ESRI UK and GI in 2007

I was leafing through GEOConnexion this month and skimmed through the article on predictions for 2007 in GI (usual culprits included Ed Parsons, Vanessa Lawrence, AGI, Autodesk, Cadcorp, Ian Dowman etc) and was staggered by the opening statement of Roger Waite, Managing Director of ESRI UK which said:

“For too long GIS has been a solution looking for a problem; this is set to change.”

I’m sorry but if my memory of GIS history is correct, we have the development of CGIS and DIME in the 1960s (along with the Experimental Cartography Unit in the UK), followed very shortly afterwards with the establishment of ESRI itself. These weren’t computer systems for the fun of it, but digital spatial engines designed for specific problems. GIS has never been a solution looking for a problem, rather a niche product that has had limited application, partly due to the high cost and consequently limited ROI.

I can’t help but think that ESRI is too busy looking over its shoulder to notice that Google (et al) is actually already in front. Look at Ed Parsons comments on Neogeography for a primer.

Dualit Coffee Maker Update

After two and a half years of faithful service my Dualit Espresso machine finally gave up the ghost. Many wonderful cups of coffee have been delivered by this machine, along with an awful lot of milk frothing. And the problem? A dead boiler, which meant I could have cold espresso and unfrothy, frothy milk. No good really. Being inquisitive I took the machine apart to see the neat, tidy and well made interior that I was expecting from Dualit. Unfortunately the boiler forms part of the sealed brewhead which was a no go.

I pondered buying a new machine, but with an original list price of 325 it seemed worth trying to get Dualit to fix it. After an initial enquiry, I gathered it would be 20-30 which I thought was incredibly reasonably. So I packaged the machine up and sent it back. Two weeks later I had heard nothing so phoned them to hear that it was in the workshop. The following day I took delivery of a brand new machine, free-of-charge. I can only assume it was beyond repair and that Dualit must stand by their products. So I am full of praise for both the product ethos and reasonable repair facilities that Dualit offer.

AllPeers Peer-to-Peer Networking

Peer-to-Peer networking has been around for quite a while and is accompanied by the music industry’s paranoia concerning piracy. And they well might be right, but thats not the focus here. Rather businesses are starting to see the benefits of a variety of peer-to-peer networks and there are now a wealth of clients around using different network protocols.

One recent development in this area then is AllPeers, an Add-On for Firefox. So the first thing to note is that peer-to-peer is now integrated in to the browser, which in my opinion is a good thing. One piece of networking software to handle a variety of tasks. The second thing of note is that as a result, AllPeers takes advantage of the built-in SSL to offer encryption in file sharing. Finally, you have user-level control over the files you wish to share. Great if you want to make your holiday snaps available to just your Mum, whilst your stag-night video is only downloadable by those that attended!

So these are two huge advantages. AllPeers is currently in pre-release beta but offers a solid client that is highly functional. The system is server based in order to search for other clients and files. If they aren’t already on AllPeers then they are sent an email and, after downloading the plugin, can join in. As noted above, you can user level file permissions for sharing and it is as simple as dragging and dropping the file you want to share on to groups of users or individuals. Whilst it can be difficult to put a peer-to-peer UI within the paradigm of a web browser, All Peers have done a good job. As this is a pre-release version there are features still being added. An instant messaging client has recently appeared which is also pretty good.

And why might you want to use a peer-to-peer client? And why is this post in the GIS category? Well, I often find myself needing to file share spatial data with colleagues or students and as soon as they get too big for email (>10Mb) then it becomes a problem. In fact most of the time I drop back to sticking the files on a web server and emailing a link. All Peers adds convenience, encryption and permissions to help solve this problem.

Open Knowledge Foundation

The Open Knowledge Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to addressing the utilisation of knowledge within a digital society and engaging in the wide and open availability of that knowledge. They are, not surprisingly, not in favour of restrictive practises in the availability of data/information. This clearly crosses paths with my work at the Journal of Maps and I broadly support such an initiative, particularly where it is able to raise the profile of the issues surrounding “open knowledge” and engage relevant stakeholders.

The OKF have organised Open Knowledge 1.0, the first all-day Open Knowledge event. The programme tackles data, media and government information and certainly looks interesting. If you have an interest in this area then it will be well worth a visit.

House re-wiring…. not really in the “fun” category

I’ve had my house rewired recently and used Instalec, an electrical contractor in the Luton area. I was particularly concerned that a good job was done (I had had some good recommendations of several contractors) and, of course, that the quote was as low as possible. After having got a few quotes I chose Instalec based upon these two criteria. Saying that, they were the only contractor who didn’t come and look at the job. And they got a bit of a shock when they turned up and found the job larger than anticipated. They did do a good job, bar a few relatively less important issues, but I guess that is going to happen on all major jobs.

