Sunday, 4 November 2012

Bye bye helicopter

Well, the day has come when I have to face up to not flying the helicopter any more. It's been obvious for a while, really, or at least it should have been. I've been trying to fly at least once a month, but not always succeeding. And slowly, my skill level and comfort level have been dropping off.

Flying a helicopter is not like riding a bicycle (in a number of respects, actually). It's a very, very delicate thing, and it takes constant practice to be comfortable with it. Take off and landing are much more delicate than in a plane, you have to touch down with absolutely no lateral motion or rotation, and if there's the slightest wind this is a lot harder than it looks.

The odd thing about flying helicopters is that it can only be done if you are completely relaxed. And it just happens to be about the most unrelaxing activity you can ever undertake. The slightest false move will, at best, wreck half-a-million or so dollars' worth of machinery, and at worst kill you or somebody else. So if you're not completely on top of things, you tense up and then it's just about impossible to do anything smoothly or properly.

The very worst example of all this is slope landings. Imagine you have to land to pick up an injured person, but there is nowhere absolutely level. You line up parallel to the slope, and very gently touch the uphill skid on the ground. There must be absolutely no motion of any kind relative to the ground, even if you're doing this in a gusty wind. Now you slooowly lower the other skid to the ground, by lowering the collective, meanwhile moving the cyclic to the uphill side so the rotor shaft remains vertical relative to gravity, not the ground. Takeoff is the opposite. The slightest horizontal motion can tip the heli onto its side, with expensive and possibly fatal results. If this sounds hard - well, you have no idea until you've tried it. And you have to be able to do this with absolute confidence and smoothness to claim to be a helicopter pilot.

There's a famous pianist (I can't find who) who said, "If I don't practice for one day, I can hear it. If I don't practice for two days, the orchestra can hear it. And if I don't practice for a week, the audience can hear it." There are some things where, no matter how much practice you've had and how much natural talent, if you don't practice, practice, practice, you will lose your touch.

Flying the helicopter is one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done - especially when I was really on top of it. You have a sense of controllability that absolutely nothing else gives you. You can hover at any altitude, go backwards and sideways, do pedal turns, with absolute precision. It's really an amazing feeling. But for actual practical use... there's really not that much you can do with a helicopter, that you can't do with an airplane. Of course that's not true if your business is long-line work (using the aircraft as a flying crane), or rescuing injured people from road accidents, or a bunch of other extremely useful things. But those are professions, not hobbies.

In theory a helicopter can land on any more-or-less flat and level piece of land with room for the rotor blades, like your backyard, or a restaurant parking lot. You can land anywhere, go anywhere. Well... except you need permission from the landowner, which is unlikely to be forthcoming because of liability issues. In California you can't land on a public road. If you go out into the wilderness somewhere, nobody is likely to see you - but you could be in big trouble if they do. And speaking of wilderness, landing in a Designated Wilderness - which means most land in National Parks and a lot else too - is flat-out illegal and will get your helicopter confiscated. I called the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) once to ask about landing on BLM land - which covers an awful lot of middle-of-nowhere, desert and so on. Several people were very helpful but in the end nobody knew the answer. And forget keeping your heli in the backyard, regular use of an off-airport location requires all kinds of permission which you'll almost certainly never get.

And that's if you have your very own helicopter. If you're renting - and there are very few places that will let you fly without an instructor, other than for specific training purposes - then you're subject to the owner's limitations. They have to worry about liability too, plus they don't want you wrecking their aircraft. Most likely, this means no off-airport landings, and no overnight stays.

Owning a heli makes a wonderful dream, but unless you were an angel investor in Google then you almost certainly can't afford it. It's not just the capital cost, which is comparable to an airplane, but also the running cost. Just insurance is well over $10,000 per year, and maintenance is much more than for fixed-wing - which given the number of flight-critical rapidly-moving parts is not a surprise.

And there is one really bad thing about helicopter flying - airports. Given you can't really land anywhere else, this is kind of important. The problem is, airports are designed for and mostly used by airplanes. And airplanes fly very differently from helis. For one thing, even the humblest trainer is a lot faster, especially on final approach. So flying anywhere near an airport is little short of terrifying, as you feverishly scan the skies for other aircraft, whilst trying to work out where you are going to land and how to get there while keeping well out of everyone's way.

In an airplane, there's only one thing to do. There's one runway in use (except at the largest airports), and that's where you're going to land. You fly a conventional and well-defined traffic pattern, as does everyone else. You need to keep your eyes wide open but you won't find anyone suddenly flying at right angles to you - except those pesky helicopters of course. But the helicopter can land anywhere, and certainly doesn't need a runway. A few airports have designated helipads, and even well-defined routes to get to and from them - but most don't. So you study the airport diagram in the A/FD and try to figure out where you can stay away from the traffic pattern, but it's often not obvious.

Towered airports are mostly simpler, since the tower will generally take care of separation. But not always - Concord tower once very nearly killed me, giving me an unconventional departure that took me straight through the path of an airplane that was also talking to them. We missed by about 100 feet. Another problem is that you need to be very clear with tower what you're planning. A busy airline airport once gave me a takeoff clearance without being precise about the route. The controller was pretty grumpy anyway, and I didn't go through exactly what I was planning with him - which was a big mistake. After departure I got the dreaded "please write a number down to call on landing". Nothing came of it, in fact they were quite nice about it, but they made it very clear that my departure route had been a surprise to them.

It has given me some unforgettable flying moments, like my very own self-fly helicopter tour of Kauai. And flying (perfectly legally) under the Golden Gate bridge. I don't for a moment regret the time and money that I spent learning to fly the heli. But staying current enough to fly safely and with confidence, for no obvious practical reason, is another question.

All this came to a head when my instructor bluntly told me that I was no longer proficient enough to solo in his helicopter. It didn't come as a big surprise, I'd been feeling less confident myself too. But it did mean I had to make a big decision. Do I fly more often, at least a couple of times a month, and more for a while, to bring my skills back to the right level and keep them there? But that would take a lot of time, which I really don't have, and even more money - renting a Robinson 44 is $500-600 per hour. It's just not realistic, for me anyway.

So that's it, bye bye helicopter. Maybe I'll fly an occasional hour of dual, just so I don't forget completely. I fear that I'll find it more frustrating than anything else, feeling my own lack of skill and confidence and knowing that I can't go for an occasional solo flight. On the bright side, my bank account has been rejoicing ever since that depressing meeting with my instructor.


Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Death Valley Backroads, Day 3: Titus Canyon, Trail Canyon, and back home

Day 2 here, more  pictures here.

We decided to visit Titus Canyon on Sunday morning. This is another of those roads where you wonder whether a regular car could do it. And again, the answer is no! You really do need the Jeep.

Titus Canyon is a long one-way road, which is entered in Nevada nearly at the ghost town of Rhyolite, an amazing rags-to-riches-to-rags story in itself. Gold was found in there 1905.  By 1907 the population was 5000, and three separate railroads were under construction for hundreds of miles across the desert. Yet in 1910 the mines were exhausted. The railroads had barely reached the town when the mines closed in 1911. By 1920 there was nobody left.

The outward journey is along one of these wonderful long, straight-to-the-horizon roads that you find in the desert. Then, with one of Rhyolite's quarries just in front, you spot a tiny sign to a gravel road. Turning off, you bump for miles down the easy, if rough, track, headed back to the mountains that form the eastern boundary of the park. At first the entry to the mountains is easy as the track winds and climbs. Then suddenly in front is a great gash across the mountain: the climb up Red Pass at a steady 20% gradient. The road is straight, but it's a long way down - you really don't want to come off it. Then at the top you wonder where the road has gone. You scan the horizon, in vain, until you realise that it is right down there. The descent is anything but straight, a succession of hairpin bends dropping dramatically into the valley. Each twist and turn opens up a new vista of applied geology, the strata of billions of years exposed immodestly to your gaze.

Eventually we arrived at the reason this road exists, the ghost town of Leadfield. Only a few buildings survive, and in truth there never really was a town. The post office opened in 1926 and closed in 1927. The whole thing, including the road, was a stock scam.

From there it's a few more miles of mostly-easy gravel road to Titus Canyon itself. In the Canyon the road drops over 2000 feet, gradually narrowing until in places it's barely wide enough for the Jeep, the walls towering hundreds of feet feet above. In the middle of all this there are a couple of places wide enough to pull off the road. We chose one of them for our lunch. The thing that struck me is the silence - all outside sounds are absorbed by the canyon walls, and there are few birds. Naturally there's very little light. It's an extraordinary and beautiful place.

