Thursday, October 20, 2016

On Rebooting the City Deal

The Greater Cambridge City Deal is a project that gets a significant amount of funding to improve Cambridge and its surroundings.

Having looked at some of the proposals they've come up with, I was pretty concerned that they didn't seem to be heading in the right direction. Or even close. There's a real possibility that the urge to be seen to be "doing something" will fritter away this investment, make things worse in the short term, and compromise the region's ability to improve in the longer term.

I'm clearly not alone. There have been demonstrations, petitions, and a whole range of activity on social media.

I went to the Rebooting the City Deal event run by Smarter Cambridge Transport, and it was packed. The organizers seemed surprised that so many people turned up; given the furore over the proposals it wasn't at all surprising.

One of the talks covered the proposal for Light Rail. Now, I'm intrinsically a fan of rail-based solutions, but I can't see this being a success. It's too expensive while simultaneously offering little benefit because it has fairly limited city coverage and doesn't really link up to the wider transport system. Not only that, we're talking 15 years out, so we're going to have to live with the mess and congestion that is Cambridge until then, at which point we don't know whether it will be solving the right problem. If you are going to go down the light rail route, you need to go full bore, creating a denser mesh with better coverage, and do it quickly.

However, it's important to have proposals like this being put forward. Working through their pros and cons gives you a much better understanding of the real issues.

Then we had Edward Leigh of Smarter Cambridge Transport talking about better bus journeys. Much of the material is based on this document. While I agree with the list of what the bus needs to do to be a favoured mode of transport, I think there's an item 0 that's missed - there must be a bus that gets you from your starting point to your destination, and back again. If there isn't a bus route, or it doesn't operate at the times you need to travel, then it doesn't matter how good you make services, people will have to find alternative modes of transport.

I'm reasonably fortunate in living a few minutes from one of the most densely trafficked bus routes in Cambridge, but even that is a frustrating business. Not only are the fares horrifically expensive, if the frequency is every 10 minutes, why do I end up with common 30 or 45 minute waits? And if I want to go straight into central Cambridge, then it's fine, but there are large areas of the city that have essentially no bus service at all. Want to go into some of the lovely villages near Cambridge? Not by bus, you won't. Many of the places I might think of going to work or shop really aren't accessible by bus at all.

The third talk was a little odd, in that a lot of numbers were presented without a clear explanation of their meaning. But as I understood it, it goes like this. We think Cambridge is a cycling hotspot. Compared to many places in the UK, it is, but if you compare it to The Netherlands then it's clear we're doing really badly. So the talk basically looked at what cycling in Cambridge would look like if cycling followed the same pattern as The Netherlands - in other words, if the same proportion of journeys of a given type and length (or difficulty) were made here as are there. What didn't really come out in the talk was that you would see a dramatic increase in cycling. The conclusion I would draw from this is that there's huge untapped potential.

We then had a short panel discussion. Our current and previous MPs were pretty scathing in their comments. One thing I took away from Daniel Zeichner's comments is that, regardless of what the City Deal itself might want to do, the fact that we have multiple independent councils involved, each with their own agendas, isn't helping matters - a unitary authority would greatly simplify matters. And then there's the fact that certain elements of any plan are dependent on private companies - ok, Stagecoach - that are a law unto themselves and aren't really involved in the process. (Looking elsewhere at places that have managed to make progress in improving local transport, it's clear that the more control the local authorities have over transport, the better they can make progress - simply because the left hand and the right hand are connected rather than fighting each other.)

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Brexit madness

The UK held a divisive referendum back in June that resulted in a very narrow majority for "Leaving the EU". Whatever that means.

Let me construct an analogy for you.

You're travelling along a motorway in a car, and a faction say "we don't like this car". You hold a narrow vote, and the result is a narrow win for the get rid of the car faction.

I mean, everyone wants a better car, right?

So, what do you do next? The problem is that the terms of the vote were unclear.

You might think that the vote would result in:

  • Stopping at the next service station and having the car cleaned and serviced.
  • Going to a garage and trading the car in for this years model.
  • Looking around for a different model of car.
  • Giving up on driving a car and calling a taxi instead.
  • Getting rid of the car and using an alternative souce of transport such as a bus, or train, or plane, or bicycle.
Even though the majority might have wanted a change from the current car, there's no consensus as to what the replacement mode of transport should be. In fact, it's possible (even likely) that most people in the car would retain it rather than choose some of the alternatives.

So, after Brexit, what would our government and so-called leaders have us do?

It appears that they're hell bent on us all flinging ourselves out of the car and hitting the motorway tarmac at 70mph.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Following on from the highly successful short breaks we had last year in Manchester and Leeds, we've just had a long weekend in Liverpool.

