Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2015 scientific society talks in London blog post

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Mapping London postcodes onto London boroughs - doable with Google Fusion tables?

Everything I want to do below I can already do manually on my computer. I'm looking for a "yes it's here Jo" off-the-peg solution, but not really looking to learn how to do something new at this stage - maybe later :)

As I'm only likely to do this process once or twice a year I'm caught in that "is it worth expending ages learning something now to make this simpler?" Possibly not. 

If it looks too fiddly then I may well have to carry on with my manual process. Here's a post I wrote previously (with pics and worked examples) on how I used Google Fusion / tables to map UK cinemas, for the Sherlock special.

Is it easy to map a list of postcodes to London boroughs?
If it's fiddly and difficult then that's no good because I already have a low-res working method. It's just inefficient and non-shareable. I have an unshakeable belief that lots of people have probably wanted to do this and someone must have already come up with a solution for the non- or only mildly-technical user.

I have a list of 100 London schools' postcodes (it could be 10, 50 or 2,000 as this needs to be scaleable for others to use) and I would like to display them on a map that says something like: 4 are in Harrow and 16 are in Greenwich, with a magnitude indicator of some kind. I might get it to do "if fewer than 5 show as blue", "if more than 5 show as green", "if 5-10 show as orange" etc). In fact I can do this fine on a PC with a bitmap file of a black and white line drawing of boroughs (using the fill tool on free Paint.exe, no idea what free tool works on a Mac).

Currently I can, with ease, use Google Fusion tables to convert a single column of postcodes to a geocoded map. It looks like a map with one red (the default, can be changed) dot per postcode.

But even at sensible magnification they eye does not naturally see the borough limits and I'd like to (a) add them (as an overlay?) to begin with - at a minimum it should be possible to see the borough boundaries (at least people can count the dots)
(b) see if I can get Google Fusion to combine SE1 1AA and SE1 2ZZ into "two in Borough X" - my workaround is to add a column and write in the borough, re-order and count them and then have two columns with the borough name in one and the number of times it appeared in the other ("Lewisham, 2" / "Barking and Dagenham, 1")
(c) make the raw file available (without my postcodes which are my data) to anyone else who finds themselves with a list of London postcodes and a desire to map them in this way.

Is there a pret-a-Fusion look-up table or a ready-made-London-borough-map that will work with a Google Fusion table of postcodes that I can ust add? I did look but couldn't find it, nor could I understand what I could find ;) I don't really know what KML or SHP files are.

Further reading

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

QMUL colleagues fixed a broken tape backup with a 3D printed bit

In among the usual admin work-related emails there was a bit of a gem yesterday from my colleague Harry Krikelis (who is one of our IT Support people at QMUL's School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science (EECS)) which made me smile and want to blog and tweet about it.

Some 3D printed gears

Last week one of the EECS data tape library units (data storage / critical backup that sort of thing) stopped working because of a broken 7mm gear - this is fairly disastrous anywhere, but especially in a department made up of computer science researchers who make heavy use of high tech computing resources. Rather than wait for a quote from the manufacturer to replace the unit, Harry worked with Julie Freeman to design and print a 3D model of the broken gear, using the 3D printer in the Materials Lab (bought, along with other cool stuff, with funding from the EPSRC to support the equipment needs of the Media and Arts Technology programme). Isn't that brilliant. It's all working fine now, hooray, and cost about 1,000% less ;)

Black gears on the right with the new addition near the front.

If you're thinking "I wish I had access to a 3D printer" you might try one of the hackspaces around the country (list zoomable map). Last year's IET Faraday Challenge was also about 3D printing.

Monday, 27 June 2016

On the Isles of Scilly (for one day only) - day trip to Scilly part three

See Part One: Overnight sleeper train from Paddington to Penzance about the first part of this journey. Part Two is Day trip to the Isles of Scilly (well, one of them) on the Scillonian III ferry from Penzance. This post is Part Three.

