Great Wall Trek Diary for Tuesday 13th November 2001

This is my diary for Tuesday 13th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

Tuesday 13th November – final day, returning to UK

Boo, it’s over.

2023 UTC. Nightmare journey. Or maybe just tired and depressed.

Breakfasted early as I’d had an early night last night. Finish packing and wake Llew – who singularly did not have an early night last night. Hand in key. Polava, fuss and nonsense, as you’d expect with a crowd of seventy people all checking out.

Get on bus; go. Oh yeah – it snowed. Anthony summarises the week for us – bless. Pass USSR & Canadaian embassies. Running late.

Arrive at the airport, and head with Jack, one of the Chinese guides, to Lost Property to claim tripod. Show them the form we got on the way in, and get waved inside; gloriously, they don’t know which shelf it’s on, i.e. MY LOST PROPERTY IS LOST IN LOST PROPERTY! Anyway, find it and sign for it. The zip on the bag is broken; bah. There’s no good reason for that.

Find and rejoin main group, queueing at luggage check-in in queues which don’t move. After a while, Eric magically moves us to another, and progress is made. I don’t know the weight of my luggage but I’m not charged any excess – as predicted by Julie. Then we queue for security – Tony has tiny scissors and thus everything of his is searched; fail. My bic biro sets off the metail detector, but I escape the full cavity treatment.

Not much time before boarding so a quick rush into the shop for last-minute presents, then on we go, er, onto a bus. Then onto plane. Very pushy Chinese guy – de rigeur. Seated in the middle column of the plane, towards the back. Then, oooh how pleasant, a two-hour wait for some latecomers! Joy! Just what you want before an eleven-hour flight, eh?

Flight is generally tiring and depressing (and knee-hurting). Food not great (chicken and rice, beef and rice) though nut allergy people (i.e. Julie) get fucking steak. [Protip!] Have a bit of a snooze but uncomfortable as not by a window so nothing to lean against. [Amateur.] Films shite again. On the other hand, start reading “A Mad World, My Masters” by John Simpson – excellent, must buy it. All in all though, my worst flight yet, alas. Probably mainly down about returning to reality – just want to trek.

Land at Heathrow at 1630 UTC. People fucking standing on walkways! Stand on the right if you want to stand! Clear immigration, then to baggage collection – should be interesting. Takes a while but both rucksack and tripod arrive together – woo hoo. Sit on trolley while waiting for other people getting the coach back to the National Star Centre and beyond.

Non-bus people start leaving – argh. There go Rich and Ollie. There goes Emma. There goes Becca. There go Mavis and Alison. There they go… So sad! Will I ever see these people again? [For most of them, no; I saw a few a couple of times over the next six months of so but then that was that. I miss them, and for some of them I miss getting to know them at all.]

Neil, a bus person, has lost his luggage, and the decision is made to leave without it – very nice of him not to make all us very tired people wait longer. We clear customs without me noticing it. Then onto the bus, on which I sleep until Ullenswood, when I see the gates of Star College for the first time – but no more.

Farewells to all, especially Pete, Laura, Julie and Gill – total star. Anita, Jan, etc. Then Llew gives me a lift to the station, where I’m writing this. Should be home at 2245. Have phoned Mum & Julie, will talk more to them tomorrow. Really sad/depressed it’s over. This was the best thing I’ve ever done. End.

[So that's that. It really was the best thing I'd ever done in my life at that point, and I realised with something of a jolt that I should be doing more with my life, that something or some things needed to change. For one thing, I realised just how much I actually liked doing stuff outside - walking, etc. And also, just, life is short and you need to do things you care about; within a year of the trek I'd quit my unfulfilling job programming for a company which didn't care about anything except the bottom line, and got a job teaching at Swansea University, with more control over my hours, and the prospect of doing some research and one day doing a PhD - which I'm now a year from completing. I'm sad to say that the trek also brought my relationship with Julie to an end, though not immediately as there was a lot of momentum there and I had a lot of fear to overcome. I'm still no intrepid traveller, and haven't been adventuring overseas at all really, though I did go back to China for a week in 2005 with my job. So I've still got a long way to go, but I'll always remember the trek as a major waypoint on that journey, and one of the best times of my life.]


Great Wall Trek Diary for Monday 12th November 2001

This is my diary for Monday 12th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

Monday 12th November – second day in Beijing

[It seems I'm definitely running out steam by this point...]

[Pictured here, the "fake fireworks" mentioned earlier... They're animated neon at night.]

Spiky things!

Last full day. Get up and go to breakfast but feel like a pig shat in my head (as the saying goes [it's a Waitnail & I quote]) so back to bed. Others going to Lama Temple but my way is better. [Nonsense. A prime example of regretting something you didn't do. I should have gone.] Decide on a lazy day, basically - tomorrow’s gonna be hard. [I.e. the return journey.] Get up lunchtime and shower, go looking for company. Others back about now, Llew shows me Lama Temple postcard - looks impressive but I’m all touristed out. In lobby, Julie changing money and Rich/Ollie off to Pizza Hut, just up road. Have to send postcards so spend 15 minutes licking 24 huge stamps [hahaha - errr?], then follow them up there. Oh wow – it’s pizza! Have my first Edge, excellent. Er, Chicken Delight, if I recall correctly. [Looking back, ten years on, I can only congratulate myself for recording this fascinating detail, which more than makes up for the lack of any memories of the Lama Temple, say] Crazy waitresses. [No idea why.]


Very cold outside, and rather grey. Bloke doing Tai Chi Chuan. [I think, in fact, Julie and I went to a nearby park-ish bit (I remember a small lake) where several people were doing so - but it was quite grey and miserable.] Can’t face packing yet so to bar, where Becca and Laura waiting. Pete buys me a beer, Ollie arrives from cold sauna – something for him to write about I guess. Feeling OK, but really don’t want to pack as implies acknowledgement of impending return to reality. Do so anyway, in a mad rush before dinner (which is at the hotel again). Pretty good meal, though air hot, chips cold, and waitresses intrusive (SIT THE FUCK DOWN! [Hahaha. I suppose this is what we thought they were thinking, given their actions...? No idea really.]) Not drinking much, gonna make it an early night. It’s all fairly subdued, really. Ice cream!

Back in bar, some people (notably Kim – bouncing off walles) are making the most of the last night – and of course the stalwarts are there – but many also subdued like me. Chat with Becca and Laura, then Anita. But ready to crash at midnight so do. Laura spilt my whisky! Llew rolls in late (0430?), turns light on, spends an hour undressing, etc. Bless him, he’s a trooper.

All in all, a nice gentle day.

With the lovely Hat

Great Wall Trek Diary for Sunday 11th November 2001

This is my diary for Sunday 11th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

The photos for this day are here.

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

Sunday 11th November – first day in Beijing

The best breakfast yet, but a nasty head accompanying. To Tiananmen Square – very cool! Get to do the touristy thing of following a yellow flag about the place! Eric [Chinese guide] telling us about the place: the Great Hall of the People (i.e. parliament), Mao’s Mausoleum, the National Museum of China, and of course the Forbidden City – where we’re heading in a sec. Would have loved to have seen the mausoleum and the museum, though the latter in particular is colossal… Lots of people, including two soldiers, the tallest Chinese people I’ve ever seen.

Monument to the Peoples' Heroes Andy hangin' tough at Tiananmen Square Museums of Chinese History and Chinese Revolution The People, mid-Revolution (part two). Wow, those guys are tall!

Frantic photos with Louisa, then head towards the Forbidden City. Go through an underpass under the road. Pass under the big picture of Chairman Mao and through the Tiananmen Gate. Roger Moore! [Er, what? I'm pretty sure he wasn't actually there, so presumably this refers either to an animatronic or a recording of his voice...?] Hawkers, tourists and courtyards, oh my! Lots more soldiers. Flags. Then through the Duanmen and Meridian Gates and we’re actually in the Forbidden City proper. Little girl hawker with Steve: mamiya! [Hahaha. Can't quite remember, but I think maybe he tried to talk to her or something, and she ran off calling for her mum?] Lions (male with ball, female with cub), urns, gold plate, stripped. [Urns had their gold plate stripped from them for the money, I guess...?]

Chairman Mao's picture above the Tiananmen Gate Red flags over Tiananmen Square. 017_14a 019_16a

Then through the Gate of Supreme Harmony, across the Harmony Square to the Hall of Supreme Harmony at last! Woo, Last Emperor stylee… Chinese bloke engages me in conversation. [No memory.] On through, Dowager Empress area, tripod frustration [I guess it was dimly lit and I wanted to do a long exposure.]. Imperial Gardens – very nice, but can’t hang around for long. “Loving Couple” trees [a pine and a cypress interlocked; I think this is a picture of them, from here] – awww. Into shop, a la Friendship Store. Nearly accidentally buy a banner. [Er?] Do buy some calligraphy. Shopping with Emma, she’s a dog. [Errr? Oh, I guess her Chinese sign?] Paperweight painting. Josie looking at horse prints - wow, Y500? About 43 quid – I’ll get it. But gotta go! Hurry, and get it for Y400 – but with debit card so real cost maybe much higher? [No idea.] Which way did the group go!? Left or right? Aha, there’s Eric!

020_17a 022_19a 024_21a Something metal Unsmiling Gimbo 030_27a 034_31a

Back to bus, then to Silk Alley, spat out in hawker/taxi central. Walk past Austrian and Cuban embassies to Silk Alley – bloody busy/insane. T-junction, turn left – looking for Pizza Hut. Dead end, turn back, fight through to other end. Micky D’s [i.e. McDonald's] to left, no sign of Pizza Hut. MD it is! Er, how do we order? Lady w/ pad – phew! Five Big Mac Meals and one veggie, please! Big Mac Meal costs Y173, i.e about 1.70 – mental. I’m no fan of McDonald’s but this was very welcome – no rice, no egg, no nuts, and the chips are hot! Strange experience anyway. By the way, with Becca, Laura, Jan, Emma, Julie. More trekkers appear everywhere, including Anthony with spicy chicken burger of renown. Emma’s contact lens adventure. [I guess it came out?]

OK, time to hit the shops! Aaaargh! Mental! Girls looking for dresses for tonight’s big meal, me looking for a shirt (aikdio trousers will do for legs). First dress purchase is Y320 haggled down to Y55, I believe – very good going! I get a shirt when I see one I like, it’s pretty plain. Y280 down to Y75, but I can’t haggle like Becca. Julie wants a yellow dress, which of course nobody sells. Trust a Julie to be awkward. [Hahaha. My girlfriend at the time was called Julie. Somebody once joked that as my Julie couldn't come to China, the organisers had been kind enough to supply me with one. Oh, how we laughed.] She gets a black one in the end – the earlier haggling paid off as get same price automatically. She and Laura try to get 5 more knocked off it but it’s not happening. Jan looking for a bag. Julie and I get taxi back to hotel (using card with address on it) – hairy! Looked for colour and meter. [I.e. to identify a legit taxi rather than one which would have resulted in our being sold into slavery, presumably.]

Sit in hotel lobby writing twelve postcards; takes fucking ages. [To this day I find writing postcards a terrible chore which takes an inordinately long time.] Then look for phone to call home, jog to another hotel as our payphone is not doing international. No reply! 0930 on Sunday morning at home - get up you lazy gits! Maybe they’re at church… Have to get back, late, no time to shower before dinner, so just change and get to coach (6pm).

Go to famous Peking duck restaurant, Anthony gets nasty response when explaining how it’s produced [presumably because part of the process involves force-feeding the ducks, though not to the extent employed for fois gras, apparently] – but all these people will eat it an hour later. The restaurant is big – really big, multiple floors, multiple rooms. Pictures of famous diners include Ted Heath, Fidel Castro, George Bush, etc. [This list strongly suggests that the restaurant was Qianmen Quanjude, est. 1864.] Seating confusion puts me on a table with people I don’t know too well, but of course they’re great people – just would have been more of a laugh if we’d all been together – this is the big night. Superb jasmine tea [first time I'd had it; love it to this day]. Meal excellent, best of week, and duck is great fun and delicious (duck sliced at table, pancake, scallion, sweet/salty sauce - yum). Toffee apple chopstick woman. [Hahaha. Something to do with the dessert. See photo below.] Speeches by Anthony and others, then William Lindesay [the first foreigner to walk the entire length of the wall, and the guy who was to present us with our certificates] – cool guy – then presentation of certificates, then votes of thanks. Then, like a big jessie, I burst into tears. The idea of not seeing these people any more really got to me. Awww. Gill and Emma console (well, Gill consoles, Emma listens). Buy the t-shirt. Then out to get bus back.

Choppy choppy duck duck Are those things toffee apples? Andy & Will, take two The Beijing Babes Under the hat

Liveliest night yet in bar – though most people have changed their clothes (oh yeah - girls all had to swap dresses because they didn’t fit!) Really cool night, everyone on great form and I’m feeling less emotional about the whole thing. Talk with Harry about cool places to go, and about Eric Shipton (he recommends I read The Six Mountain Travel Books [though as it turns out I prefer Bill Tilman's writing, on balance]) I tell him about Shipton’s Arch and promise to send him the National Geographic article I’d recently read about it), and got his card – fantastic. [The following year a bunch of the trekkers went with Harry to Nepal, a trip I had been very enthusiastic about but which I pulled out of for personal reasons, to my continuing regret. Always remember the words of The Butthole Surfers or, if you prefer, Orbital.] Collect addresses (and lipsmacks!) at back of this book. Buy a 30 quid round. Talk with Harriet about life and priorities – she’s a top lass. Talk with Ollie about his work, and discover a shared love for Withnail and I. Talk codshit with various people. Ace. Bed at about 3AM, apparently. A good night.

Diary Lips!

Great Wall Trek Diary for Saturday 10th November 2001

This is my diary for Saturday 10th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

The photos for this day are here.

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

Saturday 10th November – fifth and final day of wall walking; Juyongguan

[One thing to note: that I wrote all of this a couple of days later, rather than at the time - so it's a bit curtailed and lacking in detail compared to earlier days. In fact, I really didn't appear to have much to say about this day, sadly...]

Last walking day! Juyongguan (“Middle Pass”). Really, really touristy, especially at start, up 1600 steps. Big group shot first.

70 of the best

Definitely the nastiest piece of wall we’ve seen, but only because of the setting – very urban, road running right through it, hotel in middle, etc. Also too many people! Hah, we’re such snobs! Lots of locks and ribbons attached to wall on the way up…

Pretty! Urbanism 032_29 038_35 Someone didn't get enough sleep last night

The wall is a ring here. Can see more wall in distance from top - apparently that’s Badaling [the most popular section of wall for tourists], though I didn’t realise this at the time. Several extra temples on the way, but I missed them – boo; Becca & Emma did them though. Walk down is long and in places very steep - excellent. Julie’s knees fine now, while mine are starting to twinge a bit!

003_0a At the top, looking down at the second half. 006_3a A pretty bit I missed going to Near bottom of first half Cute dragons!

Half-way round, cross road past buildings. Slightly hard but short climb up the other side but then easy undulating going, very quiet apart from some Americans (SHUT UP!) [hahaha - standard] and background traffic.

013_10a 014_11a Looking back at the first half Kawai! Gimboooo Nearly finished!

Then, suddenly it’s over. Off the wall and back up to the crowded car park for congratulations and lunch. (At least there’s chicken!) Sad, innit? Hang around, go in shop (Cathy & Gill buying thing), photo & annoying bloke [no idea what the problem was; I forgive you, annoying bloke!], then time to go.

Bottoming out Cultural sensitivity 026_23a Me and Llew

Now to Beijing proper, to Exhibition Centre Hotel. Beijing very busy, much construction, strange spiky things – what are they!? [Artifical fireworks - see photo below] Room 437. Shower! Meal nearby, food very good, though dead fish in tank (and live ones) [yum]. Bit of speech from Anthony (re Star Centre and trek), then awards, then silly awards (me and Louisa: Most Boring Conversation – hurrah! [ie about photography, cameras, focus length, exposure times, ISO settings, film choices, etc. etc. etc.]), then cabaret. Hugh and Bob started (The Teutonic Trekkers – German shower-cap-wearing walkers); Anita sang Summer Time; Jessie and Edith sang Sisters and some other songs; Richard sang something short but very good; Becca (not the hat) did a Pam Ayres style poem about the trek, really good, probably the best thing here; Chink In Wall sketch, very hammy! [no idea]; The Five Degrees (Neil, Sue, Jill, Chris, Trudi), but could only really hear Jill. My raindrop impression! [Hahaha. This.] Finish with Steve, Mavis, Ali, Jenny, Laura singing “Congratulations”.

Dinner in Beijing Meet the team The teutonic trekkers

Then out we go (beer w/ Hugh episode [no idea]) to bar for proper drink. Drinking til after 0200, according to Becca. Much tomfoolery!

Um... What's going on here? Ice, ice, baby... Put yer feet up and tell us all about it

Great Wall Trek Diary for Friday 9th November 2001

This is my diary for Friday 9th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

The photos for this day are here.

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

Friday 9th November – fourth day of wall walking; Huanghuacheng

[One thing to note: that I wrote all of this a couple of days later, rather than at the time - so it's a bit curtailed and lacking in detail compared to earlier days. Sorry about that - I was having too much fun. :-) ]

Lake at Huanghuacheng The Gathering

“Wild wall day”, at Huanghuacheng. Leave hotel and walk by lake to dam, then cross dam and head up, up, up. Helping Lola for most of the morning. The wall here is very cool, but it’s slow going, so no exertion, which is a shame. There’s an extra bit to look forward to, just for the adventurous (like with Simatai).

The morning's wall 034_31 038_35 Gimbo! 004_1a

Argh! We’re not doing it! Stopped at the decision point, can see this fantastic wonderfully crumbly looking downhill section, which Harry/others go to check out, but the verdict is no, too dodgy to let any of us do it. Absolutely gutted, looking at this beautiful and fun looking chunk of wall, watching through borrowed binoculars as Eric [one of the local guides] & Dr Xing [the local doctor] work their way down it. Sigh. Waiting in the sun is very pleasant, mind.

Decision point 014_11a Welcome break The Forbidden Zone 018_15a

Set off down through orchards, single file, very slow going. Hey, we’ve got split up! Does this path even exist? Helping Jess or Edith down, me with one, Llew with the other. Lots of scratchy twigs. Very hot day. Arrive at bottom same time as other party, wherever they went. Talk with Anita/Cathy/Harriet about trekking, careers, etc. as we walk back to/through the village. Lunch in car park in sun. Food same as usual, getting very boring now. Amusing debrief for afternoon - Anita stood on chair talking, Anthony’s arms waving around in place of her own…

Heading down Heading down 025_22a 028_25a Hohoho

Split into two groups for the afternoon: some lounging around, others going up the other side of the wall by the dam. Obviously I’m in the walking group. Good hard steep climb up a path and onto the wall, but slow going again, at least until we spread out a bit. I pair up with Julie on the way up, and walk with her for the rest of the day - indeed, the rest of the week, really. She’s still worried about her knee but it’s not too bad on the way down. The walk is very enjoyable - not terribly strenuous but wild enough to be exciting. Slightly icy. Fall on arse – hurrah! Cut right arm and draw blood – hurrah! Medical adviser reckons I’ll live, however.

Afternoon starts 039_36a Lake and Hotel Harriet and Cathy Gimbo 011_8 014_11

Harry waiting at bottom of one stretch, the wall continues but we have to go off it to the left, down and around the hill, and through the village. It’s really lovely, very rural indeed. But are we going the right way? Go back & wait for others, Antony points out scrawled arrow on ground, how were we supposed to see that!?

017_14 018_15 020_17 Julie and me 024_21 026_23

Back to hotel for 1600, sit outside, get on coaches then off we go. Slightly disappointed with day – not enough walking and sad to have missed that awesome looking section of wall. Trip to next hotel takes about an hour, taking us into a much more urban area – really getting into Beijing proper now. Fantastic sunset – multiple rows of hills. Ming tombs. Lake. Fun park. Hotel in built-up area, not particularly pretty from outside but room is good (if small). Phone Mum & Dad briefly.

Dinner at a Friendship Store (not the main Beijing one, I think), food not bad not brilliant. Downstairs bar, quiet and hard work. [No idea what I meant by "hard work" here? Hard work to get served, maybe...?] Did a bit of shopping – huge store – Julie gets silk for dress. Everything very expensive, a lot of tat and a lot of quality. Hey, there’s an upstairs bar! Two vodka and cokes! It’s not beer!!! Huge, 720yuan. Wyn spent 2500 pounds! [Not on vodka. Not solely on vodka, anyway.] Back to hotel. Postcards From The Edge! [Er? Was it on TV? Did we watch it? Or is this code for me writing postcards; I don't think I did, yet...] Abortive karaoke attempt, then freeform bowling – either suck or excel. Little socks! [They made us wear some for bowling, perhaps?] Peter never bowled before but strikes-a-rooney! (0130). Up drinking til about 0230.

Friendship Store bar With Bek the Hat, bowling at the hotel near the Friendship Store

Colin’s birthday! [My brother.]

“Build New Beijing, Hold Great Olympics!” [Saw this (and similar) all over the place. At the time I was very impressed that they were getting for the 2008 Olympics all the way back in 2001; now I'm older and wiser, of course, it just seems eminently sensible. Still, one thing that constantly struck me about China - and again when I went back in 2005 - was that there was building activity virtually everywhere you looked, particularly in Beijing.]

