A lasting legacy of the last pandemic

Covid-19 has made us all change our habits.

And whilst most of us have not felt the urge to lick church floors or shrines, the WHO have still found it necessary to issue a list of things that don’t help protect against coronavirus.

So will our new found habits stop when a vaccine becomes available?

By mid 2021, will we all be back to our old ways or will there be a longer legacy?

In the wake of the Spanish Flu epidemic (and First World War…) the Panacea Society was formed and soon started a healing mission.

People could apply for a free pack of muslin squares which had been breathed on by their leader Mabel Barltrop.

Each pack came with instructions for use, which generally involved popping a square into a jug of water to dissolve/transmit some of the ‘healing’ before drinking or applying.

This rather bizarre and, in light of current understanding, somewhat unsanitary practice continued long after Mabel (who was meant to be immortal) had died. In total 130,000 people applied for the cure.

The last squares were sent out in 2013 with a rather sad letter informing them that as all the Panaceans were now departed, they were now on their own.

Maybe in 2113, there will be another letter like this informing the recipients that they too will have to find another cure.

If you would like to learn more about the work of the Panacea Trust, visit their website or read my article.

Top 10 tips for Orban’s empty tourist train

I’d heard about the ailing Vál Valley Light Railway in Felcsút near Budapest. It just isn’t attracting enough tourists. It was built three years ago with EU funding and was due to attract between 2,500 and 7,000 visitors a day. So far, it’s been averaging less than 70, with some days no tourists coming at all.

So while I was travelling through Hungary, I thought I would check it out and offer a tourist’s-eye-view of what may be going wrong.

Here are my top 10 tips for getting things back on track.

Tip 1: If you make a tourist attraction, you need to tell tourists how to get there

The railway’s website is one of the slickest I have seen with some very impressive drone footage and text in both Hungarian and English. Unfortunately, the English pages have only been partially filled in with the most notable omissions being the timetable and how to get there.

It feels like a job started with plenty of enthusiasm which just tailed off when it got to the boring details.

To find out how to get there, I had to switch to the Hungarian text and use Google Translate along with Google Maps.

First I took a train to Bicske which is only half an hour from Budapest and gives a glimpse of the real Hungary, warts and all.

That should have been all I needed to do to get the tourist train. After all, this railway was a reopening of a line that ran from Bicske. So what went wrong? See Tip 2.

Tip 2: Don’t employ football fans to build the railway

I find it really hard to simply walk passed any football match, even Sunday-league in the local park. Before I know it, I’m routing for one of the teams and muttering ‘advice and insight’ from the touchline.

And that is what seems to have happened when they rebuilt this part of the old Székesfehérvár- Bicske line. Instead of going all the way to Bicske, which would then connect to the railway network, they stopped short at the mightily impressive Pancho Arena a few miles away in Felcsút.

Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonder to behold and has a capacity twice as big as the town. If this were in Budapest, the arena would be able to seat 3 million people.

So I was now stuck in Bicske and I had to get a bus to Felcsút.

Asking bus drivers whether they went to Felcsút wasn’t too difficult. Understanding their replies was another matter, especially with a queue of people behind all itching to get on.

The good thing that came out of it was that I was able to sit and talk to a very nice old lady who was also waiting for a bus. No she didn’t know which bus I should catch…

Tip 3: Make the timetable legible

For unswerving enthusiasts like me who still want to go on the little train, publishing a photo of the timetable on your website means it can’t be put it through Google Translate, which is fine if you are only interested in Hungarian visitors.

I tried to catch the train from the top station at the arena, but the train didn’t turn up when I expected, so I filled my time by walking to the middle stop. This took me through the small town, which is incidentally the hometown of Prime Minister Victor Orban. What a coincidence…

The good news about my walk was that I was able to buy an ice cream on the way – I would be grateful for that sustenance later.

Tip 4: Actually open your cafe

I didn’t bring lunch with me as I had read that the middle station has a cafe. It was closed, which I suppose makes good financial sense when you don’t have any passengers.

I had enough time to walk back into Felcsút and past the array of barking dogs whose day I had made by walking past them the first time around. However, I decided instead to wait until the train had actually taken me somewhere and then I’d forage dog-free.

