Wednesday, 31 July 2019

RED month, July 2019

On July 1st, I set out to do an early morning run. A task I repeated the next day, and the next. This morning I completed my 31st run of July, and I had Run Every Day.

So, the stats: I ran 176 miles in the month, or an average of 5.89 miles per day (and yes, I wish I could have made that up to a round 6). I spent a smidgen under 32 hours running, and ran at a rather pedestrian 5.5 MPH average (more of a jog, really). My total ascent was 488 metres - a consequence of living in rather flat Cambridgeshire. My earliest start time was 04.20, my latest 09.20. All bar three runs were started before six in the morning, so I could get home and showered before Sencan left for work.

The most I'd ever run before was 10K runs on 10 consecutive days, so it feels good to have somewhat smashed that. I exceeded my target distance on every run.

The lessons are numerous. After about the fifth day, I gave up on trying to go fast, as it only meant I'd go slower the next day. Recovery time is important for speed, and running every day does not allow for recovery time. I hate doing stretches. Running in light rain in summer is very pleasant. Seeing the sun rise is always uplifting. Running up slight gradients is wonderful. A 15km (9 mile) run is harder than a 20-mile walk with backpack. Running sans shirt is wonderful in warm weather, although alarming for anyone who sees a hairy bear running towards them!

I have suffered some chaffing on my inner thighs and, rather embarrassingly for a man, one sore nipple that was cured by liberal applications of vaseline that caused my running shirt to appear as though I was lactating. My knees are surprisingly fine, and my bad ankle only gave me trouble on a couple of occasions. I am very tired, but have lost over 5kg in weight.

The worst thing is:

I hate running!

And I shall get up tomorrow and run again. But I might take a day off after that. Or not ...

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Blue Moon

Yesterday, Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame) gave an hour-long presentation about his views on the future of mankind and space. This might seem like an odd topic for the world's richest man, except for the fact he is investing a billion dollars of his own money into a space company, Blue Origin.

The presentation is well worth watching in full:

Some thoughts on the presentation:

The presentation was slick and well-done. Bezos comes across as very knowledgeable about the topic: which is slightly surprising given the number of hats he wears. His presentation skills are good (at least when compared to the sometimes-stuttering Elon Musk).

We are not the intended audience for the presentation; Bezos was trying to talk directly to the movers and shakers in the US government. The Trump administration want to get Americans back to the Moon before the end of a possible second term in office, and Bezos wanted them to know that they have a system under development that could fit directly into their current plans.

The presentation had four broad sections:
  • Define the problem: mankind's resource and energy usage is increasing. Unless something changes, this means eventually they will have to be rationed.
  • Define a vision of the solution: take mankind off the Earth via things such as O'Neill cylinders and the use of in-space resources to replace Earthbound primary industries.
  • Define the strategy: build the infrastructure that will allow others to fulfil that vision.
  • Define the tactics: initially, rockets such as New Glenn and the Blue Moon lander.
The first three sections all seemed logical: you can argue for other solutions, but his vision encompasses one possible solution. He is also willing to put vast sums of his own money towards the first steps in securing his vision.

The highlight of the presentation was the unveiling of the Blue Moon lunar lander (see This was impressive. They had obviously thought deeply about the details: from high-bandwidth laser communications, to the landing angle (i.e. platform stability) of 15 degrees; to using lifeboat-style davits to unload from the cargo platform on the top, to looking at landing accuracy and the issues caused by the debris from the rocket blast on landing. 
Bezos also unveiled a new liquid hydrogen / liquid oxygen (hydrolox) engine, the BE-7. rIn this section, Bezos mentioned that the technology of both the engine and the Blue Moon lander were direct consequences of the New Shepard sub-orbital craft that his company is current;ly developing, and which they hope will take tourists to the edge of space later this year.

This explains many of the criticisms that the New Shepard system gets: it is part of a plan to gain liquid hydrogen and vertical landing experience. Personally, I had been expecting them to use the existing BE3 engine (used in New Shepard) for their Moon lander, or to use another company (e.g. Masten and something based on Xeus technology - see

The modularity of the Blue Moon system is slightly reminiscent of the Apollo Lander. This was expanded slightly for the J-class missions (Apollo 15,16 and 17), but much larger enhancements were proposed under the 'Apollo Extensions System' - for instance to create a long-stay lunar shelter (see These developments sadly never occurred because the program was cancelled.

They are partnering with others for payloads, something I see as a positive and in line with his strategy. I also like the fact they've formed a science advisory board, and the 'kids club' could be either a damp squib or an inspired move - depending on how much effort they put into it.

Some minor criticisms

  • It would have been good to mention SpaceX wrt vertical landing, and perhaps even congratulate them, whilst specifying the differences in their vision, goals and strategy. I can understand why they did not, but the elephant in the room is too large to ignore.
  • New Glenn is not fully reusable; only the first stage is. This was glossed over in the discussions wrt cost.
  • It would have seemed good to thank and congratulate NASA. Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are building on science done by NASA before, during and after the Apollo landings: this would be unachievable without that science and the general infrastructure.
  • The Blue Moon mock-up showed on stage was for an unmanned craft, and yet he also showed a picture of an enhanced, crewed version. In my view it is doubtful that a crewed version will be ready for 2024.
  • Liquid hydrogen is nasty stuff, and it took NASA and various militaries years to understand how to handle it reliably. Blue Origin have developed good knowledge on this through their New Shepard rocket, but keeping liquid hydrogen liquid in space and avoiding boil-off is *really* difficult. Although he somewhat addressed this in the talk, it is IMV the biggest issue facing the project.


Can Blue Origin get a large lander to the Moon in five years? It's tight, but probably. Can they get a crewed lander onto the Moon in five years? That is *much* tighter, and I'd give them only a 20% chance of that (figure plucked out of the air).

The fact they've had the BE-7 engine under development for three years shows they're looking at the problems, and are developing solutions out of public view. That might even extend to other problems I foresee, for instance EVA-capable spacesuits or life support - one billion dollars a year buys a lot of skunkworks.

The Blue Moon lander seems utterly (almost boringly) feasible. liquid hydrogen storage issues aside.

Good luck to them.

Monday, 8 April 2019

The Venezuelan Petro.

In February 2018, the government of Venezuela - well known for its financial acumen - announced they were jumping on a digital bandwagon by launching their own cryptocurrency the Petro. The new currency had many stated aims, including to bolster the crashing Venezualan Bolivar currency, and to circumvent US sanctions.

This was an interesting move. The  initial sale allegedly raised $3.3 billion for the Maduro government, although there has been no independent verification of that claim.

I personally feel that government-backed cryptocurrencies are a good way forward for the technology. Although governmental backing reduces some of the advantages of such systems, it also gives a currency increased trust - and trust has been one thing holding cryptocurrencies back.

It is therefore interesting that Venezuela, a country that is in the depths of a massive financial and political crisis, is the first country to make such a move. So what has happened in the last year?

The answer appears to be 'not much'. You cannot go onto a market and buy a Petro or Petro Gold. No-one seems to have an idea about the value of a Petro. To make matters worse, the technology behind the Petro has changed several times of the year, even after launch - and there are even doubts that the currency even exists in any practical form.

I won't go into any jokes about the failure of a socialist state to create a reliable currency - after all, we capitalist countries haven't been brilliant at that, either. But the Petro does seem to be yet another scam cryptocurrency - albeit one created by a government that is in real trouble.

And meanwhile ordinary Venezuelans suffer.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

6 April 2019 - it's GPS rollover day!

Today is a special day! You could be the lucky recipient of a rollover!

No, not a lottery win, but something even more unusual: the 1,024-week GPS week-number rollover! Stay tuned to see if you are a winner!

