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How Big is Big? And What's Half of Big?

Old engineer's joke: "2+2 = 5, for large values of 2 and small values of 5".

So what distinguishes the Vitality London Big Half from any smaller half? Or indeed a Really Really Big Half?

Whatever, this year's Big is smaller than it has been in previous years, but it's still a bigger event than any Amanda has done in a while, and indeed, bigger than most people have done in a while. She probably wouldn't have chosen it except for the fact that she got a half-price or something entry as a consequence of doing some number of parkruns (also sponsored by Vitality), and Claire's doing it too. Local clubs like Dulwich get some allocated places, but that's not a guaranteed route to entry so she too has taken the parkrun-benefit option. Anyway, with a finish in Greenwich, it gives us an excuse to visit the craft market and maybe have a picnic in the park or something, so yes, let's make a day of it!

And on further thought, let's make two days of it.

The start isn't really the most convenient location for us to get to early on a Sunday morning, and with Covid-safety measures it's really a bit uncertain how the logistics will work out, so we decide we'll go up on Saturday afternoon, visit the Tower of London, and stay in the Premier Inn Hub nearby.

As members of Historic Royal Palaces (we saw Lucy Worsely before she was on TV!) we have free entry to the Tower, but it'll only be the second time we've taken advantage of it. The first time was in 2009, when we took our young niece Hebe.

Here she is, aged 7½ (the ½ is important when you're that age, though I don't recall us thinking at the time about whether it might be a Big ½ or merely an ordinary one).

But <expletive deleted> she's nearly twenty now! How did that happen?!

She and her family live in Melborne, Australia, where they've just gone into yet another lockdown. It's funny really: for us more mature (well, older anyway) folk, the pandemic giveth and the pandemic taketh away. We have lost the ability to say, "You young people don't know how lucky you are, you have it easy compared to what we had!"; yet at the same time, we can now say quite truthfully, "Things were better when I was your age!". [Yes, those two statements are intrinsically contradictory, but it's traditional to say both: we don't need no steenking logical consistency.]

It's quite possible that the psychological effects of the last year or two on the young are genuinely unique in human history. The closest direct parallel would seem to be the 1918/19 flu pandemic, but the social and environmental background was totally different. To a degree, people were accustomed to death and tragedy from the First World War, and from the simple fact that a lot of people used to die in those days who would live today. Although in relative terms, almost nobody has died of Covid, we are almost totally unprepared for anybody to die without good reason in the 2020s. To a first approximation, 21st Century Schizoid Man is immortal, and I wonder if you might need to go back to the Great Plague of 1665 or before to get a comparable experience.

Unless, of course, you think the whole thing is a hoax to further the ends of the New World Order. If so, please accept my apologies for interrupting your delusions.

[It has been remarked that my previous blog was a little light on random digressions. This one may be a bit heavier.]

Back to the Tower...

Just outside, there are people singing!

What's this? "Get Singing", their sign says. I will break the temporal flow to tell you what I will discover in the future:

Project Get Singing is here to help the UK get singing again! We know first hand what an incredibly difficult year this has been for choirs and group singers. It has had a devastating effect on the mental health of both us and our singers. We're here to help you get the information you need to have confidence in meeting again after so much time away, and with so much negative press about singing, so that together we can bring the joy of singing back.

Sounds good to me.

Inside the Tower, we're sure that the number of visitors is far fewer than would traditionally be expected, but it's a long way from empty. We have to join a queue to see the Crown Jewels that is certainly a good five or ten minutes long. Sadly, they're very insistent that photography isn't allowed inside. I suspect I know why. No, it's not that they're afraid of master criminals making a detailed record of the security systems, it's because approximately 100% of visitors would try to take a picture with automatic flash, blinding everyone else while capturing nothing but the reflection from the cabinet glass. Tough for the infinitesimal fraction who know better, but I can see the point.

The Tower once boasted a menagerie of exotic beasts for the King's pleasure, and there are now artworks reflecting that past dotted around the place. Who would have thought that chicken wire could make such realistic baboons?!

Eat your heart out, James Bond, this is a proper Golden Gun!

A caption tells us,

It was common in the past for highly decorated examples of firearms to be presented as gifts to prospective purchasers of large orders. This salesman's example of a Sterling Mk 4 sub-machine-gun has gold-plated accessories and a leather case

But if we move forward a few decades in one sense, and back a few centuries in another, we find ourselves with an archery simulation game that has a bit of a problem...

