Archive for May, 2012

Capital Ring Thames-side and canalside

May 31, 2012

There’s still quite a gap between the amount of the capital ring walk that I’ve blogged about, and the amount that I’ve walked, so this posting covers one and a half sections, from Richmond to Osterley Lock and thence on to Hanwell, which we covered in the first part of May.

Supermoon tide in RichmondWe started in Richmond, with the river, unusually, so high that water almost lapped across the pavement.  This was a combination of a wet few days immediately before, of arriving shortly after high tide, and the effect of a ‘supermoon’ – an unusually bright and bold moon in the first week of May (I said that I’ve been slow in keeping the blog up to date)

The section from Richmond to Osterley Lock is mostly ‘blue’ rather than ‘green’ in that it follows water rather than parkland.  At first it follows the Thames, and the western crossing of the Thames is by a footbridge, rather busier than the Woolwich foot tunnel which constitutes the eastern crossing, by Richmond Lock.  Once back on the north side of the river, there’s a stretch beside the Thames, then a short leg of road walking, another Thames-side stroll through the attractive village of Isleworth, before the path heads inland through Syon Park.

Syon House is the London home of the Duke of Northumberland (there’s also a Duke of Northumberland’s river), and was designed by Robert Adam.  Over the years the Northumberland family have been enterprising about finding ways to exploit their family home commercially, so the house itself was in use for some opulent-looking event when we passed.  There’s a long-established garden centre, and at one time the park was also home to the London Butterfly House, an attraction that wouldn’t look out of place on the fantasy Piccadilly Line but this disappeared and a large but remarkably unobtrusive luxury hotel has taken its place.

Locks seem to be everywhere in the ‘blue’ sections of the walk, and after crossing Syon Park the Capital Ring joins the Grand Union Canal, by a lock, in Brentford.  Further on, the buildings alongside the canal include this fine lock-keeper’s cottage.
Lock-keeper's cottageBut there are also significant sections of the canal, notably between Brentford and the end of this section at Osterley, where the canalside walk is remarkably well screened from the urban surroundings.  You can usually hear road traffic, and often trains and planes (more about that shortly) but you can walk quite a distance without seeing buildings on either side.  On a cursory glance at least, you could be in the countryside. 

I’d like to include a reflection here on the importance of the canals.  We took a slight, and highly recommended, diversion from the Capital Ring to walk alongside the ladder of locks at Hanwell, before returning and walking along the River Brent.  Here you do get the sense that the Grand Union Canal was once part of a serious industrial operation.  There’s a milestone indicating that it’s 91 miles to Braunston, a small town in Northamptonshire but also the point where the Grand Union Canal finished, and in its time an important junction.  In its time it would have been as important for the canals as Crewe is for the railways, or the Gravelly Hill interchange (Spaghetti Junction) near Birmingham is for roads.  The ladder of locks allow the canal to rise from the same level as the Thames to a higher level to cross the country: you can’t simply build a gradient into a waterway!

 Osterley, another lock, is the end of the section that starts in Richmond.  The next section runs from Osterley, partly along the canal but beyond that along the River Brent, which is closely connected with the canal, as far as Greenford.
Hanwell Locks
In the stretch leading up to Osterley, you can hear, and occasionally see, the M4 motorway and you pass under a high bridge carrying London Underground’s (very busy) Piccadilly Line.  A little further on, Wharncliffe Viaduct, completed in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, carries trains from London to the west country, to south Wales, and to Heathrow Airport.  Heathrow itself, developed as an international hub in the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, is a constant presence in this area because much of the walk runs under the flight path.  These are all important components in the country’s transport infrastructure.

And yet the canals, as a serious transport network, had a remarkably short life.  Only a few years after the state of engineering knowledge reached a level where artificial canals could be dug, and embankments, tunnels, and aqueducts created to provide a level route across country, steam engines and rail tracks and later cars and lorries became available, and these largely superseded the canal network.  Some freight traffic continued into the twentieth century, and there were attempts on occasion to revive their use.  But they were rediscovered mostly as a place for leisure pursuits from around the 1960s onwards.  In terms of commercial traffic, the canal network fell out of use when still quite young: it would almost have been comparable to the motorway network built in the last 50 years already becoming obsolete.

