In the spirit that this blog is home to content posted elsewhere, I wrote this earlier on Facebook.
UK Radio geeks always remember 1 September
I don’t remember the pirate radio ships of the 60s; my introduction to the world of the wireless came from the back of an AA Member’s Handbook where all Britain’s local radio stations were listed. In 1979 that list was probably fewer than two pages. The majority of UK radio listening was to national networks and the BBC hand a monopoly on those. The English service of Radio Luxembourg suffered on AM at night. It was only ever “the great 208” when I was on holiday in France, being the only English language radio station I could find.
Local radio was made up of a handful of BBC stations in a fairly random collection of towns and the fledgling Independent Radio Network. Where I lived, BBC Radio Blackburn (from 1981, Radio Lancashire) was our nearest BBC local and Piccadilly from Manchester and Radio City from Liverpool vied for their place as the North West’s biggest station. When I was nine years old, Piccadilly won because the Pete Baker breakfast show had the best jingles.
Today, with wall-to-wall pop hits on TV and radio channels (as well as all the world’s music available in a single app or on-demand videos from YouTube), it’s unimaginable that until 1988 needle time rules prevented broadcasters playing more than a few hours of recorded music. All radio was filled with speech and specialist programmes, or royalty free soundalike covers.
In 1984 somebody took a ship with a transmitter on it out into international waters in the North Sea and launched a 1980s version of the pirates, Laser 558. By then I was living in Shrewsbury and the signal was just about strong enough. Outside of the music rules – and really, outside of most of the broadcast law – it played non-stop pop hits for most of the day. Sadly, it didn’t last long.
In 1989 the Irish state broadcaster, RTÉ, teamed up with the Radio Luxembourg owners, RTL, to create a pop music station with a powerful AM transmitter that reportedly could reach over 40 million people.
On 1st September 1989, from somewhere in Ireland, Atlantic 252 launched an all-day pop format which was unique: there was nothing quite like it on the air. You know the station had an impact because, on this day each year, somebody, somewhere, writes a note about it to commemorate the day. I first did it in 2004 but I see no reason not to do it again.
I guess the station’s peak was the early 1990s. By the mid-90s radio across the UK was able to play more and more music and FM was everywhere. It didn’t stop people launching AM stations. On this day (1st September) in 1994, Country 1035 launched on AM in London and lasted a few years (also, in later years, with input from RTL). It doesn’t seem to have had quite such an impact because you don’t find too many people commemorating that launch each year.
If you were expecting some kind of thrilling denouement to the train trilogy, sadly, Network Rail, South West Trains and South Western Railway look like they’ve managed the whole thing rather well considering that to do the work hundreds of trains had to be cut and thousands of people had to change their plans.
The three greatest movie trilogies of all time, according to Empire magazine, are (at 3) Back to the Future, (at 2) the original Star Wars films and (top of the pops) The Lord of the Rings. Once I have sold the film rights to this site then my current thread of posts will be competing for the top spot.
If you’re not up-to-date here’s a handy recap montage: last month’s #SOLS post was about the Battle of Waterloo (the station not the Duke of Wellington battle) and, a few days later my ‘Will Commuters Even Notice‘ became a (not-quite) best seller on Medium. Both discussed the state of the trains, major engineering works and the small matter of the change of franchise on the railway lines into London Waterloo station. Assuming all is on-track (every pun intended) then Network Rail will give us our trains back on Tuesday morning.
If you see this series as ‘Lord of the Rings’ then this is the thrilling conclusion to the story. If you think of this collection more like ‘Back to the Future’ then this is the weakest of the three with a mixed plot including some strange wild west space theme. If you’re thinking that this series more of a Star Wars classic then you are sadly deluded and I don’t know that you should read any further without seeking help.
In the run-up for the engineering works, the poor people running the South West Trains publicity and Twitter machines went into overdrive reminding everybody to prepare for delays. There were plenty of warnings on the trains (see the picture on my last post). My personal favourite tweet warned of the End of Days (which, if you think about it, makes this more Lord of the Rings than Back to the Future) and you really only get the effect if you click through to the actual tweet:
At my local station we even got a sneak preview of the queuing system we’d be expected to stand in for 20 minutes each morning.
And then came Monday morning. The alarm went off 45 minutes earlier and, with some trepidation, I made my way to the station. There was some of those crowd control people I previously mentioned, lined-up to help the masses form an orderly queue. But there was a problem with all the planning: there were no crowds. For most of the time, I’ve had a seat on a partially empty train at a time I was warned I’d have to queue. Pulling into Clapham Junction station at around 7am would usually find a platform crowded with commuters trying to find a space: this week more people got off the train at Clapham than got on. It was emptier leaving the station than it was on approach. People have vanished.
Response to the #WaterlooUpgrade on Twitter seems to have come in three main topics: those who are frustrated that the train timings have changed; those that campaigned for some money back because of the disruption (even after 14 months of warnings) and those who expressed shock that South West Trains were, suddenly, quite pleasant to ride at morning peak times.
Sadly, it was’t all free ice creams and a seat on a train. If you are completely changing the way you use the infrastructure around Waterloo station, I imagine you’ll find things that break when they previously didn’t. So, of course, there have been failures and problems and the temporary timetable extended every journey into Waterloo. Quite early on there was a derailment which, in turn, meant extra days were added to the most severe service reductions on the last weekend. As Modern Railways said, “every sinew will have to be stretched to hold the service together”. (1)
And in the middle of it all, with not a great deal of fanfare but a few little touches, Stagecoach bowed out and handled the franchise torch to South Western Railways. A couple of stickers and a logo, or two, added in places. The announcements were updated and my train was now a “South Western Railways service to London Waterloo” but it looked, and behaved, the same as always. When railways are franchised to private operators I believe it’s important to know who is actually running (and profiting from) the service. For the south west region, I think it’s going to take some time for the new company’s brand to land and, even longer, for people to know that this it’s a totally different company. Still, in the midst of all the disruption, a launch party would have been inappropriate.
