Bus Tracker Bungles

It always interests me when new technology backfires in ways you couldn’t really foresee.

Take the bus tracker, for example. You wouldn’t think that having screens at the bus stops telling you pretty accurately when the bus is coming, as well as a mobile app to beam the times directly to your phone, could possibly make it easier for you to miss the bus, would you? And yet there is not just one way, but two ways, in which it has caused me to miss buses I otherwise probably would have caught.

  1. Because I know exactly when it’s coming from the phone app, I cut it too fine and see it going past before I get to the stop. (This has happened several times now. Usually with the last bus of the night).
  2. Because I was so busy fiddling with my phone trying to find the right bus stop in the tracker app, I didn’t even notice my bus coming… and then going again. (This has only happened once so far. Well, only once that I’ve come out of my phone-induced trance quickly enough to see it receding into the distance, anyway).

OK, I’ll admit that those are both due to me being an idiot and not really the fault of the tracker. But the tracker has certainly opened up new, more high-tech ways for me to be an idiot ;).

(I’m off to Alton Towers tomorrow so hopefully I’ll post something more exciting early next week. Look on the bright side, at least I didn’t subject you to my interminable rant about the trials of upgrading Ubuntu to version 11.10! Or my other interminable rant about how much it cost to get my car door fixed…).

Maybe birthdays aren’t so bad after all…

As someone who hates both getting older and being the centre of attention with a passion, I don’t usually like birthdays very much. But this year I had a pretty nice birthday weekend, maybe because I actually decided to celebrate it for once.

First, on Friday night, there was the party.

Gavin did his usual trick of putting a balloon inside a balloon inside a balloon.

Meanwhile Lori was drawing ambigrams. Her present to me was a hand-drawn ambigram of my name, which is pretty cool:

(It was quite a co-incidence that she gave me this now because I watched Angels and Demons for the first time this week).

I’d bought plenty of beer and cider in case anyone wanted them, but thanks to me being off alcohol and Timmy, Euan and Stuart not being able to come, hardly anyone was actually drinking. In fact I actually gained more alcohol during the party as Gavin brought back some of the beer I tried to get rid of by leaving it at his party last weekend!

The New Scotland contingent arrived later, including Uli and Ben with a very nice banana cake:

The rest of the food was mostly just snacks. The cocktail sausages packet had a sticker on saying “Ideal for Hallowe’en”, right above “Use by 22 Oct”. Maybe Tesco consider rotting sausages to be more Hallowe’en-like, I don’t know.

The next day it was time to get my presents, as well as a few cards and an overwhelming number of Facebook messages (thank you!!). I’d been very restrained and not opened any of them the previous night. I got some good ones this year. Here’s most of them, taken through my new camera lens:

And here’s my new camera lens taken through my old camera lens:

There was time for a quick walk on Corstorphine Hill to test the lens. I also tested it on the cats:

My evening consisted of a family meal at Ciao Roma – spaghetti bolognese and profiteroles, highly recommended – followed by hillwalking club ceilidh. The hillwalking club always have good ceilidhs (assuming you consider a good ceilidh to be one where you leave with several minor bruises and dripping with sweat, which you should) and tonight’s was no exception. It was nice to catch up with people and I didn’t even manage to embarrass myself too badly when the entire room formed a circle round me to sing “Happy Birthday” near the end.

Sunday was a bit more sedate and relaxed. After a lie in watching new Doctor Who DVD, went for a wander round Almondell Country Park with Mari and Oona, for further lens testing…

… and then a few drinks with Ingrid in Glasgow before she leaves to travel the world. (Furstenberg Frei is by far the best non-alcoholic beer, why don’t more places have it??).

All good things must come to an end, unfortunately. This morning it was back to reality of wishing I could have another few hours’ sleep and discovering it’s going to cost at least £281 to get my car passenger door opening again. But I’ve got Alton Towers this weekend and Evanescence the weekend after, so that’s something to look forward to :).

Why some things bug me and others don’t

It’s interesting how sometimes being exposed to something for years on end can desensitise you so that you become more tolerant of it than most people. And sometimes it seems to have the exact opposite effect and leave you with an irrational aversion to whatever it is.

