Uppsala and Stockholm (again)

I was in Sweden last week. I seem to have been there a lot lately; that was my third work trip there and I’ll have my third midsummer trip in a couple of months as well.


Although I usually like to explore new places while I’m away, I was more in the mood for just chilling out and doing nothing this time, what with life getting very busy back home with work, Beltane and wedding stuff all at once. So I decided after the meeting I would book myself into my favourite hostel in Stockholm for a couple of days and spend them doing nothing at all. (Sometimes I find it easier to relax and unwind away from all the distractions and half-ticked-off To Do lists at home). The work part of the trip felt familiar as well, as I was staying in the same hotel and having a meeting in the same venue as I did two years ago.

At first it looked as if I was going to have to be at least a bit adventurous after all: when I first looked at accommodation options, my normal hostel was fully booked for the nights I wanted. But there must have been some cancellations as when I went back to actually book, they had two beds available. I booked one quickly before they changed their minds again. Although some of the other hostels looked alright, I knew that this one had a good lounge for relaxing in, whereas some of the others apparently didn’t have much common space, or didn’t allow alcohol in it. Plus City Backpackers is supposedly the best hostel in Sweden so I felt that going elsewhere after staying there twice probably would have been a bit of a come-down.

The Journey

I booked onto a nice quick direct flight to Stockholm Arlanda. As luck would have it, not just one but two things came along later and annoyingly clashed with my chosen flight: firstly, an all staff meeting at work. I wouldn’t normally be too upset about missing a meeting, but this was an interesting one as there’s a lot going on right now (reorganisations, pending move to a new building). Ah well. I’ll read the minutes later.

And secondly, the London Transport Museum announced that they were releasing tickets for their next wave of tours of abandoned tube stations and hidden tunnels, which I really wanted to go on (I like that sort of thing, you see) but which I was sure would sell out insanely quickly. The time that this would go live? 10am Tuesday, exactly the time I was boarding my plane. Grrr. Why did they have to pick the ONE day in several months that I wasn’t able to be in front of a computer at 10am?

(Laura kindly volunteered to try and get me tickets instead. Despite a surge of demand reminiscent of the Raspberry Pi launch 4 years ago, she succeeded in getting us tickets for the Down Street tour, the one I most wanted, and apparently the most sought-after one by far. So that’s something to look forward to, although it’s not til December. It’s expensive, but what the hell, you have to treat yourself sometimes. I have to admit I find it slightly amusing that the last people to be caught sneaking into a disused tunnel in London were apparently fined less money than I’ve just paid for a legitimate underground tour).

Anyway. On the plus side, it was a lovely clear morning for a flight (a rare treat when flying from Edinburgh), and the plane was amazingly empty (a rare treat when using a budget airline), which is always nice. I had a whole three seats to myself and was able to enjoy the view of West Lothian spread out below me like a map (though not get any decent photos of it, since the window was very dirty and a jet engine was blocking a lot of it). I was also able to see miles and miles of stationery traffic on all the local motorways, even though it was way past rush hour time… apparently it’s been chaos due to accidents this morning, though thankfully I avoided most of the chaos on my way to the airport. I wonder if the plane was empty because all the other would-be occupants were stuck in the jams down there.


We made it to Uppsala, where our meeting’s being held, pretty easily (though it seemed slightly bizarre that we had to enter our names into the ticket machine when buying tickets for a less than 20 minute train journey! It also seems slightly bizarre that, in contrast to the blandly corporate or edgily cool jingles they use to precede the announcements in most airports and stations, the one at Arlanda sounds like Grandpa Flump playing two quavering notes on his flumpet). Uppsala is actually the fourth largest city in Sweden, but it really doesn’t feel much like a big city at all to me… though it only has about a third of the population of Edinburgh, so I suppose it is small compared to what I’m used to. The hotel was nicer than I remembered, and it turns out it has fast Eduroam access in the rooms which is great for me – when Eduroam’s available it usually seems way faster and more reliable than whatever random public networks you can find. So I didn’t have to attempt any accidental dodgy hacker tricks in order to get online this time. Ahem.


I noticed the disgusting old white sock and the miniature Jaegermeister bottle on the lower storey roof outside my window straight away, but it was a bit longer before I noticed the (bare foot!) foot prints in a chaotic pattern on the other half of the roof. There surely has to be a story behind those…

The Meeting

We were treated to some lovely Swedish weather (clear and sunny, though still cold) as we walked down to the meeting venue, on the Uppsala University campus. The walk was a picturesque and relaxing one, along the river with its pretty bridges and boats (although it’s not quite so relaxing if you do what one of my colleagues and I did the first time we came here and walk right down the wrong side of the river, assuming there’ll be another bridge further down, then find there isn’t). I always think the campus itself looks more like a woodland summer camp than one of the top universities of northern Europe (in case it’s not clear, I do mean that as a compliment!). Apparently it was originally built as some kind of army base, so it makes sense that the layout is a bit unusual for a university.

The meeting itself was an interesting one, and since I’d actually got a decent night’s sleep for a change, I didn’t even come close to falling asleep at any point during the proceedings. It seems to do my brain good being away for a bit, because I always seem to come up with lots of new ideas for all my projects when I’m travelling. I made sure to note them down for later.


Our dinner was in an old station building. It was in slightly better condition than the old stations I normally find myself in.

The Holiday

After the day and a half of meeting, it was off to Stockholm for my little holiday. The train was on time and very nice, as they usually seem to be in European countries other than Britain, and after finally excusing myself from a crazy old woman on the platform who seemed determined to talk to me in Swedish and completely unconcerned by the fact that I couldn’t understand a word, I was on my way.

