Settling into my eyrie … and a cycle ride

Nearly two weeks since I last posted, let’s see if I can get to manage at least one a week from here on.  It’s been very much a settling in period.  It’s the summer season up here so some shops are open in Plagne Centre, the hub bit of the ski resort about 2km (and 114m of vertical drop/climb) below me and the little SPAR supermarket is open up here in Aime2000 as well as the slightly bigger one in Plagne Centre.  This means I can get good cheese and charcuterie from the cremerie/charcuterie in Plagne Centre and good bread and patisserie from the boulangerie/patisserie just opposite that. That’ll all finish at the end of August so I’m enjoying it while I can and also getting out on Cerise really in exercise mode, i.e. flying down the hairpins and crawling back up.  I’m pleased with how much the distance has increased day on day but also that I’m still keeping it fun. 

On that note, for anyone who has a bit over 11 minutes to spare, and wants a change from the speeded up motion of the timelapse videos, here is about 8km down the hairpins (to the bottom of the Olympic bobsleigh course here, la Piste de Bob in French, for anyone who knows La Plagne).

What I’ve said on the vimeo annotation about this is:

This is 11 minutes and 5 seconds of the descent down the main road from where I’m living in Aime2000 to the rather arbitrary point at which I decided that was enough for one day, i.e. enough of a climb back up! It’s a very juddery video, I’ll try mounting the camera on me rather than the handlebars at some point. I also suspect it’s scary for those of a gentle disposition. Be reassured, I’m too old to want road rash and Cerise has superb brakes and great tyres, the road was dry and visibility perfect: essentially zero risk but some fun and adrenaline! We hit 60kph going down. I crawled back up to Plagne Centre, not even all the way back to Aime2000 (stopped for good bread!) in 50 minutes of heart pumping hard but very satisfying pedalling. I can’t do this in South London! 

Hm, this is interesting, the cheap helmetcam device I actually bought for skiing is quite high resolution, more so than the old ‘phone that does the timelapse videos, so vimeo seems to offer different resolutions:
High def (mp4, 1280×720)
Standard def (mp4, 960×540)
Standard def (mp4, 640×360)

Hm, interesting.  The resolution is, surprise, surprise, noticeably better on my laptop in the “high def” than the other two, pretty much as you’d expect from those pixel counts (1280×720 = 921,600 pixels,  960×540 = 518,400 and 640×360 = 230,400 so the high definition is about 1.8x the resolution of the middling definition and 4x that of the lowest).  However, the high definition is clearly requiring a throughput at the upper end of what my pretty slow broadband up here can handle as there was a “spinner” on the image I think saying it couldn’t build many frames into buffer.  It did seem to run though.  If you have reasonable broadband, you might want to start with that but give it up if it’s stopping and starting and move down to lower.

Anyone now why vimeo calls two quite different definitions “standard”?!

Nearly eight months on and I restart

Wow, it was 8.xii.18 when I last posted something here.  That has been some hiatus but I guess that’s been the way of this blog.  I’m back up in the Alps and, apart from a couple of days back in late April, shifting back from the airBnB I’d stayed in through the ski season, this is my first return. So much has happened since then but I’m going to try to keep things simple here and just post this link to my first, incomplete, timelapse video of the view of Mont Blanc and the cloud theatre from my window:  More, including a more complete video, here tomorrow: I hope!

Tracks in the snow and making tracks back to the UK

It’s my last weekend up here, my train tickets are booked on Wednesday to take me from Aime la Plagne back to St. Pancras and thence home.  According to one of the skiing news Email systems I’m signed up to we’re forecast a metre of snow this weekend so I think we’re going to need more of this:

View below me, a week ago (1.xii.18)

That was a corner I took very carefully yesterday on Cerise going down to the shop in Plagne Centre probably for my last time in 2018.  The road was a mixture of slush, meltwater but also rock hard ice and snow on bits in shadow (not that particular corner, but the slush was treacherous enough!)  London is going to be very different.

It seems time for a bit appraisal of the adventure so far.  I’ve been out here: to
16.vii.18 to 14.ix.18
8.x.18 to now
So when I get back to London on Wednesday night I’ll have accrued 140 of the 183 days in France that I’d like to get in before Brexit day on 29.iii.19 (is there a real hope looming that we might yet not Brexit?   Down, down dangerous hope! Back to the point.)  So what have I achieved apart from the, nearly, 140 days?!  What marks have I laid down in the snow?

My tracks on the terrace

Oh dear, they’re pretty much invisible aren’t they?  They’re my tracks in pristine snow, that was already several layers’ worth, chronologically, out on the terrace alongside the apartment here a few days ago. The snow out there has ebbed and flowed over the last few weeks but never disappeared and is now about a metre deep across much of the terrace and I’d want salopettes (waterproof ski trousers) as well as my beloved winter walking boots to go out there now.

Maybe that’s not a bad metaphor: hard to see tracks, comings and goings superimposed (I like to tread in the same marks both ways) and themselves superimposed on layers with only the most recent visible.

  • Well, I have done a lot of work.  Since I came back out here I’ve worked 80 hour weeks and I have achieved things.  Not as much as I wanted of course, very few things are “finished”. 
  • Actually, I think I’m a bit more realistic now about managing things when many of my projects and collaborations aren’t ones with clear “finished” points on them.  I have nearly finished a few that are finishable (WordPress doesn’t think that’s a word, it may have a point).  Wow, I really don’t think I have completely finished any. That gets depressing at times. 
  • I have realised how depressed and angry I get when I feel that my volunteer labour is taken for granted or exploited and put a stop to some of that and set better and firmer agreements in place for some others.  Work still to go there, much, but real progress that. 
  • I have set up an IT infrastructure that is working much better and is much more robust than the one I had six months ago. More work to do there but it’s doable, it’s not dangerously overdue, and I know what it is: great!  

