Games of luck and skill

My good friend Anuroop has two hobbies – poker and wildlife photography. And when we invited him to NED Talks some 5 years ago, he decided to combine these two topics into the talk, by speaking about “why wildlife photography is like poker” (or the other way round, I’ve forgotten).

I neither do wildlife photography nor play poker so I hadn’t been able to appreciate his talk in full when he delivered it. However, our trip to Jungle Lodges River Tern Resort (at Bhadra Wildlife Sanctuary) earlier this year demonstrated to me why poker and wildlife photography are similar – they are both “games of luck AND skill”.

One debate that keeps coming up in Indian legal circles is whether a particular card game (poker, rummy, etc.) is a “game of luck” or a “game of skill”. While this might sound esoteric, it is a rather important matter – games of skill don’t need any permission from any authority, while games of luck are banned to different extents by different states (they are seen as being similar to “gambling”, and the moralistic Indian states don’t want to permit that).

Many times in the recent past, courts in India have declared poker and rummy to be “games of skill“, which means “authorities” cannot disrupt any such games. Still, for different reasons, they remain effectively illegal in certain states.

In any case, what makes games like poker interesting is that they combine skill and luck. This is also what makes games like this addictive. That there is skill involved means that you get constantly better over time, and the more you play, the greater the likelihood that you will win (ok it doesn’t increase at the same rate for everyone, and there is occasional regression as well).

If it were a pure game of skill, then things would get boring, since in a game of skill the better player wins every single time. So unless you get a “sparring partner” of approximately your own level, nobody will want to play with you (this is one difficulty with games like chess).

With luck involved, however, the odds change. It is possible to beat someone much better (on average) than you, or lose to someone much worse (on average). In other words, if you are designing an Elo rating system for a game like poker, you need to change players’ ratings by very little after each game (compared to a game of pure skill such as chess).

Because there is luck involved, there is “greater information content” in the result of each game (remember from information theory that a perfectly fair coin has the most information content (1 bit) among all coins). And this makes the game more fun to play. And the better player is seen as better only when lots of games are played. And so people want to play more.

It is the same with wildlife photography. It is a game of skill because as you do more and more of it, you know where to look for the tigers and leopards (and ospreys and wild dogs). You know where and how long you should wait to maximise your chances of a “sighting”. The more you do it, the better you become at photography as well.

And it is a game of luck because despite your best laid plans, there is a huge amount of luck involved. Just on the day you set up, the tiger might decide to take another path to the river. The osprey might decide on a siesta that is a little bit longer than usual.

At the entrance of JLR River Tern Lodge, there is a board that shows what animals were “sighted” during each safari in the preceding one week. Each day, the resort organises two safaris, one each in the morning and afternoon, and some of them are by boat and some by jeep.

I remember trying to study the boards and try and divine patterns to decide when we should go by boat and when by jeep (on the second day of our stay there, we were the “longest staying guests” and thus given the choice of safari). One the first evening, in our jeep safari, we saw a herd of elephants. And a herd of gaur. And lots of birds. And a dead deer.

That we had “missed out” on tigers and leopards meant that we wanted to do it again. If what we saw depended solely on the skill of the naturalist and the driver who accompanied us, we would not have been excited to go into the forest again.

However, the element of luck meant that we wanted to just keep going, and going.

Games of pure luck or pure skill can get boring after a while. However, when both luck and skill get involved, they can really really get addictive. Now I fully appreciate Anuroop’s NED Talk.

 

Night trains

In anticipation of tonight’s Merseyside Derby, I was thinking of previous instances of this fixture at Goodison Park. My mind first went back to the game in the 2013-14 season, which was a see-saw 3-3 draw, with the Liverpool backline being incredibly troubled by Romelu Lukaku, and Daniel Sturridge scoring with a header immediately after coming on to make it 3-3 (and Joe Allen had missed a sitter earlier when Liverpool were 2-1 up).

I remember my wife coming back home from work in the middle of that game, and I didn’t pay attention to her until it was over. She wasn’t particularly happy about that, but the intense nature of the game gave me a fever (that used to happen often in the 2013-14 and 2008-9 seasons).

Then I remember Everton winning 3-0 once, though I don’t remember when that was (googling tells me that was in the 2006-7 season, when I was already a Liverpool fan, but not watching regularly).

