Friday, 16 December 2011

Happy Christmas (Term Is Over)

It's been frickin ages since I've really had the time to write a blog post, mostly because of the amount of time I was having to spend doing my degree and coxing and stuff (also Fairbairns Dinner was a stupid amount of admin). Term finished last week, and it's been awesome to have a week of mostly lazing around and sorting out all the stuff I've been putting off until term was finished. Finally finished. After 11 weeks of Michaelmas term.

The first objective was getting a new phone, because I needed a new phone. And not "needed" in the sense of someone who finds themselves two generations behind on iPhones, where really they just mean "want" or "feel socially pressured into having". My current phone was a Sony Ericsson W910i, a phone released all the way back in 2007 when phone internet was still a waste of time and it could get away with its main selling point being that it works pretty well as an mp3 player.

I was actually OK with my phone being old, and I would have been perfectly happy with my old non-smartphone thing. The main issue wasn't so much the age as the fact it had sort of stopped working particularly well just as a phone in general. It would crash and turn itself off frequently, typically in the middle of sending texts, so that most messages would enter a quantum state from my point of view of the potential to be both sent and not sent until I received whatever reply I was expecting.

So I hunted around a bit for a new phone, and settled on an Orange San Francisco II, otherwise known as a ZTE Crescent, otherwise known as the successor to the ZTE Blade, a fairly low-budget Chinese smartphone largely popular with Android modding enthusiasts because of how cheap and easy to crack it is.

After a few days of playing around with it, I'm fairly happy with it as a phone. It looks reasonably nice and like most other smartphones (that is to say it's rectangular, thin, with one side entirely taken up by a screen and a couple of small buttons). It functions fairly well, and to be honest I'm not really sure what extra benefit I'd be getting with a new Samsung or HTC given I'd be paying £30 a month instead of £15 for the same contract.

So far I've only encountered two issues with it - the first is that the model is less than a month old, meaning that all the standard accessories like screen protectors and cases don't exist for it yet. It also means it doesn't have support for Android modding yet, meaning I can't get rid of all the Orange app crap from it.

The other was actually Orange's fault, which is that all outgoing calls and 3G data were barred. This actually proved a fair bit of faff to undo because I needed to ring up Orange's customer service to fix it.

The house doesn't have a landline, Peter is on Pay-as-you-Go still, so wasn't really keen on me using his phone to ring up, and my phone was barred from making calls, meaning I had to use Nick's phone.

This would be fine, were it not for the fact that Nick's phone has a glitch whereby the screen turns off during a call and there's no way to turn it back on again until the call ends, meaning that when it says "If blah blah, press 1" I have no way of actually pressing 1 because the keypad is on the non-functional screen. We initially solved this problem by using his hands-free kit to progress through the menus until we got to an actual human being, at which point I discovered that the microphone on his hands-free kit is broken and he'd forgotten to tell me.

So attempt three, getting through to an actual person and un-plugging the hands-free kit, and I got stuff sorted. The guy on the other end of the phone was actually really good - he was extremely polite, spoke clear English, knew what he was doing and was good at telling me what he was doing and what the problem was, and it took all of three or four minutes to get everything fixed and have a functioning phone again. If it wasn't for the horrific Christmas hold music then it'd probably be the best customer service experience I've ever had.

Turns out the issue was that my phone was still marked as being in transit. I'd had it delivered and collected it from the Orange store in Cambridge, and apparently somewhere in there they hadn't marked it as received. Once I confirmed to the customer service guy that I had received the phone (which seemed like a totally stupid question given I'd already stated that I'd collected it from the store, and who the fuck rings up to complain about their phone being barred from making calls if they haven't even gotten it yet?) he was able to unlock it and everything was fine.

Aside from a new phone, the other stuff I've been putting off until term had finished was applying for jobs. This also meant updating my CV, which I hadn't even looked at since halfway through my 2nd year of Uni, and man it sucked balls. Initially I spent a bit of time re-working it, before I picked up a booklet from the Careers Service on how to make a CV that isn't totally shit and figured it would be best if I just started again from scratch. Plus it turns out that MS Word is a pain in the ass when it comes to formatting things easily into columns and sections and MS Publisher is way easier.

So CV mostly written now, I just have the somewhat scary process of applying to jobs and such. I've mostly figured out now what sort of job I actually want to do and which companies I want to work for, which is good in that it gives me some direction, and bad in that I now have a small number of companies that can reject me and leave me totally fucked and out of ideas. I guess worst case scenario I can just cop out of the real world and dick around doing a PhD and being a student for a few more years?

The combination of it now being REALLY FUCKING COLD in Cambridge and also myself and my housemates being in the house all day means we've experimented with the wood-burning fireplace in our living room. We had a pallet that myself and Peter had nabbed from a skip outside the primary school next to our house and smashed up for wood, but that stuff burns really fast and is only really useful for kindling, so I went out with Peter to go get some proper wood from somewhere.

Being students and cheapskates we figured that instead of buying wood from a store (it's actually really expensive for the duration it lasts) we'd go get our wood from nature instead, so we cycled out to a small bit of woodland on the edge of Histon armed with rucksacks and a saw.

Pretty much as soon as we got there the weather unleashed hell, and the wind and rain was absolutely ridiculous. We were actually somewhat grateful for the fact it was raining sideways, because large trees in winter actually provide better shelter from the side than they do from above. Despite this, we still got pretty drenched.

"We've gone on holiday by mistake!"

We also left late afternoon, and it got dark pretty quickly, meaning we ended up having to do most our foraging under torchlight, but we did come across a huge dead old tree that had fallen over and managed to hack two full rucksack's worth of decent firewood from it, so all in all it was a fairly successful expedition. We'll just pick a somewhat more sensible point in time when we go back for more.

And finally term being done means it'll be Christmas in a couple of weeks and I'll be going back home for a bit. I don't really plan on going home for too long because I hate my family all my stuff is in Cambridge, and going home for a while either means not having it for a while, or having to cart it the whole way across the country on the train, and I'm not really keen to do either.

I'm looking forward to being back home for a week or so for Christmas, where adulthood and slightly less awesome presents means I am actually mostly looking forward to the food and the drinking and the inevitable family rows that take place when everyone has had a bit too much wine (my Nan ended up in tears last year). And the Liverpool match on Boxing Day is at home, meaning there's the possibility of scabbing a ticket off one of the guys my Dad goes to the match with. So all good.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

On Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been fairly big on the internet for a while now, especially on Reddit, and I've been meaning to write this for ages because I've slowly been getting more and more annoyed by a lot of the crap coming out of it, and a lot of the really bullshit anti-government and anti-capitalist crap that various people spew over Facebook and various other parts of the internet that I spend meaningful amounts of time on.

Before I commence ranting I'd sort of like to be clear on something:

I am white and middle-class, I went to a fairly esteemed private high school (on a scholarship, but an academic one rather than an income-assessed one), and from that I've gone into a degree in Cambridge that will quite potentially put me into some sort of consultancy or financial managements position on a salary that's probably more than I'm worth. My family isn't particularly rich, but both of my parents are employed, and we have a nice house, two cars and generally seem to be fairly sound financially (at least as far as I know). I'm not raised as one of the 1%, but I'm definitely not in the bottom ranks of the 99% either. I'm not claiming to speak from a position any different to what I am.

Having said that I am generally pretty left-wing and liberal when it comes to politics. I voted for Labour in the last elections and dislike the Tories pretty strongly. I hate FOX News and The Daily Mail. I support socialism, and I agree with a large amount of what some people in the Occupy Wall St (or OWS as I shall refer to it from now on because I can't be arsed typing it out every time) are saying. I believe America should have socialist healthcare, that it should put measures in place to tax the rich and redistribute the wealth to the large number of citizens it has that live below the poverty line. I think that certain American corporations (and corporations in other countries for that matter) are far too powerful and that laws need to be put in place to restrict what they can get away with. I think that the cost of higher education in the USA is totally ridiculous and should be brought down. There's plenty I agree with - quite strongly in fact.

