All the Python Conferences

In the last two months I’ve attended and spoken at five Python conferences around Europe.

EuroPython – Berlin

I submitted a proposal to EuroPython in Berlin for a talk explaining what the Raspberry Pi Foundation are doing in education. Luckily it was accepted and I got to go to Berlin for a week (which I’d done for my holiday the year before) and got to see some great talks, catch up with friends and get to know people in the Python community.

This was the first Python conference I’d attended, and my first major conference talk!

Here’s the video of my talk Pioneering the Future of Computing Education:

You’ll find the slides on slideshare


EuroSciPy – Cambridge

I was invited to give the keynote on the second day of EuroSciPy (the European Scientific Python conference) held in Cambridge.

They’d originally asked me to speak on the topic of Scientific Programming but as that’s not really what we do, I decided to focus on what makes learning with Python and Raspberry Pi interesting and engaging and particularly how they can be used in science education.

Here’s the video of my talk Python Programming in Science Education:

You’ll find the slides on slideshare

PyConUK – Coventry

I’d always wanted to go to PyConUK, but with a normal developer job (and not in Python) it would have meant taking time off work to go.

PySS – San Sebastian

I was invited to give a keynote at a new Python conference in Spain, held at the university in San Sebastian. My talk was Python on Pi – Interesting Python Projects with the Raspberry Pi

There’s no video recording but you’ll find the slides on slideshare.

I also gave a lightning talk on mkdocs, a tool for documenting your project using Markdown.

PyCon Ireland – Dublin

I submitted a proposal to PyCon Ireland and it was accepted, which gave me the chance to visit Ireland again (I went in 2011).

I gave my talk Pioneering the Future of Computing Education – you’ll find the slides on slideshare.

Berlin 2013

I’ve heard lots lately about how cool Berlin is — my friend Martin goes there regularly and hangs out in coffee shops working on projects, and he really enjoys the atmosphere and culture around the city. Another friend Sam recently moved here, and he loves it too. There seemed to be a thriving tech scene, and there’s plenty of interesting things to see — so I thought I’d take my summer holiday there this year. I wanted to go alone too — just for the adventure of getting about and discovering interesting things by myself. I remembered my trip to the Spanish Pyrenees back in 2008 and how I had to make it across the breadth of Spain by public transport on my own, with no real plan, in order to make it back for my flight, and how I met a bunch of cool people along the way. I was really seeking some adventure like this. And I’ll be writing the post as I go along, as reading back over the posts from my past trips reminds me of the detail of the anecdotes and the emotion I went through at the time — things which are easily lost to time if not recorded.

I set off from Manchester in what I considered plenty of time. Arriving at the station to find the train I’d planned on getting was delayed, I waited, and eventually made my way to the airport. the delay had set me back quite a bit so I arrived with less time than I intended to make my way through check-in (which was much less than the recommended time anyway). I had about 20 minutes till the gate closed, so I rushed to the check-in desk and saw a huge queue — then realised that the luggage check-in desk closed 10 minutes before the main check-in — giving me less than ten minutes to get through the queue. Panicking, I realised I had no choice but to make my way to the front of the queue, or probably miss the flight. I plucked up the courage to tap somebody on the shoulder and beg that he let me in front of him — fortunately he was very understanding and let me in, and suggested I move forward to the front — the few people ahead didn’t mind either, and so I got to the desk a few minutes before it was due to close. Then I made my way to the security scanners to find another massive queue. Slightly worried the gate close time was getting close, I waited — and a member of airport staff asked the crowd if there was anyone due to depart before 7am, as they could bypass the queue to make it through in time — mine was 7.15 departure — and it was 6.45 at the time — so I figured it wouldn’t be a problem. I got through and made my way to the gate as they were calling for any remaining passengers to board, so it was fine. Feeling relieved, I took my seat. Note to self: don’t push your luck.

I arrived at Schönefeld airport, retrieved my bag from the baggage carousel and made my way out. I found a ticket machine for the train, and spent a few minutes pressing around to find the correct ticket — meanwhile a queue was forming behind me. I eventually found the ticket I wanted — an ABC Zone day ticket (the airport is in zone C, but an AB Zone ticket will do for the rest of the trip) — and proceeded to attempt to pay for it — but the machine would not take my money (notes). I tried all the different ways I could think of, but not wanting to hold the queue up I left and tried to see if I could get some change. I found a change machine and got a bunch of Euro coins out. I returned to the machine, and watched somebody use the machine perfectly — a green light came on and they inserted a note. The green light never came on for me. the two people in from of me got to the machine and the green light didn’t come on either, so I pointed this out to them (as I heard them speaking English). They tried a card and coins but no luck. I tried after them, and the coin slot didn’t open, the green light for the notes didn’t come on and it wouldn’t take my card. I left and headed for the station to see if I could find another machine. I joined a queue at a machine in the station, behind the people I’d been with at the previous machine, and chatted to them while we waited. Turns out the guy was Irish, from Dublin, and had just moved to Berlin for a year to study Economics, and the girl he was with was local and had arranged to meet him at the airport. Had a great chat with them, and when the machine still wouldn’t take my money, the guy put all three of our tickets on his card and I gave him the cash. Phew! But where to? I didn’t have any plans for the day other than to got to c-base that evening — and probably meet up with Sam, who I was staying with to begin. I thought I’d be happy to head to a random cool part of town and hang out until Sam was available — but really didn’t know where to go. I didn’t have data on my phone and just had a map of the subway system. I called Sam for a suggestion and he said he was available so he’d come and meet me. He called me and directed me to his nearest stop. There are four types of public transport on the Berlin network — the U-bahn (mostly underground), the S-bahn (mostly overground), the metro (trams) and the bus. A zone ticket permits travel on all of these. Many stations have both U-bahn and S-bahn which makes for easy connections, and a few of the main stations are railway stations too — for connections to other cities and further afield by train.

We walked to his apartment and had a bite to eat — we chatted for a while about the developments in the tech scene in Manchester, and he told me about what’s going on in Berlin. After a while I let him get back to work and went for a walk. Sam lives near the former Tempelhof Airport, so I took the chance to walk through it. The airport was built in the 1920s and reconstructed by the Nazis in the 1930s, and has only been defunct since 2008. The airport building still stands, and the runways are still in tact but the fields surrounding it are now used for sports, grills, art exhibitions and such. I took a walk down the runway and then made my way towards Gneisenaustraße where I saw some interesting graffiti — some of it made me chuckle and reminded me that’s part of why I wanted to come here — the attitude and expression of the residents of Berlin is fascinating. Then I spotted some brilliant Berlin postcards in a little art shop and I wandered further and discovered Werderscher Kirchhof – a huge and beautifully green cemetery with incredible architecture seen in massive family monuments. It proceeded to rain heavily so I retreated to the nearest U-bahn station and headed over to Jannowitzbrücke and while waiting to meet Sam for dinner, I was lucky enough to witness a wonderful rainbow over the river — and it was visible as a full semi-circle — which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before!

Sam arrived and we ate at the Ming Dynasty before entering c-base. This night was the meeting of the Ubuntu User Group – which I was looking forward to. My experience at c-base was unexpectedly odd — no-one greeted or really acknowledged us until we entered the members’ area — to ask if we were members. Sam joined recently so he pointed this out and introduced me, then after spotting my Raspberry Pi t-shirt, the guy started telling us about how much better he thought the BeagleBone was. We had a look around and headed back to the bar and got some drinks. Sam went to speak to someone about his membership and so I looked around for someone to talk to — I joined a group at the bar, said hello and said I was visiting from the UK. They basically ignored me, I asked if they were members and they said some of them were, then just carried on talking amongst themselves. I gathered most people there were just hanging out, and saw a small group with laptops running Ubuntu, I assumed they were the ones there for the Ubuntu meeting. I approached the table, said hello and introduced myself to each of the pairs of people in turn, they said hello but barely looked up from their laptops. When I couldn’t seem to engage them at all, and looked around to see everyone else was in closed groups chatting, I just sat and waited for Sam. When he returned, I explained how people had been generally unwelcoming and asked if he knew anyone we could hang out with. Being new to c-base, he didn’t know many people there yet, and couldn’t see anyone he recognised. He asked one of the bar staff about the Ubuntu group and he pointed at the group of people with laptops, and pointed out an older man aside form them who he said was the group organiser. We approached him and ended up sitting with him for an hour or so, and had a great chat. He was a retired programmer with several software patents to his name, and had plenty to tell us about — really interesting and very pleasant. He invited to me a youth club at a community centre called E-lok, which hosts a Linux User Group. I said I’d try to go next week. C-base is a very cool venue, it has incredibly designed interior (it has a kind of spaceship theme to it), and it’s the most impressive hackspace I’ve ever seen, but I was not made to feel welcome there as a visitor. It made me think how regulars at Madlab, Manchester Hackspace or any user group I attend — myself included — conduct themselves in this situation — and hoped that others or I did not make any newcomers feel this uncomfortable. User groups are known to have their share of oddities like socially awkward or partially autistic attendees (geeks will be geeks), but I’d like to think the groups I attend are rather welcoming and inclusive. I know a significant number of people at these groups who actively include new people, and know that they avoid making people feel uncomfortable. I will probably be returning to c-base while I’m here, so I hope my next visit proves to be more successful.

