Saturday, August 20, 2016

Swansea is the place to go with teenagers!

The end of the summer is approaching; my son is looking at school bags online as he left his on the TGV coming back from the UK (with ID card, carte jeune, crisps and a few clothes inside); I've been back at work for a week.

We went for two weeks to England and Wales, as usual, but did not do just usual things. For our trip to London, we visted the Bethal Green Museum of Childhood where I saw, to my joy, an owl just like my own "Sage".

Toy from Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood
Mine is a bit bigger than this one, and has a blue and green body in a material printed with feathers. He came from Heal's sale and the story goes that I was about 4 or 5 and could be seen staggering along with the owl almost as big as me, saying "Can I have this?". He had one wing a bit loose but that was quickly remedied with a sharp needle and cotton, and he's been in my room (chez parents) ever since. The museum is lovely, but the noise of screaming kids was phenomenal. Take ear plugs.

In Wales, we stayed in a lovely little bungalow in Bishopston near Mumbles. It also has a story. The owner, who lives next door, built it for his father-in-law about 7 years ago. He incorporated all the specifications required by the old man. Then, when it was all finished, and ready to roll, the father-in-law, an inveterate hoarder, couldn't face leaving his own home.

It had an amazing bathroom, with, most unusually for rented accommodation, a thousand pound's worth of free-standing bath on feet.

My youngest was the only one to get to try it because my mother decided she'd never be able to get out of it, and I preferred the shower. He found it was lovely to soak in after a good hour at Limitless, Swansea's trampoline park.
Limitless Trampoline Park, Swansea
This is a fabulous place for kids and adolescents, or indeed students who want to play a game of dodgeball or organise a bouncy party. The noise levels were pretty high, so my mother and I retired to Starbucks about 100m away for a cup of tea while my youngest got on with bouncing off his energy.

While we were at that end of Swansea, we visited the new engineering faculty and management school of Swansea University. It's been built on reclaimed land from the docks, and is enviably close to the beach, called the ("pied dans l'eau") Bay Campus.
View from Great Hall restaurant balcony

Swansea University Bay Campus view towards Mumbles
The town has two universities that are both expanding, and bringing much-needed investment into the area.

Another activity that we did, that was eminently suitable for teenagers, was FootGolf, along the Mumbles Road. By that time, my brother and family (two ado girls) had arrived, and this was one of the activities that we could all enjoy. My mother kept score, and I distinguished myself not one bit as an ace footie player. 

I remember the greens, sandwiched between the promenade and main road, as a 'pitch 'n' putt' where my brother loved to thrash me and got very annoyed when I didn't take it seriously, which of course made me all the keener to be silly. The new owners have enlarged the holes and bought a bunch of footballs, and created a very entertaining activity that even I enjoyed without being too much of an idiot. I had to cheat on the odd occasion of course, but I enjoyed trying to kick the ball more than hitting it with a stick. No one will be wanting to sign me up for their team any time soon though...

My youngest wanted another go at shooting innocent targets, so we went back to Perriswood where he shot the hell out of a range of metallic creatures and printed baddies.
Rifle range with life-size targets
Airsoft range
Mother and I, on the other hand, were enjoying meeting Alice the lazy Eagle Owl, and Dave the dim Peregrine falcon as Perriswood is, primarily, a falconry centre where they do displays and rear rapaces. It also has lovely views over Oxwich Bay.
Oxwich Bay from Perriswood

So a good time was had by all, and we even had good weather! Next up, hopefully, our visit to the Tin Works Museum at Aberdulais, and cruise on Copper Jack up the River Tawe.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A weekend in Lyon with motorbike ride into the Monts d'Or

While the UK has been agog with Brexit, the French with the footie and Tour de France, I (who couldn't vote) have been battling with my new project of learning C sharp, in the heat, with a rubbish internet connection and laptop that keeps overheating.


By way of distraction last weekend, I went to help my DB move from one well-appointed flat that he wasn't paying for (director's perks during his trial period) to one that he will be paying for (his trial period being at an end). (And while I was at it, take advantage of his super fast internet connection.)

