Monday, 12 March 2007

UI design for the cow people

I mentioned the cow people to some people in a chat, which some people found hilarious although others were a bit less taken with the discussion. It led to the following comment from Phil Wolff at SkypeJournal.

Seriously, let's talk about UI design for cows and chickens.
Very simplified contact lists.
Maybe big buttons for a very few messages ("Go away", "I'm hungry", "I'm in estrus", "I'm thirsty", "Danger!").
Moo recognition for the cows; peck sensitive keyboard for the chickens. Webcams for chickens since they don't respond much to audio.
GPS and presence for a cow's family; you-are-getting-hotter/colder signalling for finding your mother/calf.
Alerting for feeding/milking times.
For the chickens, you'd want gear that would fit in/next to a cage. For cows, something they could wear like a cowbell or staple to the ears like an RFID tag.
Hardware must be rugged for the farm; must survive water, dirt, having critters fall all over it.
Cows would have unique power challenges; could you train cows to dock their "headsets" for a recharge? While wi-fi might give you bandwidth, you might need to use cellular technology for the longer battery life.

Bonus points: use your cow's attached skype-phone for medical biotelemetry (body temp, pulse, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels) and send it back to a service for monitoring. Wake up the vet before a cow gets too sick. Automatically adjust the cow's feed based on general health.
Phil is the host in a public chat with the topic Skype 3.1 discussion. Anybody using version 3.0+ of Skype can create, host, moderate and promote a public chat on a website, in email, in IMs, and in Skype mood messages.

The chat threw up many bizarre observations and awful puns (i'll spare you), and a story about a chicken eating cow in India. If the cow people chat is anything to go by, public chat offers lots of possibilities.

On a more serious but equally bizarre note, was an item on the local Beeb news last week - can't find it online unfortunately so no link for now. They reported on a company that is working with algae to save the planet - they want to place large tankfuls of carbon-monoxide loving micro-critters next to every coal-burning power station in the country. They are also exporing its usage as a clean fuel that is far cheaper and more effective as a biofuel than rapeseed. These are the same, or similar microbes, to the ones which first cleaned this planet enough to sustain human life so maybe they are just the medicine we need.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Six nations - No more waiting for Johnny Injured

After a great defeat over France by England at home in Twickenham, France lost a Grand Slam opportunity in the important year when they play host to the Rugby World Cup. After the English trouncing at Croke Park, Brian Ashton called all bets off and fielded a team today that included about 10 new players - what a risk taker. The gamble paid off in spades.

The quality of play was far from perfect - the French looked like they were digesting a large lunch and England were giving away penalties with stupid errors. But England began to flow a little, and then some more - and some of these new guys were electric. There's no more waiting for Johnny Injured, England has not one but two new number 10s who both played world class games today. Brian Ashton will have problems choosing which of these guys, Flood or Geraghty, to play. New winger, Strettle, made an impressive debut against Ireland at Croke Park - today he showed it wasn't flash in the pan - he's fast and furious and a natural. And all these new guys are young and blonde and handsome - maybe all is not lost for England and the world cup.

But tactically, England also made leaps today. Did the French lunch too large or did the English close them down? A bit of both, perhaps. The English blocked Chabal, shut him down. Known as Attila at home, Chabal proved to be the Achilles heel of France.

All of Ireland was shouting for England today. Yesterday we took the Triple Crown but today England gifted us a chance to avenge our last minute defeat by France, and steal the championship from them. England is also in with a chance, but it's a bit of a longshot. The outcome of the tournament will not be known until the last minute of the last match next weekend - what a nailbiter that will be.

Six nations - fire the ref

Every year, the Six Nations rubgy tournament heralds an end to the gloom of winter with the promise of exciting international matches most weekends. After growing up in a household where the men and boys were obsessed by sport, I am almost allergic to it - but rugby is the exception - despite its brutality, there is nothing as gripping as a good rugby match.

This year, Ireland started out as favourites, but the pesky French stole our thunder when they beat us in the first ever "foreign game" to be played in Croke Park. In the last seconds of the match, they raced up the pitch and scored - damn them. The referee failed to notice that the start of this play was illegal and it should not have been allowed. The whole world saw it on TV, but that doesn't make a toss of difference it seems.

