Sunday 31 December 2017

Theatre review: Warhorse

Warhorse was a children's book but now it is a play. We went to see it as our first Christmas not-a-panto this year; and that made sense. TL;DR: good.

It is all rather well done. As everyone says, they horse puppets work well despite there being no attempt to hide the puppeteers; the bird puppets sort-of work too: well, the little flying-joyously ones do, and maybe the crows. I'm less sure about the comedy goose. Another bit that works well is the shooting, which is sudden and startling, rather than slow. The tank towards the end is odd; that didn't seem to make sense at the time. Looking now at the wiki page about the book, I think that's how Joey gets stuck on the wire, but that wasn't really clear in the play.

The only bit that sticks out as implausible - other than the inevitable co-incidences, which aren't too blatant - is Friedrich the German artillery officer practically doing a "lumberjack" and saying "I didn't want to be a soldier".

But what do we make of it on the moral or intellectual plane? It ticks all the obvious boxes: war is bad, hard work and perseverance is good, drunkenness is bad (errm, even if it has good consequences, never mind that), and so on. But we knew all that anyway, so that doesn't get you much. Does it provide any kind of insight? Does telling WWI from the viewpoint of a horse bring anything fresh and new? No.

Thursday 12 October 2017

Book review: The Martian

The Martian (Goodreads) was recommended by D, and I enjoyed it. It is sci-fi but "hard"; the plot is closely based around near-term plans for how early exploration off Mars might happen. The genre is "engineering"; essentially the lone protagonist faces a series of challenges and overcomes them not by heroism or exceptional intelligence but by being resourceful, thinking things through and ingenuity.

[This review written in early 2018 after I'd read the inferior Artemis as well, but backdated to mid-October which is about when I read TM.]

Plot (but you can get this from the wiki page or elsewhere): a dust storm means the explorers need to leave early but by accident one bloke is left behind, presumed dead. Can a rescue rocket get to him in time, and will it come to him or will he need to trog across half of Mars to get to it?

Most of all of this is well done and convincing. Details are plausible, so I'll point up a few that aren't. The sudden-evacuation-in-storm isn't quite; I can't think they would be so poorly prepared. The politics back on Earth is naive. The not-tell-the-departed-crew bit isn't believeable. Turning over the rover towards the end felt a bit too much like let's-throw-another-obstacle-at-him. But that contrasts with the rest, where the obstacles arise naturally and do not feel contrived, and the story mostly flows well.

Thursday 31 August 2017

Book review: Divine Endurance

Divine Endurance is a weird book. It is well worth a read; if you haven't, do that first, because any explanation will tend to spoil it. If you don't like books in which much is unexplained, or in which things only become slowly clear, then find something else. Having said that, the flaws are more obvious on a second reading. And it isn't quite clear where Flowerdust fits in; just an episode, I think.

The attraction of the book is largely in its tone; and to some extent it shares this with White Queen. Elegaic, unruffled, unhurried, tolerant of people and of disaster.

But ah the downsides: and here I shall wax philosophical; bear with me, it is worth it, I think. I've been reading Popper recently; The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 2, Hegel and Marx. And Popper is strongly critical of what he calls "historicism" or in Marx's case "historical prophecy": in essence, the idea that history has its own meaning, its own destiny; teleology, perhaps. And if you hear that, you begin to see the backbone of a lot of sci-fi novels; perhaps a lot of novels in general. And this one in particular: much of the beauty is in the characters learning to accept their "destiny"; the long slow downwards slope of their world into death. But it is all nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that; and (as I said before) all too common.

Update: reading GJ's article on the book at her website, it is clear that she thinks the book is about something else. But as the author she is in some ways blind to what it actually says, because of course she knows what she meant it to say. So take, for example, the way the dolls "know" that they shouldn't fixup various "surface" problems because the humans don't want those problems fixed. Like Derveet's fatal illness. Then stop and think: how does that make sense? It doesn't, except in the all-is-predestined manner that I've already pointed out is Bad.

But I should add something positive: which is that the view of society, and the bizarre sexuality in which essentially all important people are homosexual, just makes perfect sense and all fits together; is very well done.

Monday 28 August 2017

Book review: Fifth Planet

PXL_20231013_120308657~2 Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle is a sci-fi book (no!). Goodreads gives it 3.5 and that seems about right; read the reviews there.

Plot holes: solar motion is, I think, so slow that we'd have forever to see Helios coming; certainly more than a century. Could I try to work that out? Suppose it is a light-year away, how long could it take to get here? Suppose it takes a century; then it would have to be travelling at 3,000 km/s relative to us. Wiki tells me that hyper-velocity stars can get to maybe 1000 km/s; but they are exceptional and rare, and wouldn't do. Never mind; it doesn't matter; the point is, the plot is driven by the idea of star systems "colliding", and that was an idea at the time, and that's where the book comes from.

Another is the astonishing lack of interest the astronauts show in their new world. Despite knowing it contains chlorophyll they have brought along no biologists. Or scientists of any kind.

In the book the other side are one of the traditional tropes of sci-fi, the evolved-so-far-past-us massively-civilised sorts who can barely understand our primitive urges. Who nonetheless make unaccountable mistakes; well the plot would be somewhat boring without the mistakes.

In a way, the most interesting part is the total failure of prediction, both social and scientific. On the social side, society hasn't evolved in the slightest since when the book was written, despite being more than 100 years ahead. For example, the first female astronaut occurs as a propaganda exercise during the launches for the expedition; and this despite space-travel being so routine that ~500 engineers are sent up into orbit to help assemble the ship. Oh, and the female astronaut is pretty helpless, defers to the men, and is (as the book says) "of course" trained in nursing. Fred and Geoff really were dinosaurs. On the science side, the folk in the book are still using punched cards in 2080; F+G clearly put no effort into prediction. That's not totally unreasonable; it probably read fine when published and they had other ideas for the book (I'll get to that... or maybe I won't). Another rather amusing element comes when Conway muses how hard it is to find his wife, and wonders about a scheme whereby people could be located; perhaps they would clock in at public stations every 15 mins or so. But of course they couldn't be expected to predict smartphones or GPS; no-one else did.