Okay, time to be serious. Twenty years ago the news was full of the upcoming Millennium  Bug, where ancient (and sometimes recent) computer systems that used two digits to represent dates - e.g. '99' for 1999, would roll over and start using '00' for 2000 - which causes all sorts of problems when you perform operations on the data and 2000 is seen as being before 1999.

Fortunately many good engineers  worked for years to ensure that the effects of the Millennium Bug were not as bad as some forecast. Some say that this means the Bug was overwrought nonsense: in fact, problems were avoided because people did lots of work to prevent those problems.

The Millennium bug was an epoch event: dates and times in computer systems have to be represented by numbers, and those numbers are of finite size. The larger the number, and the larger the granularity each number represents, the greater the length of time the number can represent.

Another example is GPS,which has exploded in popularity over the last twenty years. Most cars now have GPS receivers, they are in all smartphones, and many of us even have receivers in our wristwatches. Many vital system require timing and positional information from GPS. Yet GPS receivers also have an epoch - in this case, the data sent from the satellites to the receiver uses 10 bits to represent the week, allowing 1024 distinct values. This means that every 1024 weeks, it resets. If for some reason it gets the 'wrong' week, the receiver may start giving incorrect data to the user.

Today, the 6th of April, the week number rolls over. It is not the first time it has happened (it last happened on August 21st 1999. There were far fewer receivers back then (in fact, is it about the time I got my first Magellan handheld GPS), and the problems were not as significant.

However today it may be different: manufacturers will have been aware of this issue, and will have  put some protections in place. However if your receiver is over a decade old, and has not had its firmware updated, then there might be problems.

The good news is that the GPS constellation is being updated, and the new signals have a 13-bit week, enough for 8,192 weeks - or 157 years. I doubt a rollover of those new signals will affect me much!

But if you have an older receiver, I hope you don't win the GPS rollover lottery!

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Brexit and Julian May

In the 1980s and 1990s, the late Julian May wrote a series of eight books: the four Pliocene Exile books, the standalone vinculum 'Intervention', and the three novels of the Galactic Milieu trilogy.

In them, she describe a world where alien races have come to Earth whilst we were on the brink of nuclear war and offered us the stars. Since then, mankind has moved out from Earth to planets around the Galaxy: the large nations have many worlds, the smaller a few, and the smallest share some. Vast liners travel the ether between worlds, and mankind is flourishing.

Yet there are discontents. Humans - often powerful and influential ones - who rail against the aliens with whom we share control. We once controlled the world, but we are now a small piece of a gigantic Galactic cog. We should be in charge.

So these discontents start a rebellion that destroys worlds and kills billions. It is a pointless rebellion: one where they shake their fists at the very beings who have treated us well.

And it ends with Humanity chastened and still part of the Milieu. Little has changed, for the course was inevitable, and changing it would destroy everything.

And that is now what might happen to Brexit. We in the UK have a history that is littered with glory, and it is easy to sit back and want those glories to return. Britannia ruled the waves, and we ruled the world. But that world has changed: first came America, and then other countries overtook us. We are a small country: proud and brilliant, but small - in a world where size matters.

In such a world, is the EU an inevitability?

So we have a choice: to join up with other small countries (and smaller ones) to form a bloc that has more power together, or to be small and alone. It seems that the former might be inevitable. If so, perhaps the wettest of wet dreams of hardcore Europhiles are correct and, like Humanity after the rebellion, we will eventually become leaders of the group.

If so, then Brexit may be, like the rebellion in the books, a felix culpa - a blessed fall.

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Six new walks on my website

I've just updated my website with six new walks:

1033London Loop: Erith to Farnborough, and then on to Chiselhurst23.519/01/2019
1032London Loop from Rainham to Purfleet, then on to Basildon and Pitsea23.612/01/2019
1031London Loop: Loughton to Rainham23.705/01/2019
1030London Loop: High Barnet to Loughton20.701/01/2019
1029Ebor Way: York to Wetherby23.328/12/2018
1028Gipping Valley River Path: Stowmarket to Ipswich20.922/12/2018

There are one in Suffolk and another in Yorkshire to complete 2018, and four around the London Loop to start 2019.

I've also fixed a few bugs that were preventing links from working on the named walk pages.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Brexit: the current situation

Last night's vote gave Mrs May a smidgen of authority to go back to the EU and ask for changes to the withdrawal agreement. With the right changes, the deal might - perhaps, with a following wind - pass through parliament. Even that is far from assured, given the small margin of 'victory' in the vote.

There are many problems. The first and foremost is that the EU has said it will not renegotiate. Even if it did, there is no indication that they would agree to whatever quasi-magical alterations to the backstop people have in mind. And there is nothing stopping other countries - for instance Spain - from wanting to reopen other aspects of the agreement to their advantage.

And all of this has to be done in a few weeks.

It really is an almighty mess.

Another problem is that we have MPs saying what they are *against*, and not what they are *for*. There are also far too many of them who seem to think that negotiation is a case of demanding, and then stamping your feet like stroppy children until the party you are negotiating with relents.

I fear this is not going to end well for us. And it is all our own fault.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

John Butler

When I started walking as a hobby a couple of decades ago, there were relatively few websites and guides available online. One that I did come across was John Butler's landscape photography website. At the time John was walking - and taking beautiful photos - on a Land's End to John O'Groats walk.

We emailed each other a few times, and I found his website to be a very useful and beautiful resource. It is therefore somewhat of a shock to revisit his website and discover that he died over seven years ago. I'm glad to see his website has been preserved and is still available to read.

RIP John. I hope the sun is shining on the hills of Heaven.

Monday, 28 January 2019

The Holodomor

If you stroll down Calton Hill in Edinburgh from a certain direction, you may see a little memorial  stone sitting beside the path. It is a little off the beaten track, and many people will miss it during their visits to the city.

Its grey stone is a little bright against its surroundings; then again, it is barely a year old, and will fade with time.

As have, sadly, the memories and knowledge of the events it commemorates. For it remembers the millions of people who died between 1932 and 1933 in the Ukraine.

It seems almost everything about the Holodomor is disputed. Even its name is not settled: some call it the 'Great Famine', others the 'Ukranian Genocide'. Many argue it was a deliberate genocide to repress the Ukranian people, others that it was an accidental result of the collectivisation laws instituted by Stalin. Some say only a few million died; others up to 10 million (it seems likely the figure is between 3 and 7 million, in itself a frankly horrific range).

These disputes - often scholarly ones - get in the way of the horror, and can almost downplay them - as if saying "7 million people didn't die; it was only 6 million." makes everything fine.

The Holodomor deserves to be better remembered. And in so doing, more thought should be given to all those who died under Stalin's tyrannical regime.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. From Wiki:

"(it) is an international memorial day on 27 January commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust that occurred during the Second World War. It commemorates the genocide that resulted in the death of an estimated 6 million Jewish people, 5 million Slavs, 3 million ethnic Poles, 200,000 Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. "

A few years ago we went to a talk by the great pilot Eric 'Winkle' Brown. We expected an entertaining talk about his experiences in the air, and that is what we got. However we also got a long section on his experiences near the end of the war. As a German speaker and pilot, he interviewed Hermann Goering after his capture, and also was one of the first people to liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

He spent a fair while talking about the horrors he saw in the camp, and his feelings about the people who staffed it. Wiki has the following: "he soon interviewed the camp's former commandant and his assistant Josef Kramer and Irma Grese, and remarked upon the experience by saying that; "Two more loathsome creatures it is hard to imagine" and further describing the latter as "... the worst human being I have ever met."

