Saturday, September 29, 2012

Burnham-on-Sea

Or on mud today, as the tide was out: see picture of my good self below.

In other news, first use of the new steps as Clare refills the bird feeders.

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The wave of gentrification flowing out of Bristol which has overwhelmed Clevedon and largely transformed Weston-super-Mare has yet to reach Burnham-on-Sea. The high street, one block in from the sea front, is full of greasy-spoon type cafes, all-day-breakfast pubs and cheap kiss-me-quick shops. The most up-market establishments are the three smart Indian restaurants .. how on earth did they end up there?

On the street you can play a cruel game of spot the fat people. As we sat in a cafe which seemed a cut above the rest I watched astonishingly obese men and women walk (waddle?) by - they were mostly middle-aged.

Meanwhile, the property on the sea front is a mix, but too much of it is dirty, unloved and with way too much litter in the front yard. However, it's safe: there's no sense that anyone is going to mug you, or get into a fight. Burnham-on-Sea is where the respectable working class goes to the seaside.



"Wormhole" - Amazon Vine Review

I reviewed Book 1 of this trilogy and thought the book was useless - too late as I had already ordered Book 3 as part of the Amazon Vine process. So here's that review as posted. Two stars this time, so twice as good as the first volume :-).

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My review of Book 1 of this trilogy noted that "none of the characters are remotely interesting as individuals: they are casual, disposable personae from the stereotype handbook," and observed "childlike motivations on the part of the 'characters'; a simplistic storyline which etches boredom into the reader's soul; contrived, painting-by-numbers plotting as holed as a sieve."

Volume three is not much of an improvement. Despite his "master's thesis at Los Alamos National Laboratory" the author's shallow understanding of the science behind the Large Hadron Collider, quantum theory and relativity lends a cut-and-paste feel to a not-unimportant part of his storyline. Similarly, I doubt that ex-Ranger Mr Phillips has ever attended a meeting between senior executives of a Government or corporate organisation and I can assure him such meetings do not progress as he imagines.

However, anyone who has stuck with Volumes 1 and 2 and is contemplating buying Volume 3 has already discounted all of this. So let me add some positive points: when writing about what he knows (special ops) Richard Phillips writes with conviction and genuine excitement; and this volume is faster paced than the first volume and has a raw excitement if you manage to suspend your disbelief in the characters and plotting. The author won't care about my advice, but if he sticks with down-the-line military SF in future, his stuff might work better.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Down with the crusties

A shopping spree today at Glastonbury. Boring stuff at B&Q (steps so Clare can reach the bird feeders, a tree-branch pruner) then a walk up the High Street to buy a new watch and wallet: we don't usually venture that far; happier in the reassuring confines of Morrison's.

Glastonbury High St. is full of weird people and weird shops: think Swampy and what his support infrastructure would look like. We walked past endless Tibetan healing centres, Buddhist meditation centres, crystal shops; Man Myth and Magick; shops selling furs, African art and crusty clothes.

At 80% of the street walked, I said to Clare: "I think this is a big enough sample size. We're never going to leave the magic kingdom and re-enter shopping normalcy."

She made me persevere and almost immediately we crossed some invisible barrier and came upon a normal Jewellers.

A perfectly nice woman sold me a new watch to replace the ten pound one (incl. strap) which I had bought two months ago and which loses twenty minutes in random bursts per day.

Glastonbury, belying its alt-culture reputation, comes across as shabby and poor. Still, we were 'clean' (substance-wise) so what would we know?

Today's a fast day but I'm indulging with a diet-coke: one calory :-).

Sugar Loaf (Mynydd Pen-y-Fal)

 The Sugar Loaf from the Bracken 


 The narrow top of the Sugar Loaf 


 The author savours his triumph 

The Sugar Loaf was going to be easy. My sister had sent me a picture of her striking a pose on the trig point a few weeks ago. As a small detour on my way back to Bristol from Brecon, I scarcely took it seriously.

