Stretching From Slumber: Morning Light

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.

This day is newly born.

Japan Vacation Retrospective Part 2: Kyoto

A second collection of words and pictures that sum up my 2017 visit to Japan. In this part, I get to ride the bullet train.

Yesterday, as part of my #sols project, the sermon was the first part of my personal Japan holiday retrospective which covered my initial week in Tokyo.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A fun ending to an amazing trip.

More Japan

The first pictures from my trip were posted yesterday. I think there’s another couple of Japanese posts: a summary and my Instagram pictures. All to come.

A Visit to Japan

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.

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.

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.

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

Photo of Day 4: UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mt FujiStanding 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

Photo of Day 5: Tokyo Imperial Palace

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

Tsukiji Fish Market, TokyoSome 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.

More Japan

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.

#SOLS

Sermon Of the Last Sunday is my attempt to ensure that there is something published on my site very month in 2017.  You can read about my attempts to force myself to write or my first post of the season (which is another challenge) in which I decide read a book every month this year.

The full #sols collection has a handy site tag, sols.

In Recovery Mode

For most of the weekend before last (and parts of the week either side) I was in Amsterdam at IBC. IBC is essential an enourmous broadcasting technology conference & exhibition; although its styling itself for the electronic media industry.

How long does it take to recover from a week in Amsterdam? Given it’s now Monday, I will say about five days. Of course, your mileage may vary etc. etc.

For most of the weekend before last (and parts of the week either side) I was in Amsterdam at IBC. IBC is essentially an enormous broadcasting technology conference & exhibition; although its styling itself for the electronic media industry. While the focus appears to me to be technology there is, apparently, a decent representation from the creative side of the industry. It’s been around for years and it’s quite important to many in the broadcast sector. While I’ve known about it for a long time, and have watched colleagues go before, I’ve never been myself. Upon arrival at the conference, prepare yourself: I found the size quite daunting. I suspect extensive, advance planning your visits/meetings etc. is the key to the experience.

Friends often ask me about this kind of event. Is it a trade show, conference, place for old friends to meet/excuse for a drink? Well, I know that this time I probably encountered the lot but I have never been so exhausted after a conference in all my life which is why it’s taken me five days to get the photos up onto Flickr. Although the hotel that they put us up in was very nice, central & restful; there is a lot (an awful lot) of walking. Tip: take a map showing the location of the RAI conference centre and your hotel. Walking between the two may be a trek but it saves waiting for the cabs or trams as the centre closes each day.

The thrilling thing (at least for me) was that it was the culmination of many months of work to have our advertising management tool deliver targeted, addressable advertising to video on demand systems. Microsoft, of course, had a fantastic stand in the Topaz lounge where all sorts of great technologies were being showcased. Check out some of the things Silverlight can do. But for me, the television screens in the corner connecting AdManager to Mediaroom were what it was all about. This meant that I stood, for many hours, watching the same video clips and advertisements (and I still want a pizza despite – or, perhaps because of – seeing a pizza ad several hundred times) but the response from customers, partners & prospects was great. You can read about the Mediaroom Advertising Platform on the official press rele

ase for the event.

I think targeted, addressable advertising is future for advertising; and I don’t think that’s a big announcement at all. Many people in advertising will say they’ve been doing it for years. What’s direct mail advertising, after all? However, in the digital world the key issue will be defining what is meant by targetable or addressable. Many years ago we used ‘targeting’ to describe how we were able place an advertisement on a particular page on a web site. Other areas of the advertising industry have used it describe demographics or audience segments. Isn’t Amazon’s “customers who bought” suggestions a great form of highly targeted promotion? The main problem is that we have no standard, industry definition of what we mean by targeted or addressable. Amazon knows my purchase history – it should be easy to target on that. But what about mobile or television advertising? How to we define what’s targetable. I agree that we still have some research to do in this area.

As an aside, it’s worth recognising that with little effort, many things are targetable, including personal data. But that’s not what I am referring to here. Privacy policies, user information, declared data etc. are all the scope of legislation and deserve a better piece of writing than this. No, I’m suggesting that the industry simply need to standardise what it means targetable advertising as a starting point for us all.

