Sunday, 28 August 2011


Sencan pointed the following webpage out to me this morning:

I have seen several versions of this sort of thing before, but I have never seen such an impressively interactive version. Seeing the scale of man in the middle gives a good idea of our insignificant view on the universe, both to the micro and the macro.

There is so much remaining to be learnt at both ends of the scale - the science behind subatomic particles is still hotly debated, and we are still finding new frontiers in our knowledge of the wider universe.

It is awe-inspiring. I want to be a scientist.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A strange critter.

I came across the following strange critter on the road near Diss on Friday. I shepherded it out of the range of tyre tracks before taking some photographs. It was very small - for scale, the pebbles are in the road surface.

I think that it may be a Common Lizard, possibly a juvenile due to its colouring and size. I'd love it to have been the much rarer Sand Lizard, but that looks unlikely.

Sometimes I wish that I knew more about the flora and fauna that surrounds me as I walk...

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The money shot

My sister and her husband run a classic tractor-spares company up in Staffordshire. They were down to visit earlier this week, and on Monday I took them and their two children to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford to have a look around.

Considering the museum is about planes (admittedly with a few tanks thrown in for good measure), Duxford proved entertaining not only for the adults, but also for a boy in his early teens and his younger sister. There was enough for them to see and do as the adults went round looking at things, at least until they started to get tired.

What amused me was the way my sister and brother-in-law went off to examine almost every tractor they could see; they could even identify the models them from a distance. There is a lot to be said for being an expert, even in seemingly esoteric subjects.

Then, at the end of a long day, we saw a Spitfire having an engine test. What is more, a Fergie tractor was being used to tow the plane to and from the hanger.
My sister and her husband were in heaven. Two classics - the Ferguson tractor and the Spitfire - together. They did not know where to look.

The first vehicle I ever drove was a Fergie, and my parents have a photograph on their wall of me sitting behind the wheel, my feet barely long enough to reach the pedals. So I too was slightly awestruck.

Naturally enough, lots of photos were taken.I have seen lots of Spitfires in the air, and have even seen a large formation of them flying overhead whilst they were on their way to an airshow in Duxford. Yet for some reason this scene moved me - perhaps because it showed an unsung part of the Spitfire's wartime existence. We tend to think of them soaring gracefully through the air, the magical noise of the Merlin engine penetrating our bones. Yet those flights would never have happened without the thousands of men and women who did mundane but vital tasks on the ground.

At first the above picture might be seen as a classic wartime photo - a Spitfire and a Fergie with a yellow bonnet (apparently airfield vehicles were painted  in such a way so that planes flying overhead could see when they were blocking the runway). Yet it is false - the first Fergie was produced after the war in 1946, and the Spitfire in the picture - known as the Grace Spitfire - was originally a single-seater. Still, it is a wonderfully evocative picture.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Three new walks on my website.

In which I complete the Hereward Way and do my longest ever day walk.

916Hereward Way: Brandon to Harling Road and on to Wymondham31.512/08/2011
915Hereward Way: Ely to Brandon23.109/08/2011
914Hereward Way: March to Ely27.005/08/2011

Events have prevented me from getting away to Scotland as planned, so I think I may start next on the Angles Way east from Thetford (hopefully on Friday) or the East Anglian Stour Valley Path.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

A little light relief.

Some people are far too good at photo manipulation. Have a look at the animal crossbreed website.

My favourites are #52 the Meercats and #3 Cabbit.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

A bug in Google search?

I think I have just found a (small) bug in Google search. Unfortunately this explanation may get a little technical for non-programmers, but I will try to explain the problem as simply as I can.

I was looking through some logs for my website and I found that someone had entered a search term akin to 'britishwalks walk 906'. The search led to this search query.

As you can see, Google search displayed the first couple of lines of each entry; in the case of my website the first hit contained the following: '7 Jan 2011 – Walk #906:'

This is strange as the walk was actually walked on the 1st of July. This date is present in my webpage as 01/07/2011. The search engine is obviously taking the date in UK format (day/month/year, or 01/07/2011) and converting it into American format (month/day/year, or 07/01/2011), before displaying the month in three-letter textual form ('Jan' instead of 01).

The previous walk was walked on the 30th of June, and that displays correctly within Google search. This means that Google must perform some data checking; as 30 is greater than the possible number of months (12) it is invalid in the US date format and therefore they display it in the more common UK format. This fault is present on every webpage I have checked where the date component is less than 12.

I have had a quick (but hardly exhaustive) ponder and cannot think of any way my pages could be creating this problem. Likewise, I cannot think of a way of setting your locale in an HTML page to let them know the format of items like dates. I could use a locale-neutral format such as yyyy-mm-dd (e.g. 2011-08-17), but that is far less obvious to my readers, the vast majority of whom are in the UK.

Perhaps if the domain is a 'uk' one or the domain is registered in the UK Google could default to UK date format; this would be much more work for them and would still be prone to potential errors. It may be far simpler for them not to parse the displayed date to include a month name, and instead just to display it as it appears in the webpage. 

