Edinburgh Festival... Day Two

September 5, 2011

Day two began with the best intentions - I woke up early, fully intending to go for a run around the meadows. It only took about thirty seconds of being awake for me to realise that wasn’t going to happen, so I went back to sleep for another hour. By about 8.30 the waking up was really beginning to take hold, so we relented and got up.

Usual morning operations completed (including Lisa having to conclude delicate negotiations with reception for the use of a hairdryer), we headed out into town. The first show of the day was up at C-too, at St Columbus by the Castle, so we had our first experience of trying to get anywhere near the Royal Mile at festival time. It appears that at festival time the Royal Mile essentially becomes a solid mass of people. Some of them want you to come to their show. Some of them want you to go to someone else’s show. Many of them want to give you a leaflet. Some of them just want to perform a show for you in the street. I hate crowds. I hate people walking slowly. It was not a happy start to the day.

Luckily we got to the venue in time to have a sit down in the church garden outside the venue and have a coffee. The weather again was glorious, so we were able to sit in the early morning sun and soak up the warmth and admire the views over south Edinburgh. Again, writing this now, I think I probably should have taken some photos, but I didn’t. Just go there and see it yourself, it’s much better.

The show we were going to see was “Love’s Labour’s Lost”. To be honest, once we got into the venue I was a bit worried as it seemed to be being performed by young people. I have strong views about ‘young people’, and those views seem to be getting worse as I get older. Luckily though, these young people were of the talented variety, and put on a pretty good show. I’d never seen or read the play before, so can’t compare it to the source, but the production was well done and well acted, and they’d gone down the current trendy route of inserting modern songs and cultural references into a shakespeare play, but carried it off well. It was again a thoroughly enjoyable hour, and it’s always nice to kick the day off with a bit of culture.

Following the show we wandered around the old town for a bit in search of a postbox, then sought out lunch. We then headed down to the BBC pop-up venue on Potterrow, where our next show was. This was actually what I was calling ‘Richard Herring Day’, as we had two shows from the man himself in one day. First up was a ‘festival special’ recording of his Radio 4 show ‘Richard Herring’s Objective’. I liked the BBC venue because they seemed not to believe in queues, instead giving you a numbered sticker on arrival then calling you in to the venue by number when it was time for the show. This means the people that get there first still get the best seats, but also get to wander around, go get drinks, look at other things etc, rather than standing around in a queue. Unfortunately as we’d decided to call at the Pear Tree for a swift pint before the show we were somewhere at the back of the virtual queue. We still got in though (free BBC shows are over-sold to make sure there’s a full audience to make it sound good on the radio) and were entertained by Mr Herring and his guests: Emma Kennedy and Susan Calman. The show was funny, but it dragged in parts - and to be honest the unscripted moments were probably the funniest moments, particularly the parts that went wrong and had to be re-recorded. The casual racism against the Scots was highly amusing and brave given that it was performed in the middle of Edinburgh.

We had a couple of hours free then before the next show, so did a bit more walking around the city, called for a couple of drinks, got some dinner, then headed down to Bristo Square. As we stood in the queue outside the venue drinking some weird festival ale we got chatting to the man in the queue next to us, who was an American. A real live foreigner and everything. Strangely enough, he was only in Edinburgh for a couple of days and was heading to Cardiff afterwards to go sightseeing - apparently the appeal of Doctor Who and Torchwood is greater than we’d imagined, as he was quite a fan and was visiting solely because of those shows. We gave him a bit of travel advice, hopefully he survived the visit.

The show we were queuing for was Richard Herring again, this time for his main show “What is Love Anyway?”. It’s getting a bit boring to say, but this was yet another brilliant hour of comedy. Very honest and at times emotional comedy, but full of laughs and well worth a watch. Unsurprisingly the subject of the show was love, and how us humans use and abuse it, how we deal with it, and an attempt to discover what it really is. Loved the show.

After the show we headed over to Pleasance Courtyard to meet up with one of Lisa’s colleagues who was also up in Edinburgh. We had a couple of drinks, swapped some show reviews and tips and had a bit of a chat. The place was swarming in comedians, some well known faces being left (relatively) alone, some less well known trying to convince people to come see their shows. After a while we all headed back towards the flats (they were staying in the same place), but me and Lisa decided there was time for another drink, so headed off to the pub.

Shows: 3
Pints: 8
Meals: too many noodles
Herring: twice

Edinburgh Festival... Day One (The Shows)

August 25, 2011

Our first show was Dave Gorman at Assembly at the George Square Lecture Theatre, so after checking in we headed straight over there. We sat in the sun on the steps outside the venue and supped a couple of pints of Deuchars. We shouldn’t have bothered, it was served so cold you couldn’t taste anything, although maybe that was a blessing seeing as it came from a bar inside a shipping container and was served in a plastic cup. If you’re going to get beer in you at the festival there is very little room for beer snobbery. Luckily I’m not a beer snob, so I got some in me.

