Friday, May 22, 2015

The scoop on Hadrian's Wall

  • Building started in 122AD, on the orders of Emperor Hadrian who, having visited Britain, decided he needed a way of keeping out the Scots (or Picts or whatever they may have been called at that time).
  • The bus service that travels the length of the wall is numbered AD122.
  • The walk along the wall is 84 miles long.
  • It feels longer.
  • Especially when it has hailed on you for four hours.
  • The wall was built by Roman soldiers, who clearly had to be multi skilled.
  • It had a big ditch dug on the front (north) side of it to deter invaders.
  • It had a big ditch dug on the rear (south) side of it. This ditch was there to make it harder for soldiers to run away.
  • One of these ditches was called the vallum.
  • To get an idea of the amount of effort involved in digging the vallum, think of how much effort it would take to dig an Olympic swimming pool by hand. Then multiply that by 10,000.
  • Given it was built almost 1900 years ago, it is astonishing how much remains.
  • The walk starts at Bowness on Solway and ends at Wallsend. (Yes, really).
  • However, remaining sections of visible wall actually start near Heddon-on-the-wall and finish before Walton. So if you just want to “walk the wall” you can do it in three days, not six.
  • The highest point of the wall is about 370 metres (say 1,100 ft) above sea level.
  • The high point of walking Hadrian's Wall, if you have any sense, will be a evening's stay at Oakwood Park Hotel, which is one of the top two or three places I have stayed in during my life.
  • You will probably meet more North Americans walking the wall than people from all other nations combined.
  • It feels good to be done!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

All hail breaks loose

If you are from Southern Africa, English rain is pretty wimpy. It more or less comes down but often seems to think "It's too much trouble" and gives up half way. South African rain is more macho; the point of rain is to make you wet and it will make damn sure you are soaked within a couple of seconds  if you have the temerity to step outside in a storm.

Until recently - very recently - I thought the same was true of English hail; ice the size of pinheads would drift down aimlessly like a 15 year old contemplating his future.

Today changed all this. We set off from Chollerford towards Steel Rigg, two hamlets you have never heard of before. En route were a couple of Roman forts and a good section of Hadrian's Wall. I would like to entrance you with a magical description of what they were like but about midday it started hailing.  These were, indeed, not much more than pinhead sized bits of hail but they got bigger in size and more frequent in volume while lightning and thunder split the sky for four hours.

A school trip was seen sprinting for the bus. Birds were beaten from the skies. The path underfoot became treacherous with ice. And the blasted hail just went on and on. Every now and then the sun would break though, just to tease us, before another squall of hail would saunter along and do its stuff.  I only survived due to my Tilley Hat; I do not know how the others managed. I began to get delusional, believing I was on Scott's doomed trip to the Antarctic.

The final mile of the hike was along an ice-covered road. Some of the hail was melting and the effect of the ice-melt and the accumulated hailstones looked rather like those films you see of ice-bergs calving in summer.

Bizarrely, in the distance a two hundred foot gout of flame suddenly appeared. Where from? Who knew? Two RAF Chinooks flew around it. After a couple of minutes, as quickly as it appeared the flame was put out. Surreal? Nothing could surprise me any more.

We survived. The sun has come out.  I have just asked the owner what time supper is and he replied by giving me a menu and asking if I could find out what the six of us in the group would like to east.  Have I moved to a parallel universe?  Am I a waiter-hiker?

Tomorrow, surely, must be saner.

Monday, May 18, 2015


“I wonder” I thought to myself “if I walk into that showroom and offer to buy an Audi whether they would let me use their toilet.”

I had walked eight blasted miles from Wallsend, which truth be told is not much of a place, through a howling gale along the Tyne valley, through a bitterly cold Sunday Market in Newcastle and had not seen sign nor sound of a public convenience. What the hell do the Geordies do? Is there some secret sign?