Great Wall Trek Diary for Thursday 8th November 2001

This is my diary for Thursday 8th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

The photos for this day are here.

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

Thursday 8th November – third day of wall walking; Mutianyu

Wake w/ headache. Hangover? Not too bad but annoying. Get up, not too cold but no hot water (knew that) & can’t brush teeth as plug in sink won’t come out! Get dressed (walking shirts stink – should have brought more) & go to breakfast 0715, again not too bad, poached eggs - yum! (Hawkers outside already – poor bastards.) Angela comes in late (alarm didn’t wake her) so I sit with her & chat. She arrived last night (should have mentioned that), having had her purse w/ passport stolen at Manchester Piccadilly on Sunday. Terrible thing, but fantastic she made it. Raring to go, obviously.

0815 we’re leaving so to buses, then off to Mutianyu, about 1.5 hours. Alas, as journey progresses, headache gets worse (nurofen @ start) and travel sickness arrives (particularly near end – winding roads). Go through fairly urban area, don’t know name. Lousy journey really, feeling very bad at end – hope fresh air helps. Argh, need loo too. OK, get to bus park, do the necessary stuff, immediately feel infinitely better – hurrah! [Oh man, that was an experience I have no desire to repeat any time soon. Blessed relief but it was not pretty...] It’s hot, so dump stuff on bus & actually have a reasonable amount on me at start, which is nice.

Birdy num-num Climbing steps to Mutianyu wall

Much milling around. Two groups again: one going up in cable car, us going up steps. Through market. Steps leafy but boring, not too hard. At top, assailed by Mongol warrior. More wall, very restored! Chairlift toboggan down by here, so this is destination too. Off we go, paired up with Julie, her knees are playing up, OK up but painful down – poor thing. [Basically, she'd completely gunned it on the first day, and in particular had gone too fast on the big long steep down down down stretch at the end of the day; she'd spent day two laid up with painkillers and this was her first outing again. Silly thing in, she was a doctor: should have known better! Anyway, she and I got on very well, as of this day.] Going is OK, “undultating”, hawkers in fixed positions, which is OK. Stop for lunch @ cable car station [that means the path on my Google Earth KMZ is wrong - I'll try to correct it some time] (have met some of the other group), lunch is as we’d expect – plus cold chips. Mmmm, that’s nice. Really nice sat in sun, soaking up rays. Julie not continuing, will cable car down then shop.

The dragon snaking off into the distance, Mutianyu Luncheon is taken

Go on with rest of group, heading towards “the thousand steps” – about 20 mins to get there? Long, steep stretch, Anthony says “in one go”, but, er, no way! Well hard, but make it (last 10 steps even steeper) - and there’s a guy @ the top selling beer! There’s wild wall beyond, and a sign saying “road ends” or somesuch. Are we going there, I ask? No, says Anthony. Poop. All the same, it’s fantastic – brilliant views back over where we’ve been. Hang around for a while, top of the world, some French appear, a coat is blown off the wall, Harry goes to rescue it thinking it Hanmer’s, turns out it’s one of the French guys’. David & Neil appear last, and get beer from the hawker @ the top – cool.

The Thousand Steps Ascending the last bit of The Thousand Steps Top o' the world, ma!

“California Beef Noodle King USA!” — why did write this? [No idea!]

Anthony’s eyeing up the wild wall above, saying to Harry he fancies a crack at it. Harry’s staying. I say, you’re not going to let me go with you, are you? and he says come if you want. Oh yes! Louisa’s up for it too, so off we go. First bit is a scramble, almost a climb, fairly loose & great fun. Then it’s just steep, and very overgrown. It’s absolutely fantastic, we’re on wild wall! Keep going up, there are bricks, stick out @ 45 degrees, the real deal. Stop past first watchtower for photos (self-timer!) and general exhultation. However, time is getting on & we’re at the back of the group, so we have to put a yomp on to get back to the other end in time – want to get the toboggan down!

The dangerous road Me, Louisa, and Anthony on the Dangerous Road (1) Anthony and Louisa contemplating life on the Dangerous Road Anthony fighting his way back down the Dangerous Road Clambering back down to the Thousand Steps

Off we yomp, got to take it steady going down (whoah!) but we make really good time & catch Harry after about 4 towers. He’s got a rucksack someone left @ the top - think one of the French guys, and doesn’t want to leave it with Chinese police. Must ask him what happened. (Answer: “Air France, taxi, no thanks whatsoever.” [Hahaha - I presume there were more details to his explanation than that, but I'm buggered if I can remember what they are.]) Toboggan: Becca, Emma, Laura just departing as we arrive. Kim there, doesn’t want to do it, Anthony persuades. 40 yuan. A says “put the lever all the way forwards & ignore the people telling you to slow down”. OK, can deal w/ that. he goes first, then me. Wheeee… Bloody brilliant. I’ve been on a couple of these before but this is the longest by far. Unmissable. High fives at bottom. Long wait for Kim!

Louisa at the bottom of the Mutianyu Speedway Kim careering out of control Department of Propoganda for Prevent Fire

OK, now writing this on last day so time to slip into notes mode. Haven’t found time to write, I think because group & friendships have gelled, so no longer spending any time sitting around! Anyway…

Market/bartering at bottom, got some chopsticks. Coaches leave at 4 for Huanghuacheng. Longish drive, about 1.5 hours? Still pretty rural. Get to destination, first sight of hotel: wow! It’s modern! Also right by reservour. Go looking for photos but light gone (quickly). Hotel plush – definitely a hotel! Room is upstairs, v nice. Excellent. Catch up on this a bit, nice shower, etc. Dinner at 7, as usual in another building. There’s one guy who speaks English drafted in from somewhere else especially. Food better but not as much as might expect.

Good food... Great food, in fact!

Apres nosh, time for another game. Me elected team captain (bastards!). Three chairs, Anthony says stuff we have to take to chair, first one gets point. We suck badly – last w/ two points. Llew/Becca on winning side again – exultant! Chinese must think we’re barmy, but it gets worse… Steve drags Anita up to sing, then orange-napkin-on-head time. Kung-fu fighting!

The kung-fu conga Anita & Andy

“Charlotte Watson’s wanking in The Barracks!” [Heh. Her room-mate was Angela, who had only joined us this day due to theft as described above; this quote is Angela in England before she joined us, imagining her room-mate (of whom all she knew was her name) taking advantage of her unexpected solitude. :-)] Becca learnt lots of Chinese.

Next AM: grooo. [Read: hangover!]

It's a real hotel!

Great Wall Trek Diary for Wednesday 7th November 2001

This is my diary for Wednesday 7th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

The photos for this day are here.

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

I’ve also just uploaded a Google Earth file for the whole trip, with (approximate) hike routes plotted, which might be of interest to someone…

Wednesday 7th November – second day of wall walking; Simatai to Jinshanling

[This was a real rollercoaster of a day, in which I pushed myself (or to be more accurate, had no choice but to push myself) into and beyond physical discomfort and exhaustion in a way I never had before - and in doing so discovered just why it is that people do that. The wall was the best of the week, the countryside beautiful, the weather perfect, and the company marvellous. I'm sure I'll always look back on this day as one of the greatest of my life.]

My favourite photo from the whole trek

Another beautiful morning! Up @ 0630, get shit together, rucksack in coach @ 0715 then brekkie – coffee (warm hands!), apple, tomato, egg, doughnut, back to room to pick up bag (couple of photos w/ minipod), to coaches 0745. Don’t want to get on! [I didn't want to leave this place where yesterday had happened. Silly, given the day that lay ahead. I still struggle with letting go of good things...] Set off, up into mountains. Very windy, very barren, very rural – but lots of activity: people riding in open 3 wheelers, chopping crabapples, hefting bricks, etc. Flags/banners all over the place.

“The People of Xinglong County Wish You A Good Trip”. [A sign over the road that made me smile.]

Haven’t seen much wildlife: a few birds but mainly just domesticated animals: pigs, chickens, geese, goats, horses, camels. It’s very cold, I guess that’s why (birds migrated?). Good thing: no insects! (OK, 2 wasps and 1 beetle – but not bad!). Feeling very good this AM, things twinged slightly when squatted to get at rucksack shortly after getting up, and nose a bit blocked – have been neglecting nasal spray, must rectify [at the time I was taking a corticosteroid spray for rhinitis] – but other than that fine & raring to go. :-) My back feels completely fine – all praise to Allah. Lots of beeping (hey cows!), ie every time we want to pass anything. Quite a few dogs, mostly alsatianoid mongrels.

1710 Oh my God, what a day. I really don’t know how to describe how I feel, what I’ve done, where we’ve been. Incredible. I’ve just never done anything like that in my life (not even yesterday). But first it’s time for my first shower since Friday. Let’s go!

1755 Oh man, that was fantastic. The best shower I ever had in my life – and now the heating’s on! This room [in the hotel at Jinshanling, at the end of the walk] is so much better than the one at The Barracks – actually feels like a hotel, rather than, say, a tent with walls. I’m so exhausted, but I also feel absolutely fantastic – this must be why people get into exercise. There was a bit at the end today where I and Louisa were running along a bit of wall, giggling at the absurdity of it. Presumably by this point the pain barrier had been smashed to smithereens.

This morning was hell. But in a good way. Today’s walk was Simatai to Jinshanling, the hardest and most dangerous section we’re doing, but also the most “classical” and just generally groovy – or at least that’s what they’d said. They were not wrong – although of course three days to go. Well, anyway. Pre-walk through Samatai (Opera!), pretty naff, then split into two group: main group (turn left at wall), and crazy group, with me in it, turning right & going up a real fuckin’ steep bit to a high point, then coming back down & catching up with others (in theory). Estimated time: about 1.25 to 1.5 hours.

030_27a 035_32a

Two other things to note: it’s pretty warm but I’ve got both my coats because I’m sure Anthony said it’d be much colder today, so I’m heavily laden; and also, the hawkers. Huge crowd waiting at wall, hook onto us (one each) and follow. Real pains in the arse at first, but actually ended up quite appreciating them – guided way a couple of times, were encouraging, and said “Be careful” many many times; carried packs if desired (I didn’t), sold book at end (100 yuan - hmmm, let’s have a look at it – yeah, not bad – lots of pictures, basically).


OK, so anyway, the crazy group (about 10 of us) [later referred to as "The Simatai Suicide Squad" - photo below] storm through hawkers and start up RHS. V steep, hot, v fast – totally knackering. Rest @ first tower then up again, more of same. Bit icy too. It’s hell - complete hell. So hot. Stops are essential but don’t fully recover. By second tower I’m already regretting it – bad idea. But up we go, hawkers still with us. We’re aiming for tower seven, total insanity. Some sections slightly easier, but all pretty difficult. Gets better towards top – end attainable, I suppose, and less hawkers, though still enough to get in the way. At 5 or 6 there’s a steep metal ladder with handrails & Pete (?) stays there – it is pretty hairy. Get to 7, Anthony wants to go one beyond (apparently police stopped him last time), hell why not? So we make it to 8 (and not followed by hawkers on this section). It’s great – views fantastic though it’s really hazy unfortunately. We made it! Group shots… There’s a bit more (people up there – one guy was running earlier), but we’ve got to turn around – aiming to catch up with main group at some point. Back down hard work but not as hard as up. So hot! Less rests on way down, and at back so can’t improve that.

The Simatai Suicide Squad Looking back at Simatai

Down, down, down, past point of entry, to fantastically wobbly bridge then up steep metal stairs (almost vertical), three or four flights - argh! Feeling really bad now – awfully hot, carrying too much, thought we were stopping for lunch! At back, argh.

Chain bridge at Simatai

Then we do stop for lunch (about 2pm), it’s very good (crazy club sandwich, rice, egg, apple), and great to stop, but hawkers are spoiling it. Argh, so much less nice than yesterday but should be even better – gotta get out of this headspace. Know who “my” hawker is by now, but there are many more. They’re not actively disturbing us, just hanging around & chatting loudly. Others also finding it hard – I guess that’s good! Who’s in group? Anthony, Llew, Louisa, Laura, Emma, David, Peter, Neil, Becca, Richard, Ollie, er… Chris, Tony (?), Kit, Hugh.

Jogger’s nipple – ouch!

Follow the crumbly brick road

Then press on. It’s hard, but spectacular. Still hot, but have moved fleece to under lid of backpack and that’s really helping. Have now basically paired up w/ Louisa (Anthony suggested twos & threes to spread hawkers – working for us with just one each but others not so lucky) and it’s pretty good: similar paces, and she’s nuts about photography, and also very talkative, which was exactly what was required. Some icy patches a bit dodgy, hard going. Really hard part is not knowing how far we have to go – there’s supposedly a checkpoint somewhere? Wall goes on as far as we can see, and time’s getting on, are we going to make it before dark? (At least Anthony’s behind us.) We reach a point where wall goes up steep & crumbly, looks good but guides guide us around, onto path off wall – quite pleasant little bit but find out later could have gone over (Ant + others did) & it’s great. Ah well.

Louisa Thumbs up for the wall!

Great thing that happens just before this point is we can see Jinshanling, our destination, so we have an idea of how far we have to go. This buoys our spirits immensely and we’re really anjoying it again now (though have picked up Jinshanling hawkers). At next tower meet Harriet, and hawkers want to go home. Nearly there (or so we thought) so buy book & postcodes from my guy (120 yuan) since he’s been such a trooper, and crack on.


Now coming through back of main group, Correley (sp?), Lola & Rhiannon (having trouble w/ hawkers), and Harry, who promptly yomps off. Help C, L & R along for a bit (Louisa does same steps 3 times!) then Anthony coming up from behind & nearly there so go on. There’s the end – and Anita! Go out on ledge for photo & guides shout Nonononono! They think I don’t know this isn’t the way down! By now we’re feeling absolutely great & not dark yet so we go on to the extra bit (about 4 towers), and Oh My God is it fantastic! The hawkers don’t follow! We’re on our own! We feel great – this is why people exercise. We’ve passed the pain barrier & are worrying that we can’t feel the damage we’re doing – but don’t actually care. So quiet & peaceful – Anthony, Laura & Emma are behind but not with is. This just tops the day off perfectly. I want to keep writing about this because I’m feeling it now (24 hours later) but it’s so hard to describe. Ah, fuck it. We ran to an out of the way bit in hope of good view/photo of Jinshanling. Not very pretty though so didn’t bother. Still, was worth it for absurd giggliness of run.

Setting sun over Jinshanling Peace, perfect peace

As we came down off wall, onto muddy track into Jinshanling, Louise told me about working on a ranch in Montana – sounds fantastic. As we enter village hawkers reappear – gaaah! Are we going the right way? Stop & wait for A, L, E behind us. L & E go into shop, A joins us – heartiness & tales all round.

We go on to hotel, Cathy & Anita waiting outside. My bag’s in my room already! Cool. Get to room; it’s great! Much nicer than barracks. The shower – oh yes! Clean clothes, mmmm. Excellent. Just getting dark when arrive @ hotel. Bit of sitting around saying wow (still feeling great), bit of diary. To restaurant for pre-dinner beer @ 1830, meet w/ Diana, Wyn, and others. People drifting in, end up on table with 8 women – haven’t done that since uni! ;-) Meet Jill for first time. Food better than Barracks, sort of. Definitely eminently edible and enjoyable. Jill buys 12 quid bottle of wine (rubbish). Briefing on tomorrow, sounds good. Then 2030 bonfire & firecrackers outside – woohoo! Really nice, mega toasty. Mainly standing around w/ Becca, Llew, Tracey (who lets me use her phone to send a text message to Julie!), supping beer & talking stuff. Becca’s definitely up for getting us all dressed up for the last night. Some people playing charades or something inside – but I stay by fire. Me, Llew, Neil, Jill last ones there, then us two go back and crash, unsure of time but think before 2300.

Dinner at Jinshanling hotel, third night Thrilling headgear around the fireside

Malc’s sleeping bag is ace.

The blessed room

Great Wall Trek Diary for Tuesday 6th November 2001

This is my diary for Tuesday 6th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

The photos for this day are here.

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

Tuesday 6th November – first day of wall walking; Huangyaguan Pass


11 AM. I’m walking the wall! Unbelievable… It’s just perfect. The weather’s incredible – cold, clear, crisp. Definitely warm enough when walking. There’s snow – on the path! Steep. Views incredible, fantastically clear. I feel absolutely elated. Nearly finished first film. XP this afternoon? [Ilford XP2, a film which gives sepia coloured pictures; I used it on later days.]

1645 Incredible day – lots of catching up to do!

Woke 0730, didn’t even bother trying shower, just got dressed, brushed teeth, went to breakfast. Bustling! Jasmine tea, nuts, tofu, mumbled eggs, bread, doughnuts. Many people grumbling how “this isn’t breakfast food” but me loving it. Set off @ 0900. Up through village, lots of people chopping crabapples. Horses! Left through gate, start winding uphill. Chatting w/ various people. Er… Julie, Laura, Emma, Wyn, etc. Stop for piccies on concrete irrigation thing, Mavis falls over! But she’s OK… Up more, horseriders pass – do we want a ride? No! Round bend to big clearing with statue of some bloke (Qi Qi Kwon? Qi Qikuon? [Aha, according to this informative page it's Qi Jiguang, a Ming era general.]), group shots. Let’s do some wall! Up past derelict hotel (great site!), and we’re on the wall! Hands on bricks. There’s snow! A photo-taking flurry begins. Start walking, not too bad I reckon. Totally incredible… See earlier comments, but generally wow: views! It’s the fucking wall! Big grin on face, not gonna go away for a while.

Horsemen at Huangya Trekkers at Huangya, just before first assault on wall

Some people totally storming off already, I’m taking too many photos to be at the front. Finish film fairly soon. Hook up with Mavis, helping her down some steep bit, end up with her until near end. Some people definitely having problems, but everyone going for it… Mavis is a good laugh – and Ollie’s got her back pack (far ahead and getting further!). Slower going now than if I was on my own, but realise that’s a good thing. Why be in a hurry to be anywhere but here?

Up, down, up, down, steps, rough bits, ice & snow. Coming towards end, turn right off wall & down slope, getting hairer. Round corner & can see Barracks – cool! Meet w/ Harry & Cathy, Harry asks if I’d stick around to help other ladies down (Mavis OK from here). Er, like - yeah! Excuse to stay up here!

The Barracks from above

Go back up to wall & meet up with back markers, then help Jess down - a few dodgy moments! Finally make it to bottom (more hawkers!), arrive in stadium to cheers & applause.

Great lunch: rice, nuts (Peanuts without chopsticks? How??? [Explanation: at dinner the previous evening I'd been very pleased with my chopstick skills, eating peanuts one by one; lunch contained peanuts but no chopsticks and for a moment I felt genuinely flummoxed - and then I cracked up.]), apple, hard boiled egg, sarnie, cake, soup. Then off again, v soon – some people have been waiting an hour. [Suckers.]

This afternoon is up the other side: straight up, then straight back down – so OK not to set off immediately. Drop coats off, then start heading up w/ Harriet (doc, rear marker), then head ahead to catch up w/ Harry. Jesus – steps! Some tiny, some normal, some huge – but many of each. Hard work, hardest of day because a) it’s all uphill; b) it’s steps, and pretty steep; c) playing catchup. Do catch up, then go at his pace (stopping frequently – good), until reach sign at top (gets dodgy/rough again then).

Looking across Huangya valley at the morning's Wall Near the top on the first afternoon

Actually goes further – up very steep staircase w/ handrail – very icy though. First lot are coming down, apparently lookout @ top is great. Up we go. Hard but looks like coming down is harder! Cathy @ top of steps – just a bit of rough stuff up to lookout: go!

Trekkers descending icy steps at Huangya

Laura & Emma up there; fruit is shared. Harriet still behind: went so far then helped someone down, then back up again! Make it to top shortly after Laura & Emma leave. I waiting @ top w/ Cathy while Anthony & Harry check out a bit of wild wall to the right. We three go back to lookout again – really incredible looking at where we walked this morning. Achingly beautiful. Perfectly happy. Boys return, group shot, then down we go (Anthony storming ahead). It’s hairy, although I’m pleased to find myself not gibbering like some people were. :-) Good fun going down, gossip, jokes, travel stories – don’t have much to say, just listen. Happy to be with these guys, and very happy to be last ones down, because after that it’s over.

Looking down the icy steps at Huangya Harriet, Andy, and Kath at the top

Knee complaining a little, mainly toes are complaining of being scrunched up in boots – hard going down! Horses again – & hawkers of course. (Chinese couple earlier – he in suit, she in heels!). Get to bottom, spot rubbish from lunch, start clearing but Chinese woman stops us – she wants it. Kindly invited back to H+H’s [Harry, guide, and Harriet, doctor] place for tea - excellent! Gives me chance to catch up on this, while Harriet does her medical notes & Harry talks travel & jokes. Anita & Cathy pop by and have some tea, then go. Harry gets the brandy out – now you’re talking, especially as I lacking coat. About 6pm head back to C5 and coats, and finish this. Quiz tonight!

Another great dinner, similar to last night but some differences. Sat w/ Kit, Diana, er, others – old & well-travelled mainly. Won the quiz (team name “Spock”), out in front from start – woo hoo! Free beer! [Team: Hanmer, Lucile, Kit, Wyn, Diana, Jill, Josie, Judy.]

