Final approach

Whenever I fly abroad for business reasons – I always try to get checked in to a seat on the return flight to London on the right-hand-side window seat of the plane. This is because most of the time, the final approach into Heathrow is a Westbound approach – and, therefore, being next to a right-hand-side window means I get a fantastic view of Central London as we approach Heathrow for landing.

It doesn’t always work out though – as it really depends on the direction of the prevailing wind at the time. In the UK we mostly get Westerly winds – i.e. winds that approach from the West. This is because of our position in the Northern hemisphere close to the Atlantic “jet stream”. And given that planes like to take off and land in conditions that involve the minimum of “ground speed” – this means flying *into* the prevailing wind on take-off and landing. Which means West most of the time. (The reason why planes fly into the wind is to conserve fuel and to shorten the take-off and landing distance as much as possible I think.)

Looking out the window, London is like a “toytown”. The sight is one to behold – and is always rather breathtaking.

I took this pic on my return from Munich last Monday.

U2 // Vertigo // London

London was roasting on Sunday. And I went to see rock legends U2 for their London performance of their Vertigo tour at Twickenham stadium in the early evening. There was, at times, a nice breeze in the stadium as the evening drew in. When the band came on – the noise was deafening. Over 50,000 people cheered, clapped, danced and sung their way through every number – right up until darkness. It was good.

Big thumbs up to Bono and the crew!
(Two fingers to the event organisers for their “no camera” policy –
click here: all my images can be purchased at Flickr.)

And this brings me on nicely to my one major criticism ofthe whole event: the camera policy. There were signs everywhere that cameras were prohibited. The event organisers went to great lengths to ensure that people got the message that they should not bring cameras to the event – even printing the message on the tickets as they were sold months in advance. This irritates me deeply. Bullying people into not bringing their cameras – and making people feel like they are some illegal contraband – without giving ANY explanation why is just plain stupid. And there really was no explanation as to why. Of course, everyone knows that it’s to prevent professional photographers and videographers from making money selling high quality pics and videos created using high-quality capture and imaging equipment – but your average concert-goer isn’t going to want to attend the show in order sell images and vidoes. So – by making cameras a no-no to everybody had the effect of deterring the average concert-goer from bringing their holiday-snap camera to take a few memorable pics to commemorate the event. Which was completely unnecessary – especially as the face value of tickets was up to 95 pounds per seat! (In fact the show was a sell-out and tickets were trading on Ebay for over 300 pounds!) So – when you pay that much money for a ticket – then it seems stupid to tell people so forcefully not to bring their cameras so that they couldn’t capture some wonderful moments of the experience. But the thing that really irked me even more was the fact that the officials inside the stadium wearing yellow or orange T-shirts with the words “Crowd Safety Control” written on them (and there were loads of them) actually monitored the audience for cameras! And every time they spotted someone using a camera – they rushed up to that person and told them firmly to stop! This is simply ridiculous. The bag searches that took place as everyone entered the venue ensured that nobody could smuggle in professional imaging equipment – meaning that the only cameras let through were personal ones – so why on earth were the officials who were supposedly about crowd safety so edgy about people taking “holiday” snaps?

I really hope that the event organisers read this – as it is highly devious to send such strong signals about cameras to the fans so far in advance – but then on the day allow personal cameras – and then to make those who did try to use their personal cameras suffer the humility of being told that they can’t take pictures by crowd safety control folks threatening to throw you out the venue.

Of course – I took my camera, my 5 megapixel one – and I also took my mobile phone – which has a camera in it (OK – not exactly high quality) – but almost everybody in the audience had a cameraphone – so at least people did get a chance to take some pictures. And although I was one of the many people who got told on numerous occasions to stop taking pictures with my digital camera – I did so anyway. The whole thing about the camera prohibition was completely laughable by that point – it just simply wasn’t worth taking seriously when a crowd safety officer one moment stops some drunken reveller from splashing their beer all over the place – then goes and asks someone to stop using their camera – completely laughable.

They’ll have to think again when the next generation of mobile phones containing 5 megapixel (and above) cameras hit the streets. What are they going to do then; employ crowd safety control officials to pounce on people holding their mobile phones? This was the tainted edge of an otherwise great show!

Slough in Pictures Part 6

This is for Krissie. Up until a few months ago – beautiful Slough (which is where I work) had the largest Tesco in the world; their flagship store. Then it was demolished – and construction work began. To make way for an even larger store. The project has been fascinating to watch – and is the talk of the town. This part of the town has become one massive construction site – but the shell of the building is now complete – and some trees have been planted along the roadside which will make the front side of the new superstore. It’s amazing how quickly the building has come up – and it has a very modern “glass” style of architecture.

The Tesco in Slough – under reconstruction.
(It’s all “happening” here in Slough.)

