30 October 2010

Ponds, palace and plants

The combination of a short holiday and a bright Autumnal day naturally leads to Kew Gardens.

It's a big place, far too big to explore on one visit, which makes repeat visits all the more rewarding. And the changing seasons help too.

This time the Play School decision was to go in via the so-called Main Gate off Kew Green, rather than the more usual (for me) Lion Gate or Victoria Gate (which most people think is the main gate).

The first place to explore was the north corner where Google maps had revealed ponds that I had not seen before.

They are well hidden by trees and even knowing they were there they took some finding.

The first was clear, loved by ducks and geese, and kept alive by a small fountain.

The second was perfectly still allowing plants to claim it as their own with only a few lost coots daring its green surface.

There were few other people in this corner of the garden and one of them, another regular visitor to Kew, said that she had not been to the ponds before either. I suspect some sort of cloaking magic.

From the ponds it's a short walk west towards Kew Palace, the smallest of the royal palaces.

Behind Kew Palace, i.e. on the north side, is a small formal garden with structural hedges, not unlike the side garden at Ham House.

But this is a bit bigger and a bit grander than that with a rectangular pond, a semi-circle of statues and sunken flower beds. Something to tease the eye in every direction.

The palace itself is not bad either.

It's beauty derives mostly from its symmetry and order but the bold contrasting colour helps too.

From Kew Palace its another short walk to the Orangery for what was going to be lunch but as I ended up having some Seville marmalade cake it was probably more an early afternoon tea. With cake like that who needs lunch?

Turning east from the Orangery takes you to the grass garden. And I love grasses.

This section of the gardens is small but the clever people there have managed to pack in many varieties of grass and to arrange them so that their differences and similarities are emphasised.

Man and grass have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for tens of thousands of years and Kew helps you to appreciate that.

The prettiest way home from there is through the Princess of Wales Conservatory which also fulfils the unwritten rule that every visit to Kew includes a visit to one of the three main greenhouses.

The variety and extravagance of the plants makes all the greenhouses worth visiting but the Victorian ones have the advantage of grandiose architecture that the Princess of Wales sadly lacks. It already looks old and worn, unlike its much older companions.

The trip ends via the Victoria Gate and a 65 bus home.

Another two hours or so spent pleasantly in Kew Gardens with the promise of more to come. It's a real treasure and deserves its regular worship.

27 October 2010

citycamplondon day three - collaborate

Day three of FutureGov's citycamplondon took us to the stunning work space of Hub King's Cross, just down the road from my usual office King's Place by, er, Kings Cross.

The familiar location meant that getting there for around 9am on a Sunday morning was less than a challenge it might have been and the coffee on arrival helped to set the scene for a busy working day.

The purpose of the day was to take the enthusiasm fired on day one (stimulate) and the ideas generates on day two (participate) to collaborate to produce concrete ideas that could be progressed.

Somehow this morphed in to me giving a rambling pitch for the loosely defined "what can I do?" idea from Saturday that somehow merged with some similar ideas and a group of about six of us looked at user generated information with a geographical context.

The popular service FixMyStreet explains the broad concept. This allows the public to report physical problems (pot holes and the like) to the appropriate authority but what we need to be able to do is to expand the scope of things that people can report (e.g. concerns for neighbours, noise, availability of babysitters, comparative prices in shops, etc.) and the scope of people to pass this information to, most notably to other residents.

What we were looking to do was to define some sort of framework (or infrastructure) that point solutions, like FixMyStreet, could use to build and share information about a neighbourhood.

I still think it's a great idea but it needs more time in the participate stage to add some specific details before moving on to collaboration.

So it was no surprise that our idea was not one of the ones chosen at the end of the day to move on to the next stage.

In fact, all the ideas that were taken forward were brought in to the process almost fully formed by one person with the vision to drive the idea forward. I'm not sure if this means that dictators beat crowds but there is a lesson there for me for the next time I attend a barcamp or unconference.

While I may have been a little disappointed in the structure and output of the day, any negativity there was more than offset by the opportunity to play in Hub King's Cross for a day.

