Curiosities of the Mind – Day 5 (cont)

My final topic under the heading “Curiosities of the Mind” is neuro-diversity; a nice word, don’t you think, and one which has become close to my heart. For the last few years, since retirement, I have been helping out at a school for children and young people (aged 5 to 19) diagnosed with ASD. Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Most are at the severe end of the spectrum. To give an idea, the school has about 70 “learners” and over 200 staff.
“Disorder”? I thought we had stopped using that language, with its negative connotations, long ago. It should join “disability” in the bin of history. Neurodiversity, by comparison, is both an accurate description of the syndrome, whilst sounding a great deal more positive, suggesting ambition and opportunity. I read recently of certain organisations, for example Intelligence Agencies and ICT companies, targeting neurodiverse people for recruitment. It’s not difficult to see why then you witness some of the extraordinary skills high-functioning autistic people are able to utilise.
The point is, as I’m sure you know, that their brains are not “disabled”; or even “disordered”. They are simply hardwired differently – and often in remarkable ways. The mind of an autistic person operates on a different plane to that which we normally expect. We can, of cause find this disturbing – and even, perhaps, threatening.
The wonderful people I have met working alongside children with ASD have, it seems to me, a threefold aim: to enable them to recognise, enhance and utilise the unique skills they possess; to prepare them as best as possible to handle the “normal” (though it must appear very strange to them) world around them; and to educate the “normal” world to recognise and understand the very special qualities which autistic people have and can contribute to society. What they don’t (can’t) do is attempt to “cure” them.
I regard it as a privilege to have had the opportunity to work both with the young people and their teachers.

Back to the journey; my final day. I’m only about 10 miles from Marseille Airport but am determined “to end on a high”

Leaving the hotel, I travel S towards Cabries. And the weather? Fantastic – sunny, clear sky and only a light breeze! After a few miles I spot a small lane to the R signposted “Aquaduct de Provence 3k”. Is it worth it? I remember my motto, ‘If in doubt, do“. It’s an absolutely amazing structure, towering 100ft above the valley as it marches southward. I stop to take photos.

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Serendipitously, I discover an even more scenic route. It’s Saturday and cyclists abound. I notice that most are coming towards with few from behind. Is this because I’m going so fast that none of them can catch me up? Dream on!
I cycle down the middle of a quiet, narrow lane past first a Refuge de Cheval and later a Refuge de Chien (which I can hear as well as see) then on, over the Canal de Marseille.
Then, with shocking suddenness – a massive T.G.V station complex which takes me a full 15 minutes to negotiate. Just as suddenly, I’m back on a serenely beautiful lane through rolling hills. These contrast seem to me to be the paradigm of this corner of Provence: Paignol country rubbing shoulders with mighty Marseille. I enjoy a late breakfast.
From here my strategy is to put my map away, keep to the right of the sun (S/SW), and to choose the best available road until I get to the sea.
And it works! Somehow I manage to wind, weave and wend my weary way (not really weary, but it sounds good!) around the NW suburbs of the City down to the Mediterranean at L’Estaque.

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I’m only about 4 miles from the airport, and it’s still early. Have I time to explore? Of course, loads of time! I set off to Carry-le-Rouet and then on around beautiful Chaine de L’Estaque. Was there really loads of time? Well I arrive panting at the check-in desk, bike still fully loaded, at 5.15 for a flight which departs at 5.50!
But that’s a different story.

Distance travelled            63 miles
Elevation gain                      3,722 ft
Moving time                         6:12:23
Average speed                  10.2 mph

For whole trip
Distance travelled        228.3 miles
Elevation gain                   21,550 ft!!
Maximum speed               31.8 mph

That’s it! Once again it’s been a good one. I’ve enjoyed talking.Thanks for listening.
Until next year!

