Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Book review: The Great Gatsby

TGG needs no introduction. I read it at O-level and now read it again, since Miranda is reading it for GCSE. Why is it good? It is well written, worldy-wise, and tells an interesting story of interesting times. Perhaps it helps to know the story; it makes early promises like there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life easier to read in context.

It helps that a lot of it is about rich people. It's kinda nice to read about lovely women lying gracefully on chaise longue looking elegant. There's a certain connection to Proust about it all; the young narrator moving up into a stratum of wealth and privilege, and naturally this is a pleasant world to be drawn into reading about.

Is it a great novel? How could you rank it against, say, Heart of Darkness? Lower, I think. There something slight and fluffy about it, coming perhaps from the subject matter; it is just rather hard to take it all seriously, no matter how seriously it is all clearly intended. Gatsby's great obsession, Daisy, isn't really worth his attention. The book attempts to finesse this at the end, and turn it into Gatsby chasing his own past - a-la "a la Recherche" - but I don't think it will quite do. Somewhat less important: the book hints rather strongly that Gatsby's money is dishonestly arrived at. By implication, it suggests this isn't important: the whole society was rotten, Gatsby's hard-to-define fine qualities more than outweigh this; but it sin't clear we should agree.

But it is a very well written book. I say that as a reader of sci-fi, of course, much of it of rather low literary quality, so I'm hardly a good judge. I made a brief attempt to find something to prove how well written it is, but it would be pointless.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Life during Maytime: bees, coxing, gardening, Moff

Upand to the river by 8 to cox M2. Who managed a creditable two locks at steady state with a few bursts, stern-paired by Chris and Simon E. I steered well if I say so myself so we hardly had to stop despite traffic. I drove in because it was raining when I woke but it was sunny by the time we finished. At home, in time to say good bye to M who is off to the states for a week of fun work. Last night we all (including D, who came over for the occasion) went to the Plough for a (good) dinner to celebrate M's promotion: she is now Manager, Staff rather than a mere Manager, Senior. I'm still Engineer, Senior Staff I think. In the garden I did some extensive cutting back, today and yesterday, of the halfway hedge which had grown to absurd proportions almost without me noticing it. With that, and the silver birch chopped a bit, and the quince also, things have opened up a little. Then I took off the netting and poles around the trampoline, since they really aren't needed any more. After that the bees needed some attention. Nikola had mentioned that hers had gone solid with rape, which is unfair, because it is still in flower. When I opened mine the "peaked" now "B" hive, that had I think a new swarm this spring, was doing OK with only uncapped liquid honey in a couple of frames, so I left it alone. The "flat" now "A" hive was full of bees. I didn't venture past the top super, but took out three frames width of grown-in-place comb - see video below - on the left side. Now it is 5 om. I still need to plant out some plants.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

A trip to Seville: day 4: Seville

Up just before 8 - the sun rises through my window around then, very quiet and peaceful on clear blue days - and go for a 7 km run through the nearby Parc, back along the railway line, along the river, and back. It's not an "obvious" running route though; I suspect that the far side of our local bit of "river" is the correct route.

B'fast, moderately quickly - only one coffee - to get to the Rowing by 10, but I needn't have rushed: there was some faffing around and we didn't get off till 10:30. The ladies had done their VIII as an early - 8 am - outing; we borrowed Sarah and Rachel so Simon E and Steve O could go off in the quad. It went well; better sat and more enjoyable; we got up to 30 whilst keeping our form fairly well.

After that I skipped lunch in favour of a shower and a walk into town; this lead to me walking in about 1 pm and it was quite hot any time when I wasn't in the shade, which was moderately often to start. I had intended to stop in a bar or somewhere for lunch, but as so often with me none of them looked quite right so I didn't stop till I got to the cathedral. Which is really very big. Bigger than you think in fact. It also had a big queue so I sat in the shade and waited for it to go down somewhat. Inside, as I'd half suspected from the outside, it is a touch disappointing; it is more big than anything else, but not more interesting. Doubtless my ignorance and lack of perception. But the stained glass, for example, might have been quite nice but with the walls being so big the windows are far away. The orange courtyard in the back is nice. The elliptical chapel makes a good pic.