Most then to bed, plenty still drinking though! Sit w/ Llew, Becca, Laura, Emma (?), Cathy, Jean & Anita joined us later. Much beer - doubles in price @ 10pm! About 1115, barmaid sits next to me, and writes down (and says very slowly), “This restaurant is closed. Please tell everybody.” I did, and then I left, but I heard the next morning that people stayed later, and she threw a tantrum. To Louisa: “Yo go sleep now!”

Great Wall Trek Diary for Monday 5th November 2001

This is my diary for Monday 5th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

The photos for this day are here.

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

Monday 5th November – flying to China, driving to Huangyaguan

Frozen wasteland

0820 Beijing time. Slept a little, then woke to see daylight through gap @ bottom of vistor. Lift it. HOLY SHIT. Hills, can’t tell how high but I think rolling like Dartmoor (?), some with jagged tops, like mountains, and it’s all black like ash, or white with snow. The black’s weird – is it trees? Frozen rivers, frozen lakes, and just this as far as the eye can see. Welcome to Siberia, I guess.

Some of them are definitely trees. Er, I think.

That is the most incredible place I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. Now obscured by clouds. Damn. Who lives here? Those have to be houses. Insanity. I have to come here again.

OK, some of the black may be trees, but I think most is, er, rock. The light… Ooh… big brown bit. God, I couldn’t imagine this and now I don’t know how to describe it. So I’ll cheat and take some photos! I can’t believe long I stared dumbly out before remembering my camera!

Mongolian river

The sports news is on – and they’re playing Go! But they call it Weiqi.

Ground now browner and less hilly/desolate. Following a railway line (trans-Sibera?), so a few more settlements. It’s vast and empty.

The map’s back – we just entered China recently, and that was Mongolia! Woo hoo! 168 miles to go. We went right past Ulan Bator & I missed it – grrr. OK, so that was/this is the Gobi Desert. Cool.

Can now see serious mountains in distance – think we cross ‘em before Beijing (on a plain?). Passing Xuanhua soon.

1024: I just saw the wall!

The wall from thirty thousand feet

1100: Crazy shit: I’m in Beijing. Party congregating… everyone v nice. What a journey!

1230. Joy to the world! I’ve lost my tripod! If I’m lucky will be able to pick it up on way back through Beijing. [I did get it back on the way back (though with broken bag) and actually it was probably for the best, as it was too bulky/heavy to carry on the wall, it would have just been an encumberance.] Cool. Much running around with guide, Eric, I didn’t expect this much exercise so soon…

Others go, Eric & I do stuff then follow. 2 coaches. Jack, guide, spiel – very sweet. Driving through Beijing, then outlying villages (maize everywhere – for cattle apparently). Signwriters must do well. After a while, into the mountains! Now it gets windy. Slightly nauseous anyway, this doesn’t help. Pass a huge reservoir (described as “tiny” compared with five serve Beijing), v pretty, water tower is disguised as a pagoda!

Can see wall on mountains ahead. V steep! Not doing that bit, but are doing bit next to it! Arrive at Barracks [Our hotel at Huangyaguan Pass for the first two nights - its actual names is the Huangya Villa Hotel - see photos.] – mental! Huge! It’s right by the wall! Like, wow! (In margin: Bags! [No idea.]) Look round, photos before light goes. Lots of hawkers. Check out room – very basic but it’s all there. Brings home your desire for warmth & security, mind. Llew more intrepid…

Archway at the Barracks

It’s 1530, alarm clock says 0730. Julie’s just getting up, I suppose, and here I am at the wall. Hope she’s alright.

Hot water 1500–1700, dinner @ 1800.

Read a while, but was getting sleepy so tried to have a shower. No hot water. Not cold water: no water from hot tap. Er? Resolved to stink, washed feet, got ready to go to restaurant to change money & have dinner. Quite a few people there already, drinking beer & chatting. Changed $200, got some beer! Met Shaun, very nice chap, bar manager @ NSC. He’s in room next door w/ Bob who I met at luggage, but didn’t get his name before. Told me a bit about NSC, sounds cool. 16/17 year olds @ intake, often w/ no capabilities, first term is hell (“want to go home”), by 2nd year they’re “bolshy little fuckers” and by time they leave they’re your typical young adults – like compressing the teenage years into just 3.

Round tables seating 10 w/ Lazy Susan. Cold bits already, yummy peanuts w/ sesame seeds (sweet – J would not like!), celery w/ dried prawns (didn’t try), strips of beef w/ garlic (tasted as you’d expect), & some green leafy vegetable, very bland. Sat on same table as Llew. Also: Diane, very nice middle-aged lady with GSOH and lots of spirit; her friend (name?), also nice but not impressed by food - poor dear; Lola & her daughter Rhiannon, easily the most “glam” pair here; Harry, Silk Steps guide, 40s, grey beard, very experienced trekker, lots of sage advice to give out; Becca, who I met earlier, still nice; Jeanette who I mistakenly thought knew Becca (actually could be roomies I guess) and didn’t talk to much (mainly talking to Diana on my other side). Bit of talk from Anthony, Anita, Harriet. Food comes! Lots of courses… Little beef satays, really tender lamb/mutton (lovely), chips (!), slices (thin/small) of something melon-like, cabbagey noodly soup, watery peppery (yiy!) soup, plain rice, er… Dumplings!


Drank a fair bit of beer. Someone’s birthday so cake! Sitting around, chatting… Had some firewater of some description – giggling Chinese girls @ bar, squealed when I necked it. Tasted like pear drops! [It was rice wine.]

Andy avec beer

Crashed @ 2145, felt like 2am! Woke @ 3am, almost ready to get up. Uh-oh… BURP! Nasty, felt like I was gonna be sick, but gladly wasn’t. Thank God for Malc’s sleeping bag, that’s all I’ll say! Must get him a nice present to say thanks.

[The next morning we'd walk on the wall for the first time...]

Great Wall Trek Diary for Sunday 4th November 2001

This is my diary for Sunday 4th November 2001. I was on a trip to China to walk on the Great Wall, fundraising for the National Star College. I kept a diary but I never published it, so here it is, 10 years on. I’ll do this for every day there’s a diary entry. [Text written like this is commentary added by me now.]

The photos for this day are here.

Index of all relevant blog entries is here.

Sunday 4th November – flying to China

Departure day!!! Back not too bad in night, couldn’t really lie on RHS but OK. Woke w/ pain early, took pills, OK (now 2pm still OK, so that was probably at about 8am). [I'd pulled something in my back the previous day, and for a while feared I might not be able to go on the trip] Tesco’s for breakfast (much confusion), then last minute “where’s passport?” panic – stolen from coat outside? Nope, in photovest I’m wearing! D’oh! OK, shit is together, time to go (about 12:15). Fond farewell to Heather (won’t hug me due to fumes from coat [from waterproofing]), and we’re off! (J driving). Phoned Col again (ansaphone), Dave & Rach (cool) and Nan. Headache from fumes? Traffic is good, arrive about 1:10pm. Wander around looking for Air China, ah it’s area G. On way there, someone shouts “Andy!”, it’s Anthony Feasey from NSC. Wow, I’m impressed! Gill & Cathy around corner by Air China, get tickets from them (handy!), and check in. Nervous, fiddly, clumsy, etc. J gonna go & let me get on with it - scary! Fond farewell… Hang around for a bit like a lemon, then go to THE BAR! Boarding @ 1615 so plenty of time to kill (glad we arrived early though – got a window seat!). Now in bar @ 1357, halfway through a Caffrey’s – better take it easy!

Holy shit, I’m going to Beijing…

Have seen/met a few people but everyone seems to be keeping themselves to themselves thus far. Fair enough, there’s plenty of time, gotta see who we end up sat next to, etc. Like starting uni. :-) Wonder what Llew’s like. [The organisers had previously told us the names of our room-mates.]

Big queue to get into departure lounge; shook hands w/ Neil Brimble. Everything a bit mental but courtesy seems to get me through. Many many shops… A pub! A pint of Bass! 2.20? Outrageous! [Hahaha, oh wow.] Now 1510, only an hour until we board!

1750: OK, on board! Have met Llew, Becca (Charlotte), Laura Aitken, & Wyn (Scottish). Have window seat (11K), and it really is window, not wall between windows – cool. Sat w/ Sally & her Mum Kath, not on trek. Heathrow is dark and twinkly, not to mention huge. Back feeling OK. Really excitied – going to China!

No way can I see fireworks over there – must still be Heathrow? Hmmm, stopped, maybe was just kerosene going up. Nope, definitely fireworks, just more distant than I first thought. Here we go! Up! Up! Up! Wow, can see fireworks going off all over the place - crazy! Like camera flashes in a stadium. London (?) looks incredible, it’s a living map – want to fly over it on my own. Watching fireworks from above! Mental! Clouding under now, can’t see streetlights but firework flashes still come through. Argh, cabin lights are on, can’t see anything w/o pressing face against!

1909, passing Goethenburg @ 33,000 feet.

Dinner is served. It’s… chicken!

Yan Jing Beer! Brought to you by the good folks of the Beijing Yan Jing Brewery Co., Ltd. The label says: “Mineral water, malt, rice, Hop. Quality: Excellent. Address: Eastern Side of Beijing Airport.” Cool.

I think we’re over Finland & I can see faint lights, far far below. Definitely a town, definitely coastal. Russia?

2110, we must be above Siberia by now. Siberia! All I can see is darkness, clouds below, stars above.

2230, I can’t tell what I’m looking at – it’s like clouds but the patterns are too regular, in fact I reckon it’s ice/snow. Oh, definitely – there’s an almost round frozen lake. WOW. Absolutely beautiful. I opened the visor and there was this landscape, and a town or something! Town in distance, airport? railway? harbour? Closer too. Wish they were still showing map instead of bad Hong Kong action movie! Twisty snakey thing – a river! Light reflecting off it! Light from us? Now 0630 in Beijing, must be about 2AM here?

Aha! 100 miles north of Omsk! 10,000m. 0445 locally. 2150 miles to go. Crossed Urals about 200miles north of Sverdlovsk? Might pass Irkutsk? Lake Baikal! [I've been fascinated by Lake Baikal for as long as I can remember. One day I'll go there.]

Insane badly-animated Chinese cartoon, Little Tiger Ban Ban, just came on. Little Ban Ban appears to be a reckless motorcycling tiger cub, returned to his forest homeland with The Dew of Immortality, to save the forest, presumably so he still has somewhere for dirtbiking. Wow, he just crashed – don’t think I can watch any more, however.

Great Wall Trek – 10 years on

To everyone following me by RSS who’s forgetten about it: boo!

So, yeah, I basically haven’t blogged for a year. Sorry about that. I stopped running because of weather and colds and logistic problems, and of course these days all the action is on Facebook and Twitter, so this poor place has been neglected.

HOWEVER! There are things to write about. For one thing, I’ve been running again – this time much more successfully; I’ll say more about that in another post, but for now suffice to say a more minimal approach – running with Vibram FiveFingers and without music – has proven key for me.

More pressingly, I have to start blogging again today lest I miss a great opportunity…

In November 2001, I went to China for 10 days, to walk on the Great Wall raising money for the National Star College. It was an incredible and literally life-changing experience, and while I kept a trip diary while I was out there, I’ve never published its contents.

So now’s the time. For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be publishing blog posts containing my diary from 10 years ago. I hope you enjoy it.

Links to individual posts:

Google Earth KMZ file of the whole trip with (approximate) paths for the trek days.

The diary

Eastside Roots

Heading to Cornwall on a train last Friday, I spotted something interesting as we neared Bristol Temple Meads: Eastside Roots, a community gardening project — look out for it by Stapleton Road station.

I once told her…

I am that man.

(Shame the sound quality on the video’s so poor though.)

Edwardian Callington photos on the BBC, courtesy of the Gimblett boys

This morning, my Dad opened an exhibition in the museum in my home town, of ninety photos taken by my great-grandfather, found (on glass plates) when Dad retired, and recently restored by him via digital photography. Here’s an article on the BBC, including an audio interview with Dad, in which (I think) he sounds fab. Rich voice, Terrence!

Gimbobread: loaves eight and nine

Loaf 8 was dedicated to the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga. Coincidentally, I forgot to go to my ashtanga yoga class the next day.

Loaf 8-4: after second rise Loaf 8-8: and the other side Loaf 8-9: slices!

Loaf 9 was dedicated to Ganesha. Ironically, it was the smallest loaf I’ve yet made (except for the first one, which wasn’t intentional). I reduced the amounts by a third to try to avoid the “blooming mushroom” shape of earlier loaves, and ended up with a nice regular-shaped loaf with good sandwich and toasting properties.

Loaf 9-1: 2/3 the usual size Loaf 9-2: good size for sandwiches & toasting

Stone Buddha on my bedroom wall

Stone Buddha, rasterbated

Original, rasterbated.

Gimbobread: The First Seven Loaves

I recently started baking my own bread. I’ve always been slightly in awe of people who did so, partially because I had no idea how it was done. Of course, it’s actually quite straightforward and, having been encouraged by friends I met last summer, I finally got cracking back in January. I’m doing it by hand: no bread machine — it’s easy and satisfying. I can see the appeal of a bread machine if you’re mainly interested in the end product, i.e. “I want fresh home-made bread”, but I’m just as interested in the process, in taking out three hours to make this thing, in pummelling it with my hands, in seeing the loaf evolve through the steps. I love it!

Since January I’ve made seven loaves in total, and pretty much each one has been better than the last. While it’s easy to bake bread, you of course learn little tricks and details as you go, I guess. Here’s a retrospective, then, on my first seven loaves.

First loaf, Sunday 25th January 2009: as I tweeted, it was smaller than I’d expected, but when I made the next loaf I realised that I’d simply not made enough dough! I was following the recipe on the flour bag, and it targetted two loaf tins, whereas I only had one, so I halved the quantities; however, my loaf tin is in fact quite large, so that was unnecessary. Thus, the lesson of loaf one is how much dough to make. I just used a plain wholemeal flour, which was worthy but a little dull, and only a single rise, which may have made it a little dense. Still, pretty good for the first attempt.

First loaf First loaf, interior

Second loaf, Saturday 7th February 2009: certainly an improvement, largely thanks to some really good advice from my friend Ann. She cleared a few things up for me, and also encouraged me to give it two rises: one long one, then punch it down to expel CO2, then a shorter rise in the loaf tin before ovenating. Using an appropriate amount of ingredient probably helped too! This served as the template for every other loaf since then. The end result was much more like I expected a loaf to look, although a bit charred on the top; thus, the lesson of loaf two is to lower the shelf in the oven.

Second loaf and stew Second loaf and stew (2) Second loaf

Third loaf, Friday 20th February 2009: “a bit hurried, slightly odd, probably fine“. It was fine. I really hurried the latter stages, because I had to go out and time was running short. Thus, I didn’t pay much attention to shaping before putting it in the loaf tin — I just “whacked it in”. So the shape was a bit weird. I’d bought some white flour, and fixed it with the remaining wholemeal to produce this hybrid. No interior shots, sadly, but I’m sure it tasted fine. The lesson of loaf three is to plan ahead more, so you can take it easy, enjoy yourself, and not hurry; also, that if you fail to do that, it’s still bread: win.

Third loaf

Fourth loaf, Sunday 1st March 2009: I made this rounding off a lovely weekend of singing and being sung at in Narberth, which concluded with a Bulgarian singing workshop with Dessislava Stefanova of the London Bulgarian Choir. I should blog about that too but oh, my blogging skills are far from mad these days. This loaf was all white, and all right, although had some strangely shattered geometry. Looking back, I think I just didn’t pay attention to where the fractures were in the dough before I put it in the loaf tin, and probably ended up with one on the side, which then stretched up leading to this strange shape. To confuse matters further, I turned this loaf round in the oven after 15 minutes, to try to not burn it (and in the naive hope that the other side would rise: I have since learnt that heat kills yeast, so all rising happens outside the oven). So, the lesson of loaf four is to be careful where the seams are in the dough when you put it in the loaf tin: put them on the bottom! However, sometimes we don’t learn lessons the first time we meet them; when that happens, life just keeps on patiently giving you the lesson until you get it…

Fourth loaf: odd Fourth loaf, pretending to be normal Fourth loaf: still a bit charred Fourth loaf: actually really good to eat

Fifth loaf: Thursday 5th March 2009: I’m not sure, and historical records are inconclusive, but this may have been made entirely using Allinson’s “seed & grain”, which is rather nom — or it may have been a hybrid. Not sure. Anyway, it came out very well, although once again was quite strangely shaped thanks to not learning the seam-placing lesson of loaf four. I think the reason was that I was concentrating, at this time, on solving the burnt-on-top problem, and experimenting with turning after 15 minutes; I don’t think it really helped, so it was after this loaf that I thought that maybe the oven was too hot and I should try a lower temperature. Thus, the lesson of loaf five is honestly, pay attention to where that seam is; also, pay attention to oven temperature.

Fifth loaf: before rise Fifth loaf: after second rise Fifth loaf: pretending to be normal Fifth loaf: bags of character Fifth loaf: bread inside Fifth loaf: crumbs!

Sixth loaf: Thursday 12th March, 2009 — “the one that got away”. There are two innovations here: carefully putting the seam at the bottom, and not turning the oven quite so high. I had baked everything with the oven at 230C so far; for this one I put it more like 210C. Success, I think: it’s a nice round smooth loaf, and it’s not too crispy. However, I didn’t get to taste any of this one, or even see its insides, because I gave it to my friend and colleague Markus for his birthday. I haven’t received any feedback yet; hopefully he’s still alive. The lesson of loaf six: yes, turning the oven down seems to help.

Sixth loaf: the one that got away Sixth loaf: most normal looking yet! Sixth loaf: wish I'd got some

Seventh loaf: Saturday 14th March, 2009. Now you’re talking: I have never enjoyed bread more than this loaf. It’s absolutely delicious. I really feel like I’m getting into stride now…

Seventh loaf: new tin! Seventh loaf: best yet Seventh loaf: can't stop eating it

Having given away the last loaf, I needed to make another. I’d decided to look for another loaf tin — initially thinking a smaller one would be good, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I needed was a deeper one, to try to get a more “classic sandwich” shape rather than the florid cross-section seen on loaf five (say). Thus, a new tin, and a non-stick one to boot. The mix is about half strong white, about a third seed/grain, and the rest wholewheat — with the surprise addition of a few pinches of thyme, as suggested by Carys, peering over my shoulder admiringly. A fantastic idea! I also put some on top, which entailed glazing it gently with olive oil so they’d stick; that didn’t exactly work, in that they fall off easily (I should have pushed them in more) but the crust on this loaf is deliciously chewy, like, just right, so I wonder if the glaze helped that.

However, this loaf also involved another “innovation” which may have contributed there. The spot in the airing cupboard where I put it to rise is up high, and a little precarious. After the second rise, when I opened the cupboard door to get it out, the tin and loaf fell down, because they’d slipped (with the growth of the dough) to rest against the door. I caught them but they’d collapsed, and I feared I’d ruined the loaf. Carys thought I should just put it in the oven and hope, but I knew it wouldn’t rise again, so thought I should knead it again, and try for a third rise — the very idea! After a few minutes it didn’t look like it was rising, but after 10 it clearly was, so with professions of love for the loaf we left it to do its work. I have to say, the end product was absolutely no worse for it, and possibly better. I shall have to think about this. Thus, the lessons of loaf seven are twofold: first, don’t drop it! Second, if you do, all is not lost. :-)

There’s one thing I’m still a bit dubious about. The bread is delicious, but it is quite yeasty smelling, and tasting, I guess. I quite like that in fact, but I wonder how to get rid of it. I bought an oven thermometer yesterday, and it turns out the oven is in fact colder than it says it is, not hotter as I thought: loaf seven was baked at about 190C, whereas the recipe calls for 230C. So perhaps there’s some tweaking still to do there… But aha, according to some handy troubleshooting tips, it’s more likely the bread over-rose, which makes sense: I am leaving it a long time anyway, even without a third rise! OK, next time I’ll try a 60 minute first rise and not dropping it after the second. :-)

The recipe (since some people have asked): for every loaf except the first I’ve followed this same basic recipe, given to me my friend Ann Huehls, as she answered my questions about what might have gone “wrong” with the first loaf. I’m sure she has forgotten more about baking than I will ever know, and has much else to tell me. Anyway, approximately:

  1. In a big bowl mix 7g of baker’s yeast, 1tsp of sugar or a good squeeze of honey, and 420ml of water in a 1:2 boiling/cold mix (that’s 140ml boiling, topped up to 420ml with cold: mix the water before adding to the yeast). Let it stand for about 10 minutes and it should go foamy: that’s the yeast activating. If it doesn’t, your yeast is dead, so buy some more!
  2. Gradually add 650g of suitable flour (see below), along with 2tsp salt and 15g of butter. On Ann’s advice, I add about a quarter of the flour first, mix it well, then mix in the salt and butter, then the rest of the flour. (I keep my butter in the fridge, so I melt the 15g in a pyrex dish lid sat on a small saucepan of boiling water.) Mix well, with a wooden spoon.
  3. Once it’s reasonably well mixed, or the spoon no longer seems effective, start mixing it with your hands too; at some point turn the mix out onto a lightly floured surface and segue from mixing to kneading. If the mix is too wet, just keep going, possibly adding a little more flour to the surface as you go, which the dough will then pick up and assimilate. Knead it for 7-10 minutes; its getting good when the texture is sorta earlobe-like.
  4. Lightly oil the bowl (I use olive oil), put the dough in it, cover it with a tea towel, and put is somewhere warm for 60-90 minutes (for wheat flour, anyway). This is the first rise. I’ve been using the airing cupboard, and turning the heating on to make sure it gets nice and warm in there. After the rise it should have doubled in size or more. Look online for more advice on rising locations, and times: varies with the flour used, and it’s possible to overdo it, apparently. Some people do cold rises too, though I haven’t tried that yet.
  5. Lightly dust your fists with flour and “punch down” the risen dough, to expel built-up carbon dioxide. You should hear it hiss and see it collapse. Nice. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface again for a second knead: shorter and more gentle than before. You really don’t want to be ripping it at all at this stage. After a couple of minutes, start getting the dough into approximately the shape of your loaf tin, i.e. rectangular. The knead cycle goes “fold, pummel”: it’s good to end on a fold, and have the seam you’ve just created at the bottom — this contributes to a nice clean surface up top, avoiding the weirdness of loaves four and five.
  6. When it’s a good shape, pop it into your loaf tin and maybe gently push it into place, but don’t overdo it because you don’t want to tear it, and it will expand anyway. Depending on your loaf tin, you might need to lightly oil it before putting the dough in. My first six loaves used this non-stick tin where that wasn’t necessary, but number seven used a more traditional one where it was (and I’ve a hunch the oil helped condition the surface of the bread).
  7. Put the loaf tin back into your warm place for 20-30 minutes: this is the second rise. The rising should be visible after a few minutes, and by the end it should really be in its final shape. Pre-heat the oven now, too — about 210-230 Celsius, though I’m still kinda working out what’s best here. Experience has shown that you might need to put a post-it note on the oven saying “do not switch off” if you have zealous housemates who assume empty ovens have been forgotten (though now I’ve got an oven thermometer, which might help).
  8. After the second rise, put the loaf in the oven, not too high up (don’t want it burn on top), and bake for about 30 minutes. Then turn it out onto a wire cooling rack and wait for it to cool down before enjoying, lest thy tummy be upset.