26th May 2015

Curiosities of the Mind – Day 5

It’s my last day. Having rejected the exciting possibilities of Aix -en-Provence yesterday afternoon, I cycled NW, yes further into the wind, to the village of Eguilles, evidently a local retreat for the wealthy. Lining the road for a good mile before reaching its historic heart, lie a string of large, gated mansions – slightly reminiscent of the Dyke road going down into Brighton. On visiting the Tourist Office in the centre I’m informed there’s no hotel. What a surprise! I’m directed to the nearest one, about 4km away, where I wake this morning: large, modern, functional, reasonable – and completely soulless.

By the way, I checked yesterday’s weather on the internet: the wind in Aix was a steady 40 mph, gusting up to 60; I reckon that at the top of the col beneath Le Croix de Provence you could add another 15. It was awesome! A few extra thoughts to add to yesterday’s musings: how do computers think? Can/could they replicate the human mind? Well, they are both, on the one hand, very simple, and on the other, extremely complex. Simple, because they reduce everything to digital binary; complex, because of the immensity of the data are able to handle, and the complexity, therefore, of the constructs which are possible. They can certainly replicate the “head” part of the human mind. But the “heart” – with its capacity for feelings; emotional intelligence; altruism; conscience and guilt? Not in a million years! On plane. Excellent day. Will upload now and conclude tomorrow

Curiosities of the Mind – Day 4

On the first day you might remember me describing “breezing along without the whiff of a breeze”. Breeze? That’s a joke! Throughout the night I’ve been disturbed by a howling gale: shutters crashing; trees creaking  under the strain; corridors moaning.
This morning, the wind is still pretty wild. Upon opening the shutters I discover …….. the sun shining. Bizarre! Whilst I’m waiting for the wind (which will, sure as day is day, be dead against me!) to settle, I’ll put some more thoughts into print.

How do our brains, minds really operate? How do they organise, store, collate and analyse information? I’m not talking here of neurons (perhaps later) but of processes on a macro scale. There are some basic concepts which humans have learned and developed over the millennia which are clearly essential:
Number. But does this exist separate to “a number of —- “? Has it always existed? There are, I believe, some primitive societies with a very undeveloped concept of “how many”
Shape . This helps us to recognize, as well as store and analyse.
Pattern. I can, for example, only recognize my own phone number as * *** *** ****. Any other configuration is completely (and surprisingly, considering the sequence of digits is identical) unintelligible
Contrast. Good/bad; rough/smooth etc.
Size. But, be careful: how big is the moon/sun? As big as your thumbnail held at arm’s length. Try it! Relativism and perspective complicate this “basic” concept.
Our understanding of this is, of course, modified and refined with experience.

More of this later. The wind has dropped a bit. Time to get back on the bike.

Arriving at breakfast I have to apologise to all present for setting off the fire alarm last night! What, didn’t I tell you? On the way back up to my 2nd storey bedroom after an excellent meal (and demi-pichet of red wine) I found the staircase shrouded in darkness. As you would expect a small red light indicated the switch, which I pushed – to no avail. Walking up to the next floor I spotted a second switch, which I also pushed. After a pause of about 5s all hell broke
You’ve guessed – it was the fire alarm. I might add that the wine had absolutely nothing to do with it. No really!

Anyway, after a hearty, if somewhat embarrassing breakfast I emerge with fully loaded bike at about 10, all set for the day ahead. The sun is shining; the sky is crystal clear; and a strong wind is blowing from the west. Which way do I have to go today? You’ve got it – to the west!
Having established that the Canal de Provence does indeed have a track running alongside, but not one that is suitable for a folding bike, I tackle the gentle climb on the main-road to the S before turning SW on a delightful country lane towards Pourrieres. This soon sweeps downhill in a sequence of sinuous curves, once again along the bottom of a gorge. I mentally thank Stuart for the recent servicing of my brakes!

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Approaching the only bar in the village for my customary grande creme I’m beaten to it by a large group of ageing bikers; big bikes and even bigger bellies.
Leaving the village I notice a sudden change of scenery: an expansive and verdant plain, with extensive vineyards stretches in front of me. Ahead, and close by to the N lies a forbidding mountain block; a number of miles to the S, another mountain range extends through Paignol country towards Marseille. And the WIND – relentless, formidable ….. and directly in my face!

