My second trip to Albania, and OSCAL

I took a liking to Albania on my first visit, and met up with the local hackerspace, Open Labs, who invited me to come to their annual conference, OSCAL (Open Source Conference Albania). I happily booked transport and hotel for this, including a few days either side of the conference for general holiday and OpenStreetMap mapping.

One of the newer parts of Bari

One of the newer parts of Bari

This time, I decided to take the “scenic route”, and rather than flying directly to Tirana, I booked a flight to Bari (in south-east Italy) and a ferry from Bari to Durrës (the port for Tirana). This turned out not to be a good idea, as there wasn’t enough time for the connection from the flight to the ferry, and I had to find a hotel for the night in Bari and get the next ferry, 24 hours after the one I had planned to get. I posted my progress on Facebook, and it turned out a friend of mine is from Bari, and had local contacts, so he put me in touch with another Emacs user at the Polytechnic, who gave me access to a room with wifi, which was convenient for writing my presentation for the conference.

In the old part of Bari

In the old part of Bari

Having finished that, I walked to the old area of Bari, near the old harbour, and wandered around looking at the buildings and walls, and generally taking my leisure, before walking on to find the ferry terminal. Having got there with about the right amount of time left, I found that it wasn’t where I should be; I had to go somewhere else first, to check in, then come back. Fortunately, there was some informal transport around (an Albanian furgon) and I made it in time. The ship then spent a couple more hours in port for the lorries to finish embarking, which made the previous evening even more annoying retrospectively: in the real physical world, outside the world of bureaucratic ferry officials, there would have been plenty of time to get there from the airport.


Arrival in Albania

Arrival at Durrës

Arrival at Durrës

I had let my Albanian friends know about the situation, and when the ferry docked, there was a taxi waiting for me to take me straight to the conference, which made somewhat alarming progress, and I got there in time for the start of it after all.

The conference

OSCAL group photo in progress

OSCAL group photo in progress

Compared with FOSDEM, OSCAL is tiny, but it’s making a good start, and had an interesting line-up of talks and seminars. It’s not as heavily technical as FOSDEM, with more focus on the user side of software, and on Open Data. I met some interesting people there, and was introduced to some of the local Smart City people, who admitted there was a lot of groundwork to be done in terms of the more basic city facilities.

An open manhole, rendered safe

An open manhole, rendered safe

(Actually, Tirana seems to work pretty well, but it’s not as fussy as some places about things like coning off open manhole covers, so you have to take a little more responsibility for yourself than in England, for example. I don’t have a problem with that myself.) I gave a workshop on editing OpenStreetMap.


The afterparty

The afterparty

After the conference itself, there was of course a dinner and then an afterparty, held in an underground brewpub in Blokku.

Exploring and mapping

Buildings near the conference

Buildings near the conference

After the conference itself, I helped people at OpenLabs learn some more about mapping tools, and we mapped some more of the local area. As well as the main streets, Tirana has a warren of tiny back ways, and an eclectic mixture of modern and traditional buildings.


Akullore

Akullore

The Alma snack bar

The Alma snack bar

I had a few days in Tirana after the conference, and explored it some more, and did some more mapping, and ate more ice cream (“akullore” is the first Albanian word that really stuck in my memory). The “brown” flavours (chocolate, caramel, etc) taste good; the fruity-coloured ones taste rather artificial. The Alma was my favourite snack shop, with a range of foods that I wasn’t familiar with but was happy to try.


Bunkart

The approach to Bunkart

The approach to Bunkart


In an office in Bunkart

In an office in Bunkart

One day I went to see Bunkart (an Cold War government bunker converted into a museum and an art exhibition). That was quite hard to find, as the entrance has moved but I don’t think all the signs have. I asked a couple of passing locals, who helped me find it in what seems to be a common Albanian way: they walked there with me.


Dajti Expres

The Dajti Expres teleferik

The Dajti Expres teleferik

As on my previous visit, I went for a ride on the Teleferik again.

The rotating restaurant at the top of the hotel tower

The rotating restaurant at the top of the hotel tower

This time, I also went to the rotating restaurant at the top.

About to descend

About to descend

More exploration

Akullore Martini

Akullore Martini

Cakes at Akullore Martini

Cakes at Akullore Martini

I also went back to my favourite pasticeri, “Akullore Martini”, and ate amazingly sticky cakes in the rain by the river Lanë.


The House of Leaves

The House of Leaves

There are plans to open `Shtëpia e Gjetheve’ (`House of Leaves’), the old surveillance and interrogation centre) as a museum, but progress seems to be slow.

Inside a large Mulliri Vjeter

Inside a large Mulliri Vjeter

And, of course, I went a few times to the big Mulliri Vjeter café near the hotel. I’m pleased to say that Albania’s own coffee house chains seem to be holding off the big internationals; and deservedly so: they are excellent, with much more character (and better coffee and food).


Tirana skyline with mountains

Tirana skyline with mountains

Like any big city, Tirana has a wide variety of scenes; on my first trip, I was entirely in the centre (apart from a taxi trip out to the cable car) but this time I also went on buses and saw some more of the city.


A fountain catching the morning sun

A fountain catching the morning sun


Artwork and a tree

Artwork and a tree

The central area is grand, but not overawing.


Taivani Centre

Taivani Centre (just across the way from the former Communist party area)

Skanderbeg

Skanderbeg

The restaurant and entertainment complex `Taivani’ is said to be called that because of a fanciful resemblance, although I heard an alternative theory that it’s because it’s next door to the (former) communist party Block.

