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Monday 13 September 2021

Ninja Laser Robots Stole My Belly

Over the years, this blog has featured a veritable cornucopia of topics great and small. I've covered why babies are useless, the reasons hurricanes are over-rated, why radio astronomy is pretty, how there are no whales in Boston, and there has been many an over-lengthy monologue on why philosophy is awesome.

But there's one thing I've never said a word about, and that's fitness.

"But Rhys !" you surely say, "That's because physical fitness is about as interesting as a documentary about hippo vomit."

You're not wrong. While I do like walking up a good mountain, exercise for its own sake is abominably, frighteningly dull. I'm never going to munch on a carrot as a healthy snack because that is just all kinds of nasty. I'm not adverse to expending physical energy so long as it serves a clear, enjoyable purpose, like walking across a nice glacier or seeing a lovely solar eclipse. Or even just a good view of a bunch of trees. But simply expending energy for its own sake... urrrrgh, no ! That's as bad as deliberately choosing a kale smoothie when a perfectly good chocolate milkshake is available. It's just not me.

Now, back in the day I'd be walking the dog for a good hour each day. In Wales. Which is to say, a country where flat land is at a premium and you have to be very careful getting up each morning in case your house has fallen off a cliff. And since I didn't eat particularly much, I was probably closer to being described as "scrawny" rather than "normal".

For all sorts of reasons, this has shifted over the years. I've come to enjoy eating and (especially drinking) out, and the feasibility and terrain for dog walking has changed markedly. So very, very slowly, things have... enlarged.

Me last summer sinking into a black hole behind our institute, after eating too much goulash.

Last Christmas things reached a tipping point. At 81-82 kg, I was a good six or seven kg over a healthy BMI : not awful, but not good either. And I just didn't like the excess flab that was building up. Nobody said anything (hah, they wouldn't dare), I just didn't like it. So I decided to do something about it the only way I know how : obsessively and with technology. Which, coincidentally, is also literally the exact plot of The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

Though the end results are quite different.

Prior to this I'd been discovering the wonders of virtual reality on my Oculus Quest. Having heard that such devices were being used for fitness, and finding that the training dojo in Vader Immortal could leave me sweating profusely, this seemed like a sensible way for me to go.

It also helped that Shirley bought me a TickWatch Pro for Christmas. With a built-in heart monitor, it can track your heart rate and calories burned during any sort of exercise program you care to try. Why does this matter ? Because then you have data. And you can very easily monitor data in a way you otherwise can't for physical appearance. You have quantifiable, measurable, objective goals you can either meet or miss.

See, a lot of people I know go running or whatnot (BORRRING !) to lose weight, but, with one or two notable exceptions, I can't say I've ever noticed any change. And I knew full well that if I tried to do something really dull with no obvious, visible benefits, I'd pack it in in about twenty minutes. But give me some objective numbers to follow, and the lack of immediate reduction in the protruding gut might not have me throwing in the towel after a week or two.

Meaningless counters aren't always so meaningless.

So, in the first week of January, with as much knowledge of fitness as I have of snail physiology, I set about devising a daily exercise program. I began by deciding to monitor my weight systematically and as scientifically as possible. That is, I would only do so at the same time on the same day each week, to minimise natural variations. And I'd only do so once per week, avoiding the temptation of the sort of constant-checking-for-important-email-every-five-minutes to which I routinely fall victim*. I'd monitor my activity using my watch, recording the calories and average heart beat for each exercise session.

* Later, I did give in to this temptation, but I only graph the data weekly.

I started with a 30 minute session of Vader Immortal every lunchtime. The story element of the game doesn't involve much in the way of moving around, but the training dojo is another matter. This is under-rated as an exercise game, as you're kept moving rapidly around to hit targets from all directions and at different heights. There's a natural tendency to swing your arms forcefully even though you don't really need to, and the easiest move to avoid getting hit is (by far) to squat or duck. You can minimise this by making the smallest movements possible, but only to a certain extent - and you can't escape the need for speed. So although not really designed for it, it's definitely useful.

This is from the third game, but I find the one in the first game the most challenging.

It must be said that this is terrific fun. You start with the same primitive training drone that Luke starts with under Obi Wan's tutelage, then progress to a whole series of robots firing laser and wielding lightsabres of their own. You get the characteristic "hmmmmmm" and "pssssshhhhh ! sounds and some nice haptic feedback to convince you you're holding a proper laser sword. And things generally respond as well as is physically possible given that they have no physical substance. It's a simple game, but in terms of quality I would rate it AAA.

