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Mini-blog

I'm switching over to using blogger now, so this blog probably won't get used for much now, but I'll keep it around.

Last swim outside in 2010

posted 31 Oct 2010, 09:04 by Andrew Conway   [ updated 31 Oct 2010, 09:28 ]

For most folk in the UK, swimming outside is something you do on holiday, most usually in a foreign land with a warmer climate. However, I've been fortunate enough to enjoy that same luxury at my local gym. For some reason I find it much more enjoyable than swimming in the indoor pool. Perhaps it's because I almost always get the entire outdoor pool to myself, but I don't think it's just that. I enjoy swimming on my back and looking up at the sky and it is important that I'm looking at my own sky, not the sky over France or Spain or America, which is somehow different. I'm not sure what if, anything, makes one sky different to another, though I do remember thinking that Montana was indeed "big sky country".


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To the left is an aerial view of the pool. I've never seen it that busy, but then I do tend to go first thing in the morning.

As the seasons change from summer to autumn and now from autumn to winter, it's become all the more invigorating to swim al fresco, probably because of the increased contrast with the sauna which I like to visit immediately afterwards.

But yesterday was my last outdoor swim in 2010 because the pool is closed until spring. Now I have something other than longer days and daffodils to look forward to in early 2011.

New story: Life of nowhere

posted 24 Oct 2010, 07:29 by Andrew Conway   [ updated 24 Oct 2010, 07:38 ]

I've completed a new short story called Life of nowhere. Earlier this year I spent some time researching the past of a long defunct village and this story is an attempt to express why the story of Mavis Valley captured my imagination.

Much of the story is based on fact, but I used some creative license which I hope isn't too disrespectful to the real people involved, all of whom are now dead.

Linux from scratch

posted 31 Jul 2010, 04:12 by Andrew Conway   [ updated 7 Aug 2012, 01:35 ]

Linux from scratch (LFS) is a book that helps you through the process of compiling an entire, functioning linux operating system. There are several reasons you may wish to do this, but I think the most common reason is to gain a better appreciation for how an operating system works; this was my reason. It's probably worth setting out what is meant by an operating system and its kernel before talking more about LFS.

Strictly speaking, linux refers to just the kernel of the operating system. The kernel acts as an intermediary between the hardware and the applications that humans use so that developers aren't always getting dirty with very low-level programming. Any operating system that uses the linux kernel can be called linux. Apple's OS X, used in various forms by all recent Macs and iPhone/iPad/iPod products, uses a kernel partly based on BSD, which is a unix cousin of linux, whereas the kernel used by Windows is completely distinct from the linux and BSD kernels having been developed entirely by Microsoft. What makes the linux kernel different from Apple's and Microsoft's kernels is that the source code is open so that you are free to edit, configure and compile it yourself. In this context, compile means that you can take the source code (written in C) and turn it into binary code the computer understands. Both Apple and Microsoft only provide the binary code.

A kernel isn't much use by itself; you also need to compile some tools and applications to go with it so you can copy and move files or edit text or browse the internet. Almost every linux operating system uses tools from the GNU project to do this and for this reason some people prefer (actually try to insist) on using the term GNU/linux to refer to the operating system. This is actually quite fair, but unfortunately "GNU/linux" is just so clunky in print and in voice that I, like most people, stick with just saying "linux" to refer to the operating system. The key thing is that GNU also provides the source code so you can edit, configure and compile it yourself.

Anyway, returning to the main point, LFS is a book that provides instructions on how to compile the linux kernel, GNU tools and other essential software (referred to as the tool-chain) to construct a basic but functioning operating system. It's quite honest about the level of expertise you need to successfully accomplish this amazing-sounding feat: you need to be comfortable on a unix-like command line, understand some basics about compiling code (though you don't need to be able to program in C) and have some familiarity with the jargon used in linux-land. But, that said, if you can work in a methodological way, follow the book's clear instructions backed up by a very helpful community on the internet, I'd say that the process is much easier than you'd think - certainly much easier than I expected.