The very powerful and upsetting talk made me realise one thing: I'd never actually heard a first-hand account of the camps before. I'd seen plenty of TV interviews with survivors, but whilst horrific, they lacked the impact that first-hand testimony holds. And as old age takes those who suffered in the camps and survived, and those such as Eric Brown who helped liberate them, first-hand testimony will evaporate. We shall be left only with recordings, and like pictures of emaciated survivors, or of diggers bulldozing piles of bodies into graves, they are easier to deny.

And this is a reason why we should all pause for a minute today to remember the Holocaust and to consider man's potential to inflict mass suffering on his fellow man. The Holocaust was not the first such atrocity, and sadly it was not the last. I fear to say there will be more in the future. The people affected my be different, and it may be rooted in different causes, but remembering the horror and saying "Never again," are good baby steps in preventing their recurrence.

Denying the Holocaust - especially because of dislike of the groups who were killed - is the first step to allowing something like it to happen again.

So pause and think. If you are religious, offer a little prayer. If you are not, think how you'd feel if it was your mother and father in such a camp, or your son or daughter.

For the people who died in the holocaust were not statistics, nor were they nameless bodies in a black-and-white photo. They were real people, as real as you or I.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

Side by side maps

I spend a lot of time looking at maps. I obviously use them to plan walks, but I also find them objects of beauty in their own right.

But maps can also be historical documents, and the National Library of Scotland have created an excellent resource that allows you to compare various historic and modern maps.

The detail this shows can be amazing. You can see how villages have grown over time, or how factories and railways have disappeared from the landscape.

As an example, below is a comparison of the Purfleet gunpowder stores, with an 1892-1914 Ordnance Survey map compared to the latest Google Maps view.

It is still recognisably the same location. However the pier has disappeared, whilst all but the southernmost of the gunpowder store buildings having been replaced with flats. Even though much of the surrounding area has been redeveloped, the outline of the old military area can still be seen in the landscape within the loop of Centurian Way.

Or this one of the centre of Derby, where virtually nothing remains the same. The canal and basin and many streets of houses have disappeared, replaced with roads, shops and the massive Westfield shopping centre. Only a few streets have remained the same, and one of those, Morledge, has been radically reduced in size. Not even the street layout has been respected.
This website has proven to be an invaluable resource for me, and one that is an utter time sink: I spend far too long just scrolling through the landscape, seeing how areas have changed.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Brexit, part n

With yesterday's new that the peoples vote campaigners have given up - for the moment - on forcing another referendum on parliament, it looks likely that the Brexit probability waveforms are finally collapsing.

It now seems there are three main ways forward:
  1. Revoke A50 (this splits into two other options, permanently or temporarily).
  2. May's deal, or something akin to it.
  3. Hard, crash-out no-deal Brexit.
It feels like we're finally reaching an end-game for Brexit, or at least this phase of it.

Since option 3 is the default, it sadly still has to be the favourite. However there is probably a majority in parliament to avoid a no-deal Brexit, and not enough support for revocation. The ERG'ers are also starting to show some flexibility, so it may be that the dead corpse of May's deal is reanimated in some form.

On a related point, it appears that polling on Brexit is being confused by people who say they want a 'no deal' Brexit, when they actually want to remain - they think that no deal means staying in.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Starhopper down ...

In a post twelve days ago, I mentioned Elon Musk and SpaceX's new Starhopper rocket. This is a testbed for their planned massive BFS spacecraft.

In it, I wrote:
"Spacecraft are built inside buildings by highly-skilled aerospace engineers. They are not built outside, exposed to the elements - and certainly not by agricultural engineers."
It appears that there are very good reasons why such rockets are built indoors rather than outside. Susceptibility to high winds being one.

Photo from NSF Bocachicagal


All companies make mistakes: Boeing dropped and destroyed part of their new SLS rocket's tank last year, and Lockheed Martin once dropped a satellite during manufacture at a cost of $135 million.

From Wikimedia
But this is a very public mistake. Hopefully SpaceX will learn lessons from this, and their program will not suffer too much delay.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Galileo and Brexit

My previous post outlined why access to a Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) such as the American GPS or European Galileo systems are vital for a country's commercial and military well-being.

Unfortunately, in their infinite wisdom the EU have decided that a post-Brexit UK:

  • will not be allowed to continue being involved with the system's development;
  • that UK companies will not be able to bid to construct hardware; 
  • that they would restrict the UK's access to sensitive data. 

This means that whilst the UK will be able to continue using the public signals, they will not have trusted access to the system's encrypted military codes (PRS) and its national security elements.

Trust matters. As non-EU members, the UK might be able to negotiate passive access to the encrypted PRS signals - but without direct knowledge of how the system has been designed at the broadcast end, and without people in the control rooms, the UK cannot guarantee that such access would be maintained. If the UK were ever in a conflict or war that EU members did not agree with, they could cut off or degrade the service. Such passive access is essentially pointless - if they do not trust the UK enough to give full access, then the UK cannot trust them to maintain access.

The Falklands Conflict is an example scenario. If such a small-scale conflict was to occur again, with the UK standing alone against another country, it can be assumed that both sides will be using GNSS - in fact, it is likely that our high-tech military would rely on them more. If one of the Galileo EU members was against the conflict, they could decide to degrade Galileo coverage over the relevant conflict zone, restricting the UK's ability to use it. The UK would have no voice or power to prevent it.

In the immediate future, this disrupts the MOD's plans to integrate secure global positioning, timing and navigation into their systems, which requires access to Galileo's PRS or GPS's M-Code. In addition, UK governmental agencies cannot use it to support critical national infrastructure.

It also means that UK companies that have been building parts of the satellites will not be able to continue doing so. Airbus has said that its bids for further work on the Galileo system is being moved out of the UK to Germany and France, along with 80 jobs.

Access to the enhanced capabilities of the MEOSAR search and rescue system may also have to be stopped.

So far, the UK has given £1.5 billion for our part in the project; in return UK companies have received back £1.15 billion in work. Teresa May has announced that we will not try to claim back the payments we have made to the project. Allegedly officials have been going around UK companies involved with the system to tell them to stop sharing propriety information with other Galileo parties.

So what can the UK do - assuming the EU is unwilling to change its mind?

The UK government has put aside £92 million to study the effects withdrawn access to the Galileo PRS codes would have. Much of the technology was developed in the UK; the first prototype satellite (GIOVE-A) was designed and built by SSTL in the UK, so the technical know-how exists. Some estimate that a replacement UK system could cost anything from £3 billion to £10 billion. Airbus claims £5 billion and five years of work.

There are problems: many of the people required to make such a system are EU nationals resident in the UK - would they want to remain to work on the project, and would the UK want them working on what would be a national security asset?

Perhaps the biggest problem is not monetary, but legislative. Any new system would need frequencies allocated to it internationally. This would need to be negotiated through the International Telecom Union, and this may be a slow process. Back in 2003, the US and the EU had a big argument over the frequencies used by Galileo, and it is going to be difficult to negotiate access to frequencies that will not interfere with other systems.

The radio frequency spectrum, especially in the frequency ranges required by this sort of system, is getting very crowded. It will also require us to use political capital that will desperately be needed elsewhere. To make matters worse, many cellular providers want to use these parts of the spectrum for 5G services.

The UK cannot start designing the system in detail until the frequencies are known, as it is the key factor in determining the design - and even the satellites' orbits.

Creating a UK GNSS constellation to replace Galileo is almost certainly a non-starter, if only because the cost is probably far too great for only military use. For that reason, the UK might want to cooperate with another player. Russia is rather unlikely, as is China. Japan's system is local and designed for their specific needs. Australia is a possibility, but do they really require such a system?

