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.


A questionnaire in the style of Borges

As I first noted almost a decade ago in another place, the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges is famous for the classification of animals supposedly to be found in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

  1. those that belong to the Emperor,
  2. embalmed ones,
  3. those that are trained,
  4. suckling pigs,
  5. mermaids,
  6. fabulous ones,
  7. stray dogs,
  8. those included in the present classification,
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
  10. innumerable ones,
  11. those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush,
  12. others,
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
  14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

I am always reminded of it when people start talking about classification systems (and of David Weinberger’s insight that Everything is Miscellaneous).

And I was reminded it again confronted by the survey conjured together by Randall Munroe’s inimitable xkcd:


The individual questions in the survey range from the apparently normal to the decidedly odd – just like the items in Borges’ list. But like the list, it is the set as a whole which is quite gloriously surreal. This is a tiny sample, but I do urge you to look at the whole thing, complete it and revel in it.

XKCD survey extract

I don’t know how long the survey will remain open – its purpose is apparently “to create an interesting and unusual data set for people to play with”. If the questions disappear, I’ll add a screenshot of the whole thing, but as it’s just short of 8,000 pixels long, I won’t if I don’t have to. In the meantime, here’s a final teaser. But the whole thing is better.

FireShot Screen Capture #122 - 'The xkcd survey' - docs_google_com_forms_d_1

Update: The survey has closed and the questions have vanished (at least for now). So here is the full thing. Scroll down – a long way – to get to comments.

The xkcd survey

Variable randomness

The main point of this post is to remind myself of how to solve a problem in the unlikely event that I encounter it again. If anybody else with the same problem stumbles across it, so much the better.

In these modern times, it is easy to quote a tweet on a wordpress blog post – you just put in its url and a kind of magic happens. Back in the olden days, life wasn’t as easy as that, but there was a third party plug in called Blackberry Pie which performed an equivalent function. It broke with an api change years ago, but I still have a handful of its shortcodes scattered across long ago posts.

Most of them are easy enough to fix – the shortcode includes the full link to a tweet which is easily extracted. But Blackberry Pie was smart enough to cope with just the tweet id, and there is no apparent way of recreating the full tweet url from that, since links always include the twitter username.

So I turned to Twitter itself for help.

And help there quickly came.

That looked good in theory, but I couldn’t make it work in practice non-programmatically, even with the authentication keys. Not to worry, more help was to hand.

Well I don’t particularly python, but I was game to try, though this was starting to turn into a more serious enterprise than the size of the task seemed to warrant.

But then I struck gold – though I nearly missed it.

My first thought was that this had missed the point altogether. The link structure


still seemed to need me to know what to put in for the placeholder Tweet_Maker_User_Name, which was precisely the problem I had in the first place. But then it occurred to me that perhaps it was a special code which effectively did the job of the api call and that only Tweet_ID needed to be substituted. And so it proved. The link resolved to the full standard url, username and all. Job done.

But I was still a bit curious about the apparently generic username placeholder and wondered whether it was documented. A search produced precisely one result, a Stackoverflow discussion of the question I had started with. One contributor suggested the Tweet_Maker_User_Name approach – and was squashed by another who made the same misjudgement I had. But the final reply gives the answer I had begun to suspect, that the link structure is not so much




Indeed, even substituting a valid but incorrect username doesn’t cause a problem, the link still resolves to the correct full url, fixing the wrong username as it goes.

Which leaves me with the intriguing twin thoughts that the use of usernames in twitter urls is to help human readers rather than having any technical significance, and that this redundancy appears to be very little known.

And a final serendipitous twist. The Stackoverflow question was posted on 22 May 2009, six years almost to the day before I was looking for the answer. It’s attracted a leisurely eight responses over those six years, the last and most useful of which was posted on 17 May 2015, immaculately timed to be there when I looked for it.