After that I really should have found somewhere quiet to sit down but I didn't. I also managed to find a somewhat unsatisfactory path back along the riverside that probably wasn't intended to be walked. But, it was all fine really. Back not much before I'm due to row again in the 18:15 outing, which is Men Only this time. Me at 7 again, Conor for some reason hiding at 2. Also good; not quite as well sat as this morning, but faster. Towards the end we managed to snag an underwater wire not properly buoyed on the fin, resulting in amusing bending and a distinct steering problem. Fortunately the centre's Mr Fixit had only just left the site so we got him back and he replaced it, with some hammering and grinding and the second fin fitted to his satisfaction.

Dinner at the centre, then out on the town for those who wanted to; I stayed in.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

A trip to Seville: day 2: Madrid to Seville

Day two starts with me going down to the lobby for breakfast, which doesn't work well, as breakfast is at the top on the sixth floor. But with that little error corrected I have the usual sort of buffet you expect in a 4* hotel, including lots of coffee and orange juice and. this being Spain, little bits of dried ham. After, after some internetting, it is time for a run: I go West, down the hill I didn't know was there, over the river, and into the Casa de Campo; see GPS trace. Despite that being a 12 km run I didn't get all that far into the Campo. A quick shower and pack and check out: time for the Prado.

Happily all is walkable so I trundle off; my bag isn't heavy and I hang my coat off it and keep to the shade and it's pleasant. At the Prado, there's a queue for tickets which I stand in for a bit before a functionary says go to the far end so we do and there's no queue. What am I to look at? First up is Goya's "black paintings" which are pretty weird but well worth seeing; "Saturn eating his son" is dead famous. There's a lot of other stuff there of course: the 2nd and 3rd of May for example. After more than an hour I break for the cafe which is a glassed-in courtyard at the back. Then another hour of pix, disappointingly I don't find the Bosch which I was expecting.

To the train station. I have an hour free so get coffee, juice and a goats-cheese sandwich on decent bread. The train goes from the first floor, it turns out that the whole "old station" has been turned into a jungle / boutiques, and the new station built off the back. And they have stupid security - why on Earth would you scan baggages for internal travel? Sigh.


Train is swish and new; Eurostar-like. And not at all full. Countryside between Madrid and Cordoba is quite empty: few signs of habitation, mostly olives or oaks spaced with pasture, gentle hills. From Cordoba to Seville more habited and farmed. Cruise into Seville a little early; I walk from station to hotel Barcello and am just getting confused by reception when Dan turns up; it turns out I'm Angela, so to speak. Anyway I have a room and we wander off to the rowing centre which is very close, roughly as the VIII that is out, comes in. Thence dinner in the residence by the rowing centre: basic-but-plentiful rather like last year. After dinner to the Barcello for drinks and then, for me at least, bed; for the young folk, a walk into town for the nearest bar.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

A trip to Seville: day one: Madrid

This year's rowing camp is in Seville. Ole. For reasons I dimly remember I chose to fly to Madrid, stay overnight, and get the train to Seville tomorrow. I'm at the hotel Eurostars Plaza Mayor, which is in a side street not too far away from said PM. It's fine; the room is clean and has Wifi and all the rest is just detail.

Miriam kindly drove me down to Stanstead; we got up before 6, went downstairs to discover that the noises in the night were indeed E and Mdy ensconsing themselves in the living room. Quick b'fast pick up back remember backup-printed boarding pass and we're off; it is a misty morning with clear skies and the orange sun rises as we drive down to a clear day. Couldn't it be raining here? Security, the traditional theatre, is crowded but everyone has got used to the pantomine so it is efficient and quick: 15 mins through. They don't query my I've-checked-its-legal 4.5 cm Swiss Army miniknife.  I have time for a coffee to relax then onto gate and a pain free boarding. The flight is full, I have a window seat, and read Hayek: tRtS. See Brian and P as they board later.

Land. Well, here we are, but where are we? I have totally not done my homework: I have no idea where in relation to Madrid the airport is, and I've failed to pre-load Maps onto my phone. Sort that out with airport grotty free Wifi and discover town is ~15 km SW. Well... I could walk. Why not? It's a sunny day and I want to see the place. Maybe it's too hot outside. Checks. No, it's fine. Let's go!

As usual, escaping the immeadiate environs in the right direction turns out to be the hard part, especially when it involves crossing the usual sorts of roads near airports, but I get there via some interestingly wild grass in the central reservations.