Isles if Scilly visit 24 June 2016, St Mary's

I arrived on Friday lunchtime in Scilly, thanks to the Scillonian III (see part two linked above) and the overnight sleeper train 'Night Riviera' (see part one linked above) with the intention of taking a small local boat to Tresco to see its lovely Abbey Gardens. Then I saw the arrangement for getting on to the small boat and thought "hell no" as it involved clambering down some steps without a proper handrail. Noooo. I am too scared.

Isles if Scilly visit 24 June 2016, St Mary's
The whole arrangement was a bit too 'leap of faith' for me I'm afraid. Lovely boat anyway.

The internet told me that the birds on the island are really tame and brought some bird seed with me in case they might like to feed from my hand. Nope. They're tame enough not to fly off if you encounter them, and they'll fly quite close to you, but they won't (or didn't in my case) land on me. The birds at Blackheath pond will benefit instead.

My Plan B was to head up to the airport and see some of the little aircraft at close quarters.

Isles if Scilly visit 24 June 2016, St Mary's
Footpath leading up to the airport where small planes take off and land

It's probably only a 40 minute walk from St Mary's harbour but I kept wandering off to photograph things and explore other bits, it was all rather lovely.

Isles if Scilly visit 24 June 2016, St Mary's

I managed to make it to the top of the footpath (above) but for obvious reasons couldn't get any closer to the runway. Had I stayed up there another ten minutes I'd have seen a tiny little plane take off but I might have had to duck.

Isles if Scilly visit 24 June 2016, St Mary's

Should have taken sun tan lotion and sunglasses. It was very hot and exposed and I'm a now a fetching shade of British Tourist Pink. The weather was actually spectacular, and it really hadn't been when I'd arrived in Penzance (drizzle).

If it's worked, the rest of the pictures should be below in a sort of carousel, if not here are the Scilly pics I took.

Isles of Scilly - St Mary's - 24 June 2016

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Day trip to the Isles of Scilly (well, one of them) on the Scillonian III ferry from Penzance

See Part One: Overnight sleeper train from Paddington to Penzance about the first part of this journey. This post is Part Two.

Travelling from Penzance to Isles of Scilly on Scillonian III - 24 June 2016
Oooh Scilly - more pictures from this trip here

Yesterday I arrived rather early in the morning in Penzance having taken the overnight sleeper train from Paddington, which was lovely (see part one of this post series, linked above). Penzance's harbour / pier for the ferry trip to the Isles of Scilly is a ten minute walk from the station and very well sign-posted - I didn't get lost once which is (for me) remarkable.

I'd booked my ferry tickets online and you don't need to print anything out but you do need a photo ID and your surname. You'll also have a 6 letter code but I didn't really need that either. I used my passport on the journey out and tried out the photocard that accompanies my 1-3 zone travelcard railcard on the return journey - both worked fine. No-one checked the weight of my bag which was supposed to be less than 5kg (it probably was).

There are a couple of cafes on the way if you need snacks before boarding and you can see the boat itself pretty early on into the walk (and from outside the station) so it's helpful to know what it looks like.

The large-ish white boat on the left is the Scillonian III. Picture credit: Me!

Travelling from Penzance to Isles of Scilly on Scillonian III - 24 June 2016
What the Scillonian III looks like close-up

Keep walking as far as The Dolphin pub then turn left - basically follow everyone else making this journey. Once you've checked in you're given what looks like a poker chip as your boarding token, which you then hand to the person onshore who waves you onto the boat.

Travelling from Penzance to Isles of Scilly on Scillonian III - 24 June 2016
Boarding chip

Bring something waterproof
It's summer, the weather's nice, you might want to sit outside. But it's also been raining and so the wooden chairs are wet. I had a sort of cagoule thing with me (lightweight) so I sat on that and stayed dry. The sun came out shortly after we set sail and dried things off quite nicely, and then the winds picked up a bit so it was simulatneously baking hot and freezing cold. I regret not bringing sunglasses and the day later I also regret not bringing sun cream (I look like a red panda).

