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Harmondsworth Barn

June 17th, 2017

Here’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go ever since I moved to this part of northwest London but never had the chance, Harmondsworth Barn.

It’s a medieval great barn. One of the few places of that vintage in these parts, although it’s been upgraded and restored a lot over the years.

I originally heard about it as it was scheduled to be demolished to make way for the third runway at Heathrow, but it’s unclear to me whether it will survive under the latest plans.

The reason it took me so long to visit is that I can never get my head around “Nth Sunday of the month” type of opening days. And it’s only open in the summer months.


June 15th, 2017

Last Friday was entirely too sunny to spend in the office so I took an impromptu day off and went hiking in Chiltern Hills near home.

Originally I thought I’d get as far as Dunstable or Luton but that wasn’t going to happen so instead I stopped at Tring.

The one interesting bit happened right at the end where I spied a strange tower on a hitherto unexplored hill in the distance. After a bit of scrambling around I managed to climb up to it and it was this monument thing. Only open at the weekend apparently, which was a bit of a bummer.

Finally I managed to take this photo of off-scale-Englishness country scene.

Another Failed Circumnavigation

May 30th, 2017

A few weekends ago I tried a second time to do a full circumnavigation of High Wycombe, having not quite achieved it back in 2015. Success would be going in a big circle without cutting through any built-up area.

But the weather was a bit miserable and I discovered the bit I cut out last time was interminably dull. So I gave up after 18 miles. One day…

Oriental Pearl Tower

May 28th, 2017

Just one more China post! The evening before I flew home I finally managed to take a half-decent photo of the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai. It’s much more interesting to visit the Pudong area at night instead of in the day. A lot of buildings have cool light shows, but not as impressive or coordinated as in Hong Kong.


May 24th, 2017

Anchang 安昌 is a delightful little water town just north of Shaoxing. I went there on a sunny Saturday and it was quite busy, but not crammed. You can get there easily from Shaoxing by taking the regular public bus number 118. It takes around one hour.

The town is very similar to Tongli which I visited around the same time last year. Instead of roads they have canals everywhere and these traditional low whitewashed buildings. Like so many of these “scenic spots” in China you buy a single ticket which lets you get into a variety of attractions like old houses, a 1920s bank, a temple, and so on. And then you spend the whole day strolling around peering at stuff and taking photos. It’s basically my ideal day out, as you might have gathered from this blog recently.

For lunch I had this appetising plate of 田螺 which I think is “river snail” in English. The lady in the restaurant was very keen for me to try it. And then she took a photo of me, which was a bit odd. The toothpick it seems is the standard method to extract them out from their shells. Hm. Anyway I washed it down with some 黄酒 which is the famous “Shaoxing rice wine” that comes from these parts, and also available in your local Tesco.


May 16th, 2017

And now as Michael Bolton might say, back to the good part. You might, wrongly, think this was part of my previous Chinese adventuring but actually I came back to the UK for a month and then work asked me to go back to Suzhou again for another week. So I dutifully did and after that was over went to Shaoxing in Zhejiang for a long weekend. One of the great things about business trips to China is you’re never short of new places to go on excursions. Unlike say, *cough* Norway *cough*.

Shaoxing canals

Shaoxing reminds me a lot of the older parts of Suzhou. It’s got the same white washed architecture and canals everywhere instead of roads. But it’s quieter, in a good way, and a lot less commercialised.

I didn’t actually spend that much time in the city itself, because I took all of Saturday to go out for a day trip. But I visited the most important site, or at least the one everyone told me to go to, Lu Xun’s birthplace. I hadn’t heard of him either, but he’s a famous early 20th century writer.

Suspicious character posing with Lu Xun

Around his birthplace area there are several well-preserved Qing dynasty houses which you can visit. For free as well! Which is quite unusual in China. And a few hundred meters away is a large classical garden, but not as impressive as the ones in Suzhou.

