I’ve lived in Edinburgh for nearly 30 years and, especially recently, spent a lot of time around the south east side of the city, so I thought I knew most of what was there. I didn’t, for example, think there was a huge great disused railway tunnel that you could walk through right on the edge of Holyrood Park.

But whaddaya know. There is!

It was built for Edinburgh’s earliest railway line, the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, also known by the slightly curious name “Innocent Railway”. (Apparently this was due to the fact that it was horse-drawn at first rather than using steam engines, but I read an alternative theory that it could be because no-one was killed in the construction of the tunnel, sadly rare in those days).

The tunnel is over 500 metres long and dead straight, so you can see right through to the other end. It’s now part of National Cycle Route 1. We spent a happy twenty minutes or so messing around with long exposure photography in there last night. That red blur you can just see in the photo above is a passing cyclist. I also discovered what a difference the white balance setting can make:

I like tunnels for some reason. I expect Freud would have had something to say about that, but in my case I think it’s mostly a geeky fascination with old industrial sites, combined with a slightly childish desire to go and explore hidden places.

Edinburgh doesn’t have too many old tunnels. (Glasgow, being a more industrial city, has loads, but that’s a topic for a whole other post!). Most interesting is probably Scotland Street Tunnel on the old Edinburgh, Leith and Newhaven Railway. It ran 1,000 yards from Scotland Street Goods Station (on the site of which you can still see the blocked up north portal) down to Waverley. The south portal is now lost underneath Princes Mall but apparently a corrugated iron tunnel was put in when the mall was built to maintain access and ventilation; it exits near Platform 19 of Waverly Station. The main tunnel was closed to trains in 1868 but it’s still down there and was used as an air raid shelter during World War II.

There are two smaller tunnels further north on the route of the same line, at Rodney Street and Trinity, and like the Innocent Railway Tunnel you can walk or cycle through them. And there’s this one:

on the Water of Leith Walkway at Colinton Dell. It’s pretty short but it’s on a curve so you can’t see both ends at once, which makes it seem longer.

Finally, here’s Scotland’s first (and for a long time, only) canal tunnel under Prospect Hill at Falkirk:

Apparently there was no pressing technical need for a tunnel here, but the local landowner didn’t like the idea of the canal spoiling his view and forced the canal company to put it underground instead. And good for him, I say. It certainly made my walk through to Falkirk High Station a lot more interesting.

The roof seems a lot more porous than in any of the railway tunnels, probably because the middle bit is mostly just bare, unlined rock – there is a constant dripping of water into the canal as you walk through, and stalactites in places. This was the first time I’d been here since the Union Canal re-opened in 2002, and I was glad to see that the addition of electric lighting hadn’t detracted from the atmosphere of the tunnel too much.


Government Internet Snooping

I just filled in 38 Degrees’ email form against the UK government’s internet monitoring plans and would encourage you to do the same.

“Why should I be opposed to the authorities being able to track down criminals?” you might ask. “I’ve got nothing to hide, so I don’t care about being monitored”.

The 38 Degrees form letter includes the following point: “The government doesn’t track our letters or face-to-face meetings. Why should it assume the right to track us online?”. I think this is key. The latest proposals would involve keeping a record of every email sent and every website visited, ready for the authorities to sift through at will. Nothing on this scale has been proposed for monitoring people’s real life movements or snail mail communications, so why should the internet be any different? What is the justification for this extreme level of surveillance?

Is it because people can commit much more heinous crimes online than they can in real life, therefore a proportionately higher level of monitoring is called for? Well, no. Whilst it’s certainly possible to commit certain crimes online, the majority of the most serious criminal acts (murder, rape, acts of terrorism, assault, armed robbery, etc.) can only happen in the real, physical world. You might be able to use the internet to help organise such an atrocity, but at the end of the day you’re not going to be able to stick a knife in someone/point a gun at a bank teller/fly a plane into a building unless you venture out from behind your computer at some point.

