*dusts off journal, coughs loudly*

I've basically given up hope of ever truly reviving this journal*, but in case anyone's still following, I thought I'd drop a link to this in here: I'm doing a 30-mile walk for charity on Saturday, to see details and donate if you want, go here

* I keep idly contemplating plans to try and take up blogging elsewhere, it may happen one day. Oh, and in case anyone's interested I'm on Twitter as @jd_apweiler these days, but not particularly active either. I mostly just seem to retweet Ben Goldacre and Cory Doctorow.

End-of-year post? (No, not doing any memes.)

Things have been interesting enough, not always in the way I would've hoped.

Not long after coming back from the Corsica school/conference, and hence just after my last post, I went crying to my (medical) doctor and my supervisors about some ongoing health issues, and as a result changed my PhD registration to part-time. The health problems in question have been going on, at some level, for more than a year but have escalated a bit over the past few months. I'm not sure how to describe them - call it chronic fatigue if you will; it's basically frequent (sometimes near-constant) bouts of slight illness, some cold symptoms but not so much sneezing, more headaches, dizziness, tiredness. There's no official diagnosis, and to be honest I don't think I'll pursue one. There's nothing obviously physical behind all this, so as I see it, it falls into the category of diseases modern medicine can't really get a grip on. In other words, as I said above, I'm starting to call it chronic fatigue just to avoid having to give this lengthy, waffly explanation each time, but I'm not too bothered personally about having a label. This isn't meant to be a whiny post - no pity, please. My supervisors and the university have been great and agreed to put me on part-time for health reasons without an official diagnosis (easy for them of course - it's not like I get any extra money!), my parents are completely supportive, it could all be a lot worse and though I haven't settled into a proper rhythm yet, I certainly don't mind working part-time... The symptoms have been pretty bad for much of late November and December, but I'm fairly confident I'll find a workable balance over the next few months, and possibly work my way back up to working at a 'normal' full-time level eventually.

But enough of that. The last few months haven't been that boring, but really the only thing I can be bothered to go into now is that I found myself in the middle of something you probably heard about on the news. As one of 70 000 people affected. Yes, I spent three days stuck in London due to the Great Eurostar Fuck-Up of 2009 (originally meant to travel on Dec 19th; made it home on the 22nd). And I resurrected my Twitter account to try and engage in a bit of shit-stirring, hoping to contribute to the disastrously negative PR Eurostar received. Yes, I was pretty fucking angry about the whole thing - not just about the breakdowns as such, but about their communications policy. They simply didn't seem to give a fuck about those of us stuck as a result of this, desperately trying to get home to our families before Christmas. In the end, I had to book a last-minute plane ticket to get across the channel, and they've pretty much explicitly said they won't reimburse anyone for air travel. OK, I probably would've made it across by Eurostar before Christmas - by standing in a queue for up to 10 hours in the freezing cold main concourse of St Pancras station. Eurostar's crisis management, in terms of communicating with and helping those affected and in terms of actually dealing with the failure, was pretty much an unmitigated disaster, and I tried my bit of shit-stirring on Twitter not only out of anger, but in the hope that some heads will roll over this and the company will genuinely learn its lesson. Maybe other companies will too, it's not like this level of #fail (ahem) is rare in the transport industry.

But my thoughts on the matter aren't terribly interesting - look around for the Tweets and blog posts by various PR/social media types and other pundits that have weighed in on the matter. I'll certainly be keeping half an eye on the fallout from this for a while. I'm just really, really disappointed, as normally Eurostar is a great way of travelling on the routes it covers, and I really resent having to fly - I both object to short-haul flights as a matter of principle (environmental issues and more) and personally dislike flying for a number of reasons (main one being the largely pointless security theatre at airports). I was incredibly lucky to have a friend in London who was able to put me up for three days*, and having an internet-enabled phone was also pretty helpful in terms of keeping up with the (very small) trickle of information coming out of Eurostar.
Having spent Christmas itself at my grandmother's, with the extended family, one point came up quite a few times - imagine someone who doesn't speak English as well as I do, or doesn't have a friend in town or the spare cash/credit card spending limit to afford a hotel and/or plane ticket on short notice, and a number of other things. They'd have been fucked, to put it mildly. And Eurostar did pretty much bugger-all to help them out. I really, really hope they learn their lessons.