Down the street a little way some street entertainers were doing a show with tightrope walking and juggling and unicycling, amusing a crowd that had gathered in the corner of the square to watch. Across the road the sounds of other shows spilled out of tents in the Square. It was a nice introduction to the atmosphere of the festival.

While we hadn’t planned on it, we found ourselves very close to the front of the queue for the show, so after queueing for a short while we headed in and were rewarded with really good seats very close to the front of the theatre.

Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation” did exactly what it said on the tin: Dave Gorman stood up and did a powerpoint presentation. Of course, there was a bit more to it than that, it was basically an incredibly funny sequence of things that Dave had found interesting or amusing recently, all presented in brilliant fashion. The topic flowed from why people insist on calling him a jewish comedian, through mobile phone advertising and on to making a bit of trouble with Jim Davidson. Dave was energetic and amusing, in all it was a thoroughly brilliant hour of comedy and a great start to the festival. Also nice for it not to be ‘Dave Gorman has a wacky adventure and then tells you about it’, as he is sometimes accused of doing.

Following the show we grabbed another icy pint of beer and ‘debated’ what/where to eat. The ‘debate’ was finally settled with a rubbish but expensive slice of pizza and we headed up to the Pleasance Dome for the other show of the evening. “Arthur Smith’s Pissed Up Chat Show” was another show that did exactly what the name suggested. Arthur Smith hosts a chat show in which his guests are very drunk - certified at the beginning via a breathalyser test. Arthur himself hasn’t drunk since 2002 after almost dying from it, so it’s interesting to hear his take on booze mixed in with the drunken ramblings of his guests. Tonights guest was Julian Sands, who did a very good line in drunken recitation of Harold Pinter poems. It was another really great hour of laughing, but with a kind of serious message at its heart. It finished with a group sing song, and for some reason the lyrics were held aloft by a naked girl. Not sure how she was relevant, but that seems to be the way of things on the fringe.

Out of the gig, thinking about heading off to grab another drink, evidently having not learnt from the moral of the show, and were surprised by Walter appearing from nowhere. He was up for the weekend, and we’d suggested meeting up, but hadn’t been able to coordinate schedules enough. He’d changed plans while we were in the last show though, so we spent a nice half an hour talking to him and his friend, before parting and heading off into the night.

The final mission of the evening was simple: secure supplies for the flat. A Tesco was located and supplies were procured, we returned triumphant to make a quick bit of toast for supper. Our triumph was soon ended when we spent ten minutes trying to get the combination microwave/oven/grill to actually grill the bread before realising there was a toaster on the kitchen counter all along. Figuring that was probably a sign that the travelling all day had probably taken its toll, an end was called to proceedings. Day one at the fringe was done.

Miles travelled: at least a million
Shows: 2
Pints: 4
Meals: not enough
Naked people: 1

Edinburgh 2011.... Day One (The Journey)

August 25, 2011

Despite having lived in Edinburgh for almost a year on and off while doing my MSc, I’ve never been up there at festival time. We decided to rectify this, so earlier on in the year (way earlier on in the year) we booked some accommodation for the second week of the festival and made our plans to hit the city for a festival holiday. Over a few posts I’ll describe in laborious detail what we did, what we saw, and what we (or I) thought of it. Which you’ll enjoy, I’m sure.

Getting to Edinburgh from Cardiff is pretty easy, but fairly expensive. You can fly, drive, or get the train. Flying is pretty quick, but moderately expensive. The train is pretty cheap if booked in advance, but takes a long time and if you don’t book in advance it basically requires the sale of your first born son to get a ticket. (Don’t get me started on the cost of rail travel blah blah blah). I didn’t bother to work out the cost of driving in our car; given the appalling state of it I wasn’t totally convinced it could do another trip up to Scotland and back - for sure if we were going to drive we’d need to get ‘whatever it is that makes the funny noise while braking’ fixed, plus the petrol, and we had nowhere to park up there, and there’s the whole actually having to drive 500 miles thing. After some back and forth we settled on getting the train. Luckily, because we’re the organised type (read: Lisa is organised and drags me along for the ride) we were on the ball for the advance tickets, and managed to get singles from Cardiff to Manchester for £13 each, then from Manchester to Edinburgh for £17ish each, (and the same on the way back), giving us a return cost of £60 each - pretty good.