Despite all the hysteria being stirred up about the big scary internet by some elements of the mainstream media practically from day one, it’s a far safer place than good old reality has ever been. Sure, someone might swipe your credit card details and yes, that’s bad, but surely it’s not as bad as if they beat you up in a dark alley and ran off with your entire wallet and anything else valuable you happened to be carrying. Some people might look at illegal pornography online, and yes, that’s bad as well, but surely it’s not as bad as going out and dragging people off the street to abuse. Some people bully online, but a lot of people bully in real life too… at least online you can block their emails, delete them from Facebook and stop reading what they write, an option you don’t generally have when you’re surrounded in the school playground. I’m not trying to minimise any horrible online experiences people might have had. I just think it’s important to get a sense of perspective and not to fear things disproportionately just because they’re newer and stranger and more hi-tech.

Ok, so maybe online crimes aren’t more serious than real life ones. But maybe they’re much harder to police? That could also justify a higher level of surveillance. I’m sceptical about this as well. Terrorism and paedophilia are the usual two reasons given for needing to clamp down on the internet, but terrorist acts remain (thankfully) extremely rare, and paedophiles seem to get rounded up often enough even with the powers police have at the moment if news reports are anything to go by. I’m not convinced any extra powers are really needed to deal with these threats. Any serious organised criminals will have already learnt how to cover their tracks pretty effectively, or they would have already been caught. Sure, you might catch a few more poor sods who thought the girl in that picture was 18, or bored teenagers who download bomb making manuals out of idle curiosity, but does that really warrant recording massive amounts of privacy-infringing information about every single person in the country? I don’t think it does.

In my opinion, the real reasons for this being introduced are a lot more flimsy and opportunistic:

1. In practise, monitoring everything everyone does in real life would be a stupendously huge undertaking, and probably impossible with current technology. You would need cameras literally everywhere, or else would need to tag everyone somehow and even then you’d still need tag readers everywhere. The cost would be astronomical. By contrast, internet access is relatively easy to monitor. It’s already in electronic form ready to be saved to disk, and almost all of it goes through a few large service providers. The cost of recording all traffic is still large but nowhere near as large as for monitoring everyone’s real life movements. So, I suspect the first reason they want to monitor all internet communications is simply “Because they can”.

2. The internet is still relatively new and so people will be more likely to accept the idea that it needs to be closely monitored… especially thanks to all the tabloid scaremongering that’s made it sound so threatening. The average person would (I hope!) not take kindly to being electronically tagged so that all their movements could be monitored, or to having cameras installed in their house so the police can watch what they do, but the internet still seems new and different enough that maybe it doesn’t have to be subject to the same rules. So the second reason is “Because the internet’s new enough and perceived as dangerous enough that many people will accept invasions of their privacy that they’d never accept in the physical world”.

3. If I was more paranoid, I’d add a third reason here, pointing out that governments and traditional media outlets have very good reasons to be scared of the internet (in terms of its ability to open them up to greater scrutiny in the first case, and make them increasingly irrelevant in the second) and so would have good reasons to try to assert control over it or make people afraid of it or afraid of using it for anything that might mark them out as somehow different. But I’ll leave it at that for now.

“If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear”, according to a lot of people. Personally I prefer “If I’ve done nothing wrong, they’ve got no right to be spying on me”.

The bottom line is, police can still get a warrant if they need to investigate something happening online, and then they can start monitoring communications, just like they’ve always had to do. Maybe having to get a warrant makes it difficult for them to do their job. Good. I want it to be difficult for them. If it’s difficult, they will only investigate things that are actually serious enough to be worth investigating and will leave everyone else alone. If it’s easy, they will be tempted to trawl through everyone’s data looking for any minor infractions or slight deviations from the norm that they can find. And that’s not a direction I’d like this country to be going in :(.

Fossil SCM

In the course of trying to organise my life enough that I don’t feel I’m being crushed under the weight of a disorganised mass of files, papers and projects, I discovered a very neat little software tool called Fossil. (This probably isn’t of interest unless you develop your own software or at least do some sort of creative projects using a computer, so feel free to skip it if you don’t. The rest of you, read on!).