"And this is gonna help me defeat the Empire ?" "No, I just thought you were looking a bit tubby."

Initially the 30 minute session was more than enough for me. That was about as much as I could comfortably handle.

Over the first three weeks my weight seemed to be going down very promisingly, dipping under 80 kg. I had no preconceived idea as to how fast this should be, but this felt great ! For a miniscule time commitment to doing something I actively enjoyed, things were dropping very nicely.

I began to very gradually increase the intensity and duration of the sessions. After four weeks I increased the length to 40 minutes and started on more challenging levels (the dojo has 40). The calories I burned went from ~300 to 400 per session. Yet, despairingly, my weight seemed to level off at a bit over 80 kg. After five weeks, this was very unsatisfying.

Crucially though, I enjoyed what I was doing. I was having a lot of fun blasting stuff with a lightsabre. So I didn't stop the process - I escalated it. 

I really like VR archery games, so I bought one called Holopoint that's specifically recommended for getting a workout (the much more popular Beat Sabre doesn't appeal to me - I found the demo a bit lifeless and I don't understand what the hype's about). Like Vader, Holopoint involves hitting targets coming at you from all directions - but there's a good deal more movement involved. Each time you shoot a target, it explodes and fires a projectile straight at you, forcing you to immediately either sidestep, duck, or otherwise swerve out of its way. This naturally encourages you to keep in motion at all times, so that the projectile is aimed at somewhere you've already moved from. You can't shoot and then fire, you need to fire while already moving. And the area in which you can move is very much larger than in Vader Immortal.

These extremely crude graphics recently got a massive overhaul. It now looks a lot less cartoonish and more detailed, without being distractingly detailed.

Like Vader, you get a variety of targets, from simple cubes to samurai warriors and annoyingly sneaky ninjas. The virtual world doesn't have the physicality that Vader does, but it's again simple, easy to learn - and demands a whole other level of strenuous exercise. In Vader you squat and swing your arm. In Holopoint, you're going a bit mental.

It must be said that Holopoint is at first very frustrating indeed. Initially, I could play it for maybe 20 minutes before I was just too exhausted to continue - and I'd feel the effects for hours afterwards. Getting past level 6 is pretty darn tough, and reaching level 16 took frickin' ages. The hardest part to learn is how to rapidly load and fire consistently, and in the first few days I was extremely irritated by constantly fumbling at a critical moment. Oh, and you only get two lives per level, and checkpoints are limited, so if you foul up you can't just try again immediately. By design, this game is difficult. At times, this does become annoying.

But it works. My calories burned went to 400, 500 per session. Six weeks in I switched from a hybrid Vader-Holopoint combo to pure Holopoint, increasing the duration to 50 minutes. Calories burned became 600-700. My average heart rate stayed at a steady 130 BPM, although looking back over the records things got a lot more consistent. I learned how to move in such a way that things became more unconscious and less tiring.

(Later on, I also started jumping and squatting in response to specific targets. This definitely helps, as does deliberately trying to play as though things were much more urgent than they were, e.g. shooting targets as though they would explode more quickly than they actually do. Of course, you can also dial Holopoint back and play with much smaller body movements - the flexibility is a very nice feature. I play using flexible "rules" of my own : if I start feeling exhausted, or I'm in danger of losing a level, I reduce the intensity.)

By the middle of March, though, I was still 79.5 kg. But no matter, I was having fun. I continued to increase the intensity and duration. Whereas at first 20 minutes would have left me exhausted for hours, now I could manage a full 60 minutes and recover faster. So I was optimistic that something was improving, even if the flab wasn't falling as fast as I would like.

Around this point I decided I should graph my weight :

It's a fallacy that the vertical axis should always start from zero.

Which was both good and bad news. Just from reading the list of numbers I'd had no real clear idea of the overall trend - it was hard to say if I was seeing a genuine steady decrease, or just fluctuations in the noise. The graph made it inescapable : things were heading in the right direction. Slowly, perhaps, with an average loss of 0.15 kg per week, but nevertheless steady and continuous. I'd been initially fooled by the sharp post-Christmas drop (look at those first three points !), but overall things were positive. And it was probably a good thing I waited this long to graph it, because it's only at around week 12 that the trend starts to become really clear. Before that, things would have looked a lot more ambiguous. This clear decrease was a big morale boost, and I was very surprised by just how darn linear it was.

