Friday, 27 September 2019

Sumpers speaks

[Copied here so I can reference it.]

september 24 2019, 3:00pm, the times
Supreme Court ruling is the natural result of Boris Johnson’s constitutional vandalism
lord sumption

Where does law begin and politics end? Any government’s relationship with parliament is bound to be political. Ever since the 18th century, ministers have made use of the power to prorogue or (until 2010) dissolve parliament for political advantage.

There was a consensus that they should not abuse the power, but what amounted to abuse was itself a political question, not a legal one. What is revolutionary about the Supreme Court’s decision is that it makes the courts the ultimate arbiters of what political reasons are good enough.

Yet the Supreme Court’s judgment should be welcomed even by those who believe, as I do, that politics is not the proper business of courts of law. The objection to judicial intervention in politics is that it undermines the democratic legitimacy of public decision-making. The court’s judgment, however, is not concerned with the political issues surrounding Brexit. It is concerned with the process by which those issues are to be resolved. Its effect is to reinstate parliament at the heart of that process.

The question for the rest of us is whether we still believe in the parliamentary model that the Supreme Court has vindicated. Underlying the debate about the merits of leaving the European Union, there is an even more fundamental conflict between two opposing claims to democratic legitimacy, one based on the referendum and the other on the parliamentary process. Most of our difficulties over the past three years have arisen from the misguided attempt to insert a referendum into a fundamentally parliamentary system.

I have lost count of the number of times that prominent Brexiters have declared that by authorising the referendum Parliament delegated its sovereignty to the majority. The argument is completely untenable. Leaving the EU and creating other arrangements to replace it requires new laws. It requires complex political judgments about our future relations with the EU.

Parliament is the supreme source of law. It is also the only body to which ministers can be continually accountable for their political judgments about Brexit or anything else. It is central to our whole political system. A referendum can serve none of parliament’s functions. It is not a source of law. It is not a mechanism for holding ministers to account. It is a snapshot of public opinion, and as such an important political fact for parliamentarians to take into account. But that is all it is.

The parliamentary process is fundamental in another, even more important sense. It is a mechanism for accommodating opposing opinions and interests in our society. To gain power, political parties have to appeal to a wider base than tribal faithfuls and single-issue fanatics.

A legislature whose membership reflects the balance of political parties is therefore a natural forum for compromise. In a Brexit context this might mean membership of the customs union or the European Economic Area or something similar under a different name. These half-way houses are in many ways impure and unsatisfactory. Few people would make them their first choice. But it is probable that a larger proportion of the electorate could live with them than with any other solution.
Appeals to the referendum as an alternative source of legitimacy are really calls to reject compromise. Proroguing parliament was a method of circumventing the political process, and avoiding the pressure to compromise that is inherent in it. It is absurd to criticise the House of Commons for being just as divided as those whom it represents; and dangerous to obstruct its attempts, however laborious and accident-prone, to accommodate our divisions and avoid the aggressive extremes at either end of the Brexit spectrum.

The British constitution famously consists of many things that are not law but political conventions. Some of them are rules of practice. Others are attitudes of mind, part of a shared political culture that is based on respect for the centrality of the House of Commons. Political conventions are a better, more flexible and more democratic alternative to law. But if we are to avoid a wholly legal constitution, we must honour them.

The present government has taken an axe to convention. It has sought to use the awesome prerogative powers of the Crown, but without the accountability to parliament that alone makes the existence of those powers tolerable. It has been determined to disregard our only collective political forum. This is something entirely new in British politics.

The natural result of constitutional vandalism on this scale is that conventions have hardened into law. That is the effect of the Supreme Court’s decision. It is infinitely regrettable that it should have come to this, but better than leaving a void governed by neither convention nor law, in which the government can do whatever it likes.

The moral is that under our constitution 52 per cent cannot expect to carry off 100 per cent of the spoils. They have to engage with the rest. That is what parliament is for.

[Lord Sumption retired as a justice of the Supreme Court in December last year.]

Saturday, 21 September 2019


A book by Orson Scott Card. Wiki has a decent summary of the plot. Goodreads has... some reviews. I've just finished reading it for the second time, but I'd forgotten most of it. It's quite hard to summarise. I enjoyed reading it but... well, it's one of the many books where the setup at the start works quite well with lots of lose ends an unexplained matters; and he handles tying the threads together moderately but not very well.

Of the science: let's start with a simple one: the world's inhabitants are the descendants of some starship folk who came here ~3kyr ago; the world is poor in metals because "the starship captain used the ships weapons to destroy metal deposits". WTF? How would you even do that? Destroying iron ore deposits from space is like really tricky maaan. Perhaps OSC was bored with the usual "the planet was light on heavy metals" stuff but even so this is a poor piece of nonsense. Some of the "science" - headworms - is fun but implausible, but that's OK. The genetics on which the entire story hinges seems implausible to me; that's sort-of OK because, well, there needs to be something and it's pretty hard to expect a novellist to come up with new science.

Of the mind control: this goes totally unexplained. Not even a sketch of an explanation, let alone how it could reach out all the way into orbit.

Of the characters: most are implausibly excellent at what they do. The usurper, Oruc, is an excellent king, despite being an usurper. The usurped king, Peace, is wise, noble, an unparalleled assassin (techniques he learn from, errm...) and diplomat. and with unbreakable self control. His daughter, Patience, the central character is (like Ender) another unbelievably talented and grown up child. They happen to meet along the road a surgeon (in a mediaeval world that can be presumed to be rather short on surgeons) who can do brain surgery. A soldier-slave, Will, waits patiently for them to happen by. And so on.

Of the philosophy: the Goodreads folk seem to take this seriously; maybe OSC did; I don't think I can. The justification for slavery by the not-believably-noble characters is particularly odd: no-one can be a slave against their own will, and so on. Maybe there is something to explore there, but by delineating only perfect characters, it can't do it. How about me? I went to work today (it's a Saturday) and spent a few hours beating my head against Enhanced Logging (don't ask). I did this voluntarily. Or did I? Am I a slave of the company without knowing it. And so on. There's a alien race who have no "will", and so generally have a role in society of doing whatever people want them to. But in turns out they do have a will, just easily dominated, and when shielded from others are capable of acting for themselves. But... so what? It's more like ideas, than philosophy, which would require reasoned argument.

Of the prophecy: yes, it's yet another book that needs a prophecy, or foretelling, to keep the plot moving.

Monday, 9 September 2019

No woman no cry

I thought I knew what this meant: with no woman around, you won't be sad. Or, a lament for the miseries of love. Perhaps you won't be joyous either, but it will reduce the depths. That's how I've interpreted it for years; decades.

However, looking at the lyrics, it is rendered as "no, woman, no cry" - which changes it to an instruction to a woman: don't cry.

Others have come up with more creative ways of misunderstanding: that "There is no woman who does not cry". That's from a non-native speaker, so it is unnatural, but possible. And yet another: "I always thought it meant that he had 'no woman' but he wasn't going to cry about it anymore".

But really that's all beside the point; the ambiguity is pleasing but the real meaning is in:

Said, said, said, I remember when-a we used to sit
In the government yard in Trenchtown
And then Georgie would make the fire lights
As it was logwood burnin' through the nights
Then we would cook cornmeal porridge
Of which I'll share with you
My feet is my only carriage
So I've got to push on through

That calls to mind some of my father's stories of Jamaica. I wish I'd paid more attention. I wish I could ask him again.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

The US of A: San Diego

The full set of pix is here. There are links to some GPS traces in this; some of those have their own pix attached.