Yesterday, Ireland played Scotland in Edinburgh, and Wales played Italy in Rome. Despite being firm favourites, Ireland had a tough time of it, and only barely managed to hold on to win 19-18. After the game, Eddie O'Sullivan, the Ireland coach that looks like an accountant, made a statement that a Scottish player had tried to choke Ronan O'Gara and that O'Gara lost consciousness briefly. I assume there will be an investigation and the offending player will be banned.

But that incident pales into insignificance when you consider what happened at the next match of the afternoon. Over in Rome an English referee, Chris White, seemed blind to some rather nasty behaviour by members of the Italian team. We know rugby is a brutal game and none of the players are saints - they will break rules when they think they will get away with it. But in the 28th minute of the match I watched Mauro Bergamasco clinically clench his fist and punch Stephen Jones in the face. But the ref didn't notice or didn't care and while Jones left the pitch with blood streaming from a cut above his eye, the game continued - not even a penalty awarded. This was one of several infringements that the ref did not notice and, in my opinion, had a definite impact on the game and the final scoreline.

Jones returned to the pitch in the second half and he looked angry - who would blame him. It must have galled him terribly when in the closing minutes the same Bergamasco (there are two on the Italian team) scored a great try which put Italy in the lead - the man shouldn't even have been on the pitch. And to top it all, the ref finished the game by lying to the welsh players that they had time for a final line out and then blew the whistle before they could take it.

I've been looking to see what other people feel about this - and I'm surprised at how little there is online about the Six Nations. There are some nice quirky blogs but nothing substantial outside of the BBC site, where Nick Mullins, a sports commentator, is having problems keeping up with the spate of comments - 140 now and still counting. Opinions are mixed - Italian fans don't seem that bothered that the awful refereeing detracts from their victory. Welsh fans are, understandably, pretty miffed and there are some pretty strong feelings out there.

Rugby is gaining in popularity and the quality of the game is improving. But how long will it continue to do so if this sort of behaviour continues unchecked. This weekend we witnessed blatant assault (choking and punching) and the referee lied to a team in a manner that ensured they lost the game.

I'm not normally one to subscribe to ref-bashing and conspiracy theories about game fixing. Around our dinner table, I heard enough ref discussion to last me several lifetimes, but what I saw yesterday was disgraceful. Either the ref and his squad of helpers are completely incompetent or they were made an offer they couldn't refuse. Whichever proves to be the case - if we ever find out - they should all be fired and publicly humiliated. Bergamasco should never be allowed on a rugby pitch again and Italy should forfeit the match.

Saturday, 10 March 2007

Multicultural to multispecies - meet the cow people

England is the most multicultural place I have lived in and now it's becoming a home to multispecies exploration. According to the Beeb, scientists in the north of England have applied for a licence to clone human and cow embryos for the purpose of harvesting cell stems that are important in the treatment of alzeimhers, Parkinsons, and stroke victims (at least).

While I'm trying to fully absorb the notion of multispecism (or is it multiispeciesism), the news in the same week comes up with the medicine egg - where we use chickens as drug factories of the future - butt out Pfizer and Roche. This notion is based on the idea that we impregnate breeds of chickens with different immunities - and an egg a day will keep a particular illness away.

Meantime, Richard Branson, who is locked in conflict with Rupert Murdoch over media space in the UK, has my votes for winning the battle. Why? Because he's an adventurer and innovator. His latest thing is a cryogenic bank for rich guys that want to live forever. I'm not going to be a customer for that service, but I do love his guts.

And, in our last gasps on a planet we have disrespected, space is the next frontier. Adventurers will be essential in this coming exploration.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Dutch developers and eirepreneurs

After using Skype as my main comms tool for over a year, I've got some experience. But this week, I "picked up" a buddy in a public chat - new to me. For the first time since I finished at Skype, I requested authorisation from a user after she asked a battery of interesting questions in a public chat. And we're chatting since - the internet rocks on.

My new buddy is a Clever Clogs lady from the Netherlands who is a front runner in developing mashups for Grazr. If you are a feed freak and/or interested in data pipes, Grazr and Marjo are the way to go. I like the Grazr interface and am looking forward to working with Marjo on ideas for feed filters.

In recent weeks I have Skyped a lot with Dutch people - seems to be a cradle of fun and disruption. Today, at one point, I was chatting in 4 separate IMs with Dutch geeks who don't know each other. Not sure what they put in the coffee but they seem to have great ability to turn idea into reality. I met Bart Lamot when he volunteered to write JNI connectors for Linux and Mac for the open source Java API for Skype. I met Jurrien (link to follow) on that project also - a student that brightens my days with his dedication to clean, reusable code. And then there's Ike that all Skype users love as the Paraveterinary in the Skype forums and runs a solid virtual business. Ike runs a Skype-powered virtual office service from Friesland - no better woman for the job - she's organised and she can multitask better than me.

