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.

Music Magpie, Radio 1’s Specialist Takeover, Bitching about the railways

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Music Magpie

Sorting CDsI’ve started a big clear-out of my flat. In particular I want to get rid of the stuff that moved in with me 6+ years ago and has barely been touched since. That, sadly, includes my CD collection and a lot of DVDs. It’s a process that started last year when I made a tidy sum selling anything of value through Amazon Marketplace but I was still left with a few hundred discs.

So on New Year’s Day I started scanning my stuff into Music Magpie which, if you don’t know, is a company that buys used CDs, DVDs and games. They’ve been going a few years and it looks like they’ve got a well developed system. When I first used it a year ago you had to type each barcode in by hand. Now they have an app to scan them.

Most of my (popular) CDs and DVDs were only worth 30p but some were a few quid. I learnt last year that the ones they offer more than a pound for can be worth selling through Amazon (or PlayTrade) but if there’s a lot of other sellers or the disc is obscure they can take a long time to sell.

Discs and cases have to be in reasonable nick. This means they cannot have plugger promotional stickers on them. So I did have to do a fair bit of recasing (something my fingernails aren’t forgiving me for).

All was looking good with Music Magpie until the courier didn’t turn up to collect my CDs on Saturday.  A phone call to them got me an apology and a time specific collection with another courier on Wednesday. After that I’ll wait for them to be processed to see how much of the promised £120 I’ll get. Not bad for things that have been in the cupboard for years. It was still sad to see them go though.

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Radio 1 Specialist Takeover

Radio 1's New Music MonsterWith the exception of Chris Moyles when I wake up, the Scott Mills Daily podcast, and the occasional Huw Stephens weekend show I’ve stopped listening to Radio 1. However last week’s specialist takeover pulled me back. For five weekdays the daytime line-up was replaced by Zane Lowe, Annie Mac, Huw Stephens and Nick Grimshaw.

I’ve always believed the main reason to listen to daytime Radio 1 was for the entertaining presenters and creative ideas but not the music. That changed this week as the music programming was a spot-on mix of ‘new’ tracks, ‘specialist’ tracks that ‘crossed over’ last year and ‘classic’ tracks. (I put all those terms in quotes as their definition is up for debate.) If Radio 1 played music like this every day I’d be pulled back from the office choice of 6 Music.

Radio 1 have started trails and TV adverts saying “New Music – It’s Our Big Thing – All Day Every Day”. I really hope it is.

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Bitching about the railways

Railway companies aren’t lucky when it comes to PR. Every year they put their fares up and get a blasting in the press. The story gets at least two cycles: the announcement in the autumn and then in January when the rise happens. The second is made worse by the lack of other news for the press to cover. Two sets of public outrage so close together means people don’t stop raging between them.

I’m actually annoyed by this raging. I’m lucky enough not to suffer peak time travel anymore but I do know what it is like. I’m not saying our transport system is perfect but it is a lot better than it was. And that’s my first pet hate: people who complain they haven’t seen anything for their increased fares. London Underground has better trains and is more reliable than it was (admittedly this took the new Victoria Line trains a while to achieve). London Overground is finally fit for purpose. Trains in South London don’t fail me. I have no complaints about Virgin, First Great Western or East Coast.

I cannot say the same for National Express East Anglia though. Its trains are old and knackered. This led to a call to arms from Walthamstow blogger radiokate. The problem is NXEA are only a small part of the issue as this comment explains. In short NXEA have to use the trains they are given and run them on tracks they don’t control.

This is my second pet hate: people’s misplaced anger. It is the whole system that is screwed. Sadly that makes us all rather powerless.

What I want to see is the press use the fare increase news cycles to highlight the deep causes and campaign to change them. Don’t just report people being angry. We know that. It doesn’t change.

Tallinn: Wifi’d city, KGB Museum, Occupation art and design

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Tallinn – Wifi’d city

TallinnI spent a lovely Christmas in the Estonian city of Tallinn. Digitally it is most famous for being the birthplace of the Skype software. Possibly coincidently it was first city I’ve been to where free wifi is prevalent. All hotels, most bars and restaurants, and some public spaces had fast connections without any need to register/login.

With 3G in the UK, checking things on the move has become second nature. It has also made life easier and more enjoyable now that days out don’t have be researched and planned before setting off. In Tallinn at Christmas this was particularly useful to find out where was open.

A day trip to Helsinki took us back to the normal world where the few places with wifi wanted money. I appreciate it costs money to install and run a wifi network but in the ‘connected world’ easy access to wifi is going to be a big win for tourism. I thought Skype Wifi was going to be the answer but in Estonia it would have cost me €1.20 for 10min.

