Thursday, March 05, 2015

Sirius Spa

As we come in to land, Sirius Spa looks like a giant bonfire, with a huge plume of white smoke streaming out of it. The fire is at the bottom of a huge snow crater, hidden by the billowing smoke. I know it's not really a fire, just the hot waters of the swimming pools and fountains of the spa, throwing up cascades of white steam. The winds that constantly whip across the icy wastes of Greenland spin the steam into a braid of fog. From this height I can see that the fog is shaped like a huge curve: a gigantic anti-clockwise loosely wound spiral.

The plane banks around and comes in to land on the fog-free side of the valley. It's so white down there that it's impossible to judge the distance, so I hold Greg's arm for comfort a long time before the actual landing. “Kate, you’re digging your nails into my arm”, he says, and I realize I have been tightening my grip without thinking about it. I make a conscious effort to relax, and stare out of the tiny window, trying to judge our height. Suddenly I can see the paint, marking the edge of the runway in the endless flat snow landscape.  We land with a gentle bump and I feel the brakes apply. Greg moves his arm, disengaging my cramped hand, and rubs the spot where it was.

The airport consists of the usual walkways and moving sidewalks. Here, they are arranged in transparent tubes, where it's hard to say where the curved walls become the curved ceiling.  Outside, the sun is shining, but they have given the glass a slightly bluish tint, that serves to make it look just as cold outside as it surely is. I know there are a thousand kilometers of ice desert in every direction. Tiny crystals of ice fly past outside, catching the sunlight.

There's a crazy steep funicular railway down the sides of the crater. The inland ice is 2 kilometres thick here, and the spa is on the bedrock, so we are going all the way to the terminus, which is also the hotel. From the air, the sides of the crater looked smooth, almost a perfect inverted cone, but from the railway you can see it's formed with beautiful waves and curves. While we waited, we saw an old photo that had been blown up to poster size on the walls of the funicular railway station. It showed one of the three huge tracked vehicles that carved the crater in the '20s, using high pressure jets of boiling water. According to the text under the photo, the landscape was designed by a famous sculptor of the time, but Greg says the design was created by a computer program, fine tuned to ensure that the almost permanent transcontinental Greenland gales stay out of the spa area, reducing them to just a light breeze that keeps the fog from building up too much.

The hotel has a feeling of 20th century opulence. The short walk from the funicular to the check-in desk of the hotel is outdoors, but there is hot air blowing out of vents in the pavements, and there are fountains on either side. I get the impression that they deliberately make their guests go outside, so they can show how much energy they are willing to spend, just making us comfortable. It feels deliciously decadent, just pumping heat into the cold air, and I'm feeling pampered already. Greg promised me a very special romantic trip and this is just beautiful. My phone's tourist guide is whispering in my ear how Sirius is blessed by endless, free geothermal energy, and Greg, who is listening too, adds that it's doubly blessed by being so impossibly remote that there is nowhere to export the energy without building ridiculously long cables or pipelines. So it's basically the last place on earth where you can just feel good about wasting energy! So sweet of him to bring me here! The tourist guide explains that Sirius was built to stop the hot springs from melting the glaciers from below.  “Though it feels like a luxury resort”, the guide purrs, “it's actually 100% environmentally sound geo-engineering, preventing the melting of the ice sheets by redirecting the heat. This slows down the glaciers that creep towards the coast, and helps keep global sea levels down”. I tell the phone I don't need any more tourist guide, but I feel good about helping such a noble project with my visit.

Due to the time difference from the States, it's later than it feels, so we go straight to the evening meal, even though we didn't have lunch. The mineral water is melted Greenland glacier of course, and the wine is made from grapes grown in the local hothouses. We get an early night, so we can be fresh for tomorrow. I cuddle up to Greg in the clean sheets, but he falls asleep immediately, and eventually I drift off, too.

Greg has bought a diving course for me. So adorable: He knows that cross country skiing isn't my thing. I get a peck on the cheek when I get off the funicular. He's going to the top, where a guide will take him on a long, exhausting trip across the ice. I'm so glad I'm not going - the whole call-of-the-wild thing just means nothing to me. I think it's a very male obsession, this fascination with being alone in the wilderness.

The diving center looks like a great place. Gregg says it's one of the easiest places to get your Level III diving certificate. The deep pool is in a building a third of the way up the valley slopes, and the pool itself has been carved out of the side of a huge glacier, like everything else here, then lined with some transparent material. The result is, that however deep you go, there is light shining in sideways through the ice.  Our diving instructor is called Tia and has a sweet, Australian accent.

We are in a small group: Apart from me there is a young German couple, called Hella and Timo, constantly muttering things to each other in German, and there's a somewhat overweight New Englander, called Jack, with greying chest hair poking out from his wetsuit. The warm water means we don't need huge insulated wetsuits, so I have one with short sleeves and shorts. I feel a little self-conscious in it, and make sure I'm slightly behind Jack while Tia goes over all the safety stuff. We set up our earpieces to transmit the radio channel, Tia will be using to talk to us during the dive. After we have used our phones to set up the earpiece, we put them in the changing rooms: Phones are not water-proof to the depths we are going today. Tia has a sonar microphone that you can stick under your chin, which lets you talk under water if you have the practice and know how to water talk. I've had it explained a few times: Basically you make exaggerated movements of your tongue, that the sonar mic can pick up with some sort of scanning technology, and you move your vocal cords as if you were talking. The microphone synthesizes a voice for you based on those movements. None of the pupils in today’s scuba school can talk under water, so Tia just takes a microphone for herself. She goes through some hand signs with us, and we each borrow a diving watch, which is waterproof to depths much deeper than the pool.

