Sunday, November 13, 2016

How far to the nearest bus stop?

One question that occurred to me when I attended the Rebooting the City Deal meeting was how dense the coverage of a public transport system needs to be to make it useful.

I've seen several statements along the lines of x% of Cambridge being within a 7-minute (or whatever) walk to a bus stop. But what is a reasonable walking distance?

I don't know, but I have a little data. OK, 2 data points. Where I live I have a choice of 2 bus stops. One is about 300m away, or 4 minutes. The other is about 500m with a slightly tricky crossing, or about 7 minutes. I would have no issues using the closer stop on a regular basis; the more distant one I'm not terribly happy with.

So, if we want to encourage large-scale use of public transport, I would say we want to aim for something close to the 300m mark. How does this relate to the actual distribution of distances in Cambridge?

I looked at OpenStreetMap. They have all the buildings, and bus stops. And it's open, so I can get at the data.

The good folks at BBBike make a bunch of exports of OSM data available. This includes the city of Cambridge, which is naturally convenient. I grabbed the main osm file.

It's in XML format, which is a little unfortunate. I then used osmfilter to reduce the data to more manageable proportions.

First, I want the locations of all the bus stops. Just the nodes, no relations or ways or dependencies. The bus stops have highway=bus_stop so the following filter command should do it:

./osmfilter Cambridge.osm --keep="highway=bus_stop" --drop-ways --drop-relations --ignore-dependencies

Getting the list of places (where place is somewhere a user may use as a starting point or destination) was a bit trickier. In the end I made the assumption that everywhere of interest would have a postcode. It's not quite true, but I'm just interested in the distribution here so it will do as a first approximation. That gives me a filter command like:

./osmfilter Cambridge.osm --keep="addr:postcode=" --drop-ways --drop-relations --ignore-dependencies

The format of the XML is quite simple, it splits things up nicely onto separate lines. This makes it very easy to use basic Unix tools like grep and awk to pick out the lines that have latitude and longitude on them which gives me lists of coordinates.

I then put together a very cheap and cheerful Java program to read the files of coordinates and calculate the distances between all of them, using a simple equirectangular approximation as described here. The first run of ~10000 places and ~1000 bus stops took less than half a second to print the distance to the nearest bus stop, so I wasn't going to optimize it any further.

The most immediate question can then be answered - what is the distribution of distances to the nearest bus stop? A quick hack using the dist prefab in ploticus and I get the following graph:

That's number of places against distance in meters, 10m bins.

This is really quite interesting. It shows that most places in Cambridge are within a few hundred metres of a bus stop. In fact, almost all are within my acceptable distance.

In reality, it's not quite as good as that. The first thing to correct for is that these are distances as the crow flies. Actual walking distance would be a little further - it's probably reasonable to multiply by 1.4-1.5 to allow for corners, curves, and crossings. Even then the bulk of Cambridge is still inside that 300m range.

The other problem, and it's a much bigger problem, is that this measures the distance to a bus stop, not to a bus service. A significant number of the bus stops in the data are no longer in use. Short of hand-editing those out I'm not sure how to approach this.

Furthermore, of those bus stops that are in service, you have to make allowances for the timetable. If there's only one bus an hour (some bus stops are one or two a day) then you have to make some allowance for that. One simple approach would be to calculate the time to next bus, which would be the walking time plus half the time between buses. (I'm prepared to use the peak frequency here. In reality people would time their setting out to align with the timetable rather than it being random, although the less frequent a service the earlier you aim to arrive to make sure you don't miss a bus. It's complicated.)

It would be nice to show the distances on a map, which would give you a much better visualization of where in Cambridge has good or bad access to a bus service. But that's only really worth doing if you have better data.

At the present time only a couple of dozen bus stops in the OSM dataset are annotated with the necessary information to allow more detailed analysis. It would be nice to get more accurate metadata (and to have the stops in the right places). There's a local Meetup group, but it's not terribly active. Still, the whole point of OpenStreetMap is that it's freely editable by anyone.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Reading the tea leaves

2016 has been a year of surprises, to many.

