Hello, good evening and... welcome
Hello and welcome to my blog. Or at least, to one of them. This one is the current personal one. If you want to talk about science, you want scienceblogs.com/stoat/. Or you might prefer my wiki page.

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Book review: Neptune's brood
Read again: no.
Do I regret spending my time on this book: a bit.
Interest / Ideas / Novelty: moderate to good.

As usual, I'll give a way more of the plot that you'd welcome were you actually wondering about reading this book, so don't read past this introductory paragraph if you want to actually enjoy the surprises in the book. Not that there are many. Potted summary (without revealing stuff): its an innocent-abroad-stumbling-into-deep-mysteries base plot, in the same humans-are-extinct universe as "Saturn's children". Like SC that universe-idea is rather dissatifyingly handled / inadequately exploited, in that its possible to transcribe essentially all the story onto base-human terms; those rather few bits that you couldn't, directly, aren't terribly important to the plot. The nice bit is that its a far-future-with-no-FTL plot; post-humans are spreading, slowly, but in the semi-staple-of-scifi long term spaceships boosted to a few percent of lightspeed by launch lasers, so that colonisation is slow and interstellar commerce is in information not materials. That's good, and its a promising start. He allows himself a cheat: the post-people's minds can be stored in "soul chips" and they can be transmitted between the stars, to be reformed on arrival. And the book, in a sense, is about a possible sketch of how the economics of all this might work; together with a plot about how fraud might work.

Stross's Neptune's Brood: science fictional companion to Graeber's Debt is a review by Cory Doctorow; you might prefer his version. He says The ideas are so plentiful and the story revolves around such a baroque future that sometimes the story itself gets lost amid the argument. That's correctish, but over-polite: more accurate would be to say that attempting to explain the economic concepts used in the book - slow money, exchange-signing - is sufficiently complex that it can't be done unobtrusively; there are big wodges of the central character talking straight to the reader.

A few holes in the book:

* although its a grand-sweep-of-history type book, at least at the start, in the end the vast conspiracy turns out to be disappointingly personal, almost one-person. The justification for that is that it would be hard wrap up the novel otherwise; but it comes far too close to making the whole sweep of history dependent on one person, which isn't believeable.
* the ending is very abrupt (as this review says). Its as though, having used up all his ideas, he couldn't be bothered to finish up writing a proper ending. In some ways that's good - he's not wasting your time - but it diminishes the book. Again, the manner of the ending - here we have a giant battleship / industrial complex, launched 2kyr ago, with scary custom-designed fighting folk, suddenly overwhelmed in a twinkling. Such a structure would have better defences (the excuse for surprise - that they're sneaking up in a blind spot - is laughably thin); but I also don't buy the idea that it would have gone undetected itself; there's vast swathes of plausible-civilisation-infrastructure omitted / evaded.
* sending people by transmitting their mind state is cheating, I think. I was going to say its necessary for the book, and the in-universe, but now I wonder. Its necessary for the personalisation of the ending, but (see above) the ending is weak anyway. I think the book could have done without it. I don't believe you could get the interstellar bandwidth, but more important is the what-do-you-do-about-the-multiple-instantiation problem.
* although the concept of slow money is moderately well worked out (well ter be 'onest, guv, I wasn't really paying attention, just surfing on the ideas) what isn't worked out at all is how the fraud might work. That's all waves-hands-coughs-in-embarrassment type stuff.
* Something that isn't a hole, but is very briefly mentioned at the end, is "well, was this vast fraud so evil then"? In terms of the book, it lead to a vast wave of colonisation - surely a good thing. It suppressed the new AFAL drive, but that was semi-incidental sort of; indeed the AFAL is another one of the book's cheats; so pretend a universe where the whole thing was just a scam, then you can wonder: but was it a good thing? This matters, because at the end its necessary that the scammers be Bad.

So, overall, I'm disappointed. I'm still waiting for the no-FTL-no-new-physics book (its allowed to have new bio, though, so I don't mind people living a long time) that plausibly depicts an interstellar civilisation.

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010
I ran across this list (via Use of Weapons, via an Iain Banks obit). So I thought I'd check. I've read 25, and disagree with the inclusion of 8.


* R - read (and if so, whether I agree it merits the list),
* N - not read.

Of the one's I've said "yes" to, almost all fit into the "an entirely new concept". Ender's game was for the video arcade generation, for example.

