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Another anniversary

A more recent one this time

A few weeks ago, I noted it was sixteen years since I first started writing this blog. Well, today, it’s a whole year since I relaunched it, as something of a lockdown exercise. It had taken most of my spare time in the summer, to go through all of the old posts, edit them, redesign the sight, and get the whole production pipeline up and running.

Since then there have been a hundred and forty-two posts, including this one; about mountains, beaches, trains, castles, cemeteries, trains, Lego, trains, computing, and trains. Have many people read them? No, probably not. That’s not really the point, though: not whether people read them, but whether I enjoy writing them. I have. So doing it has been worth it.

Despite it being the pandemic years, still, a lot has happened and a lot has changed over the past year. There will, I am sure, be more changes over the next year too. We won’t know, until they happen.

On Cleethorpes Beach (part one)

Or, some walks in the early morning

Since changing jobs, I’ve been going for early morning walks most workdays. For about an hour or so, I’ve been walking up to the woods overlooking the village, or following the riverbank and canalbank, or walking across the fields to the next village and back. It’s a really good way to start the day. When I go to visit The Mother, though: well, there aren’t really any interesting places to walk and back in an hour. There aren’t actually very many public footpaths outside the village itself; there’s no river, and the woods are too far away. I was at a bit of a loss.

“Why don’t you drive down to the beach and go for a walk there?” suggested one of the regular correspondants. It made complete sense. The beach is only 15 minutes drive away from The Mother’s house; I could easily stretch my morning walk to be 90 minutes without really having to rush. So, since starting the new job, when I’ve been at The Mother’s every morning I have gone down to the beach for a walk on the sand.

The beach just after dawn

Cleethorpes Prom is your fairly standard seaside prom: pier, arcades, amusement rides and chip shops. All the signs of seaside civilisation, with the sand raked daily and the high concrete wall of the prom separating town and sea. If you head a couple of miles south, though, down past the leisure centre and the miniature railway to where the holiday parks start, then things feel much more remote. A broad band of salt marsh separates the dry land from the open water, and you can wander along the tideline or through the marshes feeling completely apart from the world, feeling as if it is some ancient unpopulated coastline. Look the other way, though, and behind the freewheeling seabirds, you can see the lighthouse on the far side of the river mouth, and always ship after ship standing at anchor and waiting for their upstream pilot.

Rippled sand

At low tide, there is a vast expanse of rippled sand and mud, cut across by channels and with endless slight variations in height. When I was a kid, the dangers of the beach were always drummed into me heavily. Never go out too far. Never cross one of the channels. You’ll get cut off. The Mother would tell me lurid stories from her days as a 999 operator, of people finding bodies washed up on the shore after going out at low tide and getting confused by fast-descending fog. “The most dangerous beach in the country,” she’d said, which I’m not sure is the truth. Nevertheless, you have to be careful going down to the low tide line, always sure all the water you see is flowing out, not back behind you. If you do go all the way, you find the remains of shipwrecks, the gaunt ribcages of old wooden ships sticking stumpily out of the sand.

Two shipwrecks

Navigating all the way along the tideline, without heading back to the nearest concrete path, can be tricky. The outflow of one of the local becks cuts across the sand, in a surprisingly deep channel. At low tide it can be crossed with care, if you can find a shallow spot, if you don’t mind getting your feet a little wet and having to jump over the deeper parts. At higher tides, you have no chance, and have to find a way to cut back through the marshes, themselves riddled with deep, steep-sided channels of water with thick mud at the bottom. It’s far too easy to slip over at their edge and end up with a very wet and muddy arse. I hate to think what the marshes are like to navigate at the very highest tides: I suspect I’d have to sit on the thin line of dunes at the seaward edge of the marsh and wait the tide out a few hours. It wouldn’t be much of a hardship.