The route in starts off well; pleasantly shaded through pines. Of course lots of it is city too. The one bit I do rather regret is this:


That's the gates at the back of the Parque Quinta de los Molinos. Sadly, there's only one way in and out, so my detour into it became a dead end, the more so because of course I did climb the gate and squeeze through the gap you can see and go to the far wall and circle round it and eventually found a corner I could climb (with bees in the stonework!) but alas the drop down the far side was just a bit too big.

The GPS trace of the walk in is here. It took 3 hours, time well spent. Seen along the way: old folk playing boules; purple trees; small bars just like in France but I kept on going.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Manchester Man

Another spring, another marathon. This time, Manchester. Suggested, I think, by James Annan, who ran it last year. And I thought it might make a nice change. As it turns out, it was a nice change, though one way and another it wasn't significantly less hassle, travel-wise, then going to Holland.

TL;DR: I cruised 3:51:46.

You might ask: "if you cruised that, why not try a bit harder and do a bit better?" Which is a fair question. the answer is that I hadn't done any significant long distance training since Amsterdam last Autumn; only the Folksworth 15 and a 24k along the river. So I really just wanted to get under 4 hours again, which I'd failed at in Amsterdam by a whisker. And I didn't want to spoil that by running too fast and then blowing up. Arguably that only applied to the first, say, 3/4 of the race giving me no good excuse for the last 10 k. But meh; it was going well, I know my habit of falling off a cliff at the end, I'm happy.

Here's my full set of results, for reference.

Brighton 2011: 4:20:29
Rotterdam 2016: 4:16:51
Amsterdam 2016: 4:00:08
Amsterdam 2014: 3:58:00
Amsterdam 2011: 3:57:23
Rotterdam 2015: 3:55:54
Amsterdam 2012: 3:55:52
Brighton 2012: 3:54:28
Manchester 2017: 3:51:46
Brighton 2013: 3:46:32
Brighton 2014: 3:43:42
Amsterdam 2013: 3:43:06

So this is my best result since early 2014; and my fourth best of 12. I think that reflects my general fitness declining somewhat since the "great year" of 2013; largely due to pressure of work.

Of the run: the race makes the very sensible decision to have wide (2-road-lane) start area pens, which is then constricted down to about 10 feet wide briefly just before the start on a right-angle turn, before widening out onto the actual start line. Which means that you can run, unrestricted, right from the start. Excellent. They're also quite unfussy (read: I saw no marshalls) about exactly which pen you go into (which makes sense really: there are no constraints on what time you promise beforehand). So since it was convenient, I started just in the gap between C and D, just a little ahead of the 3:45 pacers. That lead to a steady stream of people overtaking me, but not too fast, so it was fine. I held the pacer off till 30 k, which was fine, as (since they started let-us-say 1 minute after me) that gave me ~14 minutes in hand over the last 12 km.

The first 21 km were fine; I started at 5:10 and faded according to plan to 5:20, and so got 1:50 for the first half, giving me a comfortable cushion for the second half. But! I've been there before and lost all that comfort, so I was more careful. One expression of that care was stopping for a pitstop at 25 k, mostly because I needed it, but partly to take off whatever time it would take early, so I could factor it in. As it was I managed a high-quality Formula-1 style 50 second stop. At that point my fade hadn't really kicked in, so I got 6:14 for that lap, and hardly lost any of my notional cushion.

Things started to slow a bit at 30 k, where my splits dropped from 5:20 to 5:40 and stayed there; then dropped to 6 at 35 and stayed there; but by 39 k I started to feel a bit ashamed of cruising quite so easily, and speeded up a little. Vignette from 2k out: man on bicycle cycling next to his son: "come on now, you're nearly there, and you're over the worst bit". Son: "No. I can assure you that this is the worst bit". For me, about 7-8-9 k out was the worst: still a ways for the line, and beginning to get tired.

One nice feature of the route is that between 14 k and 22 k the outward and returning streams are on two sides of a normal road; so you get to see the leaders coming back; and somewhat later I cheered on James as he went by. To my surprise the leading pack were all white; which will be why it was won in 2:20 rather than 2:08 or somesuch.

By happy chance I met Elissa Tennant-Brown at the start; she said, tentatively, "did you row the Boston marathon a few years back?" And indeed, yes, I had, when she was our cox. I also met her at 32 k when she ran past me; and then said hello past the finish. She got 3:44, 7 minutes better than me, probably accounted for by sticking to her 5:20 while I dropped half a minute or more per k over the last 10 k.

