Sunday, 1 December 2013

Book review: "Saints of the Shadow Bible", by Ian Rankin

After two off-beat tomes, Ian Rankin has dragged his famous anti-hero, John Rebus, out of retirement and back into CID. Demoted from Detective-Inspector to Detective-Sergeant, his old colleague and foil Siobhan is now his boss.

The two friends are called out to the site of a late-night car crash near Edinburgh airport. No-one died, and the female driver is soon released from hospital. But Rebus thinks the woman was a passenger. So how did she get into the driver's seat, and who was the driver? When it turns out she is the girlfriend of the son of Scotland's Justice Minister, a train of events starts that might cost Rebus more than his job.

For Rebus has a past. Thirty years earlier, whilst a Detective Constable in a long-closed police station, he had joined a group of detectives who called themselves Saints of the Shadow Bible. Times were different then, corners cut, and past sins soon start impinging on the present.

This is really a return to form for Rankin. Fox, the main character in two non-Rebus books, is facing a shift in career back into CID and comes across as a much more sympathetic and well-drawn character. The Scottish Referendum debate gets more than a passing mention, with the major suspects coming from both sides of the debate. The book is of its place and of its time, fully embedded within the Edinburgh Rankin loves.

The plot is fast paced and, as ever from Rankin, the characters are well drawn. Best of all, he has kept musical references down to a minimum.

I would give this book four out of five stars.

Friday, 1 November 2013

William Lowe

William Lowe has died aged 72. You may not have heard of him, but you will have heard of the product he developed.

In 1980 Lowe was working for IBM in Florida. Seeing a gap in the market, he persuaded IBM management to let a small team of a dozen people create a personal computer. He thought it was vital for the team to be free of the rigorous controls and corporate culture the company mandated for projects.

IBM reluctantly agreed. The company had tried twice before to make a personal computer, and each project had ended in failure. Lowe's small tiger team succeeded in creating what is now known as the IBM PC.

For speed, they decide to buy an operating system, eventually settling on one from a small company run by a certain Bill Gates. For speed, they decided to use components from companies outside of IBM, such as Intel's 8088 processor. Lowe also decided that the new computer would have an open architecture, allowing the user to expand it. Again, this was contrary to IBM practice.

These decisions made it feasible for other companies to make computers that ran the same software, enabling the entire IBM PC-compatible industry. In my mind Lowe's decision to break away from IBM corporate culture was one of the defining moments in the computer industry. In this, he was far more influential than even Steve Jobs.


Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Open government.

A good friend of ours died earlier in the year. For various reasons we wanted to attend his inquest, so shortly after his death I phoned Cambridgeshire coroner's office. They told me that it would be a number of months before the inquest would be held, and that I should check their webpage frequently.

I did as requested, but there were problems. Sometimes the webpage would display inquest times and dates weeks in advance, with many separate inquests on the list. At others times it would display ones that had already happened, and only update a day or two before new ones were due. This meant that I was having to check the webpage more or less daily, a task aided by a little script I wrote to trawl the relevant page.

About a month ago I realised the webpage had not been updated for a while. I phoned up the coroner's office, who told me that our friend's inquest was due for the 30th of October.

I checked again today, and the webpage has still had not been updated. The inquest is to be in Wisbech, and to prevent Sencan taking a day off work for no reason, I wanted to make sure that it was still on.

Instead of checking on the webpage, I was forced to make another phone call.

It should be a simple task to ensure that a webpage is kept up to date with the latest information on when inquests are going to be held. Even better would be to allow people to lodge a request for information about when an inquest is due, and email them when a date is set.

This may sound like a whinge, and it is. However concern over missing the inquest has added a tiny bit more stress and annoyance at a very sad time for us.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A marathon effort

About two and a half years ago, Sencan took up running as a hobby. There were several runners in her new company, and there were some good running routes around the village. Initially she trained for a local 10K run, and since then has done a number of 5K, 10K and half-marathons.

Sencan at two miles
She started off by barely being able to run, yet can now routinely run fifteen or more miles on a Saturday morning. Her transformation from a lady who believed she could not run, to a bona fide runner, has been interesting, inspiring, and at times amusing. There has been little blood (and most of that from Chris, her running partner), but rather a large amount of sweat and not a few tears. Some of these are from me as I cycle behind her, shouting encouragement and carefully-considered insults on her longer runs.

There has been a large learning curve - she has had to learn how to look after her feet, the correct clothes to wear, and how to get enough food and hydration during a long run. Training schedules off the Internet were combined with great advice from friends. Initially 5K felt like a long distance to her; then 10K became achievable. Over the last eighteen months half-marathons have become a norm, and earlier in the year she decided that it was time to step up to the big one.

On Sunday, she set off on the first marathon with Chris. I dropped her off at York University and walked to the cathedral to catch her two miles into her run. A few hours later, I was waiting to see her at the end. She completed the run in a little over five and a half hours, with enough energy to walk back to the hotel and go out for a meal in the evening.