I was thinking about this earlier because I realised I was far more bothered than I should be by the fact that one of my car doors is stuck shut. It shouldn’t be a big deal… the car still works fine, and most days I don’t even have any need to open that door. Sure, it’ll be a pain if I go on a trip away with several people, but there’s plenty of time to get it fixed before that next happens. Yet as soon as I discovered the problem I felt agitated. I couldn’t rest until I’d tried to fix it myself (no luck; perhaps ironically, there seems to be no easy way to get the door apart to get at the lock components without opening it, which is exactly what I can’t do!), then when that failed, booked it into a garage.

But I realised I’m always like this when something breaks, even if it’s only minor breakage. Whenever it happens I just have to fix it, arrange to get it fixed, or replace it with a new one as soon as humanly possible, or else it won’t stop bugging me. I think this is because when I was growing up we often had things that weren’t working (or weren’t working properly) for weeks or months at a time. Partly due to not having enough money to get them fixed, partly due to no-one being as bothered about them as I am now. Usually it wasn’t anything all that serious – stereos with only one speaker working, cookers with a ring that you couldn’t use because it would trip all the circuit breakers, cars that basically worked but would overheat if you were stuck in traffic for any length of time, toilet seats that weren’t actually attached to the toilet, that sort of thing – but once we were without a working fridge for several weeks, and that wasn’t fun.

So now, I just can’t be doing with those things anymore, even the ones that should only be minor annoyances. It’s like all my tolerance for them has already been used up and I’ve got no patience left.

But it interests me that with certain other things, it went the opposite way entirely.

Smoking, for example. Now I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life and I’ve got no intention of letting that change, but I’m not that bothered if other people want to. A lot of non-smokers seem to recoil in horror* at the thought of being in a room where someone’s smoking or the idea of (gasp!) living with a smoker, but I just don’t really care at all, probably because I’m so used to it, my dad having smoked the whole time I was growing up. So in this case I did develop a tolerance rather than using up all my capacity for tolerance. I wonder what the difference is.

(* I’m not saying people are wrong to recoil in horror… given that passive smoking isn’t exactly good for you, I do think they’re within their rights to object to people smoking around them. It’s just that I happen not to object to it myself, and I find it sort of interesting that I don’t).

The Bonny Banks of Loch Lomond

Been a busy weekend. Last night was Gavin’s 21st birthday party. (His actual birthday was over 2 months ago but I’m sure you’ll all agree, that’s no excuse for not having a party). I managed to keep to my resolve not to drink for the moment, and I feel it would be unfair of me to recount the drinking games from the point of view of a sober person. So I won’t.

Handily, staying over at Gavin’s meant I was much closer to Loch Lomond for my walk today than I would have been at home. Not so handily, I only managed to get about 3 hours of sleep… but I felt surprisingly OK. The weather looked promising as I set out towards the Erskine Bridge. I soon found I’d massively overestimated how long it would take to get there – only 9 miles remaining to Balloch and still an hour til the meeting time. So I tried not to think longingly of the precious extra minutes of sleep I could have had, and instead turned off into Bowling to have a wander round the western terminal of the Forth and Clyde Canal and take some pics.

Looking up the Clyde to the Erskine Bridge, which I’d just crossed.

The canal basin itself. Bowling is sort of special to me, in a bittersweet kind of way. Some of my favourite days out ever were when I walked the whole of the canal with my uncle and auntie as a teenager, and Bowling was where we started one crisp November morning. (I say bittersweet because my uncle died suddenly at a young age a few years ago. Coming to Bowling always reminds me of him and the best of the time we spent together. So far every time I come it seems quiet and still and cold and bright just as it was that day, and makes me feel happy and sad at the same time. Rest in peace Ian).

Looking down the Clyde now. Looking like a good day for a walk.

After I’d passed enough time wandering round the basin and finding somewhere to get a coffee, I got back in my car and headed to Balloch. I didn’t remember much of the place, which maybe wasn’t surprising since I think it was 1991 when I was last there, and Lomond Shores hadn’t even been built. But the loch was still the same.