Still, this felt very slow. If you Google stuff like VR fitness, you'll find all kinds of outlandish anecdotal claims about massive weight loss that seems more on a par with what you'd expect from amputation than exercise. Maybe some of them are even true, but I wasn't experiencing such huge improvements.

Two key things, however, were that I could monitor everything, and I was still very much enjoying the process. Being able to show that I was indeed expending significant amounts of energy doing an activity that I was both good at and enjoyed was hugely important in continuing.

So in mid April I upped the ante dramatically, adding a 40 minute session in the morning in addition to my lunchtime hour*. And that made the world of difference. Having stalled on Holopoint's level 27 for the longest time, I managed to complete the full 30 waves - at first by luck, but then it started to become routine. I made the top 10 on the scoreboard, the best result I've ever achieved in any game ever (I'm currently number 5). And I increased the morning run to a full hour. Then I really started to notice the difference : where 20 minutes had once left me feeling dead for the day, now two hours was no burden at all. My average heart rate during the sessions increased to 140 BPM and I was burning 700-800 (even 900 on occasion, though that was overdoing it) calories each time.

* With hindsight, I could have increased the intensity/duration a lot more rapidly than I actually did, but the advantage of doing it so slowly was that I barely noticed any increased difficulty.

I also started Googling stuff. It seems that it does take a while for the effects of exercise to filter through - it takes time to both lose the weight and increase muscle strength. While in some sense it's simple (more energy consumed = more weight lost), in others it's not : muscles have to heal, which requires gaining weight initially. And while it seems that actually lighter exercise is more efficient at burning fat, the total amount of fat burned (which is what's relevant) it always higher in more intense exercise. Different levels of intensity consume different proportions of fats or sugars, but in terms of weight loss and sheer amount of fat burned, more is always more. 

Basically the mantra seems to be, "do as much as you can, as often as you can, as hard as you can - but no more than that". At one point I found that I'd reached a point of too much intensity, where things were so tiring I'd simply have to stop - consequently I'd burn less calories than a longer, gentler, more fun session. So I dialled it back a notch, sticking with a steady pace I could happily maintain rather than a more demanding one that I couldn't.

This worked. My weight began to fall very much more rapidly :

Around week 25 I thought things might be plateauing, but this was just the effect of statistical variations. It's really important to remember that one can hardly see week-by-week changes, but recording the data is essential for discerning long-term trends. Also, I noticed no pattern in the weekly wiggles whatsoever - the human body is just darn complicated, so trying to ascribe a particular cause to any given data point (e.g. "it must have been that pizza I ate") is a fool's game, and one would do well to avoid it.

During all this I'd made minimal changes to my diet - and I really do mean minimal. I'd eat one toastie for lunch instead of two. I'd eat a couple less snacks. I'd drink a bit more juice. And honestly, that's it. No kale smoothies. No munching carrots. No replacing bacon with broccoli. And of course, no deadly dull morning runs, or gym subscriptions, or anything really horrible like team sports (urrggh !). Just doing an activity that I enjoyed when and for as long as I enjoyed it.

If I can do it, then dear reader, I assure you that you can do it do. Maybe it's more efficient to lose weight by changing your diet, but that isn't going to work for me. The better solution for me may be less efficient, but so what ? It's one I can actually do and actively want to do instead of feeling like a chore. I don't wanna kick a ball around. I wanna shoot robots and ninjas. I don't want to feel like I'm doing exercise, I want to do something I'd enjoy anyway. Get that right and the rest is easy.

So efficiency can go hang. The point is to expend as much energy as possible, not expend as much energy as fast as possible. As pointed out somewhere, it takes the same amount of energy to get from A to B by walking as by jogging. Sure, jogging is faster, so you can burn up the energy more quickly, but if it's so tiring that you won't do it at all, it's far better to walk. 


At week 22 I hit a just-about-healthy BMI according to the NHS. I'd also dropped a jeans size. Not until week 32 did I hit a perfectly healthy BMI level, however. Had I upped the exercise routine earlier, I could probably have hit my target a couple of months earlier without too much bother.

From my smartwatch app, my initial exercise routine looked like this :

30 minutes of Vader Immortal's training dojo. It felt intense at the time.