I'm really proud of her. The only question is where she runs her next marathon - I doubt she'll wait a year for the next York event. Wherever it is, I'll be there waiting for her at the end ...

Sencan at the end of the marathon

Monday, 14 October 2013


Some superb bike skills by Danny MacAskill:

Absolutely incredible. And yes, he really did it.

More spectacular stunts can be seen on his website at:

Sunday, 18 August 2013


I have long been a fan of Elon Musk, the Internet entrepreneur who has made the difficult jump into hardware with his successful SpaceX company, which sends cargo (and soon passengers) to the International Space Station.

He also co-founded Tesla, the company that proved that electric cars can be sporty.

But SpaceX is just an iteration on existing technology: that is not to denigrate what they have done, but at the end of the day it is just a long tube of fuel sitting on top of rocket motors, just as all rockets have been since Sputnik 1 first orbited the earth. And Tesla also uses proven technology, albeit in a novel way.

It is therefore with interest that I note that Mr Musk and his team have come up with the Hyperloop, a solution for mass transit between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The Hyperloop is a tube running between the two cities. A partial vacuum is maintained in the tube whilst a linear induction motor fires off a pod containing passengers (and in some designs cars) through it. The partial air pressure is sucked in at the front of the pod, compressed, and used to levitate the pod on a cushion of air (so-called 'air bearings'). Occasional linear induction motors continue to accelerate the pod to account for the small amount of friction and aerodynamic drag; for most of the time the pod coasts. One pod can be fired off every 30 seconds, and they travel at high subsonic speeds (to a maximum of 760 MPH).

The tube is supported on pylons above ground, and is covered with solar panels which will provide the power for the system. The pods contain batteries that run the compressors that provide the lift air.

The whole scheme is described in the following link:

I have read the paper, and the following issues come to mind. None of these are necessarily game changers, but will need addressing:
  • Crashworthiness: The energies involved at high-subsonic travel are immense. What happens if a component breaks off and is left in the tube to be hit by the next vehicle? Or if the vehicle makes contacts with the sides somehow, imparting great energies to the tube and pod? Even a 5 gram nut has significant energy when hit at over 700 MPH.
  • Evacuation: If there is a problem and people need to evacuate, how does that happen? Remember, the tube is sealed and in a partial vacuum. And as the tube is intended to be supported on pylons above ground, how do passengers get from the tube to the ground?
  • Life support: the air pressure within the tube (i.e. outside the pod) will be harmful to human life. The pods will have to maintain a pressure that we can survive in, and all hatches and seals will have to be foolproof. They have addressed this in the document, but I'm not sure they have the whole answer, especially with hatches and seals that will have to be repeatedly used over a period of days, months or years. Will the air inside the pod be at normal sea-level atmospheric pressure, or reduced as in aircraft?
  • Claustrophobia: the passenger-only vehicle appears rather cramped. Claustrophobia may be a significant problem for many passengers - airplanes are bad enough for some people. This effect may be worsened by G-forces, which will be considerably more than is the case for high-speed rail.
  • Breakdowns: With one pod every 30 seconds, what happens if one breaks down mid-tube and away from one of the accelerator areas? The paper says there will be deployable wheels that can be driven along using electric motors; this is not only extra complexity, but the power required may be significant if a long way away from an accelerator area. In addition, there is no mention of gradients. If the tube has a significant gradient, the amount of energy required to take a pod up slope will be large. And what happens if the emergency wheel system fails?
  • Construction: in the paper, I fear the team underestimate the costs and complexities of construction. They have designed the route on Google Earth to follow existing transport corridors where possible (for example Interstates). This takes no account of ground conditions: if the line passes through an area of soft or difficult ground, the costs of constructing the pylons will grow significantly. As the route will be passing through an area that can exhibit significant seismic activity, the pylon foundations will have to be designed to cope with liquefaction and other effects.
  • Braking and signalling: If a car does stop, how do the others get messages to stop? What sort of signalling system will be used, and how fail-safe will it be? The proposed system of braking is simply referred to as 'emergency mechanical braking system' What is this, and how does it work?
  • Pointwork: One of the deal breakers with Maglev systems is pointwork. With one pod leaving every 30 seconds, there will be many pods at the stations unloading and loading. The paper suggest that there may be branch lines to other cities in the area. How are the pods transferred to different tubes or tracks at the stations (or indeed into depots or maintenance areas)? If this is done in tubes, you will need moving tubes and/or walls, preferably whilst keeping a low pressure vacuum. Not an easy task.
  • Charging: the on-board batteries will need charging every few journeys. How is this done during intensive usage of the pods?
  • Fire: all mechanical and electrical systems suffer from the risk of fire, and those risks need managing. Being in a sealed pod with a fire, and a vacuum outside, is not necessarily healthy. In addition, there are the risks of smoke for other pods further down the line. Fire and smoke management are very costly in similar tube-like systems such as the Channel Tunnel, which has a service tunnel and refuges at regular intervals.
I could be wrong about all of this, and could end up sounding like Doctor Dionysius Lardner who in the 1830s said the following:
Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia.
On a positive note: engineering-wise, it is perfectly feasible to construct a partially-evacuated tube that is supported by pylons. The propulsion system also appears feasible at first glance, as is the air-cushion support mechanism. Engineering difficulties will happen, but if you throw enough money at it, it should work.

