Monday, 1 September 2014

Another coastal walker

Last year was perhaps a record for coastal walkers, with several people walking the coast in one go or in sections.

However the last couple of months have been fairly quiet. David Higgins finished his walk in July, meaning Peter Hill was left attempting the coast in one go.

Luckily last week I received an email about another coastal walker, Alexander Ellis-Roswell. He started walking the coast on the third of August, and is raising money for the RNLI. He is camping out as much as possible, and is currently in Bognor Regis.

He can be followed on Facebook, twitter, and he has a fundraising page.

He is expecting to take around two years to walk 6,500 miles.

The best of luck to him.

Saturday, 9 August 2014


I love the North Norfolk Coast Path. I have walked it, or parts of it, on countless occasions. I even like its less-regarded partner, the Roman Road-following Peddar's Way, which heads arrow-like to the coast from near Thetford.

Thanks to Griffmonster's blog, I've now learnt that the trail has been extended for 21 miles southeast as far as Sea Palling. Even better, the section between Sheringham and Cromer has been rerouted to follow the coast rather then heading through the hills inland. Having said that, I hope the old route remains an official loop as it was an enjoyable stroll to Norfolk's highest point.

I have had some complaints in the past about Natural England's over-engineered, expensive and wasteful English Coastal Path scheme, but increased access along this section is to be welcomed.

Additionally, a long-standing access argument near the western end of the trail has been resolved, and walkers can now legally walk past Snettisham. This now only leaves a few section of coast in Norfolk (King's Lynn to Snettisham and Sea Pallling south towards Great Yarmouth) without official coastal access.

All in all, it is good news. So why the 'Arrrghhh!' ?

You see, I really want to walk (and in some cases re-walk) these new sections of path. But the arrival of my wonderful new son has somewhat put the dampener on any further walking plans.

Although perhaps I could take him with me...

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Dawlish diversions

In February, part of the railway line at Dawlish was destroyed by the sea. Some heroic work by Network Rail and its contractors saw the line reopen in April at a cost (to the railway) of £40 to 45 million. However that work left longer-term questions about the viability of the coastal route, especially if sea levels rise as expected.

Campaigners favoured various options:
  • Reopening the Teign Valley branch. This was a heavily-graded, single-track line, most of which was closed in the 1960s after fluvial flooding.
  • Reopening Tavistock to Okehampton. This LSWR line skirted around the north of Dartmoor. A large branch was until recently open to Okehampton to serve a quarry at Meldon. Reopening this line would open up large areas of North Devon to rail services, but would not be ideal operationally due to time-consuming reversals at Exeter and Plymouth.
  • Tunnel under Dawlish and Teignmouth to avoid the sea wall. I have previously written about the GWR's pre-war proposals to tunnel under the hills inland, avoiding the tidal and estuarine sections. There are several options for the route.
Network Rail have now released an initial study into these alternatives, and it does not make pleasant reading for people supporting any of these proposals. The government compare planned infrastructure improvements by something called the Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR). This is a calculation of the return on every pound invested over a period - in this case, sixty years. A BCR of two or above is seen as very good, and represents two pounds back for every pound invested.

It should be said that calculating BCR is an imprecise art: working out the benefits of a scheme and allocating monetary values to them is difficult at best. But as long as the BCR is calculated in the same way, then it provides a reasonable means of comparing projects.

The Network Rail study shows that the BCR for the alternatives range from 0.08 to 0.29. Unless flaws can be found in the BCR calculations, these schemes are absolute non-starters. These flaws might be factors such as wider social and economic benefits, which are not currently included in the calculations. If the BCR figures are unchanged, then investment in such schemes would have to be made on an emotional, rather than financial, footing.

Therefore it looks likely that the existing route will be hardened against the sea. This too is costly, but is very much a known quantity and has the best BCR. Personally I view this as a shame as I favoured the tunnelling option, but if it is not economic, fair enough.

If the government and Network Rail are sensible, they may throw some extra money at improving the rest of the rail routes into Devon and Cornwall. For instance, a significant cause of loss of time is not at the place the line got breached, but on the South Devon banks, which include the third, fourth and seventh steepest inclines on Britain's main line railways. Whilst the gradients can not be improved, there are many things that can be done to improve journey times.

Cornwall is amongst the poorest regions in the UK, and perhaps improving the rail line into the southwest would be a step towards changing that.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Welcome to Robert İlke Tuncer Cotton

Born on the 29th of June, at 7 pounds 5 ounces.

Both mother and baby are doing well.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Book review: "Mallard: how the 'Blue Streak' broke the world speed record", by Don Hale

For boys of a certain generation, 'Mallard' conjures up images not of a duck floating on a pond, but of a garter-blue locomotive spitting fire and cinders.

On the 3rd July 1938, driver Joseph Duddington and fireman Thomas Bray drove streamlined LNER locomotive Mallard, along with seven coaches, down Stoke Bank towards Peterborough, setting a world speed record for steam locomotives of 126 MPH. It is a record that stands to this day.

It is an oft-told story, and a well-known one. In fact, it is so well known that yet another tome about the record attempt seems scarcely necessary. Thankfully, the author seems to have recognised this, and the attempt is only covered in the last fifth of the book. The remainder mostly concerns the people involved, including the Mallard's designer, Sir Nigel Gresley.

Mallard's record-breaking run really marked the end of the glory years of railway travel. War was approaching, and in fact the run had a lot to do with national and international rivalry. The LNER's great rival, the LMS, had the current British record, set the previous year when Sir William Stanier's streamlined Coronation class locomotive reached 114 MPH.

The international rivalry came from Germany, whose O5 locomotive had reached 124.5 MPH two years earlier. To this day some claim that Germany still holds the record, but those later attempts were not independently verified.

Despite being familiar with the story, I learnt some new things: for instance the famous luxury car maker Bugatti was a friend of Gresley's, and was involved with the design of the streamlining. In fact, Bugatti himself designed streamlined petrol and diesel locomotives for high-speed running. Many enthusiasts paint Gresley and Stanier as great rivals; that may be the case, but they were also firm friends. In fact, Stanier's son introduced Gresley's daughter to her future husband.

Some items are not adequately covered: Stanier's Coronation class were the most powerful British steam locomotives ever made, and many believe a member of the class could have beaten Mallard's record. But unlike the LNER, the LMS did not have a stretch of track suitable for setting the record. Who knows what speed a Coronation could have reached on its way down to Grantham?

But they are minor quibbles. The author has managed to get some relatively fresh and unbiased angles on a famous story, without going into too much technical detail. This thin book was both fascinating and enlightening.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

McLevy: an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes?

We recently went for an amble around Wimpole Hall, a stately pile situated just down the road from us in Cambridgeshire. At the end of the walk Şencan dragged me towards the little bookshop situated in a corner of the rather ostentatious stables.

Whilst browsing, I found a hardback book called "The Casebook of a Victorian Detective", published in 1975. This is a selection of stories from a couple of books written by a real-life Edinburgh detective, James McLevy. McLevy served in Edinburgh for thirty years from 1830, and became the city's first detective. He published his books after he retired in the 1860s, and they look back over a career that saw thousands of crimes successfully solved.

As I am interested about writing about Edinburgh in the 1830s, I thought it would be a good book for research purposes So I parted with £3.50 and took it home.

The book contains a series of cases from McLevy's long and illustrious career, and depict an Edinburgh that is very different from today's city. He even has a website at This website features research that shows that some stories are between 80 and 100% accurate - not bad considering he was writing about events that in some cases occurred decades before. But what struck me most were the links between the real-life detective McLevy and his most famous fictional counterpart, Sherlock Holmes.

So what are the links between McLevy and Sherlock Holmes?
  • McLevy published his books in the 1860s, whilst Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes book "A study in scarlet" in 1887. Therefore McLevy's stories precede Doyle's.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle studied at the University of Edinburgh Medical School from 1877, which McLevy had consulted for pathological evidence in some of his cases. McLevy would therefore have been known to people who knew Doyle. It is perfectly possible, indeed likely to my mind, that Doyle was aware of McLevy's work.
  • A (criminal) character in one of McLey's stories is called 'Holmes'.
  • McLevy sometimes uses deduction in a similar manner to Holmes.
  • McLevy is also adept at using disguises to catch his man, as is Holmes.
  • The cases are presented as a series of short stories, as are most of the Holmes canon.
What is more, some of the story titles have a certain Holmesian lilt: "The White Coffin" or "The Dead Child's Leg".

