Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Discworld books 2 & 3

The Light Fantastic is the second book in the Discworld canon. Similarly to the colour of magic it follows Rincewind and Twoflower on their adventures around the Disc. It really should be called "more of the colour of magic" but that's not so snappy is it?

It still operates slightly outside of the Discworld we know these days, though several ideas an characters are introduced that will turn up again and again - death becomes more like the Death of later, with his daughter Ysabell who will crop up again several times over, and Cohen the Barbarian who is possibly the best take on the traditional Barbarian fantasy shtick in existence makes an appearance.

Not a wonderful fit by Discworld standards, but certainly a strong foundation for the canon and an enjoyable fantasy novel that recognises the clich├ęs of the genre and uses them out of spite.

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Equal Rites, the third book in the series and the first of the 'witch' stories, is to my way of thinking also the first true Discworld novel, in the way that I view them. It is a satirical and considered look at genuine social issues through the lens of fantasy and humour, in this instance on the subject of "boys clubs" and rights for women, as well as formal and informal education and the place of academia in real world subjects.

The eighth son of an eighth son is inherently a natural wizard. This is important, so remember it for later books. What has never happened before is that this eighth, eighth son is actually a daughter, and without a right of entry to the men-only world of the wizarding school of the Unseen University there's no one to teach Esk how to control the magic within herself.

That means the job is left to the witch Granny Weatherwax, until she can't manage the forces alone and is forced to take Esk to the University, whether the wizards like it or not. The story deals with the little things, like monsters from the darkest edges of reality and the end of the world, as well as the big things such as why witches are intuitively magical and can commune with the world and why wizards are obsessed with quantifying the magic around them, and why both are more magical when they aren't actually doing any "real magic".

This is book 3 out of almost 40 novels, so there's still a lot of changes I know from reading later stories to expect, but it is a true, fully canon, story to my mind. Funny, dark, and heavily laced with the kind of savagely accurate satire that you can read without realising how much it is undermining the world around us. I'm enjoying my trip through the Discworld, so far.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Discworld and The Colour of Magic

Several decades ago a man name Terry Pratchett wrote a book about a strange and magical world that is completely flat and rides through the universe on the back of four elephants that in turn ride upon a giant turtle. Over the years this world has grown and taken shape and numerous sub stories flow between different books and I have dipped in to something like 20 of the books.

With the new kindle that arrived in the post a few days back I decided to download the entire Discworld back catalogue and now it's time to finally catch up on the gaps in my reading of the Discworld series

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The colour of magic is a difficult book to read as a fan of the disc. As with the beginning of any series it's missing various bits that we now know and love and is very much a book of building up the enormous back story that forms the modern Disc.

It is classical fantasy in many ways, with magic and trolls and all of the good stuff. It is also funny in a way that few other fantasies are. I admit, I was wary of reading this book because, much like watching the first episode of a log running tv show, half the characters are played by the wrong actor and the sets look all wrong.

The colour of magic (octareen) is the 8th colour, which is a significant number to wizards in the way that 13 is to people with too much imagination. Throughout this story rincewind the failed wizard chases across the Disc after a small tourist and chased by a treasure chest on legs experiencing magic of all kinds an narrowly evading certain deaths.

I don't love this story. But like the concrete foundations of a fantastic building it may not quite fit the aesthetic, but nothing could exist without something to build on.

Next: the light fantastic!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Heartbeat

When I was 16 I trained and raced with a heart rate monitor pretty much every time I was on my bike, as did most PRO riders and most other amateurs. These days the big fashion is for power monitoring - heart rate data tells you internal goings on, but that extra external data of what your body is producing for it's 190bpm gives it all context. For elite athletes more information equals improved performance and training gains. For most of us mortals it means 20 minutes with a graph that looks like an alpine tour stage but represents a spin to the local cafe - it's over the top and not that helpful.

When I decided to try and shift the beer belly and began running with renewed vigour I didn't use an HRM or anything more complex than a stopwatch left in my flat to time my jogs. A few weeks in and I caved in however; I felt that more information and more control of the exercise I was doing could only improve the session I did. To that end, and after 4 sessions using it, here is my review of the Polar CS300, a cycling / multi-sport heart rate monitor with some interesting features.


I wanted a monitor to track basic information - my heart rate across a training session, time spent at different percentages of effort, maximum and minimum hear rate values, and maybe even some bike specific data for when I start riding in a few weeks. Then I wanted to upload it to my computer to analyse and put my Sport Science degree to work after all these years. The CS300 does all of that more or less, gives you energy use estimates in calories, and allows up to two bikes to be stored. It uses an audio transfer system where little clicks and beeps send my training to my PC, then straight to the online tool. And if I ever lose weight, or want to add my new bike to the system, I can write it into my PC and send it over just as easily.

The bike set-up tool - pretty simple!

Overall it's pretty solid. The buttons feel a little cheap and flimsy but the watch unit is about the right weight for a watch, and won't factor on the bike at all. The bike kit is sturdy, wireless, and looks pretty quick to fit and set up as computers go. The strap is more comfortable than I remember them ever being, even if the transmitted itself feels quite chunky when running. Once transfer to my PC was set up it became quick and easy to send training over. It gives decent amounts of information and lets you type in extra data to the file, from which you can do basic analysis and plan further training.