I then got the shock when the final bill came in at over twice the original estimate. I accept that estimates are ball park figures, but I can’t accept a doubling in the bill when at no point are you forewarned of this. Ho hum, the world turns. It does pay to be extra careful in getting anyone to work on any part of your house!

Einstein says it all: geography is much harder than physics

I have to admit to really liking this quotation from Einstein:

“As a young man, my fondest dream was to become a geographer. However, while working in the Customs Office, I thought deeply about the matter and concluded that it was far too difficult a subject. With some reluctance, I then turned to physics as an alternative.”

It’s great and I oft quote it to people as to the complexity of natural systems and, consequently, the importance of geography as a subject (and, lets face it, we all like to be better than physicists. DIGRESSION: I should really carry on with the Einstein train of thought, but the physicist bashing is too tempting. I therefore digress to a quote that Otmar Buser ((I don’t think its attributable to him though) at the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research. He said that physicists are actually quite stupid; request an explanation about some physical effect (e.g. how do snowflakes form?) and then proceed to ask “why” to every answer they give. They won’t be able to get to six responses!!

Anyway, returning from digression. This would be all very well and good except for the small matter than Einstein didn’t actually say it. Ho hum, well it was good while it lasted. Now I am probably not the only one alive who thinks this quote is still attributable to Einstein and I’m certainly not the first one to realise that this is misquoted; in fact, it’s a(n) (innocent) hoax. Well after some digging it would appear that quite a few people in the mid-90s didn’t think this was a quotation from Einstein and it took until 1997 and, yes, GIS, to root out the truth (well, at least I think so!).

And the place to look is that oft read journal GIS World. Jerome Dobson also thought the quote odd and so mused about it in one of his columns. The result was a large mailbox in response and an admission from Duane Marble that he had composed the quote as a dig at the physicists in his building. And, as with Chinese Whispers, it had propagated from there. If you Google it all the top hits will show that this has been debunked, but there are still a good spattering of sites that do actually quote it (University of New England for instance).

Whilst GIS World has finished as a title, the back issues will be available online in the not-too-distant future. I’ll link to them then.

What degree should you choose?

This question has been posed to me in a variety of guises by, several different people, over the last couple of weeks and remains a perennial problem for students taking A-levels. It started out with a discussion on how best to recruit students and I mentioned that my wife (Middlesex University) had had considerable success in engaging six formers through the organisation of a revision conference. These are very popular and actually make money!! She had organised some lunchtime sessions, the most popular of which were on how to select a degree. This was then followed by a query from my niece as she was bewildered by the vast choice of degrees and locations. And from the discussion with her, the point was made that actually very few careers (and at the time we could only think of medicine) require you to take a degree in the particular subject area. Law, teaching and accountancy are all good examples of where you can cross-train with a conversion course (although if there are other careers then let me know). Indeed it reminded of a Steve Wright (in the afternoon) joke about how many DJs actually have a media studies degree. Or (in reverse), what careers does a sports science degree actually lead on to and how directly relevant is the academic content of the degree (and the sterotype is of people becoming PE teachers, which I am sure is both unfair and not true). Actually, my wife made the point that many vocational degrees need academic content to be validated at degree level, yet much of it is of little use to the career then pursued.

So thinking about this question got me pondering the poor recruitment that geography has seen over the last 6 or 7 sever years in HE. Geography went from very high numbers in the mid-1990s to a low in 2003/4 with a gradual rise since then. This is directly attributable to the drop in numbers of students taking geography at GCSE and A-level, a result of the introduction of more vocational style subjects at GCSE and A-level (business studies for example).

This somewhat rambling series of thoughts brings me back to the original question of what degree should you actually choose? Well in my experience most employers are concerned with the classification (grade) of your degree, not specifically the subject that it is in. First and foremost then you want to select a degree that you are good at and, perhaps more importantly, that you enjoy as a subject (and these both held true when I studied geography as an undergraduate). I also think, with my lecturers hat now on, that it is more beneficial to study academic rather than vocational subjects. This was partly why geography was so successful as a subject; it combined together science and social science and introduced students to a broad range of skills and experiences that were invaluable in the workplace. Vocational subjects have their place but not, in my opinion, at degree level. No doubt I stand to be corrected on this point!

What is a TOID?

