Avoiding the Chasm

April 16, 2011

Notes From The West Highland Way

Filed under: Life — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 6:20 am

These are some notes that I made after we walked the West Highland Way in May of 2010. I hope that some of them might prove useful to anyone considering making the walk themselves. Back in September 2009 I wrote a similar set of notes about the lessons learned from the Wainwright Coast to Coast Walk.

Level of Difficulty

I think that the West Highland Way is a relatively easy trail. I ought to qualify that by adding that I think it is a relatively easy trail if the weather is in your favour. I suspect, and I have no evidence to support this suspicion because we had near perfect weather, that if the weather is foul then the trail could become very difficult indeed. On day three as you walk up the wooded eastern coast of Loch Lomond the path can become very slippery in wet weather and there were plenty of tales of people whose walk came to a premature end at that point. After Bridge of Orchy the terrain becomes higher and much more exposed and so would be that much harder in poor weather. I got the impression that the stage distances suggested by the guide books were as much a consequence of planning for poor weather as they were related to the distances between areas of accommodation. In good weather they may seem short and easy, but in poor weather they could really be a challenge.

In 2009, in our final week of holiday, we walked the first 100 miles of the Coast to Coast trail from St Bees, through the Lake District and part of the Yorkshire Dales to Reeth. By comparison, the West Highland Way seemed much easier. The entire trail is on a clearly defined path, there is really little opportunity to get lost and hardly any occasion that calls for any real navigational skills – that is unless the weather deteriorates and the fog comes down.

We carried Ordnance Survey maps and two guide books (one each), a compass and a GPS device (but that was really just to record the trail). All this might seem like overkill after my comments on how relatively easy the walk is but, I’ve learned from experience on more than one occasion that when conditions change you will be more than glad that you made the effort to be prepared.

On day one of the West Highland Way we were joined briefly by a lady who had left her husband and friend in the Beech Tree Inn at Dumgoyne while she walked ahead to gain a bit of time on them (at least that was her explanation). The problem was that they only had the one route map between them and so she was walking blind hoping to arrive in Drymen by following the coat tails of other walker – this seemed like a recipe for disaster and at such an early stage on the trail too.

I noticed that the average age of walkers on the West Highland Way seemed somewhat higher than the age of walkers on the Coast to Coast and perhaps this agreed with my assessment about difficulty (or at least perceived difficulty).

Preparation

The daily distances covered on the West Highland Way are not enough to trouble any reasonably fit walker but problems can arise as a result of the fact that these distances need to be covered on eight (or so) consecutive days. It is this repeated assault on the feet, and without opportunity for recovery, that is the most likely threat to the successful completion of the trail.

Our immediate preparation for the trail, which is also what we did to prepare for the Coast to Coast, was to walk for 15 miles on three consecutive days wearing the same shoes and clothes that we would be walking in and carrying exactly the same pack and weight that we would be carrying. We would do this a week before starting the trail. The thinking behind it was that if there were any weaknesses in our feet or equipment then these would have shown up over the three days and we would have time to resolve them and for any injuries to have healed before we started the real walk. For feet, it also had the side effect of hardening up any soft skin and so reducing the chances of developing blisters as well as identifying areas of the feet that were likely to be problematic.

Essentials

These would be top of my list of essentials. Any good guide book will provide a comprehensive list of the real essentials, but these two are easy to overlook or to skimp on.

1. Blister Plasters

Even the toughest walker can be brought to a halt by failing to pay attention to their feet. It only takes a mild blister to ruin a good day of walking and so a pack of blister plasters is an essential part of the kit for this walk.

2. Good Waterproofs and Sun Screen

The weather in Scotland can be unpredictable. There are stretches of this walk that are without cover from the elements for quite some distance and so excellent waterproofs, a good sun hat and a supply of sun cream should be in every rucksack.

Useful Books

We purchased two guide books:

1. West Highland Way by Charlie Loram. Trailblazer (2008). 190 pages. £9.99

This book is one of a series of books commonly referred to as “the brick” guides on account of their square cut and, some would say, weight (although I think that is a little harsh). If I could only take one book, in addition to Ordnance Survey maps, then this would be the book for me. The maps are black and white line drawings but are full of the kind of detail that you won’t find on an OS map (such as “After crossing cattle grid keep eyes peeled for small path on right. It is waymarked.”).

As you might expect the guide lists camp sites, B&Bs, hotels, shops and other amenities that you will find along the WHW and also gives opening times, web sites, phone numbers and prices. In this guide these are listed as part of the trail description which means that it is less likely that you will walk past that last lunch opportunity.

A useful set of sample itineraries is given in the early section of the book. This is a great starting point for planning your walk. Different itineraries are given according to whether you are planning on camping, staying in bunkhouses & hostels or staying in B&Bs and within each of those categories a suggested itinerary is given for each of a relaxed, medium, or fast pace resulting in an overall time of between 6 and 9 days walking to complete the trail.

2. The West Highland Way by Terry Marsh. Cicerone (2003). 120 pages. £10.00

The Cicerone book is lighter and more flexible than the Trailblazer and has a laminated plastic cover which I would imagine would make it slightly more water resistant. It doesn’t give anything like the same level of information about amenities but does provide more in the way of asides on the immediate history or geography of sections of the walk.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two books is that this one contains a complete set of 1:25,000 scale Ordnance Survey strip maps that cover the entire route. I wouldn’t normally consider walking a trail without a set of OS maps but if you have a limited budget or simply no room left in your pack then this book will, at least, give you some of the advantages that you would have gained from the maps. One word of warning though – stray more than a third of a mile from the route and you will have walked off the map altogether.

Time of Year

We chose to walk the West Highland Way in the middle of May. This being late enough in the year that there are plenty of daylight hours and a good chance of warm and dry weather but early enough in the year that the likelihood of being troubled by midges is small. I prefer to walk hilly walks when I know that I stand some chance of being able to cool down after a steep climb and so April, May and September would be good candidate months for a trail. However, one thing that becomes apparent is that enjoyment of the West Highland Way is likely to be greatly dependent on the weather – a few of its sections are without much in the way of shelter and on a rainy day would be quite miserable.

Leaving Your Car

We had originally planned to leave our car at a farm a few miles outside Milngavie for a small daily charge but the logistics of getting it to and from the farm were proving to be irritatingly complicated. We would arrive in Milngavie on the night before we started the walk and would then have to deposit our bags at our accommodation and then set off to deposit the car at the farm and then walk back. At the end of the trail we would have to do all of this in reverse, adding a few extra miles and an hour or so to our day before we could start the drive home.

However, on arriving at the Premier Inn in Milngavie the kind lady on reception pointed out that for no charge at all we could leave the car all week with them and collect it as we passed on our return. She kept the car key (not our only one) in their safe in case of emergencies and hinted that we might like to make a small (optional) donation to their Water Aid charity which I was more than happy to do.

Public Transport

On completing the walk we spent the night in Fort William and caught the bus back from Fort William to Glasgow. If there was one thing about our arrangements that I would change a second time around it would be the decision to use the bus. We had originally planned to take the train but a mix-up over the online booking coupled with the fact that the bus appeared to be quicker and was certainly cheaper than the train meant that we opted to hop on the Glasgow bus at Fort William with a plan to catch a second bus back from Glasgow to Milngavie.