And then I started thinking about what happened to this game last season, and then remembered that it was a 0-0 draw. Incidentally, it was on the same day that I travelled to Liverpool – I had a ticket for an Anfield Tour the next morning.

I now see that I had written about getting to Liverpool after I got to my hotel that night. However, I haven’t written about what happened before that. My train from Euston was around 8:00 pm. I remember leaving home (which was in Ealing) at around 6 or so, and then taking two tubes (Central changing to Victoria at Oxford Circus) to get to Euston. And then buying chewing gum and a bottle of water at Marks and Spencer while waiting for my train.

I also remember that while leaving home that evening, I was scared. I was psyched out. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. This was a trip to Liverpool I had been wanting to make for the best part of 14 years. I had kept putting it off during my stay in London until I knew that I was going to move out of London in two weeks’ time. Liverpool were having a great season (they would go on to win the Champions League, and only narrowly lose the Premiser League title).

I was supposed to be excited. Instead I was nervous. My nerve possibly settled only after I was seated in the train that evening.

Thinking about it, I basically hate night trains (well, this wasn’t an overnight train, but it started late in the evening). I hate night buses as well. And this only applies to night trains and buses that take me away from my normal place of residence – starting towards “home” late in the night never worries me.

This anxiety possibly started when I was in IIT Madras. I remember clearly then that I used to sleep comfortably without fail while travelling from Madras to Bangalore, but almost always never slept or only slept fitfully when travelling in the opposite direction. While in hindsight it all appears fine, I never felt particularly settled when I was at IITM.

And consequently, anything that reminds me of travelling to IITM psyches me out. I always took the night train while travelling there, and the anxiety would start on the drive to the railway station. Even now, sometimes, I get anxious while taking that road late in the evening.

Then, taking night trains has been indelibly linked to travelling to Madras, and something that I’ve come to fear as well. While I haven’t taken a train in India since 2012, my experience with the trip to Liverpool last year tells me that even non-overnight night trains have that effect on me.

And then, of course, there is the city of Chennai as well. The smells of the city after the train crosses Basin Bridge trigger the first wave of anxiety. Stepping out of the railway station and the thought of finding an autorickshaw trigger the next wave (things might be different now with Uber/Ola, but I haven’t experienced that).

The last time I went to Chennai was for a close friend’s wedding in 2012. I remember waking up early on the day of the wedding and then having a massive panic attack. I spent long enough time staring at the ceiling of my hotel room that I ended up missing the muhurtham.

I’ve made up my mind that the next time I have to go to Chennai, I’ll just drive there. And for sure, I’m not going to take a train leaving Bangalore in the night.

Yet another “big data whisky”

A long time back I had used a primitive version of my Single Malt recommendation app to determine that I’d like Ardbeg. Presently, the wife was travelling to India from abroad, and she got me a bottle. We loved it.

And so I had screenshots from my app stored on my phone all the time, to be used while at duty frees, so I would know what whiskies to buy.

And then about a year back, we started planning a visit to Scotland. If you remember, we were living in London then, and my wife’s cousin and her family were going to visit us over Christmas. And the plan was to go to the Scottish Highlands for a few days. And that had to include a distillery tour.

Out came my app again, to determine which distillery to visit. I had made a scatter plot (which I have unfortunately lost since) with the distance from Inverness (where we were going to be based) on one axis, and the likelihood of my wife and I liking a whisky (based on my app) on the other (by this time, Ardbeg was firmly in the “calibration set”).

The clear winner was Clynelish – it was barely 100 kilometers away from Inverness, promised a nice drive there, and had a very high similarity score to the stuff that we liked. I presently called them to make a booking for a distillery tour. The only problem was that it’s a Diageo distillery, and Diageo distillery doesn’t allow kids inside (we were travelling with three of them).

I was proud of having planned my vacation “using data science”. I had made up a blog post in my head that I was going to write after the vacation. I was basically picturing “turning around to the umpire and shouting ‘howzzat'”. And then my hopes were dashed.

A week after I had made the booking, I got a call back from the distillery informing me that it was unfortunately going to be closed during our vacation, and so we couldn’t visit. My heart sank. We finally had to make do with two distilleries that were pretty close to Inverness, but which didn’t rate highly according to my app.

