Tuesday, October 26, 2021

bog standard

So obviously with ankle rehabilitation progressing well and new boots ready to be tested it only remained to find an opportunity to go and test ankle and boots out by going for a long walk. It's currently school half-term and Nia and I have been trying to tee up a crack at Pen y Fan, which she's very keen to do. That's pencilled in for the end of this week but I managed to wangle a free day yesterday as well so I took myself off for a walk after dropping the kids off at their grandparents' in Abergavenny. Now I've done a lot of walking in the vicinity of Abergavenny over the years: there's the Sugar Loaf, the Blorenge, the Black Mountain, Table Mountain above Crickhowell, Coity Mountain near Blaenavon and various Skirrids. So a lot of the obvious boxes have been ticked, and I fancied doing something new rather than re-doing something I'd already done.

The obvious area in the vicinity that I'd never set foot on was the big plateau to the south-west of Crickhowell, cut roughly in half by the B4560 running north-south across it, with the eastern half being Mynydd Llangatwg and the western half being Mynydd Llangynidr. So I planned a circular route, found a car park and set off. 

The first thing to say here is that this isn't a mountain walk in the classical sense: firstly because the car park is at about 440 metres and the high-altitude point of the day is at 541 metres, so there isn't a lot of ascent involved. Furthermore while the two areas either side of the road are each called "mountain" (that being what the Welsh word "mynydd" means) they are actually just one vast plateau with no obvious summits. The focal points of the day are the two trig points, the first one barely a mile and a half into the walk at 541 metres and the second at 529 metres atop a slightly more impressive pile of bits of shattered limestone about four miles to the east. The important thing to say about the first one is that this isn't even technically the summit of Mynydd Llangynidr - that is at 557 metres about a mile and a half to the west, but I couldn't see a way of including it in the walk without increasing the amount of exhausting slogging across trackless wastes to beyond the limits of even my sanity.

Getting from the first trig point to the second is the main challenge of the day - as you can probably imagine a vast flat area of mountain upland in South Wales is going to attract and retain quite a bit of water. The section from the first trig point to the road is basically OK, as is the section from the road to the intermediate high point here. Looking east from there across the slightly lower-lying area between you and the higher ground of Mynydd Llangatwg (the knobbly bit in the centre of the picture) is, I imagine, an experience not unlike gazing across the blasted trackless wastes of Mordor towards Mount Doom.

It's important to take an attitude of Zen-like calm and fatalism here: there's really no way of knowing in advance which is the best (which basically means driest) route, and so the thing to do is pick out a rough route by eye and then just go for it. In hindsight, though, it might have been better to go to the south (right in the photo above) of the two ponds rather than trying to pick a route between them. Around halfway through trying to do that I encountered a very wet section and no amount of hasty high-stepping over tussocks could prevent a certain amount of water from entering over the tops of my boots, instantly invalidating my intended testing of their waterproofing. The advantage of being in such an unfrequented spot is that you can bellow CUUUUNNNT as loud as you like and no-one will mind. 

Once you've gained the high ground of Mynydd Llangatwg, bagged its trig point and dropped off to the north to get out of the wind and eat a pork pie and a Granny Smith, you can quickly drop off the northern edge of the escarpment and down onto a path which hugs the contours along the bottom of the cliffs back towards the car park. I had expected this to be a longish and slightly tedious tail to the walk, but it's actually not quite as simple as that: the first section takes you through some interesting old limestone quarry workings and into the Craig-y-cilau nature reserve, part of the path through which follows the route of an old quarry tramway along a terrace halfway up the cliff. This is an absolute delight to walk after the tedious squelching that's gone before, and once that ends you drop down into some wooded valleys that are equally delightful, if a bit muddy and slippery in the wet. The path then leads past the raised bog at Waun Ddu - apparently very unusual and ecologically significant, though to be honest not much to look at. 

That's your lot for excitement, though, the tedious tail to the walk then materialises, just slightly later than expected, and you have to slog the last two slightly uphill miles along a road.