The thing is, whilst some of the people at OWS are there for sensible reasons, and are making fairly valid statements about how the US could potentially be improved, there also seem to be plenty of people backing the movement or participating in the protests who are, in my opinion, complete idiots who really have no idea what the hell they're claiming to be angry about.

For example, banks get a lot of hate these days, when really they shouldn't. I remember supporters of Bitcoin claiming how Bitcoin would eliminate the need for banks, and I considered this to be a totally stupid "advantage". If you need to buy a house, then you need a bank, because you're sure as hell not going to want to or be able to borrow that kind of money from anyone else. Banks play an absolutely key role in our society.

The issue with the current economic situation is not the financial institutions themselves, but the poor government regulation of them. If these institutions need to take risks to make money, and the collapse of these institutions has widespread ramifications, then it is up to the government to limit the amount of risk they can take - there's nobody else with the capability to do this.

Sure, companies could be responsible, and could not stretch the boundaries of ethics or risk management to try and make money, but most of these companies sit in a competitive environment where if they're not taking advantage of lax regulation then some of their competitors are going to anyway and they'll get driven out of business. The problem is not companies doing bad things; it's governments not putting the restrictions in place to stop companies doing bad things, because it only takes a couple to overstep their mark and suddenly everything is in the shit.

Another thing I find gets an irritatingly bad press are bailouts of companies and financial institutions. I read a quote by Richard Dawkins once along the lines of "Evolution is universally accepted by people who understand it and universally rejected by those who don't", and I feel that this applies perfectly well to government bail-outs and stimulus packages. To take another quote, from Liverpool FC owner John Henry:

There seems to be this really daft suggestion that bail-outs only exist so that the heads of failing companies can keep their pockets lined and keep their bonuses at the end of the year.

It's not. The whole point of bail-outs is to try and stop or at least slow the free-fall of the economy and keep things from complete collapse. When the US government agrees to bail-out General Motors, it's because the collapse of GM will just maintain the snowballing landslide of companies going out of business. If GM collapses, then that's 200,000 people instantly unemployed, and any company that acts as a supplier to General Motors (probably a lot of companies) is almost certainly going to go bankrupt as well, because they'll rely on GM for a large portion of their revenue. The same goes for the UK government bailing out RBS - Northern Rock caused enough carnage when it went under, imagine what would happen if RBS (and NatWest, because they own that too) disappeared? These things have almost nothing to do with the companies themselves, and certainly don't have much to do with their CEOs, but are about keeping jobs and hundreds if not thousands of other businesses afloat.

Plus these bail-outs aren't completely lost money. Most of them are loans that are expected to be paid back at some point, or money given in return for a stake in the company that can later be sold off when it (presumably) becomes profitable enough to sell again. It's not like governments just throw money out the window on these sorts of things - it's just that nobody else can afford to do it, and it's seen as a responsibility of the government to look after its citizens and do stuff like this anyway.

Somewhat similarly to the student protests, the sorts of people that I find really depressing on these sorts of things are the people who don't really know much about what they're really protesting and are largely just bandwagon jumpers or people who enjoy being somewhat rebellious.

There are people who are protesting genuine socio-political issues in America. People protesting issues that genuinely cause the social divide, make living standards difficult for the poor, and which could be easily rectified (and in many cases already are rectified in plenty of other countries). Except these people are somewhat drowned out in a sea of idiots complaining that some people are too rich or that banks are evil or that the government doesn't know what it's doing or some other herp derp bullshit that doesn't really say much other than "some people have more money than I do and I don't like that".

Suddenly there's this social bandwagon of ripping on capitalism, or the media speculating that this crisis is the 'fall of capitalism', and even as a fairly socialist-leaning person I think that's total bullshit. The notion that OWS is some sort of protest against capitalism is the main reason I think it's a really stupid thing, and despite some people holding valid views at the protest it's not helped by the fact that some people at OWS rallies seem to genuinely think that's what it's all about.

Fundamentally people going to these sorts of things and protesting against capitalism are almost universally ignorant, hypocritical, or both. The capitalist system is the system that has provided such a high standard of living in the West over the last half a century, and the number of people who seem to be suddenly condemning it and cursing it because it's failed to provide the same standard of living to everybody in the last few years is just stupidly staggering.

A lot of this hate on banks, stock traders and capitalism is equivalent to hating on a man who has given you £100 every month for your entire life, just because they've refused to give you this any more. It's totally ungrateful and unappreciative of what market traders and capitalism has actually provided the western world with.

I do think it's bad that some people have extortionate amounts of money whilst other people struggle to just buy food and shelter, but at the same time I think it's extremely close-minded for westerns to bitch at the current situation given that the overwhelming majority of "the 99%" are still a shitload better off than most people living outside of the bubble of the first world. These people are claiming that they are being unfairly exploited by a group of people in their country, yet despite this they are still maintaining a standard of living far higher than people in the rest of the world, largely because of the exploitation of foreign countries by the US and the EU. The 99% still stand on wealth gathered by screwing over large portions of the rest of the world.

These sorts of complaints aren't what OWS is meant to be about, but it's what a large number of spoiled, ungrateful and stupid individuals seem to be trying to make it about. Heck, even some people who are somewhat closer to the mark than others are still creating lists of demands that are completely over the top and totally infeasible:

The original OWS is about egalitarianism, about how the best education, healthcare and company contacts are only available to the extremely wealthy, and regardless of talent or hard work it's almost impossible for the lower classes to break into that 1%. They're not about banks making lots of profit, or the core principles of capitalism and excessive consumerism being evil for society, or Facebook violating your privacy, or about how it sucks that people in Wall St still have jobs when your daddy just got laid off and you can no longer afford to have an iPhone 4S on release day. And I really hate that there seem to be enough idiots out there who are doing a decent job of turning it into all of the above.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Rage Against The Machine (or Laptop)

So besides MET taking up most of my day, I've also sort of been goaded into coxing again by the possibility of coxing Fairbairns M1 and the fact that I actually can for most likely the last time ever. It also allows me to feebly attempt to justify a place on the training camp to Banyoles, but that's a different issue.

The off-set of this is that I basically have no time for anything properly any more. I wake up at 6am, go rowing, go to lectures until 5pm, and then I get back absolutely knackered and have a few hours to eat, shower and unwind and then I sort of need to be going to bed because I have to be up at 6am the next morning.

I'm totally cool with this existence. It's pretty good fun to be back within the rowing squad, the morning outings are generally OK, MET typically doesn't give any work outside of lecture hours, and I just spend my evenings mindlessly shooting the crap out of people on Call of Duty instead of playing SC2. Or I was cool with it, until my laptop got virused to shit.

I have a somewhat symbiotic relationship with my laptop. I provide it with a loving, caring home and electricity, and it provides me with internet, television and gaming. If my laptop feels bad, I feel bad. And holy shit was my laptop feeling awful.

I seemingly picked up some badass trojan from an image hosting site. And I'm not using "image hosting site" as some sort of euphemism for a porn site, I literally mean a site like photobucket or imgur except apparently far more dodgy and virus-riddled. I had one of the typical adware "your Computer is volnurable to Viruses!![sic]" messages in the bottom right and a fake scan ran, and I instantly closed Firefox and disabled the wifi. Then I got rid of it. Or so I thought.

As it turned out, this wasn't just the standard sort of adware crap that typically only takes me about 10 minutes to manually remove. This was a proper trojan, and the moment I reconnected to the internet it did a whole fuckload more than the adware program. Something was constantly trying to write stuff into the registry, ping.exe would constantly run in the background, taking up a shitload of CPU and memory, and would restart whenever I killed it. Firefox was behaving weirdly. Things were not cool.

So I defaulted to my plan B. Start in safe mode, keep the wireless permanently off, and kill this shit with fire.