My latest routine (of which I try to do two each other workday ) looks like this :

About 40 minutes of Holopoint and then 20 minutes of Ninja Legends, which I've just recently discovered. I note that my watch's accuracy isn't perfect, and spikes which are anomalously high or low are quite common.

Eventually I'd like to reduce this back to an hour a day, or ideally every other day. Currently it's twice every Monday, Wednesday and Friday (my home office days) and once on Tuesdays and Thursdays (weekends are rest days, which are important). This means I don't get as much time for blogging or other free activities as I'd like, which is a bit of a burden.

Finding the sweet spot, the equivalent of neutral buoyancy, is a challenge. In the last few weeks a variety of factors beyond my control (pulling a muscle in my side, the light breaking in the hallway - which messes up the Quest's tracking - the need to avoid exercise after vaccination) conspired to reduce my routine significantly. Yet overall, the trend kept going down just as steeply. Exactly how this works is hard to say, and nutrition, I've learned, is darn complicated. One of the interesting things that everyone seems to agree on is that the lost weight escapes, just like a car or a plant, through breathing, and a little bit through pee. Which is to say you can't try and poop yourself thin - either your exercise/diet is working or it isn't.

Annoying, when after I returned from my holiday I'd gained 3.5 kg back, despite walking the dog each day, though I did also indulge heavily in much-missed British snacks. I regret nothing. Still, the search for a sustainable minimum continues.

Let's finish with a word on economics. A full-price Oculus Quest version 1 cost ~£400. Gym prices in the UK seem to be around £20 per month, so £240 per year. In the Czech Republic things are (surprisingly) more expensive, with £360 yearly being more typical. The Quest 2 is also substantially cheaper at £300. So purely as a replacement gym - if all you want to do is lose weight and don't care about lifting heavy objects - the Quest is competitive. Factor in that you can use it whenever the hell you want, don't have to deal with other human beings, and of course it can do an awful lot more than just exercise games, and it becomes a thoroughly good investment.

My take-home messages :

  • Losing weight is difficult. It's a long, arduous process. If you don't find a method you continuously enjoy, it isn't going to work. For me that's fighting through wave after wave of ninja laser robots. For you it might be making a tastier salad. Go with whatever works.
  • By the same token, efficiency is over-rated. Like the Orion nuclear pulse propulsion drive, waste isn't always important if you've got plenty to throw away. I can sustain battling ninjas indefinitely, and that's more important by far than the fact that guzzling kale smoothies would probably be a lot faster.
  • Do not worry too much about weekly variations. It's the trend that's important, and you're not going to be able to discern that until at least two months in, unless of course you're doing a much better job than I did.
  • You now have a good economic health-based justification for buying that fancy VR headset you've always wanted. You're welcome.

Friday 10 September 2021

Expedition Cardiff

We now interrupt our special features to resume our regular service...

That's right, a TRAVEL POST ! WOOOO !

For obvious reasons, it's been 18 months since I was last in the UK. This is by far the longest I've ever been away. Although living a gilded cage is incomparably better than living in a dung heap, it's still... not ideal. I love working from home, and long may this pandemic-induced trend continue. But that doesn't want to mean I want to be literally caged up here forever.

Travelling in times of a pandemic is a bit different to normal. The worse part wasn't the new procedures themselves, but the disorganised mess of figuring out exactly what the regulations are in the first place - both on the Czech and British sides. In the end I had to email both governments to determine what I should do, because both had confusing instructions though for different reasons. The British had a nice, clear website with, easy-to-follow, contradictory instructions and webpages that were updated out of step with each other. The Czechs had a horrendously over-complicated flowchart that was plastered with random symbols for some reason. Fortunately, somewhat incongruously, both responded promptly and cleared up this mess very easily.

The procedures I had to follow were :