My cousin-in-law-in-law and I first visited Glen Ord, another Diageo distillery, leaving our wives and kids back in the hotel. The tour was nice, but the whisky at the distillery was rather underwhelming. The high point was the fact that Glen Ord also supplies highly peated malt to other Diageo distilleries such as Clynelish (which we couldn’t visit) and Talisker (one of my early favourites).

A day later, we went to the more family friendly Tomatin distillery, to the south of Inverness (so we could carry my daughter along for the tour. She seemed to enjoy it. The other kids were asleep in the car with their dad). The tour seemed better there, but their flagship whisky seemed flat. And then came Cu Bocan, a highly peated whisky that they produce in very limited quantities and distribute in a limited fashion.

Initially we didn’t feel anything, but then the “smoke hit from the back”. Basically the initial taste of the whisky was smooth, but as you swallowed it, the peat would hit you. It was incredibly surreal stuff. We sat at the distillery’s bar for a while downing glasses full of Cu Bocan.

The cousin-in-law-in-law quickly bought a bottle to take back to Singapore. We dithered, reasoning we could “use Amazon to deliver it to our home in London”. The muhurta for the latter never arrived, and a few months later we were on our way to India. Travelling with six suitcases and six handbags and a kid meant that we were never going to buy duty free stuff on our way home (not that Cu Bocan was available in duty free).

In any case, Clynelish is also not widely available in duty free shops, so we couldn’t have that as well for a long time. And then we found an incredibly well stocked duty free shop in Maldives, on our way back from our vacation there in August. A bottle was duly bought.

And today the auspicious event arrived for the bottle to be opened. And it’s spectacular. A very different kind of peat than Lagavulin (a bottle of which we just finished yesterday). This one hits the mouth from both the front and the back.

And I would like to call Clynelish the “new big data whisky”, having discovered it through my app, almost going there for a distillery tour, and finally tasting it a year later.

Highly recommended! And I’d highly recommend my app as well!

Cheers!

Beach holiday

I can’t believe I waited I was until 36 to take a beach resort vacation. Well, given my experience with beaches during my early life you can’t really blame me – the mental model of the beach I had in my head was an urban beach, something of the sort of Chennai’s Elliots Beach, where all the action happens outside of the water.

At best you would roll up your pants a bit (or wear shorts) and wade a foot or two deep into the water, and let the waves hit you. The water was too dirty to let it touch the rest of you. You would instead spend time on the sand, talking and eating random things – stuff you couldn’t imagine doing an entire holiday doing.

My first “proper” visit to Goa in 2007 also left me underwhelmed. Again the water wasn’t worth getting into, and I didn’t understand why you needed to go so far to just sit in one place and eat and drink all day – that could be achieved in just about any bar in Bangalore.

And so in 2008 or so when the wife (then an “online friend” – we’d never met) asked me if I’m a beach types or a river and mountain types, I instantly chose the latter. Mountains gave you something to “do” – climb and walk around. My memories from bathing in streams in childhood were also rather pleasant.

Since then we’ve together visited two beach resorts, though both were as part of larger “sight seeing” trips of Sri Lanka. Once we went to Bentota, where we spent two days. We got bored enough after a day to spend the second evening watching inane stuff on TV. That Bentota experience had meant that on our next trip to Sri Lanka we had scheduled only a day for ourselves at Trincomalee, in one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to.

Two and two years (first in Barcelona; then in London) in Europe meant that most of our vacations in that time were “urban” – visiting cities and walking around them and taking in the historic sights and eating interesting food. It got a bit boring after a while, so when we got back to Asia earlier this year we decided it was time for a luxury “relaxing” vacation.

We went to this resort called Kurumba in Maldives, just a 10 minute boat ride away from the Maldives airport. It was among the quickest “get down to business” vacations I’ve ever been on. Our Air India flight touched down in Maldives around 4pm. By 5:30, we had been shown our rooms, changed and already hit the beach!

The next two days were spent there. While the image you have of a beach resort is that it’s a “passive” vacation (where you do nothing) this wasn’t so. I spent most of the time in water, mostly at the beach but also some time in the swimming pool (which the daughter found more fun – another post on that coming up).