After some vacillation I went for hand luggage only: the red bag, and a "laptop bag". In hindsight, I could have left the running shoes, and the climbing shoes and harness, and GEB, and taken just the one bag. But I couldn't have known that in advance.


Sunday: Mfd+J off to their new place, M off 9:30, E out partying, D up but quiet, I do a little gardening and sitting around before being picked up at 11:30,it's all very civilised. My checkin is 13:25, we get there early, breeze through security and I Itsu for lunch.I'm at a "B" gate so transit to that, have a coffee and then breeze through boarding. The plane turns out to be not full so my aisle seat turns into a full row; I sit in the window seat most of the time. After we leave Scotland the view is just a cloud sheet so Godel Escher Bach for a bit - but I've forgotten it is actually hard work if you take it seriously. Watch Crimes of Grindelwald (meh) and the Lego Movie (still superb; though doesn't quite match my memory; maybe I have the US cut?) then sleep. I can lie down cos I have 3 seats, though it isn't quite long enough to stretch out and (obviously enough) not made for lying down. They fed us earlier, and it's all fine, helped I suspect by sparsity of passengers.

Wake 12:30 so we have 1:30 ish to go. We're still chasing the sun so the shadows are now getting long which shows the central US desert off in relief. Pix. We pass over Salt Lkae City and Vegas but before that bits of the interior were just Empty.

Land, disembark, hand luggage only so first through passports and the immigration folk are very friendly, totally belying their reputation. Connect to airport wifi, get an Uber (my first ever; slightly confused by API since I mistook the car's line for mine; $27) which also goes smoothly and I'm at the hotel just after sundown. Checkout the gym (no Concept2, FFS) and the pool (15 m, still open past 8, so have a nice swim) then retire for the night. Alarm for 6.

Monday: set alarm for 6 but somewhat broken night so up 6:30 and walk down to the beach via the "Saigon trail" which I think has been wittily named for it's difficulty: there's a tiny bit of "jungle" but the eroded sandstone / sand of the cliffs is actually moderately challenging. GPS trace (which links to pix). This goes past the Salk Institute which is famous. The cliffs are ~100 m high. At the beach, some folk at surfing though it is before 8. Off to the L is a pier, and distant San Diego. Ahead, the Pacific. R, endless beach. A little way along is a more stepped way up, which I take, the "official" way, to the Torrey Pines soaring (gliding) club. And back for breakfast. Which regrettably isn't a buffet, instead it is waiter service. But the coffee is infinite and the orange juice is fresh; also have maple syrup pancakes and am now feeling rather full. Early it was overcast, but clearing now.


Uber to town and it turns out that the Bike Revolution is open and it has held my bike for me. Which turns out to be a very decent one. They put "normal" pedals on for me and I'm off, rather uncertainly on the mean streets of San Diego which aren't. Get as far as the Midway aircraft carrier before one of the spokes goes - or I realise it's gone - so go back and get it fixed. Trace. And thence... back to the hotel. GPS trace. I "go wrong" quite a few times but that's fine. The roads are generally fine, and the drivers well behaved and even polite, but it is a holiday so may not represent commuter mind. We'll see. Lots of beach front all full of life and people out barbecuing and stuff. I don't stop anywhere, being not in the mood, and anywhere decent looking quite full. There are hills, particularly around the Cover.

Back, shower, I've got rather sweaty; sit with a coffee over laptop and then over GEB and then another coffee. Then head out to find the Quangleplex. Google has given me a cycle route but obviously that is wrong, what do they know, so explore a bit, and discover that they do know something. One of the things they know is that when a road ends "for no obvious reason" around here, it's usually because there's a steep drop. It turns out that what the map doesn't make obvious is that there's a deepish cut, with the interstate in it, between the hotel and the Quangleplex; and there's a nice cycle path from the university down to the place I want to cross. Tonight it is all easy.

Back, swim, shower, sit, go to dinner: "three snacks" is enough; curiously, I don't feel very hungry despite having eaten nothing but peanuts since breakfast. And so to bed.

Tuesday: manage to get into work by 8:30 as I half promised, but it is quiet then, and I'm rather sweaty from the cycle - it is hot even this early; traffic was OK though and I nearly got the route right -, and so I end up going to the Quangleplex for a shower, AC not having one. And the gym there actually has a Concept2 (just one, in a corner, and ranks of running machines, such is life). Tim K drags me out at lunch for, erm, lunch; and then he breaks before 6 so we go to Karl Strauss for a beer and food; blackened Mahi tacos for me, which turns out to be a fish, who knew. Then the light is fading so head home, getting the route completely right this time; I have lights and need them. Early to bed.

Wednesday: finally sleep to my alarm. Work, and to "building K" after with Tim; back at the hotel, they've left me a snack in the fridge, which is nice of them. That I'd turned the fridge off cos it was noisy at night had escaped them, but wasn't a problem.

Thursday: work as ever; my clearance for lab 175 finally came through in the afternoon, but it meant I spent half an hour in the morning on fb and drinking coffee waiting for someone to let me in. Nothing post work today, just back to hotel; swim the usual 10 lengths; eat what's left of yesterday's snack.

Friday: work; after, to nearby Green Flash brewery with a couple of the guys and Tim. Loadsa beers, mostly stronger than I'd want, but the weaker ones are fine. They offer a "half pour".

Saturday: the big ride up the coast (GPS track, inc pix). How far? I wasn't sure. Carlsbad seemed an obvious target. Past there I was unsure. I could see form the map that past Oceanside, past Camp Pendleton, the mountains came down towards the sea and there were fewer roads; and the Maps bike trails pretty well died out entirely. What I'd failed to realise is that all the area up from Camp P is one vast military base / reserve. But that's to come.

I start after breakfast at 8:30 and it would perhaps have been better to start earlier, it's a cloudless day. I'm wearing my neckwarmer to keep the sun off, and my light yellow top with sleeves rolled down, and this does mostly work. As I head up the coast, starting through Torrey Pines reserve (it's OK; lots of eucalyptus though; I didn't stop) then a long downhill that will be pain coming up; to the oceanfront and a lagoon inland; with some difficulty pick up and follow the trail that avoids the "heights" but is along a railroad track, and isn't really great for a road bike; but it works and is interesting. Through Del Mar, pass another river with inland lagoon, Solana beach, Cardiff-by-the-sea, Encinitas. Probably I should have stopped somewhere around here, but somehow I wasn't in the mood, or the cafes didn't quite suit me, and I got into that keep-going frame that I've had before. I've forgotten to bring any water (idiot) but there are water taps, and indeed showers on some of the beaches. In fact it would probably have been better if there hadn't been, cos then I'd have been forced to stop at a cafe. And so, on to Carlsbad: 35 km, 1:45. Note that I'm not speeding; indeed, I'm supposed to be smelling the roses along the way. I'm passed by various tanned looking folk, some on very nice bikes, some in packs. At Oceanside some confusion; its 40 km 2:15, but then I spend 7 km and 20 mins bumbling around the harbour trying to get up the coast. This is where the Camp Pendleton nightmare finally hits me, as I end up cycling up to a military checkpoint where they really are checking passes, and they explain politely when I ask that I can't go through. So I have no choice but to join the freeway.