Like hotel internet, everyone is after the business dollar at the expense of the tourist pound. Wouldn’t it be nice if city tourist boards (which spend millions advertising cities) did something to give cheap and easy wifi to their valuable visitors?

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KGB Museum, Tallinn

Abdandoned radio equipementEstonia has had a painful history. Its location has made it a popular country to be invaded and ruled by others. Most recently it was the Russians who, until 1991, ruled it with its iron fist, sending 20,000 to the Gulag. Tallinn was flooded with Russians to diffuse its culture and people. The KGB watched over everything.

In the 1960s the Soviets needed more foreign currency so set about opening a hotel in Tallinn to attract the tourist pound. Naturally the tourists were spied on as they stayed in the specially constructed Hotel Viru. Several rooms were fitted with listening devices and guests in the bar could be targeted with microphones that were routed up to a secret room on the top floor.

That room has now been opened as part of a KGB Museum on the 22nd floor. There we learnt of a hotel with more staff than guests, but where staff were not allowed talk to guests. Stories of people commenting in their room they had run out of toilet paper, then hearing a knock at the door where a porter awaited with fresh supplies.

The most surprising thing was this was a modern concrete multi-storey hotel and these practices went on into the 90s. I had expected to be visiting an old brick hotel and hearing stories from the 60s.

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Occupation art and design

Radio standThe trip to KGB Museum left me thinking life in Estonia under the Soviets must have been horribly oppressive. And yes, horrible things did happen. Yet visits to both the Museum of Applied Art and Design, and the 1945-1991 floor of Kumu (Estonia’s national art gallery) showed that creativity continued.

Estonian product designers fitted in well with the industrial values of the Soviets and worked to create furniture and household items that could be factory produced. Much of what was displayed at the Art and Design museum would fit in any design museum.

At Kumu the art was split into those who followed the state-sanctioned style of socialist realism and those who produced work in secret. Again both stood out.
http://www.etdm.ee/en/muuseum/mooblikogu/gallery/mb_5jpg/

Estonia is compared to Iceland for its high concentration of artists and, having seen their work, it was no surprise Tallinn was European City of Culture in 2011.

Happy Valley and Farthing Downs, National Cycle Network app, RunKeeper

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Happy Valley and Farthing Downs

Happy ValleyThe wonderfully mild weather on Sunday was a great excuse for a walk into Happy Valley. Combined with Farthing Downs it is my favourite Greater London green space. Just over 30 minutes from London Bridge to Coulsdon South, a few minutes walk up a street and you are on an open hilltop followed by a valley with woods either side. You’d never know you are in Croydon. It is like deep countryside except you get full mobile phone reception.

Farthing Downs came from a Corporation of London initiative in the 1880s to purchase commons and to open them to the public to give Londoners a place of recreation. In the 1900s thousands of daytrippers would picnic there. Happy Valley was bought by Croydon Council in the 1930s as part of greenbelt scheme. Walking through them it is fun to imagine them packed with people back then.

It might be the name, but Happy Valley makes me feel happy. Walking around isn’t challenging (apart from scaling the hills on either side) and there’s plenty of benches to sit on and take in the view.

The only thing that lets it down is a pub for lunch. There’s two nearby: The Fox and The Ladybird. Both are modern food pubs with large menus and a commercial feel. It would appear if you aren’t in real countryside you cannot have a country pub.

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National Cycle Network app

National Cycle Network appThe charity Sustrans released this app a while back to give iPhone users the maps of the National Cycle Network. To be honest the app is a bit clunky and prone to errors. But it inadvertently allows you to do something very useful if you are going walking in the country — download OS maps.

While connected to wifi or 3G, zoom the map so the area you’ll want for your walk is visible. Then ask it to ‘store maps for offline’, select 1:2500 and it will download OS maps with all the public footpaths on. (It does go down to 1:10000 but these don’t have the footpaths.) Once you are out in the countryside switch on GPS and it will put a pointer on the map to tell you where you are.

You can pay for much better map apps (in particular you’ll pay to download different maps) but I don’t walk enough to justify the cost. Thanks to Sustrans you get all of the UK for free.

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RunKeeper

RunKeeperI’d been wanting an app that kept track of my bike rides and walks but couldn’t find anything suitable for free. I was jealous of friends whose twitter feeds would occasionally report on their latest great run using RunKeeper. Then I noticed a tweet which referred to a bike ride. It only turns out RunKeeper does more than running.

I realise it is a popular app and there’ll be plenty of people who think me rather ignorant for not knowing this. But I am not a runner and I have no interest in running. So this is app is badly named for me. I suppose they were hit by the classic problem of creating a simple powerful brand name for their initial product and then couldn’t change it once the product expanded. I guess this is an argument for keeping names vague.

