Foursquare and Amex, Instagram marketing agency, Montague Arms

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Foursquare and Amex
When I was checking in at the cinema on Foursquare recently I noticed the nearby Nandos had a ‘special’. These are usually a bit useless – a free drink for the mayor – but as I occasionally go to Nandos I looked to see what it was. It turned it was a deal where if I used my Amex card there I’d get back £10 on a £10 spend. Bargain.

This is something Amex has done for a while in America and I remember being rather disappointed it wasn’t doing it in the UK. Pleasingly it is launching with a similar £10 back on £10, or £5 back on £5, with useful retailers like Tesco, Eat and Pizza Express. Set up is easy. Sync your card via the Amex website, check in to participating places on Foursquare and ‘load’ the offer, then just pay by Amex. You don’t need to tell the retailer what you are doing or show them a voucher.

I’ve blogged before about not being able to give a reason why I use Foursquare but now I have one.

Incidentally, through reading about this I discovered the Explore section of the Foursquare app*. I cannot remember ever using it despite it sitting on the bottom navigation bar. It further proves that if you have a product which people use to do one focused thing it hard to get them to notice other functionality you offer.

*The Foursquare iOS app has since been completely updated and Explore is now more integrated.

Instagram marketing agency
To help (or feed) my obsession with New York I follow newyorkcity on Instagram. Every day a cool photo of the cool city is posted and it makes me want to go back there even more. It’s a popular feed with more followers than the Instagram app can show (it says 260…). Photos will get 10,000 likes and hundreds of comments.

I noticed this morning the feed’s owner/photographer announced she’d cofounded a company, The Mobile Media Lab, and for their first client, Samsung, she’ll be shooting with their Galaxy Note.

So, this is an agency set up by three people, which is specialising on getting brands on to Instagram. No big surprise here – a new market has opened up and there’s an opportunity to get in early. It will be interesting to see how effective they can be on Instagram. Their website has a case study of brand promotion which has already happened on the newyorkcity feed but I never noticed it.

Strangely over the past few days a few photos which feel more like personal interest have crept into newyorkcity (like an award ceremony). I’m not sure of the logic behind this. I follow it for great pictures of the NYC, and if they mess with that too much I’ll stop following.

Montague Arms
I was saddened to find out that the Montague Arms between New Cross and Peckham has closed, never to reopen in it’s old form. It actually closed at the end of 2011 but I didn’t realise.

The Montague was an amazing old boozer packed full of dusty taxidermy and seafaring memorabilia. It was the kind of pub you don’t get anymore. It closed mainly due to the death of the couple who co-ran it (into their 80s) and also because it was no longer fire safe.

The end of the Montague was inevitable. It was too big and just too far away from things to draw enough of a crowd to keep it going. Back in the day it welcomed coach parties on their way from Dover. More recently it hosted bands and student nights.

The taxidermy and memorabilia have been sold at auction. I cannot see anyone else taking on the lease. I dread the day I drive past and see new build flats in its place.

Guardian Open Weekend, Skins, Country Pubs

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Guardian Open Weekend

Guardian Open WeekendLast weekend The Guardian opened its doors (or rather took over the conference centre below its offices) to its reader for two days of talks, discussions and workshops. It was good stuff with over 200 sessions covering journalism, digital media, environment, politics and other Guardian favourites.

It was very popular with Kings Place packed to bursting (my friend described the change over being like school corridors after the bell). All the speakers and panelists I saw were top notch and, unlike other conferences I’ve been to lately, where experts and leaders in their field. I saw Vince Cable explain how the country should run (while being careful not to undermine his government), heads of Google and Facebook argue about each others policies and Clay Shirky’s latest thinking on the digital future.

With newspapers trying to find new ways to make money it makes sense for them to move in the events space like this. Especially as they have the contacts to bring in a strong line-up of speakers. This will be harder if other newspapers start doing the same but right now The Guardian has first mover advantage.

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Skins

SkinsI’ve been a big fan of Skins since it started. While part of me watched it to ‘see what the kids are getting up to’, I knew it doesn’t reflect real life but the quality of the storyline and the emotion has pulled me along. Except for the second series with the second cast – that got dark and over emotional in an absurd way.