There were plenty of other people demonstrating similar things in this and related fields. It’s interesting to see that the television business is not, contrary to the predictions of You Tube doom, standing still. If IBC is anything to go by there’s a whole heap of innovation for those of us who watch television which could dramatically change our experiences. I’m looking forward to seeing which make it to the mainstream.

Apart from watching television advertising all day, Amsterdam was a fun place to be. It being my birthday in the middle of it all there was a desert with a sparkling candle in it, presented to me a great steak restaurant, whose name I have lost and, therefore, can’t recommend. Thanks to all my UK colleagues for that. After we had packed away, there was a canal tour to pass an hour or two before heading to the airport, arranged by some of my US colleagues (some of whom had not visited Amsterdam before).  There was even a bar showing American football and a late night team of my US friends trying to explain the rules to me. I’m not certain I mastered them, I’m afraid. Sadly, there wasn’t enough time to catch up with my old friends from my days in the radio distribution business. Hopefully, another year.

It was an exhausting week but a great glimpse of where we are taking the technology.

Disclaimer: the views here are my own and are not necessarily the opinions of my employer (who sent me) nor customers (who I spoke to while there). You have read the full disclosure, haven’t you?

 

Update: 29 September: Added some links to related commentary at Connected TV.

Moscow: War & Advertising In A Week

I went to Moscow to plan an ad-serving implementation but they went to war as I arrived. I missed the war but met smart, interesting people.

I suspect that I am in the middle of the one of the more (if not, most) interesting two weeks in my working career. Yesterday, I returned from Moscow some 1500 miles to the north east of where I type this and tomorrow I am flying 4800 miles, or so, in the opposite direction to Seattle. Russia to the USA. I could be running my own little cold war had Mikhail Gorbachev not done the world a service and taught us all a new word, perestroika, some 21 years ago. It’s possibly my only word of Russian, although I am reminded that we were all happy for glasnost freedoms; even if that meant 30,000 Muscovites had to queue for a beef patty in January 1990 in some kind declaration of the freedom to Supersize ones self. I suspect the Nobel Peace Prize committee didn’t cite Pepsico’s opening of a Pizza Hut when making the award to Gorbachev in 1990. Anyway, it appears the citizen’s of Moscow have, since dissolving the USSR on Christmas Day 1991, embraced consumerism and the market economy to such an extent as to make the upcoming Christmas Day 2008, Moscow-style, a very expensive affair indeed. Truly, the most expensive place I have ever visited. I imagine American Express do very well out of it all, much to the consternation – one imagines – of any members of the Politburo who may be looking down on this megacity.

As I left Heathrow on a, if I am honest, patched-up jet, some parts of the Russian army were taking a less tourist-like approach to Georgia’s South Ossetia, some 3700 or so miles from Moscow. Tbilisi and Moscow have disputed this territory for years. Depending who you ask, some may tell you that the Republic of South Ossetia is a country in itself but I think you’ll, generally, only get that answer from the people around about Tskhinvali (that’s South Ossetia’s capital should your geo-political globe not be to hand right now). In case you hadn’t worked it out, this isn’t an essay on political tensions in the South Caucasus but the dispute is relevant as my parents currently reside in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital. In a nutshell, I fly into Russia one way while my parents evacuate ahead of an advancing Russian army. Less than a week ago they were on a bus heading to Yerevan watching Georgian tanks roll back towards me.

History and geography lessons aside, the thought that the country you are visiting is, regardless of a legal definition, at war with another country doesn’t fill your heart with joy or put a spring in your step. However, and this is the unsatisfactory climax to which I have been building these opening paragraphs, the people I met in Moscow were, unfailingly, concerned about my parents’ safety and went out of their way to help me get status updates. I image ringing the international operator and asking for trunk line to Tbilisi so I can ask about the weather would have got me on some kind of watch list. And that sums up my experience of Muscovites: warm, interested and friendly.