In fact that isn't really true. I could have backtracked a little, I see now, and gone inland on the San Luis Rey bikepath along the river. But: I wanted to go up the coast. So I did. I'm at 2:45 / 48 k when I join the freeway for 10 k of terror or thereabouts. In fact it isn't that bad; there's a wide "hard shoulder" which is clean, and I don't see anything wavering into it. But it is noisy. There's a rest area where I get a drink and consider options, which I don't have, but at 61 k / 3:25 there's a junction. I could turn back here by going under, but, there's an apparently-closed military road with a gap for cycling, and a group of people who are maybe just there to support cyclists, or a race? It isn't clear. They offer some water, but I don't need it, and confirm that the route is open, so off I go. It's a wide military road with a two-way cycle path drawn on it. After 2 k it goes under the freeway, and after a bit I'm on the "old pacific freeway". Agra is a 66 k but there's nothing much there. The San Onofre mountains are now close, and the only roads up into them look like wide military dust roads, so I guess that's all camp, too. There start to be surfers, and people on the beach, and people camping, and nice toilet / water / shower blocks, so I can refresh myself somewhat by putting my head under the tap, but I've reached peak sweat otherwise and it can't get worse. At 77 k I'm at San Onofre but am bitterly disappointed *again* as the enticing stuff to the N is another bloody military base. FFS. I am really starting to run out of energy at this point, and jsut about stumble into San Clemente, where the previous desert conditions are replaced by a suburban desert; but after wandering through this for a bit I finally hit Tommy's family restaurant, ah paradise.

I down two orange juices in a desperate attempt to restore calories, and some water, and order a veg burrito that I'm mostly unable to eat. But, I get to sit down for an hour which is what I need, as the juice soaks in. At one point I struggle up to go to the rest room and my head swims and it is not easy. I sleep lots of the hour. And eventually they put my burrito into a bag for me and I head off, wearily.

I'm really not looking forward to the trip back (GPS track part 1, to Carlsbad; part 2 to La Jolla). My arse is a bit sore, and I'm tired. I decide to chop it up into 10 k segments; 10 k is about half an hour, 8 of those can't be too bad. In fact it goes better than I'd hoped. The first 10 k gets me to one of the water stops, so I soak myself and have a 5 min break. 20 k gets me to where the cycle path started; sadly the nice people with water have gone, but I rest anyway. The next 10+ k are freeway, so I don't stop, but roll along Oceanside till I get to Carlsbad and stop at a nice "French Corner" place that offers me orange juice, a bowl of yoghurt and fruit, and some cool water. I've sort of lost track of distance on the day (now I know that's 40 k) and so I'm expecting the final "half" to be only about 35 k. I need to pay some attention to time; I'm heading off at 5:40, it will take about 2 hours, and the sun sets well before 7:40; happily, I brought my lights.

17 k and 45 mins gets me to the statue of the surfer dude in Encinitas; someone has put a shark costume on his head but more cruelly that that someone else has inscribed sub-McGonagall poetry on it, though the sentiments are fine. Sunset comes at 25 k / 1:20 and I stop to watch the sun sink into the ocean; no green flash. the bastard climb of 130 m up into Torrey Pines is indeed a bit of a bastard but I'm nearly home now; and then, I am.

Room. Put on swimming trunks. Dive into pool: bliss; it is warm as milk (as they say, though milk is normally cold nowadays) and not having any weight on my bottom is a relief. Float. Back to room, shower, decide to open the Red that the room left me on my first night, and after a bit gratefully tuck into the stored burrito.

Evaluation: as I more than half expected, it turned into an endurance event, through my own choice. I enjoyed it, overall.

Sunday: trip into town. This time, don't make the mistake of not stopping. In La Jolla village, stop at the Vons supermarket - very nice; local W'rose perhaps, lots of cheese - and but some ginger and jerky; then nearby Froglanders for a coffee.

End of day: back to Vons with a thought of getting more "gifts" but end up getting some Italian blue; sourdough; and fresh grapefruit juice which forms a very acceptable dinner.

Monday: o'cast early; good; cool. Ask at reception if I can stay an extra night, but they're full. I was not expecting that. Still I'll find somewhere. Cycle in and use the gym near AC, since I'm borring a "Park" card; it's good and features two ergs and really good showers / lockers and free towels. Contact the bike folk who can collect from work, which helps. Lunch (wx: full sun): to the food court with Tim and get the Indian this time, since for once they have no queue. Very good.

Leave 6, get to gliderport 6:30 and down to Black's beach for a swim in the Pacific. Lovely evening; orange sun slowly sinking in the west. What to wear? "Nakes" are tolerated here and I see some - old men alas, nubile young girls seem shy - so strip off and frolic in the waves. Lovely and warm, with strong waves bashing me about vigorously. But I get to swim a little too. Back at the hotel, swim briefly to wash off, then eat the remaining bread+cheese and drink a little red.

Tuesday: again o'cast, b'fast and check out, cycle in. Then off to building AY for the RF meeting, which I won't tell you about as it was Work. But I did get some b'fast and lunch from it; talk to various. Pm back to AC and Real Work. 6:30 off to Extended Stay America, which turns out to be OK, essentially a motel. Nearby is the Taj Mahal who do a quick dhaal and paneer with rice, naan and raihta; good, esp the dhaal. What makes this room worse than the other? Smaller; TV is analogue (good grief!), wifi needs crude sign-up, the door looks a bit armoured, the fixtures are a touch wonky (but only a touch; and the chrome at the back of the sink in the other was flaky); the A/C is bolt on and even noisier than the other; the furniture is cheap; I don't have a chair outside and a quiet area to sit in it; there's no pool or gym. But for one night it is fine. Oh, and also it is under the flight path :-)

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

France 2019: Chamonix: rest day

We come down from the Albert Premier around 16:00; it's hot in the valley. Later we discover this is "le canicule". We drive down through Argentiere to Chamonix, and after a little road comedy - it turns out that we can go in the barred road, which on closer inspection says "access to hotels only" - we arrive at the Hotel Le Chamonix.


It (really) doesn't have a car park but it does have showers, and having used those I drive the car off to le Biollay which the hotel recommends (see "practical information" for more) and am (as I belatedly realise) lucky to get a space there. Walking back is about 10 minutes and pleasant. We go round the building to the (unrelated) Bar Le Chamonix and play Big 2, the game of the holiday; read and write up. 19:30. Evening meal: to Le Serac, randomly selected from restos on the strip; we didn't fancy the Chinese because three of us were barefoot. Le Serac doesn't blink an eye when we play cards and the food is decent, but not cheap.

Taking pictures of Chamonix is for the tourists, and we're Serious Mountaineers, so I don't.

My original plan had been for a rest just overnight in the valley. But we're all feeling like we could do with a day off. So M phones the next hut - Couvercle - and shifts our booking by a night; and we then discover that Le Chamonix can accomodate us another night; so we're all set for a whole day and two nights off.

2019/07/24: Wednesday: day off. Still very hot; do precious little all day except relax in the shade, though M and I go for an earlyish morning stroll up the river getting perhaps half way to La Praz before it becomes too hot. Before b'fast go off to the car to retrieve map+guide, and check that all is well: it is. There's even a sort of "overnight guard" in the carpark, in that someone's old VW camper with the pop-up tent is set up.


View from the bar towards the local church. Note that the fan is not just blowing air, it has a water feed from the tube and was sending out a delicious cooling light spray of water droplets. E explores town and later returns with tales of the vast rank upon rank of outdoor shops. D is more stay-at-home. I read Bagehot.

At some point I go to visit the Maison de Montagne / Bureau des Guides which is just next to the church, but don't find it very sympa. They do show me a pic of the ladders up to Couvercle, which seem a bit worrying, but I internalise this and don't bother anyone else. As it turns out, they were fine.