We stayed with a friend, and the reason for the timing was the Grand National at Aintree. However, while Mel went to the races, I wasn't overly fussed about the idea of standing in a cold muddy field in a huge crowd, being unable to see anything properly, while being lashed by rain and hail. So I spent more time looking round Liverpool instead.

We went to a fair number of pubs in the centre; I'll cover those separately.

We went on the train, down to London and up to Liverpool Lime Street. One thing I will say, is that Euston is a dismal station, and the concourse is dire. The second thing I'll say is that it's a bit cheeky to charge for WiFi access on a train these days.

Liverpool Lime Street, on the other hand, is a pleasant station - light and airy.

The first evening we had dinner at Fazenda. For those who haven't tried this (we had been to the restaurant in Leeds, and before that to a similar place in Madeira so knew what to expect), the servers keep bringing out chunks of meat and carve off a slice for you. It's all you can eat for steak. Go there hungry, and skimp on the salad bar. It's not cheap, as it's a set price, but it's good food and good value. I was astonished when Mel had a dessert as well.

Then we hit the Cavern Club. Liverpool isn't just about the Mersey Beat and The Beatles, but if you've got them make use of them. It's not the original Cavern Club - that got destroyed in development, but it's a re-creation a few doors down. We arrived early enough that there wasn't a queue, and it was quiet enough that we were able to sit down. The beer's nothing special, but the atmosphere is pretty good. There was a pretty dodgy warm up act on at the start, but later - and it was getting pretty loud and packed by this stage - we had a Beatles tribute act, and they were really rather good.

Travelling around Liverpool and environs is pretty easy with MerseyRail. We were staying out on the Wirral at Wallasey, a few minutes walk from the station on the Wirral Line. It's pretty cheap, and we can use our Two Together railcard as well. It's slightly confusing at first how the train does a clockwise loop through James Street, Moorfields, Lime Street, and Central, but that covers the whole of the city centre.

Next morning we went in on the train and had a little wander down the front before going into the Maritime Museum. Like the other city museums, entrance is free. We did the Seized! and Emigrants exhibitions in the basement, before heading upstairs. The Lusitania and Titanic exhibitions were decent, I think I found the Battle of the Atlantic exhibition the most interesting. The International Slavery Museum is part of the same building, we had to skip that as we had an appointment to keep.

Saturday was race day and I was largely left to my own devices.

To get a feel for the city I was booked on  the Free Walking Tour. We did most of the major locations, starting at St George's Hall, down William Brown Street, through the centre to Mathew St and the Beatles, the Nelson and Victoria statues, the Church of Our Lady and St. Nicholas, the Three Graces and the waterfront, ending at the Albert Dock. These aren't professional tour guides, so you get a different feel - although sometimes the delivery was along the lines of the Jungle Cruise Ride at Disney. We had an ideally timed stop for coffee along the way (ideally timed as a shower came over just as we arrived at the coffee shop).

In the afternoon I headed back up to the Walker Art Gallery. This is actually pretty good, there's nothing famous but there's a pretty strong range of most periods. I particularly liked some of the earlier material - the colours of some of the works are remarkably fresh and vivid given their age. Like the other museums. it's free, and has a fairly decent cafe.

Next door is the Central Library. While it's not of itself a tourist attraction - it really is a library - it's worth wandering in to have a look at the building. There's the newly re-modelled main building, which is clean and light, and the refurbished Picton Reading Room.

At the bottom of the street is the World Museum. Researching ahead of time, reviews were mixed, but it's pretty good in some ways. The building is a little awkward and could do with more or better lifts, I had to wait quite a while to get a lift up to the top and then walk down. The Space part was interesting - they had Tim Peake on a loop. Dinosaurs and Natural World were disappointing - coverage was too thin to be any good. The Ancient World is closed for refurbishment, but I found the World Cultures to be very interesting. I just had time for a quick flip through the aquarium as they were getting everybody out at closing time.

After a quick drink met up with the racegoers at the Monro Gastropub for an excellent meal. And Gastropub is a pretty good description - solid food, well presented.

Sunday we went round the Beatles Story. This comes in two parts. What I think of as the main part, on the Albert Dock, is a history of the Beatles and the Mersey Beat. Very interesting, if slightly disjointed and out of order. The second part, up at the Ferry Terminal, is just weird. It hasn't got all that much to do with the Beatles for one thing, the audio guides don't work, and the Fab 4D show is plain bizarre.

Around grabbing a few more pubs, we had a light dinner at Veeno. Shame the chain hasn't expanded south, it's ideal when you don't want or need a full meal, and just want a bit of wine, meat, and cheese to keep you going.

