27 October 2009

Thames walk

An irregular pleasure of mine is catching the train from Richmond to Queenstown Road (the quietest station on the line to London) and then walking home following the Thames' meandering route.

The walk starts in earnest in Battersea Park which is a wonderful mix of the Victorian and the Modern.

There are rose gardens, a bandstand and a natural looking lake but head North towards the Thames and you find some Art Deco treasures that shock and amuse in equal measure.

The large water features are the first to catch the eye but it is the detail that gives the most pleasure, such as the design of the seats and the decorations in the water.

Battersea Park was designed for promenading so there are many routes through it, each of which reveal different aspects of the park. What is meant as a long walk starts out as an exploration.

The Thames was my companion for the day and rewarded me with exquisite views of London.

The Thames is also a playful animal and it chose this morning to be at its lowest exposing large areas of the river bed and trapping boats on the new shore.

London has been an uneven friend to the Thames over the years and this is reflected in the mixed use of the river bank.

There are some large sections of derelict looking industrial areas, some still active industrial areas and, forcing there way on to the scene, new blocks of flats that attempt to defy the logic of living in areas designed for industry.

The invasion of flats is most obvious in Wandsworth where there is a baffling choice of modern residences offering river views and modern cafe society living.

The river views are there as promised but the cafe society has not yet made the transition from promotional panels to reality.

The ground floor properties where Starbucks and Pret a Manger were meant to be are instead still empty or occupied by bland offices.

This picture shows a complete lack of people and without people you do not have a cafe society.

The other problem with the Wandsworth section of the walk is the way that the river walk is interrupted by new flats and old industries that force you away from the river far too often.

And also far too often the river walk reaches a dead-end without any warning forcing you to retrace your steps to look for a route around the unexpected obstruction.

Towards the end of Wandsworth the river walk comes in to its own as the industry and the flats lose out to trees and bushes.

There are formal tree-lined avenues of trees in places like Wandsworth Park and more natural paths the rest of the way.

I'm not too sure where I took this picture, it could have been Barnes, Mortlake or Kew, but it does not really matter.

The point is you can walk for miles and miles surrounded by trees and with the river by your side and so can almost forget that you are in the middle of a large city.

Only the frequent planes overhead remind you that this wilderness is a thin veneer and that at any moment you can step to one side and rejoin the city. But the call of the city is weak and is deafened by the gentle murmur of the trees so I stayed with the river all the way home.

25 October 2009

Enjoying House 5 on DVD

The Evil Murdoch Empire got their greasy mitts on House Season 5 so it has not made it to terrestrial TV and I've been forced to shell out and buy it on DVD. It was worth it.

I'm getting my hit in doses of three or four episodes at a time and these doses are being repeated regularly and I should be able to get through all 24 episodes in just a couple of weeks.

The best bit about the show is the dialogue. It's unnatural for everybody to be able to come up with an immediate witty response or insightful comment but I am happy to suspend disbelief and pretend that these are real people playing out a complex game with us as shameless voyeurs.

And the best bit about the DVD is no adverts! This reduces each episode down to around 40 minutes so when watching it in real time that's a third of the time spent watching something other than the programme that you think you are watching.

House Season 6 is now being broadcast in the USA and my pirate friend tell me that it is very good too. That's a DVD I will have to buy next year.

23 October 2009

October's Kingston upon Thames Society meeting gave a local property developer, John Miles of Canadian and Portal Estates, the opportunity to explain his company's plans for a complex of properties that they own on the riverside next to Kingston Bridge.

The current building is constructed from relentless red brick and includes a car park just metres from the river so change is welcome.

The proposal is to make much more of the property's location and to provide views across the river to Home Park from restaurants and bars on each floor, and with a roof terrace. All good stuff.

However, most of the audience had some doubts about the plan, particularly the impact it had on the glimpses of the parish church that you get from a few places on Kingston Bridge if you happen to walking over it on the North side. Not many people do and fewer look for the church.