Actually, it's possible to make the Sugar Loaf hard. First show complete ignorance on the terrain (so be unaware of the broad 'green road' to the summit). Secondly, take the most direct route even if it involves an initial steep descent into a slippery gully, followed by a steep climb out through a forest of waist-high bracken. Then take the resulting back-breaking - and interminable - trudge to the top via a steep and rocky section.

The top of the Sugar Loaf is long and quite narrow (see picture above). I sat in the mist against the concrete obelisk and took a self-portrait: I was rather tired. The most difficult part of the mission, strangely, is the drive to and from the adjacent car park. It's a steep, single-tracked road with very few passing places. Even as I was climbing my thoughts were returning to the nightmare of a contested drive back down to Abergavenny.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Pen-y-Fan (quiet; misty)

After twenty years of being thwarted, I finally got to the Pen-y-Fan summit this morning (pictured). Dry weather plus not much wind did it. The other picture is of a neighbouring peak, Cribyn, from the summit of Pen-y-Fan.

In retrospect, the difficult part of the climb is the last couple of hundred yards which are steep and rather exposed and where the path seems to vanish into rocks promising worse.

In fact, another six feet up and you attain the summit of Corn Du and all the hard work is done. So I was six vertical feet short of summiting yesterday when I turned back. Still the top at Corn Du is as flat as a helipad, so in yesterday's blustery conditions to proceed would have been to self-launch: no regrets.



A Youth Hostel companion

My roommate at the youth hostel is a guy, I guess late-fifties, called Rob. Rob is a tax consultant and has been to all the 'difficult' countries such as Bangladesh, Tanzania and the Congo on EU missions to advise the local governments on best-practice in tax-raising. Invariably his local clients are as corrupt as hell and take not a blind bit of notice.

Where I see hellhole, Rob sees expat easy-living with a frisson of edginess. "They take it out on each other, not on us," he explains. Right.

Rob is off on a trekking holiday in Nepal shortly and is here to prepare. But he's wandering the same hills as I am, in the same atrocious weather (as I write torrential rain is battering the car roof here at the Storey Arms). Except he's wearing trainers and non-waterproof trousers. They were both soaked yesterday and today will be just the same.

Off to Brecon for a hot chocolate, I think.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Llwyn-y-Celyn (youth hostel)

There are three of us staying here tonight. Talking of youth, the other guy won't see 50 again and the third guy hasn't put an appearance in yet.

We're all in a modest room big enough to house four bunk beds, two at each side. The YHA has provided a sheet, pillow case and duvet cover so it's make your own bed time.

The showers and toilets are in a room down the corridor which at first sight looks spacious and modern. The separate rooms have those cute lights which turn on automatically when you go in. The showers, however, have a mind of their own. The first started scalding, then turned cold and stayed that way. I mean mountain cold.

I abandoned it for the second which took five minutes to warm to tepid. I persevered.

There's no WiFi here: indeed, no member Internet access at all (the staff have a slow dial-up connection). The guy on the desk told me the YHA had experimented with a 7 Mbps satcom link a few weeks ago, but it went back (?). The mobile signal is erratic and normally absent.

My spirits were, however, raised by the prospects of a stupendous cooked breakfast at 8 am tomorrow.

Pen-y-Fan (gales; sleet)

I have unfinished business with Pen-y-Fan, the highest mountain in southern Britain. Twenty years ago Clare, myself and the two boys were beaten back down by torrential winds driving horizontal sleet like scattershot, abrading our faces and pummelling our waterproofs.

Today I got a lot further - almost all the height. As I reached the switchback on the steepest section, just before it levels out on top of the crags, the wind strengthened and I was hanging onto a rock jutting out from the side unable to move up or down for fear of take-off.

I rather felt for those ahead of me, on the very exposed top, but today was not a day for paragliding without a chute. I came down via smaller footpaths (not the 'motorway') and passed this very attractive waterfall (below).

