Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Happy Christmas!

I hope everyone had a lovely Christmas, and are now firmly ensconced in front of the TV with a glass of wine / whisky / sherry whilst daydreaming about next year's travels.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Book review: "Standing in another man's grave", by Ian Rankin.

In 2007 Ian Rankin completed his Rebus series, when he sent the eponymous detective into retirement in Edinburgh. As a fan of Rankin's works, I was rather dismayed by the next two books, which featured Malcolm Fox, working in the Complaints and Conduct Department of Lothian Police.

Fox was the antithesis of Rebus: a non-drinker (although ex-alcoholic), who does everything obsessively by the book. Somehow the two Fox books did not hold the same appeal for me as Rebus, and it was therefore with some joy that I heard that Rankin was bringing back Rebus in 'Standing in another man's grave'.

The book sees Rebus retired form the police, but working as a civilian in the cold cases department. One case involves a girl who disappeared on the A9 road ten years earlier, and this leads Rebus onto the trail of a serial killer. His investigation takes him back towards his ex-colleague, Siobhan, and also to the attention of Malcolm Fox and the Complaints department.

So far,so good. The plotline has plenty of opportunities for Rebus to do his classic bending and breaking of the rules, for arguments with senior police officers, and to display his single-minded doggedness.

Yet there are two fundamental problems that somewhat spoil this book.

Firstly, the subplot featuring Malcolm Fox never really takes off, and could have been left out without any harm to the narrative. Rankin should have given Fox a much bigger role or none at all. If Fox was to be featured, then he should have really placed Rebus's future and even liberty in serious jeopardy.

Secondly, the music references grate. Rankin has always placed musical references into his work, including naming many of his books after song titles. For instance earlier Rebus books such as "Exit Music", or "Let it Bleed".

Yet in his latest book, Rankin goes into musical overdrive. Large chunks of the book seem overwhelmed by musical references, most by a musician friend of Rankin's who died recently. He dismissively rejects Siobhan's choice of Kate Bush, and instead continues playing the same seventies-style rock. Within a few chapters the references to the music gets more than a little wearying.

Worse, the music references have little connection with either the plot, character or location; instead, it reads like the author's whims are showing through. You learn nothing about Rebus through the music, especially as the subject has been done to a death in previous books.

Despite these problems, there is plenty of the old Rebus magic in the book. The plot involves Rebus taking long drives throughout Scotland, and the places he sees and people he meets on the way are evocatively described. Rebus himself is his old self, willing to break the rules and upset friends in order to get results.

All in all, this book formed a welcome return to Rebus. But what could have been a delightful book was let down by a few grating missteps by the author.

I award this book 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Five more walks on my wesbite

In which I complete the Fen Rivers Way for the n'th time, and also complete the Essex Way:

No.LocationDistance (m)Date Walked
968Essex Way: Marks Tey to Manningtree23.116/11/2012
967Essex Way: Great Leighs to Marks Tey27.413/11/2012
966Essex Way: Ongar to Great Leighs20.309/11/2012
965Essex Way: A circular walk between Epping and Chipping Ongar18.508/11/2012
964Trumpington to Ely via Cambridge21.508/10/201

I am slowly heading up towards 1,000 walks on my website. That'll be worth a celebration when it happens...

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Five new walks on my website

Five new walks on my website, in which I backpack the Cleveland Way over five days. A wonderful (if rather tiring) backpack on this rather spectacular and under-regarded trail.

Only two national trails are left for me to do before I complete the set - the Wolds Way and Southern Upland Way. Hopefully I will do the former before winter, and leave the latter for next year.

As for the people who are asking me 'what next': well, there are plenty of other trails to be done, but I hanker after repeating several of the national trails. In particular, the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, Pennine Way and South West Coast Path deserve to be re-walked.

Of course, life may just get in the way...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Professor Sidney Watkins

Few strangers have the ability to touch people's lives, to improve them for the better. I can name a couple in my life, but one outshines all the others: Professor Sidney Watkins.

I have written before about the troubles I had with my left ankle, the pain and discomfort that somewhat blighted my teens and twenties. A series of doctor and surgeons gave me long lists of activities I could not do: no ice skating, no skiing, no running, no serious walking. My life was constrained by the fear of pain and orders.