Flour: lots to choose from, and I’ve been doing a lot of hybridising. I really like mixing the Allinson’s “seed and grain” flour with white, I must say. I don’t think I’ve tried it on its own, so I should probably do that some time. I should use wholemeal more as well, I think. I did for the first couple, but was a little disappointed; not sure if that was the flour or my technique, so I should revisit. Newbies: make sure you get “strong” flour, not regular white flour, say. Mmmkay?

Weapons of choice

j-star 08, Holotronica, and Pierre/Gondry at onedotzero_adventures in motion at the BFI

Here are some words and some (mainly excellent) music videos for you.

The above is the gorgeous video for the equally beautiful and gentle song “Omstart” by Cornelius. It is one of two things I saw three weeks ago at the British Film Institute which particularly caught my eye/ear. The other is this 1998 video, “Deadly Media” by Hexstatic:

Actually, that’s a lie; several other vids caught my eye/ear to a similar if lesser extent…

I’d gone to London to see Bash, to hear Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie talk about Lost Girls at the V&A, and to go to Bash’s flat-warming party. On Sunday afternoon she had to work, so I was at a loose end and popped along to the National Film Theatre to catch j-star 08, “the latest and most inspiring music videos, motion graphics and shorts from some of japan’s finest moving image-makers and young talent” — part of the onedotzero_adventures in motion event taking place that weekend. I rather like shorts, and music videos, and the Japanese aspect promised an interesting time. While the results were mixed, I wasn’t disappointed.

On the way in, I noticed a “Holotronica” exhibit and, while scoffing at the hubris of an artist claiming to “devise” a term, and while unimpressed by the 3-d aspect of the display, I did rather enjoy the music playing as I walked past: the Hexstatic piece linked above. I thought it was a bit old-fashioned, but good for it — and of course now I see it’s 10 years old, so that makes sense. The use of vocal samples was reminscent of JMJ’s pioneering and wonderfully cheesy yet still compelling Zoolook (the video for which introduced a young me to the lovely word “Djibouti”), and the audio/video link made me think of Lasse Gjertsen’s modern classic Hyperactive.

The j-star show was very enjoyable, though a bit tedious in places. Many of the shorts were too long, and it was very very CGI heavy: only a few pieces weren’t entirely CG, and it often felt like it didn’t add anything, or wasn’t used imaginatively. The Cornelius video above was the standout exception, indeed the best thing in the show — thoughtful, subtle, and making the most of the total possibility of CG without just being a bunch of flashy effects. A number of other vids were just flashy effects (usually to some generic breakbeat music), a few were “in love with the underlying model” (exposing wireframes, etc., which is cute but ultimately empty) and some were cartoonish, and kinda fun but not soooo amusing. On reflection I think my enjoyment was often coloured by the music as well, of course. With that in mind, a few (non-exhaustive) comments…

Three of the pieces which weren’t totally CGI were excellent. Kosai Sekine’s video for Maledict Car by Jemapur used real world footage and imaginative symmetry to very good effect, I thought — and the music was great. K+Me’s Screaming Dance by Leonard de Leonard was very good fun and again had the advantage of a rather stonking tune. Finally, this Nike cosplay ad by Kan Eguchi is classic Japanese madness, and utterly awesome. The other vids with a substantial reality presence were Junji Kojima’s video for You-you-you by Polysics, which I quite enjoyed but didn’t find beautiful, and “Evening Before the Hangover” by Ichiro Sato, (I can’t find it online) of which I wrote “Alien disco, but so what?”. It was a cute joke, but basically dull.

Clear Skies In May by Tetsuo Suzuka was beautiful, imaginative, classical, and beautifully typographical. Well worth a look.

There were two 8-bit nostalgia trips, only one of which I enjoyed. Yosawya San by Tsuyoshi Hirooka & Yohei Ito was great: musically interesting, and a very cute video. Compared to the other (below), it seemed truer to the 8-bit gaming tradition, and with some really imaginative touches, perspective, etc. (Look out for the Go game on the TV screen.) The other, Hideyuki Tanaka’s video for Ram Rider’s hello_8 bit edition seemed more lego than 8-bit (in the video, anyway), and was about 2 minutes too long; I didn’t like the music though, which can’t have helped — although on reflection it was truer to the 8-bit tradition than the other offering, so there you go. Well, there it is: you might enjoy it, but I certainly didn’t.

On the cartoony side, it probably suffices to just mention Usavich – Beware of Dance — the first of three Usavich cartoons, and quite funny (I wrote “Tyres goes disco bunnies”, meaning Tyres from Spaced), but by the third I was really bored of them.

Afterwards, I took a saunter round the BFI, experienced and enjoyed The All-Seeing Eye (The Hardcore Techno Version) by Pierre Bismuth & Michel Gondry, and, wrote on a wall. I can’t remember the details of whose installation this was, but projected onto this wall/whiteboard was a cartoon view of a town, on which we were invited to draw “where you live” using the available coloured pens. I found a suitably rectangular collection of roads and drew a simple commutative diagram encapsulating commutativity of function application, which felt like as a good an explanation of where I live just now than anything else I could think of.

Then I went back to Bash’s and cooked a mighty vegetarian lasagna for the six of us there present.

To conclude: a great day (and weekend!), and one which made me think it might be worth living in London (for a while) after all.

Where I’m at, where I’ve been

I’m in Newcastle, staying at a hotel in the shadow of the rather impressive Tyne Bridge. I’m up here with Harold and others, visiting Michael Harrison, doing talks, etc. I spoke today, about “generating theorems from user interface automata”: lots of good discussion and nice ideas for what to do with this next. More of the same tomorrow, then back to Swansea on Thursday; it takes all day on the train. Oh yeah, and it’s frickin’ freezin’ up here. It keeps snowing, just a dusting. Thank heaven for warm gloves, warm hats, and Montane.

Lots of gallivanting of late. This time last week I was up in Gregynog for the annual Swansea CompSci shenanigans. For the first time since I joined Swansea, I wasn’t organising the trip (my sixth time there, and seventh in total) — but I didn’t get to relax because I was still doing the pub quiz (very well received), and a talk on my research (also seemed good, and by the way, woo Keynote!), and helping out because illness had knocked a few members of staff out of the proceedings. Oh, and I sang the first verse of a Czech folk song solo, and didn’t completely screw it up – so that was good too.

Then on Cardiff went to Friday (other way round) with gorgeous friend Adwoa, stayed overnight at gorgeous friend Kate’s house, then flew to Amsterdam for to see Rodrigo y Gabriela at Paradiso. Kate had spotted this gig and suggested a mission, and somehow Adwoa and I were so taken aback by the audacity of the proposal that we had to agree. A 24-hour trip to another country to see a band neither of us knew yet? Fantastic! And it was: with one notable exception I’d say this was the best gig I’ve seen since The Chemical Brothers in Cardiff in 1997. Gabriela is absolutely the star, to my mind (sound quality awful but just watch her go; better quality but less animation), but I would say that because I favour rhythm, and that’s where she’s at. Anyway, yeah, they rocked and I’ll be buying the live album when it’s out.

Then we popped back to our hotel and asked the guy on the front desk if he knew of anywhere nearby doing decent electronic music, and he suggested Melkweg, casually mentioning that Nathan Fake (of my love for whom see here) was playing live. WTF? Oh yes, and Speedy J (hugely influential to my early electronic awakenings, e.g. via The Oil Zone) was DJ’ing. So we went there.

Electric Deluxe poster at Melkweg

Actually, I found Fake’s live set disappointing: way too much glitch, not enough repetition, just too screwed up — Adwoa seemed to rather enjoy it, however. And I couldn’t fault what I saw of Speedy J, though I confess I didn’t stay for the whole five hours. ;-)

Didn’t get much sleep, but it was pleasant. Awake at 7; on a tram at 7.30; at railway station at 08.00; at airport at 08.30; at departure gate at 09.10; liftoff 09.55; land Cardiff just over an hour later; asleep just over an hour later (again, at Kate’s). Since I was getting a train to Newcastle the next day, it seemed more sensible to stay there than to go to Swansea, so that’s what I did. Then I came here. Then stuff happened. Then I started writing this. Right, that’s me up to date. Bedtime!

Bash had her iPhone stolen

Bash had her iPhone stolen yesterday, in a rather ugly-sounding scam — and then wrote an eloquent and reflective blog post about it. Kudos.

The Fall

The Fall — oh my, that’s a wonderful movie. You should totally go see it. A load of us went to Taliesin for it tonight and universally lurved it. Just… oh, wonderful.

Here’s the interview that made me want to see it, and here’s the trailer (which is mildly spoilerish, but the joy of this film isn’t in the plot, but in its heart, and its eyes).

Big Music From Small Nations 2008

I’ve been to two festivals this summer, and it’s high time I wrote about them. The first was Big Music From Small Nations, back in mid July. Sadly I don’t have any photos – some of my friends took some but they’re locked away on Facebook so I can’t post them here. :-(

Still, let it be known I had a great time: my best festival experience so far, in fact (until the next festival, Dance Camp, of which more later). In 2007 Bash and I went (for which there are photos) and had a good time, but it rained rather a lot and the place got pretty muddy – we still had a good time, in I called it the first time I’d enjoyed a wet festival, but I’ve gotta say, this year was much better. It still rained a bit, but much less, and the areas that got very muddy last year (in particular the bottleneck between campsite and main site) were better protected.

The main difference was that this year’s Small Nations was smaller. It’s a fairly dinky festival anyway: about 1500 people last year — but I heard there were only 900 there this year. It’s been a bad year for festivals in general after so many were washouts last year, and the weather leading up to Small Nations this year wasn’t great, so I think a lot of “wait and see” types decided against going. That was their loss though, because it was fine.

As well as less people, there were only two stages this year, as opposed to three in 2007. I didn’t mind that at all, actually, because there was still always something on that was worth seeing, and you were less likely to miss something cool by being in the wrong place. The only part I minded was the absence of an open mic tent, because last year Shiko did a spot there and it was great fun — and a few of us hoped to do so again, really.

Lots of people from Swansea go to Small Nations. Somewhere in the last eighteen months or so (Shiko has a lot to do with this, for sure) I seem to have reached some kind of “Six Degrees” critical mass point, and whenever I meet new people in social/musical/party situations they always seem to already know people I know; similarly, I keep meeting people I’ve seen around, by similar mechanisms. I don’t know, I guess various networks are connected, and the circles I’m moving in are somewhat incestuous! As a result (and combined with the smaller numbers), this year’s Small Nations felt particularly friendly to me: everywhere I went, there was someone I knew, or someone I was about to meet. It felt like a big happy family at times — and that was definitely the aspect I enjoyed the most.

Of course, the music was also half the point. On Friday night I heard the Samba Galez in the distance as I pitched my tent, then the entertainment properly kicked off for me with Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba followed (in a rather different flavour) by Swansea psy-trance outfit Chaos Theory. Bernice described them uncharitably as “some kind of techno Spinal Tap” but I think that was a comment on their hair as much as anything. The music did what it was supposed to, that’s all I’ll say.

After the evening’s scheduled entertainment, I ended up at a big campfire in the corner of the campsite, where there was drumming, singing, etc., and met more good people. IIRC I got to bed around 2 or 3 or so…

… only to wake early on Saturday needing the loo, so off I popped to the facilities, then found myself mostly awake enjoying the early morning activity of the site coming to life. I sourced myself a cup of tea, and a little later a bacon/egg roll, and sat and watched the world wake up. Actually it was clear that some of the world hadn’t been to bed yet, including Naked Fireside Bloke (who, it later transpired, I’d met a few weeks earlier, but at that point he’d only been without shoes), and Scarily Aggressive Shouty Woman.

The plan had been to get some sleep in the morning, but I kept seeing people to talk to, and all of a sudden it was 10AM, and if I was going to go on the guided walk that was on offer, I’d have to go now — so I did! The festival site is here; we went on a circular walk a few miles away, around about here, starting outside the pub, heading down to the river, following it north for a while, then heading uphill under a few red kits, towards abandoned lead (?) workings, through some (sadly chopped – recently) forest, to a hilltop offering a magnificent view, the horizon stretching from the Black Mountain in the west (almost) to the Black Mountains in the east (the distinction between the two being the source of an intensely irritating discussion with a woman with a map who refused to listen and consequently took 90% of the conversation to realise I was talking about two different places). After that, back down to the pub, basically. We’d gone by minibus, and there were enough of us that two buses were needed. Gladly, I’d walked slow enough to be in the group destined for the second bus back, giving us — as our formidable guide Huw Garan put it — “time for a swift half” — time he put to good use by downing two pints of fine real ale. :-) Indeed, on that last half mile before we got to the pub, he whet his appetite by displaying his expertise on local watering holes: where does good beer, where food, where cider (“but their beer’s not so good, unless you get it on the first day or so: they don’t store the barrels properly”) – clearly a true local, in both senses.

The walk was great, and I met some good new people, but it lasted longer than I’d expected – the whole excursion took about five hours (including standing around time at each end, the bus journeys, etc.); bearing in mind I’d had about four hours’ sleep, I consequently spent a good part of the rest of Saturday thinking and saying that I should go and get some sleep. But I just couldn’t! Groovy things kept happening! There were people I had to talk to! Music I had to watch! Shops I had to check out! I think somewhere I managed to lie down for half an hour and inspect the insides of my eyelids, but you couldn’t call it sleep; at some point it became clear the night was beginning again. Somehow (I’ll leave it to you, but alcohol may have been one factor) I managed to stay up until 4 again, and oh, what a night.

The absolute highlight, the pinnacle, the best thing I saw at that festival, possibly at any festival ever, were The London Bulgarian Choir. Now, obviously this is a very personal thing: not everybody is going to feel the same way I (apparently) do about Bulgarian folk music, so please forgive me if this seems strange. Having said that, they got a fabulous reception, so I clearly wasn’t the only blown-away person in the tent. I don’t know, there’s just something incredible about the language, and the style of singing: so strong, so strange, such odd harmonies and beautiful dischords. But hey, don’t take my word for it: you can watch a goodly chunk of their Small Nations performance (minus some inter-song banter, sadly: Dessislava’s ++charming) on youtube here and here (note well: at least one of those handsome Bulgarian men is in fact a very cheeky cockney chappie). Then buy the album: I finally got it last week and haven’t been listening to much else since.

Actually, I lie. That wasn’t the pinnacle. The pinnacle was about 20 minutes after their performance, when I realised they were singing in a small tent in the middle of the main site (used in the day for face painting and the like), so I ran there just in time to become part of an impromptu spiralling circle dance as all around (and in the dance), a subset of the choir sang the wonderful Shto Mi e Milo (full version at 5:35 on the first youtube version). It was just incredible, and (looking back) an introductory taste of the joy to come at Dance Camp, a few weeks later. Seriously, at that moment I felt as happy as I have ever been. Bliss. I couldn’t tell you why.

Nothing could top that, but it did propel me into the rest of the night full of happy and feeling very open, so I had a great one. The main stage got rocked to pieces by N’Faly Kouyaté‘s crazy griot bouncing, and then torn to pieces by Sicknote, an extraordinarily rough, punky, danceable, visually exciting bunch of nutters from (I think) Newport. I think drinking with them would be scary, but man they rocked.

After that it was back to the fire circle into the wee hours, and around 3 I was saying goodnight to various people when I stumbled into a little spot where some Shiko types were hanging out; I had intended just to say goodnight, but somehow something I said caused a bloke called Phil to start on Monty Python impressions, and damn he was good. He started with Holy Grail, I think, but then moved onto the Four Yorkshiremen, and his delivery, his timing, not to mention his memory of the actual lines, was just perfect. I was bent double with laughter, begging him to stop because I couldn’t breathe.

(By the way, if you don’t know what I mean by the Four Yorkshireman, you really should check it out and then don’t miss the Amnesty International remake.)

Sunday was a much gentler day. I took it easy, mooched around, bought a t-shirt, ate good food, drank coffee, didn’t see much music, and just enjoyed chewing the fat and sitting in the sun. Oh, actually that’s something of a lie: there was a belly-dance workshop which I helped do some drumming for, but I think I did it badly, so I’ve mostly wiped it from the memory banks.

So, in summary, I had a great time, hung out with and/or met lots of sweet people, shook my stuff to lots of sweet music, laughed a lot, and discovered a love of singing and European traditional folk music which would bloom at the next festival, Dance Camp, along with much else besides.

Sings beautifully, too.

Frances Keenan, weaver. Mad skills.

Mastery will soon be mine!

I had my MPhil viva last Wednesday, and I’m happy to report that I have been recommended for the degree, subject to performing some minor corrections to my thesis. That’s pretty much the best you can hope for — it’s unheard of to “just pass”; I now have four weeks (well, three now!) to complete and submit my corrections, most of which are minor things like typos. In fact, I did all the really minor corrections on the same day… I just have a couple more background paragraphs to write and then I’ll submit it for final rubber stamping, after which I have to get some copies hardback-bound, and when they’re submitted to the university I can write MPhil after my name.

It’s been a long, hard road — mainly because I was trying to do the work part time, on top of my teaching load which tended to grow a bit faster than I could keep up, but woo, it’s done. I am now, apparently, the official world expert on the syntax and static semantics of the specification language CSP-CASL. Lucky me.

The viva itself was no picnic… My examiners were David Aspinall (Edingburgh) and Gerald Luettgen (York) — two external examiners because I’m a member of staff. I started with a 20-minute-or-so presentation on my work, which I think answered some of their questions off the bat, and then we got into the dialogue part. Apparently my thesis was very well polished and as a result there weren’t too many questions on its contents, and I could (I think) deal with them quite well. The harder parts went along the lines of “so, how does such-and-such aspect of your work relate to THIS OTHER THING YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT?”. :-) This happened several times, and I think it belied a certain lack of breadth in my research: I’d focused on doing what I needed to do, in the way it had to be done given the external constraints on the project, but that meant I didn’t know enough as perhaps I should on how my work fitted into the rest of its milieu. Gladly, while an instructive lesson, that doesn’t prevent me getting the degree.

I’ll publish my thesis online, and say a bit more about its contents, when the corrections are complete and the final version is bound.

Sadly, I have to wait until next July to graduate (or rather, to celebrate my achievement, as they say – I get the degree before then), because last week also happened to be graduation week in Swansea. ‘Twas lovely to see all the students milling around in their batman gear, especially the ones I’d taught and/or been friends with. I even got to go to the Faculty of Arts ceremony on Monday, and see Alexa graduate, which was lovely.

Photos: Budapest with Alexa, March 2008

Here, finally, my photos of Budapest, from the week I spent there with Alexa at the end of March (as mentioned in an earlier post).

Yes, it’s really taken me three months to get back to tagging and naming them. You can’t really blame me: I did it once already then half the data was lost — such an experience is extremely disheartening. Stupid data.