For a while I’d half-heartedly wondered about setting up some kind of source code management system and maybe also a bug tracking system for my own projects. It’s not so critical to have all this stuff on a single person project as it is on a bigger collaborative work, but at times things can still get disorganised enough to be a pain, especially if you have a bit of a break and then try to come back to it later. Where did I put the most up-to-date copy of that emulator’s code again? Is it on my desktop machine with all the other projects? Or did I make some updates on my old laptop? Maybe the master copy is on an external drive somewhere, or in that folder called “new”? Oh, now I remember, last time I worked on it was on the Raspberry Pi, but the changes I made there probably won’t work on any other machine. Come to think of it, what do I want to do on it next anyway? I know there was a list of bugs and missing features… it was in my green notebook I think… or maybe it’s in a text file in my Dropbox folder… or did I have a fit of organisation one day and add them all to TaskCoach as individual tasks? Aaargh!

I liked the idea of having a single repository of the code in one place so I always know where it is, and being able to get earlier versions back when I break it would be great as well. A ticket system for the bugs and missing features would also be useful. I considered installing a Trac server somewhere – I’d used it on work projects and liked the way it gave you source code management, a wiki and bug tracking/ticketing system all in one place – but I quickly gave up on that when I saw the length and complexity of the installation instructions. Using Trac for projects like mine would be like hiring a combine harvester, learning how to drive it and then using it to give your front lawn a quick trim.

Enter Fossil! I can’t remember where I heard about it, I think it was a forum post somewhere, but I’m very glad I did. It does all of those things perfectly adequately for small projects (probably even for medium sized multi-person projects) and is much, much more lightweight and easy to install than the likes of Trac or GForge. In fact it doesn’t even need to be installed at all – it comes as a single executable (available for Windows, Mac, Linux and others) with no dependencies on other software at all. You just download it, and away you go. Each project repository you create with it is also stored in a single file so it’s easy to keep track of it, move it around, back it up, etc.

You can access the source control functionality from the command line (commands like “fossil add”, “fossil commit”, clearly reminiscent of well-established SCMs like CVS and SVN), or you can fire up the web interface in your browser by typing “fossil ui”, and that gives you access to the other functions like the wiki and the ticketing system. I’ve been using it for a while now on one of my projects and definitely intend to use it for the others as well once I start working on them more seriously. I must say, so far I’m quite blown away by how capable it is; shoehorning a fully working source code manager, bug tracker and wiki into such a tiny, fast and easy to use package is an amazing achievement. I’m always apprehensive about trying out new development tools. It’s pretty common to be left high and dry with an incomprehensible error message because your version of some library you’ve never even heard of is version 1.2.29 instead of 1.2.28, but Fossil has none of those issues. It Just Works.

(I haven’t tried to use some of the more advanced functionality such as the distributed SCM, so I can’t really comment on that. But for small projects using a local repository, it seems ideal).

The Lunatic Fringe (of Edinburgh)

When you’ve lived somewhere all your life (or at least for the vast majority of the portion of your life that you can actually remember, as in my case), you tend to take the things that are there for granted… even if they’re the very same things other people will travel thousands of miles to come and gawk at. Case in point: when Edinburgh goes crazy with the largest arts festival in the world every August, I always used to spend more time getting irritated by all the tourists getting on buses and gazing around in wide-eyed astonishment, as if they needed not just the fares and destinations but the entire concepts of fiat currency and motorised transport explained to them while I just wanted to get home from work before midnight, than I did actually going to shows. But this year will be different, thanks mainly to living with a certified Fringe addict.

We’ve been to two shows already, which is quite good going considering there have been exactly two nights of August so far. Last night’s was a complete live performance of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells by two men. (For those of you that don’t know me, I am a massive Mike Oldfield fan. For those that do, my apologies, I’m afraid I’m going to bang on about Tubular Bells yet again).

This is my collection of Mike Oldfield CDs. Please don’t be alarmed, I am seeking professional help.

I didn’t know what to expect at all. It always feels a bit dangerous going to see a new interpretation of something that’s so close to my heart (in this case the album that first made me realise how amazing music could be), but this time I wasn’t disappointed!