The canyon ends, quite suddenly, with a magnificent view of the northern part of the valley, still nearly a thousand feet below at the foot of the alluvial fan.

We'd started later than we intended (that has never happened before!), so we didn't have time for my original plan, which was to drive the full length of the West Side Road to Warm Springs Canyon, at the southern end of Badwater. Instead we settled for the first of the trails up the western side of the valley into the Panamint range. The west side has always been tantalising - it probably can be driven in a regular car, but I've never done it. The east side has high cliffs and a steep drop from the 5000 feet of Dante's View, but the west side has a huge alluvial fan that rises from nearly 300 feet below sea level in the valley, to over a thousand feet.

In the past several of these canyons led to passes that would eventually take you to the Panamint valley on the other side of the range. The southernmost was Wingate Wash, a long, gentle climb without any real mountaineering. Unfortunately it now leads only to the China Lake naval weapons research center - which, as you can imagine, is not open to the public. Nowadays there isn't even a road up the wash - it has become part of the designated wilderness, which means you can only get there on foot or by horse. Given the heat, terrain and drought, that isn't a very practical option either, so you can't really get there at all.

The next trail northwards, Warm Springs Canyon, was the first path that the Bennet-Arcan party, who gave Death Valley its name, used unsuccessfully to try to escape. It's the only that still provides a through vehicle route, via Butte Valley, Mengel Pass and Goler Wash. That is firmly on the list to try another time.

This time, though, we tried Trail Canyon, which starts just a mile or so from West Side Road's crossing of the valley floor. It also used to be a crossing, thanks to a dramatic road built to provide access to a tungsten mine in the 1950s which led right up to the ridgeline at Aguereberry Point (which incidentally is one of the few Basque place names in the US). In the 1990s the road was badly damaged by a flood and the Park Service decided not to repair it.

The valley floor crossing is spectacular. This area is called the "Devil's Golf Course", consisting of hard salt-infused mud which, by some physical process, turns into foot-high ridges and spires with sharp peaks of salt crystal. It would be extremely difficult to walk over, but the road is good and gives a sweeping panorama of the whole valley.

Shortly after turning south again, a small wooden sign points to a barely-visible gravel track that leads up the alluvial fan. The first mile or two is in reasonable condition, but after that it gets rockier and the ride gets worse and worse, until even at a walking pace it was too much for Isabelle's back. Just when she was asking me to give up, she spotted a big rock and asked to be left for a while. I was hesitant, but with a gallon of water and one of our two satellite beacons, and within hiking distance of the valley floor, it didn't seem too risky.

I continued on my own, which meant I could go a bit faster. Immediately I came to the crossing of a deep gully, with no real track but just rocks to clamber over. On the far side things improved, but not for long. Another mile of bumping over rocks led to a place where the trail simply disappeared altogether. There was no sign of tyre tracks, and nothing to indicate the route except gully walls about a foot high and fifty feet or so apart. The trail could be anywhere inside them. I tried for a while, and occasionally saw just a single set of tyre tracks which I tried to follow. But time was getting on - we wanted to be across the mountains while there was still plenty of daylight. I decided to quit before I broke anything, and retraced my path to where Isabelle was sitting happily in the shade with a book - her picture shows the returning Jeep, just before the tricky gully crossing. Later, I learned that the tracks had been made by Richard - he had gone another three miles and still found no sign of the former trail. Now that it really needs nowhere, I wonder whether the Park Service will even bother to grade it again.

A short drive took us back to the valley crossing, with a spectacular view of the Artists' Palette. Then it was back to the airport.

At the weekend the military airspace is generally not in use, which I'd confirmed with Joshua Approach by phone in the morning. That meant we could choose our own route home and avoid the detour via Coaldale. We took off from Furnace Creek and turned more or less towards Bishop, but with a route that took us over our previous day's drive, with a spectacular aerial view of the Racetrack, Hidden Valley and the road up to Lost Burro Mine - hence the aerial picture of the Racetrack which appears in Day 2.

Even so the route has to be chosen carefully. Since the oxygen system in the plane was not working, we could not go higher than 12500 feet except for a short while (30 minutes). But the range that separates the park from the Owens Valley has peaks over 11,000 feet, so it's best to pick a route through one of the passes. And then a route through the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada is needed. For this I climbed to 13,300 feet (staying below the opposite-direction altitude of 13,500 feet) and took the valley which leads northwest from Mammoth Lakes and then to the upper valley of the Tuolomne River. It's spectacular, but you really hope the engine doesn't stop. It should be possible to make it either to the Meadows or down into Owens Valley, but I'd rather not have to find out.

We arrived at Palo Alto airport at the exact time of sunset, the sun dropping finally over the horizon as we flew our final approach. It had been a wonderful weekend, full of discoveries, natural beauty and amazing experiences. We'll definitely be doing it again.

Death Valley Backroads, Day 2: Racetrack and Hunter Mountain


Day 1 here, more pictures here.

When we went to pick up the Jeep next morning, the guy in the office introduced himself as Richard Farabee. That was quite a surprise, and very good luck too. While planning the trip I'd found that many trails had been badly damaged in flash floods in July. Although there are several web forums dedicated to Death Valley and the surrounding area, there was surprisingly little information about the exact state of the roads I wanted to use. But Richard had driven all of them recently, and was an absolute mine of information. Thanks to him we were able to take routes that otherwise I would have hesitated about. One great thing about his Jeeps: they are really meant for off-road usage, with lifted suspension and over-size tyres. And he is happy for his customers to take them even to seriously challenging places - he had one out at Goler Wash, which was practically destroyed in the floods, and was waiting for the driver to report on it. This is most definitely not Hertz or Avis!

Our first day's itinerary was to drive up the main road to just short of Scotty's castle, which is already a 50 mile drive, then loop back past the Ubehebe Crater and down a parallel valley to the famous Racetrack. I'd previously wondered whether this would be possible with a normal car, since it doesn't involve any difficult hills or passes. Now I know: no. You probably could do it, but the risk of blowing a tire would be very high. It would definitely be a bad idea. In the Jeep it was easy, driving at a steady 25 mph or so, occasionally slowing down for a damaged area.

The first stop was at Teakettle Junction. It's just a junction between two gravel tracks in the middle of nowhere. Once upon a time someone marked it by putting a teakettle on a post there. That has led to a tradition of visitors adding their own signed teakettles. It's an amazing sight so far from any other sign of human life.

The Racetrack is a large playa, a dried-out lakebed filled with very fine mud. When dry - which means most of the time - it's hard enough that you can walk on it without leaving marks. In one corner, a handful of rocks have fallen onto the playa and then have travelled across it, leaving tracks in the mud. Nobody knows how this happens. The general idea seems to be that when it rains - not often, but very hard when it does - the mud becomes semi-liquid with very low friction. The area is also very windy, enough to blow the rocks along the slick mud, leaving a track which remains when the playa dries out again. Nobody has ever seen them move - not only would it require good luck to be there in the right conditions, but in the pouring rain, thick mud and 50+ mph winds, you wouldn't see anything anyway. Another plausible explanation involves sheets of ice. In the aerial picture, the moving rocks are at the top left (south-east) corner.

It's an extraordinary place. It would not be that hard to improve the road from Ubehebe for normal vehicles, so you have to assume that the Park Service wants to keep the access difficult and exclusive. Otherwise they'd have to build an electric fence round the playa to stop idiots from damaging it or stealing the rocks. As it is, there are tyre tracks on the playa - in the desert it can take decades for them to disappear.

From the Racetrack, the road continues down a notoriously difficult road, the Lippincott Grade, into the Saline Valley, famous for its clothing-optional hot springs. From there a loop is possible through the South Pass out of the valley and back onto the main road near Panamint Springs. The pass was so badly damaged during the floods that the Park's daily bulletin says it is closed. Richard said he'd driven it but it would be tough to climb out. And as it turned out, someone had managed to wreck their truck somewhere along the road that day, so it was blocked anyway.