This is hardly a major bug or feature, but nonetheless is interesting. Why do they parse a plain-text date within a webpage and convert it to another format? Do they do this for any other date on the page, and if so are these conversions prone to similar errors?

I have done a quick search (with Google, naturally...) and cannot see this reported anywhere else. This means that the bug may only just been created, or a transient feature.

It should also be noted that Google's results are far more helpful than Bing's, which does not even include the obvious webpage in their results.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Community versus society

Whilst out walking on Tuesday, I listened to Radio 5. One thing I noticed: In what must have been ten hours of coverage, 'society' was only mentioned twice: once by a caller in the phone-in show at twenty past nine, and another, in a negative context, in the early afternoon. In contrast, 'community' seemed to be on everybody's lips.

Of course there is a significant overlap between the meaning of the two words, but the differences are important. When someone mentions 'community' without context, I wonder which community: a geographical one, a religious one, an ethnic one, a cultural one, or one based on sexual orientation? When someone says that there will be people on the streets protecting their community, is it everyone in the community or a small subset?

On a large scale 'community' is divisive: I cannot be a member of the gay, Islamic, Christian or Hindi communities. By saying you are a member of any specific community then you are by definition excluding those outside the community.

Yet we are all part of society.

Am I the only one who thinks that this focus on 'community' over 'society' with respect to the rioting is rather worrying?

Perhaps Thatcher was right, and the media now think that 'there is no such thing as society'.

This brings me onto another bugbear of mine: people who use Thatcher's infamous quote should always mention the context in which she said it. As it happens, these riots makes her words seem all the more applicable:
There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help by our own efforts those who are unfortunate.
In other words, if we want a good society then we should help ourselves and those less fortunate than ourselves. Perhaps the rioters and looters (especially those employed as teaching assistants) should consider this.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


It is often said in computer circles that users are the most frequent cause of system insecurity. The recent phone hacking scandal is a classic example: users not changing their default PINs.

Likewise, what has recently become famous as 'blagging' has long been known known in computer circles as 'social engineering'; in a famous case the uber-hacker Kevn Mitnick phoned up a military base pretending to be the harassed aide of a senior officer who had forgotten his password; a fellow hacker had discovered the aide's name on a piece of paper found in a dumpster. The result: Mitnick got told the password and could access the military network.

Security measures are a hassle for users, and therefore users hate security measures.

It is therefore with interest that I see that the Government's laudable aims to improve security on mobile devices has been waylaid by Sellotape.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Four more walks on my website

As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a walker returneth to his walks.

Four more walks are up on my website; all are repeats of walks that I did many years ago.

No.LocationDistance (m)Date Walked
913Hereward Way: Peterborough to March20.601/08/2011
912Hereward Way: Stamford to Peterborough18.426/07/2011
911Hereward Way: Oakham to Stamford16.525/07/2011
910Waterbeach to Newmarket via the Devil's Dyke19.622/07/2011

My plans for the next few weeks are to complete the Viking and Hereward Ways, and to go to Scotland to do the Great Glen and Speyside trails. Of course, like most plans the reality will invariably be very different...

Wednesday, 3 August 2011


I see acronyms everywhere. Give me three or four random letters and my mind will attempt to squash and cajole them into some form of sense.

Perhaps this is a result of having spent years working in the computer industry; not only do we have the well-known acronyms (RAM, ROM, PC, HTML, PNG, KB, MB, MOS) but also a massive array of lesser-known ones (CISC, RISC, HAL, 3NF, ZIF and hundreds more). The language of computers is filled with thousands of words that seem to be almost designed to confuse the outsider.

My all-time favourite was the unpronounceable PCMCIA from the nineties; officially this stood for 'Personal Computer Memory Card International Association' but it was known to us all as 'People Can't Memorise Computer Industry Acronyms'.

I went for a drive today, and on the way I mindlessly scanned the car numberplates in front of me. I saw a BOC (British Oxygen Company), an ARM (Advanced Risc Machine) and an LLD (Late-Life Depression or Low Level Document).

I cannot help it; if something does not form a word then my mind tries to convert it into one. Which in some ways is natural human behaviour - our minds are superb at pattern recognition. Which leads to another problem: acronyms can be very industry-specific and the same letters can mean very different things in different contexts - see a doctor about an STD and he will react very differently to a mathematician (STatistial Deviation) or a telecoms engineer (Subscriber Trunk Dialling). How long will it be before something bad happens because of acronym confusion?

It already happens in computing - kilobyte (KB) and kilobit (Kb) are pronounced the same and are used to represent memory sizes, but have very different values. Fortunately most people learn to use the long-form rather than the acronym when pronouncing them.

I wonder if I am alone in this rather strange habit - does anyone else try to de-acronymise(*) random letters?

(*) Or for that matter, to verbise nouns?

Tuesday, 2 August 2011


After having spent a not inconsiderable sum on a birthday present for Sencan, I now realise that I could have saved her all the money and just bought a small box that gave her instructions by beeping at her occasionally.

She has just spent ten minutes sitting in the corner of the lounge playing with her new watch.

"It's a computer!" she screamed in delight. "It's even got an 'Enter' button'.

I'm just waiting for her to install Linux onto it. She must be one of the geekiest women in the country.