If you were expecting some kind of thrilling denouement to the train trilogy, sadly, Network Rail, South West Trains and South Western Railway look like they’ve managed the whole thing rather well considering that to do the work hundreds of trains had to be cut and thousands of people had to change their plans.
Sadly, the #SOLS timetable means I am posting this when there are still a 36 hours until the resumption of regular services and anything could happen. Over-runing engineering works would hardly be something new. And unfortunately, there will be limited improvements to the old timetabled services until December so it might look like this work was in vein. Plus, there’s the added pressure that, as part of the final stage of the London Bridge Thameslink works, South Eastern trains need to use some platforms at Waterloo from Tuesday. But, given what could have happened, there has been considerably less chaos than predicted and I am grateful for that.
South West Trains, South Western Trains. You say tomato.
In January 2016, it was reported that my local train operator, South West Trains had achieved 81% customer satisfaction. It always seems to me that there is a general feeling that our trains are no good but I think that’s a pretty decent figure. So, when Transport Focus’ autumn 2016 survey reported that the number was 83%, you’d think the company was moving in the right direction, wouldn’t you
As I noted in my piece about the upcoming disruption (starting in just a few hours) at Britain’s busiest station, London Waterloo, there are already plans to increase capacity by 30%. This increase is, in part, achieved by lengthening platforms to allow longer trains to run. This is in addition to the extension of most of the suburban platforms on the network and the extra carriages introduced in 2015/6 as well as the previously announced £210 million Desiro City trains that are due to enter service after the works are complete (part of the “biggest increase in capacity on this network for decades” [source]) adding 150 new carriages.
Given the frequency of trains at peak hours, this must mean that the lines are pretty full. From my local station, there are 12 off-peak trains per hour (or 1 every 5 minutes) into Waterloo. Network Rail are squeezing extra capacity in but that means massive disruption to get us there. But what next?
Well, despite all these longer platforms, extra trains and high customer satisfaction score, South West Trains lost their franchise. From August 20 2017, and for the next 7 years, First MTR South Western Trains Ltd (a joint venture between & Hong Kong’s MTR Corp) will run the service.
South West Trains been the only private operator of the service since I moved to London. Prior to 4 Feb 1996 the service was public, part of British Rail’s Network South East operations. I imagine over the coming months somebody may repaint the train. I’m sure there will be stickers over the old logo and I imagine that there will lots of promotion for new a shiny new web site and some new social media feeds.
But, really, will anybody actually notice?
South West Trains, South Western Trains. You say tomato.
Of course, franchises are not awarded on train colours or fancy logos. They’re awarded on the promises of service and money (this franchise is actually a net contributor to UK finances). I can’t argue the money part (see this article about “payments over the core period with a real net present value of £2·6bn”) because I can’t really work out who spaying who at any point in time. So, I’m looking at their services,
“Simpler fares with pay as you go smart cards” seems to me to be a decent proposal but no details on how it’s better that SWT’s existing smart card offering.
Of course there are promises of community engagement (“Increased engagement with local stakeholders” and “The biggest rail operator apprenticeship scheme in Britain”) which are all welcome but will have limited impact on the core railway issue: service provision.
There are currently 1400 train carriages on the SWT network. It’s not clear from any of the promises (both from the incumbent and new provider) how many are really additional carriages rather than shiny new replacements.
Yes, there are train refubushments (unless you’re on the Isle of Wight there are only promises of “proposals”) which include wifi and at-seat charging. These changes are welcome if you can get a seat to plug your phone into & the on-board wifi isn’t over capacity because the train is full.
All this seems to me a change for limited gain. The new franchise will benefit from the improvement works at Waterloo and the introduction of the Desiro City trains but so would the existing supplier, who arguably, doesn’t see any benefit from all the work they have put in to get to this point. The new operator is adding new trains but taking away new trains and, even if they are better in some way, they won’t be here for a while.
I don’t doubt that there will be improvements but, as a humble commuter on the busiest line in the country, it seems to we’re getting either things that have already been promised or cosmetic changes. I wonder, has it been worth all the expense of the franchise process? As I mentioned in my last piece on the topic, if passenger growth continues, where will real new capacity come from in a few years when the promised 30% is filled?
In just a few days, from 5th August 2017, I expect a modern day battle of Waterloo as passengers at Britain’s busiest railway station fight for carriage during a period of “significantly fewer trains” when platforms 1-9 will be closed so work can start to extend those platforms for longer trains.
202 years ago, somewhere around where Belgium is on the map today, the Emperor of the French, a man who is immediately known by the use of the word Napoleon, was defeated by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle Waterloo. Those not around in 1815 may refer to the 1974 Abba song, although I think ‘surrender’ has a somewhat different meaning on the battle field than it does in the song “Waterloo – knowing my fate is to be with you”.
There’s a bridge over the Thames named after Waterloo (the battle, not the song) and, in turn, when the London and South Western Railway opened a station in the area in July 1848 it was named after the bridge, in fact Wikipedia says it was originally called as ‘Waterloo Bridge Station‘.
In just a few days, from 5th August 2017, I expect a modern day battle of Waterloo as passengers at Britain’s busiest railway station, now referenced in your station guide as London Waterloo, fight for carriage during a period of “significantly fewer trains” when platforms 1-9 will be closed so work can start to extend those platforms for longer trains. Appropriate emoji’s at the point are a happy face for the prospect of longer trains and the scream for the next 23 days commuting experience.
That’s basically half the platforms closed at a station where 100 million journeys start or end every year. Even though work has been planned in the summer when — hopefully — there are marginally fewer commuters that’s still a big hole to fill. If you’re already standing with your nose in somebody’s armpit on a morning peak service, the promise of “Services and stations will be busier than usual, especially in the morning and evening peaks on weekdays” is probably pretty depressing.
For some months, Adecco (“the largest staffing firm in the world”) have been advertising for Crowd Control officers to support the “blockade project which will positively transform the journeys of millions of people”. A nice spin on, what I imagine, will be a fairly thankless task to keep commuters calm: trains and stations have been plastered with signs warning of reduced (or even, no) service for most of the year but I can already see the Twitter outrage from those who did not get a personal visit for a member of engineering team. If you use expensive noise-cancelling headphones on your morning commute you may be forgiven for having missed the non-stop announcements warning of the works. The rest of us don’t have an excuse.