I have a few hours before the hostel opens and will shortly brave the rain and wind to stroll on the hill opposite the Storey Arms (pictured: I am now in a coffee shop in Brecon).






Saturday, September 22, 2012

"The Second Ship" (Amazon Vine review)

"The Second Ship - The Rho Agenda: Book One" (of three) by Richard Phillips.

I ordered this SF novel through the Amazon Vine programme to review, and sadly it's an awful book. I also ordered the final volume which unfortunately I can't cancel as it's already shipped. Anyway, here's my review as posted on Amazon.
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Clunky writing, cardboard characters, boring

I had so hoped to like this book, especially with volumes two and three coming along. The plot itself seemed to have potential: that Roswell was true - there was an alien starship but it was evil; plus there's a second, good starship, which will be discovered by three teenagers; and the survival of the earth is at stake. Unfortunately, the author has failed to make any of it fly.

"The Second Ship" begins to fail as writing almost immediately. None of the characters are remotely interesting as individuals: they are casual, disposable personae from the stereotype handbook. The chief baddie, Dr. Donald Stephenson, is 'the smartest man on the planet.' He has doctorates in Astrophysics, Mathematics and Chemistry and three Nobel Prizes before the age of 40. Yep, that could happen.

The three teenage heroes find the 'good starship' and despite being obnoxiously well-behaved, conscientious, upright and thoroughly conformist, they fail to tell anyone about it - including their parents who happen to work at the Los Alamos Roswell research facility. Well, that could happen.

Other reviewers have compared the writing to Enid Blyton (Three Go Down To The Starship?). I know what they meant - childlike motivations on the part of the 'characters'; a simplistic storyline which etches boredom into the reader's soul; contrived, painting-by-numbers plotting as holed as a sieve.

But the Blyton comparison insults Ms Blyton, who always made her stories fast-paced and interesting. Like other reviewers, I found this book unreadable and with disappointment at an opportunity lost (and with sadness for the author, who has clearly worked hard but basically can't write very well) I abandoned it.

Another life saved

So far, it's been a vole a day - it's obviously the season, they're mostly tiny, young things.

He makes a special little cry of triumph in the kitchen or hallway - that's how you know. We usually manage to save them. Of course, after we've gone to bed he can do what he likes.

So we deployed our mouse-trap (quite humane and pictured below) last night. Clare baited it with some nuts but when you're being chased by a muscular cat, food inducements .. well, you know.

And it worked! This morning we were able to release a vole juvenile in perfect spirits.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Training Day 3 in the Mendips

It's something to see: two RAF Tornados speeding over your head at 300 feet. First the growing roar, then, like black mechanoid spacecraft, they thundered over the trees towards me in echelon formation.

I was standing at the top of the Old Bristol Road, trying to find the well-hidden footpath across to the A39 and the Penn Hill TV mast a kilometre or so away. I was wondering why the GPS was failing to give me a grid reference, having forgotten the ambient RF blizzard emanating from the mast.

I've been meaning for a while to ascend the Ebbor Gorge. It gets steep and Clare has backed off previously so we have abandoned. But today I was reassured that it doesn't ever get much more steep than the pix show below.

Learnings from today. Get some soft insoles for the boots! I was out for four hours and boy, do my toes know it! The Brecon Beacons beckon for next week.

The Ebbor Gorge
A steeper part of the gorge
A Mendip valley looking south

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Wisdom of Psychopaths

The latest Scientific American has an article "The Wisdom of Psychopaths" by British psychologist Kevin Dutton which probes a little more deeply into their traits. Dutton is particularly interested in 'successful' psychopaths: business leaders, military types, surgeons and so on. (This is not the article but covers some of the points).

Just to remind you: the key traits of the psychopath are: ruthless, fearless, charming, persuasive, non-conformist, extraverted, thrill-seeking, philandering, and decidedly lacking in the conscience department.