Time for a diversion …

Small stepping snoeshow steps below me 5.xii.18

It did seem time for a break from this self-centred list making.  I was amused a few days ago, looking over the edge of the terrace to the south to see three different human tracks clear in the snow below me.  I’ve got a pair of snowshoes here and you really can’t take long strides in them, in many ways it would completely undo their design if you did, but those do look very small paces but they’re definitely someone on snowshoes.  I’ll come back to that another time.  Back to the list

  • The penultimate work point is that I am getting better at using R ( my chosen statistics system.  I’ve managed some pretty challenging bits of work around complex data and I’m getting my head around a number of rather different statistical areas that seem to be pertinent to the work I’m doing.  I’m gradually understanding some of the ways R has evolved in the last ten years particularly and learning to use the good stuff and not keep recycling my old code.  There’s a way to go on this, it’ll probably take most of next year but it’s coming along.
  • The final work thing is that I think I can finally feel a clear turning point from finishing off, or nudging along, a lot of existing projects to integrating the whole and moving on to some of my long shelved ideas. That too is certainly going to take all of 2019: it’s more a huge bend than a turning point, but I’m moving around it.  At last!

OK.  More tracks:

Cross-country ski tracks 1.xii.18

Now that’s a very different way of getting around on snow: cross-country skiing, I think going from left to right up the slope with most force on the downhill pole below the ski tracks.  Next year I really will dig out both my snowshoes and my old, but I think still perfectly serviceable, cross-country skis!

Where have I got myself over these months, moving beyond the work?

  • é<I haven’t really improved my French at all but I think I am a little less anxious about it and just dive in.  The down side of that is that people rattle back to me overestimating my comprehension hugely.  Work to do there!
  • I’m much clearer about what I need to do on the anti-Brexit, pro-European front. The hurdles when I come back are to present myself with one bunch of documentation at the CPAM (Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie) to ask for my Carte Vitale which, while we’re still in the EU, gets me French government subsidy for health costs.  I have to go to Moutiers, a town a couple of stops south of Aime on the train. That’ll need evidence that I’m not about to be a gross cost to the French and it enables me to get cheap health insurance.  With those two I can move to the next stage and apply for a temporary Carte de Séjour (EU). That involves more documents including my birth certificate and an approved translation of that and a bunch of other stuff and involves going to the préfecture which I’m still trying to locate but I think it’s in Albertville, Chambéry or maybe Annecy.    Before the crunch actual exit date, I move through that lot to start doing tax returns in France (aargh!), I think register as a micro/auto-entrepreneur and get my permanent (five year renewable) 
    Carte de Séjour and then move on, at the five year mark, to apply for dual nationality.  I’m pretty sure that no-one knows how the Brexit debacle will affect all this but at least I know the broad route map if things stay broadly as they are now.  That’s progress!
  • Finally, and slowest and the tracks that are mostly beneath the snow: I think I’m a little clearer about who this semigrating, no longer clinical, autonomous researching person is.  But that’s work in progress.

OK.  I’ll finish with a few more tracks.

Skidoo tracks 1.xii.18

Now that’s something I don’t have and don’t feel any need to have one!

Alpine chough tracks outside the door on the terrace 1.xii.18

Enough already!

Someone switched the snow blowers on!

So I’m all snooty about not watching daytime TV but I make “daytime videos” and the biggest excitement in my life over the last three or four days is that someone has switched on many of the snow blowers around me.  Now this is where this could get very boring if you haven’t been infected with the bug of skiing.  If you haven’t you may even be thinking “Does he mean snow ploughs?  But surely he wouldn’t say ‘switched on’ if he did.  Hm, do they use snow blowers like leaf blowers?”  No, I mean things that blast a fine spray of water into the air which, as long as the air is below freezing point and the spray fine enough, will freeze in the air and fall on the ground as artificial snow.  Here you are:

So that’s the little green slope to the south of Aime 2000 seen from the terrace outside our apartment here.  The sun was beaming strongly when I went out to investigate the blowers yesterday but I suspect the air temperature was below zero and being out there in tee shirt wasn’t viable for long once I decide to record these things, a fleece and warm shoes were needed.

That slope is where we step out from the cave des skis in season, clamp on the planks and put hands in the ski pole loops and head off in season.  As you can see it drops away gently to the left and then the whole of the La Plagne domaine opens up for you. As you can see, a fair bit of snow is needed if people are to do that on 15.xii.18 when the season officially opens.  I’m impressed by how much snow the blowers have produced though I think that’s in at least two days of continuous running, day and night.  You can see the three puffs this snow centre left on the big competition pisted dropping down into Plagne Centre. I think those are bigger blowers than these but I could be misremembering.

This, in the video above, is where the cows were not that long ago, 10th of September actually.  Here’s the handheld ‘phone video I shot of them then.

Coming back to yesterday, here’s what zooming in gave me on the blower on the right there.

Sort of soporific to watch for 13 seconds?!  Interesting to see how high above the current ground level the crash padding is now.  I don’t think they rest on the snow in the season, there’s generally a bit of a scalloped out hollow around the bottom of the blowers, but I suspect that a good half metre of snow is needed there.  That blower is blowing onto the area at the end of the little button “lift” that gets people back up that slope and on the turning off “Sue’s run” (our name, you may have guessed) above and to the right, so it’s covering an area that gets a lot of use through the season.  Here are some more short videos of snow blowers in the sun in case, as for me, they’ll do it for you as daytime TV (or anytime TV, vimeo and my blog aren’t fussy about circadian rhythms!)

Sue was, is, a friend who came skiing with us and her children some, hm, many, years ago now. I don’t know how or why that slope got to be “Sue’s run” really. I must consult with the experts in the family with good memories. It’s almost the only skiing return route into Aime 2000 and a bit steep if you’re a complete novice so you can come back along that track on the left.