Monday we had a little drive round the Wirral, including stopping off at Nicholls for an ice cream, before lunch at the Telegraph Inn in New Brighton. Then just time for one last drink at The Crown Hotel by the station before taking the train home.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Growing old painfully

Heaven only knows what I'll be like when I'm genuinely old.

I've never been entirely the fittest and healthiest person. Whether it's a simple thing like Hay Fever (which must be some British pollen, as I wasn't bothered much when we lived in Toronto), or migraine attacks, which peaked in my late teens and are now just occasional interruptions,

As you get older, it seems that more problems crop up, and your ability to recover diminishes.

I suspect the current rot started back in 2002, when I had a bad fall and broke my arm. We were in France on holiday, and hired a tennis court on the first morning. Walking around picking up tennis balls, my knee gave way and dumped me on the concrete.

The arm is mostly healed, but it was on the elbow joint, so movement is slightly restricted and repetitive movements can become very painful pretty quickly. A bigger problem is the knees - the bones aren't straight, the kneecap is at a slight angle and occasionally slips to one side. This has happened every few years, for as long as I can remember, it's just that it had never caused any serious damage before this event (although I had at least one fall while carrying the kds when they were small). The fix is to tighten up the leg muscles to pull the kneecap on tighter; the bad part of that is that it's pretty sore and I don't really enjoy walking far.

A few years later I was starting to have a little trouble reading. And I couldn't really focus properly on fine things. The optician seemed to take great pleasure in explaining that this was purely age-related. "As you get past 40 these things happen." It took a year or so to get fully comfortable wearing glasses.

The real trouble hit one day in August 2013. I stood up after breakfast, and immediately fell over as the room span around me. This turned out to be BPPV (Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo), and it's really quite disruptive. The spontaneous attacks went on for about a month, there was quite a bit longer when I could trigger it by moving in a certain way. With the minor symptoms it looks like I'm drunk as I walk, weaving along because your balance is telling you the world is swaying, and your body automatically tries to compensate. I've avoided cycling since, although driving is fine because everything there is a conscious movement.

Then at the start of 2014 I was actually very ill. The primary symptom was bleeding gums. Normally that means gum disease, often coupled with something else (if the body has spare capacity then it can deal with gum disease, but if you're otherwise ill - or pregnant, apparently  - then your body decides it has more important things to deal with). But a couple of dental referrals came back pretty clear - this wasn't a dental problem.

At about the same time, I was having episodes of extreme short-term tiredness. And I mean extreme. As in being unable to stand, even. This would normally kick in early afternoon. I would be fine going for my morning swim, but then I would get lethargic and worse.

My first thought was that it was coeliac disease. It runs in the family, it explained the symptoms (vitamin deficiency by malabsorption). Changing diet appropriately helped quite a bit at first.

I had a whole load of tests. The results from the blood tests were absolutely definitive. Not coeliac. And, in fact, pretty much everything came back negative. So I knew that I wasn't affected by a whole range of problems and conditions. Good news, in one way, but didn't really get to the root of the problem. Going back to my normal diet didn't make things any worse.

If you look closely enough, you're going to find something wrong. There was a minor anomaly on one of the clotting tests that they dug into. More blood tests and genetic tests followed, and eventually they confirmed Von Willebrand Disease.

The odd thing about VWD is that it's supposed to be inherited, so I've had this for over 50 years without noticing any issues (normally it gets picked up in childhood, where you're far more likely to get scrapes and bruises). And the bleeding gums were the only symptom - there's a 20-questions test, and I was well below the threshold for even thinking about a diagnosis on that basis.

This all took about 6 months, and we never found any explanation for the tiredness. VWD wasn't the cause, it just got picked up by accident during the investigation. Things generally seemed to improve over time, although my energy levels still aren't always where I would like them to be. I do take vitamin supplements now, though, and I'm sure that's helped.

I'm just hoping that nothing else on this creaking body is going to fall apart, for a while at least.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Science Museum, Leonardo, Ada, Churchill

On Monday afternoon I went round the Science Museum in London.

I've been there before, but a long time ago. At least, I presume I must have visited one some school trip or other, back in the day. Although I can't remember any previous visits.

The nudge that caused me to visit this time was the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Hailed as the must-see exhibition of 2016, it sounded interesting and really cool. And there's the whole of the rest of the museum, too.

Now, it's OK. What there is to see is pretty good. But overall, to be honest, it was a little disappointing. And the primary feeling I came away with was "is that it?". For something that's heavily promoted, it seemed a little small. Yes, there are a few models and exhibits, but my overall feeling is that it only skimmed the surface - I was expecting a rather more substantial exhibition.

The tickets aren't especially cheap either. Viewed in isolation, I would struggle to justify the ticket price. But, in the wider context, entrance to the Science Museum itself is free. And the afternoon as a whole was certainly worth the entrance fee.

