Sunday, 28 October 2012

funfair mirror trees

One of the trees in our garden has died.  It died last summer in the drought, but we gave it a year to prove to us it really was dead.  It is.  So we need to replace it.

I was wandering around the web, looking for trees, when I saw a picture of the type we wanted.  The page also included a helpful impression of its mature size.

6m high, 8m spread: too slim
And a very impressionistic impression it is too.  This graphic of a slim-looking tree is labelled as being 6m high, with an 8m spread.  It's actually broader than it is high! 

So I had a look at a few other tree graphics on the site.

10m high, 10m spread: too slim 20m high, 10m spread: too wide
It's the exact same graphic every time, with not a single one of them using the same scale for the height and spread!  Only the "human figure for scale" and the labels change.  Why go to the effort of including a graphic to show the mature tree size, then not bother to do it right?

The pictures should look something more like this:

height/spread ratios just right
Now it's clear we shouldn't plant our new tree too close to the fence.

It truly is an excellent paper

A few days ago I received the following email (details redacted to protect the guilty):
This is from the editorial board office of Journal of [Totally Unrelated to My Research (TUMR). TUMR] is a peer-reviewed international research journal, devoted to supporting a global exchange of knowledge of [TUMR].
We found a paper you had published in “Lecture Notes in Computer Science (including subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics)”.
Title: An architecture for modelling emergence in CA-like systems
Author(s): Stepney Susan
It truly is an excellent paper that relates quite nicely to our journal.
To promote the communications of [TUMR] and broaden our journal’s global perspective, we cordially invite you to submit new research manuscripts to our journal before Nov. 29, 2012.
You can enjoy a registration discount if your paper is accepted.
The paper in question does exist. It is totally unrelated to the remit of the journal, however.

There are two big red flags in the email that there is something phishy.

First, no-one in the know says a paper has been
published in “Lecture Notes in Computer Science (including subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics)”
That rather unwieldy title is used only on the LNCS publisher Springer's website, from where I suspect it was copied verbatim.

Second, the claim that the paper "relates quite nicely to our journal" is not true, as could be spotted by glancing at the paper's content for a split second.

No-one did glance at it, however. This is just computer generated spam. I know what journal TUMR really is, so I can guess a crude bit of keyword matching glommed on to the word "architecture" or "engineering" in the abstract. These terms are used in the paper in a completely different context from that of TUMR.  Clearly the paper was found by a mindless web trawl.

The key phrase that flags what is really going on here is near the end of the email: "registration discount". TUMR is an Open Access journal, which means you have to pay to publish.  They are trying to flatter me into thinking that they like my work, in order to convince me that I should pay to publish in their journal.  Since they have clearly never even read my work, however, the result is not my feeling sufficiently flattered to publish, but sufficiently aggravated to blog. 

This approach is a distant cousin of the classic perfect prediction scam.  Spam a large population with a range of information (the classic example is stock market predictions).  It will be false for most targets, who will just bin it.  But, by chance alone, it will be true for some, who, not realising the extent of the scam, and the vast number of false hits, will be convinced by the truth of the claim in their case.  Here it is true for those few targets who will, by chance alone, have "an excellent paper that relates quite nicely to our journal".  The implication is that you have been carefully selected.  The actuality is somewhat different.

This is the first time I've seen the scam used in this way.  But I'm sure it won't be the last...

Saturday, 27 October 2012

still addicted

Yesterday I downloaded "Spooky Box", another new level for Cut the Rope.

Today I completed it, achieving another (temporary, until everyone else catches up) second place.

  I have been doing a few other things as well...

Sunday, 21 October 2012

better use seaweed

As Neils Bohr is alleged to have said, “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”.

My smartphone has a weather app on it that gives a forecast of the next six days. I glance at it occasionally, but in September, we had our annual “Away Day” at work, which has a significant outdoor component. So I was watching the forecast quite carefully. It said it was going to be sunny. Great! Next day it was predicting cloud, then it changed back to sun, then to rain. Umm. Well, on the day it was fine, fortunately.

