Category Archives: News

Sub Sea To Summit

So I’ve told you before about my friend Ginge Fullen, and his distinctly epic conquests of the highest points of every country in Europe and in Africa. You can find more about that in his interview over at the 7 Summits Project, and in my reviews of his two books Finding Bikku Bitti and Sic Diximus.

Ginge has a background as a Royal Navy clearance diver, so it was perhaps inevitable that his diving and mountaineering interests would come together at some point. I just didn’t expect them to come together like this:

Sub Sea to Summit poster
Click to enlarge

Yeah—he (and three companions, in relays) is climbing the highest mountain in Britain while wearing an 80-kilogram nineteenth-century diving suit. Starting from five metres below sea level.

Here’s Ginge as a young man, modelling the gear:

Ginge Fullen in historical diving gear

(No, he’s not actually so old that he operated in this stuff back in the days of black-and-white photography. The photo was taken in the 1980s.) *

The publicity information for this bonkers challenge is given below, with a clickable link to the project’s JustGiving page at the end, should you care to sponsor the event. Proceeds go to the Lochaber Mountain Rescue (which operates on Ben Nevis), the Historical Diving Society, and the family of Saman Kunan, the Thai Navy Diver who died during the recent rescue of 12 boys and their football coach, trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand.


A never before… and probably never again walk up Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain in Historical Diving Equipment weighing over 80 kg (176lbs). The ‘walk’ starts on the 1st September 2018 and will be done in a relay between several different people; taking an expected 4 to 5 days to complete. It will begin at minus 5 metres in Loch Linnhe and finish at 1345 metres, the summit of Ben Nevis. A total climb of 1350m or 4,430ft.

The idea came from Ginge Fullen, a former Leading Diver in the Royal Navy’s elite Clearance Diving Branch, who has combined a career in diving with his passion; climbing the highest mountains in more than 170 countries around the world. Ginge wanted to do an expedition so brutal that it will probably never be repeated again so, after meeting up with Ty Burton, from the Historical Diving Society (HDS), these two like-minded people came together to make this challenge happen.

The HDS has come on board supporting the project with both manpower and equipment. All funds raised will be distributed evenly between; The Historical Diving Society, The local Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team (LMRT) and the family of Saman Kunan, the former Thai Navy Diver who tragically died, while taking part in efforts to rescue 12 boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. He lost consciousness on his way out of the Tham Luang cave complex, where he had been delivering emergency air cylinders.

The HDS was formed in 1990 by a group of enthusiasts whose aim is to preserve and protect our diving heritage and to advance the education and interest of the public and other parties in their study of Diving History.

The LMRT depend on the public’s continuing donations and fundraising support as the costs involved in running a mountain rescue team are extremely high. For example, a 800m rope, which might only be safe to use once, costs around £1000.

Please support this physically and mentally demanding challenge by donating today.

www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/subseatosummit


* When I went looking for a good quality version of this photo online, to avoid having to scan a rather small version from one of Ginge’s books, I happened upon a web page describing the circumstances under which Ginge earned his Queen’s Gallantry Medal, after the sinking of the Herald Of Free Enterprise. It’s grimly impressive reading.

Two Years On …

At this start of this week, the Boon Companion and I finished two years of retirement, both of us still completely untroubled by this allegedly Major Life Event. To celebrate, we cracked the final bottle of wine in the mixed case I had received as a retirement gift from my colleagues. (Cheers for that, folks.)

I still don’t miss work in the slightest—it has rapidly faded into a background memory, as seemingly remote as university days. The only insight I’ve gained from this airily detached viewpoint is that giving anaesthetics for a living was a very strange way to spend my time. But then, I always had a strong suspicion that was the case.

Some may remember the two mind-maps I drew two years ago, of my then-current and anticipated future activities:

Mind map with work
With work
Mind map without work
Without work!

So that’s all worked out pretty much as planned, with probably a bit more model building and a bit less computer programming than originally anticipated. And while this blog certainly counts as writing, I have yet to buckle down and write anything with the intention of actually selling it, which was a fairly common occurrence in my pre-retirement life. That’s nagging a little, so I may need to do something to rectify it in the coming year.