Coming back to somewhere I’ve visited before sometimes does strange things to my perception of time; I remember on my second visit to Madrid it felt like ages since I’d been there before, when in reality it was only just over two months, but coming back to Stockholm after 18 months, I didn’t feel as if much time had passed at all. The hostel “upgraded” me from the eight bed dormitory I’d booked to a 6 bed “apartment”. They were using the apartments as extra dorms, probably because they were so busy, so I still had to share with other people. But it did mean we had our own private loo, shower, small kitchen, and even a sauna (which I didn’t dare to use as I didn’t have a clue how to work the thing, though one of my room mates did manage to get it working).

I slept better than I normally do in a hostel room. I hadn’t had any plans for Friday at all, but when I discovered my pyjama top was missing, and confirmed via email that it was still at my hotel in Uppsala, I decided I was going to go and get it back. (I’ve no idea how I managed to do this; I’m normally ultra-careful not to leave anything behind when I stay in a hotel, to the point of even checking inside cupboards that I know perfectly well I’ve never opened before I leave). I probably wouldn’t have bothered as it would have been cheaper just to buy a new one than to pay for the extra return train ticket, but I felt bad as it was a present from Laura. Anyway, I didn’t really mind relaxing on the train for a couple of hours. There are worse ways to spend a morning.

I spent most of the time just relaxing, either in the hostel lounge or in a nearby bar, and was glad that I’d ripped my mother’s Reginald Perrin DVDs to my laptop to keep me entertained. It was what I felt I needed. Of course, I’d done most of the important stuff around the hostel on my previous visits here anyway – for example, photographing the local tunnel:


And the local unfortunately-named cafe:


My second day in Stockholm was slightly more energetic, though I still found the time for plenty of Reggie Perrin as well. I went for my first run since the horrible flu/chest infection/laryngitis that I was suffering from last month. Although I’d worked up to being able to run for 40 minutes non-stop before the illness, I didn’t want to do anything that strenuous after over a month’s break, so I did a gentle 20 minutes (with short pause to remove gravel from my trainer). It went surprisingly well and didn’t even cause me to have a coughing fit, so I was happy. I also went for a wander along the sea front, far enough to see Langholmen (a nice, mostly rural-feeling wooded island that’s surprisingly close to the city centre), but I was too tired to cross over to it this time.

The Return

My return flight left at 7:55, so I had to be up before 5am to get the bus. (It was the only direct flight of the day, so it was that or waste about 5 hours getting home). As always seems to happen when I need to be up early, my hostel roommates, who’d been perfectly well behaved throughout my whole stay, decided to pick the final night to make a lot of noise and keep me awake. All I can say is I hope they enjoyed the sound of my 4:45 alarm… I certainly didn’t.

The flight was the first time I’ve ever used wifi on a plane. I remember when the internet was only in the uni computer labs, or at home via excruciatingly slow dial up modem. Now, the number of places that you can escape from it is ever-diminishing: planes have wifi; my last two phones have been waterproof so being in the bath or shower is no excuse; hell, even one of the abandoned railway tunnels I explored had a perfect 4G signal (though admittedly that’s probably just an accident of microwave propagation rather than any deliberate desire on the part of Glasgow City Council to let urban explorers broadcast their crew shots more easily).

I came home feeling happier and more relaxed than I had done in weeks, thanks to the couple of days of doing nothing at all other than what I felt like. I decided I should book my next unwinding trip straight away (well, after next payday) so I have it to look forward to.

In Bruges (… and Ghent, and Antwerp)

I’m just back from a week long trip to Belgium. I had a work meeting in Ghent on Monday and Tuesday, but Laura was able to come out and join me afterwards, so we decided to make it into a little holiday and explore Bruges and Antwerp before coming home.

Bruges canal

This wasn’t my first time in Belgium; I had a similar meeting in Ghent nearly two years ago, but it ended up being my only foreign work trip in several years that I didn’t really enjoy. Nothing to do with Belgium, though, which seemed a nice enough place… mostly just because of the overwrought state I’d rather foolishly managed to get myself into by going on three other trips away in the few weeks preceding it. So I spent most of my time there (not very long as I couldn’t stay on after my meeting that time) wishing I was at home on my own and didn’t have to deal with any of it. Thankfully this time was a lot better.

I was away for seven nights in total, but I ended up staying in five different hotels in total, and my first four nights were all in different places. It wasn’t ideal, but there was a logic to it (basically, I wanted to stay near the airport the first night as I was flying in so late, and after the meeting I didn’t want to stay in the same hotel as it was expensive and work wouldn’t pay for another night). It did mean I got a bit fed up with wheeling all my luggage around with me for most of the first few days and was glad when I finally arrived in Bruges and was able to stay in the same room for more than about five minutes.

The first hotel was OK, except that it wasn’t as close to the airport as the name would have you believe, and the air in the room was so dry that I didn’t sleep very well. On the plus side, my room had a nice balcony overlooking the nearby motorway. Also on the plus side, the dryness woke me up while the lunar eclipse was going on so I managed to see some of it after all (though I didn’t, in my semi-conscious state, manage to get any decent photos of it unfortunately).