We hadn’t taken along snorkelling equipment but that didn’t deter me. I put on my swimming goggles, waded close to coral reefs and just dived into the water. I saw lots of marine life in there – colourful fish and plants and all that. There were many more such reefs within 100 meters of the shore, and the shore was 200 metres from our room.

Wednesday typified our vacation. It was a bright and sunny day, which meant it was hot outside water, and that I now have massive sunburns all over my shoulders and back and arms. At 7am we had hit the beach. An hour and half of wading and dunking in water, looking at fish and chasing after one really beautiful turtle, we showered and went for breakfast.

After a long leisurely breakfast we were by the swimming pool, and due to the heat we were soon inside the water. Most of the morning was spent inside the water, and a drink and lunch were had at the poolside bar. Then we returned to our room and when the daughter refused to fall asleep, we hit the beach once again, for an hour or two. And then in the evening we went for a dolphin boat tour, before settling for a two hour long dinner.

It was a short vacation – only three days long, but it was a highly effective one. I think the volume of activity, even if it were in one place, meant that it helped take our minds completely off life as usual. Now I’m trying to slowly work my way back to life, and this post is part of that.

I’ll be back here again and again soon, to put more pertinent observations about this awesome vacation.

Tourist experiences

The big trend nowadays is to do tourism without doing “touristy stuff”. What counts for social currency is to do “authentic stuff” and to avoid things that are “made for tourists”. So tourists try to not visit places with too many other tourists, and go out of their way to find “authentic experiences”.

However, our recent holiday in Lisbon showed us that not all “touristy things” are the same. There were ┬átourist experiences we liked, and those that we abhorred. Marginal differences made a huge difference in how we experienced places, and not all “tourist experiences” were bad.

For example, on each of the three days we had breakfast in restaurants that seemed to almost wholly cater to tourists. It was possibly a function of living in a part of town (Alfama) that is now host to a lot of tourists. Each day we would check on google for places to have breakfast at, pick one and go.

All of these places had brunch menus, which were pretty good. All of them seemed overpriced given what I’d heard of Lisbon’s price levels. Waiters all spoke very good English. And people at other tables seemed to be tourists. But the food was generally of a good quality, though coffee was bad.

On the other hand, there were these restaurants where we ended up for lunch at clearly touristy places, where you knew very quickly that the food wasn’t up to the mark. One Asian restaurant we went to (we’d been walking for a while and went in desperation) served Indian Chinese food – not something you’d expect in Europe. The pork belly was cooked excellently, but then slathered with sriracha! The previous day, a restaurant close to the Cathedral had charged a fortune for a bottle of water after denying tap water. The food there was rather ordinary as well.

The contrast in tourist experiences wasn’t just about food. As I mentioned earlier, we were in a touristy part of town called Alfama, but it was a nice touristy part of town. Lines (at the castle, for example) were never too long. No place was that crowded (admittedly we went in the off season, and on weekdays). You never got intimidated. And there was the occasional smile or nod to people you came across.

On the middle day of our trip, though, we headed to Belem (another touristy part of town), to Jeronimo’s Monastery. The tourist experience there was something else. The crowds were massive everywhere. Lines to buy tickets were long. The feeling one got was that if we weren’t careful we might be robbed. There were lots of beggars around. The entire atmosphere was intimidating. It was as if we were longing for “our touristy places”. And in very quick time we had made our way back towards Alfama.

So through the trip I decided that avoiding “touristy places” isn’t a good strategy during holidays – touristy places are touristy for a reason, and the effort to avoid them can be significant. Instead, what we should avoid are tourist traps. We need to do some research and go to places that are well rated. There is nothing wrong in doing touristy stuff. All we need to do is to do the “good touristy stuff”.

Why coffee in Portugal is so bad

The title of this blog post is the text I entered into my google search bar at Lisbon airport, on my way back to London last weekend. What Google showed me on top was a blog post titled “why coffee in Portugal is so good“. The contents of the post, though, had given me the answer.

In terms of coffee cultures, Spain and Portugal are rather similar. Coffee shops usually double up as bars, unlike in England for example. This means that the baristas aren’t particularly skilled, and so you don’t get fancy latte art. The coffees you get are thus espresso, espresso with some milk and espresso with lots of milk. The milk being foamed gives the coffee a good taste, in Spain that is.