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The road up through Puyloubier to the col is fantastic …. and a complete nightmare! The increasing proximity of the mountain block rising precipitously no more than 300m to my right, causes the wind to swirl unpredictably. Sudden gusts, I would estimate of up to 60 mph attack me from all directions threatening to blow me off the road. I have to exercise extreme caution. On a number of occasions I unashamedly dismount and walk. Even this, I find difficult.
Having eventually reached the top, the long descent to Aix is even more hazardous, the wind still unforgiving and unpredictable. But I make it!

Pushing my bike through the historic centre of Aix, I feel out of place: well-dressed, probably well-to-do tourists spill from their cars and throng the narrow streets. In another context this would be fine – but not for me now. I wonder- do I feel inferior or superior? I suspect you know the answer. I decide to get out.
Easier said than done. But I make it, and 45 minutes later book into an adequate, newly-built hotel a few miles to the west.
Another different, challenging but ultimately very satisfying day.

Distance travelled                          37.9 miles (It felt twice as far!)
Elevation gain                                        2,757 ft
Time taken                                              4:23:26
Average speed                                      8.6 mph
Wind factor                                   b****y awful!

Now, where was I?
Oh yes – how does the mind process information?
Well, for a start, we’re all different.
My daughter Anna, for example, has many times tried to explain the remarkable way she can memorise important dates. She visualizes the year as an asymmetric clock face, and places dates around this, not in the way you might expect, but in some order which makes perfect sense to her, but to me is completely unfathomable. She also registers days of the week as either odd or even.
There are situations also, when our brain is reluctant to accept the truth, possibly because it focuses on the wrong thing. Optical illusions might be a good example. Also, the well-known birthday statistical puzzle: why do we find it so hard to accept that we need only 23 people in a room for there to be more than a 50% probability that two will share the same birthday? Probably because the brain focuses on the number 23 people, rather than the 253 pairs, which is obviously the more relevant piece of information.
An even more extreme example is the “rope around the earth” puzzle.
I bet that not more than 1 in a100 people would intuitively get this right.
If you have a rope tight around the equator of the earth (about 23,000 miles) how much rope do you have to add to lift it 1ft above the surface all the way round?
Answer ……. about 6 feet!
The brain rebels against this because it focuses on th 23,000 mile circumference , rather than the minuscule extra radius of 1 ft added on to the original 4,000 miles.

Enough for today. Sleep well!

15th May 2015

Curiosities of the mind – day 3

Ok, let’s deal with today’s ride first. And then ……. well, we’ll see.
Preparing to set out from the excellent Hotel a Rocher I spot a small group of lycra clad “sports” cyclists gliding past in the direction I’ll be heading. Will I overtake them? I’ll leave you to answer that question.
The morning sun is still struggling to penetrate the thick haze hanging over the hills. Thank the Lord! However it’s still very pleasantly warm: t-shirt cycling weather.

The stiff climb out of Villecroze towards Aups proves formidable – I’m still struggling to find my legs and pause twice for breath. No chance of that overtake!
During the second pause a car pulls up alongside me – the Hotel manager: I’ve gone off with the room key!

On reaching the attractive and bustling town of Aups I enter the church and discover the organ being played – not very well, I’m afraid. I resist a strong urge to go and show her how it should be done. It would, I suppose, be cheeky. But it’s amazing what you can get away with, with a bit of gall. This definitely gets easier with age! Taking no chances, I also buy a big bottle of Ice Tea.
The gentle and beautiful descent along the D60 towards Tavernes enters the Parc Naturel Region du Verdon, an area of wild upland heath/moor decked with flowers representing all colours of the rainbow.

