Blogging, Me & My Life, Pictures

A Little Bike Ride

I’ve hardly written anything recently. I’ve not written on my blog for about 4 months, during which time…

  • I had exams
  • I moved house
  • I visited London
  • I went to an airshow
  • I worked in the School of Maths at St Andrews

All perfect topics to write about, yet not once did I bother. If I’m ever going to get back into the rhythm of this (which I probably won’t), I’ll have to start small. How small? This small:

Yesterday I went on a bike ride.

I brought my bike back from St Andrews a week or two ago. I keep it in the shed at Albany Park during term time, and as I was staying in St Andrews for a large part of the summer, I left it there when I moved out. The weather has been so wet this summer that I didn’t use my bike at all in St Andrews, and I brought it home in the hope that the weather would finally improve and I’d be able to go on at least some rides.

The weather hasn’t improved, but my courage has. Anticipating this, I spent an afternoon a few days ago cleaning and maintaining my bike in the garden. I still need new brake blocks and (probably professional) repairs to my front gear mechanism, but otherwise I’ve got it running nicely. I’ve even got a new helmet, which Jonathan left me when he moved out of Albany Park. It’s good, much better than my old one, and it fits snugly and comfortably. AND SAFELY.

The weather seemed fairly bright and dry after breakfast yesterday. I put on some suitably scruffy cyclewear (including waterproof jacket and cycling gloves) and then made a prawn mayonnaise sandwich for my lunch, which I threw into my backpack along with a water bottle, a can of Orangina, my Kindle, and – yup – an umbrella.

I haven’t cycled much around Perth, but I’ve done enough to have a couple of favourite routes. I enjoy cycling into the Earn valley, which is where I went yesterday. The Earn valley lies just to the south of Perth, and stretches to the west in the direction of Auchterarder. To get there, you follow the old Edinburgh Road out of Perth and into Bridge of Earn, and from there you go wherever you fancy. I usually head west about as far as Forteviot before crossing to the other side of the valley and heading back to Perth, and that’s pretty much what I did.

Here’s the route that I took (click to see a better version):

Bike Ride Route

And here is a link to that route on Google Maps:

I’m just going to mention: on this bike ride I was naughty, and I was listening to an audiobook almost the whole way. I’ve been meaning to re-listen to the audiobook of “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace for ages. I’ve listened to it before, but it’s abridged, and I recently got a copy of the unabridged text. I read the essays which are missing from the audiobook (very skilfully read by the author himself) which made me really want to listen to it again to complete the experience. Yes, I know it’s dangerous to listen to stuff whilst cycling, especially on roads. I don’t normally do it – though that’s probably because I don’t normally cycle alone. But yesterday it was quiet on the roads and my earphones let in enough background noise, so that I was always aware of any approaching traffic with plenty of time.

It’s a really good book by the way, I recommend it.

Shortly after Forgandenny, it started spitting, and soon it turned into a downpour. I sheltered at the entrance to a farmer’s field, where I stood around and ate my lunch. My Mum had bought some sort of oatmal loaf, and it was pathetic, it had the structural integrity of candy floss. The sandwich fell apart in my hands. Never mind. I was listening to the essay from the book called “The View from Mrs Thompson’s” at this point, by the way. It rained for about half an hour, after which I carried on to Forteviot, where I stopped on a bridge over the railway line to Stirling to drink my Orangina and watch some trains.

Turbostar near Forteviot

I continued in the direction of Auchterarder for a couple of miles (the red line on the map above), before deciding to turn back and go home.

Which I did… for a little while. And then I crossed the Earn and, to my left, saw one of the steepest and tallest roads I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s the yellow road on the map above. It isn’t on the route to Perth, but if there’s one thing I love about cycling, it’s going fast. Especially down hills, and especially going very fast. This seemed like a Very Fast Hill. There was no question: I was going to do it. I tried to cycle up, but it was too steep to bother, and walked. I was too impatient to get all the way to the top (the A9 is at the top anyway, I didn’t want to go there) and I stopped, briefly considered sending a text to my Mum letting her know where I was in case I crashed (I didn’t) (send the text, that is), turned my bike around, took out my headphones, got on, and started to pedal.

I pedalled really hard. To get to 10mph, it’s easy. 20mph requires a considerable effort, but going downhill, you can easily reach that speed just by drifting. But at somewhere between 20 and 25mph, I stopped pedalling for a moment, and my speed remained constant: the friction of my tyres on the road and the air resistance of my body almost balanced gravity. From this point onwards, only serious legwork was going to get me to go any faster.

My goal was 40mph. If I was already going 25mph, that’s only an extra 15mph – that’s easy isn’t it, that’s just like the equivalent of increasing your speed from 0mph to 15mph? Right? Wrong.

If you studied physics at school, you will know that kinetic energy increases linearly with mass, but with the square of the speed. That is: Ek = ½mv2. This means it takes twice as much energy to cycle at 10mph if you double your mass, but to carry the original mass at twice the speed, 20mph, it takes four times as much energy.

40mph is 1.6 times as fast as 25mph. 1.62 is about 2.6, which meant I needed to give my bike 1.6 (= 2.6 – 1) times as much energy as it had, in addition to what it already had. I would have to do this using only my legs. What speed has 1.6 times as much energy as 25mph? sqrt(252 * 1.6) = 32mph. This means that to go from 25mph to 40mph, I would have to do the equivalent work of cycling (on level ground) from 0 all the way to 32mph which, FYI, is a really hard thing to do. (By the way, these calculations all ignore air resistance which would horribly complicate things).