A UK referendum for Brexit was followed by a recent  victory for Donald Trump in the US Presidential Election.

I'm not a great fan of either result, but don't find either surprising.

In the case of the EU referendum, there was a huge problem with the Remain campaign. Essentially, it failed to give people a good reason why they would want to stay in the EU. Part of this is that the EU has actually lost its way - it really doesn't stand for anything. There isn't a European ideal, a European vision, to enthuse and motivate people. Some of this is that European governments are in fact sovereign and won't relinquish control of the big issues, leaving Europe to poke at little things around the edges, a complete inversion of where responsibilities should lie.

Meanwhile, the Leave campaign was coming out with reason after reason why we should get out. The cost of membership. The unelected bureaucrats. Unfettered immigration. Lack of sovereignty. That these were lies or misleading doesn't matter - the Leave campaign kept on making the points.

So, given a general sense of underwhelming disinterest in the Remain campaign, and general dissatisfaction with the state of the EU, is it surprising that people wanting a change voted to Leave regardless of the consequences? Or that people who wanted to Remain couldn't be bothered?

(I see a similar thread in the US presidential election. People are fed up of their current lot in life, one candidate promises to change everything and the other is a safe pair of hands who's not going to rock the boat.)

I've mentioned before that the madness with Brexit is that it isn't for anything. While technically a vote to leave, it gives us no lead or direction on where we should head to. And a non-binding result at that.

It looks like the current government response is akin to burning the house down because some of the residents don't like the wallpaper, then standing on the street outside working out where we're going to live next.

Invoking Article 50 and planning to leave, without having a single clue on what we're going to do afterwards is madness. Lunacy. Stupidity.

And yet the government is actually refusing to give any details of its future plans, It's even attempting to bypass Parliament.

One cannot see this happening without thinking that the only reason they have for keeping their ideas secret is that they actually don't have a clue. This isn't keeping you cards close to your chest, the Brexit emperor is buck naked so they're making sure nobody gets a look.

What should have happened, then?

First, I believe you have to take the referendum result as meaning that there is a great deal of distrust and resentment towards the EU. You cannot simply brush off the result as a win for stupid, there are genuine issues at play here.

(I know, I'm less than enamoured with the institutions of the EU myself. I'm very much pro-europe, but I'm not convinced that the EC or the ECJ are - rather that they're self-serving to feather their own nests and expand their own petty empires, not that the mandarins in Whitehall are any different.)

Lacking a clear direction for what the alternative state should be, there should have been the immediate establishment of some sort of body, a commission or whatever, to evaluate the options, their strengths and weaknesses, and report back. Shouldn't have taken too long, many newspapers produced summaries, Part of the investigation would have to be an enumeration of the issues raised - whether it be spending, sovereignty, immigration, or petty bureaucracy - and score the effect of different paths forward against those issues. Which would have to include the fact that leaving the EU could actually make the problems we're blaming the EU even worse. For example, the level of compromise involved in a Soft Brexit could be such that it would be better not to leave in the first place.

Then the government - sorry, Parliament - would be able to have an open and honest debate about the desired outcome. Maybe even a second referendum, hopefully one this time which actually had actionable outcomes as the choices.

Monday, November 07, 2016

The stupidity of "Soft Brexit"

One of the characteristics of the EU referendum was the "we can have our cake and eat it" promises from the Leave campaign. That we would be able to get all the benefits of being in the EU while avoiding the obligations and responsibilities that go with those benefits.

Post-referendum, the notion of Soft Brexit follows the same illogical path. Having your cake and being able to eat it has returned.

Essentially, what I'm referring to as a Soft Brexit is any deal that retains Britain's access to the European single market.

This appears to be Nick Clegg's stance, at any rate.

And we just had Jeremy Corbyn demand guarantees that we be kept in the single market before agreeing to support the government.