It took a long time to warm to the third cast. This wasn’t helped by some terrible acting. But things changed in their second series. Some of the characters felt completely different to the first series and they made the genius decision of killing off the worst actor.

About a year ago I started watching the very first episode. I was amazed at how shonky it was. The music and directing were week. That shows that it is a programme that both created and defined a genre as it progressed.

As I’m sure you know there will not be a forth cast. Skins will end next year with two-parters catching up with each cast. It is the right decision not, because it has become tired, but because channels like E4 need to keep trying new things. I’m looking forward to seeing what has happened to Tony, Sid, Cassie etc. Couldn’t care less about Effy, Cook, Pandora. I suppose there’s not enough of a break from Franky, Alo, Rich etc.

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Country Pubs

I spent a lot of last week driving around villages in Suffolk. The weather was beautiful and scenery lovely. What spoilt it was the large number of closed down pubs. It was depressing to see pubs that should be part of a community bored up. The saddest was one recommended in the Good Pub Guide which was fully tinned-up like an abandoned council estate.

There’s lots of reasons why these pubs have closed. The recession, high taxation and money grabbing PubCos are at the top. There’s also a problem with the size of the pubs. Most of the closed ones were massive compared to the size of community they were in. There simply wasn’t enough locals and passing traffic for them. The sad thing is even if the recession stopped to day and taxes were cut these places would not reopen.

The pubs that remain seemed to be heavily reliant on premium food (£15–20 mains) at the expense of being a local you can drink at. One was working hard to be a social destination with pub quizzes, live music and food nights. Others were free houses not having to hand over profits to a brewer.

People have morned the loss the village shop and post office but it’s the pub that brings communities together socially. Britain is loosing something vital and it feels like few people realise or care.

Pies, Pizza at the Gowlett, Instagram photos of food

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Pies

My pieI love pies. But until last week I’d never made one. While pies seem simple — pastry and some filling — the thought of making pastry and cooking up some filling seemed like too much work. I guess I also knew deep down that pies were unhealthy. The pie I made certainly was.

It came from the Pieminister book a friend kindly gave me. Like many cookery spin-off books it is beautifully produced, everything looks wonderful but takes a pile of ingredients the likes of me doesn’t keep around the house. However hidden at the back was the Hunter Chicken Pie which didn’t call for something I wouldn’t buy on a normal shop.

Admittedly I did cheat and use ready-rolled puff pastry. But the chopping of onions, cooking with rosemary then adding tomato, Worcester sauce and balsamic vinegar was me. Then cooking up the chicken, bacon and 150ml of double cream was me. I did get a bit of help laying out the pastry.

The result was gorgeous. I’m pleased I’d had my blood cholesterol test earlier in the week before eating it.

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Pizza at The Gowlett

Gowlett's pizzaI should love pizza but I have an on-off relationship with it, mainly because pizzas disappoint me too much. I’d given up hope on shop bought pizzas. Pizza Express’ efforts do nothing for me. The occasional delivery pizza is OK but only it if has BBQ sauce on it.

I’m down to two places that do pizza really well. One is Yard in Shoreditch which sells pizza by the yard with different toppings to share. I’ve only been there three times and it hasn’t failed me. But the best place I’ve ever found for pizza is The Gowlett in Peckham.

It often tops charts of best pizza in (South) London and deservedly so. What I cannot work out is why. It is a backstreet boozer that’s purposely been kept plain. Although it tries to make a virtue out of its beer selection it is average. But their pizzas stand out. The base is perfect and the toppings tasty and inventive.

Not skimping on the quality of the toppings is certainly a factor. Last night’s chef’s special featured a runny egg that tasted better than most I’ve made.

Their pizzas come from a hidden kitchen out back so you cannot even see how they are prepared. The only clue was a sign I once saw that said they are made by Polish chefs.

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Instagram photos of food

The face of cruditésInstagram photos seem to fall into three types. Cool photos made even cooler with the filters, pets and home cooked food. Lacking a pet my photos fall into the first and third categories (although I’d accept the criticism they aren’t that cool).