But as I trundled down the steep hill gaining speed, there were a few further complications. There road was bumpy. There was a bend in the road – it’s not wise to be pedalling at full power when you turn, so I would have to ease off slightly at the bend to avoid losing control. Oncoming cars could appear in my way at any moment. And: I didn’t have much time. The road was fairly long, but at 30, 35mph, you are travelling so quickly that your bike eats up the road and it quickly runs out. I might not have enough space, and still be accelerating when I’m forced to break for the junction at the bottom (with my break blocks which definitely need replacing).

As I turned the bend half way up the hill, I was already doing 32mph – I was covering about 14 metres every second, which is quite a lot if you think about it for a human being. To my delight, the road ahead was completely clear, and I pedalled my legs as fast as I’d ever done before. It felt amazing, and I let out a whoop of joy and excitement – quite like Bear Grylls does when he jumps out of helicopters. My eyes were watering so much that I couldn’t look down at my speedometer, but after my legs burned from the lactic acid generated by my pedalling, I rested and slammed on the brakes. Too early in retrospect – I stopped far short of the bottom, but I had reached my maximum. I had no extra effort left to increase my speed, but I would have enjoyed drifting at speed for an extra second or so.

The fasted I have ever cycled was 40.0mph, down Glenlochay Road in Perth, an incredibly steep road near where I live. I’m not sure how I got to that speed, but I did, and I really wanted to beat it. Crazy.

When I was stopped at the bottom of the hill, I clicked through my speedometer until I reached the maximum speed section. This is what I saw:

My Maximum Speed

39.1mph! Argh!

The rain clouds were gathering, it was already raining on the other side of the valley, but I knew I could do better. I knew it. If only I’d hit the brakes later, if only I’d pedalled just a bit harder and longer. So, I turned round and scurried up the hill again to the same spot.

When I got to the top again, the rain was almost upon me:

Stormy Earn Valley

More Earn Valley

I had to be quick, because a wet road is seriously dangerous at high speeds on a bike. I got on my bike again, but things didn’t go as well: I was still worn out from walking quickly up the hill, the were a lot of cars on the road, and I think I was just a bit tireder. I only managed about 38mph.

I truly had just made it in time, because seconds after I reached the bottom, it started to rain. It kept raining, and got heavier. So heavy, that I could not see through my glasses. They were full of water droplets. I need wipers for my glasses, like a car.

I got off and stood by the road, parked my bike on its kick stand, put up my umbrella (good job), and got out my iPhone. It was time to see how long this rain would last:

The rain

Fuck. There was a lot of rain in the Perth area for the whole evening, it might not stop at all.

The heavy rain persisted for half an hour, during which time I continued to listen to the audiobook, until it slowed and eventually stopped, and I could cycle the 6 or so miles home.

I stopped by some brambles to pick some tasty ripe blackberries, and then got back on my bike, refreshed.

I passed the entrance to a country estate:

Dunning Estate

And at Milltown of Aberdalgie, as I was was dismounting – to climb another hill on foot – I got a phone call, from Emily. It was a lovely surprise and exactly what I needed to revive me after hanging around in a downpour, exhausted, for half an hour. We talked as I climbed the hill (which was the back of Craigie Hill), and when it ended, I was just about 3 miles to my house, mostly downhill.

It took me about 10-12 minutes to get home and end my ride, safely. I had fun.

My total, modest, trip distance:

The trip distance

If the weather’s nice, I’m going on a ride tomorrow, too.

InterRail, Travelling

13th May: Stormy Travel

It’s Thursday 13th May 2010. I’m in Marseille, hanging out by a huge ‘basilica’ called Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Me and Marseille

Notre-Dame de la Coeur

Yesterday I got to Marseille, but it wasn’t easy. It was a bit of a shambles actually – I hope all travelling days aren’t going to be this bad.

I got up early, breakfasted and left for the station. I was really feeling the weight of my bags, so I waited 20 minutes for a bus which was full to the brim. Being you’re laden down is the perfect reason for catching a bus, but it makes you feel uncomfortable getting on a bus with 2 large bags, as a foreigner, squeezing in amongst everyone else and getting in their way. You just have to avoid eye contact, I guess.

La Bastille, Grenoble

I couldn’t wait to get off the bus, which I did at a stop in town and went to hang out on the Place de Victor Hugo – the French really like that guy, don’t they? I used some open Wi-Fi for a bit – mostly to check my emails – and then I went in search of postcards to send home. But for some reason, despite being a really nice place that would look great on a postcard, I couldn’t find any. It was only then that I noticed the time, and I rushed to the railway station with a couple of minutes to spare before my train left. Good job I didn’t find any postcards.

The train to Valence Ville was pleasant. The weather cloudy most of the way and unfortunately I wasn’t next to a window. I was sitting at a table, but there was a boy in the window seat opposite me who crutches, and I wanted to respect his leg room. That said, there was no one next to me so I still had a clear view out of the window.

View from train to Valence

View from train to Valence

What did annoy me, though, was that my ticket was not looked at once on the journey to Valence. An InterRail ticket like mine is provided with 8 little boxes, and you have to fill in the dates that you’re going to be travelling. You’re supposed to validate it before you get on the train, else face a fine. My ticket is valid for travel on 8 separate days, and as required I diligently wrote “12/5” in my next clear box. I’ve used two of them now. But on this journey no one came to check that I had a valid ticket, and I feel like they should have done. Otherwise – it feels like I’ve just ‘wasted’ one day’s travel, if you see what I mean. Yes, I know I was being honest. But fuck that. It makes me feel like an idiot.

