Saturday 14 December 2019

Running a Linux shell on AWS... and more

Yes, another tedious noob post about exciting adventures in AWS. My desire was simple, I wanted a Linux console to run Python so I could play adventofcode. I can run Python on my Windoze box but any number of deeply irritating things then occur, so I abandoned that. I them played with Virtualbox which is nice enough but I had trouble choosing a distro, and then was faced with downloading too much and waiting forever or too little and not having what I wanted. And then I found that setting up "shared folders" was Really Painful and gave up, thinking that it was about time I learn something of AWS anyway.

So I created a (free) account wmconnolley, and there's also a bucket by the same name which you probably can't see, and some credentials, and then "spun up" (as the Kool Kidz say) an instance, and uploaded stuff into the bucket, and worked out that "aws s3 cp s3://wmconnolley/day1-input.txt day1.txt" works, once the credentials are installed, and I'm away. Woot.

My dashboard is here (but I'm pretty sure that if you follow that you'll get to your dashboard).

Just as a check I stopped the thing and restarted it, and my files were still there. But my IP address had changed.

Connect to it with something like ssh -i c:\users\william\.ssh\MyKeyPair.pem ec2-user@ I think the tutorial I followed was this one.

All this is free. I guess I'm getting an el cheapo machine but I really can't say I've noticed. It tells me it is good practice to shut down the server to save money when I'm not using it, I wonder if I'll remember to, and anyway how much would it cost just to leave it running?

numpy isn't installed by default. pip install numpy works, if you have privilege, so it needs to be sudo pip install numpy.

A website

There's a tutorial on building a website. So I thought I'd try following it. I get The steps are given there; they're fairly simple. The IDE allows you to use vi.

Saturday 23 November 2019

Book review: Rendezvous with Rama

I've just re-read this for the first time since childhood - at least I don't recall reading it since. Links: wiki, Goodreads; Graun. I won't trouble you with the story since you'll find it there.

As usual this contains spoilers so read no further if you haven't already read the book.

In contrast to Transition, I liked this. It's good old fashioned (literally...) "hard" sci-fi. What it does rather well is keep the mystery going for as long as possible; in that, it's kinda like 2001. The problem with almost all sci-fi is that ultimately there are no answers. Of course there aren't; if there were, it wouldn't be fi (alternatively, there are answers, but they're dull). So the trick for the author is to keep up the sense of wonder for as long as possible. So, ultimately, there are no answers and we never learn what Rama is for or who built it (some people find this dreadfully disappointing, but they're wrong). In a sense the book is just an exploration of what a space-ark might be like from the point of view of the people it was going towards; and Clarke just mechanistically goes through the various steps; but he does it well.

Some niggles: if you find a circular sea in a cylinder and the bank on one side is much higher than the other side then the very first thing that will occur to you is that the high side is where the engines are, especially if there's a six km spike pointing out from that end. It's kinda necessary for the story that this isn't realised for a bit, I guess for the non-physics-competent readers, but it annoys somewhat (having just posed the question to E it turns out that she couldn't think of the answer). Exploration: they walk everywhere; well, they didn't bring bicycles. But then when it's necessary to cross the sea they have a wheeled cart to transport the raft materials, and an electric engine for the boat (where did they get the propeller from?). So the idea that they wouldn't have constructed some kind of powered cart seems implausible. Also, I got the idea about jumping into the sea, after some thought.

The idea that Rama was detected so late now seems rather implausible; I suspect even our level of tech would probably see it way out. But, I forgive that, as it very nicely leads to there being only one ship able to get to it, and we're spared all kinds of tedious complications that would have added nothing to the story. Others note that it's implausible that they wouldn't have done metallurgical analysis of the outside, and that's true, but on the other hand that too would have added very little to the story. It's also implausible that they wouldn't have got some kind of powered flight going. Towards the end, in the "missile" episode, they suddenly have a space scooter. Surely they would have disassembled that, taken it through the air locks, and used it inside to get to the South Pole  much earlier.

There's an implausible tech-level mixup I think. For most of the book Rama is mysterious, but doing physically obvious and comprehensible things: moving in accord with the laws of physics, taking 200 kyrs to move between stars. But then suddenly at the end it starts to acquire new powers: a reactionless drive, the ability to produce a vast mirror shield, and affect the sun. This seems curiously unnecessary. If you have that level of physics tech then the entire idea of a generation ship starts to look less plausible.