The Belgian trains seemed cheap, efficient and (the ones I ended up on, at least) mostly empty, so getting to the meeting was quite easy and painless, though I did have a long sweaty walk with all my luggage once I got to Ghent as the station isn’t very near the city centre. Our meeting venue was suitably grand:

A suitably grand venue for our meeting

After a good day of discussion, we had the conference meal. I had been gearing up for a big rant about this, because the venue insisted on everyone in the group having the same thing, which is one of my pet hates when it comes to catering. But the food was so delicious, and the chef’s moustache so worthy of Hercule Poirot’s native land, that I’ll forgive them this time. The starter wouldn’t have been to all tastes as it consisted mostly of raw meat, something I’d never eaten before, but it was much nicer than I expected.

Start the day Gently in Gent

After the meeting finished, I had one day to kill on my own before Laura arrived on Wednesday night. I’d decided to stay in Ghent for this since I didn’t get to see much of it last time, and I was very glad I did. My hostel (the building on the right with the crow-step gables in the photo below) was a lovely old building with friendly staff and good facilities.

My hostel in Ghent

(Only problem was, I think spending the night there re-awakened the part of me that loves to go hostelling, but one night didn’t feel like enough and I probably won’t get the chance to do it again for ages now, which is kind of frustrating. Bah. Oh well, I can surf around online and plan adventures for next summer, I guess).

I spent my evening doing the final week 9 run of Couch to 5K (which I’ll probably write a whole post about soon) at a nice park, then treating myself to a steak at one of the many pavement cafes to celebrate, followed by some good local beer in the hostel lounge. The next morning, I wandered round and took photos. Ghent has a very pretty old town so it was a good place to do this, and I was very lucky with the weather as well.


My favourite thing in Ghent (apart from the lovely hostel) was the belfry. Every quarter hour the bells play a tune – not just a short chime sequence like a lot of clocks back home, but a full-on polyphonic tune with melody and harmonies and everything. You can climb up and admire the view from the top (which is very pretty in most directions, but surprisingly industrial to the north), but even better, you can go in the “clock room” and watch the mechanism that works the clock faces and rings the bells. The bell sequence is controlled by a huge metal drum, a bit like a giant music box, that rotates while the tunes are playing.

The clock room of the Ghent Belfry

(These sort of things kinda fascinate me. For some reason, when I was very small, I always wanted to be a clock maker. In reality as an adult, I don’t think I would have the patience or the dexterity for that and would probably have got bored with it by now if I was doing it full time, but it’s interesting to see examples of the craft occasionally).

Next, it was off to Bruges! I had time to check into hotel no. 4 and have a much-needed nap before Laura arrived. The hotel was unusual: all of the rooms had doors opening to the outside world rather than a hotel corridor, so it felt very like the sort of cheap American motel that you see in films (I’ve never seen one in real life but I assume they exist). It was fine though, apart from the connecting door to the next room which, although locked at least, didn’t block sound very well.

Bruges canal

Bruges, like Ghent, was a very picturesque place to wander round and soak up the sights. Or even better, sail round. We took a boat tour round the canals, which is something I like to do whenever possible in a new city (done London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and possibly others now). The only slight disappointment was that the boat didn’t go through the long-ish canal tunnel I’d noticed on the map and then couldn’t resist going to have a look at when we were in the area.

Canal tunnel entrance

There was also a belfry that seemed quite similar to the one in Ghent, though we didn’t go inside this time. It must be a traditional Belgian thing.

We left our two days in Antwerp ’til last, and to be honest it was a bit of an anticlimax compared to the other cities. There was nothing wrong with it particularly, it just didn’t seem to have much going on compared with the other places we’d been. I had a similar experience in Frankfurt earlier in the year… nothing much wrong with it, just didn’t live up to the other German cities I’d visited and loved (Berlin, Munich, Leipzig, Heidelberg). Apologies if anyone from Antwerp (or Frankfurt) is reading!

The highlight for me was the very impressive main station building:

Antwerp Centraal Station

Our Antwerp hotel was quite a long way out, among the seemingly endless stretch of ports to the north west of the city centre. On weekends the buses didn’t even go to it and we had to get off quite a distance away and walk to it. But on the plus side, it was right next to an amazing (and very popular seeming) world buffet restaurant where I ate far too much Chinese food, doughnuts and profiteroles on the first night.

As is often the case, I felt ready to go home by the end of the trip. I’d enjoyed it, but I was starting to get travel fatigue after moving from hotel room to hotel room so many times in a week, and I had lots to do at home… during my meeting, emails seemed to be pouring in giving me new tasks on my other project.

I’d like to thank several organisations for making the trip much more interesting than it otherwise would have been. Firstly, my bank for sending my new debit card to the wrong address. The old one then expired at the end of September while I was still away, so for half the trip I couldn’t get money out from my main account. Secondly, Sony for pushing an update to my phone just before I set off that pretty much halved the battery life – just what I needed when I was going to be away from home and away from easily accessible plug sockets for several days. And last but not least, my web hosting provider for rejecting my monthly payment for absolutely no reason whatsoever (at first I thought this must be due to the debit card expiring, but it was nothing to do with that – it worked fine when I redid it manually). It would have been so dull just travelling around beautiful European cities without all that stuff to keep me occupied.


Alton Towers Revisited

I last posted about Alton Towers on here nearly four years ago, when I wrote about what I described as “the annual Beyond Alton Towers trip”. Since then it hasn’t really lived up to the “annual” bit; we’ve only just finally made it back there. Everyone’s schedule and finances seem to have got increasingly complicated over the past few years and it’s been hard to get the whole group together for things like this. But Alex’s pending 30th birthday finally gave us the hearty kick-up-the-arse we so badly needed, and we managed to not only reunite the core Alton Towers crew (me, Alex, Gavin and Heather) but also drag along Laura, Lori, Stuart and Sam for the ride(s) as well.