Many aggressive virus scans and combing through startup lists later, I was finally in a position where I was fairly confident the virus crap was gone. I'd had networking disabled the whole time, so I rebooted and restarted it. Except it didn't restart. Apparently the no-nonsense kill it with fire policy had caused pretty serious damage to the Windows services that my computer actually needs to connect to the internet (Winsock, TCP/IP etc for people who actually know this shit) and absolutely no amount of effort on the command line or reinstalling of stuff seemed to fix it. Bollocks.

At this point I managed to have what was probably the shittest day I've had in a long time, which included a 6am start, an outing, lectures from 9am-5pm, some bullshit Analysys Mason competition that was opt-out and I'd not read the email properly and therefore hadn't opted out from and which went on until 9pm, giving me about an hour to get home, cook and eat dinner, shower and then get 8 hours of sleep. Except the veg in the dinner I cooked was off and vinegary, and I managed to knock half of it off my desk and onto my floor/keyboard anyway.

By now I was in a mood probably most accurately described as "completely fucking fed up with this bullshit" and had two options that seemed viable. The first was a repair install of XP, the second was that I just cut my losses, format the drive and then reinstall all my shit functional and virus-free. The preference was obviously for the former because I couldn't be bothered installing everything, so it's what I tried first.

First problem I encountered is that my Windows CD is XP SP2, and my laptop now runs XP SP3, meaning the disc doesn't do shit because I apparently now have a newer version of Windows. So first task was to slipstream an SP3 disk from my SP2 disk (props to this guide which worked fantastically). Done.

Second problem is that when booting from the CD it wouldn't find my hard drive. At all. Some faffing in the BIOS led me to discover that I apparently had my drive set to a SATA type that XP doesn't natively support. After changing that, it found my hard drive and started the repair install. Awesome.

So the repair install ran some stuff for a bit and then said it needed to reboot before resuming the install. It did, apparently working fine and booting like my computer usually does, until it got to the point at which XP should start and instead it gave me a BSOD about my graphics driver. I tried booting into safe mode, and apparently I couldn't because XP was still being installed.

Some Google-fu led me to a solution involving deleting files from the recovery console, which worked, and it successfully started the second half of the install. A this point it was fairly late at night and I had an outing the next morning, so I figured I'd just go to bed and let it run overnight. Sure, it said it only had 39 minutes remaining, but whatever.

I woke up the next morning with it on 37 minutes remaining and seemingly crashed at some point through the install. FFFUUUUUUU. Would it be OK if I just turned it off? Did I actually have a choice? The answer to the latter question was no, but the answer to the former question was apparently yes, and it ran the install fine a second time with no issues. And after having to reinstall a ton of windows updates and many nights of screwing around and making very little progress I finally had a working computer again, and one which was seemingly free of viruses too.

The real stupid irony of all this shit is that only a week earlier I'd made the claim that I thought NoScript was a waste of time, because constantly having to allow stuff and faff with settings was way more trouble than the hour I'd maybe have to spend removing the virus I'd get every one or two years from not using it. TEMPTING FATE, MUCH?
Though I still don't really want NoScript, so I guess the real lesson from this whole escapade is that I'm a fucking idiot who won't learn his lesson.

On the bright side, last week was made somewhat tolerable by the fact that my course was awesome. We were doing an assembly robot lab that was good fun, and was something I was actually pretty awesome at. The entire day spent tinkering around successfully in the lab was certainly a shitload more enjoyable than the entire evenings spent tinkering around unsuccessfully with my laptop at least.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Bish Bash Bosch

Somewhat terrible pun for the blog title, but I like terrible puns (and despite Sadia posting it on Facebook first, it was my brainchild), so there you go.

The placement at Bosch was somewhat good. The project itself went fairly smoothly, although it's fairly difficult with these sorts of things to tread the line between not really doing enough work, and overcomplicating things so much that it's impossible to get anywhere because you keep spending so much time on details. There's always more that you [i]could[/i] do, but there's only so much time you're actually there.

One thing that I did really learn from the placement is that whilst I enjoy doing that sort of work, but I don't enjoy that sort of lifestyle. If I ever want to go into some sort of manufacturing improvement consultancy stuff it'll ideally have to be one where I'm either largely stationed in one place, or I'm just employed by a single company at a single factory. There are perks to living in hotels, such as having full English breakfasts cooked for you every morning, and having a shower that isn't completely shit (like the one in my student house is), but after a couple of days they quickly stop being novel and I find that I'm just really not that much of a fan of spending every evening eating out in a pub and then having a hotel room to go back to. It's a fairly soulless existence and not one I'm particularly keen on.

It also doesn't help that almost all of UK manufacturing is based in towns that are completely shite. Other than a particularly epic sports centre (which is the only reason I'd been there before), there's basically nothing in Stowmarket. It doesn't seem to be much better for many of the other places we've visited either. I guess working for Newton or Stroud or a similar company you get jetted off to various places around Europe, but I'd expect that shithole manufacturing towns in Germany are still fundamentally the same as the shithole manufacturing towns in the UK.

So yeah, the project itself was interesting and good fun overall, but I vastly prefer living at home over living in a hotel.

Because I don't have a humorous image for this week, here is a compilation video of babies tasting lemons:

A fair amount of stuff seems to be happening now to start mapping my summer out too. Aside from the somewhat scary prospect of having to find myself a job (though I'm at least starting to get a decent idea of the sort of companies I want to work for), there's the MET overseas research project and a few other things.

The MET overseas research project is basically a two-week study tour of various factories in some far, foreign land. The current plan for the tour is for it to be a week in South Korea followed by a week in Japan, which I'm looking forward to so much because they're basically the top two countries I most want to visit in the world, and I expect it'll be unbelievably cool.

Pretty much all of the expenses are paid for by sponsorship fund-raising, and quite awesomely we don't have to fly back with the group at the end of the study tour, but can stay out in Japan, and our eventual flights back will only cost us the difference between the flights we get and the flights we'd have otherwise gotten if we'd flown back with everyone else.

The tour leaves the Sunday or Monday right after graduation, and my plan was that after the two weeks of the tour I'd stay on for another two weeks in Japan as a holiday. This has sort of been thrown into disarray by Paul 'rubbish tekkers' Erdunast announcing that the inaugural UK Tetris Championships is going to be held in London on the 21st July. Given I mostly don't play that much any more I'm not really sure whether I want to sacrifice a second week in Japan to go, but at the moment I probably will because the format of the tournament means I have a pretty good chance of getting at least to the final assuming I put in a little bit of practice beforehand and no big names decide to fly over from the USA or Japan.n Plus three weeks in South-East Asia should be plenty anyway.

Then there's also potentially Eindhoven 2012 to fit in somewhere, and whenever my job starts. It's only November and I'm already massively looking forward to July.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Winter Is Coming

In the last couple of weeks the temperature has randomly flipped from being record-breakingly hot for October into proper winter cold. As usual, the temperature itself in Cambridge isn't actually that cold, but there's an arctic wind that makes it pretty chilly once you get outside.

Today was the first day we bothered to turn the central heating on in the house, which in one sense was as simple as flicking a switch to turn the heating on instead of just the hot water, but in another sense was confusing as hell because nothing about the heating system makes sense. It doesn't help that we have an absolutely ancient boiler (with the bizarre name of "Ideal Mexico Super"), but our main issue is that we have no clue how the thermostat works.

The thermostats is in the same little cupboard-room thing as the boiler. This room doesn't have a radiator and has the boiler in it, meaning that the temperature in there has basically no relation to the temperature in the rest of the house, so first off we have no idea how exactly it's meant to judge when the heating should be on or off. The range on the thermostat also apparently goes from -5 to +10C, which has us totally baffled because that's pretty far from the range of temperatures we'd actually like the house to be, so even assuming the sodding thing works we have no idea where to set it.

