Friday, August 31, 2012

Krka National Park

Today we're in the Krka National Park, north of Split: we walked the boardwalk down the gorge, crossing torrents and admiring waterfalls.

And baked in the heat.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Flying to Croatia

When I was doing crazy hours as a systems engineer for Nortel, I had a rule of thumb that anything over four hours sleep was worth having. Less than that and you felt worse than having no sleep at all.

Anyway, up at 3.30 this morning after a semi-sleepless night, maybe two hours. I was rolling like a drunk as I made my way to the bathroom. I sympathise, to a point, with Clare's last minute approach to life - leave as late as possible, no hanging around, but we had no energy to argue and we arrived at Bristol airport, or at least the off-airport parking, two hours before departure time.

So now we have the tyranny of small delays: queues at parking reception, queues at check-in, the baggage conveyor belt was broken so more queues at another gate. Factor in a cup of coffee and interminable queues at security and at the gate and all that apparently bloated time-budget was used up.

I write this at 27,000 feet over Germany. We have a ninety minute coach transfer to our hotel on arrival but it's thirty degree sunshine in Split, apparently.

I just saw this plane about a mile away on a parallel course. I refrained from alerting the pilot ...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Shopping at Cotswold Outdoor

To Bristol city centre today to buy hill-walking kit from Cotswold Outdoor. We spent time and money on a jacket, trousers and tee-shirt - all breathable, waterproof and wicking where appropriate. My mother was prepared to model our purchases, including the hat Alex bought for himself (below).

Clare purchased a skirt from Broadmead M&S but as it was neither Gore-Tex nor waterproof we shan't mention it here (although I did think it was very fetching).

Here are the pix which can be clicked on to make them bigger (why?).

 Alex and Gran 

 The Model and her supervisor 

 Alex gardens under supervision 

 It's Gore-Tex 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Recent Books

Matter by Iain M. Banks. Follows the adventures of members of the Royal Family of the Sarl, resident on a Shellworld. A powerful entity is released from billion year stasis and it's down to a Sarl agent of the Culture's Special Circumstances to deal with the situation. Backcloth - the concept that we live in a simulation and the argument from unspeakable injustice and suffering that the simulators could not be so cruel - we must therefore be matter.

The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan. His first book reworking swords and sorcery fantasy through the grinding machine of hardcore SF a la Takeshi Kovacs. Morgan writes best when he has issues he is insanely furious about (who can forget his Tebbit knife) and here his preoccupation with reactionary clerics continues, with a side portion of slavery and gay rights. Morgan really doesn't like people who punish homosexuality (in ways which sometimes suggest latent, hidden homoeroticism). Good character development and an intriguing storyline encouraged me to press the Kindle button on number two of a planned three, The Cold Commands.

Next on this nostalgia-fest: The Reality Dysfunction by Peter Hamilton, volume one of three in the Night's Dawn trilogy.

Madame Bovary (in a new translation) by Flaubert is stacked up and waiting for the darkening evenings of the autumn - as counterpoint.

Kelty Trekker

This external frame rucksack arrived today. Pretty much everything about it is configurable. Modelled by my resident model.
Clare models the Kelty Trekker
More straps than you can shake a stick at

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Barrington Court

I'm preparing for some autumnal hill-walking. First off I was determined to acquire an external frame rucksack.

Back when I was doing hiking/camping with the army cadets (my school CCF) I preferred the old manpack carriers. These were camo-green aluminium frames to which all and everything could be strapped: provisions, solid-fuel cooker, sleeping bag, tent, clothes. The whole thing was well ventilated, sat high on the shoulders for optimal carrying and - with much extra sponge padding - could be made quite comfortable.

Turns out that external-frame backpacks have pretty much deserted the market in favour of internal-framed ones. Eventually I tracked down the popular Kelty Trekker (pictured) as sold in the US, which I have ordered from

 The Kelty Trekker External Frame Pack 
My abiding memory of tracking across the Welsh hills ... trying to match the ambiguous terrain as viewed through the rain and mist with the contours on the OS map. A problem no longer: a quick search unearthed this free Android app, which uses the smartphone GPS to return the OS map reference (and direction North). It's almost cheating.

I also need to add one of those powerpacks which can recharge a mobile phone in the tent - solar-power which would actually work in a UK overcast autumn would be just a bonus.

Today we revisited Barrington Court to check progress with their many varied and beautiful walled gardens. After so much rain their flower and kitchen gardens are richly-flourishing as shown below.

 Clare surveils the pond 

 Like a wild flower bed 

 We liked these red pom-pom flowers 

 The author in the Walled Garden 

 Clare hides in the shrubs 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Our "summer" continues ...

Just back from town where I donated some books to Wells library. I have this image of an earnest 18-year-old (a version of the teenage me) browsing the science section and finding my donated "Not Even Wrong" and "The Trouble With Physics" .. and probably being put off String Theory for life :-).

I am thinking of doing some solitary hill-walking in the Brecon Beacons later this year. There's something attractive about the mountains, the trails, the cascading brooks, ... the sheep, the scree, the heavy pack and the miles to go :-). In any event Clare is vicariously with me on this and is busy looking up GorTex rain-wear on the Internet.