I set my first year class an exam and one of the questions asked what TOID was the acronym for (I would have used the OS definition but it wasn’t as good as Wikipedia!). I’ve copied below a list of the wrong answers. Pick your favourite!!

modelling data
topological identifier
topographical indicator
topological
topographic observation identifier device
topographical output international datums
topological object identification
topology only identified data
transformation of informational data
topology orientation identities data
topography identification
topographical ordinary information data
topography oriented identity
map projection
topographic order integrated data
topographic identification number
database use
topographical
topographic ordinary intergrated data
type of geoid
topographically oriented information demographics
topographic origin information database
topological order intergrated data
topographic identifying

Being a good lecturer needs….. more sex

The BBC has reported (admittedly a year ago) on a study at the University of Paisley that was looking at the impact of different forms of sex on stress levels. Blood pressure was monitored during a variety of situations designed to increase stress, including public speaking. And the study found that participants who had had penetrative sex had reduced blood pressure and recovered from stress quicker than all other groups. The worst off were those who abstained from sex.

What does this mean for lecturers? Well I won’t spell it out, but I suspect our stress reduction courses don’t involve this kind of therapy ;)

Sense About Science

It’s difficult to go a day without reading some loon story in the newspaper or seeing a reporter making ludicrous claims based upon flimsy evidence. Whilst as a scientist it can be relatively easy to “debunk” some of these stories (or find more reliable information about it), the “general public” are far less aware of the scientific arena and methods of research and subsequent reporting upon it. And for every opinion “!based upon evidence”, there is an equally compelling counter argument. Some “hot potatotes” include:

  • does smoking cause lung cancer?
  • is global warming occurring
  • what are the benefits and weaknesses of nuclear power
  • is stem cell research ethical
  • should we perform animal testing



The list is almost endless and there are no quick and easy answers. Thankfully the charity Sense About Science is trying to address the balance by presenting reasoned scientific information to the public. This is based upon a group of “grass roots” scientists who provide specialist input upon specific topics. The charity has a reading room of relevant titles for “public consumption”, as well as a phone number that people can call for further advice (and this includes, for example, any kind of employee, employer or civic group, not just the general public). There is also information relating to how the scientific process works, including a useful introduction to peer review.

First Year Experience: what are we trying to achieve?

Times have achanged in Higher Education in the UK. With the government aiming for 50% of young people to be entering HE, gone are the days of the “top 15% of the population” staying on education. Of course what this means is more students, more money and, ultimately, a lower cost per student to teach (read: less money per student). And whilst the government would have us believe that school results are improving year-on-year, I don’t believe that, as a population, we are getting cleverer.

Institutions then are taking more students and a greater proportion of weaker ones. And whilst our attention may be drawn to the “bottom tail” that has traditionally been taken up by ex-polytechnics, this is a problem also facing middle and upper tier universities. For example, when my brother went to university, one of his contemporaries at Oxford University claimed that he received 1 hour of tuition a week in his Pure Maths degree. Bearing in mind that OxBridge have/had 8 week terms, he received 24 hours of tuition a year!! At Kingston we often have a contact time of 4 hours per week for individual modules (8 per year). This is a huge step change for a place like Oxford and the effect on their teaching and research should not be under estimated.

Of course they still have relatively good students coming up and don’t have a problem filling their quotas. When you move to middle tier universities there is a little more of a struggle to achieve good students, particularly in subjects that recruit less well (and geography is quite a good example). Below this the quality of incoming student drops such that key skills cannot be taken for granted. And by key skills, I mean being able to write english, perform simple maths, use a computer, take lecture notes, find the library. And the policy at Kingston, and many other institutions, is to provide a “quality” first year experience. In practice this has meant no formal exams for assessment in semester one. One could be charitable and think that this helps settle students down by providing a less stressful first semester. Alternatively (and cynically!) this could simple be marketing that entices students in and then enables to pass the first year therefore retaining the student for the full degree. Either way, these decisions need to be made on educational grounds and whilst the first year rarely counts towards a final degree mark, it introduces core theory and skills that are developed across programs in the second and third years. The first year is therefore a vital and integral academic part of the degree. The lack of exams continues the school trend of coursework with the potential for an inflation of marks. For my first years this year, I introduced a mid-term multiple choice test and end-of-term short answer test. The results were shocking and demonstrated a lack of basic writing skills in addition to a painfull failure to show the acquisition of knowledge and understanding.

