Category Archives: miscellany

Garden camping

As we are all in lockdown and no idea of when we will get out, I decided to follow the example of a fellow blogger, Matt ( and camp for a night in my back garden.

Normally camping in our back garden would require earplugs to cut out the noise from traffic and aircraft. However, at the moment, everything is eerily quiet. The only thing that disturbed me was the noise of some cats fighting at about 3am.

I used my new Scarp. It reminded me of what a fabulous tent it is. The only problem I had was finding a spot in our garden that wasn’t sloping too much. Just for old time’s sake, I used my Alpkit Pipedream 600 sleeping bag. It was a bit too warm to start with so I used it like a quilt. As it got cooler I reverted to sleeping bag mode. It was nice to sleep outside for a night. Who knows when we will get an opportunity to do it in the wilds.

Coronavirus and small businesses

Two weeks ago I was joking with friends about doing elbow bumps. That now seems like a different world. Now we are in lockdown for who knows how long. Søren Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”. That’s well worth remembering before we rush to judgement on how the crisis is being handled. Everyone is trying their best with imperfect information.

Economically this is going to be painful, with a very sharp recession in the next 2-3 quarters. However, if productive capacity is protected, the likelihood is that the recovery will be strong, as productive capacity will not have been destroyed.

Small businesses, particularly one man bands, are the most vulnerable as generally they have less financial cushion to survive. If you know someone who is self employed and you can use their service or buy their product, if you are able, now would be a good time to give them some business. We are all in this together.

Valley & Peak Insulated Pouch and Cascade UL Table

On my recent Lake District trip I used a couple of new pieces of gear that might be of interest. I bought both from a new company, Valley & Peak who make quilts, bivies and accessories as well as selling lightweight gear from a limited number of other manufacturers. Well worth a look.

First is an insulation pouch. The original product was for storing electronic items in a cold environment so that batteries wouldn’t drain. I saw the potential of the product to double up as a cosy for freeze dried meals. I asked V&P to adjust the sizing to 25cm x 25cm rather than the original 27cm x 20cm to fit some of the wider food pouches.

It’s made out of the materials they use for their quilts. The closure is velcro. Personally, I would’ve preferred kamsnaps as velcro sticks to the possum wool gloves I was using, but it’s a minor inconvenience and I can see why velcro is better for its original use of storing electronics.

To prevent the inside getting dirty, I used a Sainsbury’s polythene food storage bag which fitted perfectly. Up until now I’ve been using a cosy made of radiator foil. There’s no weight difference (30g) but the V&P pouch is compressible and easier to store.

While there’s no discernible difference in performance, I expect the V&P pouch is better insulated. The real bonus is that you get a dual use and you can store your electronics in it (and it looks a lot nicer!). Worth considering.

The second piece of gear, which is a bit of a luxury, but weighs next to nothing is the Cascade Wild UL Folding Table. While it’s hardly essential it is nice to have the option of not putting things like food on the ground when you’re eating and to have a clean level surface to put things on. It’s funny how these little things give you pleasure. I found it a great addition to my camp kitchen. Weighing 58g (advertised 65g), it is hardly noticeable. Unless I’m going to be fanatical over weight, I’ll be putting it in my rucksack now for most trips.

Valley & Peak’s website:

Disclaimer: I have no relationship with Valley & Peak other than as a customer

Altra King MT 1.5 and rehab

It’s been about four months since I injured my knee and it’s close to being healed. I still get the occasional twinge and I haven’t quite got full flex, but it’s very close. I’ve been doing knee strengthening exercises for the last six weeks or so and they’ve been really beneficial. If you have an injury, I recommend seeing a sports physio to get advice on exercises. I’m planning an easy backpacking trip in September to see how things go. If that’s OK I’ll do a more ambitious one in October.

As part of my rehab programme, I’ve been walking in Epping Forest regularly, usually for about an hour. I’ve had some minor problems with some inflammation in the nerve between my 3rd and 4th metatarsals in my left foot. Nothing serious, just minor discomfort. Seeing some positive reviews of Altra trainers, I thought I’d try some out. The King MT’s appealed to me because of the wide toe box, the tread and the velcro strap across the top of the shoe for extra stability.