Today was a fairly packed day as far as my course went, with us having to give a presentation in the morning and having an exam worth 5% of our year in the afternoon. Back in first or second year I would have been completely bricking it this morning. Because we've had lectures all week we've had no real time to do any revision (plus the course material isn't particularly revise-able anyway), and our presentation wasn't that brilliantly prepared either. Despite this my main thought this morning was that our exam was going to finish at 3pm when our lectures typically finish at 5pm, meaning fuck yeah the weekend starts two hours earlier. I'd probably have cared more if there presentation was formally assessed, or if everyone else wasn't also completely unprepared for the exam, but as it turned out both went OK. The questions didn't require a huge amount of memorisation from the lecture material, and I'd been present and awake for all of them (the latter being difficult sometimes) which pretty much seemed to be as much preparation as you needed.

I'm starting a two-week placement at Bosch in Stowmarket on Monday. Initially we were going to have a ~90 minute commute from Cambridge every day, but some of the other people on the placement complained a bit and we're now staying in a hotel for the two weeks, aside from being home at the weekend. I was fairly indifferent to the situation. I'm not a huge fan of a long commute, but I also quite like having housemates and a PS3 and a decent computer in the evenings. The project itself looks like a fair bit of work, though it's hard to really judge until we actually go.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

And So I Bought A Tablet...

Typically I'm not one to impulse buy if it's something that costs real money. If anything I'm the opposite - I'll research fairly thoroughly to make sure what I'm buying is decent, and then I'll shop around and find the best deal I can get for it. That said, I impulse bought a graphics tablet a couple of weeks ago. Emily had impulse bought it on eBay, didn't want it, and I figured why the heck. So I ended up with one of these for £35. My Dad always been moans that I don't have enough technology in my room, so I figured I'd expand my collection a bit.

Now many people will say "But you're an engineer with no artistic talent whatsoever! What on earth would you need a tablet for?!" and to be honest, for most of my life I get by just fine without one. That said, there have been times when I could have really done with a tablet and it's an absolute pain in the ass to not have one. I find the same sort of deal with scissors and multi-tools and a variety of other objects, where I typically take them for granted and then have occasional circumstances where I find myself totally screwed if I don't have them to hand.

There have been so many times when I've been typesetting something that's meant to be hand-written, and I've wasted hours trying to find a font that looks fairly hand-written and is in the right style when if I'd had a tablet I could have just written it myself with my own hand. Or design projects where all my concept sketches have to be done on paper and scanned in (and therefore look like ass) when it would have been so much easier to just draw them on my PC. Not to mention that you can't as easily Ctrl+Z stuff when you're drawing on paper.

The other use I'd quite like one for, besides work-related things, is for this blog. There are only so many images I can find on the internet, and it's nice to draw things myself. I've long followed Hyperbole & A Half, and while I probably won't borrow the text-and-lulzy-cartoons format quite as much as other people I know who blog (mostly because drawings take effort and I'm lazy), it'd be nice insert daft sketches from time to time.

I could have done this before, but I didn't really have the tools to make anything that wasn't completely terrible. Drawing on paper requires either a scanner or a camera that isn't total shit to convert the drawings into an electronic format, and I have neither. Drawing with a mouse was always an option, but not really, because I can't draw with a mouse. To take an example:

That took about five attempts until I got something I was remotely satisfied with, and it still looks like it might as well have been drawn with a crayon by a pre-schooler. I had so little confidence in my drawing I clearly even thought it necessary to write "SHEEP" above the drawing so people couldn't get confused over what it actually was.

On the other hand, this was my first attempt with the tablet:

That picture makes it painfully clear that even with a proper pen I'm still far from some sort of Picasso (though tablets are a bit weird to use, and in my defence I'm still getting used to it), but I'd say it's a considerably better effort and it took me a fraction of the time. Hell, I even got the Gurren Lagann sunglasses in there.

So yeah, when I can be bothered expect some crappy cartoons on this thing, because I'll probably feel a bit guilty if I don't actually use the thing.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Google Analytics Keywords

An alternative title for this post could easily be "completely weird shit people search for on Google". Or "I couldn't be bothered writing a proper post so here is a list of crap I'm just pasting from a website".

I use Google Analytics on this blog, which provides me with pretty details info about the people who visit, where they visit from, and all that jazz. It gives me my hit rate (which is just under 1000 hits a month for anyone who cares) and referring sites, but also really crazy in-depth shit like resolutions and browsers and even what colour settings they have (I imagine this is actually fairly useful if you're running a huge website and want to make it accessible to people on mobiles and the like). The amount of data and detail you can pull up is actually pretty staggering.

For example, I can say that in the past year 43% of people on this site were using Firefox, and 33% were using Chrome. 88% had Java support. 49% had 32-bit colour, and 48% had 24-bit.

All of this is somewhat nice to know, but not particularly great reading. On the other hand, the keywords section proves to be completely crazy. The keywords section is essentially a long list of things that people have typed into search engines and landed on my site as a result from.

The most popular search engine hits are fairly obvious and trivial. 'rostilfc', 'rosti blog', 'for great justice rosti' and all those sorts of things all obviously lead here, and apparently get searched for quite a bit (just bookmark it guys!). From there, various anime related stuff, such as 'summer wars' or somewhat obscure references I've made, such as 'approach your target and attack' or 'cambridge a14 bridge paint'. Again, for most of these I can quite easily see why they'd be searched, and why they'd happen to lead to certain pages of this blog.

The next set is mostly image related. I have a lot of images on here, most of which are fairly well labelled, so when people type things like 'atheist demotivational' into Google Images, go figure this blog is up there. One that confused me a bit was "whyyyyyyy", which apparently has brought 17 independent visits to this site, until I realised that if you type it into Google images (with that many y's) then the first image result is for an image on this blog. So having random token images in my posts generates a fair number of hits.

At this point, things break down. Things break down horribly. After searches that I can logically link to specific pages of this blog, it shifts into searches that I not only find surprising that they link here, but also somewhat unsettling that people are even searching for that thing at all.

The number one why-the-fuck-does-that-bring-people-here search phrase is 'korean internet sex'. I have no idea why this site is apparently highly ranked on Google for that shit, but it does genuinely bring up this blog as a result on the first few pages.

So, out of the 1500 phrases people have typed into Google (or, if they suck, Bing) to find this site in the last year, here are some of my favourites:

jens voigt legs
питер гриффин (apparently Peter Griffin in Russian) (search bar isn't URL bar, people)
retarded charizard
acrobat getting fucked
anime fucking a penis pictures
are you typing fucking novel?
ass shaped things
astronaut fuck when there's really nothing else to say
book how not to be a retard
cannot connect to domain because your pc is fucked
crazy teacher how to fuck
daz, i dont think i can do this much longer mate, ive got cramps
don't fucking my mind
evangelical christians are shit
fluorescent pee
funny picture of cat bitching slapping another cat
gary neville weird face
how do i make the yahoo toolbar fuck off
i told him i want sex he said me to fuck off and played game with spaceships
korean sex for apple
new plymouth arse end
scunthorpe is shit

Each of those being legitimately something that somebody has put into a search engine (the spaceships one being a personal favourite). I guess if I've learned anything, it's that I should probably tone down the profanity. Or maybe not, because apparently it's getting plenty of hits.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

A Trip To Aston Martin

A fairly major part of my course this year, as anyone who has either spoken to me (or "listened to me moaning" as it could otherwise be called) in the last couple of months or reads this blog will know, is that I get shipped off at various points in the year to factories around the UK to do some sort of mild manufacturing/management consultancy work for zero pay. We then have to write an assessed report on what we did and all that jazz.

The first half of this week was our 3-day induction placement. The induction placement packs us into larger groups than normal (nine of us) and is shorter, with the idea that we pick up a bit of an experience without things dragging on too long for our first attempt. On the upside, we get a few days in an expenses-paid B&B outside of Cambridge and have expenses that sort of go towards paying for the various pub dinners we have while we're out there (though they're only meant to pay the difference from food costs in Cambridge and most of the time don't even cover that). The downside is that most of the UK's manufacturing is located in various middle-of-nowhere shit-hole locations in the Midlands. And that we basically have full working days plus working time in the evenings, which is knackering.