I am hardly the first person to discover this connection (indeed, some are mentioned in the book's preface). Whilst Sherlock Holmes is entirely Doyle's brilliant creation, I find it hard to believe that McLevy would not have been a minor influence. After all, how could he not have known about stories written by someone who was connected with the department he was studying in just fifteen years before?

Professor Joseph Bell taught Doyle at the school, and Bell was himself a student at the school when McLevy was still serving. Given Bell's acute deductive skills are famed as being Doyle's inspiration for Holmes, could Bell himself have learnt some of these from the detective?

That is to take nothing away from Doyle's adept skill. His stories are rich and utterly readable, whilst McLevy's style tends to be rather heavy and proselytising in places. Whilst McLevy's social views were undoubtedly ahead of his time - he believed that only early education could stop criminals, not punishment, and was in favour of the Ragged Schools - he is rather overfond of promoting those beliefs and the nature of crime.

So, was McLevy an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes? We can never know for sure, but given the above links, I would say it is probable.

As an aside, only when I started reading did I realise that I knew the McLevy name - BBC Radio 4 has done a series of adventures loosely based on McLevy's stories. Also, if buying the stories, be aware that new stories have been written using McLevy's character. Whilst these may be excellent, the real voice lies in the original stories from the man himself.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

175 years of train construction in Derby

Bombardier have made an interesting infomercial celebrating the 175th year of train construction in Derby. The Derby works is the only place in the UK that railway trains are designed, manufactured and assembled, and has an assured future with construction of London Underground S stock and new trains for the Crossrail route.

The current works is at a place called Litchurch Lane, which used to be the Midland Railway's carriage and wagon works. The old engine works has been mostly demolished and is now Pride Park, although the original Midland Railway roundhouse in the video above is now a canteen for Derby College.

Hopefully they will continue building trains for another 175 years.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014


Last night we attended a hustings for the local ward elections for South Cambridgeshire District Council, due to be held on Thursday. We had looked at the literature produced by all the candidates and had been unable to come to a decision. When we heard there was a hustings tonight, we decided to go along and get a close look at the candidates.

Bourn ward is a little odd: it is named after one of the villages in the borough, but over the last fifteen years the villages of Bourn, Caxton, Croxton and Eltisley have been utterly outgrown by Cambourne, where the majority of the ward's population now lives. This has led to a situation where the outlying villages can feel swamped by the brash Cambourne.

This has been made worse by the recent news that two extensions to Cambourne have been announced in the local plan, which will essentially double the size of the settlement. Many of the same people who were against the creation of Cambourne twenty years ago are now against (in particular) the Bourn Airfield development of 3,500 homes, which will essentially join up Cambourne and Bourn. There was not much talk of the other Cambourne West development of 1,200 to 1,500 homes.

This made this local election more interesting than usual. One candidate is the leader of  Stop BAD - the group set up to stop the Bourn Airfield development, and he had a number of supporters in the room. There were candidates from the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, UKIP and Greens, although the Labour candidate sent his apologies. There were also two independents - the man from Stop BAD and another independent who was supported by a long-standing well-known Cambourne resident.

The hustings were part of the parish council meeting, and was delayed by what turned out to be a seemingly disorganised election of two people to the council. Two of the candidates were also prospective candidates for the ward, and it was interesting that neither of these got a place on the parish council. The two winners were the two who I would have picked, so I was happy with the result.

The room grew increasingly hot and stuffy as the evening drew on, and the prospective councillors said their piece. There was only one female candidate - representing the Greens - and sadly she did not perform as well as I hoped.

For me, the most compelling performer of the night was the UKIP candidate, Lister Wilson, who honestly admitted that it was probably too late to stop either the Bourn Airfield or Cambourne West developments. His message appeared to be that we need to ensure that the developers are properly managed by the various councils to ensure they deliver what they promise, which has not necessarily been the case in Cambourne.

The Conservative candidate was slightly more hopeful of stopping the Bourn Airfield development, but also expressed the fact you have to be realistic. The other candidates all seemed to think the developments could still be stopped despite the publication of the local plan.

After the initial statements came questions from the public and parish councillors. As I expected, most of the questions were about the Bourn Airfield development. Some of these got rather heated, especially against the UKIP and Conservative candidates who seemed to (realistically IMHO) believe it was unlikely that the developments would be able to be stopped. This seemed a shame, as there are far more issues in the area than just the new developments.

Because the atmosphere was getting heated in more than one way, I tried to ask a more positive question: firstly, I explained that we had moved here for three reasons: access to jobs and good housing, but mainly the fact that Cambourne was a good place to live. Given this, I asked what the candidates believed the positive aspects of Cambourne were, and how they would, if elected, take it forward?

I hate speaking in public, and I was cringing at how my voice sounded. Fortunately they managed to understand me, and whilst all candidates mentioned 'community', for me the best response was from the Conservative, who mentioned the long-wanted swimming pool in his answer.

All in all it was an interesting (if long) evening, and one that has firmed up my votes for both the Cambourne ward and the simultaneous Euro elections. And no, I'm not saying who'll have the crosses by their names ...

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Modern communications and disasters

The tragic sinking of The Sewol yesterday off the coast of South Korea has led to many sad stories, not the least of which are the text messages sent by people - many young - trapped in the ship as it tilted and sank.

Rumours continue that messages are being sent by people still alive within the ship. It is possible for people to be alive as it does not appear to be too deep; pictures show the tip of the bow protruding from the water. One report says that rescuers are pumping air into some parts of the hull to replenish any air pockets.

However, I doubt that many calls or text messages are being sent from within the ship at this time. Water attenuates RF signals rapidly, especially when at an angle to the receiver. It can be as much as a matter of a few inches or feet before the signal is fully attenuated, depending on the conditions. Although the effect is less than salt water, it increases as the signal's frequency increases.

So what might have happened? 
1) The people receiving the text messages may not have noticed them when they were sent, and picked up the phone later when they heard the news to see the message.

2) Text messages are not designed for reliability of data (*). They only display the time they were received at the network centre (called the short message centre). This includes a timezone which many phones do not compensate for, which may give the impression they were sent after the ship sank. In addition, many phones display the time the message was received by the phone, rather than the time in the message from the network centre. If the recipient's phone is switched off, the time displayed for the message would be the time the phone was switched on, not the time it was sent.

3) Finally, hope might make them think it was received after the ship sank even if evidence suggests otherwise.

4) Somehow, the people trapped inside the ship managed to send a signal through the water and to a distant mobile phone base station on the shore.

The first three of these effects will sadly give false hope to many families. But let's hope I'm wrong.

(*)From RFC5724:
In particular, SMS messages between different network operators sometimes take a long time to be delivered (hours or even days) or are not delivered at all, so applications SHOULD NOT make any assumptions about the reliability and performance of SMS message transmission.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Competitive walking

On a few occasions on this blog (and believe me, much more frequently in real life) I have mentioned various types of 'extreme' walks. One thing I don't like is the Olympics walking discipline, where people try to walk as fast as possible. To me, it appears a rather stupid type of movement. If you want to go fast, just run!

Gizmodo has an article about a form of extreme walking from Victorian times that I'd never heard of before: competitive walking. This is not the Olympic-style extreme walking, but instead involved walking vast distances with little rest. Naturally enough, this is much more my cup of tea.

People would walk along a short looper track for six days, excluding the Sabbath, and bunks were provided for them to catch a few hours of much-needed rest. They would often manage over 100 miles a day for all six days. The American races were front-page news, and massively popular spectator sports.

A detailed story can be found on the Planetultramarathon website, and there is also a book:
Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport

I could never hope to be the next Cliff Young, and I find the idea of walking even fifty miles in a day to be rather a tall order. But kudos to those who can, and especially those who did.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Network Rail and delays

It is expected that Network Rail will get a £70 million fine later this year for poor performance. Whilst the men and women on the ground have been doing a sterling job fixing the problems caused by the storms at Dawlish and elsewhere, the organisation as a whole has utterly failed to meet its performance targets.The Telegraph has a very balanced article on the problems.

