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Gorse blooms in Glen Brittle

Looking back at our trip to the Cuillins in Skye.

On Saturday, after a blistering 12 hour minibus journey, I arrived back  in Manchester from a week in the Black Cuillins of Skye.

Gorse Bushes in full bloom!

Gorse Bushes in full bloom!

It was a memorable trip, and by the second evening I thought it was all over – I was in great pain and could barely walk.

In my socks, I’d excitedly tried to run to otherside of the hut, and had managed to kick my little toes on my left foot on the leg of a wooden bench. Hard. About 3 of my toes on my left foot hurt like hell, and instantly I could tell it was serious.

As I hobbled to bed in pain, I wondered what one does if one breaks one’s little toe, and concluded that most doctors would prescribe rest, painkillers, and would helpfully suggest perhaps not repeating the experience if possible.

The next day, I woke up and found I could barely walk. Swallowing Ibuprofen and warding off suggestions of herbal potions, I asked our friendly medical doctor whether the intense pain meant it was broken – to which I got a shrug and a smile.

Fortunately, it turned out not to be broken, and the subsequent day, I took myself up Sgurr Dearg, to look at the Inaccessible Pinnacle. The cloud level was about 3-400m and hadn’t risen significantly since we’d arrived, however it didn’t seem to be raining significantly, and the wind had dropped to manageable levels.

Before I left for the Cuillins, I wrote this (new emphasis added):

I’ll be taking a Garmin GPS with me – not for navigating (we want to be navigating visually), but for returning in poor visibility and avoiding navigation errors. The narrowness of the cuillins, and the slightly magnetic Gabbro they’re made of, means that compass bearing can’t ever be fully trusted, and so the GPS will give a lot of confidence.

The Black Cuillins stand out for me, as one of those mountain ranges that deserves significant respect. A navigational error of 10m in the Peak District, possibly might mean wet feet but realistically is consequence free. A 10m navigational error in the Black Cuillins stands a good chance of meaning you try and scramble down a 30m cliff.

My GPS and OpenStreetMap generated map showed the “easy”, “path”, up Sgurr Dearg. At least, what little existed in terms of path, was available to me in relation to where I was. I picked the route up Sgurr Dearg, specifically because the route was relatively well traced on OpenStreetMap, and should be easy to find (up the ridge on path between Eas Mor and Loch an Fhir-bhallaich).

Kick steps down this snow in a gully of death? I say no!

Kick steps down this snow in a gully of death? I say no!

And off I went! Several times when I felt like I’d lost the path, I pulled my Garmin out, walked 15m in one direction and found the faint ‘path’ I was supposed to be following.

The descent was a bit more hard work (to Belach Banadich (easy) and then down to Coire Banadich(complex)), the route/”path” finding was more involved (Q: Do I walk around this sketchy-looking snow, or do I risk kicking down-steps into it without an ice-axe if I fall? A: Walk around) but after several attempts at following the GPS down different parallel gullies I was able to scramble myself to the path in the valley without too much faff.

When I got back, I took off my boots, sat down, and almost straight away, I heard a call over the walkie talkie radios.

The late group's route card

The late group’s route card

Another group, with several friends in it, had been climbing Amphitheatre Arete (mod/diff) near the Cioch Buttress in Coire Lagan. The time they originally expected to be back by was rapidly approaching, and, as they told me, they were still abseiling down (having turned around at ~3pm).

It was 7pm. They told me they expected to be back by 10pm but if they weren’t, it might be time to call Mountain Rescue.

With nightfall expected around 8pm, tentatively, I asked whether there was anything we might be able to help.

“Well, if anyone was really generous and wanted to walk up here (the visibility is really bad) and help us work out where we are, then that’d be really generous and we’d be grateful – currently we’re above a big cliff that’s longer than our rope so we’re going to try and find a way around it.”.

Two of our group had been climbing in that area a few days ago, and we agreed to walk up there and try and find them. I wrote a note documenting the radio call, wrote a route plan, grabbed a walkie-talkie and briefed the other members of our group the situation, whilst the guys somehow grabbed a stove to make tea and a large quantity of food.

They also grabbed their climbing gear, by as we turned on our head torches, 45 minutes into the walk-in to our destination, we agreed that 5 climbers stuck up a cliff was worse than the 3 that already were. We would go to the bottom of their crag and help try to guide them down.

It was dark by this point, with thick mist that reduced visibility to 10-20 metres, and bounced headtorch beams straight back at you.

As reached a reached a point roughly parallel with the climbers, we took a bearing on the GPS for where we thought they might be, and left the safety of the path into the thick mist.

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We headed across the valley on a faint path, then started up the hillside where we though they were. After a while, (we could hear and see nothing), we decided to shout and see if they could hear us. An echoing shout came back… to one side…. so we traversed that way. We knew from the radio that they were still descending, and so we periodically shouted until it sounded like they were directly above us, and then headed straight up the hill.

For comparison: 'good' misty visibility in daylight!

For comparison: ‘good’ misty visibility in daylight!

This was probably the most difficult point. In daylight you can look 10-30m away and choose the easiest possible route up a scrambly hillside. In thick mist, with head torches bouncing back off it, you’re stuck with what you can see – and so the scramble went through bits of streams, through boulder fields, up scree-ish slopes. It was unpleasant and with every step I was making a conscious thought – can we reverse this in these conditions?

Eventually, we got the bottom of some wet slabs, and very sensibly, the lads reeled me in and suggested it’d be unwise to go further. If we turned off our head torches, we found we could occasionally see sweeps of a powerful torch, high, high above us.