Evening meal: to the Chinese place by the river, which was very good. We went back later.

Night view: from the balcony, a flawless blue sky darkening; above, the pylons to Plan de l'Aiguille, and a light from the Aiguille du Midi. That's for the future.


The trip up to Montenvers and Couvercle is another story.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Book review: The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer is a science fiction novel by American writer Neal Stephenson. It is to some extent a Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story, focused on a young girl named Nell, set in a future world in which nanotechnology affects all aspects of life. The novel deals with themes of education, social class, ethnicity, and the nature of artificial intelligence. Says wiki. Most of that is true. It's a good book among the genre; kinda like Anathem in that it does actually have something to say. And vaguely like Anathem in that the second half doesn't work as well as the first.

There are links to Vacuum Flowers. Not explicit, and of course the solution is different, but the problem is Integrity again, not in the moral sense necessarily but of society. The idea that people might swear allegiance to a govt of their choice is nice; all these different govts are able to interact via a Common Economic Protocol which is referenced whenever a difficulty might appear, but never explained.

The coming-of-age is of the heroine, Nell, and this works well. Nearly all is set in the Leased Territories, or Shanghai or regions thereabouts, don't strain my geography too much. Wiki tries to tell me this has themes of ethnicity but I fear they are handled in a shallow manner: the inscrutable Chinese Celestial Kingdom type stuff, and a variety of stereotypes. I don't rate it's discussion of the nature of AI either; the various Turing machines that appear later on are somewhat hey-ho.

Nell, educated by the primer, turns out to be a highly intelligent adaptable high-functioning person. 500,000 Chinese peasant girls have also been educated by the primer, albeit one without Miranda and for fewer years, and they get relegated to supporting roles, as I suppose is inevitable in a novel. Yet there is no real thought in the book about what consequences this might have. In contrast, in the West, we get more detail of the two other girls - Elizabeth and Fiona - who have also been educated by the book, and it doesn't seem to have been a great success for them.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

France 2019: Albert Premier (Aiguille du Tour; Tete Blanche, Petite Fourche)

Normally I do my holiday write-ups day-by-day, but this time I'm going to try it "thematically" by where we were staying. The Albert Premier hut is at 2702 m up above Le Tour above Argentiere. Very convenient if you're coming over from Switzerland, as we were.


From the base of the telepherique in Le Tour, looking up to the glacier du Tour. You can't quite see the hut from here. But after the cable car, then the seat-lift, you kinda go round before going up, and can then see...


...the hut. The morain crest points at it; you can see the path traversing in from the left across scree. Inside, it is all nice clean and modern, and apparently run by 17-year-old girls (don't get your hopes up). Here's the boot room.


Being only a couple of hours walk-in from the top of the lift, and a nice hut and well situated, it is popular with the go-to-a-hut crowd; and also features the Aiguille du Tour, one of the easiest peaks in the range. Inside, there's even a comfy sofa and bean bags.


Anyway, next morning we're up at 4, b'fast (bread, not stale, not limited; butter jam; cake-bread; an orange; cereal if you want it; a bowl of coffee for me), off at 5 (having overnight discovered one of the hut's flaws: the windows in the dortoirs don't open much so when it is warm they overheat). There's the usual awkward getting-down-to-the-glacier stuff now all the ice has retreated which takes us 20 mins. We finish gearing up, rope up, and head off into the pre-dawn light. Parties above can be seen by their head torches.


That's kinda the Aig du T ahead. Other folk are going up R past Signal Reilly on the voie normale. But not us, oh no, we're going to head L about where those two are an head up to the col du Midi des Grands (nice view down to people near what I think is the Signal Reilly)...


Once over the col (7 am) you're on the Plateau du Trient, or rather the edge of it, since it isn't terribly flat at that point.


Back to the col, from nearly at the Aig du Tour. The clouds have cleared at this point making everything very much clearer (seriously, before the clouds cleared it was really quite difficult, we couldn't see 20 feet in the cloud). To the R of the col the charmingly named Pissoir. After that - if not too tired - one bumbles up the summit ridge (9 am) easily (diary: "there are some slightly tricky bits but I never stop to put in gear". But you're wondering what it was like. It was like this), and is rewarded with magnificent views.


Looking roughly south. Over the glacier, in the center, is the Aig d'Argentiere; to the R of that and closer, the Aig du Chardonnet (closer). Trient plateau to the L. Straight ahead in continuation of the ridge is the Tete Blanche and Petite Fourche, which we'll look at tomorrow. Lurking in the distance mid-left is...


...the Grand Combin, probably. But I'm no mountain-recogniser. Down the ridge again, re-crampon, head round south to the Col Superieur du Tour. The far (west) side is a bit manky scree for a bit (view back to col) then we're back on snow for an easy but long descent - this is the voie normale - back to the glacier and then the hut. 9 h overall.

Summit selfie. D and E are modelling Rab.


Ethereal clouds across the Chardonnet.


Back at the hut - hello M - it's time for some rest.

Tete Blanche and Petite Fourche

Up early again next day.


Stuff up the traverse onto the glacier / moraine slightly differently this morning, but it makes little difference. Today is clear, so perhaps overnight has been a little colder, and the snow feels crisper. Head up and the dawn comes. Astonishingly, we're not alone and we're not the first.

We head up, past where we turned off L yesterday and past the Col Sup, and on pretty well to the top of the glacier and the Tete Blanche, which is barely a peak but is a nice viewpoint over Trient.


That shows you the track over the plateau to the cabane and, if you look at the full-size version about the center, also shows you the Cabane de Trient itself. See here for a wider view of the plateau. Looks nice; we should go across some day.

Pano from a bit further along the ridge. The two people just visible on the R skyline are D and E on the Tete Blanche; to their R is the Petite Fourche, our next target; ahead the Trient plateau; to the L on the skyline the Aiguille du Tour of yesterday.


Selfie of us all, I think not taken at the summit, but a little below... ah yes the magic of Google Photos tells me it was taken exactly here. Not that will help you. D looking more sharp-faced than usual?


And to along the ridge to a snow-col, and then up the Petite Fourche. Which is really pretty easy, despite the steeper snow at the top being quite icy. Well, ice really. It's funny how a little change of surface and a little change of angle can makes things harder - or feel harder. But actually you just have to walk on it. Then there's a little bit of rock to scramble up.

At the summit we take a rest and soak up the views. It's a comfortable summit.



And then down. Looking back from a little rock outcropping, probably Pt 3238, Gr F to the R, PF to the L (you climb it from the L). The main track heads off L back to the hut; as you see, there are some differences of opinion as to how to avoid the crevasse zone.  But really it hardly needs avoiding.


Back at the hut, some biere:


And now time to pick up M and head down to the valley. Here's a plaque of the hut. And here's looking back to the hut. The path goes down the moraine crest (though we took the snow patch to the left) then heads off left, to the chair lift. Or, if you're hard, continues straight down the crest. Now I look, this is almost exactly the same pic as I took on the way up; but I'll leave it in.


And from a bit lower - before we contour round L to the col de Balme - view down the valley towards Mont Blanc. The clearly visible glacier is Bossons, not Mer de Glace.


Tuesday, 13 August 2019

France 2019: practical information

So I don't have to put it in amongst the pretty pictures elsewhere.