The next day I took a trip to Alexanderplatz and had some lunch and a coffee while trying to use the collection of offline maps and Berlin travel apps on my phone to determine where any of the things I wanted to go to or see were located relative to the places I needed to go. I took a walk around the area and ended up wandering in to a big shopping centre where I decided to buy a German SIM card so I could access the internet from anywhere — this proved to be extremely useful. Later that afternoon I headed to Kottbusser Tor to go to a coworking space called Co.up — which was hosting Python Users Berlin (PUB) that evening. As I arrived, the organisers were setting up the room and projector and things, and speaking to each other in German, but as soon as they were ready to start one of them welcomed everyone and announced “We’ll be switching to English now” — it’s a kind of neutral language, the lowest common denominator — Berlin being such a major city, its inhabitants are fairly international, and English is the best know language so that’s what they tend to use. I saw a great talk called ‘Becoming a Better Programmer’ by Harald Armin Massa (aka the ‘Lightning Talk Man’), in which the speaker explained a number of techniques he has studied to tuning your brain to perform better at certain tasks — including personal experiences with various motivational, self discipline, learning and information management techniques. A guy called Andreas announced at the end that he was looking for people to help coach at a Python for Beginners Workshop coming up on the Saturday — I approached him afterwards and offered to go along to help out. The group then retreated to a local restaurant. On the way I thanked the speaker and chatted to him, saying I was visiting from the UK — he said he would see me at PyConUK but I said I was missing it as I would still be in Berlin. At the restaurant I sat next to Andreas and chatted to him about the Python Workshop — it turns out he’s a volunteer for an organisation called OpenTechSchool which runs free tech workshops, and Berlin is just one of their bases. I said we do loads of things like that in Manchester under different names — and that we should collaborate with them, sharing resources and such, maybe get a Manchester OpenTechSchool centre set up.

The waiter took my order (I pointed at an item on the menu while asking for “the beef casserole”) but he brought me a dish of meat in sauce with mashed potato — I said I thought my dish came with dumplings, he said “No, the ox cheek comes with mashed potato” and verified by referring to the menu. Not wanting to cause a fuss, I took the meal and I did enjoy it nonetheless. I had two weissbiers throughout the meal and towards the end, someone asked for half a weissbier — the waiter said it came in bottles so did he want to share one with me — I said I’d be happy to. As people were ready to leave, each one dealt with the waiter and paid their own share individually, and I was the last one left — I reminded him I’d had “the ox cheek and two and a half weissbiers” but he said “actually, three — the other guy only paid for two”. I felt put on the spot and I had a feeling I was being taken for granted — I didn’t know the guy but I’m sure he wouldn’t have left me to pay for his drink, and wondered why the waiter had let him not pay for it. The ox cheek was probably more expensive than the dish I’d ordered too! Feeling responsible for it and, again, not wanting to cause a fuss, I paid, giving him the amount rounded up to the next Euro. He grunted and muttered something under his breath and walked away without leaving me the change. I was later told people don’t leave tips on the table after a meal in Germany, they just give the waiter what they want to pay on top of the bill, so he must have thought I was doing that and only giving him a tiny tip. He’d given me the wrong meal, and made me feel really awkward that I’d been charged for an extra drink, and I really thought he was just ripping me off, and him being rude when taking my money just made it worse. A very odd end to the night!

I then tried to get hold of Sam, as I was staying at his house again, but couldn’t reach him so I texted his housemate James to see if he was at home. He replied to say he was heading out to a party and I was welcome to come. I didn’t really have a choice, but was glad to join him anyway so I caught the U-bahn and met him at another part of town where we went to a bar for a lock-in. We stayed there for a few hours, and James went off somewhere else and gave me his keys — I got on the U-bahn home about 4.30am. I got off where he’d told me to, and checked the map on my phone for where to walk from there — it looked like the best way would be to walk 7 blocks and turn left. After about 7 very long blocks, I hadn’t seen the road I was looking for so I checked my phone again. The blue dot showing my location was on the opposite side of the station — I’d walked the wrong way! And at that moment my phone battery died. I walked back to the station and another 7 blocks, turned left down it and walked for a while, decided it wasn’t right, checked the map on a bus stop, walked further, and kept going back on myself. By about 6.30 I gave up thinking I was realistically in walking distance from the apartment and so I went in to a U-bahn station and tried to plan a route home. I went back and forth a couple of times, trying to get closer, then switched to another line and found my way back around 7am. What a disaster! Also, while in the pub Sam texted me to say the person whose room I was staying in would be returning that morning so could I be up and out of the room by 10am. As I climbed in to bed I put my phone on charge and set my alarm for 10, just three hours away. I got up, exhausted from walking around aimlessly all night and on barely any sleep — and realised I needed to do some work on Pi Weekly as it was due to be sent out at noon that day (BST, so 1pm for me). Luckily I’d arranged for my co-curator Ryan to look after it while I was away, so he’d already collected the links and got it ready to go. I checked the links, layout and wording and all the perfectionist bits I do before finalising each issue, and scheduled it to be sent. Then Sam awoke and said his other housemate wasn’t coming back after all so I could go back to bed. I slept well in to the afternoon! After spending the first two nights with Sam, I then moved on to my accommodation for the rest of the week — an airbnb place Martin had recommended — a lovely couple with a baby, who rent out the spacious spare bedroom in their Kreuzberg apartment.

The next day I returned to Co.up for the OpenTechSchool Python Workshop (Python for Absolute Beginners). We had about 30 people turn up for the workshop — and about 12 coaches. Once we were set up, Andreas briefed the coaches before everyone arrived, and gave an opening presentation when we started. Rather than a led session or lesson, participants were given the URL of a github project guiding them through using the Turtle module in Python — something Andreas had said was a good place to start for beginners as it’s all visual and graphical. Everyone seemed to get along with it well and we were walking around checking people were ok and answering any questions they had. The mix of operating systems, text editors and spoken languages didn’t really bother anyone — we would suggest editors and IDEs if people asked, and pointed out features in ones they were using, but mostly just lent a hand with syntax errors and answered general questions. One guy there asked me if there was any additional material because he’d skipped through it quite fast. I checked with Andreas and he pointed him to the rest of the OpenTechSchool material, and suggested he looked at something like Learn Python The Hard Way. I showed him my Python Intro project and got him started with Python Challenge which he really enjoyed.

On Monday I took a walk from the apartment in Kreuzberg to Checkpoint Charlie, and initially just wandered around the checkpoint to take in what was there. Starbucks, McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza. I spotted a little food stall called ‘Checkpoint Curry’ and ate a nice currywurst from there. I then entered the museum, which was full of interesting bits of history from the Berlin Wall, the state of culture during the divide, various stories of resistance and people daringly crossing the boarder any way they could, all the events around the fall of the wall and the politics of rebuilding society in Europe.

Next I took a walk to Potsdamer Platz, which was thriving with traffic and is full of huge buildings and massive corporate advertising. It was raining pretty hard at the time too, so I kept walking on. I reached the Holocaust memorial which is a really cool area full of big stone cuboids of all different heights, in a grid. They start low on the edges and get higher towards the centre, so I stepped up on to the first one and walked across them right to the middle, hopping about between each one as it got higher. I took a few pictures from the centre and from the far end, and proceeded to walk further until I reached Brandenburger Tor, the iconic former gate in the city divide. I took a few pictures of the arch before receiving word from Sam that he would be heading to cbase.

I headed off to meet him there. It was the Symphony Stammtisch, a drinks meetup for users of the PHP framework Symphony. Like the Ubuntu event, not a lot was organised for the meeting, and so Sam and I just chatted with a couple of people there for Symphony — one of whom was a woman I’d seen at the Python group the week before, but not had a chance to speak to. I noticed her accent and asked if she was American — to which she replied she “used to be”, but now has German citizenship. The other was a guy who told us about the startup he works for, which sells customisable muesli. We stayed a little while and chatted, before heading off for a kebab.