We setup watch flashing headtorches up in that direction – we could see their lights directly yet – just the light of their torches occasionally as it swept above a rocky outcrop.

We radioed through to our base (who’d setup a listening post) with our position from the GPS, explained we thought they were several hundred metres above us, and that we had limited audio and visual contact. If they did call Mountain Rescue at this point, at least Mountain Rescue would know exactly where to go.

And we waited – the guys made tea, we watched their headlights slowly bob into view, and counted them off one by one. Communication between our team was really important – we’d put on all our layers, and drunk the now tepid tea we’d made for the others, and tried various ways of staying warm (including dancing).

Finally, we got a call from the group above us letting us know they thought this was their last abseil (we’d heard those words before) but we strained our eyes up and tried to imagine figures attached to the bobbing lights through the dark mist.

Eventually (around 11pm), one by one, they made it down the abseil to the bottom of the wet slabs where we were. The guys had made some more tea and so (expecting them to be frozen), we pushed the tea into their hands, and questioned them about warmth. They gratefully accepted the tea, but apart from being varying degrees of exhausted, none of them were showing any signs of hypothermia.. Certainly they appeared warmer than we were!

We radioed through to base that they were safe, but at this point our radios were running out of battery, and so whilst the most important basic information got through, our longer plans for our return did not.

We didn’t know what was below us on the slope, we only knew the route we’d come up was safe, so rather than taking a GPS bearing for the path, we were forced to micronavigate back along our GPS trail from the route up. If you want an idea of something that isn’t fun, micronavigating down scree-ish/bouldery/steep scrambles, with 30 metre legs between where you are and when you have to stop to configure your next GPS waypoint (take a bearing).

Being up there without a GPS would have been terrifying – it was definitely the conditions when you could quite easily almost walk off the edge of a cliff without seeing.

Eventually, we made it back onto the path – and just a 40 minute walk to the hut… arriving back at 12:40ish or something. We’d been able to radio through some ETA’s to the hut once we were on the path, and like super-legends, they had amazing hot food ready for the tired climbers and rescue team when we got back.

All’s well that ends well, and we were all happy with the result – most importantly everyone home safely – but also reducing the risk of a prolonged ordeal for the climbers, a great deal of worry for everyone else in the hut, and, potentially, a spurious call to MRT.

What the climbing guidebook said...

What the climbing guidebook said…

If it were to happen again (and to be clear, I don’t want to have to navigate in those poor visibility conditions again), I think I could have communicated better with the hut team (they weren’t aware that hypothermia had been fully ruled out).

The climbers maintained that they weren’t actually in trouble, just the descent took much longer than they anticipated – even given they started 5 hours before nightfall, and estimated they abseiled ~10 pitches on their 60m rope. Possibly they went off route, or possibly they were closer to the top than they thought when they turned back – we’ll never know for sure.

What I do know, is that calm and professionalism of everyone involved – including the bravery and teamwork of the two guys (whom I had only known for a few weeks!) – and the patience and responsiveness of the hut team, contributed massively to making sure everyone got home happily.

Several days later, I decided to see if the main Cuillin ridge from Sgurr Banachdaich to Sgurr a Mhadaidh was possible in the weather conditions. This is a Grade 3 scramble – and is one of the trickiest and most committing parts of the ridge.

I set off with a less experienced group of 4 (including me), via Coire Eich, to the Sgurr Banachdaich summit. This is supposed to be the easiest Munro ascent in the Cuillins, and I can well believe it – it’s largely a slog up scree. In our case, in thick mist above ~400m.

Looking down Core Eich with the best visibility of the week!

Looking down Core Eich with the best visibility of the week!

With the OpenStreetMap maps I had loaded on my GPS, we found the winding paths through the scree and got to the summit without incident.

So we decided to give the ridge a go – and here the OSM coverage ends – the ridge is just too narrow, too rocky, to even attempt to mark a “path”. In addition, simply routefinding through scrambly bits of boulderfields becomes a challenge – given the thick mist.

At one point, we had to skirt below an icy old snow field on top of a scree slope, but above a steep misty gully. For every step between the boulder stepping stones on the scree, we sent small rockfalls into the vertical gully below. After passing that somewhat terrifying section (clearly Grade 3), we made it to Belach Thormaid.

From here, we tried to find a route to Sgurr Thormaid. I can read now, that I made an error and followed a ‘false path’ and tried to skirt round down on the left side, rather than somehow going up to the right. Fortunately, we made the wise decision, given the conditions, ability levels and difficulties in route finding, and retraced our steps (not without drama – the rockfally bit was twice as bad the second time round) and made it back to Sgurr Banachdaich, and returned back down Coire Eich.

I think (in complex and scary situations) I’d prefer to hike on my own, than with less experienced people whom I’m effectively responsible for making sure are within their ability zone.

Window Buttress and the direction of Belach na Banachdaich with Sgurr Dearg in the mist behind, from Coire Banachdaich

Window Buttress and the direction of Belach na Banachdaich with Sgurr Dearg in the mist behind, from Coire Banachdaich

The Cuillins are mountains with such a complex and unforgiving topography, that to navigate safely, you need to have studied the route incredibly thoroughly. Guidebooks, different flavours of maps, asking people, photos, crag diagrams can all massively help you – but given the distances are so short, yet the mountains so spikey, this is what one needs to do.

Being able to navigate visually only is likely to make things slightly easier – at least you may be able to route find more easily, and there will be fewer opportunities to misnavigate, but these mountains should be given a lot of respect, even in good visibility.