So how about India? They have the technology, and launchers - but their system is currently only regional. It might be tempting for them to have someone else pay for the system to be deployed globally.

A better approach may be to create a capability that the EU does not currently have - for example some form of secure global communications - and swap trusted access of that for trusted access to Galileo. Even this would be very expensive, although it might prove easier and quicker than the UK  developing its own GNSS.

The Galileo debacle does not bode well for the rest of Brexit. It should have been easy to sort out, but it appears to have become an impossibility. The EU may gain slightly from the decision in the short term: work that was going to be done in the UK will now be done elsewhere in the EU, whilst the UK has already paid in more than they have got back in work. But the chances of the successor project to Galileo - already in planning - going ahead is reduced, and the running costs of the Galileo system will fall upon the other countries.

There will be second-order effects as well: for instance, the Galileo system was initially developed by ESA, before it was taken over by the EU. The UK is remaining part of ESA, which continues to administer and operate the system. It is possible that such disagreements will infect the UK's relationship with ESA, especially when many ESA projects involve EU funding.

But there are always silver linings: perhaps the UK government will decide to go ahead with their own satellite constellation (perhaps calling it 'Boudica' or 'Waterloo') and dust off their road pricing ideas to pay for it ...

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

The Galileo satellite constellation

The Galileo satellite constellation is a keystone European project. It is designed to provide Europe with an independent global navigation satellite system (GNSS), similar to the global American GPS, Russian Glonass and Chinese BeiDou systems (along with regional ones such as India's NAVIC system or Japan's little-known QZSS).

There are two major aspects to such systems: the civilian, which you or I use (generally for free) to tell us where we are, and a secure subsystem (in the case of Galileo, called the 'Public Regulated Service') [4], which is encrypted. In times of war, the civilian system can have its accuracy degraded, be spoofed, or even be switched off, whilst military and other official users maintain their access via the secure PRS. The US GPS system operates a similar encrypted system called 'Precision Code' or 'Military Code', which is only accessible to US military users.

Satellite navigation systems have become a massively important part of our nation's infrastructure. As the government says [1]:
"Recent estimates indicate that over 11 per cent of the UK’s GDP is directly supported by satellite navigation systems and the Blackett review [3] estimated that a failure of service could cost the UK economy £1 billion a day."
With at least three competing global systems, it is unlikely that they will all be degraded simultaneously for the civilian user - and if they are, it will probably be the least of our worries.

But access to such systems are becoming vital for military and governmental users, with all sorts of equipment requiring accurate positioning and timing information, from the big-ticket items such as ships and planes, through missiles and smart bombs to communication systems. Losing access to guaranteed accurate positioning and timing information could well make even the best equipped and trained force a loser.

If you are a world power, you have to have trusted access to the secure parts of a GNSS. Failure to do so could literally leave you adrift in a conflict.

The Galileo project was started by the European Space Agency in 1999, and the European Union took it over, somewhat controversially, in mid-2006 after funding problems. This is part of a trend of the EU taking over and assimilating ESA projects - even after Brexit, the UK will remain a firm member of ESA.

The first Galileo satellites, GIOVE-A and GIOVE-B, were launched in 2005 and 2008 respectively. GIOVE-A was built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd in the UK, and it was designed to secure the frequencies required by the Galileo system and to test some of its key technologies. The first two In-Orbit Validation (IOV) satellites were launched in 2011, and the first Full Operational Capability satellites were launched in August 2014.

The Galileo constellation will eventually consist of 30 satellites for full global coverage, with 24 operational at any time, and 6 active spares. Each satellite weights about 700kg, and four can be launched on the same Ariane 5 launch. About 18 satellites are currently operational, with another 4 under commission. This is enough to operate Galileo's civilian side, and many devices can access the signals, including most recent smartphones. The secure side of the system is due to start operation in 2026.

In addition to the satellites, ground stations of various types needed to be constructed, including control centres, data uplink and telemetry stations. Many of these have to be spread globally to allow full control of the satellites, and are costly to run.

Galileo has two additional features: a paid-for commercial system that gives increased accuracy over the standard civilian signals, and the MEOSAR search and rescue system (Galileo's implementation of MEOSAR also include a downlink, so messages can be sent to a beacon). Galileo is also designed to allow emergency access to first responders in the case of a national disaster.

Galileo is a vital piece of infrastructure for Europe. It has not been plain sailing, especially financially, but much of the constellation is now in orbit and operational.

Finally, an aside. One of the reasons the UK government under Blair was so keen on getting the Galileo project started was a proposal that would allow tracking of road vehicles [2]. This would allow governments to implement road pricing by usage - albeit with some rather major privacy implications.

If you want to know more about how GNSS systems such as Galileo work, then chapter 1 of the Blackett review [3] goes into a great deal of relatively-understandable detail.


Monday, 21 January 2019

Coincidences and contrivances

Coincidences happen all the time. When I was on my walk, I finished a day at a small, remote beach in the northwest of Scotland. Sam parked the motorhome on a firm area, and a while later another motorhome parked nearby. It turned out to contain an ex-colleague of mine, who had no idea I was doing the walk. It was a coincidence.

Whilst coincidences happen, they can make for poor plots. I've recently finished reading Lee Child's first 'Jack Reacher' book, 'Killing Floor'. It will never be called classic literature (although much that is called 'classic literature' is unreadable tosh), but it was a riveting read.

However there was one major thing that niggled at me through the book: coincidences.

(Please note the following contains spoilers. If you have not read the book and think you are likely to, then consider not reading the rest of this post.)

The plot of 'Killing Floor' involves Jack Reacher, once a major in the US Military Police Corp. He left the armed forces six months before the book began, and in the meantime has led an itinerant lifestyle around the US, never staying long in one place, and never leaving roots.

The book starts as Reacher is having breakfast in the little town of Marburg, Georgia. Marburg is a town that has been bypassed by the interstate and is, for the purposes of the book, many miles from anywhere. Some policemen enter the diner, and Reacher is arrested for the murder of an unidentified man the previous night.

He is arrested for what, at first, appears a minor coincidence: Reacher walked past where the man's body was found, and therefore was in roughly the right place to at least be a suspect - although it turns out he could prove he was elsewhere at the time the man was murdered. This is, in my view, an acceptable coincidence; indeed, it is of a type frequently seen in stories to move the plot forwards.

The main plot and subplots continue until, halfway through the book, it is discovered that the unidentified body is that of Joe Reacher, Jack Reacher's elder brother. Joe Reacher was a senior agent in the US Treasury, and had arranged a meeting with someone at the exact spot that his brother would pass a few hours later.

The only link the two men have with the town of Marburg is an old song they both knew, and it is on the basis of this song that Jack Reacher made a carefree decision to get off a Greyhound bus outside the remote town. Neither man had been there before, and they had barely ever mentioned it. Yet they both happened for different reasons to be not just in the town on the same night, but in the same remote spot.

I found this coincidence to be really jarring, and spent the rest of the book awaiting it to be concluded. It made me assume that Jack Reacher was really being an unreliable narrator, and that it was not a coincidence: perhaps his brother had wanted him along for some extra muscle, but Jack Reacher had been delayed. But that did not happen, and it remained a massive coincidence. In fact, it was a rather poor contrivance.