The blog ticks along, with more readers every month, mostly arriving from search engines. It’s odd what takes off and what doesn’t. A sudden burst of visits from the Netherlands to my Wrangel Island post alerted me to the fact that Dutch television had just screened an episode of Floortje Naar Het Einde Van De Wereld featuring a visit to Wrangel. (The host, Floortje Dessing, had travelled on the same ship with us, along with her cameraman.) My review of Paul McAuley’s “Jackaroo” short stories, which I considered an extremely minority interest at the time I wrote it, is much-visited and now even referenced by Wikipedia.  And there was a minor social-media frenzy in these parts a few months ago, when a former colleague posted a link to “Biggles FRCA” on her Facebook page—suddenly traffic was dropping in from all around the UK, and then started arriving from Canada and Australia, too. The Australians seemed to be particularly taken with Biggles, and I’m still seeing sporadic visits from that part of the world.

In view of the increasing traffic, I’ve fiddled with the blog a bit more in the background—moving it to a new server and doing a few things to reduce the page-loading time. On automated website rating tools, I now have an astonishingly skewed rating—typically scoring pretty highly on page delivery speed, very highly on website security and an absence of broken external links … and zero on social media presence. Well, that’s not going to change any time soon. This is as social as I get.

Cheeky … [Update]

I recently reported how a publisher had used a quote from a book review on this blog on the book’s Amazon pages. But the quote contained an ellipsis that omitted 350 words and four paragraphs, significantly altering the sense of what I’d originally written. The original post is here.

Well, I contacted Amazon to report misleading product information, and got no reply. So I contacted the publishers, Night Shade Books, to take issue with their use of the quote. I got a reply within 24 hours, offering to either remove the quote entirely, or to use a more representative quote. I was happy with the quote they chose, so told them to go ahead—and within another 24 hours they had changed the quote on their own website and revised the Amazon material.  It’s taken a while for the revision to filter through, but the US Amazon pages are now showing the revised content, although UK is lagging.

So that was all quickly and amicably resolved.

Cheeky …

Back in the 1960s, I occasionally used to get access to a copy of Mad magazine. As a simple Dundonian lad I found a lot of it impenetrably American at the time, but I do remember being amused by a feature that purportedly gave examples of how publishers got the quotes for their book covers. It went something like this:

Original review: “I hated this book. It is a great pity it was ever published.”
Cover quote: “this book … is … great”

Ho-ho. Like that could happen.

But recently I was trying to track down the origin of a little cluster of visitors who’d come here to read my review of Greg Egan’s novel, Dichronauts. And I found that his publishers were quoting my review on the book’s Amazon pages. Under Product Description, among a number of other appreciative quotes, here’s what I’m reported to have said:

“I enjoyed this one very much . . . go and buy the book.”―The Oikofuge

Now, if you know me, or if you’ve hung around this blog for long enough, you’ll recognize that as being something I’d actually never say. Even when I do enthusiasm, I don’t do unqualified enthusiasm. So I was a bit puzzled, and I went back to check what I’d written. Here’s the full text of the section quoted; I’ve highlighted the bits that appear in the Amazon quote:

I enjoyed this one very much—in large part because the characters and problems become very engaging as the story progresses, but also because I just liked messing around with the maths. I do think Egan skipped rather lightly over some problems with the physical environment he builds—zeroes and infinities are never too far away. For instance, two objects that are aligned northeast-southwest or southeast-northwest in his world will have a separation of precisely zero, no matter how far they are separated along the north-south and east-west axes. But they will also have zero thickness measured at those 45º angles, no matter how wide they are north-south and east-west, so they shouldn’t collide—the world just seems to go a little indeterminate at those special limiting angles. And it’s not clear what actually happens to a vertical object that falls to the south or north. It gets longer as it topples, certainly, but it shouldn’t be able to get closer to the ground than a 45º tilt. Egan refers to this situation a couple of times but doesn’t get into detail. I think what he envisages happening is that the endlessly lengthening and thinning object breaks up into sections under the differential torque of gravity (like a toppling factory chimney), and then the broken sections fall vertically to the ground with minimal farther rotation. toppling chimney

But these tilted segments should then start to undergo their own asymptotic lengthening …

And do I think there may be a problem with this novel if you’re not a special-relativity junkie, like me. While the odd spacetime of Orthogonal was only an occasional intrusion in the narrative, which could be skimmed over, the counterintuitive spacetime distortion in Dichronauts is front-and-centre, influencing plot and the characters’ behaviour on every page. It may simply be too weird an environment for a reader who doesn’t enjoy playing with maths a little.

So the question is: when I described those exotic spacetime axes, did you perk up and want more detail? Maybe feel the need for a graph? In that case, take a look at Egan’s website, and then go and buy the book.

That’s remarkable, isn’t it? The ellipsis in the publisher’s quote conceals 350 words, four paragraphs and an illustration! In which I provided a lot of information qualifying both my enjoyment of the book and my purchase recommendation.