Luckily, there's an alternative. Turning left at Teakettle Junction leads to another complete loop back to the same place on route 190. This was our first taste of anything harder than a dirt road, climbing through the Lost Burro Gap, but the Jeep handled it with ease. Then, following Richard's suggestion, we turned right onto the track which climbs really up the side of the mountain to the Lost Burro Mine. That really is a Jeep track - narrow, steep, full of good-sized rocks, and washed out in places to less than the width of the Jeep so you have to place the wheels delicately into a gully a foot down towards the steep drop into the void. It requires a few moments of concentration and careful driving!

It's worth it, though, to see the mine. Today there's not much left, a hut which is still used by hikers, a few other wooden buildings, and the framework for some kind of mill. You have to stop and think that all of this, including the massive metal mill as well as the provisions for the 300 men who worked here at one time, had to come up that same track on the backs of mules, hauled from the railhead 50 miles away across the desert. It just seems impossible. Even now with modern trucks, not to mention helicopters, it would seem pretty difficult.

We looked around the mine then hiked a few hundred yards to the top of the ridge where there is a truly magnificent view down into the valley, and ate our lunch. Other people carry coolers, barbecues, tables and chairs. We were very happy with a box of crackers and a tub of cream cheese. In the half hour we were eating, a total of eight other vehicles showed up. This is pretty amazing, because during the rest of our drive we saw almost nobody.

The road continues through Hidden Valley - aptly named since without a Jeep (or a plane) there's no way to even peek between the mountains and see that it's there. The road was mostly easy, though with deep sand in a few places which makes going in a straight line a bit harder. I think learning to fly a helicopter helps - as with the heli, you have to avoid over-controlling, taking the control input back out before you even feel it having any effect. There are Joshua trees everywhere, sometimes quite isolated, other times in vast forests extending for miles. Looking at Google Earth I couldn't find any watercourse out of the valley, so I guess the water just evaporates. That explains the sandy bit in the middle.

At the end of the valley, the road climbs Hunter Mountain. This part is spectacular and very enjoyable, with occasional glimpses into Death Valley to the east as it twists and turns, with many hairpins and sheer drops should you forget to pay attention. Then comes perhaps the amazing thing of all: a forest! Yes, right there in the Death Valley National Park, famous as the hottest, driest place in the country, there's a very green forest.

Soon afterwards we came to the junction with the Saline Valley road, where we met a couple of guys on motorbikes. These were the first vehicles we'd seen since leaving the mine - and they weren't planning to go on our route either. It's pretty sobering - if we'd broken down, there probably wouldn't have been another vehicle along the road that day. We might even have been the only vehicle on it the whole day. Fortunately, Farabee's Jeeps come with a "Spot" satellite/GPS gizmo, that lets you report your position and status (OK/help/HELP!) no matter where you are. So even if the worst happens, you're unlikely to suffer the horrible fate of the German tourists. (Briefly, in 1996 they got horribly lost driving a rental Plymouth Voyager in some very difficult trails, the car got stuck, and all four of them died of heat and dehydration in the June heat. Their car was found three months later, but the bodies weren't found until 2009, four miles from the car).

From here there is an amazing view down the Panamint Valley, Death Valley's western neighbour. After that it's a long but easy drive, though a horrible and uncomfortable road surface covered in small rocks, through an even denser forest of Joshua trees, until finally we reached route 190 and a very welcome stop at the Panamint Springs Resort. And from there, another 55 miles of spectacular desert driving back to Furnace Creek, arriving just in time for sunset. We'd driven about 180 miles during the day, nearly half on gravel or worse, and enjoyed every minute.

Day 3 is here.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Death Valley Backroads, Day 1: Getting There

More pictures here.

Ever since I learned that Farabee Jeep Rental opened a branch in Death Valley, I've wanted to go there for a weekend and explore some of the back country trails. The park is huge and only has two high-quality roads, one north-south and one east-west. There are whole valleys and mountain ranges that you can't even see from these roads. On an earlier visit I bought the book "Death Valley SUV Trails", a real inspiration and the source of many daydreams.

Furnace Creek has an airport and the obvious way to get there is to fly. We did this once about ten years ago, but until car rental was available you were stuck. If you wanted wheels you had to fly to Vegas then do the 2-3 hour drive in each direction. The Jeep rental solves two problems: wheels at Death Valley, and wheels that can go anywhere. Finally I found a good weekend for the trip and booked everything for October 5-7th 2012.

It's a challenging trip. The flight is short (about two hours), but involves crossing the Sierra Nevada which, without a long detour, means 13000 foot peaks and not much lower between them. In a single-engine plane, you always have to think about where you're going to go if the engine stops - on this route, there are few good answers. And when you get closer, Death Valley itself and much of the surrounding area is covered with military airspace (MOAs), likely to be populated by low-altitude jets at Mach 2.

For the outward journey I planned a route which does have "outs" if anything goes wrong. They're not great - first the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, which in addition to being cold and wet would probably lead to endless environmental complications if you really did ditch into it. When that's no longer reachable, Tuolomne Meadows at the top end of the Tioga Pass route would probably be survivable. Past that, you can make it down into the 6000 foot Owens Valley. Past the Sierra Nevada is just desert, with the added convenience of long, straight blacktop roads.

By flying all the way to the Coaldale (OAL) VOR, it's possible to sneak down along the eastern edge of the military airspace then descend along the road to Scotty's Castle and enter the valley itself under it. This adds 5-10 minutes to the flight, but is worth it for the peace of mind.

This route requires perfect weather - no cloud below around 18000 feet, and mild winds across the ridge. Otherwise, the much longer route via Tehachapi is called for. Depending on how brave you are with the MOAs, this can add another hour to the flight. So I was anxiously checking the weather forecasts all week, but in the end conditions were really perfect, just a very high overcast and no winds.

We landed at Furnace Creek (L06) around 5.30. Our timing was perfect, by the time the shuttle picked us up and we checked in, we were just in time to watch a spectacular sunset from the lawn outside our room. Then a swim in the huge naturally heated pool, and a good, if expensive, steak dinner in the best of the Ranch's restaurants. I'd hoped to have dinner one night at the Inn, which is much fancier, but we were there a week before it opened.

And then to bed.

Day 2 is here, and Day 3 is here.




Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Cutting the Cable

In Britain you pay about $20/month to receive several channels of world-class television programming, with no advertising at all. In France, you pay nothing at all, and get advertising only between programs. Here in the US, we pay Comcast well over $100/month, for way too many indistinguishably mediocre channels, all carrying 30% advertising so you can't really watch anything anyway.

This has irritated me for a long time, especially considering how little television we actually watch. Now if we could watch the BBC or native French television, that would be a different story. (BBC America is not the BBC, just a kind of franchise which seems just to show the same three programs over and over again, in the rare gaps between adverts).

A few months ago I went to a friend's house and he showed me how he had "cut the cable" and was watching French TV. The BBC has had video-on-demand ("iPlayer") for quite a while now, though it's only meant to be available in Britain. This was an inspiration.

Finally I decided to replace our old TV, which pushed me over the edge to do something about my dislike for Comcast. The old TV was one of the very first LCD models, it cost a fortune back in 2002 and the thought of all that sunk investment has been putting me off an overdue replacement for a long time. But in addition to seeming awfully small now (28"), it had also started to make an annoying hum. Plus it had very limited inputs for modern stuff, like no HDMI.

I chose a 47" LG television as the center of things. It had great reviews and does everything I need. It even has 3D, for which it comes with special magic glasses, though I haven't tried that yet. It's obviously popular, because my first order still hadn't shipped after a week. I finally bought it from Amazon, though even then I had to wait several days for it to ship.

The real center of the installation, though, is a computer. You need a web browser to get the BBC and French TV, and VPN as well. I wanted something compact and, most important, fanless. Modest fan noise is OK in an office but not when watching a movie or listening to music. It turns out that the choice of fanless PCs is very limited They're mostly pretty expensive and made for industrial applications where the problem is dust rather than noise. I found this Habey BIS-6761 at Newegg, which fits the bill completely - in particular, it has HDMI output. One nit is that it doesn't have built-in WiFi. I bought a USB dongle for that, but it turned out that the wireless thruput in my house wasn't good enough for HDTV anyway.

It took me a while to set up Ubuntu 12.04 the way I wanted it. I tried loading MythTV, which is supposed to be the Linux HTPC app, but I was pretty underwhelmed by it. The standard installation has no mouse support - you have to navigate with the arrow keys! If you want an authentic 1980s computer experience it's a perfect app, all you need is an 8-track player and a DeLorean parked in the driveway to complete the experience. There is a way to enable the mouse, but by the time I found it I didn't really see any benefit from MythTV anyway.