This is nothing new. In the early days of Flickr people would take photos of what they were about to eat but the fashion fell away. Now it is back on Instragram and I think I know why.

For a lot of people Instragram is about showcasing artistic creativity. The filters make this easy to do. Most people I know don’t have the time to create nice things but they do cook. I was very proud of the pie I made and my breadmaker produced its best ever loaf. I wanted to share those ‘achievements’ and Instagram made that quick and easy.

I find myself taking fewer Instagram photos as I feel like they have to be good. In the winter there are less opportunities to find interesting things to photograph. But I’m cooking more. The food pictures will continue.

Unconference/BarCamp, Fish Pie in a Pot, CloudScrob

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Unconference/BarCamp

After a summer of going to conferences that cost £50-£500 (I volunteered at the expensive one) and coming away questioning their value, I’ve been wondering if there’s a better way of doing things. I’d heard about user-generated events (unconferences) that followed BarCamp rules and last weekend I got to experience my first.

The format is straightforward. There’s no advance agenda and no booked speakers. There’s just a number of spaces/rooms and a schedule of time slots. People attending are encouraged to host a session by either giving a presentation or facilitating a discussion. At the start of the event they post cards on a schedule board with their subjects. The event’s participants then use the cards to decide which sessions to attend.

All this makes BarCamps cheap and easy to organise. You just need a location and a network of people to attend. If a sponsor can help provide coffee/lunch/beer even better.

The one I went to was ProductCamp London which brought together 150 product managers. Everybody seemed to get involved and the 32 session slots filled up. Most sessions I went to were interesting. A few didn’t live up to their titles and I found myself suffering from ‘fear of missing out’ when I could see a better-looking session through the windows.

I feel like I need to be much more picky with my paid-for conferences in future but I’d happily take a punt on the next BarCamp that looks interesting.

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Fish Pie in a Pot

Fish Pie in a PotWhen Innocent introduced its Veg Pots it must have got ready-meal makers thinking because a few months after other meals started to appear in the same pots. But these competing products offered something new: meat and fish.

I’ve tried a few and have usually being underwelmed. As their portion size is more suited to a lunchtime rather than a big tea-time (or dinner as they say down south) I don’t usually buy them. Except that is for M&S’s Fish Pie in a Pot. I get cravings for them.

The fish is haddock and salmon. It’s bulked out with potato and some peas. There’s also an unhealthy amount of creme fraiche, butter, cheddar and cream (which is probably why I like it). Add a side of peas in some mint sauce and it’s supper bliss.

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CloudScrob

OK, this one is only relevant to last.fm users who have an iPhone or iPod Touch. If that isn’t you, stop reading as it will be dull.

Since upgrading to iOS5 I’ve stopped syncing my iPhone to my Mac. The iCloud and easy application updates means I don’t have to. And when I do it takes hours (but that’s another story). This means I haven’t been scrobbling my music plays to last.fm.

I figured I couldn’t be the only person with this problem so a quick web search lead me to CloudScrob. It’s a simple 89p app that looks for tracks you’ve played since you last launched it and sends them to last.fm. There’s no buttons to press and it takes seconds.

Pan Am, Gig lighting, Flickr

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Pan Am
Christina Ricci in Pan AmPan Am must have been an American TV exec’s dream: A stylish period drama to cash-in on the success of Mad Men; Pan Am was known for only hiring beautiful people so the cast had to be glamourous. Add in international travel and a spy storyline and we are ready for take off.

The critics have not been kind. No one is saying it is terrible but no one is calling it a classic — three stars all around. After watching the first two I agreed. It was feeling a bit forced and dressing everyone in the same uniform made it impossible for me to remember who was who.

A hungover Sunday meant I ventured to episode three and it turned out to be a cracker. The spy storyline had tension, there was nice humour around Maggie’s attempts to meet JFK and, taking things down to the basics, Christina Ricci looked amazing in a black poppy-print dress. I also realised I’d started caring for the characters (something I’m finding hard to do in TV drama these days).

So I’ll be sticking with Pan Am. I hope it is worth it.