I arrived at Valence, left the station and then followed signs to the tourist office – but when I got there it seemed totally commercialised. I want to go to a tourist to find stuff out, not to be sold a load of shit. So I just went to the nearby park to hang out. The air temperature was fairly cool, but the Sun felt hot when it shone. Valence was a nice town, and the park was nice too but I really needed a piss – but the toilets were out of order! Typical. I ate some dried apricots and some brownies whilst I held in my piss and listened to the audiobook version of Starship Troopers. I texted Mum.

Valence Park

Park in Valence

Park in Valence

Park in Valence

Park in Valence

A lizard!

I eventually found some toilets in the park and I relieved myself – much to my relief. Afterwards I found a different part of the park and went and laid down on the grass. There were some guys out cutting the grass, but I chose a patch which was uncut so that I could make a daisy chain. Which I did.

Daisy chain

I had looked up timetables earlier, and knew that there was a train from Valence Ville to Marseille at 12h30. That wouldn’t have given me very long at all in Valence, so I had decided to wait until the train at about 2h30. It turns out: that was a bad idea. Well, it was a good idea, but a decision that unfortunately led to a lot of stress, and through no fault of my own.

I got to the station with plenty of time to spare for the half past two train. Except it didn’t show up… but instead there was a different (unscheduled) train which the boards said was going to Mirimas only, will a little extra bit of information saying something like “correspondance Marseille en car”. That was confusing. It now know that is means “connection to Marseille by coach”, but why would I want to go to Marseille by bus? I have a train ticket, which I spent a lot of money on, and I’ve already validated it for today so I’m going to use it, but hook or by crook.

Why was the regularly scheduled train nowhere to be seen, and why instead was there a train only going to Mirimas which would require a bus to get to Marseille? I went to the information booth at the station and he told me that if I wanted to go to Marseille today, I needed to get to the TGV station. The TGVs use different lines from the slower, normal trains. He said there weren’t any trains to Marseille. That’s not what the timetable said, but okay. Maybe something had changed. I didn’t get round to asking him what the “correspondance Marseille en car” meant, as he didn’t speak English and by this point my French was really being stretched thin. Next I went to the booking office, and asked to reserve a seat on a TGV from Valence TGV to Marseille. Nope! They’re all full! Okay then, fine. Which regional (slower, non-TGV trains, “TER“) could I get? There was one getting in at 7 and one at 11! Much later than I had hoped to arrive at Marseille, but that’ll have to do. I received a printout of these times, and walked back to the park. I bought some postcards on the way and wrote them when I was sitting in the park – one to Grandma, and one to Mike – and then I posted them.

Soon it was time for the first scheduled TER, and a storm was rolling in as I headed for the station. Real big clouds.

Storm clouds growing

The rain held until I reached the station. But the train wasn’t going to Marseille. By this point I wasn’t going to be surprised by anything, but I’d still get annoyed – and worried, because I had nowhere to stay in Valence. I needed to get to Marseille by the end of the day. Instead, the train was only going as far as Avignon! I went to the booking office again, and asked a man why the train scheduled to go to Marseille was terminating at Avignon. He had no idea and was really confused, but eventually found me some connections from Avignon to Marseille. (I also tried to reserve my Bordeaux – La Rochelle leg for later in the month, but it turns out that it wasn’t possible – reservations are not necessary on that route).

At that very point, the lights inside the station went off for a second – the storm had arrived! Lightning! I went to the platform to wait for Avignon train (which the monitors now said was 15 minutes late). A bit later, after hearing the rain pounding the roof and watching the flashes of lightning, there was an announcement on the public address system. I knew it was about Marseille, but what with the business of the station and the raging storm, I didn’t catch most of the message. No one could help me – and train announcements are hard enough to hear, even in English and on a clear day!

Photo of Valence Ville station by Eric lecaroubier:

Gare SNCF Valence Ville by Eric lecaroubier

I somehow found an official SNCF woman and she told me the news: we had to go to Valence TGV then get the TGV to Marseille. I asked if I needed a reservation – usually travelling on a TGV without a reservation gets you a penalty, and I had already found out that there was no reservations available. No, she said. Special circumstances. Screw the reservations (she didn’t say that). She pointed me across the platforms to the right train. I headed over and looked for another member of staff to tell me the deal before boarding the train – you can never be too skeptical, especially in a foreign country like France. You definitely don’t want to end up on the wrong train. That’s worse than not being on any train. I found a man and asked him what was going on. Same story – giving the reason that the Avignon train was too late to make its connection to Marseille.

I got on the train with maybe 30 seconds to spare, and saw 3 French guys who I’d seen earlier in the booking office. They asked what I’d managed to find out, and I told them that the booking office hadn’t been very helpful. We still didn’t know the root problem, but being French, I guess they had understood the announcement. It was fortunate that I made these friends, and that they spoke English, as several times over the next couple of hours I needed to ask for their help with language and knowing what to do.

The rain was ridiculous. At Valence TGV it was absolutely pouring down… and the station was really busy. The noticeboards said that the TGV to was 10 minutes late, but having waited this long already to get back to Marseille, I didn’t care. I like hanging around train station, anyway. As the arrival time drew nearer, we were permitted to walk down to the platforms. At Valence TGV, the station concourse is raised, and there are lifts and escalators down to the platforms below. Have a look at some of these photos that I found online: the whole station, a double train boarding, and again.