We sit on the slightly raised edge of the pool and drop backwards into it like the divers on the nature documentaries. The German girl, Hella, uses the steps instead, which makes me feel a little superior. There's a short moment of claustrophobia, while I get used to the mouthpiece again, but after a minute or two, I'm acclimatised, and I'm making shallow 2 metre dives, the loud bubbles rushing upwards from me in little silver shoals with every breath I take. The pool is actually a lot deeper than it is wide, and it has a light and dark side, facing the valley and glacier, respectively. I admire the mural of Inuit hunters that the interior designers had painted on the dark wall of the pool. It occurs to me that these pictures are the first Inuit I have seen here - apparently the hotel does not generate much local employment.

To balance our weight belts we have inflating shirts that adjust automatically, keeping us balanced in the water. We are going down to 30 metres today, which is enough to have to worry about the bends. Tia explains with water talk how to time the descent and ascent to avoid decompression sickness, though basically all she needed to tell us was to press the green button on the diving watch. The watch tells you, through the earpiece, how fast you are allowed to ascend.

But for some reason we have to be prepared for the watches unexpectedly failing, so we have to learn it the old way too. She teaches us some rules of thumb and gives us little quizzes that can all be answered by holding up some number of fingers. It's pretty simple mental arithmetic, and I don't have any problems with it, but I think I see Jack glancing at Hella's hands for the answers.

There's an artificial coral reef down there, but the wildlife is all behind some glass screens, so we are basically just looking at an aquarium from the outside. Unlike normal glass, the aquarium glass is completely invisible in the water, but then they have had to stick strips of colored tape on it so people don't hurt themselves swimming into it, rather ruining the effect. In the ice behind the transparent pool walls you can see various strange things frozen into the ice, and I realize they are references to classic movies. I recognise a tiny Statue of Liberty from “The Day After Tomorrow” and the cute little squirrel from “Ice Age”.

We go deeper. Strangely enough it gets easier to equalize the pressure in my ears after the first 5 metres. Tia is chatting with some life guard on the surface, just to stop getting bored, I suppose, since none of her pupils today can water talk. Her synthesized voice also has an Australian accent, but it's a different voice from her real one, which is strange. The guy on the surface is complaining about the smell, saying it smells of rotten eggs. I'm surprised, because it seemed pretty clean up there, but apparently something has gone wrong, because it's so bad, that he warns us to stay under water while they sort it out. That's no problem, since according to the plan, we are going to be down here for a while, and when we do come up, we will have to do it slowly to avoid decompression.

The life guard (Tia calls him Eric) excuses himself for a moment, says he is going to have to put on some goggles. Whatever the smell is, it is also stinging his eyes. He is swearing on the radio link, which I think is rather uncalled-for, since he knows there are customers listening. I'm thinking they must have had a spill of whatever nasty chemicals they use to clean the pool, and I'm a bit worried it will leak into the water and start causing us skin issues. After a little while, he is back, and he tells Tia to abort the deep dive, but to stay under the surface. We swim up to the 15 metre mark and wait there, while Eric coughs and swears in a very unprofessional manner. Then, thank goodness, he announces that the smell is gone. I can see the relief on Tia's face. Timo is looking very agitated, and making incomprehensible hand signals. One of them is the one we just learned for imminent danger, but we are all hanging around in perfectly still water and it's obvious that everyone is breathing just fine, so it's hard to see what on earth his issue is. Tia tries to reassure him, and in the end she suggests that they surface for a moment so he can tell her what's wrong. If they immediately go back down to 15 metres they won't get the bends, she explains. Timo shakes his head violently, bubbles erupting around him as if he's trying to talk underwater, but of course we hear nothing. Tia goes up anyway to check out the situation, since Eric seems to have gone out of range of our earpieces again.

The four of us hang around awkwardly at the 15 metre mark. There is a vertical rope, which the Germans are holding on to, while Jack and I just hang around by a mural of an Inuit in a kajak. Timo stops making his hand signals when he can see that Tia is ignoring him. We see her surface near the edge and climb out in one, lithe movement. It’s hard to see much from down here of what happens at the edge of the pool. After about 10 seconds she gets back in the water, but she does it with a strange shallow dive that doesn't look very elegant. Instead of swimming down to us, she just lies there, and it slowly dawns on me that she is unconscious. Face down. Not breathing.

At this point things are getting very spooky. Jack swims up towards her, but the rest of us seem paralyzed. I'm hating myself for not rushing up to help, but I realize I just don't have the guts. I'm afraid of death, afraid of doing the wrong thing, and I'm also afraid to go too close to the air. I realize we never heard anything more from Eric after he announced that the smell was gone. I look behind me, to the other side of the pool, and there's another person lying immobile on the opposite side, who I didn’t notice until now.

Whatever it is up there, it seems to be killing everyone. Jack is trying to drag Tia's body to the edge, but it seems like he is keeping his scuba breathing equipment on. He gets her up to the steps and starts removing her oxygen tank while she is in the water. It takes a long time, and I can see Hella wants to go up and help, but Timo is holding her back. Eventually Jack and Tia disappear from sight with a lot of splashing. We hang motionless in the water, like frozen movie memorabilia, but the rhythmic clouds of bubbles ascend as regularly spaced underwater smoke signals, signalling nothing but the passing of time. Our watches tell us we have only five minutes to go before we are allowed to decompress to the surface.