The following morning I went for breakfast at a place Martin had recommended in Kreuzberg — called East London. It’s a British style café which does a great Full English Breakfast. I stayed in there a while, and did some work on Pi Weekly after eating breakfast and while drinking coffee. Once my battery was drained I returned to my room in the apartment and prepared my presentation for the talk I was due to give that evening. While I was planning my trip, Martin suggested I checked for any user groups that were on during my stay — I found Python Users Berlin and one called Geek2Geek — an event aiming to bring together tech people in different languages and disciplines. I RSVP’d on the meetup page and discussion began on what talks they could have. I said I would be visiting from the UK and would be happy to talk about Raspberry Pi and Raspberry Jams in the UK, which they accepted and invited me to speak. I gave a lightning talk at PHPNW recently, where I just brought up pictures of Raspberry Pi projects and talked briefly about each of them, and gave a similar short talk at Madlab, so the slides used evolved between each of these talks and I used these as a starting point for Geek2Geek. I added some recent projects and expanded on what goes on in Manchester and at Madlab.

I finished preparing in plenty of time and headed out early to make sure I could find the venue. I went to the address which was given to me as Fashion For Home — Showroom im Quartier 208, Behrenstraße 28, 10117 Berlin and I was asked to arrive at 6.30 for a 7pm start. I found the street, and walked down looking for number 28 and something labelled Fashion For Home. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I found a furniture shop called Fashion For Home. I guessed maybe the event was in a room upstairs from the shop, so I wandered around looking for an adjacent door leading to the upstairs offices or something. There were no doors — just shops either side. There was a printed A4 sign on the door in German which said something about it being closed from 7pm. A guy in the shop entrance came out to me and said something in German — I said I was there for an event — he changed to English and said “Geek2Geek”, I said yes, and he said I was a bit early. I said I was told to be there at 6.30 as I was speaking. He said “Oh so are you Ben?” I said yes and he invited me in. I asked where the event would be held — he said “over there” and pointed at the middle of the showroom. Shortly after, other people started to arrive and I introduced myself to each of them, chatting away. One guy turned up and spoke to me and I realised he’d been tweeting me the last few days — he’s an English developer called James who lives in Berlin, and he’s subscribed to Pi Weekly, and he read that I would be speaking so he signed up and came along. I then met another Englishman, also living in Berlin, called Sam Carlisle, who I was told about by a couple of people before I left. He was a member of the London Hackspace and he’s involved in organising and running events called Cryptoparties. We chatted briefly and quickly identified a number of mutual friends and events we’d both attended. We’d both heard about each other from other people.

They started setting up the projector on a bedside cabinet and projected on to a wall in front of a double bed, and aligned various chairs, sofa seats and loungers facing in the direction of the wall. More people arrived, we chatted and I plugged my laptop in to the projector. People sat down, I was introduced and I began. While speaking I constantly reminded myself I was speaking to non-English natives and so kept slowing down and tried to speak clearly. It seemed to be well received and people nodded along, laughed at the right times, looked amazed when I told them about Amy speaking about her Game of Life project at the Jamboree. I was asked a number of questions afterwards, and then Sam stepped up to speak next. I found a lounger at the back of the room and perched to hear what he had to say. Sam gave a brilliant talk on Read/Write Society, explaining hackerspace culture, and the “rules” they live by, such as “repair is better than recycling”. He spoke passionately about the importance of device freedom — expressing despair that companies turn Turing Complete computer systems in to locked down machines that do limited tasks, and explained how you can fix this with various hacks. Much of what Sam said related to the Raspberry Pi, and he praised its success in giving people, particularly young people, the freedom to create things. I chatted with some people afterwards about the Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Jams, the tech scene in Manchester and the UK and all sorts. James was interested in helping attending a Berlin Raspberry Jam — and Sam mentioned wanting to help set one up — so I hope between them and others they can make it happen! Maybe next time I visit Berlin I can attend a Jam. The slides from my talk are available here.

The next morning I was due to check out of my airbnb accommodation, so I packed my bags and started the day by returning to the East London café for breakfast — this time trying their pancakes, which were very nice. I moved on to a café Martin recommended called Sankt Oberholz. Every single table was full of developers working on laptops. I worked on Pi Weekly there for a while before heading off to meet my friend Sophie. Sophie is an Austrian who went to my university and was in my canoe club. She’s now living in Berlin where she teaches English at a school. We met at Alexanderplatz where she introduced me to her boyfriend and we went on to a cocktail bar and restaurant and caught up and exchanged stories. I stayed at their place that night, and I’d booked another airbnb for the next night, for the rest of the week. I arranged to get the keys for that place at noon the next day. Sophie’s is quite far out from the centre, so my route to the new apartment involved four changes on the train and underground. I took the first train, got off and waited for the next connection. After a few minutes I saw a train pull in to an adjacent platform, and realised it was the one I needed, so I jumped up and ran through the underpass to get to the next platform — and managed to hop on before the doors shut. While looking at my app for how many stops I needed to take, I realised I didn’t have my hold-all with me — just my backpack. I realised I’d left it on the platform. I got off the train at the next stop, and hoped there would be another train back the same way soon — and fortunately one came right away. I took it one stop (really hoping it wasn’t a different service taking another route), and hopped off and retrieved my bag from where I’d left it on a seat — phew! Now running late, I waited for the next train and continued my journey, and texted my contact at the accommodation to let him know.

I arrived, collected my key, dropped my bags off and did some clothes washing. Then I went to c-base and spent some time there with Sam (Carlisle). We discussed cryptoparties, crypto in general, PGP, OTR IRC, encryption and privacy. I’d planned to attend a Linux group that evening, as invited by the retired chap from the Ubuntu group on my first night, and when 7.00 came around I left for E-Lok. E-Lok is a youth centre in Warschauer and is the venue for one of the Linux meetups in Berlin — called Linux Works. I had expected it to be a Linux group for young people, but I was mistaken — it was an adult group that just meets at the centre. I sat down and chatted to a couple of people, and spoke to the man who’d invited me — and he asked if I would speak about the tech scene in Manchester, and so I ended up giving a condensed version of my Geek2Geek Raspberry Pi & Manchester Raspberry Jam talk — showing the slides from my laptop display for reference. The talk went down well and everyone was interested in talking to me about its contents. I got in to a discussion with a guy about Ubuntu and Canonical (he was rather anti), choices in window managers, and then about some programming languages — PHP, Python and golang — after he showed me a podcast website he’d written in PHP (which used a huge associative array as its database!) and how he wanted to rewrite it in go. I also spoke to a guy called Paul who works part-time at the FSFE with my friend Sam (Tuke). I then met a woman called Jana, who is a Linux sysadmin and a councillor for the German Pirate Party. She told me of some events coming up at the weekend — Software Freedom Day on Saturday and the Pirate Election Party on Sunday. She also asked if I was going to Oggcamp — which I am — and she said she wants to go. Great to hear people outside the UK know about the event!

The next day, Friday, I decided to head to some tourist attractions and museums — and so took a walk along Torstrasse and turned on to Friedrickstrasse in the direction of Museum Island. I could have taken a more direct route but was in search of food so stuck to the main roads. While walking down Friedrickstrasse, I saw someone I knew — Nicola, a friend from sixth form I haven’t seen for about 6 years! There were very few people about — I was walking down the street and she was standing under shelter from the rain, looking out at the street, and we just caught each other’s gaze and I went over to say hello. She was there for a long weekend with her boyfriend. We chatted for a few minutes, swapped contact details and have since exchanged a few emails. What a coincidence to bump in to each other like that! I continued walking through the rain, and saw some beautiful architecture, huge old buildings, all the time thinking they would look much nicer in better weather. I found Museum Island and discovered most of them, such as the Egyptian Museum, required prior booking. I kept on walking around seeing the sights, along with crowds of tourists in raincoats. I witnessed a number of tourists walking around taking photos with their iPads in light rain. Seriously. I came across a movie set where they were filming — no idea what for but they went round telling people they were “in the way” and could they move on. I walked around some more, disappointed that the sights were not at their best, and I spotted a bus pull up displaying that it was headed for the Zoological Gardens. That was somewhere I intended to go at some point, so I jumped on. Knowing it was too late to get in to the zoo itself, I thought it would be good to check out a different part of the city. I got some food from a noodle shop and wandered around. The zoo closed at 5pm so it wasn’t worth going in, especially not as it was raining anyway. I walked off and went in to a general souvenir shop, where I saw an odd souvenir — a t-shirt with the Android logo “eating” the Brandenburg Gate, with the word ‘Berlin’ underneath. It made no sense, really, but I thought it was funny so I bought one. I wandered around some more and was generally fed up of trying to be a tourist, and of the rain, so I headed home.