I was pleased, and a little surprised, that when a straw poll was taken at the end that there were a few others who voted with me that the scheme was a good one.

21 October 2009

Welcoming the Cambridge Primary Review

Having a keen interest in Primary Education (I have been a school governor for more than a decade) I was naturally interested in the most comprehensive review of the area for forty years and so jumped at the chance to go to the public launch of the debate at the RSA.

The Cambridge Primary Review is broad in scope (hence the report's title), thoroughly researched, well presented and makes some specific actionable recommendations.

On the evening, the report's author, Professor Robin Alexander, introduced the report eloquently and convincingly and justified the enthusiastic round of applause from the packed audience.

The other panellists brought different perspectives to the debate that stressed the scope of the review and the quality of the evidence behind it.

It is a long report, the full version is around 500 pages, and so we were only presented with some headlines and this is my summary of that summary.

Teaching, not testing, raises standards.

The curriculum needs to be extended well beyond the current narrow focus on English and Maths. Arising from this is the need to change the method of assessment (i.e. get rid of SATS) and the way we deploy and train teachers, including the need to have some specialist teachers in the Primary Sector just as there are in the Secondary.

Every Child Matters is still important.

There is a need to focus more on speaking, communication, chatting, debating and dialogue. Children need to learn how to talk more.

The debate on the report has started but well intentioned and well argued though it is I suspect that the powers that be (i.e. politicians) will continue their recent trend of ignoring authoritative research when it is not completely in-line with their own thinking.

I am also concerned, as a Change Management Consultant, that the review has not made a compelling case for change and so it is easier to ignore.

I hope that I am wrong on both counts and I will be doing what I can to promote the report and it's findings, starting with this blog.

19 October 2009

Danny Baker back on Radio 5

It is great to see Danny Baker back where he belongs on the Radio 5 live Saturday morning show with his unique mix of football and comedy. Where else could you learn about a football fan who had two season tickets, one for himself and one for his flask?!

The BBC has also had the good sense to podcast the show, minus the news and weather spots, to give us an hour and a half of good entertainment which is perfect for the Monday morning commute.

This restores the natural justice since the lamented demise of the All Day Breakfast Show, Danny's podcast only programme from a couple of years ago where I was a proud member of the Elite Premium Guard, or some other such nonsense.

All I need to do now is get Danny to publicly demolish Kingsmeadow and his show will be perfect.

18 October 2009

Red beer

I wrote about green beer not that long ago and now it is time to say something nice about red beer too.

The beer is red because it is flavoured with strawberry, which is not as bad as it might sound; in fact it is rather good.

This is Fruli beer from Belgium which I found in a Belgian bar in Richmond upon Thames, the rather comfy Brouge Bistro and Beer Cellar. The decent down the stone steps from Hill Street does little to prepare you the cosiness of the cellar, which is my (lame) excuse for not having tried it earlier.

The minor drawback is the cost of the beer which comes in at £5.30 a pint, which is a little on the steep side even by Richmond's usual standards where posh beers in posh bars are pushing £4.

But Fruli is not a session beer so the cost is largely irrelevant and drinking such a nice beer in pleasant surroundings is something that should be savoured for the wonderful experience that it is.

17 October 2009

Li Jiang is stupidly pretty

Li Jiang was the last stop on the tour of China and it was also the prettiest place that we went to by a long long way. Water flows everywhere through the old town bringing beauty, calm and welcome respite from the heat. Footpaths follow the water as it meanders confusingly producing a maze that you want to get lost in.

This picture is a fairly typical street scene showing how the low traditional buildings crowd around the water while bridges try to keep away from it and red lanterns hang curiously at the side.

The waterways run down the middle of some streets, at the side of others and in a few they are almost hidden in half-open channels.

This street has gone for the at-the-side option with stumpy bridges to gain access to the shops and restaurants and with trees along the footpath to provide shade. The constant red lamps are here too.

Any possible complaints of uniformity are firmly dispelled by the way that the familiar themes are tortured into different shapes as the streets follow the myriad waterways through the town so that each step gives different perspectives and different pleasures.