However, getting such a system to work reliably and safely is a whole different matter, and I am unsure that anywhere near enough thought has been put into this.

Another view on the Hyperloop's feasibility is at the Ambivalent Engineer blog. The costings are explored at the New York Times. The New Statesman is sceptical.

And the Daily Mash has its own take on the Hyperloop....

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Another coastal walker

In what has to be a bumper season for coastal walkers, there is another name to add to the roll of honour.

In 2012 Jez Nemeth started walking the entire coast of Britain, which he estimates will take five years. Unusually (and rather spectacularly) he is filming the entire coast path and recording people's connections to the coast as he goes.

His website detailing his exploits can be found at, whilst an example film can be found at

His site also includes a list of people walking the Welsh Coast Path, which includes many names not shown below.

Good luck to Jez, and I look forward to feelings of nostalgia as I watch his videos.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Book review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

(Note: I have tried not to have too many spoilers in this review, but it is hard to discuss such an interesting book without giving away a few points. If you are afraid of spoiling your enjoyment of the book then please just take my eight word review: well written, interesting concepts poorly implemented, unsatisfying ending).

This is a crime brook with a difference: instead of the usual routine single or multiple murders, it details the disappearance of Nick Dunne's wife Amy on their fifth anniversary, and the way suspicion slowly falls on him as the investigation progresses. Indeed, the evidence against him seems almost too perfect.

The story is initially told from two perspectives: Amy's historic diary entries and narration that slowly unveils the minutiae of their relationship, and Nick's current narration as the police investigation gathers pace. Both are unreliable narrators; sadly, in Nick's case it is all too obvious to the reader that he is unreliable. Indeed, one of the many 'twists' in the plot is so well signposted that it would have been a twist if it had not occurred.

A big problem with this book are the characters' occupations. Both Nick and Amy are writers - or more accurately were, as both have lost their jobs by the start of the book. Whilst writing is a perfectly good and worthy occupation, I am bored about reading about writers. It shows a distinct lack of imagination by the author: Nick could just have easily been an engineer, a shopkeeper, anything: the fact he was a writer is absolutely incidental and not vital to the plot.

In a similar vein, although they are both poor at the beginning of the book (part of the cause of the stress on their relationship), Amy has been rich in the past via a trust fund set up by her parents. She also has a ludicrously rich associate, of the six-room remote lakeside chalet type. Frankly, it feels unrealistic.

At the heart of this book is the story of a psychopath. Sadly the psychopath is neither particularly interesting or realistic. If you read about psychopaths then they should at least be interesting; that is not the case here. That might be forgiveable aside from the fact the other main characters are also fairly uninteresting.

The exception is Nick's twin sister, Go. Indeed, Go is about the only sympathetic major character in the entire piece, and her descent from trusting her twin completely to doubting his story is well written and believable.

The book is overlong and overwritten: the detail may contain good prose, but much of it does not progress the plot. There are also repeated details; not just from the two narrators (which if showing the same event from different perspectives is fine), but multiple times from the same character. The author's hunger for us to understand these points is like being repeatedly hit over the head with a wooden Punch and Judy character.

Indeed, it is a book of two halves. The first half is far too long and needs some heavy trimming, especially of repeated information. It is rather heavy, and much of the information given superfluous. The second half is much better, with twist and turns designed to keep the reader guessing; I read two-thirds of it in an afternoon, which is unusual for me.

One entertaining part of this book is the way that subsidiary characters react to the growing evidence against Nick. At first he has sympathy and the town rallies to find Amy. But the sympathy becomes a widespread impression that he is guilty as the evidence against him is revealed. A sympathetic interview changes that and makes the locals believe he is innocent, but only until the next piece of evidence comes along. The whole trial-by-media subplot is well handled, but is really worthy of its own book.

There is also a segment about the way we play roles in society: Amy admits to playing roles that allow her to fit in amongst different strands of society (the so-called 'Cool Girl' personae), but this interesting concept is relatively underdeveloped.

Which brings me to the crunch: whilst this book is well-written and has an unusual and enticing storyline, it sucks. It sucks big time. Why? Without creating too many plot spoilers, it breaks one of the golden rules of crime thrillers. Justice is not done.

As a reader, you want the story to come to a conclusion with some form of justice done. Sherlock Holmes is an interesting example; in several of his stories he lets a criminal get away with their crime because of the circumstances. In the case of the murder of blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, he decides that Milverton was a far worse person than the murderer who had been a victim of his blackmail. The reader sees that, although the murderer escaped, justice has been done. Revenge can be justice.