(The thought of my quite-a-bit younger brother being 30 years old is something I’m still not entirely comfortable with. I’d only just started to get used to the idea of being in my 30s myself, for god’s sake, then Laura went and turned 30 a few months ago, and now Alex is doing it too. Will this ever end??).

Of course, Alton Towers has been in the news quite a lot this year, following the now-infamous Smiler roller coaster crash back in June that seriously injured four people. Probably mostly because of this, the park was by far the quietest I’ve ever seen it. Most of the time there was virtually no queue for the majority of the rides (Spinball, Rita and Th13teen still had queues but much shorter than normal). It was weird being able to just walk into the Nemesis loading station and get straight on the next train without having to wait at all. Consequently, we managed to do fourteen rides on the first day, most of them big ones, something that would have been impossible on any of my previous visits. No wonder we were all exhausted by the evening after all those adrenaline rushes.

Front row on Nemesis

Front row on Nemesis

The Smiler itself is still closed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it never re-opens after all that bad publicity. We saw them sending test trains around it, with weights in them to simulate riders. Unfortunately the only other new ride to be added since our last visit (Nemesis Sub Terra) was also closed the whole time, though I’m not sure why. So the only thing that was actually new to me was Enterprise, a big spinny wheel thing near Oblivion. It’s one of the oldest rides in the park, but I’ve never been on it before as Alex always said it wasn’t that good and I’d decided I’d rather spend my precious Alton Towers time queueing for things that were good rather than something that wasn’t. But this time, with hardly any queues to contend with, I gave it a try. It wasn’t bad. It didn’t make me feel as sick as I’d expected it to. Once it got going it felt a bit like going round the same roller coaster loop again and again, only less safe because inside your little cage there’s no lap bar or anything to make you feel secure.

Anyway. I may not have done much new stuff this time, but I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting all the old rides again, especially after such a long break. I was a bit worried I’d have lapsed back into being too scared to go on any of the big ones, but after a quick Saturday morning spin on Nemesis, I felt ready to face the rest of the park. Stuart, however, was quite nervous about it all as he hadn’t been to Alton Towers before, though his girlfriend Sam was already a bit of an adrenaline junkie (“Naw, just a junkie”, Stuart said affectionately). But once he got going, he enjoyed the rides a lot and wanted to do all of them (although he was still entertainingly sweary during the scary bits). It was Laura and Lori that really surprised me, though… they hadn’t even been going to come into the theme park at all until we discovered we could get them quite cheap tickets for the second day, as they weren’t sure it would be their thing. But they ended up going on quite a lot of the rides. They both did Th13teen and Rita, and Lori did Nemesis, Air and Sonic Spinball too.


Opinion was divided on what was the scariest. As I mentioned last time, Gavin, Alex, Heather and I are all terrified of Rita now, whereas the others just casually went on it and couldn’t understand what we were making such a fuss about. Laura said it didn’t bother her much, because she’d been in the car with her dad in his younger days. I did feel slightly vindicated when I read all the ride statistics online afterwards, though – at least in terms of raw G-force, Rita is the most intense, clocking up 4.7G compared to Oblivion’s 4.5 and Nemesis’s 4.0. Though I can fully understand why most people find Oblivion scarier – the fact that you’re experiencing 0.2G less than you would be on Rita isn’t really much comfort when you’re plunging face down into a huge dark hole from sixty feet up in the air.

I know it's blurred, but that gives you a better impression of what it actually looks like.

I know it’s blurred, but that gives you a better impression of what it actually looks like.

It was a nice enough day on the Saturday for us to risk doing the water rides. I’m not sure if they were there last time, but there are now pay-per-use water guns lined up next to the Congo River Rapids, so you can pay a pound to soak ten innocent passing riders. We discovered this when a huge jet of cold water hit Stuart right in the face as we descended the rapids, but he made himself feel better later on by doing the same thing to some other unsuspecting people. And so the cycle continues. Alex and I managed to emerge from the rapids mostly dry, but both got absolutely drenched on the Flume. Note to self: don’t sit in the front next time. Or do what Gavin did and bring full waterproofs, including a plastic bag to keep his feet dry, though that seems a bit like cheating to me.

Meeting one of my childhood heroes.

Meeting one of my childhood heroes.

As always, there was plenty else to do at the Towers as well as the white knuckle rides. Gavin and Stuart both became obsessed with those machines where you have to move the grabby claw so that it picks up a prize for you. There were lots of those all over the park, especially around the Arrr-cade in the pirate themed bit. (It’s not really called the Arrr-cade, but it definitely should be. Missed opportunity there, guys!). Gavin eventually did manage to win a Gremlin toy from one of them, though I dread to think how much it must have cost him altogether. I’m not sure if Stuart won anything from those, though he did win some soft toys for Sam from one of the “Win a prize every time” stalls. Heather, meanwhile, thought she was making friends with a duck near the Flume, but it turned out it just wanted to steal her doughnut.

The doughnut thief himself.

The doughnut thief eyes up his next victim.

It was a great weekend… mustn’t leave it so long before going back next time 🙂 .

(Photos mostly by Laura this time… I didn’t take my camera and hardly took any on my phone).

Let me be the first (err, second actually) to say I’ll miss netbooks

I was interested to see this article in the Register. The majority of the comment online about the death of netbooks seems to be along the lines of “Tablets are so much cooler and slicker, netbooks were clunky and annoying to use and who really needs a full PC these days anyway, especially when they’re travelling? Hardly anyone, that’s who. Good riddance netbooks”. But I for one am disappointed that they’ve stopped making them… I can’t see that anything else is going to meet my needs quite so well when I’m travelling… and finally someone agrees with me!