The town fights some of the confusion by planting very welcome maps (made of wood) at the major junctions - and there are lots of junctions.

These maps only show the neighbouring paths and so tease at an escape from the town itself, but who would want to escape from this?

The buildings that follow you through the town are all low and traditional in design providing comfort and charm. This is a tourist area and so almost all of the buildings are either shops or restaurants and they are usually open wide to the walkways. It's rather like walking through a large shopping centre except in a good way.

The streams are also home to large colourful tribes of carp that swim in geosynchronously while feeding from the fresh passing water.

Complementing the walkways are a few open spaces where decoration is allowed to flourish and, in this case, the clear glacial water can rest before resuming its long journey towards Shanghai.

Here still but alert lions guard the town against the possibility of dragons emerging from the deceptively safe looking water.

These few pictures and my inadequate words can only begin to hint at just how pretty Li Jiang is. Perhaps seeing more of my photographs here, on Facebook may help, but I think that I can best impress you with the wonder of Li Jiang by saying, truthfully, that if I could only revisit one of the places we went to in China it would have to be Li Jiang.

That all but wraps up my holiday in China, there is only one day left to cover and that was the best day of the lot.

15 October 2009

Random Acts of Blindness at The Peel

The man singing at the front normally features in my blog behind the keyboards in a skeleton suit but that is when he, Tony Dyson, is playing with Hoaxwind but here he is fronting Random Acts of Blindness at The Peel in Kingston.

Alongside him on vocals is his wife, Anna, and his brother on keyboards completes the family and completing the band are a superb lead guitarist, a bass and a drummer.

So the line-up is fairly traditional and so are all the self-written songs. They describe themselves New Old Wave but that means nothing to me so I'll say that they remind me of 70s Van Morrison instead.

The set of around an hour (The Peel has a hard curfew at 11pm) was well balanced and well delivered. Obviously all the songs were new to me but they did the sort of things that you would expect R&B songs to do so the lack of familiarity did not breed contempt.

It was a fun, bouncy, rocking set that more than compensated for having to drink average beer (Adnams) out of coloured plastic glasses. A good night that deserved a bigger audience.

13 October 2009

Tim Harford entertains

I know of Tim Harford not from his column in the FT (which is the basis of his new book) but from the only mainstream programme that covers mathematics, More or Less on Radio 4.

An opportunity to see Tim speak at the LSE at a free public meeting seemed to good to miss, so I didn't.

You might have expected an economist speaking at an economics school to say quite a lot about economics but what we actually got was some pretty slight statistics on the subjects of happiness, dating and food and drink.

There was not much to challenge the grey cells but the talk we did get was well rehearsed, well delivered and entertaining enough to justify the time spent consuming it. If that has got you excited then you can listen to it here.

12 October 2009

Spruce Meadow

As the three week's tour of China drew to a close we had one final excursion to an area of natural beauty and it was the one that I liked the most.

On the slopes of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, not far from Li Jiang, there are a few meadows where you can follow wooden walkways to explore the flora and fauna.

But first you have to get to the mountain and then up to the meadows.

There is a large coach park at the bottom of the mountain where you decamp from one coach to another as only these official coaches are allowed in the park.

The final section of the journey to the meadow is by cable car. As everywhere else in China, the cable car station is in the middle of a shop to provide another Intensive Retail Experience (as our tour group called them) but we had the good fortune to be there late in the day when the shopkeepers had departed leaving us to walk along eerily deserted isles.

This good fortune extended when we got to the meadow itself as there was only one other tour group there with us and they were leaving as we were arriving.

The walk of almost an hour was peaceful, refreshing and awe inspiring as it circumvented the meadow.

The path is made of well worn wood, laid there to keep you on the prescribed path and so protect the meadow which had many delicate flowers among the grass.

The path weaves its way in a combination of twists, turns, dips and rises so that the next step is always something of a mystery.