However in this story the criminal gets everything he or she wants, and makes everyone's life a living misery. This was not the ending I wanted from the book, and it was deeply dissatisfying. Justice was not done, and it left me feeling cheated as a reader. It also makes absolutely no sense: the criminal's story is utterly unbelievable, yet is swallowed by the police, family and friends. A disappearance is investigated by a large police team, whilst a murder is ignored.

Some reviews state that the end if ambiguous: it is not. There is no ambiguity, no nuance. It is an ending, but an empty and unfulfilling one. If the author's intention is for there to be a sequel then I fear she will be out of luck: the story has progressed as far as it can and the characters are not likeable enough to carry another book. Indeed, there are two or three concepts within that could carry a book each, but they are merged and squashed into 'Gone Girl' and they remain substantially unexplored.

This book is a classic example of an excellent writer who seems to have no idea either of plotting, or of what her readers will want from the book. I give it a deeply disappointing 2 out of 5 stars

Saturday, 4 May 2013

More coastal walkers

This year is proving to be a bumper year for coastal walkers, with two more all-coasters currently out and about, two partial walkers doing the coasts of England and Wales, and one historical all-coastal walker.

Sadly Tommy Brabham, the young gent behind 'Shoelace Express' has had to drop out of his walk in South Devon due to injury.

That still leaves four or five people currently doing the entire coast in more-or-less one go. Thanks to everyone who has provided me with information on them.

My list of coastal walkers has been updated.

Chris McCullough Young

Chris McCullough Young started walking the coast on the 6th April 2011 and is walking anti-clockwise. He has reached Workington in Cumbria. He has sadly caught Lyme's Disease during his walk, but is continuing.

You can follow him at:

David Higgins

David Higgins set off from Withernsea on March 30th, walking anti-clockwise, and has sped up the coast as far as Montrose. He is raising money for Parkinson's UK.

You can follow him at:

Alan Dix

Alan Dix is currently walking the new Welsh Coastal Path, making a circuit using Offa's Dyke path.
You can follow him at:

Jon Coombe

Jon Coombe is walking much of the English coast in sections, and is currently in Somerset.

Dr Geebers

And one historic walker has been unearthed: a man naming himself 'Dr Geebers' walked 6,800 miles around the entire coast between 2009 and the end of 2011, creating sculptures on the way. He started in Brighton and walked clockwise.

He has a website outlining his art at

Coastal access improvements

Also: thanks to Jon Coombe for letting me know that Somerset County Council have produced the route of a 'coastal' walk from the end of the South West Coast Path at Minehead and Steart Point, at the mouth of the River Parrett. Maps and details can be found on their website. It is slightly disappointing - whilst the route avoids walking along the A39 between Williton and East Quantoxhead as I did on my walk, the alternative actually goes further inland, rather than going nearer the sea.

Monday, 15 April 2013

North Korea

With the situation in Korea sadly warming up, I found this excellent graphic in NationalPost that details North Korea's military equipment.

Whilst much of the equipment is old and out of date compared to the latest and greatest western models, the quantity will have a quality of its own.

There is also another graphic, detailing the probable capabilities of their missile systems.

Goodness knows where this is going. Hopefully North Korea are only sabre rattling. But if they are not, world geopolitics is going to become very complex, very quickly.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Google Pathview?

I just noticed this post on the Ambivalent Engineer blog. It shows a man-portable Google Streetview rig, for use on trails.

More information is available at the TechCrunch website, and there is the obligatory YouTube video.

I wonder where I apply to walk the National Trails with one? ;-)

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Dumb ways to die

My childhood memories are filled with public service announcements. Whether it was Darth Vader serving penance as the Green Cross Man, or warnings not to mix cross-ply and radial tyres, each film sent a carefully-constructed message.

Looking back, many of the old PSA's were dated and laughable, especially for a modern audience. Times have changed, and so have PSA's: here in the UK we have a very effective anti-drink drive advert that has run for a few years.

It is rare for such po-faced adverts to become an Internet hit. But one has: here is the brilliant PSA  'Dumb Ways to Die'. With mind worm lyrics, a catchy tune and simple Mr Men-style graphics, it is both cute and weirdly disturbing.

I won't say what it's message is, but needless to say it is very effective.

Friday, 22 February 2013

And then there were four...

Thanks to Google, I have found details of a fourth coastal walker.

John Rayment set off from Tilbury on the 1st August 2012, and hopes to complete his stroll by 31st October 2013. He is raising money for three Parkinson's charities, and has a Facebook page with many photos of his walk, and a charity page. Rather sensibly he has taken the winter off, and restarts from Glandyfi in March.

In less than a month there will be four separate coastal walkers on the go, along with many more sectional walkers. After a rather fallow 2011, it is great to see more people enjoying our coast.