* yes, it seems that Eurostar will reimburse hotel costs for those who were stranded, but they've not been clear on how much, and at best it'd probably take several weeks to get the cash back; besides, I'd probably have been stuck somewhere pretty shit given that there were several thousand other people snapping up any vacant room at the same time.

But enough rambling for now. Happy new year everyone. More interesting and cheerful posts to resume at some point.

Overdue post - conference report...

Overdue because I've been back from the conference for a week now. Collapse )

OK, enough waffle, have some pictures. Sorry if they're slow - I've simply copied them onto my home server, so they're on a <500 kbps uplink.

Collapse )

Once I was back home, I realised it had now been two weeks since I bottled my first attempt at homebrew beer, and so it should now be ready to drink:

Verdict - not spectacular, but more than drinkable, and quite cheap to make!

In other food-related news, a few weeks ago I made some mincemeat with real meat (and more apples from the tree mentioned previously). Today I am making (mini) pumpkin pies with some pumpkins from my veg box. The recipe seems genuine enough, and I've followed it quite faithfully, but I can't help thinking they're a bit overrated...


So, food blogging, eh?

Other business first, Graham is pushing ahead with the Hackerspace project. We're trying to set up a first meeting with the handful of people that have expressed interest (via Twitter etc.), which looks like it'll be next Tuesday (the 22nd). I should probably link to the Forum and Wiki Graham has set up at some point. There, that's that done.

Okay, food. Last weekend I got a large beetroot in my vegbox (so large, I thought it was a swede or something - 400 g peeled!) so I took the opportunity to try a recipe from a recent(ish) episode of River Cottage - which I've been watching obsessively. I made brownies. Yes, beetroot brownies - equal quantities of dark chocolate, sugar, butter, cooked and grated beetroot, a little flour, and some eggs. I was quite pleased with the result, especially as I'd never made brownies before. Out of 10 people that tried these, only one (fanged_geranium ) spotted the beetroot.

Also last weekend, I bought a beer brewing kit. It's cheating, I know, but it seemed like the easiest way to get hold of a 25 litre bucket to ferment it in. And on balance, it's probably a good idea to start of with small steps - using canned malt extract before I eventually move on to using actual grain. I started the brew fermenting today, stay tuned for results (in a month or so).

Yesterday I went exploring on the patch of rough land on the corner of New North Road and Prince of Wales Road and managed to pick some apples from the tree that's visible, but just out of reach, from the pavement opposite the Imperial. So I did a bit of experimenting and tried making some 'apple honey' - which is basically jelly with a bit of honey added to the juice, but it didn't set perfectly. Then again I didn't add any pectin, so I'm reasonably pleased that it's anything other than completely liquid. But that wasn't very productive - I only got a pint of juice from about 1.4 kg of apples (I juiced the apples by cooking them and then straining in a muslin bag). So I tried something else and squeezed the boiled mashed apples left over from juicing through a sieve, and cooked the purée with some more sugar and water, which seems to have produced some passable apple sauce.

And it's all over

Soon after my last post, we tediously moved all our camping gear and other luggage back into my car, which was parked 800m away from the HAR2009 campsite, as were all other cars. We set off, got horribly lost in Belgium (again*) and eventually got to Luxembourg. There we spent a week not doing very much, and yesterday we went back to Exeter, this time without getting lost in Belgium.

Well, the week wasn't that boring. For one thing, to my great relief, the Fiat passed its contrôle technique (MOT equivalent) without incident. We also discovered a source of Club-Mate in Trier and bought six cases to take back with us - and Graham started working out the economics of importing the stuff to Britain, as clearly the hackerspace he's planning will need a supply, having heard in a podcast that some hackerspaces pay half their rent through sales of the stuff. I also bought quite a lot of beer to take to Exeter, both for myself and for various people that have put in requests. Graham got to try a Spaghettieis (I can't believe there's a Wikipedia article about it, and in English as well) which he found every bit as exciting as Tom did on our Interrail trip in 2005. Graham installed Steam on his Macbook (on Windows, obviously) and started playing Half-Life 2 after I gave him my extra copy that came with the Orange Box that I bought to get Portal and Episode 2.