I was there to work on a digital advertising project with some people from a major publisher and, in the course of the last week, I’ve met with a large number of people generating digital content from news and sport to managing social media platforms and finding ways to generate advertising interest. The experience has, like many of these projects, shown me that the digital advertising business is truly global and facing more-or-less the same challenges and pressures. Interestingly, because one of the key drivers of this project was to increase display advertising relevancy without the need to serve-up more and more ad placements, we had some detailed conversations that expanded on my thoughts to the mobile conference earlier in the year: understand that each member of your audience is unique and, with the right infrastructure, digital advertising shouldn’t need to drown out the real content they are there to read so that you can make some return.

Hypothesising digital advertising’s future wasn’t the only reason for my visit. I needed to evaluate the the ways in which the technology that I represent fits into an existing workflow and how disruptive a new system implementation may be. The online advertising world has grown, in the fourteen or so years that I have been involved, organically. By that I mean we learnt lessons from our initial trials (hey, I logged on to hard-code ads on Christmas Day many years ago) and gradually adapted them. Software that solved problems ten years ago is still being actively developed today and being taken in many more directions than we could have imagined. As a result I often find customer processes that developed alongside the advancing technology are unique, (occasionally) misunderstood internally and inefficient: systems that too often rely on knowledgeable human gate-keepers or spreadsheets tucked on a machine in the corner. It’s an issue that I see the industry as a whole addressing in different ways but one that acknowledges what we refer to as ad-serving technology needs to integrate into wider business systems. One of the most delightful parts of my visit this week was that the customer I met had a complete understanding of their own processes before I even sat down and I was able to map them onto our products & plans with relative ease.

Although we had a lot of work to complete in the days I was there, and in spite of almost stranding myself in the Microsoft Moscow office for the night (tip: pre-book taxis), I managed to view Red Square and the Kremlin at night. I bought, what appeared to be, the world’s most expensive Beef Stroganoff (but I was sat looking at the Kremlin at the time); saw how the locals take a taxi without having to re-mortgage their house and got an all too brief guided tour (although we didn’t get to ride in the ‘special’ lane). I made it back to the airport – and to the sight of a almost new bmi plane – convinced that the digital entrepreneurs in Moscow will be creating some amazing products in the next few years and that they, perhaps better than some organisations I’ve worked with over the years, understand that developers need to eat. Such insight means that finding the way to make products efficient and advertiser-friendly is central to their thoughts. I’d love to go back but, perhaps, I’ll wait for hostilities to cease.

And now to pack for that flight in the opposite direction. I imagine my own internal war, the one where the jet-lag armies move in on the disputed territory of sleep, will be declared some time on Monday. In the meantime, my thoughts are with all sides impacted in South Ossetia and hope they find a speedy resolution.

Disclaimer: the views here are my own and are not necessarily the opinions of my employer (who sent me) nor customers (who hosted me). You have read the full disclosure, haven’t you?

Sshh. Don’t Mention It.

There are some things in life that it is not good to mention in polite company. Heathrow Airport is one of them.

They used to joke that you shouldn’t mention The War (at least not in the same breath as the English World Cup victory of 1966). Maybe they still joke about it, I am not sure.

Then again, perhaps it wasn’t a joke. Maybe people were serious about that and, in polite company, you shouldn’t mention The War. I thought it was a joke because Basil Fawlty first taught me that mentioning The War was not good: although spilling soup is not good and he didn’t seem overly concerned about pouring hot tomato down the front of your trousers. So, I may be wise not to cite Basil Fawlty as a mentor (and wiser to steer clear of such conversation topics).

Still, it’s fair to say that The War has been replaced in recent months with Heathrow Airport. It may seem odd that a stretch of land to the west of London can be compared to one of the most terrible events of the 20th Century and I am obviously not comparing the great evil which attempted to take Western Europe to a mass of concrete and jet noises in any way as being being on a similar scale but take it from me you don’t want to be talking about either.