Lastly, this huge mysterious thing that's travelled for 200 kyr and presumably intends to voyage much further is nearly nuked by the Mercurians. There's no hint that the skin is nuke-proof, and the nuke-not-going-off is entirely contingent, so this was somewhat careless of the builders. And it becomes clear that anything this big and predictable is actually rather vulnerable. In which case not-very-much-thought points out some counter measures that you'd take: don't allow anything to approach carefully. In the book, Rama kinda springs to life and warms up as it goes around the sun, but really there's no reason automatic systems wouldn't wake up somewhat earlier (the book maintains for as long as possible the uncertainty about whether the things are alive, biological, or robotic; and to be fair in those far off days computing power was weak; but, still). Like, outside Neptune's orbit. And you'd scan the radio spectrum and... what? Know that there were people there? And you'd shoot down - or at the very least attempt to warn off - anything approaching. Just trusting that all would go well is not believeable. You'd also in all probability have sent ahead a swarm of probes, and so on.

Ah, and lastly, it seems unlikely that it would spend 200 kyr voyaging to the sun just in order to use it for a course correction/ boost; surely there would have been somewhere nearer to aim at. I'm not sure why he felt it necessary to make it so long; perhaps just to increase the sense of awe. Oh, and one very last thing, while it's most efficient to do boosts near a gravity well with a conventional reaction drive, I'm not at all sure that would be true with the Raman non-Newtonian drive. Sadly the book doesn't explore this point (Rama instead sucks up some sun material, so it does have another reason for getting close).

Another thought added later: one reason the book is fun is that effectively it's a puzzle book; a bit like a murder-mystery, but with (physics) puzzles throughout, like the cliff; it is possible to reason about the situation (even when it goes wrong). One reason that books like Transition disappoint is that they can't be thought about or reasoned about, because the plot twists are arbitrary.

Friday 22 November 2019

Book review: Transition by Iain Banks

TL;DR: didn't really like it but I enjoyed reading it.

You can start off with the Grauniad review, which rather expresses what I think. Goodreads has something more positive to say but reassures me that I didn't really miss anything: the thing is all surface and there's nothing subtle hiding underneath; this is Banks after all.

Complaints: the generic Scottish anti-capitalist bits are tedious. The concept is largely nicked from Asimov's The end of eternity, with (as Goodreads reminded me) a bit of A plague of pythons thrown in. I'd strongly recommend either of those above this. Towards the end, the Hero-so-to-speak randomly acquires special powers as may become convenient. Shortly after the Baddies get a Special Agent Bisquitine who suddenly has even bigger arbitrary powers. The multiple-world-spanning Concern seems somehow a very small thing and curiously under-drawn. The philosophy is dull; I skipped most of it. And so on and so forth. It all feels rather crudely drawn and crudely done and perhaps tossed off in a hurry.

The good bits are fairly thin. It's a reasonable page-turner. Actually, that's about it.

Addition: the book is "noisy"; and one of the irritating features is that much of the noise is just noise; there's no hidden subtlety - unless oh course it was too subtle to notice. Some of this is fine: Ade goes grouse shooting, that is semi-random-noise, but actually it's part of the development of his story, and does move the book. But Patient-and-the-sex-dolls is just random mystification for no reason and just annoys.

For another disappointment (the lack of reason-ability) see Rendezvous with Rama. Another thought: the book gives no thought to what happens to the people transitioned into; for a book with nominal pretensions to philosophy, this is a lack. Are the consciousnesses merely suppressed for a while? Are they displaced "elsewhere"? Are the "husks" what happens to people transitioned into too long? Do any of the transitioners ever feel any guilt? All these questions are resolutely ignored.

Saturday 9 November 2019

Book review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow occupied the last few Saturday's at Waterstones for me. Definitely a great improvement on Naomi Klein's awful On fire. The Goodreads link will provide you with all the enthusiasm you need, so I won't contribute any more to that. But yes it's nicely written, tends towards the lyrical, and is entertaining.

Criticism: about two thirds of the way, it starts to drag a little. Rather than fresh interesting new things, we get rather to a stage of here's a thing, here's another thing, oh here's another thing. Too linear, too similar. The villains start taking on that implausible invincibility and omniscience that villains so often have (Mrs Coulter in The Subtle Knife). And the ending (I'm not sure if I'm criticising this or not) is a slight mixture of the same implausible degree of attachment shown in Interstellar and a genuinely touching reunion.