Actually finding the bus station in Fort William was our first problem and then when the bus arrived there were more people attempting to board than there clearly were seats on the bus and so the driver has to perform an elaborate and length ticket check which combined with a rather complicated set of rules for whereabouts in the boot cases destined for Glasgow needed to be placed meant that there was a good chance that if you were travelling as a couple you might end up sitting at different ends of the bus to each other. The bus was noisy, dirty and uncomfortable. I’d take the train without doubt next time.

Our Schedule

We walked the route in eight stages (nine nights of accommodation):

Day Route Distance
Day 1 Milngavie to Drymen 12 miles
Day 2 Drymen to Sallochy 14 miles
Day 3 Sallochy to Inverarnan 13 miles
Day 4 Inverarnan to Strathfillan 13 miles
Day 5 Strathfillan to Bridge of Orchy 7 miles
Day 6 Bridge of Orchy to Kingshouse 13 miles
Day 7 Kingshouse to Kinlochleven 8.5 miles
Day 8 Kinlochleven to Fort William 14.5 miles

If we walked it again we would probably plan to do it in 7 stages. The stage from Inverarnan to Bridge of Orchy could easily be done in a single day. We had a lot of time to while away in Tyndrum to avoid arriving in Bridge of Orchy before lunch.

Places to Stay

We stayed in the following places on each of our nine nights:

Night 1 – Milngavie – Premier Inn

Premier Inn Milngavie,
103 Main Street,
Milngavie.
G62 6JQ
T: 0870 197 7112

http://www.premierinn.com/en/hotel/GLAWES/glasgow-milngavie

A clean, comfortable and friendly overnight stop with an attached restaurant. The biggest surprise of all was that they offered to let us leave the car in their car park for no fee. Their suggestion that I might like to make a charity donation to Water Aid was something that I was more than happy to do. Highly Recommended.

Night 2 – Drymen – The Hawthorns

The Hawthorns B&B,
The Square,
Drymen.
G63 0BH
T: 01360 660916

http://www.thehawthorns-drymen.com/

A friendly, family run guest house with overflow accommodation in their nearby self-catering houses. We found ourselves in the self-catering accommodation with breakfast in the main house. We learned, on leaving, that the owners will drop off and collect walkers from the adjacent sections of the trail, allowing you to choose Drymen as your base for the first three days of the walk rather than just one. There is a choice of places to eat in the village.

Night 3 – Sallochy – Northwood Cottage

Northwood Cottage,
Sallochy,
Rowardennan.
G63 0AW
T: 01360 870351

A small cottage in a amongst a collection of cottages in the wood in Sallochy. We were made to feel very welcome and the house was spotlessly clean but soundproofing between the walls was lacking and we did feel as though we could hear every sound from the neighbouring room.

There is nowhere to eat in Sallochy but the owner of the cottage kindly arranged to run us to the Inversnaid Hotel for an evening meal (and picked us up too).

Night 4 – Inverarnan – Clisham Cottage

Clisham Cottage,
Inverarnan,
Ardlui.
G83 7DX
T: 01301 704339

http://www.clishamcottage.com/home.htm

Another friendly, farmhouse-like, overnighter. The room was comfortable and a good breakfast provided in the kitchen the following morning. A choice of two locations for evening meal are within 5 minutes walk from the house.

Night 5 – Tyndrum – Strathfillian House

Strathfillan House,
Tyndrum.
FK20 8RU
T: 01838 400228

http://www.tyndrum.com/

A beautiful house in a setting by the river attached to a disused chapel. By far the best breakfast of the entire walk was had here. The rooms were big and bright but I was awoken by the sound of something scurrying around in the ceiling of our room on several occasions in the night.

Night 6 – Bridge of Orchy – Bridge of Orchy Hotel

Bridge of Orchy Hotel
Bridge of Orchy
Argyll.
PA36 4AD
T: 01838 400208

http://www.bridgeoforchy.co.uk/

A rather comfortable oasis in the middle of walk. More pricy than a B&B but nevertheless well worth it.

Night 7 – Glencoe – Kingshouse Hotel

Kingshouse Hotel,
Glencoe,
Argyll.
PH49 4HY
T: 01855 851259

http://www.kingy.com/

Rather basic rooms but in a most fantastic setting. Breakfast was good which is just as well because there really isn’t a lot of choice of accommodation at this stage of the walk unless you opt to catch a bus into Glencoe.

Night 8 – Kinlochleven – Herman

Hermon,
5 Rob Roy Road,
Kinlochleven,
Argyll.
PH50 4RA
T: 01855 831383

http://www.hermonkinlochleven.co.uk/

A modern house on a modern estate but efficiently run and with access to a pleasant sun lounge. Very clean and with a good breakfast. The only real downside was the number of chiming clocks that went off at points of the hour throughout the night. Within walking distance of the village for evening meals.

Night 9 – Fort William – Glentower Lower Observatory

Glentower Lower Observatory,
Achintore Road,
Fort William,
Inverness-shire.
PH33 6RQ
T: 01397 704007

http://www.glentower.com/

A wonderful place to end the walk with good hot showers, large rooms and friendly owners. Highly recommended.

Places to Eat

These are the places that we found food and drink. They may not necessarily be the best available but often the choice was very limited and so are a good indication of what to expect and where.

During the day

We stopped at these places for our lunch:

Day 1 – The Beech Tree Inn, Dumgoyne

Lots of seating outside and a more cosy atmosphere inside. Good food and drink to be had here. I had originally planned to walk on past the Beech Tree and take the detour into Killearn but was glad that I had chosen to stop. A good place to linger if you want to let the crowds get ahead of you.

Day 2 – The Oak Tree Inn, Balmaha

An atmospheric, dark and warm pub with a good menu and choice of beers and wines. If you’ve taken the detour to the top of Conic Hill on the approach to Drymen then you have justified an extended stay in the Oak Tree. We would have liked to have returned for an evening meal but, unfortunately, our accommodation was closer to the, rather disappointing, Rowardenan Hotel than to Balmaha.

Day 3 – Inversnaid Hotel

Rather lacking in atmosphere, and with a walkers entrance around the back this well carpeted coach-tour-stop is at least good for a coffee.

Day 4 – Crianlarich Railway Station Cafe

Worth a visit for the comedy factor. We were asked to leave our rucksacks in a distant corner of the room rather than dirty the plastic and formica furniture. Poor coffee, but passable tea and a good shelter if it is raining outside.

Day 5 – The Green Welly Stop, Tyndrum

If you, like us, find yourself passing time in Tyndrum the Green Welly Stop is really the only place you can linger for a couple of hours on just a couple of cups of coffee. Quite a large self-service cafe, it has the feel of a service station but without the fuel.

Day 6 – Nowhere (between Bridge of Orchy and Kingshouse)

There is nowhere to eat between Bridge of Orchy and Kingshouse and so you should arrange to pick up a packed lunch from the Bridge of Orchy hotel.

Day 7 – Nowhere (between Kingshouse and Kinlochleven)

Another day with no opportunity to find food en route, so remember to order a packed lunch at Kingshouse.

Day 8 – Nowhere (between Kinlochleven and Fort William)

There is nowhere to purchase food between Kinlochleven and the approach to Fort William but there is a good store in Kinlochleven that sells sandwiches. A good coffee, or something stronger, can be got on arrival at Fort William.

In the evening

We ate at these places in the evening:

Day 1 – Clachan Inn, Drymen

The food was passable but the service lacked any spark when we visited. I couldn’t help wishing we had investigated some of the alternatives before committing to the Clachan Inn.