You see, right now, people will work themselves into a purple-faced rant about how terrible Heathrow is in a way that makes me wary of mentioning it. You should not make the mistake of saying the words ‘flying to Oslo’ and ‘terminal three’ in front of anybody who has been out to, what was, the Great Western Aerodrome for you will be subjected to an outpouring of such rage that you will wish you’d said something all together different (I wanted to use a comparison there to something truly awful but decided against it lest people think I was serious about the previous paragraph).

Heathrow has become the chattering class’ villain du jour (and you know it’s serious when you invoke a du jour). Nobody likes it. Ken Livingstone doesn’t like it. Kitty Ussher (City minister, did you know we had one?) isn’t keen and former Chancellor Lord Lamont labelled the airport a “national disgrace”. Really, Heathrow is not winning a popularity contest right now.

The problem? Well, that depends on who you ask. To some the airport looks shabby and not a giant gleaming temple to London’s greatness that some think it should be. To others it the baggage (or lack of) that seems to cause consternation. While others think the queues are to blame. All of which is nonsense. Regular readers (well, the regular reader) will know I travel regularly on business and I often go from Heathrow. And I have been laughing in the face of these naysayers for months. My mantra was ‘read the rules and ye will have a speedy voyage’.

On recent trips I have been astounded by people who were passing through. The large signage reads ‘only one cabin bag allowed’ yet there is a lady with three and she’s getting frustrated that she’s having to go the back and check the others in. Then it says ‘No bottle over 100ml’ and yet, lo, here’s some chap with a bottle of aftershave containing enough liquid to give us wave power for twenty years. Put your metal objects in your hand bag before you go through screening? Well, it must be written in invisible ink given the number of times the alarms go off. We’d actually given these people passports.

I am a Heathrow fan and these people, as my mother would say, were just showing themselves up. Give yourself time, pack properly and all will be well. At least, that’s what I had argued until Monday when I headed for Oslo from LHR T3 where I was greeted by an enormous security queue and a, probably very pleasant, young man. You know the sort, his power simply oozed from his fluorescent yellow jacket.

I present to you, gentle reader, the man whose job it was to ensure the right people got through the queue at the right time. So, only people whose plane was leaving within the next two hours could join the line of passengers waiting to be scanned. The rest of us had to wait patiently until our time was called. A sound and reliable plan (and the lack of seating for the waiting crowds was not his fault).

“Not time yet sir. Only planes leaving before half past,” he would say.

“Please come back two hours before your flight. We’re only letting people through then” he added in a reassuring ‘you won’t miss your flight’ way.

All in all, a very sound and sensible approach to the growing crowds and the lack of resources to screen everybody quickly. No earlier than two hours. Please don’t cheat the queue. Get yourselves a Pret while you wait. Except for one little problem. The man charged with filtering stressed passengers and tasked with keeping the calm and encouraging the nervous flyers to wait until they still had two hours to get to the plane didn’t have a watch. Not only that he didn’t have a clock. He had no clue about the time. You can imagine the rest.

My Name’s Not Bond

Casino-Royale-BondI really like the new James Bond film. I think what Daniel Craig has done with the role is excellent. I prefer the back-to-basic approach over the movies that relied on gadgets and digital effects. It’s more Jason Bourne and, for me, that can only be a good thing. This, however, isn’t a review as I am certain you can find plenty of decent ones if you Google.

I saw Casino Royale last Saturday. On the way home I mentioned – in passing – that I had always wanted to be a secret agent. I have always assumed that every kid wanted to be a secret agent at some point. Isn’t this is a perfectly normal thing to say? PY, however, couldn’t stop laughing. It was the kind of amusment that was induced as soon as he set eyes on me. His mouth would curl up and his shoulders start that laughter quiver; he had to look away. I was a little dumstruck. I take it for granted that I don’t look like a spy but isn’t that what being undercover is all about?

Sadly, however, I have to agree that I am not very spy-like. For starters I am not sure I could, Bourne-like, blow a house up with a toaster and a rolled up newspaper. I couldn’t leap building cranes with anything approaching a Bond-like skill. The final proof that I couldn’t cut the MI6 mustard is that I’m useless in foreign restaurants.

