Monday, 28 February 2011


Some people, it seems, never learn. Take the following article about Gary Hart, ten years after he crashed a Land Rover off the M62 and onto a railway line, the direct cause of the Great Heck train crash that killed ten people.

I had some sympathy for Mr Hart at the time - as often with driving accidents, it is a case of there but for the grace of God go I. Anyone who has driven for years must have had moments when tiredness, illness or anger has nearly caused an accident. Mr Hart could probably have made that journey a hundred times without the ill-fortune of crashing off the road and onto a railway line. Fate paid a heavy price not just in that, but in the fact that two trains were heading in opposite directions towards the place he landed beside the tracks.

This sympathy rapidly dissipated during the trial, where he tried to admit that he could drive perfectly well with only a few hour' sleep. The evidence against him (including test that showed hat he must have been speeding for most of his journey) was firm, and I could not believe that he protested his innocence throughout the case. There are times when it is best to accept your guilt, however hard that may be.

Unfortunately it appears that, ten years after the accident in which ten people died - and he caused - he still has not accepted responsibility.

Take the following quote:

"No deaths occurred at the point of impact with my Land Rover.
"They all occurred 700 yards down the track which I feel other people should have been held accountable for, so in my own head I've dealt with it in that fashion."
This is unbelievable, and is like a gunman saying 'no-one died when I pulled the trigger; they died fifty yards away when the bullets hit them. I feel they should be accountable for being there, so in my own head I'm innocent.'
As I said, unbelievable.
Right, the doorbell has just rung and the movers are here. The mania is about to begin...

Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Libyan rescue

The Government has had some bad press over the last week over the so-called 'fiasco' of the Libya crisis, whereby some people thought that we were too slow in getting people out. Radio 5 was reporting that a Turkish ship had got some of their citizens out of a port city, and then went to talk to the wife of a Scotsman trapped at an oil complex in the middle of the desert,

This is where I started to smell a rat. The oilmen were in a far worse predicament than the Turkish workers; many were trapped in the middle of nowhere with no transport (the locals having stolen their vehicles), whilst the Turkish workers mentioned were concentrated in the cities.  Libya is hardly a friendly country, and I can see why the government might be concerned that they would take the flying in of a plane without permission to be an unfriendly act. Comparing the two in such a forthright manner was disingenuous at best.

Then came Cameron's apology. Firstly I could not see what he was apologising for: the government were doing things, albeit in a fluid, complex situation that was hard to manage. But I must say it is a relief to have a country that does manage to apologise, unlike out previous PM for whom 'sorry', like 'cuts', was truly a hard word to say.

Now the oil workers have been rescued, allegedly by the SAS and/or the SBS. An SAS/SBS operation is hardly a quick thing to set up (just getting the teams into position is time-consuming, yet alone the information gathering and planning).It looks as though the SAS team flew in on commercial flights on Tuesday - whilst these idiots were crying out 'fiasco!', and their weapons were being dispatched in diplomatic bags. So the Government was doing something, and apparently doing it well; they just could not speak about it.

It is well known that the first aircraft to be sent had some 'technical issues' that delayed its takeoff by half a day - these failures have not been explained, but one theory doing the rounds was that it was delayed so extra personnel and equipment could be put on board. Although there is no proof, it does make some sense.

Incidentally, the Germans flew in similar missions on the same day, and the media are failing to mention that a US catamaran has been stuck in Tripoli harbour for 48 hours with technical difficulties.

The supposed failure to rescue our citizens was headline news on the BBC News website, as was Cameron's apology. This morning, as what appears to be a fairly daring rescue has occurred, and may still be ongoing, it does not even appear on their front page, and a reporter on the News Channel has cast scorn on the idea it was a 'daring' rescue.

And they are not mentioning Labour's strong links with Gaddaffi...

The media ought to be hanging their heads in shame about this. The fiasco was in their reporting, not in the operations.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Absence makes the heart grow fonder...?