Day 2 – Rowardenan Hotel

We were driven to the bar of the Rowardenan Hotel from our accommodation in Sallochy. We wished we could have been taken in the opposite direction back towards the Oak Tree Inn in Balmaha. The bar of the Rowardenan Hotel was cold and draughty and the service and attention to detail was poor. Perhaps we caught it on a bad day, after all the hotel was undergoing refurbishment but it was lacking in almost every respect.

Day 3 – The Drovers, Inverarnan

A fantastic place to eat or drink. A wonderful atmosphere aided by the stuffed animals, suits of armour, plush upholstery and kilted bar staff. The service was efficient, the food was excellent and in great quantity too. Live music followed.

Day 4 – Tyndrum Lodge Hotel, Tyndrum

We had wanted to eat fish and chips from the Real Food Cafe at the southern end of the village but it was bursting at the seams with visitors who had arrived by car or coach. Instead we had a surprisingly good meal with good service in the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel, next door to Paddy’s Bar and Grill.

Day 5 – Bridge of Orchy Hotel

There is no choice but to eat in the hotel. Having said that I really enjoyed my stay in this hotel. It was clean and formal but friendly too and quite a contrast to the bed and breakfast accommodation that we had used on the other nights of the walk. The restaurant food was excellent but quite pricy. A little bit of luxury half way through the walk.

Day 6 – Kings House Hotel, Kingshouse

Much more basic than the Bridge of Orchy Hotel but the bar is friendly and there is a reasonable choice of food on the menu. Just as well really because, just like at Bridge of Orchy, there really is no alternative place to stay. After walking across Rannoch Moor in bad weather you would be really grateful for what was on offer here. If you come prepared for rather basic bedroom accommodation you won’t be disappointed with the food and drink at the Kings House Hotel. The breakfast is good.

Day 7 – Highland Getaway, Kinlochleven

Basic pub grub with friendly service. After the walk from Kingshouse you will be grateful of this place.

Day 8 – Crannog Seafood Restaurant, Fort William

Unusual setting for a restaurant on a pier jutting out into the loch at Fort William. Bigger inside than it looks from the outside. Excellent food and friendly, lively service. Mostly seafood but also some meat and vegetarian dishes. A fine place to celebrate the end of the walk.

Costs

We estimated that it cost us approximately £650 per person to complete the walk including the nine overnight stays in B&Bs or hotels, the baggage carrier, the return journey from Fort William to Milngavie and an allowance for evening meals and lunchtime snacks. There are clearly several ways in which this figure could be reduced but it would likely result in an order of magnitude more discomfort and would almost certainly involve camping and carrying equipment and gear in between the overnight stops.

November 30, 2010

A Very Simple Solution to the iPhone/iPod 4.2.1 Update “No Content” Problem.

Filed under: Technology — vextasy @ 11:25 am

If, like me, you have recently updated your iPhone to iOS 4.2.1 and have found that all of your iPod content has disappeared then you could follow the suggested method that involves re-syncing with itunes. However, if you are using your iPhone or iPod away from its iTunes connection then you might like to try this alternative solution that I found worked for me. I have only performed this on an iPhone but I suspect it will also work on an iPod.

The symptoms are that when you fire up the iPod app it displays the message “No Content”. Even if you purchase new content from the iTunes app nothing appears within the iPod app.

The solution that worked for me was:

1. Run the Setting app and select: General -> International -> Language and choose Francais.
2. Click Done. Don’t panic, but wait for the French “Changing Language” message to disappear and for the home screen to be redisplayed.
3. Start the iPod app and wait until its initial screen shows.
4. Return to the home screen and run the Settings app again (labeled in French as Reglages) and select: General -> International -> Langue and choose English.
5. Now fire up the iPod app and you should see that all of your content has been restored.

April 11, 2010

A Step Too Far

Filed under: Software — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 10:14 pm

AppleLogoOver at www.knowing.net Larry O’Brien discusses the craziness of of Steve Jobs’ latest edict – namely the changes to the iPhone developers licence that says:

3.3.1 — Applications may only use Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple and must not use or call any private APIs.
Applications must be originally written in Objective-C, C, C++, or JavaScript as executed by the iPhone OS WebKit engine,
and only code written in C, C++, and Objective-C may compile and directly link against the Documented APIs (e.g., Applications that link
to Documented APIs through an intermediary translation or compatibility layer or tool are prohibited).

Larry’s article is a good read and I wholeheartedly agree with what he has to say. In a funny kind of way I feel a sense of relief at this latest ridiculous declaration from Apple. I wanted so much to develop for the Apple platform that I purchased a book on Cocoa programming with a view to progressing to iPhone development. I started to read the Objective C tutorial but the stench of the 1980s was so  overwhelmingly strong that, try as I might, I couldn’t complete the chapter. No one voluntarily writes code like that these days do they?

So my next thought was to investigate ways of using F# or C# to sidestep the inevitable insanity that would have resulted from Spaghetti-C Objective-C but now Steve Jobs has put a stop to all of that. A number of interesting products exist. The two that jumped out at me were – MonoTouch and Unity. But both of these break the new commandment and so have, as things currently stand, been removed from my list of options.

For those developers who have already made the commitment to prostitute themselves for the financial gain that comes from writing for the iPhone platform this is probably no big deal. But, for every other developer out there who was considering investing in the platform the message is a very negative one, and one that I think Apple will pay for in 12 or 18 months time when they no longer have such a perceived lead in the mobile application market.

Developers are used to working to an API. We view it as the dividing line between the bits that we have to write and the bits that the system will do for us – a contract of sorts. Most platforms are keen to expose their APIs in as many languages as possible and the choice of language and supporting toolset is usually left to the developer – after all a good craftsman knows which is the best tool for a job. In general, as long as we satisfy the requirements of the API we can use whatever steps we like to get there. But not with Apple. in his post on the subject Greg Slepak likens Steve Jobs to “the ignorant boss” who knows nothing about programming but still insists that you use a particular tool and that is exactly how it feels.

There is a good reason why few, if any, other big platforms are using Objective-C as the application development language of choice and that is because things have moved on in the last twenty years. There are now much more reliable ways to write applications and all good developers know that. Not only do Apple insist on choosing the language for us but they also restrict our freedom to choose our own tools and these two things together really are a step to far.

So the decision has been made for me – I now feel like a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders and I look forward to the freedom I’m going to have with the Android and the forthcoming Microsoft Windows 7 mobile platforms.

Perhaps I won’t upgrade my iPhone when they announce the new models this year but instead look further afield. After all, Apple are still fretting about multitasking when Microsoft are applying themselves to addressing the problems of multithreading in F# – and let’s face it Microsoft will be the good guys soon.

January 24, 2010

Affordable Safe Backup

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 12:18 am

S352U2RER.smallChoosing the right backup system to use at work or home is a difficult, and frankly uninspiring use of time, and one which almost always results in making undesirable compromises. There always seem to be far too many options and the good solutions come with a price tag that almost matches the cost of the system they were designed to support. A good backup system should satisfy, at least, the following requirements:

  • It should be affordable.
  • Operation should be reasonably well automated.
  • It should be easy to restore to one of several points in time.
  • There should be some redundancy.
  • It should be simple to store some backups offsite.
  • Media should be encrypted for security.