I took my HP netbook running Xubuntu away with me several times last year. I always found it useful, but on the three trips where I combined work with pleasure, it was indispensable. It was light enough to carry around in my backpack without taking up half my cabin baggage allowance or knackering my shoulders. It was cheap enough that if it did get damaged or stolen it wouldn’t be the end of the world (yes, I do have insurance, but you never know when they’re going to worm their way out of actually paying up). Its battery lasts a genuine six hours on a single charge, even when I’m actually doing work on it. It has a proper (if fairly small) keyboard so typing emails or documents on it doesn’t make me lose the will to live. It has enough storage space to keep most of my important files locally in case I can’t get online.


Most of all, it actually runs a proper full operating system! This isn’t something I’m just arbitrarily demanding because I’m a technology snob. I really do need it and do make use of it. At my technical meeting in Madrid in September, I was running a Tomcat web server, a MySQL database server, a RabbitMQ server running on top of an Erlang interpreter, and a full Java development environment. Try doing that on an iPad or an Android tablet! You might think all of that would be pretty painful on a single core Atom with 2GB of memory, but it actually ran surprisingly well. I wouldn’t want to work like that all the time but for a three day meeting it was perfectly adequate and usable. The full OS also means I can encrypt the whole disk which gives me a lot of peace of mind that my files are secure even if the thing does get stolen.

But now I’m starting to get worried about what I’m going to replace it with when the netbook finally departs for the great electronics recycling centre in the sky. Despite the market being flooded with all sorts of portable computing devices, I can’t see any that are going to do what I want quite so well as the netbook did.

Get a tablet? Urgh, no thanks… I’m sure they have their place, but even if I added a proper keyboard there is no way I’d get all that development software to run on Android or iOS. OK, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some way to hack some of it into working on Android, but Android is hardly a standard or well supported environment for it. It’s not going to Just Work the way it does on a standard PC running Windows or Ubuntu.

Get a Microsoft Surface Pro? This tablet actually does run a full version of Windows 8 (or will when it comes out), but at $900 it costs nearly three times as much as my netbook did. I couldn’t justify spending that on something I’m going to throw into my backpack and take all over the place with me. I’d be constantly worrying it was going to get broken or stolen.

Get an “ultrabook”? Again would do the things I need, but again would cost WAY more than the netbook, would almost certainly weigh a lot more than the netbook, and I’d be very surprised if it had comparable battery life either (at least not without spending even more money on SSDs, spare batteries, etc.). For the “pleasure” part of my Madrid trip I was staying in a hostel room with seven other people. There was ONE power socket between the eight of us. When travelling, battery life really does matter.

Get a Chromebook and install a full Linux distribution on it? This is actually the option I’d lean towards at present. Chromebooks have price, portability and battery life on their side and apparently are easy to install Linux on. The downsides would be the ARM processor (which could limit software compatibility as well as making even the lowly Atom look blazingly fast in comparison), and the lack of local storage (Chromebooks generally seem to have a few gigabytes of storage. My netbook has a few hundred gigabytes!). So, still not an ideal option, but unless some enterprising company resurrects the netbook concept, could be the best of a bad lot :(.

(I freely admit I’m in a small minority here… not many people need to run multiple servers on their computer while travelling, and not many of those that do tend to extend their business trips with nights in hostels. But that doesn’t stop it being annoying that something that met my needs perfectly is no longer being made 😉 ).

Madrid Rio Project

Whilst in Madrid, my geeky interest in engineering combined with my self-preservation interest in not melting in the 30+ degree heat, drawing me to the Madrid Rio Project.

Back in the 70s, the M30 motorway was built right through Madrid. It followed the route of the Manzanares river, cutting off the two halves of the city from each other and leaving the river in a narrow, inaccessible channel between the carriageways. OK, you might think, that’s the sort of thing urban planners liked to do in the 60s and 70s. (You should see what they nearly did to Edinburgh! Motorways ploughing through the Meadows and crossing the east end of Princes Street on stilts. I’m not making this up). They’d never get away with it now, but the damage is already done… people might not like having six lanes of heavy traffic hammering along what could have been the city’s waterfront, but it’s there now and getting them to accept the traffic chaos that would be caused by getting rid of it would be a pretty hard sell.

Puente de Toledo crosses the new park

However, get rid of it they have. In a mammoth infrastructure project from about 2005-2008, the M30 was buried in Europe’s longest urban motorway tunnels, and the surface transformed into a 6km long linear park along the restored banks of the river. Although the cost was massive (I saw $3.9 billion just for the tunnels from one source and I can well believe it), the result has been a huge reduction in noise and pollution, improvements in road capacity and safety, and perhaps most importantly the replacement of a road that was a serious barrier and a blot on the landscape with open, welcoming green space, helping to join the city back together again.

New fountains at the Puente de Segovia

I heard about the project shortly before I went to Madrid and knew I had to go and see it. I have to say, it exceeded my expectations. The scale of the thing is amazing, there are all sorts of facilities from paths to open air bars to children’s play areas, and the whole area felt exceptionally clean and safe. Apart from a few air vents and some slip roads popping out of the ground in odd places, little evidence of the subterranean motorway is visible.

A sliproad disappearing into the ground gives a clue as to where the M30 has gone.