As an aside, the Chinese name 绍兴 ShaoXing seems to be almost impossible for me to pronounce. Every time I told someone 我周末去绍兴 they would just look at me blankly and be like “where..?”. My teacher is always complaining that I can’t pronounce other sh- words like 书 properly. And that followed by the elusive x-that-sounds-like-an-s is not a good combination. Also the 兴 is first tone like in 兴奋 not fourth tone like in 高兴. Once I figured this out my success rate increased to maybe 20%…

Using ORC with LLVM’s C API

May 11th, 2017

I recently updated the JIT back-end of my VHDL simulator to use LLVM’s new ORC API which was added in version 3.9. It has a couple of advantages, the two important ones for me were re-introduction of lazy-JIT-ing of functions, and that it works on Windows. Both features that were lost moving from the legacy JIT API to the newer MCJIT one. ORC is actually built as a layer on top of MCJIT though.

Documentation seems to be pretty scarce. There’s some example code but it all uses the C++ API so I thought it might be useful to write some notes on how I use it with the C API. You simply need to include this header and then either link against the LLVM shared library or llvm-config --libs orcjit.

#include <llvm-c/OrcBindings.h>

Initialise the LLVM libraries and MCJIT back-end which ORC is built on:


Let’s assume you already have an LLVM bitcode module from somewhere else:

LLVMModuleRef module = ...;

Unlike the MCJIT API and the original LLVM JIT API you need a “target machine” reference to create the ORC object. This is probably the only non-obvious part but a bit of searching in the other headers finds some functions to do it:

char *def_triple = LLVMGetDefaultTargetTriple();   // E.g. "x86_64-linux-gnu"
char *error;
LLVMTargetRef target_ref;
if (LLVMGetTargetFromTriple(def_triple, &target_ref, &error)) {
   // Fatal error
if (!LLVMTargetHasJIT(target_ref)) {
   // Fatal error, cannot do JIT on this platform
LLVMTargetMachineRef tm_ref =
   LLVMCreateTargetMachine(target_ref, def_triple, "", "",

The two empty string arguments to LLVMCreateTargetMachine are CPU and Features. I can’t work out what these are used for and everything works fine if you pass an empty string. On LLVM 4.0 you can pass NULL here but this crashes on 3.9.

I haven’t experimented with anything other the default relocation model, which seems to work everywhere I tried it, or the optimisation level.

Now we can actually create the ORC object:

LLVMOrcJITStackRef orc_ref = LLVMOrcCreateInstance(tm_ref);
LLVMOrcAddLazilyCompiledIR(orc_ref, module, orc_sym_resolver, NULL);

The only interesting argument is orc_sym_resolver. This is a pointer to callback ORC will use when it needs you to resolve a symbol.

static uint64_t orc_sym_resolver(const char *name, void *ctx)
   return (uint64_t)(uintptr_t)LLVMOrcGetSymbolAddress(orc_ref, name);

The function LLVMOrcGetSymbolAddress seems to do exactly what we want, but you could do some custom symbol lookup if required.

You can also use this function to trigger the lazy compilation and get a function pointer to the result. For example:

int (*main_fn)(void) = LLVMOrcGetSymbolAddress(orc_ref, "main");
int result = (*main_fn)();

VHDL Compiler Updates

May 5th, 2017

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about the VHDL compiler and simulator I’m working on, nvc, but I am still developing it, albeit at a slightly slower pace than before.

Since the last update I’ve started making stable releases, and yesterday I released version 1.2.1. Actually I think most people are better off using the master branch: one thing I’m really proud of is the coverage of the regression tests, and they run on every commit using Travis so it should always be stable enough for everyday usage. The “stable” versioning is really to satisfy the requirements of packagers. For instance it is now part of Homebrew for OS X.