The national hero Skanderbeg dominates Skanderbeg Square. Some say he should be more than a national hero, but a pan-European one, for holding the Ottomans back for so long.


The ever unfinished `Green Tower'

The ever unfinished `Green Tower’

The uncompleted skyscraper known as the `Green Tower’ looked to be in just the same state as I saw it in last year; I heard the developer ran out of money. That’s not the first time that’s happened here.


The Grand Park

The running track in the Grand Park

The running track in the Grand Park


The lake by the park

The lake by the park

As before, I went for some runs in the Grand Park; this time, I could run much further than before (although I’m still doing a mixture of running and walking). If you start from the entrance, and take the right fork, and go all the way to the end and back, you’ll get about 5km in total. There’s no Parkrun here, but it would be an excellent place for one.


The church of St Procopius

The church of St Procopius


The gym in the park

The gym in the park

This time, I found there was a church in the park (dedicated to St Procopius). The park also has a free, public, outdoor gym, which is popular. So it’s getting on for catering for body, mind and spirit, all in one park.


More cafés

A terrace café near the park

A terrace café near the park

There are, of course, plenty of cafés near the park. (There are plenty of cafés throughout Tirana, as far as I can tell.)

Café Sophie

Café Sophie

Café Kristin

Café Kristin

These two cafés are opposite each other, quite near the park.


Smoothie menu

Smoothie menu

As well as the cafés, I found a smoothie bar on the way back from the park, with some distinctive flavours available.


The basement of the book café

The basement of the book café


Books in the café

Books in the café

I also found an excellent book café, Friends’ Book House, with a basement reading room that is popular for studying and writing.


The return journey

Go this way

Go this way (from the bus to Kashar)

My return journey had complications of its own. I decided that I’d try Albania’s railway system. The railway station in Tirana was demolished some years ago, with a view to building a replacement sometime; they still haven’t got round to that second stage. So I took a bus to the nearest railway station, at Kashar.

Many trains

Many trains


No, actually, there are only a few trains

No, actually, there are only a few trains

The official-looking sign was promising a train in less than an hour, but the piece of paper stuck to the window indicated that the only trains were very early in the morning. Eventually a passer-by explained that the big notice referred only to the high summer season, when many people would go to the beach.


Back to Durrës

Wonderful moist baklava

Wonderful moist baklava

So I walked back to the main road, and waved down a furgon and was soon in Durrës, where I had by far the best baklava I’ve ever had (it made the baklava we get in England look like digestive biscuits in comparison) and walked along part of the ancient Via Egnatia. I had to wait around quite a bit at the ferry terminal; I think it was worse than going by air, and the ship for this journey was grottier than the one for the outward journey. It was an overnight sailing, but I didn’t get much sleep.


Returning via Bari

Back to Bari

Back to Bari


Houses in Bari

Houses in Bari

I had a rainy day in Bari (but found some pleasant places for coffee and lunch), flew back to Stansted, got the last bus to the hotel (I was too late for the trains), and returned to Cambridge the following morning. A tiring trip, but an interesting one.

Co-ordinating and logging informal runs and rides

In my post about Little Stoke Parkrun, I suggested that a computerized system for co-ordinating and recording informal runs, so that people could do something like Parkrun, but without anyone being able to demand anything from them on the excuse of them being an “organization”, would be useful.

I’m a programmer, and have some ideas on what such a system would be like, but I don’t work on web or mobile systems, so I’m not well-placed to implement it myself. The nearest existing idea that I can find is 5K Flash Mob in the USA; but that’s a group, not a system.

There would be two parts to the system, one of them running on a web server, to co-ordinate and announce events, and to record performance centrally (for those who wish to have such a record), and the other a mobile app, using the device’s GPS to track the route and measure speed, distance and time (and also, perhaps, to give directions, downloaded from the web server).

Both parts of the software would be published as open source, so you could download and customize a copy to run on your own server, rather than having one big central server for all groups to use. Thus, it would be a strongly decentralized system, and each server would need little enough resources that an individual with moderate money to spend on sharing their hobby could rent a virtual server for it from a cloud provider. However, as some people would have accounts on several such servers, there should be a way to cross-link accounts between servers.

So, what would it look like in practice, described in less-technical terms?

To start with, someone wanting to arrange an event would need an account on a server. If no server covered the type of event they wanted to arrange, they could set one up; there would be instructions on how to do this, on the site holding the program code. (I’m using the term “arrange”, rather than “organize”, because I want it to be clear that this is for making arrangements to run (etc) at particular times and places; using it as part of an organization would be a matter for the organization, not for the software.)

Using their personal home page on the server, they would create a page for the event, and the server would automatically announce it to anyone who had subscribed to events that match the description given. The event page will have a normal URL, which can also be emailed, texted, posted on social media, etc; and it could also optionally be put on a page listing events hosted on that server. It’s important that publicity like this is optional, because people may want to arrange private events, or may be arranging events that their government wouldn’t approve of; for example, in China, where protests are clamped down on, people go for a “group stroll” instead. There would be an option for the event to be a regular repeating one; and also a surprise option, by which the exact start location is only revealed near the time. Also, it would be possible to have more than one start location and more than one route, for synchronized events in several places; and also specifying a location and route at all would be optional; the event could simply be “run 5k wherever you are, on a particular day”, for example.

Users getting the URL could register on the page that they will take part (or can download the details without registering, if that server installation has strong privacy enabled), and then turn up at the time and place appointed, possibly getting the last stage of the details as they approach, if it is a surprise event.