I have updated my list of all coastal walkers to include all the latest walkers.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Another coastal walker.

I dunno, I wait ages for news of a coastal walker, and then three come along at once...

Many thanks to Zoe Wathen for telling me about Christian, an ex-soldier who set off from Blackpool on the 8th August last year, and is currently approaching Southampton. He is raising money for Help for Heroes, and is sleeping rough most of the time; so far he has spent nearly 200 nights without accommodation.

He has a website at Christian Around Britain, and is on Facebook. His Twitter account is @ChristianNock1.

I think we can all agree that it is a brilliant cause, and an exceptional achievement.

(I should also point out Zoe's own blog about her walking exploits at

Monday, 18 February 2013

Hilleberg Akto tent - initial thoughts

As I have mentioned in the past, my reliable, 14-year old North Face Westwind tent is nearing the end of her life. Westie has been a faithful companion to me over many trips, and I have pitched her everywhere from mountains to shore. Westie has two large negatives: she's a heavy lady at three kilograms, and her bright yellow colour makes her very conspicuous when wild camping. Over the years I judged that I could live with these negatives in exchange for her friendly spaciousness  She is also a sturdy lady: in the hundreds of nights I have spent under her canvas, in all weathers, I have never once had to use the guy ropes.

But Westie is an elderly lady now. Creases are showing on her face, and her faded grandeur is visible to everyone. Like many elderly ladies, she is also suffering from periods of embarrassing dampness. Rather than keep punishing her, I have decided to put her into semi-retirement.

Changing partners is always difficult, especially after so many happy years together. So what could possibly replace such an old friend? I looked into many different tents, but one was always at the back of my mind: the Hilleberg Akto. It had several advantages: it is commonly available for a try-out, has a good reputation, and has a practical combination of weight versus features. There are tents which are apparently better for my purposes, but they are less available for a quick test in shop, and I did not want to buy unseen. Additionally, the Akto has maintained a very good reputation over a number of years.

So I went into Cambridge  where an assistant kindly set it up for me, so I could see if my 6'2" frame would fit easily within. Despite being a bit snug in height, I decided she would do.

The Akto, showing the big porch 
These are my first impressions after erecting it in the garden, and without having slept in it.


  • The porch is massive. Westie had a tiny porch for a tent of its size; so small that my boots would often press against the interior material. In contrast, the Akto has enough space for me to even keep my 70-litre rucksack in, and still have enough room to cook.
  • Adjusting the guy ropes is simplicity itself, due to the sliding lock tensioners on each guy.
  • There is no doubt that the weight of the tent, at 1.7 kg, is much lighter than Westie, which weighs in at nearly 3kg. This will make a devil of a difference to my pack weight.
  • The ability to pitch the fly before the inner could be an advantage on multi-day trips and whilst pitching in rain.
  • The interior is spacious; it is longer than Westie with plenty of space at my head and feet, although it is also narrower and squatter. I expect the height issue will become more of a factor when I am lying on my NeoAir inflatable mattress rather than the groundsheet.


  • You always need to use the guy ropes on the Akto, and that gives it a surprisingly bigger footprint on the ground than my old faithful - and much larger - Westie.
  • It is fussy to erect. Westie was fairly simple to put up, even with its three poles, and once up, she remained up. Glaciers could not shift her. I found the Akto to be more complex, especially when adjusting the guy tensioners. I would not like to have to erect her in the dark until I have had much more experience. It is also much harder to erect than my smaller Jack Wolfskin Gossamer tent.
  • The interior height is not quite ideal for me, although liveable with.
  • Even using the tensioners, I had difficulty getting one corner taught. It will need much more practice  preferably in an area with more space.
  • Being used to Westie's lightweight traditional metal pegs, I found Akto's pegs to be fiddly and less practical. For this reason, I may try pitching her with some of Westie's spare pegs. The V-profile pegs also have a tendency to clog with mud. The mud has to be scraped off after disassembly, which can be a mucky business.
  • The only interior storage is a very small mesh pocket at one end.
  • For some unknown reason, there are fabric hoops on the inner's ceiling from which you could theoretically hang a mesh storage shelf. But that would lower the available interior height considerably. It would be interesting to know if anyone uses these loops.

A small tent needs a big garden
Another oddity I noted; when Sencan got in, static electricity attracted her long air to the inner. Later on, I noticed that the inner was pressing against the flysheet. An investigation showed that static appeared to be attracting the two together. Hopefully this artefact will disappear with use.

I will have to spend a few nights in the Akto before I see if there any problems with condensation, which was Westie's biggest problem towards the end. It certainly should be better - the ventilation options seem more practical to use. However no substantial tent can ever be condensation proof on a frosty, still night.

Weighing her on scales, I get a packed weight of 1.740 kg; a good 140 grams more than the advertised weight. This is hardly unusual, but annoying: I wish manufacturers could give a more realistic weight estimate. However it is well over a kilogram lighter than Westie, which will make a difference on the hills.