* we got lost in Belgium the first time round, on our way from Calais to the Netherlands. The directions I'd printed out specified motorways by their Belgian numbers (A1 etc.) - but the Belgian road signs only give the E-road numbers. As a result, we went around the entire Antwerp ring road, then realised what had happened and took a guess at which exit we needed to take. We guessed right, but we'd already wasted an hour circling the city. Graham now understands why I dislike driving in Belgium, although my usual route is actually fairly straightforward. The unusually high density of bad drivers, to put it mildly, that I always seem to encounter in Belgium doesn't help.

Oh, and since I haven't mentioned it here: One thing that struck us while in the Netherlands, driving to and from HAR2009 as well as in the village and on our expedition to the nearest town to get an extension lead, is how incredibly neat and tidy everything is. Seriously. I've noticed it before, as we always go through NL on the way to visiting my dad's relatives in his hometown. I've still only seen a tiny handful of places in the country, but in very different parts of the country, and it still holds.

That's about it - back to the daily grind (?) in Exeter, although I haven't completely unpacked/cleared away all the traces of the expedition, plus my car is still full of beer and Club-Mate that I need to distribute and/or lug upstairs.

All in all, I think we can call this trip a success.

OK, let's try to keep going.

Last day of HAR2009 - we've packed all our bags, but left the tent standing for now, to dry out, and stashed the bags in it as we want to catch a few of the last day's talks. We're in the Hackerspaces talk - Graham's really taken to the idea and now wants to set one up in Exeter. I have some doubts as to wether Exeter's big enough to sustain that much of a geek community, but it might well work. There's one in Swindon and one in Southampton, so it doesn't seem entirely far-fetched. Especially because it'd arguably be easy enough to get to for people from Plymouth as well. Might be a good audience to promote Microcon to as well...

What probably did contribute to planting that idea in his head was that I mentioned some hackerspaces also having some arts/crafts facilities, such as computer-controlled laser cutters. Such as the one that was in operation in one of the workshops here, that he used to etch some logos into his laptop.

Not much else to report from yesterday, I didn't go to a lot of talks, the only one that was any good was on OpenBSC, but even there I nearly fell asleep (after drinking a bottle of Mate no less, I am clearly immune to caffeine), not because it was boring - but because it was so warm in the lecture hall.

Oh yes, Mate, I haven't mentioned that yet. Club-Mate is a fizzy iced Mate tea, made by some otherwise unknown German brewery, that has a huge cult following among German hackers (and is spreading to other countries as a result - I gather that one of the US hackerspaces went to some lengths to get the stuff shipped over). It's highly caffeinated, 100 mg per 500 ml bottle, and less sweet than most colas. And I guess, arguably, the fact that it's not made by some multinational corporation with dubious ethics also contributes to its appeal to hackers. According to the manufacturer's site, there are two shops in Trier that sell it. Graham took some persuading to try it, but then became addicted pretty much instantly, so we may be taking a few crates back to Exeter, as well as my usual boot full of beer. Plenty of space in ye olde Multipla...

I finally found the directory of on-site FTP servers people were running last night, so grabbed a few bits of interesting, entirely legal (of course) video and other large files. The hackerspaces talk is nearly over, up next is a talk on "Organising a Con" which, having done exactly that, I'm going to stick around for. Then a talk by the network team about how they kept the site connected, and the closing "ceremony", and then we grab our stuff, drag it all to the car as quickly as possible, and drive off.


Day Two.

Well, don't expect updates at this sort of frequency once I'm back to sleeping under a solid roof. But for now I'll give some more updates. Firstly, I suddenly find myself with an account on Twitter. No, I don't intend to start using it regularly - Graham and I merely decided that we needed a way of keeping synchronised at those times when we go to different talks and then miss each other on the way to the next one. Since the entire site is covered in WiFi and we're both carrying a Macbook and an iPhone each, that seems like a good way, although it requires actively checking the feed at least occasionally.