Then they run, cycle, walk, swim, or do whatever other form of activity the event specifies. The phone app records their performance (and checks that they do follow the appointed route and don’t cheat by taking short-cuts).

With some more sophisticated programming, there could be a “maximum surprise” option, for only the arranger knowing the route in advance, and participants being shown the route on their phones as they go along.

As each participant finishes, which will usually be by arriving at a finish line, but could be by keeping going for a specified time (such as for some cycling time trials, where you aim for the maximum distance in a set time) or some other finish criteria, their phone would send their performance details to the server, which would have similar display functionality to the Parkrun server or any of the various commercial sports training apps. This would be optional; obviously, those going for a “group stroll” in China might prefer not to have their details logged (or at least, not any more than the cell network logs things already).

Possible extras include having a device (phone, tablet, etc) able to scan barcodes (or detect RFID chips, etc) at the finish line, so participants don’t have to bring GPS-capable smartphones; and having an option by which the event proposer (and perhaps the other participants) can see where all the participants are (or where their phones last reported them as being) to make sure no-one is left behind with a broken ankle on a foggy mountain trail. Perhaps an “emergency button” on the app, too, for that matter? And some extras for making it suitable for sponsored events, to calculate how much each participant has raised (and perhaps even to do arrange the fund transfers, with suitable permissions, or at least to send reminders to participants’ sponsors).

Anyway, that’s just an outline to get people thinking about it. If I were familiar with web and database stuff, and with phone programming, I’d be tempted to have a go myself, but I’ve already got a backlog of projects in areas I already understand, so I’m simply putting the idea out there for someone else to run with (sorry)!

Starting running, and supporting Little Stoke Parkrun

I’ve made some very tentative attempts at starting running in the past year or so, but when I saw the news about the local council trying either to extract money from Little Stoke Parkrun (a free event in a public park) or to close it down, I felt I should start running to support the Parkrun.

Chrissie Wellington has written an excellent article about the importance of Parkrun being free.

So, I started to try some longer runs than I’d done before (not full runs, but a mixture of walking and running), on a grassy byway in my home area, and found that the GPS sports app on my phone showed me that I was much closer to doing 5km than I had expected, so I soon pushed myself and did that much.

Then on the weekend that the last Parkrun had been due to happen in Little Stoke, I drove down to the Bristol area, spent the night in Bed and Breakfast, and went to Little Stoke Park for 9 a.m.. I had hoped that quite a few people would turn up to run at the usual time despite the official Parkrun being cancelled; I found just a few runners already running, and a couple turned up just before 9, and we agreed to start at the official starting point at 9. I was the slowest, as I expected (but only out of three, and not by as much as I expected): I finished in 36 minutes 42 seconds, which seems to be in the normal range for beginners. I had been hoping to come back to Little Stoke to do my first official Parkrun there, but now that the run has been closed, that can’t happen; but I’ll still come and join those who still run there on, another Saturday at 9, as a matter of principle. (I can’t do this regularly; I live on the other side of the country.)

I noticed it was a poorer-looking area than I had expected; not having to pay may make quite a difference to some of the local residents.

One of the reasons the council gave for closing the run or getting money from it was for wear on the paths, but I’ve seen for myself that the paths are in good condition except near tree roots, where there were areas of cracking in the tarmac. In fact, if people stop running in a group along that path, the footsteps along the path will all be on the same part of the path rather than spread out over it, and thus won’t kill so many of the plants that grow in cracked paths, so it’s likely that the path will deteriorate faster without the runners; plant roots exert a lot more force than people in trainers.

My first thought had been that it was simply a money grab, then realized, from browsing and finding some local reactions, that it may be that they knew they wouldn’t get any money, and that it’s a way of stopping the run; the variability of the council’s “reasons” supports this view.

There’s a well-established principle of “when in a hole, stop digging”, but some people (perhaps those without reserves of inner dignity) can’t back down; the classic example is a cornered chav starting a fight, which is what the council’s actions remind me of.

I suspect (from browsing the web) that it was started by a few individuals with access to councillors, who will probably make sure they stay anonymous; or was it just the council themselves? Either way, it looks like a minority, bullying the public. (A spoof sign appeared, including the text “All children must obtain a ‘Play Permit’ in order to use the play equipment. This scheme aims to ensure that children pay their way and don’t expect to play at the expense of other tax payers. This is only fair as four of our residents hate kids and don’t see why they should pay for someone else’s offspring to enjoy themselves and keep active.” and I can’t help wondering, from giving a number rather than “some”, that this comes from someone who knows how many complaints there were to the councillors.)

Could it be about the number of people? I saw for myself that there were only a few people out with dogs, and they weren’t on the paths anyway; and very few people walking in the park at that time. A document produced by the council claims that the runners monopolize the park for two hours, but in fact almost everyone will take much less time than that; so not many people would have been inconvenienced by the runners, and the runners are briefed not get in the way of other park users.

Or could the real issue crowding in the car park? A few pages I’ve seen hint that that was part of the problem, but that could have been dealt with by asking runners to park further away and walk/run to the park. I didn’t think at the time to count or to take a photo, but it probably wasn’t even a dozen cars at peak, so it’s not as though the runners would have had to leave much room for other users.

Of course, being a scientific person, I naturally try to understand things in terms of things that make sense; this looks like it was some kind of grievance, an irrational reaction, and perhaps even an obsessional one by someone who was upset by something that a more rational person would have coped with.

Now, the parish is known as an embarrassment to the area, effectively disowned by the mayor of Bristol, who made it clear on Twitter “This is not Bristol”.