At last the Germans start moving up, and I follow. I have that sinking feeling in my stomach that I only know from childhood nightmares. Like a cold lump in my intestines, chilling my insides. Timo is making signs to keep on the mask and keep using the bottled air, but it's unnecessary. Whatever is up there, I'm not letting it into my eyes or my lungs. Above the water we can see several dead bodies, including Tia's. She is staring at us with open, unmoving eyes, and I can feel the reproach. I look away quickly. Timo and Hella seem to have a plan so I follow them through several doors, the last of which says “Hyperbaric Chamber”. Inside, is a huge metal cylinder with small windows, lit from the inside. Even through the goggles I can smell the rotten eggs and my previously chilled stomach is now also giving me feelings of nausea, made worse by the sight of several more dead bodies in the rooms we came through. I'm breathing fast and shallow, and I try to slow down, without much success.

There seems to be someone inside the hyperbaric chamber. The Germans are knocking on the window and there are muffled shouts from inside. Whoever it is in there, is not inclined to open the door, and I hate them for it, but I know I would do the same. I really want to tell Greg that I am OK, or at least, not dead yet, so I decide to get my phone from the changing rooms. I can't voice operate it with this mask on, but there is a touch screen that I have used a few times in situations where it would be impolite to make a noise, talking to my phone. Somehow, I have the feeling that if I am in contact with Greg I will be OK.

I have only just found the phone when there is a massive, rumbling explosion that shakes the whole building. My ears pop, and I can feel a blast of very cold air. I suddenly realize I was already cold before - now I am very cold indeed. I put on as much of my clothing as I can, but it's hard with the compressed air tank on my back. I have to skip my top, but luckily my ski jacket is very loose, and I manage to put it on, on top of the tank. After I have put on as many clothes as I can, I remember the diving belt. It's many pounds of extra weight that I don't need, so I partially undress, until I can get at the clasp and remove the belt, which clatters to the tiled floor unexpectedly loudly. I can feel the cold wind coming in through the gap under the changing room door as I dress again, and I know the building must have been seriously damaged by the explosion. The smell of rotten eggs is making me want to retch, but I hold it back, not wanting to let go of the mouthpiece even for a moment. Can a bad smell really kill you, I wonder?

I came without a hat or gloves, but I take some that belong to another customer, or, I guiltily realize, probably to Tia. After putting on the gloves, I have to take them off again to work the touch screen on the phone. There are no messages from Greg, but a whole lot of warnings and notifications. Tears well up in my eyes. Damn you, Greg, and your stupid survival adventure fantasies. Blinking away the tears, I see that one of the notification messages is offering to automatically relay messages from the emergency services to me, and I accept. I text: “I'm OK, don't come down into the valley”, to Greg. My hands are shaking so badly working the stupid touch screen, I drop the phone and it hits the tiled floor with a sickening crack. I’m thinking swear words, but you can’t curse while holding a scuba mouthpiece with your teeth. I hardly dare look, but when I pick up the phone, there’s a huge crack across the screen. Pressing the power button doesn’t get any reaction. I inwardly curse my clumsiness again. I stand completely still, feeling suddenly even more alone.

“Your adrenaline levels and heart rate are very high. Would you like me to alert the emergency services?”. The phone’s voice in my earpiece makes me start. It can still talk to me, even though the screen is broken! I put it in my pocket. I can’t answer its question now, but when I can talk again it will be very useful.

I find my way to the foyer of the diving centre. The glass facade has been shattered into a million pieces and one of the concrete columns holding up the ceiling has fallen over. It looks like a bomb. It must be some kind of a terrorist attack, that much is clear. Poison gas, explosions: It's the sort of thing you hear about, but you don't expect it to happen to yourself. I stumble through the wreckage, hitting my shin on the remains of the reception desk and the phone starts to relay a message on my earpiece.

“This is an emergency message for the rresidents of Searius Spa”.  It's a man's voice with a Danish accent. “There hæs been a rrelease off volcanic gases in the valley of Searius Spa.  The whole valley is full of hydrogen sulphide, which is not dispersing because it is heavier than air. Hydrogen sulphide is very smelly, very poisonous and highly explosive. Do not under any circumstances go down into the valley, and if you are on the slopes, head upwards for the edge if at all possible.”

The message repeats in what I presume to be Danish, and then again in some Greenlandic language. I stand completely still listening to it, as if the Greenlandic version will somehow tell me what I should do next. The valley is 2km deep, and even though the sides are steep it must be almost an 8km walk to the edge. My compressed air tank was sized for educational dips in an oversized aquarium, and at that moment it helpfully tells me through my earpiece that it has only twenty minutes of air left. Still, I don't have any other plan, so I turn and start walking upwards, taking every upwards path and road I can find. Within a few minutes I am out of breath, my stomach is constantly threatening to empty itself into the mouthpiece and I'm feeling the cold on my ears. I stumble on some ice and land on all fours, where I stop, staring at the ground. I'm not sure if it's the fright or the cold that is making me shake, and I’m close to crying.

The earpiece announces another message. I'm hoping it's from Greg, but it's the emergency services with another announcement. “We have started up the funicular rrailway in unmanned mode. Anyone still in the valley should make their way to the nearest station above their current position and exercise extreme caution getting in the train."