The Professor had little reason to show interest in the 20-year old who was introduced to him back in 1993, no reason to help him. He had achieved much in his life: neurosurgeon to three presidents, chief medical officer of F1 racing, and head of several safety organisations. He was semi-retired from private practice and had only a handful of people on his books.

For several years I had been bundled from pillar to post by doctors and surgeons, both within the NHS and private practice. I had undergone all sorts of tests, but no-one had worked out what was wrong. One day Andrea, my physiotherapist, decided to take me to see a 'rather good' surgeon who was in the hospital. I was taken to a waiting room, and after a few minutes a jovial white-haired man greeted me.

He studied, poked and probed my leg for a few minutes, before proclaiming: "I know what's wrong."

It took him several operations and five years, but he fixed me up. It is a measure of the man that he actually apologised for it having taken so long. Unlike all my other surgeons, when I asked him if I would ever be able to walk the Pennine Way, he immediately said yes.

Thanks to him, I can.

Sid, thanks for everything.I hope there are some good fishing rods in heaven, and that the salmon are running.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Eleven new walks on my website

I have finally got my backside into gear, and published the last eleven walks on my website. It has been a rather poor year for walking so far, with only a few hundred miles completed. Hopefully normal service will be resumed soon.

In these walks I complete the Stour Valley Path (Suffolk) and the Angles Way, and also roughly walk the Suffolk Coast Path.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Shard

I watched the Shard being built with interest: the plans, the controversy, the unusual construction mechanism (building upwards before building the foundations), the infiltration by base-jumpers; and I doubted I would like it.

On Sunday we went on a walk through London, and the Shard was visible for much of the way. Sencan instantly liked it, and my muted disapproval melted away as I approached. We would occasionally glimpse it around a bend in the river, or through a gap between buildings, its weird shape tantalising and enticing us onwards. By the time I reached its base at London Bridge, I loved it despite myself.

That great aim of architects and planners around the world - context - was scrunched up into a ball and thrown out of the window. The tower's context is all wrong: it is on the other side of the river from the large towers of the City; worse, it brutalises a large part of London.

But what a brutalisation. Viewing the Shard is like being hammered from behind by a large ape. However you find with shock that would could be horrific and bestial is actually rather enjoyable; a secret thrill.

It is the shape of the Shard that does it: nowhere near as phallic as the Canary Wharf Tower (especially in its earlier days, with the two much-lower buildings that flanked the tower). The Shard looks more alien, like a spaceship has landed and is awaiting permission to take off for an unknown destination. It makes the many towers at Canary Wharf seem both old-fashioned and unnecessary. Who wants a New York or Chicago skyline when we can have something so different?

Although the tapered shape is fairly novel, the eponymous 'shards' at the top are the real gimmick. They make the tower look incomplete, as if the builders have just gone for a tea-break and will be back soon. Or perhaps it really is an alien spacecraft that has landed in the city to await repairs after a prang with an asteroid.

I have no doubt that the Shard will not last as long as the Tower of London, or have such an illustrious and varied story. But, for the moment at least, it is a welcome newcomer to London's skyline.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Silence is golden.

Sorry about the lack of posts here in recent months: Sencan and I have just bought a new house, and I have been busy decorating and moving in. Hopefully normal service will be resumed soon.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Events have rather stifled my 2012 walking plans, but here are my first six walks of the year:

No.LocationDistance (m)Date Walked
947Trent Valley Way: Holme Pierrpont to Thrumpton and return20.430/03/2012
946A walk along the Stour Valley Path from Newmarket22.127/03/2012
945A circular walk from Swavesey to Oakington, Childerley and Boxworth16.330/01/2012
944A circular walk between St Ives, Warboys and Somersham25.228/01/2012
943A linear walk from Godmanchester to Yelling and Houghton18.623/01/2012
942A circular walk from Cambourne to Elsworth and Papworth Everard17.516/01/2012

This included perhaps the worst named trail I have ever done, the Pathfinders Long Distance Walk.

Hopefully I will get more walks done in the next quarter...

Tuesday, 10 April 2012


The following link details an RAF pilot's recovery from horrific injuries after a mid-air collision and ejection. His life was saved by, perversely, a weak joint in the chin-strap of his helmet.