And why only one and a half sections and not two?  Because close to the bank of the River Brent in Hanwell Park was a particularly treacherous area of mud, and both my son and I slipped and got covered with mud.  That’s embarrassing enough for a nine-year old, much worse if you’re a generation older.  So for the second time on the ring, we decided to stop short of the official section boundary, and tack the remainder onto the beginning of the next section, and in the hope that we still looked vaguely respectable headed towards Hanwell’s listed station and to the train home.

Choosing the wrong compartment

May 31, 2012

An issue which often arises with the increasing virtualisation of work, and the blurring of some of the traditional boundaries between people’s personal lives and their working lives, is the way that different activities can be compartmentalised through the different electronic tools that are used for communication.  Maybe it’s simply a matter of using separate email addresses for work and for personal matters (as I do, although inevitably there are sometimes overlaps between the two), maybe it’s a matter of of associating social networks for personal life, and traditional email for work.

So it’s interesting to see at the Leveson Inquiry this morning, the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt having his use of different email addresses forensically dissected.  The observation that, not only did all his official emails get screened by staff, but that the only email address he read himself was a personal one to which a selection of official emails were forward, is significant.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of his actions, it illustrates that there are significant ethical, as well as practical, issues around what channel he chose to receive the messages being discussed in the inquiry.

Interactivity at the iMoot

May 31, 2012

A couple of related things that I’ve taken away from the iMoot virtual conference for Moodle users.  One is the sheer ability to combine different sources.  So one contribution that I will remember is by John Iglar, who teaches in Ethiopia and had problems accessing the necessary tools on the Internet, who put his piece on ‘gamification’ up as a set of resources that attendees could explore interactively, using Slideshare, YouTube, and others.  I saw Twitter being used to gather ideas from attendees, in parallel with the more traditional approach of asking people to type their thoughts into a chat window.  Because Moodle is open-source it’s intrinsically extensible and a range of plugins were discussed (for sheer creativity of name, I like the idea of the video/audio add-on called PoodLL).  Quite a few presenters used the voting facilities built in to Moodle to run quick polls and to involve audience members.  And I did get to drop briefly into one virtual cocktail hour.  So a very impressive exercise from the viewpoint of creating the feeling of a conference where people were physically present.

A virtual Moot

May 29, 2012

Various communities on the Internet tend to build up their own vocabulary, and perhaps it was inevitable that when groups of users of the Moodle virtual learning environment got together, these gatherings would be referred to as Moodle Moots.  Much as I’m typing this while sitting at a desk in London, I’m also attending on such gathering right now – but it’s a gathering with a difference, because it’s known as an iMoot and takes place entirely on the Internet.

The international nature of it raises some unusual issues, which the incredibly hard-working technical people in Australia, who are behind this, making it work.  I’ve just attended a really interesting session on creating presence in online courses: it’s mid-afternoon for me but the presenter, Stephan Schmidt (who is from Germany but has lived in Australia for 20 years) was in Adelaide and mentioned that it was late evening for him.  Knowing that Stephan’s went to Australia to work as a chef, it’s slightly unnerving to listen to another speaker in the following session talking about a cookbook – but it turns out he’s using the word in the sense favoured by software development people as a tool to help create online material rapidly.

iMoot action takes place more-or-less 24 hours a day, but the setup is clever enough that when you log in you can see a timetable with dates and times which are correct for your own time zone.  My family have pointed out that there’s something vaguely druidic about my disappearing onto the computer late at night to attend part of an occasion referred to as a moot.  In fact the feel is not that different from the experience of attending a conference that’s based in one’s home town – you go to conference talks on occasions but return to everyday life in between.

And like the best conferences, it has given me a lot to think about – particularly in understanding my own use of Moodle and the potential for combining it with other tools on the Internet.

Design for the Engelbart era

May 17, 2012

I’m typing this blog post on a laptop, using Windows and a mouse.  The WordPress screen in front of me is clearly designed for this sort of use – it’s optimised for a screen with a reasonable amount of space, and it’s got icons which make sense if you have a mouse to navigate and click.  Were I using an iPad or some other tablet, I’d have subtlely different requirements in how to navigate the screen and make selections, to make things easy when using a touch screen.  Were I using a smartphone with a small screen, I’d need to adapt, rather less subtlely, to a different set of requirements again.

Doug Engelbart is best known as the inventor of the computer mouse, but it’s worth noting that this is just one manifestation of his whole philosophy around how humans could cope with complexity.  He made the hyperlink – the object or text which you click over to move from one place ot another – familiar.  His ideas inform the way that we navigate the web, and the way that we handle interlinked chunks of knowledge rather than linear screeds of information.  I like to refer to the computer systems which depend on mice, menus, graphics, and hyperlinks, as Engelbart era computers.