And then there's Marjo of RSS world - who inroduced me to Grazr where I found a Grazr feed of Irish Twits - the Eirepreneurs - now is that fun or what?

Monday, 5 March 2007

Not doing one thing right!

I've made myself a personalised Google home page and the feature I like most is being able to see the latest feeds in my Google blog reader. Which is where I came across Doing One Thing Right: Couchville, by Michael Arrington on Tech Crunch. It's a review of a TV guide service that doesn't try for bells and whistles - just does one thing right. Great - except that the review does something wrong. In the text of the article the writer to refers to Coucheville (note the additional e) including a link to There is no such address.

Over at, don't wait up for the surge in traffic - it ain't coming, except from nit-pickers like me that can't help spotting typos. We all make mistakes, but the headline which implies that a sub-editor spotted the error but didn't make corrections to the body text - that's not just a simple mistake, that's poor process. If readers are to trust online sources, writers must be consistently accurate and check sources and references.

I don't know anything about the editorial processes at Tech Crunch - maybe this is a rare case that slipped through usual checks - or maybe they rely on writers to police their own accuracy. I'm sure they will act to correct the mistake.

This trivial error (unless you are couchville, of course) reflects a general issue affecting the credibility of web content. Now that we are all self-publishers, a couple of issues are emerging which affect the value and nature of online information.

First there is the issue of accuracy: Much as we all love Wikipedia, it can be prone to manipulation and should be taken with a pinch of salt. The things we enjoy most about self-publishing - the immediacy and freedom - are also its greatest weaknesses. To coin the old adage - with freedom comes responsibility, but many bloggers don't know the simple rules of grammar and journalism - why should they?

Second, there is the issue of clarity: As social networks and globalisation take people across cultural boundaries, there is an ever-growing need for people to use simple, clear language which is easy to translate. Any designer will tell you that simple doesn't mean easy. One happy outcome is that writers must move on from the awful practice of ization - when "How will you make money?" is turned into "How will you monetize?", or "developing products" becomes "productization". A possible victim of cross-cultural communication will be the conditional tense - because words like might and should translate badly, will they disappear? I read once that native american languages have no tenses perhaps it's not a bad idea to lose a few.

Looking forward, the semantic web aims to ease data sharing between applications and communities based on the Resource Description Framework. While transparent to users, the semantic web presents a big new learning curve for writers and other content developers.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

People power - why not?

While You're at It, Why Not Generate A Little Electricity, in the Wall Street Journal, introduces some people who want to harvest human energy. It's an attractive if somewhat kooky idea that conjures up images of the matrix and what to do with our prison population, immigrants, and other social annoyances. However, when you think of the amount of energy people use at the gym, on the sports field, at night clubs - it makes sense to try and harness it.

An extreme sporty Californian persuaded an international fitness club outfit to run an experiment in a gym in Hong Kong. Cost is high and returns are low - less than 200 dollars a year for an investment of 15,000. Enviu, a group of young Dutch environmentalists, have built a dance floor that powers its own internal lighting. Here the price tag is 26K, for some measly floor lights - hmm.

But hey - what does a dance floor normally cost to build and what are the future plans? The WSJ article belittles these projects by presenting scant figures with a distinct bias - I don't think it's fair to judge these projects in simple terms of ROI - looked at as proofs of concept where valuable lessons are learned, these projects are pretty damn cheap.

And the WSJ piece also neglects to mention that the project is finished and the world's first sustainable nightclub opened to the public in Rotterdam, in October 2006.

These are small steps but, as the Enviu people say, part of the value is in making sustainability sexy and cool, not just a geeky, hippy thing. While people power is unlikely to solve all our energy needs, it can help reduce the requirement for non-sustainable resources while increasing our awareness of the direct relationship between energy and consumption.

Thursday, 1 March 2007

Summer madness - London 2005

July 2005 was a humdinger of a month in London. The city played host to Live8 and won the bid for the 2012 Olympics; meanwhile the Make Poverty History campaign made its way into the G8 summit in Scotland. Then the stories changed on 7/7. I was blogging the news as it was reported (or mis-reported) - the extracts are in sequence.