N The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
R Ender’s Game (1985) - yes. An entirely new concept
N Radio Free Albemuth (1985)
R Always Coming Home (1985) - no. Not without merit, but compared to Earthsea, its nothing.
N This Is the Way the World Ends (1985) 
R Galápagos (1985) - no. Just a toy parable
N The Falling Woman (1986)            
N The Shore of Women (1986)            
N A Door Into Ocean (1986)            
N Soldiers of Paradise (1987)             
N Life During Wartime (1987) - but the Talking Heads song is astounding
R The Sea and Summer (1987) - yes. Elegaic
N Cyteen (1988)            
N Neverness (1988)            
N The Steerswoman (1989)            
R Grass (1989) - yes.
R Use of Weapons (1990) - yes. Classic Culture
R Queen of Angels (1990) - yes. The excitement and ultimate disappointment of a probe to another star
N Barrayar (1991)            
N Synners (1991)            
N Sarah Canary (1991)            
R White Queen (1991) - yes. Superb
R Eternal Light (1991) - yes. Mysterious mind-expanding space opera
R Stations of the Tide (1991) - yes. Pretty damn weird. Vacuum Flowers should also be on the list
N Timelike Infinity (1992)             
N Dead Girls (1992)             
N Jumper (1992)            
N China Mountain Zhang (1992)            
R Red Mars (1992) - no. Overblown. Icehenge is KSR's classic
R A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) - yes.
R Aristoi (1992) - yes.
N Doomsday Book (1992)            
N Parable of the Sower (1993)            
N Ammonite (1993)            
N Chimera (1993)            
R Nightside the Long Sun (1993) - no. Book of the New Sun is Wolfe's classic, as any Fule Kno
N Brittle Innings (1994)            
N Permutation City (1994)            
N Blood (1994)             
N Mother of Storms (1995)            
R Sailing Bright Eternity (1995) - no, drivel. In the Ocean of Night is the classic (and I'll allow you Across the Sea of Suns) but its downhill from there
N Galatea 2.2 (1995)            
R The Diamond Age (1995) - yes
N The Transmigration of Souls (1996)            
N The Fortunate Fall (1996)            
N The Sparrow/Children of God (1996/1998)            
N Holy Fire (1996)           
R Night Lamp (1996) - yes. Its Jack Vance, not at his best, but even his worst is better than most people's best
N In the Garden of Iden (1997)            
R Forever Peace (1997) - no. Read and marvel at The Forever War, and stop there
N Glimmering (1997)            
N As She Climbed Across the Table (1997)   
R The Cassini Division (1998) - yes
N Bloom (1998)            
R Vast (1998) - no. An attempt at weird / mysterious, but it doesn't work          
N The Golden Globe (1998)           
N Headlong (1999)            
N Cave of Stars (1999)            
N Genesis (2000)            
N Super-Cannes (2000)            
N Under the Skin (2000)            
N Perdido Street Station (2000)            
N Distance Haze (2000)            
R Revelation Space trilogy (2000) -yes
R Salt (2000) - no. I *think* I've read this one. All his books are sort-of the same, and nearly-good-enough. Consider Snow instead         
N Ventus (2001)            
N The Cassandra Complex (2001)            
N Light (2002)            
R Altered Carbon (2002) - yes
N The Separation (2002)            
N The Golden Age (2002)            
N The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003)            
N Natural History (2003)            
N The Labyrinth Key / Spears of God             
N River of Gods (2004)            
N The Plot Against America (2004)             
N Never Let Me Go (2005)            
N The House of Storms (2005)            
N Counting Heads (2005)            
N Air (Or, Have Not Have) (2005)            
N Accelerando (2005)            
N Spin (2005)            
N My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (2006)            
N The Road (2006)            
N Temeraire /His Majesty’s Dragon (2006)            
N Blindsight (2006)            
N HARM (2007)            
N The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)            
N The Secret City (2007)            
N In War Times (2007)            
N Postsingular (2007)            
N Shadow of the Scorpion (2008)            
R The Hunger Games trilogy (2008-2010) - maybe. I read book 1, and liked it, but declined the chance to read book 2           
N Little Brother (2008)            
N The Alchemy of Stone (2008)            
R The Windup Girl (2009) - yes
N Steal Across the Sky(2009)            
N Boneshaker (2009)            
N Zoo City (2010)            
N Zero History (2010)            
N The Quantum Thief (2010)            

I'm not doing a good job reading the recent stuff, am I?

Stanage, Youth
Today was that unexpected and un-looked-for gift: a free day for all the family, with the house and garden in sufficient order that we flt no guilt in taking a day off. Not only that, but the weather was good. And most remarkably of all, the Peaks weren't crowded: perhaps everyone else had taken the half-term week off to go further afield. So we got up at 7, muted the few grumbles, wolfed down breakfast and set off. Arrive in Hathersage around 10 for breakfast at Outside and to buy Daniel some climbing shoes of his own - he's borrowed M's in the past, but hers are now too small for him; and he uses the school ones, but not on private trips. After not-much-thought we end up with Boreal Joker size 10's; and M buys a fleecy type thing that Miranda ends up occupying for the day. And so to the crag (with one slight mis-turn: remember, you want Birley lane); the car park is not full, though its now about 11. The edge is quite hard to see from google maps: for my future use here is a link showing the "popular end", the car park, and the camp site. Hathersage is off the bottom left; and this is Outside.