There will be the usual frustrations of people failing to get somewhere important — or standing around somewhere else for a long period of time, waiting — but I don’t see how any of this is avoidable. Maybe I should make the month off.
Of course, after all this work is complete we are promised capacity for 30% more passengers during the busiest parts of the day when 100,000 people pass through the station. The trouble is, in the 24 years I have been in London passenger numbers on these lines have more than doubled, making Waterloo the busiest transport hub in Europe. That’s a more-than 100% increase over that time. If that growth carries on at a similar rate then the extra space, which we’ll probably already fill, will be also be bursting in 6 or 7 years. These works are making a better use of existing infrastructure but what options do we have beyond that? Where will new trains go in 24 years from now?
Dear Diary is an exhibition at King’s College, Somerset House, until 7 July, that is a celebration of the art of diary keeping in all its forms. From the early almanacs, through the diaries of Pepys, online journals and YouTube, they are all covered in an interesting collection that forms this small exhibition.
In the archive you’ll find that I posted an entry from 2002 entitled “Give Us Our Daily Blog” which is a collection of daily blogs that I read. Most of the links are now dead and I don’t recall that much about many of them. I do know that one thing that appealed to me in the early days of web publishing was the very personal nature of the content; it was the kind of window on the world I don’t think we had seen before.
Since then, we have become used to a never-ending stream of personal thoughts that pour onto the screen from blogs, social media and now YouTube videos. In the first days of the web it was like opening the padlock on somebody’s secret diary and reading their inner-most thoughts. Of course, we’re all used to it now and we all move the first things that pop into our heads onto a screen via a keyboard.
Dear Diary is an exhibition at King’s College, Somerset House, until 7 July, that is a celebration of the art of diary keeping in all its forms. From the early almanacs, through the diaries of Pepys, Kenneth Williams, online journals and, now, YouTube, they are all covered in an interesting collection that forms this small exhibition. If you are in London before 7 July 2017 then you should go and see it (and you get to see inside one of the wings of Somesert House that you would not get access to unless you were a student).
It was a thought-provoking exhibition and made me think about what element of these journals I’d like left behind. After all, a printed version of this site could hang around but – eventually – nobody will be paying for the hosting and I imagine my hosting provider will hit the big delete button. I’ve already commented this week, in the post about satellite dishes in New York, about my early online life which has already disappeared. What version of history does the web give us if much is deleted?
How do you preserve an online diary for further generations?
A picture triggered a rather clear flash back to 1994 and one of the first times my name ever appeared on the internet.
I’m on a short work-related visit to New York. It’s hot here. But, for once, not as hot as London.
You know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen? Well, today, sometime just after my lunch I went to the roof of our office building which has had a fancy new terrace installed. It was lovely. And very hot. I didn’t stay there long. You can’t, however, stand atop of a New York roof and not take a picture. So I did.
Reviewing these pictures moment ago, this picture triggered a rather clear flash back to 1994 and one of the first times my name ever appeared on the internet. I don’t recall who wrote it, it’s gone forever from the internet archive, but it was a sarcastic comment about my online collection of pictures of satellite dishes at British radio stations. There was a reason they existed. I worked for the company who owned the dishes at radio stations and we had a collection of photographs so that you could describe to an engineer where the dish was if they needed to point it back at the satellite after a pigeon had flown in to it (which actually happened). On the night shift one day I decided to share the pictures with the world on the corporate www.
At some point it was deemed inappropriate to house the pictures on the website of the company that owned the dishes. So I bequeathed them all to James Cridland’s MediaUK directory where, for a few years, the image was linked to the radio station’s entry. I found the Red Rose picture in the internet archive. For this one, you really didn’t need a picture to describe to an engineer where the dish was. Although James credited me on the pictures, I actually took none of them. They were all taken while I was locked in the control centre overnight (which – and it amuses me daily – was located about 15 paces from the front door of the London office building I work in today).
A little like counting the rings on a tree, you can age somebody who grew-up in 1970s Britain by the main television characters they reference.
In Radio Reflections I wrote about how, when I was growing up, the media landscape was very different than it is today. A landscape of fewer channels means that, like counting the rings on a tree, you can age somebody who grew-up in 1970s Britain by the main television characters they reference. For some it might be Zammo or ‘Gripper’ Stebson in Grange Hill. Maybe a little later it would be Scott and Charlene in Neighbours. But, I think, for most of my generation the real telltale dating come from your Doctor (mine was Tom Baker) and your Blue Peter presenters. For me, Lesley Judd, Peter Purves and John Noakes were Monday and Thursday television.
In 1977, the television presenter John Noakes, who has died aged 83, climbed Nelson’s Column without safety harness or insurance, for an episode of the BBC’s enduring children’s show Blue Peter. After shinning up one ladder, Noakes swung himself dauntlessly on to another, tilted 45 degrees from the vertical. “At this level,” said Noakes in a voiceover, “the plinth on which Nelson stands overhangs the column. I found myself literally hanging on from the ladder with nothing at all beneath me.”
Throughout the time I watched, John was always accompanied by Shep, described as ‘an enthusiastic border collie’. Shep & John went everywhere together: they really were a double act. Noakes was known for his catchphrase, “Get Down Shep” but I wonder if it really was uttered that often?
I think you pass from famous to national treasure in Britain once we’re able to take have a little fun with you. For John Noakes, he may already have been a National Treasure before The Barron Knights released Get Down Step, but this cemented that status.
(I posted a slightly shorter version of this earlier on Facebook)
I also saw Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 which is very different. There’s one part that’s still amusing me 24 hours later.
I saw a couple of films over the bank holiday weekend.