The reason coffee in Portugal tastes bad is the same reason that coffee in France tastes bad – it is a result of colonialism.

During the years of the Salazar dictatorship, Portugal was economically isolated. This meant that it could only turn to its colonies for coffee. And the Portuguese colonies (not sure if Brazil is included in this since it became independent way back in the 1800s) exclusively produced Robusta coffee. And Robusta coffee, being inferior to Arabica, is roasted slowly, and produces a bitter brew. Which is what we uniformly got in our trip to Lisbon.

France had a similar story. Though there was no economic isolation, imports from its colonies were subsidised, and this was again largely Robusta coffee. And so, as the roads and kingdoms post linked above explains, coffee in France is bad.

I’m not sure if Spain got/gets most of its colonies from its erstwhile colonies. If it does, it goes a long way in explaining the quality of coffee in Spanish cafes, despite them doubling up as bars and not necessarily having skilled Baristas. For the likes of Colombia and Ecuador and Honduras produce absolutely brilliant Arabica coffee.

 

Liverpool

While I absolutely remain a fan of Liverpool Football Club, and had a fascinating tour of their facilities this morning, I’m not such a big fan of the city itself. Somehow overall the experience there (barring some taxi rides and the Anfield experience itself) was not particularly great.

For starters, it doesn’t help that the city has lousy weather. Being up north, in England and on the coast means there are strong winds, and it can be pretty bad when it rains. Then, when I got off the train station last night, the city seemed dead and the roads that I walked on until I found a taxi were deserted.

And this afternoon, after I had finished my stadium tour and went to the renowned Albert Docks, the experience there was similar as well. Rather dull and without too many people around. And once again the weather didn’t help matters.

And then there is the hotel I stayed in last night. The check in and check out were rather pleasant and I mostly got a good night’s sleep as well, but a former office building converted to a hotel can be a bit depressing. The room was rather small, with the bed stuck to two walls. And a part of it had been earmarked for the bathroom anyway. Even this morning when I got out of the hotel the area wasn’t really bustling (this was in central Liverpool).

And while I found the breakfast to be pretty good (I got a a “large English breakfast”), the service and decor of the restaurant wasn’t particularly appealing. And as I got out of the restaurant, I saw a “up for sale” board on the door!

Anyway, it’s just a few data points. However, in hindsight I feel less bad now about not booking my ticket to York yesterday itself, which would’ve cut my journey cost by 50%. Without a booked ticket, not finding the place particularly interesting meant I could quickly get to the station and take the next train onward.

So here I am, nearing York (I’m finishing this post now in a hurry since I should reach any time now, and I don’t want to scramble). The views on the journey have been rather stunning. The big breakfast meant that I didn’t need to have lunch today. And I had some beer and peanuts and cake on the train and am feeling happy about it now!

The only sore point is that soon after I had bought beer from the cart on the train, the conductor announced that the toilets on train aren’t working. In any case, York isn’t far away!

Cheers

This is Anfield

 

I had a massive fanboy time this morning, as I went on my long-awaited (nearly 14 years) pilgrimage to Anfield, home of the Liverpool Football Club. As I had mentioned in my post last night, this was the explicit purpose of my visit to Liverpool, and I had left home with only three bookings – train to Liverpool, hotel in Liverpool and the Anfield tour.

So after having polished off a “large Full English” (in hindsight, I’m thankful for that) at a local cafe close to my hotel, I took an Uber to Anfield. The driver was also a Liverpool fan and we spent time chatting about last afternoon’s game, when Liverpool played insipidly to draw across Stanley Park with Everton. I was in good time for the tour (that was to start at 11), and spent the time walking along the outside of the Main Stand.

There are benches dedicated to Liverpool’s greatest players of all time, and the floor is tiled with names of members (not all members I think – perhaps those that made contributions to rebuild the Main Stand 3 years ago). I paid my respects at the Hillsborough Memorial and walked back to the Kop end where the entrance to the Stadium Tour is situated.

The tour started on the sixth floor of the newly redeveloped Main Stand (if you’ve wondered why TV broadcasts of Liverpool games suddenly started showing a very high angle, this is the reason). Our guide Terry first took us to the hall where there were photos of “Liverpool’s six great managers”.