OpenStreetMap definitely meant better navigation abilities and GPS+OSM is a winning combination in mist made my life considerably easier and more enjoyable.

I think I prefer the solitude of solo hiking when that much is at stake, because my own mistakes don’t impact others in the same way, and I had a better understanding of what I’m not capable of.

Eas Mor with Sgurr Dearg and even Window Buttress covered in cloud....

Eas Mor with Sgurr Dearg and even Window Buttress covered in cloud….

It was a jolly fun trip – despite the dramas and relatively little time on the mountain, I had a very relaxed time(!) which was just what I wanted.

It’d be nice to go back in better visibility, and perhaps (with the right people) in full winter conditions with good visibility – I’m sure there would be several fun routes within our reach.

I thinking of maybe going as soon as the midges die off, or perhaps later in the year.

Where will the footprints lead next?

Where will the footprints lead next?

Founders at Work

Notes on a book: Founders at Work

Yesterday, I finally completed Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days.

Founders at Work

Founders at Work

The book is a collection of interviews conducted by Jessica Livingston of YCombinator with cofounders and key people of a great deal of well known (and in some cases, less well known, but notable) companies.

Because each chapter is a different interview with a different person, about a different product, company or service, it’s very easy to read small amounts at a time.

There’s quite big variety of products and services that are discussed, but the chapters I particuarly enjoyed were:

  • Max Levchin/PayPal: I hadn’t realised PayPal had originally been a PDA based crypto-system.
  • Craigslist is always somewhat fascinating, and Craig Newark as always seems like a sensible and straightforward sort of person you’d like to work with.
    • Their “softly, softly, BAN, reconcile” approach with rogue apartment real estate agents in New York seems to work well for them.
    • In the long term, I’m concerned that Ebay’s influence on them, will mean they’re unable to compete in new markets because of Gumtree.
  • Charles Geschke/Adobe – I hadn’t realised Adobe developed PostScript for Apple to solve the problem of printer/computer communication.
    • Apple’s present day support for CUPS makes more sense.
  • James Hong/HOT or NOT and Joshua Schachter/ – I found these chapters interesting as they were essentially developing “somewhat trivial” web services, that no-one would have said they would have needed.
    • HOT or NOT had the interesting ‘luck’ of being an instant, unexpected hit, with scaling problems associated with that, whilst was able to grow relatively smoothly and organically whilst its founder was still a programmer for an investment bank.
    • I found James Hong’s description of getting his uptight asian  parents to do the initial moderation for HOT or NOT (and when he decided it was time to get someone else to do it), exceptionally amusing.
  • In contrast, James Currier‘s (which I hated i 2007!) set out with a serious aim in mind (and arguably sold itself to Monster on its original ‘serious’ premise) but quickly realised it had to lighten up to make themselves appeal much more.
    • I’d say that HOT or NOT and probably had a much easier and less stressful growing experience, because they solved their growth problems and got their users first, and worried about everything else after that.
  • Most interestingly, none of them (and you can include Caterina Fake/Flickr in this), said “we going to set out to do a startup to dothis relatively trivial thing” – they all built things as a joke/side project/personal project – that only became the product of a startup, once they had lots of users.
  • Probably controversially, I didn’t actually find the Steve Wozniak/Apple Computers chapter very interesting, accessible or useful. I don’t doubt his mastery of his field (using as few chips as possible, to do as much as possible), but the detail just lost me.
  • Having said that, it was very interesting to contrast him with the Ron Gruner and what he had to say of his time at Alliant Computer Systems.
    • I think I’d definitely prefer to work with Wozniak than someone whose hiring process involves refusing to tell candidates what the process is, telling them they’re working every other Saturday and fostering what came across as an exceptionally competitive working environment (based on his background).
  • It was interesting read David Heinemeier Hansson‘s experiences at 37signals of writing the MVP of Basecamp – I’ve heard of agencies trying to build products on various occasions, but some of the reasons Basecamp succeeded.
    • (37signals already were well known, and widely looked up to by the people who [initially] were likely to find it most useful, and be most likely to consider adopting something new.)
  • In that regard, it’s somewhat similar to Joel Spolsky‘s Fog Creek Software – Joel was widely regarded via his blog, and then put out a product (FogBugz) that appealed directly to the people who were his blog’s audience.
    • On a sort of note, I’d be interested to know how much GitHub was slaughtering FogBugz’s market. I can see Fog Creek Software have git/hg products now, but when I was reading the interview – I sort of felt that the debates mentioned in the book about whether integrated wiki’s were what consumers wanted missed the point.
    • I suspect they’ll have legacy renewals, but I worry for the product’s future growth prospects – I’d suggest that perhaps that that product is now yesterday’s posterchild.
    • Today I learned he went on to create Stack Overflow… so I guess FogBugz worries may not be a personal concern so much.
  • I really liked the three interviews with Dan Bricklin/Software Arts, Michell Kapor/Lotus Development and Ray Ozzie/Iris Associates.
    • Being a child of the 00s, Lotus Notes wasn’t really a thing when I started playing with computers. I knew it existed from the Save As dialog that let you save in a format that it might accept, but I never understood anything about the background to the concept of spreadsheets (Visicalc) or the unusual development setup that Lotus Notes was produced under.
  • It’s quite hilarious to read (in 2014) about WebTV and how they managed to cause so much of a stir (to the point that Microsoft bought them) when that category of device was still (somewhat) trying to break through in 2014.
    • (Set top boxes are really the conceptual children, and whilst it’s easy to understand why Microsoft were probably being visionary in realising their significance, it’s most interesting that Microsoft didn’t succeed in the smartTV, setop box, PVR sector, even when the original XBOX was released)
  • Compared to the story of TiVo a few years later, it seems to me, that WebTV open people’s minds, but TiVO actually produced an MVP (and later real-life-actual-product) that people really wanted, once they realised it was possible - Mike Ramsay‘s description of demo’ing ‘pausing’ live TV – to people for the first time is a great example of how consumers should react when they’re presented with a feature that they didn’t know (until that moment) that they needed in their life.
  • Given the majority of people were at least somewhat technical, it was interesting to read about Lycos which was effectively founded by non-techies (the technology was sold to them by a university, and Bob Davis – previously a salesman – was positioned as CEO, which is somewhat unusual).
    • Financially, Lycos looks like a success in hindsight – it was sold to Telefonica -, but I struggle to associate it was much to sing about. I simply can’t help feeling that Telefonica was just getting a bad deal buying it (and indeed, they were!).
  • I particularly liked the chapter about ArsDigita from Philip Greenspun‘s perspective.
    • There’s a lot about how he ran ArsDigita that seemed to make sense from my point of view – for example, recruitment, working quality of life, technology stacks, small self-managed groups with responsibility for their own P/L and where everyone had some common responsibilities for key things.
    • His adventures with Venture Capital sound like a farcical nightmare, almost worthy of a sitcom. However, it does re-enforce – “if it ain’t totally broke” – don’t take someone else’s money in exchange for arguing with their people about how to do things – the distraction is never going to work out for you.
  • Firefox’s non-profit ‘intrapreneur’ development within Mozilla is quite interesting.
    • We forget the days when Firefox was the edgy browser that was up and coming, but Blake Ross did a good job in his interview of explaining how he took the Mozilla browser project as it stood, focused on things that users would want, simplified things, then managed to develop the community of raving users who (for example) took out a full page advert in the New York Times to shout about how awesome Firefox was.
  • Similarly, we forget that less than 10 years ago, Google was just a search company, and their first branch out, was Gmail.
    • Created by Paul Buchheit, at the time, Gmail radically changed the way people looked at email, and radically changed the way people looked at Google. He encountered quite a lot of organisational hurdles and technical hurdles (fun fact: an early [internal prototype] version of Gmail was stored on a single harddisk with no backups, Paul transplanted the hard disk platter into another housing and was able to recover all the data)