DSC_2063 DSC_2064 Where shall we go? The popular end, of course. And since it doesn't seem terribly crowded, we'll go to the first bit, which is around the Grotto Slab area. The bit with the fallen-over stack leaning against the edge. D and I gear up (D is all keen, as he's been climbing at school and in competitions, though he's slightly shocked I've so soon taken him at his word that he'd like to do more climbing) and look at Crack and Corner, ***, HVD, 4b (HVD 4b? You have to love these Stanage grades, they're so random). Last done by us, says the guidebook scribbling, in 1991. But I stare at the start (very polished, the crux, says the Book; how true) and realise that would be stupid: we'll do something easier first, just to get our ropework and calls in sync (D has done very little real-world climbing). So we move over to the fallen stack which is Grotto Slab, D - both M and I soloed it in 1992. I put in a couple of bits of gear to show willing, but they aren't really needed, and D breezes up. Miranda also does it - her only route for the day. She spends the rest of the time snuggled up reading Skulduggery Pleasant.

Speaking of which (the breezin' bit, I mean), its blowing a gale at the top. Not bad down at the foot of the climbs, and not too back 20 feet back from the top, but the edge itself is a linear tornado.

Next, well, something a bit harder but not too much. Capstone chimney is also a D, and nominally much shorter, but is actually considerably harder than the slab. But anyway, I lead it and D seconds it happily - barefoot in fact, which he begs to be allowed to try to do. M has a go too. She isn't exactly delirious with joy, and requires a second go ("I'm not very happy". Fortunately its too windy for me to shout down "Trust the rope").

DSC_2090-w-lead-crack-and-corner-hvd-4b To the right of this is Green Wall (VS 4b; I led it with Howard in 1992, though we didn't realise this till later). D would like a go, so since I'm at the top he can top-rope it. He gets up it, with a couple of rests or heavy weights on rope. As you can see it has some awkwardnesses to it.

That completes our programme for the morning - well, its now 1:30, doesn't time fly. E is hungry, and so am I, so its back to Hathersage for lunch and a new pair of shoes for me too - my old ones have the rubber peeling away at the tip-toe, an unpleasant feeling when you try to stand on it. I tell the children that Howard would never let them get away with the decadent luxury of descent for lunch on a nice day. And for a miracle there is still a space in the car park behind Outside. Egg-on-toast; bean curry; chicken burger; sos-and-chips-in-giant-yorkshire-pud are just some of the delights we same in some order; and I get new Stonelands (tried the Joker and the Silex but they hurt around the back of the ankle. The Stonelands felt better, and were cheaper). We resist the lures of the bargain tent, and head back up - this time getting the route right.

DSC_2076 What to do... tricky. Black Hawk Hell Crack? Or our original desire, Crack and Corner? BHHC is occupied (how odd) so go for Castle Crack (HS 4a; left) the corner crack just left. Having watched the previous pair struggle up it I'm careful to note footholds, and all goes well, indeed exhilaratingly so, though perhaps I shouldn't be so excited by a mere HS. But its a good climb, worth a star at least. Nominally a layback, in practice its a matter of delicately selecting and trusting the footholds, unless you're feeling really strong.

Next (and its getting on for time to be going) we vacillate for a while before going for Crack and Corner (HVD 4b; right). As the guidebook says, the start is rather polished and I fall out of it, the first time, when I'm not really applying myself. I resist the urge to do what some previous parties have done - effectively, to pre-place gear just above reach - though I do shuffle my nice purple friend into easy reach. And its fine, worth its stars, and who am I to comment on grades. A most enjoyable climb, and there's a little surprise if you do the over-the-top direct finish, which you should.

And that was all: 5:30 and we pack up and head home.


The last 12 are the deepest
TL;DR: 3:46:34 for the Brighton Marathon. A new PB by 8 minutes (good) but I still died in the last 12 km (bad).

Longer version (or skip to the race itself): this is Brighton Marathon #3, the follow-up to #2. With #2, and two Amsterdams, I'd got 3 times at 3:55 +/- 1 minute, and felt it was time to do better. A 1:36 at the Cambridge half, and a follow-up 2:28 for 30k, convinced me that I could at least target 3:30, which I've decided is my version of respectability for the moment. A week after the 30 k I tore my right calf somewhat, forcing me to take 2 weeks off and then be very gentle, so my training in the run-up was necessarily very tapered. But the calf didn't trouble me during the race. Poor James E, however, tore his calf one week before, and so had to pull out. That left me pitted in a death-match with my arch-rival James H, who has a 1:33 half but has never run a marathon before.