We caught a nice early train out of Cardiff on a Sunday morning, bagged a table seat and sat back for the million hour trip to Manchester. Unfortunately for us it seemed like everyone in the world wanted to take the same train as us, by the time we got to Hereford it was rammed. A nice man (ex quality assurance chap with a nice terrier dog) took one of the seats opposite us, and he was soon joined by a skinhead Chelsea fan on his way to Stoke to watch the match. I managed to bury myself in my laptop watching a movie, leaving Lisa to make polite conversation. Ha. From what I can gather the conversation seemed to revolve around working out the price of drinks when serving at a bar. Or ‘mental arithmetic’ as it’s sometimes known. The train from Manchester was a bit better in terms of overcrowding, but not much. This time the conversation was totally football dominated. We sat by a young guy from Sunderland, who wasn’t just an avid Sunderland fan, he was an avid football fan. He seemed to know every player in every team in the whole football league, and every transfer that had occurred over summer. Usually when people ask who I support, and I reply ‘Shrewsbury Town’, there then follows a long conversation explaining what exactly that is, and inevitably there’s some explanation about how there’s a whole bunch of football going on aside from the premier league. Not with this guy - within a millisecond of the words ‘Shrewsbury Town’ leaving my mouth he was engaging me in conversation about the town players he’d played with when he was at Carlisle, where the ex-manager was now, how his son was doing, how we were looking for the new season, and on and on. Once he got going there was no stopping him. Some Scottish guys got on at Preston, and it was soon revealed that this chap’s football knowledge didn’t stop at English football - oh no, he could engage the Scots in any amount of conversation about the SPL as well. I wondered for a bit what he could do with a memory and passion like his if he applied it to something other than chasing Sunderland up and down the country and harvesting in every bit of football columnist opinion he could find. It scared me a bit, so I stopped talking to him and read my book instead. At some point I fell asleep, and when I woke up he’d gone. Probably had a five a side match to get to.

We got into Edinburgh at about 5.30pm. It was gloriously sunny and warm, and it felt good to be there. I’ve always loved the city, more than any other I’ve found myself in. Most times I’ve been there I’ve arrived by train into Waverley, so walking up out of the station felt right and a bit like coming home. It’s a strange feeling to experience in a city that you’ve spent a relatively short amount of time in, but I was genuinely excited to arrive back in Edinburgh again. Our accommodation was only a ten/fifteen minute walk from the station so we headed straight there to get checked in before our first show.

We booked accommodation in March of this year, opting for a University run studio apartment in the city centre, in the Richmond Place Apartments. Edinburgh University actually give alumni discount when booking rooms in _some_ of their halls and holiday flats, but not the ones we booked, so it came in at about £100 a night. Fairly pricey, but pretty cheap by festival standards, especially considering the location and the facilities available.

The accommodation is actually in a university halls of residence - basically it seems the university have converted a floor of a residence tower block into studio apartments. Above the apartments are six or seven floors of normal university halls. Because it was summer I guess the place was pretty empty and therefore pretty quiet, although there did seem to be some students coming and going. I can imagine in term time it must be a pretty noisy place to stay, but in summer and at festival time it’s fine. The flat itself was really nice, way better than my house; although that’s not hard to achieve. The room itself was decently sized, you could swing a cat in it for sure. It was kitted out with all mod-cons, everything one could want for a week away in Edinburgh. About here would be a good place for a picture, but I don’t have any, because I forgot to take any - if you are desperate to get an idea of what the place is like, go here and click the link for 'Richmond Place studio apartment; with mezzanine. Our room was almost exactly different from that, while being pretty much the same.

So, we checked in, threw clothes in the wardrobe, and left to go get some festival…

Why write?

August 24, 2011

It’s a fairly sensible question: why do I write anything here? There aren’t going to be that many people reading, if any. Probably the only people that come past are going to be the other people in COMSC having a nose around to see what people are putting on their websites, and the few visitors I get from the random google searches that seem to appear in my analytics reports every now and again. Also probably my mum, because she’s a bit of an an internet stalker. Hi mum.

Despite the fact that no-one is reading, I think it’s important for me to write fairly regularly. It’s a good skill to practice and keep up, and I feel that even in these post-blog social network dominated days, the writing of a few lengthy blog posts on a particular topic every now and then is a fairly healthy habit to get into. The other reason to post regularly is the hope that when I post a bit of code that I’ve been working on, or an explanation of some work, someone somewhere will find it useful. So, I’ll continue to post, until I get bored.

With that in mind, recently I went back up to Edinburgh for a week for the festival. Because I have little work I feel like (or feel is ready for) writing about on here but still feel that writing semi-regularly is good for me, I’m going to post some reviews of my week up here. Almost a ‘what I did on my holidays’ type thing. So look forward to that over the next week or so.

More Augmented Conversation

August 4, 2011

Another update on the summer project? Already? Yes.

