Thursday, 31 August 2017

Book review: Divine Endurance

Divine Endurance is a weird book. It is well worth a read; if you haven't, do that first, because any explanation will tend to spoil it. If you don't like books in which much is unexplained, or in which things only become slowly clear, then find something else. Having said that, the flaws are more obvious on a second reading. And it isn't quite clear where Flowerdust fits in; just an episode, I think.

The attraction of the book is largely in it's tone; and to some extent it shares this with White Queen. Elegaic, unruffled, unhurried, tolerant of people and of disaster.

But ah the downsides: and here I shall wax philosophical; bear with me, it is worth it, I think. I've been reading Popper recently; The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 2, Hegel and Marx. And Popper is strongly critical of what he calls "historicism" or in Marx's case "historical prophecy": in essence, the idea that history has it's own meaning, it's own destiny; teleology, perhaps. And if you hear that, you begin to see the backbone of a lot of sci-fi novels; perhaps a lot of novels in general. And this one in particular: much of the beauty is in the characters learning to accept their "destiny"; the long slow downwards slope of their world into death. But it is all nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that; and (as I said before) all too common.

Update: reading GJ's article on the book at her website, it is clear that she thinks the book is about something else. But as the author she is in some ways blind to what it actually says, because of course she knows what she meant it to say. So take, for example, the way the dolls "know" that they shouldn't fixup various "surface" problems because the humans don't want those problems fixed. Like Derveet's fatal illness. Then stop and think: how does that make sense? It doesn't, except in the all-is-predestined manner that I've already pointed out is Bad.

But I should add something positive: which is that the view of society, and the bizarre sexuality in which essentially all important people are homosexual, just makes perfect sense and all fits together; is very well done.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Book review: Fifth Planet

Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle is a sci-fi book (no!). Goodreads gives it 3.5 and that seems about right; read the reviews there.

Plot holes: solar motion is, I think, so slow that we'd have forever to see Helios coming; certainly more than a century. Could I try to work that out? Suppose it is a light-year away, how long could it take to get here? Suppose it takes a century; then it would have to be travelling at 3,000 km/s relative to us. Wiki tells me that hyper-velocity stars can get to maybe 1000 km/s; but they are exceptional and rare, and wouldn't do. Never mind; it doesn't matter; the point is, the plot is driven by the idea of star systems "colliding", and that was an idea at the time, and that's where the book comes from.

Another is the astonishing lack of interest the astronauts show in their new world. Despite knowing it contains chlorophyll they have brought along no biologists. Or scientists of any kind.

In the book the other side are one of the traditional tropes of sci-fi, the evolved-so-far-past-us massively-civilised sorts who can barely understand our primitive urges. Who nonetheless make unaccountable mistakes; well the plot would be somewhat boring without the mistakes.

In a way, the most interesting part is the total failure of prediction, both social and scientific. On the social side, society hasn't evolved in the slightest since when the book was written, despite being more than 100 years ahead. For example, the first female astronaut occurs as a propaganda exercise during the launches for the expedition; and this despite space-travel being so routine that ~500 engineers are sent up into orbit to help assemble the ship. Oh, and the female astronaut is pretty helpless, defers to the men, and is (as the book says) "of course" trained in nursing. Fred and Geoff really were dinosaurs. On the science side, the folk in the book are still using punched cards in 2080; F+G clearly put no effort into prediction. That's not totally unreasonable; it probably read fine when published and they had other ideas for the book (I'll get to that). Another rather amusing element comes when Conway muses how hard it is to find his wife, and wonders about a scheme whereby people could be located; perhaps they would clock in at public stations every 15 mins or so. But of course they couldn't be expected to predict smartphones or GPS; no-one else did.

So what is the book about? Pffft, read it for your self, it is kinda worth it. The core hard-science idea is star systems moving with respect to each other. The core soft-science idea is their rather kooky ideas about what "life" itself might be in terms of 4-dimensional surfaces; I wouldn't take that too seriously.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Wednesday: glacier, valley, St Christophe en Oisans

The next day it is probably time to go down, especially since plans to go up to the Col du Sele appear inadvisable in the light of conditions. In fact a party have come from that direction but we are relatively inexperienced and conditions are clearly not good, and since we don't actually want to cross it's just not a good idea. However, going down won't take all day so D, E and I decide to go down to the glacier basin and see what's what from there. We rise at the sane hour of 7:30 for the standard breakfast and are off by 8.