Their Finest (trailer) is an excellent film set in London during World War II. Bill Nighy is really very amusing in, what turn out to be, a very warm and moving film. I also saw Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 (trailer) which is very different. There’s one part that’s still amusing me 24 hours later. I said this on Facebook:
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 is a great sequel, with plenty of amusing lines, and a 70s and 80s ‘awesome’ mixtape that, of course, works better in the film than when you play the soundtrack at home 24 hours later. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, towards the end of the film, there’s a quick reference to a little device from 2006/7 that, amusingly, fewer people in the cinema seemed to recognise than “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, which dates from 1972.
After 32 years on the air, there’s still something special about BBC Local Radio in Shropshire.
As I post, it’s still St. George’s Day: just. According to Wikipedia, St George rose to the position of the primary patron saint of England during the English Reformation. I didn’t see many references to St. George today, but I think most people across the country were thinking about the dragon rather than the Pope’s control of the Church in England.
If, however, you live in Shropshire – or you are a radio historian of some kind – you’ll know of today as the 32nd anniversary of the launch of BBC Radio Shropshire.
I am not sure that I would have mentioned it here accept for the fact that a few weeks ago I found an old cassette with copies of the pre-launch test transmissions from 4th and 9th of April 1985. I am sure that there’s lots that you can learn from those test transmissions but, what I find most fascinating, is that Radio Shropshire’s first voice, Diane Kemp,1 repeats the postal address in almost every link. The phone number is mentioned but, of course, there was no text, email, tweets or Facebooking. A few years later, one of my first jobs was answering the telephones for the afternoon shows on the station: regularly speaking to the characters that made up the county. It was the primary way to be part of the station, we’d call it interaction today. It definitely shows that our interaction with radio stations has changed massively in 32 years.
Also this week, one of those aforementioned radio historians, David Lloyd, wrote about the change in regulation now that BBC Local Radio is overseen by Ofcom. Today, I’m not sure BBC Local Radio has quite the same character that those test transmissions imply, but it remains a distinctive service. The regulation should ensure that the unique voice continues and not become “a BBC local service which is largely networked.”2
A few years ago I wrote about changes to the Shropshire Radio landscape, when Signal 1o7 launched and Beacon was re-branded to Free Radio, and pondered if bigger names were a blueprint for the 21st century: giving smaller stations a recognisable brand. Today, I remain convinced by the theory but, when I last listened to either of those stations in Shropshire, the key bit missing was anything about the county. Given Signal 107’s audience share is less than 2%,3 and Free Radio’s share in Shropshire is around 9%,4 have those brands lead to a reduction in local content which, in turn, means listeners tuning out? Or, is it purely a matter of increased competition? BBC Shropshire’s audience share is around 13%5 but I am not sure how to read that. Is local content important to audiences. Certainly, I would hope that Ofcom recognise that BBC Local Radio may be the last bastion of substantial amounts of local information on the radio. Isn’t the licence fee there to support content the commercially-funded stations can’t afford to?
I think BBC Local Radio is nicely summed-up in the words towards the end of my test transmission recordings,
There are stories in every village, every street, probably every home in Shropshire. Wonderful characters with a tale to tell; local gossip; a row over some local controversy; people with wonderful hobbies: eccentrics and fanatics, comedians and Jeremiahs, good deeds and bad deeds. We’re interested in the lot and the more you tell us about them, the more we can use. It’s that type of station. 6
I think that’s what makes local radio interesting. I hope Ofcom manages to keep it that way. Happy Birthday BBC Shropshire.
Footnotes 1 Diane Kemp, now Professor Diane Kemp at Birmingham City University’s School of Media 2Goodbye from BBC Local Radio?, David Lloyd, 19 April 2017 3 December 2016 data, media.info. Total survey area for Signal 107 is greater than Shropshire. 4 December 2016 data, media.info, former Beacon Shropshire area. 5 December 2016 data, media.info. 6 Test transmissions: https://soundcloud.com/curns/4th-9th-april-1985-test-transmissions-edit
Through London in the early morning: did somebody fall asleep with the light on? Who’s awake at this hour?
The day’s first light has not quite made it above the horizon but the dawn sky says it’s coming. The city’s suburbs are stretching themselves awake from their slumber. I’m travelling at just the right moment: the morning’s engines have not quite started and the only thing slowing me down are the red traffic lights on the way, mainly stopping me for imaginary vehicles or invisible people.
Yet there’s light all around, but it’s artificial. As the morning yawns, announcing a new day, all the lamps seem unnecessary yet turning them off would make it feel nighttime eerie. There’s a strong pulsating white headlight from a bike coming down the hill; a cyclist adorned in orange high visibility. You can’t miss it although the beam might be blinding. As we cross over the bigger highway with empty lanes waiting for the morning rush, there’s the throb of an orange warning light sitting atop of a recovery van while more people in high visibility scurry to attach a vehicle to the back. Travelling through the suburbs there’s a momentary flash of emergency blue from a police car but I have no idea why he’s pulled-over, alone, on the side of the road.
There are lights in the block of flats to my left but, with curtains drawn, any movements are invisible. Did somebody fall asleep with the light on? Who’s awake at this hour? There’s a lamp in a hotel room creating a shadow of arms dressing – no curtains, but more anonymity. Passing an office block, the lights of the third floor illuminate in a sweeping movement ahead of a shadowy figure with a machine sweeping the floor in preparation for the arrival of the worker’s feet. There’s a fully-lit supermarket with lines of lifeless shelves waiting for the day’s first shoppers and the dancing movement of a man and a mop. And there are more shops, partially lit, yet locked-up to all: their night-lights highlighting a small portion of the retail space, with a focus on the empty cash-registers, seemingly saying ‘there’s nothing here’ while lighting the wares.
Every car we pass has a brightly lit dashboard that’s announcing the route or the currently playing track. The mid-80s music playing from the easy-listening station is more alive at this time of the morning than it’s been at any point since it was originally heard 30 years ago. There are a couple of people at the bus stop; their faces lit by a combination of the countdown screen announcing the next arrival and the faint glow of the mobile screen. The white headphones suggest music accompanies their journey too.