Sunday 27 October 2019

Film review: Interstellar

We haven't had a home cinema for quite a while, but last night E suggested she wanted to re-watch Interstellar so we all watched it. It was fun to watch; there are many implausibilities in the science, and arguably in the people too, but it kinda hangs together as a film. It's quite long and could perhaps have done without all the self-indulgent tying up of loose ends at the end.

Of the science, it's hard to know where to start. Our Hero is launched by what looks suspiciously like an Apollo-era rocket, and yet his craft turns out to be capable of landing and then taking off from Earth like planets with no booster and no refueling. Repeatedly they make the mistake that everyone needs to make in these films for the purposes of the plot: they don't trouble themselves to examine the planets from orbit at all. The idea that anything orbiting a black hole deeply inside it's gravity well (at 1-hour-to-7-years dilation) would be habitable is absurd, as indeed now I come to think of it is the idea that you could ever get out again using chemical rockets. Skipping over many others, the encoding of observations in a watch by sprinkling gravity dust on it is similarly weird, as is the idea that the information density would be sufficient (both time to encode, and decode, and structure for storage).

The film ends with everyone happily inhabiting a space habitat somewhere out near Saturn, with fields of corn to feed them and baseball fields to play on, just like home. Buuuttt... why stick your hab out by Saturn? If you're harvesting sunlight, there's not much out there, you'd rather be closer. Like, near the Earth. Speaking of which, why leave Earth? Yes, there's the rather sketchy "blight" but if your solution to blight is to grow crops in a sealed-in environment: why not seal it in on Earth? So much more convenient.

Coming now to the human plot, this does I think work fairly well, except. Part of the "working well" is the shameless appeal to stereotypes: the little house on the prairie type farmer, the doesn't-fit-in space cowboy type. His daughter is implausibly sad and angry at him for leaving - perhaps this is a nice fantasy, wouldn't it be nice if your own children cared that much, oh Hollywood moguls and bizniz execs, but of course they don't.

[Update: M chides me that my last is too pessimistic. She it right. It is too abrupt, too. I could add a note about "Moon" which we watched on D's recommendation a couple of years ago. A much smaller budget and a more prosaic storyline but with the same emotion of speaking over time.]

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

Book review: Wyrms

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 :-)

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.

Sunday 11 August 2019

France 2019: Troyes


Fleeing Chamonix on 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 Ã‰glise 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.

Monday 5 August 2019

France 2019: Cosmiques

[Prev: Mt BlancNotes; Next: travelling home]

August 4th: rest day. My notes say "All of us are feeling well used let us say esp feet and faces and misc scrapes so not intent to do anything" and it is hard to recall what that feels like from the comfort of my living room but I do know what I mean. Lunch in the Hotel Isabelle which is named after Pointe Isabelle, or rather after the woman. Seemed good; might be a place to stay in future. Saw a cyborg.

August 5th: to Cosmiques. After a rest day - I'm pretty sure we spent a night in the Hotel Chamonix again; and some frantic packing - head up the Telepherique du Midi which has been tarted up since I last visited, err, 30 years ago. There's usually a queue... probably best to book the day before or so, if you can. It takes us a while to work out the queues, too; I forget now but you need to get tokens for a given carriage, after which you can, like us, sit in a nearby cafe and wait for your carriage's boarding time. We weren't early; perhaps we got the 1 pm carriage. More queues; don't leave your pointy bits hanging out; and then we're off (oh, funny trivia: they look in all small bags; but they don't look in any big rucksacs). It's dramatic; this I think is the view just setting off from the halfway station, with Midi enveloped in cloud.

Our plan, in case you're interested, is Mont Blanc via the Trois Monts route. In some ways this was the "backup" plan in case "Gouter" failed. But since Gouter has succeeded... well, we're not so pressed now.


Once you get to the top you ignore the tourist bits, ignore the warning signs, kit up and leave via the magic door:


The weather was far from perfect and conditions were a bit melted out (see-also; note that isn't dried grass it is, for some odd reason, straw),


The ridge down is easy enough; as you see, we didn't rope up. Gradually the cloud thins and we get glimpses across to the refuge.


Inside: cards-n-coffee. We've sensibly brought up some fresh bread and rations.