The system described here uses an affordable drive enclosure to host two of three disk drives in a scheme that gives both disk mirroring and offsite storage all for a very affordable price of, roughly, £260. Of the three disk drives, two stay in the enclosure and the third is kept offsite and periodically exchanged with one of the two in the enclosure. Each disk drive is mounted in a drive tray (a one-off operation which requires nothing more than the use of a Philips screwdriver) which allows it to be easily inserted and removed from the enclosure. The enclosure is connected to a USB port on a computer and looks, to the computer, like a single large disk. I use 1TB capacity disks which allows me to securely store approximately 1,000 GB of data which is a lot even for a small business.

Operation

The drive enclosure is populated with two of the three SATA disk drives and attached to a computer (Mac, Windows or Unix) through a USB connection. A DIP switch configuration on the rear of the enclosure can be used to choose from a number of different configurations allowing the two drives to appear as either one big drive, two independent drives or a single drive using RAID 1 mirroring for increased protection against disk failure. This backup scheme uses the latter configuration, RAID 1, which employs disk mirroring in which the enclosure maintains an exact copy of its first disk on the second disk so that if either disk fails the remaining disk can continue operation without loss of data. If a failure occurs, the failed drive can be replace with a good drive and the system will automatically mirror the data to the new drive without any downtime. From the computer, the enclosure appears as a single USB (external) drive.

SyncBackProThe second disk can be removed at any point and replaced with another which will be automatically mirrored with the contents of the first disk. The process of mirroring a 1TB disk takes about 3 or 4 hours but during this period the drive can be used normally. A green LED above a drive indicates that it is functioning normally, a flashing amber LED indicates that the drive is in the process of being mirrored and a red LED is indicative of a hardware fault with the drive.

Backup software on the computer populates the USB drive as it would any externally attached drive. I use the excellent SyncBackPro for Windows to pull files in from other machines on the network and write it to the drive but any archiving software could be used as appropriate for the platform.

Archival Storage

Some operating systems provide a mechanism for maintaining historical copies of your files within the file system. Windows does this with what it calls Previous Versions, and  on Mac OS X similar functionality can be achieved by using Time Machine. Both these mechanisms enable fuller use of the storage space on the drive by keeping old versions of all files, even files that have been deleted since the last backup, for as long as space remains on the backup disk. Once the disk fills up these systems will automatically begin to prune back the oldest versions of files, keeping only as many old files as the disk can hold. Both of these mechanisms, Previous Versions and TimeMachine, will allow you to view the files in any backed up folder on your system as they were at several points in the past, typically at daily or more frequent intervals.

Redundancy and Offsite Storage

The enclosure keeps two drives in sync automatically so that should one of the drives in the enclosure fail the other one will continue providing read and write functionality without any interruption of service. This gives one form of redundancy, but by swapping the mirrored disk with a spare one on a regular, say daily, basis you get to maintain as many backup copies of your complete data as you feel comfortable with. It is easy to manage a small pool of spare disks which can be used in rotation. If we then keep one or more of these disks at a different location to the enclosure we have an offsite backup.

Very cheap USB caddies can be purchased which will hold a single SATA disk drive. These can be used in an emergency to mount any of the disks on a computer if the enclosure fails or if you need to access the data that is on one of the drives from a different computer or location.

Encryption

truecrypt If securing the content of your backup data is important then the free open source TrueCrypt is an excellent tool. TrueCrypt provides on-the-fly encryption of an entire disk which means that data is encrypted or decrypted just before it is saved or loaded from the disk. The operation works transparently, encrypting the entire disk volume without any user intervention. Data is copied to or read from the encrypted disk exactly as it would be to or from an unencrypted disk. No data can be read from the disk until the correct password has been provided so if one of your disks is lost or stolen you can be confident that its contents will remain safe. The documentation on the TrueCrypt web site provides a step by step guide to installing and using TrueCrypt to protect a USB drive.

The decision to encrypt is an optional one and can be delayed until a later date. TrueCrypt software is such a good tool that I would recommend experimenting with it even if you don’t decide to use it to encrypt your backups. One of the modes of operation of TrueCrypt allows you to create an encrypted file on your normal file system which can then be mounted by TrueCrypt as a drive (or volume) on your computer. To the computer this looks like a normal external disk but has the advantage that all of the files that you write to the disk are securely encrypted and cannot be read without providing the correct password. TrueCrypt is software that I would be prepared to pay quite a lot of money for but it is open source and free.

Cost

The system I describe here costs roughly £260 (including the backup media) and provides 1TB of always available RAID and offsite backed storage – this makes it a very competitively priced solution for a small business or home worker.

I purchased the enclosure and extra drive trays from Dabs.com but the enclosure is also available from Amazon. The hard drives can be purchased from anywhere but should all be of the same capacity – Good 1TB drives can currently be found for about £60. The individual component costs for the whole system were:

Component Price
1 x USB Dual Removable SATA RAID External Hard Drive Enclosure £70
1 x Extra Hot Swap Hard Drive Tray £10
3 x 1TB Internal SATA Disk Drives £60 each
TrueCrypt Open Source Disk Encryption Software £free

With a total component cost of about £260, the benefits of this disk-based system over our old tape based solution are enormous not just in price but in flexibility and features. In short, it is a solution that I would recommend.

October 17, 2009

Google Takes Another Bite

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — vextasy @ 5:58 pm

Quietly, and almost overnight, Google have moved into another market. At the time of writing there is not yet any announcement on the Official Google Blog but it looks as though Google have begun the process of unveiling maps based on their own data.

The Google Maps product that we have all grown so used to was driven by data from Tele Atlas, a Netherlands-based company, as witnessed by the map data copyright notice that appears in the bottom right hand corner of a Google Map.

TeleAtlasCopyright But now Google Maps, in the US at least, have started to replace these with Google map data copyright notices. We should probably expect to see these changes rolled out elsewhere in due course too.

GoogleCopyright Although Google have not revealed the sources of their map data, the suggestion is that it is a by-product of the work they did in building Google Street View with additional data coming from other public domain sources, such as the rather poor quality TIGER data in the US. Interestingly, Google did blog about the introduction of the Street View Trike in the UK and how they are being used to reach those parts that they cannot easily reach by car – they even invite readers to suggest locations that are poorly mapped.

The other big map data provider is NAVTEQ who provide data for roughly 85% of the world’s in-car navigation systems as well as for portable GPS devices from Garmin and Magellan and for Bing, MultiMap and Yahoo! online maps. Last year NAVTEQ was acquired by Nokia and Tele Atlas was acquired by TomTom. I would imagine that both NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas are now feeling rather relieved.

Map Quality

One of the first indications of a change was that users had noticed a sudden degradation in the quality of Google’s maps. Roads that used to be mapped no longer appeared on the maps and roads appeared where buildings had recently been built. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the quality seems higher in those areas that have been visited by a Street View car and lower elsewhere. Google has started to aggregate data from a number of public sources and to combine them with their own map data, in particular, US land parcel data is now also visible on the maps. Some users have observed that buildings which had previously been unlabelled, for security reasons, are now clearly labelled.

Data Liberation

Google have introduced a link at the bottom of the map inviting users to report problems that they spot. They must be aware that the map quality is not as good as it used to be but they must also be confident that any failings can be rectified by their enormous user community. Perhaps this early lack of quality is the main reason why the whole process has been kept quiet. Rather hypocritically, for a company that started the Data Liberation Front whose mission statement says:

“Users should be able to control the data they store in any of Google’s products.
Our team’s goal is to make it easier for them to move data in and out.”
,

Google don’t provide a mechanism for users to retrieve the map corrections that they have submitted to Google. I wonder if that will change.

