Friday, 31 December 2010

Sometimes I lose my faith in human nature.

Fort instance, see this article on the BBC News website. Vandals on the Isle of Wight have punctured an inflatable RIB lifeboat seventeen times.

Why? What sort of mindless idiots vandalise a lifeboat, for Christ's sake?

I hope that the miscreant(s) get a suitable punishment, ideally something with a heavy social aspect.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

The Shuttle

When I was a child I went to visit my uncle at Bradford University. Whilst there - it would have been around 1983 - I was shown a high-end computer system that was displaying a basic rendering of the space shuttle.

I wasted many a pleasant hour at school making technical drawings of the craft. The Challenger disaster in 1986 hurt my faith in technology and gave me a lifelong interest in how things fail. It was truly shocking that such high engineering could fail so spectacularly.

Ever since then I have wanted to see a shuttle launch. The problems are many-fold: I live in the wrong country, and the launches are often delayed by days if not months. As an example the current launch, STS-133, was due to launch in late October last year. Problems, including some with the external fuel tank, have led to it being delayed until at least February.

There are three more missions before the scheduled end of the shuttle program in the middle of next year. I am really tempted to fly out to see one, but the Internet is full of stories about people spending a fortune only not to see a launch - some multiple times.

There is a chance that man will never build a rocket of the size and beauty of the shuttle - the cost of such heavy launchers are crippling, one of the reasons why there is such uncertainty about the American Ares V project. Such large rockets are really only needed for manned missions beyond Earth's orbit (almost all satellites can fit in rockets such as the Ariane 5, Atlas 5 or Delta IV).

Even if massive rockets are built in the future, they will certainly not have the flawed if beautiful configuration of the shuttle. So I will have to satisfy myself with watching some amazing videos of the launch on YouTube.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

London transport

The recent snow has caused people to complain bitterly about the apparent terrible quality of the country's transport infrastructure. This seems particularly vocal from Londoners.

Yet a great deal of the complaining is blind. A few years ago a colleague came over to visit from our office in Shenzhen, China. This gentleman lived on Hong Kong, and would commute by ferry over to the mainland every day. He had travelled extensively around the Far East, but this was his first visit to Europe.

He was over for two weeks, and during the middle weekend a colleague took him around London. On the Monday morning I asked him what he felt of our capital. His reaction would amaze Londoners: he could not complement the transport system too highly. I have heard similar reactions from other foreigners.

London transport is not perfect, but it performs an amazing job. Three million people travel on the tube system each day, and double that number travel on the bus network. Prices are also cheap given the frequency of the services.

This compares favourably not only with other capital cities, but also with other areas of the UK. Southampton has to be one of the easiest cities I have ever seen to drive around and park in. Yet the local bus from my house near Romsey into the city centre costs over four pounds, far more than the cost to park all day in some central car parks. The buses run twice every hour via an indirect route and take an hour; they are always fairly busy. In comparison, I can easily drive into the city centre within half an hour. I want to use public transport, but it is rarely worth my while on a cost/time basis.

For these reasons, I get fairly fed up with the constant moaning that I hear in the media about London Transport. Some criticism is valid, but the system itself generally seems to work well.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Sprayway Equinox Zip AW10 base layer

I was on a trip to Castleton recently; not for walking, but just for a look around. I got chatting to the salesman inside one of the outdoor shops, and ended up walking out with a Sprayway Equinox base layer shirt.

I am not normally attracted to fads, and tend to run away from anything described as innovative, especially when I am paying for it. Having said that, the base layer felt soft to the touch and was surprisingly warm against the skin when I tried one on. Allegedly it wicks exceptionally well due to its construction - it uses 55% coconut fibres - without the odours normally caused by wicking materials.

After faffing around for a while, I decided to purchase one. I wore it over the next few days - although not on a walk - and was impressed by its performance. It feels soft against my skin, far better than the usual synthetic base layers.

I have worn it on a few walks, and have been pleasantly surprised by the results. It certainly feels much warmer than my usual Helly Hansen or Lowe Alpine base layers, and it had no problems in wicking my sweat away. And yes, it did seem to smell less. The proof of the pudding will be whether or not it will be too warm when walking in summer.

I could make some minor criticisms: the zip is slightly too tight on my neck, and I would have preferred it not to have a crew-neck. But these are minor niggles on what is otherwise an excellent base layer.

Monday, 27 December 2010

BBC Weather, part 4

So it is over. on the 3rd I finally (*) received a response from BBC Complaints that explains the discrepancy I have seen in the BBC Weather system on-line. The previous installments of the saga can be found in part 1, part 2 and part 3.

I reproduce the relevant part of the email below (I emailed them to as for permission, but after two weeks have had no reply). I have included it as I believe that it may be of interest to others.

As for the thinking behind the forecasts they are sent to us from the Met Office via two different feeds, and each feed drives what weather symbol is shown.

Daily Weather Symbol
The daily weather symbol indicates the most representative weather type for the whole of the relevant day or night. This could either be the predominant weather type - that is the weather that lasts for the longest period of time, or alternatively, the most significant weather type.

So if a day is forecast to be predominantly sunny with the possibility of a brief shower, then we are likely to see a sunny symbol rather than shower symbol. However, a thunderstorm symbol may appear if a thunderstorm is expected in an otherwise largely dry day. For the purposes of the forecast the day covers the period from 0600 to 1800 UTC and the night from 1800 to 0600 UTC on the following day.

Three Hourly Weather Symbol:
The weather symbol that appears for each three hourly timestep indicates the weather that is expected at or near the relevant location, around the time indicated.

For example if a shower symbol appeared for Exeter at 1500, we're saying there is a chance of a shower in the Exeter area at, or close to 1500 (there could be one a short distance away and it may actually occur at 1430). As the three-hourly forecast is 24 hours from the point when it is viewed, depending on the time at which you are viewing the forecast the most representative weather symbol for the day might not have appeared.

I think that this explains the observed problems.

It has been an interesting little diversion, and shows the problems there can be in delivering the weather forecast, yet alone forecasting it in the first place.

(*) I received the email in the morning. At first, when viewed in MS Live Mail application, it showed as being empty. Only in the evening, after a couple of glasses of wine, did I dig further. I noticed that the size of the mail was 7K, which was much bigger than I would expect for normal email headers. So I dug into the system and retrieved the plain text of the email as a file. It showed a large section like this:
This was obviously some form of encoding, and a few lines above was:
Content-Transfer-Encoding: base64
So the email had been encoded in base64. This is often used when you need to transmit binary data - for instance images or audio - over email, which is text-only. I went onto an on-line decoder and retrieved the base text of the message. I have no idea if the problem was with the BBC mail system, a corruption during sending or Live Mail's inability to decipher it.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Epic fail.