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It’s getting hot, the sun now burning through; but what’s this – do I detect the onset of a headwind? Not the Mistral, surely? It’s true that I’m getting ever closer to the Rhone valley. And I am descending from the Alpes-Maritime into a more typically Provencal terrain. There is increasingly that heavy indolent heat, laced with a potpourri of the intoxicating scents of Mediterranean Europe which seems to weigh down.
I disturb a vivid green lizard which scuttles up the rock-face at the side of the road.

At Tavernes I enjoy my now customary grande creme washed down with Ice Tea – and I spend five minutes chatting to another “lone-wolf” English cyclist. He’s heading for Lyons, where he’s meeting a friend, and then continuing all the way home to England, camping along the way. He has to be back by the end of May; a good few miles a day.

I continue through Varages towards Rians, my intended stopping place for the night. I hope there’s a hotel! The road follows a gently rising river valley. Not this time a gorge; more reminiscent of the sweeping valley you might find in parts of Wales. Even the castle perched on the hillside above St Martin de Pallieres looks like a Black Prince job.
I cycle through a drift of dandelion down. Does dandelion flower and seed more than once each summer? I’m sure it must.

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On this upward stretch I overtake not one, but two cyclists. Any pride I might feel quickly dissipates when on greeting them with a cheery “bonjour” I realise that both are at least my age – probably older. Good on them!
I am now cycling through tree-clad hillsides, juxtaposed with a palette alive with the yellow of gorse, buttercups and dandelions contrasting with the flame-red of fields of poppies. Even the odd “field of waving corn”. Drat it! That’s why I’ve got this wretched “worm ditty” in my head. I adopt my usual policy of displacing it with a longer, more complex tune. At least if this becomes a “worm” it’s more interesting than “I wish I was back in Liverpool”!

I stop at the Chapelle Notre Dame d’Esparron, a 12th C church built on the site of a 6th C monastery. Resting in the shade of an old oak, using my gillet as a pillow, I …… fall asleep (dreaming of chanting monks in black cowls!)

On awaking, after how long I don’t know, I continue uneventfully to Rian. And yes, there is a hotel!

Distance travelled:                 33.1 miles
Elevation gain:                              2,414 ft
Moving time:                                 3:31:38
Average speed:                            9.4 mph

Overall, a pretty easy day.

And now ……… for the important stuff!
Curiosities of the mind? I’ve made a list.
It includes, in no particular order: beauty; faith healing/placebo/curse etc; statistics (believing the unbelievable; and vice versa); Schrodinger’s cat; phobia (why?); perception of time; illusion; happiness/well-being; why are the richest usually the meanest?; neuroplasticity; neuro-diversity.

Where to begin? Well let’s start with beauty.

What is it? Who defines it? Is there such a thing as “absolute” beauty or is it only in the eye of the beholder? (Hume, Kant). Can beauty exist or have any meaning without a beholder? If beauty is entirely subjective, why does the word exist? Why does beauty exist anyway? From where does it derive? Does it have an existence in its own right, or is it always an adjective? Does “Art” have to be beautiful? Why do we differentiate in our minds between beauty and ugliness? Should we teach our children to appreciate it? If so which/whose? We do!
Plenty of questions; are there any answers? (That was another question!)
Traditionally beauty has been regarded as an ultimate value, along with goodness, truth and justice. Plato’s “Republic” explores the last of these in great depth. Augustine asked whether things are beautiful because they give delight, or whether they give delight because they are beautiful. The classical notion of beauty has great regard for form or shape (the head as well as the heart?)
Can beauty be equated simply with that which gives subjective pleasure? If so, surely this seems trivial, equating for example, with amusement or entertainment. Hardly an ultimate value!
The world is full of fantastic beauty, alongside, it must be said, a lot of largely man-made ugliness. Ironically, however, exquisite beauty has been created by some “ugly” people. (Mozart?) I’m aware, also of the apparent cruelty which exists within nature. How can all this fit together?
Well, I’m going to put my head on the block.
PS I’ve just returned from an excellent 3-course meal washed down with a demi-pichet de vin rouge. Just as well – as it will help me finish this speedily!
The universe is intrinsically violent and chaotic. It originated with the cataclysmic big bang. From where? From whence?
Time, of course, did not exist before the creation (?) of matter. With the relentless increase of what we call “entropy” (disorder) the universe will ultimately descend into chaos. This, we know.
Yet within this violence and chaos we have an oasis of calm, order and beauty. Possibly (probably?) the only one in the entire cosmos. Why?
Could it simply that this is how it’s meant to be? What would this imply?
We don’t know. However the unlikely existence of beauty is one reason why I choose to believe in “God” – though not necessarily church, or indeed “God” in the conventional sense.
When I listen to a Bach partita, or admire an orchid, or hear a nightingale sing, I know I’m in the presence of something extraordinary.
Call it nature; call it science; call it “God”. The choice is yours.