Here’s the whole of Sue’s run:

Snow blowers going at the bottom and at least three more up on the skyline at the top.  However, not on the run itself as it’s north facing and holding the natural snow it’s already acquired. It’ll need a lot more before it’s skiable though.  Here’s zooming in onto that skyline.

I love the way that was all caught in the low but intense sun. Less than a day later as I type and snow is falling steadily all around and we’re heading into white out.  Off behind the ridge at the top on the right there’s a black run (i.e. the steepest and most challenging of the official “on piste” runs.  “Les coqs”, how could I have forgotten.  I did it with tnp on his snowboard at the end of last season, me on my short skis much more suited to its moguls (mounds of snow up to probably 1.5m high on Les coqs and decidedly challenging, I remember doing a lot of very unambitious side slipping!)  tnp of course, just shot away out of sight making it look like a walk in the park, to choose a tired old cliché.

And finally, swinging back to my left from the terrace.

Hm, those are the same type of snow blowers on the main competition slope down into Plagne Centre. I know there are some other, bigger ones over there too but I think they’re hidden below the ridge, further onto that slope.  There’s pretty good snow cover in the relatively (or completely) sun sheltered slopes beyond, a mixture of on piste runs and off piste.  That’s the peak of les verdons in the distance. Over the top there and you drop down into the “Champagne-en-Vanoise” or just “Vanoise” extension of the La Plagne domaine back where I met up with friends in the summer in very different weather conditions.  OK, steady fine snow falling now and I must get on with work!


Being clinically retired but not watching day time TV yet!

I seem to be nudging forwards with this blog and my public musings again.  Here’s a sign of hope from a week or so back.  A rainbow down below me through snow/sleet.  It was a particularly bright one and a particularly vertical bit of arc.

Rainbow down below from Aime2000 28.x.18

OK. Sorry if that turns out to be the best of this posting!  Onwards though as I think this is a theme that has been running through things ever since that day in July, over two years ago now, when I had renounced my clinical vocation and pointed my bike off towards Compostela: what does it mean to be “clinically retired” or “retired from clinical work”?  What does that mean if you still find yourself working 70-90 hours a week, essentially unpaid as I can live on my NHS pension?  Should I be keeping up with the Kardashians and watching reruns of old TV programs with my feet up?

I confess I’ve watched some old “Lewis” and “Foyle” recently but one or two a week, when too tired to work effectively, is quite enough TV.

I headed into clinical work starting preclinical medicine in 1975 so in some ways I was on a clinical trajectory for 41 years.  I started in psychiatry in 1984 so did that, or parts of it, for 32 years, and though getting formally qualified took eight to 12 years out of that, I was doing some sort of psychotherapy for most of that 32 years.  How does it feel to just stop?  Well, as I’ve said here before, it seems to have left surprisingly little vacuum in my life.  I remember patients and colleagues, mostly with warmth and curiosity about what they are doing now and how they are, but it doesn’t dog me.  I would love to know much more about many, many of the lives that intersected with mine in that very exposed way that being a patient, whether medical, “psychiatric” or for psychotherapy puts one in.  However, it’s not my right to know more than I do.  I have occasional dreams that clearly relate in some way to my clinical work, let’s be honest, they’re always more nightmares than dreams and they’re not that frequent and I think the way they use that part of my past is “steganography”: hiding something else within another image or text.  What Freud thought was the “day residue”/”screen memory” part of dreams.  I’m sure he oversimplified that, and that I’m doing that too, but my clinical years don’t seem to haunt me.

I think a bit of that is because the cycle ride, which started this blog, started a sort of digestion process that is ongoing, in an irregular sort of way.  Though escaping the “cultural jail” of Brexit is real for me, and hoping to gain EU residency rights for my children also real, there’s an element of digesting “retirement” in my retreat up here inot the Alps.  You don’t just walk away from something that was that important to you, and varyingly important, from frustrating and disappointing to really quite helpful to many others, without some work on the change.

For me it’s sort of half a change as most of my clinical years, well, the last 30 of them, I combined clinical work and research work and it’s continuing to be a researcher that keeps me from the Kardashians.  Working around half/half in clinical and research work for 30 years meant that I built up terrible piles (or trenches, pits) of overdue work. For most of the 30 years I was also building up a list not only of started but unfinished things, but of ideas that hadn’t been started in some empirical way.  That’s a lot of unfinished business.  (Ouch, simple artithmetic teases me that it might be 15 years’ worth if I was trying to keep up with full time researchers all those years.  Help!)

Well, the arithmetic isn’t that simple but the dark slag heaps and pits of shame and guilt about overdue, neglected or abandoned collaborations are nasty and will take some years yet to clear, though certainly not 15 years.  The unstarted projects hang there like Tantalus’s grapes but I’m trying very hard to resist them until the worst of the backlog is done.

As I noted a week or so ago (Blog post: What does it mean to be a “clinical researcher” not “researcher” ) the clinical hasn’t gone, it’s there in the research as a connector, running through things and stopping me, I hope, losing the human and the relational in what I do, however abstract some of it may be.  I’ll keep chewing at that here.

Following on from the promise of that rainbow the other day, here, to sign off with, is the setting sun on Mont Blanc from earlier this evening.

Mont Blanc and lenticular (?) clouds catching the setting sun. Glorious!

What does it mean to be a “clinical researcher” not “researcher”

A few days ago I got this blog going again after a long break with Realising that I’m a (retired clinical) researcher, not an amateur statistician

I guess it’s healthy behaviour for a hermit to reflect on identity and occupation.  So does it matter that I say I’m a “clinical researcher” not simply a “researcher”?  It’s an interesting claim as some of what I do can be very geeky, can seem very abstract.  I’m interested in, and trying to start doing, research that is pure simulation work. Some of my favourite papers have been very mathematical and some of the statistical methods I use are a bit at the “bleeding edge” (that’s mostly a computing joke about things being at the “cutting edge”) so I get responses like “I can’t say I understand it, but feel reassured by your email 🙂 ”  I don’t set out to be unclear or esoteric but some techniques aren’t familiar if they’re not your specialist realm.  I’m not very clever, I have always been hopeless at mental arithmetic, I’m useless at chess, I just find a niche with mathematical ways of trying to see and understand meaningful and generalisable patterns in data.