I didn't meet many people like this in Nortel - it was a Canadian company - but the one I did meet was American and was considered a maverick and rule-breaker by most everyone else. Telecoms companies are utilities and tend not to attract James Bond type executives, but consultancy has its fair share. It's interesting how quite spontaneously such people are often described by others as 'evil'.

Here is how psychopaths describe people like me (from the SciAm article): "Intellectual ability on its own is just an elegant way of finishing second."

Monday, September 17, 2012

Mendips: Penn Hill and the Monarch's Way

A 10kg/22lb pack on my back and a second Mendips walk today, part of conditioning for the Brecon Beacons next week.

The footpath from the Old Bristol Road to Penn Hill

The Monarch's Way descends into Wookey Hole

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Tour of Britain Cycling: Stage 6 at the Brecon Beacons

Our vantage point was on the hill south of the Storey Arms and the Brecon reservoir. The riders were almost an hour later than scheduled and the wind was rather cold. Here are the pix.

A speeding police bike - the race is near

The leading group

The Peloton

Clare is a happy hill-bunny

The author broods on the hill

Mandatory Welsh sheep

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Talgarth, South Wales

We're staying in the New Inn, Talgarth tonight in preparation for stage 6 of the Tour of Britain which sweeps through the Brecon Beacons tomorrow. Yes, Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish will be riding up the A470, past the Storey Arms, skirting the margins of the mighty Pen-y-Fan.

What a God-forsaken place Talgarth is! I start with our Inn, owned by a perfectly respectable and pleasant Thai guy who is the object of unhidden contempt from his redneck customers. They aren't wild about their English guests either which partially accounts for why we passed on the patron's no doubt excellent Thai restaurant in favour of the very pleasant Red Dragon back in Brecon this evening (a very good Szechuan chicken and well-worth the 16 mile round trip).

Talgarth itself is small, derelict, poor, hopeless and sucks the life out of you. There is an entire street up for sale but at least it keeps the extended family busy (picture) :-).


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Hill-walking in the rain

Left at quarter to ten this morning with my rucksack laden to twenty pounds to see how all this new gear worked on a rainy morning (also my unfit body). Back at one o'clock having visited the TV mast at Pen Farm, a climb of around 800 feet (something professional cyclists seem to do in about 3 or 4 minutes!).

And everything worked! Even the GPS app which returns my grid reference position, not that I really needed it so close to home. However, I'll be walking in the Brecon Beacons at the end of this month so it's perhaps more interesting then.

To get my fitness up I need to do this some more times next week before I'm in shape for Pen-y-Fan.

The author in his new walking gear

A panda-shaped scare-crow?

On a good day you can see the Tor

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Joyce Seel

Joyce Seel
We attended my aunt, Joyce Seel's, funeral today. She was 88. My memories of Joyce are sadly few. She was the wife of my uncle - Len Seel - who died twenty years ago.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

The power of intermittent fasting

On Tuesday August 7th I wrote about the Michael Mosely Horizon programme on BBC2 where he explained that by fasting two days a week he improved his health and lost over a stone (see the relevant section on YouTube here).

On that day I weighed myself at 13st 8lb and decided to follow suit by only eating breakfast on Fridays and Mondays. Well, a holiday in Croatia (half board) has intervened and here at September 8th I am 12st 13lb --- 9 pounds down. Good, but not good enough. The regime will now be breakfast-only Monday, Wednesday, Friday. (It also saves on the food bills).

I heard yesterday (to my chagrin) that my brother-in-law on the same regime has lost ten pounds in a a shorter period.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Croatia: Dubrovnik day 3

I skyped Rupert Taylor (MD at Pro4) yesterday to confirm I'm taking an extended break from telecoms consultancy. Reason is that I want to devote more time to writing, physics and hill-walking. I think they'll survive my decision.