Courtesy of the Landslide Blog, here is a fairly spectacular video of what happens if you attempt to crane heavy structures off insecure ground.


Saturday, 25 December 2010

Merry Christmas!

I hope everyone is having a truly wonderful day.

All the best,

P.s.: In the spirit of Christmas, below is a link to the New Yorker's sensational expose of Father Christmas. Enjoy!

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Sheridan case

So Tommy Sheridan has been found guilty of perjury.

My initial reaction is that this is the correct verdict.

There have been several blogs covering the trial; the comprehensive SheridanTrial blog is probably the best of the bunch.

The crown case was based on what appears to be fairly convincing evidence given in court (as detailed in  the blogs above and elsewhere). The original newspaper reports about his personal life forced him to quit as leader of the Scottish Socialist Party; he sued for defamation and won £200,000 from the News of the World. It now turns out that he lied in order to win that case.

The strange things about suing newspapers is that it just throws fuel onto the fire. I cannot remember hearing about the original allegations about him until his successful case against the News of the World.

What really got my goat today was the statement read on Sheridan's behalf by his solicitor. There was no contrition, no admittance of wrong doing; instead it was a polemic against the News of the World. I am no fan of that particular rag, but complaining about the state spending money investigating your crime whilst throwing mud at your victim is utterly wrong.

The parallels with the Aitken and Archer cases perjury cases are obvious. I think it will become especially hard for politicians to sue newspapers for defamation in the future. This can only be a bad thing.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

A new project

For some time now, I have been itching for a new project; something that would stretch me both physically and mentally. The big problem is that, having walked over 6,200 miles in a year, any project would have to be truly ginormous.

One of the biggest regrets I have about my Coastwalk was that I did not manage to walk for 100 days without a rest day - in the end my best was 91 days, from October 1st to December 31st. After that, charity obligations and general wear and tear on my body caused me to take regular rest days.

I know I can cover long distances over time, and therefore something like Land's End to John O'Groats holds no real appeal, especially as I did it twice during my coastal walk. A round of the Munros would be another challenge, but I would rather savour those and tackle them over time. Besides, every man and his dog is doing a round, and I want to do something more individual.

I had an idea whilst I was soaking in the bath a while ago; it was the sort of brainwave that most ordinary (i.e. not insane) people would immediately ignore. It is an idea that will challenge me both physically and mentally, and will have severe logistical problems.

The concept is simple, and can be summarised in a few rules:
  1. To walk for 100 days
  2. To walks a continuous route and not a series of small circles.
  3. To walk every day
  4. To complete at least one mile every hour of the day.

The idea comes from Captain Robert Barclay Allardice who, in 1809, walked one mile every hour for 1,000 hours, or 42 days. More information on him can be found at the celebrated pedestrian website. Walther Thom's book, 'Pedestrianism', can be read on Google Books. The feat has been done many times since, including for Flora before the London Marathon in 2003.

It sounds simple, but the killer is that fourth rule. If I walk at three miles an hour, then I would only be able to get 80 minutes sleep at any one time. For instance, I would be able to walk from 12.00 to 12.20, then sleep from 12.20 to 13.40, and walk from 13.40 to 14.00. Naturally enough, the amount of time spent asleep would be less than this. The faster I walk, the more I can sleep.

My plan would more than double the task, as well as adding extra complexities.

Sleep deprivation is the obvious problem. Whereas Captain Allardice walked continually around Newmarket Heath; I would be walking on roads and in the countryside. This would bring in obvious safety problems, including where I could safely lay my head for a kip. There would not necessarily be any shelter, so I would have to have some form of rapidly-erected shelter. Repeating a  circular route, as others have done, allows you to have somewhere permanently set up to sleep.

Say I need four hours (240 minutes) of sleep every 24-hours; that would mean I could spend the night in the following splits:
23.00 to 23.20 walk
23.20 to 00.40 sleep  80 minutes
00.40 to 01.20 walk
01.20 to 02.40 sleep 80 minutes
02.40 to 03.20 walk
03.20 to 04.40 sleep 80 minutes

Thus giving me 240 minutes sleep, and having walked six miles in that time. If I need more sleep then the routine could be extended.

Sleep will cause other problems. My schedule would be unalterable, which would mean that I would have to sleep wherever I am at the required times, or otherwise wait until time allows. Another obvious problem is how to ensure that I wake up in time to do the next mile; easy if I have support, almost impossible if I try the walk on my own. If I do this to set some form of record, then I would need to get verification of my sleep times and distances.

Many of these problems could be fixed by having a support vehicle, but then the driver(s) would face similar sleep problems.

For these reasons, this is really a non-starter. There is just too much that could go wrong to believe that there is a realistic chance of success. The physical and mental stress would be tremendous the longer the walk goes on.

It is, however, a non-starter that keep on popping into my mind. Which, given my history for trying mad schemes, is worrying...

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Hysterical journalism

The media narrative on the snow is becoming quite hysterical. Of course it is easy for me to say this, as the snow down here in Southampton has not been particularly bothersome. They are all at it: the BBC, Sky and the newspapers, hand-wringing and asking why 'we' (by which they mean anyone but themselves) cannot cope with snow.

Take BBC News 24 on Monday afternoon. They interviewed a spokeswoman for the Burlington International Airport in Vermont, who claimed with pride that their airport rarely closed due to snow. The presenter did not ask any particularly pertinent questions, and seemed keen to push blame onto BAA, the company that operates Heathrow.

So I thought that I would look up Burlington International Airport. The link shows that in 2008 the airport performed 72,189 individual aircraft operations.

Compare this with Heathrow, which had 466,393 individual aircraft operations in 2009. As can be seen, Heathrow is six times as busy with only two runways. This means that Heathrow is far busier, and has less slack for doing maintenance of runways, taxiways and stands between flights. Indeed, Heathrow is operating at 98% of capacity. This means that there even the slightest delay to operations can cascade down. What is amazing about Heathrow is that they manage to run services as well as they do.

Again as a comparison, Birmingham Airport had 101,221 flights in 2009.

True, things could have been done better. But I am getting fed up with journalists - many of whom have had no experience of engineering - criticising things they have little idea of.

Take a common complaint: that the organisations involved (the airlines, the airports or the railway companies) do not give enough information out. This complaint assumes one massively important thing, and that is that the organisations *know* what the situation is. Snowfall in Britain can be hard to predict, both in when it falls, the severity and the duration. We must all have driven and seen heavy snow lying in one area, and green fields just a few miles away.