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Gig lighting

I’ve been going to gigs for many years now and I still go to many in a year. We are told live music is still booming and it is the big money spinner for the industry. I tend to go to gigs in medium sized venues (KOKO, Brixton Academy, Scala). As venues they are well fitted out and the sound is usually great but I went to a gig last week which made me realise more needs to be done on stage.

I do like a band to have personality on stage but that isn’t important as long as the music blows me away (The Horrors do nothing but play, but boy can they play). However seeing Ane Brun at Scala reminded me what can be done with lighting. I’m not going to attempt to describe it here and photos (like this and this) don’t do it justice but it made such a difference to the gig. My best memory is the back of the stage bathed in blue with the two percussionists in shadow through smoke.

At the end of the gig Ane thanked her lighting director along with band so it is obviously something she cares about. I wish more artists did.

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Flickr
Lonely Pudsey (my most popular photo on Flickr)In the past year, how and when I take photos has changed. Before I never used my camera phone and would only take photos with my point-and-shoot when I was on a trip/holiday. Then Instagram came along and, with my iPhone 4, I had a half-decent camera on my phone. The result is my trusty point-and-shoot has been confined the drawer and I’m taking photos all the time.

Instagram’s app lets me upload my best photos straight to Flickr but I don’t always use Instagram. There’s still a few photos I like to take (like the view from my hotel room) just using the camera. Problem is I never get around/cannot be bothered uploading these to Flickr.

This leaves me with a quandary about Flickr. I absolutely love to be able to look back over old photos on the site. Most importantly it means my photos don’t get abandoned on a hard drive. But looking at Flickr yesterday I realised I haven’t created a new set since May – and it is these sets I look back over. All my photos since then are in an uncollected mess.

Then there’s the $25 I pay for Flickr each year. Admittedly it isn’t much money. But I’m not a ‘power’ user. If you compare what you get for $25 on other online services I’m not getting value. Yet I’m locked into Flickr because if I stop paying I lose access to my archive.

I’m not going to quit Flickr anytime soon but I would like it to do something – anything — to adapt to my new way of taking photos. Selfish I know.

Guardian iPad, Street Food and Cloud storage with Box.net

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Guardian on the iPad

If asked I’d say my newspaper of choice is the Guardian but I don’t actually read the paper. I don’t read newspapers during the week and my Saturday paper of choice is The Independent.  I find I quickly flick through the Saturday Guardian.  The Guide is nice, there’s usually something to read in Travel and the Weekend magazine but I always feel like I’ve read the news and cannot fathom the Review.  Yet I’ve just spent almost an hour reading the iPad version of this Saturday’s issue.

I’ve been deeply unimpressed with magazines on the iPad.  Most seem to have recreated CD-Roms with pointless whizzes and bangs like intro animations.  A behind-the-scenes video of the photo-shoots is often a selling point but who cares about seeing how the magazine is produced?  The simple problem is magazines (without the adverts) don’t actually have much content in them and are much nice to flick through in paper.

The Guardian newspaper does have lots of (text) content and that’s all they’ve put in the app.  No videos, no visuals to ‘explore’.  Yes, it does have a nice design but I didn’t need it to find content.  What was more engaging was swiping through individual stories and engaging with them rather than just glancing and moving on like I would with the paper.   I still skipped most of the 48 pages of the Review.

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Street Food

One of the articles I read in The Guardian was about the “explosion” of street food in Vancouver. Being Canada they had to do things formally so a panel of “two of the city’s leading chefs, a nutritionist, a bloke who runs farmers’ markets, a woman who understands fairtrade and sustainability, two local food bloggers and two members of the public, together with a couple of council faces” worked together to bring street food to the city.  They now have licensed stalls serving a vast array of goodness to Vancouverites.

I dream of the same for London.  A few stalls are popping up.  The Southbank has some including the PittCue Co and Engine. But there’s no concerted effort to get great stalls everywhere.

I’m lucky enough to work next to Big Apple Hot Dogs on Old Street.  Friendly and exuberant proprietor Abiya Cole cooks up tasty free range handmade pork dogs for £4 and under most days during the week.  But he had to find his own spot away from the road.  There’s a growing number of food stalls that do festivals and corporate events around London.  It would be great if they had a regular home on the street.