Local councils are meant to be a form of representative democracy: opinion polls suggest at most 16% support for charging, so what’s the likelihood that the council is discharging its moral obligations to act democratically? It’s possible that the parish really does contain a concentration of people who think everything should be charged for at any excuse; it’s even likelier than all the oxygen in the room you’re in moving to one end by Brownian Motion, hence suffocating you; but it’s still not particularly likely.

So, what can be done?

I think the most immediate thing is to keep running (at Little Stoke, in particular); I’m glad to see this is already being co-ordinated (without an actual organization, so there is no organization to demand a charge from) on social media, for example Little Stoke 5k run on Facebook.

In the medium term, more public-spirited people should stand for public office. Petty (or larger) power seems to attract the kind of people least suited to hold it, and so it would be good for those not inclined to such positions to stand for them. This probably means standing as independents, as political parties generally accrue those who like political power, or who want control.

In the long run, I hope the world will move to direct democracy; I think the disadvantage of half the decision-making power being in the hands of those with below-average decision-making ability is less than the disadvantage of letting those who seek power find it.

It’s also important to support public health measures, both for physical health (such as Parkrun) and for mental health; it may be that whoever prompted the council’s action might have been more public-spirited had they received help, such as counselling, for some issue in their lives.

Another useful thing would be an online system for recording and co-ordinating runs (and similar events), so that people could do something like Parkrun, but without anyone being able to demand anything from them on the excuse of them being an “organization”. I’m a programmer, and have some ideas on what such a system would be like, but I don’t work on web or mobile systems, so I’m not well-placed to implement it myself. The nearest existing thing that I can find is 5K Flash Mob in the USA. I’ve made a separate post about this as I think it’s getting off-topic for this one.

My first trip to Albania

Quite some time ago, I got the idea of going on holiday in Albania for the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism there. I looked up the date in Wikipedia, and booked holiday, flights, and hotel for a week, so I’d have a few days either side of the celebrations in case the main celebration wasn’t on the actual day but, perhaps, at the nearest weekend.

I was a little apprehensive, as it was to be the least westernized country I’d yet been to, and in particular I wasn’t expecting much English to be spoken, and hadn’t got very far with learning Albanian.

Mountains seen on the airport approach

Mountains seen on the airport approach

The flight gave me beautiful views of the Balkans (although my phone’s GPS wasn’t realistic about where I was; it put me much further out to sea than was visibly the case).

Definitely not Heathrow

Definitely not Heathrow

We landed on a beautiful clear day, with a view of the mountains inland from the airport.

At the airport, I drew some Lek at a cashpoint, and found the times for the bus to Tirana (they go every hour, on the hour) and to fill the time dodged the assertive taxi drivers hustling for my trade by getting a very rich hot chocolate in the airport cafe. The bus journey gave me my first glimpse into a slightly run-down, or very informal, looking country.


Arrival in Tirana

Between the bus stop and the hotel

A view on the walk from the bus stop to my hotel

The bus from the airport set me down a couple of streets from the hotel, and I found the city bustling and a little chaotic; and the climate warmer than I had expected.

The hotel I stayed in was a small, friendly one, which I can definitely recommend. There were clearly more luxurious ones around, but I wanted to be somewhere “local” rather than in an international chain.

Skanderbeg Square

Skanderbeg Square at dusk

The first place in Tirana I saw, apart from the route from the bus stop to the hotel, was Skanderbeg Square; not really a square, but an oblong of roads with a grass wabe around the statue of Skanderbeg.


Blokku

A street view in Blokku

A street view in Blokku

Another street view in Blokku

Another street view in Blokku

I walked on to “Blokku” (“The Block”) also known as “Ish-Blokku” (“The ex-Block”), the area which under the communist regime had been reserved for party officials and their followers. It’s now the trendy district, although it still looks a little run-down (in a rather pleasant way). It’s also said to be the main are of café culture in Tirana, although in fact there were cafés all over the central area; quite good ones, it turned out, with decaf available at all (important to me).


The Grand Park

In the Grand Park

In the Grand Park

The lake by the park

The lake by the park

Further on from Blokku is Parku i Madh, The Grand Park, by the artificial lake. It’s beautiful, and I returned daily, for a walk and a short run. (A few weeks later I went to Brussels, and saw the shabby park outside the royal palace, with a couple of armed soldiers patrolling through it. Presented with pictures of the two, I wouldn’t have guessed correctly which was in a major modern western capital of a wealthy country and which was in the capital of a country struggling to recover, with very little assistance, from a Stalinist regime.)

I saw a couple of other parks, too, including Parku i Rinia (The Youth Park), where books were sold from improvised stalls along the parapet-style walls along one of the edges. I noticed that the tobacco stalls also sold books: I hadn’t realized that books would be a significant part of the culture.

I’d always thought of the former “Eastern bloc” as a place of cold weather, but although that seems to bWikipediae true of the parts with a continental climate (far from the sea), Albania is definitely Mediterranean.


The Teleferik

View from the cable car

View from the cable car

Looking in advance on openstreetmap, I had spotted an unfamiliar map symbol that I guessed would be some kind of railway, leading from the edge of the city out into the countryside. I turned on “map data” to find what the symbol meant, and found that it was a cable car, which I assumed would be industrial and perhaps connected with mining. It turned out to be a passenger one, though, known as the Teleferik, leading up to a hotel, restaurants and viewpoint up in the mountains. I got a taxi to the lower station, and took the cable car ride, which was spectacular, and lasted about quarter an hour. I wondered how a country without, as far as I knew, a major modern engineering tradition, had put up such a modern system; I found they had got the Austrians in, and mountain transport engineering is something that Austrians do.