When the train arrived, no-one got off, so I must have been the first passenger of the day on my ride down to the final stop at Alcsút. The train driver and guard were very friendly. They rode in the cab together, presumably for a bit of company until I got on.

I decided to splash out on a ticket that would let me ride the full length of the line up and down. It was the least I could do.

Tip 5: Budget for breakages

Despite the railway being only three years old, it is already showing signs of wear and tear. At the top station, it looks like the wrong type of screws were used for the railings and they are already rusting. The plywood on the accessibility ramp is flaking away and as I later saw, several of the windows in the trains have large cracks in them.

This maintenance is all going to have to be funded somehow.

Tip 6: Tourists aren’t interested in seeing dad’s new mansion

Alcsút is the site of an old Hapsburg estate and an arboretum that is open to the public.

Going into the arboretum actually cost more than the little train and after reading about the dubious purchases of these old Hapsburg lands for Győző Orbán, father of the prime minister, Victor, I felt rather put off of going in.

Instead, I made do with wandering down the lanes and nibbling on a packet of sunflower seeds I had found at the bottom of my rucksack.

Tip 7: Give your staff a sense of purpose

When the train returned to pick me up, perhaps unsurprisingly no one got off and I was the only person to get on.

It made me wonder what it must be like to drive the diesel train up and down these tracks day in, day out with hardly anyone using it. However much you like trains, or at least having a job, it must feel pretty pointless.

So, how about giving your staff time off to go and fix the roof at the nearby school in Etyek where it was reported that mould spore counts exceeded WHO safe levels. Parents have had to club together to pay for basic repairs.

Tip 8: Find a rich benefactor

No, the EU isn’t a wealthy uncle. Or even if it is, they will keep poking their nose into other business interests which could become awkward.

Keeping the little train running, means finding someone with deep pockets who has an attachment to the place. If you can’t think of someone in the area who might want to give something back, how about going further afield?

My advice would be to write a polite letter to ex-pat George Soros asking for help.

Tip 9: Don’t turn away passing trade

I got off the train at the Pancho Arena having been, as far as I am aware, the only passenger that day. But on the platform were four people.

They were work colleagues and one of them was from the Ukraine. The other three wanted to show her some of the local sights after work and they were hoping to go for a little ride.

Unfortunately, this was the last scheduled stop. The train was going to back to the depot. No exceptions could be made, even if it would have quintupled their income for that day.

They didn’t seem too disappointed at missing out on the ride.

Tip 10: Leave this sort of thing to the experts

With my trips up and down this little line, something felt like it was missing, apart from passengers, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

Then I realised – enthusiasts.

Train lines that had been closed in places like the UK were reopened by volunteers.

All the little trains I had been on had been run by avid enthusiasts who gave up their free time to pursue their rail-based passion. Where was the gift shop manned by staff grudgingly selling Thomas the Tank Engine toys?

Where were the staff who wince at you for confusing a train with a locomotive and who simply have to tell you their gripe with current national transportation policy.

I love these people.

They keep the wheels on track and their questionably placed passion is, of a sort, infectious.

Let’s be clear, tourist attractions like this could be a great idea. Anyone with kids (or work colleagues from the Ukraine) want things to do.

It’s also not surprising that the local boy, who became prime minister would want to give something back to his hometown. Who wouldn’t?

But benefactors usually give their own money.

Links

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/07/a-village-fit-for-a-king-how-viktor-orban-had-a-football-stadium/

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/19/hungarian-prime-minister-viktor-orban-investigated-over-2m-eu-fu/

http://hungarianspectrum.org/2016/03/10/the-scandal-of-viktor-orbans-secret-estate/

https://www.valvolgyikisvasut.hu

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%A1l_Valley_Light_Railway

https://blog.atlatszo.hu/2019/08/eddig-17-millios-veszteseget-termelt-a-felcsuti-kisvasut-az-elmult-evben-17-nap-jart-uresen/

https://blog.atlatszo.hu/2017/07/tavasszal-meglodult-a-felcsuti-kisvasut-utasforgalma-friss-adatok-az-utasforgalomrol/

https://444.hu/2019/08/01/felcsuttol-16-kilometerre-penzt-gyujtenek-a-peneszes-tantermek-rendbehozatalara

Finding the lost edges of Transylvania

It was a real pleasure to meet Sandor Molnar the other day.