The BAA people will be spending all their time trying to get as many planes in the air as possible, and the situation must be extremely fluid. Planes take time to clear, and the authorities will not know with any certainty which plane might be the next to be ready to go. Therefore it must be next to impossible to tell an individual passenger when his plane will be leaving.

There is one thing that I find amazing: that passengers were left on a plane for hours after it had left the gate. This was wrong, and should be avoided in the future. Again, this can be easier said than done. It would be interesting to see where the fault for that lies. Was it the airline or BAA who made those passengers suffer?

Much credit to Channel 4's seven o'clock news, whose reporting and criticisms appear to be much more valid. Having said that, they did broadcast an interview with an American lady last night who said that the travel chaos were similar to the images she had seen of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yeah, right. A few people getting delayed or changing their travel plans is anything like a disaster where 1,800 people died and thousands lost their homes. Some people need to get a sense of perspective...

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The shortest day

So it is the shortest day. For the next six months the days get longer, and there is more time to walk each day.

It is a day for rejoicing.

Monday, 20 December 2010

The end of cheques

This story on the BBC News website explains the plan to bring cheques to an end by 2018. The plan was for the cheque clearing house - which manages the payments between banks - will be disbanded in that year.

I think it is a terrible idea.

Let us make one thing clear: banks hate cheques. They cost money to process. In the past they could hold onto the interest payments on the money whilst cheques cleared, but that practice has come under direct criticism recently.

Retailers also hate cheques. Cheques take time to clear, meaning the retailers do not get the money instantly, as they do with card payments.

The fact that cheques are inconvenient for both banks and retailers means that they are under direct existential threat. Earlier in the year BBC News ran a piece saying that the number of cheques being used has decreased massively. And so it has, but I disagree with their conclusion. One of the biggest reasons why the usage of cheques have decreased is that increasing numbers of retailers are refusing to accept them. Every petrol station I visit seems to have signs up saying they no longer accept cheques; some major retailers do the same.

This is a shame, as cheques are of advantage to one category of person: the consumer. I use cheques for a small number of set tasks: I pay my credit card off every month in full by sending them a cheque, and I use cheques for other tasks as well (usually for sums below the payment protection limit of my credit card), or for giving gift money to my friends, nephews and nieces (cheques being safer through the post than cash or vouchers). Cheques give the consumer an extra choice in how they pay.

I am technically literate, but I use my on-line banking as little as possible. My affairs are simple enough so that I do not need to do routine maintenance (e.g. transfers between accounts) too often. If I need to check balances on my current account then I just nip into the cashpoint when I am at the shops. For one thing I know enough to be nervous about Internet banking security.

But the situation is much worse for the elderly, people who have been using cheques all their lives and are not technically literate. As an example, I saw an elderly lady at the cashpoint inside the local Co-Op (which is, incidentally, stupidly situated by the queue for the tills where anyone can watch people using the machine). She got her cashcard out of her purse, along with a slip of paper that had her pin number on. I could even read the numbers on it, and watched her tap them in. Such a lady would be much more secure in using cheques.

The closure of the cheque clearing house would be to the disadvantage of consumers. For this reason alone cheques should be allowed to continue.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Being a tourist

A few weeks ago Şencan and I found ourselves in Derbyshire. It was the first time that I had been there for some years outside of Christmas, weddings or funerals, and we had a couple of spare days to do some exploring.

You may have noticed that I love Kinder Scout, yet it has been years since I was last wading through the peat. I have longed to show Şencan the plateau for some time, so we arrived at the virtually empty car park at Edale on a beautifully clear day. Unfortunately it was blowing a gale, and it would only have been worse at altitude. If I had been on my own then I would have gone up, but I wanted to show her my favourite area in good weather.

So instead we wimped out and went to explore the Peak District. It is an area that I know like the back of my hand, and it was good to share my enthusiasm with someone else. We walked down to the viaduct from Monsal Head and visited Castleton, Buxton and Bakewell before eventually heading back to my parents' house.

I have strolled across many parts of the country over the past eleven years, and have enjoyed discovering much of what this wonderful country has to offer. Yet I am always aware that I see a small, linear picture of what lies within a short distance of my route. When walking I rarely stop to visit museums or local attractions, or even just wander down lanes to see where they end. I am focussed solely on the walking, on reaching my objective. In doing so, I miss a great deal. My impressions of a place can be rendered utterly false.

Which is where those few days opened my eyes. I study the maps before I visit an area of the country, seeing where the best walks are. In the past I have even fitted walks in amongst my working life, arranging off-site meetings so that I can go walking afterwards - a particularly easy task in summer. I could have spent the time exploring the area instead of going hell-bent on walks.

So perhaps I should forget about walking every day, and instead spend some time exploring. Take the car to a random town, park up and spend the day walking around. I could easily walk ten to fifteen miles in such a way, and also immerse myself much more in an area.

Or perhaps I shall just walk.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Moore and Heisenberg

In 1965 Gordon Moore, one of Intel's co-founders, wrote a paper stating that the number of individual switches (transistors) on an integrated circuit was doubling roughly every eighteen to twenty-four months. This was soon known as Moore's Law, and remarkably his prediction has held true ever since. Today's unbelievably fast modern processors are roughly twice as large - and complex - as those of two years ago. The greater the complexity, and the smaller the components, the faster a chip can operate. It has other side effects as well; in the case of computer memory, more transistors can be fitted on the same-size memory chip.

The end of Moore's Law has been predicted since at least the early eighties, yet it has never come to pass. Each time a limitation has been approached, engineers have improved processes to shuffle them back. Unfortunately this will not continue forever. In a previous post, I wrote about how the speed of light was becoming a limitation in the clock speed - and therefore the size - of computer chips.

There are several other limitations, perhaps the most fundamental of which is something called Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. This is a complex topic that can perhaps best be described as follows: it is impossible to know to any certainty the position and momentum of an individual particle to any certainty. If that sounds confusing, then consider the following.

You have a simple light switch. Flick it into one position, and bulb 1 will light. Flick it into the second position, and bulb 2 will light. As long as a mechanical or electrical problem do not interrupt the circuit, then you can always guarantee that the correct bulb will light according to the switch position.

Unfortunately, a man called Werner Heisenberg worked out in 1927 that this consistency does not hold at the level of an individual electron or other particle. This is unimportant at the scale of a light switch, as other factors massively outweigh the uncertainty. As computer chips get smaller, however, the individual transistors get smaller and the uncertainty principle will start to have effect. Taking the analogy above, you could flick the switch without knowing with any certainty which bulb will light. Obviously this is a very bad thing for chips.