My own issue? How do I get hold of an external frame rucksack, one which doesn't turn your back into a pool of sweat after a few hard-uphill minutes?

We had just got back from town when the storm arrived though it's not too obvious in the pix below.

The rain bounces off the car-top

So much rain - so much garden

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Cruise to Tyntesfield

Today was to be our bird-watching cruise starting from Clevedon Pier and circumnavigating Steep Holm and Flat Holm. Given the grey skies and random showers we only decided at midday to risk it. Clevedon was still playing host to the rain as we arrived so we sat in the car till 2 pm, then under leaden but improving skies we strolled along the front - almost deserted - and gazed at a low-tide beach and a ship-free pier.

"Maybe it's been cancelled," I said, to her annoyance - this was a treat she'd been looking forwards to, and she hadn't forgotten her new bird-spotting binoculars either.

We strolled to the pier and asked after the boat.

"It's been cancelled," said the elderly lady at the pier-till.

"It's the weather," she continued, looking up at the sun as it broke through the clouds.

We continued on to the National Trust property at Tyntesfield which has extensive gardens, although the Hall itself was closed (in mid-August? Is the world going mad?).

Here are some pix.

Clare backed by the Hall

Tyntesfield Hall and Garden

The author in the Rose Garden Gazebo

The rather dilapidated Rose Garden

Clare in some Croquet action

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

1000 years up the timeline

I was watching a BBC 4 programme on Landscapes. Historian Michael Wood was walking a muddy path along a field boundary, intoning Old-English Anglo-Saxon (which he reads).

He was calling off the boundary markings (here's a path, there's a stream) as documented one thousand years ago by the Anglo-Saxon surveyor who had drawn up the mortgage document he was reading from. Those landscape markers were still there.

Put yourself in the place of that surveyor in 950 AD. He speculates what life will be like, in this English countryside around Cheltenham, one thousand years hence. Let's tell him.

The economy has changed utterly - a bounty of goods beyond imagining lies in every supermarket; technology also has flowered beyond the most feverish of dreams - flying machines, interplanetary exploration, .. television.

Yet people are the same: the same drives, compulsions, ambitions, betrayals, desires. That surveyor could visit this foreign land of the future and after a period of shock-and-awe he could fit right in.

I look out the window as the rain washes in, and wonder if it's the same story for Wells, Somerset in AD 3000. Somehow, I don't think so. You see, we'll soon know sufficient genetics.

Finally, finally, the people themselves of 3000 AD will be utterly strange.

How we gamed the Olympics

So many team-GB medals; have we suddenly become so much fitter and genetically performant than countries of comparable size?

No, didn't think so.

First we threw out those sports where we had no genetic or historical advantage. So we left the 100 metres to the Jamaicans and the softball to .. whomever.

Then we focused on equipment-based sports: sit-down stuff like cycling and rowing where we have UK infrastructure, technology and know-how. The policy of 'marginal gains' was applied ruthlessly to optimise performance.

It only needs 50 milliseconds improvement to get Gold.

Don't you think our competitors will have figured this out by Rio?

Note: swimming was a sport where it's difficult to find those differentiating marginal gains - our medal score was disappointing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Gerard 't Hooft's CA model of Quantum Mechanics

There's a well-known quote, something along the lines of: "If you think you understand quantum theory, you don't." Feynmann famously observed that no-one understands quantum mechanics.

But why?

After much hard work, hundreds of thousands of people have mastered quantum mechanics; fewer - but still thousands - have mastered its more advanced cousins, quantum field theory and string theory. The show-stopping problem I'm discussing here is not that the maths is hard, though it is. No, it's deeper than that.

Prior to quantum theory, we took it for granted that reality, the universe and all that, has a prior existence and that the job of physics was to describe its true nature. We do this by creating mathematical models which can be interpreted into 'objective entities out there', where the maths explains how those entities behave and interact.

Quantum Theory is not that kind of theory: its equations tell us only the probability of observing certain outcome via constraints such as Schrodinger's equation. But what is the reality behind hyper-accurate quantum theory? The maths doesn't tell us, but it surely can't be anything we're familiar with. Weird quantum phenomenon such as interference effects, superposition and non-locality make sure of that.

Some people think that's just the way it is: we'll be forever ignorant of the true reality of the universe and we should get over it. Many physicists, however, still seek a mathematical model which could reflect how the universe might be and which also makes quantum theory come out right. The Many-Worlds Interpretation and Pilot Waves are attempts which have not found much favour.

Recently, however, Nobel Prize winning physicist Gerard 't Hooft published some new papers advancing the case that the universe is fundamentally a 1+1 dimensional cellular automaton down at the Planck scale. He argues that our familiar world of phenomena emerges in a dramatically non-local way from this underlying reality. Surprisingly, this excited debate has been playing out over at the Physics Stack Exchange here amidst much understandable scepticism.

Cities in Flight - James Blish (1970)

Who doesn't thrill to the whine of the spindizzies as New York soars aloft on its latest interstellar jaunt?