(Ben Lomond in the distance looks much clearer than it was when we climbed it back in June and I took this photograph from the summit. Yes, that is a real photo. I have a similar one taken from the top of Ben Nevis as well).

After meeting the others (small group today… only 4 of us) our first stop was the cafe, then we went for a wander along the shore. I’m more or less over my swan phobia now, which is a good thing considering I like walking by water so much.

We decided to head up to the castle we could see in the distance and have a closer look at it. That meant walking down the River Leven to cross it at the bridge in Balloch, then back up the other side. There were loads of boats of all shapes, sizes and states of repair moored there, though not many actually moving at this time of year.

The castle was all closed up and fenced off, looking as if it needs some work. For some reason that made me really want to get inside and explore it, whereas if it had been open to the public I probably wouldn’t have been all that bothered. That’s the way my contrary mind seems to work.

But I contented myself with photographing its features from the outside. A bright sunny morning with lots of families walking past is no time for exploring semi-derelict buildings, anyway.

Finally, on our way back towards Balloch itself, we saw the walled garden.

We were very lucky indeed with the weather… it was actually warm enough to sit outside for a while.

The walk was rounded off nicely with a snack in The Tullie Inn, then I decided it was time to leave before last night caught up with me and I got too sleepy to drive. It was a good day. Thanks Charlene for organising :).

(The car seems to be enjoying its new spark plugs. It got 56 miles per gallon on the way home from Balloch which is more than usual and not bad at all for a petrol car of its age and size. Unfortunately though the passenger door is now resolutely refusing to open so maybe I’ll be posting about car maintenance again sooner than planned).

Giving up alcohol

Think I’m going to give up alcohol for a while.

My sleeping pattern has been terrible lately, my mood has been up and down as well. Apparently alcohol can affect those things so maybe I should see if it’s the cause in my case. I’ve tried having a few days off from it and that didn’t seem to make a lot of difference, but maybe that wasn’t enough time to see the full effects. I should give it a while longer, a few weeks at least. It’s a LONG time since I went a few weeks without a drink (2007, I think).

Another thing that’s supposedly bad for the sleep and the nerves is caffeine, which I know already I’m pretty much addicted to. I should probably try a break from that as well, but maybe not at the same time or I’ll end up like that guy from Airplane.

Maybe I have picked a bad week to quit drinking… there is a huge crate of Becks in my fridge that I was going to take to someone’s house before she cancelled. There’s also Gavin’s party tomorrow. But then I guess there’s never an easy time to do something like this. On the plus side it means I’ll be able to drive everywhere, if I so choose. And I should save some money as well.

Wish me luck :).

My strange music taste again

Been listening to this a lot…

Just bought it from Amazon MP3 today. Want to get myself in the mood for when I go and see them live next month :D. They’re one of those bands I feel like I shouldn’t like, but I love them anyway. Looking forward to the new album as well, but I haven’t bought it yet because I’m hoping someone will get me it for my birthday (yes, that is a hint 😉 ).

I must be feeling musical as I had a go at playing the piano for the first time in a while (well, to be more accurate, playing proper piano music on my keyboard). I’m having another crack at learning Beethoven’s Appassionata (which I used to be able to mostly play the last 2 movements of but have got rusty) and the Fugue in A minor from Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier book 1 (which I just find amazing to listen to but never had much luck with learning before).

Both kind of challenging… wish me luck, I’m gonna need it.

(Hmm. Wonder if I’m the only person ever to write a blog post about Evanescence, Beethoven and Bach…).

Car maintenance for beginners

If you could ask just one question of the universe in general and have it answered, what would it be? Let me guess… it would be “I wonder, how do you change the spark plugs on a 1.2 litre MkI Skoda Fabia?”, wouldn’t it? Well, isn’t today your lucky day 😉

Of course, I wouldn’t have HAD to change the spark plugs myself if the nameless garage I took it to for a service (I’ll give you a subtle clue: Arn*ld Cl*rk) had actually done their bloody job and serviced it. Surely spark plugs are one of the first things they should have checked? But anyway, I digress. They probably would have charged more than I paid just for the plugs, and I don’t really mind another chance to get my hands dirty with a toolbox and the Haynes manual. Also, while I was ordering the spark plugs I took the opportunity to get a spare ignition coil at the same time – so hopefully will be no more repeats of last month’s drama.

