Author Archives: Les Bessant

Weight and Stuff Report – 22 September 2014

Weight: 216.4 pounds (15 stone 6.4 pounds, 98.2 kg)
Steps taken: 4,601

No change today, which makes a change. If you see what I mean. Well, even if you don’t, really…

The last time Dunston Staithes was open to the public was during the 1990 Gateshead Garden Festival, which I somehow never got round to visiting[1]. Access to the staithes from the main site was over a specially built bridge, which is still there, but closed off. Here it is:

No entry

No entry

Camera: X-T1
Aperture: ƒ/9
Shutter speed: 1/250s
Focal length: 22.4mm
ISO: 400
Location: 54° 57.352′ 0″ N 1° 38.2235′ 0″ W
Taken: 13 September, 2014

And here’s the view through that fence:

Going nowhere

Going nowhere

Camera: X-T1
Aperture: ƒ/9
Shutter speed: 1/600s
Focal length: 22.4mm
ISO: 400
Location: 54° 57.347′ 0″ N 1° 38.2229′ 0″ W
Taken: 13 September, 2014

Seems like a perfectly nice bridge, really…

[1] Lack of tuits isn’t a recent thing with me, you know…

Weight and Stuff Report – 21 September 2014

Weight: 216.4 pounds (15 stone 6.4 pounds, 98.2 kg)
Steps taken: Not a lot

And today’s random oscillation is a downward one.

I couldn’t persuade myself to go anywhere today, so I didn’t. This did give me a chance to catch up on some overdue posts here, and to generally relax a bit, so that wasn’t a Bad Thing.

More from last weekend’s activity now – this is where the River Team joins the Tyne, alongside Dunston Staithes. This clearly shows just how tidal the Tyne is – that’s a serious amount of mud there:

Muddy River

Muddy River

Camera: X-T1
Aperture: ƒ/11
Shutter speed: 1/500s
Focal length: 18mm
ISO: 400
Location: 54° 57.4568′ 0″ N 1° 38.2565′ 0″ W
Taken: 13 September, 2014

The Merchant Princes series – Charles Stross

I’m  a bit behind with my reviews – I read this series a few months ago, and for whatever reason never found the necessary tuits to talk about them, despite them being the work of one of my favourite authors.

First, a bit of background – these are revised versions of books which didn’t get much of a release in the UK, but were sold in the US in six volumes. I’d noticed one of them, but didn’t take much notice thanks to (a) a cover design which made it look like the kind of fantasy that doesn’t interest me at all[1] and (b) me not being sensible enough to realise that the chances of Charlie Stross writing that kind of fantasy are minimal. Anyway, Charlie revised the books, and reassembled them into three volumes which are all now available. He’s working on a second series, which will start appearing in a year or two (depending on this and that).

What’s it all about? Well, that’s complicated. It starts when journalist Miriam Beckstein is fired form her job after discovering a massive money laundering plot. Her adoptive mother gives her some mementos of her real mother, including a locket. Looking at the intricate design in the locket transports Miriam to a parallel world, where things are a wee bit different. It’s a more or less feudal society, with minimal technology. Well, apart from the weapons and such imported from Miriam’s world by a group of families who share Miriam’s ability to walk between worlds. As is traditional, it turns out that Miriam and her mother originated from this feudal world, and are in fact actual aristocracy.

So far, so conventional. But Charlie’s playing a different game. You see the Clan (as the world walking people are known) are getting absurdly rich from their talent. They offer high speed courier services in their world – making deliveries across the North American continent at a speed quite impossible where roads are rudimentary and horses are your fastest transport option. All they have to do is carry the goods from one world to the next, then use planes or cars to carry them to the local equivalent of the destination, then walk back to their world. And in Miriam’s world, they’re major drug traffickers – growing the source plants in their world…

There are conspiracies and betrayals, assassination attempts, and much worse.

But it really starts to get interesting when a defector from the Clan hands himself over to the US authorities. And once the US gets to know about what’s been lurking in its midst, Bad Things start to happen. Really, really Bad Things, which I won’t describe, as I’m trying not to spoil things for anyone who hasn’t read the books yet.

A further level of interest is added when Miriam travels to yet another parallel world, which has a more or less 19th century technological level and some quite different politics.

A lot happens involving all three worlds, and by the end of the trilogy, all have been changed in quite drastic fashion.

Seriously good stuff – and like all Charlie’s books, highly recommended.

[1] He said, politely

Inspector Colbeck’s Casebook: Thirteen Tales from the Railway Detective – Edward Marston

As I failed to enjoy the most recent full-length book in Edward Martson’s long-running series, you may be wondering why I’m writing about this collection of shorter pieces. Well, as it happens, I read this one first. If I’d read Ticket to Oblivion first, I might have left this one languishing in the “to read” folder on my Kindle for a long time, which would have been my loss.

Most of the stories here are very short, and stripped of the usual length, there’s no digression, no changes of viewpoint and much more of the Railway Detective actually doing some detecting and deducing. Altogether much more enjoyable than the novel, and well worth a read.

Ticket to Oblivion – Edward Marston

The latest in Edward Marston’s Railway Detective series follows much the same formula as most of its predecessors. A crime is committed, Inspector Colbeck is called in, supported by Sergeant Leeming and berated by Superintendent Tallis. We’re shown the perpetrator, and know more than Colbeck does for much of the story. There’s a setback or two, more crime is committed and a false trail or two is followed.