Choice cuts:

The Alexa's tree St Steven's Basilica 300 stairs later Hammer On Alexa, slightly furrowed of brow Interesting graffiti First Alexa triptych More Alexa disdain Window arm, Margit Telescope eyepiece World Heritage Noncy! This way to the Labirintus Fisherman's Bastion, reflected (1) Happy Window Face... Peter Mansfeld Memorial (6) Kwak suds Andy drinking Kwak Budapest Fringe Festival, wobbly Alexa Approacheth, at the Fringe Magma Fire Theatre at Budapest Fringe Festival 2008 (2) Magma Fire Theatre at Budapest Fringe Festival 2008 (8) Magma Fire Theatre at Budapest Fringe Festival 2008 (14) Alexa on a Jetty Aggressive dog statue

First Alexa triptych

Andy drinking Kwak

Alexa Approacheth, at the Fringe

Swansea Bananaphone Flashmob Video

Swansea Bananaphone Flashmob

Nice vid, Dan. :-)

A weekend of shenanigans

My my, I’ve had a busy (by which I mean fun and not working at all) and sociable (by which I mean much ale and good food, including bananas, was quaffed with silly people) weekend.

It started on Thursday evening, when a whole bunch of us went out to celebrate my birthday at Wasabi, my most beloved local eatery. I mean we celebrated at Wasabi, not it was my “Wasabi birthday” or something. Anyway. Through a combination of the magic of Facebook and the strong appeal of sushi, some forty people chose to celebrate Gimboday with me. I actually turned up a few minutes late, having gone for a quiet pre-meal beer at the Uplands Tavern, and was a) gobsmacked at this crowd of people waiting for me, and b) without somewhere to sit. Oh, it was great. The food was super, although Wasabi really doesn’t seem able to handle large groups: we were split across two tables, and it’s not a gross overstatement to say that everyone on table 2 (which I was on) had received all of their food before anyone on table 1 had received any. Given that by its nature Japanese food tends to come in many small portions (just like Arnold J Rimmer’s love), that really doesn’t make any sense, and must have been hugely frustrating for the denizens of table 1. Anyway, everyone was lovely and I really must log on to Facebook and thank them all for coming more coherently than I managed to in the speech I vaguely remember making. If I tell you I got everyone’s attention for the speech by clanging together my (empty) sake flask and (empty) sake cup, you’ll get the idea. A few of us topped the night off at Mozart’s for good measure. Apparently. Photos here.

Alien Bash Behold my awesome... er... Ladleface! Alexa and Ladleface Hannah and A Mysterious Mustachioed Stranger Emily Seran and Steve

Friday was, by comparison, very quiet. I tried not to make too much noise, or be anywhere too noisy, all day. I’d like to say I enjoyed two episodes of BSG with Bash on the sofa in the evening, but in truth only one could be enjoyed, the other being an insult to all intelligent beings. Tedious predictable cliched crud, alas.

Saturday was banana day. There’s a photo of me on the cover of Mondays’ Evening Post, next to the headline “WORST CHILD PORN EVER”, so that’s nice.

Saturday night was the annual SUCS beach party, and it was the biggest yet. Despite thunder and heavy showers (and even a spot of hail) earlier in the day, it was a fine fine evening, and a beautiful morning when the sun arose “sticking her rays all over the place” as Dave delightfully put it. I may possibly have had a few ales as the night progressed, it’s really impossible to say. I certainly laughed a lot.

The highlight of the night was noticing a bunch of third years playing a drinking game based on my name. Well, to be fair I think they’d adapted a “bingo” drinking game, but anyway. The object of the game was to spell the word “GIMBO” by shouting out its letters one at a time, but if two or more people shout the same letter simultaneously, they have to take a drink. I noticed them shouting “G! I! M!M! Fuck! G! I!I! Fuck! G! I! M!” at which point I jumped in (literally, splatto on the sand) and shouted “B! O!” to cheers and a rousing cry of “And Gimbo was his name-oh!”. Probably one of the happiest moments of my life.

If anyone can remind of the context which gave rise to the following 8AM tweet, I’d be grateful:

Wondering why no-one calls their firstborn “Gimbowang”. Why do you all continue to defy me?

Update: camp-fire singalong video, rofl, etc. [via welti]

The weekend was rounded off beautifully by spending Sunday with my new friend Sioned, a fellow drummer, ending with a visit to Arthur’s Stone and The Greyhound for dinner. Awesome X.

At King Arthur’s Stone, seeing for miles, hearing nothing but tweets and bleats – lush. Next stop: The Greyhound!

another tweet, 7:20pm

Gimbo gets to vote twice ‘cos he’s fab.

Local elections take place in much of England and all of Wales today, so it’s time to vote.

Interestingly, I’ve just realised that I’ve been given two votes this time round, which shouldn’t really happen. In other words, I occur on the electoral register twice. Naturally I won’t exploit this, but I wonder how they’ll react when I show up at the polling station and point this out to them. Will it be a big thing, or just run of the mill? I’d prefer the former; I suspect the latter.

How’s this possible? 2-3 years ago I lived at address X in Mumbles; last year I moved to address Y, also in Mumbles (I was at address Z in between, but that doesn’t feature in our story). I’ve now received, through the post, two polling cards: one for “Andy Martin Gimblett” at address X, and one for “Andrew Gimbleh” at address Y. When I moved in to address Y, I will have filled a form at some point stating that I live here, and somebody in City Hall has obviously bungled the transcription, reading TT as H somehow. Meanwhile, address X presumably lies empty (the landlords were, not to put too fine a point on it, twats) so nobody’s filled in a form telling the world I no longer live there.

The best bit is that, despite X and Y being within 500m or so of each other, they have different polling stations, so I really could vote twice. Even if they ask for ID, I’m sure I could argue convincingly that “Andrew Gimbleh”‘s vote belongs to me, particularly to people who haven’t just seen me vote using a different card. :-)

Thoughtful students of protocol will now be asking the question: Why have I received the card addressed to X? Because I used to have a forward in place, and the postman has apparently learnt my new address. There’s no official forwarding sticker on the card (or on any of my forwarded mail, even the stuff to address Z, where the forward is still in place) – the postie is just being helpful. That’s great, but in this instance is probably not the right thing to do. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that polling cards are, legally, not supposed to be forwarded — that would go some way to preventing this bug, I guess; however, there’s nothing on the card indicating this.

Security: it’s hard.

Where and how far away is the beer?

Two neato sites/apps spotted recently via fellow moderately-curmudgeonly-beer-drinkers’ blogs:

gmap pedometer [rhodri] — plot a course on a google map and find out how far you’ll walk. For example, on Thursday I was able to use this map to ensure that of the sixty-odd people I invited (via Facebook magic) to join me for a walk on Saturday, only one actually turned up, the rest presumably thinking “10 miles? Bugger that!”. As it was we skipped Mumbles Head and chopped it down to eight or so, but still, we look hardcore. Or foolish. My only complaint about gmap-pedometer is that there doesn’t seem to be a way to say “stop recording”, so you (yes, you, reader) could, presumably, go there now and add extra points to my walk, causing anyone coming after you to think I’d spent Saturday yomping enthusiastically from Mumbles to, say, Chicago. Untrue.

Secondly, and maybe more usefully: Beer In The Evening [smallcool] — search pubs by locality and various other (mainly binary) metrics. For example: pubs near my house that serve real ale. Hmmm, I’m sure there are really more than three, but at least it got The Park and would thus presumably help find something good, when in “a tight spot”. While in Llantrisant recently wondering if there were any nice pubs nearby serving food, a beautiful woman suggested to me that it’s a good idea to keep a copy of The Good Pub Guide or similar (eg this one on my wishlist) in your car. We were in her car so I didn’t feel inadequate or ashamed for my lack of pub-finding skills, but seeing this site makes me think that with an iPhone, such a book could be unnecessary. Plus, chicks dig iPhones. And so the ongoing quest to replace all printed media with collaboratively-generated content marches on, driven, as all human activity, by the desire to impress cute friends…

Hmmm, I think I might be overdoing it with the commas…

Late April Keepalive Ping


Lots going on, but blogging sorely neglected. Partially I’ve been busy with work, partially I’ve been busy with going away.

Three Big News Items:

  1. I properly completed and submitted my MPhil thesis; more on this later (including a PDF for anyone masochistic enough to want to read it).
  2. I went to Budapest for a week; photos later. They’re on flickr now but awaiting tags and descriptions; I had done those things but lost them by not listening to the nagging voice telling me not to use crappy software that doesn’t save its state (yes I’m talking about you, kflickr). Executive summary: great city, well worth a visit.
  3. I have a new job! Starting in August, I’ll be a Research Assistant working for Harold Thimbleby on a three-year project on formal tools for analysis of and design for usability, particularly on small devices. Again, more on this later.

There’s a fourth Big News Item but I’m keeping it under my hat for now.

So, lots for me to follow up on, but for now I’d just like to draw your attention to the latest clutch of lovely photos from Bash, who’s sadly been laid low by a bad cold for the last little while.

And stuff Marigold ninja Blossom in the sun How things used to be The lone seagull flies alone

Adam, my nephew

Depression FTW! But not in an emo sense…

Upsides of being down — the positive side of depression.

Having spent most of 2006 and 2007 going through this myself, I can, I think, agree. It was unutterably awful, the worst experience of my life bar none (happily, both my parents are still alive) and I would not choose to repeat it but on the other hand, on the other hand, I am, somehow, improved, I think. I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say more resilient but yeah, with a better perspective, less rose tints (but also no yawning chasms of nihilism), and a bit more serious. But don’t worry: not too much more.

To explain why depression has not been “bred out” through Darwinian natural selection, theories have suggested that rather than being a defect, depression could be a defence against the chronic stress that misguided people can put themselves under. It is possible that depression defends us against the tendency to deny our true needs by chasing unobtainable goals and helps to bring these needs into sharper focus. More specifically, the proposed benefits are as follows: removal from a stressful situation, introspection, problem solving, the development of a new perspective, and reintegrating this with the community upon recovery.

On a related but geeky note, it’s very annoying that the otherwise excellent Guardian Unlimited fails (yes, epic) when it comes to search. Go to the front page and search for “upsides of being down”, the title of this article. It’s a hit but you have scroll down a long way to see it; google, on the other hand have it right at the top, on the day it was published — damn, they good! So come on, Simon, sort it out. ;-)

“Nothing interesting has happened in the last 20 years”, apparently

I delivered my first lecture, for CS-228 Operating Systems, 5 years ago yesterday. Today, TR delivered his first lecture — for, er, CS-228 Operating Systems. I’m sure he’ll do it very well, and certainly better than I, as he is both more informed and opinionated on that topic than I am. Well, on all topics, really… ;-) Welcome to the club, TR!

The Great Escape

Today I wanted to search a large number of text files for a particular sequence of characters. Naturally the tool to use for such a job is grep, as any phule kno.

Unfortunately, the text I wanted to search for was \' — that’s a backslash followed by a single quote. This is mildly problematic because each of these characters has special meanings either for grep or the shell or both.

Long story short, this is what I need to type:

grep \\\\\' *

That’s five backslashes followed by a quote. :-)

WTF? Well: grep uses \\ (two backslashes) to match a single slash, but so does the shell (zsh in this case) so if I entergrep \\' *, the shell would interpret the \\ as meaning “one backslash please” and pass just that one to grep. Unfortunately grep would interpret the backslash as escaping the following character, rather than a literal backslash. Thus, in order to actually give grep the two backslashes it needs in order to match one, I have to type four. Then we also need \' to match the quote character, because a quote on its own is interpreted by the shell as, well, a quote (ie starting a string) — so this final backslash is eaten by the shell in order to pass that quote to grep directly. grep doesn’t treat the quote specially of itself, so finally we have what we want. Sweet.

You have got to love the command line.

Notes: Tony Sale on WW2 codebreaking and Colossus rebuild

Earlier this evening I went to a great lecture by Tony Sale, on “Code Breaking in World War 2″.

He discussed Enigma, and how it was broken, then the Lorenz cipher/machine, and how that was broken, and then the Colossus, leading to the Colossus rebuild project. He should know about this stuff: he started the project.

I took some notes if anyone is interested [PDF, 76Kb] (naturally, these are rough notes, may contain errors, are my own, etc.). You might also want to check out which includes a virtual Colossus.

The sound of the quietness

Sigh… Surely not another “gosh, haven’t I been quiet lately” post? Well, yes. These always give me the same feeling as phoning my parents when I should have phoned them a week ago, replying to messages that have got buried at the top of my inbox (ha! buried at the top!), and seeing Rich at Christmas for the first time in Jesus was it over a year? Actually no, that didn’t feel guilty and crap, just good to see him again. Anyway…

It’s partially because of Facebook, and a recent tendency to post stuff there instead of here. Of course, the sensible thing to do is post it here and then post a link to that on Facebook. So that’s what I’m going to do from now on.

Of late, I’d say it’s increasingly been because I’ve started fairly enthusiastically using lovely ickle super microbloggy Twitter, with its lovely 140 character limit that gets me burning on my SMS-honed character-saving neurons, oh such joy. Actually it’s really great, especially the text message integration… I realise I could probably post to this (WordPress) blog by SMS if I was willing to jump through enough hoops, sacrifice a goat, set my penis on fire, etc. but frankly life’s too short and fire hurts. With Twitter someone else has taken care of making it work, and all of a sardine I can “blog” from anywhere. (Yeah, I know you can with Facebook too but I dunno, I’m still somewhat and actually increasingly ambivalent about the closedness of that particular community.) Getting tweety updates of what everyone else is up to is super fun too. It’s quite random, in fact: at some point, and for no reason I have been able to discern other than that I am cool and handsome, a Danish girl called Nina started following my tweets. Naturally I reciprocated, leading to the somewhat surreal experience, around New Year’s, of every now and then over the course of her 4-day bender, getting little snippets of the Edingburgh hogmanay experience (I infer that her bloke, “the imported alien” hails from thereabouts, also by his reported sporting of a kilt in Copenhagen on Christmas Day). All very odd, but also strangely encouraging for the future of the humanity.

So, yeah; Twitter: it’s jolly good. What I need to do now is find a satisfactory way of integrating it here (work in progress). Probably I’ll just arrange for every tweet to appear as a blog post, though that might annoy anyone who follows me both on Twitter and via the Gimboland RSS. The vain fools.

My other big occupation of late has been my thesis. I have about another month or so to complete it (ie completely). The word count limit for an MPhil at Swansea is 60,000 – this doesn’t look like it’s going to be a problem as mine is currently around 23,000, but it’s hard to tell with LaTeX, particular given the large amount of mathematical notation in chapter 11. Probably it’s even less… Picking another dimension to measure, it’s 93 pages long; I expect it’ll be about 120 to 130 by the time I finish, so you can see there’s still a chunk to do. Still, I’ve been working on this project for two and a half years now, and researching in the area for four, so I must say it’s a real pleasure to finally see some chapters which feel complete and well written, and to have the feeling that I might actually know and have done something. It’s also of course warm and fuzzies that the end is in sight, certainly with a telescope and possibly with binoculars. Every now and then I get a hint of the feeling of a future in which I have a Masters degree (hopefully not being too presumptuous), all smug and validated. I could do with a bit of that…

Finally, I’d just like to mention that I started using Google Reader for my RSS needs today, having got annoyed with trying to run and synchronise two slightly different versions of Liferea on my laptop and work box. Screw it, life is (again) too short. Con: it doesn’t seem to do HTTP authentication, which makes Basecamp feeds out of scope. Pro: what happens when you hit “?” and how pretty that looks. Main pro: declaring “newsfreed bankruptcy” and starting again. Ah, the fresh winds of change!

5 glorious years of, er, rambling and mumbling and getting paid to do it

I started working in Swansea University’s Computer Science department five years ago today. Here’s the evidence. It’s been a blast, and the executive summary still holds true, somewhat amazingly. That is all.

What Bash did with her Sunday

Bash cut her hair today. Photos (mainly by me) here.

(Photos of the Circles of Sound gig should be forthcoming soonish, but she’s got about 500 to wade through – ’twas a good night!)

Emo Bash Mohawk down Easier than shaving a goat The serenity of the recently shorn II

Waves of happiness

Lots of things have been happening to me outside of computers lately, which is one of the main reasons I haven’t written anything here. I suppose Facebook has also been pressing my online contact buttons. Anyway, here’s one of those things.

Yesterday, I had my first experience of something called Five Rhythms dance. It’s hard to describe, but in short, you might say it’s moving meditation, set to music (ordinary, popular music, though thoughtfully chosen and sequenced), journeying through five phases called flow, staccato, chaos, lyrical, and stillness. A complete sequence through all five is called a wave. Well, yesterday I was at an all-day workshop here in Swansea, with a theme of male/female balance, in which we went through three waves: two before lunch, flowing together seamlessly (or was it just one? it feels like it was two, but it is a blur, I admit!), and then another, slower (deeper?) wave in the afternoon.

I’m finding it quite hard to write about, because what I want to express, I can’t, really. I suppose I could say it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, but that somehow sounds throwaway and doesn’t really capture it. It certainly feels like it’s going to have been a very significant experience – it’s definitely opened up some doors.

As someone who loves anyway to dance, and in particular rejoices at the moments when the music and the dance take you out of yourself, out of caring who’s watching, out of thought and out of the moment, well, I just loved it. It was easy and challenging, and familiar and surprising, hot and cold, fast and slow, I could go on…

I’d worried, in hearing about the process, that the music would be some half-baked new agey nonsense incapable of moving me. I was completely wrong – it was singularly excellent, including a number of pieces I recognised (Massive Attack’s Protection and Art Of Noise’s Close To the Edit are two staccato pieces I particularly remember), and much else new. The James Holden Remix of The Sky Was Pink by Nathan Fake (as I found out afterwards) was where it hit the peak to me, at the start of chaos in the final wave. You can hear it on Youtube, but you’ll have to imagine satisfactory bass and a transcendent mental state, I feel. (I’ve just bought it on Juno — my first paid-for music download evah!)

I’m feeling very different after yesterday, about a number of things. If I had to pick one word it would be “calmer”, but it’s also a sense of being more centred, more accepting, more flowing, more connected and (frankly) more alive. A reinvigorated sense of connection with everyone and everything else – for which I’m sure I can largely thank the group, which was (trying not to sound too much of a hippy, if that’s not too late) just utterly welcoming, safe, nurturing, open, opening. If the purpose of the day was the explore male/female balance, it certainly worked for me. Gah, incredible and indescribable!

Though I have written many, words fail me. There we are.

If you want to find out more, and in particular if you’re in Wales and want to try it, here’s Alan Withers, the teacher (workshop dates here, and there are weekly classes in Swansea (clashes with Shiko, alas) and Cardiff). If it sounds at all interesting, I’d say go for it – only good things can happen.

Oh, PS: Shiko should be busking somewhere in Swansea town centre this Saturday, hopefully, as part of Oxjam. More details when I know them. Come gives us your ears and money!


I am a cliff hanger!
Find your own pose!

Fantastic quiz, particularly question 3. Evany still rules, I’m happy to say.

No blogging for ages because: lots of work, nobody cares anyway, and the devil that is Facebook. Have re-established contact with many many old friends, and made the somewhat disquieting discovery that most (but – yay – not all) of the girls I used to fancy have settled down and started making babies. The life, she goes on.

Me drumming, two weekends running


Next Saturday it’s carnival time in Swansea! Once again I’ll be playing steel pans with Rocco’s Rockets, or whatever we’re called this year. Photos from last year here. This time, I’m pleased to report, I’m on bass (pleased because this is easy, it’s bassy, and I’m close to the Jamie-powered main drumkit).

A number of changes from last year: starting point, route, and ending point is different – in particular, we end up on the open area in front of the Waterfront Museum, which sounds all right to me. This probably means we go down Wind Street, which ought to be interesting.

So, come and see!

Then, the following weekend, on Saturday 1st September, Shiko are gigging in sunny Porthcawl. It’ll be in the afternoon, around 2pm, as part of some bigger event taking place (possibly some surfing thing?). There’ll be several drumming groups from the area playing, so it promises to be pretty good. More details as I have them.

Loud and clear

I had a hearing test this morning. To my small amazement, my hearing is apparently just fine – completely within normal bounds. In particular, there are no signs of noise-induced hearing loss, which is frankly incredible given the punishment (mainly via headphones) I’ve given these babies over the years.

The bad news: this means that my apparent difficulty in following conversations (particularly ones I’m on the edge of) in loud-ish surroundings (eg parties, pubs, conferences, etc.) is either a result of deficient mental processing or (probably more likely) that I’m simply not paying enough attention. Still, good to know!

Shiko gig: Crofty Carnival, Saturday 30th July 2007

Heyup. Shiko will be drumming at Croft Carnvial this Saturday — come and see us!

Crofty is a small village on the north coast of the Gower Peninsula (map here). I’m not 100% sure of the times yet, but I think it starts around noon. I should become certain tomorrow. It’ll probably be a smallish fun affair, drumming on foot as part of a parade, apparently. As usual with Shiko gigs I’m not completely sure what to expect. :-) There is talk of heading off to Pontardullais afterwards to do some busking in pubs (it’s their carnival this Saturday too).

“I’m wearing a glowing hat – just look for a glowing hat!”

(If you can’t be bothered to read all the of the following, just watch this video and know that I Was There…)

At 5pm yesterday, I left Swansea in the company of eight excellent people. Around 10pm, we arrived at the car park at Stonehenge, and set up our tents. Around 11pm, I stood before the stones and took a deep breath, before walking among them, touching them, looking, wondering (and weaving my way through a tight-packed throng of revellers). Around 4:50am, along with about 24,000 other weirdos, I looked to the sunrise but alas, ’twas hidden in clouds. Around 6am, I was in the tent, being horizontal; around 10am, I was up and about, rejuvenated and ready for the drive home; around noon, we left. Around 5pm I was waving madly at ex-students from the passenger window of a mini on the M4, much to their amusement. Around 7, I got home and made the cats happy through the magic of food.

