Tower of Technology, London

It experience was as incredible as I’d expected it to be.

BT Tower (previously, the Post Office Tower) was once the tallest building in the UK. Officially opened in October 1965, it was built to provide London with microwave communication links to the rest of the country.

Interestingly, this icon of the London Skyline was, apparently, an Official Secret for its early life. In theory, you couldn’t admit it existed. It originally opened with a rotating restaurant operated by the Butlins holiday company. I wonder how you made a booking if you couldn’t say where it was? For security reasons public access, including the restaurant, closed in the early 1980s.

BT Tower: Broadcast Hub

View of the BT Tower from Charlotte Street, London
View of the BT Tower from Charlotte Street, London

In the mid 1990s, when I worked for the audio distribution company, SMS, we had audio circuits connecting our satellite network to ‘Tower’ to allow us to send –  and receive audio from – BT’s broadcast network.  We were based only a 9-minute walk away from the tower with a perfect line of sight (if we leaned out the front door). We didn’t use the circuits very often but there was always a little excitement when we called BT to arrange a connection.

Years later, I was back in the Euston Tower for work which provided a birds-eye view of the rotating screens. By then, many of the dish-shaped aerials had been removed for safety reasons but the Tower was still at the heart the UK’s broadcast network even if the signals had migrated to underground fibre cables.  And even now, at least until we move offices at the start of December, I walk along Tottenham Court Road every morning past Maple Street, the Tower’s official address, with a daily view of whatever message is set to appear on the big screen 167m (548 ft) up in the London sky.

Rotating View

I’ve been to the top of many buildings with a birds-eye view of London but, until last week, I’d never been to the top of the Tower. The charity RedR arranged an evening of visits as a fund-raising activity so I got to look backwards to my former, and current, work places.

While at the top of The Tower, they turned the rotation on for a full sweep of the London skyline which, at night, is very impressive.  As we are in the season of Christmas lights, there were some spectacular views of the lights along Tottenham Court Road, at Regent’s Place and of the Hyde Park Winder Wonderland. It experience was as incredible as I’d expected it to be.

According to the London Landmarks site, the Tower is the “only building in the country which is allowed to be evacuated by lift (an oddity which required Parliamentary legislation to be passed)”. Fortunately, an evacuation was not required this evening.

A few more pictures from the visit to BT Tower on Flickr.

#SOLS

#SOLS is the project to have something written on this site on the last Sunday of every month.  I covered topics such as a visit to Japan, the state of the trains and why we change the clocks. I have one more expected in 2017 at the end of the year.  I wonder what that will cover? Follow the sequence with handy sols tag.

It’s Not (All) About The Farmers

The clocks changed. Here comes festive fun.

The clocks went back last night. Thanks to the marvels of jet lag I missed it and saw no benefit to the extra hour in bed. I’ll spend the rest of the week trying to determine which devices don’t automatically reset themselves and I’ll find my kitchen clock out by an hour until next weekend. Then, when I realise, I’ll struggle to synchronise the clocks on the top and bottom ovens. Admittedly, nothing compared to the 379 clocks that need to be adjusted at Windsor Castle. I wonder who adjusts HM’s bedside alarm clock? Truly, first world problems.

Timezones are fascinating. I’ve spent my life trying to remember if it’s during the ‘spring forward’ phase or the ‘fall back’ time that we don’t adjust the clocks at the same time as my colleagues across the Atlantic. I never remember. But, I think it’s now. I do know that all of our meetings are messed up for a week now and nobody is in the right place at the right time.

I feel that, for as long as I can remember, it’s been assumed that we in Britain change the time because of farmers or school children. Lighter mornings mean fewer accidents, or something like that. It always sounded plausible but I am not sure I was convinced. Today, the Telegraph notes that, back in the early 1900s, William Willett “wanted to stop Brits from wasting valuable daylight hours” by staying in bed in the summer months and introduced the concepts of daylight savings time. So, really, it’s all about combatting laziness (or, to put it another way, our health and well-being). What I never knew was that the concept of British Double Summer Time, helpfully, BDST, was introduced to help save fuel during the post 1940 war years. by making Britain work on a 2-hour offset against GMT. It seems we are always tinkering with time.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

With the nights drawing in and the world donning a Halloween mask, my thoughts turn to Christmas. Although I have not seen that many Christmas treats in the supermarkets yet, I did spend some of yesterday in the local B&Q DIY superstore looking at Christmas lights. As the Most Wonderful Time of Year is rapidly approaching, it’s time for me to start hunting out the Yuletide musical delights uncovered at My Festive Fizzy Pop. It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure. With just 57 days until Christmas, it’s time to start building this year’s playlist of new Christmas music and My Festive Fizzy Pop is the perfect place to start. If you love Christmas songs and have never read the Fizzy Pop festive blog then you should go and do it right now.

I am unashamedly a fan of Christmas tunes. I do, however, limit my consumption to only the newly released songs in November. Come 1st December, however, the Christmas back catalogue will be playing for the majority of my listening hours. Look at my Last.FM stats for 2015 and 2016 and you’ll see the December spikes. Most of these tracks are songs from the my ever-growing festive archive. The most limited version of the archive (which contains the material I will actually listen to) is running at almost 48 hours of total listening time. Better start now.