Those of us stuck in offices with sterile rows of bland desks occupied by bland people can only imagine what it's like to work in a funky fun house with a variety of spaces defined by brick and wood in which to dwell, lurk and even work.

The beanbags and see-saw help too.

citycamplondon day three asked us to collaborate to demonstrate practicable solutions which we did but we needed leaders to control the process.

25 October 2010

Transition Town Kingston

As a greenie, a talk on Transition Town Kingston was obviously attractive.

The occasion was the monthly Kingston upon Thames Society meeting which continues to serve up good talks on local matters.

Our guide this month was Dr. Martin Birley a consultant in International Public Health who, not surprisingly, focused on the health aspects of climate change and peak oil.

The story we heard was a little back-to-front with the what first followed by the why.

The what was a brisk overview of the activities that Transition Town Kingston is involved in and included the predictable things like cycling, renewable energy and recycling.

I would have liked to have heard more on this as my main reason for going to the meeting was to find out what I could do myself locally to help to address these serious issues.

The bulk of the talk covered why these changes are necessary and was a fairly basic, and somewhat biased, introduction to climate change. I've heard enough of the evidence over the years to accept that climate change is aggregated my our use of fossil fuels (and they are finite anyway) so we need to change our lifestyles.

He was rather preaching to the converted which rather made the preaching unnecessary but there were some good bits in the talk and was never boring.

The Kingston upon Thames society is to be congratulated for tackling such a serious topic.

24 October 2010

Ham Amenities Group and Latchmere House

Ham Amenities Group (HAG) works to preserve the character of the area and I am proud to be a member.

They manage the local Ham Fair and other such activities well and so I have not felt the need to get actively involved and am content to do my little bit for the cause by paying my annual membership fee, a very modest £3 to which I add an equally modest £2.

In return for this I get an occasional newsletter that keeps me informed about some of the goings on in Ham, particularly any major planning applications.

I also get invited to their Annual General Meeting which took place this week.

The business part of the AGM passed quickly without controversy and we were soon on to the guest speaker and the reason that I went to the meeting.

A prison officer and a chaplain had come to tell us about the work at Latchmere House, which currently serves as a resettlement prison, one of only three in the country.

We were given an interesting insight in to how the prison works to reintegrate prisoners in to society. They go there at the end of their sentence and while they are locked up overnight during the day they go out to work in real jobs earning real wages.

We heard many positive stories about the prison which were only clouded by the impending Comprehensive Spending Review that was due to hit later that week. With the Prison Service's budget slashed by around 30% it is hard to believe that Latchmere House will keep its innovative remit.

The success of HAG suggests that there might be some hope for the Big Society but the average age of the people there (I was probably the youngest person) shows that there is still a lot to do to get everybody involved.

19 October 2010

Information theory meets writing

Somehow the Royal Society's programme of talks fails to inspire me and so my recent visit there was only my second. The last was two years ago to hear a discussion on Telling stories with numbers, telling stories with words.

The carrot this time was Information Theory laced with Writing, which last combined at a Gurteen event early last year.

Professor David MacKay's talk was well structured, content-rich and well delivered, revealing the speaker to be very comfortable with his subject area.

He opened with some basics of Information Theory which more-or-less comes to effective versus efficient. To make information efficient we reduce redundancy, e.g. "Mry hd a litl lmb", but to make it effective we add redundancy (check digits and the like) to improve its readability over poor quality communications.

The talk then went on to describe some of the obvious weaknesses with keyboards where we use our very flexible fingers to press keys that are either on or off.

This led us in to a demonstration of Dasher, which Professor MacKay described as a walk through a library containing every conceivable book.

Dasher guides the writer through text showing, at each stage, the letter (or punctuation mark) that is most likely to follow what has gone before.

Here we can see that "writ" has been selected and the most likely options are "e", "ing" and "ten". In this case the finger has scrolled down to select "ten".

The idea is simple and has its obvious attractions, particularly for those of us used to writing with one finger while standing up on the train or tube.

And it's a free iPhone App so it's easy to try for yourself.

I did so and found it harder than I expected (not that I tried it for that long, to be honest). Part of this is that I am not very comfortable with the alphabet and I found letters whizzing past me before I could find them. A touch of Dyslexia perhaps.