The last time I was in Lyon it was also to help him move, funnily enough. This was a fairly painless affair because he was moving from one furnished flat to another furnished flat within the same city, so it just took a couple of car loads, a reasonable amount of humping up stairs, and a limited amount of cleaning (for me at any rate).

He moved from a flat with no view, to this:
Overlooking the Confluence district
The trees form part of a park that residents can enjoy, that goes right down to the river Saône, only separated from it by a main road.

Looking towards the centre of Lyon
The Alps are almost visible in the far distance.

The building is a former convent school
The flat, and building are full of original features, but it's all been nicely renovated too. Quite the des res!

On Sunday morning, we took a break and went for a motorbike ride into the Monts d'Or and Beaujolais. The local stone is a remarkable vibrant orange/yellow and makes for some charming villages.

The scenery was typically rolling hills, pasture, meadows, fields of cattle, scattered villages, leafy woods and, of course, vineyards.

This church positively glows in the sun
We were on the new bike (BMW1200 GS) which purred through the villages, and roared through the countryside. My DB loves the engine... The passenger seat is comfy too.

The pink ribbon was to celebrate some sort of Rosé day, I think
Beaujolais country
Either the fields in the photo above are on a slant or the village is. I can't quite make up my mind. As I took it from the back of a moving bike it could be either! The vineyards are part of the Beaujolais appellation. Let's hope they have a good year this year and produce lots of delicious wine.

Rolling hills, charming villages in les Monts d'Or
One village that we went through obviously had some eccentric inhabitants with a fine line in graffiti.
This is the best graffiti I've seen in France
We didn't stop to find out any more about who had created the artwork but I know that s/he is not impressed with the modern state of France...
Most graffiti around Montpellier is of the basic tagging type
My favourite said: "Julien Coupat - Eric Hazan (radical lefties) -> un livre d'opinion mène en prison au nom du terrorisme!".
Nifty artwork and wonderfully radical messages, plus a lovely red door

Love the skull on the left

Someone's been very busy!
We finished the day, later, with an apero outside a bar in the Croix Rousse quartier which is where all the bobos live. The air was balmy, the rosé iced, and it was lovely and peaceful, with just the murmur of conversation from tables nearby.

I could get used to that.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A day out at the Touratech Travel Event

Touratech is a German company that makes accessories for motorbikes. We're not talking seat covers with little hearts on or 'go faster' stripes here, but everything you need 'for your next adventure': vehicle equipment, riding gear, travel equipment, navigation and clothes. Their catalogue is the ultimate biker porn.

Bike with kit and Touratech teddy
They have a shop in Orange, and every year, organise the Touratech Travel Event at the Parc des Expositions. The programme is a varied mix of talks, rides out, workshops, skill testing, etc. We go, naturally, as Orange is just an hour up the autoroute, and it's a good day out. Not just for the stands that sell adventure packages in far-flung spots across the globe for thousands of euros each, or the vehicles of all sorts on display, but for the presentations by bikers who have actually been and come back from an expedition.

We thought about buying this for fun... (€32K)
If you think this sounds like a bunch of hairy bikers showing a few holiday snaps of big bikes and pints of beer, it isn't. Yesterday we listened to two women talking about what they had done, where they had been, and what they had seen.

One was a young woman called Stéphanie Bouisson whose team participated in this year's BMW GS Trophy
"Adventure, foreign cultures, new friendships, gravel, sand and dust make BMW Motorrad's International GS
Trophy an Enduro challenge that is second to none. International teams compete in intensive daily stages as
well as numerous special challenges. This also applied to the International GS Trophy 2016, which took place
in spring in the impressive landscape of Southeast Asia."

Look at this beaut!
Another speaker was Marie-Hélène Cambon, who, with her husband Jo, rode from Bordeaux to Iran on their motorbikes, stayed a month in Iran, and rode all the way back again! Their video of the trip was just stunning. Iran has some fantastic scenery, beautiful monuments, and welcoming people. A blog describing their trip with some of their photos can be seen on their website here.