The big question is whether I will be brave enough to use this in anger for the first time on a backpacking trip, or whether I will go for a car-camp. That will depend on mood, weather and bravery.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Coastwalk: vertical distances

In a previous post, I posited that pedometers are an inaccurate way of measuring distances on a walk, especially if hills are involved, due to the reduction in stride length as you ascend and descend.

In a comment on the post, bernieT36 asked a good question: whether the vertical component of any walk would account for this. In other words, the hypotenuse of a triangle (the ground really walked) is longer than the some route when measured on a map.

I thought I'd write a quick post to say why I think the effect is negligible.

Firstly, although there are some very hilly days on the coast (an example being between Bude and Hartland on the South West Coast Path), many are also fairly flat with little ascent or descent to be done. Indeed, some walks in Suffolk, Essex and Kent had total ascent and descent of a few feet over many miles.

The long, steady drag

Now for some maths (yay!).

As an example, let us take a fictitious walk up a mountain from sea level, with a total ascent of 2 kilometres over 10 kilometres horizontal distance.

For simplicity, this post assumes that all ascent is cumulative; that is, an ascent followed by a short descent and another ascent, equates to the sum of the ascents and descents.

The vertical component is not done in one go, as if the horizontal distance is walked, and then a ladder climbed. If this was the case, it would make a total distance of 12km. Instead, the vertical component is shared with the horizontal component.
Using basic trigonometry, the distance walked (the hypotenuse of the triangle) can be calculated as the square root of  the horizontal distance squared plus the vertical distance squared.

Therefore: walked distance  = sqrt ((10^2)+(2^2)).

This comes out as 10.19 km. Therefore the vertical distance accounted for not even a fifth of a kilometre on such an extreme walk.


Ah, I hear people cry, but hills are not a straight line!

So what happens if we walk a curve instead of a straight line? For simplicity I will choose an impossibly steep and long walk - a walk with 10 kilometres of ascent over 10 kilometres of horizontal distance. Using the formula above, the straight-line distance between the two points is sqrt ((10^2)+(10^2)), or 14.14 km. So even in this extreme case, the vertical component has added far less than half the horizontal component.

If we do this as an arc of a quarter of a circle, we get (2*π*10) * (90/360), which is 15.7 km.

Even in this artificially harsh example, the vertical component adds only just over half of the original distance.


Hopefully his goes towards indicating mathematically and practically that the vertical component of a walk has relatively little effect on the distance walked, if not the effort put in!

Thursday, 7 February 2013

The Francis Inquiry

I listened with horror to the details of the Francis Inquiry into the 400 to 1,200 extra deaths at Stafford Hospital due to failures in care. The inquiry appears to have been very thorough, and has exposed failings that strike at the heart of the NHS. Sadly, I have family for whom Stafford is their nearest hospital, and who have their own tales of its institutional failings.

After the publication of the report yesterday, politicians of all parties gave speeches about how terrible the events were, and how we should learn the lessons. Despite their fine and predictable words, I have more than a few doubts that anything will change. For on thing, many of the recommendations have been outlined in previous inquiries into failures in the NHS.

The solution? Politicians need to start acting like engineers.

It's quite simple. Give each of the 290 recommendations from the Francis inquiry a number. For each one, the government gives a detailed response within a month. This response can vary from 'already done' through 'planned', to 'not doing', although in more detail.

Then there is a publicly-visible website with each recommendation having a different section. This shows progress towards the fulfilment of each recommendation, and is updated regularly.

For example, take recommendation 204:
All healthcare providers and commissioning organisations should be required to have at least one executive director who is a registered nurse, and should be encouraged to consider recruiting nurses as non-executive directors.
On the face of it, this seems an eminently sensible and easy change. In an initial response, the government should say whether they agree that this change is needed. If so, then a plan should be set in place to ensure that it is met. This could be something like:
  1. All healthcare providers and commissioning organisations should give details of the current status with respect to this recommendation.
  2. The government sets a deadline for this to occur; for instance a year.
  3. By the deadline, each organisation gives an update, saying whether they have met the target. This is publicly available, so the public can see if their provider has met the recommendation.
Openness is key. Anything else allows the recommendations to be forgotten and for it all to happen again in a few years.

The recommendations can be found in Volume 3 at

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Coastwalk distances

On his website, Tommy B. claims that his walk around the coastline of Britain will be 7,000 miles. To me, that sounds on the long side.

So how long is the coastline? The first paper on fractals, a massively useful branch of mathematics, was entitled 'How long is the coastline of Britain?'. In the paper, Benoît Mandelbrot states that the length of the coast increases to infinity the closer you examine the detail. Measure it on a roadmap, and it would be shorter than if measured on a 1:50,000 map, which in turn is shorter than on a 1:25,000 map. On the ground, it would involve measuring around every pebble and rock; a near infinite length. The picture of Loch Ewe below shows the problem - the coast is never straight.