Deck sense
The Scillonian III has four decks where you can sit (the top has outside bits) and a couple of cafes [cash only], loos are in the basement. You board onto one of the middle decks so head to the stairwell and look at the map to find out where you are.

Travelling from Penzance to Isles of Scilly on Scillonian III - 24 June 2016
Deck plan

If you're staying on one of the islands in Scilly you can take one of the coloured baggage tags and plonk your checked baggage into one of the little freight containers which are then winched onto the ship (some neat work with a forklift truck too, which was terrifying to watch so close to the pier). At the other end you can collect your bag yourself or for £1.40 per bag it'll be delivered to your island / hotel.

Buying tickets for trips to other islands
You used to be able to buy tickets for boats to other islands on-board the Scillonian but this is no longer the case and you buy them from the boats themselves - they can do you a deal on return fares and I think, in the case of Tresco (where I planned to go) can give you an all-in-one ticket for the boat journey and entry to the Abbey Gardens botanical garden.

You'll need cash / Cafe
There are no card facilities on-board, I'm not sure if that's because there's no signal when at sea or some other reason, but bring cash. They also have loads of guidebooks and maps if you've not managed to sort that out.

On a choppy visit you might feel queasy. Our journey got a bit choppier about halfway through and I did feel a tiny bit queasy but nothing too bad. There are paper sick bags everywhere and the cafe sells barley sugars (any boiled sweet seems to help with sea sickness) as well as tea and sandwiches.

There are also recommendations that sitting in the lower decks can help but I think I'd find the opposite to be honest. I found sitting in the middle of the boat to be the most helpful - presumably it's the pivot point. Looking behind me I could see the horizon leaping in and out of view as the back of the boat pitched up and down, that didn't help much, but looking out to the side it looked a lot calmer - though the boat moves in all sorts of directions not just in the front / back direction. It was a calm crossing (even calmer on the way back) so I was very lucky.

I doubt my regular trips on the Thames Clippers ferries will have prepared me for travelling on the Atlantic Ocean though.

Reclining seats
Some of the seats have a little gear stick on the right hand side which lets you move the backrest back a little bit, I managed to sleep very comfortably on the journey back to Penzance. 

Wifi / 3G
None once you're out at sea, 3G fine while near Penzance. I had no signal at all while in Scilly.  

Disembarking and getting local boats
All very straightforward, there are free loos at St Mary's harbour and within a ten minute walk there's a Co-op and plenty of other shops (incluing outdoor ones and lots of tourist shops).

There are loads of smaller boats ready to take you to other islands and all sorts of other day trip events. I took one look at the pier for the boat to Tresco and thought better of it - it reminded me of trying to get into a small boat in Venice. Never again. I need handrails and tethered walkways.

Fortunately I'd paid attention to the excitements of St Mary's, our arrival island, and new that there was a little airport inland which I'd enjoy visiting. I got over the brief disappointment of missing a chance to see Tresco's beautiful gardens and headed off to explore the airport... 

Overnight sleeper Paddington to Penzance, and back again

Paddington to Penzance on Night Riviera sleeper train - 23 June 2016 Paddington to Penzance on Night Riviera sleeper train - 23 June 2016 Paddington to Penzance on Night Riviera sleeper train - 23 June 2016
From L: train at Paddington, corridor on sleeper car, room with berth on left. More pics.

There are two overnight sleeper trains in the UK (that I know of) and both have London as one of the termini. The Caledonian Sleeper travels from Euston to Scotland and I have enjoyed it many times, and the Night Riviera runs from Paddington to Penzance.

One of the nicest things about travelling on a sleeper train is periodically waking up through the night and remembering "I'm on a sleeper train, woohoo!" so if you're a light sleeper, or likely to be woken by gentle rolls, occasional lurches or rattling over points it might not be for you.

Neither sleeper train has a service on Saturday evening so if you go somewhere on Friday night for the weekend you can come back on Sunday evening and arrive on Monday morning.