Of course, given that this place is full of some very creative geeks, there are more interesting ways of communicating to be had. We decided upon Twitter because mobile phones were out - we both only have UK mobiles, so texts cost about 35p a shot in roaming charges. Then we found there are some people from OpenBSC around - and are running their own GSM network on the site (legally - they actually got a license for this!). It doesn't connect to the outside world, but it does allow free calls and texts within the camp. Which is clearly much cooler than just using Twitter. The DECT network (Eventphone) isn't an option, because we only have one handset between the two of us and that only works very intermittently. That said, I did manage to call an outside number on that, but the call was dropped after about a minute.

This afternoon, I learned how to brew beer (no really!) and missed all of the afternoon's talks in the process. In the morning, I only attended the 'lightning talks' session, a set of 10-minute presentations - including one about beer (announcing the workshop in the afternoon), one about hacking barcode scanners by flashing very bright infrared LEDs at them, one about open-source multiplayer SimCity with social network integration, and one that basically consisted of a Quadrocopter flying all the way across the tent and back. Yesterday we saw a talk on building a DIY cyclotron - although it wasn't that DIY, as the speaker was a PhD student and built the thing (as an undergrad) using her university's facilities. I also saw some Sinclair C5s, a Segway and a DIY electric go-kart, as well as the golf-kart things that are constantly seen tooling around the terrain, moving equipment and such.

The talk about Scientology vs. Anonymous has just finished (speaker not very good, but he played some nice videos), now it's one about breaking quantum crypto. I'm staying here for now for the physics, though may move to the one about "nuancing a wireless utopia" if this one isn't good. So far so good though - including the classic mad-Russian-scientist accent...

I've been thinking about resurrecting this...

So why not start here: I'm in the Netherlands, in a village called Vierhouten, at a former socialist youth camp, attending HAR2009 - that's the first time I've been to this sort of thing in six years. I'm here with Graham, who will be doing some blogging at his delusion of grandeur (sorry) known as GeekChique. In fact, once we have electricity sorted out at our tent (we need to get an outdoor extension lead first, which will require driving to the nearest town, which I'll do after the current talk ends), I believe he plans to run a publicly accessible server inside our tent, no less than a 1U rackmount unit.

That said I probably won't be blogging much from here, it just seems like a good excuse to overcome the inertia and bring this back to life. What I may well do is try to get into more of a habit of food blogging - I did a few cooking-related posts when I first started on LJ, and some people seemed to appreciate them, but I haven't done it in it in, er, probably about three years. While I don't have as much time to do cooking experiments as I would like, and most of my cooking isn't really blog-worthy, I do try the occasional interesting thing and sometimes even take photos, so I should perhaps start posting some of it. By way of example, I've recently managed to grow a decent crop of green chillies indoors, which isn't specifically cooking but fits the theme (may post a photo later). 

I'm in a talk about "the Future of Science" which is (so far) a tour of a few different topics including science blogging, 'open source biology' (i.e., making research more open and public, e.g. using Wikis to coordinate research, and more radical (I wouldn't want to do it) ways of working such as open-notebook science.

General observations: The overwhelming majority of mobile computers being used are (in no particular order) Macs, IBM/Lenovo Thinkpads and netbooks (mostly Asus). And a lot of geeks have remarkably boring cars (Fiat Multipla FTW!), although there are a few cool camper vans and such, and I've seen a surprising number of Toyota Priuses, at the event and in NL so far - certainly more than you'd see in Germany or Luxembourg. Also, next time, while a nominally three-man tent is enough for two people to sleep in (just), I'll want a bigger tent and/or some more extra structures like, say, a gazebo to set up some camping chairs and tables in. And preferably some outdoor lighting to decorate the tent, or something...

It's slightly worrying when...

...atheists know the bible better than the Christian fundies do. I (and many other readers of Pharyngula, it seems) remember this bit about a golden calf, and how God's people weren't supposed to worship it. Certain of the nuttier Christians, clearly, don't. Not that this is entirely new, what with "Prosperity Theology" conveniently ignoring that bit about the camel and the eye of the needle.

In related news, although I'm not a great fan of the bible in any way, it does have its interesting bits. As Ben Goldacre points out in his book, Daniel 1:1-16 essentially describes a clinical trial.