I chilled out a bit in my room, and later on received a text from Sam (Tuke) who invited me to go for a drink with him and some Free Software Foundation colleagues and friends so I headed to Wedding and met them at his friends’ apartment and later went to a bar. We stayed out pretty late talking about free software and development. One of the guys said he used to work for a German social network website which at one time was very big and had offers to be bought by Facebook for its user base — the owners refused as the advertising revenue was so big, but it eventually declined in use (losing users to Facebook) and became unprofitable and unfit for sale. I think he said it did get sold, but for a tiny proportion of what they were originally offered, and that even then was a really bad deal for the buyers! He explained how he worked on a recommendation engine for attempting to invite users to groups based on common connections. It was a crazy explanation, but a really interesting one! I quoted him at one point as saying the following:

And then this:

I slept well in to the afternoon the next day, and headed straight to the venue of the Software Freedom Day I had been told about by Jana at E-Lok. I had a few connections to make, followed by a walk, to get there. Fortunately it was a much nicer day. I arrived at IN-Berlin, which is the office of a non-profit ISP, and the home of another Linux User Group called [Be]Lug. The event was just a bunch of Linux geeks (about 12 of us) sitting around a table eating pastries and cakes and drinking coffee. It was good — had some interesting chats with people at what soon became the English end of the table — as I was joined by a student from Istanbul, a 15 year old boy called Reuben (originally from the Isle of Man, been living in Berlin for 5 years) and later, Jana, who offered to give us a tour of the space. They have a really cool setup there, with computer desks, soldering kit workstations, plenty of Linux and free software posters, murals (a weird one of Richard Stallman) and a huge box of Linux washing powder! They also have a lot of cool stuff on display in their windows at the front — which is a great idea to show the public what they do. They have a 3D printer (and some 3D printed objects), some official LibreOffice disc sets, Arduino powered LED displays and such. The guy from Istanbul said he had been in Berlin for 6 months but never been to c-base, so Jana and I said we’d go there next and take him. I told Paul (FSFE) we were going to c-base and he said he’d come too. I arranged to meet Sam (Carlisle) there and so I went to look for him when we arrived. We discussed a few things we’d mentioned briefly previously, including events and initiatives we want to set up and run between us, in Berlin and in the UK. We shared experiences of doing similar things we’ve done before, or know other people who’ve done similar things. We have a lot in common in terms of what we want to do, and how, and experience in being involved in these things. We should hopefully be putting some things on together in the UK next month — watch this space! And we’ve made a foundation for a Berlin Raspberry Jam too. Sam left and so Paul, Jana and I headed to Ostkreuz to get something to eat. Jana walked us round showing us some interesting areas, and we ate at a brilliant grill place. We then proceeded to a bar called Liberacion, where Jana left us and Paul and I had a drink and a chat.

On Sunday I met Sam (Carlisle) at c-base again. I rang the doorbell (a three button mouse) when I arrived and said I was there to meet Sam Carlisle. The guy just said “he’s not here yet” and just stood in front of the entrance giving the impression that I couldn’t come in. I said I’d wait for him and he said ok and shut the door. Ideally I’d have waited inside but apparently this wasn’t an option. I sat on the bench outside and got my laptop out. Sam took a while getting there as he had a few things to do on the way. He apologised for me not being let in. They’re generally not very welcoming, especially to visitors not accompanied by a member. Understandable that they don’t want people wandering in off the street, but they could have easily let me sit in the bar as I was meeting a member there. It’s more the fact they come across as rude and unwelcoming. Anyway, we shared a few ideas and discussed some things, and Sam showed me a button he’d just made with a 3D printer, and he stitched it in to his trousers to repair them — very cool! He’s got some other things he uses daily that have been printed — little things like a handle cable tied to a plastic bottle and a cable tidy. He’s looking at setting up a 3D Copy Shop — a concept whereby people bring in objects, they get scanned in and reprinted. An awesome idea I’m sure will be commonplace at some point in the future — and when we start to see things like that, it’ll be the start of something big! We ordered some pizza and then headed to the Pirate Election Party!

I was surprised to see so many people there — about 300, I think. There was a crowd standing about in an open area with a bar, and some screens and cameras and stuff going on in a room inside. The atmosphere was great — everyone in high spirits, being very social, chatting and getting to know each other. Sam introduced me to some friends of his he spotted when we walked in, and people were saying they were disappointed by the exit polls saying they only had about 2% of the vote. At the time it looked like they hadn’t really made any progress and that Merkel would more than likely win, but possibly not reach a majority. Despite this, everyone enjoyed themselves and we got to chat to some interesting people. Sam (Tuke) and Paul from FSFE turned up later on too. I was in the room with the big screen when a result came through and the room erupted with joy — I’m not quite sure what exactly was being announced, maybe it was the local result — but it said the Pirates got 2.5% and 2.0%. Discussion that night ranged from tech chat to piracy, privacy and encryption, Snowden and the NSA, and general German politics. A real mix of people there — anarchists, punks, rockers, hippies, techies and more. Some discussions we were involved in were very odd, others quite interesting and thought provoking. It was quite exhausting! We went off for a kebab at one point, returned for another beer and left around 11pm.

On Monday I went to the FSFE office to meet Sam (Tuke) and went for lunch with him and his colleagues. We ate at a place called White Trash and had some nice soup and salad and a rather disappointing burger. Then I decided to take up a recommendation from my friend Tim, which was also backed by Sam — the Alternative Berlin Tour. I went along not knowing what it would be like and ended up really enjoying it! Our guide, Lynn — a girl from Luxembourg who studied in Berlin four years ago and “fell in love” with the city and decided to stay — showed us around parts of the city you’d probably not otherwise go to. First up, we stopped at an old railway bridge covered in graffiti — she asked if we thought graffiti was legal in Berlin — it isn’t! But enforcement of this ruling is very minimal, and fines are small, depending on the type. If it’s spray painted tags on a corporate building, that’s pretty bad, but a lot of what you see is things like paste-ups (printed pictures pasted and stuck to walls) which are quick and easy to put up, and time can be spent working on them from home, so people rarely get caught doing this sort of thing, and these fines are minimal anyway. There are also spray stencils which are also quick to apply, and are reproducible. Lynn pointed out some of the artwork and explained the themes behind them — many of which are really interesting! One artist has a theme of work involving a picture of a girl labelled Little Lucy and pastes a picture of a dead cat somewhere nearby — the game is to find the cat once you’ve seen Lucy. She’s usually holding a gun or other clue as to how she killed the cat — and the cat may be shown with a hole in its chest (as if it’s been shot) or just hung from a lamppost or something. Another artist by the name El Pocho draws pictures of women who have fallen in love with Berlin, and each of these women is accompanied by a phrase like “I see him but he doesn’t see me” or “Goodbye Childhood” which indicates she is growing up and so is Berlin, and that things are changing. Another theme is a series of pasted characters in various work outfits — a bus driver, a businessman, a clown — shown wearing a gas mask — all with the caption “soon”, as if to suggest pollution will one day mean we will go about our daily lives as normal but be forced to wear gas masks. A really intriguing one is a series of paste-ups — this would be difficult to decipher its meaning without being told — which consists only of poor quality black and white photographs of people just standing about doing nothing in particular. Lynn explained that these are of people as they can be seen on Google Street View in those respective locations. An artist ironically known as Sober just pastes up pictures of drunk women dancing. There are lots of pieces of art, or just written slogans that simply express political messages or ideals — many regarding the Berlin Wall (such as “The next wall to fall — Wall Street”), class divides and often some expressing dismissal of Nazism saying it’s not welcome. There’s also a retired man who goes around painting the number 6 everywhere, in no particularly artistic fashion and without making any statement. Lynn explained that he has been asked about this and in interviews with magazines he’s said he’s doing it to make the internet go faster! Something to do with 6 in German being “sechs”, pronounced like “sex”. And the internet is full of sex. Makes sense. We then hopped on the S-bahn and Lynn pointed out the East Wall Gallery — a collection of artwork on the remaining parts of the Berlin Wall. We didn’t stay to look at it, but I made a mental note to return the next day to take a walk along the wall. Instead we checked out YAAM — the Young African Art Market, which is an afro-Caribbean style area full of sand, deck chairs, hammocks, beach football pitches, ping pong tables, and is full of interesting art projects. It lies in what was once “No Man’s Land” between the wall and the river. The slogan “YAAM must survive” was repeated in many places — this is a reference to the “Media Spree” which is an initiative to make use the land around the wall for big corporate enterprises. They’ve already built big office blocks, a sports stadium and all sorts on this land, all plastered in huge advertising and corporate logos. There are many slogans painted around the area, such as “Fuck off Media Spree”. Unfortunately YAAM has already been sold off to be used for the same purpose, so the messages are now in vein.