If you’ve not seen it and like a nice ride or walk then check out RunKeeper. It will tell you your pace, distance and compile a map. A lady with a slightly moody voice can update you every five minutes if you like. Handy if you want to remember your walks or need something to encourage you to improve your cycling pace.

Hotel reviews, The Story of Film and Commonwealth Institute

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Hotel reviews

The view from the Redcar HotelI stayed in an awful hotel at the weekend.  It was The Redcar in Bath which my brother booked through booking.com.  The hallway carpets where threadbare and walls had large holes in.  The rooms were knackered and shabby.  Although ours worked another room had to flush their toilet with a bucket of water.

Reviewers on Tripadvisor don’t hold back with their disgust.  However booking.com‘s reviews are a bit different.  Its average is 5.7 and, while people point out failings, there’s not the hatred of Tripadvisor and most people still find something nice to say.

Booking.com sells its reviews as only being written by people who have booked through them and stayed at the hotels – a response the problems Tripadvisor has with made-up reviews.  However there’s problems here.  Booking.com put the positive thoughts first which forces people to think of some.  And secondly I think there’s some Britishness going on of not wanting to complain on the site people booked through.

Booking.com is still my trusted hotel site but hotels are going to have to get the highest scores for me to book in future.

  • Strangly the Redcar‘s official site has just gone offline

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The Story of Film: An Odyssey

FilmIf I ever did a night class it would be in film studies.  The way films play homage to each other through special scenes has always interested me.  More 4’s The Story of Film: An Odyssey is a long journey of how movies have developed and how they learn from each other.

I almost didn’t plan watch it.  15x90min is a challenge for my almost full Sky+ box but I’m glad I did.  I find I have to watch the episodes closely to pick up all the references and connections with it.  It feels different to most modern documentaries which have a strong story arch and powerful voice over/script.  On the face of it the story meanders but it is taking its time and fully enjoying itself.  It is written and directed by Mark Cousins who’s Northern Irish voiceover feels a million miles away from Hollywood, yet it works.

Mark has explained how the movie makers learnt to make cuts, built extravagant sets and how they made movie stars.  It already feels like 15 parts may not be enough.

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Commonwealth Institute/Design Museum

Commonwealth Institute

My trip to Bath cut into London Open House weekend so I only had time to see a few places.  I was really pleased one of them was the Commonwealth Institute as it is a prime example of the mid-20th century architecture I love.

The building has been empty for over ten years since its mission to teach school children about the Commonwealth fell out of fashion.  I presume its listed roof has saved it from being demolished and replaced by shops and flats.  The Design Museum are moving there in 2014 and this was a one-off chance to see it before they remodel it.

It was designed to be a non-hierarchical open space with floors and staircases flowing into each other around a central circle platform.  The Design Museum are going to change this to accommodate offices, meeting rooms, a restaurant, shop and temporary exhibition space.  I really hope they can keep its open feeling though.

Secret DJ, Bus Countdown, Spotify adverts

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Secret DJ

Secret DJI’m far from convinced by QR codes especially as many are in places I have no interested in scanning them (eg on the tube where there’s no phone signal) but last night there was one on our bar tab card so I scanned it.  It took me to the iPhone App store where I downloaded Secret DJ.

Secret DJ is neat idea.  It’s an app that lets you pick three tracks from the venue’s ‘jukebox’.  It was quiet in the pub so our three chosen tracks played straight away to our musical (and my geeky) delight.  There’s some proper thought been put into the app.  It uses GPS to ensure you are in the venue.  You can see what is playing now, listen to previews, see who else likes the tracks and buy the tracks (there-be the business model).

There’s data-collection on registration which I guess is shared with the venue (sorry I gave false details so don’t know for sure).  And I bet it is a lot cheaper to install and run than a traditional jukebox (a bet made the assumption the music is played on a laptop application hooked up to the venue’s sound system).

It is win all around.  Except for fans of proper jukeboxes.  And those without iPhones. Maybe not such a win then.

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Bus Countdown

Bus CountdownWhen I first came to London I was very excited to see Countdown on all the bus stops fulfilling all my ‘when is the bus due’ needs.  Then for reasons I never understood the dot-matrix displays were removed from most (but not all) stops.

As a person who was excited by the bus stop displays you can imagine how I felt when I heard TFL were releasing Countdown data for developers to use in apps and the like.   The first public stage of this release has been to put them online on their website.  Said website is nifty on a desktop but fiddly on an iPhone.  Despite this we battled through in the pub after listening to our tunes and got the times of our bus.  It meant we could quickly drink up to catch the next bus.  Without it we would have drunk slower, just missed the bus and had to wait 15min for the next one.

I’ll be buying the app.

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Spotify’s Bad Adverts

SpotifyI’ve been working from home of late and listening to a lot of music while doing it.  I cannot work while listening to music I know (too distracting) so last.fm’s artist/friends radio and Spotify’s playlists have been my soundtrack.

