the incident.

This can only be seen as a significant setback to Boeing. Rumours had already been circulating about a further delay to the 787 entering service, and a fire that causes the primary flight instruments to fail can only add pressure to the schedule. Whilst this plane was probably highly instrumented, and therefore non-standard, any fire will have to be thoroughly investigated before flight tests can continue.

Both Rolls Royce and Boeing are pushing the limits of the possible with their products. The reliability of a modern jet engine is amazing given the conditions under which they have to perform. When failures happen (as they do very infrequently), most of the time they do not put the aircraft at risk.

Boeing are facing equivalent technological challenges with the 787. The 787 is a fairly aggressive design, using new materials and techniques to create a passenger plane that is a generational jump from any other flying. This has been the cause of most of the nearly three-year delay that they have already faced.

I wish both Rolls Royce and Boeing the best of luck in finding - and fixing - the problems they are facing.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Dowland Landslips

A Jurassic wilderness
Sencan and I did a walk from Charmouth to Seaton on Saturday, following the South West Coast Path westwards across the border from Dorset into Devon, along part of the Jurassic Coast.

It was a superb walk, and one that is well worth doing. The traditional images of coastal walks are of endless, white sands, or of soaring cliffs. Yet less salubrious images also spring to my mind: endless Essex mudflats and burnt-out cars next to boarded-up houses.

One image that does not spring to mind, especially in respect to coasts, is woodland. Trees block views and can, after a while, feel endless and oppressive. The second part of Saturday's walk between Lyme Regis and Seaton passed through an area called the Dowland Landslips, an amazing and possibly unique stretch of the British coastline.

Sencan and yet another climb
It is hard to find anywhere on the south coast that is unspoilt, yet the Dowlands Landslips offer six miles of walking that most matches that description. You cannot go down to the sea, or up the cliffs inland, meaning that your only way out lies ahead, or back the way you came.

The area was formed by a series of landslips down to the sea. On Christmas Day, 1839 an estimated 800 million tons of rock fell in one such slip.

The resultant landscape is stunning; large chunks of rock stick jaggedly out of the ground, and in places waves of undulating rock lead down towards the sea. There are also obvious signs of more recent, smaller slips. This geological instability has stopped any development of the area, and wildlife has taken over. The path can be hard to walk, and is constantly climbing and falling, if only be a few feet at a time. The clay was slippery on Saturday, a fact made worse by the carpet of brown and orange leaves underfoot.
Aview out to sea from the landslips

Despite this, it was a superb stretch of path. The sea bursts into view unexpectedly, offering tantalising glimpses of deep blue water. At other times the only indication of the sea is the distant sound of crashing waves. This wonderful area sometimes seems like something out of Jurassic Park - you would not be surprised to come face-to-face with a dinosaur. It is a surprisingly hard but ultimately rewarding walk.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

St Pancras station

I recently found myself in St Pancras station, the first time I have been there for over ten years.

I spent hours at this station whilst I was at university, waiting for trains back to my native Derby. Back then the station exemplified faded grandeur: the glass in the magnificent roof was dirty and jaded, and the brickwork was covered in a patina of grime. Yet it was a magical place, much more suitable for the boundary between reality and fantasy in Harry Potter than the adjacent King's Cross. In some ways the dirt and grime suited the structure: the Victorian dream brought down to a firm twentieth-century base.

The change was startling.

It has been radically altered to become the London terminus of the Channel Tunnel rail link; the undercroft has been opened out and the roof cleaned and painted a magnificent eggshell blue. I wandered around, utterly captivated.

When the plans for the new international terminal were announced I was dismayed - the magnificent arched overall roof was being extended with a flat roof to cater for the longer Eurostar trains. I was keen for the extension to be in a similar style to the existing roof instead of the more industrial looks of the extension.

I am pleased to say that I was wrong; the different styles actually complement each other. The changes within the train shed - including the opening out of the undercroft - have improved the facilities massively. George Gilbert Scott's stunning High Victorian Gothic hotel is also being extended and reopened as a hotel and flats.

British Rail wanted to demolish St Pancras in the 1960s; a campaign led by John Betjemen eventually prevented that fate. Thank God this architectural gem survived to be reused.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Another coastal walker

Military helicopter pilot Matthew Brown is currently walking 10,500 miles around the coastline of Britain and Ireland to raise money for Help For Heroes. Details can be found on the bmycharity website, and he has an active twitter feed. Apparently he has already raised over £500,000.