  • Book flights. EasyJet have not yet resumed their Bristol service, so this meant a Ryanair flight through Stansted and a National Express bus to Cardiff. This was all very cheap, but added an extra 7 hours (!) to the journey. And the extra complication of finding the different route in the first place, of course.
  • Get a negative test result within the 72 hours preceding travel to the UK. This meant searching for a host of testing centres until I found one that definitely gave me the required documentation. I paid the equivalent of about £20 for this, which I found out on the day that I needn't have done since two tests per month are covered by Czech health insurance.
  • Book a test for day 2 after arriving in the UK. This was relatively easy since the Welsh government insists on using one particular supplier, but it cost a stupidly expensive £88. Which is utter bollocks because that's the same price they used to charge for two tests.
  • Fill in the UK's passenger locator form, which is easy but needlessly tedious. For some silly reason you can't do this until the last two days before you leave, which is irritating and pointless. The Czech equivalent on the way back asks for all the same information but can be completed in a small fraction of the time simply because it has a better, more concise layout. It also doesn't try and make you feel like a criminal in the way the British one does with its constant veiled threats.
  • Print out all this documentation plus my EU Digital Covid Certificate (a.k.a. vaccine passport), in order to avoid the need for 10 days of self-isolation. This meant a trip to the office on the day of departure.
All this made me considerably stressed. I'm far more sympathetic now to people who complain that things are complicated : individual steps really aren't complicated at all (the concept of the "amber list" is hardly the double slit experiment, for goodness sake), but combine the whole mass with different, constantly-varying rules for different countries and overly-elaborate government websites and actually yes, it is rather unpleasant. Why can't there just be a simple web-based form ? Input your country, vaccination status, etc. and have it spit out the customised rules for your travel, with warnings about what to do if the status were to change. It ought to keep an unpaid government intern busy for all of twenty minutes. Like, say, this one.

(Incidentally, I thought long and hard about whether to travel at all. In the end, since me and my whole family are double-jabbed, and I would also be tested, the risk seemed to be as low as possible. And given the unpredictable nature of the restrictions and the virus variants, it seemed like there was no better time - the thought of another 18 months is frankly unendurable.)

Well, I'm pleased to say that after becoming increasingly anxious in the final few days (not least because I would have to leave Shirley and the dogs behind), as soon I got to the airport everything went as smoothly as possible. "Be early", they said. "It's very busy right now", they said.

It wasn't. It was deserted. If it had been any more deserted there would have been tumbleweed rolling through and a creepy-looking dude playing a banjo.

It took me all of 25 minutes to get through check-in and passport control. Hardly anyone was using the non-Schengen terminal so the passport queue was non-existent, and the check-in was mainly slow only because everyone else seemed to be travelling in groups. The extra documentation didn't seem to matter much at all in terms of extra time taken.

This helped put me much at ease covid-wise*. Apart from a couple of choke points, social distancing at the airport was maintained by default. And in those exceptions I was always with my fellow passengers, who would necessarily be similarly double-jabbed and negative tested. They were all wearing masks too - I can't say I saw any covidiocy in the airport at all.

* What I would have done if my pre-departure test was somehow positive I know not. Melt, probably.

So my two and a half hours of waiting in an empty airport was rewarded with a very pleasant and mostly empty flight with a very nice view of the clouds.

At this point I kind of relaxed exhilaration took hold. I became acutely aware of just how important the trip really was. The sense of relief was palpable. The anxiety vanished and elation took hold. No amount of Zoom calls or the like can ever replace in-person contact; for the first time in a long while, I could actually appreciate how marvellous the ability to fly around actually is and not just whine about the restrictions of budget airlines or the inconvenience of the experience. When you're choosing to fly a few times a year, these things do become problematic. But when you can't do this any more, when you're prevented from seeing friends and family for eighteen months, these pressing issues become the utmost trivialities.

I'd left in the midst of a protracted discussion about some philosophy crap. At times, as perhaps any good discussion should, it had become rather heated. And I just remember thinking very clearly how anyone able to spend their spare time having a philosophy discussion ought not be quite so angry that the other fellow is a twit, but simply marvel and rejoice at how fortunate they all are to be able to have such a discussion at all. It's marvellous, really.

Of course, such a feeling in unsustainable. You can't continuously, actively appreciate everyday occurrences, it'd drive you mad. But it's a nice feeling while it lasts.

I remember seeing some cynical twattery back at the start of pandemic about how we should let the airlines fail. Well !

I mean, seriously, just fuck off.

What in the hell the aim of letting the airlines fail was supposed to be I'm buggered if I know. I mean, sure, they may have some very unpleasant characters, but are all their staff profiteering capitalist oppressors ? Really ? Every stewardess ? Is every passenger taking a cheap flight a climate-change-denying consumerist moron who just wants to get blind drunk and wave their gonads around on a foreign beach ? Like hell.