I also looked round the Ada Lovelace exhibition. This one's free, so can't complain about the value. But again, it seemed a little small and superficial. It's just one small room, it doesn't really fully cover the subject.

I thoroughly enjoyed Making the Modern World, on the ground floor. But then I've always been a sucker for engines and models. And there's always the "I remember having one of those" moments.

It wasn't necessarily part of the plan, but the cafe where I had a coffee was right next to it, so I went round Churchill's Scientists. And I found this fascinating. There is, of course, a strong connection with Oxford, Cambridge, Radio Astronomy, and DNA, which are all in my personal background. Overall, this was the best part of the day.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Swim 22

We recently noticed that Diabetes UK are running a fundraising event called Swim 22.

The idea is for participants to swim 22 miles - the width of the English Channel - over a three month period, starting today, and be sponsored for it.

Now, I'm not asking for sponsorship for myself. I swim half a mile most mornings, usually 6 days a week. So I'm going to be doing somewhere in the region of 35-40 miles over that period, and it seems somewhat cheeky to ask for sponsorship for something I'm going to be doing anyway.

But Melanie is participating - she does the same half a mile I do, but normally only gets to to the pool about 3 days a week. So it's going to be a bit of a challenge for her to achieve the distance - but a nice little bit of motivation to get to the pool and improve fitness.

So if you would have thought about sponsoring me, you can sponsor Melanie instead. And track her progress online.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Not quite a Valentine's Day out

There are a whole list of "XXX's day" that crop up throughout the year. Many now taken over by cringeworthy commercialism.

We've just had that Valentine's one. We could have gone out for dinner, but it's just an excuse to cram people into overcrowded restaurants and jack up the prices. We had a nice dinner at home instead.

But we did use it as an excuse to go out on Friday afternoon and evening. There are a number of bars, pubs, and restaurants in Cambridge that have either been refurbished or changed hands, or that we haven't managed to visit for a while, so we wanted to check them out.

First up was The Emperor, now rebranded as a Latin Tapas Bar. It opens at noon and of course the bus was on time for once, so we killed time looking in some of the local shops, then had a drink (in my case, a very pleasant Oakham Inferno) while sitting in the window and watching the world go by. I had never been in the pub in its original guise, so I'm not able to make comparisons. The menu looked interesting, although it's not exactly my style.

We then walked further into town, stopping at Novi. This used to be The Fountain before refurbishment, and I used to go there regularly when we had meetups in the function rooms upstairs. Now it's more of a coffee shop, cocktail bar, and artisanal eatery. Another half (Camden Pale Ale) for me, Mel went for a cocktail. I was getting a bit peckish, and plumped for a superb caramel and pear brownie. The kitchen is rotated between local independents - must go back when Steak and Honour are in residence!

Grabbing the brownie, which might have been seen as a risk of spoiling one's appetite, soon proved its worth, as we had decided to switch banks for one of our accounts. This took rather longer than we anticipated, followed by a quick diversion to get some dried fruit from the market.

The plan was then to go to La Raza, but we had missed Lunch and Happy Hour hadn't yet started, so we did a little more shopping and ran a couple of errands.

Happy Hour (why do people keep calling it that, it's half the evening) at La Raza was a great success. It was pretty quiet, so we were able to sit in peace and try a couple of cocktails. The kitchen was closed, but the friendly and helpful bar staff had no problem in getting together a plate of bread and dipping oils for us. Regular pricing would be a bit steep, but Happy Hour makes it good value.

We then moved on to the Pint Shop. It's popular, it has a reasonable reputation, it's horrifically expensive, and we couldn't get a seat. A decent half of craft stout, but in London I would get a pint and change. We've grabbed it, but don't see anything compelling us to go back.

Walking down the street we had a look through the windows at the Bath House, an old favourite (it's affordable and reliable). I'm sure it's been done up recently, but it didn't seem to have changed, and was pretty packed. Next to it is Bread and Meat, again it was full and after the loaf of bread we had eaten at La Raza we weren't quite ready for more food - one for another day.

Back in the day, there was The Vaults. It's gone now, replaced by 2648. (Their website was working, looks to be broken at the moment.) We were pretty much the only people in there, the "secret" room was open with workmen, and they haven't yet got around to food. Along with a Blue Moon, we had a fun game of table football. It'll be interesting to see how this place develops, as it's only been open a short while and, while showing promise, isn't quite finished yet.

Another place that's changed its identity more than a few times was our final stop, the Grain & Hop Store. OK, so it's a Greene King pub, but very much with a craft beer slant, and their own menu. Downstairs was packed, but we managed to get a table upstairs. I had a Porter (I'm very much into beers that are black), and we shared a delicious freshly cooked home made scotch egg.