Cheeky is perhaps too mild a word for that elision, but we’ll go with it until I think of something better.

I’ve reported the quote to Amazon as “inaccurate product information”. I’ll let you know what happens.


Update: I got no joy from Amazon, so I contacted the publisher directly, with good results I describe in this post.

A Sidlaws Gazetteer

Blank title stripToday, the home page has acquired a new menu item: Sidlaws. This links to a set of pages that I’ve rather grandly entitled a “photographic gazetteer” of the Sidlaw Hills. There’s an introductory page (packed with useful background information, though I say it myself), and then a set of pages dealing with all the Sidlaws in alphabetical order—saying where they are, which hills they’re next to, what their names mean, some information about the summits, some notes containing anything else that I thought was worth mentioning, and some photographs. Oh, and links to any blog entries describing a visit to that hill.

The idea for putting this together occurred to me this spring, when I realized that I had stood on top of, and photographed, almost all of the named hills in the Sidlaws range (and several unnamed ones). My various Sidlaws posts are among the most popular in terms of traffic arriving through web searches. Apart from walking logs describing visits to some of the more popular hills, there’s very little information out there on the web, and it’s widely scattered. So I thought I’d try to provide a sort of unified resource describing these interesting but largely neglected hills.

In the last few months I’ve been dotting around in odd moments, filling the gaps in my photographic record—I wanted to provide pictures of each hill, of the summit of each hill, and also of any interesting objects on the summits or slopes. I’ve been defeated on a summit visit only once, by a dense new forestry plantation on a minor bump that I considered omitting from the gazetteer. But it has a name, so it’s in there. (See if you can find it.)

Each page is headed with the view that appears at the top of this post. It’s the classic “ABC” view that is familiar to all Dundonians—Auchterhouse Hill, Balkello Hill and Craigowl.

One Year On …

So, a year has now passed since this blog went live, in the sense that it became visible to Google and people found out about its existence. Which also means it’s now a year since I retired from work as a hospital doctor.

Last night, the Boon Companion and I cracked a bottle of champagne to mark the anniversary, so you can perhaps deduce that things have gone well.

None of the dire predictions that were intoned during the months before my Final Day turned out to be accurate. Going from full-time work to full-time retirement was effortless—I handed in my pager, walked out of the hospital, and simply stopped thinking about medicine. I haven’t missed it for a single moment; but nor, interestingly, has there been any sense of relief, either. I just flipped into a new way of living. Honestly, it’s difficult to see what all the fuss was about. I can clearly recall the last time I was bored, and it was during my second-last day at work.

This is not to belittle the plight of those retired colleagues who I know have struggled to adapt to their new way of life—the ease with which I made the transition makes it clear that there was either something different about the way I related to the job, or something different about the way I related to the rest of life, or perhaps a little of both. Whatever it is, it would appear that I was born to be a retired person—I do believe I’ve finally found my natural aptitude.

Opus 100

After Isaac Asimov had written 99 books, he wrote Opus 100, which was a book about his previous books. That was … well, a very Asimov kind of thing to do.

I was reminded of Asimov and Opus 100 when the WordPress software informed me I’d just made my 99th post to this blog. I find that vaguely remarkable—I’d expected to be going for more than a year before that happened, and here we are, still short of the nine-month mark. It seems I’ve fallen into a routine of posting twice a week, with extras whenever something time-critical crops up.  I’m thinking I’ll throttle back a little.

Looking over my stats, I find that so far my output has been dominated by the category Reading—almost a third of the total posts. After that, Walking and Words are neck and neck, at about a fifth each, closely trailed by Phenomena. Writing and Software have fared worst, since I have yet to deliver on any plans to write new stuff (outside the blog) or do anything interesting with computer programming. Stealing some time back from the blog may help that.

Reading, Walking and Building have produced my most frequently accessed posts. My review of Levison Wood’s Walking The Himalayas gets constant traffic, for reasons that are not clear to me—there are lots of reviews of that popular book out there, and no particular pattern to the arrivals here. My post about the novels of Brian Lecomber also gets steady traffic. What I thought was an obscure little interest of mine is apparently widely shared, and Lecomber is obviously greatly missed. And Mike Loades’s Swords and Swordsmen showed a dramatic spike in traffic one afternoon—it turned out that the publisher had taken a quote from my review to decorate the book’s webpage, and then Loades had linked here from his Facebook page.