So I’m a researcher.  Yes!  And it happens that most of my research, all of it really, has been in the general area of clinical work, starting off back in the 80s in medicine and community medicine or public health medicine, and moving into psychiatry, mental health, psychotherapy and counselling.

However, when I say I’m a clinical researcher I am mean that I want my work to have a line from human interactions in which someone, or some group of people want help with something, through the data and back to that situation.  I can really enjoy playing around with the abstractions that help us with the data in the middle of that loop from the clinical encounter back to it, but I want to remember that the data isn’t “natural sciences” data, it  starts out in humans and human relationships, and it must go back to to that.

For me that means that findings are always approximate, our models are always simplifications, often gross simplifications, their generalisability will always been limited and limited in many ways: to particular social groups, to particular cultures or languages, often to particular periods of time, particular services.  That can feel frustrating when we want certainties and control, perhaps deeply frightening when the “clinical” is about pain, suffering, disability and that death will come for all of us.  Of course, faced with these things, we want, science, we want medicine, we want psychology, to have answers, hard answers, certainties.  Surely if we can make planes fly, get humans into space and on the moon, we can have certainties. Sadly, I am sure the true clinical researcher’s answer to that is “no”, “no, sorry, we really can’t”.  Sadly, I think the rewards in our society for pretending otherwise are huge and their effects toxic.  I think I had an easier time being my sort of clinical researcher starting out in the 80s than I would have now.  The career path I had of combining clinical work and research in roughly 50:50 proportions wasn’t easy but it was there if you went for it.  Now it’s pretty much gone at least in the UK and I think, most of the developed world.

On this chilly theme, some more icicles.

Icicles and the view behind from the terrace in Aime2000 30.x.18.

Icicles from the terrace in Aime2000 30.x.18.

And here was pretty much all of today’s daylight hours condensed into 2 minutes and 46 seconds.  Now here’s both chaos and pattern.

Watching clouds, weather and snow

It’s quite an isolated life up here but there are many compensations.  One is that I spend most of my days working at the kitchen table in the dining room/kitchen of our apartment here.  I’ve moved the table to the window which looks out almost due north (1°, i.e. just E of N according to my ‘phone but I don’t trust it!) That means I look up the valley down below that joins Aime la Plagne to Bourg Saint Maurice and to Mont Blanc towering over everything.  The view is sensational and always changing.  At times there is no view as cloud can descend and wrap the place in white out, at other times Mont Blanc is crystal clear (I must find out how far away it is).

Soon after I first came up here I got into the rhythm of taking a ‘photo using my UK ‘phone pretty much on the hour every hour I was here, using a fixed point on the window to hold the view steady.  One day I will stitch them into some hugely accelerated time lapse film.  However, a few days ago I had one of those whims to which I’m prone:

“What if I used one of the android timelapse apps with my old ‘phone to grab something smoother?”

Well, of course it’s taken a bit of fiddling around and experimenting but I like the results I’m getting now.  So here is the first usable clip.  From Wednesday last week (31st of October, 2018).  Courtesy of a battered Sony Xperia ‘phone and FrameLapse Pro from Neximo labs and served by vimeo.

I really like the way that shows how the high clouds are moving in one wind system (low jetstream?) and the lower clouds are moving in another that is being blown pretty much at right angles to the higher one.

Here’s the following day with pretty much all the daylight hours this time.

Then the second was the most snow and white out since I started this game. I love the vortices coming up from the apartment block immediately below on the left.  I’ve never seen them in real time but they’re just below my sightline so perhaps they’re perfectly visible if I were just a bit higher up.

OK.  Enough.  More on my vimeo pages at and, as with most of creations, work or play, unless I have to hand them over to a moneygrabbing publisher, these are free to reuse subject only to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

[Added 11.xi.18: The videos now appear in my public diary: and I have a page listing them:]

Realising that I’m a (retired clinical) researcher, not an amateur statistician

Wow, it’s been over three months since I last posted anything.  That reflects that I’ve been, mostly, working very damn hard and ending my days with little energy or time for a blog.  However, this won’t do!

It’s been another long day and I’m tired and do need to sleep but I think this can be a short post and I think the reflection (in the title line of this post), was quite an interesting one, to me at least.

To begin at the beginning: I think I had two lectures on statistics as preclinical medical student and that’s the total of the formal teaching I’ve had on the subject. However, a huge proportion of the long hours I working at the moment are doing number crunching: statistics and psychometrics. Over the last 33 years in which I’ve been doing research, I did the number work on virtually all the papers I’ve co-authored and the majority of my papers, a not too shabby 132 peer-reviewed ones now, have been quantitative.  Now that I’m no longer spending 40-60% of my week doing clinical work, I could be mistaken for a statistician, though I’ve always been very careful to say that I’m only an amateur at that game out of respect for anyone who is properly qualified and registered with one of the organisations like the UK’s Royal Statistical Society.

Earlier this week I was having a work zoom session with someone about a possible collaboration.  I’ve become very wary about what I agree to do these days and will only do the statistics for a piece of work if I have pretty total control over how that bit of the work is done and a full say in how the findings are interpreted in the discussion part of the paper.  It’s that last bit that’s got me the revelation about my identity. It’s also that bit of my insistence on how I work with people that is sometimes tricky, as I tend to be very against any overstating of things or any minimising of the caveats and concerns.

In the conversation I heard myself say “that’s because I’m really a researcher not a statistician” and it echoed in my head as having been more true and more important than I’d realised as I said it.