So what is the book about? Pffft, read it for your self, it is kinda worth it. The core hard-science idea is star systems moving with respect to each other. The core soft-science idea is their rather kooky ideas about what "life" itself might be in terms of 4-dimensional surfaces; I wouldn't take that too seriously.

Added 2023/10: my recollection, though - from first reading it as a child, and from memories of this re-read - is that I like the book; it feels gentle, somewhat like Engine Summer; of another time. Cover pic: I like this one, it fits; this is from MS's copy. It's not the one I remember though.


Wednesday 16 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Wednesday: glacier, valley, St Christophe en Oisans

The next day it is probably time to go down, especially since plans to go up to the Col du Sele appear inadvisable in the light of conditions. In fact a party have come from that direction but we are relatively inexperienced and conditions are clearly not good, and since we don't actually want to cross it's just not a good idea. However, going down won't take all day so D, E and I decide to go down to the glacier basin and see what's what from there. We rise at the sane hour of 7:30 for the standard breakfast and are off by 8.

Before we do that, here's Pilatte taken from above at the end of yesterday. The route in from the valley is to the left. Here's a view from the terrace looking right up towards les Bans. Here's the common room empty then, the "urinal" is the water tap.


There's a wide dust-gravel area with tables with a panoramic view. You'll notice it all looks quite dry and the hut was on short commons for water: drinking water could be had from taps but the indoor loos were forbidden leaving only the outdoors "long drop" that you see just "over" the hut. Off to the far right is the boules allee. Also taken the day before is the start of today's route:


The path heads off to the right, rising gently up by 50 m before you start to descend. It is... worrying. There's no run-out so you want to be careful on your feet, though "difficult" sections have cable. Not to spoil the surprise but when we get down we cross the obvious central moraine and follow the obvious glacier swooshing up to the left, avoiding getting too close to the rock in the centre, because ice has clearly fallen off it not long ago.


Here we are at the bottom of the descent. I'm now on the glacier, or rather the pile of rubble / moraine that edges the glacier; E is coming down the rope that protects this last stage (but just hand-over-hand; that's all that is needed, and since the rope is knotted it is all that is possible). You see the red paint blobs that look large from here but are teensy weensy from the glacier; memorise where it is, it is hard to see. If you follow the link to the expanded pic you'll see the cables leading from where D is at the top of the rope to the ladders off to the right. If you were of a nervous disposition you might rope up for all this. While we're on the route, here's a nice pic (taken from after we've trogged up a bit) because it makes it look all scary.


Look closely (you'll need the full-size pic) and you'll see Pilatte on the shoulder, and on the left side a crack slanting down with a blob of red on either side of it; that's our route. Meanwhile, on the glacier looking upwards we see up the swooshy ramp.


At the top of that swoosh, around 2800, we look around. It is a fine morning and the views are magnificent if somewhat intimidating. From closer up I think you can see that a route up to the Col du Sele is probably not so hard.


Go up the snow just left out of the picture, then traverse rising right above the first rock up the ice, and you'll avoid most of the crevasses. But, we have no time for that today, so it's time to return to the hut. Here's from a little lower down, showing how the glacier has been falling over the rock onto the lower portion; but that's fine, as long as you don't go near it.


It would be nice to climb les Bans one day. But earlier in the season would be better I think.


On the way down I incautiously strayed too far onto the "bulge" and we encountered the crevasse zone. It was entirely safe because you could see them all, but rather tedious threading our way through them. It finally gave me some idea of what you read in books when people describe the back-and-forth required.


To end our adventure, here's D contemplating the glacier (but if you prefer, here is him contemplating a large hole).


After that - and, of course, after lunch - there's the longish descent down into the valley. At the bottom we find that an emergency bridge has been restored to the more convenient path, so we take it. It looks like we're sending M across first but we aren't really: D's rucksac is already across so we experimented on him.


Gradually we descend back to more civilised parts, leaving the glaciers behind, but the storm has still left some destruction behind and the path has washed out in a few places.


We take a break (and catch up with D) at the shut-for-the-season-remember Refuge du Carrelet. The bridge just lower that appeared totally broken on the way up is now miraculously restored. I keep looking back; here's just before la Berarde. Once back, we gratefully remove our Big Boots and head down to St Christophe en Oisans where we plan to spend the night; but I'll fold that into tomorrow.

Tuesday 15 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Tuesday: Gioberney: 3352

Previous: Pilatte.

We're called at 5, because that's when you're called if you're climbing Gioberney from Pilatte. It is an F; in the Rebuffat book there's a lovely snow ridge that attracted me years ago; but I fear it is gone now. Breakast is mountain bread, butter, jam, museli, coffee for me and hot chocolate for D and E; M stays abed. There's one other party; we faff repacking and they get off ahead of us, which is fine by me. When we get out there's a half moon illuminating the night, and up above the lights of the other party just disappearing over the lip. We'd recced the route start the day before and find the cairns and markers; by 6:30 it is light enough to turn off head torches.


The route goes up the shoulder of the W bank of the Pilatte glacier, whose basin you see here. The high point on the right is les Bans; then le Pointe des Boeufs Rouges (really) and the Pointe du Sele, with the col du Sele over to the Refuge du Sele (and thence down to Ailfroide) between those pointes. All of that basin "ought" to be easy snow, not hideous open crevasses - of those, more tomorrow.