On Saturday morning I sat in bright sunshine with the French window open glorying in the beauty of the day, and wondering if I needed to take sunscreen. I need not have worried: when the train pulled in to Brighton it was cold and pouring with rain. I tried sitting in a cafe by the station to make it stop; this didn't work. I went half-way down the hill towards the sea and sat in a Waterstones for a bit; that didn't help either. So I picked up my race number from the expo and headed back up the hill and caught my train out to Worthing (stopping at a supermarket to buy some buns, and fruit, and pork pies, because I suspected Worthing might be a blue-rinse desert and I might not get any breakfast in the morning. I was wrong). Its 25 mins down the coast, and then a 1 k walk to the front and my hotel, the "Kingsway". Its still raining, so I stay in (and watch Dr Who). James E had chosen the Kingsway, and its OK: corridors rather narrow but room acceptable and bathroom shiny. There's an awful lot of dross on TV though. They advertise to runners that "our menu has lots of carbs" but there is no pasta on the menu at all. I have a nice sos-and-mash-in-Yorkshire-pud, but I'd rather have had a plain bowl of spaghetti. Ah well. Rob has got me "Into the Silence" and this makes good reading for my lonely dinner and evening. Don't get to sleep early.


The rain has stopped, but the sky is grey. My alarm wakes me at 6 and I go down to the runners breakfast: coffee and juice and toast and yoghurt and porridge. Good, just what I want. Walk to the station, get the 7:30 to Brighton, follow the stream of people heading to the start. Stop in a little cafe to (a) blow some time and (b) go to the loo (yes, again. You can't go to the loo too often, as James H found to his cost). I don't time this right, so when I get to the park and change to race kit and pack my bag and hand it over to the baggage lorries (where they are playing "Born to Run", an appropriate, inspiring, and blood-pumping choice; hence my lead pic) and join the enooooormous loo queue (did I mention there are never enough loos?) by the time I'm out the race is just about to start and I'm not even sure exactly where I'm supposed to be. Never mind, I leap over the barrier and join those shuffling forwards, then jogging, and then, woo, we're at the start line.

Perhaps you want to look at
the GPS trace. Avert your eyes from the last 12 k.

The start is OK. I'm slow to start because of the inevitable bozos, but then things get better and I can run at ~5 min / km pace, which is what I'm aiming at. Actually I had intended to be aiming for a bit better, but today things just don't jel somehow, and I'm not on tip-top form. But 10 k comes in 50 mins, and half-way in 1:45 - all of that goes by fairly quickly and painlessly. At around about 10 k I overtake the 3:45 pacers, which is what I'd hope for; coming back in the loop-inland out East I spot James H in their pack. I'd forgotten that the hill heading East is quite long and not that small. 24 k at 2h, and 30 k at 2:32 is about right, but its at least 2 mins away from a 3:30 finish, so I abandon that target. At some point the sun comes out and the day is warm, indeed a little too warm, but not overly so.

The last 12 k, however, are deeply unpleasant, sliding down to 6 min / km, until the last 2 km which are even worse. James H came past me at that point (and in a slight plus point, I clearly have no reserves at all, because I don't speed up in the slightest. So its not as if I've held anything back), but since he'd started about 1:30 ahead of me (I hadn't realised that:I must have passed him at some point early on, as I went for a fast start and he for a steady pace) we ended up with near-identical times (technically I beat him by 4 seconds, which is 0.011% of our times, but I'm happy to call it a draw). And, as I understand it, he was obliged to take a pitstop at some point.

Excuses, excuses: the tail-off past 30 k is entirely reminiscent of previous runs. Probably I could have got a fast time overall if I'd aimed for 3:45 and set off at that pace, and speeded up later if I had any spare. But, that wasn't my plan, I wanted to try for 3:30, and I'm not sad I did. better a glorious failure than a mediocre success. Ahem.

This time I didn't get my in-race nutrition right. I'd managed to convince myself- based on one test - that I could cope with Maz's caffeine-enhanced rather thick gels (which looked disturbingly like spunk when I found it oozing out of my clutch). However, this was a mistake: my stomach took against it, even though I sipped slowly and washed it down with a water break. I ended up throwing two away (sorry Maz). So there were some portions of the race where I felt distinctly queasy, and I even slowed down a bit on occasion to give my tummy a rest. However towards the end even the Gatorade drinks they were providing made me feel ill, so perhaps I'd just got twisted.