And the victim was

Published 24 July, 2005

A 29 year-old Brazilian electrician - I bet he never expected to die on the floor of the tube in Stockwell. "He looked Pakistani" said the best eye-witness in the land (or so he seemed at the time) but he was Brazilian. We lived next door to Jose and Maria from Portugal for a while, in the grounds of a chateau in France. We were renting and they were the old retainers. Jose had been in France for 31 years, left there about age 20, bit of a soccer player. After 31 years he would still wear vest, shirt and at least 2 jumpers until July. By mid-July he might be seen to bare his arms, but only in a heatwave.

They speak Portuguese in Brazil and they wear lots of warm clothes when they are away from home. Maybe he didn't understand English, maybe he was cold, but why jump the barrier at the station. No money for a ticket? Illegal immigrant? Pocketful of drugs? Just scared and pure unlucky? Will we ever know?

Until recently I would have assumed that secrecy would prevail and mistakes would be covered up. During recent events the police have been remarkably candid - perhaps because they realise they have to if they are to have any credibility as guardians of our security. An innocent man was pumped full of bullets on the tube by police marksmen working on bad intelligence - nothing good about it. But at least they admitted it - that's a start.

Pin the tail on the donkey

Published 23 July, 2005

Today the Met (London Metropolitan Police) apologised for the Stockwell shooting and admitted they got it wrong. Five bullets pumped into the wrong guy.

Why did he run, ignore calls to stop, leap over the ticket barrier? His intention was to escape his pursuers - Why? Was he deaf? Did he not understand English? Was he going about a relatively minor piece of mischief, such as carrying drugs or pirated CDs? Or was he one of London's vulnerable "care in the community" people - festering in an alternative reality in a dingy bedsit in Stockwell.

I will add the policeman that pumped 5 bullets into the chest of a "frightened rabbit" to my list of victims of this madness. He has to live with himself tomorrow and the day after. I want to know how they got it so wrong - is their intelligence so flimsy and unreliable? Are we just pinning tails on donkeys or have we got something to go on?

More trouble in London

Published 23 July, 2005-07-23

Last Thursday it seemed to be happening again - three tubes and the number 26 bus in Hackney, just by Bethnal Green. Nobody hurt because the bombs didn't work. One theory goes that the recent police raids uncovered the bombers' stock of detonators and they had to improvise - badly it would appear.

One fanatical islamic scientist wanted for a variety of freelance projects, must speak English like a native, be of impeccable character (i.e. below the security radar) and be available at short notice. The role will involve frequent travel abroad and multiple passports will be an asset. The candidate will be working with teams of young people and strong motivational skills are essential.

I just made that up because I am trying to imagine how you recruit for these activities. Seems it's not so easy to make a bomb that works, which was just as well for Londoners at the moment. But there's little consolation to be derived from the knowledge that this week's lot of suicide bombers botched things up.

Botchers they may be but they got away! This is very scary. On the tube at Shepherd's Bush (up the road from the BBC for maximum news coverage) one man was described as lying on top of his bag while it detonated but failed to explode. He then got up, ran out of the tube and down the tracks to freedom. Off home for a nice cup of tea no doubt. Like running away after a schoolboy prank.

And where is he drinking his cup of tea - in your local caff, next door, by the coffee machine at work? He might be teaching your children or nursing your granny - he could be anywhere, anyone, he is the enemy within. He's as british as anyone else but he follows a different course - his moral map is not british. He probably went to school here, sat through the endless assemblies full of CofE moralising, preaching tolerance and inclusiveness and forgiving. This CofEness is a unique identifier of the english psyche, part of the english condition. Why is Mr. Suicide Bomber unaffected by the monotonous, repetitive power of the assembly?

Thursday was followed by Friday (as happens) and a man in a winter coat is shot dead in a tube train in Stockwell by armed policemen. One of the world's best ever eye witnesses was on the TV half an hour later, describing the scene. He was sitting on the tube at Stockwell, reading his paper, on his way to meet his boss at London Bridge (incidentally, my sister's daily route to work). A guy half trips into the tube, is pushed to the ground by 3 armed men, and "they unloaded 5 bullets into him". He described the absolute pandemonium that followed as people fled the scene. He was giving up on work and heading to the pub for a stiff scotch instead. Another aspect of the english condition - the pub is a great refuge in a crisis.

