Getting out more: Day 3

Today is a bit of a “nothing to report” day, partly, I suspect because I did today’s run with John last July – so there were few surprises. The route ran from South Leicestershire (just north of the A5 for you motorists out there) through Ashby de la Zouch (great name, plus castle) through Repton in South Derbyshire. Repton advertises itself as the ancient capital of Mercia, but its main claim to fame is its large, rather top-notch public school, which now dominates the northern part of this small town. One of its headmasters, Geoffrey Fisher, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury (1945-1961). It also gives its name to Hubert Parry’s hymn tune, which is commonly used to accompany the words of ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, the later verses of a poem by the Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier. The story of how this came about was the subject of a delightful BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast last year. The hymn tune was given the name of the school, because the idea of putting the two together was that of George Gilbert Stocks, who was director of music at the school in the 1920s. Parry had died of the Spanish ‘Flu in 1918. Repton and Jerusalem remain Parry’s most famous works.

At some point, when you’re cycling north through England, you have to reckon with the River Trent. I crossed it just north of Repton. There followed a gradual climb up from the Trent valley into the southern peaks, which I found surprisingly tiring. I also had my first mechanical snag, which entailed stopping to tighten a few loose spokes on my old front wheel. It now doesn’t make any irritating clunking noises and I also fancy it’s a bit more efficient – maybe just me. A brief stop in Ashbourne, then I was off on the final leg of the journey, via the Tissington Trail (the old Buxton to Ashbourne LNWR railway line) then a brief detour to Hartington youth hostel where I am staying the night. Miles travelled today: 54. Total so far: 146. Tomorrow is going to be a big ride…

The Route

The Soundtrack

Getting out more: Day 2

Finding a cycle route north from the northern tip of the Cotswolds to the southern part of Leicestershire is rather tricky, as there is a band between Coventry and Birmingham which is very built-up. What roads there are tend to be trunk roads, which all cyclists should avoid like the plague if they value their lives. The most obvious routes north for cyclists tend to avoid the East and West Midlands entirely, and either go up through Shropshire (which I normally do) or go east of Rugby and Leicester. However, my route demands that I go right through the middle. I started by going east of Stratford to pick up the Fosse at Wellesbourne.

The Fosse at this point takes the form of the B4455. Most motorists regard B roads as “small” roads, but from the cyclist’s point of view, they’re a mixed bag. This one turned out to be dicey, because although traffic isn’t heavy, most that there is is enjoying the Romans’ propensity to make straight roads, so tends to be going fairly fast for a rather narrow road. Although the Fosse is straight, it has to negotiate any hill in its path, so visibility over humps is as bad as if there were bends in it. But many motorists seem to disregard this, oblivious to the possibility that, having cleared a small summit, they could suddenly find themselves bearing down on a cyclist on a laden bike with a 50MPH speed difference between the two road users. On more than one occasion I was passed at about 40MPH by a vehicle weighing several tons, with a clearance of less than a foot. Car, lorry and van drivers regard this as a successful clearance, but what they’re not aware of is that the non-fatality of the encounter was due, in part, to evasive action by the cyclist, who has had to instinctively adjust his or her balance to avoid being sucked into the passing vehicle’s slipstream, which in the case of a long vehicle is considerable. This sort of experience is bad for one’s psychology, which explains the permanently aggressive nature of some cyclists towards anyone behind the wheel of a motorised vehicle. Basically, too many encounters like this have just messed up their brains. For this reason, I was glad to get off the Fosse and make my way by lanes through the delightfully-named Offchurch, north of Leamington’s suburbs, through the rather drab Kenilworth (terrible town architecture, but with an amazing castle) to my special set of rare country lanes which would take me between Birmingham and Coventry without a street lamp in sight.

Unfortunately for the residents of the tiny villages on this charming network of lanes, being in the one part of the Midlands which has escaped urbanisation means that they are now part of a precious band which makes up the only route left, not only for solitary cyclists, but also HS2 – the planned fast train route from London to the North-West. As I passed through villages such as Burton Green, I kept seeing protest signs by each driveway. The reason is that the railway’s route is set to carve the charming little village in two. Although its environmental impact will not be as severe as a trunk road or motorway, the community will never have the same sense of unity or tranquillity again, which is very sad.

