follow the red string

We cycled from London to Rye last Saturday. Perfect weather, roads and company.


We navigated by following a long piece of red string, and I tied a balloon with a camera to the back of my bike to record our adventure. It turned out something like this:

These Are the Words


In September, F and I cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats, from tip to tip of the UK. And I’ve been trying to write about it ever since. It felt like something I should write about.

I think one of the reasons why I’ve found it hard to find the words is that it seems so far removed from everything that happened before and after. There’s no narrative that leads in and out of the story. We said we’d do it, we planned it a bit, and then one day we got a train down to Cornwall and disappeared into a bubble for three weeks.

It didn’t seem particularly real to me, looking east from Land’s End in the lashing rain, thinking that we would now cycle to the other end of the country, and that I shouldn’t freak out about this. I almost did.

And it didn’t seem particularly real to me when we arrived in John O’Groats, with the light failing. As I looked out over the North Sea I could only wonder if there was anywhere else left to go. There wasn’t; we’d done all 987 miles. That didn’t seem right.

Then, the other day I watched this video by the director Seamus Murphy, for PJ Harvey. The short vignettes of British life reminded me of the things we spotted from our saddles. The detail and closeness of the footage reminded me of glancing through people’s front windows, listening to their chatter and watching their fields. It reminded me of rolling through towns and villages as close, passive, and silent observers of British life.

It’s a good song, I think, and I watched the video all the way through, before I realised what it was I felt looking out over the North Sea, shortly before we found the whisky.

I was proud, yes; proud we didn’t give up; proud we kept each other going. But also something I’ve never really felt before: I was proud of this country. And I think that’s something not many British people ever really let themselves feel.

Admiralty Chart Correction Tracings

We went to visit one of our printers today. They don’t just print newspapers, they also print things like this:

Admiralty Chart Correction Tracings

It’s a book of Admiralty Chart Correction Tracings. It contains a compilation of changes to marine navigation maps, published by the UK Hydrographic Office.

Admiralty Chart Correction Tracings

Ships will subscribe to the service through a third party, and receive the latest copy of the book when they dock at port. They tear out each page, and apply the relevant changes to their paper maps with a pencil and transfer paper. They’re paper map diffs, if you like.

Admiralty Chart Correction Tracings

Admiralty Chart Correction Tracings

I love it. For a start, you can print on tracing paper – who knew? And it made me wonder if all of the maps that the UK Hydrographic Office maintain are entirely hand-drawn, or if only the changes are done by hand. And if they use paper as the primary workflow, how they store the changes so they can extract the appropriate patches for printing, at the same time as maintaining a master copy. Maybe someone out there knows.

The kind of processes and expertise that build up inside an organisation, over a long period of time, for managing a workflow like this, seem complex and fascinating.

And ignoring all of that, it’s just a gorgeous book to pore over.

All surfaces smooth and uniform and strawberry

It might just be because I don’t quite ‘get’ Quora, but using it feels like I’m a tiny person on a massive jelly, all surfaces smooth and uniform and strawberry. But it’s huge, and wobbling around me, and I can’t quite get a grasp on it to climb up out of this pit of questioning doom, to somewhere from which I could survey the terrain. Instead, I’m left looking at this giant jelly, as it shifts underneath me, wondering why I’m here.

Not that it’s bad. Just that it’s somewhat nightmareish.

Hello 2011.

Station Ident


Penki is a good, beautiful thing. I just lost half an hour to it, and I don’t want it back.

Please Keep Your Belongings with You at All Times

In case you missed it, a Firefox extension was released a couple of days ago called FireSheep. It’s basically a simple, easy to use UI around a packet sniffer, allowing any user on an open wireless network to listen for authenticated HTTP requests from other users on that network, and use those to pose as them.

It uses an old technique, dating back to token ring or unswitched ethernet networks, when all packets passed through every node on the network, making it easy to grab them, but now it’s a one-click install for anyone with a browser, specifically targeted at major social networking sites, and hijacking those connections seamlessly.

Firesheep Screenshot

The author, Eric Butler, says:

Websites have a responsibility to protect the people who depend on their services. They’ve been ignoring this responsibility for too long, and it’s time for everyone to demand a more secure web. My hope is that Firesheep will help the users win.

Eric isn’t wrong. If all authenticated requests on the web used SSL, it would make packet sniffing and sidejacking impossible. In that sense, he’s right.

But security is hard. Finding the balance between inconvenience and security is tricky. Facebook (to use an example) could issue card readers or fingerprint scanners, but they don’t, because they figure that it would annoy their customers and the cost would be too high, relative to the potential risk.

The unspoken message is that your Facebook account is both not too important, nor too easy a target to require SSL for everything. Your bank considers your account to be at the other end of the scale – they use SSL, amongst other things, because it’s an obvious target with a lot to lose if compromised.

