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

London Loop 15 – Hatch End to Borehamwood

Another stretch of the London Loop. A few more slightly random thoughts.

London prairie

Obscure waymarkWaymarking on the London Loop is generally fairly good. It tends to be at its best, unhelpfully, when it is least needed. Clear paths with no obvious turnings sometimes provide slightly redundant reassurance with surprising frequency. Very obscure waymarkTricky turns or uncertain directions may have to be negotiated with no hint of guidance. At several point on this section, critical turns onto obscure tracks were marked by signs which were even more obscure. Sometimes even that faint help is not to be found. This is definitely one of the sections where the route notes are essential, as opposed to merely useful.

OS android mapThe other increasingly indispensable tool is the Ordnance Survey map app. At one level, it’s just the paper maps in electronic form, the sort of thing that isn’t supposed to work online. There is nothing about the maps themselves which makes any concession to their transmutation. Except that GPS makes all the difference. I may not be sure that I am where I want to be or should be, but there is now no need for doubt about where I am. And it’s never a struggle to fold on a windy day.

The path emerges from woodland to dramatic views across London. Harrow, it is suddenly clear, really is on a hill. And a constant stream of planes floats past in ghostly silence descending, it appears, towards a huge gasholder in Southall which is by far the most dominant feature of the entire landscape. The planes, it turns out, are precisely ten miles away, beyond the ability of my lens to resolve through the haze.

Final approach to Southall gas works

A little further on, the path skirts the edge of Bentley Priory, the home of RAF Fighter Command, the unlikely combination of a mansion designed by Sir John Soane and the existential struggle of the Battle of Britain. The house can be glimpsed through the trees, closer to hand pill boxes still stand ready for the final defence.

Defending Bentley Priory

One of the things I most like about the Loop is the way it creates illusions of rural tranquillity far beyond the reality of life inside the M25. There are stretches of woodland with not a soul to be seen where only the map reveals the houses an invisible stone’s throw away. There are many places where the only immediate sign of human activity is the roar of traffic from an unseen road. This picture seems to sum that up: climbing a slope through a hayfield suddenly brings a sign into view. There is indeed no hard shoulder – for rather further than 240 yards.

No hard shoulder


London Loop 13-14 – Harefield to Hatch End

Some random thoughts from today’s walk. And a few pictures.

Batchworth Heath

    • On a glorious June day, I met almost nobody in walking almost ten miles, including a stretch of two or three miles where I didn’t see a single soul.

White Heath Farm

    • Whoever knitted together stretches of path and field and woodland to make the London loop was a genius. Part of that genius is in making the gaps in the modern world seem much larger than they really are. But even genius can’t make everything vanish.

Second pylon

    • Another coal post, a relic of the 1860s, marking as it happens the boundary between Hertfordshire and long defunct Middlesex – and with a line clearly visible across the road, where modern road surfacing is still managed along those ancient boundaries.

Coal post on the Middx Herts boundary

    • I lost count of the buttercup covered meadows I crossed.

Woodcock Hill

    • The Loop is the London Outer Orbital Path, which makes calling it the London Loop redundant. On the other hand, just calling it the Loop would be incomprehensible. But I seem to be in good company. Or at least official company.
    • Navigating the Loop is entirely straightforward, except when it isn’t. Here you are on a fine broad path stretching enticingly up the slope ahead of you. There are no signposts or waymarks of any kind. Should you forge ahead? No, you should take the path on the left through the tiny gap in the fence, which barely looks like a path at all, even when you are standing right by it.

The way ahead

    • Wembley Stadium is more rural than you might think – and last seen in section 4, fifty or sixty miles back round the loop.

A prospect of Wembley

    • Trains on the London and North Western Railway, now operating as the London Overground, are air conditioned. This is no small thing.

LNWR Overground

  • It was a beautiful day for a walk.

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.

London Loop 11½-12 – West Drayton to Harefield

Black Jack's Lock

Before yesterday, I had never heard of the London Coal and Wine Duties Continuance Act 1861 (and, alas, neither has Duty was payable on coal brought into the metropolitan area and boundary markers were erected at every plausible – and implausible – point at which that boundary might be crossed. It turns out that a surprisingly large number survive, most cryptically labelled ‘ACT 24 & 25 VICT CAP 42’ (using the reference system for acts of parliament used until superseded by the gloriously not-quite-self-referential Acts of Parliament Numbering and Citation Act).


Five DVDs and three questions

A new laptop with a new operating system to install.

Five DVDs

There are five DVDs, labelled:

  1. “1 – disc 1 of 2”
  2. “1 – disc 2 of 2”
  3. “2 – disc 1 of 2”
  4. “2 – disc 2 of 2”
  5. “3 – disc 1 of 1”

Five DVDs

First question

Q: In what order will the discs be needed?

A: 1, 3, 5, 3, 4, 1, 2.


Second question

Q: How do you install things from DVDs to a laptop with no dvd drive?

A: Through an external drive, of course, if you have one handy.

Third question

Q: Why is it like that?

A: There’s no knowing. But…

Installation media used to keep up with the machines they were aimed at. That wasn’t always good: Microsoft Office used to come on about 25 3½" discs, which was a daunting sight. But at least there was a hole to put them into. Floppy discs gave way to CDs, then CDs to DVDs – and there it seems to have stuck.

For other uses, DVDs have been overtaken by memory sticks. You would only need one, which would save on repeated disc swapping. And instead of having to put DVDs into an external drive most people are unlikely to have, memory sticks plug directly into ubiquitous USB slots. But this rather obvious solution has been completely ignored.

This is a top of the range, rather expensive laptop (alas, not mine). But nobody seems to have thought it worth troubling with the basic user experience of switching it on for the first time.

It’s harder to break away from the past than we like to think.