Laos is a small and mountainous country, 4% is arable, and during the Vietnam conflict the Ho Chi Minh Trail that boarders the two countries was constantly bombed, in fact, on some measures it is the most bombed country ever, for example, using per capita metrics, and a considerable amount of Unexploded Ordinance remains, on some estimates 8m bombs did not explode.
The country is beautiful, at Lunag Prabang the Mekong slips past as it winds its way from Tibet towards the ocean outlet of the Mekong delta in southern Vietnam, cutting steep sided valleys covered in denser green rain forest and with very step banks, which make getting to and from boats a bit tricky especially for use oldies! Boats of all kinds traversed the river, cargo, tourist and ferries – we made one trip of about 4 hours in narrow long boat, which seemed to have a difficulty with its motor until we pulled up along side a larger boat that served as a gas station on the river.
https://static.googleusercontent.com/external_content/picasaweb.googleusercontent.com/slideshow.swfThe river cruise to the Buddhist cave was interesting, passing farm land and weaving around the rocky parts of the river. At the caves one is provided a panoramic view of a mountain range and we could see elephants in the water on the opposite bank. All along the river small villages can be seen and the bank of the river is often used for market gardens, sometimes with small terracing, it seems the flooding of the river is less a danger with the up stream dams. Laos is looking to the Hydro power industry as its major form of export income by selling power to its neighbors of Thailand, China and Vietnam, however, the ecology is impacted and the flow of the river is likely to lessen in time, thus impacting how the people who live along the river interact with it. We saw Monks walking along the bank, many fisherman in very small boats or sitting on the bank, women and children carry the daily supplies up the banks from small boats and sometimes cows and elephants drinking. The river is an integral part of local life.
A trip to a local Elephant nursery saw us spending an hour with a 57 year old female who seemed to enjoy eating, the rest of the tour group road off down to the river, and on return two elephants transported their tourist riders down to the river for a spot of bathing and washing, of both parties. Like most places across Asia the elephant is endangered and these nurseries are important, as are the ones for bears, we past one such Bear park as we visited one of the water falls in the area.
The Plain of Jars is one of the important flat and arable areas and it is in the East towards Vietnam, it is home to large stone jars that were chiseled into shape somewhere between 300BC to 300AD by unknown people’s, and it is thought as part of burial rights to hold the bones. It is a 6hour drive to Phonsavan but worth it, you can fly in and out, but then you miss the sights. The road is narrow and winds through steep mountains and past village after village, like in Sri Lanka the road is just an extension of the house and in most parts the road ran along a narrow hill top with the houses perched precariously with little of no backyard, hence all play and cooking and cleaning was done in the front between the front door and the road, which in all cases was no more than a few feet.
The jars themselves are large, about as tall as a normal person and varying in circumference. There are many sites and we visited two, there other main one was impassable due to rain. The plains are about 1000 m and hence the weather is cool and during our visit rainy as there was a Typhoon off the coast of Vietnam. The thing that strikes you about the stone jars is “how did they do that”, this was during the Iron Age, so it is thought that some form of iron tool was used, but it would have taken many hours and then required a lot of effort to move them into place.
The local markets and eating places are pleasant without hassle and the food and drink all reasonably priced, the hotel accommodation provides a good range to meet different budgets with Tuk Tuks and hire vehicles plentiful.
In late September I visited the UK on route to Cardiff to work for the International Baccalaureate, which I have done nearly ever year for the past 12. This time I decided to visit Blechley Park and for a bit of fun, look for some of the locations used in long running TV series Midsomer murders.
I booked into the Highwayman a country pub near Kidlington, it is a working persons pup, right by a canal and served a variety of real Ales – the ones that pour by pumping. They also served wonderful ‘Full English’ and India food.
On Saturday I went to Bletchley park, the home of the WWII code breakers and Alan Turing, and the National Museum of computing. Alan Turing is simply one of the most brilliant of mathematicians and conceptual thinker about the notion of computational thinking that lead to the development of not only Enigma code breaking machines but also the modern general computer and the stored program concept. In WWII he was one of the lead scientists who worked to crack the German codes created using a mechanical machine called the Enigma code.
His work went unheralded after the war and he eventually committed suicide when charged with homosexual behaviour in around 1950, illegal in Britain at the time. Not until the late 1950’s did his mother know what he did in the war and that he was a hero, his treatment remains a scandal despite Brown’s letter of apology. A movement is underway to grant a full pardon.
Turing’s writings are wonderful in their clarity of not only the technical mathematical content but for his use of every day language to outline the problems he foresaw that would need a technological solution – one being the idea of data storage being like a book with a direct page reference in preference to storing a series of 1’s and 0’s in a mercury filled tube using waves, this latter technology actually worked, but it was his insight of the need for very large storage beyond that of the immediate primary memory that is impressive. He worked with the American von Nuemann to design and discuss developments in computing during WWII, sub-sequentially the von Nuemann design was adopted and basically all computer still use his fundamental design. It uses the philosophy of doing as many instructions as possible using hardware, a complex instruction set. Turing had proposed an alternative to do only the very basic instructions in hardware and to provide the rest using software, this is what is known today as reduced instruction set architecture and is used commonly in mobile devices.
The role of women at Bletchly park was not known during the war and received scant attention after it. The main British code breaking machine, designed by Turing, was called the Bombe, which is a derivation of a Polish word bomba, meaning cytology or code breaking. The machine was used to determine the Enigma machines daily settings and was operated and managed entirely by WREN’s, many of their stories are now available and apparently the shifts were long, stressful as mistakes were costly, very hot, very smelly (oil as it was a machine with moving parts) and very loud. The fundamental inputs were a series of cables connecting single input points two at a time, these connections had to be made very quickly and without mistake: I can attest that this is difficult as you can visit the hut and try for yourself.
I also visited the National Computing Museum and was reacquainted with similar input devices I used as a student in the early 1970 – enter programs a line at a time, the symbols displaying in electrical displays which were small glass cylinders – one per character, about 10 at a time! There were also the old 300MB, 19 platter disk units which I used to sell for $50,000….bit of a trip down memory lane.
The rest of the trip saw me hunting for Midsomer Murder sites – I visited pubs, took pictures of villages, walked in the woods, made a short movie and saw the windmill, alas the camera obscura on the village green of the village of The Lee is fictional, image my disappointment!
Some pics at
I also made a quick visit to Kings College Cambridge – just to say I had been there!
and you can listen to the choir of Kings College here.