The beck at low tide

I could keep on here posting photos of the wilder parts of the beach, much as I could sit for hours on the dunes listening to the waves breaking. I’m going to pause this post here, though, before coming back again soon with more pictures and more to say. Think of it as the tide going out and returning again.

Paddleboarders

Taken by the flood

An impressive onrush of current

Last January, I wrote about how I keep track of ideas for topics to write about. I said, when I have an idea, I create a “ticket” a bit like a “bug ticket” in a software development process, to keep track of it. What I didn’t say, though, is something that applies to writing ideas just as much as to bugs: it’s important to be descriptive. Things you think, now, are always going to be seared in your mind, will be over and gone in a few hours. Unfortunately, when I create a “writing ticket”, I will often only write down a few words and rely on my memory to know what the post was actually going to be about. When I come back to it later: baffled.

Take, for example, an idea I also wrote down back in January, a few weeks before writing that post. “Post about the fast-flowing waters of Stockholm.” Post what about them, exactly? I have no idea.

It’s true that the centre of Stockholm does have impressive fast-flowing water, a rushing, churning torrent that pours constantly in two streams, either side of Helgeandsholmen, the island taken up almost entirely by the Swedish parliament building. When I visited Stockholm, I walked through the old town and down to visit the museum of medieval Stockholm which lies underground, beneath the gardens in front of the parliament. When I reached the narrow channel of water separating the parliament building from Stockholm Palace, I was shocked and amazed by the speed and power of the water. It flowed from east to west in a solid, smooth-surfaced grey-green mass, as if it had an enormous weight behind it. It felt dangerous, unstoppable, and irresistable.

I already knew that Stockholm, and the Baltic in general, doesn’t really believe very much in having tides. Stockholm’s harbour is technically seawater, but there are many kilometres of archipelago between the city and the open sea, and to get to open ocean you have to go all the way around past Copenhagen and the tip of Jutland. Because of that, the Baltic isn’t particularly salty and doesn’t have very dramatic tides. This couldn’t, then, be a tidal flow. It took maps to show what it was.

OpenStreetMap map of Stockholm

The above extract from OpenStreetMap is © OpenStreetMap contributors and is licensed as CC BY-SA.

You can see how Stockholm is built around a relatively narrow point in the archipelago. What you can’t really see at this scale, though, is that all the channels of water to the right of the city centre are the main archipelago, leading out to see, but the channels of water to the left of the city centre are all part of Mälaren, a freshwater lake some 120km long and with an area of over a thousand square kilometres. Most significantly, its average altitude is about 70cm above sea level. That slight-sounding difference adds up to roughly 800 billion litres of water above sea level, all trying to flow downhill and restricted to the two channels, Norrström and Stallkanalen, the second narrow, the first wide, around Helgeandsholmen. Norrström, in particular, is a constant rush of choppy white water.

Norrström

Why only those two channels? Although you can’t really see from the map, the other paths of blue that look like channels of open water, around Stadsholmen and Södermalm, were long ago canalised, blocked off with large locks. The two northernmost channels are the only free-flowing ones.

So, you might be wondering, what was the point of this post? Was there going to be some deeper meaning I had uncovered, some great symbolism or relevance to my everyday life? Frankly, it’s entirely possible, but I have no memory at all of what I was thinking when I wrote that note originally.

Right now, it’s tempting to say that sometimes, instead of trying to understand life and everything around you, instead of trying to predict what will happen and what the best course of action to take will be, it’s better just to sit back and ride the rollercoaster, and tht the sight of the massive onrush of water through the centre of Stockholm made me think of just jumping in a small boat and shooting the rapids without worrying about what happens next. Equally, I might have been thinking of how you can find such a powerful force of nature right in the heart of somewhere as civilised as a modern European capital city. For that matter, it could have been a contrast between how placid, still and mirrorlike the waters of Mälaren a few hundred metres away outside Stockholm City Hall are, compared with the loud, rushing, foaming rapids we’re talking about here.