Today I came across a short article in the August 2008 Proceedings of the IEEE, entitled 'The Quantum Limits to Moore's Law' (available to subscribers on the IEEE website). In it, the author performs calculations to show when, if Moore's Law continues to hold, that the uncertainty limit will be reached. There is little point in reproducing the equations here, but the end result is noteworthy: if chip technology was altered to use electron spin as a transistor (a technology demonstrated in labs, but a long way from production) then the uncertainty limit would be reached in 2036.

It should be noted that this is a best-case estimate; there are many other physical limitations, such as heat and noise (*), that could stop chips from getting more powerful. As noted above, however, engineers have proved remarkably adept at pushing these physical limitations.

As might be seen, I am fascinated by the ultimate limitations to the amazing technology that we have today. Perhaps the most important of these is in no way physical, but cost: it may simply cost too much to work around.  When this happens the engineers will have to look elsewhere in their never-ending quest for more speed.

(*) There are many types of electronic noise. Particularly important with respect to chips is thermal noise: this is is the noise generated by the equilibrium fluctuations of the electric current inside an electrical conductor, which happens regardless of any applied voltage, due to the random thermal motion of electrons in the conducting medium. (from This noise can cause problems both in the circuit itself, and in adjacent circuits.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Dirk Gently (and not his holistic detective agency)

Last night Sencan and I watched the BBC 4 adaptation of Douglas Adams' 'Dirk Gently's Detective Agency'. This book has a very different tone to Douglas's Adam famous work, the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, yet is very popular amongst fans. If you have not read the book and want to know the true genius of Adams' work, then read the plot synopsis at the Wiki link above. Only Adams could link time travel, Coleridge, the Big Bang and saving the entire Human race from extinction.

We saw the adaptation immediately after seeing 'The voyage of the Dawn Treader' at the cinema, making it truly a voyage back into my childhood and teenage years. Both are wonderful if flawed books, with concepts that at times stretch the mind.

The protagonist is Dirk Gently, a university drop-out who now works as a detective. Instead of looking for clues like other detectives, Gently collects seemingly random events and determines the connections between them, solving cases by forming conclusions that are as impossible as they are correct. This central concept of the book - the fundamental interconnectedness of all things - is thankfully at the core of the adaptation.

The book's Dirk Gently is an impossibly eccentric character. The Green Wing's Stephen Mangan played Gently with a certain panache, and it is hard to think of an actor who could have done a better job. It was a solid piece of comic acting.

Yet fans of the book would find significant problems with the adaptation. Dirk Gently's right-hand man, Richard MacDuff, is portrayed as an unemployed layabout, whilst in the book he is a well-paid, highly competent software engineer. You can imagine why I believe that this is a retrograde step. TV seems to think that all software engineers are geeks, and therefore treats them as comedy items.This is doubly tragic as Adams was a well-known techno-head, and it was obvious in the book that he favoured the MacDuff character.

It would have been impossible to condense all the concepts in the book into a one-hour TV program. It would make a great two-hour film, but this adaptation felt more than a little rushed. In particular, some of the most important plot threads were missing. It did not feature a major character called the electric monk (aside from a fleeting mention on a whiteboard). This was a particular shame, as the monk was one of Adams' better creations.

Many other beloved features from the book were missing. For instance, Dirk Gently's hat and the sofa stuck on a stairwell. The references to Schrodinger's cat in the adaptation appears to have been stuffed in, and had none of the plot importance that it had in the book.

It was also clear that the adaptation suffered from a low budget. This was most obvious during a scene where a warehouse blew up - the CGI of the actors leaping out of the way was farcically poor, similar to countless amateur scenes on YouTube. Likewise, some of the sets were noticeably of low quality.

The humour helped take my mind off these flaws. There were many truly comedic moments; for instance when Dirk Gently develops a twinge in his shoulder and goes to see MacDuff's girlfriend (ably played by Helen Baxendale). These laughs had more to do with Mangan's acting than the squeezed plot or writing.

This adaptation will have fans disappointed and everyone else utterly confused. Unfortunately the magic of the books was somewhat lost as the plot was squeezed and malformed into the TV format. But perhaps that is for the best, as Adams' original plot was convoluted to say the least. The resultant simplification of the plot may just have made it accessible to the general public.

It felt like a pilot; a program that desperately wanted to be part of a series. If so, then I can only hope that we see more of Dirk Gently sometime soon. And please, please include the electric monk...

Thursday, 16 December 2010

RIP The Harrier

So RIP the Harrier jump-jet, which made its final operational sortie with the RAF yesterday (*).

The Harrier was a great British invention, one that was admirably embraced and extended by the Americans in the form of the updated Harrier II.

I have seen Harriers fly many times, both at airshows and, more spectacularly, whilst walking in the hills. The exhilaration I felt as they flew past - and on one occasion below - me through the valleys was quite something.

So perhaps it is fitting to show a Harrier taking a final bow.

My heart wishes for these planes to be kept flying. My head tells me that the writing was on the wall after the retirement of the Sea Harrier in 2006. They shall be missed.

(*) Absent from the news reports was that the fact that the Harrier is still operated by other countries - for instance Italy, India and Spain.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

New PC

On Friday my Christmas present from Şencan arrived. It is a new PC, which will take us up to a grand total of 7 PCs in our house:
  • My old main PC: a top spec, circa 2004. Still in good working order. Runs XP.
  • My old laptop, circa 2004. Still usable, but not as a portable (battery problems)
  • Sencan's old PC, circa 2005. Ordered on this walk. Runs XP
  • Sencan's laptop, ordered 2007 to give her a portable computer when she was changing jobs down to Southampton. Runs Vista.
  • Sencan's current PC, circa 2009. Runs Windows 7. Bought to allow her to use software that requires a high-powered PC.
  • My current laptop, circa  2009. An Acer 3810T running Windows 7, it is proving troublesome but has excellent battery life. I shall replace this the moment they produce a significantly updated version.
  • My new desktop PC power machine. Runs Windows 7. It has 8GB memory, an Intel i7 870 processor and a 2GB Raid-0 striped hard drive.
Additional to these are several old PC's (Wintel and Acorn) that I have in storage in the garage. These are of use only for archaeological investigations.

In the ancient past (the 1990s) I constructed several PCs for myself, friends and families from components (bought from various places including Cambridge Computer Supplies, which has its own story). It was fun and relatively straightforward - the hardest task was fine-fettling the settings to maximise the speed.

Now, however, the thought frightens me. A modern PC has virtually nothing in common with the PC from ten years ago. What is more, there is no longer a great saving to be had from constructing it yourself. I was tempted to make my own machine this time, if only to learn the way they are made nowadays.