The parts: 3 new spark plugs, 1 new ignition coil, 1 service manual, 1 spark plug spanner.

My victim:

First the engine cover has to come off. You can now see the plastic tops of the 3 ignition coil packs, one for each cylinder.

The spark plugs are underneath the coils, which have to be levered out of their holders. I just used a screw driver for this.

Removing spark plug 1…

… it’s a bit worn out.

First 2 cylinders went smoothly. Cylinder 3 was a bit harder as the wiring was tighter and the coil had to be unplugged to get it out.

The old plugs, next to the new plug for cylinder 3.

All done now, that was quite quick and painless. Moment of truth time as I started the engine… success!! And it made a difference too, I nearly went shooting backwards into the neighbour’s wheely bin as I reversed out of the driveway, obviously not used to having the full engine power available.


Moscow: day 3

Despite (or maybe because of?) the excess vodka, I slept much better and woke up feeling refreshed this morning. Though because of the dehydration I had to take another £8 bottle of water from the mini-bar. I hope this project has a good travel budget.

Today we had a short day, just a few hours of talks in the morning, along with a tour of the computer room at the institute, where we got to see their new supercomputer. These days supercomputers are getting more and more like a load of normal computers stuck together, but even so it was weird to see the unused colour-coded surround sound jacks on the back of each board. (A lot of people, including some of my colleagues, would probably take issue with that statement, and of course it is a big oversimplification… it matters a lot that you have the right kind of computers and that you stick them together in the right way, and even then they’re very difficult to program… but the fact is, the components of supercomputers are much more similar to ordinary PCs than they used to be a few years ago).

After the final talks and the signing of the contract, they took us for a tour of the Keldysh museum, where we got to see the former study of Mstislav Keldysh. Apparently not many Westerners have seen it yet. No pictures I’m afraid… I left my camera outside as I wasn’t sure they’d want people taking photos, but other people were happily snapping away on their phones and the staff didn’t seem to mind so it probably would have been fine after all. It was pretty interesting… though as a pacifist I don’t entirely approve of Keldysh’s missile work, it was kind of fascinating to see the office of a genuine Cold War-era Soviet scientist, complete with hotline to the Kremlin and many amazing gifts from other scientists and politicians (including a brandy dispenser built into a miniature electric rocket, and the most beautiful collection of minerals I’ve ever seen).

In early afternoon, after only a day and a half, it was time to say goodbye to our hosts and be on our way. They presented all of us with lovely 2012 Moscow calendars that were so big they hardly fitted in our luggage, and then we were off back to the airport. We weren’t keen to repeat Monday’s taxi ride so we got the train this time. It was cheap enough that we were allowed to go first class and I made full use of the extra leg room and free high speed internet.

The journey home was mostly uneventful, which is generally what you want from air travel as “events” tend to be bad news. They had a weird body scanner thing at the airport security but thankfully it wasn’t one of the X-ray “nude” ones there’s been all the fuss about (thankfully because I didn’t have to be dosed with carcinogenic radiation, and the poor airport staff didn’t have to look at a nude image of me). But beyond security was even weirder… the terminal was very nice but seemed to be only half finished. There were acres of empty space and very little else.

And no restaurants.

We were all quite hungry and had kind of assumed we’d be able to get a meal before the flight, but as it was we had to settle for a snack in a coffee shop. (At least they had decent, if weirdly named, sandwiches… instead of being labelled “Chicken” or “Tuna” they were “With the chicken” and “With the tuna”. I think one of the Friends writers may have a new job designing packaging for sandwiches in Russia). This wouldn’t have been so bad, but then the advertised “meal” on our main flight never materialised either so I was pretty hungry by the time I got home.