Eclairage continues and the face shines out in glory. It looks... quite steep. Can you believe I walked down this, easily, thirty years ago? It was the trade route in those days, because the Grand couloir had a fearsome reputation for killing people.


Indeed there's a whole wide basin to see from the terrace. But it's cold out.


And so to sunset:


August 6th: to base of Tacul slope; retreat; switch to rif Torino (GPS) and back (GPS. From which you see it is a out 4 km across, about 1:20, quasi- but by no means entirely- flat. Anyway, look at the traces if you find the text confusing). We're up... well perhaps not desperately early. Here we are out, and dawn is appearing behind the rather attractive Dent du Geant... a party had come in at 8 pm last night having climbed it. Another moody pic from later in the day.


And here we are, at about where we got stuck.


I have a number of excuses for why we retreated, which I'll record for posterity. The bergschrund is bigger than it looks there; see here. It is more overhanging and higher than it looks (does this help?). And - I think I recall this correctly, and it's why we're somewhat late  - we've already discussed backing off the route and going for a trek instead, so we've already half failed in our minds. And of course we've already climbed Mt Blanc. Lastly, though in retrospect I rather regret not trying to get up even if we weren't intending to continue the the route, it did seem a bit pointless at the time. The next day - if my fallible memory serves me right - while waiting for the much delayed cable down we talked to some Americans who had got over this bit, but who had retreated from higher up; so maybe it was just as well.


And this giant snow/ice boulder, whilst fun to play on - I climbed it - was somewhat disconcerting, too.


So there's a sentier across to... here we're at some rocks after X, admiring the Dent du Geant.


Here's a pano from the rocks across towards Torino where we're headed.


Towards Torino. Look closely and you can see two blobs of something suspended on cables; and three bods on the path.


The way across is almost safe without rope... but not quite. At a push I would solo it, but carefully and timourously.


And back towards Midi.


Rif Torino was nice. We were a bit tired, but had coffee-n-stuff and played some cards.

It is a bit odd, because as well as a proper refuge it has all the fluff from being the Italian equivalent of Midi, complete with giant cable car stuff disappearing into cloud so we didn't get the full effect. And there's a bit of exposed ice slope where you can play. And so, back to Midi, suitably tired.

August 7th: down. We'd planned to do the infamous Cosmiques arete, but I once again evaded this tourist trap. The weather was not perfect, and the infants were not keen; so we just walked back. Here we say farewell to the Cosmiques, and you get a sample of the wx.

Back at Midi, they remind you that they really really don't want you to camp up there. And, a view down the arete from Midi; perhaps it was just as well not to do it. Or then again, maybe we should have.


Due to high winds we got to sit around for about 3 hours before they decided it was OK to run the cable car downwards. There were some exciting bits where we went down a bit, stopped, went back up a bit; and so on. And then... we were down, and that was it, bar the travelling home.

Friday 2 August 2019

France 2019: Mt Blanc: Tete Rousse / Gouter


August 1st: to Tete Rousse.

I'm writing this waay in arrears and don't appear to have any diary, ah but I do have some notes, which I'll try to fill out. We've said goodbye to Miriam who returns home by train; it's just the three of us now.

We're in le Fayet to take  the Tramway de Mont Blanc from Le Fayet up to Nid d'Aigle (GPS trace), from whence it is but a gentle stroll up to the Tete Rousse (GPS trace). There are other ways you might get there: notably, you could walk; or there's a cable car  from Les Houches up to Bellevue. The tramway building is desperately cute.


It is a long way up on the tramway - about an hour - but the views are good. You can see the tramway cutting across the middle slope from the left; if you click for the big version you can (just) see the Tete Rousse hut, and roughly above it the Gouter hut, not quite on the skyline but on top of the obvious rock face. The peak to the right is the Aiguille du Bionnassay, and the glacier is of the same name.


Here's the tramway car at the top stop, and a horde of peasants, but we are not of that ilk oh no certainly not.


The way up is a bit moonscape-y but not difficult. If you're making movies you can take a chopper. At some point there's a chap who asks your name and checks you have a place in a refuge; they really really don't want you wild camping. They have composing toilets. We're not in the main refuge - which as far as I can tell is, like the Gouter, permanently 100% full (I say that but I think I mean for booking ahead; rumour says that cancellations nearer the time may be possible) - but in the luxurious Camp de Base.