But all that made me a bit suspicious of the app. I know longer range forecasts are essentially useless, with the weather being a chaotic system, but I thought 4 or 5 days out was now in the bounds of possibility. So I’ve been keeping data from my app for the last month or so.

click to see the icons

Each strip of 6 icons represents the forecast for a given day: the item near the top the forecast six days in the future, the one at the bottom from just the day before. There’s a lot of variation.

Here’s a graph summarising the data.

click to see the scales
 For each day I’ve summarised the six icon strip with three numbers
  1. #symbols (light green): the number of different forecasts given over the six days: a consistent forecast would use one symbol, with more symbols showing greater indecision. Over the 32 days of data collection, it managed the perfect “one symbol” 4 times (12.5%). 
  2. #changes (mid green): the number of times the forecast changed its mind. This minimum possible value is #symbols – 1; a higher figure indicates vacillation. 
  3. end game (dark green): the number of days the final symbol stayed constant. The maximum possible is six: a perfect six day forecast (managed 12.5% of the time); the least reliable is one day (managed 15 times, or 47% of the time.) 
Not very impressive. The same app also gives minimum and maximum temperature estimates, with similar meanderings.

I think I’ll go back to the trusty classic “Seaweed dry, sunny sky. Seaweed wet, rain you'll get.” We can add more states, with the well-known joke: “Seaweed gone: wind so strong!” And to bring it fully up to date we simply add: “raining seaweed, weird indeed”. 

Sunday, 14 October 2012

thank you for travelling

In the Good Old Days you travelled as a passenger on a British Rail train, and that was that. (These Good Old Days to which I refer were, of course, after the original Golden Age of Rail Travel.)

Then BR was privatised, and suddenly we were all "customers" of a variety of different franchises. Signs sprouted in stations, saying "Thank you for Choosing to Travel with XYZ franchise", as if we actually had any choice in the matter.  Franchises are mostly geographical with little overlap (except for a few main lines), so if I want to go from Cambridge to London, say, I don't exactly have a vast array of rail operators to choose from.

Anyhow, franchises don't last for ever, which leads to continual repainting of rolling stock in their new liveries, and a continual need to change those "thank you" signs to the new franchise name.  Evidently they got fed up with all that palaver at my local station, which has resulted in a sign that was mildly irritating becoming simply ridiculous.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

spring is late this year

Although autumn is early this year, it seems spring is late.

We chase the ducks off our garden pond, because we don't want them breeding.  We are surrounded by houses, and this is not a good environment to raise a brood of ducklings.

Despite our best efforts, we often get a batch each year.  This year, we thought we'd got away with it.  Then, this morning, I opened the curtains only to see, basking in the cool autumnal sunlight:

Not a sight I'm accustomed to seeing in the middle of October!  I suspect that it is much too late in the year for these little guys to have much hope of survival.  But we are no longer scaring this particular duck away.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

calling at...

Just as a train leaves a station, there is an announcement of where it is calling.  I suppose the announcement occurs at this point, rather than the more helpful just before the train leaves, to stop all the people who are on the wrong train piling off, and delaying it.

I was recently at a meeting in Bristol.  Returning to York, I boarded the Dundee service at Bristol Parkway.  As we left the station, there was a slight variation on the standard announcement
This service is the departure for Dundee, calling at ... just about everywhere you can think of.
causing much hilarity amongst the passengers.

I sympathise with the announcer.  The service was calling at: Cheltenham Spa, Birmingham New Street, Burton-on-Trent, Derby, Chesterfield, Sheffield, Wakefield Westgate, Leeds, York (yay!), Darlington, Durham, Newcastle, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Dunbar, Edinburgh, Haymarket, Inverkeithing, Markinch, Ladybank, Cupar, Leuchars, and Dundee. Phew! We would have been nearly at the next stop before the announcement was over!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

retrospective holiday diary day 7: Castle Howard

Wednesday 26 September: the last day of our holidays. We’d planned to go somewhere local: either Fountains Abbey or Castle Howard.  The forecast was for some rain, so we decided on Castle Howard: some of it is indoors.