I’m going to bed. Sleep well!

Curiosities of the Mind – Day 2

I fear I might have short-changed you yesterday: no photos; and not the slightest reference to my chosen title. Absolutely no philosophical musings (ramblings?) My excuse is a long day and my late arrival at Fayence.
Well, the photos I have belatedly been able to add. And the philosophical ramblings? Fear not dear reader – I will not let you down. “Oh no!” do I hear you groan?
Today I have been reflecting on a theme: “Long distance cycling – a metaphor for life”. I have distilled my thoughts into what I will call “The twelve pillars of CE42”. For those of you who don’t understand this reference, I will explain at the end of my final day’s blog. These can be summarised as follows:
   – Focus on the journey, not the destination
   – Try to keep moving forwards without continually looking/going back. We get further on our journey
   – Uphill is a necessary and integral part.It can be productive; try to enjoy it
– Do things while you can. Loire Valley, Netherlands etc can wait: today it’s Alps, Jura and Pyrenees.
   – take time to pause; enjoy the rests, overnight stops etc.
“What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?”
   – Learn to focus on the little things, not just the grand sweep – especially when going uphill:
            the single flower by the side of the road
            the intoxicating scent of a pine forest
            a singing nightingale.
We do, by the way, have to learn how to do this
   – If the going gets tough, set a sequence of short-term targets. It doesn’t matter how short-term. “The greatest journey starts with a single step”
   – Don’t overplan: the best things are often discovered where we least expect to find them
   – View barriers as opportunities: they often come from within and are rarely insurmountable. Overcoming them can become a satisfying part of the journey
   – If in doubt – do it: it is better to have the occasional small regret, than to never know (split infinitive!) what fantastic things you might have missed along the way.
   – Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it enhances our journey.
   – Are comfort zones boring? (This question applies to attitudes, opinions and mindset (think of the latter syllable of this word) as well as activities. What about the BIG questions: religion; politics? Thank you Greg for challenging my mindset. Challenge adds some spice to life.
   – Look and listen deeply. Whilst on the journey try to move from knowledge (easy and accessible) through understanding (requires effort) to wisdom (the holy grail)
   – Sometimes, choosing to believe the apparently unbelievable can enhance the journey. A wild card, but explanation and examples (both from life and cycling) available on request.

Whoops – I’ve just noticed that’s fourteen!

Every one of these “pillars” I can relate directly to experiences on my long-distance cycling. Elaboration available.

But what about today’s journey?
Well, it won’t surprise you to hear me say it was near perfect. Hot, sunny (but with a light haze protecting me from its ravages) and little or no wind.
A gentle “up-and-down” to Seillans, on a quiet, inevitably scenic road, sets the tone. This is followed by a long but friendly climb to Bargemon. On the way I encounter a lone “sports cyclist” who looks at me quizzically as though to say “who on earth is this aged guy on a folding bike with none of the gear?” He does, however, give a friendly wave.
A wonderful long descent commences, but yes – I know this will be followed by another climb. Bring it on!