However I also note that some of the issues raised, particularly by students around usability of computer systems that they encounter in their studies, stem from the systems – our systems, in the sense of systems that universities provide – being optimised for Engelbart era environments, where in practice many of them consider their smartphones as being the primary way of accessing online resources.  This is no criticism of the developers of these systems: the lead time for introducing something like a virtual learning enviroment is significant, and a few years ago there few people would have foreseen the mouse becoming obsolete.  But it’s an issue which does affect perceptions of how easy universities’ computer systems are to use

Freemium education

May 16, 2012

There’s been some coverage recently of this intiative by MIT and Harvard.  I’d take issue with the statement that this promises to ‘upend higher education’ and in fact would argue that the scenarios implied in the Huffington Post piece, together with the long-established traditionally-focused institutions behind the initiative, all fit with the argument that, while an interesting and worthwhile innovation, this won’t transform the higher education landscape.

In fact one view of this is that MIT and Harvard are embracing the ‘freemium’ business model shared with many other players who use the Internet.  The online courses delivered with EDx are the free product, and these enhance the reputation of the organisation as a whole, while the traditional degree courses with a high face-to-face component are the premium, paid-for, product.

Liquid piracy

May 16, 2012

I was struck by a few issues from this BBC piece about the emergence of the Pirate Party as a political force in Germany,  One is that intellectual property, once seen as an arcane and technical issue, has entered the mainstream of opinion formation.  And, related to this, an organisation that started as a single-issue campaign has somehow morphed into something with aspirations to become a national political force.  The Internet has always provided a good platform for single-issue campaigns because it allows very disparate people who share a common cause to get together.  The principle of communities of practice arguably applies when the ‘shared domain’ (the shared area of interest among the members) is the promotion of a particular viewpoint.  And while the effect that you could agree wholeheartedly with somebody on one issue, and disagree virulently with the same person on another issue, just seems like a characteristic of reasoned debate about almost anything, the Internet could make it easier to rationalise these agreements and disagreements.

I also note the use of the term ‘liquid democracy’ – presumably derived from Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of liquid modernity which is itself a move to rationalise changes in society.

Long wave television

May 16, 2012


I don’t watch very much television – and catch up with a significant proportion of what I do watch on the Internet, but this week brought 56 up, the latest instalment of a programme that started in 1963 charting the progress of 14 children who were 7 at the time.  As Michael Apted, a researcher on the initial programme and director of the follow-ups, has said, the very choice of 10 boys and 4 girls now looks very dated.   Still, the result makes compelling viewing, tracking the long waves of the subjects’ lives over the decades.

It’s hard to judge from 15 minutes devoted to each participant, and from their demeanour in front of a TV camera, but the overall impression from the episode broadcase this week is of people who may have been troubled in the past, but who are now comfortable in themselves and with their lives.  Anybody who has been following the series for five episodes (that’s four seven-year gaps, so 28 years) will remember Neil as a very troubled character in his 20s and 30s, but he now comes across as content and composed.

And it was good to see Peter, who doesn’t particularly stick in my mind from previous programmes because he last appeared 28 years ago. I’m genuinely surprised that his remarks on politics in 1984 generated such a vitriolic response: Margaret Thatcher, like many other political leaders who achieved electoral success, was particularly despised by those who didn’t support her, and rightly or wrongly the sentiments expressed by Peter on that occasion must have been fairly common currency in school staffrooms at the time.

One thing that sticks in my mind from last time round – 49up – is Nick, the physicist who became a professor in the US, and somebody who has done very well professionally, regretting that he wasn’t as well known for his work as for his participation in the series.  Judging from a brief clip of him aged 7 at the end of this week’s programme, he’s remained remarkably close to his childhood ambitions.  We’ll find out more on Monday on ITV1.

Bits and pieces on disruptive innovation

May 14, 2012

In revision discussions with some of my students over the last few days we’ve gone over a number of points to do with disruptive innovation and in this post I’m potentially sharing them with a wider audience.

I tend to use smartphones, and tablets such as the iPad, as a contemporary example of disruptive innovation.  However one interpretation of disruptive innovation is that it occurs when new products replace old ones and so disrupt the market.  You could argue, that because the tablet computer is neither a phone nor a computer, and in many cases is an extra product for people who already have a phone and a personal computer, it isn’t obviously a replacement for another product.