Is is a bike, is it a car? No, it's a 3-wheeler d'enfer!
One of the themes we heard in all the talks was the desire by the biker adventurers to meet people along the way. Not just fellow bikers, but the local population, and they all talked about some of the amazing people they came across. A far cry from insular biker gangs who are just interested in themselves and duffing up others.

My toes touch the ground - must be my size... !
We listened to a talk by a guy who had shipped his bike over to South America and ridden from Valparaiso to Ushuaia and back. Again, amazing stories of the people he met, places he stayed, and the most incredible scenery.

Most of the bikers who gave talks were sponsored, or helped in some way by Touratech and other groups. In return, they agreed to talk about their trip at events such as the one this weekend.

The cutest car
The penultimate talk, however, was by Philippe Perrenoud, the guy who set up a Trail-Rando with his wife. He goes out and discovers trails and routes for Enduro adventures, then sets up an itinerary, makes all the arrangements and sells the result. He told us about he goes about discovering the trails which is a long and pain-staking business going down every single likely path.

He has set up trails all over the world, including in France, with, for example, a diagonal route from Deauville to La Ciotat. These trips have to be accompanied by a guide because the trails go through farms, need permission from everyone along the way (some 200 paysans) and can thus only take place a certain number of times per year. You meet the farmers along the route, and are welcomed rather than cursed. Baggage is carried on ahead, and all you have to do is enjoy the route.

We came away with our heads spinning with all the views, the stories, and enthusiasm for adventure.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Video Presentation of my Python Project

I had to present my Python project to the other students in the MOOC, and I did this using a very nifty software called Screencast-o-matic which lets you film yourself using the webcam and also records your screen and mouse action at the same time. For free, too, in the basic version which was perfect for what I had to do.

See me in action on my video explaining what I did, here:

Thursday, May 05, 2016

My Python Capstone Project

I've done it! I've made it all the way through the Python for Everybody MOOC by the University of Michigan with the très sympa Dr Chuck (Dr Charles Severance) at the helm who took us through the highways and byways of Python and supported us with substantially complicated scaffolding. Much needed, in my case.

The last module in the 5-part course was the Capstone where we had the opportunity to do an optional project. Always game to get the most out of things, I decided to take the bull by the horns and sign up.

For the project, we had to find a data set, 'scrape' it to find some specific information, put that into a database, and finally, visualise the results. There are data sets about many different fascinating subjects such as:

  • the last words of inmates in Texas before execution since 1984
  • the "Million Base" of 2.2 million chess matches
  • a Twitter data set
  • World Health Organisation data set
  • Family food data set
  • Million Song data set

and so on. For my project however, I chose the Transport for London data set available in their Application Programming Interface (API). It provides access to real time data on the most highly requested information across all modes of transport. It also provides data on accidents across London. I wanted to find out about bicycle accidents (just because), and discover where most accidents happen. I thought it would probably be the City of London which is densely populated during the day and has high cycling activity (couriers etc.).

The first thing I had to do, I discovered, was apply for an API key giving me permission to scrape the data. Then I had to write the code, which I based on code we had seen during the course (click on the images to see them bigger and better).

This code creates the database, connects to the TfL API, asks for the year to download and inserts the longitude, latitude, severity and victim (cycle, car, motorcycle, etc.) into the database for that year. Then it saves the data and closes the connection.

It took me a few days because I wasn't sure about exactly what I needed to do - did I need to create a dictionary, or two, or none...? That's half the problem actually, for me - identifying the structure of the code you need to write for the job you want to do.

My code is really simple too. It just asks for one year, not multiple years. It assumes there are no errors in the year entered (e.g. 2016 which is not available yet). I could make it more robust, but to start with, I just wanted to make it work!

This is what the data looks like in the API:

TfL API raw data

This is what it looks like 'pretty printed':
TfL API data in readable format
You can see more clearly the information I wanted to download in the 'pretty printed' format.