An amazing read; it is well worth reading the comments as well.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

From the you-couldn't-make-it-up department

Recently the government have announced ammendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bil that prohibits scrapyards from paying cash for scrap metal.

Sadly, the price of scrap metal and the rampant thefts from BT, the railways and churches means that such a move is inevitable. The reason is simple: the price thieves get for the scrap is low, whilst the cost of replacement is very high.

So it was with frank surprise that a friend told me that gypsies can still get paid in cash.

This sounded ridiculous, so I downloaded the relevant amendment from the Government's website. Take a look at section 147, clause 2.6:

Subsection (1) does not apply if—
(a) the payment is made in the carrying on of the dealer’s business
as a scrap metal dealer as part of the business of an itinerant
collector, and ...

where Subsection 1 is the new amendment stating that payment has to be by cheque or through an electronic fund transfer. My reading of this and the other clauses is that 'itinerant collectors' are exempt from the new law, and can still be paid cash. Certainly that is the understanding of at least one scrap metal dealer.

So my question is simple: what are 'itinerant collectors', and why are they excluded from the amendment?

The first answer is obvious: tinkers and gypsies. The second is answer is, according to rumour, that such people do not traditionally have bank accounts.

It must be very hard to do business nowadays without even a rudimentary bank account.

The law should be the same for everyone. This law is just a farce.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Police recruitment standards

Tom Winsor's report into the police force was released yesterday. There are many recommendations, but one of them seems eminently sensible.

A few weeks ago I was researching the police recruitment process for a story. I was alarmed to come across their 'Numerical Reasoning Test'. Nottinghamshire Police give an example paper (and laughably states that calculators are not required):

TEST 3  Working with numbers (to be done without using a
1. How much will five tins of soup cost at 55p a tin?
   A           B          C           D        E
£2.25     £2.55    £2.60    £2.75    £2.95

2. A person saves £35 in four weeks. At this rate how much will have been
saved in one year?
   A           B          C           D        E
£200       £250    £355      £420     £455

3. What is the total cost of a journey when £1.65 is spent on bus-fares and
an Underground ticket costs £2.50?
   A           B          C           D        E
£3.15     £3.60     £3.95    £4.05    £4.15

4. What is the average number of people per car, when six cars carry
thirty people?
   A           B          C           D        E
4.5           5.0        5.5       6.0      6.5

5. If shopping items cost £12.64, how much money remains out of £20?
   A           B          C           D        E
£6.36      £6.63    £7.36    £7.46    £7.63

The candidate gets twelve minutes to get the correct multiple-choice answers. I would think that these standards need increasing - these tests are farcically simple.

At a time when nurses are expected to have degrees, is this really the minimum standard we need for police officers?

Thursday, 15 March 2012

William Jessops

It may have been noted that I am rather fond of engineering. Indeed, the heavier the engineering - whether planes, trains, bridges, tunnels etc - the better. Given this, it is strange that I went into computer software, where the engineering is as light as it is possible to get. But my love of engineering  - and especially civil engineering - has continued unabated.

In 1992 I found a copy of Samuel Smiles' 'The lives of the Engineers' in the university library. If you wish to read this excellent book, then it is available for download from the Guttenberg Project. The book, written in 1862, describes the lives of the great early Victorian engineers. I read it, rapt at the descriptions of the great men and their equally great works. Many of the names were familiar to me, but there was one sad exclusion: William Jessop was only mentioned in three places. Indeed, the great engineers of the canal age were sadly forgotten in Smiles' fascinating project.

Many of the great names of the canal-building era (spanning from the opening of the Bridgewater Canal in 1761 to about 1840) are well-known: John Smeaton for his pioneering lighthouse on Eddystone Rock, now rebuilt on Plymouth Hoe; James Brindley, responsible for the Bridgewater, the Trent and Mersey and other canals; and Thomas Telford, whose fame is such that a town was named after him.

Yet arguably the most influential canal engineer, and one who was at his best at the height of the canal mania in the 1790s, was William Jessops. Born in Devonport in 1745, at the age of 16 he started work for the famous engineer John Smeaton. Soon the pupil overshadowed his tutor, although the two remained close until Smeaton's death.