Castle Howard from the rear
And the weather was just glorious: warm and sunny for the most part (even if the grounds were a little soggy underfoot). We enjoyed the wonderful walled garden, so big it’s possible to get lost in it.

(left) Amaranthus caudatus Red (love-lies-bleeding);
(middle) a trellis arch of runner beans in the decorative vegetable garden;
(right) rain glinting off decorative cabbage
There were follies as big as full houses that popped up everywhere. There were wonderful trees, and parkland, and lakes, and woodland walks.

trees along the parkland walk
views of the house from the park, and across the small lake
views along the parkland walk, and across the lake
I fell in love with the grounds. It probably helped that there were very few other people there that day: most of the time we were out of sight, and more importantly, hearing, of anyone else, so could enjoy the solitude and silence.

We had lunch in the Fitzroy Room, and rain started to threaten, so we next did the inside of the house. It’s impressive, but had nowhere near the same effect on me as the grounds did. The guides kept emphasising that it is a family home, still lived in. But I personally find that stately home style very “fussy” and not at all “homely” (unlike parts of Cragside, for example). However, it was interesting to see the history of the house's original design, its restoration after the devastating fire in 1940, and its use as a film set in two separate productions of Brideshead Revisited.

After the house, there wasn’t time to see the arboretum: a trip for another day.

Back to York, and then off to the cinema to see Brave.

retrospective holiday diary day 6: history and floods

Tuesday 25 September: the forecast was for rain, but it wasn’t raining where we were in the morning. So we decided to do Hadrian’s wall properly, then go back to Alnwick in the afternoon, to do the inside of the Castle, escaping the promised rain, then return to York in the evening.

So we drove off to Housesteads Roman Fort. The weather was on the edge of rain as we walked up to the fort from the road. There was light rain as we were walking around the fort itself (so we could imagine ourselves has horrified Legionnaires thinking: “and this is their summer!”), but it had stopped again by the time we were walking back down.

Housesteads fort, at the top of the hill, as seen from near the road
Apparently the wall wasn't so much to keep the ravening hordes of warlike Scots at bay, but more to control the crossing points so that they could be properly taxed on their way through to trade.  (Not quite such a romantic story, thought.)

Housesteads fort, from within
We were amused to discover in the on site museum the story that the Romans had originally started to build the wall with a sentry post at this point.  But then word came down that the plans had changed: tear down what you've done, and build a bigger fort instead.  So much for their fantastic planning processes!

I expect underfloor heating was very welcome
Since the weather was looking not too bad, we decided to drive up to Keilder water, and have a look round, before pushing on to Alnwick. It was a bit colder, and it was raining a bit again, but nothing too horrible.

Keilder water, and the end of the Keilder dam.  It's raining, but not that heavily.
So we stopped off at a café by the lake, to have lunch and plan the afternoon trip. The café had a large TV on the wall, which was showing the BBC news. Now, normally I hate hate hate TVs in cafes. But the news was … interesting.

Apparently, while we’d been having a lovely time, most of the rest of the country was flooding. Rivers were bursting their banks. The East Coast rail line was flooded and closed. The A1 was closed between junctions 49 and 60. And the waters were still rising! We looked at each other. “Let’s not go to Alnwick today.”

Instead, we headed “straight” back to York, via a dryer, less closed, route.

(left) our planned route from Keilder water, back to York via Alnwick:
the red oval shows the extent of the A1 closure.
(right) our actual route back to York: no roads closed, but a bit splooshy in places

We arrived back safe and dry at around 7pm.

retrospective holiday diary day 5: trains

Monday 24 September, and the long-threatened rain finally arrived. So this was the ideal day for the planned Carlisle-Settle rail trip.