If you're interested in the details then have look at the LFS website. It took me about 10 hours of working and reading. Fortunately I didn't get seriously stuck along the way, only mildly confused at a couple of points mainly because I was over-thinking things rather than just pressing ahead. You might want to look at the notes I made - they may look pretty hard-core out of context from the LFS book but they're really not saying anything that complicated. (Reading back on my notes it seems that a local murder indirectly caused me to get started with LFS).

So what did I gain from the experience?

Well, I know much more about how operating systems work and what makes linux distributions different from each other. For example, the most popular linux distribution, Ubuntu, makes A LOT of changes to the source code before compiling it, especially the linux kernel itself, though the amended source code is still openly available (it has to be by law thanks to the GNU GPL license). In contrast, the linux distribution I use, Slackware, makes almost no changes to the source code and consequently it's much easier to understand and there's less to go wrong. So Ubuntu strives to have widespread appeal through simplicity to the user, whereas Slackware aims to keep the operating system itself as simple as possible offering the user greater control and stability.

But, more importantly, I now have firsthand proof and knowledge that compiling a computer operating system can be done. As I get older I find myself appreciating the value of firsthand experience more and more and realising just how much our society forces us to live without it. It's a bit like knowing how to grow your own food - it's not that you want to stop going to the shops, there's just something satisfying about actually doing it yourself that goes beyond even just knowing you could do it.

Exploration - Mavis Valley

posted 23 Jul 2010, 04:59 by Andrew Conway

Anyone who knows me can easily picture me engaged in one of my favourite pastimes - struggling through undergrowth in some out-of-the-way, semi-urban location hunting for relics of by-gone industry. I'm not after the holy grail, stolen Nazi booty or buried treasure, but the chance to glimpse the foundations of an old building, bridge, tunnel or railway. This isn't without its dangers, which are often varied and amusing (at least with hindsight), ranging from cutting myself on rusty barbed wire, falling into old tarpits and even being followed by gentlemen who view my presence in the undergrowth as part of some courting ritual.

To document my, ahem, intrepid adventures, I've created a new Exploration page on this website and the first place featured is the lost village of Mavis Valley, pictured in its current overgrown and almost buildingless state.

You'll notice that most of the information I gather doesn't come from my visits themselves but from pouring over old maps, census data and other written records. My main source of information is the web itself. Most of what I'm interested in - that is, industrial archaeology - will soon pass out of living memory and all earthly traces are being erased by housing developments and so soon their memories will mostly only exist on the web. Hopefully I can add to that a bit with this website.

You may wonder, why bother, isn't this just historical navel gazing? My short answer is that I'm just interested in it. But, if you forced me to rationalize it, I might say that you can learn from the past and learn about some unchanging aspects of human nature that were manifest in everything from the industrial revolution's tiniest miners' cottages to its cathedralesque retort houses, wrought-iron decorated sewage pumping stations and grand railways.

My new bicycle

posted 17 Jul 2010, 12:28 by Andrew Conway   [ updated 17 Jul 2010, 14:37 ]

I have purchased a bike - a Specialized Cross-trail Elite. This is in fact my third bike and the first one I've got since my childhood. Whereas my last bike had no gears (well, technically it had one) this bike has a bewildering 27 gears.

My last bike was purchased from a shop called Dales Cycles in 1980 or thereabouts. My new bike was purchased from the same shop (albeit in new premises). You'd think this impressive span of 30 years would make me some kind of special, super-loyal customer, although admittedly not one that's done a lot for their business. But you'd be wrong, because Dales Cycles have had a bicycle emporium in Glasgow since 1912 and I'm sure they've got some customers who could easily double my 30 year span.


View Cycling around Glasgow in a larger map
I took my bike out on a few shortish rides whilst I got to know it and fettled and tweaked it into perfect shape. My main additions were adding a mount for a sturdy lock, fitting a small pouch to carry my keys, wallet and phone, mounting a bike computer (£8 from Asda) and finely adjusting the brakes to eliminate a slight binding.

The red route was around Garscube and Dawsholm and took in a variety of surfaces from a rough path through the woods to a (short) stretch along a dual carriageway. The blue route was a bit longer and followed the river Kelvin to the recently restored fountain in Kelvingrove park.