Unlike many engineers he was keen to try new technologies; he was a pioneer in ironworking and was responsible for several early cast-iron aqueducts. He was also not entirely wedded to canals and often recommended the construction of plateways (a form of early railways) where canals were impractical.

Rather than give an in-depth description of his life, it is perhaps best to list some of the works with which he was involved to a large degree:

  • Grand Junction Canal
  • Grantham Canal
  • Nottingham Canal
  • Cromford Canal
  • Caledonian Canal
  • Grand Canal of Ireland
  • The West India Docks
  • Bristol Floating Harbour
  • Surrey Iron Railway

He was also responsible for a multitude of harbour and drainage works; he was a master at the manipulation of water. Much of the design of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (routinely attributed to Telford) was performed by Jessop, who oversaw the younger man's work.

He also jointly started one of my favourite Victorian companies - Butterley Engineering, a steelwork company that sadly went into administration in 2009, over 200 years after it was founded. Butterley made the grand spans of the overall roof at St Pancras, and the company's stamps can still be seen on the ironwork. More recently they made the steelwork for the Falkirk Wheel and the Spinnaker Tower.

In addition, he was held in such high regard that he was often called to parliament to give his judgement on schemes proposed by various other engineers, and investors would call on him to inspect plans drawn up by others.

To become a great engineer you need to be a self-publicist; both Brunel and Telford were excellent at this part of their work. Jessop, however, was not - his family did not allow his personal papers to be used and no biography of him was written for decades. For this reason works that he deserves major credit for - such as the Caledonian Canal - are routinely credited to others, such as Telford.

Part of the problem is that he had his fingers in so many pies that he often had to let more junior engineers perform the actual construction. The same is true of other engineers such as Brunel, but they were better at making sure that they got the credit for the resulting works.

Wherever you go in Britain you come across his works: from the Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen in Scotland to the docks that lie in the shadow of Canary Wharf. What is more, his capability to swap between water and iron, canals and railways, helped set the foundation of the railway revolution of the 1830s.

He deserves more recognition.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Double book review: 'Once more with feeling' and 'For richer, for poorer'

It feels like years since I last did a book review on this blog, and for good reason: it has been years. I have been reading just as much as ever, but few books have either impressed, interested or annoyed me enough to encourage me to write a review.

However on Valentine's Day Sencan gave me Victoria Coren's latest tome, 'For richer, for poorer'. For those who do not know her, Victoria Coren is the rather astoundingly gorgeous and hyper-intelligent presenter of the best quiz show on TV, 'Only Connect'. But this is only one of the strings in her bow for, as this book shows, she is also a rather good poker player. (*)

In it, the author describes how she first got interested in poker by watching her elder brother play, of how she started going to rather dubious clubs in order to play various games before settling on poker. She manages to break through her inherent shyness and develops friendships and even relationships with her fellow players. As a woman in a very male world of dodgy geezers she is an obvious outsider, and yet she is eventually accepted as a player. Not just that, but a good player.

The book (and the author's experience of poker) cover an interesting period - she first plays poker in clubs that seem rather dive-like, and her descriptions of them are coloured by her love of the places. But around the turn of the millennium poker starts to get televised, and then explodes on the Internet. Suddenly players are travelling to tournaments all over the world, have blogs and even sponsorship. First celebrities turn up, then bone-fide stars, all wanting to be part of the action. An underground activity heavy with threat and darkness has suddenly become popular and mainstream. In the end all her poker-playing friends are roaming the world, playing tournaments and winning - and losing - fortunes.

She is very clear that she is an addict; she started playing various gambling games but found that she had a fondness and, rarely, a skill for playing poker. Like all addicts, she seems to feel that changing from one type of addiction to another is in some ways an improvement, that she in some ways won a victory by changing from blackjack to poker.

It is an honest book - at times brutally so. It is partly an autobiography, but a biography viewed through the distorting prism of poker. It is obvious she did not enjoy her schooldays, but even these stories are related through poker anecdotes. Even the death of her father - who she obviously loves to an immense degree - is described through that same poker prism. When she needs two Jewish men to say prayers at her dad's funeral, who does she turn to except for her poker-friends?