We then took a walk over the river and she pointed out a house that belonged to a Turkish man during the divided city years, who built things in and around his house out of other people’s trash — including a tree house. The council thought he might be masking a tunnelling attempt with the tree house and such, and so ordered an inspection of his property. It turned out he was just building a tree house and nothing more. Once he was ordered to move, and he refused, and concreted all the furniture in and around his house to the floor! He now lives in a new apartment across the road from there during the Winter, and moves back in to his makeshift house in the Summer — he’s in his 90s. Walking further, we entered Kreuzberg and she showed us a piece of artwork on the side of a building — a giant stencil of an astronaut in black ink. The stencil was done by cutting a sketchbook picture up in to a grid and making stencils for each piece of the grid. By itself it’s a great mural, but Lynn also pointed out that at night, a flag can be seen waving on the wall too — which she left us to ponder for a minute before revealing that there was a floodlight across the road and some flags up around a car showroom — which were there before the picture — and the artist chose to do an astronaut here knowing that the flag would present itself alongside. The tour ended here and people donated generously (it was a free tour on a donate-what-you-want basis) as everyone enjoyed it so much. That evening I returned to co.up for the Continuous learning in Python session put on by OpenTechSchool. The young boy from the Isle of Man, Reuben, showed up and I worked with him on a Turtle exercise in Python. I later returned to the Astronaut picture in the dark to witness the flag appearance — very cool indeed!

Tuesday was my last full day in Berlin — I revisited the East Wall Gallery and walked all the way along it, taking pictures of the more interesting paintings. Unfortunately it was raining so wasn’t too pleasant to be walking around — much like the other days I’d attempted to do tourist things! I ended up walking in to Kreuzberg again and finding a cafe to retreat to. I stayed there for the afternoon and arranged to meet Sam (Tuke) that evening. We went to a restaurant that evening for German food — as I hadn’t really had any yet! Just kebabs, chinese and such! Had a great meal, and some interesting discussion about free software and licenses (amongst other things) and headed home. I stayed with Sam again that night and left early for the airport. This time I arrived over 2 hours early for the flight — and was turned away when trying to check in my luggage before the luggage desk was open for my flight. I went for a coffee, checked my bag in and proceeded through security and eventually to the gate in plenty of time. Much less stressful than the journey two weeks prior! Lesson learned.

In summary, I had a brilliant time in Berlin. It was a really relaxing holiday and I got to meet some great people, have really interesting conversations and see what life in Berlin is like. I’ll definitely return at some point!

When I got back I managed to bundle a Raspberry Pi in with my clothes in the washing machine. But luckily after drying it out in rice for 2 days, it booted successfully! Phew!

Recommended apps (Android):

Limerick 2011

[This is an extended version of an article I wrote for MSOR Connections magazine – which you can read online]

During the final year of my combined honours degree in Mathematics and Computing at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) I received an invitation to a two-day Student Mathematical Modelling Workshop at the University of Limerick in the Republic of Ireland, hosted by the Mathematics Application Consortium for Science and Industry (MACSI). The workshop was followed by the 82nd European Study Group with Industry. The maths course at MMU is highly oriented around real world problem solving involving mathematical modelling, dynamical systems, numerical methods, ODEs & PDEs and contains a strong programming element, so this was something I thought would be good to attend.

My friend Chris and I applied for our places on the workshop and booked our flights. What better way to unwind after completing a maths degree than being put to the test! While packing our shared suitcase for the trip, we weighed the case and realised we were too heavy, so we repacked – some of it crammed in to our backpacks, some we left behind. Arriving at the luggage check-in desk, the suitcase was weighed and we were well under the limit. At this point we realised we had looked at the wrong units on the weighing scales. Typical mathematical modelling error – how apt. We reshuffled the contents of our cram-packed flight bags and put things back in to the suitcase, thinking idiots of ourselves.

Not really knowing how useful we’d be in helping solve problems, nor which type of problems we would like to tackle, we began by sizing up the problems set online while on the plane. I chose a problem on Equity Options & CDS Risk Management because it seemed an interesting situation to work with. The group consisted of both those who had studied financial mathematics and those who hadn’t, so there was a mix of abilities and understanding. The finance people got on with what they have done with similar problems, explaining themselves along the way, and others found useful things to bring to the group. I personally looked at the data we had been given, analysed the trends in the evolution of option prices over time and ran a Monte Carlo simulation in MATLAB to demonstrate the effectiveness of the strategy.

The second week was the study group so the lecture theatre was filled out with academics as well as the students who had stayed on. I chose to work on a problem in Electricity Prices and Demand Side Management, looking at estimating usage for a company called Crystal Energy in Ireland who offer electricity to companies at variable tariffs based on consumption. I worked with other members of my group on analysing the company’s data in MATLAB and Mathematica. We were able to produce useful information for the group, including isolating volatile periods in the day (e.g. between 12-2am) and in the year (e.g. mid-late December) by looking at the absolute difference (error) between corresponding timeslots and plotting contour maps. A report explaining our findings has been submitted for publication. As the study group fell after our final exams, it gave us a great insight in to the usefulness of what we had learned at university, indicated gaps in our knowledge and inspired us to attempt to solve problems that arise, small and simple or bigger and more complex problems alike. It gave us both the courage to realise that this is something we could do with our lives, applying our skills in such a real and meaningful way which could lead to significant results in personal, small or large scale industry problems.

A couple of times during the trip, I arranged Skype calls with Peter Rowlett, where he interviewed by about the study group and conference for his Math/Maths podcast, along with his American co-host Samuel Hansen. You can listen to these here: Episode 53, Episode 55

We had a fantastic time staying on the beautiful campus of the University of Limerick. We enjoyed the food, drink and surroundings, but most of all, the company – everyone there was really interesting, and it was great to share conversation with such an intelligent group of like-minded mathematicians. Although the daytime was spent working on maths problems, the trip was very social – we would move from a classroom or lecture theatre straight to the pub with the other students and staff and carry on discussions from the problems of the day, and our approaches to solving them. Also, during the second week, I received the results of our degrees – and I’d passed with second class honours.

We also took the weekend at the end of the trip to travel to Dublin, where we stayed with the family of one of the conference delegates we met. Dublin is a fantastic city, and we really enjoyed the weekend. We visited the campus of University College Dublin and its Maths Society‘s room. I was shocked to see their Maths Society was so well established that it had its own designated area of the Maths Department building! Last year I founded the Maths Society at MMU and we had nothing at all. We hung out in the Maths Society room for a while, looked at some books from their library and played on their N64! We also took a walk through the Maths Department’s own library, deep down in the basement of the building – where we walked through about five big rooms full of books – and when we reached the end, I picked up a magazine I saw on top of a box, turned it over to look at the back page, and spotted a review of a book written by my lecturer Stephen LynchDynamical Systems with Applications using MATLAB. Quite a coincidence!

Unfortunately I had some sad news on the night we left – a friend called to say one of my friends from the university canoe club, Dave Evans, had died in a climbing accident on Mont Blanc. This was devastating, and I found the news very difficult to take in. A hard thing to deal with – losing a friend so young. Dave was just 24 and had been out of university less than a year. RIP.

French & Austrian Alps 2009

They say that you can learn more from two weeks in the Alps than you can kayaking a whole year in the UK. I can vouch for that after 3,298.7 miles, 8 countries, 13 rivers, 5 mountain bike trails, 2 rafting trips and half a day at Fontainebleau.

Miles and I set off from Sheffield at about 1pm on the Monday, headed South for Dover, stopping off at a guy called Ted Piper’s house in Henley-on-Thames for a cup of tea and a chat. You know how they say everyone knows everyone in the world through 6 people? Well there’s a theory within the UK kayaking community that everyone in kayaking knows Ted Piper through 1 person. There’s a thread on UKRGB forums that proves it. By the way, Ted Piper got really ill (viral meningitis) while kayaking in Northern Norway earlier this year and had to be flown home immediately – without his car – so if anyone fancies driving it back to the UK for him before the roads close for Winter, I’m sure he’d appreciate it.

Anyway, we got to Dover in perfect time for our 10pm crossing and were at Dunkirque (cheaper than Dover-Calais) by midnight (now 11pm in France time, woah – time travel!) and on the aforementioned Ted Piper’s advice, planned to avoid the toll roads through France. This just happened to pass through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. By about 6pm (with practically no sleep) we were at our destination – Bourg Saint Maurice in the South of France, near the Italian boarder. We met up with the others who had been there a few days already: Mark, Sara, John & Nicola, all of whom have been boating all around Europe (and some in Nepal) many times before. Miles has only boated in New Zealand and the UK and I have never boated abroad!