As time ticks by we drive in the opposite direction to the arriving bus. It’s empty now, I can see the security screen taking a continuous picture of unoccupied seats. I know the automation will be announcing the stops to nobody except the driver. I wonder if she’s listening – checking she is running to timetable – or if the repetition of the ‘next stop’ and ‘stand clear of the doors’ has rendered her deaf to the voice.
We speed past a group of young people; laughing. Those of us that remember that mid-80s music the first time wonder if they’re coming home or leaving for the day. Where do the pretty young things go at this hour in the middle of suburbia? The idea of an early-morning house party seems at odds with the neat driveways and solar-powered garden lights of this part of town. I see the smiley face of the speed-check sign showing we’re travelling within the allowed limit: the language of the smiley and the emoji is more from their generation than mine yet the sign is aimed at me. A digital sign-face that provides a reminder that, even in dawn’s first light, the machines are still watching us.
And through the tunnel to the airport: a tail-back of traffic through a strangely uniform light beneath the ground, emerging, after just a few minutes, into the crisp, bright morning light. The sleek glass buildings reflect the early morning rays as the morning finally wakes. Yet the purple glow of the airline’s colours can still be seen high in the vaulted entrance through which I pass into a different world. For the next few hours it could be day or night. Inside the terminal it can be hard to tell what time the sun-dial might show, but, finally, time has passed and we board. For once there’s a blue and cloudless sky through which we climb, seemingly, towards the burning, never dimming, rays of the sun.
Do you trust a digital lock? Do you trust programmatic advertising? Did anybody ever believe anybody would write that sentence?
Sermon Of the Last Sunday (#SOLS) was introduced with on-target delivery: the 2017 Reading challenge and the first Japan retrospective. Then I got the calendar wrong – thought March had an extra Sunday – and now find myself writing March’s installment in April. But that’s a technicality and I’m not letting myself get too concerned with that level of detail. But what to write about?
Although I vowed not to write too much on this site about the technology of digital advertising, it seems that industry news in March is worth mentioning. If I was still writing those ‘Last Week in Digital Advertising‘ round-ups then I’d have plenty of material. What made this month’s headlines big was because the news involved Google. And they always make a good story (and then they’ll index it and let you find it again too).
Google may be known to most people as the search engine and YouTube-owner but it’s also one of the biggest advertising businesses in the UK. Last year eMarketer reported,
Google will net £3.80 billion … in ad revenues— accounting for almost 40% of all digital ad spending in the UK 1
So, you know, huge.
Today, advertising is much more complex than it used to be. The basic premise of advertising hasn’t changed: an advertiser with a product or service to sell or promote wants to get a message in front of a lot of, hopefully, the right people. Somebody with an audience (generically, a publisher) pays the bills by selling some space to the advertiser (be it in print, sound or vision). In Britain, it’s been this way since the 18th Century.2
Digital Changed Advertising
But digital has changed everything else: advertising of all types is easier to buy for many more companies; there are thousands – if not millions – of smaller publishers where people spend time and the so-called ad-tech industry has developed hundreds of new technology ideas that sit between the advertiser and the publisher (so many, that the world they inhabit is known as the Lumascape, after the company who tries to plot them all). This Lumascape uses technology to make the process of buying and selling across so many different places both easier and more efficient by automating as much of the process as possible. Increasingly, this automation means that the advertiser (who is the buyer) relies on a machine to decide where to buy. Publishers, both old and new, connect their advertising business to these automatic buying machines in the hope the advertiser actually spends money with them. It’s a process that’s been termed ‘programmatic advertising’.
The problem for many advertisers and publishers is that the details of ‘programmatic advertising’ are something of a mystery: for the advertiser they can’t be 100% sure where their advertising will show up and for the publisher they can’t be 100% sure who is advertising on their sites.
Do you have a connected digital lock on your front door? My guess is that for the odd person that reads this, the answer will be no. Technology has not gained sufficient trust. The problem is, in the modern advertising world, the technology struggles to gain trust from all sides of the market but most people still have to use it. Advertising can no-longer stick with the old-fashioned key; it relies on the digital lock.
And that strange metaphor brings us to the first big story in March’s digital advertising news:
The issue is easy to explain: there’s more and more Internet stuff that people are reading and watching and there’s almost no way for a human being at one of the big advertising companies to have vetted everything out there. And, because the machines have taken the job of deciding which advert goes where, we need to trust the machine to do the right thing. And sometimes, they mess-up. And, occasionally, they mess up in a very big and public way like this.
The issue is complex for advertisers: companies need to be seen where their potential customers are but, in an increasingly fragmented media world, that means that they sometimes end-up down the wrong alley shouting that you should buy their stuff.
The issue is complex for publishers: they have lots of content produced around the globe and submitted by both professionals and the rest of us. And they need to earn money from as many advertisers in as many places as possible and that money isn’t a big enough pot to pay somebody to check every word or second of video. As the BBC’s technology correspondent said,
There are two difficult issues for Google here: spotting videos that are illegal and should be removed from YouTube; and determining which are legal but not suitable to carry advertising.3
The issue is incredibly hard to fix: I can’t imagine the world will go back to the Mad Men era where the buyer and seller not only both know each other and eat a lovely lunch together, but also play golf, go and get drunk in a downtown bar and take each other on expensive ‘days out of the office’. One decision the machine never has to make is if it should be a green olive or a twist of lemon peel in the Martini. Those things will all continue as long as the humans are involved but it represents much less of the advertising that is bought and sold today.
Google hasn’t been singled out here but they are the top story for a couple of reasons. First, advertisers found their ads in the wrong places where they knew Google was responsible. This is reasonably important because, in some cases, the middle men of the Lumascape are so intertwined and wrapped up in a programmatic advertising mystery that the advertiser doesn’t always know which technology provider to shout at. And, secondly, as I already noted, Google is big so it impacts a lot of advertisers and a lot of money. Thirdly, Google also makes headlines which means we all notice and people like me get to write 1383 words on the topic. But, as much as the industry might wish Google to take the heat; the issues raised apply to almost everybody involved in making machines buy & sell advertising.
