Monday, 30 August 2021

2908

More music. Inspired by Seefeel's "Spangle". This was mostly performed with Dexed, a computer simulation of the six-operator FM engine from the Yamaha DX7. But the pads in the background are made with a Behringer 112 dual VCO:

Behringer makes a range of Eurorack modules that resemble the Roland System 100m synthesiser of the late 1970s. What was the System 100m? It was essentially the last major modular system of the olden days. It was launched in 1979 and remained on sale until the early 1980s, after which the modular synthesiser market entered a lengthy period of dormancy until being revived by Eurorack in the late 1990s.

On a technological level the 100m benefited from advances in miniaturisation since the heyday of the big Moogs and EMS systems of the early 1970s. The modules tended to pack several features into a compact space, and the system used 3.5mm mini-jacks and one-volt-per-octave tuning, so in theory 100m modules should work with Eurorack albeit that they're physically different sizes.

The 112 is a pair of VCOs in a 16hp case. Each VCO has triangle, saw, and pulse waves, with variable pulse and pulse width modulation (PWM). The buzzy sound in the video above is a result of PWM, the pulse width being modulated by an LFO, which in turn is modulated by a second LFO, so that instead of going wah-wah-wah-wah the pulse width goes wah-wah-wahwahwah-wah-wah-wahwahwah.

Got that? Wah-wah-wahwahwah-wah-wah instead of wah-wah-wah-wah. On a psychoacoustic level the extra level of modulation sounds more interesting. The buzzy sound is also reminiscent of a 1970s organ or strings synthesiser put through a chorus pedal.

The strings pad is just four sawtooth waves layered on top of each other, with pitch modulation, as in the photograph. How does the 112 sound? I imagine if you hooked it up to an oscillator its sawtooth and square waves would look like sawtooths and squares from any other VCO, but to my ears it sounds bright, brash. The oscillators do odd things when they're layered, perhaps because I had them both almost perfectly in tune.

Tuning is awkward. The tuning knob has a big range - over an octave - and it's not very stiff. I found that I almost had to will my hand to rotate slightly to move the knob. Over the course of a few hours the tuning drifted by a tiny amount, although if I hadn't stopped to retune it probably wouldn't have noticed.

And it has sync. I must try that out some day.

Sunday, 15 August 2021

The Talos Principle: Everybody's Got It (Dog is Fine)


Let's have a look at The Talos Principle, a puzzle game from 2014, which was the year of Jennifer Lawrence surrounded by flames. That's how I remember 2014. And 2015. They were the years of Jennifer Lawrence surrounded by flames, because London was covered with posters for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and its sequel, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. I miss those posters. It was only a few years ago but I feel nostalgic for those posters.

It was all different back then. Jennifer Lawrence was a thing. Electric cars were mostly crap. Snakes did not have breasts because XCOM 2 hadn't come out yet, and the thought of humanity being brought to its knees by a global pandemic was fanciful - unless you had played The Talos Principle, but I'll get to that. The game recently went on sale so I decided to check it out.

Is it any good? Yes. It deserved all the award nominations it got. It didn't win anything because it was too left-field, but it deserved those nominations. Talos was made by Croteam, a Croatian development team famous for the Serious Sam games, in which you blow up huge waves of baddies in a series of visually attractive but mostly empty giant arenas. The Sam games are cheerfully brainless - Duke Nukem crossed with Smash TV - but The Talos Principle is a complete change of tack. It's a meditative puzzle game with a philosophical bent. Chip's Challenge in 3D, with a story.

Purely as a puzzle game Talos is clever albeit occasionally frustrating, but it also works as a story with an emotional core, which is impressive given that the gameplay mostly consists of putting boxes on pressure plates and looking through holes.


It takes place in the future. Decades, centuries, possibly longer. We're all dead. A thaw in the arctic permafrost unleashed an ancient virus that was lethal to primates, including us. It was a slow-acting sleeping sickness with a lengthy gestation period, so by the time the world's virologists woke up to the threat the virus was too widespread to be contained.


There's an implication that the virus can survive indefinitely in the natural environment, which means that the Earth is now permanently inhospitable to primate life. Other animals are apparently okay, but the human race is dead and gone, not to return on this day or any other day.