But my biggest problem with Dasher is it does not address the problem that we talked about at the start of the talk, the inherent redundancy in the English language. A (possibly) better input system does nothing to solve the issues of inconsistent spelling and words inflated in length well beyond their phonetic requirement.

The problem it does help to solve is to help people who do not have the flexible fingers that I mentioned earlier and the talk gave several examples of where new technologies have enabled even the very immobile to communicate.

The talk did not quite do what I expected but I did learn a lot and I am grateful for that.

16 October 2010

citycamplondon day two - participate

Day two of FutureGov's citycamplondon took us to the former Truman Brewery in Brick Lane and the stunning offices of LBi (Lost Boys international).

The harsh early Saturday start (9:00am!) was softened with coffee and bagels. The coffee I hit straight away but I resisted the bagels for several minutes before the cream cheese won me over.

The networking started immediately and I took the opportunity to catch-up with local e-democracy champion, and former Lib. Dem. councillor, Mary Reid.

The purpose of the day was to play around with some ideas that had been suggested on the citycamplondon website beforehand. These were grouped in to topics and were run is four sets of four parallel workshops, i.e. sixteen workshops altogether and we each chose which four to go to.

I went for sessions on skills, local democracy, collaboration and Big Society.

The sessions were a little mixed and some of the more negative aspects of an unconference came through in some of them when the lack of a leader, or any specific objective, meant that the session was slow to get going. But get going they all did and we had some very lively and constructive discussions.
Some themes emerged during the day, partially inspired by the day before.

Web2.0 lets people collaborate and communicate to help themselves and this involves taking power away from elected officials who do not realise that this is happening.

Councils have organisational advantages over the public in that they have resources, like planners, architects, engineers and teachers, that they can drawn on easily.

Big Society is competing against Government and both sides need to recognise this.

There is a lot of really good work going on out there, such as FixMyStreet, but we need something to pull these all together to make it easier for people to find services and to find opportunities to contribute.

The day had its ups and downs but it ended on a serious high.

We decamped back to the main room (pictured) where beer and wine was waiting for us.

An hour or so later it was joined by a lot of curry,  we were in Brick Lane after all.

Around the beer and curry was woven a lot more networking made the easier by having mixed with different people in smaller groups all day.

Constructive conversations were had. business cards were exchanged and, more often, twitter ids were swapped. Indeed most of us had adopted the idea of including our twitter ids on our name badges, much more meaningful than a job title or the name of an organisation.

citycamplondon day two asked us to participate and that we did with gusto and purpose.

15 October 2010

citycamplondon day one - stimulate

citycamplondon was event with my name written all over it. In very large letters.

The purpose was to identify ways in which web2.0 technologies could be used to improve the lives of people in London. The buzzwords here are "web2.0", "improve" and "London" and they all resonate with me.

So much so that I took a half day holiday to attend the first session and then worked full time over the weekend.

The schedule for the three days was stimulate, participate, collaborate and each day had its own purpose, atmosphere and location.

Stimulate kicked things off at the Royal Society of Arts, the stimulation coming from a series of top-ranking speakers.

As we sat down ready for the talks the most noticeable thing was the technology on show, most of it from Apple with the big question being which model iPhone you had. This technology and the generally geek audience meant that the twitter stream was very active.

The speakers' pitches were (generally) short, sharp, to the point and actually stimulating. An early high-point was John Tolva's breakneck exploration of physical urban design and it's interaction with the digital world. Good to see one of my old companies, IBM, taking a lead on smart cities.

The low-point was the politicians' round-table, chaired by RSA CEO Matthew Taylor, none of whom seemed to have much idea of what technology could do. The only good point made here was the realisation that if citizens are flooding to a council's website to see what jobs are available this does not mean that the jobs section is good it actually means that the rest of it is rubbish.

The politicians' session was so poor that the twitter vote was to remove the twitterfall running behind them as the comments were so negative. Words like "clueless" were common.

Luckily the rest of the sessions, and there were around ten altogether, were good and were stimulating so we all ended the day with a bounce in our steps.

And those bounces took us quickly downstairs to the vaults for a drink and some serious networking.