The year I am sharing the 2017 new Christmas music collection (which is, mainly, new versions of the old songs) via Apple Music. I think you find it here: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/playlist/my-festive-fizzy-pop-2017/idpl.u-d89AZtMG155g

And let me be the first to wish you a very Merry …. (maybe not).

#SOLS

Sermon of the last Sunday is my weak attempt to make sure I a am not thawing the hosting fees for this site away by ensuring there is some new content every month (yes, I’ve turned all modern media and refer to this a content). The #SOLS tag helpful links to the others (although I must remember to go and tag the missing one).

New People. New Trains.

I love the fact that years ago people were thinking 50 years ahead, but is it enough?

There’s almost a week to go until the end of September but today really is #SOLS day. Today’s view from my pulpit is, once again, about transport. Is it too much of a theme.

I’ve written a couple of times in recent weeks about transport in South West London. I’ve never lived in any other part of the city so I can’t comment on issues elsewhere. Although, as I previously noted, I commute into Britain’s business station, so I feel a certain amount of attention is needed in this part of the world.

South London is woefully underserved by London Underground with 250 stations north of the Thames and just 29 south1. So, for those of us South West, the major transport options are main line services into London Waterloo; trams if you’re heading around Croydon or the “misery” Northern Line2 through to the City or West End.

Back in 1974 I don’t think I could point to London on a map (being about 4 years old at the time) but somebody, somewhere, decided that about 50 years later a Chelsea-Hackney underground line might be a good idea and so started a process that leads to this day3.

The Draft Mayor’s Transport Strategy 2017 includes a plan for Crossrail 2: a line that is described as

a new proposed railway linking the national rail networks in Surrey and Hertfordshire via an underground tunnel through London 4

The line is predicted to allow 270,000 more people to travel into the central London the morning rush hour. This is equivalent to about 10% of the current capacity into London. It’s really quite a lot.

The scheme will also “unlock 200,000 new homes”5. That also seems like a big number equating to a lot of new houses. But it also seems like room for a lot of new people because we need houses for the growing London population. If a good proportion of these new houses are near the Crossrail 2 route then it should be assume that some of the people will utilise the route for their commute, after all, why not take the shiny new trains into the office?

So, if each of those houses has at least one occupier and half of those people use the new train for a commute then we have 100,000 additional south west journeys. Much of the new capacity is used-up instantly. And, assuming a single occupier properties seems on the conservative side don’t you think?

I love the fact that years ago people were thinking 50 years ahead and started to make plans. I love the fact the Mayor is promoting the project as a strategic plan. But, is it enough?

Footnotes

1 http://londonist.com/2016/03/alternative-names-for-london-s-tube-lines, Croydon Advertiser
2 Take The Drain, The Misery Line, Then The Viking Line, Londonist
3 Crossrail, History
4 What is Crossrail 2?
5 The Importance of Being Earnest: Making the case for Crossrail 2, London Reconnections

#SOLS

#SOLS is a project to get me writing on this site in 2017. You can read more about it in an entry from the start of the year.  Recently, a few of the pieces have been about transport in South West London but can also see what else I have written about in the #SOLS index.

A Trilogy of Trains

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.

Well done everyone.

 

Footnotes

(1) Modern Railways, August 2017, p7

Battle of Waterloo

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?

All in all seems like a sensible time to have applied to run the trains into a half-closed station, don’t you think?

“Waterloo – Finally facing my Waterloo”

Dear Digital Diary

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.

Dear Diary ExhibitionIn 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?

#SOLS

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. In an earlier post I wrote about a visit to Japan or maybe your more interested in digital advertising. #sols has it all.

Trusting Technology: Programmatic Advertising and Digital Locks

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.

Technology Trust

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.

#SOLS

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.

Footnotes

1 UK Digital Ad Spend Will Continue Double-Digit Growth in 2016, eMarketer, 28 September 2016
2 History of Advertising in Britain, Wikipedia
3 Google’s crisis of confidence, BBC

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.

A Reading Challenge for 2017

I made a simple resolution as we went into 2017: I would drink an extra small bottle of water everyday to improve my hydration. So far, that one is working.  Back in December I also decided that, on the last Sunday of every month, I would write something for this site.  It wasn’t really a resolution, rather an updated version of the Blog Every Wednesday in August task I set myself a few years ago: the idea was to write something here to make paying for the hosting worth it. This new commitment was given the title “Sermon Of the Last Sunday”.  As with all things these days, there’s a hashtag #SOLS. See if you can work out which came first: the series name or the hashtag.

Also at the end of last year I set myself a Goodreads challenge to read 12 books in 2017. This shouldn’t be the hardest commitment as it’s just one book a month but, if I succeed, I will end up reading more than I did last year.  There are plenty of people that inspired me to try this challenge (which you can follow on Goodreads) but, possibly, I made my decision after reading Bill Gates’ favourite books of 2016. He manages an eclectic list of recommendations. I hope to have as diverse a range of books on my ‘has read’ list by the end of the year.