26 of the most pleasant hours I have ever spent, I must say. The only thing missing was Bash, which is an excellent excuse for going again next year.

I’d never been to Stonehenge before at all, and I am incredibly grateful to my parents for never taking me, because this was the best first visit I can imagine. Ordinarily, it’s impossible to get right up to the stones (see google maps – those greayish dots trailing around the stones are disappointed tourists), but for the solstice it’s open and free – all praise English Heritage. It was so good to be able to walk right up to this incredible site without restriction, and I recommend a solstice visit if only for this purpose. Word to the wise, however: if weirdos bother you, arrive early, touch the stones, and don’t stay past sunset.

Cos yep, it’s gotta be said: the place was full of weirdos. I was happy to be one of them, but definitely on the normal side, alas. Much nonsense was spoken, but I was particularly amused by: “Emergency! Emergency! Glowstick breakage on the western stone!”, “If you’re not drinking ginger wine you don’t really exist – it’s a quantum thing.”, and “Your hat would be no good for Burning Man: they’d run you out of town. No, they’d fire-poi you out of town.”

BBC coverage here – though I’m sure most of the crowd didn’t get up early: they stayed up late. :-) “It’s bad lovin’, woo hoo, it’s bad lovin’!”

It was a clear night with stratocumulus scudding in from the south just in time to sprinkle us with a couple of light showers and obscure the sunrise – given the rain lately, we were more than grateful for the weather. I certainly didn’t mind not seeing the sun actually break the horizon: I was there for the night, not for the moment. It was a bit chilly around 3am, but I was kept super snug (and thus smug) by my birthday present from Bash and my parents: a shiny new Montane Extreme Smock, as recommended by intrepid Mountain Rescue types. All hail.

Interesting: 5000 more people than last year, but 1000 less cars. Only four arrests.

Photos will follow.

A not-camp-at-all weekend in London

Two weeks ago, we spent the weekend in London, to attend a civil partnership ceremony (I call it a wedding as, I’m sure, would the happy couple) and a house-warming. The wedding was on Friday morning, so (after giving up on trying to find reasonable rail tickets) we drove up Thursday night and stayed with Jason & Sid, whose party was on Saturday. The wedding was lovely: Robin & Oliver, South-African compadres of Bash’s who came to ours (front row/right in this photo), so we were very happy to return the honour. :-) They made a lovely couple, and the ceremony was very touching. The wedding took place at Old Marylebone Town Hall (“Reception Room”) – a very nice venue, with lovely officers (though marginally and amusingly haphazard a couple of times), followed by reception at The Groucho Club. I shudder to think how much it cost them, but the food and wine were both delicious and copious. No, we didn’t see anyone famous. :-)

We milled around Wimbledon on Saturday, wombling on the common and browsing expensive charity shops. In the evening, the house-warming party… Continuing the geeky tradition begun at New Year, some of us did some programming: this time on the classic Amstrad CPC-464 at the top of the stairs (Jason is Very Retro). This being a bit old and light to run a python interpreter, Jason and I knocked up a simple BASIC program to print “Welcome to Jason & Sid’s party” at a random place on the screen every 5 seconds. We even had to RTFM.

It wasn’t all geekery, of course: evidence here. My choice cuts follow.

Will, Bash, Andy Rena doing the chicken dance Crafty smirk Me and the missus Jo worship Lush I left my heart in syntax error Exactly what it looks like Oh, you! Gorgeous Martina I have no idea

Double header

Quiet here lately because it’s exam processing time in the real world, so I’ve been busy busy busy marking, check-marking, and munging. Next week’s busy too but then I can settle into research gear for the summer and do lots of Haskell — woo.

I’m still loving the hell out of xmonad, which just keeps getting better every day. Yesterday I went dual head through the magic of Xinerama; at first it made my brain hurt, trying to keep track of where each workspace was, but now I’m getting to grips with it, I’d say. It’s nice to be able to work on one thing (a blog post, say) while keeping an eye on a background job, and while programming it’s cool to have multiple emacsen filling my field of vision. What could be better?

There is surely much more to say about many things, and I will surely say them soon.

My eyes, they are burning!

One thing I’ve learnt, to my great surprise, while marking my students’ exams is this:

My handwriting, which I’ve always considered pretty bad, really really could be a hell of a lot worse.


A save point is reached on my journey of musical discovery

We went to Hay-on-Wye today. For those that don’t know, it’s a little town with an abundance of (mainly second hand) bookshops, and the location of an annual literary festival much beloved of the British middle class: Guardian readers/Radio 4 listeners in particular. Today was the last day of the 20th edition (a ha ha ha) of the festival; we popped by but didn’t linger, all the good events being sold out. Instead, we hit the shops.

I’m very proud to say that my prize purchase of the day was not in fact a book (though I bought four), but the album Innervisions by Stevie Wonder, featuring not only what I’m rapidly coming to believe is The Greatest Song Ever Recorded, Higher Ground, but also what is certainly The Song With The Greatest Intro Ever Recorded, namely Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing. Awesome. Just incredibly awesome. Why wasn’t I informed?

I can only conclude that until now, I was not ready, and so the Universe kept Stevie and I apart from each other. I note that Innervision was released in 1973, the same year as Tubular Bells, an album which (along with its successors and others like of its ilk) had a much greater influence on my musical development than the joyous funkfest within which my ears are currently glorying. I wonder if I’d have grown my afro sooner, had things only been different…

While we’re on the topic of shaking your (big) hair, I’m happy to report that Shiko’s Monkey gig on Saturday went well and was a lot of fun. It was crowded (and cramped – we were playing literally on the dancefloor!), people danced (a few, anyway), people appluaded and cheered, and (it was generally agreed) we sounded good and didn’t noticeably screw up. Later there was an impromptu jam on the top floor with three djembes, a shekere and a bell, which was much more raw and at least as enjoyable (as a player) as the “proper” gig. So yeah, a great night. I’m still very much loving the drumming, and loving getting better at it, which I seem to be doing. Woo.

Ask Gimboland: web hosting recommendations?

I want to move to a different web hosting provider. Got any recommendations? (Particularly good UK ones?)

From day one, I’ve been with webquarry; I’ve been happy until recently. Now I’m unhappy because their MySQL server goes offline for 15 minutes every day for backup, taking Gimboland with it (I didn’t notice until I switched to WordPress, because my pages used to be static), and because they’ve just disabled catchall email accounts (for, eg, without telling us. I understand the rationale for disabling these, but having to work out ourselves that it happened has been stressful and costly, both in time and money (business lost).

I need to host 4 domains (,,, – with just aliasing; I need email and webspace on each of these; I need ssh access; I need MySQL databases; I need all the obvious things you’d expect, basically. I need it to not go offline for 15 minutes every day! I’d like it to be in the UK so latency on ssh sessions is reduced. ;-) Oh yeah, and I don’t want to pay too much…

I’m paying about $13 (about £7) per month right now, but only getting 1GB of disk space, 48GB of bandwidth per month (the bandwidth’s OK, but that disk space is tight.

Bash pointed me at Media Temple, whose grid service hosting looks excellent and good value at $20 pcm. 100GB of storage, never offline, up to 100 domains, 1000 emails, etc. – it does look good. If they were in the UK I’d go for it immediately. I do, however, have a slight hankering to host in the UK, if only for reduced latency during ssh sessions, and MediaTemple, like WebQuarry, look to be in California. :-)

So: who’s your web daddy?

Salsa dancing from Paviland Cave to Rhossili

The Venn diagram of my friends includes a number of sets. “Computer Scientists” is an obvious one. Less obvious is “German”: since coming to Swansea I’ve made a lot of friends who are either German, work in the German department, or are buddies with people who work in the German department. This is probably mainly due to house-sharing with a lovely German, Barbara, for the first year I was here. Well, of late it’s become clear that many people in or close to that set are also in “Salsa dancers”. I recently realised that my colleagues Ben & Parisa form the intersection of “Computer Scientists” and “Salsa dancers”. There was even a rumour that Markus might conjoin all three sets – alas, not yet.

Still, it became increasingly clear that some kind of cosmic conjunction was underway, and Something Had To Be Done. So we’ve done two things.

First, a couple of weeks ago, sixteen of us went for a big walk on the Gower, which proved to be something of a Meeting Of Sets. Bash & I had planned to go check out Paviland Cave with our friend John since last autumn, and finally managed to set a date. Somehow, over the fortnight leading up to the day, we managed to invite a further thirteen people between us – a lovely mish mash of computery types, visitors from other shores, and sexy salsa dancing girls – with at least one person in all three categories.

It was a great day – a really gorgeous walk with some great people, blessed with superfine weather, a taste of adventure, and a nice pub meal at the end. I made a map of the route we took via google maps (with some notes). Parisa took some great photos, including one of me climbing the rocks towards the cave (another), though at times I wished I’d bowed out gracefully at this point. I did make it to the cave in the end, one of the six of us who did, where I took these photos:

The mouth of Paviland Cave Inside Paviland Cave, looking out The view from Paviland Cave

So, yeah, all in all, a great day, and a highly recommended excursion.

The second thing we’ve had to do is, of course, give this salsa dancing lark a try. I was resistant to this for quite a while, on the grounds that I had the prejudice that it’s something thirty-something yuppies do as a substitute for actually having fun. However, at a recent night at the Monkey I got dragged onto the dancefloor by a recently-returned-from-Mexico drumming compadre, and realised the point of salsa: dancing close to girls. Aha. Not actually a substitute then, but the genuine article – even if I am a thirty-something (I don’t think I’m upwardly mobile enough to count as a yuppie).

So we went to a beginner’s class at Mambo last Friday and Had Lots Of Fun. It was easy enough to get, but new and difficult enough to not do well, and very hot and sweaty, and full of a big mix of interesting looking people. A good way to spend a Friday night, for sure. Thus, watch this space for more salsa musings as I learn my steps. One thing I’ll say: I think the drumming has definitely improved my sense of rhythm, and my ability to learn/remember sequences of actions to perform with my limbs. Ain’t brains wonderful?

font-family: sans-serif;

I have Firefox configured to not allow pages to specify their own fonts: instead, everything just gets rendered as sans-serif. I do this to make the web more legible.

This morning I realised an unintended consequence: my view of Gimboland differs from everyone else’s! While I was seeing it in beuatiful clean sans-serif, everyone else saw Georgia, or Lucida, or one of a list of several possibilities specified by the style sheet. Not what I wanted! So, for now, I’ve switched Gimboland’s style-sheet to specify sans-serif. To my mind this ought to be nice & clean (assuming your fonts are reasonably sensible); you may of course disagree – do let me know if you care to. And you can, of course, override the font in your own browser if you don’t like it. ;-)

This is, by the way, part of my ongoing effort to make Gimboland look OK across platforms & browsers. I think I’ve sorted out the alignment in the header, and now the only thing to do is work out why the sidebar overflows horizontally under Windows (even in Firefox, I think?).

Wasabi — sushi/noodle bar in Swansea

You can now get sushi in Swansea – at last!

A place called Wasabi opened in Uplands a few weeks ago (phone no/address here); we’ve eaten there twice: it did not disappoint on either occasion. Great food, nice decor/atmosphere, loads of cute asian waitresses, plum wine, sake, green tea ice cream (deep fried and not), etc. The first time, I had gyoza, california rolls, and shoyu ramen, which last dish would have sufficed perfectly well alone – huge and delicious, with a soup spoon more like a gently dimpled spatula. The second time, the irresistable gyoza again, and another ramen, this time with spicy beef. My only disappointment here was that it wasn’t spicy enough: I’d hoped for something reminiscent of a spicy beef soup I’d had for breakfast on my last day in Beijing, nearly two years ago. Life continues to attempt to teach me the lesson that things anticipated are rarely as sweet as the anticipation, and I continue to put my fingers in my ears and sing la-la-la.

Anyway, all in all, highly recommended, long overdue, and very welcome.

Weirdly, they seem to have done a really bad job of sorting out an internet presence. On Friday they didn’t even have a Yell listing, though they’ve sorted that out now. (It clearly did no harm to their sales – word of mouth, I assume, assured that the place was packed both times we went.) Furthermore, and quite curiously, the menu sports the address, which is (currently) just a placeholder page, and the domain is registered to a PO box in Hong Kong. I guess it could be the people behind the restaurant, but my first thought was that it was just a domain squatter, and that the restauranteurs had made a big blunder, somehow. :-) The email address is also on the menu, though, so they really do seem to mean it. It all seems a bit weird, to me — can it really be that the (surely highly desirable) domain is owned by a restaurant in humble Swansea? I could understand it being owned by a chain, but then I’d expect the website to have more than a holding page.

Ah, in true geek fashion, I’ve spent as much of this post discussing domain issues as I did on the food (and the waitresses). Somebody save me, please.

Oooh! In related news, congratulations to Jo, who had her PhD viva on Friday and got through it without needing rescue or anybody getting poisoned. Hurrah for Jo! (And thanks for the spicy beef ramen.)

A treat for everyone who prints Gimboland to read on the bus

Sweet. I’ve just discovered the joy of media="print" Cascading Style Sheets. Now if you print (or, yea, print preview) any of the pages on Gimboland, the printed version won’t include sidebar, footer, most of the header, or a comment entry form (if one is present). Tidy!

This is achieved using the strip-it-down magic that is my print.css.

Seems to work great under Firefox. Slightly less optimal under IE7 but hey, who cares? I haven’t tried it with Safari or Opera yet. Any takers?

If only there was a separate radio fee…

Your opinions, please:

As of the 10th of April, the Gimboland household will once again be television-free, and thus free of the obligation to pay for a TV licence. The Gimboland household will, however, continue to love such gems as Late Junction, Rob da Bank, Radio 4 (except the plays, obviously), and the BBC’s online presence in general. All of the above are funded by the licence fee, so the question is: should we in fact continue paying it? I’m half tempted, despite the lack of a legal obligation, simply because I do so value the BBC, in all its commercial-free glory. It has been said by wiser humans than I that the fee is worth it just for Radio 4, and that’s not entirely untrue, I’d say.


Come in, number 348, your time will be up in ten thousand years

Woo hoo. I am the 348th charter member of the Long Now Foundation. Among other things, this gets me access to the US premiere of Eno’s “77 Million Paintings”; alas, I’d say the probability of me affording a flight to the USA this year is approximately zero. Ah well.

On the other hand, I don’t really mind. The best thing you can do to protect the environment, as Spencer Beebe says, is stay at home. :-)

Monad wrangling, and the joy of #haskell

Three days ago, I enthused about the Python community, and what a great help to me they were back in the day.

These days it’s Haskell that has my brain feeling too small, and I’ve just had my first experience of the Haskell community. I installed an IRC client for the first time in four years just so I could log on to the #haskell IRC channel. I’m happy to report that the experience was entirely positive.

For an imperative programmer, learning Haskell is initially hard because you have to stop thinking in terms of issuing instructions which will be performed in order, and start thinking in terms of composing pure functions (which have no side effects) together to Get Things Done. It’s weird at first, but ultimately very powerful, as it lends itself much more nicely to higher-order programming, lazy evaluation, actually composing programs out of reusable parts, etc. I’d say I’m starting to get a reasonable feel for that, although I’ve got a long way to go.

Unfortunately, a little later, you realise that there are cases where you need side-effects (eg input/output), which leads you into this whole sort-of-imperative side of Haskell, at the heart of which lie the hairy monad things. You totally can’t avoid this, because sooner or later you need to do I/O. Monadic I/O (and monads in general) look & feel imperative at first, but you soon hit barriers thinking like that, and ultimately really have to read stuff like The I/O Inside Tutorial, Tackling The Awkward Squad, etc. in order to understand what’s really going on, which is actually really clever, decidedly not imperative, and at some point turns into lambda calculus or category theory (take your pick).

It’s monads that I’ve been wrangling with lately. I’ve been trying to do a fairly simple I/O task: I have some directory containing some files; I want to operate on a subset of the files in that directory, for each of them reading the file and creating some data object representing its contents. The details aren’t important. Doing this in Python (say) is trivial. Doing it in Haskell has had me stuck for nearly a week. :-) I spent all day last Friday working through “I/O Inside”, and now understand monads much better than I did, and maybe half as well as I should (but maybe not even). That was all very informative and educational, but still didn’t answer my problem.

Anyway, long story short, tonight I installed an IRC client, went on #haskell, asked the question, and got an answer immediately and in a wonderfully friendly fashion. Full #haskell chat log for today is here if anyone’s interested, but in essence it turns out that mapM is what I need for this task. Sweet, and actually incredibly simple when you know it. I think a lot of Haskell is like that…

By the way, the #haskell channel has this neato lambdabot running, which among other handy functions, remembers and repeats amusing/apposite quotes when instructed to do so. Given the sad theory geek that I am becoming, this quote it kicked up tonight made me chortle:

Binkley: the sex is all in the operational semantics, denotational semantics only deals with love.

vincenz, 14:41:22

Shiko at Mumbles St David’s Day Parade 2007

Drumming in public last Saturday was super ++fun.

The “Mumbles St David’s Day Parade” turned out to be somewhat smaller than I’d expected, but was excellent, nonetheless. It consisted of a group of primary school children in a Chinese-style dragon (red, of course), Shiko drumming alongside them, and another group of primary school childen behind, dancing and holding aloft a banner (which I didn’t actually read). About 50 people in total, I guess? It was enough, anyway, and a good crowd turned out to watch us.

The dragon looked like this:

Parade dragon (thumbnail)

Pretty good, eh? There are more photos on the all new Shiko flickr space.

The parade started in the quarry car park, crossed the road to get to the sea front, went south for maybe a couple of hundred metres in front of the grassy bit, then back north along the road to the mini-roundabout, and up Newton Road past the shops and the Ostreme Centre as far as the church at the top. We should have ended up in the school grounds opposite the church, but apparently nobody knew the combination lock for the gate! There was a moment of faff before plan b, and a diversion over the road.

This was the first time I’d drummed and walked at the same time. We all had light drums, mine one of these, donated to Shiko by Abbie, sadly missed since she disappeared around the world on a yacht. Although you can’t see it, I carried it via my climbing harness & a crab, as opposed to the more traditional sling (eg Chris, on the left). I wasn’t sure how well that was going to work, but it was great! I felt very much the modern climbing djembe innovator.

So yeah, it was a lot of fun. Lots of enthusiastic spectators, bemused shoppers & Mumblians, and an interesting mix of car drivers. The downhill traffic was halted all the way down Newtown Road (the uphill side was kept clear, halted further back), and the cars contained, I’d say, a 70/30 mix of people who were lovin’ it, happy to be in the middle of this strange unexpected happening (especially if they had kids, as you can imagine), and scowling men on their own in large cars trying to get to town and Do Important Things. I took particular care to play enthusiastically at these people, and make it as clear as possible that I was having a damn good time on this gorgeous sunny day, even if they weren’t. :-)

In other news, chor and indeed tle.

Callington museum goes up in flames

Sad day: Mum rang earlier to tell me that Callington museum caught fire this morning. Sadder still, I haven’t ever visited it – for all those years since it opened, I’ve always postponed going because “it’ll be there when I get round to it”. Well, too late Gimbo. Lesson in there for all of us, I’d say.

(Callington is my home town, btw.)

Update 2007-03-05: Dad sent me the following photo:

Callington Museum (burnt out)

Apparently he spoke to one of the firemen, and (I quote) it would appear most of the artifacts were saved, with only smoke & water damage. Cause was apparently an electrical fire at the control box.

Spam problem seems to have resolved itself

The spam issue I reported a few days ago seems to have gone away (for now). I suppose they used addresses for “one run”, and then I saw the undeliverable reports petering in over the next few days (though mostly on that first day), and now they’ve stopped. Still, it could start up again any time.

My ISP’s advice was to disable the (otherwise very handy) “catchall” account; I can still create “one use” addresses my setting up an alias/forward (easily via their web admin interface), but that’s still gonna be a PITA (I’ll be bound to miss some, too). Why is the world full of people who insist on making things shittier for the rest of us? The catchall is really handy but now I’m told I can’t use it because of some asshat trying to sell viagra? It ain’t right.


Curses – the good name of the domain is being sullied by spammers.

Today I found about 200 “Mail delivery failure” reports in my “catchall” mailbox. It looks like the spammers are abusing me indirectly, in a way which can’t be stopped. (Though I can fairly easily ignore them, tbh.)

Since I own the domain, I get to look after any email sent to that domain. There are a few boxes set up, but if you email, say, (for which there isn’t a mailbox set up), it’ll fall through to a “catchall” account. This is incredibly useful for, eg, signing up to websites. I don’t need to re-use a “real” email address, I can just use If that site ever sells on that address and it starts getting spam, I can filter it easily. Nice, no problemo, etc.

Unfortunately, this means that if anyone sends you an email with a forged reply address of (say), and you bounce it (because it’s obviously spam, or the recipient address doesn’t exist), your bounce notification ends up in my inbox.

It appears that some spammer has started using addresses for this purpose. I wonder if it’s someone I know having a go at me. Possible, but unlikely (I guess). Occam’s Razor says it’s probably just my random bad luck today. I wonder how long it’ll last… I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it, unfortunately… Ah well!

Later… TR suggested I was being Joe Jobbed, which I agree is possible. The profile of the spam is “normal contemporary spam”, however (ie nonsense text and attached gifs actually selling something), which perhaps doesn’t fit the Joe Job profile. *shrug*.