There were a few familiar faces there but, stimulated by the talks, I deliberately chose to mix with new people; though I have to admit a few of these conversations started with the familiar "where do I know you from?" as most of us are regulars at several similar events.

Unexpectedly I had a long and useful conversation with John Tolva sometime during the evening.

And more unexpectedly, I got caught up with somebody's birthday party and a group of twenty of us headed off to the gay bar around the corner. These were mostly FutureGov people who seemed like a fun bunch who had the right ideas.

That made it an even longer day than expected but also added another twist, another glimpse of London and another opportunity to enrich existing relationships.

citycamplondon day one was meant to stimulate and that it most certainly did.

14 October 2010

Information Underload at the BCS

I had a choice of two meetings to go to tonight and made the mistake of going to the BCS to hear a talk on Information Overload.

This a broad topic but it soon became clear (but too late to leave the meeting) that all we were going to look at was email and for the next hours or so. Not only was this very familiar territory, e.g. we were advised not to copy emails to lots of people, but it was delivered with no insights.

A clear warning sign these days is when the speaker proudly announces that they do not tweet. I did my best to  compensate by tweeting myself during the talk. This is what I said.

"The speaker at the BCS talk on Information Overload does not tweet. Not an expert then."

"He keeps saying 'I really worry a lot' without explaining why. Unconvincing."

"Tweeting how long you sleep for seems brilliant for social research but laughingly dismissed by our speaker. Not impressed."

"Ye Gods! Now he's moaning that it's too easy to email your MP! Clueless."

Even the prospect of free wine and sandwiches after the event failed to lift my mood and I beat a hasty retreat home.

11 October 2010

LIKE 18: 21st Century Information Professionals

LIKE 18 followed hot on the heels of TFPL Connect but that did not deter many of us from going to both events.

We were helped in this by LIKE's move to a bigger venue, The Crown Tavern in Clerkenwell, that allowed almost fifty of us to attend when previously the limit was around twenty.

The new room was not without its teething troubles, such as some noise from the ladies next door, but these are all fixable and are more than compensated for by the large room, cultured ambiance, large and unusual collection of beers, and a varied and interesting menu.

The session we all flocked to was on the topic of the skills and knowledge required by 21st century information professionals, very relevant as everybody there belonged somewhere in that broad categorisation.

We were guided through our deliberations and discussions by Luisa Jefford who is an acknowledged expert in this field as the Director of Public Sector Recruitment at TFPL. The mix of talk and table exercises worked well to get the messages across and to get us to engage with each other.

It was interesting, but not surprising, to see that organisations are looking for more general skills, such as project management, team working and communications, to supplement the industry-specific information skills.

It was also noticeable that many of these information skills are old skills founded in things like librarianship that have been refreshed and rebranded for the web2.0 world.

When the food and second drink arrived the facilitated section of the evening ended and the discussions and conversations carried on at our tables and then, once the enticing food had been dealt with, in small groups as we moved around to reinforce old relationships and to make new ones.

It is sometimes hard to put a finger on why LIKE meetings work so well, and I'll not try too hard to now, and I'll merely point out that the room was packed and many of us stayed on well beyond the official end.

The new venue allows more people to attend the meetings and so allows the activism to extend beyond the hardcore of regulars (of which I am one). This is a major and a welcome step forward for LIKE.

10 October 2010

TFPL Connect: The brand of Me

The third of this year's TFPL Connect events had the intriguing title of Unlocking the Value of You and used that banner to explore how individuals can help their organisations and been seen to do so.

First up Rosemary Nunn, the proud owner of the job title Group Head of Business Transformation and Knowledge Management at EC Harris LLP, described a model she had developed that links different types of knowledge to business objectives - a useful way to demonstrate the value of Knowledge Management.

This provoked me to realise that my current employer kills rather than encourages ideas from staff.

This was followed by Dave Tullett, Director Leadership and Innovation Centre at Heidrick and Struggles, who expanded on this by giving guidance on what we as individuals can do to demonstrate our own contribution and stand out from the crowd.

One of the ideas that came from this was using Wordle on your CV to see which words come to the fore. I can endorse this as it worked well for me when I tried it last year.