The next day we did our first Alpine river, which was continuous class three/four whitewater. The biggest and hardest I’ve ever paddled! We went down a gorge to a place you can only get to by kayak (or raft) which was an interesting experience. The next few days we did some medium-hard stuff. In the UK if we want to go kayaking we need high water levels, and for that to happen you need a lot of rain and horrible weather, whereas in the Alps you need lots of sun and heat to cause the glaciers to melt and pour down the mountains into the rivers! This also means that the water is clean and pure! It’s brilliant! UK rivers are horrible and full of guk, making them a murky brown colour.

It was immediately noticeable that the standard class of river was much higher and more consistent than in the UK. Rivers are graded from one to six: one being still flat water; two is moving water with few or no obstructions; three involves slight manoeuvring to avoid complications; four is potentially dangerous water with complicated flow which can require inspection; five requires inspection and mistakes will lead to severe danger and potential injury; and six is usually unpaddleable where a mistake would certainly lead to severe danger, serious injury and possibly death. It is possible for danger to occur on any class of water (even one – such as simply drowning) and kayaking is certainly a dangerous activity at any level and precautions must be taken to prevent danger, and where danger occurs, safety and rescue must be put into effect. It was apparent that Alpine rivers were very fast flowing due to a higher gradient in the mountains and gorges and that the class of water was consistent throughout. So in the UK, a class four river would most likely be two/three for the majority with a few odd features at class four, whereas in the Alps it seemed that the gradings were accurate for the whole river, so a class four might actually be 3+/4 throughout, pushing on 4+.

One of the rivers we did towards the end of our first week, the Guisane, started off with a very scary class four rapid section which we thoroughly inspected and almost decided to portage (walk round and get on after it) but Miles & John ran it fine and we went for it. It actually tipped me over towards the end and I went down the final wave upside-down but managed to roll back up fine. The river continued to push my limits and was very continuous in its pace and difficulty, which proved to be a bit much for me, especially on what seemed to be an off day for me. I got tipped awkwardly and failed to roll back up and saw my boat get washed away downstream while I swam to the side and got out. The boat luckily got pinned on a rock not far away, so we analysed the situation and got Miles positioned downstream of it and we threw rocks at it to try and free it from being pinned against the rock, which after a few good throws, worked! Unfortunately with the speed of the water Miles was unable to stop it and it ended up drifting further. I climbed to the road side and ran along to catch it up – after a good few minutes’ jogging I spotted the green boat against the clear water – it had got pinned on another rock so I got myself down to the side of the water and waited for the others, in their boats, to catch up and get it free for me. John managed, after a few attempts, to hook a line onto the grab handle and we set up a pulley system (with an actual pulley – something I’ve never seen in kayak rescue! Brilliant!) to release the boat and reel it in, which worked fine.

Just before the end of the river I went down a rapid at a slightly bad angle and got stuck in a hole (note: holes are nasty bits of backwashing water caused by water pouring over a rock – if you get stuck in they’re hard to get out of whether you’re in a boat or swimming, and should be avoided at all costs!), flipped over a couple of times (that’s what they do – they just flip your boat over repeatedly – it’s like being in a washing machine!) before popping my spraydeck and getting out – fortunately I didn’t get stuck in it after that and managed to swim to the side with my boat but my paddles got thrown to the other side and got swept away. I saw Miles catch up with them and throw them onto the side. I later found that they’d hit the side and fallen back into the water. He’d tried a second time but they’d disappeared from view when they dropped. Hmm.

In rescue situations there’s an order of priority: first comes yourself; second comes other people; third comes boats; fourth comes paddles and other smaller equipment. I’d got myself out, there was no-one else in danger, I’d got my boat out, then I started looking for my paddles (at this point I was still under the presumption that they were on the side where Miles had thrown them) and when I started asking the others I began to realise they were probably floating off down the river. Hmm.

I climbed up the side onto the road and dragged my boat up with a rope then ran down the road, peering over the edge to the water to look for my paddles. I ran a fair distance without seeing anything that resembled paddles. Luckily this was where the river smoothed out and became a lake so the water was pretty much still which meant they would probably be floating here. They weren’t. I looked all around, even saw what I’m almost certain was the re-used coke bottle, half full of water, I had loose in the back of my boat – it was floating in the lake, not moving, so I guessed my paddles should be somewhere nearby. They weren’t. Hmm.

It got to the point where I’d almost started mourning for them. I wasn’t prepared to accept that they were gone (sorry, did I mention they were brand new – I bought them for this trip – not cheap at £130 although you can pay a lot more for paddles), but after a good search and people starting to hint that they would be stuck under a rock somewhere and that I’d never find them, I’d just about given up. I’d lost them. Brand new £130 paddles – my first decent set! And they’d lasted less than a week! I was gutted. Mark started telling me about when he lost a set in Nepal and how annoying it is, but these things happen. Thinking about that was the peak of my mourning – but I thought I’d better just check one more time. I couldn’t see anything (but the coke bottle) in the lake part so I walked back up with John to where Miles had thrown them where they had first gone out of sight – checking by the rocks on both sides. Nothing. It was annoying that they were completely black – if the blades were bright coloured I may have been able to spot them better. I reached the point as far upstream as they could have been, stopped, turned around and began to pace back with my head hung in misery. John offered comforting words to try and soften the pain of my loss, which caused a pang which was tantamount to the aforementioned peak of my mourning. John dipped his hand into a nearby pool behind a big rock – and he pulled out my set of paddles – like they were being withdrawn from a Mary Poppins-esque handbag of Alpine water. I was surprised to see them, but didn’t let out any emotion. I just stared at them in his hand. They were back! I hadn’t lost them at all! This was fantastic. I was relieved! But for some reason this situation called for some sort of humour – I can’t remember exactly what my confused brain conjured up at the time but I seem to remember it being something along the lines “They’re not mine, but they’re sort of similar. They’ll do.” – I thanked and congratulated John and we headed back up to where the others were stood. Phew!

That day shook me up a bit, but the next river we did in France was fairly easy-going, and the next was big but not as scary. Then we had two days away from water as we headed up to l’Alpe d’Huez which is a ski resort in the Winter; mountain biking in the Summer. The first day was mostly driving, and when we arrived late afternoon Miles hired a downhill mountain bike – Miles is really into his biking so he knew which one he wanted straight away – and paid €120 for a day and a half. He rode it on the purpose-built dirt track near the centre for the rest of the afternoon (this involved him jumping it off the roof of a hut and putting a few scratches in the protective body armour he’d been loaned). We were too tired from the drive to bother putting up our tent that night. Mistake. The worst storm I’ve ever witnessed. We thought we’d be ok under a tarpaulin shelter hung up from John’s van. Mistake. We would have been ok if it had been mild rain. It wasn’t. We were ok while it was raining (at which point Miles decided he was better off sleeping in the back of the van) but then it started pouring underneath the van and wetting my sleeping bag and thermarest. Hmm. Time to join Miles in the van, I thought. But unfortunately the back of the van was full of our stuff (literally full) so with a few things taken out was just enough room to fit one person laid across the bags – this meant I was stuck with the only available option – sleep across the two front seats. Brilliant. Whichever way I turned I had something sticking in me – the gear nob or the hand brake or whatever. At least I was dry.

Anyway, morning came and it was time for me to hire a bike for the day. I wasn’t as keen or extreme as Miles so a simple cross-country bike was sufficient. I was hoping it wasn’t going to be as much as Miles’ … and when he said it was only €22 I jumped for joy (on the inside) and handed him the tiny amount of mickey mouse money he demanded and feeling rather pleased for myself went to purchase my gondola (ski lift) ticket. We decided to do an easy blue route to get started. It started with going down a steep hill and immediately coming up the next hill. Sara said not to put my brakes on while I was on the hill and to wait till I was over the other side, so I held the handlebars without resting over the brakes – but when I got to the top on the other side I needed to brake quickly and so reached for the left brake and slammed it on. Mistake. On bikes in the UK, the left brake is for the back, the right for the front. I’ve only been on a bike once since I was a kid but my instinct told me which brake was which. Unfortunately they have them on opposite sides in Europe. Crash! I hit the wrong brake – the front – and went flying through the handlebars and skidded with the bike. I cut my side up which stung a bit but I was more frustrated with the French than in pain. I got back on and continued with the route. The next route we chose was marked as a red on the map, but when we got up there (right up there, this one started much higher up the mountain) it was clear that it had recently been downgraded from a black. Not good for a novice. We ran it anyway. I fell off a lot.