A few hundred metres away all is peaceful

To be honest, I really don’t know. I know which of those thoughts seems most apt right now, but it might not even have occurred to me in January. At least, now I’ve written this, I can close that ticket happy in the knowledge that something fitting, in one sense, has been written under that heading. Now I’ve done that, I can flow onwards to the sea.

An unexpected visitor

Of the feline variety

We had an unexpected visitor in late July. One morning, as I was heading out for my morning 6am walk, I noticed one of the neighbourhood cats lurking outside the house, asking for scratches and strokes. When I came back an hour or so later, it was in the back garden instead. I opened the back door, and it followed me inside. It prowled the kitchen, miaowing boldly, before deciding to lie down as Guardian Of The Recycling.

Random Cat

It came back again the following morning, and the morning after, and started to explore more of the house. Initially it refused to go upstairs, and if anyone went upstairs would sit at the bottom waiting for them to return; but after a week or two it was happy to roam the whole house and particularly liked lurking among the clutter in the office.

Random Cat

The Plain People Of The Internet: So is this one of those situations? The whole “this is your cat now” situation?

I doubt it is, somehow. It’s clearly a healthy, happy cat that has a home nearby. It doesn’t need food from us, and I haven’t given it any. Moreover, as one of the other regular correspondents has pointed out to me: if Random Cat is a much-loved household pet, tempting it away to another home is not exactly a very neighbourly thing to do, however friendly it seems to be and however much it stands by the kitchen cupboards miaowing at me.

Why has Random Cat been visiting, anyway? I realised its visits started in late July, at the same time as the school summer holidays. Maybe one local family’s routine changes so much in the school holidays that Random Cat can’t cope with not getting its breakfast early, and decided to scout around the rest of the neighbourhood instead. Possibly, then, now we’re into September and the schools are going back, its visits will start to dry up again.

Random Cat

Ever since moving house, we have said: we really should think about getting in touch with the local cat shelters and finding one to actually live here. That, in all likelihood, will stop it visiting, although it’s not guaranteed. My garden is already disputed territory between Random Cat and another neighbourhood cat, an all-black one which likes to sit on the roof of a nearby shed. They have face-offs balancing on top of our garden fence. A third cat thrown into the mix might not even change very much.

If we do get a cat to live here, no doubt this blog—and certainly the rest of my social media—will become rather heavily cat-centric, at least initially. For now, though, occasional Random Cat will have to do.

Little and often

Or, how often should a blog update, and does it really matter?

It’s almost the end of August, already.

If you ever scan your eyes down the list of links to the various archive pages on this blog—somewhere over on the right on desktop, right down the bottom on mobile, at least with the current design—you’ll see there were only five posts published here this month. Over the last three months in fact, there has been a bit of a drop-off in posting, compared to the other months since the blog was relaunched.

There are reasons for that, which I’m not going to go into here but which mostly involve having other outlets for my writing. Some of it might be published one day, and some won’t be, but that isn’t really the point of this post. The thing I wanted to talk about today is: does it really matter?

This initially popped into my mind at work a few months back, when I was preparing to interview a potential job candidate. Naturally beforehand I did all the usual background research on the candidate in question, looking at what social media profiles they had listed on their CV, hunting down some of the ones they hadn’t listed, and reading all the other links they’d put on their CV. The person in question included a link to a blog. When I followed it up, I found I really enjoyed the articles I found there (all of them tech-related in some way), but there were only a handful. This candidate had started a blog up in lockdown, had updated it a couple of times, and then nothing more. It was still sitting there on their CV, even thought it seemed to be getting a little bit cobwebby.

But does that matter? Well, frankly, it shouldn’t. If you’re interviewing a candidate for a job, you’re interviewing them, not their sticking power at a spare-time project. This blog, on the other hand, is never getting near anyone who might want to employ me, so it doesn’t matter at all if I go a little quiet for a few months, a few years, or even forever. It’s sad, a little, to see someone has started a project only to see it sputter out barely before it has started, but I should try to avoid letting it colour my opinion of them, particularly my opinion of them in a different context.