I can't honestly say I'd recommend this route to anyone but tedious hill-bagging completists and those of an obsessively misanthropic nature - after leaving the car park where there were a couple of guys in an army Land Rover doing mysterious army shit involving shouting into a radio a lot the next time I saw a human being was at around six miles in when I caught a glimpse of the top half of a farmer from about fifty yards away. I then passed within hello-ing distance of a young couple and an elderly lady and her dog while walking through the woods, but that was about it. I enjoyed myself, but I am aware that I find enjoyment in a whole variety of perverse activities that many would find unpalatable.

As an exercise in assessing boot comfort and ankle recovery it was pretty effective, though: marshy tussocky terrain like this is murder on the ankles even when they aren't injured. Twenty-four hours later I would describe my ankle as a bit sore, but not cripplingly so. We'll see what a shorter but steeper (and hopefully drier) walk on Friday does to it.

Route map (start at the green flag thingy in the top left corner and proceed anticlockwise) and altitude profile are below: the altitude profile illustrates how this is very much a walk of two contrasting halves. Note that the starting altitude (calculated by my phone's GPS) and, as a consequence, all the other altitudes, are about fifty metres too high.

I also took a few photos, which can be found here

Monday, October 18, 2021

maybe a reboot will fix it

One thing you can certainly say about me, in addition to all the less palatable stuff about being fat, bald and malodorous, is that I am not some sort of fickle fly-by-night flibbertigibbet when it comes to owning walking boots. This is partly because I am as tight as a gnat's chuff: walking boots are expensive and I want to be sure that when I purchase a pair they're going to last a while. Obviously I want them to be comfortable as well and that generally requires some outlay of cash, since in general you broadly get what you pay for, so there's a middle ground to be found between super-comfortable boots of solid gold that cost a gazillion quid and dirt-cheap boots that grind your toes off and leak like a sieve.

Leaking like a sieve, as it happens, is the thing that usually indicates that it's time to buy a new pair of boots, rather than anything absurdly dramatic like the soles falling off. And, just as the early-2007 Dartmoor trip finished off the old Berghauses, so it was for my 14-year-old pair of Salomon boots, under suspicion for a while for no longer being everything one might wish for in the waterproofing department and finally caught bang to rights during our soggy trip up the Blorenge in February, the second half of which was a fairly miserable cold squelchy experience.

As those of you who keep up with my insane ramblings on Twitter will know (it's mentioned in the Blorenge post as well), I've been suffering from quite painful ankle tendinitis for most of 2021 which has restricted my activities in the walking and running departments. Now that a proper full recovery finally seems to be in sight and I am under strict orders from the podiatrist and physiotherapist to go out and challenge myself with some exercise, my mind has turned to walking activity (I've already got back to the parkrun with Nia a couple of times) and I don't really want wet feet again. So we went over to Go Outdoors in Cardiff and I bought a new pair of boots. I've gone back to old-school leather Berghaus boots, partly because they were exceptionally comfortable and partly because this pair were on sale for 60 quid off.

As I said when I bought the last pair, the old Berghauses were probably the best part of 20 years old, and the Salomons lasted 14 years, so I have basically had two pairs of boots for the entirety of my adult life. Will the new pair see me into my grave, or at least into the twilight of my mountain walking career? We shall see.

Friday, October 15, 2021

cushlebrity woofylikey of the day

Come with me, if you will, as we continue our magical journey into the ever more esoteric realms of Things That Sort Of Look A Bit Like Each Other. We've done people, obviously, but also trees, religious buildings, cuddly toys, large Arctic islands, cartoon rabbits and tubes of tablets. In that vein, here's a cushion my wife bought the other day. It's fun and funky as an ornament but not actually very comfortable to lean on as it's rather tickly. Furthermore I was immediately struck by its resemblance to one of those dreadlocked Hungarian Puli dogs that look like some sort of high-maintenance grooming nightmare. I suspect if you took one of those, ripped its head and legs off (you might want to put an old sheet or some newspaper down first), disembowelled it and then stuffed it you would arrive at something that was a) more comfortable to lean on, b) cheaper to feed and c) quieter. 
On the other hand the RSPCA might be popping round for a word.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

the last book I read

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte.