Of the arrangements: I had intended to B+B an hour south of Manchester, and drive to there and then from there. But quite late James turned out to have a spare bed so I slept with him; and this enabled me to take take the train. Less hassle than driving if somewhat more expensive. Cambridge to Manchester is not especially easy, and in some ways getting to Rotterdam is easier. The Holiday Inn in the MediaCity part of Manchester (well, Salford officially) is achingly clean, and there was a pasta place nearby that James had thoughtfully booked. And walking from the main station took only a bit more than an hour, all pleasantly along the canals. If I was going to do it again I'd probably turn up earlier and give myself some time to look around; on a pleasant weather weekend as this was it's a nice place, and a coffee along the canals would have been relaxing. And there's always the matchsticks to look at.

Friday, 31 March 2017

20170331_214653 (1) Tacitus on Imperial Rome (wiki) also known as the Annals or similar is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero, the years AD 14–68.

I picked up my copy second hand after finding the phrase corruptissima re publica plurimae leges, or "the more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government"; although in the edition I read, it is translated as "corruption reached its climax, and legislation abounded". Which is the other way around. Never mind, it was a concept I was interested in - see that post - and it was enough to make me get the book.

To some extent I was disappointed; it is not, as I had half thought, a collection of aphorisms. Much of it is a rather dry recitation of history, much of which was, apparently, gathered from the records of the senate. What excitement there is comes from the underlying subject, which is a mixture of Imperial Rome doing stuff (conquering, ruling, whatever; see below) and the political machinations at Rome, much of which in the later parts is the hideous corruption and cruelty of the emperors. The death of Livia is touchingly told.

Of the "Imperial Rome doing stuff" there are things of interest. Mostly, as usual, upsetting my ideas of what it was they did. Quite a lot seems taken up by Rome, as a patient but not inexhaustibly so paternal figure, keeping the peace amongst the warring and nominally conquered tribes of Armenia, or Germany. Britain gets a brief mention. Egypt was the breadbasket of the Empire, and at some point is rather casually converted from subject nation to province. None of this seems to greatly trouble the power of the Imperium.

Of the corruption at Rome: this is all rather more familiar stuff. It is hard to pick out the more relevant bits; but it is all too familiar in the cases of Nazi Germany; or Iraq; or Gaddafi's Libya. In that taking down a tyrant is risky, so people don't, so they get killed anyway. But the tyrant is always uneasy; which provokes yet more paranoid culling of prospective rivals, which generates yet more unrest. And the populace has to be fed, and there needs to be some money in the treasury to bribe the populace with.

Many of their customs appear bizarre. People, when accused before the senate often implausibly, choose suicide over trial; generally by "opening their veins", though this is generally described as a painful slow death. The Papian Poppaean law prohibited celibacy; you would be preferred in the senate if you had more children; and so on. Shades of the "decline of the West" we hear in our society? "It had failed, however, to popularise marriage: childlessness was too attractive". But why?

Page 129 in my edition - its just before, well includes, the quote re abundance of laws and corruption - is a sort of idealised history of the process of law formation, which Tacitus mostly bemoans. But what it speaks to is the way that Rome never really found itself a stable constitution or proper set of legal principles. That's especially obvious during the period that the book covers. As I understand it, Tiberius ruled as Emperor, but with no legal backing. Formally, he ruled through the senate. And from reading the book, I get the impression it was a mixture of him wishing they would do more - he frequently leaves things up to them - and doing things because they're incapable of handling them. But, he had the power.

Tacitus doesn't much like Tiberius but he was at least competent, as far as I can see. And perhaps sufficiently secure not to need to brutalise his people. In subsequent emperors, that fails.

Part of the subsequent-emperor problem, and the lack of legal basis, and the longing for the olde dayes, seems to be tied up with Imperial Rome actually being a rather small place. I don't actually know how big it was, but the reason it seems small is that everyone is there. Being exiled is a severe punishment. Despite the carnage in Rome, very few people seem to run away to safety in the provinces.

But as I say, there is so much I can't understand. One of the principle perquisites of some class was a better seat in the colosseum. Really? That seems so petty. Unless they were really status-obsessed. Like I say, I just don't understand.

A folded down page: Nero punished the "notoriously depraved Christians... the deadly superstition had broken out afresh... in Rome. All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital".

Another: after a foolish commander botches Corbulo's war in Armenia, there is no victory only peace: "At Rome, however, trophies and arches for victory over Parthia were erected... voted by the senate while the war was undecided they were not now abandoned. Known facts were ignored in favour of appearances".