In his day job, Sandor works on the Via Maria – a cruciform shape of routes which link pilgrimage sites across central Europe. This will go on my to do list, jumping above the Camino de Santiago.

But I was here to talk to him about what he does in his spare time.

Since 2003 Sandor has organised walks along the old borders of what was the edge of a kingdom and an empire.

The Carpathians form a natural defensible boundary which in the east was home to the Székely, who were charged with defending the boundaries of Hungarian lands against the Ottomans.

The First World War and the subsequent Treaty of Trianon, saw Transylvania being ceded to Romania from the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border which had been so important, not just for the Hapsburgs but in earlier times Christendom as a whole, was now an internal border and much of the infrastructure was lost.

So Sandor has been leading expeditions along where the border would have been to see what they could find. In doing so, they have been following in the footsteps of the surveyors who during 1883-4 helped formalise where the border should go between what was then the Kingdoms of Hungary and Romania.

Sandor told me that in the first couple of years they didn’t come across anything – they only had a vague idea of what to look for. But with persistence, they started to uncover evidence, such as the following:

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Trianon is still a sensitive issue for many and some people would rather let sleeping dogs lie, but the artifacts Sandor has found give clues to the past and so have value to all of us, wherever we are from.

For those who want to know more Sandor has produced two guide books. One describes a trail along part of the eastern border from Valea Uzului through to Gyimes. The other follows a route in the south over the stunning Fagaras Mountains. A third is due out soon covering this year’s expedition.

Here are some photos of a recent expedition:

If you would like to get in contact with Sandor about the Via Maria or his border walks, visit http://hatarjarok.ro or contact Sandor at molnar.sandor@mariaut.ro

Things that could have avoided Brexit #47 – wiener schnitzels

My revelation came to me in a cafe in Vienna.

I was passing through Austria by train and had enough time to get some lunch. So, I went to a cafe on Keplerplatz and (when in Rome) ordered a wiener schnitzel.

I had been thinking about my previous day’s visit to the Parliamentarium, the EU Parliament’s visitor centre. Going there had been something of a pilgrimage, having found myself on the Remainer side of the Brexit chasm. But even without that, surely finding out how democracy works is a noble and worthwhile exercise. The trouble is, it’s all rather…dull.

So while I was in the cafe with a brace of schnitzels, working out how and where to start tucking in, I realised what is missing from the Parliamentarium.

When visiting Cadbury World at Bournville, you get given a handful of chocolate bars to scoff as you walk around. This doesn’t just bribe you into going round the exhibits, it engages your most susceptible senses in an immersive experience that will make you fall in love with Cadbury’s forever.

Every visitor to the Parliamentarium should be given a massive wiener schnitzel on entry.

Why?

Bear with me on this.

The Parliamentarium currently starts with an exhibit on the ruins of Europe in 1945. It might at first seem like a reasonable place to start. After all. isn’t that where the EU story starts?

No.

That just shows the motivation for creating the EU.

It would be like Cadbury World starting in 1824 with John Cadbury, but they don’t. They start with the Aztecs and the mighty Montezuma on his throne demanding his upteenth cup of cocoa.

So, while you are working out whether to continue nibbling your Fruit’n’Nut or switch to a Curly Wurly, you have more empathy with the Aztec guys who had no idea that their civilisation was about to come to a devastating end.

At the turn of the 20th Century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire couldn’t sate its appetite for schnitzels and sausages and was a big importer of pork from Serbia.

Being the big-boys of MittelEuropa, Austria-Hungary didn’t like little Serbia attempted to get out of stifling trade agreements and the Pig War ensued in 1906. By 1908 other big-boys like Russia got involved leading to a grudging peace.

The lack of an adequate resolution meant there was constant tension in which it only took one anarchist and a vain archduke who wouldn’t use buttons to provide a pretext for war in 1914.

If we learned all of this while munching our flesh frisbees, perhaps we might get a better feel for why the Hapsburgs would gamble prosperous MittelEuropa in a quest for even more power and control.