Getting there

We drove, via the channel tunnel. This was for a variety of reasons: ease of organisation; flexibility; convenience of movement when there; and having a mobile storage locker for spare kit. It cost most of a tank of fuel each way (say, 2 * £100) and somewhat above £200 for the chunnel (say, £500). Plus overnight accommodation, since we didn't bomb down. Leaving at 8 we got to Besancon at 7 ish, so if we'd driven faster with fewer stops we could have got to Cham in a day. But that would have done us no good, as we wanted to go up. Also Besancon and Troyes are well worth seeing.

The Cham valley has good public transport (train line; buses) which would have got us everywhere we wanted to go. So (apart from the freedom from having to organise anything in advance, no small matter with me) maybe the mobile storage locker was the main advantage (but maybe Chamonix has storage? See here or here (though that last is well below les Houches)). Set against that the hassle of finding a parking space (use Biollay (see here, open the "white zone" bit; note that on Google maps it seems to be called "parking montenvers") unless it's full which it will be, in which case head 500 m NE along the "chemin du pied du Grepon" to the Planards, not really marked on Google maps) and the worry about whether your stuff will be there when you come back (it was).

Without the free locker we'd have had to take everything up with us, which would have been doable if we'd been ruthless, and known exactly what we needed. Which we didn't. So if I had to do it without a car, I'd take one ultra-lightweight set of "valley clothes" and otherwise rely on mountain clothes; just one rope (we took a second for some sport-climbing in the mid-week but could just about have got away with one rope); not too much gear (what do you need it for anyway); and fewer spare books (oh no).

Hotels and appartments

We got ours from Hotel le Chamonix was nice: central, convenient, two stars. We returned. No AC if you're there during a heatwave (we were); good wifi; a bar on the other side of the building. In Argentiere the appartment in Résidence Grand Roc - Bruyères was fine inside if a bit brutalist outside; and again conveniently located. In les Houches the Hôtel Les Mélèzes was disappointing, if OK for a quick overnight.

Going up


From le Tour, we went up to the ref Albert Premier using the cabin then siege Charamillion. This saves you a couple of hours walking up (and down, if you get the return, which you probably should).

For the ref Couvercle off the Mer de Glace we got the rack-n-pinion train up to Montenvers from the small gare near the main gare in Cham; this costs the apparently unreasonable E33 each, but they do have a lot of tourists to flog places too, and by the 9 am train it was full (by contrast 8:30 was much clearer; get up early). Again, you can walk if you like, its a couple of hours.

For the ref Tete Rousse we got the Tramway de Mont Blanc from le Fayet (aka St-Gervais-le-Fayet, but St Gervais is actually up the hill  a ways; you can also pick up the tram from St Gervais but parking there looked even harder) which trundles slowly up to the Nid d'Aigle, again for the apparently unreasonable E33 each. The parking near the station will be full; there's spare: follow "P2" I think; under the railway line to rue du Casino / chemin des Lots.

For Cosmiques / Aiguille du Midi, you want the main Aiguille du Midi cable car. This is E63 each, but when you see where it goes you won't think that unreasonable. You can book in advance - or so I now understand - but not just the night before or on the day. So - somewhat panicked by failing to book at 22:30 the previous night - I got up early and got to the ticket office just before 7; there was already a 20 min queue. I got tickets OK but for no particular time; I'd have to come back to queue, apparently. When we did come back, around 10, it turned out they were running a queuing system: cabin 28 was going, the man at the entrance hands out tags to people with tickets; we got cabin 40, so retired for an hour to a nearby cafe, so that was fine. It took an hour to get up, what with shuffling in groups and the mid station queue and all.


Huts in general don't take cards; take cash. If you get a reciprocal rights card then hut accomodation (but not food) is half price (except for private huts like Cosmiques).

Switzerland (Martigny) seems to take Euros (at 1-1 with CHF). We didn't see a guard any time we crossed the border.


This isn't the place to discuss huts I think; but here's a pano of the boot room in the Gouter.


High huts (Gouter; Cosmiques; even Tete Rousse, but if you try hard you'll find trickles in the snow at the TR) don't have drinkable water, but sell 1.5L for E6/7. So take some up yourself. Or, consider taking chlorine tablets.

Hut b'fast at about E12 for a bowl of coffee, a bit of juice, and a couple of small slices of stale bread, is poor value. But we did it anyway; maybe we shouldn't have. Evening meals are better.


Strictly prohibited on the Tete Rousse / Gouter route. There's a bloke just above the Nid d'Aigle who has a printed list of bookings, and will want to see your name on it. There's also a bloke in the "hunter / forestry cabin" at ~27xx m just before TR; but he may well be gone late in the day; he didn't check us.

Also prohibited outside of Aiguille du Midi (see photo) but (a) no-one is checking and (b) there was one tent there when we went by. But it certainly wasn't the vibrant tent community of 30 years ago.

The usual "bivouac between sundown and sunup" exception applies.


We went up to Albert Premier for two nights (two climbs); down for two nights (one day rest); up to Couvercle for two nights (one climb; but the path to and from Couvercle is epic in itself) and then had four days rest in the Appt in Argentiere, before going for the Big One. The four days rest wasn't pre-planned but we found ourselves in need of it; mountains, full on, are hard work and battering.


For most of the routes we did, a ski-pole was more use than an ice axe. But we had Grivel Ghosts anyway. On Pointe Isabella I was grateful for the bite of my full-weight axe that I also carried then; on the Tacul face I might have fared better with two proper axes. Otherwise, the obvious: harness, rope, crampons, boots to take them, gaiters; helmets, head torches, gloves, spare gloves, neckwarmers. How warm to dress is always a bit of a puzzle; this was a warm season. On Mt Blanc I had my waterproof trousers on; D+E had, respectively, leggings and lightweight trous and got a bit chilly. I got a lightweight Exped rucksac for the trip and that worked well; oh and the Petzl "Altitude" lightweight harness was very good (except for the gear loops which are a bit rubbish). A 50 m half-rope (8.5 mm) between three seems fine. As for gear... not very useful. A few slings just for the sake of it on some of the ridges. And I used an ice screw on Pointe Isabella but at a pinch could have done without.


Mountaineering in the Mont Blanc Range: Classic Snow, Ice & Mixed Climbs by Jean-Louis Laroche and Florence LeLong. And for the valley stuff, Crag Climbs in Chamonix by François Burnier and Dominique Potard.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

France 2019: Troyes

Fleeing Chamonix (Wednesday the 7th) we drove north and Miranda calculated that Troyes was a good place to stop. Getting nearer on the satnav I could see it was not too far from Bar-le-Duc of last year, or Vitry-le-Francois of many years ago: I must dig out my old diaries sometime. The contest between "an Ibis" and "somewhere nice" had been won by "somewhere nice" by my fiat, by "Anna's Home", in the centre of Troyes, off but with slightly mysterious instructions... but we found it, and its entry code, and its door code. It was one of those old French apartments (stairs; outside (it's the doorway just to the left of the Cote Photo)) but massively tarted up inside, all done up in white. We had a bedroom apiece - the luxury - two showers, wifi, and a coffee machine. And we were above a Paul, which meant a lovely smell of bread making in the morning. Practical tip: there was lots of on-street parking, but payant, and all taken; we went in some close underground parking that was cheap overnight.

After showers we went out to eat, ending up in the "square" near the Église Saint-Jean-du-Marché.


Our food was decent. Something slightly odd happened with our waitress, who disappeared and was replaced after a delay with an apologetic but more efficient waiter. And so to bed, having watched the moon traverse the stonework of the church.