What do I mean? Look at the following list of 'coincidences':
  • A man visits a remote town that he has no history with: nothing coincidental - in fact, it happens all the time.
  • A man being in a remote town without knowing his brother had recently visited: slightly coincidental.
  • A man being in a remote town at the same time as his brother, both going independently and for different reasons, without knowledge the other was going to be there: very coincidental.
  • A man  in a remote town at the same time as his brother, both going independently and without knowledge the other was going to be there, and the brother getting murdered that very night: extremely coincidental.
  • A man unknowingly walking past his brother's body, in a remote town neither had had any connection with, both having arrived that day, without either knowing the other was going to be there? Immensely coincidental.
  • An ex-military policeman with murderous skills unknowingly walking past his brother's body, in a remote town neither had had any connection with, both having arrived that day, without either knowing the other was going to be there? Fantastical.
I found the coincidence so jarring that I simply could not suspend my disbelief. it would be like me bumping into my ex-colleague on that remote Scottish beach on the same day we share the lottery jackpot with identical numbers we chose for different and independent reasons. It just won't happen, and it's a silly hook to hang a plot off.

There is a less serious coincidence later on in the book: Reacher places his trust in Finlay, the town's chief detective, who had only been in the post for six months. Finlay in turn places his trust in an FBI friend from Atlanta, Picard. It turns out that Picard is actually one of the book's chief antagonists, who is intimately involved in the core conspiracy. What are the odds of the one man Finlay trusts being one of the bad guys, despite being from well out of town?

It would have been easy to slightly alter the plot to 'solve' the central coincidence, without altering the general flow. It is a sign of a poorly-designed plot, even if the story itself is told well. A plot should not rely on major coincidences, either in set-up or to get things moving.

There were several other plot problems in the book, and characters acting in slightly (in my view) unrealistic manners. However these were mostly superficial, and none were as glaring as the plot's central coincidence.

I don't want to be too harsh on 'Killing Floor', which was an enjoyable book. It gripped me, and I finished it in three days - which is not a sign of a bad book, especially in this genre. It is easy to see how it won several awards after its first publication.

However this central plot coincidence slightly spoilt it for me.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Book review: "Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer", by Nevil hute

Many books immerse you in a bygone world. Sherlock Holmes plunges you into a mid- and late-Victorian London, whilst Philippa Gregory drowns you in Tudor intrigue. "Slide Rule" takes you soaring through the aeronautical world of the 1930s.

Nevil Shute was one of the best-selling authors of the 1950s, with books such as 'On the Beach' or 'A Town like Alice', and he is most famed for his writing.

However Shute was also an engineer, and 'Slide Rule' covers that portion of his life, before the Second World War and literary fame intervened. His early life is mentioned, including a fascinating portion about his time in Dublin during the Easter Rising (his father was head of the Post Office in the city at the time, although he was fortunately outside the building when it was taken over). To get him  away from the troubles, his parents sent him to Oxford.

After Oxford, he went to work for De Havilland at the start of that distinguished company, and learned to fly - a skill he loved, and one that proved very useful in his later work. It was a time of rapid change in the aeronautical industry, and he soon moved on to Vickers for the start of the massive R100 airship project. Much of the book covers his work on this ship, and its rivalry with the ill-fated government-run R101 airship. He became the project's Deputy Chief Engineer by the age of 30 - something that perhaps could only happen in what was a 'young' industry.

One theme of this book is socialism versus capitalism, especially when it comes to engineering. In his view, the excess money (unfairly) thrown at the R101 project hindered it, whilst the fixed-cost contract Vickers had for the R100 forced them to be efficient. I got the impression that he was too involved with the project to be truly impartial, and besides, the costs of such projects are now so great that any lessons are probably irrelevant: even SpaceX relied on government money via NASA to develop their Falcon 9 rocket.

An interesting section of the book details how stress calculations for the R100 were completed. Two men ('calculators') would work for weeks calculating the stresses on the ring of girders forming a section of the ship, finding mistakes or problems and recalculating, until eventually the calculations done by different means agreed. These would just have been a small part of the calculations the ship required, and it highlights how much time and effort was required to do something that nowadays might only take a few seconds on a computer.

The R101 disaster caused the government to turn its back on airships - a move Shute admits was probably for the best given the rapid increase in aeroplane performance throughout the 1930s. Out of a job, he decided to start his own company with a fellow R100 engineer, Alfred Tiltman. They named their company 'Airspeed', and the second half of the book highlights the problems of starting a new company in a rapidly - and  radically - changing industry. Shute is disarmingly honest about some of the financial techniques he used to keep the company afloat and how, if the dice had rolled differently, he could have ended up in jail!

He eventually left Airspeed in 1938, his capabilities as Managing Director being more suited to running a young company than a relatively mature one with a bulging order book. He does not give the impression he minded leaving, nor does he appear to object when, during the war, de Havilland took over Airspeed.

This is very much the autobiography of an engineer, and his personal life is scarcely mentioned. His wife only graces the pages on a few occasions - mostly in how her job allowed him a little financial security. It would have been nice to have heard more about her, and his two children only get a short mention at the end of the book. It would also have been nice to hear more about Shute's work during the Second World War, when he worked on special projects and weapons. Perhaps that was because this book was published in 1953, when the events of the war were still raw and many special projects were still secret. It feels as though the book ends too soon.

I'm slightly surprised I had never read this book before, but I shall be reading it again in the future. Shute may have got fame from his writing, but his other work probably had more of an impact on the world.

4 out of 5.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Private Alfred Walton, of the Suffolk Regiment

The mortal remains of a soldier lie in a little graveyard in St Neots. The grave's white stone is slightly weathered, with traces of mould forming a green haze near its base. As a Commonwealth War Grave, it dominates the other graves in the graveyard.

The inscription reads:

30299 PRIVATE 
19TH JANUARY 1919 AGE 20

My family was doubly blessed: although we had family members serve in both world wars, as far as I am aware we lost no-one to that conflict. Therefore I find war graves somewhat poignant: we were lucky when so many were not.

But this is an unusual grave: not just because it is on a route I walk regularly, but because of the date of Private Walton's death. The First World War ended on the 11th November 1918, so he died a little over two months later, presumably whilst still in service.

So how did he die? Accident? The great Spanish flu?

Fortunately the Internet gives a few answers.

According to the website, his name was Alfred William Walton:

Alfred William enlisted in the 3rd Battalion of the Bedford Regiment in October 1915, and in May 1916 was transferred to the 2nd Garrison Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment (service number 30299) and served at Landguard in Felixstowe, but was taken ill with tuberculosis of the lungs and was discharged in August 1916 as no longer physically fit. It was also found that he had enlisted when only 17, when the minimum age for service was 19. He died from TB on 19th January 1919 and was buried on 23rd January in Eynesbury Old Cemetery.
He is commemorated on the Eynesbury War Memorial, but was not entitled to any medals as he never served abroad.
He must have been a brave young man, volunteering to fight in the war at a time when the horrors of that conflict were first becoming known, and whilst a couple of years younger than the minimum enlistment age. Like so many other young men, he must have lied about his age in order to fight.

Yet he never did get to fight, and tuberculosis laid him low.

So on this day, 100 years after his death, I remember and salute Private Alfred Walton, and indeed all the victims of that war.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Another coastal walker

Karen Penny is setting off on a 20,000 mile walk around the coastline of Britain and Ireland, including over twenty islands in that time. She set off from Swansea on Monday 14th January, and plans for the walk to take her four years, averaging 15 miles a day, every day. She is raising money for Alzheimer's Research UK.

For more information, see:
Sky News

I am slightly puzzled by the mileage; the coastline of the mainland can be well walked in 4,000-4,500 miles, and my own rather extended walk (e.g. by not take ferries) was 6,200 miles. Ireland should add about another 2,000 - 2,500 miles. Still, I daresay all will become clear, and I wish Karen the best of luck: walking for four years is an amazing aim in itself, and it's perfectly possible to walk 20,000 miles in that time.

Combining the coastlines of Britain and Ireland in one walk (obviously with a ferry or flight between them) is becoming increasingly common. I think the first person to do this feat was John Wesley, but more people are following in his footsteps. I'd quite like to do Ireland one day, but I probably won't get the chance to do it for many years.