In a way it is a victim of the railway's success: the network is busier than ever, nearly breaking peace-time records for the number of passengers carried. More trains on the same tracks means that any infrastructure-related problems effect more trains, and the infrastructure gets more wear and tear. In comparison, the performance of the latest generation of trains means that fewer delays are being caused by breakdowns.

Network Rail has to ensure that 92.5% of all trains arrive within five minutes of the scheduled time, or within ten minutes for long-distance trains. During the five year period to 2014, it managed a little under 90%, a large discrepancy.

According to Network Rail's own figures, 60% of all train delays are down to them. In their defence, a third of that 60% are down to factors outside their immediate control, such as trespass, cable theft, or the weather.

This is important politically: it looks likely that Labour are going to call for renationalisation of the railways in their next manifesto, by means of a failure to refranchise the train operators leases when they end. Leaving the wrongs and rights of such a move to one side for a moment, one of the factors fans of renationalisation have been saying is that Network Rail is already in public hands (and thanks to the government removing Brown's awful debt bodge, it is also now on the government's books). If it fails to perform well, it will set back the cause of railway renationalisation.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 - blaming the pilots

It seems that blame for the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is starting to turn towards the pilots.

This is as expected as it is sad. Whilst all parties undoubtedly want the plane found, they will not necessarily want the blame.

So what do all sides want?
  1. For Boeing, weather, a hijacking or crew error would be their 'best' outcome. They will not want the crash to have been caused - or even initiated or compounded by - a technical failure. It looks as though the 'weather' cause can more or less be rejected, CAT aside.
  2. For Rolls Royce, they will not want a technical failure in their engines or associated systems. To be fair to them, that seems the one thing we can currently discount.
  3. Malaysian Airlines will not want a technical failure caused by bad maintenance, or poor crew training.
  4. The Malaysian government will not want it to be anything that reflects badly on them, for instance terrorists being able to board the plane due to lax security.
The one cause that would least dissatisfy all parties is the lone crazy pilot idea. It's not a technical failure on the plane or engines; it is not a security breach, and not a training error. People can just shrug and ask how they can screen out one man who might go crazy?

Accidents are rarely, if ever, caused by one factor alone. Even in acts of terrorism, there will be failures that allowed or even unwittingly aided the terrorists in their acts. People involved will always try to downgrade the minor causative factors that were their responsibility, and concentrate on the big headline 'cause'. For instance the Air France 447 crash is now seen as pilot error, and rightly so. But the failed pitot tubes that initiated the chain of events are slowly being forgotten.

The 'lone crazy pilot' theory allows everyone to escape with the most face saved.

In the absence of information, the organisations will veer towards blaming the pilots. This has happened in the past, only for a technical failure to be uncovered after other crashes and fatalities. For instance, the Boeing 737 rudder issues.

Remember this when you read about the story, and ask if this story is going the way the various organisations want it to go.

(For clarity, I do not reject any one hyposthesis - aside from the alien kidnapping one! But my money is on a cockpit electrical fire that slowly knocked out various systems and made the plane increasingly unflyable. But even this does not seem to fit all the 'facts' that appear to have become known).

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Dawlish Diversion

The recent problems with the seawall at Dawlish has left much of Devon and the entirety of Cornwall cut off from the rest of the rail network. This is problematic, but as I said in an earlier post, it is far from the first time it has happened. This week, National Rail released a document that shows some of the damage done by the storms, and the work being done to fix it. The last page includes a low-resolution map showing potential long-term diversionary routes that are being looked at. These include two potential routes (C1 and C3) that have a long history.

Because of the problems with the line, in the 1930s the GWR proposed a couple of alternative routes that would bypass the troublesome coastal route. Unfortunately there is a very big hill called Holcombe Moor in the way, and therefore any line was going to be very heavily engineered.

The first alternative route headed south from Exminster, bypassing to the west of Kenton before heading more or less directly south to Dawlish, where it headed to the west of the town before curving southwestwards under Teignmouth to rejoin the existing line to the southwest of Bishopsteignton. This would require about eleven miles of new double-track railway, and is depicted by the red line below.

The alternative replaced the northern half of that route, leaving the existing line to the north of Dawlish Warren and heading under the town before rejoining the route mentioned above in Dawlish. This route would require seven miles of new double-track railway, but would be subject to tidal conditions along the Exe estuary, and would probably be slower. It is depicted by the light-blue line below.

The GWR got the former plan through parliament, and actually started construction when war interrupted in 1939. Given recent events, many people are thinking of building another diversion line, so I thought I'd take a look at what the GWR proposed.

Thanks to David Brown on the Railform Blog, I've found a map of the proposed routes. This is not the whole story as there were other proposals, but it's interesting nonetheless. I have transcribed the routes onto a modern OS map:

As can be seen, Dawlish Warren and Dawlish will still be able to be served by trains, albeit the latter a kilometre from the seafront. Teignmouth, however, will be more difficult, as the line passes behind the town in a very deep tunnel.

To my surprise, there does not appear to have been a massive amount of development over the last seventy-five years that would stop either of these lines being built. True, there would be some demolition, but not as much as I feared.

Either of these routes would be fast and weather-proof, and would serve the south of Devon with similar service patterns to those that already exist. The line could also be electrified. The downsides that I can see are cost, and the problem of giving Teignmouth a station.

If more information comes out on the C2 alternative in the Network Rail document (which seems to leave from north of Starcross, midway between the two routes above), then I shall do another post.

For another alternative proposal, see

Monday, 24 February 2014

The bridge at Bayonne

As we ramp up to commemorate the start of one vast European war a century ago, it is easy to forget that another vast European war drew to a close two centuries ago. 1814 saw the end of the Peninsular War, which had seen various European armies chasing Napoleon's might through France and Spain. By April 1814 Napoleon was defeated.

Although war was to flare up a year later in the brief and disastrous Battle of Waterloo, the main war for the Iberian Peninsular was over.

Over the winter of 1813/14, British, Spanish and Portuguese forces chased Napoleon's troops over the Pyrenees and into France. As they swept northwards, the forces had to deal with the isolated French garrisons they came across.

One of these was the citadel of Bayonne, situated on the northern bank of the River Adour, six miles upstream from the sea. This was garrisoned by the French under General Soult. If Bayonne was left unmolested, then the French troops within could cause great difficulty for the allies.

To do this, the wide and fast-flowing River Adour had to be crossed. British guns fought off the French sloop and gunboats that patrolled the river, forcing them to safety further upstream. Then sixty men made their way across to the French bank on a pontoon, and the French picquet retreated without combat.

A hawser was then stretched across the river and the remaining pontoons made into a raft, by which 500 British troops and some rockets made it across. But this was not ideal: the crossing could only be made at the slack water of low tide, and the rafts were a slow and vulnerable way of getting men and materials across.

Unlike today, the mouth of the Adour was a mass of sandbanks that were difficult to navigate, and the French had removed the poles that marked the only channel. The allies had commandeered scores of boats, including Spanish chasse-marees, and several of these were lost trying to find a route into the river. Eventually such a route was found, although the final attempt had to wait until the next day.

At the next high tide on the 24th of February, British warships headed upstream to chase off the damaged French ships. This was followed by a long stream of boats, crewed mainly by Spanish sailors, with British engineers on board to manage the later tasks. They made their way across the breakers and headed upstream for three miles to reach a point halfway between the citadel and the sea, where retaining walls narrowed the swift-flowing river to 800 feet in width.

Twenty-six of the chasse-marees were moored in a line across the river, and planks and cables strung across them to form a floating bridge that could cope with the fourteen-foot tides. This was protected with booms, and was used to get the rest of the army across the river.

This bridge has fascinated me for years: it was an ingenious way of solving a problem, and yet this postscript to the Napoleonic wars is little known. To my surprise, I found an engraving, reputedly from 1823, showing the bridge. This means that it remained in place for at least nine years after the battle.