For most of the route the path had the meadow on one side and the spruce forest on the other offering constantly changing and constantly inspiring views.

For most of the way around the meadow the delightfully awkward spruce trees conspired to hide Jade Dragon Snow Mountain but the rules of geometry are rules and so as we crossed to the other side of the meadow the snow-capped mountain came imperiously in to view.

But the mountain may be disappointed to hear that while it was clearly grand and important it was also distant and the meadow was more compelling as the walkway continued to take us on our wondrous journey.

All too soon the hour the tour guide allowed us for free exploration (something we got too little of on the tour overall) and we made the best of the scenery and fresh air as we trudged reluctantly back to the cable car that was waiting to take us back down the mountain.

The mountain range had a final treat for us before the coach came to take us away thanks to the glacial waters flowing from it.

These waters and the unusual geology combined to make a series of curved terraced waterfalls.

Earlier in the day yaks tolerated tourists on their backs as they shambled in the water but they too had gone home so we were spared the temptation to be uncultured tourists.

Having negotiated the waterfalls the river pauses for breath in a small lake that more geology has turned a deep clear blue in a Photoshop sort of way.

All good things must come to an end and the blue pool marked the end of our day in the mountains. All that left of our holiday was the town of Li Jiang itself. And little did we know just how good that was going to be.

11 October 2009

Exploring Kingston's past

The recent heritage weekend, part of the national scheme initiated by English Heritage, opened many buildings in Kingston upon Thames to the public.

I had seen quite a few of them in previous years but there were still sufficient new ones to explore to make it a full weekend.

The journey started on Saturday at Kingston College which has the advantage of being tall and more-or-less in the centre of Kingston. The panoramic views from there were very interesting but, sadly, were mostly seen through dirty glass windows and so did not make for good photos.

Next up was the home of Surrey County Council which is still based in Kingston even though Kingston is no longer part of Surrey politically, it is a London Borough.

County Hall had several interesting things to offer, including a disused court room that appears regularly on TV because it looks just like what a court room is expected to look like. But my favourite part was the entrance hall which has a mosaic floor with the letters SCC.

On Sunday it was a harder bike ride through Richmond Park to Kingston Hill where one of the many large houses there is now home to Holy Cross Preparatory School.

Holy Cross was quite a surprise!

The front of the school shows the some of the grandeur of the original house which was built for the Galsworthy family in 1870. Here John Galsworthy wrote Forsyte Saga.

In the large rear garden a huge modern extension has been built into the side of the hill (to minimise it's appearance) at the sort of cost one can only imagine is normally spent on luxury yachts. Think Grand Designs then double it. Unfortunately it is not a very attractive addition so you do not get to see a photo of it.

Almost hidden at the bottom of the still large garden (despite the recent extension) is Ivy Conduit.

The conduit was part of an elaborate water system built in 1516 to supply Cardinal Wolsey’s newly built Hampton Court Palace.

There is little to see now other than what looks like a pile of bricks but bricks are good and old bricks are even better.

The school grounds also include a secluded and peaceful pool as a reminder for what the gardens could have looked like when it was a grand private house.

After the school is was the easier bike ride down the hill to see the Cleaves Almshouses that date back to 1550, though they have been added to and updated a few times since then!

The almshouses are very well maintained and the view presented to London Road is simply gorgeous.

It was a very interesting and rewarding weekend and the Kingston upon Thames Society are to be congratulated for organising such a successful event.

10 October 2009

Not understanding data very well at all

I went on the training course for school governors on interpreting data hoping to learn something but with the concern that it might simply be a rehash of arguments I have had with the Local Authority at governors' meeting.

In the event my hope were dashed and it proved to be a pointless evening. I'll try and explain why.

The course focused entirely on the analysis of certain data sets around pupil performance. But to use data properly you have to understand how it has been collected and presented.

