Archive: Personal

Several years ago I bought the domain name duncanstephen.co.uk. I have never really been sure what to do with it, but I have kept it up because, well, it’s my name. I have had holding pages up, but never anything of real note.

I have had a bit of time off work this month, but I hadn’t planned anything. So I decided once and for all to make a proper attempt at putting a good webpage up there. The result is this new design.

Screenshot of the new website

I used this as an opportunity to experiment with new techniques. This should look pretty good on both mobiles and desktops — though it’s reasonably straightforward here since there is not really much content to speak of. (I am working on making this blog a bit more mobile-friendly in due course.)

I found it fascinating working on this design. It reminded me of when I was first learning about web design a decade ago. For the first time in years, I truly pushed myself to learn new things, and I was hooked on trying to get it all working the way I wanted it to.

But while I found the code a challenge to work on, visually I have taken a simple approach as usual. I drew influence from two sources in particular: Microsoft’s Metro design language and the BBC’s Global Experience Language.

I am a big fan of their less-is-more approach. I have always loved minimalist design, and I have increasingly strived to create designs that are simple and clear. Hopefully I have achieved it here.

The design uses icons from the Wireframe Toolbar Icons set.

It should work fine in all major browsers, although I have noticed a few quirks in Opera Mini, as well as older versions of Internet Explorer. Please let me know if you spot anything unusual.

The second leg of my trip took me away from nature. I decided to go out of my way to visit Steam — the Museum of the Great Western Railway.

I am not an extreme railway enthusiast, although I do find railways quite interesting. I only knew that Steam existed when I happened to pass it on the train a few weeks earlier on a separate journey.

I decided I wanted to visit, and it was quite convenient that I managed to incorporate it into my holiday. It is very easy to get to by rail, being just a stone’s throw away from Swindon railway station.

The museum is very comprehensive. It is not just a collection of old trains. The very first thing you see when you enter is a mocked-up back office. I wandered into a small room to find myself walking in on a worker being given a row by his boss for turning up late for work! Quite amusing.

From there, you go on to learn about the processes of building a steam locomotive, step by step.

Caerphilly Castle locomotive

Then, finally, you are presented with the finished product. This is Caerphilly Castle.

The underside of Caerphilly Castle

This is just one example of the excellent way exhibits are presented at Steam. A staircase allows you to walk straight underneath the locomotive to give a view of the underside.

After that, there are exhibits about the building of the railway itself. You learn about the Box Tunnel, and the Great Western Railway’s original unusual, but superior, broad gauge.

This is perhaps the most fun part of the museum. There is an awesome train driving simulator, and games that demonstrate the difficult job signalmen had.

Then you pay a visit to a mock GWR railway station.

The mock railway station at Steam

Train-shaped coffee pot

The station contains objects like clocks, benches and vending machines of the steam period. But the highlight for me was the brilliant silver-plated locomotive-shaped coffee pot.

This was used at Swindon railway station, which apparently was notorious for its awful refreshments. Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself complained about it, with audio of his complaint playing out in the mock railway station. The display describes it as a “foul brew”, but you cannot deny that it was gloriously presented.

"See your own country first"

After you have looked around the railway station, it is time to enter ‘Speed to the West’, which is all about the efforts made to attract tourists to use the Great Western Railway. Among the exhibits are old slot machines, which you can still try out for 20p.

“See your own country first,” one poster implores. “There is a great similarity between Cornwall and Italy in shape, climate and natural features.”

This was another highlight for me. I have a particular fascination with the visual identity and graphic design of railways.

It would have been really great if I could buy some prints of old GWR posters from the souvenir shop, but sadly they didn’t sell anything like this. I made do with a GWR keyring and three bottles of beer that were brewed by the Box Steam Brewery, based near the Box tunnel.

I also pressed a penny to emboss it with the GWR logo. I haven’t done that in years, but it is always quite a nice and inexpensive souvenir of a visit.

All-in-all I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Steam, and would highly recommend that you pay a visit if you happen to be in the Swindon area.

It is hard to believe that the 11 September attacks were ten years ago now, when I was only 15.

I was at school, waiting for my German Writing lesson to begin. It was probably my least favourite subject. As such, I didn’t especially mind the delay in the lesson beginning, thought it was quite odd.

My teacher kept on going between the classroom and the staff room. Eventually he wheeled a television through and told us we should watch this because it would have pretty big implications. If I remember correctly, we saw the second plane hit as it happened.

I thought I was pretty switched-on for my age in terms of knowing about politics and current affairs, but Islamic extremism of this nature was new to me. At the time, I mistakenly thought that the fact that the Pentagon had been hit was the biggest story. In isolation it would be bad enough.