This site has been a little quiet, but it’s not as if I ever posted in any way consistently to begin with. It comes and goes according to my whims and inspiration, and whether or not I remember to write my ideas down. As I write it largely (but not entirely) for my own amusement, it shouldn’t really matter too much. I do gather information on how many people read this stuff, but I rarely actually look at that information. If I write anything for you specifically to read, I’ll tell you, but otherwise these words are just being thrown out into the electronic void. Some day, there might be an echo back, but I don’t really expect one.

The old gods

The astronomy season is starting again

We’re getting to the time of year now when it’s properly dark before a reasonable bedtime; as opposed to a couple of months ago, when it is still twilight in the deepest part of the night, which around here happens at about quarter past one in summer. August, by comparison, is the time of year when I can go outside at 10pm and see if the sky is clear enough to do a small bit of stargazing before bed. It’s too late to wake up The Child Who Likes Space, who nominally owns the telescope, but nevertheless, I rationalise, I can always tell him about it in the morning.

A while ago, I noticed that according to timeanddate.com’s planet apparent size calculator, Jupiter would have a relatively large disc right now. Right now, in fact, it’s receding from us, but it’s still a relatively chunky 49 arcseconds wide. Still a dot to the naked eye—the Moon is about 36 times bigger in apparent diameter if my rough mental calculations are correct—but big for a sky object, and with the best chance we would have of seeing features on it. Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed that Jupiter and Saturn together, although relatively low in the sky, are very definitely the brightest things in the south-eastern sky when I go to bed. So last night, as the sky was almost clear, I decided to get the telescope out.

Last spring I found it rather hard to get the telescope set up in the new garden, due to the street light that shines directly into it over the garden wall. Back then, though, the garden was a rocky, rubble-strewn wasteland, which didn’t help. Now it’s grassed, and at the moment I can tuck the camping table and the telescope into a relatively shady distant corner; from which both planets were shining bright in the sky. It was as easy as any astronomy I could think of: set up the telescope, point the finder on Jupiter, and as soon as I had focused, I had the planet and the four Galilean moons right in the centre of the eyepiece. All four of the moons were on the same side of the planet last night, Io just visible almost touching the planetary disc, the other three clear and sharp and separate spread out to the east of the planet. Jupiter itself was a fairly uniform cream colour, with a thin, darker, more reddish band visible near its equator. It seemed so sharp and clear, much more clear and bright than a photograph.

After Jupiter, I trained the spotter on Saturn, much smaller in the sky. At first it just seemed to be an oval blob, but I’d knocked the focus off slightly. Tweaking it showed the planet, orange in colour, and its rings. We don’t have anywhere near enough magnification to show the ring divisions, and the rings and the planet seemed to have a fully uniform colour. It’s strange to think that when Stegosaurs were alive and tramping the planet, Saturn probably didn’t have any rings at all. I couldn’t make out any of the planet’s moons, but I know they are much fainter than those of Jupiter, my eyes probably hadn’t had time to fully adapt to the dark, and I didn’t know where to be looking in any case. I wonder how different the history of science would have been, if Jupiter didn’t have four clear bright moons for Galileo to spot easily with his early telescopes.

Incidentally, due to geometry, it’s impossible for the planets orbiting outside Earth to have phases like the Moon does: their discs will always appear from our standpoint to be fully illuminated. This coming winter Venus will be the largest planet in the sky—it peaks at just under 63 arcseconds on January 8th—and it will be interesting to see if around then more than a thin crescent is visible. Assuming the skies are clear, of course.

A birthday

The years march on

This blog is now a whole sixteen years old. At least, it’s now sixteen years from the date of the first official post. Looking at the calendar for that year, the site was put live on a Saturday, the day after someone had driven into the side of my car. Well, at least I had some content to post about. Since then there’s been over a thousand posts in total, I think, if you include all of the complete-nonsense ones that have been edited out in the interim.