Like all battles, it was won more by the side that made the least mistakes: the French had thought the river unnavigable by the British so had not guarded the mouth, and they had not thrown everything into repulsing that first landing of sixty troops.

Sadly, the battle turned into a siege of the citadel that lasted until the end of the war a few months later. But a siege was good enough for the British, as it bottled up the French forces.

So tonight I will raise a toast to the brave men and boys from three nations who risked their lives to build that humble bridge of boats.

The bridge of boats below Bayonne, May 1823

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Book review: "The map that changed the world", by Simon Winchester.

William Smith is today widely acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of geology. Smith is rightly acknowledged as a massively important figure in the formative science of geology, although he is not as famous as James Hutton, whose unconformity at Siccar on the Berwickshire coast gave dramatic clues to Earth's history.

He came up with the concept that seemingly-identical bands of rocks could be differentiated by the types of fossils found within, and that any band of rock containing the same fossils had to have been laid down at the same time, wherever it was found in the country. He also noticed that many fossils appeared to get more complex as rocks get younger, a concept that aided Darwin's later work. In addition, he worked out that layers of rock are mostly found in the same order; if a certain sandstone lies above a certain coal measure in one area, you can assume that if you find the same sandstone in a different area, coal will probably lie underneath.

The importance of these theories for industry are all too obvious; indeed, Smith could achieve the seemingly miraculous feat of predicting what rocks could be found. If a landowner wanted to know if there was coal under his land, then Smith could tell him without any costly digging. The importance of the theory on the Christian church are harder to understand from the modern perspective, but these problems are outlined well in this book.

From humble beginnings, Smith became an engineer and drainer, responsible for water management and canals in a similar manner to one of my heroes, William Jessop (who is actually mentioned in the piece). These jobs gave him the opportunity to travel and to compare rocks, whilst his work on the Somerset Coal Canal gave him the chance to examine a transect of a geologically interesting part of the country.

Despite those humble beginnings, Smith's ideas and concepts developed a worthy following. His first geological map was of the are around Bath in 1799, and by 1815 he had produced the first complete (if much delayed) geological map of England and Wales.

It is here that this book becomes more of a paean than a scholarly work. Mr Winchester comes across as a little too fond of his subject. Either that, or a misplaced need to impose drama, causes what was a complex grey situation to be painted as black and white. Anybody who opposes Smith becomes an unsympathetic character in the book; even a friend who slightly wrongs him is treated as if he were a little child who eventually learns the errors of his ways.

In 1819 Smith was thrown into a debtor's prison in London. This book puts this mainly down to a competition with a plagarised copy of his map released by the recently-formed Geological Society of London. However whilst reading the book it is obvious that Smith was the architect of his own misfortune, with several failed business ventures unconnected to mapping, his delays in creating maps and books, and his rather ostentatious habit of buying houses that were rather too grand for his income. The book admits that his friends and admirers tried to help and gave him money, but that his debts were too great.

I also wanted to know more abut Smith the man. He married a younger woman, Mary Ann, who the book claims was mentally ill with something akin to nymphomania and ended her days in a mental institution. Whilst it seems that the parts of Smith's diaries containing references to Mary Ann was later expunged, and his nephew and biographer did not mention her much, I wanted to know more, even if it was mainly supposition. Smith appears to have stood by his wife, and her to him, throughout their travails; I wanted to know if that was really the case, and why that may have been.

Likewise, Smith took in his orphaned nephew, John Phillips, who himself became a famous and well-respected geologist. I wanted to know a little more about their relationship, and Phillips' view of his uncle.

By the time of Smith's death, the leadership of the Geological Society had changed and Smith's key work in the formative science was acknowledged. he was awarded plaudits, praise and even a pension of £100 a year from King William IV.

It is also made clear that others were working on how the Earth was formed at roughly the same time, most notably the aforementioned James Hutton. It would have been nice for the author to mention how Smith's work and theories fitted in around those of the other geological titans. For instance, did Hutton influence Smith's work? If so, then it is hardly to the detriment of Smith's theories or his maps.

All the valedictory words in this book could be replaced by just two pictures: Smith's 1815 geological map is reproduced within the inside cover, and an equivalent modern map within the back cover. Flicking between these two, and the similarities between them, shows better than any words Smith's achievement. For this reason, it would have been nice if they had been available as larger fold-outs, so they could more easily be compared.

I would give this book four out of five stars: geology can be a very dry subject, and Mr Winchester explains the terminology well and without assuming too much background knowledge. However it could have done with more focus on Smith the man, and less blaming others for Smith's own misfortune.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

HS2 news

There have been some possible developments with regards to HS2's scope and cost reductions. But first, I should set the scene a little.

The HS1 line from the Channel Tunnel to London terminates at St Pancras station, in the north of the city, whilst the planned HS2 line from the north to London will end at Euston, about half a mile to the west of St Pancras.

It was envisaged that most of the demand on HS2 would be trains to the north from London. To enable a few through trains from the continent, a £400 million link was planned from the HS1 line north of St Pancras to the HS2 line north of Euston. This is a very limited kludge: it is a single-track alongside the existing North London Line. To make matters worse, the HS2 line is expected to be very busy in terms of services when it opens, meaning that there would be few opportunities for such trains anyway.

It was reported in the Times at the weekend that this link may now be dropped. I am fairly unconcerned about this: if such a link is to be built then it really should be done properly. Scrapping the link costs will decrease by £400 million, and many of the objectors such as Stanley Johnson (Boris Johnson's father) with houses near the link route may become more muted.

Politically, it is much more important. One of the selling points of HS2 to northern constituencies is that they would be able to have direct rail services from Europe. With the abandonment of the link, this promise is more or less broken. Worse, it will be much harder to build after phase 1 without causing massive chaos on the operating line. If it is to be built, it really needs to be built at the same time as phase 1.

In other news, the Guardian has an interesting article on the way that HS2 costs could be reduced by looking at the continental experience.

Monday, 10 February 2014

A350 news

The new Airbus A350 is appearing at the Singapore Air Show, six months after its first flight. The BBC have a video of it at the show, although sadly it is stationary on the ground rather than in the air.

The A350's test flight program appears to be going well; there has been little of the noise that the 787 tests caused, or indeed, no in-flight fires. The two test-flight planes are each getting 100 flight hours per month, with over 1,000 flight test hours completed in total. The main 'hot' and 'cold' tests have also been successfully completed in Bolivia and Canada respectively.

Let's hope the rest of the program goes well, and that Airbus have a competitive challenger to Boeing. And indeed, that Boeing sorts out its problems with their 787.

Sunday, 9 February 2014


I'd like to pay tribute to the engineers that are currently working to fix the railway line at Dawlish, where the sea wall that protects the railway line and houses has been breached by the recent bad weather.

When I first saw the pictures, my inexpert reaction was that the house that was left right at the edge of the breach would have to be demolished. But their work has saved it for the moment - they laid sections of the damaged track against the remaining earth, and are covering the lot with shotcrete (sprayable concrete) to form a temporary barrier.

In the meantime, they are placing 20-foot shipping containers along the recently-installed concrete toe of the wall, which is undamaged, and filling them with rubble to act as barriers to protect workmen from the worst of the waves. This is an act of genius, and will hopefully allow them to speedily rebuild this breach.

It is at times like these that engineers really come into their own, and I've been really impressed with the work that they are doing. They've got some really good people on the job, despite other problems on the network caused by flooding.

It's also given me a reason to do a little research on the sea wall, which I know well from my childhood. The wall has withstood the weather over the last 160 years well, despite the infrequent breaches. In fact, the line is more often closed because of rock falls from the cliffs on the other side of the railway.

Let's hope the solutions modern engineers come up with last for a similar period.

The seawall near the breach, seen in happier times in 2003.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Periodic table for writers

Just for fun, here is a link to a periodic table for writers, It captures some of the many tropes in writing and attempts to categorise them into headings such as Structure, Archetypes and Villains.

Some of my favourites:

JTS (Jumping The Shark)
5MA (Five Man Band)
PMD (Person of Mass Destruction)
ARC (Story Arc)
FLA (Flanderization)

Stories can combine several of these categories, for instance the film 'Highlander' has a Hero's Journey in which the Hero, imbued with a power that makes him The Chosen One, is taught how to use that power by an Eccentric Mentor in order to beat a Complete Monster and Save The World.