Before we do that, here's Pilatte taken from above at the end of yesterday. The route in from the valley is to the left. Here's a view from the terrace looking right up towards les Bans. Here's the common room empty then, the "urinal" is the water tap.

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There's a wide dust-gravel area with tables with a panoramic view. You'll notice it all looks quite dry and the hut was on short commons for water: drinking water could be had from taps but the indoor loos were forbidden leaving only the outdoors "long drop" that you see just "over" the hut. Off to the far right is the boules allee. Also taken the day before is the start of today's route:

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The path heads off to the right, rising gently up by 50 m before you start to descend. It is... worrying. There's no run-out so you want to be careful on your feet, though "difficult" sections have cable. Not to spoil the surprise but when we get down we cross the obvious central moraine and follow the obvious glacier swooshing up to the left, avoiding getting too close to the rock in the centre, because ice has clearly fallen off it not long ago.

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Here we are at the bottom of the descent. I'm now on the glacier, or rather the pile of rubble / moraine that edges the glacier; E is coming down the rope that protects this last stage (but just hand-over-hand; that's all that is needed, and since the rope is knotted it is all that is possible). You see the red paint blobs that look large from here but are teensy weensy from the glacier; memorise where it is, it is hard to see. If you follow the link to the expanded pic you'll see the cables leading from where D is at the top of the rope to the ladders off to the right. If you were of a nervous disposition you might rope up for all this. While we're on the route, here's a nice pic (taken from after we've trogged up a bit) because it makes it look all scary.

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Look closely (you'll need the full-size pic) and you'll see Pilatte on the shoulder, and on the left side a crack slanting down with a blob of red on either side of it; that's our route. Meanwhile, on the glacier looking upwards we see up the swooshy ramp.

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At the top of that swoosh, around 2800, we look around. It is a fine morning and the views are magnificent if somewhat intimidating. From closer up I think you can see that a route up to the Col du Sele is probably not so hard.

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Go up the snow just left out of the picture, then traverse rising right above the first rock up the ice, and you'll avoid most of the crevasses. But, we have no time for that today, so it's time to return to the hut. Here's from a little lower down, showing how the glacier has been falling over the rock onto the lower portion; but that's fine, as long as you don't go near it.

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It would be nice to climb les Bans one day. But earlier in the season would be better I think.

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On the way down I incautiously strayed too far onto the "bulge" and we encountered the crevasse zone. It was entirely safe because you could see them all, but rather tedious threading our way through them. It finally gave me some idea of what you read in books when people describe the back-and-forth required.

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To end our adventure, here's D contemplating the glacier (but if you prefer, here is him contemplating a large hole).

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After that - and, of course, after lunch - there's the longish descent down into the valley. At the bottom we find that an emergency bridge has been restored to the more convenient path, so we take it. It looks like we're sending M across first but we aren't really: D's rucksac is already across so we experimented on him.

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Gradually we descend back to more civilised parts, leaving the glaciers behind, but the storm has still left some destruction behind and the path has washed out in a few places.

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We take a break (and catch up with D) at the shut-for-the-season-remember Refuge du Carrelet. The bridge just lower that appeared totally broken on the way up is now miraculously restored. I keep looking back; here's just before la Berarde. Once back, we gratefully remove our Big Boots and head down to St Christophe en Oisans where we plan to spend the night; but I'll fold that into tomorrow.




Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Tuesday: Gioberney: 3352

Previous: Pilatte.

We're called at 5, because that's when you're called if you're climbing Gioberney from Pilatte. It is an F; in the Rebuffat book there's a lovely snow ridge that attracted me years ago; but I fear it is gone now. Breakast is mountain bread, butter, jam, museli, coffee for me and hot chocolate for D and E; M stays abed. There's one other party; we faff repacking and they get off ahead of us, which is fine by me. When we get out there's a half moon illuminating the night, and up above the lights of the other party just disappearing over the lip. We'd recced the route start the day before and find the cairns and markers; by 6:30 it is light enough to turn off head torches.

