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!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Prat Peyrot sous la neige

What a peculiar winter. Mild enough to save us hundreds in electricity bills - good, but also mild enough not to kill off all the fleas - bad. I've had to resort to Frontline for Ulysse, the first time ever. He was just infested with the little buggers, and the herbal potions I tried were totally ineffective.

Then over the February holidays we had a brief cold spell which was enough to crown Mont Aigoual with a heavy covering of snow. I took a Thursday off and decided to take my youngest skiing. I phoned ahead to find out when the half-day ski rental started, and was told that if I intended driving up, I would need chains. Chains!

A hurried wash and brush-up and I was in Roady talking to a man who knew a lot more about chains than me. My last experience with them was leaving a box of newly bought chains swinging on a supermarket trolley and driving off about twenty years ago. I can't recall at what point we discovered this slight problem...

Anyway, he showed me the right size for my wheels, and then I asked him to demonstrate putting them on. A wise move as it turned out because they are quite a challenge!

Back home, I got lunch together (bacon sarnies), dug out my fluo pink ski onesie (or combinaison in French, I didn't realise they were onesies in English - thanks Trish... visions of tiger-striped bed gear come to mind), boots and unfashionable woolly hat, lent my motorbike wet-weather trousers to my son, and off we went.

Did we need the chains? We did! Were they a bugger to put on? A total bugger, but not half as bad as they were to take off. Picture frozen fingers, gloves the size of a man's hand with the ends flopping wetly and coldly getting caught in the bits, my son reading the instructions, and me on my hands and knees cursing.

We stopped at l'Esperou to rent skis, and I also rented boots once I tried them on as they were a lot more comfortable than mine. The woman said she'd had the same ones as me back in the day (1990)! In the end I ditched my boots there because I knew I'd never wear them again having tried the others, and the plastic might just collapse in the cold too. It was €20 to rent boots and poles for half a day for both of us.

The ski resort is called Prat Peyrot, and is a tiny place with 4 green slopes, 4 blue and 3 red which take no time at all to ski down, and a cafeteria. There's also 32km of cross-country skiing

Not cool and trendy on skis, but comfy and warm
I found a nice place to park right up near the start of the slopes (glad of my chains on the snow-covered road) that someone who'd had enough vacated. The weather was pretty awful, so half a day was probably as much as they could take.

Pretty awful weather but lots of snow
To get up the slopes, the resort has ancient tire-fesses: those little disks at the end of a metal pole that drag you up the slope and that you have to let go in time or get a smack in the face (says she from experience). On the red/blue slopes some start with such a jerk that you are hoisted off the ground for a metre or two and have to be careful to land properly or fall and tumble unceremoniously back down in front of everyone. Snowboarders have a particularly challenging time!

To think that the resort only had the green slopes open just a week before!

If you master the tire-fesses of Prat Peyrot, you can cope with any tire-fesses in the world!

At one point it started 'raining' with tiny drops of ice that stung as they hit me in the face. Ouch! It was like an extreme facial.

We had a good time going down all the slopes that were open (all but one red), saw the same people everywhere, it's that small, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We started with a blue and went on to the red. When I did one blue, my son did a red twice, in the same time. Almost.

A better skier than me
I was glad of my chains when it was time to go home too. The car in front had none, and couldn't get out of its space. My son and I helped out with the pushing and shoving and got it moving again.

We like to stop for a hot chocolate when we get back down to l'Esperou. Our favourite bar had plenty of space and was lovely and warm. The hot chocolate slipped down like warm velvet. My son had a crèpe to fill the gaping hole in his ever-growing stomach and I had a second hot chocolate. After all that exercise, I had no qualms.

The skis and poles returned, we started back down the mountain. That's when the chain fun really started. I stopped to remove them once they were no longer necessary, along with a couple of cars behind me. I got one off, but the other one flatly refused. No amount of jiggling, cursing or violence got them free. The guys behind me were struggling too, but got there in the end. One guy asked if we were okay, so I wailed NOOOOO! They came over to have a look, and no amount of their jiggling, cursing or violence had any effect either.

In the end, they decided to take the wheel off - hurried searching for the jack and bits from me (under my seat!) -  and disentangled the chains from the workings around the brakes. What a palaver! Anyway, I was most grateful, and relieved to have had help. We're a matey bunch on the mountain in conditions extrèmes...

The rest of the journey back was uneventful, I'm glad to say. Total cost: €40 for ski passes and rentals, plus petrol and hot chocolate.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Shrinkflation at AMETRA

Modern life is full of examples of lowering standards for no change in price (except upwards), such as the decreasing size of Quality Street boxes of chocolates, the removal of two Cadbury's Fingers from a box of biscuits, lighter weight packets of Walkers crisps, fewer wipes in a packet of Dettol wipes, and so on. Economists call it 'shrinkflation', according to the Daily Mail.

Natural shrinkage?
It's happening in services too, and I have one glaring example from my own experience. In France, it is obligatory for employees to have regular medical check-ups from the médecin du travail. I have been out of the UK for a long time, but when I started work, there was no check-up; perhaps things have changed?

Anyway, a few years ago, we used to have annual check-ups at AMETRA, a national association that specialises in work-place health. It used to be a legal requirement to have an annual check-up by a doctor, with a preliminary consultation with a nurse who asked us questions about our workplace, made us pee into a cup and passed us on to the doc.

Then, we stopped getting summoned to AMETRA, and no one cared a jot about our health for three years. THREE! So naturally, we didn't get the invoice for services non-rendered, right? Wrong! There it was, every year, a bill for 2500Eur or so. For nothing.

In the end, I complained. I was told that the company was having problems (no kidding!), and they were restructuring. Fine, I said, but why are you still invoicing us, and can we stop paying? Of course not! If you don't pay AMETRA you get into all sorts of trouble, a bit like with the impôts. It turns out that it's obligatory for us to pay, but if they can't deliver a service, we can't complain.

So I complained again, and looked around for another provider. There isn't one. They have us by the short and curlies, as it were, and as with any totalitarian state worth the name, you shut pay up or get into trouble.

Eventually, a service was resumed, of sorts. They had worked out their little problems, and the status of our health was to be checked again, but now every two years instead of annually. Was there a change in the invoice? Of COURSE, it was split in two!!


We were sent convocations. We all went to see the nurse and then the doc. The nurse did not ask us to pee into a little cup. Pee's off, but there was no change in the invoice.

When I went to see the doc, she asked me lots of questions, checked my sight and took my blood pressure. She asked me what I had for brekkie (I can't remember how it came up), and I said I had a boiled egg every day. Horrified, she told me that I was eating WAY too many eggs, and that I should have no more than two per week. I tried to tell her that there were new guidelines, but she was having none of it.

I don't think she does much revision at home...

When I got back to work, I forwarded a mail to her from a reputable source stating that eggs were good and we could eat two per day with no problem. No need to thank me (she didn't).

A few months later we got another letter from AMETRA. From now on, when we get the summons to go every two years, one year in two we'll see just the nurse, so we'll only see a doc every four years. Is there a change in the invoice? Yeah, right.

So there you have it. A flagrant lowering of standards for absolutely no discernable benefit to the customer. Welcome to the modern world.