(Which is utter nonsense. You don't get guarantees, period. You can't require a British PM to guarantee something that only the EU negotiators have the power to do.)

It's pretty clear that the consequences of any Soft Brexit option would be that we would have to accept free movement of labour, and most likely accept that we would have to pay some sort of associate membership charge. The result of this is that we would have no real change compared to the current state, but would have no say in how the EU is run, no say in the condition it imposes us, or any mechanism (like our current veto) to prevent the EU from making decisions that run counter to our interests.

Far from being able to have our cake and eat it, Soft Brexit would result in us having less control of our own affairs thane we do as members of the EU. Pretty much any of the desired aims of those in the Leave camp would be better met by remaining in the EU than by taking the half-in and half-out approach of a Soft Brexit.

Friday, November 04, 2016

A few days in Prague

I'm sure that when you're getting married, you don't think too much about the long term consequences of the date you choose for the wedding. I know that when we chose a date back in 1986 it was largely around when people and places were available. We didn't think that late October would mean that our anniversary would always be (a) autumnal, verging on wintry, and (b) coincident with the school half-term, pushing prices up significantly.

But anyway, this year we went to Prague for a few days.

We flew Ryanair from Stansted. It's just down the road, so we drove down (at 4am) and used the meet and greet parking. Drive up, hand over your keys, walk into the terminal, and your car is waiting when you get back. That's the theory and, when it works, it's perfect. This time it worked eventually, but after we had spent 15 minutes queueing on the entry road, 5 minutes trying to talk to someone over the dratted machine at the entrance, and another 5 minutes waiting for them to raise the barrier.

We grabbed a quick breakfast before heading for the gate. The usual problem with these cheap flights is that due to having to pay for checked bags, everyone maxes out on cabin baggage. I'm pretty sure virtually all the bags people were trying to cram in the overhead lockers comfortably exceeded the size limit.

The flight was on time, in fact I think we were fractionally early arriving in Prague. Safely through the system and met by a driver (we had been warned not to try and get a taxi at the airport but to book in advance) who took us straight to our hotel.

We were staying in the Design Hotel Neruda. It's up in lesser town, nestled underneath the castle. Mid-range and comfortable, serving an excellent breakfast, it made an excellent base.

It wasn't 10am, so our room wasn't ready. Of course, we didn't expect it to be, we were just after dropping the suitcases, and then we were ready to explore. The street is famous for having many original house signs that were used before numbers, I took a few photos.

First stop was a walk up the street to the Museum of Miniatures. I had no idea what to expect (probably some neat models of some sort), but it's actually tiny models that you need a microscope to see. We just about managed to get round before a huge tour group descended on the place.

Another walk, and we got to the Public Transport Museum. [photo gallery] We found it fascinating, mostly trams but some other vehicles as well. We then took the sightseeing Route 91 tram into Prague itself.

The Old Town of Prague is fairly compact, so we started out on what would be the first of several days walking around. We headed up to Wenceslas Square - really a long open boulevard rather than a proper square, and then went into the Vytopna Restaurant.

No, my beer isn't delivered like that in Cambridge.

A bit more wandering around, including going round and round the houses to find this moving statue of Kafka's head, which was a bit odd. Then back to the hotel to check in and unpack. Because we were staying up in Lesser Town, we ended up crossing across the famous Charles Bridge quite a few times. It's a bigger piece of architecture than I was expecting, but it was usually packed with tourists.

Dinner was at U Medvidku, so back into the Old Town we went. We had to try traditional Czech cuisine. (Which as far as I can tell is very tasty but involves very large portions.) It's a very popular place, unfortunately we ended up in one of the side rooms rather than the main hall.

Next morning, more walking - first into the centre, then on the Sandemans free walking tour with our guide Tijo. We've done a number of these tours, they are free (apart from the tip), and tend to be done by outsiders who give a slightly different perspective on the place. There's usually a stop in a coffee shop halfway through.