Statisticians don’t like it, but too often they don’t get a say in the design of a paper.  However, in my limited experience of working with professional statisticians, I think they’re often quite happy not having much or anything to do with the discussion, except perhaps an initial translation of the findings into words rather than graphs and tables.  Even that translation is often kept entirely in the results section of a paper.

What I realised was that I really want to be involved in the complete sequence that should be the skeleton of any quantitative paper:

  1. Agreed, explicit aims/objectives that drive the …
  2. … sampling design and data collection which is is part of, and congruent with …
  3. … the plan of analysis, defined “a priori“, i.e. before seeing the data and including a “stopping rule” also defined a priori so you can show you didn’t keep looking at your accumulating data until it, perhaps by chance, said what you wanted it to say, or just seemed to say something interesting (not necessarily a fetishised “statistical power calculation” but a definite and sensible stopping rule) and then ..
  4. … the actual analyses, saying clearly when some analysis wasn’t part of the a priori plan but was a sensible pursuit of more clarity around something emergent in the data that you hadn’t expected, so much so that you hadn’t planned for it in your plan of analyses, all this leading into …
  5. … a discussion, with caveats, perhaps some “conclusions” and perhaps some implications for the subject area, in the case of my research, for clinical practice or  the ways we research it.

I really do love the mathematical bit in items 3 and 4 of that sequence, however, what really motivates me is know I had a part in, and a responsibility for, trying to make the whole sequence as honest and as useful as possible.

My life would be simpler were I happy to confine myself to items 3 and 4 … but I’m not.

Some other night.  I think this might lead me to write about “American football numbers” (the ones on the players backs, not the incredible plethora of numbers that the game uses and sometimes calls “statistics”).  I think I should also link this “researcher not statistician” issue with the similar “clinical researcher not researcher” issue; that, for me, isn’t just about my topic area or focus.  Oh dear, I can see that leads to one theme I’ve being processing for over two years now in this very erratic blog: how the “clinically retired” collides with the “clinical researcher”.  But enough for now, as I think I often finish up here:  “To sleep, perchance to dream!” Oh aye there is a rub but also lovely link back to one of the great statistical quote of all times:
To consult the statistician after an experiment is finished is often merely to ask him to conduct a post mortem examination. He can perhaps say what the experiment died of.
Ronald Fisher. Presidential Address to the First Indian Statistical Congress, 1938. Sankhya 4, 14-17. [].

[Added 6.xi.18.  This was a bit dry so here’s an icicle for visual amusement; and I have followed on to What does it mean to be a “clinical researcher” not “researcher” .]

Icicle outside the window in Aime2000 31st October 2018

The highs and lows of watching the greatest lunar eclipse I’ll ever see!

Is there anyone likely to be reading this who won’t know that we all got between the moon and the sun, carrying out the most extensive blockade of it’s light and warmth it’ll suffer in the entire 21st century?  I suspect not.

So you all know about it.

I gather that very few people in the UK got to see it because the malevolent weather gods  that have been persecuting the UK with a near or actual record heatwave for weeks,(I agree: with a lot of help from our climate change deniers and our general greed), chose to cover most of the UK with cloud.

The day had been very clear here and I was determined to see the eclipse if I could and the nearest times and compass bearings I’d found were for Chambéry and suggested that moonrise would be at 21.13, bearing 113°, a.k.a. ESE, and that the eclipse would reach its climax soon after that.  We’ll come back to that last bit!

I had realised during the day that ESE or 113° was a bit of a challenge from Aime 2000: it was right through La Grande Rochette, the big rock, from me so I thought I was going to miss everything if I stayed in the comfort of the terrace next to the apartment.  I tried to work out the skyline looking ESE from places I could reach on Cerise and thought that if I went off to a bit over the ridge I’d already been over twice in the last six weeks, I’d be OK.  So, at about 20.00, wisely swapping cycling tights for shorts and putting a cycling top over my t-shirt and stuffing some gloves and a thin rainproof top in the rucksack.  I set off.  I had put binoculars, the camera and both its lenses, the interval timer that I’d ordered which had finally arrived, a few days late, that afternoon, and my very old tripod in the rucksack. I was ready for anything!

I was a bit surprised not to find myself in a stream of humanity heading that way and amused to be cycling across all sorts of guide markers from a running race that had happened up here that afternoon.  I got to the ridge in good time and immediately realised that the track I thought would take me left to a good viewpoint was actually the wrong side of a pretty big spike on the ridge, and climbed savagely with little promise I’d get round to the ESE facing side of the ridge before my heart gave out!  OK, I’m flexible and sensible, well, I’m flexible.  That option was out.  I worried a bit about those 113° of compass bearing, but it looked as if I could take the upper track to the right.

[Usual thing: if you click or double click on that you should get it full sized, same for all ‘photos below.]

That ‘photo above shows it above me.  I reckoned that if I got along at a reasonable pace I should be in a good spot for 21.13.   I set off.  It was steep and very loose gravel and rubble track.  It kept not giving me a view without mountains to ESE.  Eventually, I stopped and decided it would have to do.

That’s a view back in one of my pauses to get my heart rate down!  Oh, and it shows that the track I had seen on the map is there, I’d just failed to take in that it went off to the left quite a bit below the ridge so I hadn’t seen it when I’d stopped and worried about these damn compass bearings.

Eventually I decided one spot would have to do, it was gone 21.10, no moon was visible but I thought I should stop.  I set up tripod, camera and timer and waited … for this:


[This one you can use that quadrant icon in the bottom right to expand it to full screen.  There is no sound and it’s about 36 seconds, as I think it will be telling you.]

