2019 Week 17: Castles and Coffee

Short version: Wales has a lot of castles, and I rebuilt my coffee machine.

Long version:


The weekend hiking trip to Wales was bookended by visiting the UNESCO listed Caernarfon and Conwy Castles. I was reminded of a book I loved as a child; “Castle” by David Macaulay, which is unsurprising given the fictional castle depicted is modelled after Conwy. While to me castles are a setting for stories and an element in games, in reality they were imposing military installations. In particular given Oxford is currently home, it is disquieting to consider that Oxford (and Cambridge) were both teaching students while Conwy was being built as part of Edward Longshanks’ conquest of the Welsh.


I like coffee. I am lucky to have been given a La Pavoni Europiccola, from which (literally) pulling shots of espresso gives me satisfaction and caffeination. Having such a manual machine highlights the chromatographic aspects of the process of making one of the world’s most popular beverages, and gives plenty of opportunities to experiment with process. For more on coffee, CGP Grey provides some interesting coffee facts in his video.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 16: Snowdonia Way

Short version: Over the long weekend I hiked some of the Snowdonia way with a friend, it was beautiful.

Long version:

Snowdonia Way

The “Snowdonia Way” is a 156 km or 196 km walking route through Snowdonia National Park. We followed a guide book, but the route is also described on a dedicated website and by the Long Distance Walkers Association. The full route takes 6-9 stages (functionally days) depending on choices of lowland or mountain routes, but ultimately to fit comfortably into the four day Easter long weekend we only covered two slightly modified stages, focused on climbing Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales.

Trip Summary

Oxford to Beddgelert
We chose public transport over driving; our start and end points could differ without the need to collect a parked car. Being a passenger also requires less focus than driving unfamiliar (and uninspiring) highway, and intuitively public transport seems the climate conscious way to travel. A train from Oxford to Birmingham, and another from Birmingham to Bangor, was followed by a bus to Caernarfon, and finally a bus to Beddgelert.

Bedgellert to Pen-y-Pass
We started in the late afternoon, walking out of Bedgellert which was bubbling with holidaying families. A well groomed path (above) passed Sygun Copper mine and continued along the southern edge of Llyn Dinas. A brief turn on gravel road led North onto the start of the Watkin Path, near which was the first night of camping. Snowdon could be glimpsed behind nearer hills, a beautiful challenge to look up and forward to.

Taking down camp early and heading up to the ridge, it quickly warmed to an uncharacteristically warm and sunny day in Wales. Some steep hiking and a very brief scramble led to a saddle only a meter or so across, which allowed two distinct valleys to be viewed while sitting over lunch. The climb to the summit finished on a rather crowded Snowdon peak (see below), with many day walkers audibly disappointed that the cafe was closed. The Pyg Track was the chosen descent, which begins with a steep set of switchbacks but flattens out to gentle views of Llyn Llydaw and the Miner’s Track below. The heat took a toll on water supplies, but thankfully the YHA at Pen-y-Pass had drinking water available on tap.

Pen-y-Pass to Dolwyddelan
The second full day of hiking began descending through the exposed Nant Gwynant to a hydro-electric power station. A sharp climb out led onto a surprisingly wet plateau, bordered by a plantation. Passing down into the next valley the path began winding through sheep farms, and the hike ended near the the well kept Dolwyddelan Castle.

Dolwyddelan to Oxford
Due to damage to the railway line caused by Storm Gareth, Dolwyddelan was no longer connected to the Welsh railway network, and so the return trip began with a bus back to Conwy, followed by trains through Birmingham and finally back to Oxford.

Overall Thoughts
Compared to the much flatter Oxford surrounds, the steeper slopes of Wales are excitingly wild and adventurous. The thousands of years of human presence comes through, particularly with the very visible effects of mining around Snowdon. It is impressive to think how much earth was moved by human and animal labour alone, particularly when struggling under a pack. We were incredibly lucky to get four days of unbroken dry weather in a famously wet part of the world, and it certainly left us wanting to take on more hiking in the warmer months ahead.