My first substantial outing - the green route - took me from my home, along the River Kelvin for a bit and then up onto the Forth and Clyde canal aqueduct. From there I stayed on the canal towpath until I arrived at Clydebank, where I turned around and returned by almost the same route. There are no photos I'm afraid because I only stopped to cross gates or avoid dog-owners who were suffering from dog-control issues. The most amusing example of that was an Alsatian pup who leapt into the canal and set about a family of coots much to its owner's displeasure. (Is a young coot called a cootling?)

Until recently, cycling held little interest for me because I wanted to pay more attention to my surroundings in a way that only walking lets you do. But now that I've explored much of the immediate area on foot, and as I've realised that there are plenty of good cycling routes to be had nearby, the appeal of faster travel has grown and I want to ride my bicycle... I want to ride my bike...

Milngavie to Killearn

posted 14 Apr 2010, 14:10 by Andrew Conway

The Proclaimers have surely sung the line "from Milngavie to Killearn" -  well, probably not, but it's a thought. Another beautiful day and another walk. This time along the West Highland Way.

View Milngavie Killearn in a larger map

I parked the car in Milngavie and set off along the footpath which is set into a curious cutting. Curious for a footpath, but not for a railway line - this cutting took a small branch line from Milngavie station to the extensive Ellengowan paper mills. Both that line and the mills are long gone now.

The route then took me through the western edge of Mugdock country park and then along the western shore of Cragallian loch. This area is home to the "Carbeth hutters" - folk who have creatively maintained an assortment of small, temporary-looking homes and fought off more than one attempt to have them evicted. Most "huts" now seem to sport PVC double glazing and look very homely indeed.

After grinning and bearing a short stretch along a road, I was rewarded by a view of Dumgoyne and a vista of a fine glaciated landscape - drumlins being the most obvious feature. At this point I passed close to a group of standing stones. Unfortunately they aren't really visible in my photos or in google earth. In fact most of the stones have fallen down.

The next stretch of the walk is along another old railway line, one that connects with the Kelvin Valley Railway line that I walked along two days ago (see earlier post). The former station buildings at Dumgoyne are now a pleasant spot to have lunch and slake (what a great word that is) one's thirst after a lengthy walk. A little notice employing quite a bit of artistic license notes the history of the railways and the large water pipe that runs along side it.

From there I climbed uphill along a road called Drumbeg Loan which is lined with fabulous country houses, including one or two thatched mansions. Killearn is a pleasant and affluent little village and sports a giant obelisk dedicated to the memory of local boy George Buchanan, the 16th century historian and humanist scholar. From there I caught the hourly bus back to Milngavie. Travelling through small country roads on the top deck of a double-decker being driven slightly too fast was a very fitting way to end this superb walk.

My phone's GPS app "My Tracks" says I walked for a total of 2 hours and 46 minutes and was stationary for only 8 of those minutes (presumably accumulated time taking photos, as I didn't stop for a rest once). In that time it says I covered 14.9 km, averaging a speed of 5.6 km/h. If only it could  register the level of enjoyment and mental regeneration I experienced.

Kelvin valley and Allander walk

posted 12 Apr 2010, 14:26 by Andrew Conway   [ updated 14 Apr 2010, 14:10 ]

It was a warm, sunny day today - more like summer than spring and especially welcome given the long, cold winter we've just had. I happened to be off work today, so took the opportunity to take a walk through the countryside to the north of Glasgow. Courtesy of Google's Picasa (photos) and maps, I'm able to show you the route with some embedded pics I took along the way:
View Kelvin Valley Allander in a larger map

The first part of the walk goes the short distance from Maryhill Park through Summerston and out of the northern city limits of Glasgow. From there I joined the track bed of the Kelvin Valley Railway. This railway was built in the late 1870s mainly for the purposes of transporting coal into the city. Once coal became less crucial in the North Sea gas, post-industrial age, the negligible passenger usage of the line led to its closure in 1967.

The track bed is still quite obvious in many places but is completely obliterated where it runs through a large, landfill site at Blackhill. There is no more land being filled there now, but there remains an odd assortment of pipes and rusting machinery locked inside heavily-secured enclosures, as you can see in some of the photos. There is absolutely no smell in the area and it has been pleasantly landscaped with a silver birch wood lining the banks of the Kelvin.