In terms of going to Aston Martin, I was definitely in one of the better groups on paper. It was also helped by the B&B we were staying at being totally awesome, and run by an exceptionally nice lady who didn't object at all to getting up at 6:30am to cook us breakfast.

The Aston Martin factory in Gaydon is located in a group of really tiny villages with basically fuck-all there. There were at least a handful of pubs to eat at though. Well, we saw three, and one of them wasn't serving food during either of the two attempts we made to eat there. There was one called The Malt Shovel which was awesome though.

After the first day of being surrounded by Aston Martin cars I wanted one so badly. They seemed so awesome, and so incredibly shiny. After a couple of days that wore off though, and when seeing one on the motorway as we drove home I barely batted an eyelid. Except for the One-77, because holy shit those things are ridiculously sexy.

They also cost over a million pounds each and I will almost certainly never own one.

For the factory visit itself, I can't actually say that much because of confidentiality agreements and all that stuff, which is probably a good thing because it'd be boring as hell anyway. I will say though that claims of the Aston Martin Cygnet is related to the Toyota IQ are vast understatements. Also that the factory is ridiculously centred around showing potential customers around it, and they've gone to pretty huge lengths (and sacrificed obvious efficiency) to make certain things easily visible to people wandering around the main walkways. Also they have an absolutely amazing canteen, and I've been anywhere else that even remotely comes close to it.

I didn't so much enjoy coming back straight into a full lecture schedule and a report to write, but the placement itself was pretty fun. The long hours and getting up early were shit, but it was nice to go out for meals at a pub together every night and have a fair bit of socialising. It was good to chat to people who I've not really spoken to that much outside of lectures (except for Emily, because she's at Downing, and Gemma, because I've worked with her in pretty much every MET project we've ever done).

Anyway, back in Cambridge now for email answering and sorting out the DCBC Fresher's Fair at the weekend. The count of sign-ups for the CURMS stall at the fresher's fair apparently wasn't too bad either, despite my being away from Cambridge and totally shambolic organisation with delegating other people to do stuff.

Friday, 23 September 2011

StarCraft II and eSports

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a friends of mine, Vincent Laurent (aka Amnesia, to tetris folk), on our history playing Tetris, and why we still bother hanging around the community and playing the game. There came a point at which I mentioned that if I could go back five years with the hindsight I have now, and do things differently, I'd probably choose to play StarCraft instead.

His first response was "so you regret everything?" (it was probably a bit more Frenglais than that), and no, I don't regret anything. I could have probably done something with my time that wasn't playing video games, I'll ignore that line of thinking. The fact is that while I've met some awesome people and hand awesome times in the community (and still do), the competitive scene for the game seems to be a complete dead-end. It's fragmented, has very little official support (aside from not-even-a-handful of tournaments) and to be honest I can't see it ever becoming particularly big.

On the other hand, StarCraft's competitive scene is now almost reaching the point where it's moving across from being big in the community of people who play the game to being small in the world at large as an eSport. There's big money to be made by the players, and the audience numbers are starting to really kick off.

I don't know how truthful the comments that StarCraft is Korean's national sport are, but it's historically where most of the big competitions and money has been. Korean players have had teams, coaches, sponsors and all that jazz for longer and on a much bigger scale than in the US or Europe (or so I am lead to believe), but it's now really starting to increase in the West as well (the US Evil Geniuses team has a frickin awesome team house).

There is a lot of money to be made as an SC2 player these days, and I'd say pretty surely that those numbers are only likely to go up. Even aside from prize money and team salaries, there are players like Destiny and other casters online that are making a fairly solid full-time salary just through streaming their daily gaming over the internet with the size of audiences their streams regularly get.

I wouldn't try to claim that if I'd started on StarCraft: Brood War instead of Tetris DS that I'd be making some pretty nice money on the side by being one of the top EU SC2 players instead of top EU TGM players, because that's just not how this sort of thing works (and Tetris, with a far smaller player base, is much easier to become one of the best at), but it would have been nice to have given it a go and seen where I'd gotten. But this post is not to lament stuff I could-but-probably-wouldn't have been, this is more a prediction that in 10-15 years the whole eSports scene will be substantially bigger than it is now to the point at which it verges on mainstream viewers.

Forbes magazine recently interviewed Sean "Day[9]" Plott, a guy I've come to have a lot of respect for and be a huge fan of, on the issue. Firstly, I think the fact that Forbes have even bothered to interview someone almost entirely unknown outside the SC2 community is a fairly big deal for this sort of thing (they also did quite an interesting interview with Destiny on how he now makes a living streaming and can earn up to $40-50 an hour doing so). Secondly I think some of the points in that interview are pretty interesting and enlightening on how the whole eSports scene could develop as a whole in the next few years.

StarCraft: Brood War matches attract sizes of crowds in Korea that can literally fill a stadium

eSports and professional gaming tournaments have been around for absolutely ages, but it seems only recently that things have properly started to pick up, I'd say most probably because live streaming of matches over the internet has exploded the audience sizes far beyond the few thousand people who are nerdy enough to go to these events to watch it first-hand.

Gaming tournaments always used to be sponsored by extremely nerd-centric brands. Companies that make graphics cards and high-end hardware and various other brands that my parents have never heard of (well, maybe my Dad would have). And sure, the sponsorship is still largely covered by brands like NVidia and Alienware, but these days you also see brands like Pepsi (sponsor of the GSL in Korea) and Dr Pepper (I think MLG?) plastered all over these sorts of tournaments. The fact that companies as big as Pepsi and Coke are getting involved and putting money into these sorts of events is a show that they're starting to gather serious attention beyond the most hardcore nerd scene. There was also Day9's After Hours Gaming League, a tournament involving employees from Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and various other US internet giants. A couple of weeks Destiny and Sheth did a 24-hour charity drive on their streams for Doctors Without Borders and managed to raise around $32,000 from stream ads and viewer donations on Paypal.

So aside from internet streaming becoming far more widespread and popular, why now, and why StarCraft? Personally I think it's because SC2 actually provides a decent eSport from the spectator's point of view, whilst most other games don't.

I used to think the idea of watching people play games was totally stupid. I was a huge player of games, but the idea of watching other people play just seemed totally dull. Sure, they might have been awesome, but I didn't know any of these people, and why should I care? Partly I think this stemmed from the fact that most pro gaming videos on the internet are first-person shooters or music-based games like IIDX or Guitar Hero, which all produce games that are totally useless to watch as a spectator. Sure, maybe you can see that it's quite impressive that they can do that, but to your average player or non-player everyone who is really good just looks the same (high-level Tetris is the same), and for first-person shooters you're either watching a first-person cam from one player and missing most of the action, or you're watching from a higher level and can only really see people shooting each other and dying.

The difference with StarCraft is that its gameplay creates something which is far closer to a conventional sport. You can see players gain and lose the upper hand, make tactical decisions and errors, you get close calls and tight spots, comebacks, and all the other stuff that makes regular real-life sports entertaining to watch. To steal and extend an analogy from the Day9 interview, it's like chess, only a lot fsater, with real time explosions and stuff, and where the strategy can still be subtly there, but from a spectator point of view it doesn't require you to be at their level of thinking to see what they're doing.

Blizzard have gone to great lengths to create a game which is fun and provides depth in strategy and skill, whilst still being extremely balanced at a competitive level, and they've done all of this almost with making it a spectacle in mind. It's set up so that casters and commentators can easily have an overlord view of the entire game and present it live how they want to.

What's more, it's accessible as a spectacle. With commentators you don't need to have played the game to understand what's going on. Sure, you probably need to watch a few games to pick things up, but that's the same for any sport. You might not appreciate the difficulty and complexity of what the players themselves are having to do to manage and control everything as well as they do (and I'll say after a few months of playing - it's fucking hard), but appreciation for the skill isn't something that's necessarily required to enjoy a sport.