However, a quick price-up of the components showed that a machine of the spec I have ordered would cost about sixty pounds more than buying one direct from Dell. Add in the time and risk of building your own PC, and it was definitely a non-starter.

So I have my new toy humming away upstairs as data is transferred from my external storage. The adventure starts...

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Internet security

Nowdays many websites require users to login to access their content. Users tend to be aware of security when it comes to banks, but they think less about their security when it comes to the thousands of other websites they can access - from blogs to the Times.

Recently Gawker Media had their user database hacked, and details of the 1.3 million accounts are now available on many servers. They run many on-line services, including Gizmodo, a tech gadgets website.

The passwords are all encrypted, but that does not mean that they are safe from what is called brute-force attacks. I, of course, never use (say) DavidCotton or 17021971 (my name and my date of birth [*]) as my passwords. But I may be tempted to use dictionary words instead, especially when they are easy to remember.

Programmer John Graham-Cumming has downloaded the hacked list and found seventeen people he knew on the list. After informing them first, he quickly guessed the passwords of three of them.

Some of the accounts have been compromised. Over 3,000 people had a password of '123456', and an amazing 1900 people used 'password' as a password. Details can be found on his blog.

Please, please, please use better passwords than this. Use this opportunity to think of all the Internet sites that you regularly use and change the passwords to something more secure. Do not use the same password for more than one site, as that means that if one site is compromised, so are all your accounts that use the same password.

If you have trouble remembering them all, then use a password manager like the excellent KeePass.

If you want to create a memorable password that is relatively secure, then try the following method:
1) Choose a memorable word of six characters as a seed, e.g. 'father'
2) Choose a memorable number, e.g. the year of your mother's birth. Say 1944.
3) Split the number into two, and insert after the second and fourth characters: 'fa19th44er'
4) Make two of the letters uppercase 'Fa19th44Er'
5) Add some punctuation:  'F*a19th44E&r'

This may seem complex, but it is remarkably easy to remember several passwords using this sort of system. Feel free to change it; for instance where you insert the numbers within the seed word. To make it easier, you can make the word something related to the website. For instance, on Blogger you could use 'Dashboard' as the seed word, which is at the top of the page whenever I go to

This may not work for you. But please use secure passwords. If you do not, then you are making the hackers' jobs easy.

[*] Naturally enough, that is not my real birthdate. Also do not tell anyone your technique for generating the passwords; the one detailed above is quite different from the one that I use.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Charities, insults and achievements

During the so-called research for my blog post on Mark Beaumont's book 'The man who cycled the world', I came across an interesting rant from Julian Sayarer, who himself made a successful attempt on the round-the-world cycle record.

In it, he says about Mark Beaumont:
... I have no respect for him. I regard him as a lifeform some way inferior to the dead skin that accumulates in the seat of my crotch after three weeks of cycling a desert without washing. We're the same age, we're both politics graduates, and so I feel sufficiently close to a part of his demographic that I feel no desire to make excuses or allowances for him that I would never make for myself.
Which, I must admit, is an entertaining insult. I can only imagine that the contents of the seat of his crotch after three weeks of cycling in a desert would not be pleasant - it is certainly not a pleasant image.

Both men had done amazing things; I certainly could not ride a bike around the world in 365 days, yet alone in under 200. Yet at the end of his ride, Julian Sayarer feels fit to write exceptionally nasty comments about another rider. Beaumont's crime, as far as can be seen from Sayarer's rant, is that he got corporate sponsorship and now continues to be an 'ambassador' for one of those multinational companies. Which are, as far as I can see, hardly capital crimes.

All Sayarer's rant has done is debase his own achievement. He may well have a point about adventuring, charity and corporate sponsorship, but they get lost in his ill-judged rant.

So I, who has done nothing as incredible as these two men, and has not 'earned' the right to insult anyone, will say this to Sayarer: you may not like the choices that someone else has made in life, but respect their achievements. Acting like a petulant child debases your own remarkable achievement. Then again, I doubt you care what I think.

Charity and adventuring seem to go hand-in-hand. Years ago my mum and sister were at an antiques fair whilst I was walking the Pennine Way. My reasons for walking it were personal: I had been told that I would never walk properly again, and my last operation had been just over a year before. I had spent my teenage years in a great deal of pain, and the Pennine Way felt like a good way of proving my recovery. Walking for a charity never even entered my thoughts: I was doubtful that I could complete the trail, and the entire focus of the walk was the challenge I was setting myself.

Whilst at the fair, my mum and sister told another lady about my walk. She asked what charity I was walking for, and when they replied I was not walking for charity, the woman got angry. Essentially, she asked how dare I not walk for charity?

This attitude stung me, and I walked for the excellent RDA on a couple of walks. Yet  it has always felt somewhat wrong, as the fundraising has always been a side task to the actual walk. Frankly, it would be hard to persuade me to walk for charity again. I can only imagine what Sayarer would have to say about that.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Book review: "The man who cycled the world", by Mark Beaumont

To misquote Douglas Adams:
"The World is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to the World."
So Mark Beaumont found when he set off to break the record for cycling around the world in 2007. Over 194 days he cycled 18,297 miles, beating the existing record by an amazing 81 days. "The man who cycled the world" details his adventures.

His story is written in an eminently readable manner, and the intensity of the task can be seen on virtually every page. The book was gripping despite it being clear from the start that he did indeed break the record - a neat trick. The ride increasingly takes over his life as he progresses, and the task of riding 100 miles every day becomes his obsession.

He rode unsupported, i.e. he carried all of his own gear; tent, food, water, spares for the bike and a multitude of other items. Sometimes this was a real problem, especially on the couple of occasions when the wheel rims on his bike started to crack, making it impossible to tighten the spokes and balance the wheel. A broken wheel is of no use when you are a thousands miles from the nearest bike shop.

Beaumont is robustly honest about his own failings in the book - his main aim was to break the record, not to do many other things that can go along with such a ride. In some ways he does not come across very well, but that is just a sign of his unfailing honesty. It is hard to remain sociable when giving your all to a dream.

The constant slogging routine of his ride does not, on the face of it, make for a gripping book. Yet there is a variety in the places he camps overnight, and his feelings about them mean that each day seems fresh and vivid. At times he comes across as whining slightly, but that can be forgiven, and he cannot be criticised for giving an accurate description of his feelings and experiences.

Which brings me onto another point: he met several other round-the-world cyclists on route, and they were all taking far longer over it. He ignored most of the sights and sounds on his route and concentrated on piling on the miles. Which is all good and well for a record attempt, but poor for experiencing the places he was travelling through. He did have some memorable moments, however, like an exhilaratingly-described dune-buggy ride through the American desert. These are in the minority, however, and much of this book reads as an example of why not to try for a world record.