It’s Really A Story About Machines
The advertisers that have taken a stand against Google and other forms of programmatic advertising will come back. Perhaps, their agencies will pay a little more attention to the technology and the controls that are available today. The publishers will do a better job of classifying the content so that it’s a tiny bit easier to spot the places where they should not be running advertising.
But, in the end, it will continue to be about the machines. The automation of traditional roles is increasingly common; the removal of some of the people in a process is not unique to advertising (this is just today’s biggest story). The machines will get trained a little better and become a little smarter in managing all this in the milliseconds they have to make a decision. But in advertising, as in many areas, the machines are here to stay.
Perhaps it’s good news for real people. The machines have a lot to learn and, until they do, we’d all be wise to reconsider if we should be using a digital lock or just going for a drink with the local locksmith.
I didn’t even get to the other big digital advertising story of March. Maybe that’s already material for another Sermon.
Sermon Of the Last Sunday is my attempt to ensure that there is something published on my site every month in 2017. You can read about my attempts to force myself to write or review the full #sols collection through the handy site tag, sols.
But really, the job I’d really want, is writing the answers to the daft questions people ask.
Earlier, on Facebook:
Voice recognition systems – Amazon’s Alexa or any other – must be one of the most fascinating areas of computing to work on. There are a lot of very smart brains working on artificial intelligence systems that enable Alexa to answer the millions of questions asked of her every day.
But really, the job I’d really want, is writing the answers to the daft questions people ask. “”Alexa, what’s the first rule of Fight Club?” or “Alexa, do you really want to hurt me?” Anybody who job means they get to write “.. and happy birthday to Barbie whose life in plastic has been fantastic for 58 years” must be having a blast.
Mashable has a story today about a woman who asked Alexa about any connections to the CIA – at which point the system appears to crash. Obviously proof that all conspiracy theorists are correct.
The person with that fun job was swift off the mark. Now, somebody’s waved their neuralyzer & Alexa’s been updated and claims to work for Amazon. If it was me, I’d update Alexa’s sense of time and stop responding to my happy ‘good morning’ at 10pm with an equally up-beat ‘good morning’ and make her grumpy and tired.
One of the amazing things about Japan was the food. And such a variety of tastes and styles. Oh, and the rice.
Each day I looked back through the photographs I had taken and tried to find one that summed what we had seen or done. Some days that was very easy because the day had a big goal – the Mt Fuji visit, for example – but other days it was much harder to select a single picture that summed up the visit.
Looking back over the collection, however, I see that it’s a nice overview of our trip. However, there is one major element missing: food. I have not captured the variety of amazing meals that we had. Japanese cuisine was definitely one of the highlights of the trip; no wonder it has been given UNESCO heritage status in order to protect it from the onslaught of western dishes and fast food chains.
From conveyor-belt lunchtime sushi to a high-end fish-market fresh version; from teppanyaki (accompanied by a Japanese improvised comedy show) to high-end tempura and soba noodles, ramen, sake & delicious wagyu beef. In the UK it would all be in one restaurant labelled ‘Japanese’ but each place we visited specialised and was delicious. There were no bad meals, most were incredibly cheap and service was outstanding.
Breakfast seemed the most different to my British palate: fermented soy beans, dried and grilled fish, pickled things of all sorts (labelled vegetables but I wasn’t always sure) and dried seaweed and all served – like every other meal – with white rice. I never saw another type of rice and didn’t really get an answer as to why it was always steamed white rice alongside every meal.
I can’t wait to return to try more.
My Japan restrospecive (so far) is available in two earlier parts: Tokyo and Kyoto.
If going to Japan had been a goal of mine for many years; riding the bullet train was a second aim and was a real highlight of the trip (even though you are really quite oblivious to the fact that the train is travelling at 162mph). That train, or Shinkansen as they are known, is part of a high-speed network that covers the country and runs – almost exclusively – on dedicated high-speed track. As a consequence trains are not delayed by other kinds of rail traffic and, generally, run to time. The phrase ‘to time’ Japanese-style seems to mean to the exact minute rather than the rather looser British version meaning ‘within five minutes’.
The Saturday lunchtime train took us to Kyoto for the second part of the Japan experience. We returned to Tokyo to spend the last day at Tokyo DisneySea; which really is a very different world.
Japan Vacation Retrospective Part 2: Kyoto
Photo of Day 7: Hikari Shinkansen: Bullet Train
I love travelling by train. There’s something inherently fascinating about locomotives, carriages, tracks and the networks that are formed from these things. So, I’ve always wanted to ride on the world’s original high-speed network: Japan’s Shinkansen. It’s amazing to think that trains that could reach speeds of 130 mph were introduced back in 1964 for the first Tokyo Olympics. I measured 162 mph today on the Shinkansen to Kyoto. Who knows what speeds they’ll reach for the next Tokyo Olympics in 2020; a line using maglev technology is already under construction and maglev trains have set the world record at 375 mph.
We rode the Hikari service on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen which runs through to Shin-Ōsaka & Okayama and is, apparently, the most heavily-used high-speed train line in the world. Hikari is the fastest service that accepts the Japan Rail Pass (which makes using Shinkansen much more affordable) so we lingered at some stations while faster Nozomi services passed on the dedicated high-speed lines. Amazing to think that the only thing that could delay our train was an even faster train. No delays on Chessington South stopping services or leaves on the line here.
But the running speed isn’t the only fast things about the trains. The turnaround time for our train today was less than 15 minutes after the set had arrived into the platform at Tokyo central station. Waiting patiently at a space for each door was somebody to clean, turn all seats 180 degrees to face the direction of travel and place new headrest covers on each seat. The efficiency of the teamwork is a sight to behold. The bow to the boarding passengers a pleasing part of the culture.
Apparently, Shinkansen changed the way business was done between major Japanese cities by making day trips possible where they hadn’t been practical before. I wonder if we’ll ever see similar between London & Scotland?
Photo of Day 8: Fushimi Inari Taisha
A Shinto shrine houses the spirits that are worshiped in the religion. As well as the dead, the spirits could be forces of nature or elements of the landscape. There are many sub-words for Shinto shrines in Japanese but the English language only has the one.