Today we took a walk around the complex as vast thunderclouds piled up to the west. In the event we saw just a few spots of rain, and now the sun is back and it's baking again.

As I write Clare is almost through China Mieville's book "Railsea" on the Kindle. She has been reading it in a series of bizarre and louche poses (legs up the wall like the bat featured in the novel; lying sprawled across the bed and side cabinet, ...).

I have some photos but I think they're for my private collection, or possibly a select north-american celebrity website.



Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Croatia: Dubrovnik day 2

Dubrovnik has a cable car up the mountain to its north-east: I would guess around 400 metres at the top.

Pictures below show: a waitress at the terrace restaurant with clouds below, obligatory pix of Clare and myself on the mountain top, and the sky-view of Dubrovnik old town.

After we rode down we would have walked the old town walls - we did in fact buy tickets. But when we climbed the steps we found - to our surprise - that it was a one-way system, and our way would have been steeply uphill.

We were reimbursed and had ice-creams instead.





Monday, September 03, 2012

Croatia: Dubrovnik

There is a special YouTube limbo for those moments when the video camera is trapped in your pocket. Such was the scene as we assembled this morning outside the northern gate of the walled city of Dubrovnik, surrounding our Croatian tour guide, the redoubtable Antonia.

To her left, nearer the wall, she spotted another group being addressed by their leader, a bearded, balding and rather portly man of about 40 years - but not wearing the official accreditation of the Guild of Dubrovnik Tour Guides.

My, what a fish-wife's tongue-lashing she gave him at the top of her microphone-amplified voice, culminating in a threat that he desist from "guiding" immediately or she would set the police on him: how their group scarpered!

I have to tell you, Dear Reader, that looks were exchanged between members of our party. It had all started so well too, as she had captivated our coach of 48 souls with her appreciative cultural references to "Only Fools and Horses" and "Mr Bean". How she loves those shows!

We split from the group five minutes later, having over-feasted on facts, and explored the Old Town by ourselves. Pictures below show paintings from the Orthodox Church, the Jesuit Church, a view of the harbour and sundry shots of Clare and myself on Lokrum Island, a ten minute ferry ride from the city.

Coming back I took a picture of Dubrovnik from the sea. The sunset is from our hotel, out on the peninsula.








Sunday, September 02, 2012

Bosnia: Mostar

Bullet holes in non-restored buildings are the visible legacy of the recent conflict which led to the famous bridge being destroyed. The picture below shows it happily restored.

It touched 40 degrees today which accounts for the coach shot showing Clare with a wet flannel over her head (she remains a catholic).

I'm pictured in the terrace restaurant where we hid from the gypsy child-beggars, alleged pick-pockets and of course the wraparound heat.




Saturday, September 01, 2012

Croatia: Split - Trogir

Matthew Parris in The Times today has an op-ed piece suggesting Spain ought to leave the Euro to restabilise its economy. Of course it won't, not only because its political elite is firmly wedded to the grand European political integration project, but also because they are terrified of a unified Europe without them. Better in than out is the depressing mantra.

Croatia is due to join the EU and the Euro next year. Its economy seems midway between Italy and Greece, like its topography and climate; factor in the usual corruption you find in ethnic/kin-centric societies.

They are clearly going to be toast, but fear (of Germany, Austria) keeps them going.

Today we were in the palace of one of the last rulers of a unified Europe, the Roman Emperor Diocletian. It's in Split and has been continuously occupied for 1,700 years, a motley collection of Gothic, Venetian and of course Roman buildings full of people, some of whom actually live there.

This afternoon we visited the bijou island of Trogir to the north of Split. Around 800 metres long, it has waterfronts (plenty of yachts) around the edges and a warren of alleys packed with restaurants, shops and dwellings in the interior. We spent a pleasant couple of hours though it's been rather humid today.

Tomorrow it's Dubrovnik via Mostar.

Here are some pix from today.