There are many problems associated with testing children's performance, including the difficulty in setting tests that are consistent in what they measure (e.g. is this year's test set the same way as last year's?), difficulties in setting questions that are fair to all groups (e.g. asking our children to describe a day on the beach when most have never been to one), subjectivity in marking (e.g. range of vocabulary), accuracy in marking (each year thousands of papers are challenged by schools and sent back to remarking) and variations in performance caused by a pupil's emotional and physical state at the time of the test.

These sorts of issues should be familiar to anybody who has ever done any sort of scientific experiment where you look at the possible causes of error and try and find ways around them. The most obvious approach here is to take several readings and use an average.

The testing of children makes no attempt to correct for errors and so is implicitly suspect and what nobody can tell me is how suspect. Without this basic understanding of how the data has been collected, any further analysis is meaningless.

Another worry was that one of the presenters of the course did not seem to understand the basic principle that a half of schools will always be below average or that while a large number of children are tested overall in our, fairly typical, school is it only around 55 children which is not a statistically significant sample size.

To end a bad evening on a bad note, I was given this certificate of attendance which is now filed alongside my certificate for the 25m crawl (failed) in recycled paper heaven.

8 October 2009

Modern Slovak architecture in pictures

I like photography, architecture and photos of architecture so an exhibition on this subject was bound to appeal. The appeal was all the greater because the architecture in question is Slovak and I had an invitation to the opening reception at the Slovak Embassy in London.

The exhibition and reception were both a success. I met some people I knew from the BCSA, met some new people (including the Slovak Ambassador) and had excellent conversations with both the photographer and the architect who curated the exhibition. The question I put to both of them was whether it was a photography exhibition or an architecture exhibition and their responses were interesting. I suggest that you go and make your own choice, it is on until the end of this month.

On balance, I preferred the photographs of the buildings to the buildings themselves but some of the architecture was interesting. A lot of it, sadly, was too much like modern architecture everywhere else with no references to any Slovak history or styles but I was surprised, and very pleased, to see several building with strong elements of Modernism. You simply cannot go wrong with lots of white concrete and large windows.

An interesting exhibition with interesting people makes for a lively and fun evening. The cheese and wine were nice too.

7 October 2009

Tiger Leaping Gorge

The last stop on the tour of China was Li Jiang in the South West of China, close to the border with Myanmar. But despite the long distances we had travelled we found ourselves once again by the Yangtze River.

Here the river is slow and placid as it flows through the deep Tiger Leaping Gorge, which gets its name from a legend of tiger jumping across to escape from a hunter.

A walkway has been built for tourists (mostly Chinese as they were everywhere we went) along the one side of the gorge.

The path has been hewn unceremoniously out of the rock and has regular signs warning you of falling rocks, though quite what you were meant to do if there was an avalanche was less clear.

At times the rocky headlands proved too much for the path builders and we took detours through the cliffs.

At other times parts of the path had been abandoned for safety reasons and new tunnels had been built through the cliffs to take us along a safer route.

And sometimes the path had to be cut so far into the cliff that the rock completely covered us.

The walk along the path from the coach park was about 1km and offered many impressive views of the gorge and the river. It was a wonderful walk and we thought that was the reason we were there.

Then we came across the rapids.

At this point the path was some height above the river and we looked down on a scene of wonder, violence and noise.

We could also look in admiration and some concern at the people on the viewing platform on the other bank.

But as we got closer we could see that there was a viewing platform on our side too and that was were we were headed.

The platform was probably somewhat closer to the river than would be allowed in this country (don't you just love our Health & Safety rules?) and that allowed us to get right up next to the thundering water.

In fact we were often in it as the waves frequently crashed over the platform. What fun!

As days out go, this was pretty much on the button; a good walk with great views ending with a soaking that children of all ages would revel in.

Playing with tag clouds (again)

I like tag clouds a lot as a way of summarizing text because they are simple to understand and simple to produce. There are various tools for producing them but the one that I tend to use (just because I came across it first) is Wordle.

Wordle creates tag clouds from text and URLs. Once created, the display of the tag cloud can be manipulated by changing the font, colours and text directions.

This simple example was produced from my CV.