Saving Private Ryan

Bash & I watched Saving Private Ryan this evening. I’ve wanted to see it since it came out, mainly because I’d heard that the first half hour or so was incredible. More generally, I quite like gritty WW2 stuff since I read Cryptonomicon, and I enjoyed what I saw (little) of Band of Brothers, so it seemed likely I’d enjoy this.

Well, yeah, it was all right. Not a life changer, but also not a complete waste of three hours either. The first half hour certainly didn’t disappoint, and overall I was fairly gripped, and impressed by the grittiness, jumpiness, fleshiness of it. I think it would be improved about tenfold by (a) having absolutely no music whatsoever (apart from the Edith Piaf, obviously), and (b) having no Stars ‘n’ Stripes fluttering fore and aft. But hey, shrug, it’s a product of its time and place, I guess (three years before the WTC attacks, btw). I expect it had more impact when it was fresh and the camerawork/lighting techniques were new & exciting, but still, it worked well. Tom Hanks did his Thinking Man’s Regular Joe routine as well as ever, and the supporting cast was gratifyingly full of “ooh look, I know him” faces (Ted Danson – yay). I was surprised to see Matt Damon as Ryan (I didn’t know before I watched it), which of course spawned a slight Team America moment on the couch. Always a pleasure…

(Hey, check the trivia on IMDB: interesting snippet on the Lincoln letter. It figures – historical truth is almost never as stirringly poetic as it is portrayed by propogandists, I suppose.)

Autoattach / automount encrypted home partition in FreeBSD using GBDE

I’ve just set up one of my laptops, running FreeBSD, so that /home is encrypted using GBDE, and is auto-attached/mounted/fsck’d at boot time. The instructions in the FreeBSD handbook aren’t completely clear, so here are some notes on how I did it.

Actually, most of those instructions are very clear, provided you don’t care about attaching at boot time. Indeed, I’ve had an encrypted partition which I attach/detach by hand, for about a year now, for which those instructions were perfectly adequate. Unfortunately, the section on “Automatically Mounting Encrypted Partitions” leaves out two important details which conflict with the rest of the chapter: your lock file’s name needs to end in the text “.lock”, and you need to be careful where you put it. This was confusing, and in some ways what you have to do to get automounting working contradicts the other examples in the chapter.

Anyway, long story short, I had to dig into /etc/rc.d/gbde to work out what had to be done, and here it is… A summary of how to set up an auto-attaching encrypting home partition on FreeBSD using GBDE:

(I did this as pretty much the first thing after a fresh install, before I’d even created any users. Needless to say, then, all of this happens as root.)

Here’s how /etc/fstab looked before I started:

# cat /etc/fstab
# Device        Mountpoint         FStype    Options   Dump Pass#
/dev/ad0s1b     none               swap      sw        0    0
/dev/ad0s1a     /                  ufs       rw        1    1
/dev/ad0s1e     /tmp               ufs       rw        2    2
/dev/ad0s1f     /usr               ufs       rw        2    2
/dev/ad0s1g     /usr/home          ufs       rw        2    2
/dev/ad0s1d     /var               ufs       rw        2    2
/dev/acd0       /cdrom             cd9660    ro,noauto 0    0

Unmount /home because I’m about to blat it completely:

# umount /usr/home

Create a directory to contain the lock files:

# mkdir /etc/gbde

Initialise the partition for GBDE. I used a use sector size of 2048 (which matches the UFS fragment size). Note that the lock file’s name ends in .lock; this is not how the main body of the GBDE instructions in the handbook does it, but it’s necessary to get /etc/rc.d/gbde to attach it properly on boot up:

# gbde init /dev/ad0s1g -i -L /etc/gbde/ad0s1g.lock
Enter new passphrase:
Reenter new passphrase: 

Attach the encrypted partition to the kernel for the first time (entering the passphrase previously specified), and write the filesystem:

# gbde attach /dev/ad0s1g -l /etc/gbde/ad0s1g.lock
Enter passphrase: 
# newfs -U /dev/ad0s1g.bde 
/dev/ad0s1g.bde: 6632.5MB (13583360 sectors) block size 16384,
                 fragment size 2048 using 37 cylinder groups of
                 183.77MB, 11761 blks, 23552 inodes.  with soft
super-block backups (for fsck -b #) at:
 160, 376512, 752864, 1129216, 1505568, 1881920, 2258272, 2634624,


Test the mount:

# mount /dev/ad0s1g.bde /usr/home

Assuming that looks good (eg in df), unmount it and detach it:

# umount /usr/home
# gbde detach /dev/ad0s1g

Now we’re ready to set it up for auto-attaching. We need to alter /etc/rc.conf and /etc/

# tail -n 3 /etc/rc.conf

We need the gbde_lockdir line because otherwise it looks for the lock files just in /etc, I think.

# grep home /etc/fstab
/dev/ad0s1g.bde /usr/home          ufs       rw        2    2

Now when I boot, it asks for the passphrase, attaches the encrypted partition, and mounts it – automatically – then it gets fsck’d with everything else. It doesn’t automatically detach upon halting the system, but I guess that’s no problem. :-)

The only thing I don’t totally like is that if I get the passphrase wrong (3 times), it doesn’t attach or mount the encrypted partition (obviously), but then of course it fails filesystem checks completely and the boot process dumps down to single user mode, messily. Not completely unreasonable, I guess, but still a bit annoying.

Anyway, anyone now stealing my (crappy) laptop will have a much harder time of getting at the data on it (the interesting data, anyway). Whee!

I would be like David Lee Roth!

Currently greatly enjoying reading Questionable Content from start to finish. Bash spotted it linked off xkcd.

I saw Children Of Men last night and it completely broke my brain. That film is completely drenched in fear; every moment of the film, every character, everything that happens is driven by fear. Awful, just absolutely horrible. I mean, a great film (and I really like Clive Owen, I think) but I will be happy never to see it again. The last film I saw which left me feeling like this was Requiem For A Dream back in late 2002, but if anything last night was worse – with Requiem, it was really only the last half hour that was drowning in trauma, whereas last night it was the whole fucking film.

As such, I am spending the day at home nursing my psyche by drinking cups of tea and reading harmless web comics. :-)

gimbo breaks everything – hurrah!

Well, hopefully not everything, but…

Woo: I’ve migrated (some might say upgraded) gimboland from Movable Type to WordPress.

This is the fifth system I’ve used to maintain gimboland. Initially I was just editing HTML by hand; very soon thereafter I started using Blogger; in June 2002 I ditched that in favour of some home-grown Python scripts; in December 2004, the desire for a commenting system led to Movable Type; now this. What next? Something in Haskell, perhaps? ;-)

The migration process was by no means “one click” (though aided considerably by my host’s use of directadmin and installatron) – which is why things have been so quiet here lately – and has had a number of consequences…

For one thing, all the URLs have changed, which means bookmarks and inward-links will tend to be broken. I’ve tried to fix this as much as possible with HTTP redirects (yay apache magic). There are nearly 2000 posts in Gimboland, however, so that’s now one long .htaccess file. :-) I might well have screwed up, so if you’re aware of anything missing or horrible, do let me know. One possible issue is the syndication feeds: I used to have RSS and atom feeds, whereas now there’ll be just one RSS feed in a different location – if the feed situation is unsatisfactory do let me know and I’ll look into alternatives.

The most obvious change is that all the blog stuff is now off rather than at the root; the rest of Gimboland – ie everything not off /blog/ – is still in a somewhat broken state (in particular the images), but now I’ve got this major part back under control, I look forward to making the rest of the site as good as I’d like it to be. The only problem is that it takes so long to get this stuff sorted, and I’ve got so much other stuff I should be doing. Well, I’ll get there, particularly if I remember that perfect is the enemy of done.

What else has changed? Generally, things have been getting “crufty” for a while, and much of that cruft should now be gone. The search box is working again; comments are up again (and handled better, particularly for code samples – though we’ll have to see how WP handles the spam question); we now have tags rather than categories; hopefully the colour scheme is nicer. :-) Finally, WordPress is GPL‘d, unlike Movable Type – yay.

Anyway: now it’s really time (I hope) to stop tweaking this stuff and start blogging again. And on that note…

WordPress appears to have a quite powerful plugin architecture; one plugin I’ve found fun is lightstats which, with some tweaking (bleurgh, PHP), gives me some interesting and informative graphs about gimboland’s posts over the last nearly six years. The first two show category use and are boring at the moment because most of the posts are uncategorised: I aim to fix that. The third one, posts per month, is the one I really wanted, and it’s a depressing sight: I’ve really dropped off posting over the last couple of years. Part of that, maybe, I hope, is that I’m posting less but better (much early stuff is just links to silly things), but I think I’ve also just trailed off in shame as the site got cruftier and cruftier. Thus, onwards to a cruft-free post-rich future!

Posts per category, snapshot 21 Jan 2007

Words per category, snapshot 21 Jan 2007

Posts per month per category, snapshot 21 Jan 2007

Comments per post, snapshot 21 Jan 2007

You can’t beat python for seeing in the new year…

Gimbo’s New Year’s Eve 06/07:

Two but not all…

Two things I love: Amelie and biscuits.

Gimbo’s thought for the day

The best preparation for being able to deal with the things you want is not getting them.

(For a while, at least. ;-) )

Steel pan drumming at the Swansea MAS Carnival 2006

As previously reported, last Saturday was carnival day in Swansea and I got roped in, very willingly, to do some steel pan drumming. It was a great day, and I have discovered a love for dancing in the street. :-) There were loads of amazingly dressed people doing fun things and generally celebrating the idea of having a good time and being alive. Good stuff. I ended up in the Monkey that night and met lots more interesting people, including someone who’s going to help me execute my next Cunning Plan. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, my carnival photos are here, although they’re mainly before/after shots (ie of the preparation and aftermath), since during the actual procession I was a bit busy banging on my drum. A few favourites:

Gimbo with facepaint Smoking blue devil Jamie and foxy devils Young fellow panner Mandy and Dan, ready to go The Mask Karen warming up The infinite red carpet players Post-parade stilt relaxation Abandoned head dress

“And on rhythm guitar… give it up for… gimbo!”

Late notice but: tomorrow I will be playing steelpan in the parade at Swansea Carnival!

I had never played one before Wednesday (ie two days ago). I got roped into it by one of my African drumming buddies, went to rehearsals Wednesday and yesterday, and tomorrow is the big day.

So if you’re in town tomorrow around 1PM, 2PM or so, look out for me at the front of the steelpan float, dressed up crazy, probably with painted face, trying desperately to keep up with Rocco’s frantic hammering. Hopefully I’ll look like I’m having a good time – possibly ending up in the Monkey in the evening.

Tonight it’s “Jab Jab”, which is some crazy pre-carnival procession-cum-pub crawl. I’ve been told it’s better than the carnival. Alas, I don’t think I’ll make it, because one of my work computers has just died (the Windows one, obviously), right in the middle of me trying to do my post-resit-exams marks admin work. Gaaaah! Fricking computers! Ah well, party time tomorrow, anyway.

Unity 10th Birthday Party this Friday

This Friday (28th July 2006), there will be an evening of “Uplifting Dance Music” (what Julie and Heather used to call “bleepy shit”) in Swansea, to which you should come.

It’s the 10th anniversary of the very first outing of the classic Swansea dance night Unity, which stopped running several years ago (certainly before I came to Swansea). I understand it will be something of a reunion of lots of people who were involved over the years, so it ought to be quite good fun.

It’s at “The Inferno” (above Blockbuster Video in Uplands), running from 9pm to 1am; admission is 4 quid (2 quid before 10pm). “Dress extravagantly”, the flier says. It’s being organised by Geraint, the man who first drew me to Swansea so many years ago in order to twiddle knobs on synths and make bleepy thumpy things happen.

Maybe see you there…

(Apologies for short notice; I’ve been meaning to blog this for ages… Wanted to scan the flier but don’t have access to a scanner and didn’t sort it out. Bah.)

Let’s groove!

This coming Saturday sees my glorious musical return to Aberavon, scene of my first (now legendary) gig, oh so many years ago.

This time round there won’t be any bleep or samples, but there will still be plenty of thumping drums – I’ll be there as part of drum troupe Shiko, laying down some African rhythms for the delectation of the good folk at the Sandfields Aberavon Beach Festival.

We’ll be playing at 1pm. Come and see! And hear!

Free at last

Our ex-landlords finally returned our £725 deposit last week, over six months after we moved out of the house (moved out 22nd Feb, cheque dated 27th June, received 3rd July). Five months! Nearly six! There’s no excuse for that kind of behaviour.

They were never particularly responsive or helpful landlords. For the entire time we lived in the house there were problems with the shower and bath, and it was a constant battle to get them to act: repeated phone calls and letters, constant chasing, long waits. When when they did act, the job never got done properly – the shower was still not usable when we moved out. (More moaning on this topic here.) The only time they leapt into action was when the rent was a week late because I was changing the account it originated from – we sure heard from them quick then.

So, farebadly, greedy fools – it’s good to be shot of you.

Update December 2006: the house stood empty from February until December, and has only now been reoccupied. That’s about six grand in lost rent they could have had from us if they’d been less greedy and more on the ball. Righteous.

The tide was in and no-one was home (cos they were on the beach anyway)

I’m pleased to report that Bash’s Budget Birthday Beachparty Bonanza went rather well. A few no-shows, but a respectable picnic, some kite-flying (complete with little girls gleefully chasing the tail as I trailed it before them with my l33t k1t3 skills), four of us swimming (not so cold, and big big waves), and a brief panic over a not-actually-lost wedding ring. Apres ca, back to ours for Dr Who (ooh, what a tearjerker) and an evening of nibbly chatty goodness. Today is relaxation day – watching Michael Palin and fiddling with wmii, of which, more shortly…

Best. Invite. Ever.

This Friday is Bash’s birthday. On Saturday we’re celebrating by going to the beach: Langland Bay, just round the corner from Mumbles. We’ll be there from about 4pm onwards. Anybody reading this is invited, and so are their friends.

More details and a link to a map may be found in the fabulous invite which Bash made using Mac Magic yesterday:

Bash's birthday party invite (PDF, 36KB) – timing small repetitive jobs

It’s exam marking season hereabouts (and, thanks to the AUT industrial action, coursework marking time), so I’ve got my head down in piles of exam scripts.

One exam (on IT security) was a complete nightmare to mark – essay questions, loads of text, oh it just took ages. It really seemed to go on forever. At least I only had to mark half of it – but I really wasn’t looking forward to my other exams, to be marked all on my own.

Python to the rescue!

No, not a random number generator (though it’s sometimes tempting). Instead, a motivational tool: something to keep me focussed and “in the game”.

I have two problems when marking, basically: one is that when I’ve got a huge pile to get through, and it’s going fairly slowly, oh it’s sooo painful and you want it to be over, but it isn’t, and it won’t do itself, and, well, it’s all very antimotivational. The other problem is that I get distracted easily, so I’ll do a few, then chat, then do a few, then play Urban Dead for a bit, then do a few more, etc. Naturally these two problems feed into each other, and a snail’s pace is achieved.

It’s all mental – the issue is focus. Thus, we present, a little script I knocked up in a hurry yesterday evening to help me stay focussed. And I gotta say, it’s proven instrumental in helping me hammer through the networks exams in record time.

Basically, is a simple tool for keeping track of progress through a large batch of small repetetive jobs, where you want to know how long you’re spending on each job on average, and how many you’ve done so far. It has a simple text-mode keyboard interface, whose central feature is “you hit space to tell it you’ve finished one job and are starting another”. You can pause it, report on averages, and see how much time since you started has been spent “unpaused and working” (as opposed to “paused and playing Shartak, say).

It’s very simple: no persistence between sessions, no flashy graphics, and probably only works on Unix – it uses select() on stdin to catch keypresses; a Windows version could be hacked using msvcrt, I guess. The code’s not beautiful, but it does the job beautifully well for me.

Read the comment at the start of the code to see excactly how to use it. It’s dead simple.


Screenshot of in action

The clock starts ticking at 15:06:07; the first job takes 27 seconds, then 2 mins 5, then 1:42, then 2:51. 10 seconds into the next job (at 15:06:23), the clock is paused. 15 seconds later, it’s unpaused, and three seconds later that job’s complete. At 15:06:44 we hit ‘a’ to get a reading of averages/stats: 5 done, average 1 min 27, elapsed wall clock time is 7 mins 36, 96% of which has been spent with the clock ticking. Etc., etc. – you get the picture. Actually, looking at this shows me a bug/feature: when you quit, it doesn’t count the job that was just running – so end a job before quitting if you care about accuracy. :-)

Two nice days among a recent spate of hecticity

Courtesy of the artistic exposure machine that is Will Harwood, here are photos of my birthday (warning: nipples) and of a trip to see MacBeth at Oystermouth Castle.

Pestilence and decay

I’ve been ill. sniffle I still have a sore throat/cough which is shifting slowly, ever so slowly. Bleugh.

And while we’re on the subject of rotting flesh, it’s high time I mentioned the one thing that’s been dominating coffee-time conversation round here for the last month: Urban Dead – a low-tech Zombie Acopalypse Massively Multiplayer Online RPG. It’s really rather good. It’s also (deliberately) very slow: everything you do costs one action point; you’re given two action points per hour; and you can never have more than fifty. As such, you can’t spend all day playing it, so it’s not too much of a time sink. You can, of course, spend all day reading the wiki. My advice: start as a scientist, and get your XP by scanning zombies. Get Free Running as soon as you can, then First Aid. I’ve been playing since the 6th of May and I’m level 9 already.

Alternatively, of course, play as a zombie and eat your friends. Brains! Brains! Brains! Kids OK.

Why the Sony Ericsson w800i sucks


I used to own a Sony Ericsson k700i and it was a great little phone except that it really sucked in that it only had capacity for 100 text messages. Never mind it had 64Mb or so for photos and music – 100 short messages is all you’re getting, buckaroo!

Well, I upgraded recently to the super shiny w800i – this is the Walkman branded thing, and it’s a very very nice phone. Great interface, great camera, records sound, blah, blah, blah. Oh yeah, and it’s got a little stick in the side which gives it a memory of 512Mb. Half a gigabyte. Double the memory of the laptop I’m typing on right now, in fact.

The bastard thing has just cheerfully told me “Text memory over 95% full – delete some messages now?” No you fucker! I don’t want to delete some messages now!!! Your memory is empty you stupid piece of shit!

Apologies for the swearing but god damn it I’m angry. I mean, I knew the salesman with the Toni and Guy haircut had no fucking clue what he was talking about when he said it didn’t have this text/sms memory limit problem, but all the same, I really thought they’d have sorted this stupid stupid bug out by now. There is absolutely no excuse for this kind of shoddy programming in a product this advanced.


/me goes and kills someone

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Last night, I finished reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a tale of the revival of English magic in the early 1800s. It was good – long and good. I was surprised it didn’t end in quite the way I’d been expecting for about the last 600 pages, but I guess that’s no bad thing… :-) There were lots of footnotes, but they didn’t get tedious and she didn’t fall into the Pratchett trap of recursive footnotes, thankfully. Norrell was mainly annoying and boring, which is how he was meant to be – but by the end he’d redeemed himself, mainly by rediscovering his roots, I guess. Strange is the pivot of the book, and towards the end I realised with pleasure that my mental image of him was Hackworth from The Diamond Age. Strong parallels, for sure. (Bash tells me she pictured Hugh Laurie! Possibly Bertie Wooster, in fact! ;-) )

Anyway: definitely recommended, if you enjoy this sort of thing.

She says it was accidental…

For the record: Bash put mayo in her coffee on Saturday.

Moving house, anniversaries, and project management

I just haven’t had time for blogging lately, which means I’ve been busy, which nominally means I’ve got a lot to write about, I guess. So here are the big random snippets from my life of the last three weeks:

Mainly, we moved house, from number 6 in our street to number 1. We’d been at number 6 for two years, and while it was a nice, large house we had compelling reasons to leave. The main reason was the landlords, who fitted the stereotype of wanting your money but not wanting to do anything much in return. Feel free to skip the next paragraph if you’re not interested in me moaning about them…

For most of the two years we spent at number 6, we were unable to use the shower. First, the pipes made this horrible screaming noise every time we tried. That did get sorted, after a number of phone calls, but a few months later we noticed that water was trickling down the kitchen walls and the plaster in the ceiling was rotting – a leaky seal around the bath. More than a year later, we’re moving out and the problem still hasn’t been fixed. Numerous phone calls and letters eventually stirred them into action and they sent a man round to sort it out, who did a botched job – so the problem wasn’t fixed at all. This cycle happened three times (with three different sets of cowboys), and it’s still not fixed. There’s also is a leak in the roof, leading to a similar problem in the bedroom ceiling (and during hard persistent rain, a pleasant drip-drip-drip onto the bedroom carpet). They never really showed any real interest in getting that fixed. In general dealing with them has been unpleasant – they’re a pair of solicitors and when phoning their office one always gets the impression their reception has been instructed to be unpleasant and obstructive to tenants…

Despite these outstanding problems, they were quite happy to raise the rent again, so we decided it was time to get them out of our lives. They seemed quite surprised, for some reason.