Good News for Mobile Users

All of this is probably very good news for users of mobile map devices. The licence that Google had previously signed with Tele Atlas precluded the use of the map data for turn-by-turn applications. Such navigation applications are often expensive because of the extra cost of purchasing such a licence which has to be passed on to the end user. Google will now be able to move forward without being tethered by such restrictions.

An advantage to Google of owning their own data is that a mobile Google Maps application will now be able to pre-download map data to the device, enabling the maps to work where either there is no reliable mobile signal (such as in the Lake District in the UK) or in places where the cost of downloading the map data over the mobile network could be prohibitively expensive (such as when travelling abroad with a mobile data plan). Currently, on the iPhone at least, this kind of offline mapping is only available at no cost to applications that use the excellent OpenStreetMap data, such as the OffMaps application.

The value to Google of the flow back of data from mobile devices that are using Google Maps is enormous. Feedback from Android phones and other devices that allow background processing will almost certainly be used to enhance map data. As an example, consider a GPS enabled mobile device travelling in a vehicle along the road network. The Google Maps application running on the device will be able to feed back to Google not only information about the likely locations of new and unmapped roads, about one-way streets and permanent and temporary speed restrictions, but also information about the average speed at any given time of day on any road. This kind of information can be used to provide accurate and optimum routing. And once you know all of this information, it is not difficult to see how, by comparing it with new real-time data, it can be used to spot traffic incidents and hotspots as they occur. Nokia and TomTom already have agreements in place with mobile phone providers that allow such data to feed back but Google will be cutting out the middle man.

OpenStreetMap

If you haven’t already contributed towards the construction of the map of your own town or city you should really take a look at OpenStreetMap and contribute at least a little of your time to enhance the excellent free and open map of the world whose data belongs to everyone.

OpenStreetMap is the Wikipedia of the mapping world. As other Wikipedia-like sites prove there is really only room for one such successful system at a time (remember Google Knol, Citizendium, and the late Encarta). Both Knol and Citizendium still exist, but how many times a year do you refer to them? The ease with which ordinary people can contribute towards the construction of accurate maps of the world and the effects of such crowd sourcing is evident in the surprisingly high quality of the OpenStreetMap maps. It is still a work in progress and some parts of the world are better covered than others. But at the current rate of improvement it has been estimated that within a year or two, OpenStreetMap will also contain enough good quality routing data to start to compete with the commercial offerings from Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ.

OpenStreetMap is possibly already the biggest threat to Tele Atlas and NAVTEQ but now that Google has entered the mapping market other large companies may be persuaded to lend their support to OpenStreetMap. Yahoo has already allowed OpenStreetMap to use their aerial imagery for the purposes of tracing map features. What if Microsoft or Apple were to get involved? It is likely that within a 12 to 24 month time span Microsoft may well re-enter the mobile market with a competitive operating system. It seems unlikely, however, that they will be happy to display the Google logo on their maps.

With feedback from mobile applications and the input of ordinary users OpenStreetMap could well be the map data source of the future. But there is clearly going to be a lot of competition from all of the data providers to gather a good deal of accurate and useful data and to offer it at a reasonable price. In the meantime, for those of us who are mobile map users, I think we are in for a good time.

October 8, 2009

Satellite Above – I Watched it for a Little While

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 9:24 pm

Orbitron - Satellite Tracking System

A moving light in the sky is guaranteed to catch my attention. If it is slow moving and flashing then I know that it is likely to be an aircraft. If it shoots across the sky in an instant then I know it to be a meteor or shooting star. If it is fixed then I conclude that it is a star or a planet. But what if it is none of these? What if it is bright orange and moves across the sky slowly over a period of thirty seconds or so?

I asked myself that very question recently as I watched in amazement as an object that looked to me like a distant ball of fire passed silently and slowly from north-west to south-east across the clear evening sky. My initial thoughts were that I had just seen my first fireball but I knew that to be very unlikely and, besides, I was sure that fireballs were associated with freak weather conditions and on this night everything was still.

The object, whatever it was, appeared to be some distance off and moved across the sky with a speed that I readily associated with that of orbiting satellites which I had seen many times before. But these had always been white in colour and this one was a distant flaming red.

I wondered if it would be easy to check whether any satellites had passed overhead and so turned to the Internet for a solution. I came across a number of great resources which provided more than enough information to solve the mystery.

The first was a free piece of software by Sebastian Stoff called the Orbitron Satellite Tracking System which gives graphical and tabular information about the position of satellites and their visibility at a given time and place. The Orbitron software suggested that what I may have seen was a satellite which goes by the name of Iridium 43, one of a family of about seventy such satellites that provide communication services and orbit the earth from pole to pole at a height of about 500 miles and at a speed of about 17,000 miles per hour.

The Iridium satellites made the news back in February of this year when one of them, Iridium 33, collided with a retired Russian satellite and with a combined impact speed of 26,000 miles per hours both were destroyed leaving thousands of pieces of space debris to fall back to earth over the following days. The Russian satellite had been uncontrolled since, at least, 1995 but the authorities had predicted that the two satellites should have missed each other by about half a kilometre – they were clearly wrong.

Iridium satellites are known to give rise to an interesting phenomenon – the Iridium Flare. The satellites are equipped with three highly reflective door sized antenna made of silver-coated Teflon on polished aluminium  and occasionally one of these will pick up light from the sun and reflect it down onto the earth’s surface generating an illuminated spot on the earth about 6 miles across. To an observer on the surface of the earth the satellite appears as if from nowhere as a faint object that slowly increases in brightness to a maximum and then just as quickly dims until it is no longer visible, with the whole show lasting no longer than, perhaps, thirty seconds. A simulation is shown here. The satellite that I saw appeared a rich flaming red in colour but I put that down to atmospheric conditions and its effect on the light as it was reflected from the satellite down to earth.

A really excellent web site that makes it easy to determine when and where to look out for satellites that are likely to be visible to the naked eye is Heavens Above. Start by declaring your location and follow links from the main page to get predictions for when Iridium flares, the International Space Station or other such objects will be visible in your area. The site also displays charts showing you where in the sky these objects will appear.

If you like to see a more earth-based and dynamic view of how any given satellite is orbiting then this real time satellite tracking web site has a mashup showing the live movement of selected satellites superimposed over the familiar Google Maps background. You can combine this view with an Iridium flare  prediction from the Heavens Above web site to get a Google Maps view of the expected track of a visible satellite too.

It is all a little geeky, but I find it reassuring to be able to get an explanation for such phenomena.

September 24, 2009

Lessons Learned from the Coast To Coast Walk

Filed under: Life — Tags: — vextasy @ 9:13 pm

IMG_5721The Coast To Coast Walk starts on the west coast of England at St Bees in Cumbria and runs for approximately 200 miles to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire on the east coast. In between it crosses three National Parks: the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors.  It usually takes something between 12 and 18 days to complete the walk with a crossing of, perhaps, 14 or 15 days being the most commonly attempted. The walk was originally devised by Alfred Wainwright as a west to east journey so that the prevailing `weather’ was always behind the walker and, indeed, this is how most people today choose to complete the walk. A smaller number of walkers opt to travel east to west using the argument that the most stunning scenery arises in the west and so an east-west path saves the best for the end.

I recently walked the first part of the walk from west to east and can highly recommend it as a complete tonic. I have done quite a lot of walking in the past, including some long distance walks, but never one that spans more than a single day. However, many of my preconceptions turned out to be completely wrong and so here I attempt to document some of my conclusions. These are clearly just my opinions and are not given in any particular order but are presented here in the hope that they may be useful to someone considering this walk as their first long distance trail.