From Blackhill I followed the relatively new footpath up to the Balmuildy bridge which takes the Balmore Road across the river Kelvin. Just to the west of the bridge, on the north bank of the river, was the original Summerston station. The associated cottage still remains, but no trace of the single bow-string railway bridge over the Kelvin can be found.

From there I followed the line of railway until it met the Allander water. On this stretch some interesting, very large heaps of masonry can be found. On closer inspection I realised that these were probably older landfill sites, or rather land-pile sites, as they seemingly didn't bother to dig a hole in the ground first.

From this point I followed the Allander water (smallish river) along a well-maintained stretch of footpath. The Antonine wall lies uphill to the south and runs roughly parallel to my route. Sections of the wall can still be discerned in the google maps satellite imagery if you look closely enough. The path then took me into Milngavie where I caught a bus home.

Beautiful day, great walk. The map and photos don't quite do it justice.

New story: Paths

posted 12 Apr 2010, 07:45 by Andrew Conway   [ updated 12 Apr 2010, 14:25 ]

I've written a new short story called Paths.

It's based on an idea that I had whilst out for a walk on a beautiful Sunday morning in the spring of 2009. I finished it (and had an idea for a loosely connected story) after a walk on another gorgeous spring day about a year later. I'd like to thank Chris Brockwell for his comments which led me to make several improvements.


Open and closed products

posted 5 Apr 2010, 02:26 by Andrew Conway   [ updated 5 Apr 2010, 03:00 ]

Easter Monday. I go downstairs about 07.30 and am soon joined by my 5 year old son who's desperate to play Super Mario Bros. We start up the Wii and  - shock-horror! - all the save games are gone. That's months of completing all the worlds and collecting big star coins gone. Well, it's only a game so we both give a philosphical "oh well" and set about completing world 1 again.

This got me thinking: if only Nintendo hadn't "closed" the Wii down so heavily I might've been able to go in there and fix the problem. I know it's possible to hack into a Wii but for once I was actually happy to have a device that allegedly "just works" and didn't require me to go in and meddle with its innards. But, as it turns out it only "just works" most of the time and when it "just doesn't work" there's nought I can do about it.

In contrast, a very "open" product I recently bought - precisely for that reason - was a Netgear WNR2000 router. It runs linux (like many do) and bundles a GPL v2 paper license (that's a free as in freedom type license in contrast to an "open source" license). As such, if I don't like some aspect of the way it works (or doesn't work) I can just go in and reassemble,  recompile and/or replace its operating system. Well, it turns out there is one feature of it that seems to suck big-time. The DHCP server (that dishes out IP numbers aka internet addresses) does not work with any of my wireless devices, namely: eee pc, laptop, G1 phone or Wii. When I search the web I find fellow consumers of this product giving the advice "oh, that's the way it is, just replace the OS". That's extremely rubbish. So I should hack into the device and meddle with the operating system? Erm, well, ok, I suppose, except I'm certain that it would gobble up hours or possibly days of my time and I'm quite sure there are better things to do with my life, like go for a walk in an April shower and look for rainbows or talk to a friend or perhaps play Super Mario Bros with my son.

Whether a manufacturer's policy is for open or closed software - and I advocate the former - it hardly matters if the manufacturer and their consumers have lost interest in making and buying things that work properly. Oh for the good old days when we didn't have many gadgets but the ones we did have actually worked better. But, on the upside, rainbows still work.

Supersonic shock sun dog

posted 6 Mar 2010, 04:44 by Andrew Conway

This video shows an Atlas V rocket carrying the Solar Dynamic Observatory satellite into orbit. As it ascends - approximately 1m56s into this video - you can see the supersonic shock front destroy a sun dog. Sun dog's are caused by sunlight being refracted by ice crystals in the Earth's atmosphere. Due to the crystals' geometry and the refractive properties of ice, sundogs always appear 22 degrees on either side of the sun, sometimes forming an entire circle. 22 degrees is a bit more that the span of your fingers held at arm's length.

I think it's imperative that someone forms a band called Supersonic shock sun dog.

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