Looking upwards this is Gioberney, although the summit may not be quite visible; our route takes us around the cliff on the left.


Looking across to the north face of les Bans; compared to my map (from 2011. Now I look, the map even has a general note telling you that they're melting back) the glaciers are massively eroded. Maybe it would be a good idea to come earlier in the season next year when there's still some snow around.


The route turns and we're on the now-rather-small glacier du Gioberney, heading up to the col at 3238. Finally we can almost see our objective, I always find that reassuring. Notice that we aren't troubling ourselves with the rope - that is safe and secure inside D's sac, borne aloft by his strong young shoulders. Because this is probably more neve than glacier.


At the col! We can leave sacs and axes and crampons behind, but we do take the precaution of putting our helmets on. D wittily has his sunhat on underneath; well, it works for him. The route - off towards the skyline on the right - is somewhat free form form here and is, needless to say, much easier than it looks, assuming it looks difficult to you.


From the col you can look over the far side. Just visible just over the dark ridge is the Chalet de Gioberney; the even lower valley is the D480 to le Bourg; further down that out of sight is La Chapelle en Valgaudemar. In theory visible on the slopes to the right is the Ref du Pigeonnier, probaly on the ridge opposite the dark ridge.


And then we're at the summit. yes, it's a pile of rubble. It is now 9 am; we took 3 hours, which is acceptable. It's a warm sunny day so we lounge around admiring the views, especially the crevasses of the glacier basin, and speculate how the path to the Col du Sele is supposed to work: I can just about trace out something that might work; you can never tell from a distance.

To help orientate, here's a picture taken from the glacial basin looking up towards Gioberney (right) and the actually-slightly-lower Pointe Richardson on the left, with the Gioberney glacier in between and the col central.


To finish with, here's a view of the descent ridge across to les Bans, featuring D and E. The descent also takes 3 hours, because we don't hurry; we arrive in time for galettes for lunch which is the important bit. We're tired, except perhaps for D, so happy to eat, drink, read, play Skulls and floating bridge.


Monday 14 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Monday: Pilatte

[Index] Up at 8 with M to breakfast, then as the children are coming down we leave to walk down to the station to pick up the car. This year, even though I'm expecting it, we get the same comedy of errors as last time: M. Avis is not there; after a phone call we talk to his colleague on the phone ("Oh yes of course he has been there..."; in French naturally but M can do that; "...just ask at the station".) So we ask M. Guichet who assures us that he knows who we mean but no, he hasn't been around. So we relax over a coffee in the cafe and Mr Avis turns up. Fine; we have a car; not particularly expansive for four people even though I didn't go for the minimum; but it fits us  including Daniel's rather large rucksac. But he is carrying all the bulky stuff for other people.

And so off, to the Col du Lauteret. Which is, as I expected, full of people - the horror - so we go down a little ways before stopping to look at the mountains. It was a bit like this... That's probably the Meije in the clouds, and the glacier du Lauteret; but I'm not too familiar with this side.


We stop at La Grave for a coffee, and note the teleferique, and continue down past Lac du Chambon on the emergency road, and at Bourg d'Oisans turn up to la Berade about 2 pm. Top tip: use the village car-park, it is more convenient that squeezing in just where the pedestrian bit starts. Views and weather have been lovely all the way but we've been in the car just a bit too long so it's nice to walk through the village. The old Hotel des Glaciers is indeed shut - M and I were last here '92 or '93 I think, but I won't bore you with the olde dayes. We find a resto for lunch and orientate ourselves and then head off. I've, errm, slightly got my walk-in times wrong; for some reason the idea that all huts are 2 hours from the road is in my mind, but the official Pilatte time is 3:30 and we'll be slower than that.


Here we are striding off, full of enthusiasm. Soon we hit a notice that says something along the lines of "storms. the bridge is out, take the left side of the valley". But which left? We're on the left, unless they mean in the downhill sense... after some confusion, we go back to the village and wait for the Office du Tourisme to open at three, and although there is more confusion they really do mean the other bank. It eventually turns out that the same notice has been stuck everywhere, including on the "good" side.


And, errm, yes: the bridge really is down (this is the one just before the Refuge du Carrelet. Remarkably, a few days later when we came down it was back together again). Alas the path on the other side includes 100 m of extra height gain and is somewhat rougher, so all of that has added an hour to our walk-in, so we're in danger of missing dinner, zut alors! Fortunately the views are gorgeous, if you like that sort of thing.


This is the view looking back, as we finally start to climb up the valley side towards Pilatte. The building centre is the Ref du Carrelet (shut this season along with the Temple Ecrins way above it); la Berade is back where the valleys meet beyond (here is a distant but closer view, from on the way down). From around about the same place we can look up towards Pilatte, Gioberney and les Bans (so actually we haven't started the real climb up yet):


Pilatte isn't quite visible from this picture; it is on the rock shoulder that continues the leftwards sweep of scree, outlined against the glacier. Gioberney isn't visible either quite but is sort-of the rightish skyline. When we get to where you see the river ending, sort of, we find the crossing that would lead to the other bank. It is indeed washed out, but would have been crossable, probably. Anyway, courage, onwards and upwards to dinner!


Some of the path is a little rough. Some bits feel like the whole mountainside is on the verge of falling off. We wend our way slowly through this gargantuan landscape and arrive at 8; fortunately, they have held dinner for us.M, tired, heads off to bed early; D, E and I survive until 9; breakfast tomorrow will be at 5.

