Muphry’s law of virality

My tweets don’t go viral. They get the odd reply, a few retweets here and there, the occasional favourite, but almost always from first order readers – the decay rate on successive propagations is enormous. That’s not a problem – twitter is at its best for me as conversation rather than as broadcast. On rare occasions, something takes on a life of its own, and I almost wonder whether a threshold number of likes and retweets is itself a signal people use, perhaps unconsciously,  in deciding whether to send it further.

For no obvious reason, this one was different. Those six words, which are of course not my six words, say a lot. And the tweet rattled around the UK for a while before crossing the Atlantic to skip across US academia, poping up in New Zealand as the time zones moved before looping back to Britain.

And all of that happened with two glaring typos in the ten words I had added from a mobile keyword, which I am powerless to correct. All I can do instead is  codify a corollary to Muphry’s law:

The probability of an entity containing obvious errors will increase in proportion to the distribution of the entity


It all started when Paul Clarke went to Sheppey.

Actually, it didn’t quite start there, because Paul had been responding to a tweet from somebody else a day or so earlier, which had caught my eye too, but didn’t react to with quite Paul’s alacrity (and can’t now remember whose tweet it was).

Anyway, Paul went to Sheppey, and took some photographs, as he does. That in turn prompted a bit of twitter chat about the minor islands of Great Britain, including an arresting assertion from Tom Loosemore.

It had never occurred to me that I might ever want to go to Canvey Island. I had vague associations with oil refineries, flooding, and distant cousins, last heard of decades past. As is often the way with islands, it’s impossible to go there by accident, it’s not on the way to anywhere else (unless you have a predilection to hitch a ride on an LPG tanker to Russia). Against all that, ‘unmissable’ seemed a sufficiently unlikely endorsement to be well worth investigating.

So yesterday I took advantage of perfect weather, cold, still and clear, to look for myself. In the absence of any greater attraction, the obvious thing to do with an island is to walk round it. So I did – though on a short January day and a not very early start, 15 miles began to feel a bit like a competition with the fading daylight.

But before that, it was glorious. Strong, low sunshine. An absolutely clear sky, broken only by the vapour trails of planes stacking and converging on Heathrow. Walking on the sea wall – more of an earth rampart most of the way round – a few precious feet higher than the surrounding land. The Ordnance Survey does not grace Canvey Island with a single contour line – so impressive chutzpah to whoever got away with naming Canvey Heights Country Park.

For the first couple of hours, I didn’t see another person – except a couple of children with their dog over on the mainland, a hundred yards and an hour’s walk away. Towards Holehaven Point, the first few dog walkers appeared, before reaching metropolitan Canvey a couple of miles further on. This is where the flood defences get really serious – the length of what in any other riparian town would be the promenade, consists of a concrete path with an eight foot wall completely blocking off the town. There are occasional glimpses of nothing very interesting looking through the heavily-gated gaps in the upper part of the wall which allow access, but were it not for the dozens of benches memorialising deceased Canveyites and a greater incidence of dog walkers, the town might as well not have been there at all. The one structure which braves the seaward side of the wall is the Labworth Cafe, which I might have been more tempted to stop at had I realised that it is the only building designed by Ove Arup, when he was an architect not an engineering company.

Round the corner and out of the sun, the temperature drops to a sudden chill. The last third of the walk, back round the north side of the island is less dramatic and the low sun is starting to get even lower. A lone small cloud appears – the inverse of a sailor’s trousers – as the bridge to the rest of the world finally comes into sight and the sun sets over the oil refinery.

Click on any of the pictures to see full size versions. Or see the full set.


Parks and Cemeteries

In a big, spawling city, you take your green spaces where you can find them. Some of them are parks. A few are the routes of long-closed railways. And some are cemeteries, high-density housing for the dead.

A pleasant weekend stroll from Crystal Palace to Nunhead takes in three parks, three cemeteries, and two nature reserves, one of which is a stretch of the abandoned railway which once connected Crystal Palace to Nunhead without the trouble of walking at all. It’s over sixty years since this line last saw trains, and it would be hard to guess that the path was once the track bed. It’s an odd thought that the last time I was walking in this neck of the woods, it was probably closer in time to when the trains were running than that time is to now.

The first of the cemeteries is Camberwell Old Cemetery, which is neither all that old, nor in Camberwell, but is part of the Victorian need for burial grounds beyond the capacity of churchyards. The layout of the graves is slightly chaotic and the ground uneven; faded, but with little sense of much past grandeur. It all feels quite enclosed until, in one corner, a vista opens across to St Paul’s and the shard, and the grey of the tombstones merges into the grey of the clouds and of those distant buildings.