He is planning to finish late next year, and walking up to 35 miles a day. He set off from Hull on the 28th June and is currently in Cornwall. An article about him can be found on the Colchester Daily Gazette website.

It will be an amazing feat. If he is walking every day without taking days off, then it is possible that he could break John Westley's record for the longest continuous walk in Britain - 9,500 miles.

This has been a bumper year for coastal walkers, with at least five people having done all or parts of England, Scotland and Wales, and another three people having started sectional walks. I thought it was a busy year in 2003, when three of us were doing it!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Three more walks on my website.

I have put three new walks on my website:

871West Bexington to Charmouth13.530/10/2010
870A circular walk between Salisbury and Middle Winterslow17.325/10/2010
869Winchester to Pitton24.218/10/2010

... of which the biggest common factor is myself being ill. Lovely.

The first two of these walks detail the Clarendon Way (I attempted to walk this 27-mile walk in a day with full camping kit; unfortunately the lack of daylight kyboshed the attempt).  The third was a spectacular stroll along the South West Coast Path.

 I have set myself a couple of tasks for the rest of the year: Sencan and Iwant to complete the South West Coast Path as far as Exmouth, and also to start walking the Stour Valley Way in Wiltshire and Dorset.

Saturday, 6 November 2010


I am a man, and I cry. Yes, you read right. I am a man, and I cry.

The prevalent perception in the media is that, because I cry, I have to be somewhat less of a man; that my tears remove me from that half of the Human race and place me a netherworld of not-men.

Well, I've got news for them. It makes me more of a man.

I cry for hope, I cry for pain, I cry sometimes... Well, sometimes I just cry. When I'm out walking something weird occasionally happens. I can be having a really good day, things are going well with no unusual stresses or strains, yet for some reason I will spontaneously start crying. This is not because I am particularly upset, or am finding things hard; it just happens. I look at my wedding photos and cry (out of joy, I must add).

In the minds of many people the tears are a sign of weakness. They could not be more wrong.

Often the crying actually makes me feel much better afterwards, as if it purges my system of any negative emotions. Yet still, tears are seen as a sign of weakness in men.

It is not. It is a sign of strength. It is a sign that you can release your emotions slowly instead of letting them build up. It is a sign that you are not a Neanderthal.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Visual 6502

Sometimes I stumble across something on the Internet that is just so utterly cool that I have to run around the room cackling manically. Yes, really.

Yesterday, thanks to Bunnie's Blog, I came across the Visual 6502 simulator.

The MOS 6502 computer chip was used in both the Apple Mac II and the initial Acorn BBC range of computers. As such, I cut my programming teeth on it; firstly with BBC Basic, and later 6502 Assembler.

These were in the days when a jump from 32Kb to 128Kb of memory opened new worlds (nowadays it is common to create temporary buffers of more than that); and 2MHz felt like undreamed-of speed. The 6502 was first made in 1975, and was far simpler (and cheaper) than the competing products from Intel and Motorola. As such, it was accessible to hobbyists, and was used in many early computers and computer kits.

The simulator simulates the operation of a 6502 chip using Javascript. It creates an image of the chip, allowing you to see how the signals are traced. It is a fantastically interesting piece of work, and an indication of how much computer technology has improved over the years. It should be noted that the simulator only works in very modern browsers that are HTML-5 compatible - you will also needs lots of memory and a fast computer. If your computer is not suitable, then goggle in amazement at the beautiful picture.

The writers have taken photographs of a 6502 chip, and designed the blocks from scratch; (i.e. reverse-engineered it). The simulator is complete enough to play games (albeit at a slow speed).

It is an amazing piece of work.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


A telephone survey company phoned me up this morning. The situation and questions were so absurd that it throws doubt on all such telephone surveys. I'm not even sure it was not a hoax. I am not mentioning the name of the (famous) firm or product to deny them the oxygen of publicity. It went something like this:

"Good afternoon, sir. I'm performing a survey for Company X (A well-known cosmetics firm). Would you like to take part in the survey?"
"I'm male."
"Do you have a girlfriend or wife?"
"Yes, but-"
"Has she heard about Company X's new product Y, the best anti-ageing product on the market?"
"How am I meant to know if she has heard of something?."
"Have you seen any Product Y in the bathroom?"
"Look, I doubt I'm the right person to ask-"
"That's fine, sir. Do you know if she uses any inferior products by other firms?"