Built 1870-75, with its 14 tunnels and 17 viaducts, the line is a triumph of Victorian engineering. This is still a commercial passenger rail line, with diesel engines, but a lot of people also take the trip for the tourist appeal.

On the way out on this 72 mile, 100 minute journey, there was someone walking through the train selling official guide books. We bought one,  and counted our way through each tunnel (easy to spot) and viaduct (sometimes quite hard to spot). A gentleman who got on at Kirkby Stephen (on his way to Skipton) who knew the route well also pointed out some interesting features to us.
The views of “England's most scenic railway” were spectacular, even through the rain and low clouds.

It’s not really possible to photograph much from a moving train through rain spattered windows,
especially not the viaduct you are on …
 … so here’s a picture of the Ribblehead viaduct, from the tourist guide
 We lunched in Settle, then hopped back on the train for the return trip.

retrospective holiday diary day 4: archaeology

Sunday 23 September was still fine, so we finished off the planned archaeology.

The Maelmin Heritage trial was, frankly, a bit of a disappointment (the free booklet available from the nearby information centre in Milfield village is much better). The trail starts with the best bit: a full scale reconstruction of the nearby Milfield North henge (the “henge” being the ditch and bank earthwork, not the wooden posts).

A reconstruction of Milfield North henge.  
 My shot unfortunately just clips the right hand entry post and its carvings: 
a feature of using a smart phone in bright sunlight and 
not being able to see the screen well enough.
Then came a rather short walk round a field containing a reconstructed Dark Ages house, and (the remains of) a reconstructed mesolithic sunken round hut.

The traffic noise from the nearby road during this walk made the silence of the previous day’s Neolithic rock art even more precious.

Next we drove to Yeavering Bell hill fort (incorporating a scenic but unplanned detour, having turned the wrong way out of Milford, and not noticed for a few miles). After looking up at it and estimating it would probably take us about five hours to get to the top and back down again, and noting that we weren’t equipped for that (either in kit, or physically!), we admired it from the bottom.  Google maps have a great view from the air.

So we moved on to “Duddo Four Stones”, which involved just a one hour round-trip walking up from the road. Despite its name, it has five large stones (one stone was re-erected after the site had been named in the 19th Century, and some now use the newer name of "Duddo Five Stones", but that's boring), and there were originally seven.

The stones are easily visible on the horizon, but the path takes a detour around the edge of the fields.
The sign says “Please keep to the footpath”. That’s the footpath, ploughed up, under water. On the way to the circle I tried to keep off the field, along the fence, but it was very slippery, and I went ankle deep into the water (much to the disgust of my 3-day old shoes!). On the way back, I walked round the other, more accessible, side of the puddle.
Duddo Four Stones. Count 'em.
The afternoon was taken up with a pleasant drive around the edge of the Northumberland National Park, down to our final B&B. We stopped off to have a look at a bit of Hadrian’s Wall, with a plan to see more later.  (I am informed by the archaeologist in the party that Hadrian's Wall doesn't count as archaeology: it has a date from contemporary records, so it's history.)

Hadrian’s Wall, with sentry post
 Also, goodbye sunshine, for the next couple of days.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

retrospective holiday diary day 3: Lindisfarne

Saturday 22 September, and the weather was still fine,

sunny holiday weather
so we decided to take advantage of the sunshine, and do Lindisfarne.