The orangutans are dead as well. What of the lemur? Probably dead. Most of the historical record has been erased by the passage of time.

Sounds bleak, doesn't it? And yet the game is surprisingly hopeful. It turns out that a group of human scientists came up with a plan to ensure that something of humanity would survive. They proposed to create an artificial intelligence that would inherit the Earth from us.

They didn't have the computing power to generate an artificial soul at the time, so they hoped that by letting successive generations of AI agents loose on a series of logical puzzle games a living creature would emerge. The ultimate goal was to create an AI that could think for itself, at which point it was ready to be uploaded into a physical robot body and released to the wild.

However there is trouble in paradise. The mainframe in which the simulation is hosted is slowly failing, and in an unexpected twist the host program that runs the simulation has also become intelligent, and isn't keen on ending it all.


It's an unusually elaborate set-up for a puzzle game, but as with The Witness the developers decided to use the puzzles to make a series of philosophical points about perception, the nature of life, free will etc. The game also poses a bunch of questions. Is this robot thing us? Is humanity just a collection of DNA, or something else? Given that the human body is a mass of cells acting in concert, are we even us? If we can't live forever, can we at least project something of ourselves into the future?

In the hands of lesser developers Talos could have been a pretentious, humourless bore. The backstory could have come across as a ridiculously OTT attempt to make the act of putting boxes on top of pressure plates seem meaningful, but the voice acting and writing sells it, and the story is helped along by some goofy humour. That's one thing that separates it from The Witness. It has humour.


There are only a couple of speaking parts - the seemingly-benign supreme being Elohim, and the deceased human scientist Alexandra Drennan - but in both cases I felt that the voice acting sold the roles. Drennan in particular had some of the wonders-of-the-cosmos about her without being sappy.

You get a trophy for listening to all of her time capsules, and I felt sad when the trophy notification popped up, because it meant she was gone. The first and only time I have felt sad at getting a PlayStation trophy.


Incidentally I played The Talos Principle on the PlayStation 4. The performance is unusually choppy, which is odd given that the environments are very simple, but then again it was released in the first year of the console's life, so perhaps Croteam were still learning the ropes.

You can mostly ignore the story, in which case it's still fun to play. The difficulty level is finely-judged.  I'll explain the gameplay. You're a robot:


You can pick things up and jump, but it's not a platform game. You use objects to surmount the puzzles rather than clever jumping, although there are a couple of puzzles that require you to dodge around explosive mines. These tend to be the most nerve-wracking bits of the game, because for the most part Talos is an ambient experience. You can foul up an arena, but there are no penalties for resetting it. The soundtrack is lovely. The maps are low-detail but the lighting is nice.

And then suddenly you mess up and beep-beep-beep-BOOM! a mine leaps at you and kills you. It only happens a couple of times but it's disconcerting.



Talos is one of those games that gives you a palette of devices and complications and then explores the way they can interact. Early on you learn to use jammers to disable mines:


Later on you put boxes on top of pressure plates in order to open doors, but you learn that you can put jammers on the plates instead, thus allowing you to use a jammer to open two doors at once - the first door with the plate and the second door by jamming it. A lot of the puzzles revolve around efficiency. I often found myself solving most of a level only to run out of tools before the final door, so I had to go back and work out how to make my solution more efficient.

Some doors require that you channel beams with a connector from a power source to a plug:


In that puzzle I've had to put the connector on a box, because otherwise the two beams would intersect. Later on there are fans that can be used to lift boxes up into the air, thus giving the connector a bigger field of view:



And in the shot above I've put a connector on top of a wall. This illustrates the game's major strength, which is that I often solved puzzles in a way that looked wrong, but the game kept going. As long as the solution works the game will let you carry on. I can't tell if it's the result of extensive playtesting or just plain luck, but... well, luck is a skill, isn't it? Napoleon used to ask his generals if they were lucky. Admittedly he lost, and then lost again, but the point still stands.

The most unusual mechanism is the recorder, which records your actions and plays them back with a translucent robot double:


The clone creates insubstantial-but-functional copies of world objects, and in general the puzzles that involve the clone are the hardest in the game. You have to project your mind through time and space in order to solve them. Towards the end Talos gives you a portable platform as well, but that element feels underutilised.