(One thing I’ll never understand about airports: WHY, on proper airlines with seat numbers already allocated, does everyone get up and rush to queue up at the gate the moment it opens? It seems utterly pointless to me, they just end up having to stand for ages in the queue, then once they get to their seat they’ll get disturbed by all the people behind trying to get in. Besides, why does anyone want to spend any longer than necessary in an aeroplane seat? I just don’t get it).

Moscow: Day 2

Unfortunately, I didn’t get very much sleep. Moscow is only 3 hours ahead of Edinburgh so I wasn’t anywhere near as jetlagged as I was in Japan… but it was enough to make a bit of a difference, coupled with being unsettled by being in such strange and unusually grand surroundings. So I dosed myself up with coffee in my room and at breakfast, then we headed for the metro station, thankfully guided by a native.

It was cold and a bit wet outside, colder than Edinburgh had been when we left anyway. It was at this point I realised that in my semi-conscious daze yesterday morning I’d brought the wrong shoes with me. Instead of the new ones I had the ones with several small holes in and the heels worn down to a funny angle… bah. Apart from the small number of ticket machines and kiosks resulting in big queues, the metro wasn’t really any scarier or busier than the London or Paris ones… in fact it was a good deal more civil than the Underground when it came to people shoving you out of the way. And was much posher looking.

Soon we arrived at the Keldysh Institute of Applied Mathematics for our meeting. By this point I had already been appointed unofficial-official-photographer for the trip, by virtue of having brought the best camera (though admittedly not necessarily knowing how to use it properly).

Once inside, while my colleagues got on with business networking and preparing their talks, I got out my netbook and turned to the important task of finding a way to get online. My internet fix is nearly as important as my caffeine fix in keeping my brain from melting down. The meeting venue didn’t seem to provide wireless networking like some do, but that didn’t stop me for long. I discovered a free public wi-fi network (let’s call it WaspLine_Free, I’ve changed the provider name to avoid them embarrassment), but it was very slow and unreliable… frustrating. Then, purely by accident, I discovered that if you disconnect from the free version of the network and immediately connect to the standard one (WaspLine, much faster but you’re supposed to have to pay for it) you’re still recognised and can surf on the fast network for free! w00t! (Cue lots of comments about Ubuntu being a dodgy hacker tool when other people found out what I was doing).

The meeting passed quite quickly as the talks were interesting. We had a lunch break during which we walked to a nice restaurant nearby, and another session of talks in the afternoon. Then it was time for the Moscow walking tour.

We got some nice views of the river and of the Kremlin, though didn’t go very close to it. We also marvelled at the traffic again, it was like some sort of carefully choreographed daredevil show with cars continually coming within a hair’s breadth of crashing but never actually crashing. (Maybe it actually WAS a carefully choreographed daredevil show. Maybe someone told them we were coming).

Then there was this marvellous example of corporate sponsorship being sensitive to its surroundings:

(Though I wasn’t impressed that the one item of Bench clothing I own started falling apart after only a few months. I hope the Bench benches are more hardwearing than my jumper turned out to be).

Then we had a tour of the art gallery. Despite knowing next to nothing about art, I always like art galleries, and I really wanted to listen to the guide. But I kept getting distracted by how tired I was after not much sleep and how my feet were killing me after walking around for hours in those substandard shoes, and as we reached the last few galleries I became more interested in looking for a vacant chair than in looking at the paintings.

Finally, there was dinner. We returned to the restaurant near the institute and tucked into the generous buffet that was set out for us. I was just starting to feel pleasantly full and there was still piles of food left when I overheard someone saying the main course was on its way! It wasn’t just the food they were generous with… every time I turned round to talk to someone I would turn back to find my glass had been topped up with vodka (I forget which kind of vodka but it was nicer than the kind I usually find the remains of in my kitchen the morning after a party), or with red wine, which I switched to later on in an increasingly futile seeming attempt to remain conscious.

Moscow: Day 1

When work first asked me to go to a meeting in Moscow, I’d assumed it would be similar to when I’d visited places in Eastern Europe… when I went to Prague and Belgrade (both lovely cities incidentally, you should visit if you haven’t already) it was just a case of wandering off the plane, showing your passport and in you went. But not Russia. Turns out it’s more of a need-a-visa-and-4-vaccinations-don’t-drink-the-water-OMGG-home-office-terror-alerts!!1! sort of place.