But the resonance of the images of the World Trade Centre was incredible, and the scale of the loss of life was unimaginable. I seem to remember the news reports talking about the potential that tens of thousands of people may have been in the World Trade Centre at the time.

It was difficult to comprehend. There was one person in my class who had to have the concept of a suicide attack explained to him several times. We laughed at the time, but his attitude was right. Why would you do that?

After my adventure on the Struggle, I parked at White Moss to embark on a walk up Loughrigg Fell, which Nick Barlow recommended to me.

Although I enjoy walking up hills from time to time, I hadn’t done it for a while. But this was a good reminder that I really do enjoy it.

Does this mean I'm halfway?

I found Loughrigg Fell to be a particularly rewarding walk. As with the area around Aira Beck, there are lots of different ways you could go about it.

There are a few different summits to explore and for a while I couldn’t work out which one was the one to climb. All the more opportunity to see some of the fantastic views.

Also like Aira Beck, it was very quiet for the most part, but with more people at the main attraction. People who came up to see views like this.

Lingmoor Fell

Inevitably, my photographs do not come close to conveying how lovely the views are up there.

I went down in the opposite direction to the way I came up, and saw the people milling around on the beach at Grasmere lake.

Above Grasmere

Since I had a bit of time on my hands, I decided to go for a wander round part of Grasmere lake as well.

Small building at Grasmere

That topped of a brilliant day. It began with an early start in Dundee, setting off for a four hour long journey to Aira Beck. Then from there, via the Struggle, up a 1,000 foot hill and round a lake.

It’s a lot to cram into one day if you haven’t had much sleep. Inevitably it unravelled a bit after this. I kept on getting lost on the way to my accommodation for the evening, and ended up not eating anything in the evening.

I guess I needed a rest, but watching television in a Travelodge for several hours is quite a comedown.

After my visit to Aira Force, I hot-footed it towards Loughrigg Fell to try and fit in as much as possible before the end of the afternoon. Handily, I had printed out some Google Maps before I left Dundee, so I didn’t have to worry too much about how to get there. Or so I thought.

Looking over the route before I set off, the journey seemed simple enough. All I had to do was continue on the road round Ullswater, then keep going until I take a “slight right ontto Kirkstone Pass”, which would take me straight to Ambleside. The instructions could hardly be more benign.

Kirkstone Pass on Google Maps

But what the vast off-white expanses of the default view on Google Maps don’t show is just how hilly this area is. I knew I would be driving between hills, so I should have guessed. This was almost too much for my poor wee Panda to cope with. It hadn’t struggled like this since I drove up to the car park at Cairn Gorm last year.

Even more worrying was the road sign that basically instructs you not to drive on Kirkstone Pass during winter. Moreover, the sign called the road “The Struggle”. I was beginning to doubt whether I should take this route, or follow the alternative, longer, but presumably easier road.

Luckily, I was travelling downhill. I can imagine that taking the road in the other direction truly would be a struggle, as the gradient is apparently 25% at some points of this extraordinary road.

My eyes will have been on stalks as I made the descent. There was no risk of me disobeying the signs advising to use a low gear. It’s difficult to imagine how this narrow, twisty, and exceptionally steep road could have been more challenging — especially as I was not expecting it.

It was a bit scary, but also brilliant fun to drive. I very rarely derive pleasure from road driving. For me, driving is a function necessary to get from A to B and not much more; about as fun as washing the dishes. But the Struggle gave me a taste of how it feels to really have fun on the roads.

A couple of weeks ago I went on a mini holiday. I don’t often go on holiday since I usually struggle to find anyone to go with. In the past I have found lonesome trips to be a bit dull. But this time I decided I might as well stop in a few places on the way down to Silverstone for the World Series by Renault event, which I was dead set on attending.

After some thought, the Lake District became the obvious stopping-off point. It is roughly halfway on the journey between Dundee and Bristol, where I would be staying at a friend’s place.

The first port of call was Aira Force waterfall. I had been told that Ullswater was worth visiting, and Aira Force stood out to me as something to see in that area.

Bubbling

I was rather worried when I tried to park my car. The car park was mobbed, and I took what I considered to be the last available space. I was worried that I was blocking the car park exit somewhat. But that it didn’t stop someone else coming along and parking next to me! We agreed to back each other up if anyone told us off for not parking in the bays.

Considering how busy the car park was, I found the walk up to Aira Force and beyond surprisingly peaceful. Of course, with it being a waterfall, the river itself is quite noisy. And there were plenty of people there. But at the same time, it is amazing how much privacy you can find.

There is plenty of potential to deviate from the main path. You are not restricted to just walking alongside the stream. You can escape nature’s white noise, created by the torrents of water, to enjoy views like this.

View from near Aira Beck

I could have spent much longer exploring the area around Aira Beck. But I had only paid for two hours of parking so had to make my way back down.