Now, London is in shock, like it hasn't been in recent weeks. People being shot dead in the tube is not British - it's something that you see on TV or in Bruce Willis movies. Five bullets seems a bit excessive, but he was wearing a big bulky jacket on a hot day and ignored calls to stop. And in the current climate, failing to stop is either extremely dumb or a sign that somebody has a lot to hide, perhaps a bomb.

I was planning a trip to London today. My sister was planning to go up west shopping today. We've both cancelled and people are cancelling all over London this weekend. Why are we scared now after taking it on the chin with stoicism 2 weeks ago, in the face of such carnage? This week's bombers failed but they got away. Will they try again? How many more of them are there? 4 bombers on a carefully orchestrated and executed mission is a major incident. 4 bombers on a botched mission could become an everday occurence - any 17 year old with a rebellious streak could take a shot at martyrdom - if it works he wins and if it doesn't he runs away. And there's plenty more where he came from. Or am I getting paranoid? If I am, I am not alone - paranoia, fear, hysteria - they are all creeping in.

Meantime, New Yorkers are subject to random searches on the subway because of the bombs in London. There's something almost peevish about this - like they are jealous of all the attention London is getting because New York should be the mother-of-all targets. Ken Livingstone ruled out such searches in London on logistical grounds. Getting to and from work in London is stressful enough as is without adding the prospect of interminable queues for searching.

However, how will people get to work? People are becoming increasingly worried about tube travel and are seeking alternatives. Friday morning's shooting was the last straw for some - it's just not cricket to have to deal with a shooting on the way to the office. Bombs are one thing, but police marksmen and dead bodies are another.

Are we about to see a revolution in London society, as people stop going to the office and work from home instead. If we're not out and about on the transport network they can't get us. Even with an endless stream of fanatics, they can't get us all in our houses, can they? This is not giving in to terrorism, in fact it pulls the rug from under it. Perhaps we should have a national work at home day to try it out and send a clear message to the enemy - we'll recognise you because you will be the one on the empty tube looking for a crowd to blow up.

I don't like talking about terrorism - it is a misused and emotive term. The notion of waging war on something as vague would be laughable except that it's true. This week, for the first time since September 11, I felt terror - the terror of wondering whether the person next to you is about to trigger a bomb. The absolute terror of realising that a faceless enemy hates you with such intensity that he will not stop until he gets you. The blinding terror of feeling completely and utterly powerless to protect yourself. All day, every day.

With every statement, the police and politicians remind us that these acts are the acts of criminals and not of a community. But the noises coming from Islamic communities do not reassure me. Pakistan may be licensing its religious schools but it is also pointing the finger firmly at Britain, saying that it needs to clean up its act. Muslims feel quite at liberty to say that as long as Britain is at war in an Islamic country she must expect what she gets. Excuse me. Why is that so? I don't agree with the Iraq war - what is legitimate about killing me? A 7 year old child has no say in the wars we wage - what is legitimate about killing them?

Why do so many people in this country lack a sense of allegiance to their country and who give religion priority over community? Why do so many people in this country think it is acceptable not to speak English, and not to mix with English people? How has this occured and how can we fix it?

Ever since Enoch Powell's infamous Rivers of Blood speech in the 60s, English society has been very reticent about discussing ethnic issues - it is dangerous territory, full of potential pitfalls for the politically correct. In France they are not nearly as sensitive and 63% of french people admit to having racist opinions. They think it is quite OK to do so. I don't. However, I do think there should be a couple of basic rules for all immigrants to any country - learn the local language and send your children to school with local children.

My mate Nina taught English on a voluntary basis to muslim women in Hackney. One of her students came to her in desperation after her husband divorced her (the immam came to tell her), took their children and left her penniless and on the verge of homelessness. And she did not have enough English to get by. Nina took her to social services and the housing department and the hospital - she was also ill due to the damp in her bedsit. There isn't a Nina living on every block and there are many women in England who are not so lucky, isolated from the host community by lack of English, completely dependent on the goodwill of sexist husbands.

In our desire to be inclusive, we have been too tolerant and turned a blind eye to sexism which came packaged with religion. In hindsight I think we are realising we have been too tolerant about a lot of things. Far too many people living here have no sense of allegiance to England; it was never a requirement. The last thing we need right now is nationalism, but it is important to be loyal to your home - this is a kind of essential social value.