Use a Baggage Carrier

There are a number of companies that will move your bags each day from place to place. The two most commonly used would appear to be Sherpa and Packhorse. We used Sherpa but the service provided by both would seem to be very similar: you leave your bags at the camp site, hotel, B&B or guest house in the morning and you find them at your new destination in the evening when you arrive. My initial plan had been to carry all of my kit end equipment, but a couple of long trial walks had persuaded me that I would enjoy the walk a lot more if I didn’t have to carry a heavy weight on my back and at just £7 a day I didn’t take a lot of persuading that employing a baggage carrier was a good idea. As well as carting baggage both companies also provide transport to St Bees and from Robin Hood’s Bay and secure car parking. We left our car with Sherpa at their base in Richmond for £2/day and paid the £20/person to be transported from Richmond to St Bees in time to start walking at about 9.30am on the first day of our walk. This worked out to be a lot cheaper than getting public transport to St Bees and paying to stay there overnight.

Accommodation or Camping

If you are considering saving yourself a little money by camping along the route you should take some time to consider what it really means to camp for the duration of the walk. At the start and end of each day you are going to have to pack-up and re-set you tent as you are unlikely to be staying in the same place for two consecutive nights. If you are planning to carry your camping equipment you are going to be either lugging a good number of extra kilos around with you each day or else skimping on luxury items that you might otherwise have had room to bring. If you are using a baggage carrier then you will be expected to have all of you kit packed up by, at the latest, 8:30 each morning and on certain parts of the walk carry the risk of arriving before your tent (this happened to me in Keld). When I complete the second half of the walk I intend to make full use of the excellent B&Bs and bunk barns along the way. Partly this is because I want to enjoy the walking without worrying about getting a good pitch or setting off in good time in the morning. Partly it is because I felt that in sections of the route the coast to coast walk has become an important part of the local economy and I was pleased to be contributing to that. But mostly it is because the advantage of being able to wash and dry tee-shirts and socks overnight, spend a few hours in the local pub eating a heart-warming meal, get a good night’s sleep, enjoy a full English breakfast and then depart in my own time is worth quite a lot to me. Having said all of that, the advantages of camping will appeal to many others. The cost savings made by camping may play a big part in your final decision, of course. I can vouch for the quality of the Pennine View camp site in Kirby Stephen and the Park House camp site in Keld, both of which were very clean and friendly places.

Sturdy Walking Boots

I plan to visit our local branch of Cotswold and thank the helpful assistant (I’m going to call him Mark) who persuaded me not to invest in a pair of lightweight walking boots. I was concerned that my boots were too sturdy or rather too heavy and that they would take their toll on my feet at the end of the day. Many years ago I had walked the 42 mile Lyke Wake Walk in 12½ hours wearing just a pair of old running shoes on my feet (to be fair, I was still a student and they were the only pair of shoes that I owned) and I was under the mistaken impression that a lightweight pair of shoes would be required to complete this walk. What Mark pointed out to me was that there are parts of the walk which remain wet and boggy for 12 months of the year and how right he was. In particular, the section that lies between Kirby Stephen and Keld is likely to be a challenge for anyone without a good pair of watertight boots. My recommendation is to wear good sturdy boots but to make sure that they are well worn in before you start the walk.

Waterproof Bags

I’ve always used plastic bags to organised the contents of my rucksack and had always assumed that in doing so I was not only simplifying the task of finding anything but was additionally guaranteeing an extra level dryness should I be caught in the hills in a particularly heavy downpour.

IMG_5646 I learned a lesson on the second day of our walk when we were caught on the Ennerdale Bridge to Borrowdale section of the walk by the tail end of hurricane Bill or Brian (or some similarly harmless sounding storm). As we passed Black Sail hut and began our ascent of Loft Beck the winds were so strong that not only was it difficult to remain upright but our rucksack waterproof covers were catching the wind and being whipped free and flapping about wildly. The only solution was to temporarily remove them and store them inside the rucksack.

On arriving in Borrowdale I discovered just what a fool I had been. When they advise the use of plastic bags they don’t mean bags of the supermarket `bag for life’ variety because they contain tiny little air holes to prevent babies and small children from suffocating should they feel a sudden urge to wrap their heads up inside them. The correct kind of waterproof bag can be purchased from any good outdoor shop.

Shower Gel

A surprisingly useful discovery for me was that not only can shower gel be used for the more obvious purposes of washing and shampooing but it also proved to be useful for hand washing tee-shirts and socks and as a washing-up liquid when camping and cooking on the camp site. What a versatile little product.

Gaiters

I’ve never owned a pair of gaiters but I might just treat myself to a pair for next year. It was clear that those walkers sporting gaiters were much more comfortable negotiating the boggy ground, presumably because if their boots sunk in to below the top of the bog they still had several inches of reserve before their socks and the inside of the boots became wet. I also noticed that on a long day of walking in the wet even when wearing waterproof trousers water would somehow find its way down through long inner trousers and socks and into my walking boots but those fellow walkers who were gaitered-up ended the day with drier boots. My conclusion is that they also act to reduce the amount of water that can run into the inside of the boot. I suspect there is a more formal explanation of their advantages elsewhere.

Consider Doing the Walk in Stages

My initial plan had been to complete the entire walk in a two-week period but as we had left our plans to the very last minute there was not enough holiday remaining to complete the walk until the following season. When my wife suggested that we do just the first week I thought that I might feel somewhat unfulfilled or dissatisfied with such a compromise and I agreed but reserved the right in my mind to continue into the second week alone if necessary.

Once I had started to talk to others along the way I was surprised by just how many different approaches people were taking to the walk. Some were doing the entire crossing, others were doing so but taking several days off half way and going home for a long weekend or longer. Others, still, were just completing the Lake District section or the Dales. One walker (a retired schoolteacher from Durham) was picking off a section at a time “whenever the weather was good” and was camping and so didn’t have any accommodation booking complications. Another couple were starting the walk in Ennerdale Bridge and walking for 3 days to Kirby Stephen and then taking a Taxi back to St Bees to do day 1 of the walk to Ennerdale Bridge before returning to Kirby Stephen to continue, simply because they couldn’t find accommodation in the Lake District for the days that they would otherwise have needed to have been there.

When we finished our walk in Reeth we met a couple who were continuing for the second week and who wished that they had chosen to break their walk in two simply because they had really enjoyed their first week and felt that they were unlikely to double that enjoyment by in the second week but would rather have come back at a later date to pick up from where they left off.

So tear up all of your preconceptions about how the walk should be done because as people say “It’s a trail and not a trial”.

Go to Grasmere

IMG_5685 The guidebooks will implore you to visit Grasmere. I chose not to because, living little more than a couple of hours drive away, I felt I knew that area well and wanted to spend more time on those sections of the walk that pass through less popular spots. I think that was a mistake and I would suggest that the walk is improved by lingering in the Lakes a little longer. The overnight in Grasmere is also the first point on the walk at which your newly found walking acquaintances  will divide into two groups (those that stop and those that don’t) and go their separate ways. This is a good thing because at a stroke it doubles the number of new faces.

You will reach Grasmere after your first three days of walking in which you will have covered 14 miles on each of the first two days, much of it over hilly Lakeland terrain. If you continue directly to Patterdale you will cover 19 miles on your third day. Breaking the third day in two by visiting Grasmere leaves you with a pleasant 9 mile and 10 mile walk on each of days three and four in some of the most delightful countryside England has to offer. You should stop in Grasmere.