The Witness (2016)


Talos is often compared with The Witness, which was in development at the same time but didn't come out for another two years. The Witness has nicer lighting, although it's static - Talos has wind - and the puzzles are often fiendishly clever, but it felt sterile and I got tired of it.

Against you, there are mines that move in preset paths but seek you out if you get too close - you can't dodge them at that point - and broken mines that merely get in the way. And miniguns that shoot you if you move into their field of view.

That's about it for gameplay elements, but it's a versatile palette that sustains three sets of seven levels plus half a dozen bonus levels and some extra bits.



Why are you doing all this? The game is divided into a series of worlds, each of which contains a bunch of puzzle arenas. At the end of each arena there's a reward - a sigil, essentially a Tetris piece - and once you have enough sigils you can unlock the next arena. There's also a giant tower, but you're not supposed to climb it. Elohim said so. Instead he wants you to solve all the puzzles and run through a door, where you will be granted eternal life, although it's obvious that something's fishy.


As mentioned in the text you have to jump, but The Talos Principle isn't a reaction-based platform game. As long as you can see these footprints you'll make the jump.

There are some more mechanics. You can unlock helper robots that will give you hints, but by the time you do it's largely pointless. Each map also has a bunch of hidden stars, which unlock a special ending. Some of the stars are hidden in such a way that you have to break out of the puzzles in order to get them, e.g.:


The purple forcefields confiscate puzzle items, but they don't stop beams.

Is the gameplay any good? I have a wary relationship with puzzle games. For all its clever design The Witness often irritated me. After finishing a difficult puzzle I frequently felt drained and worn instead of entertained. I didn't feel as if I had applied myself or worked something out. Instead I felt as if I was just tracing lines back and forth on a grid for ten minutes until they looked right.

Some of the puzzles were great - the audio puzzles in the jungle area stood out, because I have a musical bent and finished them in no time - but there were too many trace-the-line grids. Perhaps it's personal taste. I didn't get along with them. Talos is occasionally frustrating as well, because a few puzzles involve assembling sigils into a coherent whole, which isn't a million miles from the trace-the-line gameplay of The Witness:


There are a few rules of thumb but I felt as if I was just moving blocks around randomly. Perhaps spatial reasoning is the key thing that separates us from lesser forms of life, but it doesn't feel clever. Furthermore if I wanted to test my spatial reasoning in an entertaining way, why not play almost any other video game ever made? R-Type, for example, or... I don't know, Wario Ware?

It's a shame because the rest of the game is finely-balanced. Often I was baffled by a puzzle until I came back to it later on, at which point something clicked in my mind, as if I had been processing it subconsciously. The game even makes reference to this:


Outside the context of the sigil puzzles Talos is tough-but-fair, and at least until the recorder came along I felt I had a handle on the puzzles, in which case the fun came from implementing the solution rather than bashing my head against a wall.

It reminded me a bit of Pete Cooke's Tower of Babel, a 1990 puzzle game for the 16-bit computers that is now sadly obscure. In that game you controlled a trio of robots that each had a special action, and by programming them to move in concert you solved a series of 3D puzzles. I remember reaching a point where I could solve the levels in just a couple of tries, and from what I remember I managed to finish it.

I finished Talos as well. There came a point where the game clicked, and I got the hang of the mechanics. The late-game introduction of a platform did very little to make things more difficult, and I was only thrown by the final level's time limit, and even then I enjoyed it because the last level feels epic. I don't want to spoil things but it delivered a satisfying, bitter-sweet emotional payoff. That's what separates Talos from e.g. Antichamber, e.g. it's not just a mindbending series of puzzles, it has a story.


Bad stuff? One of the optional puzzles is obtuse to the point of insanity, and requires that you use your mobile phone to decode a QR code and then make a mental leap. It's a one-off that appears early in the game, so perhaps the developers decided not to go down that path again. The rest of the optional puzzles are mostly tough but fair.

The fact that you can put boxes on top of mines and ride them around without dying isn't obvious, although I worked it out eventually; the fact that you can ride around on top of mines and not get shot by guns that can clearly see you is less obvious.