I liked the idea of using an "air mouse" (one that works by moving it in the air rather than using a mat) as a remote control. That wasn't a success. All the available products have very mixed reviews. I finally settled on an "Air Mouse Go Plus", but when I tried it I found it doesn't work with Linux. This strikes me as shabby engineering - there's no reason it should need any kind of host support to just emulate a mouse. So that has gone back for a refund. Instead I have a Logitech K400 cordless keyboard/trackpad. It also had mixed reviews but it works well and does the job. The only problem is that it just plain doesn't work if you rest it on your knees, which is a natural thing to do. This seems like poor design and I would like one that worked better, but it's a problem I can live with.

The final piece is the VPN connection which allows me to watch UK and French content. These all have a requirement for you to be in the respective country. I'd already subscribed to a service called VPNUK when I first started thinking about the idea. For about $12/month this gives me a VPN which I can terminate either in England or France. Now, I can watch the BBC, ITV and all the French channels. My first test was to watch a recent Dr Who episode, and it worked perfectly. One oddity though - the French program "Thalassa" only seems to work without the VPN connection.

I also have a Roku box, but this has been a disappointment. The advertising led me to think I'd get a good selection of foreign TV, as well as various other free things. Well, it does - as long as you like Albanian or Kazakh television. Anything a bit more mainstream - like Britain or France - is missing. I did watch one hilariously bad free movie, from 1946 - set mainly at the Furnace Creek Inn but even the Death Valley National Park is so ashamed of it that they don't include it in their list of movies shot on location there. I guess it'll be useful when we get the Netflix subscription.

The picture shows the complete setup, with the Roku peeking out below the TV, and the silent computer on the shelf below. There's also a stand-alone multi-region DVD player, which I kept for simplicity, a Wii, and a CD drive for the computer. The Comcast decoder box has been banished, although for now we're still getting the basic channels directly through the TV, until we complete the cable cutting by cancelling the Comcast subscription. There are still a couple of free inputs to the TV if we think of anything else.




Thursday, 2 August 2012

Flying the iPad - happiness at last

A couple of months ago I did a routine instrument curency flight. I was complaining to my instructor that Jeppesen, in their continuing move towards being a zero-customer-servce company, had dropped their "Express" approach chart service, where they sent you a new complete set of charts every two months.

"What's wrong with you?" he said, "Why aren't you using an iPad like everyone else?"

So, I asked around a bit, and decided to take the plunge into the 21st century and get one. The first question is, which kind? You can get them with varying amounts of memory, important if you're going to load them up with movies. Charts take quite a bit too. And you can get with or without mobile data. Without mobile data also means without built-in GPS, which would condemn you to using an external GPS with the attendant cables and clutter. So I went for 32 GBytes of memory - enough for aviation charts for the whole country, plus plenty of room for other stuff - and the 3G/GPS.

The universal consensus for the software to run was ForeFlight. I chose the more expensive option that shows you where you are on the plate as you fly an approach. Situational awareness is a good thing.

You have to hold the iPad somehow in the plane. Following recommendations, I bought a fold-out kneeboard from MyGoFlight. It seems sensible, the iPad goes on one side, displaying whatever chart you need, and a normal clipboard goes on the other side, for notes and whatever paper stuff you need.

I never really got it to work though. Unlike my regular kneeboard, which stays open, this one keeps trying to fold itself up during the flight. The worst was during landing, when it slithered down to my knees folded into a V-shape. I thought about improvising ways to hold it open, but it seemed complicated. I tried squishing the hinges with pliers, to tighten them up. This worked a little but it still wanted to fold up and slide down my leg in flight.

It seemed a good idea to protect the screen and reduce reflections and glare, so I also bought a pack of two fancy screen protectors. These were a dead loss - well, the first one was. I've never dared try the second. For a surface of this size, it's impossible to avoid trapping at least one dust particle unless you happen to have access to a clean room. Once that happens - which it will - any attempts to improve things just go rapidly downhill. The protector was in the garbage ten minutes after starting.

I needed a way to use the iPad in the helicopter - where the cyclic makes a big kneeboard impossible. So I also bought the simple knee board from MyGoFlight, and also a yoke mount. The yoke mount consists of a clamp, a spigot that clips into the back of the plastic iPad case, and a double-ended clamp that joins these two together. In my plane (Cessna 182), it didn't work out. It held the iPad so high that it obstructed most of the instruments - it would be totally unusable for IFR flight, and awkward even for VFR. I tried mounting the clamp sideways, with the clamp sticking out between the center and one arm of the yoke. That sort-of worked, but wasn't really ready for prime time. For one thing it unbalanced the yoke, so holding it straight for level flight required constant pressure. For another, the screen was vertical so it was hard to read from a normal flying position.

The built-in GPS works fine in my high-wing plane, and in the helicopter too. I found no need for an external GPS, unless you want to pay serious money for the Stratus and get in-flight weather as well. One surprising omission from ForeFlight is any kind of flight tracking. Luckily there is another app which does a wonderful job of this, called CloudAhoy. You start it at the beginning of a flight, and stop it at the end. Afterwards, when it can, it uploads all the flight data. Now you can go to www.cloudahoy.com and view your flight track, superimposed on Google Earth or a sectional, with complete data on altitude, speed and track. You can even relive the flight on Google Earth. The accuracy is astounding, even when you're taxiing. This is really a great app.

I flew a cross-country in the helicopter with the simple holder. I had the iPad on my left leg and my usual small clipboard on the right. Nothing got in the way of any of the controls. CloudAhoy worked perfectly, showing me afterwards the exact location of the private back-country airstrip I'd spotted. But climbing out on the second leg, I noticed the screen was blank. Pressing the button got me a message saying "I'm too hot, I've shut down". And indeed in the 34 degree (C) ambient heat in the Central Valley, with the sun blazing down through the canopy, it was too hot to touch. I'm very glad I wasn't relying on it to show me the details of an approach to minimums! It came back to life later but it's certainly a concern for relying on it as the only source of charts. I found afterwards that this is a common problem when flying with the iPad.

I could also use this setup in the plane, but I wanted to try one last thing. From Sporty's I bought some RAM mount spare parts, a "double ball adapter" and a "small double arm". My idea was to hold the iPad lower down and also to allow it to be angled a bit. This worked very nicely. The picture shows how it works. The thing that looks like a piston clips into the back of the iPad holder, allowing it to rotate and holding it at both right height and at a good angle for easy reading. There is just enough clearance to pull the yoke fully back.

I have one experiment left: from Sporty's I bought a screen protector called iVisor which claims to be reusable and hence be a solution to the dust problem. We'll see.

So, to summarize, what I have found works is:
I can't recommend the double kneeboard from MyGoFlight - I never got it to work and having attacked it with pliers and chipped the paint, I can't even sell it.

Friday, 30 March 2012

A First Visit to the United States, 1976

In 1975 while working at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) I wrote a new terminal driver for the IAS timesharing system for the PDP-11. The 11 had an amazing variety of hardware interfaces for communicating with terminals (and for everything else too). In those days, hardware really was hardware, and device drivers messed with registers containing actual bits stored in actual transistors. Now of course, device drivers are just sending neatly packaged messages to other computers.

But enough of that. In our lab in England, we had only a few of the multifarious bits of hardware that I needed to test against - there was the DC11, the DH11, the DJ11, the DL11 (which came in at least five different varieties) and a brand new one, the DZ11. They were all completely different, having practically nothing in common. So, once I'd got all the basic functionality working, I had to go somewhere that had all of these. That meant only one place - Maynard, Massachusets, home to "The Mill", and the company's headquarters. And so, in early June 1976, I set off on my first ever business trip, my first journey outside Europe, and my first ride on a jet plane.

Every journey starts with a single step. My first step was the bus, which conveniently stopped outside the house where I lived, to Reading station, where I could catch another bus to the airport. I had a huge suitcase, containing several copies of the vital tapes with my code on - no Internet in those days, nor even Decnet, so if anything happened to the tapes, my trip would be pointless. As I boarded the bus, the driver said, "Looks like you're off on a long journey then." He seemed quite taken aback when I said, "Yes, I'm going to America".