The choices were interesting – Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish, Houllier and Benitez. As the Elo ratings show, these were all definitely managers who improved Liverpool, sometimes in a significant way (though the last two also let things slip considerably towards the end of their reigns.

I sensed some sort of discomfort in the group. Evidently, a majority were Liverpool fans, but talks about “the purpose of the club being to win trophies” and talking up of the number of trophies won so far brought up the painful reality that we’ve “AJMd” on a league, a europa league and a champions league in the last five years itself, and look on course to AJM the league once again. Nobody really wanted to point out that things aren’t going as well as we would like.

In any case, the tour moved on and our guide Terry was excellent, though sometimes he went back to familiar cliches. Describing the miracle of Istanbul, for example, he made the familiar joke of “Milan had Kaka, and we had Djimi Traore, and yet we managed to win”.

We moved on to a view of the pitch from the highest tier of the main stand, my first impression was that this is a rather “cosy” stadium. Now, the only other stadiums I’ve been to are the behemoths Camp Nou and Wembley, and in comparison to them, Anfield looked rather intimate. That also suggested why the crowd at Anfield is sometimes like “Liverpool’s 12th man”, as a poster outside the away dressing room claimed.

The small stadium means the crowd noise can reverberate easily around the stadium. The Anfield Road End is yet to be redeveloped, and once that happens the stadium will become “taller”, meaning the noise levels might get higher. Looking at the pitch from up the Main Stand gave me another regret – that I haven’t watched a game at Anfield (though I did watch Liverpool play at Wembley). Hopefully sometime in this lifetime I’ll fulfil that!

There were cutouts of various players placed near the dressing rooms. Salah’s was the most popular as everyone lined up to take a selfie with him. Rather than waiting there, I managed selfies with cutouts of all of Firmino, van Dijk and Alisson. The dressing rooms were impressive (especially the Home dressing room). I also found the differences between home and away dressing rooms interesting – the home room is soundproof while the away room isn’t. The home room has lighting control to adjust the lighting to the pitch. The away room has no such facilities. These are subtle differences we don’t appreciate as TV viewers, but can have a profound impact on the game.

And based on this, I don’t mind the draws at Manchester United and Everton that much!

 

You’ll Never Walk Alone

I first became a fan of Liverpool FC in April 2005, on the day of the first leg of their Champions League semifinal against Chelsea. While I was in London for a month and half after that, I never really executed on the pilgrimage to Anfield. Instead I went on trips around the country which my friends had planned.

For a long time, this was on my To-Do list. Yet, I continued to be lazy. I moved to England exactly two years ago, but had somehow kept putting off my trip to Liverpool. The initial plan had been to do it with family, carrying my daughter as she put her hands on the “this is anfield” signboard.

Finally, as it happens, I’ve made the trip just before we end our current stint in London and move back to India. And unlike that plan of that photo-op of my daughter with her hand on the “this is anfield” sign, I’ve come to Liverpool alone.

I don’t know the last time I had one an “unplanned trip”. This time I did some planning, though, but haven’t booked much. As things stand now, I’ve only booked my train to Liverpool (which I took this evening), my hotel for the night (where I’m writing this from) and the Anfield tour for tomorrow morning.

In my eagerness to get to the hotel after the train rolled in to Liverpool Lime Street at 10:20 PM tonight, I exited the station without bothering to see where the taxi rank was. And then google maps told me I could get a bus nearby, so I walked alone for a bit. There was a bunch of bus stops but it was unclear what bus I should take. So I walked on.

And presently an empty taxi came that way. And I hopped in. The taxi driver told me that my hotel is “one of the several old office complexes that have now become hotels” in Liverpool, “all thanks to the football”, he said. The room does look weird. It’s among the smallest hotel rooms I’ve stayed in, perhaps smaller than the one in Hong Kong.

I dont have the enthu to get up now, so here’s a photo of my room from my bed (that glass wall you see on the left is the bathroom). I trust what my taxi driver told me – I can fully imagine this little space having been a meeting room or office cabin once upon a time.

Anyways, off to bed now. Anfield beckons tomorrow morning! Never mind today’s derby result, and that we’re behind in the title race now.