Sunday 13 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Sunday: arrival

We travelled down by train, as I did last year. Since we were four in couchette, we could pay an extra E40 to be just us, and did, since that was very convenient. Due to, let me say, slight infelicities in my booking efficiency the Friday night trains were full, so we went over Saturday night, which is a minor pain because you cannot pick up a hire car in France on a Sunday. But it gave us a leisurely Saturday, which was good, including time for a decent meal near the Gare d' Austerlitz. Also, weirdly, we ended up going via Marseille due to some funkiness of the track routing that night, which meant that instead of arriving at 8:30 in the morning we arrived around 12:30. In other circumstances that would have been annoying; as it was, M and I were both tired from work in the run-up to hols (and for reasons related to that, trying to leave on Friday would not have gone well) as were the infants, so a morning of relaxing, reading and watching unexpected bits of France go by was fine. It also solved the what-to-do on Sunday puzzle. Instead of rushing around hiring a taxi out to Vallouise for the day, we just looked around Briancon.

The pix here are from last year, but the place hasn't changed much. From the park, looking ENE up the Durance gorge, with the upper walled town off to the left. We walked down the park, into the gorge as far as the pont d'Asfeld; sadly you can't go further.


The cathedral and the town walls. E and I went there in the evening for an concert of the amis de l'orgue: Handel, Bach, Haydn, Vivaldi. They did somewhat blend into each other. Even E, who has culture, admitted that all Baroque music tended to sound the same (it wasn't the highest Bach).


Pont d'Asfeld. Actually this is a bit out of sequence; after looking at the park and gorge we dropped off our bags at the Auberge de la Paix in the walled city, had a quick go at getting into the fort de la cite but we'd missed the last entry, so wandered as far as the pont instead.


To the Auberge for dinner.

Ecrins 2017

As briefly noted in A bit more mountain, 2017 over on the "real blog", the trip to the Ecrins in 2016 was so good I wanted to go back; and it turned into the family holiday. M didn't go above the snowline, but D and E both climbed with me. The trip sort-of split into two weeks, the first starting at the Pilatte hut and in various places; the second in a chalet in Vallouise.

Week 1

* Sunday 13th: arrival.
* Monday 14th: la Berade, Pilatte
* Tuesday 15th: Gioberney
* Wednesday 16th: glacier; valley; St Christophe en Oisans
* Thursday 17th: la Grave; glacier de la Girose; refuge Evariste Chancel
* Friday 18th: Rateau
* Saturday 19th: valley, Vallouise

Week 2

* Sunday 20th: refuge du Glacier Blanc
* Monday 21st: Roche Faurio; refuge des Ecrins
* Tuesday 22nd: practising
* Wednesday 23rd: Dome de Neige des Ecrins; valley
* Thursday 24th: holiday
* Friday 25th: holiday; return

Saturday 5 August 2017

Town bumps: afterthoughts

See-also: Town bumps, day 0; day 1.

This year's bumps were a disappointment. I don't think I can put a happy gloss on them. To some extent we were unlucky in our opposition: there were no easy targets this year, and the boats behind us were fast. But that is excuse making. We could and should have been better.

The bright spots were holding off Tabs 3 on day 2 [vid from Jonathan Pilgrim]: they were a fast crew, and closed to near overlap by first Post, but we held them off all the way to the Railway bridge; and we held them off on Day 3 until somewhere around Grassy, when Nines 2 took them out [vid from Simon Lloyd].

That rather brings up the less bright spots. On day 4 we were moderately sure we were going to be bumped by Nines 2, and we duly were, and that was rather dispiriting. It is hard to do anything in that situation. We made it past First Post, and we told ourselves that was our aim; but in a way we might as well not have bothered even to start (though no-one, including me, would even consider suggesting such a thing; after all, you never know what might happen and we did claw a little back from City 2).

And so on to day 1, which I think is my biggest regret: we should have done better against City 2. And this is all the in retrospect stuff, which is so worthless: we should have gone off faster, and so on. Never mind. That's all too late.

The important stuff, though, is the stuffed-up pre-bumps preparation, starting with changing the rig to strokeside. Am I going to write this down in public? I haven't decided yet :-)



Wednesday 19 July 2017

Town bumps 2017: day 1

Twas a grayish evening and we met at the boathouse, many of us from having watched earlier divisions. I was getting more nervous, forgetting how bad it has felt before; well, it felt just as bad again. There was a late change to the start order: Tabs 2, our old friends, were replaced by Tabs 3 (the Hills Road Returners) who I suppose we'd effectively bumped last year in some guise. Anyway.

We boated in good time and rowed down to Stourbridge to watch W1. As expected, Tabs got City in that neither came past; and City 2 turned up in their shiny red uniforms as Sharks. Looking, it has to be said, good. To the start, a fair enough row down. Wait. Nerves settling somewhat; at least I no longer want to throw up.

And off; there's a fair breeze blowing us into the bank but we get a good push-off anyway. It isn't our best start, though not poor; just not quite up to what it could be. Past the motorway bridge City are getting closer, and the water around me is rough, but no whistles. We don't really settle, not I think because of pressure from behind but just because. And around First Post City close in, and get us early in the Gut. This is disappointing.

The riggercam is not exciting,  alas.

Just to make it even more thrilling, in the distance behind us we can see Tabs 4 catching Tabs 3... roll on tomorrow.

GPS trace.

[Day 0]

Monday 17 July 2017

Town bumps, 2017: Day 0

I don't normally do a pre-bumps post; it is impious to risk the wrath of the gods. And I will make no predictions this year. But I'll write down a vignette from many years ago, in my early Oxford years. Sitting waiting on the river for our next piece, not long before bumps, I heard a coach for another crew say "look at yourselves now. Think how you're rowing. Judge yourselves. Because next week you'll only judge yourself by how well you've done; whether you go up or down. This is your last chance to judge your actual rowing". And so I will.