You may have gathered from Monday’s post that I am in Finland. I am on business but I am not with any colleagues. Sometimes I must eat on my own in a foreign city. I paced Helsinki the other night looking for a restaurant. I had forgotten my book which, as any solo traveller will tell you is the key to eating alone in restaurants. Have a good book and hide behind it. You eat slower that way and can hide from the local’s stares as they wonder why you have no friends and must resort to dining alone.

Had I been a Bond/Bourne spy I would have walked into the finest dining room in the city, ordered drink in fluent Finnish, had the maître d’ find me a decent table and have struck up an interesting conversation before they put the olive on the stick. Whereas I sulked in a corner and tried to not to lose my scarf.

You hear that travel broadens the mind (it’s like an exercise for the brain, apparently) but I don’t agree. I am sure a certain type of travel expands horizons but my kind only serves to expand the waistline (dining alone you comfort eat for a party of five). I’ve done the airport-taxi-hotel-office-taxi-airport run enough times to make almost every European city appear identical. This week’s arrival in Finland reinforced the feeling that I want to be here on holiday but not on business; I want to see something new.

The day was damp and cold when we landed and it was already getting dark at 3.30pm. I had hoped for snow but there wasn’t any so I got taken straight to my hotel. We passed the outdoor ice-hokey game which, I guess, must be everywhere in winter. I wanted to watch but I have no idea how to get to them. I worked in my hotel room. I didn’t sleep on the first night (I never sleep well on the first night in a hotel). I went to meetings. I drank too much coffee (do secret agents rely on caffeine too?).

It is a perfectly normal business trip. Sure, I hear you. Go out, mix with the locals, live a little. That, though, is a little too Bond-like for me. I guess Bond would have had a hidden revolver to get himself out of any local difficulties. I wouldn’t have made it through the airport with one and so, I comfort myself, that I don’t look good in black and, truthfully, Judi Dench scares me a little.

In The Air Again

Travelling again. And, once again I am heading for Oslo.

In The Air AgainPhoto at Flickr: In The Air Again – 29 Aug ’06, 2.37pm BST
I am off travelling again. This morning it was a very early start to get me to Heathrow so that i could make a flight to Oslo. To give myself some extra time because of the sceurity I arrived at 5am – only to find that check-in wasn’t open until 5.20am. Then a nice queue at security and a plane ride to get me here. I am now too exhausted to enjoy the lovely evening. Still, I hope I can get a decen’t night’s sleep so that I will be awake for tomorrow’s meetings!

The Largest City On The Mediterranean Coast

I’ve been running a training course for a customer in Barcelona. Sometimes, despite the early starts and late night returns that play havoc with my social life, there are rewards.

My plane left Barcelona airport at 10.30pm last night. It was the best value flight to get me home. Given that the other taxi picked me up at 6.30am on Monday then it’s been a very long two days but it’s been fun.

I’ve been running a training course for a customer in Barcelona. Sometimes, despite the early starts and late night returns that play havoc with my social life, there are rewards.  Obviously, I had an early start yesterday but managed to get some sleep  en route so that I was sufficiently awake upon arrival to dive into the training.  The interesting part about this trip was that I was training a group of people to use our advertising management tools for, basically, non-advertising content. There are similarities: time based content that rotates based on a series of programmable targeting factors; content that is managed independently from the main site and a level of reporting required that generally does not come with content management systems. It was another fascinating example of how the kind of things that we come up with for the advertising industry can be put to all sort of other uses.

I’ve visited Barcelona once before, also for work, but this visit I got a little time in the late afternoon yesterday to see a bit more of it. People are always hospitable and this time was no exception. The hotel deal I had in Barcelona included free tapas, which was lovely, and it included some free Cava. I thought I’d get a glass. I got a bottle. I stayed at the Hotel Diagonal Barcelona, which I can recommend. Next door to the hotel is the 35 floor Agbar Tower. The tower was built at a cost of over 130 million euro to house Barcelona’s water company, Agbar. There are some great photos in the Agbar Tower Group on Flickr.