For hot days, though, the “City Beach” is a work of genious. There are shallow water pools with lovely, cooling fountains so when the temperatures start to get too much, you can go stand in the spray until you cool off again. It certainly made the afternoon sunshine a lot more bearable for a pale northerner such as myself.

So… why can’t they put the M8 through Glasgow underground and build a beach on top? (OK, don’t answer that 😉 ).

Puente de Segovia by night

Update: I’m in Madrid again now (1/12/2012), and this time it’s cool enough to actually walk the whole length of the Rio Project, so I did. Well, actually I don’t think I quite made it to the southern end – it wasn’t obvious where to go so it looks as if either they haven’t completed the whole thing as shown on the maps, or I was just being dumb and not noticing the continuation.

I’d already seen probably the most impressive bits, the parks centred on the two old bridges, but walking the whole thing does give a better idea of the sheer scale of it. The whole distance was nicely landscaped and seems to be quite heavily used even in the cooler weather. I also discovered that they haven’t completely buried the motorway – a section of the northbound carriageway is still on the surface where it passes the stadium, giving a good idea of what the whole thing must have been like before, and why they would’ve wanted to change it.

Ich war ein Berliner

So, Berlin. The last and most unexpected of my June trips. I was kind of conflicted when work announced that they were sending me there. On the one hand it was yet another thing to do in an already very hectic month, and it would mean more time apart from Laura, and only one day back in the UK after Sweden before having to rush off again. But on the other hand I love Germany, so I decided to embrace it and take advantage of the fact that work were paying for my travel. I did something I haven’t done before and booked myself into a hostel for an extra two days after the meeting, intending to do some proper sightseeing.

Maybe age 32 isn’t the best time to suddenly discover you really like going round European cities and staying in hostels… but it could be worse, and by this point I’m so used to doing everything at the “wrong” age that I might as well just go with it. People are so chilled out and friendly! They actually talk to you and it feels like you’re part of a community of sorts just by hanging out at the hostel, unlike hotels that seem so impersonal and soulless and tend to be full of stressed out, sour-faced business travellers who just want to be left alone (I fully admit to being one of them myself on previous work trips). I think I will be doing this more often! That four weeks of annual leave that I don’t know what to do with is beckoning…

On Saturday morning I visited the former East Berlin to see Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and one of the largest surviving sections of the Berlin Wall. The guidebook only gave it a passing mention (which surprised me), but I felt drawn to it for some reason and felt I wanted to go there. As it turned out, I found it unexpectedly moving. I’ve been to places that have great historical significance before, but probably never to anywhere that’s changed quite so profoundly during my own lifetime (I can remember the news reports of the wall falling and German re-unification, though wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate what it meant at the time). The streets could be a part of any European city now… clean, safe, full of smart shops and camera-toting tourists. It’s mind-boggling to think that when my parents were here Berlin was split by miles (sorry, kilometres) of concrete and barbed wire, and that they could have been shot on sight for even trying to take the same route that I so casually strolled around on my visit. Afterwards I bought genuine (I hope?) pieces of the old Wall in a souvinir shop for two of my more politically minded friends and family. I was surprised how hard it was to see the former course of the wall in most places – there has obviously been a lot of redevelopment since.

One of the few surviving sections of the Berlin Wall

Apart from my little walk around the East, it was too hot to do very much else except visit a very nice bathing lake (Strandbad Wannsee I think it was called) and sit at pavement cafes drinking cold German beer. So that was what I did.

(Sometimes when I see warning or instruction signs, I can’t help but imagine what potentially amusing event might have led to that sign being put up. A shop I passed with metal hooks on the wall outside had a big sign saying “nur für Hunde!” [only for dogs] and it made me wonder what other creatures/things/family members people must have been tying up there in the past that made them feel the need to put the sign up. Similarly the “Swimming costumes must be warn at all times!” sign at a pool I used to go to… there must be a story behind that).


We went to Sweden for Midsummer this year.

Let’s see… completely deserted cities – check. Maypole dancing – check. Consumption of very strong local alcohol – check. Outdoor swimming – check. Sauna – missed that one. Find love – no need ;).

The trip was off to a good start (well, apart from having to get up at 4am) when I realised that, unexpectedly, I actually like Ryanair. Their seats don’t recline!! I would actually pay extra for this, seriously. I can never sleep on planes anyway so the reclining isn’t any good to me, and I always seem to end up behind someone who pushes their seat right back in my face straight away, so it was really nice to find that for once they couldn’t. (On the negative side, my hand luggage was so close to the weight limit that Game of Thrones would have pushed it over if I hadn’t been able to jam it into my pocket instead. I’m starting to see the attraction of a Kindle, though can’t really justify buying any more gadgets right now. Besides, Game of Thrones is so dense that one gets the feeling loading it onto a Kindle might make the Kindle gain a kilo or two).

I may have been surprised to find I liked Ryanair, but I wasn’t surprised that I liked Sweden. Everything seemed clean, efficient, safe and friendly. I like that they’re more socialist than Britain and have actually made it work. (When we have the Scottish independence referendum, can we have an option to split off from the UK and join Scandinavia instead? Pleeeease? 🙂 ).

Anyway… the YouTube video above really wasn’t kidding about the cities being deserted. Wandering through the completely empty streets of Malmo was quite eerie, like exploring a ghost town. My friend’s house when we got there, on the other hand… not so deserted! Inside the front door we were greeted by a sea of discarded shoes in the front hall. Even allowing for the fact that there were probably at least two shoes per person, there were still a LOT of people in there.