We've had an odd year, and not just because we made the perverse decision to stroke rig the boat rather than bow rig it as god intended. The winter league went well, but then we stalled for a couple of months, and found it hard to pick things up. In the last month things came together and, perhaps perversely, I think we've "peaked" well; sometimes it can be harder to sustain a run of good rowing; you get stale.

So, all to play for: bring on tomorrow.

Sunday 16 July 2017

The management apologise for more inconvenience

Over at my real blog there seem to be problems of this sort of nature:

Your access to this site has been limited

Your access to this service has been temporarily limited. Please try again in a few minutes. (HTTP response code 503)
Reason: Exceeded the maximum global requests per minute for crawlers or humans.
Important note for site admins: If you are the administrator of this website note that your access has been limited because you broke one of the Wordfence blocking rules. The reason your access was limited is: "Exceeded the maximum global requests per minute for crawlers or humans."

And so on. I don't know what is going on. Others have contacted Da Mgt without success so far. Updates will be posted here, or perhaps there, or on my facebook page, on written in the clouds, who knows.

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 isn'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

Up and 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 pm. 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

Tacitus on Imperial Rome

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".

Saturday 4 March 2017

Chronicle of a death foretold

Poor Phoebe is approaching the End, I fear. She has been slowing down this past year, staying in more, going out less. She is, we think, about 12; not young any more though not especially old. Last week, last Sunday, we noticed that she was slower than ever and her breathing was very laboured - breath in, collapse out. We took her to the vet on Monday morning and £600 and a day's stuff later - including 4 hours in an oxygen chamber - we had a diagnosis of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy and a largeish pot of yellow-orange fluid extracted from her chest cavity. And some pills to feed her.

The pill feeding was a total failure, but once we stopped doing that she settled down quietly and seemed to be breathing better. Another appointment on Wednesday taught Miriam the mystical trick of feeding pills to cats: hold them tight by the scruff of the next, pull back their forehead skin with a finger to give them the "bug eyed look" whilst lifting them off their forepaws. This was better, but still largely a failure and I had very little heart for it. Phoebe clearly hated it. Meanwhile, she was eating little or nothing, but drinking a lot.

Come her next appointment on Friday morning she could not be found! She had been somewhat in the habit of going out, and needing to be brought back in. And also of hiding in odd corners of the house, including in Daniel's sleeping bag. On Friday Miranda had left early, so we weren't even sure if Phoebe was in the house or outside. We looked both in and out, down the garden several times and in the road; but there are so many places that a cat that doesn't want to be found, won't be. In the end the vet's appointment had to be cancelled. Later, on Friday night at 9 pm when we were really quite worried, she came scratching at the back window a poor bedraggled thing, the weather had not been good that day.

Miriam took her in on Saturday morning, to discover that she had lost 400 g from her not-very-heavy previous weight of 3,100 g on Monday. Unless she can recover her appetite - we tempt her with goat's milk, with tuna, with sardines, with her own cat food, to no avail - then she is not long for this world. We have a pipette; we could try force-feeding milk or mush; but I am reluctant.

Why is this here? Well, for the bits I haven't written yet I suppose. What of the morality of it: we could spare ourselves some pain by having her put down, but would she want that? We owe her some love and some kindness at her end; and our best guess at what she would want. But she's a cat; they're inscrutable.

Sad update: in the early hours of Sunday I heard distressed noises; Phoebe was nearly at the top of the stairs. I carried her down to her bed and laid her there; she seemed quiet. In the morning she was quiet; as I got my breakfast she moved a little. Later, she walked around a bit but her back legs were not working properly. A little later she made more distressed noises from her bed; I stroked her; she quieted and seemed calm. When I came back ten minutes later she was dead.

In the afternoon Daniel came round to say goodbye. We dug a hole in the back garden and buried her. I chanted dust to dust and we threw the soil in, and put daffodils on top of her grave so that we will remember in future years. Miriam read the "a time to be born and a time to die" passage from Ecclesiastes and a short Buddhist piece.


Wednesday 1 March 2017

Book review: The Dragon Masters

Jack Vance again. An old classic. I can still recall when I first read this, sometime in my teens, fresh I think from some Pern-y type stuff, and thought this might be more of the same - not being familiar with Vance at the time. And on a hot summer day I cycled through the English countryside near Berkhamstead till I found a nice empty field and settled down to read.

Oh was I disappointed! The book was completely weird and not at all what I expected. When a book isn't what you expect it is hard to get started. At first you don't realise it isn't what you expect; it just appears as hard to read, and you keep reading on for the familiar bit, or when the story will turn into the rut you were expecting. Eventually you realise and are either liberated, or you throw the book away in disgust.

I, of course, was liberated. This is more splendid Vance-type stuff with a weird situation and a ruthless hero and aliens and the end of times. I won't spoil the story by telling you more; see wiki if you want that or Goodreads for many more reviews.

Does the book have anything to say about the meaning of life, of slavery, or what it is to be a man? The Goodreads folk seem to think so. I confess it never really occurred to me it did. The Languages of Pao does have something to say, sort of; or rather, it is an illustration of a concept. I think Vance is more that than messages.

Saturday 28 January 2017

The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time

For reasons that I can't quite recall, I came across The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, by Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Lee Smolin. RMU I only know because some idiot insists on puffing him up on wiki; but that did make me suspicious. LS, to me, is just a physicist of some repute.

So when in the CUP bookshop (one of the benefits of living in Cambridge) I spent perhaps 10-15 minutes browsing through it. For such a tome you will doubtless claim - or anyone supportive of the work would doubtless claim - that is far too short a time. Well, tough. I don't have all day.