The next morning (Thursday the 8th) we needed to leave about 10 to get home in a sensible time for Miranda, so I got up squeaky early at around 6:30 (aided by cleaning and dustbin noises from outside) to see the cathedral and sights. And it was well worth it: a lovely still morning showed off the old wooden houses beautifully. On the way there's a witty dog-chasing-geese sculpture.


[Pic taken just by the cathedral, looking ENE along Rue Reverend Pere Lafra, with Eglise Saint-Nizier the tiled roof in the background.]

Unfortunately the Cathedral doesn't open until 9 so I wandered on. There's lots of old woodwork,


I can't tell how old or how restored, but it's all good (see-also this amusing beam support). Saint Nizier seemed a bit off the beaten track and pleasantly dilapidated.


I'll come back to the Cathedral in a bit, because I returned post-breakfast when it was open, but here's a gargoyle (actually now I look from the basilique Saint-Urbain):


This last judgement is also from the Saint-Urbain:


After we'd all had b'fast in Paul I went back to the Cathedral for a "quick" visit that got somewhat extended due to it being too lovely to skip through too quickly.


And, so on. Click on any of the pix to get to the set, as usual.


And a selection of worn gravestones in the floor. What would the people who commissioned them think?


After that, it was (past) time to go, so I hurried off and we hurried off north. As it happened Eurotunnel were having some troubles (memories of power failure in Folkestone?) so we didn't need to hurry, but when we got there our "Flexipass" or whatever got us past the queues, into the rest-stop-and-pick-up-lunch-and-coffee area, and onto the train with minimal wait. And so, home, with only an hour's delay at the Dartford crossing.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

France 2019 notes

Practical information
Albert Premier (Aiguille du Tour; Tete Blanche, Petite Fourche)
Chamonix: rest day

Off topic: Yugoslavia, 1989.

Also: Mustelid: Alpine climbing routes crumble as climate crisis continues.

7/26 Friday: attempt on Pointe Isabella. Tldr: fail but close. Up 4:30 b'fast leave 5:30 down where I explored y'day to col on morraine down along yellow poles then we're on our own and after the usual brief flailing we're onto ice then snow then gear up. Brief screeching over scoured flattish rocks the pure snow up up. But it's a long way and we shed 150 m going down. Over some big mostly bridged but still quite disturbing crevasses: progress carefully well spread out. Thence up towards the first snow ridge where the guardienne had warned of "glace" - from someone who had done the route a week ago and we've seen little traces - and yes there's about 15m of 50 deg ice so pitch it cut some steps and put in an ice screw all quite exciting really. Takes an hour and effort though.

Sun on ridge. Up to rock ridge up that second snow ridge the rock again and we're on the summit slopes but late. Stop at noon maybe 100m short but f'cast is storms pm and we want to be below difficulties by then.

Down. Crampons off for longer rock but as usual hard to be sure it is worth it. Carefully down ice me last E "falls" once D not and thankfully me not. Down carefully crevasses then snow some uncertainty as to track nearly miss path over scrapey rock. Rain then hard hail kicks in as we're leaving morraine - again track on rock marked with square but recommended track over morraine not marked. Hut, whew.

Add complaint re party here.

7/27 Saturday: up with alarm 7. Feckless hut folk are unsurprisingly late getting b'fast so pack a bit and look outside waiting. Pano. Let M handle conversation. Head down 8:30 and it takes 4+ hours: could be done faster but it is a long but interesting way. Wonder if going via glacier might be better. Don't stop to play on ice cos E's f'cast says rain later and indeed when we get to Montenvers it does start. Cafe then train down. Car still there - run through rain - up to Arg to get keys to appt Les Neutered and settle in. Soir: local pizza.

7/28 Sunday: down in Chamonix - actually Argentiere - after a week mostly up, except one rest day. That was good but hard and I feel well used and stretched. Today - Sunday the 28th - was a day of rain which was fine. Up 9ish b'fast slowly on what we super-u'd y'day and MED went out for croissants etc. Outside medium rain continues and most shrouds the trees.

Note: pix with some captions on fb.

Our appt in the Rez Grand Roc proves adequate to our first night. We get the double, E the single upstairs with us and D the sofa which he doesn't bother xform into a bed. It's nice to get on well enough with each other for this not to rub. 12:30 go out to buy stuff for lunch but discover super has just shut so get at marche: E15 of olive pate - a slight overbuy perhaps - carrots tomato sliced ham saucisson sec a goat cheese and a big block of Time for only E5. And a flute from the breadman.

14:30: coffee and prevarication done so head out to Martigny to see the tower cos I've passed it by too often. And it's a trip of about the right size. More cloud higher up (return to get passports; comedy trying to leave appt car park) Montets Forclaz border no guards Martigny park walk up to tower. Abeilles on way up. It's only about ten mins. No entry formalities or staff and we can climb right up. Bare stone wood stairs views good. Inside D and I puzzle over odd two storey room in tower side before realising it is a fireplace. Back via paths. Walk to river old wooden arched bridge church small ex voto. Back.

Soir: decide to eat in. Just enough bread. Quiet reading.

7/29 Monday: up at the unearthly hour of 8:30 though actually I also got up at 4:30 as my phone alarm was set and downstairs. B'fast sit then to shops for bread coffee etc. Also looking for Cham crags guide. Bureau des guides not open till 5 and tourist not useful but total-liquidation has a (sadly undiscounted) copy for E27. Back more food off about 11 I think head up to Col Des Montets then back a little park and track just opposite. There's a cluster of boulders we pick Le Transat whick book says is most pop N face is in shade some Spaniards there. Have a play... E does 3c r2 I do 4c r3 D does a harder 4c. Put toprope on and E and I do the slightly longer central 4c and I think D does the 5b r7. Go round to W face lovely by little stream bucolic as book says. 3c r1 to R I do and E does with a little push on her bottom. 4c r7 to L then D fights up the 5c r4 central. Time for coffee. Up to Aig Rouge accuiel who do drinks and ice creams and a choc bar and a nice terrasse for cards for an hour or so. Wx is fine: sun but coolish with wind and evap of last night's rain.

Down other side not far - not as far as le Buet - to railway tunnel boulder park by road hard 3c nice also hard 4c toprope and toprope D on several attempts at 6a. Home and the out to Pet'te Better v good esp E's Perigoudian (gizzard!) and D's summer salad - smoked salmon.

7/30 Tuesday: again 8:30 slow b'fast sun outside.

Richer de Saix: 85m 4c good quite scary as lead and DE's first real multi-pitch.

Soir: galettes / crepes.

7/31 Wednesday: light day. Up to Col de Forclaz for little walk nearly level to the buvette. Cool mostly in shade alongside the bisse. Panels tell us the glacier was formerly exploited for ice but it has retreated a lot since the and the tongue pants easy up above. Pines, running stream, shade and a vin rouge while we play cards. And we share two pieces of apricot tart.

Back to col for cafe and M has E30 salad forgetting sf is 1-1 with Euro but it is good. More cards: I think I just edge ahead of  D.

Down to Tete Noire and finally stop for it's advertised "gorges mysteriueses". Or rather the top thereof: the path goes down down and we don't though I'd like to some time.

Soir: laR  Good but pricey prob worth it.

8/1 Thursday: up 7:30 to get croissants bread b'fast and then packing and cleaning and finding and sorting. Off 9:45.