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The route goes up the shoulder of the W bank of the Pilatte glacier, whose basin you see here. The high point on the right is les Bans; then le Pointe des Boeufs Rouges (really) and the Pointe du Sele, with the col du Sele over to the Refuge du Sele (and thence down to Ailfroide) between those pointes. All of that basin "ought" to be easy snow, not hideous open crevasses - of those, more tomorrow.



Looking upwards this is Gioberney, although the summit may not be quite visible; our route takes us around the cliff on the left.

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Looking across to the north face of les Bans; compared to my map (from 2011. Now I look, the map even has a general note telling you that they're melting back) the glaciers are massively eroded. Maybe it would be a good idea to come earlier in the season next year when there's still some snow around.

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The route turns and we're on the now-rather-small glacier du Gioberney, heading up to the col at 3238. Finally we can almost see our objective, I always find that reassuring. Notice that we aren't troubling ourselves with the rope - that is safe and secure inside D's sac, borne aloft by his strong young shoulders. Because this is probably more neve than glacier.

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At the col! We can leave sacs and axes and crampons behind, but we do take the precaution of putting our helmets on. D wittily has his sunhat on underneath; well, it works for him. The route - off towards the skyline on the right - is somewhat free form form here and is, needless to say, much easier than it looks, assuming it looks difficult to you.

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From the col you can look over the far side. Just visible just over the dark ridge is the Chalet de Gioberney; the even lower valley is the D480 to le Bourg; further down that out of sight is La Chapelle en Valgaudemar. In theory visible on the slopes to the right is the Ref du Pigeonnier, probaly on the ridge opposite the dark ridge.

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And then we're at the summit. yes, it's a pile of rubble. It is now 9 am; we took 3 hours, which is acceptable. It's a warm sunny day so we lounge around admiring the views, especially the crevasses of the glacier basin, and speculate how the path to the Col du Sele is supposed to work: I can just about trace out something that might work; you can never tell from a distance.

To help orientate, here's a picture taken from the glacial basin looking up towards Gioberney (right) and the actually-slightly-lower Pointe Richardson on the left, with the Gioberney glacier in between and the col central.

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To finish with, here's a view of the descent ridge across to les Bans, featuring D and E. The descent also takes 3 hours, because we don't hurry; we arrive in time for galettes for lunch which is the important bit. We're tired, except perhaps for D, so happy to eat, drink, read, play Skulls and floating bridge.

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Monday, 14 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Monday: Pilatte

[Index] Up at 8 with M to breakfast, then as the children are coming down we leave to walk down to the station to pick up the car. This year, even though I'm expecting it, we get the same comedy of errors as last time: M. Avis is not there; after a phone call we talk to his colleague on the phone ("Oh yes of course he has been there..."; in French naturally but M can do that; "...just ask at the station".) So we ask M. Guichet who assures us that he knows who we mean but no, he hasn't been around. So we relax over a coffee in the cafe and Mr Avis turns up. Fine; we have a car; not particularly expansive for four people even though I didn't go for the minimum; but it fits us  including Daniel's rather large rucksac. But he is carrying all the bulky stuff for other people.

And so off, to the Col du Lauteret. Which is, as I expected, full of people - the horror - so we go down a little ways before stopping to look at the mountains. It was a bit like this... That's probably the Meije in the clouds, and the glacier du Lauteret; but I'm not too familiar with this side.

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We stop at La Grave for a coffee, and note the teleferique, and continue down past Lac du Chambon on the emergency road, and at Bourg d'Oisans turn up to la Berade about 2 pm. Top tip: use the village car-park, it is more convenient that squeezing in just where the pedestrian bit starts. Views and weather have been lovely all the way but we've been in the car just a bit too long so it's nice to walk through the village. The old Hotel des Glaciers is indeed shut - M and I were last here '92 or '93 I think, but I won't bore you with the olde dayes. We find a resto for lunch and orientate ourselves and then head off. I've, errm, slightly got my walk-in times wrong; for some reason the idea that all huts are 2 hours from the road is in my mind, but the official Pilatte time is 3:30 and we'll be slower than that.

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Here we are striding off, full of enthusiasm. Soon we hit a notice that says something along the lines of "storms. the bridge is out, take the left side of the valley". But which left? We're on the left, unless they mean in the downhill sense... after some confusion, we go back to the village and wait for the Office du Tourisme to open at three, and although there is more confusion they really do mean the other bank. It eventually turns out that the same notice has been stuck everywhere, including on the "good" side.