The project is really cracking on. We’re two weeks from the end and beginning to see the results roll in, every meeting brings a new version of the software with more functionality. Nick has successfully written a nice framework that allows us to input conversations and automatically retrieve search results based on the topics of those conversations. Even the voice input works (almost) and we’ve got enough time to try and move on to some content extraction ideas. I’ve now written a script to do some automatic evaluation and we’re in a position to subject the attendees of next week’s mobisoc meeting to a human evaluation, which I’m sure will be fun for all concerned.

CUROP summer project update

July 12, 2011

I figure it’s about time I posted an update on the summer project that myself and Ian are supervising. Our summer student Nick is now two weeks into the project and seems to be getting to grips nicely with the problem. He also seems to be coping pretty well with two novice supervisors babbling away at him whenever we meet up! If he leaves the office without being completely overwhelmed with information I think it’s been a successful meeting.

So far Nick has managed to code some software that takes textual input, passes it to several web services for keyword detection and then performs searches for relevant content on Google, Yahoo! and Bing. The next stage is to get to grips with the temporal nature of conversations so that the keyword detection and searches are carried out continually, with some control of time scales and how much text is used as input. After that we’ll start to look at algorithms for combining keywords to get the most successful search queries possible. Meanwhile, we need to come up with a human evaluation that isn’t going to make everyone at MobiSoc hate us when we ask them to do it, and an algorithmic evaluation that makes sense and actually evaluates the right parts of the system.

Overall though we’re ahead of schedule, which is a very good place to be. I’ll continue to post about progress as the project goes on.

WowMom 2011

June 29, 2011

Last week I attended WowMom 2011 in Lucca, Italy. The conference was pretty good, but I was mainly there for the Autonomic and Opportunistic Computing (AOC) workshop where I was presenting some work, as I mentioned in an earlier post. The workshop was really interesting, a lot of the work was relevant to work we’d done in the past on the SocialNets project and work we’re doing in the future with the Recognition project. There were some very interesting discussions on areas such as mobility models and mobility traces and the capturing of user data, particularly in the keynote from Tristan Henderson and also in the panel session at the end of the day. I also met some very interesting people from around the place and hopefully will run into them again at some conference or other down the line.

I’ve just got to sort through all my notes now so I can talk about it all at MobiSoc tomorrow lunchtime!

Bad Foursquare Day...

June 17, 2011

I can understand losing mayorships, but when it’s somebody close to you and she steals two from you in one day, it’s ridiculous:

I will have my revenge…

Curop Project

June 14, 2011

Some excellent news yesterday as we’ve heard that we’ve got the CUROP funding for the summer project that I previously mentioned.

All being well, it should start within the next couple of weeks, so I’ll update with the progress once there is some!

Logging in to websites with python

June 9, 2011

As previously explained, I needed a python script to login to a website so I could access data. There’s loads of examples out on the web of how to do this, my solution (mashed together from many examples) is described below. For the whole script, jump to the end.

Firstly, we need to set some simple variables about the website we’re trying to log in to. Obviously, I’m trying to login to myfitnesspal, but this process should work with most websites that use a simple form + cookie based login process. We need to set the url we are trying to access, where to post the login information to, and a file to store cookies in:

# url for website        
base_url = 'http://www.myfitnesspal.com'
# login action we want to post data to
login_action = '/account/login'
# file for storing cookies
cookie_file = 'mfp.cookies'

Then we need to setup our cookie storage, and url opener. We want the opener to be able to handle cookies and redirects:

import urllib, urllib2
import cookielib

# set up a cookie jar to store cookies
cj = cookielib.MozillaCookieJar(cookie_file)

# set up opener to handle cookies, redirects etc
self.opener = urllib2.build_opener(
# pretend we're a web browser and not a python script
opener.addheaders = [('User-agent',
('Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_6_7) '
'AppleWebKit/535.1 (KHTML, like Gecko) '
'Chrome/13.0.782.13 Safari/535.1'))

Next we need to open the front page of the website once to set any initial tracking cookies:

# open the front page of the website to set
# and save initial cookies
response = opener.open(base_url)
Then finally we can call the login action with our username and password and login to the website:
<pre># parameters for login action
login_data = urllib.urlencode({
'username' : 'my_username',
'password' : 'my_password',
'remember_me' : True
# construct the url
login_url = base_url + login_action
# then open it
response = opener.open(login_url, login_data)
# save the cookies and return the response

The parameters for the POST request (and the action to POST to) can usually be found by examining the source of the login page.

There you have it - you should now be logged into the website and can access any pages that the logged in user can normally access through a web browser. Any calls using the ‘opener’ created above will present the right cookies for the logged in user. The cookies are saved to file, so next time you run the script you can check for cookies, try and use them, and only re-login if that doesn’t work.

My full version is attached to this post, it’s under a CC-BY-SA license, so feel free to use it for whatever.

Quite how this will cope when websites catch up to the new EU cookie legislation is anyone’s guess. My guess is it won’t.