The presence of miniguns as puzzle elements feels off, as if the team were stuck with reusing assets from Serious Sam. Miniguns feel out of place in a philosophical puzzle game, but that's a minor quibble. As mentioned the performance on PS4 is all over the place. I'm not a frame rate snob, but sometimes it was downright jerky.


DLC? Ignoring the novelty DLC, there's a set of block puzzles that were released as The Sigils of Elohim, a free teaser for the game. I wasn't keen on the block puzzles so I haven't tried it. You can carry over some of the stars you earn into the main game, but the rewards are trivial. There was also an extensive mission pack, Road to Gehenna, which has more puzzles and a separate storyline. The puzzles are apparently a lot harder. I had a go at the first one but gave up after fifteen minutes. The problem is that Talos is finely-balanced - it never gets frustratingly hard - but pushing the difficulty up ruins that. Perhaps Gehenna is a hidden gem. I don't know. I'll come back to it one day.

The key thing is price. I can't tell how long I played Talos, but £29.99 feels steep. It doesn't really have any replay value. The soundtrack is nice but very low-key. At £15.99 however (with Gehenna) it's terrific. I got it for £5.99, which is incredible value, albeit that if you don't have a PlayStation you need to factor in the cost of the console on top of that.

The Talos Principle was officially released as a digital download only, but as with Gris there was a limited-run physical release by Special Reserve Games, but only for the Nintendo Switch. In fact it was released only a few weeks ago, back in June. The box had a reversible cover and a little booklet. I say had because, inevitably, it sold out the moment it was announced.

Why Switch? Are Switch cartridges cheaper to make that Blu-Ray discs? Do publishers have to pay a tonne of cash to Sony if they want to release something for the PlayStation 4? Who knows. In any case that's all I have to say about The Talos Principle, goodbye.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

Wild Camping in Scotland

Off to Scotland, where for two days I huddled in a tent against the elements, because there's a first time for everything. Why? Just to see what it was like.

Scotland is one of the few places in the world where you're allowed to camp in the wild. You can in theory pitch up a tent on any patch of unowned land, although I imagine if you tried to camp just outside a primary school the police would not be pleased. Or just outside the Scottish estate of 1980s actress Lysette Anthony (for example). Or anywhere else that breaches the terms of an exclusion order.

Castle Stalker. The railway line is apparently used to pull boats into the boathouse that's just behind me. Historically there was a train line at nearby Appin, but it was closed as part of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

Let's not dwell on bad things. I wanted to see Castle Stalker, which is an awkward distance from the nearest train stations at Oban and Connel Ferry. It's too far to walk, close enough to cycle there and back in one day if you're really keen, but I wanted to try out camping, so I used Google Maps to pick a green spot called Gleann Dubh, which is near Castle Stalker. It's a reservoir.

Gleann Dubh isn't famous at all, and I can find no record of anyone on the internet camping there, although while there I saw a couple of tents, so perhaps it's a favourite local spot. Who knows.

Let's share tips. I have never camped before, but I've read Into Thin Air and at the very least I didn't die, but you are probably much more experienced than me. Perhaps you want to know how a novice got on.

Tent
My plan was to cycle to Castle Stalker, so I had to save weight. Cycle with a Brompton, not ordinarily thought of as a long-range touring bike, but it can be done. If you're planning to do this yourself but you aren't keen on camping in the wild there are several motor caravan parks in the local area, and of course you could cycle to Port Appin and stay in the hotel there instead. Port Appin is a scenic half-hour stroll to Castle Stalker. I wanted to camp. To experience the glamour of army basic training and/or being homeless.

A few years ago there was a fad on the internet for hammocks, strung between two trees, with a V-shaped tarpaulin on top, but I expected to camp on open ground, so that wasn't an option. Hammocks also strike me as being very conspicuous. Another popular option is a bivouac bag, or bivvy bag. They're essentially sleeping bag liners made of breathable waterproof fabric, although the more elaborate models have a hooped head area. Some bivvy bags even have provision for guy ropes, and are essentially low-to-the-ground, sausage-shaped tents. One that stood out to me is the Terra Nova Jupiter Lite, but it seems to be discontinued.