The Ordnance Survey claim that the length of the mainland (excluding islands) is 11,075 miles; the British Cartographic Survey come up with a similar figure, with more details. As it is often impossible to walk along the Mean High Water, what distance can we expect to walk?

Most people who have walked the coast have taken ferries, and that makes a journey of about 4,500 miles. This can be reduced by taking a few more ferries (for instance Ardrossan to Brodick, then Lochranza to Claonaig), but 4,500 seems the norm. Without taking ferries, and leaving out islands, it seems to be about 6,000 miles. I got up to near 6,300 miles only be doing a couple of island (Anglesey, Arran) and walking some tidal rivers further than the first crossing point.

In the book about his 1978 walk, John Merrill claims he walked 6,824 miles, measured using a pedometer. Whilst I was on my walk, I got a phone call from one of the other walkers that year, Graham. He had been using his GPS to measure distances, and noted that the distances in Merrill's book were large overestimates. I did the same test with my GPS, and came to the same conclusion.

Since then, I have done several walks with both pedometer and satellite navigation to see how they match up. Whilst on the level both correspond remarkably well with the distance measured on a map, whereas on hilly terrain the pedometer generally overestimates compared to the GPS and map.

The reason for the difference is simple: a pedometer relies on the concept of an average stride length. It is easy to maintain a similar stride length on the flat, but it is harder to do this on hills, where strides tend to shorten. Although a small effect, it adds up considerably over the course of a day, week or year,

Since my return, I measured my route electronically on the map, and think the figure of 6,200 to 6,300 miles is realistic for my route.

At the end of the day, the distance walked is somewhat irrelevant. Bragging about distance or speed is not the point of the walk: just achieving the feat should be enough. After all, under forty people have done the walk in one go; less people than have made it to the top of Everest in one day.

You are only competing against yourself, not others.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Another coastal walker

In a response to my previous post, Martin kindly informed me of another coastal walker who is about to set off on the trip.

Tommy B. is a young lad who plans to embark from Eastbourne sometime this week, walking clockwise. He is raising money for the Sussex Air Ambulance and is hoping to walk 7,000 miles. 

He has a very well-designed website - Shoelace Express (a great name, by the way, one I wish I'd thought of) - a Facebook page, and he can be found on Twitter at shoelaceexpress

Good luck to Tommy.

I don't know. You wait a year for a coastal walker to come along, and then two set off within a fortnight. As usual, I am very jealous. My list has 37 people completing the walk in one go (i.e. non-sectionally) since John Merrill completed in 1978; I am bound to have missed a few, but I wonder how long it will be before we reach 50? 

Saturday, 2 February 2013

More coastal walkers

I have news on three more coastal (or part-coastal) walkers:

On 26th January 2013, Craig Adams set off from Saltburn on a 6,500-7,000 miles clockwise walk around the coast. Already he's had to deal with deep snow on the Cleveland cliffs and ankle problems. He is trying to do the trip on very little money; he is taking a ukulele for busking, and would appreciate any offers of accommodation from folk living on the coast. He is raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support.

You can follow his progress on his Wordpress site or on Facebook.
Whilst not technically within the remit of this blog, it would be churlish of me not to mention Jannina Tredwell, who is starting a 3,500 mile walk around the coast of Ireland in February 2013, raising money for the Tusk charity. She completed the British coastal walk in 2006. You can follow her progress at her Wordpress site.

Finally, Nick Noakes is going to be walking the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts starting from Sutton Bridge on the 31st March. He is walking in memory of his son, who he lost last year.

Good luck to all three of them on their endeavours. I am rather jealous.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

I thought I liked living wild...

The Smithsonian Magazine has a rather amazing story about a Russian family that lived in the wilds for forty years, not having had any Human contact for all that time. Having fled because of religious persecution, they allegedly did not even know about the Second World War.
Famine was an ever-present danger in these circumstances, and in 1961 it snowed in June. The hard frost killed everything growing in their garden, and by spring the family had been reduced to eating shoes and bark. Akulina chose to see her children fed, and that year she died of starvation. The rest of the family were saved by what they regarded as a miracle: a single grain of rye sprouted in their pea patch. The Lykovs put up a fence around the shoot and guarded it zealously night and day to keep off mice and squirrels. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop.
Once contact was regained with the family, they had to cope with modern innovations. Cellophane was amazing. However they had seen satellites whizzing across the sky. Their explanation:
"People have thought something up and are sending out fires that are very like stars."

One of the daughters is still out there, alone.

Monday, 28 January 2013


I am not a pet person. I was raised amongst animals - my sister had a Cocker Spaniel and a plethora of semi-wild farm cats. But aside from sharing a couple of goldfish with my siblings, I have never had any pets.