Then we planned to do a longer route which was a concoction of several other red routes, on which we somehow got very lost due to poor French mapping and ended up doing many more dodgy routes than intended and ended up in a little French town in the wrong valley (Sardonne), and pushing for time (we needed to get the last gondola back and return our bikes to the hiring shops by 5pm) we got onto the right track, which turned out to be a really good one that ran through a dense woods! I had a great time, rode hard and fell off even harder! In fact at one point I fell off and skidded down the steep cliff away from the path, with my bike thrown even further down. It was impossible to get myself back up it carrying my bike as I was knee-deep in leaves. The path continued to my right as I looked back at it from below, so I edged my way to the side, trying with all my might to drag the bike with me – and after a ten minute struggle I managed to get myself back on the path. The chain had got caught up in branches or something and wouldn’t go so I had to adjust it a few times to get it to work, but then I was off – to catch up with the others. I’d been shouting them to let them know I was stuck and that I’d be further behind, they’d been shouting back to me to ask if I was alright, but neither of us had heard each other. Anyway I finally caught them up and they’d been waiting for me (Sara worrying whether I was still alive or not) and started to walk back.

We were in a real rush now so Mark & Miles sped off towards the nearby village in attempt to make it for the last bus back to the gondola which would take us back to where we started. Sara and I continued on, stopping to ask for directions on the way. It’s funny how Sara launched into her only-slightly-broken French which only confused the (we think German) couple she was talking to, but when I asked Sara something (obviously in English) they butted in and said “We speak English” which made it a bit easier for us to communicate rather than us all trying to speak an unnatural language. We eventually made it to the village, Allemond (at this point I was aching all over), and as Mark & Miles weren’t waiting at the bus stop we presumed they had made it in time for the bus and we had missed them. There was another bus about 45 minutes later so we waited for that, knowing it wouldn’t get us back in time for the last gondola, so we were thinking we’d have to get a taxi or something back to our vans. With so much time to wait I wandered into the town to find a boulangerie for what turned out to be the best two pastries (almond covered and filled croissant & pain au chocolat) I’ve ever had!

I’d turned my phone on when we stopped, in case Mark got back to the van and tried to ring me, and luckily he did. He’d seen a missed call on Sara’s phone (which she’d left in the van – I was the only one with a phone with me on the bike trip), which was from right at the beginning of the day when I was waiting for them after hiring my bike, but he’d thought it was more recent. He phoned me and I said we were at the bus stop in Allemond and could he come and pick us up. He arrived somewhat later with Miles in the van and both their bikes on the back. This puzzled us as we thought they’d got the bus and the gondola back and dropped Miles off to return his hired bike (as this was one of the main timing issues), but when quizzed, Mark explained that they hadn’t made it to Allemond as they took a wrong turning and ended up in the wrong village! And that Mark had hitched a lift from “some crazy-driving French guy” back up to l’Alpe d’Huez, quickly ran back to the van, phoned me and come to collect us (picking Miles and the two bikes up on the way). So when we finally all got back safely to l’Alpe d’Huez, we were a little worried about the bike hire shops, presuming they’d be closed by that time (it was about 6:30). Miles had promised to return his by 5pm, but my guy hadn’t given a time (although I presumed it would have been the same, and we presumed they would close soon after 5, maybe 6). Anyway, when we got there we saw that both shops were still open, so that I would be fine as we hadn’t agreed a time, and Miles should be ok being a little bit late. Miles was hiding in the back of the van, and got Sara to tell the guy he’d been in an accident and taken to hospital, which was why she was late bringing it back for him. He was fine and didn’t mind and gave her his driving license (Miles had left his driving licence as deposit, but my cheaper bike hadn’t required a deposit).

I took mine back, gave it to the guy, he didn’t really say anything at first of acknowledge that I was there. I pointed out that I was returning his bike and he took it from me, sill saying nothing. I said “Ok?” and as he wheeled it off, still not really saying anything, I presumed everything was ok and that I had been excused. I said “Ok then, thank you. Bye.”, just to confirm that I was going to go. He finally said “Ok. Bye bye.” Then after a few seconds said “No wait … no bye bye!” … he was calling me back. He pointed at the bike and said “Broken!” Hmm. I don’t know much about bikes but I was pretty sure that bike wasn’t broken. I had just been riding it fine. “Sorry?? What’s the problem?” I asked. “Broken!” he said. I tried to convey my look of confusion to him in order to get some more information out of him about his allegations, which seemed to work as he pointed to the centre of the back wheel where the chain can be notched onto the gears. I gave him my confused look again and he said “Derailleur!”. At this point I urged the others to join me to try to work out between us what he was trying to say. He pointed again and repeated “Derailleur!” and the others knew what a derailleur was. I didn’t. He was claiming it was bent. I couldn’t tell if it was or not. The others said it seemed to look a little bent but looked ok, until he shifted it into a really high gear which when he demonstrated how the chain would always fall off when the wheel span in this high gear, because the derailleur was bent. Miles suggested bending it back but he explained how this was not possible. He wanted me to pay €32 for a replacement derailleur. He hadn’t taken a monetary deposit or kept my passport or anything, yet he demanded a sum of money which was more than I had paid to hire the bike. I didn’t think this was fair. Surely it’s part of the cost of having a hire business, that eventually the equipment depreciates with use and needs fixing or replacing, and I think it’s unfair to put blame for damage on one person unless through reckless use. I wasn’t going to pay him for a repair on something he’d hired to many people before me. I told him this and said I was going to go. He said he was going to phone the police. I went to sit in the van with Mark and the others to ask them what they thought. John arrived on the scene and he said that derailers break really easily, if you hit a rock or something they can break, and that he breaks two or three a year. Well I was still against the idea of him charging me for wear-and-tear but thought that as it wasn’t a huge sum of money, I’d probably knocked it one of the many times I’d fallen off, and it was not worth the risk of any epic Alpine police chases with us in our Volkswagen Transporter with kayaks on the roof rack, so I decided to pay up. I wasn’t happy about it but even at €54, mine was still less than half the price of Miles’ bike so I could hardly complain. The annoying thing is I felt cheated. If he’d have charged me €54 at the start of the day I’d have paid up and felt lucky it was much cheaper than Miles’, but the fact that he’d claimed damages and demanded a further payment put a downer on the whole thing. But these things happen.

That night was our last night with the group as Miles and I were headed North-East to Austria while the others headed home after a couple more days of biking. We went for a nice meal at the resort, which we decided to splash out on. Miles and I opted for a two-person minimum set meal which turned out to be a plate full of raw meat (chicken, duck and beef steak) which we hat to cook for ourselves on a stove they provided us with. It came with a bowl of mashed potato and a load of veg and went down well … once we’d cooked it. The following morning, Miles and I bid farewell and headed to Austria. We drove through Italy (Torino & Milano), witnessed the crazy drivers and paid the expensive tolls and we finally made it to our destination: a campsite in Prutz, near Landeck in Austria. The campsite was full of kayakers and we were greeted by one who was on his own looking for people to go boating with. His name was Andy, he was from London and he took us down three local rivers the next day which was brilliant! It was more independent learning as we were paddling as peers, no-one in charge, just the three of us taking it one bend at a time, instead of the way we’d been doing it so far where someone was leading and we were following – I actually had to consciously look after myself now which is the best way to learn. We soon realised that the Austrian rivers were massively high volume – big wide rivers with huge waves, which we’re not used to in the UK as most rivers are either big and wide but flat with no waves, or thin, steep and creeky. We met up with some other UK guys for the third river that day and all went ok.

A couple of days later we headed to the Ötz valley to met up with a Bavarian kayaker by the name of Bijon he met in New Zealand. Bijon was working for German rafting company in Austria over the summer, taking groups of German people rafting in Austria and Switzerland. We joined them at the rafting base for their BBQ and chatted with the Germans. Our tactic: Don’t mention the war. Miles mentioned it once but I think he got away with it. Seriously though, we enjoyed their company and they seemed to enjoy ours, buying us drinks and talking to us about all sorts. Obviously we don’t speak German but they all speak English, so that’s the way it was. After the Germans went off we head upstairs for a little rafting guides’ party – had a great chat with a German guy called Norman. Then we had to sleep on the floor in the drying room full of wetsuits and things, in the room with me was a New Zealander who we were told snores really badly – I thought I’d risk it and be alright but by the early hours I couldn’t believe the amount of horrendous noise he was snorting – it was nothing like I’d ever witnessed before. I had to move, and even when I did I couldn’t sleep because I’d been woken up. The next morning I saw the guy I’d been chatting to at the party, Norman. He saw I was wearing my trademark Blogger t-shirt and asked if I was a blogger. “Yes I am” I said, beaming with pride. This reminded me of how I like to be thought of as a “Blogger”. We talked about blogs for a while and later on got on the office computer and showed each other our respective blogs. Norman-slow-motion.