Hiking in Wales vs Australia

This trip was my first hike in the United Kingdom, and my first overnight trip outside of Australia. Comparing Wales to its Newer Southern counterpart, variation in temperature and a prevalence of civilisation were the most significant differences. My pack contained many more clothing layers and a much bulkier sleeping bag to account for cold nights. This resulted in a much heavier pack than I am used to (approx 13 kg total), but with the prevalence of small towns I could have shed weight easily by purchasing food along the way. The habit of carrying provisions for the whole trip makes more sense in the more sparsely populated Australia.

(more) Photos from the Week

2019 Week 15: Minimalism

Short version: I’ve been getting into minimalism lately. On the flight back to Oxford I read Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki.

Long version:


Minimalism is most simply the practice of attempting to minimise one’s possessions. Minimalism, and its popularity, is a response to the suffocating clutter many people experience. The cost of producing many items (clothes, appliances, toys) has fallen, and marketing to consume these items has become more prevalent and sophisticated, resulting in consumption beyond individual’s needs and capacity to manage possessions. Like many cultural phenomena, it is not merely a pragmatic solution to a problem, but also manifests as a set of values and an aesthetic (of which Apple Stores are an often cited example). Some of these are potentially problematic; A New York Times opinion piece opens with “[minimalism] has become an ostentatious ritual of consumerist self-sacrifice“.

My Experience with Minimalism

I have a natural urge to collect things. I inherited a sense of scarcity from parents who have escaped times of political upheaval. I detest waste, and find it easy to see potential uses for many items that ultimately I never use (scrap pieces of paper that might be handy to put down a note, packaging that might be used to carry something else someday, old electronics that I could strip for useful parts). The result is an ever growing collection of possessions that take both physical space and organisational time.

The mental problem I have with clutter is more significant. It is upsetting to wake up, and come home, to a growing pile of physical objects that correspond to tasks left undone. Books that would be nice to read, models it would be fun to build and paint, even an ever-thicker envelope of receipts that would, if analysed, give me insight into my spending habits (how much did I spend on cheese in 2017?). As this pile grows so does my sense that I am not in control of my life; if I were, wouldn’t I be able to get all these tasks done? “Maximalist” clutter becomes the physical representation of my poor time management and lack of drive. On each passing glance over this reminder, I am made a little more anxious, and my willpower is slightly sapped. Putting off those tasks trains the terrible habit of procrastination.

Minimalism provides an escape. By ascribing to the philosophy I am forcing myself through the discomfort of casting away what I perceive to have relatively low value. Through this I rid myself of the negative emotions that come from feeling out of control, and ultimately I find more time that is more comfortable. My first experience of this minimalist joy was moving to Oxford with only a suitcase of possessions. Suddenly, without distractions and incomplete projects surrounding me, I was more free to explore my new surrounds, to step up and tackle projects like this website.

Where I take issue with minimalism, particularly at the more extreme end (e.g. Fumio Sasaki’s), is the impracticality and expense. Ultimately you are outsourcing clutter to others, for example cooking and transportation. Food is a necessity. It is more affordable and often healthier if prepared from simple ingredients bought in bulk (e.g. flour, market vegetables). It is impractical to shop for food daily, and so storing groceries, the kitchen appliances needed to cook, and utensils to serve meals, are very practical anti-minimalist behaviours. Similarly while uber and bike sharing schemes can be convenient, owning and maintaining my own bicycle is cheaper and more pleasurable to ride.

Minimalist Book Report

I was given Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki for christmas in 2017, but only set aside time to read it while flying. In five chapters it summarises the authors experience in finding minimalisim, discusses the development of the problems he feels minimalism solves, lists tips on adopting a minimalist lifestyle, gives examples of ways in which minimalism has helped the author, and concludes with some brief notes on happiness. I found the individual experiences relatable, but the historical and philosophical arguments less compelling. The many short guides in Chapter 3, “55 tips to help you say goodbye to your things, and 15 more tips for the next stage of your minimalist journey” become repetitive, but I feel there is value in explaining the same concept in a number of different ways as different readers will find some phrasings easier to digest than others. Ultimately, minimalism has clearly benefited Sasaki and helped him find a coherent identity, and as such he provides useful advice to aspiring minimalists. The mix of quoted individuals in Chapter 4 (Steve Jobs, Einstein, Lao Tzu, Tyler Durden) reveal an attempt to put minimalism on a cultural pedestal that I find unconvincing. I am left feeling minimalism is a useful tool, but a shallow philosophy.