Photo of Valence TGV station by franxk:

Photo by franxk

Photo of train arriving at Valence TGV station by reallyboring:

Photo by reallyboring

In about 30 minutes of waiting on the platform, several TGVs passed through the station on the central lines at huge speeds. (When in the station, the passing trains are separated from the platform lines by a fence, probably to reduce noise and terror, so you can only ever see those them when they were just entering or leaving the station, not right up close). Honestly, if you’ve been scared or surprised by a fast train passing you by, close up, you’d be absolutely terrified in France. The trains are loud, and fucking fast. Maximum speeds are almost 200mph, compared to a very maximum of 125mph on normal British lines. And what’s even more impressive is that the trains had very short headways. After one train passed, another one might pass in the same direction in what seem likes barely a minute.

The French guys that I’d met starting smoking something which smelled like weed. It was unusual to me, as people aren’t allowed to smoke on British platforms any longer. Our train arrived as predicted (wow), and it was comprised of two TGV Sud-Est trains. That meant that there were 16 (=2*8) coachess. The French sure like their train travel. And yet… the train was packed to fuck! There were loads of SNCF staff onboard, but thankfully they seemed to know the situation with all of us non-reserved people heading to Marseille. I didn’t have any hassle from them, at least, and so I went a whole day without showing my ticket. What a waste.

A town from the TGV line

A river bed

Avignon TGV Station

I had to stand with my bags until Avignon, at which point we had escaped the storm and it was sunny. There were beautiful views, with the railway line taking on impressively steep gradients, and the sky was filled huge clouds. Unfortunately, with the stress of everything, I didn’t take any photos. I briefly got a seat at Avignon when someone left the train, but I was quickly turfed out as someone go on to claim their reserved seat. Never mind. I feel sorry for all of the long-booked passengers who had their journey spoiled by a flood of scumbags joining the train without a reservation, cramping the whole train and taking your seat. It’s happened to me before. Thankfully, I didn’t have to stand for long. Marseille was a surprisingly short trip away from Avignon, and after going through lots of tunnels, I was delighted to arrive in Marseille.

My TGVs at Marseille

Marseille Saint-Charles Station

Marseille is weird. That’s how I feel about it at the moment.

Vertigo Centre (which is the hostel I’m staying at whilst I’m in Marseille) was very close to the station – handy – and I found it easily. It’s a nice place, but I can’t be bothered writing much about it. It’s quaint – obviously adapted from several old houses to become this hostel. My bedroom is in a sort of outhouse, which sleeps 6 or 8 and has its own bathroom. Whilst sorting through my stuff in my room, I met an Aussie called Jimmy. We chatted for a bit and he gave me a book that he’s finished with, called This Bleeding City by Alex Preston. I only just now realise that maybe he was expecting me to give him one of my finished books in return. Well, I didn’t. I had a shower (not bad) and went to checked out the hostel and use the Wi-Fi – which didn’t work.

Hostel bunk beds

Once I was satisfied with the place, I just my stuff on my bed (I had to be trusting, there was no place else for it) and I went for a little walk around Marseille. I am sick and tired of beggers. Fuck. Off. Most of the people around the hostel were not white French, instead there were a lot of people dressed in Muslim garb and a lot of African-looking people. I bought a 6-pack of Kronenbourgh 1664 and some water from a local shop.

Marseille is a total melting-pot of cultures, but I was disappointed by what was available locally – I couldn’t find authentic food, no food stalls, no quaint or cool restaurants serving local food. Instead it was all just the typical greasy spoon type place, serving kebabs and burgers. There were also about a million “Internet + Taxiphone” shops. The French sure must like surfing the web and riding in taxis.

Marseille Saint-Charles Station

Sunset sky

Notre-Dame de la Coeur

Twilight sky

I headed back to the hostel for the night, where I used the internet, drank some beer whilst reading some articles in Instapaper, and then I went to bed.

Hostel beds

Today, which is Thursday, I woke up at 7:30am. From some reason I’d been dreaming of a girl I used to know at primary school. Why? Weird. At one point I had dreamt that I was going to going to be going to Inverness Uni (really) to study biology. Laughable. I also dreamt that my St Andrews accommodation application (for standard self-catered housing) was granted. LOL.

Did I note that there were loads of beautiful girls on the TGV yesterday? Well, there were a lot.

I spent quite a while playing with my iPod in bed – the internet is now working on it.

Notre-Dame de la Coeur

I got up, checked how much tickets to Nîmes would cost (€19, about what I was expecting) and then I headed to Notre-Dame de la Garde, via Vieux Port (the old port). Finally it was really sunny, but the air was still cold – maybe 16ºC. After listening to an episode of PadPundit with Scott Bourne, I carried on listening to Starship Troopers.

I was amazed by fish market at the old port – there were so many types: big and small, red, pink and white, lobsters and even octopus.

Lobster and fish

The old port


I passed a Lidl store but it wasn’t open – I’m not sure why not, there’s probably some sort of public holiday going on. Instead I went to a different place and stocked up on groceries. I bought some Babybell, plums, chorizo, orange juice, mackerel fillets, yoghurts, and possibly something else. It came to under €10.

I ate some of it in a park where I texted Mum (I texted Dad when I was on the TGV yesterday, moaning of my troubles) and then I carried on to Notre-Dame de la Garde, which has amazing views over the whole city and the sea.

Big cruise ship

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur


I bought and wrote some postcards (to Poppy, Dad, and Mum), then I got to work writing this entry which has taken a while. I’m slightly worried that my arms have become quite sunburnt, despite the copious amounts of sum cream that I’m wearing.

I’m going to continue walking around the city now, I’ll maybe head to the coast before walking back to the hostel in evening. Maybe I’ll eat out tonight – I really want to try authentic local bouillabaisse. And I need to send these postcards, too. I’m hungry.

Bye for now.