In Walking, my Sidlaws posts are the most commonly accessed, and they’re now showing up near the top of various search engine lists. I had guessed that writing about boring old Corbetts and Munros, done to death by many walkers before me, would earn few hits, and that turns out to be correct.

Given how few posts it contains, Building gets a surprising amount of traffic. People arrive having searched specifically for information about the Airfix Sikorsky Sea King kit, and they generally hang around to page through the entire build log.

And I’m pleased to say that Biggles FRCA seems to have done its job of giving me back control of my own work, earning multiple hits that have taken it up to near the top of the search engine lists, ahead of  various cloned and uncredited versions that are still out there. Interestingly, a lot of my “Biggles” traffic comes in having been directed here from the copy of my RSS feed over at Goodreads—the Goodreads site obviously has more brownie points with Google than I do.

What else? I’ve learned quite a bit of html and php while fiddling with the site, and I’ve learned a great deal more than I ever wanted to about the ways of spammers and script kiddies. If Theresa May’s Investigatory Powers Bill ever becomes law, perhaps the UK government could use it as a force for good. All they need to do is track down and incarcerate the ten people in the world who make the spam industry economically viable because they keep clicking on random spam links they find posted in the comments sections of blogs. I mean, who is dumb enough to do that? Why? Anyway, if we could move these ten stupid people to a place of safety with no Internet access, the spam industry would wither and die, and I wouldn’t have to put up with its constant futile efforts to get a comment posted here. For pity’s sake, the entire country of Ukraine seems to spend its days trying to access this site in various ways. And there’s a fella in France who made 300 attempts to post spam here before giving up. I can only hope that the IP address belonged to a bot and not a real person.

It’s also interesting to see what search terms bring people this way. I added a map to my Levison Wood post a while ago, because I noticed that people kept turning up looking for a map. I’m also astonished at the long rambling conversations people seem to have with search engines—my favourite being the person who started with a brief autobiographical digression before actually entering what they wanted to know. Some people seem to be getting disturbingly chummy with the creepy pseudo-personalities simulated by Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana.

But the prize for most successful search result based on least promising search criteria must go to the person who arrived at my Floccinaucinihilipilification post after having typed nocky flocky pillow fication.

It’s little gems like that that keep me going.

Life Imitates Art

Mechanical trousers will help turn mountains into molehills (Times: May 12, 2016)An article by Tom Whipple in The Times today (May 12, 2016) reports on a set of powered trousers designed by Panizollo et al. and described in an article published today by the Journal of Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation:A biologically-inspired multi-joint soft exosuit that can reduce the energy cost of loaded walking“.

The authors conclude:

Our results demonstrate that an autonomous soft exosuit can reduce the metabolic burden experienced by load carriers, possibly augmenting their overall gait performance.

The overall reduction in work associated with walking is around seven per cent—”something you can just about feel”, according to one of the authors (Walsh), quoted in The Times. That’s in line with previous studies of other devices, which the authors mention in the Discussion section of their paper (my link takes you to the full-text, Open Access article).

Whipple sees an application to hillwalking:

It will be just enough, in other words, that you can turn up at your local Ramblers’ Association and make the other walkers feel inadequate, without also making them suspicious.

All this is very gratifying to me, since I invented the device (fictionally, at least) a good 23 years ago, when I wrote a story entitled “Lachlan and the Bionic Long-Johns”, in which my hero Lachlan McLoughlin takes on various hill challenges while wearing something rather similar. My version worked rather better (that’s the joy of fiction, of course), and you can see it in action in Chris Tyler‘s lovely cartoon on the rear cover of my (long out-of-print) book Munro’s Fables (TACit Press, 1993):Rear cover of Munro's Fables(You can nowadays find the story in the e-book The Complete Lachlan or the paperback The Complete Lachlan & Walking Types.)

I can’t really claim all the credit, though. The idea of a powered exoskeleton has been around since at least 1959, when Robert Heinlein described a full-body version in his novel Starship Troopers.

Clatto Swan

Swan at Clatto Reservoir
Click to enlarge
Swan at Clatto Reservoir, © The Boon Companion, 2016

The Boon Companion’s photographs have been gracing this blog from its inception—she’s responsible for all the banner images, as well as most of the photographic content of the posts. Recently, her pictures have started to pop up in the background during BBC weather forecasts, too.

Well, I was dimly aware of her departure at some ungodly hour on Monday, intent on capturing some early morning light. The fruits of her labour (above) were tweeted by BBC Weather this morning.

If that photo doesn’t make you feel just a little more serene, I doubt if anything will.