The tone of the book is varied. Most was written in a day-by-day manner, as if it was a diary, although thankfully it was relatively seamless. Towards the end, however, he does separate the journey out into days, and details the vast distances that remain to be covered before the end. This change in tone worked remarkably well and added some drama to the end of the book.

He experiences the best and worst of people during his ride, but he learns a great deal about himself. He finds that being social in the evening dramatically reduced the distance he could cycle the next day, to the extent that  he refused most companionship offered to him in America. He details with brutal honesty the way his thinking changed over the months, until at the end he is insular and withdrawn.

His troubles always seem to occur where he least expects them: he makes his way through Iran and Pakistan without incident, yet gets hit by a car and mugged on the same day in the USA. He planned the early part of his ride through the Far East in detail, yet discovered that Australia and America - which he had expected to be easy - needed far more research.

It is interesting to compare this book with a similar walking book. Walking is by its very nature a slow business, meaning that you only experience one type of scenery or culture for extended periods. Covering a hundred miles every day meant that Beaumont had constantly new experiences, and could compare them with ease. His descriptions of his journey from Europe, through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and India details the differences in the cultures far better than any travel guide. Someone walking a similar route would probably not notice the change in quite the same way; someone driving it would be isolated from much of it.

One minor point: the book could have done with a strict edit in places. For instance, in the first chapter he repeatedly mentions a woman called Heather, but leaves it hanging about who she is. Is he his girlfriend, sister or friend? Only in the next chapter do you learn that she is his sister. A minor point, true, but the sort of thing that has you flicking back through the pages to find out, only to find she was not mentioned.

The best thing about this book is the realisation that Beaumont is no heroic superman (although he certainly seems like one at the end); he is just a normal guy who had never done a road race in his life. His previous experience of riding had been a few tours through Europe. He faced a severe learning curve. If he could do it, then perhaps we all could.

It is perhaps inevitable that Mark Beaumont's record no longer stands - it has been beaten by three British men, including the current holder, Vin Cox. We seem to have a stranglehold on this peculiar form of endurance cycling |(if not manners). Perhaps now that Britannia can no longer rule the world, we choose to ride it instead.

I award this book 4 out of 5 stars, and his effort 5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Student riots

I went for a walk on Thursday, and therefore missed watching any of the fun in London.

These protests have done the students' cause no end of harm. The general public do not like to see violence, and some of the things done on Thursday evening were fairly sickening, and even managed to knock the X-Factor off the front pages of the tabloids. Yet another defacement of Churchill's statue, the climbing of the Cenotaph and setting the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square alight are bad enough, without considering the attack on Charles and Camilla's car. The photo of Camilla's face within the car will become the image of the protests, and will permanently detract from the protester's message.

The University of London Union President, Clare Solomon appeared on BBC Breakfast News on Friday morning and totally failed to condemn any of the violence performed by the students. Instead, she concentrated on accusing the police of violence. She displayed a breathtaking blindness when it came to the violent acts committed by the rioters, which was all too obvious on TV. Her position is absolutely untenable. In comparison Aaron Porter, the President of the NUS, has condemned the violence. This shows a significant split within the student body, and is a sign that events have spiralled out of the NUS's control.

What really gets my goat is Labour's - and Ed Miliband's - non-position on this. Labour brought in tuition fees (and in the process suffered a far greater rebellion than the Lib Dem's did on Thursday), and broke their commitments on at least three occasions. For some reason the protesters seem to be forgetting about that. Miliband has failed to say what he would have done instead; indeed he has been at odds with his shadow chancellor over the benefits of a graduate tax. Then, to cap it all, he refused to say what he would do about tuition fees if he came to power. Yet he is getting an easy ride.

It is obvious that these protests have little to do with student funding - it appears more to do with protesting against the coalition government. A number of students (some of whom seem old enough to be parents of students themselves) have been on TV and radio claiming that they not only wanted to prevent the increase in tuition fees, but also the cuts in general. Unfortunately, it seems that many of the protesters will not be happy until they have a Labour government back in.

For this reason, I think we shall see much more of this in the next few years. Time to buy shares in glazing companies, perhaps?

Friday, 10 December 2010

MMORPG and reality.

In recent years, massively multi-player on-line role-playing game (MMORPG)'s have taken off in a big way. These are computer games where large numbers of players interact online in a virtual world.

There are many MMORPG's; Ultima Online (a pioneer), the famous World of Warcraft, and many others. They can vary from virtual worlds very much like our own, to fictional environments where players battle each other (including my favourite, the charming Travian).

Some of these games are now so large that they are starting to mirror real life social interactions. For instance, many players take these games so seriously that in-game virtual money becomes valuable in the real world. Gold farming is where players deliberately invoke features of the game to gain virtual money, which is then sold in the real world. One firm made millions of dollars using this mechanism. Some estimates are that there are at least 400,000 people involved with gold farming worldwide, in an industry worth a staggering $1 billion. However, because of the secretive nature and quasi-legality of this industry, these figures are hard to verify.

EVE Online was first pointed out to me by a friend. It is a massive multiplayer space game, where players join massive corporations to fight and trade against each other. I have never played this game, if only because I know I would quickly become addicted...

Last year Eve Online suffered a fraud. The game has in-game banks where the virtual currency is managed. The controllers of one of the banks stole 200bn kredits and swapped them for real world cash of £3,115. This caused a run on the bank as players tried to remove their virtual money from the bank.

As can be seen, this neatly mirrors what sometimes happens in real-life banking crises.

There was a minor controversy in the same game earlier in 2009, when an alliance of corporations called Band of Brothers (a corporation is an amalgamation of players) was disbanded by one of its directors, in what became known as the 'Day of Dissolution'. This was within the rules, and the director immediately moved to another corporation. Again, this can be seen to resemble certain real-life events such as industrial espionage.

I foresee this trend continuing as MMORPGs become even more involved and detailed. As such, it is interesting to see how it will effect real-life institutions - for instance, could in-game currency movements be used to launder real currencies, and how long will it take before Governments start thinking of taxing in-game revenues?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

So many fonts, so little time

It is east to take for granted the power that modern PCs have placed in the hands of the public.

Take publishing. If I had wanted a pamphlet printing thirty years ago, then I would have limited choices: either hand-draw and photocopy, giving poor quality, or send it to a professional printers to layout and typeset the document before printing.

In the mid-eighties the term DeskTop Publishing, or DTP, was all the rage. This allowed anyone with access to high-end computers to layout documents with fancy fonts, multiple columns and even pictures. This could then be saved into a universal format called Postscript and sent to a professional printing outfit.