View of Marseille from Notre-Dame de la Coeur

Asides, Blogging, Me & My Life

My Writing Place

All warm, in bed:

Me & My Life, Personal, Photography

The Last Week of May

On 25th May last year, I woke, ate, dressed, and walked to West Sands to watch the sunrise. At 3:30am. It was during one of the strangest weeks I’ve ever had.

My final exam of first year (Great Ideas 2) was on Monday, the 23rd. It didn’t go very well, but I was so relieved to be finished. That was in the afternoon, and I spent the evening in the common room with Mike, watching films and drinking gin and tonic. I got drunk.

I don’t remember what I did on Tuesday, but by the evening I realised that I wasn’t interested in whatever events were on that night. I got the seed of an idea for an early Wednesday start, and fell asleep at around 10 with my alarm set for 3:30am. I’ve never set my alarm that early before, and I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.

The view as I left my house in Albany Park at 3:50am:

Sunrise for Wednesday was at 4:40am. By waking up so early, I gave myself plenty of time to walk and see the best of the sunrise. Some of the most vivid colours and lights in a sunrise occur a while before the Sun actually breaks the horizon, which is roughly the quoted sunrise time1. By midsummer, the sun was rising as early as 04:21am.

It’s really weird walking around that early – before 4am – and being able to see properly, in full colour. I often get to walk around a deserted place at night when it’s dark, but when it’s light – even just twilight – the quietness feels different. Really serene. I love feeling serene.

Why did I want to go to West Sands to watch the sunrise? Because it is one of my favourite places during the world – especially at low tide. And the tide was low. Then, it’s an amazing expanse of almost-level sand by the (usually) gentle sea. Perfect to compliment and reflect the colours of the rising Sun.

And, it’s quiet out there. I get a wonderful feeling of isolation, but not the kind of isolation that makes you feel lonely. It’s the kind of isolation which makes you ultra-thoughtful, and which connects you to the vastness of nature and the Cosmos. Yeah I just said that. I like that feeling too.

I want to talk a little bit about the music I was listening to that morning. Yes, I was listening to ambient. Yes, it was Brian Eno. Yes, it was on repeat. I know, but I love it: and it was this week which cast that love in stone.

Are you familiar with Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks album? I am. Throughout the morning I was listening to it, and it was the perfect accompaniment. 3 of my favourite tracks from it are An Ending (Ascent), Drift and Weightless.

Here are YouTube links to the tracks: An Ending, Drift, Weightless. Play one (or all) of them whilst you read the rest of this post, if you want; you’ll probably recognise them from films or TV, as they have been reused extensively.

With my headphones on, music playing, I stood part-way down West Sands for half and hour, relaxed, and enjoyed the show (don’t worry there’s more story after the photos):

Once I’d had enough and got too cold standing around, I headed back to East Sands where I put the rest of my crazy plan into action. In my bag I had packed a towel, and underneath my clothes I was wearing swimshorts. I got in position, and looked around to see if I was alone. It was 5am, but surprisingly there were other people up and about. On the bench by the coastguard station 3 people were sitting, looking out to sea. Being sober and self conscious, I decided that I would not skinny dip. I stripped down to my shorts, flopped into the water, and swam for about 20 seconds until all feeling had left my extremities. It was the coldest thing I have ever done, and as quickly as I could I threw a towel round me and headed the 2 minute walk back to my house.

On my way back to warmth and safety, I bumped into the people who had been on the bench: they were my friends Nigel, Bella, and a mystery guy who seemed very much into Bella. Bastards, ruining my chance at a skinny dip! I’ll try again sometime, probably with alcohol for courage.

I showered to get rid of the salt and sand and to warm me up, and knowing me I probably ate again. But despite my best efforts, and even though it was still very early in the morning and I was tired, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. This fucked me up badly for the rest of the week.

I can’t remember how I spent the rest of Wednesday. Despite there being a beautiful sunrise, the Sun quickly headed into cloud where it remained all day. I probably spent it in my room, reading and packing up my belongings for the summer.

On Thursday, after lunch, I remembered that the BBC would be in St Andrews filming an episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. Contrary to the belief of many, it’s not always an awful programme. With the vague hope of seeing something interesting, and the more realistic hope of appearing on television, my future housemate (Adam) and I set off to the main University quad, where the show was being filmed.

We arrived at about 4:30pm, and Fiona Bruce was just leaving. She had filmed all of her spots, and most of the visitors had already had their artifacts valued. But the day wasn’t over: after looking at everything, the experts then decide which pieces to film properly, to make it into the final show.

Adam and I stuck around for the filming of the first few of these, hoping to see something interesting and to appear on TV. But as the evening progressed and the weather became duller and colder, most of the visitors left, leaving a very small audience to provide a convincing background. And so, we were roped by the producers into staying until the very end, watching about 8 pieces being filmed until 6 or 7pm.

Let me just say that basically everything you see on Antiques Roadshow is staged – the original valuations most likely weren’t filmed, and even if they were, they are run through several times more before a good enough take has been recorded. TELEVISION IS LIES. Remember that.

The episode at St Andrews finally aired at the end of February, 9 months later. There is another part to it (which will most likely feature me, too) and it will air during the next series. That’ll probably be next year. Here of some of the screenshots.

In this one you can see me at the back, grinning:

A little smirk on my face this time:

And again, a smile:

Afterwards, we headed straight back to Albany Park. The Albany end of year party was being held that evening in the Vic. The theme was the 80s. Lacking sleep and having just spent ages standing in the cold for television, I was not up for it. At all. However, I visited the common room where the Warden and her assistants had put on a ‘drinks and nibbles’ event, and after 30 minutes of wine, chatting with Martyna, I left with the rest of the wine bottle I’d been drinking (and which I promptly finished) and I was definitely in a partying mood.