This is what the database my code created looks like, it has 23116 rows of data:

I was astounded the first time the code worked and saw the database loaded with data. Someone I spoke to recently called the feeling a 'nerdy moment'. Never thought I'd ever have one of those, I must say!

Having got the data, I then had to write some code to select the cyclist accident set, choosing 'severe' accidents rather than fatal ones (too sad), iterating through the data, and writing the longitude and latitude locations only to a javascript file.

Code to select geolocation data
I was thankful to have some scaffolding to help me write that too!

The geolocations of severe cycle accidents in London

Once I had the geolocation data, I then had to visualise it. I had already used some visualisation code earlier in the MOOC, so just had adapt it to visualise my data. It actually took me three days because I ran into a problem and had no idea what to do. The code was written in html, which I know nothing about. I hunted around for a solution on the internet, including that fabulous resource Stackoverflow, but couldn't find an answer.

I was stumped. Then I moaned to my DB about my problem, and he said that I should check the latitude and longitude coordinates because they might not be in the right format. And he was right! They were back-to-front in my code! Once I'd fixed that, up popped the little red labels as they should (with another nerdy moment).
Great London severe accident sites
These maps show the severe accidents for 2008. There were 429, and you can see from the second map that the highest concentration was indeed the City of London.

Central London severe accident sites
Job done!

It's been a really satisfying few months, going from being a complete Python beginner/never having touched coding before, ever, and having been crap at maths, to producing an amazing, functioning final result that I had to understand to make work (more-or-less, let's just ignore the html...). Dr Chuck was an entertaining teacher who could engage with us across a screen (no mean feat), and who even set up live 'office hours' during the Capstone so we could interact with him directly. He was aided and abetted by a team of kindly mentors who were available to help us out and give advice in the forums.

I am very happy with the results, and aim to go on and tackle C# next!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Annual birthday cake disaster

With what has become boring regularity, and I really don't know why I continue to bother, my attempt to make a 15th birthday cake for my youngest turned out a disaster. So bad, it was not good for anything but the bin.

It should have looked something like this:
From the Tesco recipe page
A layered cake with Ovaltine and chocolate sponge and Ovaltine-flavoured icing, and lots of Maltesers. Recipe here.

Well, I don't have the right sort of cake tins, so thought it wouldn't matter if I made a single layered cake and just plastered it all over with icing and Maltesers.

This is how it came out:

An inch thick at the edges, what happened to the raising agents, eh? Buggered off on a weekend break? 
The recipe said to stir the flour into the wet ingredients, so I did. What it needed, in fact, was to be beaten in with a whisk, because all the lumps of flour that I thought would dissipate on cooking, did not, and stayed their comfy clumpy selves, visible to all on the bumpy surface of the cake. Attractive...
White bits are clumps of flour. Guess who didn't sift...
This wouldn't have been so bad if the cake had tasted good. But it didn't. I got my son to taste a bit and he started off by saying it was nice... then... discovered an unpleasant after-taste. At that point I gave up and decided to throw money at the situation.

I went to Gonzalez chocolaterie in Jacou, run by Maître Artisan Patrice Gonzalez ("Rendre le monde plus tendre à chaque bouchée") and indulged my son with one of their super chocolate cakes, the Royal:
Mousse au chocolat noir, croustillant praliné, biscuit Joconde..

Candles are mine, only 12 in a packet, too stingy to buy 2
It was, of course, heavenly, and went down a storm with the four boys. My son  had 3 buddies to spend the afternoon mucking about, then I took them to KFC, and left them with a bucket. They found their own way to the cinema to watch 13 Hours, and I picked them up after midnight outside the cinema, brought them home whereupon they took over the living room with mattresses and bedding and were still there at 11.30am the next day (watching tele and playing XBox) when the mother of one arrived to pick him up. The others stayed to lunch (nems) and continued mucking about for the rest of the afternoon.

