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: Final (Food for) Thoughts

One of the amazing things about Japan was the food. And such a variety of tastes and styles. Oh, and the rice.

Japan: Food for Thought

Each day I looked back through the photographs I had taken and tried to find one that summed what we had seen or done. Some days that was very easy because the day had a big goal – the Mt Fuji visit, for example – but other days it was much harder to select a single picture that summed up the visit.

Looking back over the collection, however, I see that it’s a nice overview of our trip. However, there is one major element missing: food. I have not captured the variety of amazing meals that we had. Japanese cuisine was definitely one of the highlights of the trip; no wonder it has been given UNESCO heritage status in order to protect it from the onslaught of western dishes and fast food chains.

From conveyor-belt lunchtime sushi to a high-end fish-market fresh version; from teppanyaki (accompanied by a Japanese improvised comedy show) to high-end tempura and soba noodles, ramen, sake & delicious wagyu beef. In the UK it would all be in one restaurant labelled ‘Japanese’ but each place we visited specialised and was delicious. There were no bad meals, most were incredibly cheap and service was outstanding.

Breakfast seemed the most different to my British palate: fermented soy beans, dried and grilled fish, pickled things of all sorts (labelled vegetables but I wasn’t always sure) and dried seaweed and all served – like every other meal – with white rice. I never saw another type of rice and didn’t really get an answer as to why it was always steamed white rice alongside every meal.

I can’t wait to return to try more.

My Japan restrospecive (so far) is available in two earlier parts: Tokyo and Kyoto.

Roaring Night

It’s a brilliant experience to see the conservation work of the park up close. If you’re thinking of somewhere for an unusual night, surrounded by the sounds of safari, then Port Lympne comes highly recommended.

The Barbary Lion is extinct in the wild.1 It was the lion that battled with Roman gladiators in the Colosseum and was, at least according to Wikipedia, kept in the menagerie at the Tower of London. But the Atlas Mountains, where they once roamed, is no longer home to any of the animals.

Science, being a mysterious and wonderful thing, is attempting a breeding program that may be able to breed back the lions by finding decedents of the original creatures.

I learnt about Barbary lions on a visit to the Port Lympne Animal Park in Kent where there’s a pair of lions housed near one of the cafes.

The Animal Park is owned by wildlife conservation charity The Aspinall Foundation2 and is known for work to breed rare and endangered species for release into the wild. It’s also home to the world’s largest ‘gorillarium’ – which is a word I can only find in relations to Port Lympne – yet watching gorillas & lions in their cages is a strange experience. I know they’re effectively extinct and therefore the charity’s work is invaluable but these animals are still in an enclosure – large as it may be.  On balance, though, the work has got to be worth it.

I spent a night in one of Port Lympne’s amazing ‘treehouses’3 which feature unforgettable views across the park and across Romney Marsh with, what I think, was the wind farm in the far distance. A complimentary golf buggy allows you access to the park after the day crowds have gone when, at dusk, some of the animals seems to be more awake. It’s possible to get quite close to some animals and watch them in fairly natural habitats. Many of the 600 acres are devoted to the African Experience where, from the safari vehicles, giraffes & black rhinos can be seen wandering the park.

It’s a brilliant experience to see the conservation work of the park up close. If you’re thinking of somewhere for an unusual night, surrounded by the sounds of safari, then Port Lympne comes highly recommended. The accommodation and the staff were superb and, if the thought of the 35 steps to the treehouse and to see the amazing balcony views is a bit daunting, take the golf buggy around the back.

About BEWA 2016

BEWA (Blog Every Wednesday in August) is a project aimed to get me writing in a blog style again.  The 2016 season featured cycling in the city, fascinating maps, an underground tour of Clapham South Deep-level Shelter. There is a page with the #bewa collection (including those from last year).  Fingers crossed I am back next week. I’m sure @curns will mention it.


1 Barbary Lion, Wikipedia
2 Our Mission, The Aspinal Foundation
3 Your Treehouse, Port Lympne

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.

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:

Removing Ice From The Plane

Where in the world am I? Travelling again, I think.

Removing Ice From The Plane - As we pulled up to the gate in Helsinki, the plane next to us on the stand was getting sprayed to remove the ice. It's cold here.Removing Ice From The Plane: I know I am very quiet at the moment. You’re wise to check the Flickr feed to see where I am. I am busy but enjoying it. It feels like I have been travelling for work for a good few weeks now and, even though I am not away every day, it will be good to get back to a more regular life in London. While I enjoying seeing all the places you can get a little bit tired of hotel rooms that all merge into each other and I miss being able to go out with friends in the evenings. Still, I expense the beer here so it’s not all bad, is 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.

Where Was I?

Where are we this week children? That’s right, we are in Norway.

I’ve just come back from a couple of days in Oslo. The meeting was good and I spent the afternoon on the waterfront, drinking beer, and proofing some new documentation. Good way to spend a Friday!

A Familiar City

I was a student in Stirling and regularly spent time in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. I find it hard to be one of those people who can firmly sit on one side of Central Region and declare undying loyalty to one city or the other.

I was a student in Stirling and regularly spent time in both Glasgow and Edinburgh. I find it hard to be one of those people who can firmly sit on one side of Central Region and declare undying loyalty to one city or the other. During the time I spent in Scotland, Glasgow was City of Culture and was a vibrant place to be. On the other hand, Edinburgh has always appeared to be the calmer brother, perhaps a little aloof until you go to know him. My own brother lives in Edinburgh which perhaps explains why, when I do head back to Scotland, I’ve only ever been back to Edinburgh (and one, short weekend in Stirling).

It’s been with much joy that I have spent most of yesterday and today in Edinburgh on business (actually, I was in Dundee this morning but it still counts). As soon as I stepped of the train I felt like I was home on familiar turf. A few moments and memories started flooding back. Edinburgh of my memory, however, doesn’t have any Starbucks and had a big branch of C&A right at the top of Princess Street by the station. Now it has Starbucks and no C&A but it still felt right (and slightly chilly). It continues to have sensible licensing laws that allow me to drink later without tempting me to stay up all night (although, frankly, I am not sure you can call licensing laws sensible when you get the hangover I had).

The Madness Of Business Travel

image from my hotel window with a view of the stage in the car park next door you can not see the loud musicIt’s taken hours and hours to get to Sardinia. I’m here for a two hour meeting tomorrow morning before I take the plane home. I am in a reasonably nice hotel but right now I really wish it had a pool as it’s so hot. There’s also some kind of concert that is taking place just outside my hotel window – you can see the stage on this picture. They are rehearsing right now and the walls are shaking. I am hoping that it doesn’t go on into the night.

UPDATE: 21 JULY – By the time I got back from the excellent meal with the customer and some other interesting folks the music had stopped.