In the past I’d never been bothered by the adverts on Spotify so never felt the need to subscribe.  But returning to it now there seems to be a lot less adverts on more regular rotation.  And those adverts are dire.  Piccadilly Institute – I’m talking about you.  They have the sort of advert we used to have on student radio.  A poor quality voiceover talking about a ‘cool new nightspot in the heart of London’.

But I wonder if these bad adverts are a subtle ploy from Spotify to boost subscriptions.  Finally on Friday I cracked and signed up for a free week’s trial.  I’ve since enjoyed the uninterrupted music.  Once the trial is up I’ll probably sign up for their £4.99 a month plan.  All because of the Piccadilly Institute’s advert.

BA Miles, App Store promotion, Conferences

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BA Miles/Avois

Avois (close to the word Avoid)For a long time I would struggle if someone asked me what my hobbies were. Luckily this was a rare problem as asking about hobbies isn’t part of 21st century conversation. But then I realised I do have a hobby. I collect loyalty points. Quite obsessively. I have the store cards, the credit cards and I go via Nectar’s website to get points for online purchases (you really should do this if you don’t already). The rewards have added to my other sort-of-hobby, holidaying through free flights and train journeys.

So I read with interest an email from BA saying their loyalty programme was changing and rebranding but I was reassured “Avios points will be worth exactly the same amount as your BA Miles”. This message was repeated in a follow-up email and on their website. So imagine my surprise when I read Airmiles customers lose right to free flights and ‘Free’ flights that now cost a small fortune. It turns out that from November I will have to pay taxes and fees on flights paid with points whereas before I didn’t.

BA’s response is that puts them in line with other airline loyalty programmes which is true. What upsets me is BA have hidden this from me, lied (although they’d have a good legal case around the use of the words “worth exactly the same”) and thought I wouldn’t realise. Why not pony up and explain this change? Did they not think anyone (ie the press) would notice? No BA passenger was going to like this change. Surely being honest and owning the message would have been better. I would have respected them for it. Now I don’t.

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When to get App Store promotion

BusMapper and Highlights
A while back the Off The Wall Post podcast talked about London BusMapper, a handy website and iOS app that tells you how to get from where you are to a place you point out on the map. It was obviously a work in progress from a small independent team. When I bought the app it couldn’t do interchanges so unless there was a direct bus for your route it was useless. But I figured they’d improve it over time. And they have done.

This week I bought Highlights for iOS which takes the check-in data and reviews on Foursquare and Gowalla, attempts to rank them in popularity and then plots them on a city map. The result is a crowd sourced map of the best places. I figured it would be good to get a measure on new cities I visit. I searched Tallinn and got useful recommendations. However Highlights isn’t quite there yet. The interface needs some work, there’s a few bugs and it would benefit from more data sources. But I figure they’ll develop it.

The thing is BusMapper was promoted extensively on the iTunes App Store, and Highlights is this week’s iPad App of the Week. In honesty I don’t think either were ready for this promotion. They’ve both picked up a number of bad reviews for not being polished but there’s a lot more love for them to cancel it out. More importantly though for paid-for apps from small teams this early promotion will have given them some money, an audience and the encouragement to keep developing.

So the lesson… You can get away with a minimum viable product in the app store. But it has to be a good concept people will warm to. And keep the improvements coming regularly.

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Conferences

I went to two conferences over the past week. One was a (relatively) cheap inspirational event the other a (get work to pay for) expensive one where you discuss and learn your craft. Sadly neither left me feeling fulfilled and like they were worth the cost.

The first, dConstruct, promised to bring “together leading thinkers from the fields of interaction design, mobile design and ubiquitous computing to explore how we can bridge the gap between physical and digital product design” – a lofty ambition. The result was a mixed bag of presenters who divided the audience. The established presenters did their well rehearsed thing, new presenters showed off their knowledge and quirks, and one man read a strange fantasized history of books. I thought there was some great stuff in there but it didn’t hold together and some things missed the mark.

The second, CS Forum, brought together Content Strategists to talk their business. This is a new and exciting field and encompasses many of the skills I’ve picked up over the years. The problem here was it is such a new discipline most people wanted to talk about how important it was and the challenges they faced. Which meant it got a little repetitive but that wasn’t the core problem. I went in search of answers, examples, case studies and where CS had delivered. Sadly around half the presentations stopped short. Again there were some brilliant speakers – the ones who are at the top of their game.

I guess what I want to see is a conference agenda that takes the aspects and challenges of a field, splits them, finds the best speaker for each and challenges them to give real insight into the subject.

Of course both conferences were noted for their drinks parties afterwards because in truth everyone goes to network and meet their peers.

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