Sunday 21 April 2019

Springtime in the garden

It is the Easter holiday and the weather is fine. Almost too fine: the living room curtains are mostly drawn to keep the sun out, and the weather has been spookily good for some time now. For various reasons we're not going anywhere1 and so have the weird luxury of four days at home with nothing to do. Naturally I blew most of those days in various ways but I've still had enough time to enjoy the garden and even tidy it up a little, though as usual much remains to be done. But enough words: on with the pix.

Cherry blossom. This is the one that RNLT gave us, perhaps for my 40th.



Apple. This is the Russet that perenially needs cutting back, but was last autumn.


A brief break from blossom to bees. Careful inspection will show you that the "flowery" hive has been all over it's front face, for unclear reasons, but I suspect them of evil swarming tendencies. Though if they want to swarm, why are they still there?


The pear tree, against a backdrop of the new neighbour's law. This was an attempt to artistically combine the blossom on the tree and the fallen blossom scattered on the ground.


And the pear blossom itself.



And as a bonus to those who made it this far, the rare Fen Tiger has been tempted out.



1. Daniel is back at Peterhouse and has his third year exams starting early, on Tuesday, which Engineering do so that the summer term is free for projects, or so he claims. Miranda has her exams-which-influence-her-predicted-A-level-grades2 starting on Wednesday and is keen to revise.

2. Actually pre-U, but that will confuse most people so call the A-level.

Friday 19 April 2019

Book review: Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part One, by Alasdair Gray

hell You can read a proper review of Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part One, by Alasdair Gray in the Scotsman, and since that says all the proper things and also points you to some others, I won't try to out do it.

But I will make some comments on the theology. Who gets condemned to Hell? Murderers, fraudsters, and so on: well, you can hardly complain about them. Fitting rather less well with our modern views, and I suspect with what the priests told the troops at the time, soldiers seem to go there too. Unsurprisingly given Gray's politics he makes no attempt to redeem those who lend at interest.

Pagans, who lived before Christ, are condemned to Limbo. This is unfair, obvs. It isn't clear if Dante realises this. But the famous ones are not condemned to darkness, that is for peasants only, in whom Dante is uninterested and with whom he does not trouble us.

Suicides are fairly low down in hell. My reading of this is that Dante's times must have been really grim, otherwise there would not have needed to be such a strong prohibition on suicide. Sodomites go to hell. It's against the bible, but then again so is eating weasels, and you don't see any weasel-eaters in Dante's hell.

So Dante's hell in fundamentally unacceptable and unjust. But people seem to be unable to think this; perhaps in a similar way to their inability to think about the Republic.

Afterthought: indeed, if you take away your respect for the original text which exists for it's history, why would you read it at all? There are no obvious startling insights in it, the language is the language of whatever translator wrote it, and the imagery is no longer novel.


The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, by C. S. Lewis

Monday 15 April 2019

Book review: Spinning Silver

Like Uprooted, Spinning Silver is a fairy story, well told. Like Uprooted it is strange, and well-handled. There is a feisty and plausible heroine, there is the wild, there are some meta-elves, and there is the exploration of her power and her world.

Some of the satisfaction comes from a neatly plotted story that fits well together as a whole; some, from having "nice" characters do well; in this respect it resembles parts of Wolf Hall.

Thinking back - and stop here if you haven't read it but intend to - I began to be a little dissatisfied about 2/3 of the way through, when the reasons the "elves" wanted gold became strange; and the reasons the "elves" and the fiery demon fought became unclear. Really, these are plot framework and need to remain hidden by sleight-of-hand. But I'm writing this at least 6 months in arrears so have forgotten the details.

Sunday 14 April 2019

Rotterdam man, 2019

TL;DR: 4:01:49. Meh.

After the disaster of 2018, 2019 was looking promising. I'd run 29, 30 and 31 k since Christmas in acceptable times; done three halves on top of that (two in 1:41, and the Cambridge half in 1:40) which were all back to respectable times and a reasonable level of training and no injury. So it was with high hopes that I turned off my monitors, walked to Cambridge North, got the train to Cambridge, got the train to Ipswich, got the train to Manningtree, and sat in the little buffet bar drinking a half waiting for the train to Harwich. Secretly, I had begun to dream of a PB, or of beating James Edgoose's 3:37, or even of my long-term goal of sub-3:30, which requires a 5:00 split. Also, I wanted if possible to stay within an hour of James, who was threatening 2:45 (and who ended up with 2:47). And so I caught the train to H, got on the ferry, sat in the lounge with a plate of cheeses and a glass of white, and contemplated the weekend ahead.