We’d also, as with Cadbury World, develop a deep subliminal attachment to Brussels, equating EU directives with porky treats.

Transylvanian clothes shopping and Brexit

I’m nearing the end of my visit to the Transylvanian town of Miercurea Ciuc. I’ve run out of clean clothes and it’s also time for that rather deflating hunt for souvenirs. I can’t come home empty handed, but do I really need to bring back another armful of tat?

So when I come across a clothes shop with a sign saying ‘Second Hand’ and a big Union Jack painted alongside, I have a brainwave. 

How about I get myself some clean clothes and some pressies from here. 

I’m doing the eco-friendly reuse thing, I get a chance to moralise about waste and I get a big tick in the ironic present buying box. 

I take a peek inside. The retail space consists of a series of wooden bins. The things in each one look vaguely sorted into how you’d get dressed. First underwear, then t-shirts, shirts, blouses, trousers, skirts and jumpers with boots & shoes thrown into the final bin.

But no prices anywhere, so what does it all cost?

I was directed to a sign. 

Monday: 18 Lei per kilo – about £3, Tuesday: 16 Lei, Wednesday: 13 Lei, all the way down to Saturday when clothes can be bought for a bargain 5 Lei – just £1 per kilo. That’s about the same price as a bag of spuds.

Alas, it’s Monday. I seem to have come on the wrong day and I’ll be paying top whack.

But no! A fellow shopper explains how it all works. New(ish) clothes come over from the UK every Sunday. Monday shoppers get first pick and pay a premium for the privilege. 

I may be digging deep into my pockets today, but at least I get the finest pre-loved threads Britain has to offer.

It occurs to me that, whatever the actual quality of the stuff here, the fact that the shop owners are proudly displaying that the clothes are from Britain says something. Bringing clothes from Blighty means travelling through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Hungary. What’s so great about the clothes coming from the UK?

Despite the political bickering with our ‘European Friends’ over the last three years, being British still counts for something. 

Today, back in Westminster, politicians are arguing over the hows, whens and ifs of Brexit and it’s with that in mind I realise there is, as yet, one unemployed argument for a ‘clean break’ .

If the ports get snarled up with customs checks, the weekly clothes vans into Transylvania may get delayed by a few days and local shoppers will be able to get their hands on the good stuff on the cheap days.

Boom!

Hmm, there’s a flaw in this argument somewhere… 

But before that thought finishes, I realise that my clean clothes/souvenir hunting will have to take place somewhere else.

A closer inspection of the bins reveals a problem. 

If there’s one thing the clothes here could really do with, it’s a good wash.

Demystifying your tech (with a bit of help from Confucius and Tolstoy)

There must be a word for that simultaneous feeling of awe, helplessness, bafflement and frustration we feel with the technology we rely on, or at least there should be.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is great. There’s an affordable gadget or app for almost anything and most of the time, they just work.

Until they don’t.

Take smartphones: I have a drawer of old phones which haven’t broken, but are now too slow doing the same things they used to do in a flash. The apps need a newer operating system, which can’t be updated and so they go in the drawer. Not to mention all the little gadgets – fitness trackers, satnavs, wireless routers…

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Farmers in the Indus Valley 5,000 years ago must have been flummoxed (perhaps that’s the right word…) when their ploughs broke. They probably couldn’t fix them by themselves either and would need to start being nice to the local blacksmith, but at least they had an idea of what was wrong.

I bet they didn’t get broken-tech deja vu. My phone stopped working when I dropped it in a rock pool, so I opened the cover only to find another cover underneath. It replayed that feeling of opening the bonnet of my broken car, only to find another cover underneath.

And let’s not get started on data – the information being gathered by all our technology and sent who knows where. Of course I’ve consented to it – who wants to read all the terms and conditions?

However, Confucius can help us:

Give someone a fish and feed them for a day, but teach them to fish…

Technology is the post-industrial fish that we should learn to catch, even if we would prefer to go to the supermarket.

So, I wanted to go ‘fishing’, but what type of metaphorical fish should I catch and what tackle should I use?