Şencan's in Turkey for a week whilst I get on with the house move (yes, she planned that well). It is her first visit to her parents for three years, and hence long overdue. But it has meant that I have been left home (or more accurately, homes) alone during a fairly hectic and stressful time.

I like to think of myself as being a fairly independent individual. I cast scorn on fashion, and can easily engross myself in a book for a day, or a walk for a fortnight. I do not feel the need to go out every night with my mates, nor to be constantly on the phone to people I hardly know.

Yes, I am independent, and yet I felt lonely within a day of Şencan leaving. Part of me is missing, cast asunder to a foreign land. I have no-one to smile with, to joke, laugh, kiss and hug. She - the core of my existence - is apart.

A few minutes ago she phoned me up from a friend's house in Turkey. She is enjoying herself, but the mere sound of her voice raised my spirits and made me feel whole. The slough of despond into which I had sunk was evaporated by the mere sound of her voice.

This is surely love.

Which walk to do...?

As the time for the move approaches, I am starting to think about which walks to do when we are finally safely ensconced in Cambridge. I know the area like he back of my hand, and have walked a great deal in the county (see map at

Yet I have done no walking in the county for nearly four years, and am keen to revisit some of my old haunts. So what do I do first?

The obvious walk would be to follow the Fen Rivers Way north from Cambridge to King's Lynn, an easy fifty-mile stroll beside the rivers Cam and Great Ouse. It is a walk that means a great deal to me, as it is one that I used to walk getting back to health. I have also not walked most of it since 1999, so I will not be overly familiar with it. On the other hand, the long miles atop the flood banking north of Littleport can get a little monotonous.

What else? Well, I love the Devil's Dyke, a massive 7.5-mile long Anglo-Saxon ditch and bank that runs across the centre of Newmarket Racecourse. I have walked it ten or so times before, but not in the last eight years, and amazingly I have no photographs of it.

Then there is the Hereward Way, a long-distance path that runs for 110 miles east from Stamford past Ely into Norfolk. I have walked all of this in the past, but not all of the walks are on my website.

Further afield, I would love to do the Peddar's Way once again (last walked in 2003), and the entire Norfolk Coast Path. The various Suffolk paths (such as the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Path) also appeal.

I have no idea which of these - or any other walk - I will do first. Cambridgeshire is not seen as being a classic place to walk, and it certainly lacks the grandeur of most other parts of Britain. Yet there are many good walks and great sights: fog rising off the flood plain of the Great Ouse, or Ely Cathedral rising like a ship out of the surrounding Fens.

Then again, I like walking along canals through cities, so perhaps I am no judge.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Tube map

My friend Terry sent me this link to a map containing a detailed map of the London Underground, including almost every siding (warning: large size). I am sad enough to have spent an hour (when I should have been packing...) studying it, tracing some of the stations and lines that I know well.

I love maps...

Monday, 21 February 2011

Union insanity

Some of my friends went to John Port School in Etwall, Derbyshire. At the time it was generally considered a good school, and my friends left with good exam results (unlike me, it should be said).

I like to keep up with what is happening in areas that I have lived, partly out of curiosity and partly out of misplaced nostalgia. Therefore I was flabbeghasted to read this story on the 'This is Derbyshire' website.

Teachers at the school are going on strike for five days. We are always being told by unions that strikes are the last resort, so it is interesting to see why the teachers and NASUWT union are putting the education of 2,200 children in peril during the run-up to exams.

It turns out that John Port School is considering becoming an academy. Note that they are only considering the change, and have not yet decided. If the change occurs, the supposedly-intelligent teachers think, then it *may* cause changes to their terms and conditions. Therefore they are striking because the school is *investigating* something that *might just* adversely change their conditions. (Or, of course, it may also improve their terms and conditions).

I will not even get started on NASUWT's following claim: "The intention has never been to damage children's education and I will be meeting with the head on March 2 to discuss how exams can be protected."