Death note (this applies to mountaineering too, only more so): someone collapsed and died during the race, fairly young I think, perhaps 23. My attitude to this is no-false-sadness: I don't know the guy, he took his chances along with the rest of us, marathons are physically very gruelling and its up to you to make sure you're fit enough to compete. If you get unlucky and have some unsuspected weakness: well, that's unlucky. Go on, tell me I'm callous.

After the race I tired to find James H, but the family-reunion A-Z flags were poorly signposted and I took ages finding them, and he'd gone. So I collapsed for 10 or 15 mins, and then went to the pebbles on the seas edge and collapsed there for most of an hour, watching the waves and the children throwing pebbles at the waves and laughing as they ran from the waves and generally being the delightful innocent creatures that they are. And that's it; I'll spare you my exciting wait for the train at Finsbury park. Oh, but I will tell you that whilst getting up and down, and climbing stairs, is rather unpleasant, cycling back from the station was fine.

Book review: City of Illusions
Summary: post-apocalyptic, quest, mystery. Elegiac, a quality I greatly value. Its not up with The Deep; but nothing is.

Read again? I first read this in my teenage years, when I read all the sci fi available in our local library. I've read it several times since. I'll read it again.

Memorable line: "people makes laws for what they are most afraid of". And perhaps: "travel alone".

If you want the plot, the the wiki entry is good enough. That also told me one new thing (no, two; oh hold on, I'll come in again...), with which I agree: that the Shing aren't really convincing villains when they turn up. They are almost convincing; what works rather well is that it becomes clear that although the Shing have conquered the Earth, they don't really know why they bothered to do it, they have no purpose. But when they speak they are wrong. The other thing is that this predates The Left Hand of Darkness in the "Hainish cycle".

Like some of her other books, and many another author, Leguin (in the beginning) tries to sketch a future semi-utopia: its a small world, but the people are at peace with nature and stable. This is, I think, what she really wants (see "Always coming home"). But its not stable, and her character Falk sets out to find out why.

Coire an t-Sneachda
I went to Howard (Roscoe, you remember)'s 100-papers (though it had turned into 100+ by the night) pub evening, and also his pre-retirement drinkies (shock horror). And we talked (I boasted of my three new routes on Ynys Lochtyn) and he said "and I'm going up the the Cairngorms in a couple of weeks time" and I said "mail me, I'm interested" fully expecting to be busy whenever. But I wasn't. And M said I could go. So, that's all my excuses out of the way.

2013-02-23 16.54.59 I found my old plastic boots in the loft, and my dachsteins (a little moth-eaten) and bought a new head torch and remembered all the kit I needed (I laid out the waterproof trousers but forgot to actually take them, never mind, Howard had a spare). I took the std.gear (though of course I should have taken less, it being winter, and AL'ing with Karl, but never mind we were all fit and strong).

Let me introduce everyone: here they are. Howard Roscoe is on the left in the fetching yellow helmet. He joined BAS not long before me, but because he was there when I joined it took me about 10 years to realise he'd only been there a bit earlier. Trip organiser, provider of spare kit and early morning porridge, repository of years of experience, never lost anyone on the hills yet.

In the middle is Chris Collett who Howard met through folk music; he's a gardener in Bedford. He's quite new to climbing, but has been on long climbs with Howard in Wales.

On the right is Karl, also Roscoe, nephew of the aforesaid HKR. Like Chris this is his first winter trip, but he's been leading for a while. Notice how Howard has tricked them both into wearing pink knee-pads :-).

And so: on Friday morning Howard picked me up about 10:30 with an already alarmingly full car, so I didn't bring my ropes or bivvy bag. We then went to Bedford to pick up Chris, and then a longer hike north to Todmorden for Karl, who lives in a delightful old stone house up an inconvenient track. All this added something to the journey time, but there you go. After that it was a matter of driving north and more north (stopping for dinner at Dunkeld Chippy) until we got to Aviemore at some time like 9:30 - well, it could have been worse. Would it have been better to leave at 8 pm and drive overnight, arriving at 7 am? Perhaps / possibly; its certainly something I'd consider in future. Though we'd have been fairly zonked. But we got to the campsite in time for reception to pick up our all-important shower-block cards, and set about putting up tents - tricky: the ground was frozen, and with little stones, the overall effect was like concrete and hammering the tent pegs in with ice axes didn't work well, you had to dig out a hole with the pick first. In the dark, the sparks when you struck stones were bright. And so, via showers and beer, to bed.