I very nearly missed Aira Force itself! It was almost by chance that I eventually came across it.

Aira Force

I have no idea how I missed this on the way up. I must have been too preoccupied with seeking out other views that I walked straight past the main attraction. I am thankful I saw it in the end as it is pretty spectacular.

It says a lot about this location that I was having a brilliant time, before I had even seen the main draw.

Here are all of my photos from Aira Beck and Aira Force.

An infuriating security question: "Your favourite shape"

Is there anything more annoying than those security questions you need to login to certain websites? I cannot understand how they are supposed to make websites more secure.

I understand that passwords can be cracked and the security question is a safety net. But let’s face it. All the advice on passwords is that they are not to be real words. You should insert numerals, use mixed case, special characters; the works. If a password like that can be brute forced, a “security” answer made up of dictionary words, and based on known facts about your life, will be a piece of cake.

Facts like my mother’s maiden name, my hometown or my first primary school are not exactly secret. They can be easily answered by anyone with the slightest knowledge about me.

As far as I am concerned, it is the security equivalent of sticking a Magic Eye puzzle in your porch just in case someone manages to break down your door.

Worse still, a bad security question can lock you out of a website for good. I have seen a security question that was actually impossible for me to answer because it was asking about a life situation that simply did not apply to me. It was offensive as well as being shockingly unusable. I decided not to register for that particular website after all.

What am I supposed to do in that situation? Maybe I could just make an answer up. But how could I remember it? The only way is to write it down. Then it will only get lost in an obscure drawer, or maybe some criminal hacker’s pocket.

Then there are those questions on topics that you simply don’t care about. One certain website that I tried to login to recently left me stumped. It’s the sort of website I might only login to once every few years. So my answers to questions like these really could be anyone’s guess:

What was the surname of your favourite teacher?
I’m not sure I had a favourite teacher. Certainly, the person that immediately sprung to mind was not who I would call my ‘favourite’. And who was my favourite teacher five years ago might not now be the person I remember fondly now. My favourite teacher back when I was still a school pupil is probably totally different to the person I consider the best one now. As it is, I have absolutely no idea how I answered this question.
What is your most memorable place, but not where you were born or live?
What on earth? What is a ‘memorable place’? Not only do I struggle to have any interest in such a question whatsoever, but I cannot even tell what sort of place it might be. Could it be Edinburgh? The local park? Behind the bike sheds? No idea.
What is your favourite musical instrument?
To play or to listen to? It depends on so many things. It could be piano, marimba, vibraphone, Omnichord… It could be anything, depending on my age or mood.

When you add in the fact that answers are case-sensitive, and that you don’t get repeat attempts at the same question, it soon became clear that I wasn’t going to get access to this website. There is no way for my password to be reset.

Apparently my only recourse is to use the electric telephone. But unless they subject me to a similar barrage of obscure questions, I don’t see what advantage this offers from a security perspective. I can picture it now.

“You are Duncan Stephen?”

“Yes! Yes I am!”

“And you have changed address?”

“Yup!”

“OK! No problem at all! On the basis of this phone call we will now send your new password through the post!”

I have problems with my nozzle. When I am filling up the car, I can never get it quite right.

When visiting the petrol station in the past, I usually just filled the tank right up. But in the light of fuel price-geddon that has gripped the nation this year, I have switched to aiming to pay a certain round number in the past couple of months.

My chosen amount is £30.00. This is good to fill my tank to about three quarters full — enough for about two weeks of merry driving to and from work.

The problem is that I have only ever managed to hit £30.00 once. Every other time I have ended up paying £30.01.

The extent to which this matters is debatable. It would be pretty embarrassing if I were to pay in the kiosk. And it would be awkward if I had planned on paying in cash, and only had three tenners on me.

But as Aaron Corby pointed out, since I pay by card at the pump, the only person who really knows about my one penny overshoot is me. But my perfectionism does not allow me to accept this state of affairs.

What can you do? When I wrote about this on Twitter, many suggested aiming for £29.99. Easier said than done! In my experience, the figure always jumps.

£29.96
£29.97
£29.98
£30.01 WTF!

It’s like in the old days when you tried to look something up on teletext. You stare at the scrolling page number in the corner, anticipating the point when it reaches your chosen page… when all of a sudden it jumps.

Perhaps the best piece of advice was from Richard Rooney:

My tip? DON’T try to hit round number. Just stop filling whenever. Over lifetime of driving I’ll gain at least 5 mins!

A couple of friends made these Pacman coasters out of Hama / iron-on beads and gave them to me as a flatwarming gift.

Pacman coasters

I got them a few months ago, but haven’t got round to photographing and blogging them until now. They are pretty cool! I use them at my computer desk.

You can find out how to make them yourself too.