Later – as I got to Platform 5 at Slough Station for my train home towards Ealing Broadway on this hot and humid Friday evening – I stumbled upon a tap-dancing troupe on platform 5. Dancing to the sound of Chattanooga-choo-choo blaring out from a ghetto-blaster on the side. And being filmed by a camera-crew on the same platform – as well as from the platform opposite. At first I thought it was for a TV commercial. But when I asked someone who looked kind of “official” – she said “it was all about making people smile“. So I smiled.

Tap dancers doing the “Chattanooga-choo-choo”.

It really is all happening here in Slough.

London, Munich, Slough

Busy week for me. Monday started with the usual 79 bus down towards Wembley – the first leg of my journey to work. Hopped off at the main bus stops on Wembley High Road – looking to hop on to an 83 towards Ealing Broadway. The stops here are right in front of a politically-correct, council-commissioned “spray-can art” style mural depicting the vibe and harmony of multi-ethnic Wembley that has coloured an otherwise ugly facade to a car park right behind it. (Click here or here to see a glimpse of it from previous blog entries.)

Interestingly, the mural has itself not been defaced significantly by “real” graf artists in all the years that I have known it to be there. Although if you look up close, a few illegible “tag” scrawls can be spotted on various parts of it. Whilst “tags” are everywhere you look round my part of London – it’s very rare to see “statements”:

Bad spelling and incorrect pluralisation.

Later. At Ealing Broadway. Having just missed a train I paced up and down the platform whilst waiting for the next one. I couldn’t help but notice a couple of blokes at the far end of the opposite platform. Strange place to be standing waiting for a train – as the carriages never pull up that far down the platform. The camera bag and tripod bits gave it away; I had spotted trainspotters!

I am truly amazed by the this extraordinary interest in trains that some people have. They seem to record the movements and serial numbers of every train that they see – and these days they even take high-resolution, wide angled and telephoto zoomed multi-megapixel digital images of them. Amazed. My trainspotters seemed to get very excited by a freight train coming their way.

I’ve never seen trainspotters at Ealing Broadway before.

A bit later on in the day I was in Munich. And killing time the next morning by loitering outside the hotel whilst I waited for a colleague to finish breakfast before we called for a taxi to go to the office.

I’ve stayed at zillions of “business” chain-hotels all around the world. Hiltons, Holiday Inns, Marriots, Sheratons etc. You name it – I’ve done ’em all. And they’re all the same. And the rituals I undertake when staying at them are so routine, I’ve ceased trying to understand why I do them. And always in roughly the same order: First thing when I get to my room is to familiarise myself with the light switches – like which switches operate which lights. Saves a lot of trouble later on. Then I take a good look at the wardrobe configuration. Locate the spare pillows and blankets – take them out and put them on the bed. The Corby Trouser Press. Take the clothes out of my bag and start hanging them up. (And get irritated by those hangers that have no curved hooks on them – as if anybody would actually steal hangers from hotels!) Then go work out how to switch on the TV – and to use the remote control. Find the BBC World channel – and leave it on there. And finally the bathroom – lay out my toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush and moisturiser. Smile at the cute little towelettes that all hotels seem to have next to the washbasin – you know: they’re about the size of a handkerchief. I’ve never worked out what these are supposed to be used for. I’m always impressed by the way the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner are laid out too. The little round soap wrapped irritatingly wrapped in paper – I always take the paper off at this point. And how there’s a always a tissue-dispenser on the side of the sink. And how the spare toilet roll always seems to have its end tissue folded and tucked into the roll in a triangular flap. I also take the “thick” towel that’s usually hanging on the side panel of the bathtub – and lay it down on the floor. That way – when I get out of bed and stumble into the bathroom for a shower the next morning – I won’t get cold-shock on my feet from the ceramic tiled floor. The piles of heavily-starched white towels. Why is it that you only ever see white towels in hotels? And even the largest ones are never large enough. And finally – I take the “do not disturb” card hanging on the inside of the door – and hang it on the outside – and as I close the door – I peek at the view through the little wide-angled spy-hole into the corridor outside – admiring at how you can almost see right round the corner.

Business Hotel in Munich. They’re all the same – wherever you go.

Back in Slough, the massive Tesco that was – is being rebuilt into an even bigger one. And it’s coming up remarkably fast. But the construction work that surrounds it has caused pedestrian chaos – the pavements are all ripped up and there’s dust and dirt everywhere.