Although Lindisfarne (Holy Island) is an island, it is accessible by causeway when the tide is low, so we could drive there and back. The road wouldn’t be open until 11am, so first we took the opportunity for a little archaeology: Neolithic rock carvings near Routin Linn (or Roughtin Lynn, or many other variants). The rock itself can bee seen from the air in Google maps. Close up, many "ring and cup" markings are visible:

today, we'd call that graffiti and vandalism
Then off to Lindisfarne, over the causeway, to the car park, and taking the hopper bus to the foot of the castle. First the tromp up to the castle itself:

Lindisfarne castle
Then we walked along to the shore, where we saw masses of carefully crafted little cairns. (We resisted the temptation to build one of our own.)

cairn as mini-castle?
We were really enjoying the beautiful weather: sunny, breezy, not too warm, but not yet “brisk”.

why is the sky that funny colour?
We walked round the back of the castle, and popped in to Gertrude Jekyll’s walled garden. Probably not one of her best, but then the location isn’t exactly perfect.

castle seen from Jekyll's garden
Finally, back to the village and a look round the priory.

the angled arch is part of the ceiling vaulting
The castle is just visible through this window:

a view of the distant castle
The red sandstone has weathered over the years into the most remarkable patterns.

natural carvings
On the way back to the mainland, we stopped off at the sand flats, and walked out a little way out, to get a better view of a load of seals sunning themselves on a sandbank in the sea.

distant seals in the sunlight
Then, just by the causeway on the way back, we saw a seal relatively close up.

closer seal, with a curlew at the back left,
and what a bird-savvy friend tells me is probably a juvenile oystercatcher at the back right
Marvellous day.

retrospective holiday diary day 2: two gardens

Friday 21 September, and the weather was fine, so we decided to do some notable gardens.

First Alnwick Castle grounds, with several marvellous water features:

with the beautiful flower gardens (they must be even more magnificent when more of the flowers are in bloom):

planting ideas for our alien garden
with the “poison garden” (which makes me never want to touch another plant again!), and with the tree house.

just a little folly in the back garden

Since the weather was still good, we decided to save Alnwick Castle itself for later, as rain (lots of rain) was being forecast.

So instead, we went off to Cragside, near Rothbury. The weather was holding as we arrived, so again, gardens first. There was a marvellous “rock garden” – the crag side itself – which we walked through on our way down from the house to the river, itself spanned by a beautiful iron bridge.

Cragside from the valley below, complete with iron bridge
Of course, this meant we had to walk back up again, to see the house itself.

The Victorian house is famous for being the first to be lit by hydroelectric power, and has lots of other interesting gadgets. The house part of it feels as if it could really be a home; the part used for entertaining dignitaries is more “uncomfortable stately home” style.

We then had a drive around the estate, stopping every now and then to go and see various features – mostly lakes, rivers, rapids, and water races.

cloud on still water

retrospective holiday diary day 1: travelling north

We went to the Lake District last “summer”; this “summer” it was time for touring the other side of the country: Northumbria.

The holiday started on Thursday 20 September: a drive up the A1 from York to Alnwick (pronounced /ˈænɪk/, “an-ik”)

It was raining as we arrived around lunchtime. We parked, put on waterproofs, and went to find a café. As I was eating lunch, I thought: “my foot feels wet”. I checked, and yes, I had worn a hole through the sole of my shoe. Well, I have been wearing this pair for most of the last three years. Anyway, not a good situation given we will be doing a fair bit of walking in the wet. (Not serious walking that needs proper walking boots, of course: I know better than to wear inappropriate footwear off road.)  So after lunch, off to the local Clark’s shoe shop (coincidentally about 100 metres from the café), where I bought some new shoes “to go”, leaving the old ones in the bin. The new ones, fortunately, are nice and comfortable; maybe I should try buying another three pairs like them using the web

As it was still raining after lunch, we went to the one second hand bookshop planned for the break: Barter Books. A good big airy place, in a converted railway station: they have made good use of the facilities, using waiting rooms as cafés. There was also a splendid mural on one wall.  We bought four books (three non-fiction, on engineering mathematics, formal logic, and the psychology of self-deception, and an SF novel) and a poster.

Then off to find the B&B, and a restaurant for dinner (by which time it had stopped raining, but was now dark).