The flight was on a TWA Boeing 707, three seats either side of a central aisle and a total of about 140 seats. First class, for the privileged few (not me) was like US domestic first class now - wider seats with a bit more recline, about the same as today's Premium Economy, though with better food. There were just two flights available per day, my TWA flight and British Airways on a VC10. A quick look at Expedia now shows seven wide-body flights per day (if I've correctly navigated the confusing mess of code-shares), which means over 20 times the capacity.

But before that, I had to navigate Heathrow Terminal 3. (It's a slightly embarrassing sign of age that I knew Heathrow before Terminal 4, which didn't open until 1986 and now seems positively ancient). It was my first time at Heathrow, not counting when I went there once or twice in the early 60s with my cousins just to look at the planes. It was very confusing. Now, after over 30 years of more or less continuous travel, it's easy to forget just how daunting it all seems the first time.

The plane was quite empty - I had a window seat, with someone in the aisle seat, but an empty seat in the middle. Back then empty seats were the norm. Even ten years later it was quite common to find a whole row of five seats on the unlamented L-1011 where you could stretch out and sleep through the flight. After all I'd heard about airline food, I was amazed to find that the meal was quite edible.

Once I'd retrieved my suitcase, I had to get out of Boston to Maynard, which lies about 20 miles to the west of the city. This could have been hard, but for one of the amazing and wonderful things about working for DEC back then - the private helicopter fleet. The company owned about a dozen Bell Jetrangers, which operated shuttles between all the New England sites, and to Boston airport. And this wasn't just an executive perk - any employee, including a lowly recent graduate like me, could use it, just by calling a number and making a reservation.

I'd never even seen a helicopter up close before, much less travelled on one. It picked us up in remote corner of the airport, then had to taxi to a place where it was allowed to take off. I was amazed as we hover-taxied along the marked vehicle routes, with airport trucks in front of us and behind, for all the world like a wheeled vehicle. Then we flew to Maynard. Passengers weren't given headsets, and the noise level inside was unbelievable.

I still needed a rental car. A colleague took me to a nearby Avis depot, and in no time I was the proud driver of a brand-new Plymouth Duster. American cars were still vast compared to European ones, and while classed as a "compact" it was twice as big as my car at home - despite having only two doors and vestigial rear seats. It fully lived up to the quality reputation that American cars had at the time. The following day I noticed that the water temperature gauge was pegged against the stop. I took it back to the same gas station and said, "It seems to be running hot". The mechanic (unwisely) pressed his hand to the engine, swore loudly, and gave me another car. There was no water in the engine - and probably never had been.

The new car was an AMC Pacer. This has to be one of the most bizarre mass-production cars ever built. It was like a greenhouse on wheels, absolutely perfect for a record-breaking summer where temperatures exceeded 100F for days on end.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. My first stop after arriving was the Mill, a huge collection of 19th century buildings which had once been a giant woollen mill. DEC had started here in a very small way in 1957, and by the time of my trip two decades later had filled the whole complex and overflowed into numerous other sites across Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

In an age of sterile campuses composed of indistinguishable low-rise buildings (like the Cisco campus in San Jose), it's hard to image anything as weird as the Mill. Software engineering was in building 5, at the very back of the site. To get to Main Street required traversing the whole complex, via aerial walkways connecting the buildings. This might have been straightforward except that the site wasn't level, and the buildings all had different ceiling heights. The entrance from the huge parking lot to building 5 was via a short walkway straight to level 5, referred to as 5-5, which happened to be where my temporary office was located. The next step on the journey was to descend two floors to 5-3, then take a walkway across to the sixth floor of building 3 (3-6). Walking the length of 3-6 allowed a peek into a lab containing a simple aluminium prototype front panel with two rows of lights on it, like the PDP-11 - except that there were 32 lights in each row. In 1976, this was the very first VAX, and a very closely guarded secret.

From the far end of 3-6, another walkway went to building 4 then down one floor and back across  another walkway to 3-4 (i.e. two floors down). The path continued like this until eventually you emerged into the main lobby, in building 12, and into the open air. Leaving through the parking lot, you passed by Ken Olsen's personal non-reserved parking space. It was a matter of corporate pride that nobody had reserved parking, not even the CEO - but woe betide anyone else who tried to park in that space.

Building 5 had been a warehouse for unprocessed wool at some point in its history. In consequence, the wooden floors were completely saturated with lanolin. If you made the mistake of walking round without shoes, your socks quickly turned into a soggy, sticky mess, beyond recovery by any washing machine. The fire risk was truly unbelievable - if a fire had started the whole building would have been an inferno within minutes. The Mill had its own fire department, bigger than the town of Maynard's, but it's hard to see what they could have done to save this particular building.

There were very few hotels in the area in those days. There was a distinctly low-end motel in Maynard. In Concord, two towns away, was the historic Colonial Inn, but that was full. I was booked into a Holiday Inn in Marlboro, about 15 miles away. On my map of Massachusetts this didn't look far, and there were very few roads marked. While Massachusetts is one of the smaller states of the US, it's still about a quarter the size of England - so my map wasn't very detailed. I set off trying to follow it, but soon became hopelessly lost. Eventually I realised I was passing in front of the same military base for a second time. I stopped and very cautiously approached the guard post, my hands in the air. I'd read all about how trigger happy Americans were, especially the military, and I was taking no chances. The guard was probably surprised, but very courteously and helpfully gave me the directions I needed.

The hotel was typical for its time, squashed into the space between two highways, with heating and cooling supplied by a huge roaring monster piece of machinery under the window. I quickly discovered that I didn't like hotel breakfasts - and still don't. I'd noticed on the way to work an establishment called Dunkin' Donuts, and decided to try that instead. For "the folks back home", I took a picture before going in there. You can see my Pacer, far right, and a good selection of contemporary American automobiles, particularly the excellent red specimen in the foreground, which seems to have a flat tyre. As I walked in the waitress said to me, in an astonished tone, "You from outta state?". I was probably the first person ever to take a picture. The breakfast was excellent, as long as you like massively sweetened fried dough covered in fake chocolate.

Chastened by my navigational experiences, I tried to buy a more detailed map. In England, then and now, it's easy to find high-quality large scale (50,000:1) maps by the Ordnance Survey. So I was surprised to discover nothing similar in the US. (They do in fact exist, at 25,000:1, but they are extremely hard to find). After some searching I found a large street atlas of the area, which I still have somewhere. I carried it with me on every single trip for several years, until eventually I'd memorised what I needed. It was organised around towns, each one having its own page, with no overlap to the adjacent towns. And naturally, each town had its own street names. There were very few roads that carried a single name across town boundaries. So you'd be driving along, say, Elm Street in Hudson, and you'd cross the town line, turn to the appropriate page - and then have to solve the topographical puzzle of finding that you were now on Oak Street in Marlboro. To make it harder, each town had an arbitrary orientation, aimed primarily at making the best use of the space on the page.

I was lucky to have good friends in the US already. My former boss had moved out there a year earlier with his family, and I'd met his friend Lois when she travelled to England. And a colleague - Roger - was travelling with me. That meant that I was well looked after - I rarely had to spend an evening by myself. Lois at that time was renting a house in Marlboro, close to the hotel, where one evening I met the famous Dave Cutler who was then writing the the VMS operating system, more or less single-handed. Shortly afterwards she moved to a delightful, and very old, house in Harvard, where I ate many excellent dinners on later trips.

At the weekend it was time to do some exploring. I'd heard about Framingham Mall as a place to go, so I took my new book of maps and aimed for Framingham. I still had a lot to learn - the Mall was nowhere near the centre of the town, which on a Saturday morning was like a ghost town. This was really the nadir of American town centres, before their gradual rebirth during the 80s and 90s. I found nothing of interest except a rather scary guy asking for money for some religious charity. I gave him $5 for my own safety, and quickly left. About the only activity left in the town was a busy railroad freight yard, which was the beginning of my interest in New England's very complicated railway system.

With Roger I visited Boston, a must-do considering it's the most historic major city in the country. We went to the newly-opened Faneuil Hall Marketplace, formerly the city's main produce market, reopened as a tourist attraction earlier that year, and still in 2012 very much in the same role. We ate at Durgin Park, a restaurant there which is famous - and  much-visited - for the exceptional rudeness of its service. We were not disappointed. We walked the Freedom Trail, and all the other things you're supposed to do in Boston.