One other note: my list of coastal walkers is very out of date. I hope to update it soon, and thanks to everyone who has sent me information on coastal walkers. There are lots of them about.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Weighty topics

When I was young, I was scarcely concerned about my weight. As a teenager I felt I could eat whatever I liked without putting on weight, although my family might disagree with that! This was aided by the fact I was often in pain, and hence my appetite was stifled, and hindered by long periods of inactivity due to the pain.

But I don't think I was ever particularly overweight. I had my last operation in May 1998, I took up walking as a hobby immediately afterwards. 1,000 miles a year tended to keep me trim and, although I scarcely ever weighed myself, I got the impression that I could eat whatever I wanted, only to lose any weight gained during a walking trip.

Then came the coastwalk, a year and 6,200 miles of walking. Although I was already quite fit, my weight decreased markedly during the first three months, plateaued for six months, and finally increased for the last three months despite an increased average mileage. I can only assume that my body had got used to the exercise, so I required less calories per mile. Pictures of me from that time show a slightly gaunt, bronzed and well-weathered figure staring at the camera - I was certainly fitter than I had ever been before, and perhaps ever will be.

Perhaps the fittest I have ever been.
What went wrong?
As I passed through my thirties, work and other obligations weighed on me and my weight slowly increased. I got married, and happiness induced a certain sloth that also helped my paunch grow. Then, a small back problem and the birth of our son led to me reaching 100kg.

This is overweight, but I have short legs and a long body, and I kept on telling myself it didn't really matter.

Then, on February 1st 2016, I got meningitis.

The meningitis was not caused by my weight, nor by my general health. It just happened. But I was shocked when I went on scales in the hospital and discovered I weighed over 105kg. I had to face it: I was in my mid-forties, overweight, and with a young son who I wanted to see grow up into adulthood. The meningitis had been an almighty scare, and my mortality had been made clear to me.

I decided to do something about it.

I started in September 2016. A two-pronged approach of boring calorie counting and even more boring running led me to a weight of 95kg, which I was more happy with. I also cut down on my drinking, which I was less happy with. Since then, more of the same has led me down to about 90-92kg. This means my BMI says I am still overweight, despite there not being much more to loose.

I find I can maintain 90-92kg fairly easily, without undergoing too much suffering and without doing too much exercise. Best of all, it's not trying mentally: I don't find it hard to do. Attempts to go below 90kg always fail within a few weeks.

My ideal weight in my mid-forties seems to be about 90kg. I wonder what it will be in my fifties or sixties?

Wednesday, 16 January 2019


It's all a bit of a mess, isn't it?

There is no clear way forward now that May's deal has been rejected. Many anti-deal people want options that involve the agreement of third parties, and therefore might be unavailable. They are wishing on unicorns.

The public split 52-48 on the Brexit referendum, and polling shows very little change in their view since then. Some polls show remain in the lead, some show leave. The country is still bitterly divided.

I have no answers. It is up to reasonable people in parliament to be sane and sensible, and they are proving to be unreasonable, far from sane and very, very silly.

In my view, the first question MPs and the wider public should ask is: "what is certainly deliverable?" The second question they should ask is: "what will the great British public support?"

I cannot see an answer that satisfies both these questions. Brexit has split the country, and it seems few people - especially MPs - are willing to compromise their views, even when those views are undeliverable or anathema to the public.

It is easy to think of options that suit individuals.

You might want a second referendum. But which options would be 'fair'? There is also precious little time for one to be held before the end of March.

You might want an extension to A50 beyond March 29th to allow more time to sort it out, but the EU might not want an extension beyond the next European elections - and besides, who says people will change their minds even if we give them an eternity?

You may want to cancel Brexit, but would the EU want us to remain in with the same conditions, rebates etc as before, or will we be forced deeper into their project? And if the result of the 2016 referendum is ignored, people might reasonably cry: "what price democracy?"

The only clearly deliverable option is no-deal Brexit, and that threatens to be disastrous to the economy and country: but that is only deliverable because nothing needs to be done for it to be delivered. It is the default.

So that is where we are heading: a no-deal, crash-out Brexit that will harm the country in many ways.

I hope I am wrong.

Politics is moving very fast at the moment, with May facing a vote of no confidence this evening. Sadly, it seems that the views of too many people are firmly entrenched.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Concrete barges

Whilst walking the final stretch of the London Loop path near Coldharbour Point, I came across 16 concrete boats wallowing in the mud. Some had their bows pointing towards shore, as if trying to clamber onto dry land, whilst others lay marooned at random angles. Lengths of rusty reinforcing bar showed through gaps where the concrete had decayed.

When I got home, I decided to research them. These boats were built in the early 1940s to cope with the increased wartime need for vessels. They are technically called ferro-cement barges - the advantage of concrete being that less steel was required in their construction, at a time when steel was scarce. The barges were also not expected to last long, whereas a ship might be designed to serve for decades. Each weighs about 200 tons, and were constructed at the London Docks before being craned into the water. These particular ones were built for handling and transporting petrol.

It is rumoured that barges of this sort were used in the D-Day landings and Mulberry Harbours, perhaps as parts of the floating roadway. Whether these particular vessels were used or not, they were dumped on the riverside after the 1953 floods to act as coastal protection, and have lain there ever since.

Or have they? They seem in a slightly odd arrangement and location for that to be the case, at least to my inexpert eyes. Were they used, and then moved to be dumped at their current location once the defences had been repaired?

They appear to be in surprisingly good condition given they were built around 75 years ago, and have been abandoned for over 65. Whereas wooden vessels soon disintegrate except where they are buried in sand, and metal rusts to nothing, some of these concrete boats appear as though they could be refloated and used - although that is almost certainly a false appearance.

The website has details on how similar vessels were made (although I believe not these particular ones) - including an interview with the designer! It's interesting to see Gunite was used - an early version of the shotcrete used in civil engineering nowadays.

At times the Second World War can seem rather distant. It is therefore good to see some concrete reminders of the war - even if it is in a rather bleak, industrial and wind-blown spot on the Thames Estuary.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Driver aids

I have long been bearish on autonomous cars. This has not been helped by Elon Musk and Tesla consistently over-selling the autonomous capabilities of their cars, and of journalists sometimes  overawed reviews of other companies technology, e.g. Waymo.

The wheels have somewhat come off the autonomous car juggernaut over the last year (and I will try to write about this later). But for this post, I thought I would look at the other end of the problem: simple driver assistance aids.

Sencan recently got a new job with a longer commute, and we decided to get a new car. And for the first time in our lives, it would be a brand-new car.

After rejecting the new-style Honda Jazz, and covetously eyeing a Ford Fiesta, she decided upon a Hyundai I20. The model we chose has several driver aids: Lane Keeping Assist System, Lane Departure Warning System, Forward Collision Avoidance, and Driver Attention Alert.

Sencan has been driving it to and from work for the last few months, and I only recently got to drive it for a journey further than the local shops.

I have never driven a car with these aids before, so I thought I'd have a quick trial of them (excluding Forward Collision Avoidance, which would be rather difficult to test safely) to see what I thought.

Lane Keeping Assist System

This is where the car detects a lane ahead, and if you drift out of the lane, it pulls the car back in. Whilst active, a light illuminates on the dashboard and the feeling feels heavier: similar to an old, heavy vehicle without power steering. The car definitely lets you know it is in control.

Somewhat surprisingly, it also steered around bends (this is probably not recommended usage of it) if I just rested my hands on the wheel.