Abandoned hotel

Abandoned hotel

At the top, as well as the modern Belvedere hotel and a restaurant, there was an abandoned larger hotel, with a big archway under the front of it. This was used for communist Young Pioneer camps, and was also designed as a potential refuge for the government in the case of invasion. The big arch, I was told, was the opening of a tunnel, which was said to lead all the way to the communist leader’s house. (I doubt this was true; it seems a bit far for that, but he was quite into emergency tunnels, so it’s possible.) I had a look around, but was chased off by some loose dogs. I’m not sure they were really feral; they looked too well-fed for that, and I suspect they were put there, perhaps by the military (who have a base nearby), to keep people out.


The hackerspace

The mixed-use building containing the hackerspace; its entrance is round the side

The mixed-use building containing the hackerspace; its entrance is round the side

Before travelling, I looked online for a local hackerspace, and found OpenLabs, and made contact with them. They invited me to come round and give a talk, so I told them about my local hackerspace, and also talked about openstreetmap.

They have very little equipment there, and seem to be more into open data than code; lots of Mozilla and Wikipedia activity. To my surprise, unlike most hackerspaces, there were more female members than male, although it’s not set up as a specifically founded as a female-oriented space.


Food

Urban Persimmons (and Escape)

Urban Persimmons (and Escape)

I tried some unfamiliar fruit from a street market: pomegranate (which I’d only ever had as juice before), and persimmon (which seems to be the national fruit). I only found out afterwards how I should have opened the pomegranate!

Some of the menu entries in restaurants didn’t appeal to me; “Trip of lamb internals” is clearly a classic.

The white (feta) cheese is fantastic. Pies are popular (and cheap); meat, cheese, and spinach. The local ice cream is a bit disappointing: clearly artificial colouring and flavouring. The time is probably about right for an artisan ice cream maker to start up, probably in Blokku; also perhaps time for a craft brewery?


Inside a cafe

Inside a cafe

Outside a cafe

Outside a cafe

There are some excellent cafes, some in local chains. I took a liking to the Mulliri Vjeter cafes.


Kruje

A mountainous view from Kruje castle

A mountainous view from Kruje castle

I had a day trip to the historic town of Kruje, arranged by the hotel. The “castle” there is a modern re-build, containing a museum.


Durres

The amphitheatre

The amphitheatre

The mosaic in the chapel

The mosaic in the chapel

I took a day trip to Durrës. The bus for it starts some distance from the city centre, so I took a local bus out to there. There are two kinds of bus in Albania: ones which run to a timetable, and “furgons”, which are mostly minibuses, which run when they have enough passengers to be worth moving for. I wandered around a bit, finding a live poultry market on the street, a Roman amphitheatre (into which later Romans had built a Christian chapel, with a mosaic of saints), and a newish museum.


Some more

I looked round the National Museum; it was surprisingly Zogist.

I found that the celebrations (of the fall of communism) that I had gone in the hope of finding, had happened while I was on the plane; but there was triumphal music being played from a government building, so I took that as a token form of having caught them.

I found Albania more westernized than I had expected, but not completely. The standard of English, at least among the younger people, was the best I’ve heard from any south European country (I may have had an unrepresentative sample, as a high proportion of the people I got to chat with were from the hackerspace!)

I’m certainly going to go back — in fact, I’ve just pushed myself to complete this “report” a week before going for my second visit! Plans for this visit include attending OSCAL (Open Source Conference Albania), looking at the museum of surveillance, and visiting the National Puppet Theatre, which is in the building previous used for the puppet parliament under King Zog!

The rest of my shoulder repair episode

The rest of my shoulder episode.

My shoulder just after the rotator cuff repair operation

My shoulder just after the rotator cuff repair operation

This is what my shoulder looked like soon after the surgery.

For the first few weeks I was on a gradually decreasing intake of painkillers, as I built up my shoulder flexibility with physiotherapy. I could neither drive nor cycle, and there aren’t many buses near where I live, so I walked a lot more than I usually do.

A large pustule of Propionibacterium Acnes

A large pustule of Propionibacterium Acnes

After about four weeks, an obvious abcess appeared on one of the incision sites. This looks alarming, but in the long run was a blessing in disguise, as the type of infection I had normally festers asymptomatically inside the joint for a couple of years, then manifests as arthritis; so I’m glad that it presented in such an obvious form.

The abcess looking even worse

The abcess looking even worse

It swelled rapidly, and I went round to the local GP, who sent me in to Accident and Emergency, who sent me on to Orthopaedics, where the surgeon who did the original operation took a look at it, and booked me in for revision surgery the next day.

The second surgery was to wash the wound out (“lavage”; the surgeon said he put 14 litres of fluid through it) and inspect it. Fortunately, the infection appeared to be superficial.

The hole in my shoulder, after the lavage operation, when I and the hospital realized it wasn't healing properly

The hole in my shoulder, after the lavage operation, when I and the hospital realized it wasn’t healing properly

However, the wound took a long time to heal, leaving a hole like this, and a couple of weeks after the revision surgery, a lab culture came through showing infection with Propionibacterium Acnes, the bacterium that causes acne. In about 3% of male shoulder surgery patients, and about 1% of female patients, matter from a sebaceous gland gets pushed into the body by a surgical incision, and causes an infection.

The time they told me this I was expecting it to be just a checkup, but the hospital kept me in a for a week of intravenous vancomycin, followed by five weeks of intravenous teicoplanin. This was mostly a precaution, in case the infection had got into the shoulder capsule, where it can cause arthritis; however, in the lavage operation, the surgeon observed it appeared to be more superficial.

A Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter in my arm

A Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter in my arm

The first few doses were given through a normal cannula into an arm vein, but for the longer treatment, they put a PICC line into me: a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter. This ran from my arm, through the veins, to just above my heart. This way, the drugs (which could cause irritation to the vein linings) are mixed into the circulation as widely as possible.

My teicoplanin setup: one day's supply

My teicoplanin setup: one day’s supply

I didn’t have to stay in hospital for the whole six weeks of treatment; I was taught to prepare and connect a daily teicoplanin drip myself. It was slightly scary, knowing that I was handling stuff going straight into my circulation; so I was very systematic about the hygeine. In fact, it was all quite straightforward, and became very routine.

The hole, getting smaller

The hole, getting smaller

The wound healed rather gradually, so for many weeks I was applying iodinized dressings.

The hole almost closed over

The hole almost closed over


Eventually, it closed up.

Continued healing

Continued healing

Almost fully healed

Almost fully healed

The invagination (groove) suddenly changed, in two days or less, to a hypertrophic (protruding) scar, which I gather will eventually disappear but it could take a year or so.

The scar eventually became hypertrophic

The scar eventually became hypertrophic


Now the basic healing is done, and it’s a matter of rebuilding strength, trying to do it steadily. Of course, in practice I tend to alternate between bursts of enthusiasm and having to take it more cautiously. I’ve been given a second set of exercises by a physio, and I think I should eventually be able to return to doing Krav Maga, perhaps this summer or autumn. I think most of my restriction now is from the scar tissue from the infection, rather than from the original tendon repair.

My first surgery since childhood: left rotator cuff tendon repair

Over the past year or so, I’ve been getting shoulder problems, and it got to the stage where I got referred to a specialist, who, having taken an MRI scan, recommended arthroscopic (keyhole) rotator cuff repair surgery. Having had the options explained, I agreed, with some trepidation.

How I caused the injury was related to a major improvement in my health; having lost 26kg by Intermittent Fasting, I bought a weight vest, and loaded it to take me up to my old weight (for doing squats and pull-ups); it was practising hefting it up to get it over my shoulders that probably caused the tear, and learning gun disarms in Krav Maga brought it to the level where I asked for referral to a specialist (the gross movement of a gun disarm is like a punch, although at an unfamiliar angle, and with nothing to absorb the energy at the end of the travel). However, the consultant said it’s general ageing-related wear and tear, and if it hadn’t gone then, it would have gone soon anyway. Apparently 50% of people of age 50 (e.g. me) have at least one shoulder tendon tear, 60% of people aged 60, and so on.

The previous time I had anything done under general anaesthetic was when I had a blocked lung lobe when I was about 9, and it wasn’t pleasant, as back then bronchoscopes were rigid tubes that they manoeuvred down your throat and into the appropriate branch of the bronchi; I had a very rough throat after that. (Modern bronchoscopes are flexible, although rigid ones are still used for retrieving obstructions.) It did get me written into a research paper, as one of the first five children they’d found to have a lung blocked with something other than a peanut; mine was blocked with phlegm following bronchitis.

So, I didn’t feel keen on the idea, but it clearly made sense, from the logical point of view, and so I signed the consent form, and they induced the anaesthesia while still asking whether I wanted the nerve block to be administered before or after the anaesthetic. (They clearly reckoned “after” was the sensible choice, and perhaps the insensible one too, as that’s how I was by then.)

I don’t really remember the recovery room (I guess the amnesia-inducing parts of the medication were working) and my shoulder was pretty sore as the nerve block wore off, but I had just enough painkillers. The procedure took a bit longer than planned, but when he did his ward round afterwards, the surgeon told me I should only need the sling for four weeks (it could have been up to six weeks). I was kept in overnight, and given vancomycin intravenously (which seems to be largely a precaution against MRSA) — I looked it up, and it seems it’s quite caustic, hence injecting it slowly; a doctor friend described it as “intravenous [bleach brand name]”!

Now, a bit over a week later, I’m pretty much off the painkillers, and doing the physiotherapy exercises that are an inherent part of the treatment. I should expect to be able to return to work around four weeks after the surgery; I suspect that car gearchanges may take longer, but I should probably be able to ride the recumbent (trike) pretty much one-handedly; fortunately, the main gearchange and two of the three brakes of the trike are on my un-operated side. I suspect locking the trike one-handedly may be harder than riding it that way.

WNBR 2015

Last year, I took part in the World Naked Bike Ride in London for the fourth time, and this year I did the London ride again, and the (new) Cambridge one. With five rides, I guess I’m a regular now.

As usual, it was great fun, and I definitely recommend trying it! However, I think it could have been better in a couple of ways.

In London, as before, I started at the Hyde Park start, which is convenient for me to get to from somewhere where I can park the Land Rover with its trike carrier. The sad ghoulish photographers were out in ever greater quantities. People joke about my Land Rover looking like it’s ready for the zombie apocalypse; the Hyde Park start is getting ever more like such an event, with ugly people looking dead inside trying to get a shot of the life force from the participants. I feel I should be kinder to them (I even thought maybe I should have blanked out their faces in the photos I put on flickr, because it would be so embarrassing to be one of them) as I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a few of them have no close friends and no warmth in their lives, but they do get annoying, and it’s difficult to be sympathetic when they’re so pushy and so desperate. I don’t think there’s really any way to improve this without making restrictive arrangements (such as fencing off an area which you can only enter with a bike and on condition of taking part, but that would involve the cost of hiring temporary fencing; and such restrictive arrangements would be against the spirit of the event). My way of dealing with it for myself is to regard taking part in the ride as a rather condescending act of charity towards these people.