For my ‘fish’, I decided I wanted to make something that could help me improve at fencing. I took it up after visiting the Engarde fencing school in Haapsalu, Estonia and I am rubbish. Maybe a bit of tech could help me.

At this point, it’s worth noting that I can write code, so I have a bit of a headstart. Nevertheless, I tried to approach this from the point of view of someone who might know nothing.

For the ‘tackle’, I picked out three different prototyping platforms.
– Arduino
– Raspberry Pi
– BBC Micro:bit

Arduino

Arduino was originally made to help students at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea, Italy to produce their own electronics. The hardware is inexpensive and there is plenty of help to get you writing your own software.

Because they made everything freely open for others to copy, there are a number of companies who offer Arduino compatible components.

I bought a Bluefruit Feather from Adafruit to provide the brains and communication and a Propmaker to measure my movement.

The two bits needed soldering together, which I made a complete pig’s ear of. But despite the ugliness, the board did work.

Adafruit provided instructions on how to get your devices up and running along with some examples. After running the sample code I decided to get cracking on my own thing which is when I realised the problem.

My gadget needs to be able to talk to other things. All the samples were for the device but there weren’t simple examples for the thing it needs to talk to, like a smartphone. This device would do that using Bluetooth, in much the same way a fitness tracker would.

Eventually I got there but it took a lot of digging around and trawling not just through Adafruit documentation but also that of the manufacturer, Nordic, who make the chip that sits on the Bluefruit board. I also read up about Bluetooth standards.

By then end, I felt like a Bluetooth ninja and it had one unexpected outcome.

The next time my partner’s fitness tracker failed to sync with the app on her smartphone, I felt myself taking the side of the little device. Now I had learned how heart monitors and fitness trackers talk to smartphones and was seeing its point of view. I empathised and sympathised with it.

Or as Teo Tolstoy put it:

Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. (Understanding everything is forgiving everything)

Then, just as things were fitting into place, the accelerometer stopped working. I guessed it was because of the abuse it received at the end of my soldering iron – again, I was taking its side.

Conclusion:
This platform is best suited for people who really want to dive deep into electronics, have some coding knowledge and have the skills to write that software that will talk to it as well.

Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is a charity based in the UK to make computing and electronics accessible. The devices they make are small cheap Linux (an alternative to Windows or Mac) machines with plenty of accessories for electronics projects. There are also lots of examples to work on.

This was perfect for me, I have regularly worked with Linux machines over the years and so starting this up and communicating with it was like talking to an old friend.

However, again, I struggled with Bluetooth. Things became easier when I changed libraries but I found the process a bit tricky and again, the key was making something (in my case on an Android phone) for the Raspberry Pi to talk to.

Conclusion:
This is a great platform for software engineers who already know Linux. There’s a lot of help for beginners but a project like mine would probably put most newbies off.

BBC Micro:bit

Micro:bit started as an initiative to make sure every Year 7 school kid in the UK could have a go at programming and electronics.
Plug it into a computer and get started using blocks. Then when you feel more confident (or frustrated with blocks) move on to writing JavaScript or Python.

There are plenty of starter projects to get familiar with the features. Crucially, work has also been done to provide simple connectivity to other devices such as Android. A programme is provided by MIT to make it easy to write code for your Android device using blocks.

Having both parts of the puzzle was the game changer. Rather than needing to dig deep to understand Bluetooth, the examples just work and you can get on with what to do with the information once it’s on your phone.

There are working examples on how to show the information on screen or upload it to a spreadsheet in the Cloud. I decided to use my existing knowledge to make a nice Android app with some pretty graphs.

I also made something to hold the Micro:bit while I’m practising. In entrepreneurial fashion, I have named it the smartSock(™) (I made it from an old thickSock).

Now I have no excuses for not being a fencing champ. Touche!

Conclusion:
Pretty much anyone should be able to get started making their own things and learning how technology works. How far you take it is up to you.

It’s nice to know that the next generation, at least in the UK, will grow up learning how to make their own tech, even if they do end up buying most of it. And it’s not too late for any of us to have a go.

We may not end up making anything that useful (I doubt my fencing will really improve), but at least we will learn how these things work. And by doing so, perhaps be more at one with our tech.

Meanwhile, it’s time for me to get practising my fencing moves.