There’s many more interesting stories – the story of Hotmail, the story of all the blogging platforms – Moveable Type, Blogger, the story of WAIS, Alexa rankings, toolbars, the Internet Archive, etc but honestly, if you want to read about them, you may as well grab a copy of the book and read through them yourself.

I also feel it worth noting that there were a few moments in the book where I felt people were talking out of their arse/commenting on things they didn’t seem to know about. It’s fact of life when taking advice from anyone, and I’m happy they weren’t edited out – you need to consider things people say, and decide for yourself whether it’s actually what you should do, or whether it simply was what once worked well for the person suggesting it.

The book feels slightly dated – as a 7 year old book of startup stories is likely to feel. In 2007, the recent memories were of the dotcom crash, and the post dotcom successes – the boom in consumer social or mobile startups isn’t really addressed at all (the iPhone was barely released when the book came out).

Jessica has said that she’d like to write another volume, if/when she gets time, and I certainly think, there’s scope for it. There are many new stories from the past 7 years, and many existing stories with new chapters to be told, as well as many other stories from times gone by that deserve page space.

As a book, it comes across as well written, and is full of genuinely interesting interviews. If you’re interested in the history, or how some of these companies and startups came into existence, or you’re interested in learning what people feel they did right… and wrong, then have a read through it.


Notes on a book: Pitch Anything

I’ve recently read Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff.

Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff

Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff

It’s an interesting book, on the back someone’s written “move over Neil Strauss – Pitch Anything is the new the Game”. I think I can see why – they both inhabit an area of applied game theory or applied NLP, which when put into words, is likely to be quite polarising.

Pitch Anything explains an approach, or rather a toolbox of techniques, which one can use when trying to negotiate some kind of deal/pitch something to somebody.

A few months ago I read Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People (a very good book I need to reread and write about here) which quite early on explained the difference between co-operative and competitive negotiation strategies. Co-operative negotiators try to find out if there’s other concessions that can be made that might make a deal possible – for example in terms of a salary negotiation – the worker might explain that he’d like more money, explaining his young child needing childcare – his boss might offer instead that perhaps he could work more flexibly and together they could work out something that’d work for both parties – and the could review it in a few months time to see whether it was working. This is a classic example of where competitive bargaining techniques aren’t likely to get the best results.

A competitive bargaining situation might be where you’re buying a used car, you see the car listed for a bit more than you’ve seen other similar cars listed for, and you think it doesn’t look like it’s in such good condition as was promised. In addition, you’re unlikely to see the seller again (NB: a different approach should be taken when buying from a friend) so if you don’t competitively bargain, you won’t get the best deal. You might say you’d see similar cars listed for a lower amount, and you think it’ll need a bit of work doing, so you’re only willing to offer 70%. Then you might stick to that, and gradually move to say ~75%, but only when the seller has moved to ~80-85%.

(If this sounds scary and interesting – Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People is amazing.)

Most people have a native default to either co=operative negotiation styles, or competitive negotiation styles, which they prefer to apply to things.

The thing is, a co-operative negotiator and a co-operative negotiator will find a good result and a competitive negotiator and a competitive negotiator will find a good result (though they may not find as good a solution), but co-operative negotiator put against a competitive negotiator will lose out, big style.