Saturday (23rd)

2013-02-23 09.45.25 I slept rather well - the outside temp was below zero but I had my lovely lightweight 3-season bag inside my old Caravan one, and the luxury of a carry-mat with a self-inflater on top. In the morning Howard provided porridge and then tea, after which I got up. We then did some gear sorting and related activities and drove up to the ski-lift car park, and after a bit more faff we were off - at about 10, perhaps? Almost immeadiately I managed to fling my camera to the hard frozen ground whilst it was turned on, irrepearably damaging the lens - ah well, the way of all flesh. All the pix here are from my phone camera, which is a bit rubbish.

The weather was... as you see it. Cold, though it didn't feel it after the hour's walk in. The snow was hard frozen. If you don't know the area... the snow col off to the right is the descent route of the "Goat track" which starts off steeper than it looks. The darker mass to the left is Aladdins buttress, bounded to the left by Aladdins couloir (I, possible descent route) and to the right by Aladdins mirror. Fluted buttress is to the right; Crotched gully is nearly in the centre of the pic, leading up to the little dip.

2013-02-23 12.43.18 2013-02-23 12.43.50 We did that first; its a grade I/II. I A/L with Karl and Howard with Chris. Being on the same climb gave us all reassurance. As you can see from the pic, the weather was unusually kind, in that we could see the crag. It wasn't windy, either. It was however cold, with the snow deep-frozen, which made for good climbing. We soon got into the spirit of things, though since Chris was a bit tentative Karl and I got to the crux - the cornice - first. This proved to be exciting.

The right pic is Karl just below the cornice. It gives a good idea of how hoar-frosted the rocks were up there. It was beautiful, I wish I'd had a better camera able to capture them. The left pic shows them better, though it has the disadvantage of having Howard in it :-).

2013-02-23 13.34.04 Once over the lip, the wind was biting, and Karl and I contemplated not hanging around but going down ahead. However, that seemed unfriendly, and likely to lead to confusion of not-meeting-up-again, and anyway it was fun to watch Howard topping out.

Here he is going "over the top". It wasn't quite as dramatic in reality as it appears here, but it was plenty exciting. Especially for me, cos I didn't bother place a snow anchor as Howard did (ah yes, because I'd left the deadman with Karl, I think) so had a larger runout. And wished, once again, that I'd put a bit more effort into scratching around for gear in the last bit of rock. But planting the ice axe handles provided enough pull.

2013-02-23 16.33.14 And so, down the Goat track, and across to Aladdin's Mirror. My guidebook says that the last time (1992) I did it (with M) we did a steepish "scary" slab just to the R of the ice pitch. This time I played on it a bit, but after not very long I decided that since this was my first winter climbing since 1996, I really ought to back off the hard stuff on the first day. So we went R up the easy snow, and had a good time.

The inset pic is Aladdins Pinnacle, which is indeed very distinctive from below. And as you see the sky had started clearing to a beautiful evening. Once we were all up the top we had a choice of ways down, and chose to go over PT 1141 and then down the ski runs. It was interesting to do a variant, but on reflection it was a longer walk and we were all a bit footsore by the time we got back down - at that point I hadn't remembered how to lace up the inners and leave the outers looser.

And so down to the fleshpots of Aviemore. Howard was very keen on the Winking Owl pub, which was unfortunately at the far end of town from the campsite. So we went there for a pint, and then I had a couple of cokes in the next round so I could drive back. However it was rather crowded and noisy and the beer no better than middling - gone downhill since H's last visit, perhaps. So back to the campsite for showers and beers or tea in the tent. However, I needed to darn my dachsteins (20 years of moths in the attic taking their toll) and recharge my phone, so sneaked off to the pub / resto / pizzeria just by the site. And... it was fine. "Unpretentious" shall we say. Coffee, warmth, a quiet table to sit and darn.

From the ski lift car park: the lights of Aviemore gleam in the distance.

2013-02-23 18.18.07

Sunday (24th)

2013-02-24 09.53.45 Another fine nights sleep terminated by Porridge. We were a bit more efficient this morning and shaved 1/2 hour off our start time. Another cold morn with reasonable weather, though not the sunshine I'd thought the forecast had promised me. We're all a little tired after yesterday's exertions, though we still do the walk-in in an hour.

Pic: us gearing up, Aladdin's buttress above, A's Mirror in the top right. Weather less clear today - the crag largely cloudy when we first turned up.

But what to do? Here we (I) make a mistake, perhaps. Or so it seems in retrospect: I really didn't think of this at the time at all. We'd pretty well decided to do only one route, part tiredness, part not wanting to head off too late - we had a long way to go. So we chose The Runnel, another grade I/II. But what we could have chosen was to go play on Aladdins mirror, or the slab next to it. Have fun putting in ice screws, climbing ice, falling off perhaps. I have no experience falling off ice, and it would be good to have some. Learning how the placements work, and so on. The run-out is easy, so it would have been a good place to do it. Oh well, next year.