Plea - recover the bodies please

Published 09 July, 2005

I think people in England have been confused, scared and distracted since Thatcher first kicked welly. It took a pair of gobby Irish shites, a successful Olympic bid and 4 bombs to bring Britain back to its senses and restore its confidence.

The world expects wailing but instead they get calm. Public displays of emotion are not British - the way of things here in a crisis is to straighten your shoulders and make yourself useful. And people were very useful - offering help instead of running for cover.

We're back to the times of suspicion. In the 80s a mate of mine travelled to London, first time out of Ireland, and got rather drunk en route, as you do, it can be a long and emotional journey. Destination Kilburn, he got a bit dozy waiting for the tube and, in his confusion getting on the train, forgot a bag of precious music tapes - did I mention he was a musician and a mighty good spoon player?

Shortly after his arrival at base, sans music, the police were at the door and arrested the lot of them. They had carried out a controlled explosion in the tube station and were a mite annoyed - so was my mate, his precious, unique store of Irish music was dust.

My mate was no threat to anyone but himself perhaps, and left London, disillusioned, as quickly as he had come, sad lesson learnt. Being Irish and living in London in the times of the Harrod bombing, the Canary wharf bombing - you are not the most popular person in the boozer. You have to modify your tones, whisper at times, in case your accent might give offence or draw the wrong attention.

I cannot imagine how difficult it is for London's Muslim communities this week - victims like the rest of us but with the harsh, hostile glare of public suspicion hanging over them. Separated from the local community by social and political events that are not of their design or desire. Pity the parents grieving their children, and the children grieving their parents.

This vicious and lamentable assault struck at some of the centres of the Islamic community in London - in Aldgate and Edgeware Road - the former is a focal point for the poor, and the ultra-rich Arabs congregate aroung the Edgeware Road, just a stretch up the road from Park Lane and Marble Arch. Whoever did this thing did not care for poor or rich, Islamic or no.

What does this tell us about our enemy I ask. Not a lot is my non-forensic, non-police-like response - haven't got a notion. But I hope the police have. I hope the police catch these plonkers before ordinary people do. I hope they get the evidence together to stitch them up good time.

However, top priority is to recover the bodies that are still trapped - bugger the forensics. If my kid or next-door-neighbour was missing, I would care less for forensic evidence and prefer to dig in and be done with it. Are the forensic teams hampering recovery or am I just too cynical for words?

As time goes by, Kings X becomes our Ground Zero. We've always had the capacity to f**k it up ourselves, with stray cigarette stubs and the like. What blows it for me is the people/bodies are still trapped. Fix it now, please.

7/7 and then there were seven

Published 07 July 2005-07-07

I turned on the TV and the news was bizarre - a power surge seemed to be knocking out tube trains all over London, huh? As time went on the power surge story sounded more and more ridiculous. When the bus blew up my fears were confirmed - these were bombs.

It was a number 30 bus, on its way to town from Hackney Wick. A tragic way to mark London 2012. Two people confirmed dead on the bus and there's speculation it was London's first suicide bombing.

Spent the morning trying to call people. Gradually the texts started arriving but some messages were taking hours due to mobile network congestion I assume. On 9/11 my dispersed family (including some in the states) didn't manage to complete the check in until about 1am.

Last week I walked that route in the sunshine as I wended my way to the Papageno. It must be weird there tonight. The renowned bulldog british spirit kicked in like lightening today - talk about stoicism or is it just plain ordinary shock.

And so, Tones had to leave G8 and then they were 7. Only for the afternoon, but he's still in town which won't leave much horse-trading time tonight. I'm sure Jacques likes to get an early night and George will be busy at his prayers. Can we squeeze some reality out of George by tomorrow - from a country where it is illegal to teach evolution why would they believe in global warming?

The road to 2012

Published 07 July, 2005

What a day it was for Tones yesterday - he's on a roll and so is England. What a coup - Olympics 2012 for London, exactly what the country needs. If you're not familiar with London you are probably visualising palaces and princes and, with Princess Ann on the bid team, I think we can be assured of lots of royal waves during the event.

But forget the royals and think Hackney - the poorest borough in Britain - source I presume of the "hackney cab" and "hackneyed" conversations. It's my favourite place in London, my second home for a number of years and where I made many lifelong friends - I even met himself there.