An example training file from my torture this morning

Pros -

  • Does all the basic and some more complex functions
  • Suitable for cycling and other sports without added cost
  • Looks nice enough, and has a very readable display
  • Less than £80 on Amazon instead of pushing £200 for the next model
Cons - 
  • Can't export training data in .csv or .xls
  • No upgrade possibility for power measurement on the bike etc
  • Extra bike kits cost almost as much as the unit itself (for speed and cadence sensors)
  • The online trainer makes me feel guilty if I don't train often enough.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Set you straight

OK, modern marketing, let's get a few things straight shall we?

1) You cannot set out to create a "viral video" nor does shortening it to "a viral" make it any more possible.

2) You aren't going to be able to deny something that you have slapped on the internet (see: Streisand Effect)

3) The phrase "all publicity is good publicity" doesn't apply any more.

It's very easy to jump into the pool of online marketing and presume that it's easy - set up a Twitter and Facebook, make a viral, and everyone will start spreading your message for free. It's cheap, easy, and doesn't need much more than a clever Kickstarter page or a Youtube account. The problem is, the internet is incredibly fickle, and despite the huge amount of anonymity there is massive amount of accountability.

Today has been a brilliant example of this. This morning I only knew who Limitless Performance (not linked because they don't deserve it) were because I'm about to get back on my bike after a few years off and need some new kit to train and race in. Then they released a video with the clever intent of it going viral and everyone linking to it and becoming a little less unknown and a little more Breakthrough British Cycling Brand.

The issue was that their Advert was horrific sexist bullshit that genuinely made me feel a little sick (stills HERE, NSFW) and following the unparalleled success of the women's GB cycling team during the Olympics ending an advert with the image below is probably the worst tag line they could have come up with:


So they messed up, and got called out on it, and went into a tail spin of apology and deleting the past. But the internet is good at remembering and is very good at being pissed off. For example, the company that produced the ad had already tweeted how it was "one for the boys" (wink wink, nudge nudge I guess? deleted now anyway) but there facebook still says it. LP Themselves have written an apology saying they did not intend to insinuate girls can't ride (please see the above image again) but the echoes of tweets past can still be heard.

The lesson here is twofold:
One - the internet is not an advertising tool, it is a collection of millions of people sat watching and waiting, and if you try to jump in head first you might drown. The second is that if you do fuck up there is no gracious way to get out, but if you must delete things try not to make it too obvious what you're doing. While there's no shame in targeting one specific demographic it seems stupid to throw another demographic under a bus to win votes.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Run in with Roubaix

You may have heard all this before, but rehashing for 2012 makes me miss my bike less

The first time I rode the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix was the section from Troisvilles to Inchy, a 2.2km section of relatively easy stones some 100km into the days ride. I was bounced so hard and so violently that I could no longer see - my head was flopping around. The handlebars were wrenched from my grip with virtually every bump. I couldn't reach my gears or brakes, I couldn't move, and I was heading downhill with a steep grass bank rising up round me. In my whole time cycling I had never felt so sure that I was about to crash and take everyone down. Part way through, there was a short gap of tarmac, and as my wheels made contact with the road I swore I would never ride cobbles again.

4 seconds later I was back on the rough stuff, and now I was sprayed with dust and bovine waste as well as being violently beaten by my previous best friend, my bicycle.

There's a reason that we, as cycling fans, gravitate to l'Enfer du Norde, the Hell of the North. Whatever the weather we're given one hell of a spectacle. As a rider I always dreamed of riding the event, and when I realised that beer and studying didn't fit with the PRO lifestyle my dad and I agreed to ride the cyclo-sportive in 2006 (following the success of our trip for the Ronde von Vlaanderen in 2004). I was so excited, I can barely describe it. The day before, on our training ride with the tour group we travelled with, I hit the decorative cobbles in the local town flat out, ready to show who was boss the next day. The naivety I had was a fair equal to my excitement.

12 hours into our ride, having left the hotel at 4am to ride 10km to the start and sat in an Italian club's paceline for 60km, we're both tired. It's been over 30 degrees C since 7am, and we've been eating and drinking everything we can just to stay upright. I'm going to be honest here, the suffer-induced-hallucinations of Roubaix are unlike anything I've seen before, and as I sit behind my dad on a section of tarmac I begin to plot where I will intentionally crash so I can finally stop.

When the professionals ride there's no such luxury as thinking of stopping, and year after year we witness heroic acts by riders who by all rights shouldn't be in a selection of such a prestigious race. Roubaix requires more than just power, or even talent. It requires finesse, grace, an understanding of physics that most students would fail to attain, and a small amount of luck. Tomorrow I'm going to set up my video-stream, crack open a strong Belgian beer, and watch with great enjoyment as the real heroes of the sport, not those Tour de France wimps, show us what cycling is all about. I hope you can join me, wherever you are in the world, in saying Chapeau to the riders of Paris-Roubaix, from top step of the podium to DNF due to mechanical problems.