Lots of people is good, though, for midsummer celebrations. Once the rain cleared up slightly, we had food followed by drink. We hadn’t managed to buy any drink on account of all the shops being shut for Midsummer by the time we arrived, but that didn’t matter… the traditional strong Swedish spirits were flowing (as well as some strong German spirits) and shots of them could be earned by joining in with the folk singing. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many shots in one sitting before… I’m amazed I managed to stand up and even manage the subsequent Maypole dancing without crashing into anything important.

After a night on the floor, we awoke to even better weather, so it was beach time. For the first time since school I played a rounders-type game (brannbol I think it was called) and actually enjoyed it this time. Though I still wasn’t any good at it – when I did finally manage to catch the ball, I was so stunned that I threw it on about twice as hard as I meant to and it went sailing right over Laura’s head. Oh well. Then it was time for a dip in the sea. The water was cold at first but not as cold as in Scotland, and by the time I’d waded out far enough for it to reach my waist, I was quite used to it. Afterwards I didn’t even need to dry myself, just lie there a while and let the sun do it for me.

Unfortunately I managed to fall down a hole by a child’s sandcastle and injured my ankle. I hope they were proud of their very effective defences. The stick throwing game was making it worse so I had to give up on that, but thankfully I was better later on for barbecue, card games, four player Snake, and piano playing. (I’d forgotten how nice it is to play a real piano rather than a keyboard).

Our last day was spent looking round a slightly less ghost-town-like, but still just as wet, Malmo and then chilling out again back at the house. Enough people had left that we managed to claim an actual not-quite-double-but-bigger-than-single bed, but I actually slept worse than I had on the floor, having been too hot and worried about falling off the edge.

It was an awesome little holiday :). Afterwards I had all of one day back home before I was off to Berlin… which is where I am now, but that’s for another post (probably).

New York, New York…

… so good he wrote blog entries about it twice (as the song goes… or something) :).

Day 3

Today was the day of my talk! I also, somewhat unexpectedly, ended up on the panel for a discussion afterwards. I’m glad this was unexpected, if I’d known it was coming I would have dreaded it and probably ended up sitting there rooted to the spot and saying nothing, whereas I actually did manage to contribute something this way. It all seemed to go well and get some interest from the audience. But of course the most important thing was the gifts afterwards!

I couldn’t work out what on earth the blue thing was at first. I thought maybe a doorstop, but it seemed too flimsy for that. When I showed it to Laura back home she suggested maybe it was a phone holder. It turns out the blue stuff does indeed have a weird texture that makes things stick on it rather than falling down. Anyway, whatever it’s supposed to be, it makes a great Raspberry Pi stand.

(Unfortunately when the cables are plugged in they tend to pull it off the stand again).

The afternoon sessions were about biology, and I found two of them really fascinating, particularly the one about emulating a fruit fly’s brain including how it processes vision (really!). I’m interested by how many parallels there seem to be between computing and biology, and how nature seems to do a lot better than us at some of them. It’s an area I’d like to learn more about, though realistically I’ll probably never find the time. I also managed to finally fit in a Skype call back home (which was more difficult than it should have been, thanks to Virgin Media having managed to completely balls up our internet connection and Laura not being able to get a data signal, so I ended up having to buy Skype credit and call the landline instead).

Our evening consisted of a trip on the Staten Island Ferry (cue yet more photos)…

… followed by a nice, very duck-centric Chinese meal in Chinatown. It was interesting to see that even in Chinatown there was at least one McDonalds, with the sign written in Chinese no less, though I still preferred the very sparkly one that looked like a Broadway theatre by Times Square. It was also interesting to see that some things are the same all over the world. BMW drivers, for example. Most drivers were resigned to sitting in the big queue that stretched off round the corner and waiting for it to move. Not so BMW guy… he came haring up to the end of the queue, slammed on his brakes, leaned on the horn for a good ten seconds solid, and finally proceeded to get out of his car and nearly have a fist fight with someone who’d been walking past and took exception to the noise.

After the meal some people went off to find a pub, but tiredness had caught up with me again so I got the subway back to the hotel, wanting to leave some energy for…

Day 4


It was a nice day for it too. I’d already decided I wanted to see Central Park so after checking out of my hotel I set off up there.

It was even bigger than it had looked on the map. I found my first ever international geocache (leaving a travel bug that was on its way to Canada), and saw some of the locations from Home Alone 2. After that I did a bit of souvinir buying for people back home, then wondered what else to do. It seemed a shame to spend too long indoors on a day like this. But after flicking through my guidebook I found this…

… the High Line. An old elevated railway line that had been converted into a sort of linear park and walkway. I really liked it up there and walked further than I’d intended to. Lots of other people were out and about enjoying the sun and it was a nice atmosphere. After walking in the heat for a while I felt tired and thirsty and retired to an Irish bar to spend my last hour in New York reading the start of Game of Thrones.

So yeah… I liked New York, probably more than I expected to. I have Sweden and Berlin coming up in the next few weeks, so seems like I’m hardly going to be in the country this month!

One of the reasons I haven’t been posting in a while…

… I was in New York.

(Well, only for three days. And they do have the internet over there these days, in fact. So I guess it’s not much of an excuse for not posting).

Day 1

I was flying direct from Edinburgh to Newark which was very nice as faffing around changing planes at Heathrow or somewhere always makes journeys feel twice as long. As usual the one person on the flight who insists on having their seat tilted right back for the entire time had gone straight for the seat in front of me. But I amused myself by watching Office Space (I would estimate that I now understand about 43% more of what my old office mate used to come out with… though I suspect I still need to watch the Big Lebowski before the rest of his quotes make any sense), watching Mission Impossible 3, and reading most of the Hunger Games.