How can teachers striking for five days in March - a couple of months before exams - not damage the children's education? If it is true it begs the question as to what good the teachers do when in class.

I have a simple message to them: strike against specific changes to terms and conditions, not just because you fear changes. Were they so keen on striking during the previous (Labour) government's changes, including the initial introduction of academies? Of course not.

The union have bluntly admitted that they are striking because the school has not ruled out the conversion to academy status. This is insanity, and can only be seen as politically-motivated blackmail. The teachers who voted for strike should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves.

Sunday, 20 February 2011


Hotmail has a fairly good spam filter, which captures the majority of spam whilst only getting a few false positives (i.e. characterising 'good' emails as spam).

I like to carefully go through my spam inbox to check for non-spam messages. Today, amongst the usual viagra and other spam saying that I need to 'enhance' my manhood, there is a message called 'Tax Refund Notification'. It appears to be from an HM Revenue and Customs email address, and the image looks official. It is the fourth time I have received this message, always claiming that I am due a refund of £468.50.

Of course it is spam. There are some obvious signs: a poorly-designed link to click on that goes to a website 'balearicproperty' instead of HM Revenue along with a couple of spelling mistakes, including lack of punctuation and full stops. The character set is also Cyrillic, which would be unusual for a British Government address.

The reason I mention this is that it is one of the more believable spam emails I have seen. The image and accurate 'from' addresses are things that would initially take people in, along with the greed of receiving a refund. Worryingly, if they were to take away the spelling and other mistakes, make the target link address more believable and add a great deal of official-looking small print, they would catch far more people.

I am not stupid enough to say that I will never be taken in by spam and other scams - all it needs is for someone to push the right buttons for greed and flattery to overcome my innate paranoia. But by examining spam message in this manner I learn to be more cautious.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Strange names

I once knew a girl called Josaline; not the normal form of the rare name Jocelyn, but a much rarer, Anglicised form, as if her parents had either been incredibly intelligent or so deliriously happy that they utterly misspelt the name.

My wife's name is Şencan, meaning merry soul. It is rare even in her native Turkey. It also, apparently, rhymes with 'little coffee cup', both of which are apt for her (*).

Do I have a thing for women with strange given names?

(*) We just found out that Google Translate translates her first name as 'Vampire'. Which, again, is most apt...

Thursday, 17 February 2011

A great response...

Airbus and Boeing have been having an ongoing spat about direct and indirect subsidies. Late last year the World Trade Organisation gave a ruling on Boeing's claims against Airbus, and found that Airbus did benefit from launch aid granted to it by European governments.

Now the WTO has ruled on Airbus's complaint against Boeing. Although not yet official, it looks as though it has found Boeing guilty of unfair pracitices with the US government, mainly through receiving R&D and other development benefits (for instance, by NASA sharing fundamental research with them).

This page on FlightGlobal shows an advert run by Boeing in light of the latest findings, and Airbus's hilarious response.Take a look at them and see the way that a responsive advertising and publicity department can win the day (*).

Well done, Airbus. You not only responded to Boeing's claims, but you managed to make them look childish as well. A brilliant example of reactive advertising.

(*) A couple of decades ago there was an article in the Daily Telegraph about some Coastguards who had driven off high cliffs in fog. Their Land Rover had been wrecked, but they escaped with cuts and bruises. The next day, the newspaper carried a full-page advert by Land Rover, with the original article in the middle. Above, in a large font, were the words: "We apologise for the cuts and bruises".


Sunday, 13 February 2011

Thirteen more walks on the website.

There are many more walks on the website. this update has been particularly fraught as I decided to update all of the scripts that generate the 'site as I moved them to my PC. The scripts had been hacked together over more than a decade and are mostly written in a language called Perl; some of the old code was incompatible with the newer versions of Perl. As I had to do some changes to get them to work, it seemed sensible to do some more general improvements...

