Archive for February, 2012

Well at least it’s named after a fruit

February 29, 2012

Along with numerous Apple products, the world of electronic devices includes Blackberries.  Any of them could operate on the Orange network.  And now we have a product called the Raspberry Pi, which turns out to be all about encouraging technical, computer programming, skills among children.

Will it have an effect?  It certainly looks a neat device – a sort of 21st century digital version of a Meccano set.  It also looks good in that it encourages children to understand the hardware within a computer.  But if children want to learn programming, I do note that the BBC piece mentions a cheap Android tablet as a possible competitor, and it’s worth noting that there’s no reason why one couldn’t learn the principles of coding a game of snake using an app for a tablet device.

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Walking more of the ring

February 23, 2012

Since my previous post about the Capital Ring we’ve walked a couple more segments of it.

One was from Stoke Newington to Hackney Wick, on one of the coldest weekends of the winter.  This was the day that it came on to snow during the evening, and it had been even colder during the day.  And the walk took us across Hackney Marshes, a flat, windswept area, so it was really, bone-numbingly, cold.

Still, it was a great way to see part of London in a new way.  And, continuing one of the themes, about the importance of transport to the city, we found an unexpected transport connection.  There’s a viaduct carrying a railway line over the River Lee (or is it Lea? nobody seems quite able to agree) and across one of the arches.  One of the arches was used as a workshop, early in the 20th century, by Alliott Verdon Roe, an aviation pioneer and founder of Avro, the aircraft manufacturing company.  The marshes provided a suitable flat surface for testing the primitive planes that he built.

Verdon Roe sold the Avro business in the 1920s, and moved on to develop another business, Saunders Roe: today he’d be called a serial entrepreneur.  But the Avro name is still carried by aircraft serving London City Airport, just a few miles further around the Capital Ring.  And the bridge still has a connection with aviation, as it now carries trains between central London and  Stansted Airport.
Avro bridge
Section 13 is also remarkably varied in the townscape that it covers, though the greatest length is along the river.  Section 14 starts in Hackney Wick, in surroundings that can seem rather grungy and industrial, but runs past the Olympic site.  And much of this section, from Hackney Wick to Beckton, runs along the Greenway, a path built above one of the massive sewers that takes waste to the Thames estuary.  That includes the delightfully-named View Tube from where you can see the Olympic construction works, and pause at the excellent Container Café, which is exactly what its name suggests as it’s constructed within an old shipping container.  And it also includes the magnificent former Abbey Mills pumping station, built in a flambouyant Victorian style.  Judging from this report, the interior is even finer than the exterior that’s visible from the walk.

Amazon lockers appear

February 8, 2012

I noticed an Amazon locker yesterday in the rather unexpected surroundings of the Brent Cross shopping centre – a 1970s shopping mall and perhaps an unlikely place for Amazon to operate.

The idea is simple, as an extension to Amazon’s normal service. Instead of having books delivered to your home you can have them delivered to the locker.

It’s worth answering the points made in this pocket lint piece, which explains the concept rather well, because the answers raise issues about online shopping.

If you know the full details of a book that you want, or you know some of he background, you might find browsing on the web a much easier way to select your product than the traditional approach of looking in a bookshop. And as is acknowledged in the article, you may simply not want it delivered to your home.

Sniffles and sneezes

February 8, 2012

I’ve been down with a nasty cold this week.   There’s a lot it around, not surprisingly with the very chilly weather, and I noticed that Waitrose has been offering a discount to people buying both Lem-Sip (hot drinks) and Strepsils (throat lozenges) at the same time.  Moreover in the branch that I visited there were only a few packs of Lem-Sip – one of them the slightly new-agey sounding wild berry and hot orange version.  You could view this as an example of clever diversification.  Fundamentally Lem-Sip is really something very simple – it’s a hot sweet drink with some paracetamol and a decongestant – but somehow its makers have found a way of creating many different versions.

Walking the ring

February 2, 2012

The Capital Ring is a waymarked path around London.  My son (nine years old at present) and I walked a segment of it last weekend, and if our enthusiasm holds up we’ll try to walk the whole lot, though it’ll be spread over a fair amount of time.  It’s divided into 15 sections each of typically around 5 miles, though of course you don’t need to stick with these.  We started with section 12, from Highgate station to Stoke Newington, simply because of the starting point’s convenience to home.