Saturday morning was grey. The work to turn the old but perfectly serviceable train line into a shiny modern metro was, strangely enough, way behind schedule; the Dutch are generally sensible people but their public works are like ours in this regard. So I got the fast-but-crowded bus to Schiedam Centraal; in retrospect, the slow-but-not-crowded bus would have been fine; I wasn't in a hurry. From S'dam it is a short train to R'dam but I wasn't in a hurry so walked the 5 k; interesting, but not outstandingly so. After a coffee in the Douwe Egberts Netherlands National Coffeehouse just by the railway station, and picking up my numbers from the expo I went to find the Hotel Bienvenue, on just the other side of the tracks, in a quiet and pleasant district. I was somewhat unfashionably early at 12, but my room was ready so I lay down and snoozed for a couple of hours. Sounds of the maid cleaning the next-door was quite clear, so I worried about the night, but all was quiet. For the afternoon I wandered around R'dam, ostensibly with the aim of finding a bookshop. And I did find Donner (boekhandel) which appears to be correct but only bought a little notebook. Then, via a supermarket for bread and humous and so on, some of which I ate out for a rather late lunch, back to the hotel for more lying on the bed and playing with the TV, which offered me YouTube and NetFlix. I watched LoTR part 1, knowing I was going to substantially dislike the liberties it takes - I did - at least in part because every departure from the story was obviously worse than the story. But for scenery and spectacle and the tattered fragments of the story it left, it was enjoyable. And so to sleep, having eaten a dinner of bread, humous, grapes and Parmesan before the god of the TV.

Sunday breakfast officially starts at 8:30; I'd asked for 8, which Madame was a touch doubtful about, but it happened, and there were several other runners there. Not the full 4-5 star hotel buffet, but I tried that last year and it didn't end well, so coffee, juice, toast and yoghurt was probably about right. And so, away, at about 9, getting me to the start through increasingly crowded and runner-full streets with barriers, at about 9:20, plenty of time to stand in the queues for the loos; inevitably the slowest one, which was slightly frustrating, but what else was I going to do? The start was moved down, to the quay of the maritime museum. I had seven gels, and had decided to carry phone and passport and credit card and some money, just in case. Stuffing all this in my back pocket left it heavy and so I tightened my drawcord but... so I transferred some gels to my socks. Really, I should have left the phone behind. Anyway, during the race my back chaffed a bit due to the tightness, so don't do that again; but it wasn't any great thing.

Somehow I managed to miss the right place for wave 3, and wandered around the barriers a bit, and ended up finding the funnel point rather late, indeed as the wave 4 people were starting to think about moving up; but this was fine, as I started off about 200 m back from the trailing edge of wave 3, so got an unobstructed start up to the top of the Erasmusbrucke. What I chose to do with this, perhaps foolishly, was to run the first k in 4:33. Oh, excellent, I thought to myself; but I did slow down to 4:44 for the next... which fit well with my dreamings... then 5:06 for the next, which didn't. I settled down; 10k came unforced at a little more than 50 mins, which was fine. Looking at the splits in retrospect they are quite close to a linear upwards trend over the whole race, with a few excursions and ignoring the first k; but at the time it felt a bit more stable. Anyway, the half came in a little more than 1:50 which was also fine and I began to feel "safe", oh you poor fool.

At 26 k the 3:50 pacemakers thundered past, which I found puzzling, as I hadn't seen them and they must have started before me in wave 3... perhaps they were in the other lane (the race separates in the two sides each two road lanes, so it's easy to miss people on the other side). At that point I think I was on pace for 3:50, or not far off, so was a bit puzzled why they were coming past, but not too worried. Around about the recrossing of Erasmusbrucke I managed a 5:15 - having been around 5:40 - which seemed like a good omen; alas it was a one-off. Going past 30 k, and then 32 k, I began to lower my sights to sub-4; but then the last 10 k around the Kralinge Plas proved hard. And so while I passed 42.2 by my watch only just past 4 hours - and could have pushed under if I'd really wanted - the extra 300 m the race put on took me clearly over 4 hours.