Unless it’s really hot and dry, I’m not a trail shoe user for backpacking. That said, I’m really impressed with these. The wide toe box is a revelation and more comfortable than the restrictive toe boxes of most other shoes (I haven’t got wide feet BTW). It certainly helps relieve the nerve inflammation issue as my toes can spread out, as well as improving my balance. The velcro strap looks a bit odd but is very effective in keeping my foot in place. The aggressive sole provides good grip.

Some comments suggest it’s difficult to get used to zero drop, but I’ve found no issues. There’s enough cushioning to protect your feet, but it’s still thin enough that you can feel the ground. However, even on stony ground, pebbles aren’t a problem. I experimented with different footbeds and found that the foam ones supplied with the shoes were the most comfortable.

Overall, I really like them. I shan’t be using them for backpacking unless it’s really dry and not too hilly. I can see why they would be great for trails like the PCT. Altra do a waterproof mid boot version of the Lone Peak, so I might try a pair of those some time, but they are virtually impossible to buy at the moment.

Getting there

It’s been nearly three months since I damaged my knee. Recently I’ve been to a sports physio, mainly to get a programme of rehab exercises. For the last three weeks I’ve been doing strengthening exercises for the muscles supporting and controlling my knee. I definitely feel stronger and will keep doing them in the longer term. I still feel a little instability and the odd twinge, especially if I twist my knee.

The physio said the main issue is the meniscus in my knee rather than the ligament. Without a scan it’s difficult to know, but it looks like it’s only the outer part which means it should heal properly. The outer part has a blood supply, whereas the inner doesn’t and is more of a problem. I’ve had no catching or clicking, so he’s fairly confident there’s not a tear.

I had planned to be on Dartmoor this weekend, but it seemed too risky. The physio said I should be cautious about doing too much too soon and that I should not try to do too much for a month or two after the discomfort has gone. If I feel ok, I will probably do a camper van trip in Sept and do some short walks. It’s all a bit frustrating but if I’m careful, I should make a full recovery. I’m glad I don’t need an operation. Hey, ho!

Don’t believe them!

My working life revolved around economics and stock markets. Over the years I developed a scepticism of the forecasts which were constantly dished out by analysts, governments, agencies and the media. That’s not to say forecasts do not have some use, but they always need to be taken with a healthy pinch of salt. I think most people intuitively know this, which is why it is endlessly frustrating to be constantly bombarded with economic forecasts by politicians and the media as if they have any real credibility.

Until now, I’ve put these inaccuracies down to the complex nature of economies and the sometimes irrational behaviour of mankind. The economically rational man is a useful tool for theories but breaks down when it comes to the real world. However, it appears there is a far deeper and fundamental problem that makes not just economic forecasting problematic but any predictions concerning phenomena with complex interactions. I discovered this intellectual treasure recently while reading a book on human consciousness (The Physics of Consciousness by Andrew Thomas).

Since Galileo and Descartes, science has largely followed a reductionist approach to problems. Reductionism means breaking down phenomena into their constituent parts to understand how the whole system works. This approach has been extremely effective in many scientific areas from particle physics at one end to cosmology at the other. This has been mimicked in the field of economics too (although with markedly less success!).

However, when we come to understanding the human brain and the thorny problem of human consciousness, the reductionist approach becomes inadequate. We have a good understanding of how neurons work, but a poor understanding of how they work together as a system to produce consciousness. This is because they react in a non-linear fashion. The best way to illustrate this is to consider two electrical components: resistors and transistors.

Resistors are linear. The output current of a circuit with a resistor in it will vary in a linear fashion with the input current. Not only that, a complex circuit of many resistors can always be simplified to a circuit containing a single resistor. Hence, phenomena which are linear in character can be subjected to a reductionist approach. Effectively, linear phenomena can always be simplified, hence they are much easier to analyse and, generally, predicted with a high degree of accuracy.

The best examples would be the movement of planets, stars and galaxies or subatomic particles are generally linear and predictable. Interestingly, in particle physics there is a very small level of randomness associated with quantum uncertainty, but at a macro level, it has no real impact in practical terms and can be ignored. I’ve also recently discovered that over very long time frames, solar systems and galaxies can also exhibit unpredictability and chaotic behaviour!

If we take a transistor, it is a non-linear component. For a current to flow through it, the voltage has to exceed a threshold amount. Any circuit with transistors cannot be simplified and hence a reductionist approach does not work as just examining each component in isolation cannot explain how the circuit works as a whole. It turns out that our neurons are similar to transistors, although they rely on electro-chemical reactions, not just electrical impulses.