"NaN" stands for "Not a Number", and it's a concept that anybody who works in software development is likely to be well familiar with.

We don't like to show it to the punters, though, because "Not a Number" yards or metres is, well, not very meaningful, now is it? In fact, it represents total and shameful incompetence on the part of whoever wrote the code. It happens for a number of reasons, but the most common is because of trying to divide a number by zero. What does that mean? Well, four divided by two is two, that's easy. 168.963÷54.2 = 3.117398524 is just as easy if you happen to have a calculator to hand, but what is 1÷0? Or in other words, how many zeros do you have to add together to make one?

We sometimes loosely call it 'infinity', but really it's meaningless. It doesn't matter how many times you add zero, you're still going to get zero; you will never add up to one. So the answer to the question, "what is one divided by zero" is really "whatever it might be, it's not a number". And it's worse if you try to divide zero itself by zero, because then you can't even get away with the sloppy but sometimes convenient answer of infinity.

BUT, there are times when what naively appears to be 0÷0 isn't quite that simple, and it has a value that can be defined. If you know what you're doing, you can test for the special case and treat it differently to get the right answer. This should be second nature to any remotely competent programmer, and I'm pretty certain that the failure we see above is clear proof that not only was the programmer not remotely competent, but the development process had absolutely zero quality control.

As it happens, my current job involves creating tools to help stop things like that happening, but I suspect we don't sell to archery simulation developers. Fortunately for you, we do sell to people writing software that controls your car, or your medical X-ray machine, or other things where screwing up like this might kill you.

[Gosh, aren't I the cheery soul today?!]

To bed, and we have a fine view of the Shard from our room.

I must give a quick plug to "Hub by Premier Inn" here. It's a chain-within-a-chain of hotels that offer small but perfectly formed rooms at silly prices by conventional hotel standards. Of course you don't get what you're not paying for, but that's fine by us. We're staying barely two minutes' walk from the Tower, and then it's only another couple of minutes to the race start assembly area. The shortest room-to-race distance we've ever had was for the Malta Marathon, where we could look out onto the start area from our bedroom window, but this is pretty close.

And so to some pre-race action! Amanda is in the queue for bag drop.

When we arrived, we saw what we thought was several snaking lines of queue moving fairly quickly. Amanda went off to find the start while I waited near the vans. And waited. And waited.

I am on the verge of thinking I've somehow missed her and leaving to find the start when she finally appears, having had to do what seems almost another half-marathon just to get to where the queue begins!

Anyway, after this we soon have to go our separate ways. I've decided that I won't try and cover the start, because although we're not sure quite what the numbers will be and how it will work, it's still likely that the start will be crowded and it will be difficult to spot people.

My plan is to be a mile or so down the road when there should be a little space with the runners easing out.

As I head towards my planned mile-ish point, another wave of runners has started. I think this is the second wave, or maybe the second apart from the elites, but I'm fairly sure Amanda won't be ready to go yet.

We have a chap running in a submarine. We've had a bit of light drizzle, but a submarine is really a touch extreme. He's running for a submariners' charity, of course.

Oh yeah, that's another choir in the background. And I forgot to mention it earlier, but there was another "Get Singing" group inside the Tower grounds as well. I can't help feeling that people are starting to get back to doing the things they used to do.

The wheelchair racers were the first to start, but I'll be honest, I've not been paying attention so I don't know whether she's at the front or the back. It's just while there's a gap between runner waves that I notice her. There should be some runners here soon, too: at this point the starters come from the right on the near side of the road, then return from Docklands fom the left on the far side.

And here's Amanda! The pavement is quite a bit higher than the roadway at this point, so it's an excellent place to see and be seen. Amanda spots me first, in fact; I see her waving at me well before she's in the right position for a good picture.

Aha, as Amanda's wave passes through, I catch the non-wheelchair leaders. You may not be able to tell from this picture, but that's Jake Smith, eventual winner, just in the lead.

Well I haven't spotted Claire, who was theoretically in the same start wave as Amanda. However, she was at the South assembly point, not the North, so there may be a problem. Later I will learn that the pre-race indications of start wave are essentially meaningless. You just turn up when you turn up and get put in the next bunch.