I have managed to maintain this happy situation for nearly forty years. I do not mind animals, but have never felt any desire to get a pet, the practical elements always outweighing any pet-related urges. What do I do when I go on holiday? Will I be a good owner? Can I face cleaning up after them?

Sencan is exactly the opposite. Her childhood home was filled with cats, and her mother collected a menagerie of semi-feral street cats that she still feeds to this day. My wife loves cats, heart and soul.

Last Saturday afternoon, Sencan got a call from out neighbour, saying a cat had been wandering up and down the street, trying to get into houses out of the snow. After watching it for an hour, he let it into the warm. Sadly it did not get on with his cat, so he wanted to know if we could help.

Sencan almost ran next door, and a few minutes later we had an eight-month old cat roaming around. It seemed reasonably well-kept and knew its way around a house - it was soon racing up and down stairs, and found its way into Sencan's lap within a few minutes.

The cynic in me kept well away for a while, but within a couple of hours I was playing with it. It slept downstairs with a kitty-litter tray provided by our neighbour, and in the morning I let it upstairs as I worked in my study. Within half an hour I had abandoned my work and was playing with the cat. In the process it walked over my keyboard and found a debug mode in Google Chrome that I did not know existed. How could I not like it?

Mid-morning, our neighbour came around with a travel-case and took it to the excellent Wood Green Animal Shelter. Since then, it has been successfully rehoused.

I was amazed to find that I missed the cat. It had only been in our lives for eighteen hours, and yet it had firmly inveigled itself into our household. Added to this was a regret and sorrow for a family somewhere nearby who had lost a kitten.

How can such a little ball of fluff change my mind so quickly?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Boeing's woes.

Further to my last post,  the FAA in America have grounded all the Boeing 787s currently flying after two battery-related incidents this year (1). This includes an in-flight fire (2) that took fire crew forty minutes to extinguish whilst the plane was on the ground.

The 787 is revolutionary in several ways - most prominently the extensive use of carbon-fibre, but also for it's 'all-electric' architecture. Amongst other things, this means that pressurisation is not performed by bleed-air off the engines, but by using compressors.

A desire to reduce weight led to lithium-ion batteries being used, which allow the batteries to be smaller and lighter than those used in other planes. This technology is relatively new in aerospace, and lithium-ion batteries carried as freight are suspected to have caused at least one crash already and numerous other problems. (3)

The administration building of the firm who created the charging system for the 787's batteries burnt to the ground in 2006 after a battery caught fire. Additionally, a 787's Power-Control Panel caught fire during flight testing in November 2010 (4), causing further large delays in its entry into service. Whilst such problems are to be expected in flight test, it does look worrying with hindsight, and asks serious questions about Boeing's knowledge of the 787's electrical systems.

So what does this mean for Boeing? it is unlikely that the flight ban will be lifted until the reason for the battery fires are understood and fixes developed. These fixes (they can be fairly simple or massively complex - we should not prejudge) then need applying to each airframe. This will certainly take time and be costly.

Initial suspicions are that the batteries are overcharging. If this is the case (and it may take some time to know for certain and to reproduce), then there are issues of why such problems were not experienced or anticipated before. Boeing will not want to replace the lithium-ion batteries with alternative batteries that are heavier and bulkier.

Worse, the FAA certified the use of Lithium-Ion batteries on the 787, a first for civil aircraft. If the certification process has been proved wrong, their burden of proof for safety will be much higher this time around. As well as alterations to prevent the batteries from catching fire, they may well insist on systems to negate the effects of any fire.

In the meantime, the uncertainty means it will be hard for prospective purchasers to arrange funding for 787s. And this gives an advantage on Airbus, who were massively behind with their competing A350, but who are catching up due to Boeing's woes. Although they have plenty of time to develop their own problems with the A350...


Friday, 11 January 2013

Further 787 problems

Previously I have written about the problems that Boeing had in getting their new passenger aeroplane, the 787, into service. The pane eventually made it into service over three years late, and at massive expense to Boeing.

The introduction of any new aeroplane will be subject to issues; their complexity is such that there will always be teething problems. Part of the aim of any design process is to try to anticipate and reduce these problems before they happen.

Sadly, the introduction of the 787 has been far from problem-free. Firstly there was a serious in-flight fire during the testing phase that contributed to the in-service delay. And since then there have been a series of other problems, several of which have occurred in the last week. There has been another fire, although fortunately when the plane was on the ground, a significant oil leak and a cracked windscreen. There have also been reports of incorrect wiring in some planes. There must have been a few sleepless nights in Seattle.

All of which are perhaps understandable problems - after all, the Airbus A380 has had problem of its own, from a grenading engine to structural wing cracks. But there appears to be more danger in Boeing's current woes. The problems appear to be much wider spread than the A380, and potentially much harder and expensive to fix. 

Today, the Federal Aviation Administration announced a review into the design and manufacture of the plane.Whilst this is unlikely to lead to a grounding, it cannot be helping Boeing's bottom line or order book.