My favourite approach to Hackney is to take the 253 bus through the windy streets of the City, via the smells, colour and chaos of Whitechapel market, and finally up Cambridge Heath Road towards Hackney. Along the Whitechapel Road you pass the Jolly Beggars pub where one of the Kray brothers is reputed to have nailed a guy's hands to the floor! The side streets were the hunting ground of Jack the Ripper and small wonder really. For centuries Whitechapel has been the first port of call for immigrants to England - a vast, seething, melting pot of cultures, ideas, languages (and potential victims for murderers and gangsters) . . . They reckon there are 252 languages spoken in London (there are fewer than 250 ISO country codes).

I like to get off the bus at Bethnal Green, the southern point of Hackney where there's a lovely Museum of Childhood (in Hackney!) if you have time on your hands. Alternatively, the Rose and Crown pub right by the bus stop can often be more tempting. To the right, the Victoria Park Road leads to one of London's finest public parks and straight on is the grime and bustle of Mare Street - main street Hackney. The far side of Victoria Park is our goal - the wasteland that is set to be transformed into a 21st century dream.

London's amazing network of canals runs through Victoria Park - you can traverse north and east London along the canal paths without seeing a car or a bus. You do, however, encounter the occasional fisherman, thousands of pounds worth of kit, ice-bag stocked with beer, large dog lounging around and mouth full of squirming worms. I kid you not. The worms wiggle more effectively if they are warm. It's an ancient Cockney tradition.

Ali, my flatmate, introduced his 4 year old son to cycling by taking him on a ride north westwards along the canal path through Islington, and King's Cross and right up to Camden Lock - the poor lad slept for a week after his ordeal. Ali was a 40+ bicycle courier - usually a young man's game but Ali had boundless energy.

If you travel north east on the canal from Victoria Park, it takes you past the Top of the Morning Pub where a pit stop could be in order. It's a pretty typical pub for the area - like many places near the park it has an air of faded gentility, a bit run down, a bit rough and ready, but noisy and lively and friendly. And they come in every imaginable size, shape, colour and sexual persuasion.

Onwards from the pub and you arrive at our destination - Hackney Wick (drop the H if you want to sound local), gateway to Hackney marshes and London 2012. Acres and acres of space lost to the dog walkers and local football clubs. They never built a tube line to Hackney - because it was too poor and now an ongoing reason for its poverty. People thought I was insane to live there because of its cruddy transport links. But if you get into life in Hackney, you only leave when you have to. And with a 38 bus running door to door from home through Holborn, Covent Garden and onto Picadilly, what need had I for a smelly tube?

With no tube Hackney is a foreign country to most Londoners. It has so many hidden secrets - the marshes, the canals, the parks, the music, the markets, the pubs and some very cool people. Hackney usually makes it to the news for bad reasons - drug crime, bad schools that sort of thing. And it has its grim side, no doubt about it. But there's a common ground in poverty and there's a "we're all in the same boat together, man" attitude that is easy and relaxed.

A bloke I knew wandered, blind-drunk, into a Supermarket by Ridley Road market one evening, filled a basket with goods including more beer, staggered outside without paying and sat down for a little rest. When he was awoken by the security man he spotted that his beers had been nicked from his basket. They immediately replaced the beers at no charge and sent him on his way! It was only when he got home he discovered he had spent no money.

Ali used to go to Tesco's in Well Street late on Saturday afternoons to buy up the goodies on knock down pricing. He witnessed an incident where a staff member on the butchery counter spotted somebody eating the goods and accosted him. The hungry customer broke into a run down the aisles, chased by a growing number of the staff. Cornered finally in the back of the crowded store, six members of staff hoisted him up on their shoulders like a corpse, transported him thus from the premises before dumping him on the pavement outside to the amazement of onlookers. I don't see that happening in Kensington.

At 8.50 this morning a power surge occured at Liverpool street station - several people injured - other stations affected - walking wounded leaving King's Cross - now described as a major incident and entire system is being shut down. Initial reports of a bomb/terrorist incident have been discounted. Must turn on the TV.

Live8, discovery and adventure

Published 05 July, 2005

Not a minute to spare lately and still no job. Bits of jobs keeping hunger at bay but nothing worth writing home or here about. And then a call today - guess what - Stevenage again. If the Martians were using job ads as an indicator of intelligence, Stevenage would be in the A stream. Picture their consternation when they land in the "shopping centre", the ship is burnt out by the local wide boys, and they can't find the train station.