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And, errm, yes: the bridge really is down (this is the one just before the Refuge du Carrelet. Remarkably, a few days later when we came down it was back together again). Alas the path on the other side includes 100 m of extra height gain and is somewhat rougher, so all of that has added an hour to our walk-in, so we're in danger of missing dinner, zut alors! Fortunately the views are gorgeous, if you like that sort of thing.

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This is the view looking back, as we finally start to climb up the valley side towards Pilatte. The building centre is the Ref du Carrelet (shut this season along with the Temple Ecrins way above it); la Berade is back where the valleys meet beyond (here is a distant but closer view, from on the way down). From around about the same place we can look up towards Pilatte, Gioberney and les Bans (so actually we haven't started the real climb up yet):

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Pilatte isn't quite visible from this picture; it is on the rock shoulder that continues the leftwards sweep of scree, outlined against the glacier. Gioberney isn't visible either quite but is sort-of the rightish skyline. When we get to where you see the river ending, sort of, we find the crossing that would lead to the other bank. It is indeed washed out, but would have been crossable, probably. Anyway, courage, onwards and upwards to dinner!

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Some of the path is a little rough. Some bits feel like the whole mountainside is on the verge of falling off. We wend our way slowly through this gargantuan landscape and arrive at 8; fortunately, they have held dinner for us.M, tired, heads off to bed early; D, E and I survive until 9; breakfast tomorrow will be at 5.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Ecrins 2017: Sunday: arrival

We travelled down by train, as I did last year. Since we were four in couchette, we could pay an extra E40 to be just us, and did, since that was very convenient. Due to, let me say, slight infelicities in my booking efficiency the Friday night trains were full, so we went over Saturday night, which is a minor pain because you cannot pick up a hire car in France on a Sunday. But it gave us a leisurely Saturday, which was good, including time for a decent meal near the Gare d' Austerlitz. Also, weirdly, we ended up going via Marseille due to some funkiness of the track routing that night, which meant that instead of arriving at 8:30 in the morning we arrived around 12:30. In other circumstances that would have been annoying; as it was, M and I were both tired from work in the run-up to hols (and for reasons related to that, trying to leave on Friday would not have gone well) as were the infants, so a morning of relaxing, reading and watching unexpected bits of France go by was fine. It also solved the what-to-do on Sunday puzzle. Instead of rushing around hiring a taxi out to Vallouise for the day, we just looked around Briancon.

The pix here are from last year, but the place hasn't changed much. From the park, looking ENE up the Durance gorge, with the upper walled town off to the left. We walked down the park, into the gorge as far as the pont d'Asfeld; sadly you can't go further.

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The cathedral and the town walls. E and I went there in the evening for an concert of the amis de l'orgue: Handel, Bach, Haydn, Vivaldi. They did somewhat blend into each other. Even E, who has culture, admitted that all Baroque music tended to sound the same (it wasn't the highest Bach).

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Pont d'Asfeld. Actually this is a bit out of sequence; after looking at the park and gorge we dropped off our bags at the Auberge de la Paix in the walled city, had a quick go at getting into the fort de la cite but we'd missed the last entry, so wandered as far as the pont instead.

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To the Auberge for dinner.

Ecrins 2017

As briefly noted in A bit more mountain, 2017 over on the "real blog", the trip to the Ecrins in 2016 was so good I wanted to go back; and it turned into the family holiday. M didn't go above the snowline, but D and E both climbed with me. The trip sort-of split into two weeks, the first starting at the Pilatte hut and in various places; the second in a chalet in Vallouise.

Week 1


* Sunday 13th: arrival.
* Monday 14th: la Berade, Pilatte
* Tuesday 15th: Gioberney
* Wednesday 16th: glacier; valley; St Christophe en Oisans
* Thursday 17th: la Grave; glacier de la Girose; refuge Evariste Chancel
* Friday 18th: Rateau
* Saturday 19th: valley, Vallouise

Week 2


* Sunday 20th: refuge du Glacier Blanc
* Monday 21st: Roche Faurio; refuge des Ecrins
* Tuesday 22nd: practising
* Wednesday 23rd: Dome de Neige des Ecrins; valley
* Thursday 24th: holiday
* Friday 25th: holiday; return