With hindsight, this was probably a mistake ;-)

All the pages now seem to be in order. Each page has another section added, as requested by a reader, detailing some walks near to each walk. Otherwise the page format should be unchanged.

The walks from 2010:

876West Parley to Blandford Forum19.513/12/2010
875A circular walk from Iford to West Parley14.909/12/2010
874A circular walk between Hengistbury Head and Bournemouth15.829/11/2010
873Seaton to Sidford12.427/11/2010
872Charmouth to Seaton11.906/11/2010

The walks from 2011:

884Marnhull to Gillingham via Stourhead21.403/02/2011
883Blandford Forum to Pillwell20.201/02/2011
882Yarmouth to West Cowes17.427/01/2011
881A circular walk from Yarmouth to the Needles18.924/01/2011
880Ventnor to Freshwater Bay19.220/01/2011
879Ryde to Ventnor19.019/01/2011
878West Cowes to Ryde via Newport17.604/01/2011
877A stroll around Christchurch Harbour13.002/01/2011

As you can see, I've been fairly busy...

Friday, 11 February 2011

When I'm wrong, I'm very wrong.

Only a few weeks after I say that there will be no major new plane designs from Boeing or Airbus in the foreseeable future, Boeing announces one.

I think my crystal ball needs a wipe.

Monday, 7 February 2011


Nearly twenty years ago I did some freelance work for a company that involved manipulating shipping data. Much of my time was spent dealing with vast amounts of information about individual ships held on the Lloyds Register.

As I was clearing out the garage ready for our move, I came across a photocopied sheet out of a Lloyds publication. For some reason I have never thrown it out, and it has survived all of my occasional clear-outs.

The sheet details some of the ship types that Lloyds Register recognise; I had photocopied it as an aide memoire so that I did not need big books open on the desk in front of me.

How many types of ships can you think of? Trawler, oil tanker, tug, ferry, container ship, icebreaker... soon you start to run out of options.

Which is why the list fascinates me: with all of these obvious ship types are many that you would never guess. Things like 'wood chip carrier', 'mining ship', 'seismographic research vessel' and even 'semi-submersible heavy lift tank'. It is a glimpse into another world.

I must admit that the idea of a ship type called 'wine tank' might make me want to become a pirate. You could have one heck of a party with a shipload of Sauvignon Blanc...

Sunday, 6 February 2011

What would I do?

The crisis in Egypt has led me to ask what I would be doing if I was Egyptian.

Firstly, I am no fan of Mubarak. His regime has - by the standards of the region - not been bad, but by our standards has been very poor. Corruption - both political and institutional - is rife. It is not a functioning democracy. If I was Egyptian I would want him to go.

However, I am also a conservative with a small 'c'. Change is necessary, but should only be undertaken if we can be fairly sure that the change is for the best (*). I abhor change for change's sake; it is nothing more than a gamble.

It is hard to know how you would behave in such a different political climate. I would like to think that I would have been on the streets (were I brave enough) for the first set of protests. However, when Mubarak agreed not to stand in the September elections I would have been happy, as long as those months were spent working out exactly *what* sort of democracy would emerge. A period of cool deliberation is vital, especially when they have such a poor starting position.

That is why today's news about the formation of a committee to study constitutional reform is to be welcomed. Let Mubarak stay in his job as a weakened figurehead whilst the future shape of the country is decided. And yes, that should include the Muslim Brotherhood, however distasteful I find some of their rhetoric. They have 20% of the seats in parliament despite the hurdles placed in their way; it is only right for them to have a say.

Of course, as a secularist I believe a secular, democratic Egypt - with Islamist leanings (in the same way the UK's laws and traditions have a Christian base) - is for the best.

At times democracy may be weak, ineffectual, annoying and even downright perverse, but it is undoubtedly the key to a just society. And Egyptian men and women deserve a just society.