And anyway The Runnel was fun. A party of 3 was leading into it as we started up.

2013-02-24 10.21.37 Right pic: the line is a bit hard to see; its the "highest" starting gully, about 1/3 left, starting to the right of the rather darker triangular block of rock; and then trending somewhat leftwards (perhaps a bit clearer as the center, here). It has a crux of a narrow chimney near the top, which we were a bit nervous of, not knowing what state it might be in, or how avoidable. But as it turned out it was fine, with good solid crisp snow. Indeed the chief problem turned out to be my right crampon, which (just below the belay for the crux) I noticed was hanging loose. "How careless of me" I thought - I must have failed to attach it properly. So, I carefully re-attached it. Only to have it fall off again. At which point I realised that the true problem was that my right boot sole, including the step-in lug, had come loose. Oops. Secure self, and when Howard comes up he turns out to have a spare strap, and was able to tie it on - he's good at stuff like that.

2013-02-24 10.47.20 Left pic: heading up near the start, Karl above me on my rope, Howard above him, and the two seconders of the other party to the right.

Once again, the true crux was the cornice at the top. This time I again failed to put in the deadman, but I had put in lots of gear in the chimney, so all was well.

And the view from the top, Howard and Karl, waiting for Chris to top out, the weather slowly clearing.

2013-02-24 13.39.36

And so down the Goat track and back.

2013-02-24 15.19.30

Goodbye hills! I'll be back.

Things I forgot

* water/wind proof trousers - only partly - I remembered these a mile down the road, but Howard had a spare
* bowl - tut tut. Though I did remember a mug.
* compass - really rather careless. Of course I had my phone GPS if desperate.

Book review: Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays
Um, well, a venture into Great Literature. And one I only did because I was wandering through Waterstones and happened to see it laid out. So, score one for physical shops. See-also: [[Sophocles#The Theban plays]].

Overall: difficult. I should re-read it some time.

Ah, is that the keyword above? "Should"? Yes, I think I've accidentally put the truth down.

This stuff was written 2500 years ago, and so its not surprising that much of it is weird or incomprehensible. I suspect it would be even less comprehensible had not generations of translators and interpreters done their best to render the original. There are minor matters like textual integrity, and doubts over which characters get which lines. But I found myself wondering how true to the original some of the English translations could possibly be.

When reading it, I found myself continually wandering off to do other things. So this can't be considered a page-turner. Its hard to read and its dense. Which is good in itself: modern literature is so bloated (vide Spirit). But the "Should" above returns: this is something I read because it has survived for 2500 years, not for enjoyment. I was looking, perhaps, for clues to how people thought then. But that was hoping for too much.

Book review: Atlas shrugged
Quick summary: (too) long, interesting, enjoyable (as long as you skip stuff), but ultimately unacceptable.

A famous work; here's its wiki entry. I'm not going to bother attack its many faults too strongly, because they are too obvious. If you want to read someone disliking it, try CIP. As a token: the many long dense passages of philosophy - Rand's "Objectivism" - that lard the book get increasingly boring as they repeat. This culminates in John Galt's 70-page 2-3 hour speech on the radio, which is more like something you'd get in Cuba or communist Russia than in the cold West. Some of the characters - the dashing pirate - are laughably implausible. But enough criticism (errm, I won't keep to that. Sorry).

The image the book conjures up - of a fading darkening America crumbling under the weight of an unproductive, uncomprehending and eventually almost unwittingly hostile bureaucracy or parasitic class is well done, and will strike a chord with anyone who actually makes things. Those who work for the govt may be less impressed (token: I find her hatred of all govt funded research ridiculous. But hey, I was a govt-funded scientist for years). But Rand's solution - that all the able folk withdraw their labour and their physical selves and rebuild society in a quiet corner before, presumably, walking into the territory emptied by starvation, cold and strife is hard to see as acceptable. As an aside, at the present day, the central core of the hardened capitalist struggling to keep a railroad - yes, a railroad - going seems very quaint and 50s.

A veil is drawn over most of the deaths, but she helpfully provides one example: the wood burning transcontinental sleeper train taken through the long tunnel. It gets stuck inside, and everyone dies. Rand is at pains to set up the incident as an example of bureaucratic stubbornness and buck-passing (someone at the top decrees the train must get through, but all the way down officials area at pains to ensure that the disastrous orders they give can't be traced back to them) and does her best to make it seem as though all the passengers deserve death; but they don't.

You'll have to forgive me some vagueness here: I started reading the book on the way back from the Amsterdam marathon last October, and finished it a few weeks later, so my memory is fading.