This is not the first of Victoria Coren's books that we have read. A few years ago she wrote a book, 'Once more with feeling', where she and an old university friend Charlie Skelton attempt to do the seemingly impossible. As the subtitle says: 'How we tried to make the greatest porn film ever'. In it they set out to learn enough about the industry to create a brilliant non-exploitative porn film. Sometimes it is a funny read, at others depressing; but it is always an insightful look at a dark, hidden world. Needless to say, the biggest problem they have is making the film non-exploitative: everyone seems to exploit each other. Agents exploit artists and artists exploit other artists. Some of the pictures are rather interesting as well, especially if you want to know how porn stars remove an excess of lube...

So we have two books: one where men and women form false relationships and screw each other for money, and the other where they form false relationships and screw each other for money. Having read both books recently, it becomes clear that there are many similarities between the worlds of porn and poker.

I found 'Once more with feeling' a much better read. It is a genuine outsider's view of a dark, hidden world; witty, inventive and not a little scary. What is more, it attributes genuine souls and characters onto the actors and actresses who are usually just seen as objects. In places it is not an easy read, but that is because of the situations described rather than the authors' prose.

There are two problems with 'For richer, for poorer'. The first minor fault is that many pages are filled with descriptions of poker hands that are virtually undecipherable to a non-player. There is no guide to the terminology and the learning curve is very steep. Using various websites I tried to learn some of the terminology but even then it was fairly impenetrable. Fortunately these sections are short and I eventually ended up skipping over them.

More important was the perspective of the books. In 'Once more with feeling' the authors are examining - and trying to become a small part of (**) - the world of porn. They are looking at the industry in an unusual way and give the reader sometimes-disturbing views.

However in 'For richer, for poorer', the author is thoroughly embedded within the world she is writing about.  She can see its faults, can describe the problems, but has done well out of it; she has been successful and won over a million dollars. For every player like her there will be a multitude who are losers, and many whose lives have been ruined by a gambling addiction.

Yet she has the mind to learn to play poker well, the intellect to realise the type of gambling she is best suited to, Most importantly, she has a supportive family and good, if not spectacularly well-paying jobs. She is a gambler, but she is an in-control gambler. The risks are relatively low: she has no husband and no kids who will be thrown out onto the streets if she fails.

To stretch the analogy between these two books a little too far, 'For richer, for poorer' is like a high-class prostitute writing 'Once more with feeling'. Victoria Coren can see the damage that gambling causes, but aside from late-night trans-Atlantic calls to banks, has never really suffered from the downsides. She has never been shot in the testicles unlike one poor gambler she meets. And that is the biggest problem with the book: it is a successful insider's view and lacks the perspective of 'Once more with feeling'.

I can thoroughly recommend both of these books. Be warned, though: you need an open mind to read either of them.

(*) She also happens to be the daughter of Alan Coren, brother of Giles Coren, which perhaps explains both her writing and her rather esoteric interests.

(**) Double entendres allowed.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Digging for the truth

I have long thought that it is going to be nearly impossible to get to the truth - if anything can be defined as the 'truth' - of the AGW debate. Partly this is because of the problems of modelling the future in a system as complex and little understood as Earth's, and partly because our actions and other effects can combine to make those models redundant.  For this reason, it will always be a best-guess estimate.

However it is interesting to see how both sides (*) are fighting each other. The AGW-proponents do themselves a disservice by lumping all critics into a 'global warming denier' grouping, where the spectrum of sceptic views are far more varied than that. Likewise, some sceptics tend to extrapolate from small problems rather than look at the big picture.

First, I would like to make a big proviso: the events in this blog post are recent and events are moving fast; I have had to look at many different sources to produce it, some of which are contradictory. I have tried to be as even-handed as possible, but that is not always possible. The links I have added should allow you to do your own research and form your own opinions.

'Climategate', the release of rather embarrassing emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, was well covered in the media. At best they showed the researchers at the CRU as being obstructive and more interested in the politics of climate change than getting to the truth, which they seem to have predetermined. As part of that crisis, allegations of hacking led to an expensive criminal inquiry by the police. This was despite it being distinctly possible that the documents came from a publicly-accessible server (i.e. they had essentially been published). As far as I am aware, no charges have been bought with regards to the 'hacking'.