I think the fundamental barrier to the likes of SC2 becoming majorly popular is that it is still a video game, and just the label of "eSport" will cause most people to be somewhat prejudiced against its qualities and validity, in the same way I was until not that long ago (it doesn't help it's also a stupid term). That said, the generation currently reaching their mid-twenties is one that grew up playing video games in a way that the previous generation didn't, and it could be that the viewpoint of video games being a pointless hobby and waste of time opens into one that allows them to be seen as a legitimate form of entertainment. Sure, it's just two people manipulating things on a screen, but there's not a huge fundamental difference between watching people running around kicking a ball on TV and watching player-controlled armies duking it out in terms of the entertainment it provides.

Short of a small miracle, there's no way I'll ever come even close to a professional level on StarCraft II (especially not if I stick to my current timetable of only playing it for a little bit every few days) but I'd personally find it awesome if the game itself and its competitive scene would keep its current rate of gaining popularity. The last MLG had a record 130,000 live viewers online during the event (on the main website, not counting other official streaming sites or people who watched the recordings at a later time). That's still tiny compared to most regular sports (or even the Korean GSL's reported 100 million viewers when you include people watching the recordings uploaded online), but for an American gaming event broadcast over the internet it's not a bad figure.

So whilst in terms of the internet the figures are relatively small for the most part, I still think that as word gets around a bit more, and maybe as the available audience shifts into one that is a bit more receptive to this sort of thing, StarCraft II and a few other eSports could genuinely start to pick up a proper audience, even amongst people who don't actually play the games themselves, and it honestly wouldn't surprise me to see these sorts of things proper televised in the west in ten or twenty years' time. It won't ever happen to Tetris, and I totally backed a losing horse there in terms of monetary repayment for invested time (not that I ever played it for that reason anyway), but I still think it'd be fricking cool for SC2 anyway.

Either way, StarCraft II is one of the few sports (to use the term liberally) that I can actually watch as a total neutral and enjoy (the others being forms of cycling and motorsport). Because despite my original scepticism, it's actually surprisingly entertaining.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Fourth Year

I was sort of vaguely aware that I've not actually written a blog post in a while. I've got a few I've been half-writing that are unfinished at the moment, so it doesn't feel like I've neglected this thing too much, but then my pa brought it up in an email and I also noticed that Anna Railton was also massively out-posting me, so I figured I should get off my arse and write some shit down.

There main reason I've not written much recently is pretty much that I've not done much recently. I've moved into our new house in Cambridge and pimped out my room a bit, but really there has been very little interesting going on in my life and I've sort of burned all that out over the summer. We have a PS3 in our house now, so that's been getting a fair bit of attention (not to mention nostalgia gaming on the PS2 and N64), as has StarCraft II. Usually I'd feel fairly crappy about just whittling time away doing sweet fuck-all in this sort of manner, but the rough MET IIB timetable has been put up on Camtools, and it's totally killed any regret for not doing much the last few weeks.

In short, the timetable is absolutely fucking ridiculous. People following this or who have spoken to me in person recently will probably know I've got like 14 weeks of work placements outside of Cambridge. In itself I'm not actually that bothered by this - it'd be nice if they gave us more info on what the hell it actually involves and where we'll be (heck, I'd take any info at the moment), and it's more the amount of time I'll be away from Cambridge that I'm actually unhappy about, because it kills any chances of doing coxing or any of that jazz for my final year.

But I'm fine with the placements. What I'm significantly less fine with is the rest of the timetable, which basically involves 9am-5pm lectures every day. Except Wednesdays, when we apparently get a half-day. This is ridiculous to the point where my first reaction to seeing it on the calendar was "that's a mistake". No course has 36 hours of lectures a week. That's just mental. Hell, on one week we've even got 9-5 marked down for Saturday and Sunday.

And this shit starts on Monday. This Monday. Monday 26th September. A good week and a day before Cambridge full term actually starts. And we have a three-day placement the week after that (i.e. freshers week). And we apparently don't finish until Friday 9th December, which is again a week after Cambridge term ends. And we apparently have either 31 hours of lectures or work placements every week for the entire ten weeks?

I still reckon that there's just something of a misunderstanding over this, and despite what people have apparently been told it just means that we have lectures scattered around the 9-5 time period rather than filling the whole block. I feel it has to be because I just don't see how the hell we can actually have all of that, and have examples papers and project write-ups and not die before the middle of November. I mean, such a heavy work-load might help prepare us for the working life and all that jazz, but you generally don't come home from work with more work to do. And you also get paid.

So yeah, I'm doing as much as I can this week to avoid anything that even resembles work, because I may cease having any sort of life for ten weeks starting Monday. Still, if it turns out it's apparently true, then MET should be a popular course once the £9k fees are introduced. You'll certainly be getting your money's worth.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Return Of The King

When Hodgson was sacked, all the way back in January or whenever it was now, I had somewhat mixed opinions. I thought perhaps it would have been fairer to give him more time, but at the same time I didn't particularly like the direction of football he was taking. I'd still somewhat stand by my opinions that Benitez was a good manager, and I feel that his demise was largely down to his inability to work under Hicks & Gillett than it was his lack of ability to run the team.

I was also in mixed opinions on Kenny's appointment, which is largely why this post is being written now, seven or eight months later, rather than at the time. Dalglish is generally considered to be the most talented player to ever play for Liverpool, and probably only has the unfashionable trait of having Scotland as his national side to thank for not being more renowned outside of Merseyside and the UK. That said, as various players-turned-managers have proven (Souness and Barnes, to name a few) being a great Liverpool player does necessarily lead into being a great manager. Dalglish did well in his first stint as a manager, but that was well over a decade ago. There's also the questionable video game, "Kenny Dalglish Soccer Manager".

And then there's his voice. I'd say the gift of the gab is a somewhat vital quality for managers. Benitez gave a legendary speech to his players at half-time in Istanbul to rouse his players into making a comeback. Does Dalglish really have the ability to rally his troops with his indecipherable Scottish mumblings? I'm not so sure.

With the ownership saga long put to bed, and Dalglish now solidly into his tenure, there isn't really much room left for doubts. A fairly princely amount of money has been spent, but the squad has now been bolstered over the summer, some real quality players brought in, and some less quality players cut from the wage bill. It's a ridiculous turnaround given the state of the club only a year ago.

Dalglish seems to have rejuvenated the squad, and the fans, and suddenly from the upper echelons of management to the fans the whole club is moving in the same direction again. He's been given money, and he's invested heavily in young British talent. I think some of the signings (Carroll, Henderson and to a lesser extent Charlie Adam) are gambles given how much we've paid and the age of the players, but at least currently those signings look to be pretty positive. Suarez looks absolutely fantastic, and I'd be astonished if his total goals plus assists wasn't over thirty by the end of the season, injuries aside.

I managed to scab a ticket for the Bolton game last weekend, and there were flashes in there of the sort of team under the high-point of Benitez that beat Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford, or Real Madrid 4-0. There were long periods of play where we were creating chance after chance, and were it not for a few close misses and some suspect refereeing decisions we could have easily scored five or six goals. Not to mention this was without Gerrard, someone who, if critics and rival fans are to be believed, Liverpool have been completely dependent on over the past few years.

The crowd as well was a lot louder than I can remember it ever being for a relatively no-name league game. You get the big atmospheres for the derby games, and really important fixtures, but I was surprised at how vocal the Kop was considering it was only Bolton.

Dalglish has done a fantastic job turning the club around, and whilst I wouldn't want to start getting overly optimistic at this stage of the season, I think he's solidly put the team back up into contention for the Champions League places, and with a bit of luck we'll still be in the hunt for the title as the season draws to a close. He's created a strong squad which should stay strong for next three or four seasons at least, and a squad that plays exciting, attacking football that is genuinely entertaining to watch.