One thing that struck me, and which has changed a lot, was the size of the cars. In 1976, only a few eccentrics drove non-American cars - VW Beetles and early, crude Toyotas and Datsuns. And the American cars were huge. I still remember seeing a Jaguar Mk 10, one of the biggest cars on the road in England, which was completely dwarfed by the cars around it. Now cars have shrunk, the most recent American cars are often derivatives of European ones, and those vast boat-like 1970s Chryslers dwarf everything around them - the few that have not rusted away by now.

Mention of Boston wouldn't be complete without its near-twin, Cambridge, home to the two great universities of Harvard and MIT, and especially to Harvard Square on the periphery of the eponymous seat of learning. Superficially it's an area that has changed little in four decades, but on closer inspection much of its charm has gone now. On this first trip I was introduced to Bailey's, a very traditional ice-cream parlour with delightful art deco furniture, that served the most amazing hot fudge sundaes, drooling with an extravagant excess of rich, dark sauce. It closed some time in the 80s, as did later another institution, the Harvard Co-op. This was a department store but best of all it had an enormous book department, completely oriented to the needs of the universities and crammed with textbooks on every academic subject imaginable. Before the Internet it was the perfect place to research obscure topics, better than a university library. I still have many shelves filled with books purchased there, including my extremely obscure favourite, the Dictionary of Synonyms in Selected Indo-European Languages.

Lunchtime drinking was still commonplace in Maynard in 1976. The drinking establishment on Main Street, imaginitively called The Maynard Pub, did a brisk trade in pitchers of beer at lunchtime, and again after work. I've even been told that it played an important role in the original design of Decnet. In the morning the architecture team would meet to design network protocols. Then after a well-lubricated lunch, they'd reconvene. If they could still understand what they'd done in the morning, it was simple and robust enough to be adopted.

Close to Maynard is the town of Concord, famous for its Old North Bridge where, in 1776, the revolutionary American forces defeated the British army and triggered American independence. This was exactly 200 years later, the year of the Bicentennial. We went to see the famous bridge, an unremarkable wooden structure which in fact has been rebuilt several times over two centuries, set in a very pleasant park. It makes a perfect early-morning walk if you're staying in Concord and wake up early, jetlagged.

There's a visitor centre where we went along to an illustrated talk about the events of 1776. The presenter didn't know how to react to the British sense of humour when, after she asked for questions, Roger piped up with, "Can we have our country back please?".

The hotel in the area was The Colonial Inn, a brisk walk away from the North Bridge in the centre of Concord. It has been there for a couple of centuries, though most of the rooms are in a rather charmless modern annexe dating only from 1949 - and not updated since. It makes up for that with boundless character and a very special New England kind of charm. Towards the end of the trip we were able to get a couple of rooms there, and moved from the Holiday Inn. It has been my base in the area ever since, despite the temptations of the numerous soulless modern hotels that have since opened. They serve a hearty breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup, which I'd never heard of before. In the evening they have a selection of traditional New England dishes in a delightful period dining room, which makes up for the sometimes haphazard service. (Staying there a few years later, I ordered a bottle of decent wine - the waiter's comment, as he pulled the cork, was "Jesus Christ, what a long cork!").

The difference in architecture between Britain and New England was very striking. To someone used to brick buildings, it was astonishing to see that practically all construction was of very tidily painted white wooden boards. Whole towns are made up of these pristine white houses grouped around a verdant square, the wooden church in pride of place.

During the day I was working, slaving over a hot computer in a windowless lab that took up much of one floor of the Mill. It was filled with PDP-11s of every kind, equipped with all of the vast panoply of peripherals available. One was called The Ark, because allegedly it had two of everything. All development work was done in the lab - nobody had terminals in their office. PCs and laptops were nearly a decade from being invented. Terminals were mostly the DEC replacement for the venerable ASR33 teletype, the LA30, or else early DEC video terminals - the VT05 and VT52. On this trip I saw a prototype VT100 - which went on to become the de facto video terminal and is still with us in the form of the control sequences used for terminal-like communication.

If someone was working in the lab, the only way to contact them was via a single shared telephone in the middle. When it rang someone would answer it (if you were lucky), then connect to a loudspeaker and announce who the call was for. If you were luckier still the person would come along and answer. But often, they weren't there and the call would just hang until someone came by and hung up the phone, possibly hours later. I lost our daily shared "Maynard call" from England several times this way.

1976 was the year of Bicentennial - 200 years of US independence. And nowhere was this taken more seriously than New England. I was lucky enough to be there on July 4th when everyone celebrated. I saw my first American parade complete with firetrucks, popcorn and families everywhere - and of course barbecues. It was impossible not to be drawn into the general festivity.

One of the pieces of hardware I needed, the DZ11, was so new that nobody had any. I had to drive to the plant where they were made, which was in a country town in Western Massachusetts. It was my first glimpse of rural America, of the distances and the isolation - though nothing compared to the West. I carefully carried it back, got it installed, and tested my software on it. I'd done everything I needed to, and it was time to go home.

The helicopter took us from Maynard to its corner of Logan airport, and the TWA 707 brought me home to England. It was the first trip of many, a journey that became tediously routine at times. But those first impressions of a foreign country remain forever.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Python 3 - what were they thinking?

I'm a huge fan of Python for all kinds of programming, just about anything that doesn't need high performance or huge data structures. At my new company we are using it for all kinds of things. It's because I like Python so much that I'm so mad at the core team for forcing the Python 3 do-I-or-don't-I dilemma on the world (and more specifically, on me). I was forced this week to make the company-wide decision as to which dialect to use. There's no really good answer, though in the end I decided on Python 2 rather than Python 3.

What makes me angry is that the need to choose was forced upon the world by the sheer arrogance of the Python team. There's absolutely nothing in Python 3 that couldn't have been done in a backward-compatible way, allowing a gradual migration. Instead, they chose to make numerous changes which make it impossible to write code which will compile either as V2 or V3 of the language.

If you're just writing your own code, you can of course choose either version. But the big advantage of Python is the vast number of libraries for doing just about anything you can think of. And if you want to use those, they have to be available in your chosen dialect. According to a blog I read, less than a quarter of all libraries have been converted, including some major ones such as Django, which presents databases as web pages. Or if they have been converted, the paint is still very wet on the conversion and there are likely to be performance issues or just plain bugs. Another blog started out by promoting the idea of using V3, but ended up by saying that if it's for serious production, you're better off staying with V2. As it happens we don't need Djano, matplotlib, or numpy (three of the biggest libraries), but you never know what's round the corner, or what nifty library you'd like to use but can't because its developers haven't made the effort to do the porting - and after all, why should they, given that much of this code is written by volunteers, for fun.

Yes, there is one fundamental change which it would be hard to do in a compatible way, which has to do with the representation of strings. But for most uses of the language, this doesn't really matter. Only if you deal with transformations between raw bytes and strings do you really need to be exposed to this. There would certainly be a way, using the "future" concept, to allow the minority of code that needs to know about this to deal with it in a compatible way.

All of the other changes are just change for change's sake. Yes, maybe the new form is better in some ivory-tower sense, but not enough to justify the millions of hours of work that are being expended on the migration. And all of them could have been done by introducing a new form, then deprecating the old form over a period of years.

So this is purely a "because we can" exercise by the Python team, to show us all how clever and how powerful they are. It's enough to make you go out and learn Ruby.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Lewis Moebius Pussy Cat RIP

All the pictures, and many more, are available full size here.

Lewis - or to give him his full name, Lewis Moebius Pussy-Cat - left us forever on February 1st, 2012, after a short but brave and characteristically graceful struggle with an especially aggressive cancer. He was beautiful, unique and gentle even if - like his humans (cats never have owners) - rather reserved, and not given to showing too much emotion.

He was born on May 1st 2004, near Seattle. It was Isabelle's idea that we should have a cat. She thought he would keep me company during her frequent trips. We also hoped he might reduce the number of squirrels who routinely plunder our garden. Even if he didn't catch them, we figured the presence of a big aggressive male cat would frighten them. Because of that, we'd asked for the biggest of the litter.

Our first encounter with our new and still unnamed kitten was his journey to our home in California. Isabelle picked him up and carried him on the flight in a zip-up bag. When she called me from Seattle airport all I could hear was his loud, continuous meows. He knew he was being abducted, and he wasn't keen on the idea. He meowed plaintively for the whole two hours of the flight.