The book is perhaps 2/3 RMU and 1/3 LS. The RMU section I found to be meaningless and thus worthless. I use those words literally; there was nothing of any value in there that I could find. Peter Woit reviews the book and says " I found the long section by RMU rather hard going and not very rewarding, and realized that I have a fundamental problem with this sort of writing. Arguments about physics and mathematics made in natural language leave me often unable to figure out exactly what is being claimed". Which I think is him saying the same, but more politely.

So let's move on to the LS section, without pausing to wonder - because the question is unanswerable - why LS is wasting his time associating with RMU. What I'm going to say - I promise - are my opinions, formed before I read PW. Also, in case you think PW is merely a professional rival of LS and dissing him, read his review of The Trouble With Physics (though he is less happy with more recent stuff).

I'm going to cheat though and copy PW's "three ideas" that LS has:

1. The uniqueness of the universe.
2. The reality of time.
3. Mathematics as the study of evoked relationships, inspired by observations of nature.

#1 is no multiverses. Well, meh. That's hardly a controversial viewpoint. Multiverse or not is a thing you can argue about, but there's no strong evidence either way. Quite how this fits together with his prior support for Cosmological natural selection, I don't know. I would have expected a section reconciling the two, but didn't see it.

#2 is also rather meh, in that to me it simply seems bleedin' obvious, and scanning of the book didn't reveal much in the way of deep insight from LS expounding his thesis. Somehow he hops from this to the idea that physical laws themselves evolve; as PW points out, this begs the question of what law they evolve according to. It would, I think, have been much better if anchored in experience: is there evidence, or conceivable evidence, for the truth or otherwise of this proposition? LS seems to have gone the string theory route of speculation without evidence.

#3 was hard for me to make any sense of. PW points me to a shorter essay which may be about the same thing, from which I quote "My aim in this essay is to propose a conception of mathematics that is fully consonantwith naturalism. By that I mean the hypothesis that everything that exists is part of thenatural world, which makes up a unitary whole... If, on the other hand, all that exists is physical reality then mathematical knowledgemust be an aspect of knowledge about physical reality...". That doesn't make sense to me. PW's comment is "In his essay, Smolin gives a discussion of mathematics itself which I think few mathematicians would recognize..." and you should read him for more if you're interested.

I poked around for some other reviews and found Goodreads.

* Manny: "I am a fan of Lee Smolin, so it pains me to say that this one was a major disappointment... even if it's wrong it asks so many interesting questions that it's absolutely worth reading. The problem is that most of it appeared in Smolin's last book, Time Reborn"
* G R Reader: "Roberto, why don't you come clean and admit what's as plain as day? You ran out of ideas; you tried to solve the problem by repeating yourself ad nauseam with minor stylistic variations; CUP refused to publish the result; Lee came in at the last minute and saved you by writing (more accurately, cutting and pasting) 150 pages in a couple of weeks; it was then accepted with very bad grace; the final product still stinks."

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Article 50 ruling: Courts should never have got involved in Brexit, says dissenting judge

From the Torygraph, the minority (3/8) verdict in today's case:
Judges should never have been allowed to rule on how Brexit should be triggered because it is a matter for politicians and not the courts, one of the Supreme Court Justices said.
Lord Carnwath, one of three Justices who sided with Theresa May, said the courts had taken “too narrow a view” of the issues at stake and should have left it to Parliament to settle its own affairs.
What's annoying me now is that I wrote much the same myself, and had a long argument about it, and now can't find it. Grrr. It might have been on facebook.

What I tried to say was that "giving" to Commons the "right" to vote on whether we should trigger article 50 is meaningless. If the Commons aren't strong enough to take action, there's no point in a bunch of men in wigs "giving" them their "right". And it seems I am likely to be proved correct: following today's verdict, the government will simply put forward a short simple bill saying "right, let's trigger article 50". And it will pass. Note that today's verdict does helpfully clarify some minor matters for the government:
The court also rejected, unanimously, arguments that the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly should get to vote on Article 50 before it is triggered.
Also note that Gina Miller appears to be an idiot, but that's rather beside the point.

I also dislike the creeping law-isation of life. The courts butt into too much, and should do less. Unfortunately, there is nothing to control them; they don't make law but they interpret law; so whether they're allowed to inverfere is entirely up to them. As Hobbes said.

The original High Court verdict is worth reading, though.


Corruptissima re publica plurimae leges
Hayek vs Hobbes and the theory of law
Brexit means Brexit?
Post-referendum thoughts

Sunday 22 January 2017

Obama's achievements

On my real blog I've just put up some comments on Trump; "predictions" for his term. But what of Obama? I don't want to spam that blog with politics, so I'll write here. Context: over there, I've just said "Trump will probably be minor". What might I have said before Obama's first term? I cannot now say. But, despite all the noise, I think I'd likely go with "overall, minor" as his record.

But what is his record? I'm going to (based on it looking moderately sensible and being a topish Google search) going to use Obama’s Top 50 Accomplishments, Revisited, from, about which I know nothing. These are just quick reactions, not deep analysis.