But FireSheep has just changed the game. Your Facebook account is now a very easy target by any kid in your class at school. The relative easy of compromise means that it’s a target, despite its relative unimportance.

(Side note: I wonder how prevalent FireSheep is at schools and universities at the moment.)

Given that this tool has received the attention it has, Facebook probably should make SSL mandatory, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did in the next couple of months (remember: it’s harder than flicking a switch when you’re at their scale).

Security isn’t binary. Everything is insecure in some way, given enough effort.

What happens when the next tool comes out? Perhaps it pretends to be an access point of a similar name, or runs a rogue DHCP server on the same access point. It spoofs the DNS, and uses a self-certified SSL certificate (which most people will bypass) to proxy Facebook and the rest. I could probably write that in a long weekend, and have a post on Techcrunch on Monday.

And then maybe there will be some fuss, and eventually it’ll die down, and maybe someone else will write another tool, using more advanced techniques (PDF).

Of course, forcing SSL doesn’t add much inconvenience to users, nor is it a significant operations overhead for the services at risk, it’s just that it’s not the point here. The point is that making one-click tools that force the entire web to play catchup, whilst putting people at risk, just isn’t a sensible way of talking about security.

There’s a reason we (most of us, anyway) don’t secure our houses with turret guns and dogs, and that’s because most of the time, a lock and key is good enough. We want just enough security to feel safe at night, and not to cause us too much hassle.

And that’s why this tool makes me sad. Because it’s a symbol of an arms race – a fight to the death over unimportant things, when really, I’d rather not have to remember to lock my windows at night.

A navigable terrain of spatialized data

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Tate Modern, for the last weekend of Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera.

One of the pieces was a video from the Bureau of Inverse Technology.

bit plane is a highly compact spy plane, wingspan 20 inches: radio-controlled, video-instrumented and deployed over areas of scenic interest.

Due to its refined dimensions bit plane is able to enter territory inaccessible to other aircraft. Pioneering flight: in an aerial reconnaissance over the Silicon Valley California 1997, bit plane flew solo and undetected into the glittering heartland of the Information Age. Video generated in this exercise includes footage retrieved over no-camera zones Apple, Lockheed, Nasa Ames, Netscape, Xerox Parc, Interval Research, Atari, Hewlett Packard, Oracle, Yahoo, SGI, Sun Microsystems.

It was somewhat fascinating viewing: the low resolution, black and white video, and background radio chatter appealing to the make believe spy in me.

A few lines stuck with me.


And there’s the challenge: to find the next vantage point, over the next place, from which to deliver the future.

This Trail

There’s something that seems to happen after a few hours in the saddle. Slowly, everything decomposes from exercise and motion, into kinetics and mechanics.

This coarse, complex system of power, heat and motion begins to become something simpler, more malleable, and dare I say, “purer”.

Balancing comfort and progress becomes a game of fine adjustments: lower the revolutions per minute by five to lower the number of watts I’m radiating; pull my sleeves up 3 cm to increase the energy lost to convection; change up a gear to lower the torque, as the incline shifts by half a percent.

The GPS looks forward for me, projecting all my future successes and failings. Every bit of information helps to optimise my path. Contour maps spring out of the hills surrounding, and round the corner ahead. It took a space shuttle and an army of volunteers to help me shift down a gear, and hopefully the data exhaust I leave behind will help someone do it better next time.

It’s day 4. We’re sitting in Bristol, in the sun, with 218 miles behind us.

Electric Mountain

Yesterday, we went to visit some friends who live near Llanberis, at the foot of Snowden, in North Wales.

We went for a walk from Dinorwig up into the old slate quarry, high above the north side of Llyn Padarn, over from Snowden.

The quarry shut in 1969 and is fenced off but often used by climbers. It’s slowly being reclaimed by both nature and the locals. Rusting railway lines hang above crumbling rock, young trees are springing up on beds of slate, and old machine rooms have been stripped of movable iron.


Deep inside the mountain is an 800m shaft, about 30m wide. During times of excess energy on the National Grid, water from the lake below is pumped up into the reservoir above the shaft. And when a surge of energy is needed on the grid, (say during a football match half-time), it’s released back into the lake, hurtling through the turbines and generating up to 1,320 MW from standstill in 12 seconds.

You can’t get near this, but you can jump the fence, and scramble around the slate, into the surrounding caves left over from the quarrying.


Once inside, the scratching and clinking of the slate gives way to the low hum of the mountain. It’s less like a noise with a source, and more like everything around is resonating somewhere in the range between hearing and feeling. It’s quite something.


After we climbed out, I asked about the lake below. “You could say that it’s tidal, but with the television schedules, rather than the moon.”