Although you have to go off a bit, or to the main hut, for the toilet. There's no official water, but you can collect trickles from baby streams and snow melt.


August 2nd: recce of Gouter. GPS trace (it's about 600m up, 2 hours, and about 3km along).

We seem to have left at about 8:30 am, presumably after a leisurely breakfast, since there was no great hurry. The day was cloudy. The Grand Couloir has a reputation for danger but appears to be a piece of piss; at least, we didn't die. Or, slightly more seriously, my guess is that so much snow / ice has melted off that now it's almost entirely bare, there's less to melt and loosen rocks to fall. [OTOH, see this video from July 2020.]


We were off to recce the route, because I worried about finding it in the darkness, though of course there would be other parties. Also, having had to book in advance and not knowing what the weather would bring, I'd booked two nights, so we had a day free.

Just past the GC there are dots, presumably because they'd rather you didn't stray back into it; these fade out later but the route, being "go upwards", isn't hard to find. It also isn't hard to do. We took rope and harness and so on - indeed we even wore harnesses, in case we wanted rope quickly - but didn't feel the need to rope up. There are cables in the harder places. At the Gouter we rewarded ourselves with tea, hot choc and coffee, and a big cookie each. Here's part of the salon; it didn't seem to be crowded.


Here's the boot room (and E).


After poking around a bit we descended, but cunningly we left the rope behind (and I think some water), so that D wouldn't have to carry it up in the morning. E on the way down. It's a mixture of scrambly stuff, some just pathy stuff, and a tiny bit that's harder.


If you look very carefully at that pic you still can't see the Camp de Base, but you can in this one. And also the refuge in this one. Back at the Tete Rousse, here's an interior pano:


And D and E, tired but not exhausted.


As evening comes on, the views to Bionnassay are lovely, the sunset is glorious, and we go to bed early for an early start tomorrow.


A little later (I had to get up to go for a wee), here's E staring at the fading light.


August 3rd Saturday: summit day. GPS: Gouter to Vallot; Vallot to summit. Summit down to Gouter. Tete Rousse down to Nid d'Aigle.

We'd met with some youngish English lads in the hut; they went off at midnight which seems early to me. My alarm goes at 1:50; groan fumble around; cold; faint rime on tent door slow b'fast in hut. Off we go at 2:45 in the darkness; lights of valley are visible below (unlike the Ecrins you're never far from the bright lights here). Above the Gouter lights are a pinprick; and of course head torch 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. At Gouter swap t'sters for w'proof trous, and put on down jacket. 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 if we'd needed.

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 (this worth expanding on in retrospect: failing to get up Pointe Isabella had I think surprised us. In even greater hindsight, I think we didn't account for our tiredness; and a good few days rest had done us good).

Pic: D+E on the ridge just above Gouter:


Above us the misty mountain awaits.


Higher the wind starts to cold us and we start longing for the sun. There's sun below, but we're shielded by the ridge (that pic is looking down; the valley is dark below).


But when we break into sun the wind picks up and we stay cold. Perhaps we're slow to react and protect. The views are gorgeous... here's from about Col du Dome.


Grateful to reach Vallot Abri at 4360 m and respite. Get inside and 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 were a little cold in down mitts plus outer mitts but didn't feel the wind. Pano of the interior.


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 we can't be bothered to extract is a bit dodgy but meh the exposures are in general fine.

Note: although there are 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 brief look over Trois Monts side it is v windy off down. Get out axe. 


I like this pic, it's my desktop background since we got back: view down to Aiguille du Midi.


Vallot: brief discussion but rest outside in the sun (going inside is a faff); the wind is 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. Look up to where we've been. Avoid the toilets if you can.


And a pano.


Gouter: back down at 1:30 and realise we can make last tram down this afternoon. First we have a rest for most of an hour and I practically sleep


Off 2:25 I make Camp de Base at 3:55; pack and clear by the time D then E arrive; brief rest then off at 4:20. The last tram is at 6:30, and E assures me we took only 1:30 up so can beat that down. Actually no not quite but close and we get the train with 30 mins margin for a bit more resting; the quickish descent on stony paths has slightly mangled our feet. Chamois!


I pick a hotel on the tram down - the wonders of our modern world - in les Houches. It is nothing special, 3 beds one room probably the sort of place for Tour de Mont Blancers; shower gratefully face tender; late pizza dinner. Our faithful car was waiting for us.