When enabled, lane keeping assist appears to work well. The steering is heavy enough to allow you to know that it is enabled without seeing the dashboard light, and it seems to follow the lane well - although on some bends it steers like a fifty-pence piece - perhaps because its cameras can only 'see' a short distance ahead.

However, it does not seem to trigger on country roads or in towns, and even on an A road, it occasionally flickers on and off.

Lane Departure Warning System

In this, a light flashes and a buzzer sounds if you go outside a lane - at least on the driver's side;  I had no safe opportunity to test it on the nearside.

Driver Attention Alert

I tried resting my hands loosely on the wheel to see how well it would keep to the lane (as safely as possible; I never actually let go), and a warning would flash up to tell me to keep my hands on the wheel. This also seemed fairly reliable and unremarkable.

General notes

In the case of lane assist, it seems to require white lines on both sides delineating the lane, and will only activate if both are there. If so, this makes sense, as such line detection is far easier than trying to detect the actual edge of the road if the lines are not present. However the flickering on and off of lane assist can be annoying; I presume it is trying to fail safe (i.e. off).

The lane warning is much more robust; if I go over a white line it beeps and a light flashes on the dashboard. This seems much more aggressive in its detection than the lane assist; perhaps because it is only a warning, a few false positives (i.e. warnings given when one is not required) does not matter.


All in all, it was a positive experience. It is an interesting first step towards automation, albeit a baby step. There is also a massive gulf between it and true autonomy, especially in the places lane assist would not enable itself, despite the lanes being obvious. In my opinion they can also be a valuable driving aid - if used correctly.

For me, the most impressive thing is that this capability is present in a reasonably-priced car, and appears to work well and unobtrusively. But there is a vast gulf between such assistant technologies and the ones required for automated driving, which will have to work 100% of the time.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

John Bellingham

Political assassinations are thankfully uncommon here in the UK. Aside from the tragic murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016, there have been precious few attacks on our MPs.

Before Jo Cox's tragic death, the IRA and their predecessors had done their best to kill MPs, succeeding on six occasions. Despite the list of sitting MPs who have been murdered is thankfully low.

But these are just the successful attempts; there have been other, unsuccessful ones. Labour MP Stephen Timms was attacked by an Islamic extremist, whilst a tragic machete attack on Nigel Jones killed his researcher, Andrew Pennington. It is clear that MPs can make an attractive target.

A simple plaque on a building in St Neots tells the story of John Bellingham, the only person to successfully murder a sitting Prime Minister.

An event to have civic pride in?

By all accounts (mostly, it should be said, written after his crime), Bellingham was not a success in  life. Born in St Neots in 1776, he set himself up in business and travelled the world, including to Russia, where he ended up in jail in 1804 over bad debts. It took him five years to finally make it home, and he seems to have spent that time getting increasingly annoyed.

For some reason, he believed the British government owed him compensation for his imprisonment in Russia. After his pleas to the government failed, he travelled on the 11th May 1812 to the Houses of Parliament, where he waited in a lobby. As Prime Minister Spencer Perceval (apparently not 'Percival' as on the plaque) appeared at about 5.15 in the afternoon, Bellingham shot him in the chest.

Bellingham made no attempt to escape, and in fact sat down on a bench. He therefore cannot have been very surprised when he was swiftly arrested, tried and executed within a week - despite people attempting to help him escape!

There was a surprising amount of public sympathy for him, partly due to Spencer Perceval's unpopularity, and a subscription ensured that the success he had missed in life was partly gained in death.

As for Perceval? He is a forgotten Prime Minister. Few remember him, and when they do, it is for the nature of his death that any of his many achievements in life.

Saturday, 12 January 2019


I have a love-hate relationship with Elon Musk. I love much of what he is trying to do, and his grand aims. I hate much of the way he goes about it, and in particular how he communicates. These latter feelings are not helped by the Musk fanbois online.

But he aims high, and when he delivers, he can really deliver. His company SpaceX have already revolutionised transport into space with their semi-reusable rocket system, Falcon 9. Not willing to rest on his laurels, for the last three years he has been heavily trailing a new fully-reusable rocket/spacecraft duo designed, so he claims, to take up to 100 people to Mars.

Yes, that is two Mars-related posts in a row.

The system has changed over the years, with the system downscaling to 9 meters diameter (probably from 12 metres) and, most recently, from carbon-fibre to stainless steel - a change that is probably worth a post of its own. It has also changed names several times, from ITS (Interplanetary Transport System), to BFR (Big F***ing Rocket), and now to the (IMO lame) 'Starship'. The initial launch site was announced as being a new site they were developing at Boca Chica in Texas, just a few miles from the Mexico border.

In December, keen-eyed observers noticed some unusual activity at Boca Chica. Engineers (allegedly agricultural ones) were building some tank-like structure that many thought might be a water tower.

Obviously a water tank

Spacecraft are built inside buildings by highly-skilled aerospace engineers. They are not built outside, exposed to the elements - and certainly not by agricultural engineers. There's no way this could be a spacecraft ...


As the structure grew and more parts became visible, it soon became clear that a real vehicle was being built. Later on, Musk announced this is actually a development version of the new BFR (I refuse to call it 'Starship') spacecraft that will be used to test systems. It is not the first time they have done this: a few years ago they developed a testbed for Falcon 9 landings called Grasshopper, as shown below. This new rocket will be performing a similar role for the Falcon 9's much larger sibling, and has already been named 'Starhopper' by fans.

And now, in what is an incredibly fast time, assembly has finished on the test BFR. And it is ... remarkable.

This is not a render.

I think this looks truly stupendous. And for scale, that is a human standing underneath it. Yet at about 30-40 metres, this behemoth is shorter than the 55-metre actual rocket, and has three rather than seven engines. And this is only the second stage: the first stage booster that will loft this high up into the atmosphere before returning to land will be much larger (63 metres high with 31 engines).

I wish SpaceX all the best with this. If function follows form, then this will do well. I can't wait to see it do its first hop in a few months time.

Friday, 11 January 2019

Book review: Mars, by Ben Bova.

The Red Planet is hotter than ever. With Andy Weir's excellent 'The Martian' being a hit in both book and film forms, NASA's landers and rovers toiling on the surface, and Elon Musk's SpaceX working towards a rocket that may enable Mars colonisation, Earth's neighbour is getting a great deal of deserved attention.

Mars has featured in literature many times over the years. An example of this is Ben Bova's 1992 book 'Mars', about an international mission to Mars. The book is part of his 'Grand Tour' series around the planets.

I have mixed feelings about this book. The book's protagonist, Jamie Waterman, is a Navajo geologist on the ground team. His character felt particularly weak, and the plotline revolving around his ancestry was poorly developed and perhaps even stereotyped. Likewise, many of his compatriots are poorly written in my view - Anthony Reid, the doctor, is a snivelling Englishman with severe daddy issues.

To make things worse, the characters all act unprofessionally - behaving more like bunnies on Viagra than serious scientists in a dangerous environment, and letting international rivalries get in the way of their mission.

All of this made the first half of the book tough going, with a boring plot and very unsympathetic characters. However, the last third of the book has a very different feel - when the mission flirts with disaster, the plot takes off, and most of the characters develop another much-needed dimension. It was worth reading for this part of the book alone.

It is a far inferior book to others about Mars, for instance Kim Stanley Robinson's 'Red Mars', or Andy Weir's 'The Martian'. But it is probably still worth a read if you want to see the way a mission to Mars might look like - at least from a 1990s perspective.

2 out of 5.

(An old version of this was accidentally published earlier. Apologies. I shall go and sit in a corner for five minutes and mutter 'don't press the publish button until you're ready'.)