Bivvy bags have discretion on their side, and they're easy to set up, but I wanted a way to keep all of my gear inside away from the rain, including my folding bike if necessary, which meant a tent. Hiding the bike from plain sight might also prevent passing wildlife from nibbling the brake cables or peeing on it. Of the lightweight tents the Terra Nova Laser Competition 1 stood out, especially because it's easily available online in the UK, but I settled on a Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo, which is slightly lighter and around £100 cheaper. They aren't sold in the UK so they have to be imported, but they're lightweight so postage isn't especially onerous.

The Lunar Solo is around 700g, but you have to factor in some tent pegs - six, with fittings for two more - plus a 49" tent pole. Six Moon Designs expect you to use a walking pole, but I bought a lightweight carbon fibre tent pole from eBay:


Did it snap and shatter? No, although the length is an awkward fit in some backpacks. I was worried I would shoulder my backpack, and - crunch - snap the poles in the process, but again I was being too cautious. The pegs and pole probably didn't exceed 300gm so the package was less than 1kg. On top of that I had to add an inflatable bed and a sleeping bag.

I pondered bringing a sleeping bag liner - or alternatively only bringing a sleeping bag liner. In the event it was warm enough to do this, but I didn't know in advance, so I left the liner at home. On reflection I could have saved more weight by using a half-length sleeping bag. The external temperature at night was apparently 11-13c, but inside the tent I only really needed to keep my feet warm.


The Lunar Solo has a small internal half-hoop at the top but is otherwise structured with a mixture of guy ropes and the central pole, which fits into a pair of rings in the top and bottom of the tent. The tent itself is an odd shape. Imagine a pyramid sliced in half from one corner to the other, with an insect net strung across the slice, and a foyer area just outside. The floor hangs down from the sides of the pyramid, with a strip of ventilation netting running around at ground level:


A so-called bathtub design. At first I was concerned about privacy. It reminded me of those avant-garde homes where the walls are made of glass, but the tent flares out at the base, making a little roof over the ventilation nets, so it's much more private than it looks. It's a clever design that ventilates the inside of the tent, keeps out bugs, and lets you see what's going on directly outside the tent.

Now, the first time I erected the tent I was in a hurry, and the ground wasn't ideal, so my pitch was a bit floppy. I picked a little bowl in between fallen trees, and tried not to imagine that there was a dead sheep carcass underneath it all:


Furthermore the mossy ground didn't give much purchase for the pegs. Excuses. Even though my pitching was rubbish there was still plenty of internal space for me, a backpack, my boots, and a Brompton bike bag. You could almost certainly do a better job. During the night it rained, but the tent stayed upright and dry:


In that shot my boots are in the foyer area. The laces got wet but the boots remained dry. For the second and final night I rearranged the pegs, which gave me more space internally. The picture of my sock further up the page has the second configuration, as does the following shot:


As you can see it rained again, and the tent got floppy again, but I still had ample space inside. On the positive side there was almost no wind where I camped, albeit that on the negative side this encouraged midges, but on the positive side the netting kept them out. The anti-bug netting has a inside-outside two-zip design, thus:


It was easy enough to reach outside the tent and set up my camping stove without letting flies get in. Six Moon Designs provides their own bag, but I used a slightly larger bag that I had lying about because it had straps:

The Lunar Solo will pack down even smaller.

As you can see I also brought along a collapsible water container. I camped near a reservoir, but the water didn't look appealing at all so in the end I filled it - very slowly - from a stream. I was near the top of a hill and there didn't appear to be farming uphill, but nonetheless I added a water purification tablet (taken from, off the top of my head, a Polish MRE). And boiled it.

One thing that came in handy was an empty plastic drinks bottle. It's surprisingly difficult to fill a collapsible water container. If you hold it under water it collapses. I ended up using the plastic bottle to fill up the container.

Sustenance
I also took along my Trangia stove, which burns alcohol. You're supposed to use ethanol or meths, but I used 80% alcoholic hand sanitising gel, which worked just fine and also doubled as hand sanitising gel, important given the prevalence of midges. Could I have used vodka? Apparently the alcohol content isn't enough to sustain a good flame, and it would be a waste of vodka.