The message repeats in the two other languages. Apparently a funicular is called the same in all languages. Then the phone says it detected a destination in the last message. “Would you like to navigate to 'the nearest station above your current position'” it asks. “Yes”, I say into the mouthpiece, but it comes out sounding Danish. That is, completely incomprehensible. “I'm sorry, I didn't catch that” the phone chirps cheerfully back. I take a deep breath, remove the mouthpiece for a moment, and say “Yes” as clearly as I can. The stench almost overwhelms me as I jam the breathing apparatus into my mouth again and bite down hard on it.

I get to my feet again and follow the instructions of the phone. There are a few dead bodies on the streets, but most people seem to have died in the buildings. Given the temperatures out here, that is understandable. Even in the land of free energy, most pavements do not have hot air blowers, and I am getting extremely cold now. The cold is insinuating itself into all the cracks of what I thought were good winter clothes, and I am acutely aware that in my haste I put on my clothes on top of my wet diving suit. On my back, where the coat is trying to cover both me and the compressed air canister there's a huge gap at the base of the coat, where the cold air is whistling in.

I can see the station now, further down the road. There is a cramp that is threatening to develop in my frozen legs, and I tread carefully, not sure if I'll have to strength to go on if I cramp now. At last I arrive at the thankfully undamaged station. The automatic doors open for me and I stumble inside, going just far enough away from the motion sensors to let them close again, locking out the cold wind. I collapse on the floor, breathing heavily from the last of the compressed diving air. I realize it is more than 5 minutes since the tank informed me that it had only 5 minutes left, so I have no idea how much air I really have. It must have some extra capacity that it pretends not to have for safety reasons.

I'm lying there, eyes closed when I hear the train pulling into the station. I leap up, and rush onto the platform, getting on the train just as the doors are closing. I flop into a seat and the train starts. Downwards.

I jump up again and rush to the door. It's closed and the “open” button has no effect. The train starts slowly, but we are three-quarters out of the station before I find the emergency stop lever. I pull it, breaking a nail, and the train judders to a halt, throwing me onto the floor. The ski equipment ad on the screen at the end of the carriage disappears and the face of a railway operator appears in its place.

“Errrr”, he says. “You are the only passenger, so let me see if I can reverse the train”.  There is a pause while he looks down. A long pause. At last the train starts moving upwards, slowly.  My air tank is now emitting a beep every minute or so. As we trundle upwards it increases the frequency to once every ten seconds. Then it is beeping continuously, but there is still air coming out of it. I sit still on the floor, clutching my knees, trying to breathe slowly.

The train starts to slow. The man on the screen explains that I should not get off, this is not the top station. The doors open, and about 20 people pour onto the train, none of them wearing any breathing equipment. Suddenly I feel stupid, sitting on the floor with my steamed up goggles and my scuba mouthpiece. I take them off, and some people help me up into a seat. I realize my shins hurt, and I am sure they are bleeding from one of the falls.

“Call Greg” I say, and the broken phone in my pocket hears it over the noise of the funicular and dials for me. I’m hoping he’s back in cell tower range. Perhaps someone on the wilderness trip had a satellite phone, so they knew to come back early. There’s a ringing tone in my earpiece, but he doesn’t take it, and I’m redirected to his messages. I leave a message to meet me at the top of the funicular, and as I hang up, the train slows, and we arrive at the upper terminus. I realize I forgot to say I’m OK, but he’ll guess that. Or perhaps he never even knew I was in danger.

My phone vibrates, and I get my hopes up, but it’s a call from a crisis counsellor somewhere in America. I tell her I don’t want to talk, in case Greg calls, but she points out the phone will interrupt the conversation to tell me if he tries to call. Also, it seems my health insurance requires me to talk to her now or I may lose the right to coverage. I’m worried I got some of the poison gas, so I agree to talk.

She asks whether I have injuries, which I don’t, apart from a few scratches and my bruised shins. She then asks if anyone I am close to has been hurt or killed, which luckily I can also say no to. At least Greg’s silly trip has kept him away from the poisonous gases in the valley.

She asks if I’ve had any alcohol or nicotine. I’m not an addict, I tell her. If she’s from the health insurance she can see my files, there’s never been anything like that. She says, actually a stiff drink would be excellent self-medication right now. She can see my adrenaline levels are too high, and they’ve been high for too long. “I was just nearly killed”, I shout! “It looked like a major terrorist attack down there, of course I have high adrenaline! What I need isn’t a drink, it’s my husband!”

The counsellor is very patient. She says I could get post-traumatic stress if I don’t get my adrenaline levels down. She is going to send a prescription to the airport pharmacy, and she is going to stay on the line until I’ve taken it. I start walking to the pharmacy, throwing off my coat, which is now far too warm, and removing the empty air bottle, which I was still carrying around. The earpiece says I’ve gone out of range of the phone, and I remember it is in the coat pocket and go back for it. The annoying counsellor got cut off by that, so I call Greg, but there’s no answer.

There are two queues at the pharmacy. One for anti-adrenaline meds and one for everything else. The anti-adrenaline queue moves very fast. You beep your phone for ID and they give you one of three different packets of pills with instructions to swallow all at once. I reject the incoming calls from the counsellor.

It’s pretty fast-acting stuff. Suddenly I feel completely calm, no nerves at all. There are several fast food places nearby and I realize I’m very hungry and thirsty. Also, my shin suddenly stops hurting. I pick up a sandwich and a drink and sit down to eat.