Of course, there have been a few hiatuses over the course of the last sixteen years, some of which were longer than others. The site only really came back from its longest hiatus as a lockdown project, last summer, but it’s provided something of an outlet for me ever since. Whether it will still be going in another sixteen years’ time is, of course, a complete unknown, but we can only move in that direction and find out, can’t we.

Mynyddoedd Cymreig

On the mountains of Wales

Back in May, the latest post in the Books I Haven’t Read series was about The Hills Of Wales by Jim Perrin, a book which I felt had a somewhat exclusive and elitist approach to said hills. At the time I read it, or at least part of it, I was staying in a cottage under Moel y Gest, within sight of the Moelwynion, so the hills of Wales were very real and very much on the doorstep. For that matter, the hills of Wales are on the doorstep of my home, too, and the issue of why hills such as Yr Wyddfa, the Moelwynion and all the others of the Eryri massif are seen as valid and special in a way that the worn-out, lived-on hills of the south such as Mynydd Machen, Twmbarlwm and the Blorenge are not, is a whole ‘nother topic in itself. The hills of the North, after all, are almost as industrialised as the hills of the South, particularly in the case of places like Parys Mountain or Penmaenmawr which have been industrial sites for thousands of years. Putting that aside, my plan was always to come home and write about my own responses to the hills of North Wales and what they mean to me; but since May it has stayed on the to-do pile.

Last week, however, I was away again, this time to the area around Aberteifi/Cardigan in West Wales. Driving along the main road north from Aberteifi towards Aberaeron and Aberystwyth, I glanced to my left and saw the sparkling, shining seas of Cardigan Bay. The air was so clear I could see the mountains on the far side of the bay in the distance. I could only glance briefly—I was driving, after all—but there unmistakably in the distance was the lonely outline of Moel y Gest, and alongside it the double-peaked ridge of the Moelwynion. It filled me with a sudden thrill, spotting a skyline I recognised from the far side of the bay. As soon as I got out of the car, I was messaging one of the regular correspondants to tell them about it, to their undoubted bemusement. Later, when I was back home and back at a proper computer, I checked the distance: about sixty miles, pretty good seeing really. Even the sparkling sea was deceptive: although it looked close enough to touch, the shore must have been some five or six miles away. I was over 200 metres above it, not far off the altitude of Moel y Gest itself.

Why does spotting the Moelwynion give me a thrill like that? I don’t know, other than that I have been going back to that corner of the country on and off since I was a teenager. But spotting them like that did remind me to write this post, and it took me back to a day back in May when I was driving around almost in their shadow, hunting down some bottles of limited-edition beer (it’s a long story). The drive took me across the Traeth Mawr, then over the hill road from Garreg to Maentwrog, but it is the first part, from Prenteg to Garreg, that sticks in my mind. I really don’t expect you to know where these places are, by the way, but please do stop to look them up on a map. The Traeth Mawr is an ancient drowned valley, once a broad sandy silvery estuary, for the past two hundred years usually farmland.

The Romantics, Shelley in particular, thought it one of the finest sights in the world before it was reclaimed. Nowadays you can hike, drive, or catch the train across it. And even though the sea is no longer there to reflect them, the surrounding mountains are a mighty encounter. Driving across the Traeth in search of beer, I felt safe, warm and secure, cupped in a bowl, the grand bones of Eryri wrapping themselves around me and protecting me with their power. If you were to reach for your copy of the Mabinogion you might realise that Pryderi was buried just over the other side of the mountain ridge, with Lleu Llaw Gyffes living with his wife made of flowers just a short walk away too.