There is more to storytelling than is detailed within the table, but it is the first time I have seen such a comprehensive and easy-to-use reference.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Book review: "Moon over Soho" by Ben Aaronovitch

When jazz musicians start dying of natural causes shortly after completing their sets, DC Peter Grant tries to find connections between the men. Can he find the answer before his own famous jazz-playing father becomes a victim?

I've read (and reviewed) the first book in this series, "Rivers of London", and thought it was a brilliant read. In it, a probationer constable with the Metropolitan Police, Peter Grant, discovers that there is a magical side to life in the capital. He becomes an apprentice to Nightingale, the last magician in the force, and moves to live in the Folly, a grand house in Central London.

This second book is slightly less inventive than the first (the narrative world has already been created), and the plot is slightly less manic and easier to follow. We learn more about the central characters: from Nightingale's activities in the Second World War, to Molly, the servant who refuses to leave the Folly. This adds a depth that was missing in the first book, especially as a villain is created that could last through several more books.

There are a couple of places that an editor could have done a better job - for instance the explanation of  a 'nominal' in the HOLMES2 police computer is repeated, and there are a couple of other repetitions. Aside from these, the prose is fresh and the descriptions vivid. DC Grant's voice is brilliantly compelling and I found myself bathing in it: he is a truly great character, and the first-person voice is lively and realistic.

I really don't like jazz, but I found the jazz side of the plot was cleverly more about the personalities than the music - especially the band that hang around DC Grant because of his father's fame. It was well handled, and to my surprise I found it appealing. It takes skill to write a plot that revolves around the world of jazz, without annoying someone who has no love for the music.

The first book in the series was laugh-aloud funny, and that it continues in this sequel with lines such as: "Nobody kills a suspect in a police station and gets away with it - at least nobody without a warrant card."

I would give this book four out of five stars, and I look forward to reading the next in the series: "Whispers Underground".

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Blaming the wrong person

In his usually excellent blog, Francis Pryor (of Flag Fen and Time Team fame) talks about comments from the chairman of the Environment Agency in which the chairman says that the countryside might have to have flood protection funding removed in favour of towns and cities.

Below is part of Francis Pryor's blog:
I was astonished to hear that the chairman of the Environment Agency has written in the Daily Telegraph that when it comes to flooding we must decide between town and country – and this from a political party that is supposed to number rural people among its supporters (but that doesn't include me, I hasten to add!). I cannot believe what is being said.

I have some sympathy with his core point: I'd like to see more funding for flood protection of the coast and low-lying areas. But he is making a rather dramatic error in equating the chairman of the EA with the government. For the chairman is Lord Smith of Finsbury, AKA Labour peer Chris Smith, who was Labour's Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport during the early years of the Blair government. He was appointed as chair of the EA in 2008.

Blaming this government for the comments of a Labour peer who was made head of a quango by a Labour government seems rather misguided.

Sadly, Francis Pryor does not allow comments on his blog, so I can't comment there directly.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

HS2 news

It appears that Labour may be looking to delay the passage of the phase one bill for HS2 through parliament, so they can scrap it if they come into power at the next election.

Linky (telegraph)

Politically, there are several things to say about this:
  1. Labour should have the courage of their convictions, and either come out in favour or against the project.
  2. Many northern - Labour - councils want HS2, which may explain the two-faced approach by the opposition front bench.
  3. Any such delays means the project will cost more.
In other news, the Crossrail project is halfway complete, and on budget.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A walk, a walk, my kingdom for a walk ...

A few days ago, I wrote in a post that I was fed up with giving in to my dodgy back and wanted to wean myself back onto longish distance walking. I had some formative criteria which are reproduced below:
  1. Between 10 and 15 miles;
  2. Preferable on a good surface due to the weather;
  3. Has public transport at regular intervals in case my back goes
  4. Optionally has lots of interest to see and do.
  5. Preferably within easy access of Cambridge.
As today was a day that I could skive off, and also one where the forecast was good (it has been rare for the two to combine this winter), I decided to do a walk. And in the end, I decided to walk into Cambridge. There is a handy bridleway that runs all the way from Bourn into the city, but this is never more than a mile or two from the road and bus stops. It would be an eleven mile walk - result!

Where does the field end, and the path begin?
Yes, that is a bridleway on the right.
The first problem is the bridleway, which I have cycled along many times, had more in common with a canal. Not just any old canal, but a canal that had been allowed to silt up for a few decades. To my surprise there were no shopping trolleys in it. The wet winter has really had a terrible effect on the ground, and I merrily slipped and slid my way along. Eventually, looking more like the creature from the Black Lagoon than a human, I reached Cambridge and went into my favourite hostelry, the Baron of Beef.

I had done eleven miles (twelve including walking with my wife to her workplace), my back was aching but manageable, and everything was good. I had a couple of pints, and all I needed to do was amble through town to the bus that would drop me a few yards from my door.

But no. I am a long-distance walker, and that means that such a humdrum solution was anathema. Instead, I lifted my rucksack onto my back and headed back. The road route along Madingley Road seemed more sensible than risking the swamp once more, and so I headed off down the road, knowing that I could always catch one of those nice, warm buses that drive virtually to my door.

Yeah, right. After twenty-two miles I arrived back home overheated, dehydrated (yes in February) and with two hips that were hurting how I think buggery must feel. The good news is that although my back is aching, it has not spasmed.

So of my criteria above: I broke 1,2 and 4 (I drive down Madingley Road regularly, and know it all like the back of my hand. Therefore even the wonders of the outside of the American Cemetery or the windmill hold no particular joys).

I think I may limit my next walk to fifteen miles.

Yeah, right ...

Monday, 3 February 2014

Carbon Capture and Storage

During his lamentable time in charge of the Department of Environment and Climate Change, Ed Miliband brought in a rule stating that any new coal-fired power station should use carbon capture technology (CCS). This move was apparently a surprise to many in the department, and came after he was heckled by Pete Postlethwaite whilst at a film première in London.

The rule has been a disaster, and has essentially stopped any coal fired power stations from being built in the UK. Whilst this may be good for the environment, it should be noted that ten new coal-fired stations will start producing power in Germany over the next few years.

Coal power stations are cheap and brilliant at producing baseload power. The downside is that they are dirty and produce several greenhouse gasses, for instance CO2. CCS involves splitting carbon dioxide from gasses and placing it into a geological reservoir; this can be depleted gas or oil geological formations, or even the deep ocean. It has been used for many years in a couple of ways:
  1. In some gas fields, the carbon dioxide that is raised with the gas is stripped out and put back into the formation. 
  2. In some oil fields, CO2 is injected back into the reservoir to maintain pressure and keep the oil flowing. This is known as Enhanced Oil Recovery. 
This has led to the idea that CO2 can be stripped out of the flue gasses from coal power stations and then transported to a reservoir for storage, Here in the UK, the most obvious place are the gas and oil fields that have been depleted.

On the face of it, CCS seems like a brilliant idea: capture the atmospheric pollutant. So what are the problems?
  1. It has rarely been done on a large scale, with the reservoirs situated far away from the generators. When it is used, it is mostly used in gas or oil fields as mentioned above. 
  2. It dramatically reduces the efficiency of the power plants. Depending on the type of plant and the location of reservoir, the stripping and transport of the CO2 can take 15 to 45% of the power produced by the power station. 
  3. It is hideously expensive
  4. I have grave doubts about the capacity and security of the reservoirs. The reservoirs may have stored natural gas for millions of years, but that was before they were made into pincushions and emptied. And if CO2 does degas in a big way, it is much worse - and deadlier - than natural gas as it is slightly heavier than air. The Lake Nyos tragedy shows these dangers. 
  5. I think a little too much attention is being put on CO2 as an atmospheric pollutant, especially in comparison to other greenhouses gasses. Would we be spending the vast sums CCS would demand on the right target? 
I don't know what the answer is to green baseload energy, but I'm fairly sure that it's not large-scale CCS on power generators.