Hardest game in the world, the old art restoration game. I mean, you want to avoid the obvious atrocities like this, but there are more subtle and tricky considerations to grapple with. Can we get the layer of dirty and darkened varnish off, and maybe replace it with a new protective layer, without damaging the paint? If the artist himself made repairs at a later date, are they to be preserved, or removed in search of the pristine "original" work? What does that even mean? What do words, in general, even mean? Does anybody really love anybody anyway

Fortunately experienced and competent art restorers exist, like for instance Julia, who, as we meet her here in Madrid, has just acquired an interesting work to spruce up: The Game of Chess, a 15th-century work by Flemish artist Pieter Van Huys. Not just interesting in its subject matter - two Flemish gentlemen playing chess, based on real people, one of whom, intriguingly, had been dead for two years at the time the painting was done - but also because of what Julia finds when she gets the painting X-rayed (presumably part of the standard pre-restoration assessment process) and receives the results. Those results show that near the bottom of the painting, concealed by a subsequent layer of paint, are some words. Those words are "Quis necavit equitem?", or "Who killed the knight?".

You'll be ahead of me here, so: obviously a knight is a chess piece, and indeed one of the players has a white knight in his hand which he has evidently just taken from the board. But there is more, as there always is, in books longer than about half-a-dozen pages anyway: the player using the black pieces, Roger de Arras, is also "a knight" (the other guy is a nobleman of some sort) and, as we already know, had died a couple of years before the painting was created, after a brief but unpleasant argument with a crossbow bolt on a castle battlement. So does the inscription provide a clue to finding Roger's killer?

Julia and her old friend and art collector César engage the services of a local chess prodigy, Muñoz, to try and retrace the course of the chess game up to the climactic point captured in the painting, and of art historian (and, just to complicate things slightly, her ex-lover) Álvaro to dig into the painting's history and that of the people portrayed within it (the two men already mentioned plus the nobleman's wife, sitting demurely at a window watching the progress of the chess match). No sooner have they done this than Álvaro turns up dead in his shower, apparently having slipped and accidentally viciously bashed the back of his head in on the edge of the bath. Shortly afterwards Julia receives a small card, left by the entrance to her apartment, which contains some possible chess moves for extending the game portrayed in the painting. Is this some sort of coded warning to Julia? Is Álvaro's death connected? Is some chess-obsessed serial killer about to go on a rampage? But who? And why?

One possible motive might be to establish some public notoriety around the painting and thereby push up its value, in which case there are a few possible suspects: the painting's owner, Don Manuel Belmonte, his daughter Lola, Julia's friend and art dealer Menchu, her toy-boy lover Max, and oily auctioneer Paco Montegrifo. Menchu takes herself out of the running early doors by being murdered, and further cards containing further chess moves continue to arrive, with Muñoz keeping track of the current game position and developing a healthy respect for his adversary's chess skills (though not so much his penchant for actual murder). Hardest game in the world, the old chess game

Eventually Muñoz manages to work out the identity of the serial-killing chess enthusiast, and it turns out to be someone we already know, who unexpectedly turns out to have a chess-playing past, ended by the chastening experience of losing to a lesser player. Lying dormant for many years, the chess-playing bug (and associated killing frenzy) was rekindled by exposure to The Game of Chess

None of this really makes any sense, of course, but the same can be said for most detective novels. And while the unravelling of the mystery here is a lot of fun (even if, as usual with these things, the revelation doesn't really live up to the build-up), the main enjoyment comes from the associated detail about art and the analysis of the chess moves, both leading up to and following the capture of the white knight portrayed in the painting. It's the second book in this series to feature chess as a major plot point, The Queen's Gambit being the other. Art and painting also feature prominently, and I'd have had to look up some of the technical terms like craquelure if I hadn't already encountered them in What's Bred In The Bone

The Flanders Panel was made into a film called Uncovered in 1994, starring the lovely Kate Beckinsale as Julia. The linked trailer provides just the suggestion of some sexy sexy times that were absent from the book (it also seems to have relocated it to Barcelona). Despite the disappointingly low sexy sexy times quotient in the book I enjoyed it greatly; like The Queen's Gambit it's perhaps debatable how enjoyable you would find it if you had no chess background whatsoever. I'm trying to imagine how enjoyable I would find a book whose plot revolved around, I dunno, go or halma or something. 