At which point I hung up. Firstly, it should have been clear to her that, because I am male, it is unlikely that I know everything about my wife's grooming habits. Secondly, it seems to be little more than an advertisement hiding as a survey.

The questions are exceptionally leading. Take "Has she heard about Company X's new product Y, the best anti-ageing product on the market?". If you answer yes or no to this question, then you are also accepting the second clause of the question, that it is the best anti-ageing product on the market. Multiple-clause questions like this are to be avoided in surveys.

I am just waiting for an advertisement that claims: "85% of people surveyed say that Product Y is the best anti-ageing product on the market."

It has to be a hoax. Can a survey firm really be this clueless? Or is the public clueless for going along with it?

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Faster, Better, Cheaper

A decade ago, NASA had some well-noted disasters with unmanned spacecraft. The Mars Polar Lander, the Lewis earth-observing satellite, and the Mars Climate Orbiter. Fortunately none cost any lives, but they all proved embarrassing to NASA, which is supposed to be the pinnacle of American scientific and engineering achievement.

What is perverse is that many of the problems could be put down to one phrase: "Faster, Better, Cheaper". This phrase was dreamt up by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, who took up the post in the early 90's. It is now widely seen as having been a disaster, even in official reports.

So what was the problem? The problem was, in my opinion, simple. Engineers need to be able to measure things. You can measure time, speed, money, weight, distance, and any other number of metrics. In the phrase "Faster, Better, Cheaper", it is easy to measure 'faster'. Has a project been delivered faster than would have been the case under the old system? Cheaper is also easy: has the project cost less than it would under the old system?

Of course the actual metrics used will be more complex that that, but with both 'faster' and 'cheaper' the measurement is possible and obvious.

The devil is in the word 'better'. How do you measure betterness? Could a project that didn't work fully still be called better because of some arbitrary other metric? "Gee, the craft crashed into the moon instead of orbiting, but it was better because we all got more publicity!"

Perversely, 'better' allows you to mask failures, and it does not give engineers direction.

Many engineers say that it is possible only to have two out of the three; you can have faster and cheaper, but you won't get better. Or you can have faster and better, but you can't have cheaper. Then there is another viewpoint, where you can have all three. There is the following quote from that link:
No, it’s not a fact of life. It is possible. There are two cultures. The second culture is the culture that dominates the new information-age industries -- like Microsoft -- which is, you can simultaneously improve cost, schedule and performance.
And hereby lies the problem. The writer talks about cost, schedule and performance. Cost is related to 'cheaper', and schedule to 'faster'. However, performance is just one part of 'better'. A measure of 'better' might be something different from performance, depending on the mission. A 'better' on the Space Shuttle might be measured on the safety rating for the crew, whilst performance might be the maximum payload lifted, or the thrust of the engine, or any other such metric. He has altered 'Faster, Better, Cheaper' to be 'Faster, Better, Performance'.

Additionally, it is a fallacy to say that the high-tech industries such as Microsoft have any relation to the space industry. They do not. A company like Microsoft can afford to take limited risks, whereas in space they cannot. Put simply, if software goes wrong, most of the time it can be updated and fixed (there are exceptions to this; such as firmware updates, but these are relatively rare). A rocket launch or a space mission is a one-off shot; if it fails, it can cost hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars.

By all means, keep faster and cheaper. Space access needs faster and cheaper. But instead of 'better', pick another, narrower metric. For manned systems, perhaps they should use 'faster, cheaper, safer'.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

BBC weather, part 3

In my earlier posts, I discussed a problem where the BBC Online weather system gave inconsistent results between the summary and detail forecasts. Note that this is *within* the forecast service provided by BBC Online.

I submitted a complaint to them through their complaints system; not necessarily as a disgusted-of-Tunbridge-Wells type thing, more to inform them that there was a problem.

Yesterday afternoon I received a reply. It consists of a few paragraphs, of which most are boilerplate. The ones that actually contain pertinent information are as follows:
I understand that you're unhappy with the weather forecast as you it was inconsistent between bbc.co.uk and elsewhere on the BBC.

The nature of our climate is such that there are times when the weather doesn’t behave as forecast. We are confident that we are using the best source of forecast data, which we obtain from the Met Office - who have an extremely good record globally. We do feed back to them concerns about forecast inaccuracy and also put pressure on them to improve their accuracy.
Well, they really did not get the point I was making. I was not concerned about inconsistencies between bbc.co.uk and elsewhere on the BBC (e.g. broadcast forecasts); it was about glaring inconsistencies *within* the web service.