After the second day training my work was done. But given the very late flight departure time I had an early evening to kill in Barcelona. I also had all my bags with me but decided that sitting in a restaurant wasn’t something I wanted to do. So, I took one of those open top bus tours. Usually they are a great way of getting your bearings in a new city even if you don’t get a great insight into any of the tourist attractions. They’re also a pretty expensive way of getting around. However, when you have a small suitcase, lap-top and various bits and you have 3 hours before heading to the airport, an open top bus seems the easiest way to get yourself (and your luggage) around the place without worrying about it. It was about a 90 minute round trip. The conductor told me that it was hop-on, hop-off so I could get off at anything that took my interest. I was keener on knowing if it really took 90 minutes. Anything more would have meant I risked missing all the connections to the airport.

So, I saw Barcelona even if I didn’t really experience Barcelona. The tour is quite good, showing you old and new. It was timely that we visited the stadium.  The Barcelona football stadium is the 3rd largest stadium in the World after the stadiums in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Mexico City. Barcelona Camp Nou has a capacity of 110,000 people. The Champions League result was still in the air. How many times was I asked if I was an Arsenal supporter?

One day I shall head back an be a proper tourist!

Helsinki, February 2006

I have to admit that it is colder here than I thought it would be. It was below freezing last week in Oslo but not this cold. I took my gloves off to take a couple of these pictures and the cold became quite painful. I am certain that the locals would have been laughing. Still, the hotel is warm and the restaurant is quite good here so I will have no need to leave this evening.

Helsinki, February 2006 - It's cold here in Helsinki. There are people laughing at the tourist taking pictures. They're not laughing at the picture taking but at the fact that one minute with a hand outside of a glove is painfully cold.Helsinki, February 2006.
I have to admit that it is colder here than I thought it would be. It was below freezing last week in Oslo but not this cold. I took my gloves off to take a couple of these pictures and the cold became quite painful. I am certain that the locals would have been laughing. Still, the hotel is warm and the restaurant is quite good here so I will have no need to leave this evening.

I recall that on a previous occasion that I was here it was also snowing but that was April and it wasn’t like this. It’s interesting to note that many of the Flickr pictures of Helsinki right now are taken inside – can’t say I blame them. But there are some great ones of the snow.

Previously on Helsinki:

Banners & Bazaars

Since the bubble burst in 2002 we’ve seen a move to outsourcing as more and more customers (and potential customers) want us to host the ad-serving infrastructure and they simply operate the system

Apparently, Cairo is the largest city in the Arab world. I’m sure that’s the kind of fact that can be checked on Wikipedia. It’s also packed with people, hot and wholly different from anywhere that I have been before. And it’s fascinating in a slightly “am I out of my depth” way. A colleague and I set off about 12 days ago to undertake a couple of days providing a range of professional services, including installation and training courses, on our primary ad-delivery technology. We set off a day or two early as we’re not presented with opportunities to visit this part of the world too often (actually, I’m never presented with opportunities like this). The lovely people at LINKdotNET helped us source a guide/driver for the Saturday so that we could get the most of our weekend before the worked started on the Monday morning. I have to admit that, sat in the over-priced Heathrow airport restaurant before we departed, I was wondering what on earth I was doing jetting off to somewhere warm just days before Christmas. Let’s face it, the I’m-sorry-I-didn’t-have-time-to-buy-a-gift excuse doesn’t work when the person expecting to tear off gift-wrapping has been looking at Flickr’s uncanny knack of suggesting you’ve been off having a ball in the sunshine while they’ve been struggling through the Oxford Street crowds.

What’s that? Don’t put the pictures on Flickr. Ooops, too late.