Somerset wanderings

So we went for a road trip. To be precise, four adults and three children rented a car and drove down to a relative’s place in Cornwall, and all the way back. And on the way back, we saw Stonehenge. Rather, tried to see it, failed, and then stumbled upon it. For more details, read on.

The premise is that my wife’s cousin and her family are visiting us, and on Friday all of us set out to my wife’s uncle’s (same “side” as the visiting cousin) house in Cornwall. The idea of driving there was that on the way, or the way back, we could “cover” some tourist attractions that were hard to do by public transport, such as Stonehenge.

There are times when I pride myself on my planning. Such as this afternoon when we were driving from Cornwall towards Stonehenge, on our way back to London. On the way to Cornwall on Friday, I had noticed that the rest stops on the “M” motorways were much better equipped than those on the “A” highways (admittedly based on one fully sampled data point each, along with signboards). Our journey from Cornwall to Stonehenge had a short stretch on an M motorway sandwiched between two A highways. And I announced a slightly early lunch break so we could take advantage of the better facilities.

A post-prandial double espresso relieved me of the severe headache caused by caffeine withdrawal symptoms, and I presently took the wheel. Ten minutes later, I had taken a wrong turn at a roundabout which meant we were back on our motorway rather than motoring way towards Stonehenge. The wife, who was sitting next to me and navigating, proudly announced that the estimated time of arrival hadn’t changed due to my mistake.

I don’t know if the estimated time of arrival changed during the next hour and three-quarters, but most of that time was spent driving through the country roads of Somerset and some surrounding counties. There were hills and valleys and grasslands and sheep. We frequently passed through beautiful forests, which retained a tinge of green despite it being winter. The roads were mostly two-lane (one in each direction), and the sceneries kept changing.

Sometimes I like to describe my wife as being my “conscience keeper”, for she quickly pulls me back when I make the sort of mistakes I normally caution people against. For example, for the last six years I’ve been lecturing about cognitive biases, and I fell right into one of them when I said “I guess missing the exit wasn’t too bad after all, since we’ve been rewarded with such beautiful scenery”. “Well”, she replied, “you can’t say that because you don’t know what you really missed (in the road not taken)”. I quickly complimented her on how smart she is and drove on.

It was windy. Occasionally it was foggy. It even rained a fair bit. And the kids were screaming in the back of the car. But it was a most pleasurable journey. By the time we got close to Stonehenge, I thought to myself that it wouldn’t matter if we couldn’t see Stonehenge – the journey itself had been worth it (I’m not sure the adults in the back of the car shared this view).

And then it turned out that I had wished for too much. I have mentioned earlier about how I pride myself on my planning abilities, such as optimisation of lunch breaks. One thing I had failed to plan on, though, was Stonehenge’s opening hours. I had only seen that the place is open till 5, not that the last entry is at 3 pm. And when we happily drove past meadows of sheep and signs warning us that tanks might be crossing the road to finally reach Stonehenge, we were politely asked to turn back by security personnel.

Not having a place to park suitably as the wife tried to find directions home, I just drove round and round a roundabout. Directions found, the next order of business was to give some tired arses a rest, and to comfort the screaming kids strapped into their child seats. I quickly pulled into the first available hard shoulder on the A303, without waiting for a designated “service area” (with toilets and restaurants and fuel). By the time we had reoriented ourselves and pulled out of there, there was a traffic backlog ahead of us.

The road dipped and then rose again. Until the dip, there was bumper-to-bumper traffic. Beyond it, I saw cars go freely. It was similar in the other direction – there was bumper-to-bumper traffic leading up to the dip. After that, there was free movement of cars.

My first thought was that there was possibly an accident there. I soon dismissed that and thought there were sheep on the road (there were plenty in the meadows around). And then someone in the back figured out why the traffic had backed up from the dip from both directions – Stonehenge was clearly visible from there, and people had been slowing down to take pictures!

So here is one such picture taken from our car, along with a few others from our trip over the last few days.

Cousin-in-law-in-law drove the “home stretch”, which I didn’t mind at all since it was mostly along motorways which I find boring. I absolutely enjoyed driving around Cornwall yesterday (though we didn’t see that much of the famed Cornish coast), and the unexpected roads of rural Somerset today.