The landscape gets more undulating the further north you cycle, so by the time I reached the border with Leicestershire, I had become used to a more strenuous mode of cycling, with gentle hill-climbs and the rewards of descents following. I arrived earlier than planned (2.30pm) at the home of my hosts, John and Marion Plant. They are due to return from holiday tonight, so it was arranged that the key would be located for me in the dog-kennel. Now John is particularly adept at taking the mick out out of your intrepid author, so I was wondering whether I would find, instead of the key, a note saying “Welcome to your home for the night. ps. we aren’t back for a fortnight.” However, John was good to his word and the availability of wifi for the first time in the journey means I will hazard posting a few photos.

Again, an easy ride today. Tomorrow is also fairly light, but the the hard stuff bites on Thursday, together with some northern hills.

Theme tune

Map of the ride

Getting out more: Day 1

First, some basic thoughts about my approach to such bike rides. Some of these remarks are more for the benefit of non-cycletourers, but they also touch on matters of debate amongst cyclists. On a long distance bike ride, weight is everything. This includes the weight of the rider, plus that of the bike and, lastly, the weight of the luggage and accessories. It’s only the last factor which can be adjusted easily. But, unless one has a “support vehicle” driving the same route – which I don’t count as cycle touring – even with just the bare minimum of additional clothing, washing stuff etc. one is forced to carry the equivalent weight of a small suitcase in the panniers. This is because you also need more tools than needed for a day-ride plus a decent bike lock plus one or two spares (I take inner tubes and spokes). The end result is that you are going to be carrying this lot for several hundred miles, and that includes up every hill you climb.

The extra weight means you have to make some decisions about speed and effort, especially when going up hills. My thought on this is that if I was worried about speed, I wouldn’t be going on a tour in the first place: I’d be on a lightweight sleek bike, doing circular trips around Bristol. So I keep the speed down, keep the gearing low and avoid muscle and joint strain at all costs. This is about distance, not time. Nevertheless, having booked accommodation ahead in advance, I have to keep the speed up enough to reach my destination by a reasonable time, so pacing through the day is an important factor. After about 5 hours’ cycling, muscles inevitably begin to tire and lose their power, so if the latter part of a day’s journey is hilly, that has to be borne in mind in how the day’s cycling is paced. There have been times when I have got off the bike and been barely able to stand up because my muscles are exhausted. I try to avoid that where possible.

Sleep, after a full day’s cycling comes easily. Food is important. When I was a youngster, I’d carry glucose tablets with me. I would never do that now, as they simply cause a spike in insulin which makes energy transfer very short term – useful if you’re racing, but not if you’re touring. I used to end up wondering why I kept bouncing from one attack of sugar starvation to the next. Ugh. Slow burning carbohydrates are the best. Bananas are a good thing to have, as they metabolise reasonably quickly, but have a good bit of starch in them for fuelling the long haul. Fluid intake is important too. With a constant breeze and a warm body, you are unaware of how high your rate of perspiration is on this kind of cycling. So I drink before I get thirsty, not when I am, otherwise a late afternoon headache will be my reward.

As for today’s route, it was a 46 mile run from Gloucester to Stratford upon Avon. I had considered cycling from the doorstep, but this would have added 20 miles to it, and I wanted a gentle start. The route craftily dodged any climbs onto the Cotswold escarpment, so having left Gloucester station at around 10am, I was at my lunch break in Broadway by 12.15pm with about 30 miles on the clock – over half-way. The hostelry in question was the Broadway Hotel in the high street, which served a truly excellent haddock, peas and chips.

Anyone who has done any serious cycling knows that beer has a strange effect on the legs, one’s principal source of propulsion. After moderate imbibation, the legs feel absolutely fine until any significant call for power is made on them; at which point, they prove very stubborn and ineffective. So if there is any after-lunch hill-climbing to be done or a significant need for pace on the afternoon stretch, beer drinking at lunchtime on a bike trip is out of the question. In my case, I had no hills ahead of me and only about 14 miles of pedalling still needing to be done, so a calculated risk was taken to have what proved to be an excellent pint of Wickwar Coopers with my lunch.