In my stupidest mistake ever, I decided that there was no time for food. To this day, that was the only occasion on which lunch was ever my final food of the day. Yet even forgoing food, I still managed to arrive at the party late, missing much of the fun. But at least I was drunk, and ready to party.

And it was a really fun party… until about 10pm. Now, looking back, I think about all the ways that could have happened differently, all of the choices that I might have made differently, to stop me from going to that party. But I went, and I met – for the first proper time, at least – a girl called Emily.

We started talking, and from then on neither of us cared about the party. We spent the next couple of hours chatting, drunkenly getting to know each other right there in the middle of the party.

Now she’s my girlfriend, and we’ve been together for nearly 9 months. Once again, I’ve had a year which was completely unlike any of my previous years. I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

May has long been my favourite month. I think it’s going to stay that way.

UPDATE: After 2 years together, Emily and I split up towards the end of 2013. We had a great time together.

  1. Precisely, sunrise is given as the time when the centre of the Sun moves above the horizon. The fact that the Sun is not a point source of light causes many odd phenomena in our daily lives. 

Books, Me & My Life, Tech


NOTE: This post is available here as a MOBI file for reading on a Kindle.

Hey, did I mention I bought a Kindle? This is it:

Kindle in left hand

It’s a Wi-Fi Kindle 3, the type released back in the summer of 2010 (it’s now known as the Kindle Keyboard, but I think that’s a clumsy name which I prefer not to use). This is the one I got. I forwent the 3G because I can live without it and would rather spend the ~£70 premium on something more fun instead.

But hang on a second Wilf, you say. If you’ve just bought a Kindle, why didn’t you get the current version? Indeed, Marco recommends the Kindle 4 as the best e-reader to buy, and he’s a pretty clued-up guy. Why not go for that?

Choosing my Kindle

Alright, let me get something straight before I continue. I didn’t just buy it, gosh. I bought it almost 2 months ago, at the end of November.

But no, it’s a good question and one that I pondered myself for a considerable time before purchasing my Kindle 3. Amazon’s Kindles first came onto my radar through listening to This Week in Tech podcasts back in 2009 and 2010. Steve Gibson, the host of Security Now!, has always been keen on Kindles, especially the Kindle DX. I vividly remember one moment of my month-long French holiday, walking up the hill to my hostel in Nice for the first time, listening as Steve excitedly described the potential of the large-screened DX to be a native PDF viewer. Thrilling stuff.

As it happens, I saw my first ever Kindle in the wild at the end of that French holiday in 2010. It was a white Kindle 2 at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle railway station whilst I was waiting for my Eurostar back to London. A man sitting opposite me in the waiting room pulled what I thought was an e-reader out of his bag, clad in a leather case, and started reading. I thought it was a Kindle and was interested to see one, so I went over to ask him about it. He confirmed my hunch and gave me a little demonstration as to how it worked. I was impressed, and knew that one day I would own one.

I was also put onto the Kindle by Murray, a loyal devotee to the written word, by Marco Arment (the host of the podcast Build and Analyze, and the guy behind Instapaper – more on that later) and more recently by my girlfriend, who purchased a Wi-Fi Kindle 3 during the summer and whose testimony and encouragement finally pushed me over the edge of my Kindle indecisiveness. If she loves her Kindle, heck, there’s gotta be something good behind this funny contraption.

When the Kindle 3 was released, I felt that whilst it was a good device, I wasn’t ready for it yet. I’d wait for the next version. In particular, I wanted a Kindle with a touchscreen. The keyboard on the Kindle 3 takes up space unnecessarily, and anyway, after having my life changed by my iPod touch and iOS 3 years previously, I wasn’t about to start buying new gadgets that relied on a keyboard and D-pad for navigation. No, this was 2010. This was the future.

Then, a few months ago, Amazon introduced the Kindle 4, Kindle Fire, and Kindle Touch. The Fire is a tablet computer with an LCD screen – not an e-reader – and I’m sure you know what the Kindle 4 is. It’s the newer version of the Kindle 3, most notably lacking a keyboard. The Touch is the one I had been eagerly anticipating, but I was disappointed. For a higher price, the Touch is sluggish (although the responsiveness has since been improved in a software update this week), and in some ways a touch screen may be worse for an e-reader than dedicated buttons (you can’t rest your fingers on the screen whilst reading in the same way you can on hardware buttons, meaning you have to move your fingers a considerable distance every page turn). And worse: the Kindle Touch is not even available outside of the US.

Fuck that.

Let me tell you how I chose my Kindle over the Kindle 4. For starters, it’s refurbished and hence was the cheapest option available (refurbished Kindle 4s are not available). And for £10 less than the Kindle 4, you get a whole lot more: double the battery life (2 months vs. 1 month), double the storage (4GB vs. 2 GB), built-in text-to-speech and speakers, and a screen which isn’t as ghosty. (The Kindle 4 only does a full ‘blink’ every 6 page turns, so by the 5th turn a non-negligible amount of residue remains from the previous pages. You know what I mean). Those advantages aside, the Kindle 3 sports the same software and same quality screen, and having been around for much longer, the availability, selection and price of covers and cases is much better.

My Kindle also sports a keyboard, which the Kindle 4s do not. Initially I thought that a keyboard might piss me off, being all flimsy and adding a lot of size to the device. Whilst I rarely use the keyboard for anything lengthier than entering my password, I find it doesn’t bother me. I ignore it most of the time, and I even think that a Kindle without the extra height might feel too small in my hand. I prefer the look of the Kindle 3 as well: the 4s look to be of a lower build quality and worse colour. I like mine best.