Last week some documents were released from an American anti-global warming group called the Heartland Institute (HI). The documents made some claims that some AGW proponents jumped on, claiming shadowy organisations funded the HI (**). However, pretty soon some people, notably at Watts up with That and elsewhere, noticed that the document that showed the HI at it worst was stylistically different from the others. There is also some doubt about the contents of some of the other documents, although HI have only claimed one is an out-and-out forgery.

The HI soon said that one of the documents had been faked; strangely enough this was the one that others had noted as being different. Further research by sceptics showed that aspects of the faked document were stylistically similar to those produced by Peter Gleick, the head of the American Geophysical Union's Task Force on Scientific Ethics. Strangely, Gleick stood down from that position shortly afterwards.

A few days later Gleick admitted that he had got the confidential documents by deception: the accusation is that he impersonated a member of HI's board to get them. Instead of then doing an analysis under his own name, he then leaked them to a pro-AGW website. Although he denies it, he is also accused of faking the most damaging document.

The AGU do a great deal of good work; coincidentally I read several of their excellent blogs on geology and geography; I respect them far more than I do the CRU. However it is staggering that a scientist working for such an august and well-respected body can use deception to steal documents, then publish them. AGUs reaction has, so far, been good.

When the CRU emails were leaked the pro-AGW groups used (unproved) accusations of hacking to divert attention from the embarrassing contents. The HI scandal (and it s a scandal) involves impersonation and likely fakery. Potentially worse, allegedly some of the documents contained personal information about HI's employees.

Richard Black on the BBC has behaved disgustingly. When the CRU emails were released he refused to discuss the contents; in contrast he jumped on the HI's leak with gusto. Even his latest blog entry (on the BBC website) tries to paint over what Gleick did; instead he concentrates his fire on the HI. Black is purposefully missing the real story: one of deception and forgery, and instead attacks the victim. Well done, BBC.

It does not have to be this way. Judith Curry is an unusual scientist - she takes a rather different line to most, and gets shot at from both sides. She believes in AGW, but dislikes the way her fellow proponents are treating the science. Her blog post on this topic is far better, and compares Gleick's actions with his previous words as head of Scientific Ethics. BBC: get rid of Black and hire someone like Curry instead.

The truth matters. All Gleick and his supporters have done is make the truth harder to discern.

(*) Both sides is actually a misnomer - there are many different aspects and opinions in the debate.

(**) I find this interest in the funding of the HI funny - they have a small budget of $5 million a year, a tiny fraction of what pro-AGW organisations spend each year.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The elegance of FM stereo

FM radio is going to die. Slowly, inevitably, it is going to be overtaken by digital radio that squeezes many more stations into the same frequencies. Which is a shame, as FM exhibits what is, for me, an elegant engineering solution to a problem.

Originally FM was mono-only. That is, the stations broadcast just one signal that was fed to all speakers on the radio. In the 1950s it was realised you could broadcast stereo signals easily on FM. However this required sending two signals; one for the left-hand speaker and one for the right. An obvious approach would be for the left-hand signal to be broadcast on the mono frequency, and the right-hand on a frequency broadcast a short distance away.

However by this stage there were many mono FM radios in homes, and this approach would have made these useless as they would only get the left-hand signal (try listening to only one speaker of a stereo system to hear the problem).

To solve this, they came up with a simply cunning solution.

They broadcast a sum signal (left + right) on the main (mono) frequency and, a short frequency hop away, a difference (left - right). From these, both the left-hand and right-hand signals can be retrieved using simple analogue circuitry, and the mono signal maintains the qualities of the combined stereo channels.

Say at any one period the left-hand signal is at 5, and the right-hand at 7 (they are really sine waves, but the maths works well enough for discrete digital values).
This means 12 (5+7) is broadcast on the sum frequency, and -2 (5-7) on the difference.

To obtain the original left and right stereo values, you simply:
1) To get the left-hand signal, you add the difference and sum values, i.e. 10, then divide by 2 to get 5
2) To get the right-hand signal, you subtract the difference from the sum, i.e. 14, then divide by 2 to get 7

Of course there are other complexities, but the basic approach is simple: what is even better, it was easy to perform in 1950s-era electronics.

It is an utterly elegant solution. It also explains why, if you have poor signal quality, the radio degrades to mono, which is broadcast on the main frequency.