Pitch Anything doesn’t cover any of this, nor does it say that in co-operative negotiating situations, you should probably avoid anything written in this book. The author’s background is investment banking, which clearly has a much more competitive atmosphere to negotiating deals.

I think this book is excellent at providing advice on how to teach yourself to approach a specific type of negotiation with a competitive mindset.

Various parts of it might seem like “being a dick” – and I think it’s worth being aware of that. Ignoring someones receptionist, and storming through a building, opening every door asking to speak the managing director *is* rude. In the context of someone who’s effectively stolen $600k your money into a ponzi scheme? Perhaps that what you need to do to show that you mean business.

In fairness, the book makes it very clear about keeping it fun, and like any tools, you can apply them to situations as you see fit.

The book is heavy on detail, and Oren is a master at starting stories and leaving you waiting for the ending (in itself a pretty fun trick), but I think it will be two or three reads through before I’m funny able to grasp his approach from start to finish.

It’s a fun book, and if you’re generally quite a co-operative negotiator, then I recommend it – it’ll improve your confidence in those slightly more competitive situations, (which you don’t like, because you feel people walk all over you).

I’d probably recommend reading the negotiation strategy book mentioned above, first, but feel free to just dive in.

If you’re a traditional sales person, you too, might find it interesting. Basically it’ll throw out everything you’ve ever learnt. It’s polarising, and I suspect many traditional sales people won’t like, specifically because it walks all over them.

Anyway, that was fun. I’ve various other books on the go, and hopefully I’ll write them up when I get to the end of the next one.

Eas Mor, Glen Brittle

Destination: The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Black Cuillins are probably the longest sustained alpine-style ridge in the UK, found in Skye, Scotland, they’re very spiky and dramatic.

In 2012, in March, our trip to Skye was beautifully sunny and hot. So much so that we went swimming in the rivers and sea.

Last time round, I still thought of myself as very unfit, and inexperienced. I’d only say my confidence has increased since then, but I’ve also demonstrated my fitness to myself and grown my confidence in travelling over exposed ground. Last time, the only Munro I summitted was Sgurr a’Mhadaidh via An Dorus – and I distinctly remember being on the top of this narrow ridge of rock, looking down at everything else. I remember looking around and noticing there was a lot of empty space between us and anything else.

Path to An Dorus - the scree slope

Path to An Dorus – the scree slope

This time, we’re going to stay in Glen Britle for 6 days, and the weather conditions are unlikely to be anything as like last time. MWIS doesn’t cover the Cuillins in a great deal of granularity, but I’m looking and hoping for reports of relatively little wind and precipitation. I’m also looking for a greater than 50-60% chance of cloud free summits – the Cuillins are one of those places where visual navigation is really the only way of doing things safely, and everything else are just aids for if/when you get stuck in cloud and need to return. The local regional medium term weather forcast looks damp, but ok.

SAIS doesn’t have an outpost in Skye either, but the latest Torridonian reports are positive, and the reports for the rest of Scotland also show a low risk. Obviously, conditions change, and we’re probably best placed to observe them. Significant new snow, or significant rises in temperature at altitude, are probably the biggest obvious atmospheric things we can be aware of that could cause problems. When it comes to actual avalanche avoidance, there’s a lot one can do on a snow slope to predict whether an avalanche is likely. From the SAIS observations in Glencoe and Lochbar, I think the conditions are likely to be snowy at altitude – mainly icey wet snow that has refrozen. Somewhat slippy to walk on, but ideal for crampons and not prone to movement.

If only the snow would freeze all the scree slopes solid please, and not exist anywhere else – that’d be lovely. ;)

Obviously all excursions and outings are weather dependent, and I’m travelling very well prepared for the conditions I’m expecting – Scarpa Manta B2s & G2 crampons, Ice Axe, down jacket, are packed.

I’m hoping the weather allows us to get up Sgurr Dearg/In Pin, Sgurr Alisdair, Sgurr Nan Eag, Sgurr a’Mhadaidh, Sgurr Banachdich seems straight forward, but the standard route looks boring, so it might be an option for the first hike.

I think my climbing buddy would like to have a look Am Basteir’s tooth so we’ll take a look at that and maybe Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh too.

I might see (conditions permitting) if I can do a camping excursion from Glen Brittle up to one of the high corries… Probably one of the 3 closest ones. *shrug*

The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Cuillin range is particularly interesting, as it one of the places in the UK where the 1:25,000 Ordance Survey maps just aren’t adequate. The 1:12500 Harvey’s map enlargements of the ridge, are considerably better, but no use alone. I’ll also be taking the excellent SMC Cuillins guidebook and the Skye Cicerone guide.

I’ll be taking a Garmin GPS with me – not for navigating (we want to be navigating visually), but for returning in poor visibility and avoiding navigation errors. The narrowness of the cuillins, and the slightly magnetic Gabbro they’re made of, means that compass bearing can’t ever be fully trusted, and so the GPS will give a lot of confidence.

However a GPS device can only tell you where you are in terms of a long/lat reference – if you don’t have a map for it to overlay that position on, then it’s useless.

Thus, over the past few months, I’ve been working to improve the OpenStreetMap coverage of the Cuillins – from the various data sources available – 6 inch maps from the 1800s, Ordanance Survey open data releases, and Bing aerial photography, and thanks to the kindness of some guy in Germany, this data is now available for your Garmin GPS (and is loaded on mine!).

Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain

Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain

Like when I went to Kyrgyzstan, I’ll be taking my Spot satellite pager device and will periodically fire off A-OK’s which will go out via Facebook and twitter. It’s not the same level of remoteness though, and though there will be mobile signal on the top of the mountains, we will also be carrying walkie talkie’s.

Spot will tell you my GPS position at the time I fired off the A-OK and I’ll mark the exciting and tricky bits of scrambles, and summits with custom alerts, saying they’re exciting.

I figure you might like to see where I am, but SPOT uses Google maps which are a bit rubbish in that area, so you’ll have to find a way to use the SPOT co-ordinates with this rendering of OSM: perhaps you can hack the URL?

For next time I go away, I want to use the Spot API (go look – you may be able to hack something? *shrug* that pokes the co-ordinates auto-magically into the umap-osm thing – or at least, provides neat links to show where I am on a better map.

Anyway… Time for me to get packing! I’m excited! I hope to return with stories, and photos! :)

The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background

The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background

Happy smiley face

The problem with April Fools day…

The problem with April Fools day is a problem also associated with Christmas, and other days.

I love a good joke, but lots of corporate April fools jokes miss the point.

In the same way that Christmas shouldn’t be the only time you’re generous to your family, April 1st shouldn’t be the only day of the year companies should have fun with their communications.

I mean, a funny joke-prank is just as good a bit of content to share with the public on April Fools day, as almost any other day of the year.

And the advantage, from a marketing perspective: you have much less media competition, and people won’t be expecting it – so they’ll probably find a well executed idea, a lot funnier.

So tomorrow, when the April Fools day jokes have worn old – why not think about how you can help your potential customers have a bit of a giggle, and introduce them to you…

House of Commons

How to discuss concerns with your MP

Avid followers of my blog, will know that I’ve written to my MP a number of times in recent months.

This isn’t because I love writing letters, but because I feel this probably is the most effective way of making a direct difference to policy makers.

Watch this – it’s very short and to the point:

Omar Ahmad: Political change with pen and paper

Political change with pen and paper

Now, I don’t agree with every single point of this video – I can’t handwrite for to save my life and clearly legibility is a facilitates smooth communication, so all my letters are typed.

In fact, I hate paper, printers, envelopes, stamps, postboxes and all that time-wasting prehistoric infrastructure… but it has a use… and this is it.

E-mails are ephemeral, letters are not, I always try to send letters.

Your MP, at the House of Commons

Your MP, at the House of Commons

Being massively lazy however, I found a service called pc2paper which lets me send letters for a low cost from the web – so I don’t have to interact with printers, envelopes, stamps, postboxes etc.

There are different ways of phrasing letters, there are different amounts of proof reading you can do, you probably have a specific idea of the right amount. Personally, I almost always prefer writing in an informal tone, and try to get to the point as quickly as possible.

However, I also try and be personable. It’s not about removing all elements of humanity. I’m always polite, non-confrontational, and reread it afterwards just to check it doesn’t come off as passive aggressive. Changing people’s points of view, and channeling someone else to see things you see as important, as equally important, is very challenging – and anything you can do to distinguish yourself from masses in a positive and uplifting way, will win your perspectives extra consideration.

Take it easy, have some fun…and get writing!

(You may also be interested in this post: When they’re wrong, how can you change someone’s point of view? )

Me.. aged 11

I grew up in the 90s and 00s without a TV: instead I built stuff

Throughout my childhood, my family never had a TV.

From the day I was born, until I moved out when I was 19, I had relatively little exposure to TVs or their content.

At primary school, all my classmates talked about Cartoon Network and ‘play-stations’ and I had no idea what it was all about. At the time, I had some kind of Fisher Price play-kitchen so I assumed these “play-stations” they talked of were Fisher Price stations that they all had!

When I was at school, Red Nose Day and Children In Need were these strange events that never really made sense, and my classmates at school couldn’t understand how I didn’t know these popular TV shows were.

Sticking out at school was really rubbish, but at home I was doing other things…

I don’t really understand my parents. I mean, I guess, either they were hoping I’d accidentally die early on in life, or they had taken the somewhat famous Smallows and Amazon’s telegram to heart:


I’m going to assume the latter, but you never could tell, because the things I spent my ‘early childhood’ doing can certainly leave grown people shaky at the knees, even if it did all start very innocuously.

When I was in reception class – just 4 or 5 year old – I took great interest in my dad nailing and cutting bits of wood. At Christmas, I decided wanted to give my favourite teaching assistant a [small] wooden stool to sit on. With a bit of help sawing the offcuts to the right lenth, I nailed it together and gave it her. Apparently she was very touched. That year, one of my Christmas presents was my own, real life, working tool kit (complete with hammer, saw, spirit level, tape measure, etc).

About a year later, I remember playing with hot wax (how to make candles), fountain pens, ink. As I got older, I only got more adventurous and more ambitious, it just went downhill from there.

One of our neighbours was a handyman and woodworker, and would give us his offcuts to burn and so when I was around 8 or 9, I decided I wanted to make a raft – because, heck, rafts are cool.

The problem is that you can easily nail together a platform of wood which floats on the surface of the water, but it doesn’t have enough buoyancy to support anything on it (me!). I didn’t have any oil-drum-like barrels to hand, but I had heard something about 1 litre of water weighing about 1 kilo – and somehow extrapolated that a 1 litre bottle of air would more or less support a 1 kilo weight. By scaling this calculation, you can work out how many 3 litre squash bottles you need to tie to the bottom of this wooden platform, to support a small boy (who’s weighed himself on some bathroom scales).