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Book review: "The Planet Factory", by Elizabeth Tasker

It is unusual for a popular science book to start by saying that what you are reading will probably be proved wrong in a very short period. Yet that is exactly what astrophysicist Elizabeth Tasker states in this excellent book about how planets and moons form.

There is a good reason for this: twenty-five years ago we did not know of any planets outside our solar system, and some people claimed that our planetary system might be unique. All our models on how planets formed had to be based on what we could see in our own system. Yet by mid-2018 we knew of 3,700 planetary systems, and virtually every one has posed more questions than it has answered. Together, they have caused us to question our assumptions on how all planets - including the Earth - formed.

Ms Tasker details how primordial clouds of dust and gas collapses to form full solar systems with stars and planets, and how much we still have to learn about this most fundamental of processes.

She examines the weird planets that may exist: such as ones that orbit within their star, ones with seas of tar, or ones made of lava or others where it rains diamonds. Truly alien worlds that belong in science fiction - and indeed, science fiction worlds may not be as fictional as we once thought. Want a planet with two suns, such as Star Wars' Tatoooine? They exist. Want an ice world? Take your pick.

The reason many people are interested in planets is the possibility they may harbour life. In reality this is the only time when the media pays attention to the discovery of a new planet, usually with headlines such as "Most Earth-like planet could harbour life." Ms Tasker dives behind the headlines and looks at why they are often misleading, and how life might occur on planets that might be very different from the Earth. Finally, she examines how in the future we might be able to detect life on a distant planet, if not the form of the life, even from tremendous distances.

Planetary formation can be a very dry subject, and Ms Tasker does a good job in explaining the terminology in a light and accessible manner. Even so, this is not a children's book, and in places will require a little perseverance to understand the concepts, and some thumbing back through the pages to find definitions. But the perseverance certainly pays off.

The biggest issue I found with this book is how the uncertainty of how things happen and the resultant speculation can make things confusing as temporary theories conflict. An enhancement of the glossary at the end of the book for commonly-used terms would also be helpful.

If you have any interest in how the Earth formed, or in whether there is life elsewhere in the universe, then this book in an invaluable primer.

4 out of 5.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Scarpa Trek boots

I have used Scarpa boots as my main walking boots for well over fifteen years. I have probably worn a dozen pairs, and they have given sterling service. I can put on a new pair and walk for twenty miles with scarcely any breaking in.

Buying any new shoes can be problematic for me. I have metal in my ankle, which means that many shoes and boots cripple me within a few miles, if not steps. Our understairs cupboard contains three or four pairs of trainers which seemed fine in the shop and for the first few days, but once broken in caused me crippling pain as the fabric breaks in and pushes against the metal. This always seems to happen after they're too worn to take back for a refund. Yet the fit of Scarpa Trek boots have always worked for me out of the box.

Over those years Scarpa have changed the design: My first pair were vanilla Trek boots, which I think then became Trek 2, then Trek GTX. Each model had changes, some fairly large (for instance the removal of the protection on the toe box that I always quite liked). But throughout these changes, I found they boots just worked for me, more or less out of the box - I assume that they've always used the same last so the overall shape remains the same despite detail differences.

This means that once I am sure a pair fits me, I purchase three or four pairs, much to the amusement of the staff in the shop!

I am not complaining about Scarpa changing the design, nor do I expect them to keep the design static for a couple of decades just to help people like myself. In fact, it's great that there are boots that work so well for me.

If I have one complaint, it is that the upper eventually fails behind the toe box, where creases form with use. These eventually cracks and leak well before the soles wear out. I also need a pair of Sorbothane insoles, instead of the thin insoles that come with the boots. However since I get well over a thousand miles out of each pair of boots, sometimes with minimal maintenance and cleaning, these are very minor criticisms.

I last bought three pairs of boots seven or eight years ago, and my last pair are getting a little worn. I have looked online to order a new pair, and it looks as though they have been redesigned again - they're still called Trek GTX, but from the pictures it appear there are detail differences.

Hopefully they will be fine. At £170 a pair, it is going to be an interesting test!

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Exploring versus adventuring.

I had a quick look on t'Internet to see how many self-styled explorers were currently on their travels.

There are an awful lot of them.

I do not want to denigrate their achievements; indeed, I am full of admiration for what they are doing, and wish I had the money / time / physicality / insanity to do it myself. But few are really exploring, because they are all travelling where people have been before and know well.

There are only two areas on Earth that still remain to be explored, where we can have a 'wow!' feeling that Admunsen or Scott must have felt, of being somewhere that no human has seen before. They are the polar regions and the deep sea.

Someone hoping to climb Everest one stated that he is an explorer. In my view he is not. 3,500 people have climbed the mountain, a number that will continue to increase. Even if you decide to do it wearing a dress, or waking backwards without oxygen, or up the East Face, or hang-glide part of the way up and cook a five-course meal ever 500 feet - you are not exploring. The high risk of the activity does not make it exploration.

It is adventuring.

I think I prefer adventuring to exploring anyway. Adventuring is something we can all do - whether it is pushing our limits by running a marathon, or by going sky-diving, or by taking holidays off the tourist map. Adventuring involves risk, but that risk can be manages to suit your personal level.

So this weekend, try to go adventuring. Push your limits; live your life.

Just don't call it exploring.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Suburban wildlife

I did a walk on Saturday. During it, I saw two foxes (one of which seemed as large as a large dog), a herd of wild deer (one with massive antlers), and loads of squirrels, ducks, geese etc. All were fairly unflustered by my presence - the deer allowed me to get within about thirty metres of them before they ambled into the trees.

I wouldn't mention this, except the entire walk was well within the borders of the M25. London can be surprisingly rural.

I'm afraid these are not the best photos, and have been heavily cropped, but at least show I'm not suffering from some strange form of walker's madness ...
An urban fox.

Geese and swans on a lake in Hainault Country Park. 
A suburban deer.

Whatch'ya looking at ?

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Storage licence champion

Whilst waiting for a tube train early on New Years Day, I read the following notice (for reading notices is about all there is to do on Bank Station at 07.00 on New Years Day).

If that seems fairly uninteresting, then you are normal. It is an application to store some unspecified material bagged, secured and caged in a five square metre space. The material that is required by a project to upgrade the station.

It is interesting to wonder who this notice is intended for: the vast majority of commuters would be uninterested in it, and I suppose it is for anyone wanting to use the particular storage area for any other purpose.

However I was drawn to the bottom-left of the notice, which shows there is something called a "Storage Licence Champion".

At first, this seemed like a non-job the likes of Private Eye and certain papers love to make fun of. The word 'champion' makes it sound like a total non-job, a person who goes around proselytising the benefits of a good storage licence.

On reflection though, that's harsh, and it could well be a valuable role.

Firstly, tube stations (especially underground ones) are cramped affairs, and space is at a premium.

Secondly, people need to know where things are.

Thirdly, you do not want passengers interfering with such things.

Fourthly, there is a massive safety aspect. In 2007 a tube train derailed at Mile End station when it struck a roll of fire-resistant blanket that had been left nearby, and which had been moved onto the track by the draught of a passing train. A causal factor in the report is:
 "the incomplete training and supporting documentation provided to Site Persons in Charge (SPCs) in relation to the storage of materials in cross passages."
Table 1 in the accident report outlines other cases where improperly-stored items had hit trains.

So there probably is a good need for such a role - if it is as I assume. I do query the job title, however. It should be: "Person who ensures everything is put away where it should be so we don't get any fuck-ups."

On second thoughts, "Storage Licence Champion" is probably better ...

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Another sign-eating tree

Following on from my earlier post about metal-eating trees.

This cooperative attempt by two trees to consume a perfectly innocent sign was observed near Boston Spa on the Ebor Way.

It seems trees don't like private fishing.