Nunhead Cemetery is the oldest and grandest – and most faded – of the the three. Most of the memorials are in poor shape, some leaning on one another for support, others collapsing into the encroaching undergrowth. But there are two plots, a little apart from one another, bounded by neat hedges and with pristine gravestones, where order is preserved. They are graves from the first world war, the first of Australian soldiers, the second mainly Canadian. There is no indication of how death brought them to Nunhead – perhaps they died of wounds having been brought back across the channel for treatment.

In all three cemeteries, but more among the newer graves than the older ones, I was struck by how many of those lying there were described as being asleep. Death, of course, has many euphemisms. In American English, though not yet in British English, it seems hardly possible to speak of somebody having died with so harsh a verb. I have made no scientific study – indeed I have made no study at all – of the language of tombstones, but my impression is that the prevalence of the language of sleep was much higher in the Camberwell cemeteries than in others I have been to. It’s entirely possible that there is no real difference, and so nothing to explain, but I wondered idly whether something as simple as a stonemason’s pattern book might affect the words chosen by the grieving. It might have been Mr Henry Daniel, Mason, whose fine memorial stands prominently in Nunhead Cemetery and who was, it seems, ‘for many years connected with the Highgate and Nunhead Cemeteries’. But more likely not, since he departed this life, rather than falling asleep.

20161022_47Between the two Camberwell cemeteries, One Tree Hill would offer a panoramic view across London, were it not for the fact that there are many more trees than one. The one true tree is an oak under which Queen Elizabeth is said to have rested in 1602 – though the present tree was planted only in 1905 by the leading lights of the splendidly-named Enclosure of Honor Oak Hill Protest Committee, and in any case it’s not clear what on earth she would have been doing there in the last year of her life. Perhaps she fell asleep there, but she did not then depart this life.

Brush up your Shakespeare

On the weekend of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death day, a curious commemoration ran along the south bank of the Thames. Thirty seven screens showed thirty seven short films, each summarising and encapsulating one of Shakespeare’s plays.

A lot of thought, wit and good humour had clearly gone into the making of the films. A lot of organisation and technical problem solving must have gone into getting the screens up and running (an achievement emphasised as much as undermined by the fact that on the first day quite a lot of them didn’t work). So it was a shame that even when it all worked, it didn’t really quite work.

Joan of Arc and the London Eye

There were several overlapping reasons for that, some more obvious than others. Each film was trying to do a lot, with a mixture of scenes from staged performances and scenes shot in the locations where the plays were set. Sound was an inevitable problem: quieter dialogue got lost altogether and even the more energetic action stood little chance against passing trains. And it is the nature of the experience that you always arrive in the middle, trying to make sense of things without a great deal of context (and long drawn out credits did little to encourage people to wait for the beginning again). The Shakespearean in our little group was a bit confused. The non-Shakespearean was baffled.

Titus Andromicus under Hungerford Bridge

And yet. Some scenes worked really well. Petruchio chasing Kate round a villa in Padua was visually clear with rapid fire dialogue which was almost all audible. Modern dress Henvy VI on the streets of Spitalfields, interspersed with library footage of rioting and disconcertingly anachronistic decapitations, had enough visual power to hold attention even when the words were inaudible and incomprehensible.


The idea of making films like these was a great one. The idea of bringing Shakespeare’s art to life on screens along the river was another great one. But two great ideas combined don’t necessarily add up to a great experience.

All of that is another reminder – if one were needed – about the need to design services to meet the needs of users in the circumstances in which they actually are rather than in some idealised form it would be convenient for them to be. But those are thoughts for another time and place. Shakespeare can stand up to some pretty rough treatment, and often has done. But these films could be more powerful shown in a different way. I hope we haven’t seen the last of them.


Harvesting sunshine

A walk in the Cotswold countryside to the slightly unlikely destination of a solar farm. The panels are in long lines, following the slope of the field, protected by strong metal fences, warnings of death and lines of cameras – but with not a single person anywhere to be seen. SecurityThere is a public footpath through the middle and around the perimeter which hasn’t exactly been blocked but which avoids attracting any attention to itself – only the Ordnance Survey offers any confidence that it exists at all. I wonder whether to be a walker here is to be instantly suspicious, but the cameras do not turn, and even poking a camera over the fence prompts no reaction.

The solar panels stand in grassland which would be hard and inefficient to keep tidy with machinery. There is of course a simpler and long-established method for keeping parkland tidy – and so the impersonal modernity of renewable power generation is supported by some gently grazing sheep. It’s tempting to call it Combined Sheep and Power.

Combined Sheep and Power

Along the way, the light and clouds keep shifting, the threatened downpour never quite materialising.

Five bridges and an eight

Albert is a fine name for a bridge, Battersea a little prosaic. But then comes Cremorne, which is a splendid name for a splendid bridge, even if it was built to carry the less euphoniously named West London Extension Joint Railway over the river. And after Wandsworth, about which there is nothing to say, comes Fulham Railway Bridge, which is unimaginative but exact, with eights shooting unexpectedly from under pedestrians’ feet.