We drove to Switzerland the next day to tag along on two of their rafting journeys – Miles as the safety kayaker, while I joined five of the Germans in the raft with Bijon yelling instructions at us in German. This proved somewhat difficult as I didn’t understand what he was saying unless I heard the words for left, right, forwards and stop which were easy to remember once he told me – the more complicated instructions (more urgent ones such as “Everyone get down in the raft and hold on tight”) were tricky so whenever everyone else would dive somewhere I would just copy their actions which meant I was slightly delayed – this was rather problematic as these instructions carried a matter of urgency and failure to comply often meant the risk of tipping the raft! I asked Bijon what those instructions were in German so I would remember to do so when he shouted them, which helped a lot – I managed to follow these orders without delay. I had a great time rafting, as it was a whole new experience to be on the water in such a big inflatable craft with other people rather than single man kayak where you are completely in control and responsible for yourself. The water was much harder, higher and potentially problematic than I could probably deal with, so it was a good option to go rafting instead that day.

That evening we attended a party at Bijon’s house – not a cool rafting party full of drunk European student girls, but a family party for his housemate’s Dad’s something’s birthday party – a middle-aged woman’s birthday party. We ate their food and chatted with their family a bit (at this point every Auntie and Uncle, Grandma and Grandpa, Niece and Nephew had turned up) before heading off to a cool rafting party full of drunk European student girls. We chatted away and got speaking to a range of different people from the local rafting companies and ended up in someone’s halls-of-residence-esque summer rafting guide accommodation where they proceeded to smoke lots of weed while we tried not to look too out of place, although we certainly were. I was really tired at this point from the lack of sleep the previous night and all the rafting of the day so being laid on a bed in a room full of weed smoke, I was dozing off. We soon left and slept at Bijon’s house.

The next morning we were awarded with Bijon’s famous pancakes. This was something I’d been looking forward to – the only thing I knew about Bijon was that, according to Miles, if you were on a night out with Bijon, you could end up in the remotest field or desert and Bijon would somehow locate the ingredients and make pancakes. I’d spent two or three days with Bijon and still no sign. The first thing I saw of him that morning, Bijon was on the phone to one of his pancake contacts arranging for the delivery of flour. Flour arrived shortly in the arms of another stoner. Here they were at last! Bijon’s pancakes! And they were fantastic. This day was our last day before heading back so we decided to hook up with Norman and the flour guy to go kayaking. They took us for a run of the Oetz, which was the scariest kayaking experience I’ve ever had. I was seriously terrified as it was massive pushy water with hidden holes and all sorts – all immediately upon putting on to the river. I’ve never been forced to use support strokes quite so frequently and urgently. I was having to work my very hardest every second just to keep the boat upright! So many times I nearly went over. I got through the worst of it to find there was a harder and more unpredictable section coming up. That’s pretty much how it was for the next three hours: me thinking “Phew, I’m glad I got out of that bit alive” and then slowly discovering there was more around the next bend. We got to a rapid that the guys we were with said was called the ‘Constructa’, named after a German washing machine brand – because that’s what it would feel like if you got stuck in it! We got out to portage a deathly weir and were at the end before long. A huge sigh of relief. I’d wanted to do one last river before we left, something that would push my limits. That was what I was looking for and I’m glad we did it. We bid farewell to Norman and the Flour guy and headed to France!

We decided to stop at Fontainebleau on the way back through France. Font is an amazing place – a vast forest full of bouldering opportunities, it’s just South of Paris. We drove there from Austria, passing through Switzerland and Liechtenstein. We arrived at Font at about 4am, no idea where exactly we needed to be for the bouldering, so we ended up sleeping in the McDonald’s car park beside the van, with the intention of using the free Wifi when it opened. We woke up at about 8, then realising that McDonald’s didn’t open till 10 we stayed in the van and read our books for two hours. At 10 they opened up and we hopped straight inside, checked online to see where the spots were and shortly after that we headed off to find somewhere to climb. We stayed there a while, had a bit of a climb and I jumped around the rocks a bit and then we headed off in plenty of time to catch our ferry. We ended up arriving at Dunkerque (after popping into Belgium to look for war graves) seven hours early so it was worth us paying a little extra to get on an earlier ferry. I finished my book on the ferry (America Unchained by Dave Gorman – a fantastic story about a coast-to-coast road trip across America, avoiding the chain stores and only buying from independent gas stations, shops and hotels) and started my next one. We were home (as in Sheffield) an hour before we were supposed to leave France, which was an achievement. What was even more of an achievement was that I returned alive with all my kit in tact, albeit a little more second-hand-looking.

London, baby!

I’ll try and be quick because I’m mega busy at the moment – got a massive week ahead of me and time is precious but I’m trying to keep up the whole ‘frequent blog post’ thing I’ve mentioned in the last few posts so here I am writing this from my brand new ASUS laptop which I set up last night. It’s always interesting to know what the first thing a person does when they get onto a brand new computer; mine was to download Google Chrome (a new web browser made by Google – it’s amazing – try it!) which since it was released last month has been my new primary browser, knocking Firefox down to second (followed by Safari then IE).

I had a great weekend in London with my parents, who I haven’t seen since I moved out a month ago, so it was nice to let them know what I’ve been up to and how my course lectures and my halls life are going. The trip was primarily arranged due to my invitation to London Zoo to be presented with my Queen’s Scout Award but seeing as it was my parents’ wedding anniversary that weekend, we decided to make a weekend trip out of it. I caught the train home after my computing lecture on Friday afternoon and spent the evening at home and we got the coach from Sheffield to London early Saturday morning, a lovely four hour journey, and checked in to our hotel and after a nap we spent the evening in London; we went on the London Eye which I took many many pictures of (and from).

Sunday morning we got up early to get ready for the presentation, headed out for the tube in the pouring rain and made our way to the Zoo! We checked in there and spent some time wandering about checking out the animals and exhibits, then when it was time we went over to the Mappin Pavilion which is where the presentation was held. I hadn’t really any idea what the presentation was going to be like – I hadn’t really thought about it; all I knew was that I would be being presented with my Queen’s Scout Award certificate from Peter Duncan, the Chief Scout (head of the Scout Association) and former Blue Peter presenter. Despite being bang on time, I was the last to arrive (at this point I discover there were just four of us being presented at this time) and was immediately ushered into a sofa while having my coat removed by some sort of organising person, and before I had a chance to take in my surroundings I saw Peter Duncan just ahead of me, shuffling four creamish certificates in his hand to see who was to be first. “Ben Nuttall” he called out, and asked me to step up to join him at the front. I stood up and looked out at the dozens of people applauding – I’m still not really sure why they were all there.

I was put on the spot and suddenly asked by Peter Duncan what I did to achieve my Queen’s Scout Award (for those that don’t know, the Queen’s Scout Award is the highest accomplishment in the Scout movement, and is patroned by the Queen (formerly King’s Scout Award) and achievement involves completion of the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award as well as various other tasks). I completed mine over a year ago; with the most talkable bits happening over a year ad a half ago, so having to reel off a nice little speech about a four-day walking expedition I did in April 2007 was rather awkward but with it being such a memorable four days I managed to share a few entertaining short stories about the hike and mentioned what the purpose of the expedition was and how we ended up finishing it at the pub from ITV’s Heartbeat while they were filming. Peter asked me a few more questions, and we had a good chat about Scouting and the future of the world and I was presented with my long-awaited and well-deserved certificate, photographed a few times, and I took a seat to listen to the next three people and their adventures.

After this we got a chance for more photos and I had a good chat with Peter; I told him about my Grandfather (94 next month!) who met the very first Chief Scout, the founder of the worldwide movement, Lord Baden-Powell. We then talked about the media and their tendency to ruin good news stories with silly headlines and pictures that make the articles lose their point about what Scouting today is all about; outdoor pursuits, adventure, opportunities galore, making something of your youth, preparing for adulthood and showing future employees and such that you have made the most of your youthhood by getting out there and doing something.

We thanked Peter and the organisers for a great presentation and I was congratulated on my achievement once again by those present as we departed. We had a look round the rest of the zoo before heading back via tube to the coach station. Another four hour journey back to Sheffield and a couple of hours chilling out at home before having to get the train back to Manchester, only to find that it had been cancelled. I had to get a train out to Hope in the peak district, wait for a bus there which took me to Stockport, then waited for a train to take me to Manchester (an hour later than planned at quarter-past midnight). I had a maths test in uni at 9am this morning, so I had to do a spot of last minute revision on the train, but without any spare paper I had to take notes on the back of a bank statement I had in my bag!

So after my morning lectures and the maths test today I got my new laptop set up and here we are. I took many photos in London at the weekend.