Blisters

One of the most common physical impediments to completing the walk is the development of blisters. Even with well worn in boots, if you dramatically increase the lengths of your walks you raise the chances of finding some part of the boot that rubs enough to generate a sore, which in turn will become a blister unless treated. I came across several people who were suffering even after just two or three days of the walk and one man who was bailing out completely after five days because of the pain from foot blisters.

People seem to talk highly of a product called Compeed which I took with me but didn’t need. In the past, for treating the kind of sores you get on the top of a toe or the back of a heel,  I’ve used corn plasters (or pads) which are little circular or oval raised cutouts about 3 or 4mm high with a hole in the middle and adhesive on one side which stick to the foot around the sore. They work by surrounding and protecting the area of sensitive skin and preventing further rubbing. Another trick that has worked for me for treating those sores that develop on the base of the foot is simply to apply one of those “water-resistant” plasters whose smooth surface prevents the sock from gripping that part of the base of the foot and so relieves that lateral tug which can give rise to painful blisters if left unchecked.

However, by far the best mechanism for preventing any of this, for me at least, is to put in a couple of days of walking with a rucksack loaded to the expected weight about a fortnight before setting off on the coast to coast walk. If you aim to walk upwards of fifteen miles on each day, any parts of the skin that are going to rub will do so and any sores that develop will have time to harden up before your real walk starts. You will also get an indication of the kinds of weaknesses your feet may have and you will be able to prepare appropriately.

Water

We were lucky enough to have sun for all but one of our walking days and when the weather is warm it is surprising just how much water you will need to carry. Many of the walkers that I saw or spoke to had invested in the platypus-style water systems that allowed them to be drip fed by a rubber tube that finds its way out of a rucksack and to a point somewhere near your mouth which allows water to be taken at frequent intervals and in small quantities. I’m told this is considered to be the best way to take on water.

We carry our water in the small clear plastic bottles that spring water is sold in – we re-use them, of course. The advantage of this is that, if you are walking with a friend, you can distribute the water between you in whatever balance seems fair. I tend to carry more water than my wife because I carry a bigger rucksack and she is prone to back injuries and so the small plastic bottle system works best for us.

On a hot day I found that I needed to carry no less than five small (½ litre) water bottles. I’ve heard others quote figures that would suggest that this is not enough but it seemed to work for me.

Sun

IMG_5706I am fair-skinned and like to keep the sun off me as much as possible. A large bottle of factor 50 sunblock was in the back of my rucksack and was applied liberally a number of times throughout the day. In general, you are walking towards the sun in the morning and away from it in the afternoon (if you cross from west to east) so special attention has to be given to different parts of the anatomy throughout the day.

A good hat is essential for keeping the sun away from the face and neck. I wear one the the `foreign legion’-style mountain caps with long peak and an adjustable cotton flap at the back that is long enough to keep the back of my neck completely sun-free and if you don’t mind looking like a complete dork (and I don’t mind) the cap is almost perfect. This design has the advantage that it can be dipped into clear cool mountain streams, retaining water in the cotton flap, to enhance the cooling effect to the back of the head and neck.

Mobile Phones

Because of the mountainous and remote nature of a lot of the walk you can easily go for the entire day without a hint of a mobile phone signal. This is great because it guarantees no unexpected interruptions from work or the kids at home but also means that there is little opportunity to make any last minute alterations to your plans once you have left your base each morning. You won’t walk past any phone boxes either, so plan ahead.

Rainy Days

IMG_5651 Be prepared for a few rainy days. If you can stay reasonably dry then most things will remain manageable and so, for this reason alone, a good set of waterproofs is essential.

One of the big advantages of staying in B&Bs is the opportunity they give for completely drying out both you and your belongings.

On a typical day you can expect to be walking for between six and nine hours, often with little chance to take shelter. If you are uncertain about whether your walking gear will cope with a long period of rain but don’t want to invest in anything expensive you could purchase a bottle of one of the readily available re-proofing treatments. They typically cost about £10 and come as either a liquid that you spray-on or one that you add to the washing machine and wash in to your waterproofs.

I found that a very wet day could have quite a demoralising effect on us. We were absolutely soaked to the skin with boots and rucksacks full of water. But after drying out overnight, and especially helped by beautiful weather the following day, things took on a new light again.

Take it Slowly

I noticed that I had a tendency to want to rush and that some effort was required, at least in the early stages of the walk, to resist the urge not to be left behind. Most people who have slept overnight in a guest house or a camp site will be up and on their way by about 8:30 to 8:45 in the morning. Although there is some variation in the routes given in the numerous guide books they do all pretty much tend to direct people the same way with the obvious consequence that if you walk at an average speed and you start at the same time as most people you will invariably find yourself walking amongst other coast-to-coasters. There are advantages to this if you enjoy that kind of walking. If you prefer to walk without the crowds, and you are not a particularly slow walker, then the best approach is probably to enjoy your breakfast and not to rush off.

I met one couple at one of our overnight stops who were both fit and fast walkers and who would linger for a couple of hours in the morning at each of their stops aiming to start walking each day at between 9:30 and 11:00 in the morning. They said that they found that by doing so they had a lot of the scenery to themselves.

Socks and other Underwear

My guidebook says “Three or four changes of underwear is fine. Any more is excessive, any less unhygienic”. I had to re-read that sentence a couple of times and, to this day, I’m still sure that this must be a misprint. Perhaps I’m old fashioned or out of touch but why would you want to economise on underwear? It’s not heavy or bulky or otherwise expensive and it is the bit of your clothing that comes into contact with your body and therefore does need changing. My advice is don’t skimp in this area.

Of course, if you are staying somewhere that gives you access to a washbasin and a good drying radiator then you can take the opportunity to wash and dry socks and underwear. I knew a couple that were travelling light who discarded their underwear as they walked the coast to coast (not outdoors, but properly in dustbins) and who re-stocked when they reached Richmond.

Whatever you do, my advice would be to take at least as much as you would normally wear at home unless you can confirm with one or more of your bookings that washing facilities will be available and then you can plan around that.

Accommodation

I felt that the quality of accommodation on the walk was excellent and was also aware of how important the supply of coast-to-coasters is to the local economy in many of the places that the walk passes through. I suspect that this quality is maintained partly as a result of the exchange of information on internet discussion forums which gives positive and negative feedback on many of the possible choices of accommodation. The result of this is that those places that get good reviews also getting good business and those that don’t provide a good service soon start to lose custom.

In general, everywhere but the camp sites will make you up a packed lunch for the following day if you remember to ask for one the night before. In my experience these are easily enough to keep you going through the whole day.

We stayed at the following places and would stay at any of them again. They are all to be recommended:

Low Cock How Farm – Ennerdale Bridge – Friendly bunk barn and small number of twin or double rooms. Wood burning fire in guest lounge with plenty of opportunity to dry boots and clothes. Wholesome farmhouse food in large quantities.

Gillercombe – Rosthwaite – Clean and friendly family run guesthouse.

Borrowdale Youth Hostel – Rosthwaite – Modern, clean, large well-organised hostel. Single-sex  dormitories of 6 people. Good evening meals with choice of beers, excellent self service multi-course breakfast and large hot drying room.

White Lion – Patterdale – Pub with good food and beer and helpful staff. Clean rooms with excellent views and very hot radiators – perfect for washing and drying.

Greyhound Hotel – Shap – Friendly hotel with comfortable bar. Excellent food – the locally sourced Cumbrian Lamb Henry was the best lamb I have ever tasted. Large comfortable en-suite rooms.