It was breathtakingly beautiful and it was pink and clearly already shaded in that lower left quadrant.  I can’t explain why some of the early images are dark, nor why one later one is clearly double image so presumably the tripod shifted.  That does capture how rapidly it was going dark.  The sun was behind the ridge but already below the horizon even had I been the other side but we were in that twilight where the sun is still illuminating thin high cloud and the atmosphere causing the blue to darken and dwindle and up the moon came.  I think those were at 90 second intervals and the exposure time was in seconds and growing longer.

However, I realised that this wasn’t the full eclipse and I also realised it was damn cold. The showerproof but incredibly lightweight top went on and the gloves.  But they had to keep coming off to look at the timer or the camera, or a ‘phone.  After a bit I consulted the internet (these ‘phones are remarkable aren’t they?) and found a more detailed timing, still for Chambéry but this time marking the point of total eclipse: 22.20.  Ouch.  I jogged on the spot, I hugged myself.  I wondered where everyone else in the world had gone.  The moon got darker, and darker and higher, and darker, and yes, it went from pink to red.  The sky went black and gradually more and more stars were visible.  I never got the milky way proper, but the sheer number of stars was nearing that experience.  There was near zero light pollution, I had to go the edge of the track and look SW to see the lights of Champagny and Courchevel beyond.   Here they are from another earlier ‘photo before I decided to stop.

Almost no human light was messing things up where I was.

The camera stopped working: dead battery.  Had I brought the spare?  Yes!  Much fumbling with very cold fingers removing camera from tripod, opening the battery hole, persuading the tired battery to come out, pushing the new one in with fumbling fingers and just about screwed the camera back on the tripod.

Eventually, I got this.

It’s not great.  The last exposures were taking 30 seconds or more (I was counting between the sound of the mirror flipping up and it dropping down.)

I felt we were now in a race between seeing the complete eclipse, and frostbite.  (OK, I know it wasn’t that bad, back here, today, I see the garmin record shows it only dropped to 6°C.  That’s still damn cold when you’re underdressed for it! I gave up taking ‘photos largely because it was so dark it was hard to see the moon in the viewfinder.

To pass the time I took a ‘photo of the set up.  Here’s Cerise leaning on a track side post and demonstrating that her reflectors work very well, and you can make out the tripod on the edge of the drop beyond.

These ‘phones are amazing but even they can’t get around the inverse square law so here’s one just of the camera and tripod.  I felt they deserved to be shown properly.

Hm, maybe Cerise’s reflectors aren’t so good: that’s impressive flash back just from the glass of the viewfinder isn’t it?

It was also surprisingly spooky.  I’m definitely not a particularly brave person.  However, solid rock under my feet and no claustrophobic rock closing in above and around (I am not a potential speleologist), natural things don’t usually worry me.  However, I found myself worrying quite a bit.  Where was everyone?  Those few torchlights I could now see way below me.  Why were they there: that’s a terrible viewpoint?  Would I freeze to death up there?  (OK, that one was never serious but it really was odd how uneasy I got to feel.)

Two per century eh? This was radically different and more awesome than the last I saw, back in the last century, when I was working in Rampton.  Then I watched from outside J’s little house in Retford with a less complete eclipse there and loads of light pollution.  One thing happened then which was a quite impressive mix first of a lot of unusual noise from all manner of animals (OK, mostly dogs but the odd cat) and birds followed by, as people say, all of that going pretty totally silent for a few minutes near the maximum of that partial eclipse there.  How would animals and birds sense that maximum?  I guess they don’t and probably go silent when the moonlight drops below a certain point.  I guess they’d have stayed silent for much longer then had it been a total eclipse.

Up there in Alps the cows below had long ago stopped lowing loudly and otherwise it was totally silent … but I’m pretty sure it would be every night once the cows go to sleep.

I held on to 22.30 when the moon was a barely visible dull red, slightly soft edged disc and I packed off and started to deal with the next challenge: the headlight that came with Cerise is legal I’m sure but produces a pool of light between one and two metres across, about two to three metres from the handlebars. (That inverse square law again, hm, actually, headlights aren’t such a point source but still.)

It was rapidly clear that walking and the occasional scoot for the less steep bits was the only way back.  Hm, it really was cold though moving helped.  Suddenly there was a lump at the edge of the headlight beam and it moved.  Too big for fox or marmot … whoa, it was a man, lying down on the edge of the road to watch the moon.  I was embarrassed to be causing so much light pollution and and quite rattled.  I couldn’t understand his French at all at first but I switched the light off, got my brains back, and we did manage a few sentences.  A few hundred metres further it happened again.  Well, this time it was less bizarre: this chap was really quite tall and standing, not lying almost lost in the grass and his reflective top revealed him with ten metres to go.  However, again my ear/brain for French seemed to have stayed back in Aime 2000 and I was embarrassingly clumsy. Again we agreed the moon, the whole impact on the night, was amazing and wonderful.  I said I was cold (apologising to be wimping off without seeing the moon through to her normal state again).  He said he too was cold (from what I could see of his clothes, I think he would have been, he seemed to have little more than me.)  On I went.

From the ridge the track is wider but still nasty but cars had turned up and they two were reassembling drivers and passengers and heading down so I managed an odd return a couple of km to Plagne Villages and the first street lights by going very slowly between cars and then hitting the pedals fairly keenly when each car passed me so I could use their pathfinding ahead of me.

When I got nearly back to Aime 2000 I saw that the moon was white again and notched and tried to get some more ‘photos but it was a complete failure as cloud was now moving slowly over and largely hiding the moon.  I gave up and cycled the last 400m, … and the damn clouds vanished.  I dashed up the apartment but again the time lapse ‘photos were useless, this time it was a flare ghost from pointing pretty straight at the now very bright moon (exposure now down to about two seconds).  This was best shot I got: the last notch.

It was a stunning experience: beautiful and, yes, somehow awesome to the point of a bit disturbing, for all I know the physics. I think the cold, the awareness that getting back would be tricky cycling, or  a very long, cold push, and the frustrations with my (unrehearsed) attempts to get the time lapse images all contributed to rattle my composure but I wonder if some of it was simple awe.