More recently, Entertainment Weekly published a list of Every book Barack Obama recommended during his presidency. Another eclectic, and inspirational, list. Seriously, if he can be such an voracious reader and run America then I can read 12 books this year. As Bill Gates says,

Still, reading books is my favorite way to learn about a new topic. I’ve been reading about a book a week on average since I was a kid. Even when my schedule is out of control, I carve out a lot of time for reading. [source]

So, when trying to come-up with the first SOLS entry I thought I’d review one of the books that ended last year. It was the book I was reading when I read Bill’s list; it was fascinating and a little hard-going at times but it took me out of my daily commute and made me think about something else.  Which, I think, is something a good book should do.  I have reviewed books here before, and I am not sure I will attempt to review all 12, but it’s such a well written book I’d recommend adding it to your own reading list.

I’m grateful to the staff of Waterstones in Chichester who persuaded me that this was a book worth reading as I was browsing their store at some point last year. I don’t often spend time just wandering book shops but there was an opportunity and I took it. I’m very glad I did.

Cover of SkyfaringSkyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot

For some people, a job takes you to the same place each day, surrounded by colleagues who you see daily and get to know over time. Not quite so for pilots, especially those flying long haul, where the variation in crew is almost as changeable as the constantly altering view from the cockpit.

Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways 747 long haul pilot, writes about flight through series of chapters documenting the experiences of moving from one part of the world to another with chapters such as Place, Wayfinding, Night and Return.

It’s not a biography of a pilot, a technical guide to flying nor a travelogue rather it’s a rhapsodic love affair with flight and all it involves and, so, it’s a little bit of all those things put together with some beautifully written, almost lyrical, prose. Don’t expect a chronological guide to flight but a collection of chapters that take their subject and describe the experience from the complex to the minutia; written from a vantage of someone obviously captivated by the charm of flight.

The style is vivid and descriptive, but the detail of the language can sometimes make reading it hard work. Don’t let that put you off because it’s worth a little perseverance to get close to understanding why the experience of flight it both magical and disorienting at the same time.

Footnotes

Skyfaing, A Journey with a Pilot, available at Amazon.

Hashtag for a new generation

There was a pivotal moment for the world in August 2014 when, for the greater good of humanity, I introduced a new hashtag. #BEWA (which stood for Blog Every Wednesday in August) improved the lives of, literally, no people. Ever since, I have managed to continually reference it as an internet sensation. If there was a definition of Fake News that could be it (but probably isn’t).

Lazarus-like, #BEWA emerged from cryogenic storage in August 2016. In many ways, last year’s version was even less successful than the original incarnation. Apart from — if it’s even possible — improving the lives of even fewer than zero people, the major structural failure was a lack of Blogging Every Wednesday in August. There was an inquiry. Experts were consulted. A report could have been written but, given that a lack of writing is the core #BEWA problem, it wasn’t. There might have been outrage in a daily newspaper but it’s unlikely. Still, an imaginary voice cried, “won’t you think about the children” and, not only did I know that something had to be done, I knew I was the only person who could do the thing that had to be done.

It’s clear to me now, on this the first day at the beginning of a new era year, that what the internet needs most is more words. There is a distinct lack of anything to read on the internet. If I were really making predictions for the year I’d clearly be calling into question the lack of reading material; I may even go as far as suggesting there’s a shortage. I’m sure there’s a UN sub-committee meeting on the issue right now. Each day I can hear you cry, “what can I read today: give me words”.

And that is where #BEWA Mk2 comes in. Radically re-engineered and improved for a new generation that’s (at least) 5 months more sophisticated than the last.

If you appreciated reading about stars of Australian television shows or wise advice on how to write the perfect technology RFP that allows companies to better work with you; if you care about an Olympic legacy in London or my personal fascination with location data then, oops, you’re in the wrong place. You needed #BEWA.

But BEWA is gone. You need to buy a black tie and throw the rose on the coffin alongside the other mourners (if you can find any). Generation Now care about #SOLS.

Introducing #SOLS

Yes, it could be the SOLutionS to BEWA’s problems but it’s not. It certainly nothing a smart as the School of Life Sciences and it’s only been to Canada on holiday, so fans of the Southern Ontario Library Service shouldn’t get over excited. No, the elders of this parish present “Sermon of the Last Sunday”.

It’s not a goal nor is it a new year’s resolution; it’s bigger. #SOLS is a mission, a calling; a vocation that will be approached with the proper rigour such an undertaking deserves. Yes, on the last Sunday of every month I’ll write something and post it here. Gone is the need for a mid-week rush: Sunday deserves thoughtfulness and dedication.

I trust you’ll set an alarm and join me for this 12 month experiment that’s going to solve everything. Yes, everything*.

See you in 4 weeks.

Footnotes

* If I had employed an army of legal experts to review this entry they would have removed all the good stuff and made me say that nothing will be solved by #SOLS. Use at your own risk. Might cause sunburn. Your home is at risk etc. etc.