I’ve been so lucky! Imagine surviving that! I have the most awesome dinner party story now, that’s for sure. I’m so looking forward to finding Greg and telling him about it too. What a pity I didn’t stop to take photos, I could probably have sold them to the news agencies. I wonder what happened to the Germans, I’m sure they were fine.

“Where is Greg?”, I ask the phone. “Greg does not share his location with you” it says, with it’s friendly synthetic voice. “Do you want to use your emergency override?”. “No”, I say, but then I think “Why not?” You only have one emergency privacy override, and when you’ve used it you have to get the person whose privacy you violated to retroactively approve your snooping, otherwise you don’t get it back for another time. This makes the privacy override so precious that I’ve just never used it, in case I didn’t have it when I really needed it. But today I really need it, and of course Greg will give it back to me when he finds me. It’s not that he doesn’t want me to know where he is, he just disabled all location sharing, on general principle. He says location sharing is just part of the modern assault on our privacy, and he’s right. I even switched off my own location sharing after we talked about it.

“Where is Greg?”, I ask again, and this time I activate the emergency privacy override. “Greg is at 125 Kuchinya Boulevard, Sirius Spa.” Well thank God for that. “Navigate there” I say. The phone responds with “Walk north 300 metres. Take the next train to Sirius Spa Valley Station.”

I freeze in the middle of a mouthful. Greg is in the valley? The phone rings, and it’s the counsellor again. I accept the call, but I tell her I have more important things to think about than her and her happy pills. “My husband is in the valley, not where I thought he was, he may have been killed!” I’m mad at her for even bothering me. I took the stupid meds, surely she can see that from my adrenaline levels. The pills have taken away my nerves, but now I'm furious, and they don't seem to affect that.

“Kate, if that’s where he is, then I’m afraid he is certainly dead. It’s an area of exclusive holiday cottages near the bottom of the valley. Nobody down there has survived the volcanic gas”. I do a search on the street, and the first hit is a real estate company selling dachas to rich Russians. The selling points are the huge saunas and the direct flights from Moscow, St. Petersburg and London. I search on number 125 on the street and the name is Roman Lebedev. Who on earth is that? Then I realize the surname is familiar. Greg used to work with that beautiful Russian woman. Lena Lebedev. No, Elena was her name. Roman must be some relative of hers.

I shout at the counsellor: “Greg has been meeting with an ex colleague bitch, when he said he was in the wilderness on the inland ice! That lying son of a gun, I hope he is dead.”  Now the counsellor sounds worried: “This is very unfortunate. The pills you got were specifically against fear and nervousness. They are interfering with your normal grief process. I understood that nobody close to you had been affected by the disaster when I prescribed them to you”.

“Don’t worry”, I say icily. “That philandering git isn’t close to me in any way”. There’s an ice cold rage in me, so pure, and so fierce, I’m sure if I look in the mirror I’ll see blue-white welding-torch flames in my eyes. The counsellor wants me stay on the line. Really, what I’d rather do is call Greg’s family and tell them what an evil, duplicitous lying scumbag he was, and that he’s dead. She has called her superior in for a three way conference call and he says that the stuff I took works against survivor’s guilt which means it is likely to lead to unexpectedly ruthless behavior if I am in a difficult situation. The supervisor says he’s going to call some local paramedics to take care of me.

I cut them off. I don’t need anyone to take care of me. I know they are going to use my phone to find me and take care of me against my will. I’m not having that! A woman is approaching along the walkway. She’s wearing a huge fur coat. As we pass, I drop the phone into her large outer pocket. Track that, suckers!

“Your phone has gone out of range”. It’s the diving watch. Apparently it has a simple version of the same general purpose software the phone uses. “Would you like me to take over the navigation task for you?” it asks.


I realize that’s exactly what I want. I’m going down to the valley to kick his dead body and the dead body of that interfering hussy he was screwing.” I’m not afraid at all any more, just angry.

I duck under the police tape blocking off the departures part of the station, and into a waiting train. If I sit on the floor, under the screen that I used to talk to the railway man earlier, I’m pretty sure I’m in the blind spot of the camera he was using to see me. I can hear a train coming up to the terminus, and as it gets near, my train starts moving to make space for it at the top.

As the train goes down, I’m happy that the pills have taken my fear. The gas will have blown away by now. I’m trying to plan how to set light to the house. A fire made of a Russian house, a cheating bastard and a dead slut would be just the thing to warm my cold fingers. The smell of rotten eggs is overwhelming, but I’m wondering whether bad smells really kill you. Perhaps Greg is still alive, in which case I’ll kill him. It’s stinging in my eyes, so I close them until the worst is over. I’m surprised to notice the smell is gone just before I pass out.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review of Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea

Adam Roberts seems to have a thing about legendary SF&F authors. His Twitter moniker, @arrroberts, is a tounge in cheek nod to Tolkien, and this is a Jules Verne stilübung, a stylistic exercise, where you translate a modern text to an ancient language or style, just for the sheer intellectual stimulation of it.

Like 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, its a man’s world. There are no women at all in this book, anywhere. You could see that as a inevitable result of the 1950s naval setting, but it’s also very reminiscent of classic SF like Verne or Stanislav Lem (of whom Roberts is also a fan). Surnames are used most of the time, which I generally find harder to follow than first names for some reason. (Perhaps Adam Roberts gets confused too: there are two places where the wrong character gets called Lebret, one of them page 272.)