Thanks to Simon Dawson, Chris Yiu and Joshua Mouldey

And further thanks to Adrian Short for providing the perfect postscript:

All long help threads should have a sticky globally-editable post at the top saying 'DEAR PEOPLE FROM THE FUTURE: Here's what we've figured out so far ...'

Crotchet quavers

A decade is a long time in digital. Surviving one revolution is not enough any more.

There’s a small online music retailer called Crotchet. Its website offers a huge and eclectic range, intelligently curated. I have been buying CDs there on and off for 15 years or more.

Today I got an email confirming that a disc from my latest order is in the post. At the bottom was a terse announcement that the business is closing. The website has vanished, leaving only a longer version of the same announcement. The owners are apparently retiring. They haven’t sold, perhaps couldn’t sell, the business as a going concern.

I don’t know the story behind that, but I can make some guesses. Having eaten many of the physical locations where people used to buy music, the web is now consuming businesses, such as Crotchet, which had dematerialised the shop but still sold the product in physical form.

I don’t really want to buy CDs any more. They used to be an efficient way of moving data, but now they’re not. Buying the data not the disc is increasingly common and increasingly attractive. But even that is becoming old fashioned in a works of instant availability streaming.

The design of Crotchet’s website never really changed. What they were selling last month is fundamentally what they were selling a decade ago. That used to be enough for businesses to cascade through the generations. It’s not any more.

Perhaps this is my last CD.

Sur Incises

Music stands

The double bass is not one of the great solo instruments. Those who play it do not normally have starring roles in music in the classical tradition. It is not an instrument associated with drama and extroversion. It is large and often lugubrious, its very existence can be treated as an extended joke.

It was a joy to see all those stereotypes confounded in 20 minutes of bravura composition and performance at the Barbican last week. Nicolas Crosse, with the Ensemble Intercontemperain played a new piece by a composer I had never heard of – Asymétriades, by Yann Robin.

Crosse made the double bass produce a range of sounds I could not have imagined with an energy and attack second to none, partnered by a small ensemble of 15 players, who not only provided a foil for the soloist but themselves produced sounds which it was sometime imposible to work out quite where they had come from or what combination of instruments might possibly have produced them.

There was one other tiny detail which made the performance novel for me. The ensemble and the conductor had printed music on ordinary music stands. But the soloist had something a little strange, a tiny music stand on which you might have arranged a postcard or, at a pinch, a miniature score. From where I was sitting, I could see no more than that, so it was only after the piece ended and the stage was being rearranged that I saw the stand had in fact held an ipad.

A moment’s googling shows that ipad music readers are an entire category of their own (and have been around for several years, which suggests I don’t get out enough). It’s an unsurprising, inevitable development, even if I still can’t quite work out how Crosse was turning the pages.

But the question I am left wondering about is whether the ipad was intrinsic to the performance. The solo part was the most unrelentingly demanding of any I have ever seen. It wasn’t at all obvious when Crosse might have had the chance to turn a page had there had been pages to turn. Perhaps a way could be found, but there must be some limit case (even if this was not it) where the intersection of the technical demands of performance and the intentions of composer and performer make sheet music something close to a point of failure. And at that point, the ipad becomes essential: it gives the composer latitude to do things which he or she might otherwise be constrained from doing.

After the end of the main concert and after most of the audience dispersed, Michael Barenboim played Pierre Boulez’ two Anthèmes. He was alone on a stage large enough for a symphony orchestra, standing behind a music stand in a small pool of light. In the closing moments, the lights slowly dimmed to a complete blackout, leaving the hall in darkness. Except for the pale blue glow of an invisible ipad, illuminating Barenboim’s face from below.

The video below is a performance by Barenboim of Anthème 2, given at the Proms in 2012 performed with great virtuosity by both the soloist and the invisible sound engineers – with an entirely conventional music stand. Or rather with seven of them, lined up across the stage. He never turns a page: when he runs out of music on one stand, he simply moves on to the next.

Not all solutions are digital.