At the base of the Inari mountain is the Inari shrine; Inari being the spirit of commerce and industry (and also of rice). There’s a 2 hour hiking trail up the mountain, from the base at the main shrine, where you climb up through thousands of orange Tori that have been donated by Japanese businesses. On the accent the gates posts appear bare orange but on the decent you see the names of the companies that donated the Tori. It’s quite simple but also remarkably clever. I don’t know if it works as advertising or not.
Conveniently located near a railway station, this temple gets busy. But as you climb the crowd thins out. There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of small shrines on the way up. And a few shops and resting places. We made it about an hour up before deciding that we should head down to see some more of Kyoto.
In a city of temples this one really stands out.
Photo of Day 9: The Way of Tea
If my memory serves me well, you should brew a Yorkshire Tea teabag for between 4 and 5 minutes. You can leave it in the mug infusing until it’s a good strong ‘proper brew’. At work, I use the timer on my watch to make sure I brew for enough time otherwise it’s too weak and somewhat pointless.
Not so with the Japanese Way of Tea which takes a good ten minutes of ceremony to get to the first cup, and is served without milk or sugar but, generally, with some kind of sweet food immediately before the drink.
Using the Matcha green tea we’ve been enjoying throughout our trip, The Way of Tea is a quiet, thoughtful process of precisely using the tea-making implements (linen cloth, tea bowl, ladle, caddy and the whisk) to prepare the perfect cup (70 centilitres of water at 80 degrees Celsius). Apart from memorising the correct sequence and placement of the utensils, whisking the Matcha powder with the water correctly to prevent bitterness is a real skill.
Hanging scrolls and flowers decorate the room and the host, perfectly attired in traditional kimono, pays respect to both the tea and the invited guests who, in turn, reciprocate with appropriate bowing. Apparently, following the preparation of the tea there’s polite conversation where controversial topics are avoided and the chatter is more about the heritage of the tea-making equipment.
Mastery of The Way of Tea, learnt in special schools, can take ten to fifteen years but, in the end, what you get is a beautiful art form and the perfect cuppa.
Photo of Day 10: Ryokan
I was expecting Japan to feel stranger, more alien to me, than it turned out to be. I assume this is because Tokyo is a major world city that exhibits the characteristics of such a sprawling urban mass: and that turns out to be quite familiar. Plus, many of the signs are in recognisable (and, therefore, easily readable) Roman characters and there’s a Starbucks wherever you turn.
Kyoto was a little different; a smaller city with narrower streets, what seemed like a temple on every street and, it seemed, more people in traditional dress. It was also the place we stayed in a more traditional Japanese Inn, a ryokan. Although I think the one we stayed in was straight out of the 1950s rather than 1650, it was simple with a tatami-matted room, public bath and basic facilities (if you count air conditioning and wifi as basic). Sitting on a cushion on the floor, sleeping on a mattress rolled onto the mats & drinking green tea is probably a tourist stereotype but it made for a different way of doing things and was unlike any hotel I’ve ever stayed in. I’d recommend it: even for a few days, if your knees can cope.
Photo of Day 11: Disney Resort, Tokyo
When planning the Japan trip, there was a full day in Tokyo following the return train journey from Kyoto and before the flight home. Somehow, and I am not sure I recall how we came to this decision, we decided to visit the Disney parks in Tokyo.
In many ways this was an odd thing to do. Disney is the undisputed global king of the theme park but, surely, the experience is identikit and it would be a waste of a day that could otherwise have been used for more authentic local experience.
In the end I am glad we did. Aside from being quintessential Disney there are some subtle differences that we would have missed if we’d done something else. Plus, of course, it’s a theme park with enough rides and queues to fill several days.
There are two parks, Tokyo Disneyland, which I imagine is from the ‘how to build a Disneyland’ manual. And the nautical-themed Tokyo DisneySea which, according to its Wikipedia entry, was the fastest theme park in the world to reach the milestone of 10 million guests.
Apart from the fact that Disney doesn’t have another park like this one (although many of the major attractions do appear in other places), the most subtle difference can be seen the enthusiasm of the guests for all the Disney characters; for some reason I noted a lot of Donald Duck fans. And this is from visitors of all ages. It would be natural to expect the kids to jump with joy with an unexpected Chip & Dale encounter but not so much their fathers. Almost everybody was wearing a Disney character about their person; there’s a factory somewhere churning out thousands of pairs of Mikey ears for each day. And what makes it most interesting is that the enthusiasm is infectious. It really is a happy place.
Bringing together my impressions of Japan in words and pictures: the first week was spent in Tokyo.
Looking at the calendar I see we are already at the last Sunday in February which means it’s time to fill your timeline with the hashtag #sols once more: Sermon Of the Last Sunday. It’s my attempt to write something new each month on my site (although, a few days ago, I felt the need to write Will The Internet Kills Television?).
Apart from fulfilling my #sols need for February, today I am also keeping my personal site commitment of maintaining a copy of things I post elsewhere. Two #sols birds with one #sols entry.
At the end of January I took a holiday in Japan. Japan, and particularly Tokyo, was a destination that I have always wanted to visit but it’s taken until this year to get there. I was not sure what to expect: would everything seem radically different from life in London or would it maintain the familiarity of a big city?
As always when on holiday, I took a lot of photographs. Increasingly, these are taken on a phone which is both portable and has many other uses aside from pictures (in Tokyo, having constant access to Google Maps was enormously helpful when trying to navigate a big city). Having all the photographs accurately time and geo-stamped on a device which makes uploading easy is another significant advantage.
I decided that each evening I would review all the pictures I’d taken and post a single image that summed-up the day to an album on Flickr. It’s a little Japan vacation retrospective. I also decided to post a different kind of picture each day to Instagram. Combined they might make a small, but hopefully interesting, summary of the visit for me to remember and for others when researching Japanese holidays.