Pennine View Caravan & Camping Park – Kirby Stephen – Clean and tidy site. Good showers and washroom. Dishwashing facilities. Mostly caravans but plenty of space for tents too – level pitches. Helpful and friendly staff. A two minute walk from the Croglin Castle pub.

Park House Bunk Barn & Camp Site – Keld – Small friendly tidy family run campsite. Very comfortable bunk barn with space for 7 in two rooms. Simple evening meals available. Superb location next to the stream and waterfalls. Five minutes walk from the bar at Keld Lodge (the old Youth Hostel) but take a torch to find your way back after dark.

In Summary

Do the walk. Either on your own or with a friend or group of friends. Whether you walk for two weeks, a week or for just a few days you will get a tremendous reward from the experience and, as a result of the continuously varying landscape and outlook, a feeling of having had a holiday quite unlike any break you may have taken before. I’m looking forward to starting the second half.

September 15, 2009

The Right Tool for the Job: Comparing GPS Devices

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , , — vextasy @ 10:11 pm

I have just walked the first 100 miles of the Wainwright Coast to Coast walk; the section between St. Bees and Reeth in Swaledale. Before setting off I was keen to ensure that, as well as the obvious set of guides, maps and compass, I had a good GPS device to help with navigation when visibility got poor. I’ve been caught out in dense fog on a high fell in the Lake District and I know how difficult it can be to find the right route down in such conditions.

I already own two GPS devices: an iPhone and a TomTom GO 730 both of which are excellent devices and purchases that I am entirely happy with. I have seen a lot of discussion in online forums about the merits of various handheld GPS units and was aware of more and more software for the iPhone that made use of its built in GPS hardware. I wanted to know if either of my existing two devices could be usefully used on a trek or if I needed to invest in yet another gadget.

After much research I purchased a Garmin GPSMAP 60CSX and I was very very happy with it. I carry an iPhone all the time but I wouldn’t even bother switching it on if I had the Garmin with me. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its uses. For example, RouteBuddy have released a series of Ordnance Survey 1:25000 scale maps of the UK National Parks which are stored on the iPhone and so can be viewed even when out of network contact. Their free iPhone application `Atlas’ can also be used to view the free OpenStreetMap map of the UK (and the rest of the world) and of course there are the excellent iPhone Google Maps and Google Earth applications. All of these are good for browsing in the pub or at home.

There are, however, a couple of big problems with the iPhone when used outdoors. Firstly, the battery life is appalling. With location services enabled to allow a GPS fix I estimate that you would be lucky to get more than two or three hours of continuous service from it, possibly less. A separate battery pack might extend that by a factor of two or three but you’d still be worrying about your chances of lasting for a good day’s walk and you would have the additional inconvenience of having to lug the weight of the battery pack. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously as far as safety is concerned, you will find that the iPhone is useless in the wet because when you are wet you won’t be able to operate the touchscreen. I discovered this inconvenience on a particularly wet day when I needed to call a Youth Hostel to book a bed for the night.

The map that comes with the Garmin is hopelessly basic, but if you download the free contour maps from the Scottish Mountaineering Society website and install (either manually or from the Internet) some routes and waypoints or POIs onto the Garmin it is an excellent hiking tool. Oh and it’s waterproof to 1 metre depth of water, its GPS is considerably more accurate than an iPhone and having it on continuously for 100 miles of walking it only got through 4 AA batteries. I’d rather have the combination of a paper map in a waterproof case (or one of those waterproof laminated ones) and a handheld GPS than risk having my map in the GPS. At least then if the device fails you still have a map (and, it goes without saying, a compass). The Garmin will give you a very accurate grid reference to read off on the map.

My advice is stick to the right tool for the job: iPhone for indoors, Garmin GPS60CSX for outdoor on foot and a TomTom (or similar) for the car. I don’t think any of the devices work well in the wrong environment.

February 10, 2009

A Solution to the "iTunes has stopped working" Problem on Vista

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — vextasy @ 9:16 am

iTunesAppleAbout a week ago iTunes began crashing each time I synced my iPhone. Initially it happened right at the end of the sync and so, although irritating,  it was possible to ignore it while simultaneously searching for a solution online. The problem started immediately after I had installed the new version of Google Earth and so my initial thoughts were that it was in some way related to a change that had been made as part of that install. But uninstalling Google Earth had no effect.

The nature of the problem was that the more I ignored it the further forward in the sync process it got until eventually iTunes would crash immediately on recognising the iPhone and display the "iTunes has stopped working" popup.

The Apple support forums were of little help. They seemed to contain little in the way of advice from Apple and a lot in the way of posts from similar and confused iTunes users who were experiencing similar problems to me.

One apparently useful suggestion from the forums was that the issue might be resolved by uninstalling QuickTime and then re-installing iTunes+QuickTime together. This had no effect either.

Following another line of hope I performed a restore on the iPhone which reloads the firmware and attempts to recover the iPhone settings from the most recent backup. Again, no solution.

After a number of frustrating evenings of tinkering I stumbled on the solution that worked for me: From the iTunes store menu choose "Deauthorize Computer…" followed by "Authorize Computer…". I have no idea why that solved the problem but I can now sync again and if you have stumbled upon this post because you have the same problem I really hope it works for you.

I can’t understand how Apple can produce such a wonderful user experience on the iPhone and Apple TV and such an awful one on iTunes and the Apple support web site.

February 2, 2009

Twitter Ye Not (there’s #uksnow time to lose)

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — vextasy @ 8:16 am

I feel like I’ve just seen a meteor shower – an unexpected but surprisingly satisfying event took place last night. The micro-blogging site Twitter receives mixed reviews. Many people love it, are perhaps even a little addicted to it, others fail to see what all the fuss is about. Whatever your views there is no doubt that it has spawned a number of interesting discussions about the future directions of blogging and social networking.

uksnowSeveral tools have formed around twitter which aim to apply some form of structuring to the naturally unstructured twitter message (a tweet). One such tool is #hashtags which filters all tweets that contain a hashtags pattern (a word that begins with a hash character) and presents them as a chronological list of tweets collected under the heading of the given hashtag thus enabling communities of twitterers to follow a stream of conversations about a common topic. There is no organization to all of this, but rather a community that feeds off a number of sites that make use of this data such as twitterfall.com, search.twitter.com, twist.flaptor.com and hashtags.org itself.

Last night a tag formed to discuss the amount and location of snow that was falling in the UK. Although the conversation was informative it was often difficult to make use of the information because tweeters were inconsistent in declaring their location and the amount of snow they were experiencing. At some point in the evening one twitter user decided to build a mashup that took the #uksnow stream of tweets and parsed their content for the sequence

#uksnow postcode score/10

Where postcode is replaced by the first portion of the tweeters UK postcode and score is a rating (out of ten) used to indicate the amount of snow that is currently falling in that postcode region. The mashup combined this information with google maps, plotting in white regions with the heaviest amounts of snow. It was observed by one twitter user just how consistent this map was with the MET Office radar but with the advantage of being updated in real time.

Clearly there are obvious weaknesses, such as the subjective nature of a  zero to ten snow scale (although the, once popular,  Beaufort scale for measuring wind speed springs to mind) and the influence of the natural differences in population density which would bias the influence of the tweets in favour of heavily (twitter) populated areas of the UK, but I can’t help feeling that I witnessed something that was both spontaneous and surprisingly useful.

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