Geordies themselves seem like fine people. A cheery glint in their eye, a happy manner. We had spent the previous evening in Newcastle and, once you find the nice bits, it's lovely. (Clue: head away from Monument station down the hill towards the quayside.) All those beautiful bridges of various designs, some astonishing architecture on the church that made me wish I had brought my heavy DSLR camera and lenses, a delightful meal at Sabatini’s and the happy buzz of a good city.

We'd made our way back to the surprisingly good Premier Inn in North Shields, slept the sleep of the innocent (parading under false pretenses in my case) and after a FEB (full English breakfast) set off with light hearts into the teeth of a gale. The BBC said it was a light breeze but I'm pretty sure I saw a tractor and a brace of cows fly past at one point.

And then there was the call of nature, getting increasingly loud until it was bellowing in my ear and so I hopped behind a tree.


Then things got miraculously better. There was a pretty park and a Walls ice cream van. Nom nom. Next we met Charlie from Heddon-on-the-wall who showed us a shortcut. And finally we arrived at our destination for the evening, Iron Sign Farm, to be greeted by the charming Helen who offered us an a la carte menu (in my case, smoked salmon starter and beef main course.) My boots are off and I have had a shower.

Could life be better?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Droning on ...

I have two bits of bad news for those of you thinking that one of these new drone helicopters would be a great way to spy on the neighbour who likes to sunbathe topless.
  • Drones make a racket like a swarm of bees so she's going to guess these's something going on long before you get in range and 
  • The built-in camera has such a wide angle that you'd have to get with axe range before you'd see anything and all you'd see at that point would be a brief glimpse of an axe descending before the video feed cut out.
So for those of you who'd like to use a drone for honest, above-the-board fun, here's a review of the new DJI Phantom 3 Professional.  

In the box

What's in the box is exactly what DJI says so I won't repeat it here.  

What's missing?  

To my astonishment, DJI do not ship propellor guards as standard with the Phantom 3.  This is crazy.  For many people, the DJI Phantom will be their first drone and being excited they will skip through the manual to the bit that tells you how to take off and they will get it to take off.  The next thing they will do is fly it into a tree.  Or a person.  Neither of these is good and yet those cheap and cheerful prop guards have an excellent chance of saving the Phantom when it encounters a tree (as I know from experience) and an even better chance of saving the person from having their face shredded.

Manuals are a RRPITA to read, right?  Don't care.  Read them.  They're not that long, especially if you can read without moving your lips (and if you can't you shouldn't be let loose with a drone anyway).  There's an especially useful bit about pre-takeoff checks and the order in which to do things.

Now while unpacking the Phantom 3 you will run into one of the big issues that plagues much new technology today: someone who presumably owns a shrink-wrap plastic factory has persuaded DJI that much of the Phantom, the controller and the propellors must be encased in plastic.  So instead of having fun with your new toy you ... are ... wrestling ... with ... this ... blasted ... shrink-wrap.  Why, for heaven's sake, why?  It took me somewhere between five and ten agonising minutes to get the shrink-wrap off just four propellors.  Now I need finger transplants.

So, let's assume you've upgraded the microcode, RTFMed, charged all the batteries, downloaded the pilot app to your tablet or phone and you're now ready to go.

How does it fly?


I am sorry to follow the previous grumbles with a great gush of enthusiasm, but the Reviewers' Code of Ethics compels me to say it is a joy to fly.  I hadn't flown a drone for five months when I took the Phantom aloft and it was delightful.  It seemed a lot more stable than the Phantom 2; is this a better GPS system or was I lucky?  The first time I flew a Phantom 2 in my back garden it headed straight into a tree (and was only saved by prop-guards); the Phantom 3 took off gently and just hung there moving an inch or two in the breeze but essentially beautifully stable, almost as if tethered by an anchor.

The controls seemed a little less sensitive, too.  I could nudge the Phantom 3 this way or that to get precise positioning.  I can land it to within a couple of inches of the spot I want, which is excellent.  I've flown it up to 100 metres (330 ft) height and 500 metres away, at which stage it is a tiny but still visible spec and it flew as controlled.