If we do go ahead with it, than there should be long-term and reliable checks on the integrity of any reservoirs, and monitoring for any leaks, along with warning systems to be used in the case of large-scale leaks.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Tunnel vision

As some of you may have noticed, I am a tunnel junkie. Whether canal or railway,Victorian or modern; hand-dug or submersed tube, I love them all.

It was therefore with interest that I found Graeme Bickerdike's video on the excellent 'Forgotten Relics' website. The video explains the way some of the tunnels were built in Victorian times, and is well worth a watch if you're into such things. The production standards are surprisingly high for such an esoteric video, and Graeme does a splendid job as presenter.

If you want to know more, then there are a couple of books available on-line that also detail Victorian tunnelling techniques:

Railway Tunnelling in Heavy Ground (1879)
Practical Tunnelling (1896), which also had some chapters by the famous D.K. Clarke.

They make you realise how amazing the modern Tunnel Boring Machines are, and the way we can bore so many miles of tunnels deep under our capital city without any deaths of major injuries.

The man and boys who built our canal and railway network - now so dismissively called Navvies - really were a breed apart.

I hope you haven't found this a boring post ...

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Book Review: "Natural Causes" by James Oswald

When a young girl's disembowelled and mummified body is found nailed to the floor of an old house in Edinburgh, Detective Inspector McLean is assigned the case. It soon becomes clear that the girl died sixty years before. But if that is true, then why are similar murders occurring?

I bought this book on an impulse; it was on a display stand whilst I was queuing to buy another couple of books. The front cover proclaimed it to be a Richard & Judy Book club winner, and that it was by "The new Ian Rankin"

I see the latter as high praise indeed, so I bought it and started reading. And yes, the book could almost have been written by Rankin. It is set in contemporary Edinburgh, and features a newly-promoted Detective Inspector, Anthony McLean.

Sadly, Mr Oswald does not manage to get the same 'feel' of Edinburgh that Rankin does. Rankin treats the city as if it was a living creature, and manages to perfectly capture the soul of the city he loves. In comparison, this book seems to present a more one-dimensional view of the city and its people. Despite this, it was a very good effort.

As usual with such central detectives, he has a tragic history which is slowly unveiled: his parents died when he was four, and his fiancée was tragically murdered before their marriage. Also like many detectives, he argues with his superior officers, is unattached and not particularly interested in a partner. And as is also common, he has a partner (or at least sex) before the end.

The book also features lots of crimes. There are at least a dozen deaths, all singular, many of which are disembowlings. Add in a kidnapping and a hit-and-run, and you probably have more murders than occur in Edinburgh in a year. And yet the investigating officers (excepting the hero) do not link the deaths.

Interestingly, the author's text at the end of the book, and reader's comments, imply that the first chapter in this paperback edition is not the same as in earlier hardback editions - he has significantly altered it. The original is now reproduced at the back. If this is correct, then it is an interesting course to take: which one is the real story? This matters, as the original first chapter was a much darker beast - it put many people off reading the book, which is why he changed it.

In terms of prose, this book is better than Rankin's worst Rebus books, but worse than Rankin at his best. Although that might sound backhanded, it is meant as a compliment


**** Spoiler ***

Despite the above, this book was a real disappointment. Everything about the cover screams moody, dark crime novel, with heinous deeds waiting to be solved by an intrepid detective, preferably along with a gullible sidekick. And that's exactly the way "Natural Causes" starts. Unfortunately the supernatural starts to creep in, until eventually the culprit turns out to be a demon.

Such genre shifts are tricky to pull off. The reader has had turkey for the Christmas dinner, and instead of a nice fruit-filled Christmas pudding for dessert, he gets an ice-cream sundae. Some will enjoy it, but others will feel let down.

In my case, I felt let down. I have read other detective stories where, midway through the tome, the plot points towards a supernatural cause, only for a very rational explanation to come through in the end. They can be tremendous fun as you try and work out how a seemingly inexplicable crime has been committed. As I was reading this book I was considering all the possible drugs, mental illnesses or threats that could explain the crimes. In the end, as the blurb says, it is the most irrational answer.

It would be better if it had been left open to either a natural or supernatural cause, and a quick check on Amazon shows that some people think it has. But I cannot see how the events could have unfolded as described, unless the protagonist is insane or an exceptionally unreliable narrator. Using the supernatural entity as the criminal is also a lazy way to write - you can get away with anything. It is one of the most intrusive deus ex machina I have read for some time.

It is not that I am against supernatural crime thrillers: I loved the wit and inventiveness of Ben Aaronovitch's 'Rivers of London'. It is just that the genre shift proved much too sharp for me.

For prose, I would give this book four out of five. As a detective story, one out of five.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Getting back to walking

I've decided to wean myself back onto walking. It's nearly a year since my back went, and none of the exercises seems to be fixing it fully. I therefore intend to try putting my rucksack back on and heading out on a few trial walks. Perhaps the cause will also be the cure.

My first plan was to walk the guided busway between St Ives and Cambridge, but I have walked that many times before, and the stretch near St Ives is flooded (as it always seems to be).

I'm therefore looking for another route. Ideally it would have the following criteria:

  1. Between 10 and 15 miles;
  2. Preferable on a good surface due to the weather;
  3. Has public transport at regular intervals in case my back goes
  4. Optionally has lots of interest to see and do.
  5. Preferably within easy access of Cambridge.

I's prefer an easy (tarmac / gravel) walk as any slipping is likely to aggravate my back. So I'm thinking old railway lines, or possible canals through / between towns of cities.

Any ideas?

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Murder rates

An American blog features a good dissection of the comparative murder rates between the UK and the US.

If you were to ask the average person on the street here in the UK, they would probably say that America has a higher murder rate. The raw statistics back this view up.

However, the blog points out that it is not that simple for various reasons. For one thing, the definition of 'murder' in the US statistics is different to murder in the UK, and you end up comparing apples and pears.

The post makes good reading if you are interested in the way statistics can be devilish creatures, even when not being manipulated for political means.

And the answer? No-one knows whether, per capita, the UK or the US has more murders.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Michael Schumacher

A month after his tragic skiing accident, Michael Schumacher remains in a medically-induced coma in France. There are rumours that his doctors are lifting the coma, but it is hard to know if this is true or just another fabrication.

Whilst we all hope and pray for his recovery, it may be worth reading Gary Hartstein's blog. Until 2013 Gary was the Formula One Medical Delegate, in charge of the medical side of the sport. He therefore knows a great deal about head injuries and neuroscience. He has also contributed to an article on the BBC's website.

Gary has no more information about Schumacher's condition than the rest of us, but he has made a stab at decoding some of the messages coming out of the hospital, and his careful informed guesswork seems much better that that published in the press. In particular, he has some knowledge of possible outcomes given the time Schumacher has been kept in his coma.

He is calling for the makers of ski helmets to learn from this accident, and to change designs to try to reduce the effect of brain injuries.

In the meantime, let's hope Schumacher recovers as well as possible.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014


Below is a video of a cross-channel ferry being beached in Aliaga, Turkey, ready for breaking.

As can be seen, this is an environmentally destructive way of doing things. I hope the various protesters who stopped Able UK from breaking ships in Hartlepool are satisfied when they see such scenes.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Book review: "Rivers of London", by Ben Aaronovitch

It is unusual to come across a book that defies classification, but "Rivers of London" is such a book. At its heart is Peter Grant, a probationary constable working for the Met. He is partnered to an attractive fellow probationer, Lesley, whom he is utterly failing to have a relationship with.

When Lesley and Peter are called to the scene of a grisly murder in Covent Garden, Peter is surprised to find a ghost hanging around. Not just because he does not believe in ghosts, but also because the ghost tells him vital information about the murder.

Soon, Peter is inducted into The Folly, the Met's mysterious-crimes-and-magic division. What follows is a chase across London, featuring River Gods and Godesses, childrens' entertainment, nasty murders and rioting patrons of the Royal Opera House, all topped off with a trip into London's prehistory.

If that sounds a mess, then it is not doing the book justice, because Aaronovitch winds and merges these disparate ideas into a genuinely compelling story.

What matters in this book is the details, and the details are both imaginative and unintrusive. The police work is well researched (so much so I wonder if Aaronovitch has been in the force), and the details are described in such a way that they enhance, and do not interfere, with the flow.