5 October 2009

FreakAngels steps up a gear

My favourite comic at the moment is FreakAngels, and it's free!

New episodes come out every Friday lunchtime and Warren is good enough to tweet it's publication so I am reminded of my regular treat.

Freakangels is now on episode 71 (each is six pages long) and in it's third story arc.

This is coming to a dramatic climax and Warren is controlling the pace of the story superbly. There has not been that much action in recent weeks (though the action that has happened has been momentous for the story) but the story zips along at a hectic pace and the tension and drama are building towards what promises to be a stunning end to this party of the Freakangels story.

One of Warren's great skills is to tell stories without many words, no baddies explaining at length what their plans are, and this full page shows how to write a story to be told in pictures.

I said at the top that Freakangels is free, but that is only half true. I do read it for free on the internet but I am also buying the collected volumes to reread the stories.

Freakangels shows what comics can be like and is highly highly recommended.

4 October 2009

Amazing Stone Forest in Kunming

From Guilin we flew to Kunming, one of the largest cities in China (and that is saying something) and a growing regional hub. Apparently it has more cars per person than Beijing, which is probably why they are building so many roads there.

But we were not in Kunming to see the city, we were there for a natural attraction, the Stone Forest.

The spectacular stone formations are karsts, like we saw on the Li river cruise, but these are smaller and sharper.

The paths between them were narrow and twisted and so you were always surrounded by rock. This was not the place to be if you suffer from claustrophobia!

Sharing the feeling of entrapment were a few pools of water that had fallen into a rocky tomb from whence there is no escape.

The grey rock dominated the scene but a few trees found enough purchase to grow a defiant canopy of green.

At the centre of the forest was a view point on top of one of the karsts and we had one of the familiar steep climbs to get up to it.

Unfortunately the Stone Forest was very busy and everybody wanted to climb to the vantage point. As a result it was rather like trying to get onto a busy tube during rush hour, and remember that the Chinese have no concept of queueing.

The struggle to get to the top (and the harder struggle to get down again) were worth the time and effort as you could see the full extent of the forest and also how sharp the rocks were at their peaks. Falling off is not recommended.

The Stone Forest was a good excursion from Kunming that seemed to offer tourists little itself.

2 October 2009

Guilin is a very pretty city

The reason for going to Guilin for a couple of days was to see the natural wonders but the city itself proved to be quite an attraction too.

The spectacular limestone karsts that we saw on the Li river cruise intrude on the city two and we were taken up one.

This was a less grand climb than most of the others we were taken on during the tour as the geography dictated that the walk had to be narrow and steep but it was still rewarding.

It was also challenging because it was over 30c with bright sunshine.

Other rewards came at the top where the narrow display platform included an ice cream vendor which we took swift advantage of before enjoying the view.

The water, trees and low-rise buildings that we could see were a stark contrast to most of the other cities that we looked down on and they hinted at the beauty that we would see at street level.

Taking an alternative route down we came across a small bird enclosure that had been allowed to fall into some neglect but provided some interest through its small collection of colourful exotic birds that had an area around the size of two tennis courts to wander through.

Guilin is very hot in Summer so the locals tend to come out and play in the evenings.

Recognising this, the local authorities have built a nice place for them to play in.

These pagodas, and the surrounding park, are new but clearly very traditional in design.

The lighting was sumptuous yet subtle and was joined by a few other lit buildings that combined to make the down-town area very attractive.

It was also very busy with many people enjoying the lights, the water, the restaurants and walking along the side of the river.

In daylight, the walkway along the river could be appreciated for its decoration and design.

These steps lead down to the river from the road outside our hotel where they form a small circle that has no purpose other than to be attractive.

Similarly the fish shaped seats added a touch of welcome humour as well as decoration.

Our time was limited but it was just enough to do a circular tour of around 2km crossing the river twice on the two nearest bridges.

This short walk and the shorter one in the lights the night before were enough for Guilin to make quite an impression on me and I would love to have the opportunity to go back there.