Who pays for footpaths?

Here is a typical English rural scene. It’s early June, the sun is shining, the crops are growing, the footpath skirts the edge of the field, and there is almost nobody about – except a small group of teenagers who have just gone past trying, not altogether successfully, to get their heads round orienteering.

The only slightly odd thing about it isn’t apparent from the picture. This farm is not in some bucolic shire, it’s in Greater London, just 17 miles as the crow flies from Trafalgar Square.

As a Londoner, I think that’s fantastic. I get to go for long walks in the country without going out of range of my oyster card. But it’s also a bit odd. Astonishingly (at least to me), 10% of the land area of Greater London is used for agriculture, with a further (in)decent chunk (or so it feels from walking around and across them) taken up by golf courses. For a city facing acute shortages of affordable housing, that might look like a solution waiting to be seized. But as a post in CityMetric which prompted this reflection notes, the London Assembly Planning and Housing Committee concluded something very different:

There is a good case to be made that commercial agriculture is one of the best and most productive land uses in the Green Belt. The benefits include: opportunities for local job creation, skills development, regeneration, preservation and management of green space, potential for waste management, providing healthy locally produced food and so reducing food packaging and food miles, and the potential for improving food security.

So as ever, there are costs and benefits. I reap some of the benefits (and part of the benefit is that there often seems to be very few other people interested in sharing them) but incur none of the costs. So who is paying for my enjoyment?

One answer is everybody – this is a consequence of a green belt policy and so is a collective self-denying ordinance not to allow alternative uses for the land. There is apparently strong popular support for the policy – but then this is a near perfect example of a policy where a small number of people capture a very large share of the benefits (people who live in or near the green belt) and a much larger number of people share the costs (people whose housing choices are constrained or journeys to work elongated); the first group find it much easier to defend their shared interests than the the second.

Another answer therefore, is that the cost is carried by everybody who could make better use of the land but is prevented form doing so.  The people who would live in the houses which cannot be built are quite literally not in the picture. That leads to suggestions such as the observation by the Adam Smith Institute that a million homes could be built within walking distance of stations in the green belt and in doing so take up only 3.7% of the total area – met unsurprisingly with an equally strong rejection from the Campaign to Protect Rural England (and that such a campaign would concern itself with the rurality of the world inside the M25 is itself cause for reflection).

It seems pretty clear that we are not going to run out of land any time soon – not even of land close to major urban areas. The enjoyment of that land may not have a direct monetary cost, but its preservation does have consequences.

While the arguments continue, I will keep on walking, hoping as I go that if anything is to be built on, it’s the golf courses which go first.

Joining the dots

Lightroom Map

It’s easy to lose sight of ways in which technology can make complicated things trivially easy – not least because all too often, it doesn’t. But it can be a real delight when something just works – and delight multiplied by astonishment when that’s the result of unconnected tools and services interacting with each other.

I go for walks and take photographs. Sometimes it’s obvious afterwards where the pictures were taken, but sometimes it isn’t. So it would be nice if I could tag them with a location. Unfortunately, my cameras don’t know where they are, so they can’t do that. There is a device I could buy which adds GPS to my camera but it costs nearly £200 and by all accounts doesn’t work very well.

It turns out though that I don’t need it. The camera records the time a picture was taken. My phone can very easily – and continuously – record where I am at a particular time. So if the two can be aligned, the problem is solved. The next piece of the puzzle is Adobe Lightroom, which I have used for years without ever particularly noticing, let alone using, its map functions. And it turns out it can do something which feels close to miraculous: give it a standard GPX file with a recorded track, point it to some pictures taken at the same time, and it will tag the latter with data from the former. The only essential to making it work is that the clocks on camera and phone are synchronised.

That’s exactly the promise of the early web, of course: small pieces, loosely joined, as David Weinberger described it. So it’s a little sad that this is in any way noteworthy – but what makes it so is not so much that the pieces can feed each other (there’s no shortage of those) as that it can be done without even the kind of minimal configuration needed by services such as IFTT.

And so to last weekend’s stroll across the prime meridian. Or rather, it turns out at the point this picture was taken, 0°0′31″W.

31 seconds west

Route map for a customer journey

The leg of the London loop I walked in July prompted a paragraph on the glories of the Ordnance Survey map app. The leg of the Loop I walked at the weekend elevates the app to a post of its own, though not in a good way.