Marie Kondo

The face of minimalism, via her Netflix series, is Marie Kondo. Sasaki talks about Kondo’s influence on minimalism in his 2015 book, pointing out that her recent fame in the English speaking world was preceded by much earlier interest in Japan. Google trends supports this chronology. On the left in red, the search trends for 近藤 麻理恵 (Marie Kondo in Japanese) peak in December 2011 and May 2015, corresponding with the release of her book and being listed in the Time 100 most influential people respectively. Search trends for her name in English peak in January, with the release of her Netflix show.

Photo from the Week

Sunset over Kingsford Smith International Airport

2019 Week 14: Global Travel

Short version: I travelled from Oxford to Sydney and back within a week. That is incredible, but sadly places huge costs on the environment.

Long version:

Planetary Commute

This week I needed to be in Sydney for one day. To make the round trip in a week, about half the time is spent varyingly on flights and in airports. This left plenty of time to marvel at how trivial it now is to travel around the entire planet. Sydney is close to being on the opposite side of the planet (the antipode) to Oxford, so the total journey of 16,983 km is not far off the maximum distance two points can be from each other on the surface of the earth (approximately 20,000 km). Interestingly that antipodal distance is slightly less than half the 40,075 km equatorial circumference, due to the deformations in the shape of the earth. I was unable to easily find an exact calculation of the furthest two points on earth, due to errors in the data set, and the ever changing shape of the planet.

Kangaroo Route
When the British set out to colonise Australia, the trip took took 252 days. That trip can now be done commercially in less than 25 hours. (I had a longer layover that brought it closer to 30 hours). The magazine Air & Space recounts the history of this London to Sydney “Kangaroo route”.

Jet lag
Drastic changes in timezone leave an effect on the body. The NHS points out “There’s no treatment for jet lag“, but it does give helpful advice, such as attempting to move your sleep/wake cycle in sync earlier. While searching for papers on jet lag I found one on social jet lag and student performance that mines university logins. I found the charts classifying students based on chronotype interesting.

Fuel Efficiency and Carbon Impact
Passengers in a 747-400 have a fuel efficiency of about 3.1 L/100 km vs 10 L/100 km for cars. So a car with three people and a typical flight have the same carbon impact over the same distance. Thus my out and back journey consumed about 1000 L of fuel, producing 2500 kg of carbon dioxide. This is similar to the carbon emissions for a year of either eating a 75g hamburger per day, or heating a UK home.

Airborne Population (Fermi Problem)

With increasing demand and decreasing costs of air transport, at any point in time there is a proportion of the population on flights. Three ways of estimating this population:

Extrapolate from a single data point
If I assume everyone flies as frequently as I do (2 days per year, and multiply by the approximately 7 billion population on earth, that gives 14 billion flying days. Dividing this by the days in a year gives about 400,000,000 airborne people at any given time. Intuitively seems very high; it reflects my financial privilege that I fly much more than the average person.

Make a set of intuitive assumptions
Taking the following rough guesses: 1. all the flying is done by the wealthiest billion people 2. for every million of these people there is an airport where 3. a flight takes off every 15 minutes, 4. those flights last two hours, and 5. seat 500 people.
Calculations: (flight duration = 2 hours) ÷ (flight frequency = 0.25 hours) × (airports = 1000) × (passengers per flight = 500) = 4,000,000 airborne people at any time. This result seems more realistic, and fits intuitions that very large cities of many millions tend to have multiple airports, or large airports with multiple runways. Flights might run longer, but also less frequently over the night. Some large aircraft can carry more than 500, but are fewer and travel longer routes.

Use one highly relevant fact
Looking up a key fact, that there are 700,000,000,000 Revenue Passenger Kilometres flown per month, and knowing that the cruising speed for jets is about 900 km/h. Allows the simple calculations (distance travelled per month) ÷ (speed) ÷ (hours per month) gives an approximation of 1,000,000 airborne people at any time.

General Notes
Time of day and season would cause the actual number to vary significantly with time. Particularly peak travel periods around regional holidays (e.g. Thanksgiving, Diwali, Chinese New Year).

Photo from the Week

An Airbus A330-243 in Chengdu China, the layover on my journey to Sydney.