My flabber is well and truly ghasted. My original complaint to them included a link to the original blog post, which contained screenshots detailing the problem. Not only did they not bother to understand the reported problem, I doubt they even bothered to read the information given.

It should also be noted that they have essentially closed the issue, and have not provided a means within the email by which to continue the correspondence.

Another comment about their complaints system: after you submit a complaint, you get no acknowledgement from the system. Many other such systems email the sender immediately with a copy of the message and a reference number; this way you can check the message has been received and that your email address is correct. I had nothing from the BBC until this reply. Part of me wondered if I had entered the correct email address.

The question is, what do I do next? Do I just forget about it, or do I try and get them to understand the problem? Is it possible for me to reopen the issue that they appear to have closed? Am I going to get trapped in an endless loop of bureaucracy?

Although I may be annoyed at one part of the BBC, I was thoroughly entertained by their output last night on BBC Four: the excellent 'Atom' program was followed by the lovely Victoria Coren in 'Only Connect'.

Truly a feast for both mind and eyes.

Monday, 1 November 2010


I love maps. I can stare at them for hours, visualising the twisting contours as hills and valleys. Each footpath advertises an adventure, and the dotted strings of diamonds that denote trails call me like sirens.

The best way of interacting with a map is simply to go out and walk around the landscape it represents. To see the rivers and stroll through the woodland and forests. Yet do this for any period and it becomes clear that what is shown on the map is only a loose facsimile of reality. The world changes, yet maps only get updated irregularly. Woodland gets cleared or planted; roads and houses get built. Footpaths that are clear on the map end abruptly in a bottomless quagmire.

There is nothing stranger than discovering a road or railway line that is not marked on the map - it causes a very strange sense of locational paralysis, of having gone through the looking glass. The maps says that the feature should not be there, and you trust your maps: yet here, right in front of your eyes, is the feature. Your cosy, safe reality has been altered. It is easy to accept that hedges move and new housing encroaches onto what were once green fields. Yet come across a motorway that is not marked on the map and you start to feel that you have gone seriously wrong somewhere. It can be an almost frightening experience.

This is, of course, because paper maps only get updated every few years; it is cheaper to print them in batches. For this reason, changes on the ground take some time to appear on the maps available for purchase. Electronic maps, of course, need not have that problem.

One thing is clear: the printed map is dying. Handeld devices such as Satmap are getting to the stage where they can feasibly replace paper maps for walking. Batteries can run out, and electronic devices are always prone to the perils of cold, water and damage. Against this, however, are the problems of lugging the many maps that are needed for long-distance walks.

I love the raw physicality of having a paper map in my hands. Electronic maps are so much more useful in many ways: the data displayed can be filtered, enhanced and scaled, but they lack a certain physical presence. If I want to mentally explore an area then I spread out a 1:50,000 OS map on a table rather then look at the 1:25,000 maps on my computer. The area that can be viewed at once is so much bigger, giving you context for the central area you are viewing. There is always something to see.

That is not to bash electronic maps. Google maps (and the Microsoft equivalent, Bing Maps) are excellent products, and the ability to add user-derived data (i.e. mashup) to the maps brings a new dimension to cartography. However, the data shown in the UK is several orders of magnitude worse than those on OS maps. The OS do allow electronic maps to be loaded from their website to create mashups, but the licensing restrictions are such that the service is not really suitable for my purposes. For one thing they restrict the amount of data that can be downloaded; as my website gets thousands of readers it would soon exceed that figure. The system is also less seamless than those from Microsoft and Google. The ideal would be for the larger companies to have access to the OS data for their implementations, but that could potentially endanger the existence of the OS.

My website already includes a mashup depicting my walks over Google maps; perhaps in the future the data will be much more open: I will be able to show pubs in the area of the map, filtering out ones that are closed at a certain time of day; the same with cafes, slipways for launching a boat, cycle paths, museums, campsites, petrol stations and train times.

We are very nearly there, the main problem being the diverse locations of the data sets. You need to go to one website to find some pubs; another for petrol station, and another for museums. Even then the data sets tend to be incomplete. But how long will it be before a device like the Satmap could connect to the Internet, download pubs nearest to your present location and display which ones are open? Will you even be able to order some food so that it is ready when you walk in through the door? This is all technically feasible.

Yet I hope that we do not lose the skills of map reading and navigation. To do so would be to lose a truly great joy in life.