Obviously the last interview didn't work out but it got people reading and buddy Dawn has even pulled out the maps. Ian tells me his worst escape from a new town was from Swindon. My worst was a ladies (euphemism) pub outing from London to a social club in Slough for a jolly. Slough may not qualify as a new town (I don't know what the definition is) but it was new to me and what I saw lacked character and soul. Who would choose such an itinerary - down to the bizarre tastes of a mature scottish barmaid in a pub in the basement of the tower block in Hackney (map reference for Dawn: London, Hackney/Shoreditch, Downham Road off Kingsland road) where I lived at the time.

John Betjeman was from Slough and penned the poem, The Slough of Despond. Despite liking Betjeman, I never read it, couldn't make my way past the unpromising title. An Irish poet, Paul Durcan, wrote a similar/parody poem on the subject of Drimoleague (map reference for Dawn: Ireland, County Cork, West Cork). I ran an art gallery there for a while - great times, grim times.

These towns should twin and make a joint bid to attract hyperactive tourists who will benefit from the grey, featureless and depressive riches these places have to offer. We could start a whole league of depressive resorts and do a sort of exchange tourism, sending their residents on hols to new towns and Hackney and places with a bit of edge and dangerous creativity - but never any soul.

Was there soul and edge at Live8 do you think? It was not there on Saturday when Madonna practically handcuffed a beautiful, dignified African woman to her, the woman whose death's door photos as a baby sparked our generosity twenty years ago. Madonna wonders if England is ready for revolution - her every gesture towards this lovely lady spoke of control, power and was totally devoid of empathy or class. Go home Madonna please, you impress me about as much as George double U at this point.

The plusses of Live8 included Will Smith's finger-clicking cleverness and general, all-rounder, hunkability. A favourite Irish singer of mine, Brush Shiels, told me in always aims to be just a shade more entertaining than the previous act - never show them up but never be overshadowed. Dido and Yossou n'Dour did not spare their energies for Live8, hopping from London to the Eden Project and onto Paris to take the 7 second message to a new universe of listeners. Where was Neneh Cherry? How could you not want to be part of that party, singing with the songbird of Senegal.

Andy Kershaw was angry at the lack of african music on the original plan and Chris from Coldplay (who has been reading far too many of his own rave reviews, like wife Gwynneth) got straight in there, defending the motives and goals of the mighty Bob Geldhof. My thinking is that Bob Geldhof knows exactly what he wants to achieve, is not particularly concerned by Andy Kershaw's attacks which might be attributed to sour grapes, and has been working towards these plans for a long time, perhaps 20 years. However, I also think he may be wrong, a pawn to Blair, and also reading too many personal rave reviews.

I'd prefer to spend radio time any day with Andy Kershaw and the wonderful musicians he discovers and nurtures. But the purpose of Live8 was about glitz and media and spin - to make it sexy and exciting to give back some of the western comfort and wealth to the societies we raped to pay for it. Andy needs to look forward to the future of the continent that is collapsing around the culture he does such a good job at exploring and sharing. There really isn't much time for pussyfooting - we need to hold hands and overlook the little offences right now.

Tomorrow I will blog on the march to Edinburgh - not there but I lived there and know the city intimately. It will be fun.

France 2002

I lived in rural France in 2002 and 2003. It was very French. Here are some articles I salvaged from a blog I ran while I was there.

Lost on the eBay trail

Yesterday Kev was shopping around for sailing jackets. After finding what looked like a bargain on eBay, he wanted to find the new price in the shops. But he hit a brick wall on Google when he tried to filter eBay out of the search returns. You can filter out domains from the returns, but that's not easy when you're dealing with something as sprawling and ubiquitous as eBay and it's related properties. I expect you can do some clever things with regular expressions to make your filter, but how many people have the time, knowledge or desire to do that?

Last summer eBay and Google announced that they will be cooperating internationally (whatever that means). So, it's probably not the best time to be suggesting that Google provide plug and play filters to block eBay and other Internet property magnates. I'd even go so far as to suggest that it would be a great project for Google's summer of code this year.

After years of vigorous pursuit of search engine domination, web marketeers will be outraged by the notion. By cooperating, although companies risk losing visitors, these are disgruntled users that don't want to be there. Showing consideration for internet users will enhance brand perception and enrich the Google experience. It's a matter of quantity over quality I guess.

When Kev finally found a new version of his jacket, he was able to use the Google search bar as a calculator to compare costs - so that gave him back some of the time he lost on the eBay trail.