What Do I Think Of It?


The refurbishment left my Kindle looking and feeling as good as new. There is no deficiency or defect that I can identify, and I would buy a refurbished product from Amazon again in a heartbeat. When I removed it from its charming frustration-free packaging, it felt like new. You can still buy a refurbished Kindle from Amazon at this link. One thing of note: you don’t have any choice in colour – whilst in America there was a white version of the 3G Kindle 3 (the previous Kindles were all white, I think), this was never sold elsewhere. I’d have gone for the graphite version, anyway.

I’m sure everyone reading this knows all about Kindles so I’m not going to cover everything, but heck, why should I limit myself? Out of respect for your time? Nah.

When I un-boxed my Kindle, my housemate Adam was sitting next to me at the kitchen table and was as impressed as I was by the e-ink, and it took quite a few moments for him to be convinced that the image on the screen was not an overlay but was, in fact, being displayed by the Kindle itself. I like to describe e-ink to people by saying that it’s like an Etch A Sketch. The Kindle does work (and hence requires energy) when it comes to changing the screen’s imagine, but once it’s done: it’s here to stay. The shaking to clear bit doesn’t factor into my simile.

I think it’s awesome. Sure, the Kindle’s screen does not have a very high resolution (though perhaps it will in the future), and you can make out ‘pixels’ if you look closely enough. But I commend the person or company who persisted with the development of e-ink despite the predominance of LCD screens in computing. I’ve never had a problem with headaches for reading on my iPod’s screen for hours (and hours and hours), but once you go e-ink, you don’t go back. The lack of colour in  the screen is not a problem either, at least for the books that I read, which mostly lack any illustrations let alone colourful ones. Maybe one day there will be colour e-ink Kindles, too. But for me the biggest benefit is the ability to read outside in daylight without being overrun by glare. It’s great for reading outside, which is something I’ll be doing more and more of as the days get warmer. Here’s my view from where I was reading on a bench in St Andrews last week:


It’s a nice way to read.

One bad habit which I have noticed about my Kindle is that the screen is very slow to refresh and update when it’s cold. On Saturday I was sitting at Dundee station for almost an hour, waiting for my train to Perth. It was a cold day, and furthermore my Kindle had spent the night in my bag in a cold room. The result was that a page turn took somewhere around about 2 seconds, rather than the usual fraction of a second. I meant that rather than being a fluid motion as it usually is, I was unable to keep the flow of reading going during a page turn. Those 2 seconds were everything. For a while I thought my Kindle was dying, but after poking around in some search results revealed that this is just the nature of e-ink. After being at home for a while, my Kindle had a chance to warm up and it returned to its usual chirpy self. Oh well, I can live with that.

The battery life isn’t as great as I had expected, either. Over the Christmas holiday I was away, so for about 6 days I had no way of charging my Kindle. I thought I would be fine, but by the end of the trip my battery level was down to perhaps 15% or so. Yes, I’d been using it to read a lot of books and articles, but my Wi-Fi was off the whole time and I was getting anxious that it would indeed run out. By the way, the refurbished Kindle 3 (and indeed all new Kindle 4s) is sold without a wall charger. But I am happy to charge via my computer, and I suspect that I would be able to plug the Kindle’s USB cable into my iPod’s wall charger and use that instead.

Kindle Icon

Another problem is that the Kindle does not support the 802.1X authentication standard that my university uses to secure its Wi-Fi networks, so I have no way to connect to the internet with my Kindle at my halls of residence. It’s an annoyance for sure, but not a deal breaker. As I only own and use one Kindle reading device, it’s not important for me to sync my reading progress with Amazon’s servers very often so that’s not too bad. I would mostly be using Wi-Fi to download new Instapaper bundles (to be described later) or to archive articles, which I can work around. What I have to do then is to connect my Kindle to my computer via its supplied USB cable (amply long – I was impressed) and unlock it. I found a really cool icon somewhere online which I use to represent my Kindle’s storage drive on my desktop which you can see to the left.

Isn’t that cool? When the kindle is connected you can copy over any unprotected MOBI files or other documents that the Kindle can handle.

Apart from those few described problems: I think it’s great. I use my Kindle all the time now, far more than I expected that I would, so much so that I told my Mum that yes, in fact I wouldn’t mind receiving a case as a Christmas present. My girlfriend uses a silicone case for her Kindle, something a bit like this, on sale at Amazon, except in a nice yellow colour. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I would find the lack of rigidity in the cover distracting – it’s just a preference. It’s bad feng shui.

I took to Amazon and purchased a black leather case instead. This is it:

Kindle in Case, Cover Shut

(And this is what it is possibly copying.)

It’s cheap and it works. It cost £4.99 plus £3.29 for shipping. I had been happy using my Kindle without a case, but it started squeaking when I held and squeezed it in a particular way, and the screen got a bit scratched in my bag one time, so I took the plunge. I’m glad I did, I like the extra weight and thickness of the case, and the feel of the leather in my hand. I looks classier than a bare Kindle, too, and it identifies it as mine. Initially I found it weird that the magnetic latch closes on the rear of the case, but that makes sense. If it was located on the front as you might naturally expect, that would mean that it was stitched onto the back, and when opened, the magnetic flappy bit would obscure the Kindle’s screen. It could only be that way.

By the way, Amazon has a good reputation for customer service (as all successful companies seem to have). Check out Murray’s customer service success story:

Amazon support are awesome. Even though accidental damage is not covered under the one year warranty, I’m getting a new Kindle in the post for only £47, roughly a third of the cost of buying a brand new one. It was a case of literally typing my mobile number into and five minutes later a cool French dude had agreed to send me a new Kindle.