Other good ideas included coming up with your own short mission statement that explains how you help your organisation and thinking of three words that define your personal brand.

The thoughtful and useful talk was followed by the customary wine-fuelled networking where I was pleased to have some good conversations with some KM regulars and also some new people.

I'm very grateful to TFPL for another stimulating, fun, invigorating and useful evening. I think it's meant to be work but it does not feel like it.

7 October 2010

Hay Fever at the Rose Theatre

The Rose Theatre in Kingston is my nearest theatre but has yet to win a place in my heart. With shows like Hay Fever that might just change.

The theatre's location helps sitting as it does on the edge of Charter Quay (it owes it's existence to a planning gain from that development) where there are plenty of bars and restaurants for the theatre-goer to refresh themselves.

I chose Wagamama and went for the yasai katsu curry, which I have been eating for ten years or so. Time for a menu refresh methinks.

The play's attraction for me was simply that it was written by Noël Coward. I'm not sure what I was expecting but Hay Fever was probably it with its subtle humour based on human eccentricities. Mad Dogs and Englishmen if you will.

The play is beautifully crafted over three acts, which I will call Arrival, Pairing and Departure.

In Arrival we are introduced to the four members of the Bliss family and, gradually, to the guests that each of them has invited to the house for the weekend. There is an implicit love interest with each one, despite the parents of the family still being married to each other and, apparently, happily so.

In Pairing the ensemble mixes and pairs off, but not as expected.

Finally, in Departure the four guests escape and leave the Bliss family to muse on the departees' eccentricities oblivious to the fact that theirs are greater and, for us, far more amusing.

The play relies greatly on a superb performance from Celia Imrie as the matriarchal Judith Bliss who thrives on her theatrical background; she has now retired from the stage but still carries some of the limelight around with her. This lets Imrie the actress wallow playfully in melodrama as she portrays Bliss the actress. It's wonderful to behold.

It's also necessary as I found the rest of the cast less convincing and compelling, apart from the daughter's amour who plays straight-laced impeccably. He just had to walk in his bemused manner to get you laughing.

Hay Fever did enough to convince me that the Rose Theatre is worth paying attention to but to get me back regularly they will have to keep doing unusual plays with good actors.

5 October 2010

People are NOT your organisation's greatest asset

It is often said, particularly in the services sector, that people an organisations greatest asset, but this is nonsense and I'm on a mission to make people realise that.

It's easy to see how the misconception arises because people-centric businesses rely heavily on people but to call them valuable assets is like saying a farmer's best assets are his cows.

Another way to look at it is to ask yourself if people are the greatest asset then why is this still true some years later when all those people have moved on?

On the other hand, one organisation will hire resources from another or can compete on the basis of what their staff can do so what is going on?

Put simply, it's not the people that are the asset it's what the organisation does to get special people that is the true asset.

For example, if one organisation is better at finding and recruiting the better people than another then this skill is an asset. So, following on from that, are the benefits systems, culture and internal processes that help to keep best people there.

And if you cannot win by attracting the best people then an alternative strategy is to recruit average people and to train them to be the best. In this case the organisation's Learning and Development is their asset.

So, please, next time somebody tells you that people are their organisation's greatest asset politely correct them and help to stamp out this myth.

4 October 2010

Waterlily House at Kew Gardens

The Waterlily House at Kew Gardens is very much the lesser neighbour to the magnificent and majestic Palm House, which is my excuse for not going there before. But the advantage of going there so often is that you get to find places like this eventually.

It shares some of the characteristics of it's grander neighbour in that it is made out of cool white metal shaped by Victorians and is bulging with large green things helpfully labelled by people who know what each one is called.

I think the big ones may be waterlilies.

3 October 2010

Big Ideas on time

A week packed with brain stimulating evening events got of to an unexpectedly good start with Big Idea's exploration of time.

I was not that attracted by the subject but it was a Big Ideas event, it was held in a decent pub and the timing and location fitted in well with my long days slaving over two laptops in Victoria. Or, to be brutally short, I had nothing better to do.

I lingered downstairs in the bar for a while with just a pint of Brakespear, a bowl of cheesy chips and an iPhone for company. Refreshed and relaxed I headed up stairs in good time for the 8pm start.