The illustrations, by Mahendra Singh, are very moody, but probably too old school to use for the cover, sadly. Here's what the cover could have looked like.  I especially like the lower one, which is very Suhrkamp Phantastische Bibliotek, exactly the sorts of books it belongs with.

I read this book within 48 hours of buying it (in Waterstones, Cambridge) and enjoyed the old-school feel of it. The plot moves along nicely and though some will dislike the tropes used for the ending, it’s fits very well with the rest of the book.  Near the beginning, the author reveals that the characters never see the night sky again after the test dive of their experimental submarine, the Plongeur. This almost goes over the boundary from foreshadowing to plain spoilers, but I suppose you can’t call it a spoiler if it’s the author doing it, in-book.  At any rate, there is plenty of mystery left, so it’s not as if I could then guess the rest of the story.

A good old-fashioned boys adventure for the beach, 2014.  If could offer just one piece of advice to the reader it is: “Remember the sun screen”.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

The technological resource curse

I read a thought-provoking article, The Generalized Resource Curse

The short version of the resource curse is that some countries are afflicted with the paradoxical curse that there is a valuable resource that makes up most of the wealth of the nation.  Unfortunately, very few people are needed to produce/extract the resource, and so for the rest of the population the only determinant of wealth is the ability to take part in wealth distibution - no amount of conventional effort gives them a part of the money cake.  This puts enormous social pressure on the strength of the institutions that might facilitate this redistribution, and the country risks descending into a more-or-less brutal form of civil war in which corruption destroys the stability of society.  Often, the resource-controlling upper class squeezes the middle class, whom they don’t need, down into a huge lower class.

The prototypical resource is oil, and the prototypical country destroyed by the curse is Nigeria.  The generalized form of the resource curse is the fear that the West is falling prey to a similar curse:  The two resources that threaten to bring the resource curse to the West are said to be technology and capital, but I'm not convinced that capital is a resource in this sense.  Highly ownership-concentrated capital seems to me to be like a symptom of a resource-cursed society failing to perform wealth distribution needed, more than a resource in its own right.

That leaves technology.  There’s no doubt that a few people can create a huge amount of technology, especially software, which can be reproduced easily.  Those who build and control technology are in some ways analogous to those that control oil fields.  Here I think the best way to counteract the technology resource curse must be weakening of IP (intellectual property) rights in general and promotion of open source in particular.  To take an example from my own employer, Google, for whom I do not in any way speak, we built a browser and open sourced the vast majority of it, meaning that anyone can see the code we wrote that is behind Chrome, and anyone can build their own projects based on parts of or variations on that code (subject to a few simple restrictions).  In my case I worked on V8 the high performance JavaScript engine in Chrome.  There was nothing forcing Google to open source V8 and Chrome, and I think Chrome could have been as successful as a closed source project like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.  Perhaps even more successful, since some of the technology advances in competing projects have been facilitated by looking at the open source software in Chrome.

The open sourcing of V8 enabled the node.js project, which is the use of V8 to build interactive web sites, rather than the use in a web browser that was originally envisaged.  Node.js has an associated community/industry building web sites and cloud services.  Some of the big players can be seen on the speaker list at but there are also many smaller projects and companies that use the technology.  People have used V8 to create value and this serves to redistribute the wealth in some way.  The many projects built on the Linux kernel have of course had a much bigger effect - this includes almost every non-Apple, non-Microsoft device in your house, from the TV to the intelligent electricity meter.  It is clear to me that open source technologies allow a larger number of people to build useful, profitable, wealth-creating things, by building incremental customizations on top of existing software infrastructure, and they can do it at many scales, right down to the small workshops using tiny Linux computers to control one-off or small series devices.  Without open source technologies they could not do these sorts of projects without paying a large company like Microsoft, resulting in a further concentration of wealth like the one the elite controlling an oil nation enjoys.  In some cases it would result in the projects not taking place at all, if the producers of the necessary base technology did not see fit to sell a license (eg. because the project is too small to merit their attention, or in a country where they do not have a sales organization).

Patents, especially software patents, work the opposite way from open source and are an entirely voluntary worsening of the technological resource curse that we as a society enforce on behalf of the technology-resource elite.  In patent law, if someone establishes a claim to an invention, then it is theirs to monopolize, and they can prevent others from using it even if the other users reinvented it ten years later without ever having heard of it - no copying needs to be proved.  Often the patents are very broad and cover remarkably non-innovative ideas putting a dampener on a whole field or industry.

As an example of the effect patents have, Android smart phones are built almost entirely of open source software, and a huge chunk of that is produced by Google (a big chunk of the rest is Linux, again).  As far as I know Google gets no money per Android phone.  Yet every time someone in the third world gets access to the Internet for the first time using an Android phone, the purchase price of that phone includes a sum that goes directly to Microsoft.  By some estimates it is around $10.  This despite the fact that an Android phone contains no software from Microsoft, a fact that is not disputed by Microsoft at all.  What happens is that Microsoft uses patent law and the courts to coerce the manufacturers into paying an undisclosed sum per phone for the right to continue to build phones.  Often these patents are of dubious validity, yet that doesn’t stop the scheme working, given the costs and risks of litigation.

Large companies, like Microsoft are not the only ones looking to profit from popular technologies that they did not develop.  There is also a horde of patent trolls, often smaller companies who don’t build any technology at all, but are armed with some patents that they use to attempt to extort money from those that do, actually, build things.  If Microsoft is analogous to the elites controlling oil states, then the patent trolls can be compared with the local war lords who use blackmail, sabotage and small scale civil wars to siphon off some of the oil profits in a region.