The landscape of the run was classic Heart of England stuff, with Cotswold stone and thatch predominating as far as Broadway, then a move to whitewashed timber-framed building (hey nonnie, nonnie, no…) The oilseed rape fields have come into bloom, and over lunch I encountered an enterprising wasp who I think probably managed to over-winter courtesy of some thatch and regular food served by the pub. Birdsong involved a lot of buzzards, blackbirds and chiff-chaffs. I nearly ran over an Easter bunny who darted in front of my front wheel but then amazingly managed to brake abruptly, reverse course and dart back into the hedge – all in about half a second.

I arrived at Stratford at 2.20pm, which was heaving with bank holiday day-trippers. The hostel is about 3 miles on the other side. Architecturally, it reminds me of a theological college – a large, white-painted Victorian house, with an annex which is now a rather nice bar/restaurant. So evening meal is provided for. Unfortunately, I was greeted by a sign saying the wifi was down, and the 3G signal turns out to be almost nonexistent. So when I’ll get a chance to post this, at the moment I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I’m going to get in a late afternoon doze…

Theme Tune

The Route

No starch press

The quirky covers of computer-related titles from No Starch Press caught my eye a good few years ago, but I only came across their website recently. They offer sample chapters from a number of their titles, including this one on the excellent audio editor audacity. I have been using audacity for many years as a first-rate, free digital recorder, but the sample chapter showed me how to do a really good job of transferring vinyl records to digital format, which went a good way beyond my existing knowledge. I’m now tempted with buying the whole book, which, I guess, is what they were hoping for…

James Stocks reviews Windows 7

At Trinity College (where I work), they have abandoned Windows for Linux (Ubuntu) on the desktop. There are a few legacy Windows XP installations left over. People also bring in the occasional Windows 7 laptop, but these seem to refuse to play ball on a mixed-economy network (including servers running Windows variants and Linux). So we have been left with the impression that Windows 7 is a bear, except on Windows-only network topographies.

James Stocks has beautifully blogged his experience in installing Windows 7 on a networked computer in a similar network environment. After four days of messing around, he gives up.

The advent of mobile devices such has tablets and smartphones, running a range of operating systems, means that no operating system these days can assume it is the only player on the block and effectively refuse to co-operate with other technologies. The task for MS, if is to stay seriously in the computing game, will be to ensure Windows 8 is as multi-lingual in the network world as iOS, OS X, Linux and variants such as Android. (All these operating systems talk to all parts of our network without any problem.) Until this happens, Microsoft’s share of the market will continue to reduce, largely through the policy of sticking their head in the sand.

In the meantime, the wisest policy for accessible local networks, with lots of visitors (such as educational, rather than corporate clone environments) seems to be to continue to develop Open Source solutions as a sure way of maximizing access to the full range of operating systems.

Algorithmic worship

OK, so it was probably because my brain was overheating in the service: Evensong after a rather hasty train journey in the kind of hot humid air you get just before summer rain begins. I only have one cassock, bought for my ordination, in “good value” wool for which I have been grateful in many a cold medieval church building over the years. But tonight was different – I was pouring sweat from every pore as we got to the last song of the service, a modification of an old Dave Bilborough number with dull linguistic monotony. But then I realised that it was possible to trace a simple formula for predicting the words with logical precision:

(Let there be x shared among us,

Let there be x in our lives

Now may your x fill the nations

Cause us, O Lord, to arise;

Give us a fresh understanding of

y x that is real;

Let there be x shared among us,

Let there be x.)

where x is a member of the set {love, peace, joy} and if (x>elements(set)), then x recurses to element 1 of the set in a final element substitution; and where y = {brotherly | sisterly} where (if the nth element of the x set is odd) then y=”brotherly”; else y=”sisterly”.

I’m sure that a proper mathematician or logician would be able to express this rule more elegantly, but at least this minor discursion took my mind off the heat. Also, since it was an Offertory Hymn, I wondered whether it would be in order to augment the x set with a further element, namely, “cash”, but sadly they hadn’t thought of this.