Cheap travel is wonderful and we should celebrate it. Yes, we should probably not fly ten times a year if we can avoid it, and yes, we should actively seek alternatives and use carbon offsetting (I paid for mine) whenever we have to fly, as well as investing in non-polluting vehicles for the long term. But we should also not forget just how important it is to see the world, and most of all to be able to see our far-distant families. All you cynics posting anti-social-media memes on social media, forever hypocritically banging on about how we should talk to each other more instead, well, let me tell you, there is no more important human connection than seeing one's family in person. Anyone ranting about the evils of cheap travel is a vacuous twerp who ought to go home at once and rethink their life.

That said, Ryanair's carry-on policy is a bunch of bollocks, because you can easily get a bag at least 50% larger than advertised under the seat in front of you. That was a concern I really could have done without.

Anyway, I landed in Stansted and disembarked swiftly. Like Prague, it wasn't even remotely close to its apparent usual capacity. I celebrated my repatriation my gorging myself on a Wispa Gold, some angel slices, a packet of Monster Much and some Ribena. Say what you will of British food, our confectionary is as good as you'll find anywhere. Not posh, to be sure, but perfectly decent.

I had to hang around outside the airport for a while but this was fine because of my prolonged state of exultancy. I walked the length and breadth of the car park twice just to pass the time, which is a dull place but I didn't care. Then I got on the bus and went home.

The number of other planes I saw at the airports was about the same as the number of cars in the car park.

The bus trip was about as exciting as you'd imagine being on a bus until 2:30am could ever possibly be. The only excitement was the 50 minutes in the Victoria coach station. Now the bus itself had all of six other people aboard, so as covid-safe as is reasonably possible. But the station was full of maskless idiots, which annoyed me quite a lot. So I waited in an empty section and ate another angel slice, which was delicious. And then I went home.

The next day I had a pint of something in an actual pub and it was delightful.

For the next three weeks, mostly I did homely things like walking the happy little dog :

With side cast of herons, kingfishers, fish, moorhens, a fox, and a great big hedgehog. It was lovely. I felt little need to do anything special, that wasn't what I wanted. I wanted normal. And I got it in spades, which was fan-bloody-tastic. My mum made scones and a great big chocolate cake, which is about as homely as you can get.

I thought about putting the jam on first on one and second on the other, just to really annoy the internet, but I was hungry.

Once, I did technically visit a nightclub when running into some physicists. But this really was a technicality : in fact it had been converted to an outside sit-down bar. There was no music at all, and certainly no dancing, just people sitting around at picnic tables getting drunk. That level of interaction I'm covid-comfortable with; an actual nightclub I would certainly shun for some considerable time, covid-passports aside.

Unlike many previous trips home, this one featured exactly no astronomy at all. But I did do an experiment - to wit, testing these super-fancy whiskey glasses that Shirley insisted were amazeballs. If you read the website, they talk about "bio mimicry" and "standing waves", which has all the classic hallmarks of bullshit. I mean, what sort of animal is suitable for bio-mimicry for the purposes of drinking whiskey ? If they look like anything, it'd be a sort of cone jelly, and I imagine that most of them have the same level of whiskey knowledge as an American I once met who introduced himself as being Scotch. But Shirley ordered them (far cheaper for me to bring them back in a suitcase than get them shipped to Prague), and she said we should test them. So a friend and I did just that. Thoroughly.

No no, thoroughly.

That bottle was full when we started, and it was emptier still by the time we finished.

In fact we tested four different glasses with a single malt. At first, we were both resolutely unimpressed. The Talisker glass gave a much stronger smell and flavour immediately. The shot glass, well, it's a shot glass. The Penderyn glass was delicious. The Norlan glass, however, was devoid of smell and tasted positively bland.

After continuing to sample the whiskey from the various glasses, we were quite convinced that the "bio-mimicry" had failed as spectacularly as you'd expect when you put a cone jelly in charge of a complex chemical research project. But then... we decided to let it breathe for a few minutes.

Well ! I suppose I have to re-assess the whiskey-appreciation skills of the humble jellyfish. The other glasses did something, but not very much. The taste and smell from the Norlan glass, however, was transformed. What you get is a massively richer, more complex flavour, very much smoother and without the harshness of the alcohol. We still don't think the glasses do the pseudoscience crap described on the website, but blow me they're doing something - and doing it well.