The new place belongs to our erstwhile neighbours, a very pleasant couple who’ve headed out to Sri Lanka for eighteen months or so doing NGO work of some sort, I believe. The contrast between old landlords and new could not be greater. Old were motivated by greed, new are motivated by wanting to find someone nice to look after the house and the cat. The place is smaller, but that’s good because we had too much junk lying around and now we’re forced to sort it out. The rent is lower, and the other bills should be too. They’re even paying us some money back for cat food!

The weekend before last we did most of the moving, with a lot of help from our friends. I’ve put some photos here (and oh dear, it looks like I have to fix the stylesheets for those pages – something has gone horribly wrong). Will also took some photos which are in the usual Will style and thus look great but don’t give you much of an impression of what the new place is actually like. :-)

Sophie, the new cat, has welcomed us with open arms. Actually I think she’s mainly welcomed us with an open mouth, and so long as she’s being fed she’s happy. Fudge is having a harder time of it, and isn’t happy having another cat around. There’s been quite a bit of hissing and growling. Some days she’s better than others, however, and we’re still hopeful that they’ll end up being friends…

Sophie on beanbag Fudge shadow

I’m enjoying having a decent garden and – oh yes – a shed. The shed came packed with goodies, including a couple of boogie boards (roll on the summer!) and a workmate, which I put to good use at the weekend, cutting down the legs on a nice glass-topped dining table we don’t have room for, which transformed it into a nice glass-topped coffee table we do have room for. It was fun.

The TV got broken in a stupid fashion during the move, so we’re currently borrowing Jason’s projector, and watching Family Guy on one of the living room walls – which is kinda cool.

Last weekend George and Lidia had a house-warming/pizza-eating/brownie cooking/eating party, which was most pleasant. Being party animals, we spent a good deal of that time watching Black Books and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which I’ve wanted to see for years, since reading the book. Naturally it wasn’t as good, but it wasn’t too bad and Penelope Cruz, pheweeee. Hearing her accent, I did want her to say “we will tape over him with the snooker”, however.

In other news, we watched The Apprentice last night (the Alan Sugar thing). Not my choice, but Bash wanted to check it out. I mostly tried to ignore it, instead playing with some nifty new project management software on my Palm, but I did get sucked in a few times. Yeah, it was quite enjoyable, but afterwards I think I summed it up by saying it’s still rubbishy TV – it’s just Pop Idol for people like us, ie people who, for example, have project management software on their Palms. :-) Instead of cringing, laughing, and screaming at the contestants’ terrible singing, we’re cringing, laughing, and screaming at their terrible thinking, organisation and communication.

Finally, it was our second wedding anniversary two days ago – as close to it as we’ll get this year, anyway. We had a quiet night in and I cooked. Among other successes, I learnt that asparagus tips fried in butter and cashews have a pleasingly high tastiness-to-difficulty ratio. Oh yes, and it snowed that night, just as it did at this time two years ago (though I didn’t get a snowman on the desk in my lecture this year, sadly).

Gimboland is five years old

I Am Five!

Five years ago today Gimboland began. Actually, it began some time before then, but that’s when I switched to Blogger and previous hand-crafted posts are, apparently, lost.

I’d hoped to get a bit retrospective, including links to the longest post, the shortest, the busiest month, the quietest, etc. I’d also hoped to unveil a new (hopefully cleaner and certainly much less black) design I’ve been quietly working on. Unfortunately work and life in general have been horribly hectic and stressful lately and so it didn’t happen. The things we hope will happen rarely turn into the things that do happen, it seems. Anyway, woo.

Also, yes: unlike Defective Yeti, I can count! :-)

Swansea gets an indoor climbing wall

w00t. An indoor climbing centre is opening just north of Swansea – next month.

Back in 2002, I went to a nice indoor wall just north of Cardiff pretty much every week. I progressed from absolute beginner to semi-competent, and enjoyed myself enormously. Unfortunately, I haven’t climbed since I came to Swansea. The drive to the climbing centre is too long, and I had an enforced break when I crashed my car coming back from there one night. I lost the inertia, and got waaaaaay too busy, and just could never justify the journey. I don’t fancy outdoor climbing so much yet, though I’m sure I’ll get to that.

This, then, is good news.

Who’s your ADSL pimp?

Open question: what service/which provider can people recommend for ADSL in the UK? (Specifically Swansea, though I doubt that matters.) Right now we’re with NTL (ie cable), paying way too much.

Visceral pleasures

A really good meal: it takes you from not believing you could ever be full, to not believing you could ever be hungry again.

(Not very taoist, I realise…)

Another glorious day in Gotham City

w00t – I just watched the sun rise, standing on the beach. Delicious, no matter how cold your ears get.

Walking from Mumbles to Three Cliffs Bay

Three Cliffs Bay at sunset

On Saturday morning, I drove Bash to Cardiff Airport and saw her off to Amsterdam, where she’s spending the week reporting on Eurooscon for Ping Wales. How, then, to spend the afternoon? I somehow managed to resist the alluring prospect of tidying the house, saving it for Sunday, and instead walked from our house to Three Cliffs Bay. It were nice.

Photos are here, potentially boring account follows…

(By the way, Friday night was rather good too – Lanonima Imperial at Taliesin, performing The Ecstasy of Orpheus. We somehow got invited to the after-show nibbles and wine, and Will’s excellent art is here.)

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Perhaps I’m just getting bored with it at last…

A month of silence. What have I been doing?

The Linux 2005 conference showed me two things very clearly.

One, I needed my own laptop. I’d been limping along using a departmental Windows laptop shared with another tutor, but I knew that wasn’t going to fly this year because it was tricky enough last year, and our teaching loads have both increased since then. Sitting in a room full of Unix geeks listening to talks about Unix while typing on a Windows laptop made me feel dirty – time to break free.

Two, Linux is getting very messy – maybe it’s time to give the BSDs a try. Another good reason for this is the security module I’m teaching this year – part of that’s gonna cover OpenBSD and the like, so…

Result: one second-hand Dell C600 from eBay, a new battery, a new big hard drive, FreeBSD 6.0 beta 4, and lots and lots of learning. It’s taken a while to get up and running, and the process hasn’t been helped by having to return the hard drive ‘cos it was riddled with errors (but I learnt about SMART, so that was good), and it hasn’t been helped by the metal pins in the right-hand hinge of the laptop screen shearing, necessitating the purchase of a replacement “screen backing” (but I learnt about lapop repair, and how easy it is in this modular age, with the right instructions at least, so that was good too, ultimately).

It’s been fun, but for some reason I haven’t felt in the least like blogging throughout the whole episode. You’d think this would be ideal technical blog fodder wouldn’t you…? Imagine, a whole month of “OK, so video was crashing the laptop hard every time I started vlc, but I spoke to TR and he suggested I use the VESA driver instead of the ATI one and that’s completely fixed it – w00t”. That would have been exciting, wouldn’t it? Well, arguably yes, and arguably it would have helped other people with this same laptop when they installed FreeBSD in the future. Maybe I’ll summarise my experience sometime – discharge my public duty that way. Or maybe not.

Anyway, for whatever reason I was more focussed on actually doing the job than writing about it. I think I’ve also been feeling a bit less like blogging because it’s been suggested to me that the words I write here are not my own; that I only echo others’ thoughts and sentiments without truly reflecting myself. That’s possibly true. Perhaps I don’t want to truly reflect myself in public. I started this blog long enough ago to predate the blogging explosion, and its primary purpose was (and remains) “a big list of links I don’t want cluttering my browser bookmarks”. Any ranting or diarising included was incidental (though yes, there’s been more as time’s moved on). But these days a blog is seen as something more than that, a window on the writer. Having this pointed out to me, that through my window it looked like I had no thoughts of my own, has disturbed me, and I’m not sure how much I want to play. This has certainly influenced my recent quietness. Whether the outcome will be more or less (zero?) opinionating in the future, I don’t yet know.

Having said that, I’m going to give one short, informed, and genuinely “mine” opinion: BSD is very nice indeed. Linux has been feeling increasingly cluttered and messy to me, and FreeBSD (on the laptop) and OpenBSD (on another box which I’m using for various things) are undeniably both clean and coherent in a way Linux never has been and probably never will be. I’m enjoying that. And I haven’t, so far, found anything I can’t do with this system that I could with a Linux distro (or would want to, anyway). Thus, and in summary: It’s good to have finally made the switch.

Reading: Quicksilver and Accelerando

I’ve got two books on the go at the moment (Potter can wait): Neal Stephenson‘s Quicksilver, and Charlie StrossAccelerando. I’ve just about finished the former, and according to Plucker, I’m 46% of the way through the latter – so perhaps some of the opinions expressed below will change…

These are both science fiction works. The first is unusual for sci-fi in that it’s set (mainly) in the seventeenth century; Newton and Liebniz are key (though secondary) characters, and it seems mainly to be about religious tensions (as you’d expect from the setting), the nascent scientific movement, the nature of money and markets, and a very nascent anti-slavery movement, though I’m not sure where that’s going to go. The second is based around the futurism idea of the Singularity, a supposed point in the future where the rate of change of scientific knowledge and human ability goes nonlinear, basically.

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The Palace

There’s a bit in Brian Eno’s A Year With Swollen Appendices where he’s in Egypt, and a boy rides past on a bike shouting “I am here! I am here!” repeatedly, and Eno dubs this “perhaps the single and central message of humanity”. I’ve always really liked that.

As I sat in the lobby of our hotel in London last week, I mused on the feeling of obscelescence and redundancy. There’s a moment in Accelerando where one of the central characters loses all the computational stuff that augments his senses and mental faculties – he’s reduced to bare meat and a comparatively sluggish consciousness. This leads him (even after he’s fully restored to bright shining augmented posthumanism) to worry a lot about how long he can remain on the bleeding edge. Now, everyone feels this at some point, I believe: the horror (or at least angst) of realising that What Once Was has passed, never to be surpassed or even attained again. The loss of the intellect, the passing of the peak, the fading of the beauty, whatever it is. The fear that all that lies ahead is swimming ever harder, if one can even manage that, only to drift inexorably downstream.

So, a fundamental question is how to deal with this? If all my best lies behind, then what of the future? Naturally, having hit my early thirties, I have somewhat irrationally started to worry at this question myself. It’s absurd I know, but there you go.

The answer, it seems, is just this: to have hope and not worry about it. Nothing more that. For one thing, your best days may actually lie ahead. However, a stronger statement is the following: now is what matters – the past is gone and cannot be changed, and the future is yet to arrive, if at all. The question is not “what have you done?” or even “what would you do?”, but simply “what are you doing?

As such, I contend that just as “I am here” is the single and central message of humanity, so is “What are you doing?” the single and central question. (Not “where are you?”, I note.)

Of course, the real question is what do I have to do to discuss this with Brian over a glass of wine some time? ;-)

(Aside: it’s so hard to find anything specific in Eno’s book, because you just keep getting distracted – there’s an interesting idea or fact or insight on every page. Given that I’m reading Quicksilver at the mo, this one particularly caught my eye: 16 October. I also asked Anthea how many mature oaks she thought it would have taken to build a top-of-the-line ship in Nelson’s day. She guessed ten. The anstonishing answer (from Brewer’s) is about 3,500 – 900 acres of oak forest. She said, “I wonder what we’re doing now that’s as wasteful as that”. I said it’s still called Defence.)

50 Eno Moments, which I don’t have time to read right now.

gimbo gimbo, where art thou?

I’m still here, I’ve just been too busy to blog. However, while I’m waiting for ghc-6.4 to compile (that’s my excuse anyway), I thought I’d do a quick blogdump…

I was going to write about my week in London, and a bit about what I’ve been reading lately, but I started by writing the stuff below instead, and now I think that’s enough for one post, so I’ll publish this and follow up with the rest maybe tomorrow or Sunday. (Short version: London fun except bombs, Quicksilver OK, Accelerando completely barmy but getting a bit dull at 40%). Colin, I should warn you that the rest of this post is of the kind you don’t like. The London diary thing might be better. Sorry!

Work’s been truly excellent this week. No students so no teaching, and also no admin for a while too. Some time I need to do some preparation for next year’s teaching, but for the next two months I’m mainly going to be focussing on research at last, aiming to break the back of my MPhil. I made a breakthrough on the parsing side last Sunday (or rather, I cleared up a misconception I’d been harbouring), but have spent this week on a different tack, learning about operational semantics through the magical medium of Python. Specifically, Markus gave me a toy process algebra and its semantics, and outlined the algorithm for turning expressions in the PA into their labelled transition systems, then I went away and programmed it.

It’s been excellent fun, and I got it basically done in no time at all, mainly because I chose to do it in Python. It’s quite remarkable, in fact… For months I’ve been struggling to get anywhere with my research, and it’s been very depressing and making me feel like I can’t hack this stuff. Now I realise it’s just that I’m a complete Haskell newbie. If I was doing my research in Python, I’d probably have finished by now. Alas, I have to do it in Haskell, because of the system we’re interacting with, but it’s encouraging to realise my problems relate to the language/paradigm I’m working in, not some basic failing on my part to understand what the heck I’m trying to do.

Anyway, I’m writing up an article explaining what I’ve done, and either later today or early next week I’ll publish it and my code, so anyone who reads the above and says “huh?” can take a look if they want. (JOn? You reading this? ;-))

Next week is graduation week at Swansea University and I’m acting as a marshall on Monday, which is Science day. So I get to see all this year’s third years do their stuff. With luck and effort, I should be there myself this time next year.

What else is new? I recently made the shift from ion to ion3. Ion’s been by window manager of choice for about three years now, mainly because I can’t be bothered with all that tedious point-and-click move-and-resize nonsense you have to do with windows in most WMs. TR occasionally moans at me that it’s modal but I don’t see it as a problem, it works for me and is extremely keyboard friendly and fast, so I’m happy. But I’ve been feeling behind the curve, and in particular some apps (eg the Gimp) don’t play well with the tiled model – which is why ion3 is nice because it adds optional “float workspaces” which act more like a conventional tedious point-and-click point-and-resize window manager if and when that’s what you need. Making the move was non-trivial because my config files had to be ported to Lua, but now it’s done and I’m very happy with my window manager indeed. Once again, I’d recommend looking at Ion if you’re getting dissatisfied with your Gnome/KDE experience and want to strip things down.

Finally, a couple of Python goodies via the Python-URL: try/except vs if/else in terms of speed (an oldie but a goodie, especially when advocating Python to curmudgeons), and Sparklines, which are kinda weird and kinda cool, but I’ve no idea if they’d actually be useful.

London calling

Well, Bash and I are in London for her birthday – lovely day for it.

First we heard of the explosions was at about 10:15, waiting for the lift to arrive in the hotel, when my parents rang. “Are you OK?” “Er, yeah, fine thanks. Whhhyyyyy…?”

The hotel’s on The Strand. Five minutes walk to Trafalgar Square, strangely quiet (especially after yesterdays Olympic crowds), with sirens zooming past constantly. We’re now at the Royal Society, which was our intended first stop on a day to also include St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Modern, Tate Britain (via the Tate-2-Tate boat), maybe a shufti at Parliament, and then birthday dinner with London friends in Earl’s Court. Needless to say, most of these plans are on hold just now. St Paul’s to Tate to Tate is all do-able on foot/boat, but to get to St Paul’s we have to get to The City, which might not be a good idea assuming these explosions have an economically motivated component.

It’s been a good week, up to now, though. The show’s going very well and everybody loves the calculator. Having now used it quite a bit, I can definitely say it’s Way Cool and very impressive.

I went to the Science Museum for a bit on Tuesday, mainly checking out the Computer Science, Maths, and Telecoms Displays. I found it very disappointing. The best part is easily the Babbage stuff – difference engines, and his brain – but the rest seemed like it hadn’t been updated for 20 years. The CS stuff was also disappointingly focussed on machinery, but there’s so much more to computing than that, and increasingly so. The computers themselves are far less interesting than what you do with them and how (IMHO) but there was almost nothing on that. There was a fifteen-foot wide display on the history of the British Punched Card Calculator industry (not even general purpose computers!), but only a small card with about fifteen lines of text for Alan Turing! A travesty! Telecoms was not much better, and didn’t seem to have changed at all since I visited it with my eldest brother Mike back when I was eleven. Actually, that’s not true, it had changed: most of it had stopped working.

The bookshop was quite good, though.

Tuesday evening I headed to Greenwich to visit Rich and Em, and meet with a couple of the old Frontier possee, viz Jon and Mark F. This took place in a superb pub in Greenwich – The Union, with a microbrewery and some excellent excellent beers. The “chocolate beer” (stout) was particularly fine.

I spent yesterday afternoon planning what to do for the next three days (now out the window, it seems), then met Bash at Paddington at 7:30, and whisked her to the National Film Theatre for Antenna – a bi-monthly showcase of music videos. Some really good stuff, in particular “Sentimental Journey” by Yuki – very thoughtful and gentle. The place was, of course, full of achingly cool people. :-)

Anyway, think we’re going to have a look round the exhibition now, and I don’t know, maybe stay here all day. Hope everyone reading this is OK and your loved ones are accounted for…

Short dispatch from the front line

Well, it’s midnight which means today’s been a 16 hour day so far. Must be something about Wednesdays: last week I was here all night, and didn’t go home until about 4 the next day (then watched the best Shakespeare I’ve ever seen: The Comedy Of Errors in the open air in front of Oystermouth Castle with a cast of five – very manic).

Certainly a few hours’ more work to do tonight, but it shouldn’t be an all nighter. You never know, though.

Oh, how I love working on the exam team…

Meanwhile, via Simon, how to de-flea your cat.

Update: going home at 02:34 – an 18.5 hour shift. And no overtime! Yay!

Debugging Python with Bobby Friction and Big URL

Teaching is over, exams are happening, and the office is quiet of students – except for the occasional past paper question from some enthusiastic reviser. As a consequence it’s time to catch up with coursework marking, and start cracking on with whipping systems into shape in preparation for the flood of exam marks which will hit my desk soonish… Avid readers will remember that this was fun in February, and lots of late nights are clearly on the cards. Once that’s over, it’s research-agogo for the summer, hopefully.

Musically, it’s XTC Radio, the mighty Groove Salad, and Cryosleep once again, but also – thanks to Bash’s keen ear – the delightfully named Bobby Friction and Nihal on Radio One. Gawd help me, they call it “urban”. The hell with that, what it is is rawkin’, Mother.

One of the good ones

Quite a good weekend in Gimboville… Excellent company throughout, and rather productive: I spent most of Saturday working on Superstring Sister – have now got more of an idea on how to carry it forward, though of course it probably needs about five more sessions like this before it’s perfick. :) To offset that, I then spent most of Sunday on my MPhil: deconstructing & documenting a Parsec-based parser for a toy “while” language, then starting to work on a prototypical CSP parser. No great shakes, but it’s something, and that’s better than nothing.

Then I arrived at work this morning to find that my 9 o’clock appointment wanted to reschedule, so I now have an unexpected hour in which I can do Something Useful before my 10 o’clock research meeting. Score!

Cartoon oriented post number two

Should I be worried that I find the lioness wife in Father Of The Pride attractive?

Moomino ergo sum

My life in one sentence: I would like to be Snufkin, but deep down I know I’m Moomintroll, going on Moominpappa.

5 glorious years of Linux

Wow… I’m just going through some old stuff, folders, notebooks etc. in my office and I discovered some notes from my first attempt to install Linux. The date? 26th August 1999. Crikey, there’s nostalgia. I was working at STS, and had been trapped in Windows Programming Hell since leaving university (in fact, the first few years were DOS Programming Hell, but that’s another story). Knowing there was more to life than this, I bought a terribly underspecced used PC and downloaded Debian (it was Slink, I think). I didn’t do anything useful with it, but it gave me enough knowledge & enthusiasm to land a Linux programming/sysadmin job with Frontier a few months later.

Five years on, I’m back in academia, and Unix is my bread and butter. These days I use gentoo, and I’m thinking it’s about time I gave one of the BSDs a shot, but Debian will always have a special place in my heart, as my first step towards freedom… ;-)


You and your research

You and Your Research by Richard Hamming – I should read this [lambda].

CS-238 students take note: this is Hamming as in Hamming Distance, Hamming Single Bit Code, etc.

Update 2005-05-02: Yep, read it, very inspiring and intersting.

I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, “The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind.” I don’t know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.

Welcome back to Beijing, Mr Gimblett

In November 2001, I went to China and walked on the Great Wall. On Easter Saturday this year, I flew out there again, to spend a week visiting Universities telling the students there that Computer Science in Swansea rocks, which of course it does.

It was a very busy trip: lots of travelling, lots of public speaking, lots of meeting Important People, and lots and lots of Chinese food – w00t. Donkey was eaten at one point. Specifically, it was the donkey from Shrek. Very tasty, and my chopstick fu is now at level five.

It was very much a Work trip; there wasn’t much time for sightseeing or recreation, but we squeezed in a bit: on the Sunday we arrived, we saw the Summer Palace and the China National Acrobatic Circus, and on the last day I was taken to the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan, which I’d highly recommend if only for the chance to make a huge bell go CLONNNNGGGGGG!

I took 350 photos, the best 94 of which are here. And here are my personal faves:

Breakfast in Cardiff Help protect the railings Dr Wu, Jenny, and Qu Bo Headless Buddha Post lecture, getting some air The flag of the People's Republic of China Architecture in Wuhan Brazen Sage, close up The many roofs of the Yellow Crane Tower Cranes Li Jing rings the luck bell Part of Sweden Skanör, Sweden Welcome back

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