In addition, the use of language is excellent, including a few laugh-out-loud moments. It is well-written, entertaining, and macabre in one package.

I would award this book four and a half out of five stars. It's sequel is sitting on my reading pile ...

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Who was the first person to walk the coast of Britain

Oh his Facebook page, Craigs walk round Britain, Craig asks if John Merrill was really the first person to walk around the coast of the UK. It's an interesting question, and first we need some definitions:

1) The 'coast of the UK' is the mainland of England, Wales and Scotland.
2) The walk has to have stuck as close to the 'sea' as was practical.
3) It would have had to have visited the vast majority of settlements on the coast.

I've given this some thought in the past, and think that John probably was the first.

Firstly, you have the problem of time and resources to do such a tramp. Any such walk takes a practical minimum of nine months. Both time and money are needed, and the amount of people with both of these in past times were few.

Secondly you have legalities such as footpaths, which formally came into being in the 20th Century. Before then, large tracts of land would have been forbidden to walkers, limiting access.

Thirdly you need maps; again, OS maps really became commonly available in the 1900s. Without maps, such a walk would have been much more difficult, and would have very much depended on local knowledge.

Fourthly, any such tour would probably have been publicised, either by the writing of a book or other means. I've never been able to find any references to such a walk.

People will have travelled around Britain, visiting towns and keeping mainly to roads - for instance Pennant's tour of Scotland in 1769, or Johnson's tours of Scotland six years later. But none would have stuck 'to the coast' as it is now, or were on foot.

If anyone knows of any potential candidates, please let me know.

Saturday, 25 January 2014


Ten years ago today, the second of two NASA rovers landed on Mars for a planned 90-day mission.

After five years, one of the rovers - Spirit - became immobilised.

Exactly ten years into its 90-day mission, the other rover, Opportunity, is still doing useful work. Although you wouldn't want to use it for your daily commute - in that ten years, it's only driven 23 miles.

For more information, see:

It is an amazing achievement. Ninety days has become ten years.

Long may it continue roving.

Friday, 24 January 2014

When grouting goes wrong

In civil engineering, it is common to use a wet type of concrete called 'grout' to stabilise holes or voids underground. For instance, grout can be used in drilled piles.

It is a good idea not to drill a pile into a building (*). Say, a tube line signalling room, before pouring the grout in.

And pictures:

That's going to cost someone a lot of money ...

(*) I have no idea if that is what happened; it is a guess. I think what happened might just be related to the Crossrail works, but who knows.

Thursday, 23 January 2014


Bill Gates has written his 2014 Annual Letter. This year it is about global poverty, and it is well worth a read.

In it, he tackles three myths about poverty:
  • Poor countries are doomed to stay poor
  • Foreign aid is a big waste
  • Saving lives leads to overpopulation

Foreign aid is a hot political potato, and it is interesting to see the world's richest man - and philanthropist - give his opinion.

Who can disagree with one of his conclusions:
If you read the news every day, it’s easy to get the impression that the world is getting worse. There is nothing inherently wrong with focusing on bad news, of course—as long as you get it in context. Melinda and I are disgusted by the fact that more than six million children died last year. But we are motivated by the fact that this number is the lowest ever recorded. We want to make sure it keeps going down.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

HS2 news

I am a cautious supporter of HS2, the proposed rail ling between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. There is an apparent capacity problem, and HS2 seems to me a reasonable method of fixing that problem.

Therefore I thought I'd produce occasional blogs about HS2 news, along with my comments on them:

1) A phase 1 legal challenge has been lost. A legal challenge to phase 1 of the HS2 project (the stretch of line between London and Birmingham) has been lost today. It has been judged that the impact on the environment was properly considered, and it is unlikely the complainants will be allowed to appeal further.

2) HS2 sent 15,000 letters to households before Christmas, incorrectly stating that their property was to be compulsory purchased. This follows a previous letter where the length of works was massively overstated. Needless to say, it is impossible to defend such mistakes.

3) The consultation for phase one was has been extended by two weeks after 877 pages were left off USB sticks containing the environmental impact assessment. Although they were not on the USB sticks, the pages were available online. This mistake makes an already tight timescale for phase one even tighter. The consultation now closes on the 10th of February. In slight defence, the documents are over 50,000 pages in length, and collating them must have been a nightmare. On the other hand, HS2 will be a complex project, and it would be hoped that they could cope with simple documentation handling.

So one story positive for the project, and two negative.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014


A few years ago I was reading some book blurbs; the text written to entice a potential reader. It can either be a short description of the book, or a note about something else by the same author, such as: "For all those who loved Chocolat ... Vianne is back"

For instance, here is a brilliant short one from James Herbert's book "Fluke"
"The story of a dog who thinks he's a man ... or a man who thinks he's a dog"
This works; it describes the central theme of the book well, and introduces a mystery that might appeal to readers.

Not all are good. One, for an American romance-slash-action thriller, had the following:
"He was fire. She was ice. Together they made steam."
It may work for some audiences, but for me this seemed an absolutely horrible piece of text. It told us nothing about the book, and as a hook it was meaningless. It's fun inventing alternatives, though:
"He was fire. She was ice. Together they made a puddle."
"He was fire. She was ice. She extinguished him."

Monday, 20 January 2014

Drake's equation redux

A quite startling five years ago (have I really been blogging that long?) I wrote a post on the Drake Equation, the formula proposed by Dr Frank Drake in 1960 to try to guess the number of intelligent species ("Intelligent Life Elsewhere") in the galaxy.

Since that post, there have been a number of developments:

  • Many more extrasolar planets have been discovered; there are now 1070 planets in 810 systems (some systems have multiple planets). Most of these planets are large, some even larger than Jupiter, but a few Earth-sized ones have been detected. When I wrote that post five years ago, it was just 339 planets. When I was a child, some scientists claimed that our own solar system might be unique - they have been proved utterly wrong.
  • A couple of dozen planetary atmospheres have been detected, although most of these belong to gas giant planets like Jupiter. This allows temperatures and atmospheric composition to be detected in some cases.
  • The first direct pictures of an extrasolar planet have been taken by the Gemini telescopes. It is of Beta Pictoris b, a gas giant several times the size of Jupiter. It orbits the young star Beta Pictoris, which is 63.4 light years from us.
  • As we discover more extrasolar planets, we are able to classify them. This has led to a list of planet types. My favourites have to be the puffy planet and Super Earth, the latter of which brings to mind a planet populated with the likes of Clark Kent and Kara Jor-El.
  • Latest estimates show that there might be 11 billion Earth-size planets in our galaxy
  • Only a small fraction of these planets may be in the so-called 'habitable zone', where life in our solar system can exist. However recent research shows that life may exist much further from the sun that we previously thought.
This progress can only continue. I find it an absolute wonder: the galaxy is turning out to be so much more interesting than I could ever have guessed as a child.

And the conclusion must be that we are not alone. The chances of life only developing on our planet in our solar system, when there are so many similar planets, must be minute.

So why are we not hearing them? Why are we not conversing with them? My views have not changed from five years ago, and that one of the following options is true:
  • We are the only intelligent lifeform in the Galaxy;
  • We are not listening for messages in the right way;
  • Other ILE is too far away from us, and their signals too weak for us to detect;
  • Other ILE has developed, perhaps several times over, but died out many years ago (disease, nuclear devastation etc).
  • They are around us as we speak, watching us and waiting for the right moment to intervene...
Let's see how things change in the next five years.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Duck House

On Saturday we went to see the matinee performance of 'The Duck House' at the Vaudeville Theatre in London.

This farce is based on the expenses scandal in 2009, with a Labour MP (Ben Miller) wanting to move over to the Conservatives just as the scandal breaks. The deal is done: all he has to do is impress a Conservative bigwig who is coming to visit. The only problem is that he's bought just about everything in his house on expenses (including the eponymous duck house). How will the bigwig react to the hanging baskets, massage chair and manure, yet alone the life-size portrait of the MP hanging on the wall?

It was very funny if you like farces; real put-brain-into-neutral-and-laugh stuff.