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In Bargemon I enjoy a grande creme and an Ice The. I realise I’m sitting next to an English couple. On enquiring, I learn that they’ve travelled 926 miles from Milton Keynes. “Oh, the place with the plastic cows and a ski-slope” I retort. For this stereotype I am roundly (and rightly) told off.
From Bargemon, I climb up a quiet road labelled “Route des Gorges a velo”. Sorry Mary! I quote this from memory. The spelling and syntax could well be wrong. But it does illustrate that the whole area is riddled with wonderfully scenic gorges. Clearly a feature of the underlying geology. Gorgeous! (Sorry)
Another climb and long descent between banks awash with wild roses leads me to Ampus and then to Tourtour where I stop for lunch.

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A short post-prandial foray leads me to Villecroze and then Salernes, a bustling, attractive small town – and my intended stop for the night.
A visit to the Tourist Office confirms …….. there’s no hotel in Salernes!
Following 20 minutes of phonecalls I retrace my steps 7km to Villecroze, where I check into the best hotel I’ve encountered in all these trips.
A perfect ending to a perfect day.

Distance travelled            41.2 miles
Elevation gain                         5,362 ft.
Moving time                            4:31:59
Average speed                       9.1 mph

13th May 2015

Curiosities of the Mind – on a folding bike. Day 1

Another year, another adventure.
This time last week I was cycling along the South Coast, struggling up Beachy Head with my nephew Ian (who, incidentally clocked the second fastest time this year on one of the Strava segments).
Today I’m breezing along the Cote d’Azur. I say “breezing”, but there’s absolutely no breeze; and it’s hot. No, I mean hot. And it’s only 9.30 in the morning; French time.
On leaving Nice Airport, I follow my nose; unfortunately my nose is pointing the wrong way. Time to get my brain in action. Sometimes I wonder if my brain is in my nose. My children would say it’s big enough
Having circumnavigated the airport, now the right way, I follow the busy cycleway alongside the coast towards Antibes for about 10 miles before turning N to Biot, the first of many hilltop villages bursting with charm; a quick stroll through the market.

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I climb steadily, through Valponne and on to Grasse, famous, of course for its perfumes, and situated at the top of a steep hill, where I stop for lunch – a croque, a deux-boule ice-cream and an iced tea. Delicious!
Onwards and upwards!
A few miles beyond the town I discover the marked cycle route – “Les Alps-Maritime a velo” – and it’s an absolute beauty: descending into the gorge diagonally in steep zig-zags to the rising valley until it meets the river, tens of metres below the ancient bridge; then up …. and up ….and up!
The saving grace is that it’s a quiet road (almost no traffic) through stunning scenery. At one point I rest by lying on a stone wall adjacent to the road – a tadge uncomfortable. Hey, what am I thinking of? On the bike I have 10m of heavy-duty bubble-wrap (to lie on) and a padded bike bag (for my head). Ten minutes of bliss!
Forging onwards I realise I’ve drunk the last of my water, and there’s no sign of an end to the climb. In this heat it could be serious.
A house on the right, with two people working in the garden. A stumbled request and I’m ushered to an outside tap. What wouldn’t one give for water in these circumstances? The staff of life; I drink 2l with barely a pause.
Eventually I reach the mountain-top village of Mons; or “Mouns en Prouvenvo” as it proudly proclaims on the village sign; my intended destination for the night. Horror of horrors – there’s no hotel!
Chatting to a local in the village square, I’m informed that the nearest is 14 km down the road at Fayence. There’s nothing for it, but to go on. Downhill, he assured me – and it was to start with; until I realise Fayence is in the next valley – up and over the ridge. Enough is enough.
I eventually stagger into Fayence-en-Provence after 6pm and tumble into its one-and-only hotel. A strange sight greets me on the street

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And do you know what? I thoroughly enjoyed what was all-in-all a fantastic day.
Distance travelled            53.1 miles
Elevation gain                          7,296 ft.   WOW!
Travelling time                           5:5:22
Average speed                        8.9 mph  (believe me – not bad over
this terrain)

12 th May 2015