Once home, he explored absolutely everywhere, behind every piece of furniture, under every bed. We were still getting to grips with American folklore and the heroic tales of the exploration of the West, so it was only natural to name him after the most famous of the explorers, Lewis of "Lewis and Clark" fame, especially considering where he came from. For now, he was just Lewis - the rest came later. Like all kittens, he was just adorable.

Every cat is unique. Even so, Lewis was pretty special. For a start, he was much furrier than other cats. Although technically a "short hair", he was the fluffiest short-haired cat there has ever been. This made him look much bigger than he actually was. His fur was wonderfully soft to touch, and handsome to regard. The only drawback was his serious problem with furballs.

His middle name, Moebius, came later, As he grew up he got into the habit of twisting himself into a very odd position, his head pointing one way, his tail the other. This only happened when he was very relaxed. He'd be lying on his side on the floor, at his usual eight feet from his humans. Suddenly his tail would swivel round, and there he'd be, in his Moebius position.  At the slightest disturbance he'd spring back to a normal position - even calling his name was enough.

Another unique thing about Lewis was his way of saying hello - I've never seen it in any other cat, and wonder where he learned it. In fact it's the single thing I miss about him most of all. When he saw you for the first time in a while - in the morning, or when he came in from the outside - he would first stretch out his front legs to their full length, his chin practically touching the floor in a kind of curtsey, stretching himself almost flat against the ground. Then he would scrunch his back up into an arch, high off the ground. He would do all this at a respectful distance, six feet or so. Only afterwards would he approach for a little stroke. Sadly, I never captured his greetings in a picture.

Lewis was affectionate only in his own very reserved way. He never jumped up on anyone's lap. Sometimes when I was working he'd approach to within a couple of feet of where I was sitting. If I bent down to pick him up, maybe he'd take a few steps back, meaning he wasn't ready for a cuddle.
Or maybe he'd stay put, a signal that he'd regally accept to be picked up and stroked for a few minutes, before wandering around on my desk for a while then jumping down. But with Isabelle, he was very happy to curl up on her desk for hours while she worked and be her "office cat" - though not to sit on her lap.
When we were eating or watching television, he'd curl up a couple of yards away - close enough to be with us, yet far enough to never be really intimate.

And yet we were sure he was attached to his humans, in his distant feline way. During Isabelle's frequent travels, when we were alone together, he behaved quite differently. For the first couple of days he'd sulk. He knew when she was about to travel - as soon as he saw an open suitcase, he'd make his displeasure clear, his ears flattening against his head. Later, he'd start spending more time with me, as if he realised he had a duty of care. Which after all, was the original idea. He really disliked it when we were both away together. One Christmas we were away for nearly two weeks, with someone coming in every day to feed him. When we returned he was in really poor shape, his coat matted and a dirty brown rather than its usual sleek black. We think he had spent most of the time hiding.

That was when we discovered his secret hiding place, at the back of a closet, completely invisible behind hanging clothes, padded by a pile of old clothes, permanently warmed on top of heating pipes. Right up to the very end we pretended not to know about it. Lewis was a very proud cat, and would have been mortified to know that we were aware of his occasional need to cower in a secure place.

Usually, his chosen sleeping place indoors was the bed in the guest room. He was most unapproving when an actual guest took his place. He also liked to sleep on a place in the floor that the underfloor heating made particularly warm. Yet he was never a cat who sought warmth - he never slept in front of the fire, as cats are supposed to, and he would sleep outside even in damp, cold weather.

Despite our aspirations for him, Lewis was never a hunter. He did once catch a baby rat, which he brought in to show us. He was so proud of the moment that he forgot to hold on to his prey, which promptly disappeared under the kitchen cabinets, never to be seen again. He spent the rest of the evening sniffing suspiciously around the kitchen. He caught a couple of birds, sadly including once our resident mocking bird. All that was while he was quite young. Once he was certain that the supply of cat food was apparently endless, he stopped even this minimal effort. In the second half of his life he caught a single mouse. He was justly furious when we took its sorry corpse away, spending the rest of the day sulking and sniffing around where he was sure he'd left it. As for the squirrels, they would walk past his nose without him stirring. In fact, we suspected him of asking solicitously after their families and the nut crop.

He was always a conservative eater. Attempts to change the flavour or brand of his cat food were doomed to failure. His one treat was prawns - every evening around dinner time he would get three of them. Isabelle occasionally tried to give him just two, but he could clearly count to three and knew that he'd been shortchanged. Since the prawns were frozen, they had to be thawed in warm water. Sometimes he'd wait to be given all three, but if we left the kitchen, we'd often find that he'd jumped up and got into the sink, fishing the prawns out of the water with his paw before eating them. Apart from that he never jumped up on tables or countertops. When we had fish for dinner (often), we'd try to feed him some, but he was amazingly fussy. Cod was OK, but halibut - his humans' favourite - never interested him. Sometimes we'd threaten to have him trade places with the feral cats in Hossegor, where we take our French summer holidays. They will strip a fish head to the bone in minutes, and certainly aren't fussy about what kind of fish it is.

Lewis planning his holiday
Almost the only other thing he'd eat was cream. For much of the year we eat breakfast in the garden. Lewis would usually come to join us - hours after his getting-up time - and graciously accept to lap up a small dish of cream, always leaving enough to cover the base. He was also partial to the remains of a bowl of cereal, and liked to lick up the yoghurt left in the pot, after I'd finished with the relatively clumsy utensil of a spoon. Maybe he wondered why I didn't just lap it up, so much more efficient.

He had several favourite drinking bowls. The biggest was in the garden. He always seemed a bit vexed when his humans jumped into it and started swimming. He seemed less bothered by the human activity at the indoor ones, but he always preferred them to the bowls of clean water which we also provided in each bathroom. Drinking from the pool involved some serious contortions, balanced precariously on the edge, and using a paw to judge the depth. It was so tempting to give him a little push - not that we ever did of course. He would never have forgiven us.

Lewis was determinedly an outdoor cat. He loved being outdoors, and was very rarely indoors during the day unless the weather was truly awful. When it rained he'd shelter somewhere - there are plenty of sheltered spots big enough for a cat. And when he did get wet, he'd come inside and demand to be dried, meowing until Isabelle (usually) came with a towel and rubbed him down. I doubt that he even noticed he was wet, but he really enjoyed being dried.
Our garden was truly his domain. He had hiding places that we never discovered. When Isabelle did her usual morning walkaround, he'd emerge and follow her round, a tiny black panther stalking through the grass. Or he'd walk round the top of the fence, eight feet off the ground, sometimes settling down on the four-inch wide ledge for a snooze.

(I find the whole idea of "indoor cats" repellent. It's just obvious how much they love being outdoors, how much they like the sun on their fur, the wind ruffling it, the fresh air, even the rain. The idea of imprisoning a cat indoors to suit a human caprice just horrifies me. What's worse is that so many vets and rescue organizations preach it and even refuse to let people adopt who won't promise to keep the cat indoors. Better to let a cat be put down for want of a home than experience the outdoors? - I don't think so. Of course it's "safer" - for humans too, but nobody suggests we shouldn't let humans go out into the dangerous world).

The social life of cats is a complete mystery. While they're not truly social animals, you can't doubt that they have relationships with each other - just take a look at a colony of feral cats. Lewis clearly did a good job of guarding his territory, because appearances by other cats were rare. He definitely had some kind of relationship with a neighbour's cat called Maui, but whether they were friends, enemies or something else, we never did discover. Ever since the time when Maui's humans tried to put him on a diet, he would regularly come into our house and eat Lewis's food. We could tell when, because he would wolf down the whole bowl, while Lewis never did more than nibble. In any case Lewis seemed to tolerate him, in the garden and even inside the house. Maybe this is as close as cats get to friendship.


Our last picture of Lewis
before he got sick
The first sign of something wrong was that he seemed to be losing weight. Also, his Moebius performances were becoming rarer. Finally, we took him to the vet in October. They did the usual vet things but failed to find anything wrong. After another fruitless visit, we took him along to the Adobe Animal Hospital where he had the great good fortune to be placed in the care of Dr Rachel Boltz. Isabelle is convinced by her feline demeanour that she was a cat herself in a recent former life. Privately, we called her Dr Cat - we hope she wouldn't mind. She was wonderful beyond all reasonable expectation throughout the whole sorry business.