I knew I had the Ordnance Survey sheets I needed loaded on my Nexus 7 and that they would be available whatever the state of my data connection along my route. OS stuck update.pngBut the OS app took it into its head to update itself. Or rather to fail to update itself. It got to 33% of something and froze with the excuse that it could not access the internet. There was in fact a perfectly good – if not outstandingly fast – internet connection so the excuse was a pretty thin one. After a few frantic minutes of prodding and restarting, the penny dropped: it was only prepared to update over wifi (though that’s not what the error message said). I got round this absurd problem with an absurd bodge: setting up my phone as a wifi hotspot made the app happy that it was getting data the way it wanted, even though the underlying source was exactly the same as the mobile data connection it had turned its nose up at.

It should be pretty obvious that  updates – particularly updates requiring significant amounts of data – should happen when the user chooses. It should be pretty obvious that the fallback to a failed update should be that the earlier version continues to work, not that the whole app locks up completely. And if progress is being stopped by a preference setting, it should be pretty obvious that giving the choice of changing the preference is better than defaulting to failure.

Eventually the core app did update itself – at which point a new problem appeared. I have 36 OS sheets linked to the app, all labelled according to OS grid referencing, with snappy names such as SH62 and TQ37. OS map install screenAnd every one of them now had to be reinstalled. But of course at that moment, I didn’t want all of them, I just wanted the two needed for the walk I was about to start. There is, as far as I can tell, no way of identifying from the list of available sheets what each of the map areas covers, and while I am proud of my cub scout badge in map reading, I can’t guess the ones I need. There is a decidedly non-intuitive way of working round this problem too, by going through the process of buying the sheets I already own, since doing it that way does show map coverage (though not the map reference numbers) and does install the updated versions without charging for them again. Had I been at home with a good data connection, I would have taken a much simpler approach, and just clicked on update all. Except that there is no such button: to get the app back to the state it was in before OS started trying to be helpful will require 36 manual updates.

All in all, it took over twenty minutes to get a usable map. The one saving grace is that I was on a train – if I hadn’t discovered the problem until I had started walking, I would have been much more irritated.

OS error.pngThen about five miles later, I discovered a very different kind of problem: the map was plain wrong. The screenshot show the west to east footpath passing two footbridges, crossing from the south to the north bank of the Dollis Brook at the more easterly one. It actually crosses at the westerly bridge. Other than the pointless circumnavigation of a field, no great harm was done – but it’s curious that the path on the south bank not only doesn’t exist but can’t have existed for a very long time as there is not even a trace of a gap in the hedge for it to get through to the second footbridge. But at least by that point, I had a map.

Walking round the London loop, an OS map is a luxury rather than an essential. But there are plenty of times and places where a good map is more critical and where a data connection is somewhere between shaky and non-existent. If you can’t trust the OS not randomly to want substantial data downloads and to stop working if it doesn’t get them, you can’t trust it at all. This really needs fixing.

Three pylons and half a transformation

A bullet from a shooting star

I went for a walk to see a pylon. There turned out to be quite a few. Apart from the arty one, there were the ones holding up the roof of the Dome and the one holding up the dangleway.

The inverted pylon is not just an inverted pylon. It is, apparently, A bullet from a shooting star:

Referencing the industrial history of the site which once included the largest oil and gas works in Europe and a steelworks, Alex Chinneck will create a lattice of steel, that resembles an upside down pylon, leaning at a precarious angle as though shot into the earth. The construction and materials will reflect the same visual and material language of multiple structures across the Peninsula, particularly the redundant gas tower located on site while also evoking the idea of power generation and supply.

It struck me looking at the pictures I had taken along the walk – six or seven miles from Greenwich to Woolwich – that most of the structures I had seen didn’t particularly reflect ‘the visual and material language’ of an electricity pylon, whichever way up it might be. But what jumped out at me instead is how many of them could be described using the same word.

I had done much the same walk before, a few years ago now.  The first stretch, leaving Greenwich along the Thames Path, seemed familiar. But soon I realised that a few years ago might be twenty years ago. Acres of what was semi-derelict wasteland have become smart riverside housing, with the patina of newness already gone. What was once mostly a rough and narrow path now has long stretches wide enough for pedestrians and cyclists to be given separate lanes  – though interspersed randomly with stretches where the cycle lane came to abrupt dead ends, and interrupted at one point by a man with a big grabber unloading barge-loads of aggregates. And of course there’s a dome. I don’t think it was there last time I came this way, but then I wouldn’t have guessed that that last time was long enough ago to be back in the last millennium.

Back then, whenever then was, there was plenty of the rich ecology which goes with long and gradual dereliction. Now, with much of the dereliction gone, there is an ecology park instead. Beyond it, just as suddenly,  Angerstein Wharf marks a transition back to an older world, where ‘wharf’ signifies a place to unload ships, rather than flats which few can afford. And so along a seedier and more familiar route to the Thames Barrier, and beyond to the Woolwich Ferry, crossing the river on a ferry built for the world of 1963. It is striking what has been transformed. It is no less striking what has not.