(*) A classic example being Labour's alterations to the House of Lords, something I have a bee in my bonnet about. An argument could be made for getting rid of the majority of the hereditary peers, but only if the replacement system were better. However they removed the hereditary peers and did not specify a replacement, allowing all the parties to stuff the Lords with cronies. This has directly led to the recent debacles and, perversely, less democracy than there was with hereditary peers.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

A diesel-steam locomotive

I once had a fondness for railways. It was not so much the trains but the actual engineering; the bridges, tracks, and tunnels etc. However, osmosis did mean that I picked up some basic knowledge about the locomotives.

Over the years the various railway companies tried various experimental schemes for locomotives. Some of these are famous, such as Bullied's Leader class. However, there are undoubtedly many weird and wonderful experiments that I have never come across.

Whilst browsing the web somnolently, I came across a webpage on the LNER Encyclopedia. The page details the Kitson-Still locomotive built in the 1930s. It fascinates me as it shows the tentative way that many established organisations approach new technology.

At the time diesel engines and transmissions were relatively new and unreliable, especially in the sizes needed by a steam locomotive. The technology was a step too far for our mostly conservative railway companies. The Kitson-Still was designed to overcome some of these problems.

Diesel engines work by compressing diesel until it spontaneously ignites. Instead of having a seperate diesel engine, the Kitson-Still injected diesel into the opposite side of the cylinders from the steam, allowing the pressure of the steam to compress it to ignition. Hence this literal form of diesel injection would give the steam engine more power.

It was also more efficient - exhaust gasses from the diesel were taken through the boiler, preheating the water. In this manner, the locomotive got up to 40% efficiency - unheralded at the time.

Of course it was a technological dead-end. Diesel technology improved rapidly over the years, and the idea never got around many of the disadvantages of steam - whilst diesel and electric locomotives can be started at the flock of a switch, it takes many hours for a steam locomotive to get to working temperatures. But I must admit to a certain fondness towards this idea.

Friday, 4 February 2011


I have moved house six times in the last eleven years:
  • Waterbeach
  • Fen Ditton
  • The walk
  • Great Shelford
  • Romsey
  • North Baddesley
Sencan has made a similar number of moves. I have counted the walk as just one move, as we slept in different places most nights. If they were counted separately then it would easily add 250 to 300 onto the total ;-)

Now for the news: as you may have guessed, we are moving once more. Sencan has a new job, so we will be upping sticks in the next few weeks and moving everything back up to Cambridgeshire. Fortunately we have not unpacked many of our boxes from the last move.

It would be nice to have a little stability...

I will leave Southampton with more than a little regret. It is a wonderful area for walking, with the New Forest, South Downs, Salisbury Plain, the Dorset Coast and the Isle of Wight all within an easy drive. I love Cambridge, but the area around it is rather devoid of interesting walks (or at least I have done most of them already).

We went up to Cambridge a couple of weeks ago, and whilst Sencan was at her interview I went for a short walk in the rain from Bottisham Lock. It was muddy, wet and miserable, but I realised how much I miss the Cam. On many a sunny Sunday afternoon my then-girlfriend and I would lay a picnic basket on a blanket by the lock. We would scoff our food as we watched all the inexperienced boaters trying to use the lock. Halcyon days.

The training walks after my last operation were along the Cam between Waterbeach and Ely, an easy walk that I could do on a Sunday morning in time to catch the train back to watch a Grand Prix. Those solitary walks gave me a love for the black horizons of the Fens.

So what are the advantages of Cambridge? Well, we will be able to resume our love of Sunday breakfast scones at the Orchard, an enjoyable experience that adds inches onto our waistlines. I will enjoy the bookshops, although I noticed with shock on my last visit that Galloway and Porter has closed - a sad loss. It will be good to be near the theatres of Cambridge (the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton only ever does musicals). I will also be an hour nearer my parents, and within a reasonable drive of the Peak District. Proximity will allow me to increase my ire about the farce of the guided bus. I will be able to go for a sloppy burger in Gardenias. I will be nearer the Viking chip shop on Milton Road, whose workers I had chatted up so they would give me extra-large portions.