Roll on a few years, and the cost of printers decreased as rapidly as the power of computers increased. Instead of the old daisy-wheel or dot-matrix printers, we had laser and inkjets. Anyone could print out whatever leaflets or brochures they required for moderate cost.

Nowadays, of course, the Internet makes it possible to publish whatever you want without recourse to a printer. Yet the power of print - the sheer physicality of having paper in your hands - is awesome, as can be seen by all the political leaflets that dropped through my door in the run-up to the last election.

Yet the democratisation of publishing has led to other problems. One of them is in fonts. Hundreds, even thousands of fonts are available for the aspiring publisher, from Arial to WingDings. And this is a problem. Faced with such a choice, people choose to put many different fonts in their document. At worst this makes a mess, at best it detracts from the message they are trying to send.

It is therefore best to keep the number of fonts down used to a minimum, and only use others when there is a need. When writing on-screen I prefer Arial, which has a clear form on screen. When coding, the monospaced Courier is my favourite. Of the hundreds of fonts available to me in Word, I generally only ever use a couple.

Anyone wanting to print something for public consumption should try to learn a little about how the professional compose text. There are many tricks, of which I have learnt a few over the years. Some are obvious, whilst others are counter-intuitive.

For instance, take pictures. Pictures are powerful. Put them in the wrong place, and the readers' eyes will be drawn to it and away from the text that you want them to read. Put them in the right place, and they will lead the reader to the text. (Alternatively, a well-placed picture can be used to draw the reader away from some text that you do not want them to read, such as the legal small-print). 

Modern computers make it exceptionally easy to put presentation over content. That is wrong. If you are going to the bother of presenting something, the content matters. Sure, use eye-candy to get attention if you need it, but make sure that the message is stark and clearly legible.

The message is king.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Poor writing

Şencan pointed out the following paragraph in Stephen Donaldson's book, 'Against All Things Ending'.
... Her encounter with Viles informed her health-sense. She had experienced the eldritch paresthesia. She could not see the meaning of the strands; but she could hear that they had meaning. She could smell the austere suzerainty which had suffused their creation ...
This feels like a good example of poor writing.

Why? It depends on what you think of the purpose of writing. The best writing can be used to inform or entertain, and often both. Yet it should never be just to laud the intelligence of the writer over the reader.

Writing should be accessible to as many readers as possible, yet not treat them as though they are simple. The best writing should challenge the readers with concepts rather than words; after all, the grandest concepts can always be explained with skilfully applied simple words.

The type of writing depends on your audience. My writing suffers from my career in computer software; not just in terms of over use of passive voice (always a problem for technical writers), but also in the fact that I use technical terms that I assume people will understand. I always try to explain terms as simply as possible, but it is a hard task. One of the advantages of blogging is that you can always add links to complex words or terms.

Similarly, writing for children should be simpler than that for adults. JK Rowling breaks many of the unofficial rules of writing in her Harry Potter series (e.g. 'she squealed excitedly'), but her writing style works brilliantly well for children.

There is no problem with using long and convoluted words such as 'paresthesia', 'eldritch' and 'convoluted', but it is best to explain their meaning first; a skilful writer can subtly educate the reader in this manner. Too many writers use complicated words as a way of showing off, bigging themselves up over their readers.

For instance, is 'She had experienced the eldritch paresthesia.' really better than 'The eerie, prickling sensation crawled over her skin.'? It is actually hard to know, as it is difficult to decipher exactly what Donaldson meant in his original sentence.

Donaldson is making himself appear big-headed and turning off the reader.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Not that I'm addicted to Red Bull, but...

... this was my desk when I worked at Pace.

 And yes, the cubical partitions were pink.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Welcome to the Jeremy Kyle show (Romsey edition)

At about 15.00 on Saturday I went to the local Co-Op store to get a few things for dinner. Everything was going swimmingly until I emerged to hear a dog whimpering. Two dogs were tied up near the door, and five youths were throwing snowballs at them from just a few feet away.

I asked them 'Do you have to do that?' or words to that effect. I did not swear or overly raise my voice. The next thing I knew one of the youths - a good six inches shorter than me - stepped over, put two hands on my chest and shoved me backwards before turning away

That is all; nothing else happened, but it is remarkable how shaken and annoyed I was afterwards. It was very minor violence, but I had a bottle of wine in my rucksack, and I very nearly went backwards into the wall of the shop. The ground was still icy, and so it would have been easy for me to slip.

Instead of confronting them I went back into the shop and asked a member of staff to come out with me. By the time we emerged the youths were on the other side of the road, walking away.

Absolute scum.

Sunday, 5 December 2010


Being 6'2" and fairly strapping, I can in no way be called small. However, I am also not unusually tall. This makes the situation with lightweight tents annoying.

Most lightweight tents I have tried seem to have been designed for people less than six feet tall. My feet and head both touch the fabric, despite the blurb showing them as being okay for my height. This is perhaps because most tents are oddly shaped - the area is measured at ground level, but the sloping ends and sides mean that the length and area decrease rapidly as you go up the tent. Some lightweight tents have more complex shapes, but the same fact seems to hold true.
The Westwind in the garden at Fron Haul

This is part of the reason why my favourite tent for backpacking is still the (relatively) heavy and large North Face Westwind, which I have used for eleven years now. The Westwind is easily long enough for me to lie in without my feet or head touching the ends, granting me a comfortable night's sleep. There is also enough headroom so that I can sit up to get dressed without shuffling half-out of the tent.

It does have downsides - the porch area is tiny and awkwardly shaped, and the bright yellow colouring makes wild camping more of a gamble.

So here is a tentative proposal: currently many tent manufacturers give outlines of the ground area of their tent, along with stick figures (some three-man tents have the figures lying head-to-toe in rows - quite how anyone can sleep next to another walker's smelly socks is beyond me). What they should do is give the maximum length of person that can fit into the tent without touching either end; i.e. at about a foot or eighteen inches above the ground level.

Of course this will make tents appear smaller than they really are, and therefore any manufacturer who does it would be at a disadvantage. For this reason it probably will never happen.

I am still waiting to find a lightweight tent (1.5 kg or lighter) in which I can comfortably fit. Perhaps I am a wimp, but comfort is important to me when camping. And no, I won't consider a tarp.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Christmas cards

It is the time of year when I go searching the shops for Christmas cards to send to our friends. We still have a large stock from last year, but I like to buy afresh each year (I should really buy them in the sales in January, but that requires a level of organisation that I have not yet achieved).