The wood platform was nailed together from offcuts, with empty squash bottles tied to the underside. Pretty, it was not. It wasn’t even a regular shape. But it’s not like I cared! I had a raft!

Eventually, my parents let me launch it somewhere, and with the help of the son of a family friend (who was a good deal older than me), we found that it floated (great!) and it could support me(bonus!). There were several outings with it, but it’s ultimate downfall was that, due to there being lots of unsealed wood, it gained quite a lot of weight after being in the water for some time, making it heavy to carry back…

Around that time, I decided watercraft weren’t enough, and so in the back garden, I built a treehouse. Not on my own, for sure – I think my dad wanted to make sure it was somewhat safe, and so lent some basic help to make sure there was a stable, sturdy, well supported platform in place around the rather flimsy tree in our back garden that was previously known as “the climbing tree”. After a while, I got bored of the platform on its own, and decided it need a roof, so I with some more offcuts, I constructed walls and a the roof which was covered with some spare tar paper.

Make no mistake, there were times when things went wrong but bruised thumbs and hammered fingers only served as better motivation to avoid hitting them again in future.

Due to the design, the roof even had a “loft” – a bit of space to put things – and it wasn’t long until I put several large 6V batteries up there (in series), hooked up with speaker wire to some low voltage light bulbs I’d rigged up. I even dropped a watertank made from an ice cream tub, up there, with a tube and a tap on the end, which allowed for siphon-powered “running” water.

It was not perfect by any means; for example, due to my expert wood working, there were sort of the ends of nails sticking through the roof which your head might come in contact with if you weren’t careful, but it was a still a great hideout.

Over time it evolved,  and the final iteration had a panel that slid aside to display a window (using some cool tongue-and-groove planks I’d been given) and a similar sliding bolt for the front door so I could ‘lock’ it.

Bows and arrows came next – as my siblings are a good deal older – there weren’t really issues with me trying to unleash any aggressive tendencies at them with a bow. I never really produced anything particularly accurate, but firing a bow and seeing how far you can send your homemade arrow flying is a quite a lot of fun in itself.. There’s an added bonus if you can reliably get it to stick properly into the ground when it lands, but I don’t think I ever truly perfected that. The most developed I ever got was that I figured that paper flights really did make a difference, and that by splitting the narrow end of the arrow, sliding a flight in, and then superglueing it shut, you could get an arrow which tended to fly much better than one with out.

I quite liked cap guns too. I mean, what’s not to like about them? They go bang. That’s pretty awesome. I learnt all about the different sorts of toy cap guns (ringed caps for revolver-style capguns are clearly the best and most reliable, but paper-based caps are still fun). My mum vividly remembers me finding a big bunch of mixed up coils of paper caps. These are kind of coils of 100 or so small charges that go off when they’re hit. I suggested to my mum that it might be fun (with this big mess of caps), that rather than untangle them, to take this big tangle out onto the back step and hit it with a big hammer. My mum agreed, and came to watch. Lo and behold, there was a spectacular bang, (amplified by the very closed environment with two stone walls, which went up to the back garden), and our ears were ringing for some time. Hmmm. Yes. We both learned a lesson there! ;)

My parents weren’t luddites by any means and obviously we had central heating, but we also had an open fire and I’d take a lot of interest in it, which ultimately resulted in building campfires in the back garden. I remember learning about starting fires and playing with matches when I was definitely only around 7 or so. Getting the kindling right, and then piling on offcuts of wood is something of a skill. Occasionally I had friends round who were (somehow) allowed by their parents to join in the fun. I never could understand why people just wanted to hold the end of a burning stick and wave it around when there were so many more exciting things one could do with a fire…

…. like….

Cook things! Baked potatoes… in fact, baked anything worked pretty well. Sure, marshmallows work, but that’s more of a faff, and and isn’t half as fun.

As a I grew older, fires pointed the way from cooking to much more interested activities. Why bother cooking when you can melt metal? And what can you do with molten metal? You can try to mould it into shapes! And so for a time, I turned part blacksmith, searching for old bits of lead piping in skips, and melting them down in a steel [not-at-all-tin] can. Why lead? Lead melts at a relatively low temperature that’s easy to achieve. Copper piping was also fun, because if you got it red hot, it bent much easier, and so armed with a hammer, you could bash it into fun shapes (the best I ever managed to make was a hook!). Making moulds for molten lead was a bit of a faff – although sand moulds are a thing, sandpit sand isn’t the sand they’re talking about, and so the most interesting thing I ever managed was pouring molten lead into sea shells – which produced nice shell-shaped nuggets of lead. (In general, lead is only poisonous when you eat it. Lead was used for water pipes until not long ago, and is used in shotgun shot. Basically, if you eat molten lead you’re doing something wrong. )

Of course, with a keen interest in building projectile-throwing devices, and with a copy of Bevis in hand, it was only a next step to see whether I could build a gun. It seemed like a fun challenge. I took some hints from muzzle-loading flint-lock style things, and it actually sort of worked. I stopped up the end of a thick copper pipe with molten lead, hacksawed a hole near the blocked end, and then slid an illicit france-bought ‘banger’ down the tube, poked the fuse out of the hole (actually very fiddly!), pointed it in the direction I wanted and lit the fuse.

Without a proper butt, it never looked like more than old copper pipe, and the charges in the bangers were never strong enough to do more than toss a small stone across the garden (10 yards), but it still felt like a great success.