Lunch was at the John Lennon Pub. We had tried to find this the day before, but our map showed it in the wrong place. I had the baked camembert, while Mel went for the goulash soup served in bread. Then we walked past the John Lennon wall.

Back to the hotel and we had booked a massage and spa, to treat those aching muscles.

In the evening we went off to a Black Light Theatre show. The one we went to is supposed to be the original and best, but they all say that and we haven't been to any others for comparison. Again, I didn't really know what to expect, but it's very impressive and excellently done. A little expensive, mind.

Then a late dinner just round the corner at U Provaznice, I just had Schnitzel and bread. And beer. There are relatively few bars open past 11, but we found U Vejvodu, where I had an excellent rich dark beer called Master. There was a little excitement just as we were about to leave, a group left without paying and the bar staff all shot off after them.

Next morning it was looking a little damp. It was fairly autumnal all the time, but we just had the one wet day, and it never really rained hard enough to get the umbrella out. We went up to the Castle and had a wander round. The Castle grounds are free, although it is a secure military area. Fortunately, the queue waiting to be searched was about 2 people when we got there first thing - it was much longer later in the day.

There's a very interesting Toy Museum in the castle, which we enjoyed going round. Those of us in the UK were brought up on the likes of Hornby, but that was a cheap copy of German toys. There was some Hornby present, but more Marklin and other local makes. The fact that it was warm and dry didn't make any difference, of course.

We wandered out to the Villa Richter, which is by the castle. I can imagine it being glorious to have a glass of bubbly outside in the gardens and vineyards. Nothing much on a cold, wet, windy day, so we went off to the Strahov Monastic Brewery instead. I'm sure it's good, but definitely tourist prices.

That was right next to the Miniatures Museum we had visited earlier, there's also the Monastery Library that you can visit. My advice is to give it a miss, there's not much to see at all and it's expensive for even that. (I'm a great fan of old books and libraries, it was a huge disappointment. But then I can go to the Fitz any time I like for free.)

We then took the regular tram, route 22, into the centre for some more wandering. This took us into the Czech Beer Museum. This is a proper museum, with an optional tasting at the end. (So Mel, who doesn't like beer, just had a museum ticket.) It's quite interesting, although a bit expensive. You have to laugh when they have a display of beers of the world and it has Double Diamond in it. The disappointing part was that they didn't have the full choice of beers available to try.

On the way to our next event we grabbed one of the local snacks, a trdelnik. With chocolate. We got ours from Good Food on Karlova, recommended.

So the next appointment was a Wine Spa. There are several beer spas, offering a hot spa with unlimited beer on tap. Mel found a place that would do a wine spa instead. You're not bathing in wine really, it's wine extracts and herbs they add to the water.

Our anniversary dinner was at the Seven Swabians, a medieval themed restaurant that was just a few yards from the hotel. And, ideally for Mel, they serve mead. Mysteriously they had managed to write our reservation down for the wrong date, but it didn't matter and we had an enjoyable evening anyway. I was already feeling rather stuffed (have I mentioned yet that portions are rather generous?) but the chicken and blue cheese was absolutely delicious.

Next morning we walked southwards, without crossing the river, passing the memorial to the victims of communism, to the Kingdom of Railways. It's the biggest train set I've ever seen, and it's not finished yet. Fascinating. And it would probably be even better if they had signs in English, and if we knew the country so recognised some of the places that were on the model.

Crossing the river we passed the dancing building. I suppose you can just about imagine it as a couple dancing. Maybe.

England hasn't been invaded since 1066, but mainland Europe is a different story. The Memorial to the Heroes of the Heydrich Terror reminded us of that. A sombre experience.

We then had a tour of the microbrewery at Novomestsky pivovar. A brewpub, in our terms. We got a personal tour, just the two of us - whether we were the only people on the tour, or whether we were the only english people who turned up, I'm not sure. This was followed by a tasting of some beer samples (I had to drink most of Mel's, what a shame!) and a meat and cheese platter. The dark beer was delicious - stick in a CAMRA beer festival and call it porter, and we would rave about it.