1. Passed Health Care Reform: yes, but it was flawed, perhaps badly, and may not survive.
2. Rescued the Economy: yes. "Didn't do badly" might be better, but not doing badly in this context is indeed an achievement, many have fared far worse.
3. Passed Wall Street Reform: not really convinced.
4. Negotiated a Deal to Block A Nuclear Iran: yes, I think.
5. Secured U.S. Commitment to a Global Agreement on Climate Change: you know what I think about that stuff.
6. Eliminated Osama bin Laden: true; it happened on his watch. It's unclear how much he contributed. The article doesn't have the word "drone" anywhere in it.
7. Ended U.S. Combat Missions in Iraq and Afghanistan: this is mendacious. the US is still involved, and both places are still disaster areas.
8. Turned Around the U.S. Auto Industry: dodgy.
9. Repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’: I suppose that's good. Part of wider social progress.
10. Supported Federal Recognition of Same-Sex Marriages: kinda the same thing.
11. Reversed Bush Torture Policies: yes, but failed to close Guantanamo; again, the article doesn't contain that phrase.
12. Established Rules to Limit Carbon Emissions from Power Plants: probably of some use. I'm not keen on govt fiddling like this. Establish a carbon tax instead.
13. Normalized Relations with Cuba: sensible. But things were heading that way anyway.
14. Put Medicare on Sounder Financial Footing: dunno.
15. Protected DREAMers from Deportation: dunno.
16. Established Net Neutrality: good.
17. Protected Two Liberal Seats on the U.S. Supreme Court: this is a rather weird one; it appears to be cheering partisanship on the court. Couldn't it have been entitled "appointed two competent judges"?
18. Boosted Fuel Efficiency Standards: stop fiddling. Carbon tax now.
19. Kicked Banks Out of Federal Student Loan Program, Expanded Pell Grant Funding: dunno.
20. Improved America’s Image Abroad: yes.

I got bored at that point. I assume they're in order; anything under #19 can't be important.

Overall: it's a reasonably solid record of careful work, but nothing major.

Brian disagrees with me.

Monday 16 January 2017

Theatre review: An Inspector Calls

20170114_191332After AIC, the book, here's AIC, the visit to the theatre. E was doing it for English, and had been recommended to see the production if possible. And it seemed like a fun idea to go down to London and stay overnight. M found us Z Hotel, Orange street. This was very conveniently central, a few minutes walk from the National gallery and only five minutes from the theatre, and all very nice though the rooms are smaller than the bathroom we had at the Ritz last year.

But what of the play I hear you ask? Interesting, I reply. You've read my review of the book-of-the-play I hope. Actually watching the play, I came to realise, was a bit like having a conversation with someone about it: you got to see another perspective, and some fresh ideas, which you might or might not agree with.

The production is a revival of the landmark 1992 production and uses the same set, or so I'm told. This is, errrm, quite dramatic, which I suppose is the point: the dining room is inside a house occupying about half the stage and elevated by about six feet; and somewhat undersized, so the actors have to duck to get out of the door. This all is, I think, intended to give a feeling that the inside is all rather dolls-house, as opposed to the gritty reality of the outside world. Which is cute but facile: all the world is real; dinner parties just as much as gutters.

In the first scene the house is lit and the "understorey" is dark. As the play goes on the underneath comes clearer; and towards the end the house "falls down", and extras dressed in war garb for no clearly identifiable reason other than effect come on at the edges; so the effect is of a town ravaged by war. This fits into what I would call the "propaganda" aspect of the play, and of the staging. This clearly fits within Priestley's worldview: for him, Capitalism had caused WWI and WWII. And indeed some of the speeches within the play are intended to foreshadow this. However, there is no "evidence" for this within the play, so it all has to be done by innuendo instead; the "war" stuff is subtly mixed with the social-justice message, and by being persuaded of one (perhaps) you are insidiously lead to the other; which is why I call it propaganda. It is, effectively, dishonest; though doubtless Priestley believed it and meant well, as people always do.

Since it is a topic, I shall bang on about it some more: did Capitalism cause WWI? As already said, JBS (and many on the left) take it almost as a given, not requiring any form of evidence. The Economist disagrees; and so I think do I. In this, Old Man Birling is correct: business does not want a war, it would be bad for business.

After that, we;re back to the less arguable part of the Message: you should be nice to people and consider the effect of your actions on them. Put like that it is all very motherhood-and-apple-pie; part of the skill of the dramatist is then to wrap this idea up into some fresh garb to make you think about it again. And in a way you do... a bit. But then again, we come back to Old Man Birling. He sacks the girl, after she's asked for a rise, as the Inspector somewhat dishonestly sums up towards the end. Had he done that, he'd have been in the wrong. But he didn't: he sacked her after she'd lead a strike, which is different. So his behaviour seems excusable. If we turn to Gerald, his sins also seem weak: arguably taking advantage of a pretty young woman, but also providing her food, shelter and money and giving her a chance to recover after a difficult time. By contrast the Young Folk - Sheila and Eric - who we are invited I think to like at the end because they repent their sins - do seem to be the two characters with the most to repent. I ignore Mrs B, because she doesn't fit into my nice scheme.

On to the presentation of the play. When I read it through, it all appeared to be neat and tidy and to work well. It worked well in theatre, too. There was a slight awkwardness - to my mind - when after they realise he's not an Inspector, and that she's not one woman, it takes them ages to realise that she may not even be dead. That needs smoothing over, in my view. But that might be because I've recently read the book. Small note: was Sheila a catty over-privileged young cow who habitually dissed shop assistants, or a fundamentally nice young thing who made but one serious mistake? In the book, the latter, I think. In the play, the former: she delivers the line "I only did it once, and will never do it again" in such a way as to suggest the opposite. Such is the plasticity of language.


Sunday 15 January 2017

Book review: All Hell Let Loose

All Hell Let Loose is a history of WWII, by Max Hastings. One of the children had it; I read it; it wouldn't normally be my reading material. It is a thick book, with some illustrations. I thought it good.

Danger: spoiler alert: the Germans lose.

The main advantage of the book is it's sweep: it covers the entire war, in very rough proportion to the amount of death and fighting, and so covers the Eastern Front far more than the traditional English schoolboy education, that I received, ever did. It also, somewhat refreshingly, largely covers the actual fighting, rather than politics, or causes, or economics. It doesn't entirely ignore economics, of course - pointing out, for example, that pure weight of US industrial capacity doomed Japan from the start (so why did they fight at all? Because they were stupid enough to deceive themselves: they thought they could expand, and then offer peace, which the US would accept though being soft and reluctant to accept casualties).