The King will almost certainly remain a legend regardless of what he does or does not achieve in his second stint as a manager, but he's definitely not hurting himself at the moment. If anything, he seems like he's just genuinely enjoying his role back at the club.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Day 30: Paris -> London -> Home [Epilogue]

For our final day we stayed in the hotel as long as we could, watching South Park in French (which I could follow a surprising amount of, though it helps when I've seen it before). Eventually we had to shift out of the hotel, and we basically just set up camp in Gare du Nord until our train was due. Occasionally we'd venture outside the station for food, or for a toilet cheaper than the 75 cents one in the station (which, frankly, is taking the piss [no pun intended] unless it a hell of a nice toilet), and we'd get mobbed by the various beggars outside asking for change.

There are tons of people asking you for money in Paris. Probably the most outrageous I saw were the groups going round asking for money for deaf people. Originally I thought these people were legit, until I saw multiple groups in various locations, all the exact same ethnic appearance, age, and all female. If it was a genuine charity you'd be getting student helpers and the like, and you'd be a bit more officially dressed rather than just having some scrappy bits of paper on a clipboard. Plus I'm pretty sure you also wouldn't all be pretending to be deaf (which apparently involves being mute and grinning like a moron, whilst repeatedly shoving the paper in your face and pointing to where "DEAF" is untidily scribbled on the top). Surely proper charities for the deaf would be able to get a few non-deaf people to help out the good cause as well? Aside from the sheer audacity and dishonesty, these people are also asking for fairly big money. You might give pocket change to regular beggars and street performers, but these people want €5 or €10 notes.

Anyway, after an afternoon of reading and not doing much, we finally made our way through the crazy pseudo-airport-security section to the Eurostar lobby, and got our train. Given that we were now not really on holiday any more, trains and general transport had stopped being a respite from walking and seeing stuff, and were now back to merely transportation. I didn't really care for much else besides getting back home at this point.

We arrived at London in the Kings Cross international and walked to Euston to take our respective trains home. This also involved Nick rushing around to find a photo booth, because he'd booked his train ticket to Birmingham without a valid railcard, and totally didn't listen to me when I told him you needed a passport-sized photo to get a new railcard if you wanted to do it at the station office.

I also had drama, because my train home was cancelled. I spend a month catching trains around Europe, almost entirely without hitch, and my final train back home was cancelled. This meant I could either wait for the next Liverpool train, which risked also being cancelled, or I could find another way back. I opted for another way back, which involved getting the Glasgow-bound train. Right as it left the platform there was an announcement over the train intercom about how this was a specific express train, how off-peak tickets weren't valid, and how tickets to other destinations were also invalid. I'd asked the guy on the platform as I'd gotten on if I could use my ticket for the train, and he'd said yes, but I was still bricking it until the ticket inspector came that my ticket wouldn't be valid, and that I'd have to pay the full £100 fare or whatever.

Turns out that I was fine, because my booked train had been cancelled (I'd have been screwed otherwise), and I got home without further issue. And done!

The whole trip of 30 days has seen 13 cities in 9 countries, covering around 4300 miles (just under 7000km). Reflecting back, I really enjoyed it, and it'd be fantastic to do it again when I'm older, especially if I can live a bit more luxury and stay in nice hotels and the like.

For how we did it, there's not much I'd really change. I think with the benefit of hindsight I'd probably have not bothered with Italy, and would have gone somewhere else instead. I enjoyed Italy, but it was quite pricey, and the trains were fairly awkward because they were almost always full, and without reservations (which were quite expensive) you'd struggle to get anywhere.

I also think that we made the right choice spending around two days in every city. It meant that the days were fairly intense, but it allowed us to see quite a lot of each city whilst still seeing tons of place. There were a lot of people who we met on the road who were inter-railing and spending four or five days in each place, and I'm glad we weren't doing anything like that. Four or five days doesn't really push you to be that intensive each day, and you'll either see the same amount of stuff spread over an unnecessarily long time, or you'll run out of stuff to see for the last couple of days (I don't feel like I left any cities with things I really wanted to see but which we didn't have time for). Plus the main focus of the trip is in the interrail pass, and really you're only getting good use of that if you're seeing tons of different places.

The trip also educated me on just how much it costs to go on holiday - something I'd not really had previously because I'd only ever really been on family holidays where most stuff is just paid for by my parents. Accommodation and food really start to add up abroad, even staying in hostels, and €30-40 a day just to cover basic living starts to add up really fast when you're out for four weeks.

Still, I had a great time, I saw a lot of cool shit, and I've given myself quite a few places in Europe that I'd really like to revisit when I'm a bit older and more cultured (specifically Brugge, Munich, Vienna and Paris). If you're prepared to save up for it, I'd definitely recommend it to anyone considering giving it a go next summer.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Days 26-29: Paris

We kicked off our first full day in Paris by basically retracing the steps we'd taken the night before, and having a look around Montmartre in the daytime, heading back to the Sacre-Coeur and the surrounding area at the top of the hill.

From there we went back to the hotel, picked up all our stuff, and shifted it to the hotel we'd be staying at for the rest of our time in Paris. Our second hotel was situated near the Bassin de la Villette, and owned by a French couple who spoke no English whatsoever, but were nice enough. Our four-bed room only actually had two double beds, making our time in gay Paris a tad bit more gay than I'd have otherwise liked, but aside from that and the fact the overground metro was right outside our window, it was pretty nice, though in a rough area. Certainly good for the price given how expensive most places in Paris are.

We split up at this point. Jamie was meeting with a friend who lives in Paris, and I wanted to watch Arsenal v Liverpool. Nick and Gerry wandered into Paris to see the sights on a little man-date, Jamie disappeared to meet his friend, and I went on wander towards the centre to try and find a place showing the game.

In any UK city this would be a trivial exercise. You get pubs and sports bars everywhere, and they'd almost certainly be open at what was about 12:30pm on a Saturday. In Paris, this is not the case. Partly because sports bars and pubs just don't seem to be particularly common, and partly because for the month of August all Parisians apparently fuck off elsewhere and most places are shut.

I ended up at an English pub called "The Frog & Rosbif", which is around two and a half miles away from the hotel, though given the indirect route I took and the getting lost (the map I had was totally useless for smaller roads), I probably walked a good four miles by the time I'd gotten there. And it was the first pub I'd come across showing any sport, let alone Premiership football. Having to pay €6.50 for a pint hurt, but I was grateful just to find somewhere showing the game (and I'd later find that in Paris that isn't actually that expensive).

Liverpool won 2-0, so I was in decent spirits for the rest of the day and met back up with the guys at the Notre Dame cathedral. The weather had really kicked up a level in Paris, and it was in the mid-to-high thirties in the sun. From Notre Dame we made the short walk to the Shakespeare & Company shop, which is a tiny but densely-packed English bookshop just on the other side of the river. It was pretty much the same as the little bookshops in the centre of Cambridge, but a little more crammed in. We chilled out for a while before heading back to the hostel.

The next day we got out fairly early to hit the Musee D'Orsay, an art gallery consisting mostly of art from the 1850-1930 period. The building itself is a spectacular ex-railway station, and it has a massive amount of art in there. It's not completely my preferred sort of art, but I quite enjoyed the Nouveau and Impressionist stuff. Plus most of the museums and galleries in Paris are free to under-25 EU citizens, which is fantastic.

The D'Orsay took up the entire morning, so we had lunch at a café nearby and moved on. The other guys went to chill in the Jardin du Luxembourg, whilst I went to walk down the historical axis. The axis starts at La Defense, and continues in a straight line through the Arc de Triomphe and Place de la Concorde to the Louvre. In total it's around five miles long (8km).

I started by getting the train out to La Defense and the Grand Arche, which is ridiculously big. It's pretty difficult to get a decent photo of the thing, because you have to be stood miles away just to get the whole thing in shot. The rest of La Defense is pretty nice as well, with a lot of fairly new skyscrapery buildings.