Mel's a bit of a mead fanatic. We went to U Sedmi Svabu for dinner not only because it was interesting and was close to the hotel, but because it advertised mead. Turns out that mead (or medovin) is fairly common in Prague. We had noticed bottles on sale in plenty of shops, and while searching online to translate the labels to work out which flavour was which we stumbled across the Mead Museum. (I'm astonished that such a thorough organizer as Mel wasn't even aware of it, but I think it's only recently opened.) So we just had to go and visit. They have almost a hundred different meads, mostly local. (There was an english bottle hiding up on a shelf.) Mel had an excellent time tasting 10 different ones, plus the initial free sample, and we had to buy a couple of bottles to bring home.

One of the tourist highlights in Prague is the Astronomical Clock on the main square. Yes, it's an interesting old clock. On the hour crowds of tourists gather to watch it do it's thing. You might think it was going to be something impressive, but it's not. The hourly show is pretty pathetic.

We then went to the Municipal House, and had cake and coffee. It's a glorious piece of architecture, some sort of cross between baroque and art nouveau. Apparently it's in xXx with Vin Diesel. While the staff were efficient, they were a bit snooty.

I was a bit done in at this stage, after a chill out at the hotel we wandered a bit further up the hill. There are relatively few bars I've walked into and walked straight back out again, U cerneho vola was one - the reception was beyond unwelcoming. We did find a very nice cafe on the way back, whose name unfortunately escapes me. While I just had a small beer, Mel had the beer cheese - which is cheese you mash up with spices and beer and things into a paste and spread on your bread, and actually works quite well.

Next morning we started out along the same path as the day before, although this time grabbing a cake from the bakeshop on the way, heading for the funicular up to the Petrin gardens. There was a fair queue, not helped by the fact that the staff insisted on running to timetable and making you wait 10 minutes after the cars were full.

We wandered round the hill and paths, but it was a beautiful clear day so we climbed up to the top of the Petrin Tower where you get excellent views.

Walking into Prague we stopped off at the Pivovarsky Dum for a quick beer. Another microbrewery, they do food and also a sampler set of 8 to try. We just sat right next to the brass brewing vessels and chilled out.

We had looked at Blatnicka a couple of times in passing. We went in for a small glass of wine in the afternoon. In truth, I'm not sure if we went in the right place - the official wine bar is next door and the main restaurant seems to have moved across the road. But it was a very pleasant glass of wine.

Dinner on the last day was at Lokal. It's a vast barn of a place, most of the tables are reserved. But if there's a reservation from 7, and you're there at 6, they'll happily sit you down, letting you know what time you have to be finished by. I had the garlic soup and fried cheese, although I was tempted by the carp.

For a last drink we went back to U Provaznice,and had a last look at that Astronomical Clock as we made our way back to the hotel to get our taxi back to the airport.

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.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Brussels and Back

I recently went to FOSDEM in Brussels. This isn't about FOSDEM (which was great); it's some of the things that I noticed there, and while travelling.

I ended up flying from Gatwick. It would be nice if, living in Cambridge, flying from Stansted was an option, but it isn't. I looked at going by train, but the cost difference was significant, so that was ruled out.

It was public transport all the way. While our experience of parking at Gatwick has got much better over the last year, I really couldn't see the point of driving down, especially as I was driving down on my own.

First step was a bus to Cambridge railway station. Fortunately, the bus turned up at our stop reasonably promptly. Often, the bus disservice run by Stagecoach is such that "a bus every ten minutes" translates into average waiting times of 20 minutes. Half way to the station, we come to the stop by Budgens to find it swamped by small children. This was the first time I had seen a school outing using a regular service bus.

