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.