The camera and gimbal

I have the Pro version of the camera: basically a 12 megapixel camera and 4k video camera.  Really, 12 mp is ample and 4k is more than that.  But what's the quality like?  I'll post a video once I've got round to editing it, but in short the quality of the video is outstanding: good colours, great resolution. You feel like you're in an IMAX theatre looking at the output.  Especially if you're viewing it on an Apple iMac, or what I call "a proper computer".

But ...

But. But. But.

I haven't yet managed to get the gimbal level.  So I end up with pictures and video where the horizon is not level (in the screen grab from video above I manually straightened it).  I have run the IMU calibration - in the annoyingly undocumented DJI pilot app - which should have fixed the problem but there's still a lean of about 2 degrees - enough to be truly irritating. If this is supposed to be the Professional version of the P3, then a level camera is a prereq.  Here's a cropped shot: I did a 360ยบ turn and the right horizon was consistently higher than the left.


I'm going to give the DJI Phantom 3 Professional 3 stars out of five.  That may seem a bit harsh but while it has these great pros:

  • excellent control
  • great value for money
  • outstanding camera
it still has these things that need fixing:
  • gimbal calibration
  • packaging
  • lack of prop guards - really these should be standard
  • no documentation for the DJI pilot App - this is truly bizarre
And the good news is that all these things are fixable.  They can even be fixed in retrospect. 

Get to it, DJI!

Friday, May 01, 2015

Is there a doctor in the House?

When our younger son, Anthony, was four years old he was diagnosed as autistic and admitted to the The Key School (the autistic school in Johannesburg.)  Then the miracle occurred; somehow, among their myriad therapies, something clicked and he began speaking - and at great length.  He slimmed down from the chubby child in the photograph to a skinny six year old as he used his mouth less for eating and more for talking.  (I should say I do not wish to offer false hope for parents of autistic children: the condition is incurable and Anthony, although exhibiting autistic tendencies, must have had some other undiscovered problem.)

After two years at the autistic school, they said they could do no more: he was speaking as well as any non-autistic six year old.  So we enrolled him in a mainstream school.  Life was back to normal.

For nine months.

After nine months in a mainstream school, we were called in one day by his class teacher.  She explained Anthony didn't fit in, but it was clear that she'd just found out about his time at the autistic school and this had coloured her views on him.  It didn't matter: we were told that he had to leave at the end of the academic year.

This change of school was one of the big factors influencing our move to England.  We came here and found a wonderful mainstream school that, knowing his history, was happy to accept Anthony.  For a term or two he was given a bit of extra coaching to help him catch up and then he was taught the same way as every other child.  He did well at primary school: he did well at high school; he made enduring friendships along the way.

Before going to university he spent a gap year helping out at nearby schools for children with special needs.  We still treasure the photograph of the presents that the schools gave him at the end of the year.

He went on to get a good degree from Bristol and make some lovely friends there.  Bristol was just 90 minutes' drive away, which we liked.  Then, to our surprise, he decided to do a Master's degree at York.  That was pleasant for us, too: a much longer drive but a beautiful city and a marvellous supervisor. We wondered what he'd do with his Masters and soon found out: he wanted to do a doctorate in autism at Reading University.  (Of course, there is no such thing as a doctorate in autism: the title of his thesis runs to a bunch of polysyllabic words incomprehensible to the layman but, trust me, it's a doctorate in autism.)

He has just about finished his doctorate, once again with great supervisor support and encouragement: there are some "i"s to be dotted and "t"s to be crossed but essentially he's there.  He plays tennis and golf and badminton and squash.

We are so fortunate and pleased with Anthony (and his brother Craig about whom I will blog on another occasion).  We're especially thankful for all the people who helped him along the way: from the staff at the autistic school, who set him mentally on his feet;  his teachers, lecturers and supervisors; the au pairs who looked after Anthony and Craig while we were at work; his many friends; and Anthony himself.

Thank you all.

[Footnote: when parents say they are fortunate or blessed in their children, they are generally telling the truth rather than being falsely modest.  Chance plays a huge role in how the next generation turns out and, of course, this powers evolution.]