What does this say for HE at the moment? Well a large proportion of these students really aren’t prepared for academic study at university, at least not within the current setup. This should be offset against the students who don’t have traditional qualifications or are returning to education are a significant length of time. The “lower tier” universities have an enviable reputation for “value added” and there are some true “gems” that come through the student body who demonstrate a tenacity in adverse situations and fully achieve their academic ambitions. However I can’t but fail to be worried about the current status of basic skills in incoming students. Whilst we seem to have avoided the issue in the UK for a while, a 4-year degree is a potential solution, suing the first year to help bridge the gap between schools and HE. Of course with students who now pay (at least in part) for their education, there will be a clear (financial) preference for completing a (equivalent) degree in three rather than four years. And this is against the backdrop of the government introducing 2-year degrees!!

Who needs an address anyway….

This story, originally reported in The Sun, has been doing the rounds on the GIS blogs, but its such a great item I couldn’t resist putting it up.

In short a guy couldn’t remember the address of his friend, so instead of writing the county and nearest town (which is what most of us would do after having phoned directory enquiries!), he drew a map instead. And, of course, the Royal Mail actually delivered it!!

Humax Personal Video Recorder

Santa was good to me this year and delivered a shiny new Humax 9200T PVR. For those not familiar with PVRs, they are hard disc based digital video recorders. The Humax are specifically designed for Freeview and the first generation of recorders (the 8000) allowed you to record programmes through the Freeview electronic programme guide (much like Sky) and also timeshift shows. Timeshifting allows you to pause live TV and rewind or fast forward through it. The PVR records the live channel into a cache on the disc and can also stream the recording from the cache at the same time. Basically, if you fancy a cuppa tea just pause your programme, run to the kitchen and when you come back just carry on playing.

Time shifting alone is a fantastic feature, as well as not having to worry about tapes or DVD discs. Great. However the PVR could only record one channel and, much like a VCR you had to watch that channel whilst it was recording. Well Humax have upped the stakes considerably with the 9200T which is a dual channel recorder. This means you can record two different channels at the same time whilst watching a third different channel or playing back a recording. It also features picture-in-picture (PiP; a small window on the main screen that shows another channel), MP3 playback, recording cutting/splicing, stills photo viewing and a USB2 interface for upload/download. The hard disc is now 160Gb or about 90 hours of recording.

The firmware on the device is still not perfect and has gone through several releases. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the USB2 connection. The interface on the box, as well as the software, appears to have been very rushed. The transfer speed is very slow at ~1Mb/s (it should be at least 10Mb/s) and no error correction is employed which means recordings with blips in them. Also, they are transferred as raw video streams as transmitted over-the-air. All of this has led to a variety of investigation and development by the community at large and reported, to a greater extent, at Hummy.org.uk. A new set of USB drivers, and command line software, have been written for PCs (Humax media Controller) which implements error checking and slightly increases the speed. A GUI front-end is also available.

The video files are in a format called TS or MPEG2 Transport Stream. The good news is that MPEG2 is exactly the same as the encoding used on DVDs, although it is formatted is PS or Programme Stream. In short the TS files need to be demultiplexed, re-multiplexed as PS files and then set up for DVD authoring before they can be burnt to a DVD. It would be nice if Humax did all this for you. But they don’t!! I currently use ProjectX to de-mux and then IFOEdit to re-mux/author my files. Nero is then employed to burn the disc.

It’s the actual file transfer that takes time and so, as a result, considerable work as been done in understanding the disc format used by Humax. son_t distributes a file reader for Humax formatted discs called 9200TReadFiles Utility, however you still need to mount the Humax disc in aside a PC. A nice little hardware workaround has been devised that leaves a USB2 interface attached permanently to the Humax disc inside the recorder. This can be plugged in to a laptop and files copied directly off the discs bringing the benefits of both error checking and full USB2 speeds.

LaTeX: Code Editor

In my earlier blog on LaTeX I mentioned that at the Journal of Maps we use MikTex. As with any other LaTeX distribution, MikTeX just processes the LaTeX code, typesets it and produces (if you use pdftex) into a PDF. The crucial stage is actually creating the LaTeX code in the first place and I mentioned earlier the benefits of using AbiWord. Ultimately you will need to produce your LaTeX code and this will typically be within a standard text editor. There are many freeware text editors available, however the one I regularly use for all text editing tasks is Notetab Pro. This relatively inexpensive editor (which can run directly from a USB stick) is as feature packed as you can get, including regular expressions, handling of large files, is very fast and incorporates a very good scripting language. All good traits and, thankfully, someone has programmed a NoteTab front-end called TeXlips that speeds up editing and PDF generation.