8/3 Saturday: backfill diary: glorious sunset last night bed upthen up for wee pix E against afterglow v still. English off at midnight seems early to me. 1:50 alarm groan fumble around; cold; faint rime on tent door slow b'fast in hut. Off 2:45 in the darkness lights of valley below Gouter lights above pinprick headtorch lights in strings heading up. As we do. Everything weird in darkness but find path fine cross grand couloir fine up rocks fine. Good time to Gouter 4:40. I was in thin yellow top fleece green Rab raincoat tracksters; swap t'sters for w'proof trous. Rest 30 mins drink eat little choc; pickup stashed kit rope and water. Only boot room is open; salle closed; maybe could access toilets in dortoir.

And up to new ground. We have crampons and a ski stick each but axe on packs. And after some thought roped up. Spoiler: I'd have been happy to solo it as the conditions turned out but there are some well bridged crevasses and lots of the ridges are moderately thin and steep and would have been harder but for the expected track. We're pleased with our speed up to Gouter so press on with faith: previously we'd all been pretty doubtful we'd make it.

Higher the wind starts to cold us and we start longing for the sun. But when we break into sun the wind picks up and we stay cold. Perhaps we're slow to react and protect. Grateful to reach Vallot abri 4360 and respite shiver inside under blankets. E off to toilet returns amused and shocked by their appalling state. Some others come in who have come up from Italian side even colder. Swap fleece for new down and lend D my spare thermal top but E must continue in leggings there is a lesson for us in carrying spares. My hands btw were a little cold in down mitts plus outer mitts but didn't feel the wind.

We have about 400 m to go how hard can that be? Above views glorious and to sides and below if only the wind would let us rest. It's snow ridge all the way except one brief col and looks infinite. Up!

200 m to go: now near certain we will make it and in decent time. But tired. Axes on packs cos can't be bothered to extract a bit dodgy meh the exposures are in general fine.

Note: although many other parties the mountain is so hugeous we're usually alone.

And so the top. 10:30 I think. Group hug. Happy. Brief rest brief selfie and pix it is v windy off down. Get out axe.

Vallot: brief discussion but rest outside in sun wind less here sheltered by hut. Some choc but hard to eat when it doesn't melt in mouth really we should have eaten and drunk more.

Gouter 1:30 realise we can make last train so rest most of 1 h I practically sleep off 2:25 I make camp de base 3:55 pack and clear by the time D then E arrive off 4:20? last train 6:30 E assures me we took 1:30 up so can beat that down well actually no but close and we get the train with 30 mins margin.

Pick hotel on train down - the wonders of our modern world - in les Houches nothing special 3 befs one room; shower gratefully face tender; late pizza dinner.

8/4 Sunday: day off. B'fast 8 then check out then walk 200m to center aka t-junction slow cafe-n-cards in shade its a sunny day then off uphill back to Cx. Biollay full so go bit further to lift parking also crowded - midday sunday high season whodaguessed - but find space to center cafe hotel Pointe Isabella good stay for lunch good must stay here next time. 3 to hotel le Cx checkin - recognised. I have double 3rd floor nice balcony.

All of us are feeling well used let us say esp feet and faces and misc scrapes so not intent to do anything. Oh except phone Cosmiques.

Saturday, 20 July 2019

France 2019: Besancon

Saturday July 20th: our holiday begins with a trip on Eurotunnel using Flexiplus which is well worth the extra. Up at 6 am (after last night of the bumps until 2 am) to pack and we left at 8 am on time, according to Miranda's schedule.


Besancon is about as far as you can get in a day without driving insanely, and close enough that we can go up tomorrow, so seems a good choice. It's also a nice place. And it's also where M spent a year doing the first year maths course, though she has forgotten all about the city now.


We arrived 19:30 at the Hotel de la Citadelle and after refreshment headed out into town to find food; D had tartare; and after, down to the river to admire the Vauban ramparts reflected on a still clear evening.

Next morning (Sunday 21st July) M and I get up early, 7 ish, to have a look around. The interesting bit of Besancon is inside a meander of the river, which is cut off by a "tunnel fluvial" (part of the canal du Rhone au Rhin) as well as by a more boring road tunnel.


We then went slowly going anticlockwise until opposite the tunnel, then in via the Grand Rue to the cathedral.


Victor 'Ugo woz 'ere. So were the romans. Indeed the approach to the cathedral is framed by a roman arch.


The cathedral was good. We had about an hour to wander around and could have spent much more. Some other time, perhaps.


Then back to the hotel for b;fast with D and E. Speaking of hotel, there are some pix of it's setting, starting here. And here are the young master and mistress, all fresh and eager at the start of our adventure.


The next step is to head out from Besancon through the Jura to Switzerland and Chamonix; but that's the next story.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Bad beekeeping 2019

A short summary post, mostly so I can point people to it, should they want to know batch numbers for any of my honey. Not that I think that is likely.

Recolte: Saturday 2019/6/22, so nearly solstice honey.
Hive pix: see this facebook post.
Youtube: vid of filtering.

* Batch number: COTON / 2019 / WMC / OF / V. "OF" is "Old Faithful" is the hive to the left in the pix; "V" is virgin, i.e. filtered only, no heating.
* Batch number: COTON / 2019 / WMC / OF / HT. "OF" as before, "HT" is for "heat treated". Do not despise the honey for this; done properly it doesn't affect the taste, but does leave it rather freer-flowing and less likely to set.
* Batch number: COTON / 2019 / WMC / CT / V. "OF" is "Copper Top" is the hive to the right in the pix; "V" is virgin, i.e. filtered only, no heating.

Honey related fun

* Honey in Antarctica (tweet).


* 2017: autumn beekeeping
* 2016: bad beekeeping
* 2015: swarm collection and autumn: more incompetent beekeeping
* 2014: bad beekeeping
* 2010: bad beekeeping
* 2009: bad beekeeping

Monday, 17 June 2019

Book review: Grass

Grass, by Sheri S. Tepper. As foreshadowed in my review of Raising the Stones. This is the second time I've read it, and I liked it again. Give me a decade to forget the details and I might even read it again. As I said at RtS, Grass is much better, though having read RtS some of the flaws of Grass become more obvious; most obviously the rather unsubtle philosophy, although it is done much better here than in RtS.

This review is rather perceptive, pointing out a variety of flaws. The letter is so crass as to be almost not a hole, more just an allow-me-this-license, but still. And the sheer awfulness of the church hierarchy as portrayed rather reminds me of the Evil Patriarchy of RtS; she isn't very good at shades of grey. The shame here is that the Evil Church isn't really needed, or could have a much smaller role; in the end, they don't really do anything. The virus, meh, well I suppose it had to have some explanation.

A more subtle hole is what one often finds with these discovering-things-on-strange-planets type books: the unbelievable amateurishness of the "science" or investigation, the degree that things are unsurveilled or the authorities uninterested, and artefacts uninvestigated.

Having said all that, it's a decent story well told that carries you along, especially if you mostly blip over the philosophy.

Incidentally... as an ex-climatologist... I think the notion of an all-grass planet just won't work. Wot no rivers? All the landscape uniformly flat? No seas, no deserts? Pole-to-equator temperature difference so small that grass can survive everywhere? Somewhat similarly to Dune, these points aren't really explored.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Book review: raising the stones

Raising the Stones aka Arbai #2 by Sheri S. Tepper is a follow-on to Grass, except it isn't really. Grass is excellent (I'm currently in the middle of re-reading it and will review it when finished [now done]) as was The Gate to Women's Country (which I've recently re-read and ought to review). RtS is only very weakly a follow-on, so much so that if you didn't know you wouldn't realise; it is "in the same universe". However, it is a much weaker and worse book than Grass; cruder and less textured. Though to be fair, I did enjoy reading it.