Forced to use the walkway underpass into the shopping centre into order to get to the office – I find myself ocassionally walking into the monstrous bus station. Large advertising hoardings grace the side walls of the inside of the bus station – and I was taken by one of them earlier today. It’s a poster advertising the AA. That’s one of the bigger car-breakdown and rescue services that operate here in the UK. They are currently campaigning that they have more patrols than ever before. A picture of a breakdown truck with an army of smiling AA workers on a long trailer. It’s a fascinating poster – because from far away, the AA staff in the picture look very anonymous. It’s only when you get up close to the poster do you get to see all the individual faces. And because these large posters are made up of many rectangular segments pasted onto the hoarding – they aren’t always hung 100% aligned. You don’t notice the misalignments from a distance – but close-up, any errors in the alignment are very noticable indeed. Unfortunately – this particular poster had segment boundaries that cut straight through the faces of the smiling AA staff.

The squashed faces in the front-middle made me laugh!
(The poster misalignment makes them look happier.)

Oystercard: Not Guilty

Oystercards have been available in London for the last two years. I think I was one of the early members of the London travelling public to get one – replacing my annual Travelcard with an Oystercard in early 2003. Now Transport for London (the department of the Mayor of London’s office that looks after London’s public transport systems) are really marketing the card very heavily – on the basis that it costs less to provide general ticketing, is more secure against fraud, is more efficient in terms of speed of boarding buses than using cash, gets you through the gates quicker on the tubes and also does clever things like ensuring that you never pay more than you should if you made several separate journies in one day that would otherwise have costed you more if you’d bought paper tickets each time than if you had bought a one-day travelcard. (Hope that last sentence made sense.)

Anyway – the Oystercard is based on RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) technology – which means that the card itself has a chip and antenna embedded in it – which gets irradiated by a reader when you bring it close up – which causes two-way communications to occur between the card and the reader. Which means that the Oystercard can hold your travel tickets for your season-ticket transport zones – but can also hold “prepaid” units of cash for ad-hoc trips outside the zones permitted by your season-ticket. You don’t have to actually “touch” the card to the reader – it’s a “contactless” technology – but you have to bring it up pretty close – and many people just keep their Oystercard in the characteristic blue Oystercard wallet that comes with the card – which in my case I also use to carry my credit cards, bank debit cards, car breakdown-rescue card, business cards etc. etc. – and you just touch the wallet against the reader – and hey presto – within the a fraction of a second the wonderful data exchange process occurs – and the gates open to let you through on the tube – or the box on the bus bleeps to let the driver know that you’ve got a valid ticket and you just walk right in.

My Oystercard
(Pictured on top of the tatty Oystercard wallet that I carry it in.)

It’s all really great stuff – and I haven’t really had any problems opening the gates on the tubes or getting on the buses. Until recently. I discovered a problem that the designers of the system hadn’t really thought about when conducting their customer use cases: Buses can sometimes get stuck in traffic – and people can sometimes get off the bus to walk instead – and people can sometimes get back on the same bus they got off.

They never thought about this particular use case.

It was a really hot, sticky evening travelling home the other day – and the Route 79 bus I got onto at Alperton was crawling up Ealing Road sooo slowly that I could walk faster than the bus – even if I walked slowly. And given that it was sooo hot and sticky on the bus – I decided to get out and walk – at least there would be some fresher air. I decided that I could walk it up Ealing Road – towards Wembley High Road – following the exact route of the bus – and pick the same bus at the main stop on Wembley High Road. I figured that loads of people would get off the bus there (meaning less congestion on the bus)- and that also happens to be the point at which the traffic congestion gets better – and the bus, therefore, gets faster (meaning that the air on the bus circulates better), and I would lose no additional time getting home.

So that’s what I did.

Only when I tried to get back on the bus at Wembley High Road – the Oystercard reader on the bus bleeped an ALARM message at me and the driver.


The driver asked me to touch my card against it again. So I did. ALERT: PASSBACK ATTEMPTED. I stood there wondering what’s going on. He sat there wondering what was going on. He’d never seen that alarm before. In the end he just shrugged his shoulders and let me on anyway.

I spent the rest of my bus journey home contemplating. What did “PASSBACK ATTEMPTED” mean? In the end – I decided that the designers must have figured that if someone tries to use the same Oystercard, on the same bus, within a certain time-period – then it should be handled as a “fraud” alert known as “Passback” – which presumably means that the someone used the Oystercard to get on the bus – and then tried to pass-back their Oystercard to someone else in the bus queue so that an accomplice could get on the bus too. Sounds fair enough to me – but, as in my own case, there are some perfectly innocent and legitimate scenarios that look like “Passback”.

I consider this a design flaw – or else a known issue that was too expensive to resolve – so they decided to live with it – especially as the occurrences of legitimate use would be quite rare. (As in my case of getting off and back on the same bus in the space of 10 minutes or so.)

The irritating thing though is this: the system logic in this particular part of the decision-tree supports a business policy that assumes that you are Guilty Until Proven Innocent. That’s not nice.

Not nice at all.