Still. I don’t like to be put off by trifling things like that… if someone else is paying for me to go somewhere exciting, I’m never one to turn them down. So I got on with the visa application which turned out to be a pretty smooth process (only slight hitch was that they completely replaced the visa form website without any warning in the middle of my application, making me think I’d gone insane until one of my colleagues mentioned that it had changed for them as well), and getting my first injections since high school (less scary than I remember them being).

Our flight out wasn’t even too obscenely early in the morning, which is always a plus.

(I like taking photos from planes. I was very pleased with this one I took over Siberia on the way back from Japan last year…

… even though it was taken with my phone camera. It’s just a shame you can’t take them during take off and landing due to the electronic devices rule, since that’s when it’s normally most interesting. Maybe if you had a fully mechanical film camera you’d be allowed to). The flights all went smoothly. So did getting through passport control (though my colleague’s passport seemed to be causing some amusement among the immigration officers. I’m not sure it’s good when immigration officers laugh at you, but it’s better than some of the things they could do, at least). Then came the taxi ride from Sheremetyevo airport to our hotel.

They say you’re more likely to die on your way to or from the airport than you are on the flight. Today, I had no difficulty whatsoever believing that.

It was just as well my seat (with no seatbelt that I could find, incidentally) was facing backwards. A few times I tried turning round to see what was going on in front, but quickly decided I’d rather not know and went back to just watching my forward-facing colleagues getting whiter and whiter instead. (What was going on when I looked was our taxi hammering it down the wrong side of the 2-lane road, overtaking everything including ambulances with their blue lights on, and swerving back in with inches to spare whenever something came the other way. Meanwhile the driver’s idea of a satnav seemed to be squinting at a map on the tiny screen of his mobile phone held in one hand as he drove with the other).

As we entered Moscow itself our first impression was that it reminded us of Glasgow… a huge wide motorway ploughing right into the city with plenty of high rise blocks and McDonalds alongside. (Though you probably wouldn’t get away with parking in any spare space you found on the M8 sliproads in Glasgow as people seemed to have done here). Our second impression as we neared the centre was: oh god, I’ll NEVER complain about the traffic in Britain ever again.

I’d never seen anything like it before. Just a huge mass of cars, seemingly never-ending… about 5 lanes were marked out on the road but people acted as if there were at least two more than that. At the front of the queue, a few cars were managing to trickle through the traffic lights on each cycle, that is if the junction wasn’t completely blocked by cars turning across the other way and not having anywhere to go, which it usually was, in which case everyone just leaned on their horns and tried to barge into any little gap they could see, causing the other mass of car drivers to lean on their horns as well. Amazingly considering the number of near-misses, we didn’t see any actual accidents and the cars mostly didn’t look particularly dented. I guess you must get used to that style of driving after a while, though I’m not sure I’d ever want to. It took a full two hours to get from the airport to our hotel, much longer than we’d expected.

The hotel was worth seeing though.

Moscow Hilton, in one of the Seven Sisters of Moscow. From the outside it was certainly the grandest looking hotel I’ve ever stayed in.

Inside was pretty nice as well.

My room was quite small but very comfortable.

I soon managed to flood the bathroom by doing exactly the same thing that resulted in me flooding a hotel bathroom last time I was abroad with work… namely, putting the shower on to warm up and then leaving it unattended for a few minutes and coming back to find it had escaped from its cubicle. Oops. Lucky they left so many nice absorbent fluffy towels in there.

After a meal and a few drinks downstairs, we were all ready for bed. I felt thirsty as it was quite warm in the room so, remembering the warnings not to drink the tap water, I raided the mini-bar. The bottled water in there was 420 Roubles for a litre (about £8!!!). Oh well. I was way too tired to go and find anywhere cheaper and anyway, work finance department probably won’t notice what it is on the receipt. As long as I don’t draw their attention to it by doing something stupid like mentioning it in a public blog p… ah, too late :(.