My plan, such as it is, is now to catch Amanda (and maybe Claire? Or Paul? Or anyone else I know?) at Tower Bridge, and the most efficient way to get there is to retrace the race route at first.

I keep half an eye out for Claire (and maybe Paul) but don't see either. Looking at timings and from discussions afterwards, it will transpire that I could technically have seen both of them, but it would have been tricky at best and I didn't.

Ok, so I'm back at the start. I'm sure that her on the podium waving them off must be somebody important in some way, but I have no idea who she is. [And the Big Half website doesn't seem to want to tell me either. Fortunately, Claire will later enlighten me: "It’s Christine Ohuruogu! According to the tv coverage she was meant to be running (slightly over distance for a 400m runner) but couldn’t so she did smiling, flag waving and cheering".]

Onto Tower Bridge they go. Not entirely obvious, but on the right hand side there are still quite a few entrants making their way to the start!

Ah, here she is.

Now just behind me here is one of the official photographers. Let us break the flow for a moment again and discuss the event photography.

This is the preview image on the website. It's a pure screen grab and I've done nothing but crop it from the page, so this really is what they are using to try and persuade people to part with their readies! If I'm being charitable, I might accept the possibility that as well as the overlay graphics, they've deliberately degraded the image to try and reduce freeloading, and the real paid-for copy would be much better. But would you buy on that off-chance?

It's £7 per picture, or £23 for a complete set (well maybe; I'll get back to that), which is relatively cheap by race photo standards, but still nothing like as cheap as they look! For comparison, our Mr Bliss ( charges £40 for a full set when it's not included as part of the entry package, and we've happily paid that in the past.

It's not just me: even before we'd seen Amanda's set, Claire had emailed with, "The ‘official’ photos are awful!"

Oh, and why did I say 'maybe' a complete set? Because they are using automatic facial recognition software to identify people. Now to be fair, there were no obvious false positives in Amanda's set - that is, no shots that were clearly totally lacking in Amandaness - but in several she was pretty much an insignificant background figure, and some of them it really wasn't possible to tell at all because of the overlay and general poor preview quality. What we have no idea about is false negatives - pictures that she was in but weren't identified - and whether she was lucky or not compared to others.

We do know that the aforementioned Mr Bliss has been pretty scathing about the reliability of these systems overall. Again, being fair, it's better than nothing, but I think most people would rather have the job done properly even if it did cost a little more.

Back to our tale...

I now need to get to the finish, because it just won't be feasible to try to get to any other intermediate spots.

I'll walk down to London Bridge station and get a train to Greenwich, and according to Google, I should be able to do that in plenty of time.

Plan seems to be working so far...

Success! I was a little concerned because I just missed a train at London Bridge and had to wait the best part of twenty minutes for the next, but I'm there in good time in the end, and able to get a good spot near the finish line. And Amanda even sees me!

That's it, the Big Half done. The gun time is completely misleading, of course, and the thought occurs to me that I'm not sure what is the point of having it continue after the elites have finished, as I'm pretty sure not many people will be mentally subtracting their start time offset as they cross the line.

As Amanda leaves with her goody bag, this rather pretty young thing ahead of her gives me a very friendly smile and a wave.

Amanda is a cruel and heartless brute, of course, and she says, "She probably just saw all your flash camera gear and thought you were one of the official photographers." Huh! But there was an official photographer nearby, and although he took almost the same shot from a slightly different angle, she's not even looking at him! So there!

[Cue all of you lot imagining Amanda patting me on the head and saying, "There, there, dear, you just keep on dreaming". You're all as bad as she is. Double-huh!]

You've probably now figured out that the reason I'm a bit heavy on digression this time is because I'm rather light on race action. We didn't really have much of an idea how the logistics would work out, and getting to multiple locations seemed quite tricky. Now that we know, if we did it again, I'd probably take my bike or hire a Boris, but it's not really Amanda's thing, so who knows.

We've not been to Greenwich market for a few years, so we've planned to have a bit of a stroll around it, but it seems pretty sparsely occupied and we don't see anything particularly interesting on any of the stalls that are there. Ok, on to the pub where the Dulwich boys and girls are having their post-race meetup.

And finally we find Claire and Paul.

Gosh, what a strange experience: just going up to the bar and buying drinks and then standing around chatting as if this were all perfectly normal!

Oh yes, now I remember, once upon a time it was. More normality? I'll drink to that!

Love to all,


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