Other "nice" things it mentions - again, an example from Japan-US - is that some of the land campaigns were strategically pointless. Not all; some tiny rocks captured for airstrips were valuable. But once the US had wound itself up, it's submarines and surface Navy had largely suppressed the Imperial Navy, and so large garrisons of Japanese troops on... the ?Philippines? - I recall the concept, of course, not the actual examples - were no harm to anyone. They could have been bypassed and dealt with after the war was finished. But all the obvious things - commanders who wanted to fight, an army that had been created and therefore had to be used, lack of will in the overall command - meant that a whole pile of mainly US troops would die pointlessly killing lots of Japanese troops.

Slightly to my disappointment he doesn't cover "what if"s much. The most obvious large-scale "what if" is perhaps what if the Germans had put up lesser, or even token resistance on the Western front and diverted resources to the Eastern (of which the "battle of the Bulge" would be only a part). Then the Western allies would have reached Berlin and parts East first, perhaps even in 1944, leading to much less misery for Germany but perhaps also a much altered post-war balance, since the Commies would have got to conquer much less of Eastern Europe. The answer to this is perhaps that Hitler was mad enough to think he was going to win - or felt obliged to claim this in public - and so couldn't adopt this as a policy; that would only have been possible if he'd been deposed by the generals, but in that case they'd probably just have surrendered, so we rapidly go off into "actually, it couldn't have been like that".

There are hints of other "what if"s: he suggests that the Africa campaigns were but a side-show and largely pointless; but also that better strategy from the Krauts might have cleared the British out of the Med entirely, in which case Egypt and so on might have gone rather differently.

Philip Hensher writes a review that promotes the "individual voices" in the book. And, true, Hastings does quote quite a few people, officers, men, and civilians. But I wouldn't count that as a major part of the book.

Another good bit of myth-busting (again, to this English ex-schoolboy) is how poorly our armies performed in the colonies in the Far East against Japan. There's a certain myth that though there were a fair number of blimps in charge the actual fighting men were good; but this doesn't really seem to have been true. Few of the British soldiers particularly believed in what they were doing, and so weren't good at it.

And, so it goes. Overall, he does a good jobs of grinding in the terrible destruction wreaked on hapless populations by the fighting going on over their heads, largely in the Eastern Front. And all so totally pointless.

Saturday 7 January 2017

Christmas 2016

A follow up to the immensely successful Christmas 2015. What changed?

Daniel didn't break up from school ages before Christmas, since he is now at university. Instead, he came down ages before Christmas. We didn't work Christmas Eve, instead  travelling to Marcham for a meal out with Si+B on the 23rd, who were off to Hayling Island for Christmas. We stayed in Marcham that night, and to Milton-u-W on the 24th after brunch, in time for afternoon coffee and a read of the paper before carols around the village tree.


This year I managed a half marathon on Christmas morning, somewhat slow at 1:48. We didn't finish the washing up before the Queen's speech. Otherwise, reassuringly like last year. E now has braces; L too is at university, Leeds.

Which I see I didn't finish, another fine tradition. After boxing day comes the Trip To The Panto, this year Jack and the Beanstalk at Cheltenham, followed by Bella Italia (why C, not Oxford? I'm not sure; it used to be O, before 2015). We will probably think of something else, next year, the children are rather old for panto nowadays. BI is felt to be better than Jamie's Italian. The next day was a rest day and little was done - a lunchtime walk to the pub (the Lamb) for some.

Then the xfer to Marcham, which is rather less traditionally Christmassy, as is traditional. The meal at SoJo was on New Year's eve, after which E and I walked along the canal to Christ Church meadow and around. It was a grey day be we had a pleasant walk and chat, and (since she ponders the possibility of going to Oxford) she got to see some of it with new eyes. Then a sit in Blackwells cafe, and home.

When back home (having stayed an extra day, so that E could watch the Sherlock on New Year's Day) we were sad to find Little Cat not there; nor did she return next day. This, too, is in some danger of being traditional, as it happened once before. But a day or two later M was phoned up; P had been found, phew.

Wednesday 4 January 2017

When we were very young

shiptoship1 Looking for something else (I'll tell you later) I found GeoCities and diaries on the early web (James Baker, ‘GeoCities and diaries on the early web (preprint, 2016)’, in Batsheva Ben-Amos and Dan Ben-Amos (eds.) The Diary (Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2017)).

 More that two years ago (my how time flies) I wrote The dim and distant history of climate blogging, but that was about blogging. Since it was irrelevant - and I thought probably lost - I ignored my even more pre history, which was a - gasp - Geocities website.

 Aanyway, a wayback machine archive of that early site is here and to make assurance doubly sure there's an archive of that here (which will probably load faster). The photo (if you're wondering) is taken from a scan of my work pass. The picture of Miriam is on the other side of the Cherwell high footbridge in the University Parks.

The picture (don't click on it of you are of a delicate disposition) is re-used as traditional from the "dim and distant" post.

Sunday 1 January 2017

Blood pressure, 2017

A follow-up to the exciting "blood pressure" of 2016, and precursor to 2018. Summary: generally just on the safe side of 120 / 80.

2017 / 01 / 01: just before...

* 125 / 85 (63)
* 109 / 74 (63)
* 114 / 72 (61)

...and just after a 10 k run. Readings taken about as fast as the machine would; perhaps at one minute intervals.

* 151 / 88 (101)
* 126 / 81 (98)
* 114 / 83 (94)
* 118 / 83 (88)
* 116 / 80 (87)

2017 / 10 / 29:

* 120 / 79
* 149 / 89; 105 (just after 12k)
* 110 / 75; 55
* 113 / 74; 66 (next morning)