For a start, it was very faithful to the original version, more than I would have thought possible with only two musicians and no pre-recorded backings, and probably even more so than some of Mike Oldfield’s performances of it. They also had a pretty impressive range of different instruments; although there were synths and samplers, they didn’t rely on them too heavily. I counted six guitars, a mandolin, one and a half drum kits, a glockenspiel, two kazoos and of course the eponymous long thin metallic hanging things in addition to the four assorted keyboards and the bewildering tangle of wiring underneath. The two guys both switched from one instrument to the next at an incredible speed, sometimes playing two at once while also adjusting things with their feet. I also didn’t see any sheet music or notes anywhere on the stage, so the whole thing must have been quite a memory test. But despite all this, one of them still found the time to down a half-glass of red wine during one of the quieter moments.

I’d definitely recommend it if you’re a Tubular Bells fan. Even if you’re not, it has to be one of the more entertaining ways to spend an hour of your August. Where else do you get to see one man going mental at a drumkit and a kazoo simultaneously while another hammers out piano chords and makes caveman noises into a microphone? 🙂


Projects Update

(This post is mainly an attempt to give myself a gentle kick up the bum towards doing something about all this stuff).

So… it’s nearly 3 months since I posted about my personal projects, so it must be time for an update. Generally I haven’t got as much done on them as I’d hoped; travelling the world and playing with geek-toys has taken up a lot of my time over the past few weeks. But looking down my list and thinking about what I’ve achieved, I can see that it hasn’t been quite as bleak as I feared. And now I have Luna and a whole month (well, nearly) of not travelling anywhere at my disposal, I should be able to make some more progress.

Projects Bubble, Everything and Chippy are not really my responsibility to keep on track. There was a tentative plan to do something on Chippy back in June, but it was scuppered by a very full schedule and a hair dye disaster. It would be nice if more was happening on them (especially Bubble), but I’m not going to beat myself up over the fact that it hasn’t yet.

Project Hohoho: the funding campaign is now over and we raised a respectable amount :). First actual filming commences soon, though I probably shouldn’t say any more about it just now as the plans are still being kept under a certain sandwich-like food item (watch the pitch video!).

Project Noah is one of my major paid work projects. It’s coming along very nicely (apart from a slight setback involving a crucial building being full of asbestos and possibly having to be evacuated for an extended period while they get rid of it). I have an idea for a blog entry I want to post about this as I do think it’s really interesting stuff… it will take a bit of preparation though.

Project Bits: This is maybe the one I feel is most important but it seems slow to get started. I did a bit of writing and a bit of general planning work and research. It’s become more and more ambitious in my mind, which is probably a good thing in that it might help to differentiate it from anything similar that’s out there, but a bad thing in terms of making it less likely to actually get finished. I definitely need to organise it and work out what exactly I want to do.

Project Buster: not much progress. I downloaded a whole load of stuff for it onto my new computer but haven’t had time to do much with it yet. In my head it’s starting to become a bit more concrete, and form tentative links with Projects IOM and Fantasy World.

Project IOM: I was sort of hoping for some nice summer evenings as they would have given me a chance to do more of this. So far I’ve been disappointed :(. Let’s hope August and September are nicer.

Project X-Ray: haven’t done much, but it’s sort of linking up in my head with Project Fantasy World, which is going a bit better… and I have a more definite (but probably impossible) idea for it.

Project Megadroid: this one actually is going OK, after a quiet spell. Getting the new phone has helped it along rather a lot. So has something else that I may blog about separately.

Project History: making a lot of progress on this lately, again after a quiet spell. The first thing that needs to be done on it is quite a laborious task but the end is now in sight!

Projects Classical, New Leaf and Tridextrous haven’t got far. New Leaf really shouldn’t be hard to get finished but other things keep distracting me.

Project Fantasy World: this was possibly the vaguest idea of them all, but it’s taken shape in my head and started to connect with X-Ray, Buster and Bits. I’ve been playing with some software that could help with it and getting further than I expected to.

Project Bonkers: … um, yeah.

I do feel a bit more inspired now :). Hopefully next time I post about one of these it won’t be in quite such vague and meaningless terms!