(My example points at Android because it is a well known technology with vigorous defenders, not least Google, but of course I can’t point at projects that didn’t take place because of the stifling nature of patent law.)

People sometimes defend the patent system on the grounds that it speeds up innovation by rewarding and thus enabling heavy investments.  This may be true of some industries, but it does not appear to be the case in the software world.  The real innovation that I see in the industry does not seem to be coming from the same places as the patents, quite the contrary.  And even if it were true at some marginal level, my contention is that overreaching legal creation of artificial IP monopolies is unhealthy for society as a whole.

Another argument for patents in particular and IP in general is the feeling that they are fair, in a sense.  Even the name, intellectual property, invokes an analogy to conventional property that appeals to our naïve sense of fairness.  You wouldn’t want anyone stealing your apples or your car, why should they be allowed to ‘steal’ your IP?  The analogy is flawed in many ways that are obscured by the equivalence glibly implied by the phrase “intellectual property”, starting with the simple fact, that if someone steals your apple or your house, you are then apple-less and homeless.  Yet when someone performs an intellectual feat you performed ten years ago you still have the fruits of your intellectual feat.

Rather than seeing patents as some sort of natural right, we should see them for what they are: an artificial monopoly granted by the state, and with some effects that are pushing in entirely the wrong direction in terms of how we want our society to work.  In addition I think it is right for society to encourage open source software as much as possible - I think it has a democratizing effect on control of the means of post-industrial production and a stabilizing effect on society.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Time travel is easy.

Forwards time travel.  Everyone does it.  I just travel faster (by slowing down).

I'm not disturbed by those living at full speed:  The moon is a quiet spot with a great view.

I can judge my reentry point.  Major wars flicker by.  I wait.

At last it's quiet.

Touchdown near Chicago.  I hail a self-driving taxi, but it takes me to Judge.

Judge deports me!  To protect the Million-Year Stability Project (half-completed).

The Kuril-Kamchatka Trench is their "quiet spot".  The tourists always pick Mariana.  Their two-way time machine drops me off just after I left.

I wave to the moon.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

10 German cars

I have a weakness for cars, let that be said. While I know they are bad for the environment, dangerous for the 'soft traffic' and just generally the plaything of the devil I can't help being fascinated by them. Partly it's the fact that I like driving, but it's also the sheer techno-sociology of it. Here we have the biggest, most visible triumph of the industrial age, an industry where huge economies of scale allow enormous technological efforts to be expended building machines that change the world. Their ubiquity, their energy consumption, their transforming effect on society make them important in interesting ways. But to a technology geek, cars are also fascinating because they showcase the boundaries of technological progress. Magazines love to herald the invention of wondrous new technologies and techniques, but the car industry is where the rubber, quite literally, hits the road. This is where the fanciful is separated from the doable, this is where theoretical flights of fancy are forced to become practical, cheap, reliable, everyday.

The business-oriented celebrity gossip magazine Børsen ("The Bourse") and its online version, ("son of Bor") has an article on their pick for the Top 10 German cars of all time (in Danish). It's the usual cars that get paraded on such occasions, as always accompanied by that tired epithet, "classic". We get the much admired, but little driven Gullwing Mercedes, the obvious VW Beetle, the capricious 911, the laughable Trabant, the adolescent Golf GTI etc. etc.

I thought the list rather predictable, so here's my own attempt at a "Top 10 German Cars".

VW Golf II

This is the counterpart to the Trabant. Back in 1989 when the Wall fell these two cars symbolised the difference in economic development between the two Germanies. On the one hand the rattling, narrow little Trabant with its two-stroke engine smelling and sounding like an oversized scooter. On the other hand the smooth lines of the Golf II, wide and squat, like a toad, sitting on its fly-fattened haunches. No wonder the GDR didn't survive even a year without the Wall.

VW Karmann Ghia

While it is true that it just looks like a stretched version of the VW Beetle perhaps that is part of its attraction. It's how the Beetle might have been in an alternative universe where we are all well-off DINKs, the sun always shines, the petrol is always cheap etc. A sort of adult Noddy world with a dash of German engineering. We don't live in that world of course, so the Karmann is relatively rare.

VW Bus

Perhaps this isn't strictly a car, but it's significant enough that I am going to cheat and include it anyway. The people carrier of the counter culture, it's no coincidence that this is the preferred vehicle of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Here was a 'car' with which you could burst the boundaries of the shrunken post-war nuclear family. It accomodated you, your friends, your friend's girlfriend (or perhaps even friends' girlfriend) and some guy who was hitching across Europe for no very good reason. This was the car for whatever project seemed likely to expand your horizons. It wasn't exactly engineering perfection. Having the engine in the back meant there was no flat loading area, the engine was inadequately cooled and always had to be replaced after only 100 thousand miles and the heating in the front was always a problem. On the other hand, having a decent suspension and the engine weight over the driving wheels meant it was usable on the poor roads of Africa.