Having said that, it is not a classic: the farce is a little too contrived, and the second half is considerably weaker than the first, whilst the ending is fun although very predictable. Much of the comedy is also rather unoriginal. Neither is it deep: the real issues behind the expenses scandal, which captured saint and villain alike, were mostly glossed over.

Ben Miller steals the show with some excellent comic timing, whilst Debbie Chazen was hilarious as the MP's UKIP-supporting, illegal immigrant, Russian cleaner. Indeed, the cast were all rather good, and any problems came from the material rather than the acting.

I'd recommend it, but don't expect depth or a comedy classic.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Human Genome Mapping

For the last three decades or so, it has been possible to 'map' the human genome, to untangle the code of guaninecytosine, adenine and thymine (GCAT) that comprise out genetic make up.

This has revolutionised parts of our life, including crime detection and paternity tests. It has had a much smaller effect in medicine, where there are few treatments available that use genetics. In fact, the whole area of genetics is more complex than anyone realised thirty years ago, and now other concepts such as epigenetics are coming to the fore. It has proved relatively easy to find genetic markers for certain diseases; it has proved much more difficult to produce the long-promised cures from that information.

For years, scientists strove to create the first map of the entire human genome. An international collaborative project called the Human Genome Project started work in 1990. The machines were expensive, and worked slowly, with some human interaction required. The project was scheduled to run for around 15 years to produce a typical map.

Neither was it to be one individual: the map produced was to be of a composite of people.

However the technology continued improving, and in 1998 an American scientists, Craig Venter, set up a company called Celera Genomics to sequence the entire genome of an unknown individual by 2001, a few years earlier than the public project. To pay for it, he wanted to patent important parts of the genome, meaning that any scientists wanting to use that genetic information would have to pay Celera for the honour.

To make matters worse, the public project had released lots of the information they had already sequenced, and Celera did not need to resequence those parts - they used the public information.

This got the scientific world in a tizzy. The public project had a series of meetings, and the Wellcome Trust  threw a massive amount of money at the public project, accepting to sequence a third of the map by itself, rather than the sixth it was scheduled to do. Other companies pledged to give more money to the public project: science could not allow genetics to become patented.

It became an arms race between the private company and the public effort. Thanks to this massive effort by the Wellcome Trust and others around the world, the first drafts of the HGP were completed in 2001, at roughly the same time as Celera's project.

Later, it turned out the Celera's unknown individual was Venter himself. He is, in my opinion, one of the greatest scientific villains of the last few decades.

It's worth looking at some figures.

In 1990, the project believed it would cost $3 billion and take 15 years to sequence the genome.

In 1998, Ventor believed it would cost $300 million and be done in five years.

Now, we have machines that can sequence the map of 1,800 individuals a year, at a cost of $1,000 per sample.

The march of this technology is absolutely fantastic.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Lack of walking

As some people have noticed, I have not been updating my walking website. The reason for this is simple: for almost a year, I haven't been doing any long walks.

There are several reasons for this sad state of affairs, the main one being that I have a lower back problem that kicks in around the nine-mile mark of a walk.This problem has proved hard to cure, and has made walking with a backpack quite miserable.

I'm hopeful that I'll manage to shrug it off this spring. I'll be back on the hills soon, and at home writing walks up for the website (complete, of course, with the obligatory typos).

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Book review: "Kind of Cruel", by Sophie Hannah

A locked room, four people going missing on Christmas Day, and murder are linked together in this psychological thriller by Sophie Hannah.

Amber Hewerdine has not been able to sleep since the death of her best friend. She and her husband have taken in her friend's two young daughters, who they are trying to adopt. Driven to the end of her tether by sleeplessness, she visits a hypnotherapist, who inadvertently uncovers a link with a recent murder case that has police baffled.

Now a police suspect, Amber has to discover how a vital piece of evidence became buried deep in her subconscious before the killer strikes again.

I am not ordinarily a fan of psychological thrillers. This is particularly the case for densely-written psychological thrillers - this book weighs in at nearly 500 pages. At times the prose felt a little like wading through mud - every character's thought and emotions are dissected, often in too much detail. This may appeal to some readers, but I would have preferred it if the plot moved on at a faster pace.

It is one of these stories where virtually every major character - and every adult character - has a psychological issue that drives the plot along. One person is sexually repressed; another finds it hard to forgive her sister for a past transgression. All the characters are individuals - but it would be hard for them not to be when they are written about in such depth. Sometimes a page or two pass without anything actually happening, as the text is descriptions or interior monologue.

Despite this, the linked neuroses and issues work. The key to the story  - and the main villain - was fairly easy to detect, but I was left reading to work out the why the crime was committed - as could be expected, it was a very psychological motive.

I found my credulity stretched towards the middle of the book: for instance, how could these characters afford to live their rich lifestyles? Fortunately that credulity was not stretched to breaking point, and the questions - all relevant to the plot - are neatly answered by the final page. The plot is fairly complex, but the author plays the clever trick of simplifying the complexities as you near the end.

One downside: there is a moment of drama towards the end of the book that puts some characters in peril, that is fixed by a rather startling coincidence. It isn't a major problem, but the author could easily have found a better way of saving them.

I give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Lord Rennard

Today's events in Lord Rennard's case are interesting for a number of reasons: he has not been fulsomely cleared, but neither has he been found guilty. The report says that the evidence against the peer was 'broadly credible' and that the allegations were not politically motivated, and yet there was little chance that harassment charges could be proved.

For this reason, he is in limbo. It's a mess.

The report also calls on him to apologise: so far his reaction has been a statement saying he wants his old job back.

That's enough about all of that: what I'd like to mention are the most important lessons from this affair.

  1. Every organisation, however large or small, must have clear, well-defined and well-publicised procedures to deal with claims of bullying or abuse by staff members, both within and without the organisation.
  2. These procedures should be the same for all members of an organisation, from the CEO to a janitor, and be visible to all members.
  3. There should be methods of reporting abuse that are outside the normal reporting line; often bullying or abuse occurs between manager and staff member.
  4. All claims should be documented, and treated in the same manner, whether the accused is low down in the organisation, or high up.
  5. Whenever a claim is received, existing documentation should be searched to check if the accused has had previous accusations; this could show patterns of behaviour that might need to be addressed.
Let's hope the Liberal Democrats - and indeed all the parties - have now got robust procedures in place for such occurrences. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Another 787 problem

It has been reported that another JAL 787 has suffered a battery-related problem whilst on the ground. This follows a number of incidents since the plane was introduced.

I daresay Boeing will say that the redesigned batteries performed as desired. If they say that, they are wrong. There is a problem. It needs fixing, and this time fixing properly.

Even if it was just 'venting of a single battery cell', and things 'appear to have worked as designed', it is not good enough.

The root cause needs to be understood, and it needs fixing. If the planes need grounding - again - in the meantime, then so be it.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Everest panorama

I have never considered climbing Everest. I get worried if I have to start using my hands whilst out on a walk, so scrambling really is not my cup of tea, yet alone climbing. But I do quite admire people who are adventurous enough to risk their lives to reach the top of the world.

This two-billion pixel panorama, taken a couple of years ago, shows Everest. See if you can see the tent-strewn camp, or the climbers on the icefall.

You can click on the green boxes to get different panoramas.

Sadly, I can't help but think the tents make the place looked damned messy.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Will your novel be a bestseller?

Gizmodo has an interesting story about writing. Researchers from Stony Brook University in New York have created an algorithm that attempts to predict how well a novel will sell.

They have tested their algorithm against the text of many books over several genre, and compared their results against the books' sales.

The basic results show that high numbers of prepositions, nouns, pronouns, determiners and adjectives are all indicative of highly successful novels, whilst higher percentages of verbs, adverbs, and foreign words characterise less successful novels (ref. Table 6).

I would be intrigued to put some of my writing through this, and I can imagine that the researchers would be able to make a little money from desperate literary novelists (or publishers and agents wanting to reduce the size of their slush pile).

I generally tend to be sceptical about this sort of research, but these results seem to make sense, at least to a certain extent. However one of the most successful recent novels - Dan Brown's (yes, he) "The Lost Symbol", scored poorly. Which shows that plotting and oodles of publicity can overcome the predictive power of algorithms.