And yet the two key intermingled ideas are worth thinking about: that there is a parasitic class leaching off the productive, and that this class is actively harmful (in Darwinian terms, they are bad parasites). In the book, as things go wrong, the parasites use fear of the problems to gain more power and control, and they use that power to throw patronage at their friends, but they also make genuine (to them; at least the book doesn't try to say otherwise) attempts to fix things, but because they are incompetent things just get worse. The attempt-to-fix-but-fail stuff is very true to life for anyone watching politics ever. The Tobin Tax propsed for the EU is a possible example. The stupid carbon trading schemes are another. These are examples where pols motivated by - well, we cant see into their minds, so we have to guess - a combination of shallow and wishful thinking, carelessness and stupidity, and a desire for patronage, act to make the world worse.

Since I've mentioned Darwin I need to complete the thought: which is, that parasites are universal, unless you make great efforts to remove them. Rand's idea is for a parasite-free society. Like many others she has no patience for fixing the old - its a tired toy, she will throw it away and make a new shiny one; lives don't matter to her; or at least, not the lives of small people. Inevitably, her new world would acquire parasites, but that's for the future. Our world is infested by parasites; what keeps them down is partly Democracy and blah; partly that anywhere that becomes too uncompetitive gets out-competed. That's not a careful analysis, but what I mean is that we accept a balance as we must: as long as society functions, and produces enough wealth for all or most, we tolerate some parasites. And at least at the moment it is working: the share captured by the unproductive isn't too high. In Atlas Shrugged Rand has had to produce a less capable society that succumbs to the weight of parasites - though even there it isn't really clear that it would do, if it wasn't for the "strike". Rand's various protagonists have decided - amongst themselves - that all the invisible deaths are worth it, to them. It is a very individualistic philosophy, and to support its plausibility all the lead characters are implausibly capable.

If you agree that Rand's apparent solution - restrict, retreat and rebuild - isn't very plausible, what lesson does the book teach? Just, resistance to stupid bureaucracy I suppose. Put like that, its not profound. And I do sense that many of the book's admirers are motivated more by some savage uncomprehending hatred of The System rather than by a desire, themselves, to try to build something better. Nonetheless there is something there.

[Edited to add: if I'm not mis-remembering, another important element to Rand was the coercive power of the State: its structure and authority is based ultimately on force. She doesn't like this; it doesn't fit with her individualistic world. Nonetheless in the book the state is rather uncoercive: only at the end is there a carefully contrived torture-John-Galt scene, which is inserted only to fulfil her own prophecy, that the state will ultimately resort to force. In this, I'm firmly with Thomas Hobbes and against Rand: without the Civil Sword, no compacts and hence no civil society is possible. Rand's insistence otherwise places her with the hippies and flower children, who she would despise.]

Book review: Blue Remembered Earth
Not that anyone cares, but I though it might be interesting for me to write up the books I read. I'll try to do them all, good or bad. Its a sort of a diary.

Quick summary: fun enough, but ultimately disappointing.

Why I read it: I've read others by him. With similar results.

Where: Waterstones, over the course of quite a few Saturdays.

Blue Remembered Earth is a "we've got out into the solar system but travel is still slow" kind of novel. There's a nod towards climate change (its 2160, and the world is being repaired) but this has no plot effect; there's a nod towards geopolitical change (Africa is on top, and the Earth bits of the story are set there) but this has no real effect either. And so on. In the usual way of books like this there's a big corporation run by a few people, which helps move things along, and individuals can do far more than is plausible. After a bit a character is sent off on a chase across the solar system following some clues. This helps fill in quite a few pages, and helps show us the universe of the book, but it all becomes a bit obvious too quickly.

Then at the end we get introduced to the new Tech that has been discovered / found, and which will revolutionise this world. Apparently this is a trilogy, so presumably something interesting will happen in the next books, but in this one its all a bit "meh". In order to make the story hang together you have to believe that the woman who found all this, notoriously gung-ho and exploratory and bold, all of a sudden became cautious and decided to leave it for our book's characters to find. The tech itself is "new physics" apparently found scrawled on the side (and then fallen off of) of a natural monolith / tourist attraction on Phobos, which no-one else happened to have noticed. And was then reconstructed by a Brilliant Lone Physicist, who then decided to retire and become a housekeeper. And was then converted from physics to spaceship engine, without anyone ever leaking the secret. Speaking of which, clear signs of intelligent life have been discovered around a distant star, and that news hasn't leaked either, except to Our Hero. It feels like the ending hadn't been planned before the story started, and then when the ending became necessary, he couldn't be bothered to go back and re-write the beginning to make it all plausible.

But that's me being picky, which is fun in itself. Along the way there is enough amusing colour to make it worth getting to the end.

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