There won’t be a next time, well, only for others much younger than me and for future generations.  As I’m happy to have finally managed embedding an interactive map with track.  Here’s the track of the journey up there to close with.  Zoom out until you find your location and back in again to find where I am in relation to you?



My first near visitors: 18.vii.18 … cycling and isolation/loneliness

[I think all graphics in this post will expand if you click or double click on them.]

I thought that self-portrait would be a sensible way to start this little post.  OK, I don’t really do sensible do I?!

Talking of not really doing sensible, I’ve just wasted several hours, not for the first time, trying get a better way of putting GPS recorded tracks into WordPress blog posts … and failed again!  I will try to pass on without cursing too loudly.

Back on the 23rd of June I had scoped out the trip up to the saddle between my valley and the Champagny valley  (Cerise and I go exploring).  On that occasion my concern was whether the route over the saddle in the big ridge between the Aime area and the Champagny valley would be blocked with snow and I was wondering if I should tell CA that we couldn’t meet if that had been the case.  That seems bizarre now after nearly a month of roasting sun has blasted the snow away except where it is much, much higher than that.

[I’m using “CA” and “CA+1” as I quite often do here, after discussion with each person, as a bit of anonymisation/pseudonymisation to protect the innocent, and particularly those with clinical jobs.]

The saddle is where the track changes from the challenging red climbing gradient through a white moment to the blue descent!  Back in June, I had gone a little over the top but as I’d established that the way was visibly clear from there downwards, I had turned back.  That meant that I hadn’t realised just how pebbly and challengingly steep the rest of the downhill from there was.  I’m used to that area with skis on my feet when it’s covered with piste basher bashed snow so when I had last been on it it was easy blue or at worst slightly reddish skiing.  Oh boy it’s different on the track on a mountain bike: definite red and I was pretty glad I got down to Champagny in one piece and without Cerise and I parting company anywhere!  Here’s the profile: grey is the elevation and red my heart rate.

The whole journey took about 80 minutes.  It’s amusing to me to see how my heart rate dropped dramatically as soon as I was no longer slogging uphill. Back at the time it felt as if it stayed pretty high with the concentration on the track and with not a little anxiety.  In fact, there’s a slight reduction through the descent isn’t there?   (Those peaks are brief uphill bits.)  I wonder if the slight drop in HR really was me getting used to downhill rough track moutain biking?!

OK, that’s all the geeky stuff, probably reflects my anxieties about mortality, morbidity and generally about ageing.  Here’s the view back from the first stop (the first point at which my HR drops in that plot).

The small bunch of ski apartments in the foreground is part of a collection called “Plagne Villages” and Aime 2000, my Alpine home now, is that strange ridged building breaking the skyline in the distance.  Here’s the view la bit later, a bit below the saddle and looking down into Champagny.  At that point I was just getting into the downhill (and pausing to appreciate that it was going to be a be lot more what cyclists call “technical”).  It was to get a lot steeper lower down!

I made it down and basked in the roasting sun waiting for CA+1 to arrive.  We spent the next few hours having a very leisurely meal in a local restaurant and catching up and largely succeeding in not talking about work.  Cycling was a good topic of conversation, as CA’s +1 is a keen cyclist but also because they and I would each watch different ends of the 12th stage of the Tour de France the next day.  However, one topic that emerged was whether I was, or should be, lonely, up here. I’ve got to ponder that haven’t I?


This pondering had started when I met up with another great ex-colleague on the anti-Trump march last week.  She too is now close friend like CA, and we’d been colleagues in Nottingham.  She had challenged me about isolation and loneliness clearly a bit puzzled by, or concerned for, me.

Until that challenge I hadn’t really thought much about it and last Wednesday meeting my first (near) visitors seemed a good time to chew it a bit more.  My main response, for now, is simply “Well, it’s pretty isolated up here of course, but I’m not lonely, no.”  I am qualifying that by adding that perhaps it’s much too early to judge.  I had exactly two weeks up here from to when being here was very new and there seemed much to do to get set up to live here.  Since then I’ve only had four more days up here, and now it’s the summer season so there are many holidaymakers around, though a fraction of the numbers up here in the ski season.  Also there are now all the shop and restaurant staff who come in for July and August to make the area a resort again.  And, of course, I’ve now spent about four hours of my four days in this lovely meeting with CA+1!

However, there is a question to address isn’t there.  Undoubtedly, it’s a pretty isolated life up here, and there is a sort of isolation even now when people around me are people I don’t really know, and perhaps particularly when you don’t make a very good job of understanding, or speaking in, their language.  I think I felt slightly more alone, but still not lonely, down in Aime on Thursday surrounded by French (and at least two Brits I heard) watching the Tour de France go by.  There are a few people who work up here whom I guess I’ve known for 14 years but, though I’m fond of them, language and our very different worlds mean I feel frustrated not to be able to talk more easily and about anything I or they might want to. However, we’re not close.  The only ones who will be here after everything shuts down again at the end of August are les gardiens and I think that they and I are OK to keep fairly amicable with each other but very separate. I suspect that’ oes with the job for them: be friendly to people when there’s a need to interact, e.g. when one accosted me this morning to tell me some letters had arrived from, but otherwise don’t get involved.

So in terms of physical proximity and conversation, this is a pretty isolated way of life here, and from the end of August it will be even more so.  I’ll be going back home and to Llantwit to see my parents for bit of time in September but then the first real stint of isolation will start, probably twelve weeks broken only by a couple days for a work trip to Barcelona.  At the moment I have no sense that I’ll go stir crazy, I’m actually looking forward to it I think!