To give an indication of how complex our brains are, we have about 100 billion neurons. However, each neuron has about 10,000 connections (synapses) to other neurons. Overall, our brains have about 1,000 trillion connecting nodes. The non-linearity of neurons, the vast number of them and the incredible number of connections means that by solely looking at neurons in isolation, in a reductionist approach, it is utterly inadequate to explain how the brain works and how consciousness develops.

Complex systems give rise to what is called emergent behaviour. Emergent behaviour is where a system is more than the sum of the parts and outcomes become more or wholly unpredictable. Enmeshed with emergent behaviour is chaos theory. Here we have to take an unexpected detour into meteorology and possibly one of the most important scientists that hardly anyone has heard of: Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist at MIT.

Arguably, Lorenz is the father of deterministic chaos theory in science. He was skeptical of the appropriateness of the linear statistical models in meteorology at that time, as most atmospheric phenomena involved in weather forecasting are non-linear. Lorenz constructed a relatively simple twelve factor computer model of weather systems. Because computers in the 1960’s were crude, he made some short cuts in calculations by rounding decimal places and starting in the middle of calculations. What he found was astonishing. Incredibly small differences in starting conditions by rounding decimal places had massive impacts on outcomes, immortalising “the butterfly effect” (a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil causes a hurricane in Texas).

Lorenz’s discovery showed that even detailed atmospheric simulations cannot make precise long-term weather predictions. One of his most important conclusions was that physical systems can be completely deterministic and yet still be inherently unpredictable or chaotic, even in the absence of quantum effects, which was dubbed “deterministic chaos”. Lorenz’s research explains why it is so difficult to forecast weather and other complex phenomena accurately.

Essentially there is a measurement problem and a computational problem. The measurement problem is that measurements can never be precise enough to accurately predict outcomes from any initial state. In essence, you would have to know the initial state of every single particle with absolute precision. Taking it a stage further, in quantum physics, you can only be sure of either the position of a particle or its speed but not both at the same time (Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle). This means that absolute accuracy in measuring the state of every individual particle is impossible.

Not only is the measurement of the initial state of a system impossible but there is never enough computing power to simulate the outcome. A recent research paper (Ringel and Kovrizhi, 2017) demonstrated that there aren’t enough atoms in the universe to contain the data for a Monte Carlo simulation of two hundred electrons (not atoms!) when studying the quantum Hall effect. If you can’t simulate two hundred electrons, how can you hope to accurately model either movements of particles in the atmosphere or the interactions of the human brain?

This brings us back to the original issue of economic models and their efficacy and accuracy. If we can’t accurately model the human brain, the emergence of consciousness or account for the impact of chaos or complexity, why should we ascribe anything more than a passing interest in economic models? That’s not to say that models are completely useless, but they do have severe limitations, especially when it comes to non-linear and emergent phenomena like the behaviour of humans and especially in the realms of economics.

Next time you see an economic forecast in the media, just remember the phrase “garbage in, garbage out”. I’m afraid that just about sums up the “science” of economic forecasting. Forecasts are fundamentally flawed, because we can never fully understand the wonders of the human brain, however frustrating that might be. All the forecasts that you see on Brexit from the OBR , Treasury or whoever are essentially wild guesses and next to worthless.

There is also a good case to be made that the issue of non-linearity and deterministic chaos is a fatal blow to the climate change/climate emergency brouhaha. If atmospheric phenomena are non-linear and emergent, then, by definition, climate has to have the same characteristics (see below*).  This means that predictions of what the earth’s climate will be like in ten, fifty or a hundred years time are intrinsically impossible. All the models are fundamentally flawed because they rely on reductive analysis and hence are virtually useless for non-linear phenomena. So next time you see predictions of a climate apocalypse, treat them with the same caution as economic forecasts.

* IPCC TAR Chap 14, Exec Summary: “…we should recognise that we are dealing with a coupled non-linear chaotic system, and therefore that the long-term prediction of future climate states is not possible.”

I was there!

I was lucky enough to be at Lord’s yesterday for probably the most remarkable game of cricket ever played. There really aren’t any words that can adequately describe the day. Sport can be cruel but both teams were a credit to cricket and the ethos of sportsmanship that cricket embodies.