I travelled to Penzance on Thursday night and came back on Friday so this was really more of a day trip. Cost was £183 (outward £104, return £79), cheaper versions are available (shared cabin or a mildly-reclining seat in a regular carriage). £184 for travel AND accommodation all in one - two journeys and two nights 'in a hotel' so not bad value I think.

Getting tickets
Make sure you're buying a SLEEPER ticket and not just a SEAT on the train! I bought over the phone and was given an eight digit code with which to collect my tickets from any machine at any station (I collected my tickets from Cannon Street station). Recommend collecting the tickets a day or two in advance as if there's a problem it can be a bit difficult to fix at half past eleven in the evening. 

Outward-bound journey from Paddington to Penzance
The train leaves at 23:45 but you can usually get on board by about half ten and get settled in. Costa was open so I was able to get a snack, but they have a buffet car on the train anyway. One of the train managers will come round and check everyone in, check tickets, answer any questions, explain how it all works and what time you'll arrive - and the time by which you'll be booted off the train. If you find a train manager get yourself checked in as early as possible then you can relax undisturbed for the rest of the journey until breakfast.

There is only standard accommodation on the Night Riviera (it's slightly different on the Caledonian sleeper), but you can pay a supplement to have the cabin to yourself, which is what I did - effectively turning this into a first-class journey (any sleeper berth ticket also entitles you to use of the first class lounge at Paddington).

The train arrives in Penzance at 07:52 and you need to get off promptly. Slightly annoyingly the latest breakfast order to your cabin is 06:40 because the poor train manager needs to collect and wash all the crockery before leaving the train with everyone else. I had my breakfast at 6 and then lazed around for the next couple of hours - breakfast isn't compulsory of course, and you can grab something from the buffet car, and there are cafes open at Penzance.

General information about the cabin / train
Your cabin will be set up with the lights on, the temperature to minimum and the blind down in front of the window. If you want to maximise sleep leave the blind down, if you want to maximise gazing at stars and the general eerie spookiness of the countryside in pitch dark-grey-ness then leave them up. As you'll also be stopping at several stations en route you'll also get blinding lights coming into your cabin - I don't mind this but be aware. To open the blind you need to pull it down and slightly forward to then release it and lift it up. I've not tried having it half down / half up (that would work to cut out much of the station lights which shine downwards), maybe next time.

Paddington to Penzance on Night Riviera sleeper train - 23 June 2016
The view from my cabin window at 1am ;)

A thing I'd have found useful would have been a list of stations and the approximate times of arrival. There appear to be quite a lot of them on this journey, and I think they can include the following, pinched from Wikipedia.


Bed position - left or right
Cabins are mirror images of each other with some having the bed on the left as you go in, others having it on the right. If you have a strong sleep direction preference you might want to consider this.

Some have the bed on the right which means when sleeping on your left hand side your back is against the wall (and when turning over less likely to fall out as nearly happened when sleeping on my left on a left bed with my face against the wall). I travelled from Paddington in G 15L (coach G, room 15, lower berth) which had the bed on the left and found I slightly preferred the return journey from Penzance in E 09R (coach E, room 9, lower berth) which had the bed on the right. There doesn't appear to be much information when booking online about the L-R position of the bed, or on the ticket, so maybe ring up and ask (GWR

Charging phones
Happily you can charge your phone in the Shaver Only socket, though I'm sure you're not supposed to, using the two pin adaptor that we might once have taken to Europe ;) I was unconfident about the arrangement as the socket has three holes and my 2-pin (UK to EU) adaptor has two, but you 'pick a side'. The left and middle holes for 110V and the right and middle for 240V. Timidly I went for 110V and charged slowly, but the 240V would have been fine, from conversations I had on Twitter.

Paddington to Penzance on Night Riviera sleeper train - 23 June 2016
2-pin adaptor goes into either left (110V) OR
right (240V)  depending on voltage desigred

You can use the dial to change the temperature but I usually keep it on minimum, though did find the air a bit cold on the way out and made use of a very thin blanket that I'd brought with me around my neck. It was very toastie under the duvet anyway.