Of course, in our current world, there are many ways in which I’m still in converations with many people that don’t need physical proximity.  Those include this blog of course.  Howver, I don’t think my comfort being alone up here is just about having all those though I do think it would be much, much harder without them.  I’ll come back to thinking more about those connections and communication channels in the next weeks and months.  However, I know that part of what my friends are exploring is something crucial about physical proximity in communication.

Anyway, putting cyberconnections to one side for now, the challenge on the march, and faced with CA’s tactful but clear amused sympathy with those earlier questions about missing people and loneliness was clearly that this makes me seem a bit weird!  That’s a bit uncomfortable and has forced me to confront this issue!

One way of looking at this is that I think I’ve always been someone quite happy to minimise contact with other humans; I’ve always been happy to be in the country with a “natural environment” and birds as company.  I put that “natural environment” in quotes as, at least in most of Europe, there’s nowhere that isn’t shaped by humans whether that shaping is recent or ancient.  I think I realised this at around ten years old and it’s important and I think it’s pertinent to how I experience being up here.

That seemed so important that I had to check my facts, and the moment of clear recognition that pretty much all the British landscape is at least cosmetically touched by humans, and much is only as it is because of centuries, millennia, of human impacts.  It turns out that I must have been 13 as to me the moment of revelation was from a book.  That I must have been at least 13 makes sense as I have a clear memory of reading the book that changed my view for ever that is definitley in the bedroom I had when we lived in Leamington Spa and we moved there when I was 11.  The book was The making of the English landscape by W.G. Hoskins and it was published in 1970.  It feels a bit odd now to find that must only have crystallised things I’d known much earlier, I’m clear that saw the “natural environment” as shaped by human actions well before 13, I’d say before 10.  Pondering this now I think the sense of how humans engraved themselves, ourselves, for good and ill, on the land goes way back.  I can remember a work colleague of Dad’s telling us how the oak trees on the farm I spent so many hours, days wandering across as a child between 6 and 11 were centuries old.  That wasn’t explicitly about human intervention but I think I already sensed how humans had adapted hedgerows to the trees and probably removed so many trees that weren’t useful or wanted where they were.

Why does this matter?  When I’m not up here quite a bit of my time is spent working alone at a keyboard: not so different from here.  However, back “down there”, there are also busy times when I’m in “normal” connectedness with other people.  In those times, like everyone else, I’m immersed in the currency, the immediacy of the interactions.  The time frame can be in split seconds (try waiting too long, or intervening too soon, in a psychotherapy group that has gone near the “light blue touchpaper” moment of near criticality.  You need to get the carbon control rods of the right, comment in to prevent an explosion, but do it too often, too soon, the group never does any useful work: mistiming by less than a second can be disastrous yet playing safe too much simply wastes everyone’s time.  That urgency is perhaps particularly true of group work but certainly can be there in or family, couple and even in individual sessions, though my sense was that there was generally slightly more time to play with there.

Even in a lovely, really heartwarming, social contact, such as this first meeting with old friends coming into (the edge of) my new life, is focused in the minutes and hours of the overlap, we’re in “short time”.  Those minutes and hours are precious and, as on this occasion, over fast.  The topics do stretch the time window: CA and I first met early in 2008 I think, and we worked together, including facilitating groups together at times, for six to seven years, until late 2014.  We have stayed in touch, as I have with a number of colleagues from that post, ever sinced despite my being only fairly rarely in Nottingham now.  We do talk about the whole of our lives so I guess the frame of conversation can go back up to 40 to 50 years.  Of course we talk forward too, think onwards, and have children, so I guess some of that forward reach goes even a bit further than our likely life expectancies, but looking backwards and forwards involves a rapid shading of things out of focus; they become sketchy just as resolution at the edges of our field of vision falls off.  That quality of focus falls off more rapidly looking forwards than backwards as it must and I guess my reflections above about the Hoskins book illustrate that loss of accuracy and definition as I look back.  However, all these interactions are quite “current”, their total span is well under a century.

I think this is oddly pertinent to being up here.  I’m not sure how best to explain this, and I think I’m about to leave off wrestling with these questions here for today, but something that stops me being lonely here, or, so far,seems to do so, is about feeling a space, time and quite literally a vision in every direction, that goes back into geological prehistory, that makes my own life just a detail, like any one flower on the meadows up here.

Looking out the window at the superb view here I know are there are scratches on the landscape that can’t necessarily see, or that I can’t identify, that go back to human prehistory.  They were inscribed on what nature offered back when our species was already shaping things dramatically in order to survive, but when we had yet to use written language.  Then there are at least a couple of millennia (the Romans were mining silver and other minerals here) of historical markers, both the really obvious buildings but also things like where there trees and where there aren’t, where there are odd changes dents in the pasture and the walls of fields.  There’s something in the shift of perspective from short to long time that was a motivation for my 2016 pelerinage, and started this blog.  That motivation, promising myself the cycle ride back when I was 18-21, seems to me to be something about acknowledging being part of a stream of humanity with all the glorious, and all the truly, truly terrible things that we do and about juxtaposing them against, say, Mont Blanc towering over us, almost, but not quite unmarked by us.

I’m intrigued, now as I’m writing, in this very self-centred way, about meeting CA+1, that this seems to be about managing a location in time, as well as managing distance from others.  I spent a lot of yesterday and today creating the calendar on this site and hence the wherewithal for the site and this blog to have a more intricate historical weave.  I suspect it wasn’t an accident that these reflections about isolation have turned to time and that part of what the work creating the calendar did for me was to relieve writing here of some pressures for immediacy, some urgency, that they had for me before.

I guess it’s a pretty fundamental human power and responsibility to manage our location in time and in relationships; now I find myself, kicked onwards by the Brexit madness, with time in a sort of agnostic’s retreat, to work on that!

Let’s finish with some ‘photos.  Click or double click on the image to get full screen.  Yes, I think the display is pretty unattractive but it’s all I’ve managed to achieve so far!