I’ll post the Instagram pictures later in the week but this is my Japan collection. However, I am dividing the pictures into 2 parts. Week one was primarily Tokyo and the second week was Kyoto.
Japan Vacation Retrospective 2017: Tokyo
Photo of Day 1: Godzilla through the years.
Movie posters in the lobby of the Hotel Gracery, Tokyo. There’s a large Godzilla climbing the outside of the hotel.
Photo of Day 2: Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo.
A torii, or traditional Japanese gate, at the entrance to the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo.
This Shinto shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken.
An amazing forest of 120,000 were donated by people from all across Japan when the shrine was built.
It’s simple, peaceful and very relaxing. There is beautiful simplicity to the architecture and the more religious customs.
Photo of Day 3: A robot at Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku.
For some reason whenever I think of Japan I think of robots doing useful stuff. We haven’t found any of those yet but we have found the most bizarre cabaret show, The Robot Restaurant, where the hostesses walk around the room – boxing ring style – with signs asking you to turn off your Bluetooth and wifi enabled devices for fear of interference with the controls for the show.
Ironically, most of the ‘robots’ are people in costume but there are some remote controlled participants in this video-game inspired 90-minute strobe-lightathon. There are no words to describe the craziness which seemed entirely appropriate in this neon-lit district of the city. After the Robot Restaurant’s bought what it needed, the fact that there’s any neon left for the other venues is really a modern day miracle.
Photo of Day 4: UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mt Fuji
Standing 12,388 ft, Mt Fuji is the highest peak in Japan; a World Heritage Site and, apparently, still classed as an active volcano. It’s snow-capped peak has become a symbol of Japan, which I imagine, is something of what makes it attractive to hikers and climbers. According to our tour guide the climbing season starts in July and officially ends in September but he wasn’t recommending anybody attempt it after the end of August. Given we were all quite happy in our heated, wifi-enabled coach, I’m not expecting to see any of my fellow tourists climbing next season.
We got got as high as 2020m (of the 3776m which make up the aforementioned 12,000 or so ft) before the road was closed due to recent snow falls. Still, the air was crisp, the sun was out and you could see the peak. It’s quite an impressive sight, although at the 4th station it’s the surrounding peaks you’re looking at rather than the one immediately above you.
There also seems to be an annual photographic competition which might help explain the abundance of stunning images of the mountain on the internet, as well as the large number of people carrying tripods & camera bags around the tourist locations.
My picture may not be up there with the greatest but it’s all mine. Taken at the first tour-stop, Lake Kawaguchi-Ko, one of the “five lakes”, it was our first proper Mt Fuji sighting. When they said you never forget your first time, perhaps it was views of Mt Fuji they were talking about.
Yes, I’m sure that’s right.
Photo of Day 5: Tokyo Imperial Palace Tea House
Covering an area of 1.32 sq miles the space was, during the height of the 1980s Japanese property bubble, valued to be worth more than the sum of all of the real estate in California. So, it’s decent bit of land to own. It is the main residence of The Emperor of Japan as well as home to a bunch of the kind of administrative offices needed by the ceremonial head of a nation.
Unlike, say, Buckingham Palace which you can stand in front of and photograph, it seems quite difficult to get up to The Emperor’s front door. There is some kind of limited daily tour – conducted only in Japanese – that visits some non-public areas but I can’t tell you about it because we didn’t do it.
However, the East Gardens are open to wander around and are a fascinating collection of horticulture, including areas given over to cultivating roses, tea, bamboo and a plot of land where trees representing each of Japan’s 47 prefectures have been planted. There’s an area called Cherry Blossom Island which, I imagine, will be amazing in a few months. Surprisingly, at least one tree was in bloom but it stood out against the bare winter branches of most of the plants.
Towards the end of your wander around the gardens, if you follow the route suggested in the free map (and why wouldn’t you?), there’s a 18th century Japanese garden complete with running water, pool and wooden bridge.
Around the gardens there are examples of guard houses, a museum and a beautiful example of a tea house (pictured). There’s also a late 1960s concert hall and buildings named Gakuba and Shoryobu on the guide (which house some of the aforementioned administrative offices; for the Music Department & Archives Department).
All-in-all, a place of beautiful, traditional tranquility in the heart of modern Tokyo. Open from 9am if you’re interested.
Photo of Day 6: Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo
Some reports suggest that Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest wholesale seafood market in the world. I can’t vouch for that but it could take several hours to walk around the stalls of all the intermediate wholesalers. Although, as a sightseer, you don’t get several hours. The inner market is open to tourists from 10am, by which time most wholesalers are packing-up & the professional buyers have taken their fish away to be served-up across the city. That’s not to say there’s nothing to see; just most of the selling is over for the day.
If I was being strictly accurate, the market is open to 120 sightseers from about 5am if they were to have queued through the night to see a portion of the frozen tuna auction. Our guide wholeheartedly recommended not bothering and, anyway, you can’t watch the fresh tuna auction. I’m not entirely sure why.
Apparently, we were lucky to see the market in it’s current (post-1923) home: a move to a more modern facility that should have happened last November has been postponed. Cue local newspapers running “something fishy” headlines.
We took a tour of the market with local food writer & guide, Atsushi, the Tsukiji King, and I’m very glad we did. Tsukiji is a fully functioning fish market, complete with high-speed delivery vehicles & special band saws designed to chop huge chunks of frozen tuna. It’s not a place you’d particularly think to enter as a tourist so a guide proved especially welcome as I don’t think we would have wandered the warehouses alone. Atsushi showed us the inner & outer markets, explained the selling process and provided a guide to all the food paraphernalia that’s also for sale in shops around the area. I’m continually amazed by the pieces of plastic sushi that are mainly used by restaurants to show-off their ‘dishes’ in their windows.
There was the added bonus of using an expert guide; he recommended the most amazing sushi place for lunch at the end of the tour: every piece hand-made in front of you from the very freshest ingredients. I thought I’d eaten good sushi before but now I know differently.
The second part of my Japan 2017 Retrospective (pictures from Kyoto) will be uploaded tomorrow but you can review all the pictures right now in my Flickr Album.