And that, for me, was the problem with this book, which failed to capture me in the same way as the earlier ones. Maybe it was just me, and I’d have enjoyed it more at a different time, but this had the feeling of a series either coming to a conclusion, or in need of a change…


Randall Munroe – What If?

Randall Munroe, for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, is the man behind the ubiquitous xkcd webcomic, which I’ve mentioned here more times than is probably sensible.

While xkcd is probably known to everyone[1], it’s possible that not everyone has noticed Randall’s associated What if? project. Randall is an actual rocket scientist. Well, he used to work for NASA, so I think that does mean we can call him that, even if it’s not strictly accurate. And what with him being an actual scientist, people have been asking him difficult scientific questions. And a couple of years ago[2], he started answering them on his site. Once a week, he takes a question, no matter how strange, bizarre or absurd[3], and answers it in methodical detail. Often with equations, which must mean it’s right. And always with cartoons which illustrate, amplify and often subvert the text. If you like xkcd, you’ll enjoy those…

A tasteful collection of the What if? posts have now been assembled into a book, available in hardcover or Kindle forms. Unusually for me, I opted for the DTV[4] on the grounds that cartoons, unlike pure text, are still better on paper than Kindle. As a bonus, there’s fun stuff inside the dust jacket and on the endpapers that you’d never be able to appreciate in the non-DTV.

Regular Losing it readers will be delighted to know that Randall makes extensive use of footnotes[5], and hides some of the better jokes in them.

I won’t go into much detail about the content – most of it can be read on the What if? website, but I will mention a few highlights:

In a piece that talks about water freezing under pressure to form exotic forms of ice such as ice III, ice II and indeed ice IX, a footnote helpfully points out that the latter is “no relation”. No relation to what? Well, if you’ve read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle[6], you’ll know. And if you haven’t, it’s worth a look.

Questions you’ve always wanted to ask are answered, such as:

What if I jumped out of an airplane with a couple of tanks of helium and one huge, uninflated balloon? Then, while falling, I release the helium and fill the balloon. How long of a fall would I need in order for the balloon to slow me enough so I could land safely?

Come on, everyone must have wondered that at some point? No? Well, how about:

What if a glass of water was, all of a sudden, literally half empty?

Hint: depends which half.

Even more fun are the questions Randall doesn’t answer. Scattered through the book are “Weird (and worrying) questions from the What if? inbox”, which include such disturbing gems as:

What if everyone in Great Britain went to one of the coasts and started paddling? Could they move the island at all?


Assuming a relatively uniform resonant frequency in a passenger jet, how many cats, meowing at what resonant frequency of said jet, would be required to “bring it down”?

When I say he doesn’t answer them, these questions do get a cartoon response…

This book is enormous fun, and recommended to anyone who’s interested in science, general geekiness, cartoons or indeed anything else.

[1] Apart from those not paying attention, but they’re probably not reading this either
[2] Longer than I thought. Old brain is compressing time again.
[3] Well, let’s be honest, the odder the question, the better he seems to like it
[4] Dead Tree Version
[5] Like these
[6] Amazon link: Cat’s Cradle

Weight and Stuff Report – 19 September 2014

Weight: 216.4 pounds (15 stone 6.4 pounds, 98.2 kg)
Steps taken: 6,162

Down again today. How exciting (or not).

Another slightly different day today. I had to get out somewhat early to catch an earlier train than I normally do to Leeds for a meeting. That all went according to plan (more or less the end of a long process of getting a new company website created), and after catching up with a few things afterwards, I returned to Newcastle for the last couple of hours of the day.

Back to last weekend’s heritagey things for today’s photos. This is on the door of the Mining Institute Library. On that particular day, the rules did not apply:

But not today!

But not today!

Camera: X-T1
Aperture: ƒ/8
Shutter speed: 1/18s
Focal length: 32.6mm
ISO: 6400
Location: 54° 58.1739′ 0″ N 1° 36.8784′ 0″ W
Taken: 12 September, 2014

And this is one of the windows inside the Sallyport Tower. I’m sure some use could be made of the building – I’d prefer something public, but even if it ended up being private offices, it would be better than leaving it locked up and ignored…

Sallyport Tower

Sallyport Tower

Camera: X-T1
Aperture: ƒ/10
Shutter speed: 1/400s
Focal length: 18.5mm
ISO: 400
Location: 54° 58.2804′ 0″ N 1° 36.2153′ 0″ W
Taken: 12 September, 2014

Weight and Stuff Report – 18 September 2014

Weight: 216.8 pounds (15 stone 6.8 pounds, 98.3 kg)
Steps taken: 3,416

Down a bit today…

I had a bit of a different day today. I spent it at a technology user group thingy in a Newcastle hotel. Some interesting stuff was discussed and presented, with a small enough group for what would normally be presentations to turn into more open discussions. It’s the first time this particular event has come to Newcastle, but they’re planning to make it a regular thing, which would be good. You’d be amazed how many London-based people think everywhere in the north is the same place, leading to helpful invitations to events in Liverpool, which takes longer to get to than London from here.

Lunch was provided, and so was a drink[1] afterwards. I also won a toy in a prize draw, which I might report on later.

More river-based stuff for today’s photo. Not quite as much fun as the Zapcats, but this police boat was moving quite nicely:



Camera: X-T1
Aperture: ƒ/9
Shutter speed: 1/180s
Focal length: 122.6mm
ISO: 200
Location: 54° 57.8664′ 0″ N 1° 36.7061′ 0″ W
Taken: 13 September, 2014

[1] Or two[2]
[2] OK, I had three