Each berth (my arrangement used only the lower berth) has its own light switches for the main light and the bed light. There are also light switches on the opposite side, high up, for a bluey teal night light and a low-level white light as well, so you needn't sleep in pitch darkness if you don't like that (I do). You'll always be able to see the phosphorescent emergency sign above the window illustrating the position of the hammer though.

Food and drink
There'll be a small bottle of water in your room, above the window and you get a choice of items for breakfast (cereal, coffee, tea, orange juice, croissant butter jam) brought on a tray. Plus buffet car.

If you're having tea make sure, when your breakfast tray arrives, that the FIRST thing you do is pop the tea bag into the hot water to brew. Don't pour yourself a cup of hot water without realising there's a bag in the cup.

There was a towel and a bar of soap.  

Haha. You can apparently connect to the wifi if you're near the buffet car but I didn't see a whiff of wifi on either of my journeys. In fact I had fairly poor signal (E on occasions) in Penzance and nothing but GPRS when on Isles of Scilly. 

They have two of them at each end of the carriage, doors are quite a bit narrower than usual (if you happen to have your bag on you). You can flush them when the train is at a station as they're 'fully tanked' apparently.

If you're leaving your cabin with valuables in you can flip the lock so that on pulling the door closed your cabin will be locked. Make sure you ask the train manager where they're most likely to be so that they can let you in again. I had only my iPhone, wallet and keys with me of value so kept them on me when I went to the loo and left my cabin unlocked with no problems. If I have a laptop I either bag it and take it with me or lock the door. If you can't find the train manager you can ask the buffet car people to radio them for you.

The journey and the sleeping
You're on a moving bed travelling quite fast for most of the journey with stops at stations, changes of direction, pitching and rolling. Apart from the regular station stops I found I slept more on this journey than on the Caledonian one - that's not necessarily a plus though, as I quite enjoy the waking up and going back to sleep bits ;) There are no stops between Reading and Taunton.

First-class lounge at Paddington
If you've paid to travel in a sleeper cabin (whether by yourself or shared) your ticket will grant you admission to the first-class lounge at Paddingon where you can get food, drink, charge up stuff etc.

Children, dogs, bicycles, couples
There were quite a few small children on the train (they were very quiet), presumably they slept in the upper bunk as I used to when little. According to the excellent Man in Seat Sixty One website smaller babies can be plonked in a bassinette on the floor, there's plenty of room for them. Dogs can go in the guard carriage but I'd want to know how dark and spooky it was going to be - even inside the cabin it's quite noisy and rattley and I can imagine a dog being quite frightened. Bicycles need to be booked in advance but can also be taken. Couples - as far as I can tell the Night Riviera doesn't seem to have the same gendered carriages that they have (or used to have) on the Caledonian Sleeper (where I've always been asked for my gender on booking, that didn't happen here) so presumably people can share a cabin, though good luck sharing one of the tiny beds!

Inward-bound journey from Penzance to Paddington
We were allowed to board at 21:15 for a 21:45 departure so there was a bit of standing around at the station where nothing much was open. I'd had a very nice Indian meal a few minutes walk away to tide me over. Arrival in Paddington is at 5:08 but you get booted out at 7am and the last breakfast is at 6am.

Stations we stopped at on my particular journey were -
  • Penzance
  • St Erth
  • Camborne
  • Redruth
  • Truro
  • St Austell
  • Par
  • Bodmin Parkway
  • Liskeard
  • Plymouth
  • Totnes
  • Newton Abbott
  • Exeter St David's
  • Taunton
  • Reading
  • London Paddington
Further reading
Wikipedia's article on the Night Riviera
Fabulously detailed information from Seat 61
Great Western Railway (GWR's) own page about the service.
Night riders: aboard the Paddington-Penzance sleeper train (The Guardian, 2013)