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Cloud storage with Box.net

I have four external hard drives with back-ups of my music/photos/videos/docs in the corner of my flat.  There’s no structure to them and they aren’t updated.  They also will not help me in case of fire or theft.  To the cloud then.

My photos are with Flickr which should feel safe but I’m starting to worry about Yahoo – they really need to show Flickr some love and I’m questioning the $25 a year fee. Generally my paperwork is somewhere in Gmail (although there are horror stories about people loosing that). I don’t have that much video I value but I do have a 29 days worth of digital music. iTunes Match will save that if it comes to the UK but that needs a change in the law first.

I thought about putting everything in Dropbox which has revolutionised the way I share and move files around but it is $99 a year to take my account from 2.8GB to 50Gb.  Then I read that Box.net are offering 50Gb for free if you download their iOS app and sign-up before 2 December.  Bargain.

Box.net is an enterprise version of Dropbox.  It is much more about sharing documents with lots of people and integrates with other apps.  It is also squarely aimed at business with the majority of features requiring subscriptions – including its software for integrating with your PC filing system like Dropbox.  This means you have to upload via the browser.

So Box.net isn’t replacing Dropbox for me but it is going to be my deep backup for everything I don’t want to lose.  And it isn’t going to cost me a cent.

Future of travel guides, London Amphitheatre, Craft Beer Bars

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Spotted By Locals and In Your Pocket

Tallinn in your pocket

The travel guide book industry is outdated. I know someone who was working an update of a major set of travel guides which will not be published until six months after subbing. A lot can change in six months. Last year we found Lonely Planet’s Miami guide hopelessly out of date (it was two years old and the recession had closed many Miami places). The book might have been forgivable but the iPhone app version had the same incorrect content.

Various websites have entered the market through crowd-sourcing recommendations and reviews from locals and fellow tourists. Problem is few have got the critical mass of users needed to useful. And I don’t need to tell you the issues with Trip Advisor.

On a trip to Antwerp I used a guide by Spotted by Locals. As the name suggests it is run by locals who update a blog with cool and interesting places they like. You can buy the blog as a PDF guide or an app. Ahead of my next trip, to Tallinn, I’m looking at In Your Pocket who do the same sort of thing.

These sites still have a way to go in terms of usability but the key thing is the information is constantly updated. And the PDFs are updated every few months.

So what you get is the local insight and expertise you’d expect from a traditional travel guide. But a faster turnaround.

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London’s Roman Amphitheatre

London Amphitheatre

On a wet Tuesday time needed to be killed in the City of London. That is how I discovered the ruins of a Roman Amphitheatre. They are in the basement of the Guildhall Art Gallery and were unearthed in the 90s when preparing to build the gallery. It’s London’s only amphitheatre and looks like it was the site of many a good gladiator fight and public execution.

There are only a few ruined walls on display, along with wooden drains. But it is free to visit and the feeling of being in a modern building surrounded by bricks of old is unique.

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Craft beer bars

Craft beers

Real Ale has always been considered a bit of an old man thing. Now the young men (and women) have their own take – the craft beer bars. These have lots of beers on tap and in bottles, taps are mainly draught with a few hand-pumped barrels, come from small UK brewers, a few European and a lot of American ones.

The Rake in Borough has been around a good while. The Draft House is attempting a little chain. Then the masterly Euston Tap, in a tiny gatehouse in front of Euston Station, came along, kick starting an explosion. There’s now Mason & Taylor in Shoreditch and Cask in Pimlico. More recently the lovely Smithfields boozer The Old Red Cow converted but they are cheating by keeping most pumps the same and including the likes of Becks Vier in the line-up.

Truth be told I prefer a nice American craft beer or little UK brewery’s IPA to most of the traditional ‘farty’ real ales. But all this is coming at a price. It maybe the poor $-£ exchange or taxes but the Euston Tap is starting to charge for a half what should get you a pint. Please don’t make my beer enjoyment a premium experience.

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