Monday, October 04, 2021

the last book I read

Eternity by Greg Bear.

Strap yourselves into your ergonomically-moulded space-chair-o-pod, take a slurp of your rehydrated Soylent Green and let's recap at near-relativistic speed the events of Eon, to which Eternity is a sequel: at some point in the early 21st century, Russia and the USA are on the brink of nuclear war. As if to distract everyone's attention, a huge asteroid suddenly materialises in orbit around Earth and everyone falls over each other to get an expedition out to it. When they arrive they discover that it is hollow, clearly previously inhabited but now empty, and that the last of its seven internal chambers contains a gateway to a long, tubular mini-universe that appears to be of infinite length. Eventually it becomes clear that this object is from the future of our universe, or maybe just one of many possible futures. But where has everyone gone?

Down the tube, it turns out, via some conveniently hand-wavey science that allows large city-sized craft to travel at enormous speed down it with minimal energy expenditure, while the laws of thermodynamics light up a cigar and look the other way. Gateways can also be opened along what people come to call the Way, leading to other parts of the universe, or maybe other universes, or maybe just varied possible future versions of the same universe. But gateways are two-way things and a ruthless alien force, the Jarts, gain entry to the Way and really go to town fucking everyone's shit up, including opening a gateway into the heart of a star. To avoid everyone being incinerated by a nasty miasma of incandescent plasma, one party of current and future humans fires off down the tube at gargantuan speed to who knows where while the rest retreat back to the asteroid and sever the connection with the Way. 

And so here we are. As Eternity starts several plot strands featuring major characters from the previous book are picked up, including maverick physics whiz-kid Patricia Vasquez, escaping from the Way through a gateway to what she hoped was Earth but turned out to be a diverged future Earth where Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age and his Macedonian culture continued to dominate. With no way (or indeed Way) back to her own world she lives to a ripely irascible old age, passing on some previously-unknown technology to the inhabitants and in particular a love of science and general feistiness to her granddaughter Rhita.

Meanwhile administrator and general voice of reason Garry Lanier is down on the real Earth overseeing aspects of its recovery after the continent-scouring nuclear war that occurred in the first book. Lots of this takes place in New Zealand, presumably because this escaped being a fiery radioactive hellscape, unlike the northern hemisphere continents. On taking a break from the old administering and going for a nature hike one day Lanier is somewhat startled to meet Pavel Mirsky, a former colleague who had been in the party that scooted off down the Way in the opposite direction at the end of the first book and whose presence here is therefore Literally Impossible. So, Pavel, where have you been? Well, Garry, I'm glad you asked - I've been to the End Of Time Itself and I have now returned to tell you about it. I may have to summarise some sections.

Meanwhile Olmy, agent of the Hexamon (the future-human civilisation that the current humans encountered down the Way) is on the asteroid (generally known as Thistledown) doing some strictly unauthorised research into a captured Jart whose body and backed-up mental state are stored in a top-secret vault in one of the chambers (backing up mental states to external storage for reconstitution into other bodies being a totally commonplace thing). Since everyone who had plugged themselves into the downloaded Jart mind-state so far has died, Olmy constructs an elaborate series of failsafes before downloading it into an implant in his own brain. But, you know, we can all see what's going to happen there.

Rhita Vaskayza (according to the spelling of Gaia, her alternative future Earth) has grown up into an inquisitive young woman to whom her now-deceased grandmother has bequeathed a lot of mysterious science-y artefacts. Rhita uses these to locate an active gateway into the Way at a distant location in "Nordic Rhus" (probably Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan) and gets permission to get an expedition together to try and find it. But, again, gateways allow entry and exit, and no sooner has Rhita located the gateway and opened it than a swarm of Jarts appears. Nice planet: we'll take it! Rhita and her expedition are taken through the gateway, extensively probed and hooked up to the Jart mind-grid for further observation.