This logico-hymnological phenomenon has emerged steadily over the years as old choruses, which were originally “one verse wonders” have increasingly been pressed into service as full hymns as their original audience has aged, but the principle goes back a long way. For example, can you remember…

(q is flowing like a river

flowing out to you and me

spreading out into the desert

setting all the captives free).

In this case, q can be substituted with the same members of the set used in the Bilborough chorus in the first example.

Of course, like all logical systems, it is possible for bugs to get into the system. For example, the sets could be corrupted with alien elements, either substituted or added. For example, by adding “soup”, “beer” or substituting “lurve” at some point in the set.

I’d be interested if any readers (if there are any left) have other hymnological algorithms they would like to share with me (and the world) via the comments.

Mac OS X 10.6

The announcement this week that Apple were releasing the latest update for the Mac operating system has been much reported. Apple stated a while ago that this latest release was more about refinements than new features, but sometimes refinements are better. The upgrade price from Leopard is merely £25, which raises the question as to what you get for this. The answer is larger than I’d assumed. For me, the biggest reason to upgrade is that it will be possible for non-iPhone owners (such as myself) to syncronise contacts with their Googlemail account, to quote:

Now everyone, not just iPhone users, can synchronise their contacts through MobileMe, Yahoo! and Google.

In addition,

users of multi-touch trackpads on older macs also get three- and four-finger gestures.

My trackpad accepts two-finger gestures (for scrolling) but nothing else, so I’m hopeful on that front.

There have been some nice-sounding refinements to Exposé (allowing access to multiple windows in an application, including minimized windows) as well as making the (in my view, largely redundant) “Services” menu option more context-sensitive. They’ve also done some work on Preview, which was getting a bit tired.

The ability to connect iCalendar and Address Book up to an Exchange server would be useful at work, but only after they upgrade our server to Exchange 2007!

I’ll be interested to see if the use of 64-bit code makes for a speed improvement on my MacBook Core 2 Duo, but my guess is that these improvements are harder for the individual user to experience for sure, unless they are dramatic. For me, however, syncing up to Google Contacts will be worth the 25 quid upgrade alone.

I’ll report more once I get it – but I’m not going to be one of those queuing outside an Apple Store on Friday.

Firefox 3.5 and the brave new world

I downloaded Firefox 3.5 for my Mac this morning – after carefully checking that it would work with my plugins, especially the beloved Zotero. The new features list is a variable set, but one of the more remarkable is its ability to send information about your whereabouts to Google, who then can plot your position on Google Maps. I had a go – it was rather scarey: I was located exactly at the right spot of my road. So how do they do it? The Mozilla (ie. Firefox) website is a bit circumspect:

When you visit a location-aware website, Firefox will ask you if you want to share your location.

If you consent, Firefox gathers information about nearby wireless access points and your computer’s IP address. Then Firefox sends this information to the default geolocation service provider, Google Location Services, to get an estimate of your location. That location estimate is then shared with the requesting website.

If you say that you do not consent, Firefox will not do anything.

Now I guess it’s no surprise to the more geeky readers of this site that it is possible to work out the country you live in from the IP range of your computer – which is how many company sites automatically relocate you to the local/national version of their website. What was more intriguing, to me anyway, was how Google could locate me by nearby wireless access points. What’s going on here? My guess is that Google, in using those photographing vans, has squirrelled away in its database somewhere the names of all local wireless access points it has picked up during its various stops to take photographs, and hence knows where your local wireless access-point/router is (or was) located. The Firefox privacy page gives some more details:

If you choose to allow it, the Firefox Location-Aware Feature first collects one or more of the following relevant location markers: (i) location provided by a GPS device built into or attached to your computer or device and/or geolocation services provided by the operating system; (ii) the wifi routers closest to you; (iii) cell ids of the cell towers closest to you; (iv) the signal strength of nearby wireless access points and/or cellular phone towers; and/or (v) your computer or device’s IP address. Next, it attempts to determine your location using these location markers. Any information Firefox uses, receives or sends as part of this Location-aware Feature is not received by any Mozilla servers or by Mozilla. Firefox does not track or remember your location. Firefox does remember a random client identifier, the temporary ID assigned by our third party provider to process your request, for two weeks.