Some of it reminds me of the weaker Jack Vance's - an isolated solar system with different wacky cultures - but without his poetry of language. With him, because it is all for fun, you accept the funny cultures and don't worry about how they could have evolved or survived. But Tepper is Terribly Serious about her Themes, so can't have the same licence.

Speaking of Themes, I should mention them. The main one, laid on with a trowel, is how bad patriarchal cultures that denigrate women are. Unfortunately this is a well-worn topic and she has nothing new to say; and the culture she designs2 is so terrible that any chance of subtlety is lost. Here's someone else rather disenchanted with the "philosophy".

The other theme - and here I will be giving some of the book away, don't read this if you still want to read it, though I'm only giving a small bit away - is "how much freedom do you give up for happiness"? Or at least, that's the label I'm putting on a god-like probably-intelligent fungus that spreads underground, and encourage people to spread it. The GLPIF appears benevolent in the book; it only kills bad people, but since these are Really Bad people from the Really Bad Patriarchal Culture, no-one mourns them and the book doesn't really trouble itself with whether killing them ws fine or not. The other thing it does is transmit information, and gently smooth away conflicts in society, so that people don't even notice that the conflicts have gone. This is, unquestionably, messing with people's heads; and yet the book ducks the problem, by having all the main characters agree that yeah, it's all fine. There's also a smaller sub-plot in which another culture, which started with a prophetess1 telling them messing-with-heads-is-bad, who have morphed that to include not cutting their hair. So if some kind of illuminating tension between GLPIF and messing-with-heads was intended well no, it wasn't illuminating.

My own feeling on this would be very much that the book is deceptive, and effectively draws you into the idea that surrendering freedom of mind for happiness is good. In a way, this is what TGTWC does too, in that it's based on Plato. So perhaps I can suggest that Tepper is so unhappy / outraged about the treatment of women in the world that she's going to give up some freedom of mind for happiness. In a book, the GLPIF can be entirely benevolent - or maybe just playing a long game, who knows - but in the real world, the people you're giving up your freedom to are very unlikely to be benevolent.


1. The prophetess is called Morgori Oestrydingh. Geddit? No, neither did I. Until I just read that the Trilogy is called the Marjorie Westriding series. Geddit?

2. Called the Voorstoders. I didn't recognise it. This footnotes The Voorstoders are obviously meant (in name and culture) to invoke the Afrikaaner Voortrekkers. Well they do, in terms of subjugation of women (at least I imagine the Vootrekkers did; actually I know little about them) but towards the end there's stuff about virgins-in-paradise which seemed to point towards Muslims. Perhaps they're just a confused mish-mash.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Notes for climbing Mont Blanc

I'm thinking of climbing Mont Blanc this summer, with my children (17 and 21) and without a guide. This post is some notes to myself. Notes for anyone else: I was middle-of-a-rope on the Brenva spur 30 years ago and descended fro the top of that alone back to Aiguille du Midi, so am currently puzzled by the AD-D rate given to that route (i.e., Cosmiques) as ascent.

General resources:

* Petzl leaflet showing the 7 "normal" routes. Gives Gouter PD and Cosmiques PD+. Seems fair.
Mont Blanc 4810m - 5 Routes to the Summit by Francois Damilano - book
Mont Blanc Classic and Plaisir Guidebook - book of 80 routes
* The Mont Blanc Range: Classic Snow, Ice and Mixed Climbs - The Book. Now arrived.

Actual plans

Note: planning a full three weeks is presumptuous. Oh ye gods of the mountains, know that I know that this is all tentative.

* 07/20: leave 10 am; to Besancon [booked, hotel Citadele].
* 07/21: arrive Chamonix / le Tour; to Albert Premier [booked].
* 07/22: Aiguille du Tour; back to ref [booked]
* 07/23: Tete Blanche / Petit Fourche? To valley [booked, hotel le Chamonix, town center]
* 07/24: To Couvercle [booked]
* 07/25: Pointe Isabella, Couvercle [booked]
* 07/26: Moine? Courtes? To valley, or another refuge?
* 07/27
* 07/28
* 07/29
* 07/30
* 07/31
* 08/01: to Tete Rousses "camp de base" [booked]
* 08/02: Mt Blanc; back to cdb [booked]
* 08/03: descent, or reserve day
* 08/04:
* 08/05: to Cosmiques [booked]
* 08/06: Mt Blanc; back to Cosmiques [booked]
* 08/07: descent or reserve day
* 08/08: leave
* 08/09: return to Coton early in the day


There's a nice video of the Gouter Route (aka "View Normale") here, which helpfully  includes some pix of the refuges. It also shows you a little of the Grand Couloir, which as I understand it is the icky / dangerous bit. Another, with drone footage! They seems to have stopped in the Refuge Vallot, which is supposed to be an emergency shelter only.

Note that the Gouter is at ~3800, so makes for an easier summit day by ~200 m than Cosmiques.

Here's a bloke soloing it, looks like quite a nice video starting from 2300 m (he ends up arriving at the Gouter - late in the day, so they can't force him to descend - but they charge him E30 extra and get get to sleep in the boot-room since the hut is full). At this point he's nearly at the Tete Rousse, and you can see people camping, though clearly they are getting sniffy about that in 2019. This also seems to show him - and others, so he isn't just a lone nut - fearlessly climbing the Grand Couloir in mid-afternoon; when I'd thought that rockfall made early morning mandatory (vid: rockfall; another; perhaps a clearer one: I think the problem is one crossing). In fact this Petzl document is particularly helpful, has pics and "accidentology". This (2004) discussion says stay at the Tete Rousse and start at 3am. In 2015 it was shut for a while due to deaths.

A blog of someone climbing it from Les Houches in a slightly mad up-n-back in two days.


And a video here. Doesn't look technically any harder than the Dome de Neige. A vid including some interior of the Cosmiques hut. There appears to be one difficult section on Mont Maudit.

You can camp on the glacier below (around from) the Aiguille du Midi, or stay in the Cosmiques hut. Either way you start from ~3600 and have ~1200 to go up.

Here's one of someone soloing it, after his friend decides not to do Tacul because of an avalanche the previous day in which two people die... no accounting for taste. Nice views of the Maudit "steep bit". Quasi-insanely they appear to have walked up the Mer de Glace over a couple of days, camping en route.

Pretty well everyone gets to Cosmiques via the cable car. But walking (Montenvers to Requin then up the glacier) may also be possible and perhaps good fun and acclimatising. See this SummitPost, or this proper planned course.

Other stuff

A somewhat dismissive title. But there is lots lots more than two huts and one mountain, obvs.

Tour of the Mer de Glace: Requin, Leschaux, Couvercle.


The Rif Torino is on the Italian side, you'd never guess. Website. It's reached with by walking up from the French side, or by cable car from teh Italian side, which makes it open lots of the year. Vid of Torino to Mt Blanc du Tacul.

Envers des Auiguilles

Fairly readily accessible from the mountain railway. Various rock routes: Bec d'Oiseau.


From the Mer de Glace (Montenvers railway). Vid: 3 jours autour du refuge du Couvercle, featuring walk in, Pointe Isabella (route 8 in The Book) and L'Aiguille du Moine (rock).

Web page. Says may be being partially renovated in the summer but "Toutefois des places seront disponibles". Or this page says "However if there is work, some places will be available on weekdays and weekends, but limited! It will be essential to contact us by phone at (no internet reservations possible for now)." But the reservation page now seems fine.

A recent report on Pointe Isabella.