There were also experiements with electronics – taking stuff apart; failing to put stuff back together; a learning experience that involved mains electricity; soldering irons; learning to remove capacitors with a soldering iron; learning that soldering irons are, indeed, hot; and other stories… but none of them really produced any results, other than being able to explain how this old tape deck had previously worked, and how fitting it back together didn’t seem to be working out for me.

But if it sounds like I spent the whole of my childhood blowing shit up, I’d be doing myself a disservice. From the age of 7 or 8, I really started reading, and remember, no TV means no distractions. I used to spend hours lying on the floor, on a beanbag, reading books, cover-to-cover. It was at this point that I developed my interesting style of reading: I have a tendency to skim read, to miss paragraphs or sentences if I think that part is uninteresting or dull, whilst still picking up the main gist. It’s almost like my brain was pre-empting the web. I read a lot – I read twenty of the twenty-one Famous Five books, as many Biggles books, the Dr Doolittle series, James Herriott’s autobiographies, Gerald Durrell and a significant number of others. When the first “long” Harry Potter book came out (The Goblet of Fire), I went through it in a matter of days, leaving me to try to comprehend why my peers were still carrying it around weeks or months later.
Around the time I started secondary school, we got our first computer, and suddenly, I was less interested in building things in real life, and more in figuring out how to do things on the computer – I mean, it could even play DVDs! In addition, exceptionally dull homework started to take its toll, so the amount I read, and the amount I did things with my hands decreased.

I’m pretty confident that this background helped a great deal – once I applied it to computers a “just do it approach”, actually got me work.

A while back, I read on Twitter.

If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV. #quoteoftheday

and I think I’d agree.

I could talk about what it was like to miss out on lots of TV, but honestly, I never missed it because it never was there. I was too busy building tree houses in my back garden, lighting fires, melting metal on the fires, making bows and arrows, building muzzle loading projectile throwers…

But here’s the thing: only recently did I understand who Jools Holland was, and why he held cultural significance. But when I think back, and remember that when I once asked for a Playstation for my birthday and got a dog instead, I don’t care.

Because now I know that I had an awesome childhood, and I can still watch TV when I want to.

Thanks to Jonathan and Kim for proofreading.

A thinkpad x60s

Think: blinklight

Sometimes it’s hard not be impressed by small hacks that seem so obvious, yet you’d have never thought of til you saw it.

Lenovo/IBM’s line of Thinkpad laptops have traditionally have a “ThinkLight”, an LED, located on the top edge of the display, illuminating the keyboard to allow typing in poor lighting conditions.

I blissfully used the feature, without thinking of the possibilities, until I found a package in the Debian repositories called:


When you install pidgin-blinklight:

sudo aptitude install pidgin-blinklight

you will find that there’s a new one to enable and configure in your pidgin plugins list.

Once you enable it, you’ll find that, no matter when your sound is muted (eg you’re on a train), when you receive a new instant message, your ThinkLight will blink on and off – alert you that you’ve just received a message. I find it very useful, because I often have my laptop speakers muted, and sometimes don’t notice the flashing little icon in the corner for some time. The simple flash of the light is very noticeable, yet not distracting or annoying to people around me.

I liked it so much, and emailed the maintainer of the Debian package to thank him for his work – he responded:


Am Dienstag, den 31.12.2013, 12:27 +0000 schrieb Tim Dobson:

I just wanted to say thanks for pidgin-blinklight. I've just
discovered it and, as simple as it is, it's made me very happy. I just
wanted to say thanks - I really appreciate it!

glad to hear that!

Unfortunately, I cannot use it myself these days, as the Thinklight in
the T430 series is not software-controllable any more


So the author of this super-cool hack, maintains the piece of code, even though he can’t use it any more? What a guy!

When you think that a simple light, to provide light for your keyboard, can be gently hacked in a super-useful way, and not lose any existing functionality, you start to wonder: what else could be tweaked to make your life easier?

twitter's #music

Why Twitter’s #Music spinoff project should die

Twitter has a music service. I do remember hearing it being announced some time ago, but I had completely forgotten about it.

I decided to check it out.

Twitter's #music service

Twitter’s #music service

It’s interesting. The premise of the service is that the top 5 tracks for popular artists will be displayed, and you can listen to them.

Technically, that means it basically, just pulls the top 5 songs, band art, similar artists from (for instance) the API, and then links them to the Artist’s twitter account.

atie Perry's page on #music

Katie Perry’s page on #music

It encourages a certain type of listening, good for gaining followers, but not listening in a way most fans will listen…

The problem is, often fans won’t want to *just* listen to the top 5 songs of an artist (judged by algorithm, not fan-perspective), so the platform offers no value to them at all.

In fact, it’s rather like someone is trying to package top40 radio back into an online streaming format… and I just don’t think it fits.The decisions users have to make don’t make sense.

Actually, the decisions users have to make don’t exist, because I’m pretty certain any self respecting music fan, would take a look at this, and sniff “NOPE” and head back to Spotify, Grooveshark, iTunes, Tomahawk, The HypeMachine or any number of other places.

For artists, I could see if possibly, of being one place they could gain followers quickly from. If you’re flicking through music, you might come across an artist, and decide to click “follow” – however, the “quick” aspect, implies that people have to be using the service like that, and I don’t think many people use it at all.

To me, it feels like a polished, somewhat licenced hackday or internal mashup project. There’s combination of two things, yet very little added value from the combination to intended users.

It’s clever but not compelling.

In my mind: since it’s clearly not winning, twitter should bin it, and stick to providing meta-chatrooms.

EDIT (27/03/14): Heh. They may have heard me speak. They’ve announced #music’s impending death!