In my case, the computer was not connected to a GPS device or a cellphone, so all it had to go on was the IP address and the SSIDs of the local wireless network and relative signal strength. Yet it got me to the correct end of the street and the correct side of the road. I cannot believe it could have done that by IP alone.

Now Firefox are falling over themselves to say that your browser will only send this information to Google if you give it permission (and in my case, that permission is asked every time it wishes to do so) and then the info is sent across an encrypted link to Google. And, since its Firefox, I’m inclined to believe them, since the Firefox browser is open source and therefore open to the scrutiny of anyone who wishes to (and who can understand the code). However, were Microsoft or Apple to supply me with a browser which could send this kind of information to heaven-knows-who, I would have to take their word for it that they were going to use this information for the purposes they say their were.

A few conclusions from this little foray into computer-enabled-geolocation:

  1. Firefox may have opened a pandora’s box here (and I guess users of iPhones must be long used to this sort of thing). We are moving from a time when surfing the internet was a relatively hidden activity to one where, now, the technology allows just about anyone with sufficient wherewithall to  find out where you are, almost to within a house or two. A good or bad thing?
  2. Firefox have just provided me with the final (as if I wasn’t pursuaded already) reason why I will, henceforth, only use an open-source browser,  and also a good reason only to use open-source software generally. Any operating system could build in this facility of its own without recourse to using a particular browser, sending the information as to your whereabouts to any company, government agency or commercial marketing firm that it sees fit.
  3. Firefox, or more fairly, this technology, permits large-scale surveillance of the population by any government who wishes to do so. They would need the capacity of a Google to aggregate the local information indicators such as WiFi SSIDs, mobile phone masts, GPS locator and IP range, but, once they’ve got it, the police can immediately find out where you (or, at least, your computer) is at any particular time. Given the propensity for governments such as those in China and Iran to censor the internet, how long before they will insist on access technology which harvests and reports on users’ locations as a matter of course? In other words, it’s the ultimate snoop tool if used in a certain way.

That said, I can’t help saying that, used voluntarily and under due supervision (of the software firms, rather than the users) it is a potentially useful tool. I just don’t think these big software concerns will simply continue to offer it just for free. The future trajectory of Google in the use it makes of this kind of information should be watched closely.

Going, going …

An interesting interview from last year now available from Last.fm – where on earth has Hillage’s hair gong? Are System 7 still going?? Are they now called System X 10.5? (Probably not.) Do you have any idea what this post is about???

Last.fm

For those readers of this blog who have yet to discover Last.FM, you don’t know what you’re missing. First, you set-up an account on the last.fm website. Then you download the last.fm software for your computer – there are good versions available for the Mac, PC and Linux operating systems and, from my observations of the Linux and Mac versions, they work pretty much the same.

Two things then happen: first, whenever you play music using the music player of your choice (in my case, iTunes for the Mac and Amarok for Linux), details of what you are playing are sent to your account on Last.fm. A profile is then built up of your listening tastes. Eventually, last.fm is able to construct a “personal radio station” of music which is akin to the stuff you’re playing at home. With time, it can get very accurate – although if you’ve got very catholic taste, such as I do, you may find it can be a bit random in what it plays.

Better still, you can also use the last.fm player to play “tags” of certain kinds of music. In particular, I listen a lot to the ECM records tag. This plays a glorious selection of eclectic and innovative musicians, broadly coming out of contemporary jazz who have typically recorded on ECM records at some point. (People such as Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett, Eberhard Weber, and so on.) But you choose your own. When I get tired of listening to my own collection, and want to look for inspiration for new CDs to buy, this is where I get it. If you really like a piece it’s playing to you, you can click on the icon in the tray and it will bring up not only the piece and album details, but link you to Amazon or iTunes where you can order it there and then.

My last.fm software is also supplying the data for the ‘currently listening to…’ sidebar on this blog – so it’s a relatively up-to-date feed of what I’m really listening to: warts and all.

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