That’s excellent. I use my Kindle safe in the knowledge that even if my case does fail me and permit damage, Amazon will be on my side.

Kindle in Case, Cover Away

What Do I Read On My Kindle?

All sorts.

The first big thing I read was part project, part enjoyment. I read Murray’s blog, and in one post he recommended a trip report on the FlyerTalk Forums by a member called “Seat 2A“. The report was entitled “6 Trains on 6 Continents ~ Connected by 44 Flights on 14 Airlines“. (Part 2). If you hadn’t guessed it already, it’s a first-person account of a man flying around the world (in style, I might add) in order to travel on 6 world-famous railways, each on a different continent. The report had been sitting in my Instapaper unread queue for a long, long time, for it was too lengthy and hence daunting to ever consider tackling. However, I had read enough one day to know that I did want to finish it eventually. With a Kindle, I had my chance.

I would turn it into an e-book.

It was easier than I’d expected, but it took a lot longer. Perhaps I will detail the process in a separate post one day, but today I’ll just cover it briefly. I copied the source HTML of each part of the report, got rid of all the unnecessary junk, added the necessary markup for an e-book reader to interpret page breaks and chapters, and used Calibre to convert the resultant HTML document into a MOBI file. Kindles like MOBI files. The final result was about 15MB, filled with images and a chapter for every new post that Seat 2A had made in the thread for his report.

I devoured that trip report like nobody’s business, and earned the satisfaction of knowing that I can now make e-books. It was fantastic. If you have even a passing interest in travelling, I suggest you read the trip report too.

I could have saved myself a whole lot of time and used Instapaper’s Kindle support to read the report instead – that is, if the pictures weren’t such an integral part of the report. Instapaper is a free reading service developed by (the previously mentioned) Marco Arment, who is the host of the programming podcast “Build and Analyze” from 5by5 studios. I follow his writings and podcast and I have a lot of respect for the guy. I’ve used Instapaper for years, the free app since 2009 and I bought the paid version in 2010 soon after the price dropped to $5 in the App Store (permanently, down from $10).

How does it work? Basically, if you’re reading an article on the web, and you decide you don’t have time or don’t want to read it at the moment, you can click a button in your browser which will save the article into your Instapaper account. You can then read the article later at your leisure through Instapaper, either online, through the iOS app on your iPhone/iPad/iPod touch, or… on your Kindle! (Although images doesn’t usually survive the Kindle conversion). I add roughly 5-10 articles to my Instapaper queue every daily, mostly found by going through my subscribed RSS feeds or Twitter, and if I wanted I could have them automatically sent to my Kindle every day.

David Smith recently wrote the post that I had long intended this post to be, about how to easily read your articles on your Kindle. So instead of writing the same thing, I here refer you to his article, “Instapaper on the Kindle“, to learn all about it:

Getting an $80 Kindle 4 and pairing it with [Instapaper] will revolutionize your reading of web content. There is nothing more peaceful, when looking at a backlit LCD panel all day, than heading home and picking up an e-ink display to read all your favorite authors.

Read the whole thing if you can, honestly. It’s worth it. Back in December (before that article was written), not long after I first started using Instapaper on my Kindle, Marco greatly improved the service, and those improvements are reflected in David’s post. I sent Marco a brief note thanking him for the recent changes, and he was nice enough to reply.

Instapaper is my favourite iOS app and I have used the service daily for years.

I spend perhaps a third to a half of my Kindle time reading articles via Instapaper. For the first month or so that I had my Kindle it was more – I stormed through a backlog of hundreds of unread articles in my Instapaper queue, some of which had been sitting unread since 2010. My unread queue now stands empty most days, although in separate other folders I do have perhaps a hundred or so other articles to get through eventually (generally longer-form pieces such as New Yorker profiles and the like). It was such a relief to finally get through my queue, which is what I spent a lot of time doing over the festive period.

Thumb on page-turn button

The rest of the time I read… books. Of course I do. Here at the books that I have bought from Amazon’s Kindle Store:

Amazon’s not bad, you know. Each one of these books cost me around about 99 pence: either from the Kindle Daily Deal or Amazon’s 12 Days of Christmas sale. That’s a bargain. Usually books are more expensive though, similarly priced to the paperback version. Another thing that I like is that you can read a free sample of any book from the Kindle Store before you decide to buy it. It’s a better way of trying out a book than reading a blurb, that’s for sure.

How’s the reading experience? Yeah, it’s pretty good. There’s decent control over margin size, typeface style (serif, sans serif, condensed), font size, screen orientation, that kind of thing. I really enjoy reading on my Kindle, and as a result I find myself reading a lot more. It’s easy on the eyes, with nicely proportioned text, a good sized device, and whilst the software is nothing special, it performs its duty well. I really like knowing how far through a book I am, percentage wise, and how close I am to the next chapter (thanks to the progress bar at the bottom). It turns reading into a meta-game, trying to crank up the numbers and reach the next chapter.

Another benefit of the Kindle and something that makes me read more: it’s cool to read on it. It feels like more of an adventure than reading a paper book, at least in my experience.

Kindle in Case, Cover Away

By the way: in the column to the right-hand side of my blog is a list of those books which I am currently reading, which is linked to my Goodreads profile. I use Goodreads to keep track of progress with currently reading books, to record when I’ve read books, and to read every book I complete. I like the social aspect of it too. I recommend it. I also have a page on my website which lists all the books which I have read recently.

I love my Kindle.