Before I forget, this was work. There was quite a lot to do in fact. I should never forget that training and implementation courses are always more complex when somebody else is in another room configuring software, changing settings and generally doing the ‘under the hood’ stuff that you wish they weren’t doing when you say ‘and clicking here works the magic that we’ve spent years developing’. Which of course, it won’t, if they haven’t installed the web-server component at that point. Still, I exaggerate for the story. Things came together pretty well. It’s always interesting working through the set-up in another country but, generally, customers have similar goals so I’m only adapting things to country-specific circumstances rather than trying to work out how we’ll re-develop some core component. I believe that’s one of the advantages of still providing our software for customer’s to run in their own data centres; we can make a set of installation-specific adjustments that are purely for a single customer.

Since the bubble burst in 2002 we’ve seen a move to outsourcing as more and more customers (and potential customers) want us to host the ad-serving infrastructure and they simply operate the system (and before any ad-ops teams come after me with burning torches, I know it’s not simple but, for now, you’ll understand that the word flows better) . Anyway, to my main point. We’re a service provider of sorts. Customers use our service rather than buy our software as a product and that tends to work well. We have the expertise delivering millions of advertisements per day; of tuning the database for the millions of ad interactions; of spotting and filtering the non-human traffic and ensuring that distribution networks deliver content quickly. But, as with every story, there’s an opposite opinion. If you have experience of managing large data projects; of maintaining response times and up-times then you have – most likely – the skills in abundance to manage an advertising infrastructure. My new friends at LinkDotNet are such an organisation; with data centres powering huge web sites popular across the world. Which is why, I found myself, in the corner, merrily suggesting configuration tweaks and obscure settings that might provide functionality in a different way; but one that is more suitable to this customer’s needs. Of course, the deeply technical guys in the room don’t like the changing the systems when all is up and running but I’m all for making operational workflow as easy as possible (see ops guys, I am really on your side).

In turn, we were provided with our own customisations for the visit in the form of our own guide, car and air-conditioning (of sorts). This way we could play tourists for a day with our own schedule and customised route through the city. And, I think, remarkably sensibly of us, it meant the driving was left to those locals who understood the rules of the road. I’d never pass a driving test there. Of course, I might not have to but you understand my point. We did see the Great Sphinx of Giza and visited – even venturing inside one of – the Great Pyramids. We took a boat to dine on the Nile and explored the palaces, mosques, and museums of the citadel, from where Egypt was ruled at one time. The Khan Al-Khalili bazaar is a melting pot of people, sounds, smells and narrow alleyways where it pays to keep your wits about you but pays you more to stop and take in the atmosphere.

There are few countries where you can claim to get out of the taxi and transfer to a camel but, I can say that, because we did. I’m sure our guide saved us a small fortune on that experience and it’s one, I imagine, our colleagues will find amusing when they see the pictures. We did get the company logo onto a pyramid (by subtlety placing a cap on one of the steps rather than spray painting it, you understand) so my covert mission in The City of a Thousand Minarets was completed.

Even after 12 days, I’m still pinching myself at the contrasts between the old world, of pyramids and citadels, and the new of modern offices, data centres and configuring banner ads. There’s so much to see that I’m hoping that we’ll do more business in that part of the world.

And, yes, with 5 days to go I still need to do my Christmas shopping but I think the brief trip to the sun was more than worth it.

Oslo Doesn’t Look Like This For Me

Some people take great photographs of Oslo.

now with this leg solidly planted here i should be able to..
now with this leg solidly planted here i should be able to.. originally uploaded by yrigoyen.

Still in Oslo and, clearly, not in the right part (or perhaps I should be here at a different time of year). I do love this city and I’ve always had great hotels here, including the Scandic Edderkoppen that I am in now. If you’ve never been get yourself across to Norway at some point – it’s a beautiful country. Shame I have to leave today (such a short trip) but check out this photo set for more great views of this city.

Italy Is Smoke Free

See the no smoking signs across Italy.

I just returned from a business trip to Italy to find that Italian bars, restaurants and airports are now smoke free. This is great news for those of us who don’t want to light up cigarettes as soon as we land in the country. But, honestly, Italy doesn’t smell the same any more and it’s kind of strange. Lovely, but strange.