The big change in the last year has been the removal of the old hacky constant folding pass and replacing it with one based on the “vcode” intermediate code layer that I wrote about before. The old version used to walk over the AST nodes and attempt to collapse them into a simpler form by evaluating expressions and even evaluating function calls. Unfortunately this was often buggy and sometimes didn’t match the run-time result the code generator would have produced. Now constant folding is done using the same AST-to-vcode lowering pass the code generator uses, to generate vcode “thunks” for compile-time constant expression. These are then evaluated using a new vcode interpreter. This now means almost all side-effect free functions with constant arguments will be folded at compile time. Even those with complex looping, recursion, memory allocation, etc.

Unfortunately this rewrite took way longer than expected, partly due to not having much time to work on it, and partly because all the dependencies into the rest of the code got very complex.

Apart from that I’ve fixed a lot of bugs. And this means you can simulate some quite complex designs in it, for instance the J-Core open source SuperH CPU clone.

Xingping to Yangdi

April 30th, 2017

So after I had a fun day out in Xingping I decided to go back there the next day and see how far I could get along the river. If you look around on the internet there’s various references to a classic hike from there to another village called Yangdi along the most scenic section of the river but they also say it’s now “impossible” or “unsafe”. This is nonsense, as it’s totally doable as of March 2017 although requiring a bit of luck and a small amount of adventurousness. I’ve tried to write some instructions below in case anyone else wants to try it. It’s by far the best hiking I’ve done in Asia, and unlike all the tourists packed onto the boats, you’ll have time to appreciate the scenery.

It’s probably useful to be able speak some Mandarin as you’ll need to get someone to help you across the river at one point. Or you could just try gesturing wildly.

The first part is really easy. Just head out of town past the “20元 note scene” and follow the road until it starts to curve away from the river. Then you can drop down onto the beach and there’s a well maintained path following the shoreline.

Follow the path for about three miles and you’ll come to a scenic spot called “nine horse fresco hill”. On the other side of the river is a small village and a ferry to take you across. Just get on and pay the guy 10元.

In the village there are some stalls where you can buy fruit but not much else. Just follow the road through and out the other side where you’ll see a large grassy area by the river down below. Scramble down some rocks and the path should be fairly obvious (it’s where those people are walking below).

Follow the path along the river for another two miles or so until you hit a dead end and you’ll need to double back a little way and take a more inland route (check my map above). This bit has the best scenery, I stopped every 30 seconds to take a photo.

On the stone is the local tourism slogan 桂林山水甲天下 “Guilin’s scenery is first under heaven”. It was around this point I made friends with a very friendly old lady who apparently walked this way every day to sell oranges. Not a bad job eh. It was her 70-something birthday.

She insisted on accompanying me for the next mile or so to the village where she lived which turned out to be really useful as the reason for the internet saying the route was impassable soon became clear: you need need to cross the river again at this point but the only official ferry sank a few years back, it’s remains were rotting on the riverbank. After I told her where I was going the orange selling lady introduced me to her friend, an old guy with the sketchiest looking raft ever. He took me to the other side for a small fee.

I rather suspect this a profitable business for him since the ferry sank, as he seems to just hang out by the old ferry landing. You can probably haggle a bit on the price.

The path on this side is a bit overgrown but should be easy enough to find. Follow it for a while and you’ll come to a small tranquil village with some very elegant lanes. This isn’t Yangdi though so just walk out the other side of the village and take the path over the rope bridge (I asked for directions at this point).

Pass these small farms and you’ll eventually come to another operational ferry. Ride that back to the other side and you’ll reach the destination. The bus back to Yangshuo takes an hour or so and is quite scenic itself. Epic day out!


April 23rd, 2017

XingPing (兴坪) is the place I should have stayed instead of YangShuo. It’s only 45 minutes away by bus, but it feels like a totally different place. Much quieter and less commercialised.

The town is right on the most scenic section of the Li river. In fact, the scene on the back of the 20元 note is a 15 minute walk out of town. There were, however, quite a few competing “official” viewing platforms, so I don’t really know if this is the right one.