Our final extremely drunken assessment was something like the following :
  • The shot glass is only to be used by Ian McShane in the wild west.
  • The Talisker glass gives the best results if you absolutely need to drink your whiskey as soon as possible. It is also the most satisfying to hold.
  • The Penderyn glass is the best if you're the First Sea Lord of the Admiralty in the 18th century and are having an important meeting to plan a mission to measure longitude. It gives the most smokey results by far, but loses all of the other flavours.
  • The Norlan glass is easily the best under all other circumstances. They're expensive for glasses, but not as expensive as the Borg-assimilated pumice infuser they sell (whatever the hell that is), or the £450 it'll set you back for a box and four glasses. They're pretentious twats, to be sure, but they doing something right.
  • Drambuie is completely unaffected by any glass as it overpowers everything.
I also took advantage of Amazon Prime actually working properly in a country with next-day delivery and got the Hollow Crown trilogies on blu-ray. And wandered around an actual physical bookshop buying books and a delicatessen buying high quality cheese. Wales may not be France or the Netherlands, but we absolutely do world-class cheese.

This is Cardiff's city hall, not far from where I bought the cheese.

Which I feel was a very productive day.

I made indulging my evil consumerism easier by finally getting around to setting up Google Pay, so now I can not just pay for things with my phone, but my watch. Madness, I tell thee, but convenient madness. Though I was tempted to go a bit mad with buying more books, I also wanted to take some more of my old ones back with me. This involved a lot of unpacking and sorting from storage.

Afterwards I re-packed them in carefully labelled boxes, so next time it should be a lot easier.

And I can read them all in comfort thanks to finally, after four years, getting new glasses. My prescription has only changed slightly, but it took a lot more getting used to than I was expecting. It's a very strange sensation. Everything close just felt immediately clearer and bigger. Everything far away seems a bit sharper. But everything in the middle distance had (and this has diminished but still not completely faded) a different feeling of distance, as though I'm not quite properly able to judge how far away it is. This goes away instantly when I take them off, and I find it very strange how mere lenses can change such a fundamental part of my literal world view.

And finally, my mum has been on an Ancestry binge and has traced part of the family as far back as 1807. Here, for instance, is my great grandfather Edgar Smith, who was on the Welsh rugby team back in 1907-8:

We already knew about him though. More interesting are these fine figures, who we believe are my great great great grandmother and grandfather.

We don't know much about them, except that surely great-great-great-granny is very likely to be haunting someone somewhere. Incidentally, I re-read Dracula before I bought all those new books. Just thought I'd mention that.

The highlight of the records are my paternal grandfather's letters to my grandmother during the war.  Here he is somewhat later (right), with his father at his chemist's shop.

In the war he served aboard the tank landing ship HM LST 3504, renamed HMS Pursuer some years later, on a mission that went through Egypt, up to India, and eventually to Sumatra. His letters were limited as to what he could day, though the route of the ship could be quite well-traced. He talks about landing troops at one point, but that's about the extent of the military content.

I found them a hugely interesting read. He died when I was very young so I don't remember him all that much. The letters are... a warts-and-all view. He talks about the "wogs" and "coolies" and "dirty Indian villages", as well as breathtaking scenery and other places which are basically hell on Earth (Port Said in Egypt is apparently a "godforsaken place"). There's also a deep homesickness, something I can certainly empathise with, a burning desire to return to family and home. That was particularly poignant for me after so long away. And there's also a very deep affection for my grandmother. Racist, yes, but that doesn't detract from their other aspects. 

And of course there are the amusing anecdotes. Like making a hammock for the ship's dog because dogs get seasick, something he was particularly insistent on because he knew my grandmother wouldn't believe it. Or being granted special and exclusive privileges to play the ship's piano, or trying the "American drink" Coca-Cola for the first time and thinking it was "OK, nothing special". My personal favourite part though :

I also had an air mail from your mother with a lock of Keith's hair [that being my uncle, then five months old]. The lads in the mess saw and pulled my leg unmercifully. They said that it came from an entirely different part and not from Keith at all. You can guess what they meant. Anyway they were only jealous.


There are many mysteries in the letters. We don't have my grandmother's correspondence at all, so we're only getting half the story. We don't know anything much about the enigma that is my grandfather's brother. According to the letters he did something he should be ashamed of but we have no idea what, or if this should be read ironically. We don't even know how he died, since my grandmother gave completely contradictory accounts ranging from "torpedoed in the war" to "had a lorry accident". Ho-hum. And we don't know what crisis was happening that prompted my grandfather to insist that "we'll get through this", which feels quite different from the usual homesickness.

Even so, what we do have is a treasure trove. God knows what future archaeologists will think when they dig up old computers and uncover Facebook. Probably they'll run like hell.