What are the disadvantages? Well, the walking is far less varied than in the Romsey area, and I have to travel a long way to get any hills. I have previously lived in Cambridge for over ten years on and off, and the area offers little new to me. I will miss being within a ten-minute drive of the sea (well, Southampton Water at least). I will miss Romsey, a quintessential English market town. I will miss the people and the vibrancy of the local life. I will miss the ease of driving and parking in Southampton, which makes Cambridge feel oppressive in comparison. I will miss the local chippie, whose workers I had chatted up so they would give me extra-large portions...

As life changes, some things remain constant. My quest for the perfect fish and chips is one such thing.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Some navel gazing

Well, the experiment is over. A few months ago I wondered if I could get a blog post out every day. I thought I would try it for a week, but since then I have written over a hundred posts, missing only one day.

So the question is whether this verbal diarrhoea has been at the cost of quality. Looking back, there are some posts that I am proud of, and others that are frankly rather ill-thought out.

Almost every post has forced me to do some basic research, even if it is just checking my facts on Wikipedia or in books. This is something I love, and I have probably sent more time with my nose in books than I have writing.

Unfortunately the daily churn has meant that the quality has not been as good as it could have been. The posts have frequently been hurried, and in many the point I was trying to make has been unclear or obscured by layers of hyperbole.

One of the biggest problems with this blog is its lack of focus. The best blogs tend to be about one topic only, written by experts in that area. My blog covers anything that I find to be of interest, and this leads to a scattergun of topics: from writing and book reviews, through walking and computing to politics. This means that it is unlikely to be of interest to anyone who wants in-depth knowledge of any particular topic. Basically, the ideal reader of the blog would be someone with the same interest as myself; and that would probably just be me.

This was put succinctly elsewhere: "If your blog does not have a niche, then it will become niche itself."

One thing has surprised me: I have plenty to say. The problem has not been finding things to write about; rather it has been finding the time to write.

Yet all of this will now come to an end. I will soon be able to spend less time at my PC, especially if my previous joyful experiences with TalkTalk, Virgin and BT are anything to go by. My life is heading off in another direction. I will still post, but they will not be daily.

I hope you have enjoyed reading these daily posts. I have certainly enjoyed writing them!

Watch this space...

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Unforeseen consequences

Designing electronics is very difficult. So difficult, in fact, that I am very glad that I chose to become a programmer rather than an electronics engineer.

The problem is always in the polishing. There is an old adage that completing the first 90% of a program takes 10% of the time, whilst completing the last 10% takes the remaining 90% of the time. To put it another way, it is far easier to get something basically working than it is to ensure that it always works well under all necessary conditions.

This is one of the reasons why there are so many buggy programs - the programmer write some code that appears to work and passes basic tests. He knows that there are some areas that may need work, but the management thinks it is good enough and wants him to work on the next task. That last 10% of the job, the polishing, often never occurs.

And it is far worse in electronics, and especially consumer electronics. And sometimes the truly weird and unexpected can come and bite you on the bottom. Take this story on the Connectify blog. Basically, some people with the new Kindle 3 E-Book readers noticed their units were rebooting at random intervals. The Kindle's come with a choice of leather covers, one of which has a light, and the other which is unlit.

Strangely, the failures were only occurring in the Kindles with unlit covers. Connectify did some research, and it turns out that on the powered cover, two gold-plated contacts touch the Kindle to power the light. In the unpowered version, these contacts are metal painted with a non-conductive paint. This paint was wearing off with repeated opening and closing of the cover, allowing a connection to be made. This was drawing power from the Kindle and causing various pseudo-random problems, including crashes and reboots.

Thus the design of a cover for a device has led to a problem with the device itself; circumstances which would have been difficult to foresee. This is one reason why automotive and military electronics are always more expensive: they go to much more bother about the construction and testing of their devices than consumer electronics companies.