I grabbed a java chip frappé from the Starbucks in the shopping centre there and started off my walk down to the Arc de Triomphe, which seemed miles away (and I guess it literally was). On the way I also happened to randomly stumble across a really ancient Jaguar, which my dad has since correctly identified as a Jaguar C-Type.

Though my huge chilled chocolate-coffee thing barely lasted me a third of the way, it actually didn't take too long to get to the Arc de Triomphe, probably helped by the weather being pleasant. It's possible to go up the Arc, again free for EU U25s, and the views from the top are pretty good.

From the Arc de Triomphe I continued down the Champs Élysées, now somewhat freshly excited for the fact that I was on the course for the circuits on the final stage of the Tour de France. I even managed to find what I'm pretty sure is the finish line (I have no idea why else there would be a white line painted across the road). It was also getting into the latter half of the afternoon and it was really hot at this point - some of the patches of tarmac on the Champs Élysées were literally molten.

At the end of the Champs Élysées is the Place de la Concorde, with its huge Egyptian obelisk, the fountains, and some quite nice surrounding architecture. It also has the HQ for the FIA, which I didn't know was there but the name of the Concorde Agreement makes a lot more sense now.

The final part of the axis is through the Jardin des Tuileries, to the square in the middle of the Louvre. I've been to the Louvre before when I was younger, but I was somewhat taken aback by the sheer size of the thing. It's absolutely massive on a scale I'd never really known before.

Having gone the whole way down the axis, the final thing I wanted to find was the statue of Joan of Arc, which is a something that's fairly heavily seen in the Tour de France TV coverage. It actually took me ages to find the sodding statue, because the camera positioning on TV makes it seem like the statue is in a fairly open space, when actually it's tucked away off to the side of the Louvre in the middle of a road junction, right next to some large buildings.

Absolutely knackered at this point, I headed back to the hotel, somehow ending up in the Les Halles metro station, which is just staggeringly big underground. I swear by the time I'd actually walked from the entrance I came in at to the line I needed to get I'd pretty much covered half the distance back to the hostel.

The next day we started out at the Pompidou, which I'd been looking forward to. I think the building itself is really cool, but it's also primarily the art period that I really like. It didn't disappoint, and some of the stuff on display there is awesome. I particularly liked a video Nick directed me to of a bunch of scouse primary school kids describing a Picasso painting and coming out with some of the most hilarious stuff.

From the Pompidou we headed back to the Notre Dame (at which I used up the last of the well-preserved camera battery), and then again to the Shakespeare & Company shop. I wasn't really interested in superfluous browsing of books or buying anything (I mean, it's going to be cheaper on Amazon anyway...), so I went to the park next to it to read the book I had in my rucksack, and was joined fairly shortly by Nick. Turns out the public park had free wifi access courtesy of Orange, so instead I actually checked emails and Facebook and the like for an hour or so until the other guys were done in the bookshop.

From the bookshop we wandered through Paris a bit trying to find areas that were good for pubs and bars. Our final full day in Paris was Gerry's 21st birthday, so the plan was to spend most of the afternoon and evening using up what remaining Euros we had. We stopped for a pint in a fairly small pub, and it turned out that Gerry's twin brother was actually in pretty much the exact same area we were. Unbeknownst to Gerry, his brother had come to Paris for our last two days to celebrate with him, so we moved to the pub they were in, and they sat in the table next to us until Gerry noticed they were there.

With drink being ridiculously expensive in pubs, we went back to our hotel, buying a ton of cheap (really cheap) wine in a convenience store in the next street. There were various drinking games, lots of alcohol was consumed, we got very, very drunk.

The plan for the last full day was to go round the Louvre. None of us were particularly interested, but we figured that if it was free we might as well pop in and see the Mona Lisa. It's probably a good job we weren't looking forward to it that much, because the Louvre is apparently shut on Tuesdays. So is the Musee de l'Orangerie, which was another option. Most of us felt like crap and weren't too keen on walking much anyway, so we defaulted to an alternative plan of sitting by the fountains in the Jardin de Tuileries and not doing an awful lot for a while.

We did a bit of walking around the gardens and the Champs Élysées, before going back to the hotel and heading out to go drinking. Gerry's brother, Pete, had brought a ton of money with him from their dad, which was greatly appreciated because most of us were broke by this point. The Irish bar we were at was pretty good, and the barwoman who served us at the start of the night was decent for giving us discounts on account of it being someone's birthday, though her shift ended about halfway through and the guy who replaced her was far less generous. Still, it was a really good final night of the trip.

I liked Paris a lot more than I thought I would, and I felt like we did OK in terms of time there, having thought that six days might be a bit excessive, though it did help we spent one of them hungover and didn't really do a great lot. It was also brilliant for sights being cheap/free for students, unlike a good 80% of the other places we've visited. Definitely one of the best cities on the trip, and a lot more than simply where we were catching the Eurostar from.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Day 25: Brussels -> Paris

Day 25 marked the final day before our interrail pass expired. Or, in slightly more specific terms, the day at which we had to end up in Paris before midnight, or else pay a small fortune to get our final train there. Travelling from Brugge to Paris required us to go through Brussels, and we figured that while we were passing through we might as well stop off and see the city. We were going to be spending five nights in Paris anyway, so we figured we might as well arrive fairly late in the day.

Arriving mid-to-late morning, we didn't bother to see any museums or galleries or suchlike in Brussels (though the guide book seemed to suggest there wasn't much anyway), and instead just wandered around to see the sights.

First off was the city's cathedral. It's huge, and whilst the décor inside is fairly plain, it does feature some pretty badass stained-glass windows.

From the cathedral, a small wander into the Grand Place, which features an absolutely humongous town hall - so big that it's actually awkward as hell to get a decent picture with the whole thing in one spot. The facade is really nice though.

From there, more wandering around, including the palace, and very randomly bumping into Sarah Crowther and her [Belgian] boyfriend. We stopped off and had lunch at a Quick (because there are seemingly no McDonalds in town centres in Belgium, and also because we were poor).

I'll go off on a slight tangent here, because this was the first and last time I'd eaten at a Quick restaurant, and the only two things of note were that drinks were refillable, and that you had to pay to use the toilet. Even as a customer.

It's a fairly British thing (or at least a Northern thing) to make a deal about having to pay for toilets in London. "You know you're in London when you have to pay to go for a piss" is almost a stock phrase. For large portions of Europe, it seems that you have to pay when you go for a piss absolutely sodding everywhere. Free public toilets were pretty much gold dust on our trip.

To perhaps divulge a bit too much information, I am not blessed with a bladder of steel. I drink fluids, and then I need to go to the toilet. And around most of Europe I had to pay for the privilege of not just urinating out in the street. I reckon I must have spent easily €5 purely on toilets over the four week trip. You can't even just nip into McDonalds and go for a McPiss because most of the fast-food restaurant chains are prepared, and the doors are either locked with a code you get on your receipt, or, even more ridiculously, require you to pay to use the toilet. Or in Paris they seemingly employ security to stop you using the toilet if you're not a customer.

Anyway, having seen pretty much everything we felt that there was immediately to see in Brussels, we made our move to Paris. This was far less straightforward than we'd anticipated, because the only trains that run from Brussels to Paris directly are either Thalys or TGV, both high-speed private rail companies that interrail passes aren't valid on. These trains would have gotten us to Paris very quickly, but they also would have cost us a small fortune.

Instead we were forced to faff around on the regional trains, following a route we'd been given at the information desk, which required us to use four different trains. It did successfully deliver us to Gare du Nord, from which we took the Métro to our hotel in Montmartre. It was reasonably late at this point, so we wandered the area trying to find somewhere to eat (eventually settling on quite a nice and well-priced Italian), before heading to the Sacré-Coeur, which gives some fairly spectacular views across the city at night. It's also rammed with street traders trying to sell tat or cold beers, so fairly standard for that sort of scene.