We have a few friends who are religious, and it is nice to send them religiously-themed cards. And you know what? Looking through several shops, we found only one multipack of cards with a religious theme. There were plenty of snowy scenes, Robins, Santas and the like, but virtually none the depict the actual reason for Christmas - religion.

Clintons Cards, Waitrose and the two local newsagents were the same - a near-total absence of religion.

Even though I am not religious, I think this is a shame. Millions of people in the UK are religious, and it appears as though they are not being catered for.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Walking in winter

I love walking in winter.

The rewards of a winter walk are manyfold: the hills are quieter with fewer people traipsing about; B&Bs are cheaper out of season; and the skies can be gloriously clear. Best of all, you do not have to get up at some ungodly hour to see spectacular sunrises.

Compare it to the summer: hills teeming with people only willing to walk a mile from their cars; sweltering hot days where you sweat yourself to an early grave and campsites that charge you an arm and a leg for a tiny pitch.

A few walkers I know put their boots away in September and only get them out again in March. I understand their reasons, but mourn their loss. Some of my favourite walks have been done in winter; I shall never forget a particularly memorable day spent gambolling through knee-deep snow on Kinder Scout.

True, it is cold, but an extra layer of clothing can easily fix that. Meet winter hikers in pubs and the conversation will invariably turn to base layers, fleeces, hats and gloves. People will show off their latest warming acquisitions with pride.

The largest problem is the short hours of daylight and the corresponding long, dreary nights. Saying that, it is easily possible to walk more than twenty miles on good terrain with a couple of short stops, and the lack of daylight forces you onwards. If you are worried about being benighted, then choose shorter walks. Instead of a fifteen-miler, do a shorter ten-miler and spend longer in the pub at the end.

My wife is an archetypal Mediterranean lady; she loves the sun and starts to go numb when the temperature drops below fifteen degrees. Despite this, I am slowly converting her to the joys of winter walking. I doubt I shall succeed in getting her to camp in winter though - she has more sense than that.

I really love the winter.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The World cup

So England have not won the right to host the 2018 World Cup.

I have one thing to say about this:


Browser wars

For the last fifteen years or so, there has been a series of wars in the web browser market. It has been going on quietly in the background, occasionally flaring up into the news headlines. It has been bitter, with verbal rather than physical combat. Their have been victims, browsers that have been abandoned to turn into dust.

The original mass-market browser was Netscape (itself based on Mosaic, one of the first web browsers). Netscape had over 90% of the browser market in the 1990s, but this declined rapidly as Microsoft's free Internet Explorer browser took the lion's share of the market from 1995. Netscape only released a free version of their browser in 1998, far too late to reverse the decline.

It should be noted that Microsoft's success was not just down to the fact it was offered free with all Windows PCs; Netscape made a rod for their own back by trying to pack features into their browser, adding many bugs in the process. IE also made large steps forward in functionality, but without so many bugs. In the end there was only one real choice for a PC browser: IE.

After the release of IE 6 in August 2001, Microsoft made what must be one of their largest tactical mistakes: they disbanded the IE development team. Although it is hard to believe through the vestiges of time, IE 6 was a good browser. However, the lack of development meant that it soon became dated.

The next version, IE 7, was not released until 2006; this gave MS's competitors five years to develop their browsers. In the meantime, MS's corporate customers got used to IE 6, a bond that is still proving difficult to break (some figures have IE6 at 16% of the browser market; my own website over the last month shows that a small 6% of users used IE6). As a result, although IE is still by far the most popular browser, it is not the best, or to be fair the most modern. IE9 is far better than previous attempts, but is still lacking in some areas when compared to, for instance, Chrome.

Over the last couple of years, this war has moved onto a new battlefield; mobile devices. All the major players in the browser market are hurriedly making browsers that work on mobile devices, although this is queered by two factors: the desktop dominates IE's userbase, and Apple locks down their systems making it hard for other browsers to work on their devices.

If you read the tech forums, then many of these browsers have their fans, and many hot words are said for and against them. Poor old IE, however, gets scorn and derision heaped upon it. Some of this is deserved; much of it is not. The truth is that any modern browser can do virtually everything that a home user would want, and these flame wars are based on things that only techies are interested in. The average end-user cares little if his on-line video is delivered by Flash, H264, MP4, or Theora; they just want to watch the video without interruption.

All the talk of standards, formats and speed are not as vital as crash-free browsing. There is no real difference in browsing, say, the BBC News website in any of the major browsers. A 10% difference in speed of loading will hardly be noticed, but a crash will. The browser vendors will forget that at their peril. In the consumer market, stability rules.

The browser wars have had positive effects. The first browser war gave us free browsers and choice. The second is pushing forward the capabilities of the web at a frightening pace, making it possible to do all sorts of magical things (e.g. Google Maps et al).

The third war is on mobile platforms, and the battle is only just heating up The winner is hard to see: Apple and Google are the two major competitors, with radically differing approaches.  Microsoft is playing catch-up, but is hindered by its historic position in the desktop market.

All do the job well, and the devil is really in the detail. Whichever you choose will almost certainly do what you want. So why not download a couple and try them out? You have choice: use it.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


I am getting slightly fed up with on-line arguments about the meaning of the word 'decimate'

It is a curious word. The original meaning comes from the Roman Army, and refers to the practice of killing 1 in 10 soldiers in cases of mutiny or under-performance, and as such was a supreme example of pour encourager les autres. Although widely used throughout the Roman period, it has been used since. For instance, some parts of the Italian army practised decimation during the First World War. 

However, the word 'decimate' is taking on a whole different meaning. Instead of meaning a removal of 1 in 10, it is now generally used to mean much more than 1 in 10, and sometimes even total obliteration.

Take this page on the BBC about the American Mink:
Inside thsi [sic] beautiful looking creature lurks an indiscriminate killer of birds, fish and small mammals that decimate ground-nesting birds and tackle fish as large as themselves.
I can only assume that the Mink do not count out their victims and kill every tenth one. In this case, it is obviously meant to mean kill many. It is exceptionally easy to find this usage (indeed, it is far more common than the original, 1 in 10 usage).

This leads to a great deal of pedantry, with people insisting that the meaning is the historic one. This is bogus pedantry. For instance, the reference on has the following definitions:

to destroy a great number or proportion of: The populationwas decimated by a plague.
to select by lot and kill every tenth person of.
Obsolete to take a tenth of or from.

As can be seen, the historic form is seen as being obsolete. Merriam Webster more or less agrees (indeed, it does not mention the 'to take a tenth from' meaning. The OED also agrees.

For these reasons, unless you define exactly what you mean, it may be best to avoid the use of 'decimate' if pedants are lurking.