Meanwhile, Pavel Mirsky has a message from [echoey voice] Beyond Time for the humans on Earth and on Thistledown: the Way must be destroyed. As magnificent a testament to human ingenuity as it is, it turns out to be like a tapeworm in the belly of the universe which will prevent some mysterious transcendent end-of-2001 shit from happening gazillions of years into the future. There are factions who have been campaigning for the re-opening of the Way anyway so this bit is agreed to, but once this is done and a hostile (presumably Jart) energy beam zaps out and kills a few people the second part (i.e. initiating the Way's destruction) is quickly agreed to as well.

Olmy's Jart, who has, wholly predictably, taken over all his key brain functions and is basically driving him around like a freakin' go-kart, proves an unexpected ally here, fashioning a hey-don't-shoot message for transmission down the Way to prevent further unpleasantness. Eventually the protagonists have to make the same sort of choices as at the end of the first book: retreat to Earth to live out their lives, take a gateway to another world, or try to outrun the wave of destruction down the Way to the end of time itself.

There are some books, including a few on this list (The Ionian Mission would be an obvious example, as I suppose would Tears Of The Giraffe and Mortal Causes), which are strictly part of a series but where it's not essential to have read all a particular book's predecessors before picking it up. Not so here, as I can't see how any of this would be comprehensible without having first read Eon. I did that in the late-1980s and bought this book immediately afterwards, before unexpectedly then leaving it over 30 years before reading it. To be honest a slightly shorter gap between the books might be better, just to have the events of Eon a bit fresher in the mind. 

One obvious advantage of a sequel to a gnarly hard sci-fi book is that you can skip some of the more substantial chunks of world-building exposition that bogged down some of Eon and just launch straight into the story in an already-built universe. In that sense Eternity is a more exciting, event-filled book than Eon, each of the several parallel strands having plenty to keep the reader interested.

One of the odd things about Eternity is how similar some aspects of it are to the work of Iain M Banks - there's the enthusiasm for planetary-scale engineering, but also some of the concepts around longevity-enhancement by constantly backing-up your mind-state and re-loading it into a series of youthful physical substrates. This also provides a means of ensuring your continued survival should you unexpectedly be killed falling off an asteroid or being cut in half by a space laser. The concept of "subliming" that features in some of the Culture novels sounds quite close to what Pavel Mirsky undergoes here as well. And the series of occasionally nightmarish simulations that Rhita's uploaded consciousness is subjected to by the Jarts is not dissimilar to the Hells from Surface Detail. The Jarts themselves are a bit like the Borg, existing only to joylessly assimilate other planets and secure their knowledge for some ill-defined perfected future version of themselves. Jart for Jart's sake, you might say.

The obvious other point of comparison is with Olaf Stapledon for attempting to encompass the entirety of space and time in a single book. Bear does at least slow down enough to feature some named characters and even make us care about them, a bit. On that subject, what purpose is served by having the Way's principal engineer, Konrad Korzenowski, carry the same name as Joseph Conrad I am not sure, but it can't be a coincidence. It's doubly hard to know whether the omission of the "i" from "Korzeniowski" was intentional, because my copy of Eternity is one of the most poorly-proofread books (from an actual non-vanity publisher, anyway) I've ever read. Subsequent editions may have ironed out some of the wrinkles but there are lot of mistakes and misspellings here (examples below). I recall mentioning the same thing with The Falls back in the early days of this blog; the situation here is, if anything, worse. 

Despite that, and despite lukewarm reviews in some quarters I really enjoyed this; my ongoing quest to read all the Culture novels aside, hard sci-fi is a genre I rarely dabble with so it's fun to dip a toe in occasionally. There is a third book in the series, Legacy, but this appears to be a loosely-linked prequel (to the extent that these terms have any meaning with all the looping time-travel going on) so I suspect this is where I'll leave it.