I've recently got a network railcard. When I just used to go down to London in the evening, this would have been marginal in terms of savings. More daytime trips (commuting, although normally outside the rush hour) makes it much more attractive. With this journey as well, it almost paid for itself in the first two trips.

I took the underground to Victoria, to get the Gatwick Express. Coming up to the concourse, I thought I had just missed the train (although it's not a long wait to the next one). Then I hear over the station tannoy "Would the driver of the 11:44 Gatwick Express please report to platform 13 where his train is ready to depart". That's a new one! So I made that train with a minute or two to spare.

I'm used to going through tourist areas and being accosted by restaurants touting for trade. Some of the Brussels restaurants were plain stupid. They would almost rugby tackle us, or stand in front arms spread wide physically blocking our path. Seriously, is such abusive behaviour likely to encourage custom?

After the conference, I had a few hours in Brussels itself, as my flight home was reasonably late on Monday. It's a sorry place which has the Mannekin Pis as a major tourist attraction. The city museum was also closed on Monday, which was a little annoying.

I was, however, mightily impressed by the Stripmuseum. That's comic strips, by the way. It's not just Tintin, either. It's in an old classic building, and while most of the material isn't in English, the exhibition itself is trilingual.

Avoiding the aforementioned overtly tourist restaurants, I fancied a steak for lunch. There was a sign outside the Brussels Grill that has a big sign outside offering a steak special lunch for 11.5 euros. I was shown to a table and then promptly ignored. The place was fairly busy, with lots of people coming in, just not a lot of service happening. I was just about to walk out when the waiter came over. On trying to order, he then tells me they've run out of the special offer (limited quantity for the offer each day). I have my coat on and am almost at the door when he goes for the Hail Mary pass. Just down the street, only a few doors down, is another branch of the same chain, the Raphael, which is much quieter and won't have run out. And he takes the time to make sure I can see exactly where it is (it's not got any of the outdoor seating, so it's much less obvious).

It's only a few yards down the street, so what have I got to lose? And yes, it's far less crowded, in a far more interesting building, they do have the offer on, and service is prompt and attentive. I ended up having an excellent lunch.

Then to take the train back to the airport. The ticket machines at the station don't take notes, just coins. (Really, how hard is this?) I don't quite have enough coinage to cover the ticket, so have to queue at the counter. And they have just the one counter open, who is having to do everything from simple tickets like mine to someone in front who has some really complicated task that takes forever.

Cheap airlines charge for checked luggage (and it would have doubled the cost for me, but I was travelling light so just had a rucksack with a change of clothing, and that went easily under the seat). It seems that almost everyone is basically gaming the system by pushing the envelope on carry-on luggage sizes. There's clearly more luggage than will fit, so the last few people get their cases shoved in the hold.

One side-effect of this is that almost everyone stands in a queue for 20-30 minutes in order to get one early enough for there to be spaces in the overhead lockers. This despite the call from the desk for everyone to stay seated. I really don't understand why people do this. I finished two puzzles in the paper while having a relaxing sit down.

It's only a short hop, then more queueing at Gatwick. There's this push to make people use the e-Passport gates rather than see a real person. That would be fine if (a) the machines actually worked reliably (b) they worked reasonably quickly, and (c) there were enough machines to cope. Instead, there are a tiny handful of machines, either they're not working or people can't operate them, and it's very much slower than seeing a real person. I've nothing against the electronic version in principle, but if that's the way they want to go it's essential to equip the system with enough capacity.

Getting back home, I hopped onto the Thameslink train to St Pancras rather than wait for the Gatwick express. It was just pulling into the platform, so I decided to take that as it was there. It was fine until we got into central London, at which point the commuters going home up to Bedford pile on, and it's sardine territory. Fighting my way off the train at St Pancras was quite a challenge.

I'm thinking the trip is going pretty well as I jump straight onto a train at King's Cross, only for us to then to shortly come to a grinding halt due to signal failure around Welwyn North. Nothing about this on the boards at King's Cross, but it was almost an hour's delay.