And so, it was done. I walked on a bit, then lay down for a rest, attracting the usual well-intentioned "are you OK" form a variety of people; got up, continued on to the banana+water+medal phase, sat down there for a bit to eat a banana so I could sneakily take a second, took some AA energy drink at least in part because I wanted a water bottle having forgotten to bring one, and slowly walked back to my hotel, where I picked up my left bag, and then to the station and to S'dam. From there, I contemplated walking all the way to Hoek; but it is 20-ish km. So instead I got the bus as far as Massluis West, and walked from there, which was 10 k, and was lovely. But I wouldn't have wanted to walk further. Top tip: don't get to the ferry before 7+, they won't be ready for you. Also Top Tip: do climb the little hill a few km from Hoek, because it's the viewing platform for the enormous river-closing gates. And so onto the ferry, a little food and two glasses of red; and bed.

And the next morning, the train back to work. I can still walk, and even descending stairs isn't too terrible, another sign I think that I wasn't too far out of shape.

Diary: it's in the black one, which also has Rotterdam 2018 in it.

Saturday 13 April 2019

Book review: the Raven Tower

By Ann "Ancillary Justice" Leckie. A review; Goodreads.
Summary: good. As a novel, not as good as AJ. As ideas, better. In comparison to almost everything else around at the moment, clearly superior.

Don't read on if you don't want spoilers; this is in fact going to be more a discussion of the ideas in the book than a review.

The central character and near-omniscient observer is a God, who chooses to stay in a large boulder. In the context of the book, a "God" turns out to be an entity who, if it says a thing, that thing becomes true. Or if the statement is beyond the God's power, the God dies. So, not a God in the usual sense of the word, but a nice concept, and a well-defined one. We are given examples: a God wanting to be somewhere else needs to be careful saying "I will be in place X tomorrow" since they will either be there, or be dead. If X is 6 inches to the right of where they are now, then it won't take much "power", and will probably happen. If X is across the sea, that might prove problematic. But we're using here a rather odd sort of definition of "how difficult" a thing is; a stone rising in the air is as physically impossible as it is to fly over the sea; one has to allow some license to see one as more or less "impossible" than the other (see-also some discussion in GEB, I think, form 30 year-old-memories). Also, some Gods are more powerful than others, and some Gods are tiny. Oh, and the Gods can be sustained by worship or sacrifice: by a little milk, a little; by a voluntary life, a lot. There is no attempt to explain how this works, which is fine.

This God is Old, and not ambitious, and patient; and perhaps Breq-like has a concern for human life and the world.

Some sections manage to delightfully convey the expanses of time in pre-recorded history. The God relates their slow learning to communicate with humans: by tokens, mostly. And it slips in casually that this learning takes not just years, as the reindeer herders come and go, but many lifetimes. And this in turn conveys - or perhaps, attempts to discuss - how life might have been like for our own ancestors: they come across something unusual, an erratic boulder. Is it a God? Try worshipping it. Does it respond? No? Well maybe it's slow. Try coming back next year, and the next; perhaps the arrangement of knuckle bones appears to say something useful; and so on to the next life.

As the Gods are bound by the laws of this universe to perform their words or die, they learn to be cautious. The God often says, not "thing X happened" but "According to a story I was told, thing X happened". Because if you inadvertently say X happened, and it isn't true, your power flows without your volition to make it true. Them's the rules. During the now of the story it turns out that the God of the storyline is trying to escape the consequences of its words.

Now, I take something of a leap, and return to a favourite of mine ever since I discovered it, Law vs Legislation. And I wonder if Leckie has this in mind. I suspect not; if she has, she is very subtle. Here is Hayek on Legislation:
Unlike law itself, which has never been ‘invented’ in the same sense, the invention of legislation came relatively late in the history of mankind. It gave into the hands of men an instrument of great power which they needed to achieve some good, but which they have not yet learned so to control that it may not produce great evil. It opened to man wholly new possibilities and gave him a new sense of power over his fate. The discussion about who should possess this power has, however, unduly overshadowed the much more fundamental question of how far this power should extend. It will certainly remain an exceedingly dangerous power so long as we believe that it will do harm only if wielded by bad men.
This is almost exactly the power of the Gods: they have the power of Legislation. Compare that to how Human Rights legislation turns into court decisions; see for example this post of mine. The words the Gods speak are like Legislation: but these words can have unforeseen consequences, as shown by various court cases. The courts often don't consider "is this reasonable" (or if they do, different people have very different ideas of what is reasonable) but "is this what the law says".

I should add that the God also muses about the meaning of words. There are multiple languages, and there appears to be some attempt to say, effectively, if a God speaks and  says string-of-syllables which mean X in one language but Y in another, which one happens? This isn't really followed through, probably rather sensibly, since I think it is hard to take anywhere. You can't really go on without considering the mechanism that makes the Gods words True, and she doesn't want to do that.