The format of the London ride had changed a bit this year, with timed rolling merges rather than stops for groups to join together. I felt that aspect wasn’t as good as previous years; the stops were a good chance for participants to chat without the start-line voyeurs. (The photographers along the ride aren’t creepy like the ones at the start.) I know that that’s not the point of the ride, but in practice it is a naturist occasion as well as a protest ride.  Still, it was an enjoyable occasion, and I’m glad I took part and I’m sure I’ll be there again next year.

The Cambridge ride was a new one, with one start point, on Parkers’s Piece. Unfortunately, it rained for almost all the ride, but that didn’t seem to put people off (it was quite warm rain anyway), and there was a good atmosphere to it, and I think it was a good start to a new venue. Next year’s Cambridge ride should apparently be longer, which would be good (especially if it’s sunny).

I would have liked to do one of the other rides this year, but other events, including my shoulder surgery, got in the way.

I’ve put my photos from the London ride and from the Cambridge ride on flickr.

Building a recumbent carrier

Sometimes I go on trips where I want to use my recumbent trike, that are further from home than I can reasonably cycle to. The trike can fit inside my Land Rover’s loadspace, but getting it in and out is cumbersome (particularly now that I have started to develop rotator cuff problems), and for some time I’ve been thinking about how to carry it more conveniently.

The first idea I came up with was a rear platform, cantilevered out from the rear cross-member (back bumper), and perhaps tiltable downward, and so I bought a used “Hi-Cap” rear tub to adapt. Once it arrived, I realized it would be too heavy, and I also looked up the regulations on rear overhangs of vehicles, and found it would be too long. I’ve still got it; I’m planning to turn it into a trailer.

The main structure, tacked

The main structure, tacked

So I re-thought it, and decided to carry the trike on a framework hinged onto the back of the vehicle, that I could load it on the ground and then swing it up into place behind the back door. I went with steel for cheapness and ease of welding, rather than aluminium for lightness, and used my rather basic welding skills to tack the main parts of it together. It’s in two parts, one fixed relative to the vehicle, and the other attached to that by a hinge. The fixed part is held on by the pin that normally holds the adjustable towing bracket onto the drop plate, and stabilized by tubes going into the jacking points in the rear cross-member.

The support

The support

The hinge is two diameters of round tube, that nest reasonably well together, with the outer tube cut into sections and alternate sections welded to the stationary and moving parts. The part that is fixed onto the vehicle could potentially be used for attaching other things to the back of the vehicle (for example, a tray to hold things that wouldn’t fit through the door), by making a matching piece of tubular hinge. I had to shorten the vertical part of it, as in the form shown it caught on the slope of my driveway. I had originally made it that deep in the expectation of using it to cantilever a platform onto the back.

Built, and in place

Built, and in place

Having completed working out the design, I took it to a local metalwork company who completed it.

Painted, for visibility

Painted, for visibility

I thought drivers behind me might get a bit confused by the extra metalwork and collide with it, so I painted wasp stripes onto it. It probably still confuses people, but I think they’ll be less likely to bump into it.

I mounted a small winch on the front of the roofrack, which lets me pull the carrier and trike up into position with less risk of injury and damage. It’ll also be useful for opening the tent cover (which is quite heavy, being made from a Land Rover roof), and the bonnet (with heavy spare tyre on it), as I have a shoulder injury and don’t want to risk making it worse. I’ve already started to rewire the winch, so that instead of its hand-held control pendant on short thickish wires, it will be controlled by a couple of relays arranged in an H-bridge, with lighter control wires from buttons in various places.

Learning street layouts: London

I don’t often go to London (capital cities are generally too large for such a lover of peace and quiet) but when I have been there, I haven’t really known my way around. I’ve decided to do something about that: systematic learning of the major streets. I feel a bit silly constructing silly mnemonics publically, but since that’ll be part of how I do it, I might as well share them to save others the effort.

There are a few other cities I go to from time to time, that I’ll also learn, and will probably put notes on those here too.

Since my most regular London activity is an annual bike ride, one of my aims will be to have a feel for where I am during the ride. The ride starts from Hyde Park, so that’s one of my base points for learning routes; and other landmarks I’ll mark in bold will mostly be places I remember from the ride from past years. I bring the bike by Land Rover, and have found an area is suitable for parking in and cycling from, so I’ll include that. And the Shoreditch area, where I go for tattoos.

North of the Thames

East-West roads

Working from north to south. London is nothing like a grid, so some of these aren’t that close to east-west.

  • A bit north of Hyde Park, Marylebone Road comes down from its flyover, then passes south of Regent’s Park, then becomes:
    • Euston Road, which passes Euston Station, St Pancras Station, and Kings Cross Station
    • Pentonville Road
    • City Road, which curves south and crosses Old Street
  • From the north-east corner of Hyde Park, which is called Marble Arch, we have Oxford Street going east, leading onto these, for which I have the mnemonic of an “Old, Oxford-educated clerk called Theobald Bloomsbury“:
    • Bloomsbury Way
    • Theobalds Road
    • Clerkenwell Road
    • Old Street
  • Another string of streets, of which Holborn is the main one, splits off Oxford Street to the south:
    • Earnshaw Street
    • St Giles High Street
    • High Holborn
    • Holborn
    • Holborn Viaduct
    • Newgate Street
    • passes St Paul’s Cathedral
    • Cheapside
    • Poultry
    • Cornhill
  • From the south-east corner of Hyde Park, which is called Wellington Arch, we have Piccadilly going east (and a bit north), to Piccadilly Circus. It then continues as:
    • Coventry Street, Swiss Court, Leicester Square
    • Cranbourn Street, Long Acre
    • Great Queen Street
    • Crosses Kingsway
    • Remnant Street
    • Joins Lincolns Inn Fields
  • Also from Wellington Arch, Constitution Hill goes directly east, to Buckingham Palace and The Mall, then to Trafalgar Square