A Prevalence of Midges would be a good name for an early-80s dark ambient record. By Coil, Nurse With Wound, Current 93 etc. The Anti Group. Etc.

My plan was to use the Trangia for coffee, washing, and food. In the end I used it almost entirely for coffee, because cycling is thirsty work, and I wasn't all that hungry.

A rare glimpse of an MRE beverage bag (bottom-left) in the wild. They're intended for hot drinks - you're supposed to put coffee in them, shake up the bag, heat it in a flameless ration heater, slip it into a plastic sleeve and drink - but no-one does that. Instead I used several of them as waterproof pouches to keep things separated from each other.

I took along a plastic tub with savoury rice, some curry powder, some beef jerky, and some stock cubes. I have a bunch of dried onions that I should really have taken along with me as well. Rice is tricky in a Trangia because it's difficult to simmer things without using the awkward simmering ring, but I brought along an insulated pot cosy, so after boiling the water I let the rice cook itself while I made a hot drink.




The end result was edible but very bland, but I suppose that's the nature of dried food. For the second meal I simmered the beef jerky in hot water with a stock cube, which made a very salty meaty broth. I understand now why there are low-salt stock cubes.

All of this put me in mind of Das Boot, the famous novel of a Second World War submarine. At the beginning of the trip they filled every available space with eggs, bread, vegetables, chicken etc, but after a week or so all the fresh food had been used up, so their diet for the rest of the patrol consisted of tinned potatoes, Scho-Ka-Kola caffeinated chocolate, and whatever Germany had instead of spam. Dried food is even more spartan than that. I could have spiced my diet up with porridge and soup, but I was only camping for two days, and I was never more than a five miles away from a shop. Bear in mind my original plan was to hike for a week in [foreign land]; I overspecified for three days in Scotland.

Trangias are bulky, and when you account for the weight of liquid fuel they're heavy and slightly awkward, but they're compelling because they're a complete set of pots, kettle, windbreak, burner, stand etc. In retrospect I wish I had brought along some lemonade powder and much less food. I'm not a nutritionist, so I have no idea if I could have compensated for the loss of calories by drinking lots of sugary coffee instead. Or alternative if I could have not compensated at all and just lost weight instead. I have some surplus weight.

The other good thing about a Trangia is that it gave me something to do. It kept my mind active. The process of assembling it, trying to light the fuel without setting the tent on fire, juggling the two pots and the kettle, it all ate up time that would otherwise have been spent contemplating the fact I was sitting in a damp forest in Scotland.

The other thing
I bought along a trowel, but one consequence of eating so little and drinking so much is that I didn't have to use it. I was cognisant of the Apollo astronauts, who went on a low-residue diet before spending six days velcroing a plastic bag to their buttocks whenever they wanted to poo.

The diet sounds surprisingly appetising - baked potatoes, pound cake, toast, bacon and eggs. I assume the idea is that the food was high in oils and carbohydrates and low in fibre. I took a much simpler approach and simply ate a light lunch for three days in advance of the trip, and nothing else.

Technology
National cycle route 78 has plenty of signs. It runs alongside a main road for the most part. It's not Death Valley. A map comes in handy, though, because there's something to be said for having a bird's eye view of the local area. I have two maps, an old Garmin eTrex Legend and a much newer Motorola Moto G7 Power, so-called because it has a larger battery than the standard model. I use OpenStreetMap data on the eTrex and OSMAnd, which also uses OpenStreetMap, on the G7:


I mean, yes, there are also paper maps, but there are some things I will never be nostalgic for. Videotape, that's one. Having to share a bathroom with four other people. Being constantly distracted by lustful thoughts and spontaneous erections. That's not a problem any more. Oh no. And paper maps. They're great to study at home, horrible to actually use on the move.

Many many years ago I took the eTrex with me whenever I went abroad. You can set it to find shops and restaurants within a certain radius, which was useful more than once. However the basic technology is ancient, and the map is tiny, and it's very slow. The eTrex Legend was launched in 2001, and my module - with a colour screen and support for a MicroSD card - came along a few years later. In the pre-smartphone days it was probably terrific, but mobile phones have caught up. In its favour the eTrex takes standard AA batteries.