My son had a lovely birthday. Lots of trashy food, fresh air and fun. I kept out of the way except for providing vital services (taxi, food), and spent the afternoon trying motorbikes with my DB (Honda, new BMW GS, BMW X), dinner with friends, and having lunch in la Grande Motte on Sunday in the glorious sunshine.

The port, Grande Motte
I was shattered by Sunday night.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Nasty niffs and a blue blue sky

We've had our first motorbike ride of the year. Our intention was to ride over the long Easter weekend, but what with rain forecast on Sunday and an exhausted DB, we decided to make it an afternoon on a sunny Saturday ride.

Languedoc-Roussillon, Uzès in the pink Gard
In the end, we chose Uzès, named 'City of Art and History' in 2008, because it's lovely and gets packed during the tourist season, and we could pass through gorgeous little villages like Ste-Croix-de-Quintillargues on the way there.

It has a rich history and a coal-mining tradition, the vestiges of which can still be seen, restored by the community.
We continued our ride along the back roads to Sommières, another medieval pearl of Hérault, where we stopped for petrol.

So far, my enjoyment of the ride had been somewhat marred by the niff of male cat-spotting pee. How on earth? you may wonder. Well, my dear little Ulysse, over winter and probably at Christmas when I dared to take leave of absence for a week (leaving my eldest for most of the days) undoubtedly took umbrage at my absence, and spotted one corner of the living room where my motorbike helmet sat.

I had already discovered the evil evidence and dealt with the soggy box, but I had not sufficiently cleaned the helmet. For example, I had forgotten to clean the visor... So, when we stopped for petrol, I found a tissue in my pocket, got the bottle of San Pellegrino (sacrilege!) and tried to rectify the issues of visibility and pong.

I succeeded with visibility, not so much with the pong, so had to keep the visor partly open for the rest of the ride. I admired the scenery and azure blue sky accompanied by the pungent odour of cat and tea tree oil (which I had optimistically used at home to try to neutralise the niffs).

Pretty road, blue sky
The Gard département is extremely varied in its geography. It ranges from the flat coastal plains of the Camargue and Nîmes to the mountains of the Cévennes. The roads to Uzès passed through the flatter plains, some of which were lined by plane trees growing at an angle, forced to struggle against the strong winds that regularly sweep over the region.

Rocky outcrops
The monotony of flatness and bare-branched vineyards was relieved occasionally by rocky outcrops, and in the far distance we could see just about make out the first mountains of the Cévennes, and snowy peaks.

Cévennes in the distance, snowy peaks
We reached Uzès, the first Duchy of France, at about 4pm and had a brief stop. It was a relief to remove my helmet which is very tight against my jaw and makes it ache after a while.

Uzès and a very blue sky
According to the tourist office:
Uzès was a Bishopric from the 5th century to the French Revolution. The Bishops of Uzès were very powerful. They had the right to mint coins, dispense justice and even bought part of the Uzès domain in the 13th century. There was continued rivalry between the Lords and Bishops, which resulted in various conflicts and lawsuits. In the 18th century, the diocese of Uzès included 193 parishes and was one of the largest in the Languedoc.
Definitely worth a visit if you're in the area.

Uzès, not too busy

Uzès out of season
The main road circles around the town, so we did that because it's a very attractive place, and then left to go back home via Quissac.


The views were similar to the ones earlier, but we did come across an extremely attractive domaine - Domaine de la Rouvière which I can't find on the map.

Domaine de la Rouvière (I think)
There was no panel giving the name of the place either, only 'Private property, keep out' signposts. A welcoming bunch. I only know the name because there was a public right of way and a signpost giving the direction and distance of walks, marked 'Domaine de la Rouvière'.

Who knows what goes on behind the iron gates...

We didn't dawdle there as it was getting a bit chilly, but kept on and got home to a delicious glass of red wine and the end of the artisanal Turron, a toasted almond and egg-yolk sweet that my youngest brought back from his school trip to Valencia, Spain.

My DB also found out, thanks to Google, how to remove the inside of my helmet so I could submerge it in a bucket of washing liquid and soak it all night. It is now pong-free. HURRAH!