We returned home after our Thanksgiving trip to Europe to find him still in good shape, his weight stable. Briefly, we thought perhaps he was recovering. But after a few days we weighed him, to find he lost a whole pound in just this short time. Clearly something was seriously wrong. There was an urgent visit to Dr Cat and tests of all kinds - including an ultrasound scan, Lewis upside down in a cradle purring loudly while she ran the scanner over his tummy. Sadly, her diagnosis was that he almost certainly had cancer of some kind - but which kind? Some are treatable with a decent prognosis, others almost invariably fatal in a short time. We hoped beyond hope, of course, that it would be the treatable kind.

Meanwhile we desperately tried to stimulate his appetite. We bought numerous different flavours and types of cat food, but nothing worked, or not for very long anyway. He would eat something new with enthusiasm the first time, prompting us to lay in stocks - which he then refused to look at. We suspected, though of course could never know, that he ate because he was hungry, but that every new thing made him nauseous which in turn put him off eating it. The list of attempts to get him to eat was very long: smoked duck, duck confit, smoked salmon, turkey baby food, various tinned cat foods. And each time we'd give him a second helping the next day, and he'd sniff at it, lick his lips - and walk away. It was horrible.

Finally, in early December, he just couldn't eat at all. One evening we were so happy that he'd managed to lap up a few drops of cream - and so devastated when, half an hour later, he vomited. It was clear that he'd become completely unable to eat. Next day he was in hospital with tubes everywhere. He didn't seem to mind very much - I spent an hour with him one evening, tickling his ears and talking softly to him, surrounded by other sick animals, as he purred gently. The next day Dr Cat snipped a large growth out of his intestines, sewed them back together, and stitched his tummy up. He came back home the following night, and straight away he could eat - amazing really. For the drips, the hospital had shaved two bald patches on his front legs, bright white compared to his matt black fur. They stayed with him until the end, like little headlights.

Lewis the office cat
Around this time the contractors arrived for a long-planned roof renovation. They made a tremendous noise, literally jumping up and down on the roof. On the first day poor Lewis cowered in his security closet. We felt terrible, imposing this on our sick cat. So for the rest of the week, we took him to work, armed with food dish, water bowl and litter tray. In the total tranquility of an office he spent the day snoozing and looking out of the window.

Lewis's impressive
operation scar
He was still struggling, though. We'd planned a vacation over Christmas, but we were worried sick about him. We arranged for someone to come and stay, to be with him the whole time, but at the very last moment we realised how silly it would be, us sitting on a beach trying to relax and enjoy ourselves while constantly worried sick about poor Lewis back home. Alaska Airlines were amazingly cooperative, and rebooked the trip for a later date barely an hour before the flight left. We really thought that he wouldn't even see the New Year. I cried more than I would ever have thought possible, at the thought of losing our beautiful cat.

Lewis joining in the
Christmas celebrations, his
"headlights" very visible
Ill as he was, he was still very much a cat. He was tired and less active - not that he was ever very active - but he still did as he pleased. We did our best to have a normal Christmas, and we have a wonderful memory of Lewis joining in the festivities, drinking from the champagne bucket. It was then that Isabelle formulated her thoughts: as long as he could be "the cat", and still enjoy a cat-like life, we should do everything we could to take care of him, and certainly not subject him to medical imprisonment which he would most definitely hate. When he could no longer be "the cat"... that was something to face later. As it turned out, we didn't have to.

Lewis as beautiful as ever, yet
with less than a month left to live
Between Christmas and the New Year, he started to do better. By now I was obsessively weighing his food dish and everything he ate. A cat needs about 200 calories per day. On good days he was eating this much, but there were bad days where ate less than half. We weighed him often, desperately hoping to see an increase - by now he was painfully thin. But each time, if there was any change it was in the wrong direction. Still, he was "the cat". When he first got sick, we started letting him sleep in our bedroom - that had always been off limits before. He passed most nights just in the entrance, rarely coming close to the bed - as always, he kept a dignified distance from his humans, certainly not admitting that he liked being with them. During the day, he adopted the bathroom, sleeping on a towel on the floor, right beside a rather fancy cat bed that our friend Anita had bought for him and which he contemptuously ignored.

We were delighted that at New Year he was still not only alive, but in reasonable shape. There was a very cold spell and he decided to spend nights outdoors, barely above freezing. If we brought him inside he'd stay with us for a little while, so as not to seem ungrateful, then went back outside. Why he did this was a mystery - it lasted for about a week, then he started spending the nights inside again.

In January we finally got a definite diagnosis of his cancer, and it was the worst possible - large cell lymphoma, which is the most aggressive and the least susceptible to treatment. By now we had accepted, intellectually at least, that he was unlikely to be with us for much longer. He started chemotherapy, although we all knew it wasn't likely to do much. But even a month, even a week longer with our lovely Lewis would be a blessing. By this time every little cuddle, every chance to stroke him and hear him purr, every prawn he managed to eat, was precious, to be cherished and remembered. On his return from the chemo session, we all went into the garden and had a cat picnic of smoked salmon. Lewis ate enthusiastically. It was a little journey back in time to when he was healthy.

Through most of January he seemed to be doing OK. He ate just about enough, most days, he could be tempted with treats - giant prawns that we would heat up for him in hot water. It was such a pleasure to watch him eat them, crunching through them with his molars and purring loudly at the same time, until just the tip of the tail was left. He spent the night close to us but was outside at dawn and rarely to be seen during the day. Anita had a knack for giving him his daily medications and would come to the house each evening. At first he scratched and spat, but he seemed to get used to the idea even while making it very obvious that he didn't think much of it.

Lewis snoozing under his favourite lemon
tree - you'd never guess that he had just four
days left
In the last week of January he started eating less - maybe two-thirds of what he'd eaten before, and definitely less than enough, as each weighing sadly showed. He was a bit more tired, but still behaving normally - still "the cat". By now we'd moved the cat bed to just outside the living room and he'd adopted it, spending much of the time there curled up asleep or just watching the world go by. He was still beautiful, and to see him strolling around the garden you would never have guessed how ill he was.


One evening he was dozing in our bathroom, his favourite daytime place indoors. I called him, using two of the three words in his vocabulary - "Lewis, prawn!". (The other was "cream"). He trotted smartly out to the kitchen and munched his way through not just one but two whole prawns, with delightful enthusiasm. Later he ate a piece of meat too. We really thought that perhaps he was perking up again, that the chemo was finally working. Although when I weighed him, he was for the first time under 3kg (6.6 lbs), barely half his healthy weight. Stroking him made it painfully obvious just how skinny he'd become - just a bag of bones, with every rib and every bump on every bone obvious to my fingertips. Still, he purred when stroked. During the night he came and went, spending some of the time with us and some in the garden. But then the end came astoundingly - and mercifully - quickly.

At 7am, we were awoken by two long yowls, of obvious pain. He was just outside our bedroom. I gave him some pain medication. There was no question of going back to sleep after that. Still "the cat" and offended by the indignity of the medication, he wandered off to one of his favourite places under the lemon tree.

Later, I saw him outside. He was unsteady, trembling with the effort of standing or walking. He managed to get under a bush in a sheltered spot. Those were the last steps he ever took. His distress was obvious. He was panting rapidly, his eyes wide open. The decision we'd dreaded, dealing with the slowly diminishing health of a still somewhat capable cat, had made itself. There was no choice. We briefly wondered whether we should let him die in the garden he knew so well, in his own familiar territory, but he was just too distressed and probably no longer aware of his surroundings. Occasionally he made pathetic attempts to meow, managing only the most feeble kitten-like mew. It was heartbreaking.

Dr Cat was not available, but we decided just to take him anyway. Our distress must have been obvious because as soon as we walked into the hospital, they went into emergency action. Before we knew what was happening, we were in a treatment room, surrounded by technicians, Lewis on oxygen and surrounded by warming packs. His temperature had already dropped catastrophically. Everyone was very kind, to the humans as well as to Lewis, but it was obvious that there wasn't much to be done. Dr Cat appeared and told us that he was "actively dying". She felt his tummy and said, "There's a large mass there. The chemo has failed." And then there really was only one thing to do.

By now he was sedated and peaceful. He passed surrounded by his humans. I nuzzled up to his fur and said, for one last time, "Goodbye, Lewis. We love you." And he was gone. He looked as beautiful as ever, his long black fur as lovely as ever, his eyes still open. But there was no cat left inside. It was time to go.
Lewis at his most beautiful, as we want to remember him