That, maybe, gives you some sense of the reaction that I have to the hills of Wales, or at least a small fraction of them. There are many more, of course, and I have much more to say. I have had half a post drafted about Mynydd Machen for a while, although I might need to go up there again in a better mood. I have complex feelings about the Rhinogydd even though I’ve never explored their dark, quiet and lurking shapes. I’ve promised to take one regular correspondant to Bryn Cader Faner to see its curious crown of thorns, and I will always remember a teenage walk up to Llandecwyn chapel at dusk, looking down on Harlech Bay as if it was in the palm of my hand. No doubt I will write more about Welsh hills over the coming months and years. The important thing, the thing to always remember, is that they belong to everyone. The people who live on them, the people who live around them, the people who walk up them and the people who work on them. They are too old and too powerful to ever be the property of just one.

Summer astronomy news

Time for some more meteors

You might remember, if you’ve read back as far as last March or April, that I’d been trying some astrophotography but hadn’t got very far. I still haven’t got very far, largely because it’s summer, and we are only just out of the part of the year where it never gets properly dark at all here.

The other day, though, regular reader MdeC was grumbling on their social media that their attempt to take a gorgeous photo of the Milky Way—far better than anything I’ve produced—had been ruined by a meteor. And it reminded me: we’re just coming into one of the key meteor-spotting seasons of the year. August is the month of the Perseid meteor shower, one of the busiest and brightest showers in the calendar. The fact there are lots of meteors in the sky in August has been known since ancient times; in the 19th century the astronomer Schiaparelli calculated they were created by the trail of dust left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle in its orbit. Their peak will be next week, on Thursday night and Friday morning, but they are spread quite broadly, and any clear night over the next couple of weeks gives you a good chance of seeing some.

So, if there’s a clear night, I’ll be taking a deckchair outside, lying back and looking up at the sky. There’s no point really setting up the telescope or getting binoculars out: they move too fast and can be anywhere in the sky. Just relax, find a dark place if you can, let your eyes adapt, and watch them flash across the sky.

Motivational speaking

Or, principles and platitudes

It’s nearly a month now since I started the new job. It’s not been plain sailing all the way, of course, but it feels like it’s going reasonably well.

One aspect of coming in and taking over a team is that naturally I want to put my own flavour on things. I’m not saying I automatically think my ideas are always better than what the team already does, of course, but I do think firstly that new ideas can often trigger new thinking and give new energy to a team, and secondly, that some of the things are familiar to me are inevitably going to be new to my new colleagues, and things they might not have considered before. So, if I can bring in processes and practices that have worked well for me before, they may well work well in the new job too. If anything, as long as I can get the team behind them, they might be worth a try.

“As long as I can get the team behind them” is the key point there, of course; and it’s important to make sure we all feel we are a team and that we can all contribute to making change happen. I started writing down some Basic Good Principles along those lines. “We know we’re not perfect but we’re always improving,” for example. “We all review each other’s code, because everyone gets it wrong sometimes.” — I’m always surprised how many people don’t quite follow that one. “This document is not set in stone and is always changing, just as our processes are always changing and improving.” is another one, because when a particular practice or process turns into dogma is when it starts to impede you rather than work for you.

After a while brainstorming this stuff, writing down these sort of things, though, I started to get a bit of self-doubt. Is writing down these sort of principles really helpful, or were my notes just turning into meaningless platitudes in themselves? Was I at risk of accidentally coming up with the “Live, Laugh, Love” of software development?

Which of course, set me thinking. What is the “Live, Laugh, Love” of software development? Maybe if I deliberately came up with something quite so awful, quite so twee and nauseating, it would reduce the risk of ending up in that zone by accident?

I scribbled a few things down, crossed some out, shuffled some ideas around, and eventually came up with the following. I think it’s pretty good. By which I mean, I feel slightly disgusted with myself.

Code

Create

Care

One of our regular correspondents writes: Yeah, I think you might need a shower after that.

Most definitely. I felt dirty. If you ever find me giving that as advice to my team, please, tell me I need to take a holiday. All the same, if I was to pick a font and put it on a framed print, I wonder how many I could sell?