Who can forget the doomed love triangle between City Mayor John Amalfi, City Manager Mark Hazleton and his young wife Dee?

And do we still tremble at the thought of the dreaded Vegan Orbital Fort? (Yes).

I first read "Earthman, Come Home" and "The Triumph of Time" as a teenager in the sixties: I was completely enthralled by the adventures of Amalfi and co, as they outwitted their opponents and grasped victory from the jaws of defeat against a backdrop of dirigible planets, fearsome aliens, and voyages of hundreds of thousands of light years.

Never revisit your childhood dreams.

I have the four bound volumes from the library and find that Blish's writing is full of plot holes. Worse, the stories don't work except by positing the most incredible stupidity on the part of everyone else while attributing superhuman intuition to Amalfi and Hazleton.

Plans which require the most unlikely set of circumstances nevertheless, time and time again, pay off despite there being no credible plan B.

While my suspension of disbelief was being beaten to death by a baseball bat, I remained on the hook simply due to Blish's general writing skills. Despite myself, I always wanted to know what would happen next.

In Fay Weldon's taxonomy, a good bad book.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Heinlein and Clevedon

Robert Heinlein was asked to comment on an early draft of "The Mote in God's Eye". His letter to Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle was pretty scathing but they seem to have manned up and made the necessary changes, at least by my recollection of this fine novel. You can read what he had to say on pages 28-46 of this 9 MB PDF (from Steve Sailer's post on the subject).

Today was forecast the last fine weather for a while so we checked out Clevedon, a seaside resort 50 minutes away: I think this is only our second time there since we moved to Wells.

We plan a "bird-watching cruise" around Flat and Steep Holm islands soon, a boat trip which leaves at the end of the pier so the trip was also about checking logistics, timings and parking - I have to say parking is not so plentiful on the front. Here are some pix.

Small dinghies launching for the day

The Pier at Clevedon - and the shingle beach

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bristol Balloon Fiesta

Today is Friday and it's the second day of my new fasting regime. In future, Fridays and Mondays will be breakfast-only, around 500 calories. This will give my body a chance to recover from the endless deluge of nutrients I normally pour into it: it worked for Mr Mosley. Should also reduce my food intake by 20% which can't help but be beneficial.

I didn't find it hard on my first attempt three days ago (last Tuesday): I just drank green tea when I would have ate, and didn't feel particularly hungry. Still, I caught my body by surprise that time, so who knows how it will cope this time around :-).

Yesterday afternoon, after the obligatory stop at IKEA, we went to the Bristol Balloon Fiesta. It's at Ashton Court on the south side of the Avon gorge near the Suspension Bridge. We were quite unclear as to the geography of the site and ended up in a parking field which we were assured was "half a mile from the balloons." Forty five minutes later and after the descent of two steep hills we were there and settled ourselves on a grassy bank to watch.

We were surprised by the large number of balloons which had no intention of flying. After just a few years it seems they acquire rents, holes, leaks and problems around the stitching. Many of the inflated, tethered behemoths - after doing their stint of advertising - were eventually deflated, rolled-up and packed away.

After some hours in the hot sunshine, a few drinks and hot chips, we saw the first balloons silently float into the sky. We watched for a while longer and then started the long, weary climb back to the car. We arrived home at 8.56 pm, literally just in time to turn the TV on and watch Usain Bolt running - and winning - the 200 metres: a Jamaican 1-2-3.

Meanwhile, back at the Balloon Fiesta, they were doing the nightglow - tethered balloons illuminated and with music, topped off with a fireworks display.

Here are some pix.

The burners are on

Late afternoon and the shops are quiet

The Churchill dog - tethered only!

They're off!

Around 6 pm the after-work crowds arrived

The beer tent frames flyaway balloons

Action Man aloft as we head off home

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Fashionable Fasting

Michael Mosley: what a nice guy, and a nice wife, Clare, too. They both seemed overjoyed on Horizon last night when the results of Michael's minifasts came through.

Two days a week of a calory-restricted diet (5-600 calories = one meal) persuades the body to go into cell-repair mode. Fights cancer, increases brain cell growth, diminishes risks of cardiovascular disease .. and takes the pounds off. What's not to like?

I had a hearty breakfast this morning (cereals, skimmed milk) and it's green tea for the rest of the day. My weight today? 13st 8 or 86.2 kg.

We shall see.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Gold in Wells

Gold in Wells
The Post Office is painting post boxes gold in cities where an Olympic Gold Medal winner hoves from. Not sure about Wells - Mary Rand and Danny Nightingale seem a while back.

Clare badgered me to take this pic. The bloke? He owns the wall.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Washing Machine

We're into deeply parochial territory here. Who would have thought that it would be net cheaper to buy a whole new machine than get a guy to do a call-out, inspect and fix on a dead two year old machine.

The guys from John Lewis rolled up around 4 pm. A washing machine weighs in at around 100 kg - I couldn't shift our dead one. These guys switched new for old, didn't tear the lino, managed to fit the new 85 cm high appliance underneath the worktop with 2 mm to spare and got everything plumbed in without leaks.

How many anticipatory worries did that 40 minutes close down!

No more about washing machines here for a minimum of five years :-).