Audi 100

This is a very boring looking car. In fact that's the point as it was sold on its aerodynamics, with the drag coefficient of only 0.30 being very impressive at the time. While Saab were always boasting that they learned how to build aerodynamic cars from their jet plane department Audi were busy chipping away at those annoying little things like the edges of windows which catch the wind and worsen the fuel consumption. The result, reduced to a single, geek-friendly number and combined with an overdrive gear suited a society trying to come to terms with relatively expensive oil. It is actually also a remarkably timeless design. I'm sorry I called it boring. Compare it to the Ford Cortina Mk. V, a design that was only 3 years old at the time. (In the US the car is mainly remembered for the fact that its drivers had a sad habit of accidentally driving off while they were supposed to be waiting for the lights to turn green.)

BMW Isetta

After the war these cute little bubble cars with the door in the front rather than the sides were the baby steps of the demilitarised BMW. Based on an Italian design, but technically revamped by BMW they represent the humble beginnings of the Wirtschaftswunder. Together with the somewhat more conventional Goggomobil they are a reminder of how simple a car can be. A little too simple, perhaps, considering the total lack of anything that could act as a crumple zone. Oh, and they were a 3 litre car before VW built the...

Lupo 3L

Here's the car that had all the clever tricks to save fuel before the latest wave of cars that hit the market in the last 4 years. It has reduced weight, stops the engine at red lights etc. etc. Preeeeety clever. And it goes 100km on 3l of diesel (that's only 5.6 fluid ounces per league for you non-metric or imperial types).

Audi Quattro

The Audi Quattro (or Ur-Quattro) was a pioneer, bringing permanent four-wheel drive to the mainstream. It had a string of rally-wins to bolster its technical credibility, but the interesting thing about it was that it was also usable on normal roads. When the Quattro was launched in 1980, most people asked to think of a four wheel drive car would probably think of a Land Rover. This was a 'car' with no centre differential, which meant that if you engaged four wheel drive on a normal road you would damage the transmission. In contrast, the Quattro technology (which was soon available in all Audi's cars) 'just worked' and let you drive from snow to mud to dry roads without having to worry. And unlike the lumberjack-wannabe 4x4 craze that blighted the 90s and the zeroes the Quattro was without the high centre of gravity that is so dangerous in an accident.


I don't think most people know that BMW built a 260km/h Italian-designed mid-engined supersportscar in the 1970s. Certainly I was surprised when I was overtaken by an M1 on the autobahn.

Bugatti Veyron

How could the 1000 horse-power 400km/h Veyron be missing from a list of German cars? The name is Italian, it's built in France, and the high speed tyres are also French, but the design of the monstrous W16 engine is German engineering and it took the special genius lunacy of Ferdinand Piëch to make it happen.


In 2002 VW showed a concept car that ran 100km on a litre of fuel (282mpg in the UK, 235mpg in the US). It had a one-cylinder diesel engine and a host of clever tricks, but no hybrid drive - battery technology was not good enough at the time. Amazing looking concept cars are common and ultimately boring, but it now looks like a hybrid version will go into production. It's grown a bit, has a two-cylinder engine and a battery and it goes 10% further on a litre of diesel. The German car companies have been a little slow to embrace hybrid technology, partly because their turbodiesels were so efficient that hybrid didn't offer such a big advantage. But this looks like some great technology that will hopefully hit the mainstream soon.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Which version of V8 do I have?

Here is a little browser test for anyone that cares. Bug reports welcome. Thanks to Yang Guo for the Chrome 24 and both stack trace tests.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Memory management flags in V8

A lot of people are linking to a blog post about V8 memory management, so I thought I would write my own notes on the flags too.

--max_new_space_size (in kBytes)

The new space is where objects are normally created. With any luck they die young and GC in this space is very fast for dead objects, so it's a nice optimization. The new space normally sizes itself automatically, and you can't increase the max size without recompiling V8, so there is not much need to tune this one. If you want to keep pauses short you can pass a value of 1024 or less to this flag, and the pauses associated with new-space GCs may be reduced from up to 30ms to more like 0-2ms. Throughput may suffer.

--max_old_space_size (in Mbytes)

This defaults to 700Mbytes on 32 bit and 1400Mbytes on 64 bit. If you want to allow V8 to grow more than this then you can set it higher. The maximum is not known. If you set this very high, then V8 will save some time (it's a space-speed tradeoff) by using more memory. File a bug if you have a use case where
a) memory use rises in an unbounded way with a high value for this flag
b) the program runs without out-of-memory when you set the limit lower

--max_executable_size (in Mbytes)

We normally limit this for security reasons. It's a defence-in-depth defence against heap spraying attacks. On the client, don't increase it unless you have truly gargantuan programs. On the server side, heap spraying attacks are not normally feasible so this is not so important.

--gc_global, --gc-interval, --incremental_marking_steps

These are debugging flags for the developers of V8. You basically never want to use them.


Lots of interesting debugging info will be produced by this.

--incremental_marking (default: true)

Switch this off to get slightly higher peak performance and much longer pauses.


This may reduce memory use a bit, but it will cause long pauses. If this makes a big difference to the memory use, please file a bug so that the compaction heuristics can be improved.


This will dramatically reduce max pauses (esp. with a small max new space size), but may cause memory use to rise. Whether you see any effect on memory use depends on your workload. Most JS engines do not have a moving compactor, so using this flag can make memory use look more like it would on another engine.

--compact_code_space (default: true)

As with --never-compact, switching this off may be beneficial for pauses, and may hurt peak memory use.


I would agree with the osnap blog here. You probably want this flag, and you may not want it any more with future node releases.


This lets you second guess the GC heuristics by starting a GC with the global gc() function. You are almost certain to lower performance and cause more pauses with this option.