Spriggan overlooking the path in Crouch EndThe first part of the walk fits with a point I’ve made before, that if you understand a city’s transport system it helps you to understand the city.  The Parkland Walk runs along a disused railway line from Finsbury Park.  In the 1930s plans existed to link this line up to the Northern Line of the tube.  After the war, these plans were abandoned along with the grand entrance to Highgate station depicted here and instead the line became a linear park.  It’s well-used by walkers, joggers, and cyclists, at least on the cold but sunny winter’s day when we were there.  One of the oddest sights – and one which you could miss if you don’t look up at the right moment – is the sculpture of a mythical creature, a spriggan, about to leap out of the side of the cutting.  It’s very close to the point where the walk goes under Crouch Hill, in a stretch with rather a high density of graffit.

But further on the walk offers a reminder that the fabric of a city is also dependent on water and sewage.  One section (particularly muddy last weekend, and much less busy than the Parkland Walk) runs along the New River.  As the very useful guidebook on the Capital Ring reminds us, this is in fact neither new nor a river, but is a 17th century artificial watercourse that still supplies water to London.

 Considering that it runs through some very crowded parts of London, the walk along the New River is remarkably peaceful.  And it may be a functional watercourse but we spotted some swans in places.  As it approaches Stoke Newington, passing under a bridge which would be great for Pooh Sticks (we dropped a single Pooh Stick into the water to establish which way it was flowing) it opens out into two reservoirs, which are now used as venues for sailing, kayaking, and so on.
Stoke Newington west reservoir
Two buildings  which you can see in this photo were both originally pumping stations, and are both now devoted to leisure activities.  The one fronting onto the water still looks like a pumphouse, is beautifully restored, and is used for sailing and kayaking.  The turret behind, and to the right in the picture, is part of the other pumping station, now in use as a climbing centre.  It’s part Gothic, part Scottish Baronial, all Victorian fantasy and ornament, and built in 1855 on the basis that the citizens of Stoke Newington might object to a functional industrial building, but would accept a new fortified castle in their midst.

This isn’t the only section of the Capital Ring related to artificial watercourses either – there is a very significant section in east London that follows a Greenway built on top of one of the principal sewers.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this segment of the walk is quite how much greenery there is in London, and quite how far you can walk without going alongside roads.  In addition to the sections I’ve mentioned, it runs through Finsbury Park and Clissold Park – neither of which I knew well.  There are a couple of short road sections in Stoke Newington, but the walk along Stoke Newington Church Street is rather charming as the area has a definite village atmosphere.

Showcased and captured

February 2, 2012

Yesterday City University’s learning development centre – that’s the people who operate across the university looking at good practice and innovative approaches to teaching and learning – held a showcase. It was cleverly arranged, with a carefully staged debate at the start about whether assessment methods in universities were really fit for purpose.Me using Moodle on a Macintosh 

As the title of the event suggests, it was arranged with stalls where participants from different parts of the university demonstrated what they were doing.  Like many universities, we use Moodle to support and organise learning materials on the web and the photo here (courtesy of the learning development centre’s Twitter feed) has me  looking intently at the Moodle screen for part of our first year Business Studies module.  I, and my immediate colleagues, were there to talk about the first year experience at university and also about the potential, using tools such as Moodle, for monitoring patterns of student use of the web.

But we were sandwiched between two stalls looking at video capture of lectures.  As it happens, one of them covers work by the economics department, who have been capturing lectures including some of mine, so students have the option of viewing lectures online. 

There are some interesting issues around video capture of lectures in a university based around face-to-face tuition.  Will students stay at home because they can see lectures online? (anecdotally the people I’ve spoken to think not)  or will it challenge students to think deeply about when it is worth their while physically coming to university, and why?  Should lecturers try to stay within view of the camera – difficult if, as in my case, it’s taking place in a room which has been set up with clusters of tables to encourage interaction?  Where students contribute, for instance by giving presentations, should their contributions be captured?  (I’ve given my students the choice but it’ll be interesting to see what they choose, given that there are presentations later on in the term).  How time consuming would the process of video editing become?  And should we be thinking about providing lecture material for iTunes university?

Incidentally one of the neatest touches is that the e-learning specialists supporting this exercise have QR codes against their names on their website…