I should have relaxed less and gone up earlier as the room was already packed. I was lucky to get a chair (I was far too late to get a chair at a table) and the later entrants at to squeeze themselves in to standing positions behind the bar. Around fifty of us made it into the room eventually.

The discussion that followed took us in all sort of directions through quantum mechanics, Marxism, slavery, time-travel, perceptions of mortality and several other topics that escaped my notebook.

Some of the random thoughts that did make it into my book are these:
  • "Now" is a paradox, it is both unreal and the only reality there is.
  • We complain about the speed of life but this is a good thing, in the same way that a fast car is a good thing. It shows that we are achieving (or at least doing) lots.
  • Scientific time (i.e. the various ways we measure the passing of time) is rich with tempo but has no history.
  • Our understanding of things like evolution and plate tectonics requires that we also understand the time periods that they operate over.
  • Time keeping has become one of our most important tools enabling us to do so much, like arrange Big Ideas meetings. We choose to wear watches and have clocks because we can now manage time to our advantage.
It's because I am forced to think along these unexpected lines that I go to Big Ideas.

2 October 2010

The Thunderbolt at the Orange Tree Theatre

Autumn brings many joys including the start of a new season at the Orange Tree Theatre.

Opening up is The Thunderbolt a comedy of errors from a century ago, an era that we often look back at in amusement forgetting that as we do so we are ignoring the same biases, prejudices and attitudes that persist today.

The play follows the manoeuvrings of the family of a recently deceased wealthy brewer as they battle for his inheritance. Adding to the complexity of the situation is an illegitimate daughter and a missing will.

Into this mix are added two solicitors who act as impartial observers and also as the rails that the story runs along.

One of these solicitors is played by Orange Tree regular, David Antrobus, pictured in the centre here, who is proving to be a rather fine actor.

The other notable performance was from the other solicitor but I do not know that actor's name as I never buy a programme and their website does not provide the information.

Go yourself and buy your own programme to find out!

The drama comes from the scheming and dreaming of the family that is running smoothly until The Thunderbolt strikes.

The atmosphere of the play then changes from gently amusement to tense emotion as the impact of the thunderbolt becomes clear. The situation then threatens everybody and the rest of the play is spent trying to resolve the situation. Again, go yourself to find out how.

This a subtle and unsurprising play that bubbles along smoothly and then spikes in the middle. It an accomplished play that uses dialogue skilfully to explain the characters and their actions, most of which are revealed as they sit around, there is not much physical action here.

Overall it comes across as a well-written and well-delivered play that satisfies rather than delights. But satisfies is plenty good enough to justify a night out and to justify going back again next month.

Dead shoes

I've work proper brogues to work for years, it's part of my "serious consultant" brand. Usually these are the Full Monty with leather soles and are purchased from Jones Bootmaker for something around, or in excess of, £100.

I find the close hard fit of a brogue very comfortable and you get a buzz of confidence knowing that you are wearing good shoes. They tend to wear well too, which is just as well as I like to include some walking in my daily commute.

The only down-side is the leather soles which can turn in to blotting paper when the ground is very wet and the impact of my walking is much the same as leaving the shoes in a full bath for twenty minutes.

And do, reluctantly, I have been known to but some cheaper imitation brogues, the sort of shoe that is designed more for soft comfort than appearance. I get these from Clarks because I remember the days when shoes meant Clarks (in the same way that Beanz Meanz Heinz) and also there are family connections with several of the Bridgwater clan having worked for Clarks in Street at some point. Some may still do so.

So it was a mixture of surprise, astonishment and disappointment when my new pair of Clarks shoes collapsed on me after just a few months.

The astonishment comes from the way that they died. The soles show just minimal signs of wear but both heels collapsed spectacularly, something I only expected to happen with ladies' shoes.

This left me with the embarrassment of walking around the office with the heels flapping around like a stupid dog's tongue.

I've learnt my lesson and am back on the proper brogues. I have three pairs so that wet ones have time to dry and the seriously ill ones have time to be mended. As is often the case, going for the cheaper option proved to be a false economy.

Note: All of the comments below are spam. I have posted them out of amusement.