The flight seemed nice and short compared to my Tokyo trip 18 months ago, and immigration was quick this time too. After reading in my Rough Guide about the apparent minefield that is taxis, including how to avoid the dodgy ones, how much the legitimate ones would charge, extra charges for going through the tolled tunnels and how much I would be expected to tip if the driver did or didn’t touch my suitcase, I decided it was all far too complicated and I should get the bus instead. So I did. Soon I was in Midtown West, Manhattan, with an hour or two to kill before I could check into my hotel. I wandered around Times Square area and took way too many photos.

All the sky scrapers and electronic signs reminded me a lot of Tokyo, but the general feel of the place was not so manic… more like London. I didn’t feel particularly jetlagged, but I did get very hungry even though it wasn’t close to a meal time, so I ended up going to Burger King, then to the hotel. Just as I was checking in, my colleague (who’d come by a different route) stepped out of the lift. So we went off for more sightseeing and nice pasta dinner, then a break for important stuff like getting online, followed by a couple of drinks down in The Village. I really wanted to go to bed by this time, but it seemed a better idea to try and get my body clock into New York time as soon as possible… certainly didn’t want a repeat of the jetlag nightmares of the Japan trip.

Day 2

City University of New York kindly sent out a minibus to pick us up from our hotel and take us to the workshop, so we didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn and negotiate the public transport system in rush hour after all.

They also kindly elevated me to the status of “Dr Perry”. I probably should have corrected them, but meh. You get used to it when you work in a field where “Doctor” is the default title in drop-down menus, followed by “Professor”, with “Mr” and “Ms” buried way down near the bottom somewhere.

The CUNY campus on Staten Island was nice, with lots of green space, big avenues of trees joining the buildings, and fountains and sculptures dotted around the place. The talks were interesting and lunch was good… I also found myself coming up with lots of ideas for my own creative projects. Being away from home seems to be good for me that way. In the afternoon I sort of zoned out a bit as jetlag caught up with me, and the workshop topic was financial applications. (Information about finance and economics just stubbornly refuses to stay in my head, which seems a bit strange for someone who gets fascinated by various other subjects involving lots of numbers… no matter how much I tried to listen, it went straight in one ear and out the other). On the plus side I’d found out how to get on the wi-fi so I was able to annoy everyone back home with the first batch of my photos.

Evening was a dinner cruise, and a very posh one at that (at least by my usual standards [not that I’m the sort of person who has “usual standards” for dinner cruises, really]). I had salad with blue cheese, steak with purple potatoes, and chocolate cake, all washed down by American beer. I spent as much time as possible on the deck, fiddling with my camera settings to try and get decent pictures of Manhattan, the bridges and the Statue of Liberty in the failing light, and as little time as possible in the toilets due to the “helpful” attendants in there who would hand out towels and expect a tip. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad in a big posh toilet in a building, but in a boat-sized toilet it was all a bit claustrophobic for my liking.

To be continued…

You learn something new every day (part 2)

I wrote this post and then realised it’s now over 3 months since the last one. Oh well. “You Learn Something New Every Three Months” wouldn’t have sounded as good. But I do have not just one but several facts that I didn’t know until embarrassingly recently this time (I’ve been collecting them since the last entry, you see!).

  • The thing that prompted me to write this sequel post was looking at this web page… there’s a table on there that lists release dates and version numbers of Xubuntu (the flavour of Linux currently nestling cosily inside my little netbook). While idly scrolling past it I suddenly had one of those “Aaaah, that makes more sense!” moments of dawning realisation when I noticed that the Ubuntu version numbers match the year and month they were released (so the new version that’s just come out is 12.04, for April 2012). Hence the reason most of the version numbers end in .04 or .10 is because the release tends to be on a 6 monthly schedule, and the reason the first Ubuntu was 5.04 and not 1.something is because it was released in 2005. I honestly never noticed this before. I just thought whoever came up with the version numbers was slightly crazy. (Come on, I’ve only been following the Linux world for about ten years… you can’t expect me to notice everything straight away).
  • Also netbook-related: I only just noticed that my own netbook does, in fact, have an SD card slot, after about 18 months of assuming it didn’t. This after wasting ages on one trip away (I think it was the Alton Towers one) wrestling with cables and Nikon software trying to get my camera to connect to it so that I could upload some pics… and all the while I could have just popped the memory card out and put it in the slot just like I do with the big laptop. Oops.
  • Also (sort of) road-trip-down-south related: I made it til last year without realising most car sun visors can be detached at one end and swivelled round to the side to block the sun when it’s coming through the side windows as well. Eventually I saw Gavin doing it in my own car. “What are you doing, you’ve broken-… aaaaaah, that’s actually pretty useful!”

But the crowning achievement of my everyday ignorance has to be living alone in this flat for three and a half years before discovering that council tax single occupancy discount exists. My indignation at having been paying an extra £30 a month all that time quickly evaporated when Edinburgh council agreed, to my amazement, to refund the whole lot in one go. (Though I didn’t ask them to also refund the extra I paid during the two years in my previous flats. I think that might have been pushing it).

Ironically, it now seems I might have finally claimed single occupancy discount just in time to end up having to cancel it due to not qualifying anymore. Maybe more about that later… but I’m kind of excited 😉

PS you should take a look at my brother’s new blog, because it’s awesome and much better written than mine. I’m also very taken with the project codenames he’s made up for the stuff he’s working on right now… I might have to shamelessly steal the idea and write a post on here about all the projects I’ve got planned.