A few years later I compared it with my Moto G2, which picked up GPS satellites just as quickly and had the benefit of being able to make calls and connect to the internet, which are very useful if you're travelling. Furthermore the screen was a revelation in comparison. The G7 is a modest Android phone, but after three days of camping (without the internet) and taking a lot of photos it still had around 75% battery life left. I didn't bother with a power bank. No, spontaneous erections are no longer a problem. In a way I'm free.

Just visible at the bottom of the map screen is the bridge that links Castle Stalker with Port Appin:


I spotted it on the map and it piqued my curiosity. I wouldn't have thought to explore it otherwise; a quick search with OSMAnd revealed a corner shop in Port Appin, so I popped over there and bought some supplies. This is why OSMAnd is the only open source project I have donated money to. It's genuinely useful. It benefited me, and Port Appin's economy, a little bit.

I also took along my iPad Mini 2, on which I read Dark Sun by Richard Rhodes. It's a fascinating book about the making of the hydrogen bomb, although the entire first half is about the espionage that went on during the Manhattan Project. It's one of those enormous, well-written, extensively-sourced books that's almost tailor-made for long train journeys.

Anything else? As pictured above I wore a well-worn pair of Altberg Defender boots, which had no grip on the bike's pedals but did keep my feet dry over what was occasionally boggy ground. See, in order to get from my tent to the nearest path I had to do a little jump over a stream, which was difficult with my Brompton, so I decided to wade the stream, only to find that the bottom was mud. And yet my feet stayed dry because the Defenders didn't let in any water.

I have the impression that ultralight camping is an unattainable goal. It's appealing but unattainable. The biggest issue I faced was weight. It's hard to be free when you're carrying a weight. That's why I don't mind losing custody of the kids. It's hard to be free when you're carrying a weight. The Brompton carried one of my bags, but a bike-mule would be awkward over bumpy or muddy ground. Are drones sufficiently advanced to use as pack mules? Not yet.

Could I have saved weight? The Model 27 Trangia weighs about 1kg. Back in 2001 this chap tried to shave some weight off his Trangia by leaving out the aluminium baseplate, which was surprisingly effective. For three days in Scotland I could have just bought food from the nearest shops, or brought along a couple of bars of Kendall Mint Cake, but it was nice having access to hot water. My sleeping bag is more bulky than heavy.

Camera-wise I took along my old Fuji S3. Hence the unsubtle sky gradients. It's good at that. I could have taken along my Olympus E-PL1 Micro-Four-Thirds camera, but I only have two batteries. Would they last? The S3 takes AAs, which are widely available, but as far as I can tell batteries for the E-PL1 (and other early Micro Four Thirds cameras) were discontinued years ago, so powering it is surprisingly difficult nowadays.

The Brompton bag itself is surprisingly heavy. I could have shaved off some weight by putting everything into a single larger backpack, but that would have concentrated all the weight in one area. And of course I could go on a diet and eliminate some weight that way. Ultimately it would have amounted to a handful of kilos before getting into the expensive world of carbon fibre and titanium, but nothing that I could have compensated for by simply moving a bit slower.

On the other hand soldiers carry far more than I did when on route marches. It seems that throughout military history 25kg is a common basic load, but during actual military operations they carry more than that. That source gives 50kg for the British soldier during the second Gulf War, and I've seen photos of soldiers alighting from landing craft during the Falklands War whose backpacks were as large as them. In contrast the combined weight of my gear was no more than 10kg, rising to 20kg during the thankfully brief periods I had to carry the Brompton, so I had it easy. Perhaps I'm just incredibly unfit and out of shape.

Glasgow
Oh yeah. Glasgow. I used Glasgow as a base, renting a hotel room at the beginning and end of my trip. I only got to see the city for one day. The central streets were draped with US flags. At first I thought it was a banking thing. Had the NASDAQ opened? But it turns out that the new Indiana Jones film is being shot there, because inner-city Glasgow looks like New York.


In fact a few years back I saw Florence Foster Jenkins, which also used Glasgow as a stand-in for New York. It looked slightly off, but only because it seemed too clean to be real.