Digital radio has many interesting engineering and mathematical tricks, (for instance the magnificent Fast Fourier Transforms), but nothing beat the simple elegance of the FM stereo solution.

As usual Wikipedia has much more information and this page goes into more detail than almost anyone will want...

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Impressive friends

Aeons ago, whilst at university in London, I had a friend who was studying aeronautical engineering. For the purposes of this post, I shall call him 'Gopher' (*).

Gopher was a great bloke. Imagine Ace Rimmer in a flying jacket. I used to go to Club E1 and other places with Gopher - he was a great bloke (**). One night we got talking to a couple of girls in the student union bar.

"What do you do?" they asked Gopher
"Well, I fly light aircraft, gliders, and race cars."
They turn to me: "And what do you do?"
"I'm on a geological engineering course, and I work freelance as a programmer."
They turn back to Gopher. "So, how often do you fly?"

I did not get a look-in all night.

One of my oldest friends, another aeronautical engineer, is getting married in May. He is an Iron man triathlete, a marathon runner, and, to add insult to injury, a literal rocket scientist. I am seriously in awe of this guy. And he is marrying a beautiful lady.

I have spent most of my life surrounded by people who are incredibly active and sporty. I spent quite a time at school with a leg in casts;during sports periods I was given the only jobs I could do: timing people on the cross-country runs or recording the completed swimming lengths. In comparison to these lovely people I am a laggard, a positive couch potato. And now my wife has taken up running, and is doing rather well.

My walking is a small attempt to at least partially replicate the highs that these people routinely achieve.

Walking is boring: you tell someone that you have walked 1,000 miles and their eyes glaze over; walking is boring, literally pedestrian. Running is interesting. Flying is sexy. Motor racing is doubly sexy. Iron man triathletes are Gods. Walkers are... well, boring.

I have lost contact with Gopher; I last talked to him ten years ago. A Google search has yielded no results. But I hope that he is still racing, doing amazing things.

I raise my glass of Laphroaig to him, wherever he is. (***)

(*) Why 'Gopher'? The answer: he goes for this, goes for that, goes for anything in a skirt!

(**) One day we were sitting outside the Atrium of the university, talking about this newfangled thing called the Internet. We chatted about the possibility of an on-line encyclopaedia that contained all the world's information at different levels of complexity. You could select a topic and see basic information, then drill fractally down into near-infinite detail. We realised that two men could not possibly assemble that much information, and it would have to be a collaborative effort. We envisaged a combination of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Dynabook that would render paper libraries redundant. Microsoft Encarta was launched later that same year, and seven years later Nupedia was launched, which spawned Wikipedia. That is the difference between the entrepreneur and the dreamer. We dreamed, they did.

(***) Technically it should really be a glass of Glenmorangie. I have happy memories of drinking the best part of half a bottle of that lovely liquid with him in that famous pedestrian bridge over Aspen Way in Poplar.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Education, education, education

The Times Education Supplement recently published an article which has spread rather rapidly over the web. It is well worth a read:

We were both shocked by the article. Talk about a lack of ambition for the pupils under his care.

I find the first couple of paragraphs staggering:
It is 4pm. My weary colleagues and I are slowly unwinding in the maths office, when there is a knock on the door.
"Could I have a quick word with Jonny, please?" says Michael in a bright, nervous voice. I don't sigh, but inwardly I think, "Is that my 'quick' or yours?"
The Michael in question is a pupil, and Jonny his maths teacher. Michael is concerned that he will not get an A-grade, and Jonny thinks he is worrying unnecessarily. Perhaps a justifiable concern; but what follows is, in my opinion, utterly unprofessional. Instead of encouraging the pupil he chooses to so exactly the opposite, and gives a spiel *against excellence* that would dishearten and discourage many bright children.

The idea that a teacher reacts this way to an inquisitive pupil is flabbergasting. Then again, it was at 16.00, and no-one works past that hour, do they?

I think that the author has a kernel of an idea that he articulates particularly badly - that children are being put under too much pressure. Yet his article goes much further and shows a worrying lack of concern for the pupil.

I can only hope that few teachers think like the author. And I am amazed that the Times Education Supplement published it - it reflects so badly on the teacher in question and the profession.