North-south roads

  • Edgeware Road comes in from the north, and passes Kilburn, and changes names several times, and back again
    • At Marble Arch, it becomes Park Lane
    • At Wellington Arch, it becomes Grosvenor Place
    • At Victoria, where there is a coach station I’ve used in the past
    • Not quite as a direct continuation, Vauxhall Bridge Road leads on from Victoria
  • From Regent’s Park, Portland Place goes south, and becomes Regent Street, which leads to Piccadilly Circus
  • Camden High Street comes in from the north, and:
    • becomes Hampstead Road at Mornington Crescent
    • crosses Euston Road a bit west of Euston Station
    • becomes Tottenham Court Road
    • crosses Oxford Street
    • becomes Charing Cross Road
    • passes Trafalgar Square
    • becomes Whitehall, and Parliament Street
    • runs to Parliament Square and Westminster Abbey, where Westminster Bridge almost joins it
    • continues as Old Palace Yard, Abingdon Street, and Millbank
    • Lambeth Bridge joins it
    • then Vauxhall Bridge
    • then it heads west, as Grosvenor Road
  • Gower Street parallels Tottenham Court Road
  • Eversholt Street splits from Hampstead Road at Mornington Crescent
    • at Euston Road, it becomes Upper Woburn Place, then Tavistock Square, Woburn Place, Russell Square, Southampton Row
    • at Holborn, it becomes Kingsway, which passes near Lincoln’s Inn Fields and runs to Aldwych
  • Gray’s Inn Road starts from King’s Cross, and runs to Holborn

South of the Thames

I can’t make this into anything like a grid.

Radially from Elephant and Castle

  • St George’s Road goes west-north-west, and merges with Westminster Bridge Road, to Westminster Place, which is near Forum Magnum Square and near Waterloo Station, and from where Westminster Bridge heads west
  • London Road goes north-west, to St George’s Circus, where it splits:
    • Waterloo Road goes to Waterloo Bridge
    • Blackfriars Road goes to Blackfriars Bridge
  • Newington Causeway goes north and slightly east
    • It becomes Borough High Street, and goes over London Bridge
    • Southward Bridge Road leads off it, and goes over Southwark Bridge

A quick update on Land-Rover work

I haven’t been doing much work on my Land Rover recently, because of the cold weather and lack of available dry daylight hours. I’ve been doing some wiring (still in progress), but as you can see, there’s some tidying-up to do on that before I regard it as “done” for a while.

The ceiling switch panel, swung down for maintenance

The ceiling switch panel, swung down for maintenance

At least the ceiling switchpanel is reasonably modular; the backbone of it is what most needs tidying. All the wiring is documented in an org-mode file, with some purpose-written Emacs-Lisp for navigating it, so there isn’t a circuit diagram as such, but a list of connection groups, with the same name occurring at both ends of the same wire.

The back of the wiring hub

The back of the wiring hub

The wiring at the back of the central hub of the star-topology main wiring is on its second iteration, this time done with colour-coded wires (the original was all-white). The thinner wires on the left lead to some pieces of stripboard with edge-connectors on them (insulated by the thick bluish-looking tape); those will eventually connect to a board of LEDs to give me the status of almost all the wires, and also to voltage dividers feeding the GPIO pins of an Android Accessory Development Kit, a specialized version of the Arduino microcontroller that interfaces to an Android device, which I will connect to phablet that I will build into the ceiling panel.

In a classic piece of programmer’s yak-shaving, while designing the bezel to hold the phablet in place, I decided Inkscape wasn’t really my way of doing things, and started to write my own Emacs-Lisp CAD system, in which shapes can be described by easily-edited textual expressions (inspired by the pic drawing language, but improved by structuring as s-expressions). This is taking a while, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it.

Inside the dashboard

Inside the dashboard

I tidied up the gap in the dashboard, to make it easier to put the wiring hub in and out. At first, I dreaded this task, but it’s a lot easier now. Disconnecting and reconnecting it is easy; the cables that go in the top of the hub are all labelled with their positions in the 8×3 grid of sockets, and there are only four at the back (one earths, and three to the fusebox).

The new exhaust

The new exhaust

The old exhaust system, that I’d put together from two long-wheelbase Land Rover exhausts, with the help of my mechanic friend, fell apart on my way to EMF, and at last I got round to getting a custom one made, by Demand Engineering near Stowmarket. It’s very satisfactory, and the vehicle is quieter than it was, and the engine compartment doesn’t get so warm, so the old one probably had been leaking a little near the front as well as part-way back where the old end had fallen off.

By the way, the strips with holes in them, on the underside of the chassis longitudinal beams, are for bolting battery boxes to when I eventually get round to going hybrid by putting an electric motor on the third axle. The transverse tubes at the front and back of those strips are with a view to being able to slot removable crawler tracks in under the long section, so that rather than getting grounded on ridges or sliding over them, I can roll over them. Powered tracks would be even nicer, and screw drive would be really cool, but I basic tracks would be a good start.

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