The key is in that word ‘replacement’.  The iPad isn’t a substitute, in the sense that the term is often used in discussing business strategy, for other products.  But it could replace the personal computer as the primary place that you handle your emails, deal with facebook, and use YouTube.

Your phone might still be the favoured tool for phone calls and text messages and playing Tetris –  and for checking when the next bus is going to arrive and for emails when you really need to work with them on the move.  You might still want a computer if you want to put your accounts in a spreadsheet or to write a dissertation – tasks for which some of us, at least, really need a full-sized keyboard.  But the availability of the tablet is disruptive because it challenges assumptions about the way that technology is being used.

The example of the iPad also illustrates a couple of the difficulties associated with disruptive innovations.  Because they aren’t well understood, you can’t make any accurate predictions of how popular they are likely to be on the strength of conventional market research.  You can’t just ask people whether they’d use a product that isn’t familiar to them (text messaging is an even more dramatic example of this – if you’d surveyed people in the early 1990s, when mobile phones shifted from high-priced corporate devices to consumer goods, whether they could see themselves using texts they would almost certainly have said ‘no’).  And because they aren’t well understood, products which take advantage of disruptive innovation are often ignored by competitors, who don’t think of the new products as a threat.  When Apple entered the phone market, the established phone manufacturers seemed to assume that they were only after a niche market of consumers who wanted a specialised product.  But Apple seamlessly colonised more of the market until they became a major player.

Disruptive innovation often demands a new business model.  One of the clever things that Apple has done, is to adopt a new business model which creates an ‘ecosystem’ between Apple and the developers and providers of apps.  Very often, established businesses have business models which stop working when certain disruptive innovations come in.  For example a concern for Microsoft and Dell is that their business models are tied up with a world where PC users do all sorts of different tasks – email/word processing/web browsing and so on – ontheir computers.  To develop, these businesses potentially need to ‘un-learn’ some of the assumptions that they’ve been working with for years.

But there’s a tension here.  The message of all the work on knowledge management is that businesses are defined by the expertise and assumptions that are built up over the years.  So one challenge for a business working with disruptive innovation is to recognise when to cultivate knowledge, and when to challenge existing knowledge that may be so specific to a particular environment that it becomes counter-productive (and you get what strategists refer to as ‘rigidities’).

One final thing about the iPad – disruptive innovation often depends on a business recognising when the underlying technology is good enough to make a new product.  This is something that, historically, Apple has been effective at – even going back to the first Macintosh computers which took advantage of memory becoming cheap enough to make a mass-market computer based around a graphics screem and a mouse a realistic prospect.

Capital Ring – Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park

May 11, 2012

I’m still significantly slower in blogging about the Capital Ring than in walking it.  Section 6 (our tenth section), which we walked late last month, is one of the longest sections and possibly the most attractive, so I’m devoting this post just to the one section.  For me it’s also nostalgic, as I grew up around Wimbledon and this does take me through some of the open spaces that I knew well during my childhood.
Wimbledon Windmill (2)

We walked the following section over the May bank holiday, so even with this post I’m still behind with the blogging.  Sorry.

Section 6 runs mostly across Wimbledon Common, Putney Heath, and Richmond Park.  It’s a real contrast with the earlier sections across south London, just in terms of the scale of the open spaces.  Way back, in Downham, there’s a significant length where you walk across a narrow strip of parkland.  So it isn’t road walking, but you are aware of people’s back gardens on either side.  By contrast, for much of the way across Putney Heath or on Richmond Park, everything that you can see is parkland or woodland: from the view, you could be in open country.  And the bits where this section does encounter roads still have their charms.  Between Wimbledon Park and Wimbledon Common you walk through a pleasant residential area on the fringes of Wimbledon’s tennis courts: there seems to have been a lot of new housebuilding in this area which results in some interesting contrasts between contemporary and early 20th century domestic architecture.  The one place where the walk encounters a busy road is almost exactly at the section’s half-way point, by the Robin Hood Gate to Richmond Park.  But you don’t need to walk along the road and there’s the rather charming curiosity of a Pegasus crossing, which can be used by pedestrians, cyclists, and horse riders, complete with separate buttons and pictograms for all three!

The windmill is a delightful landmark on Wimbledon Common – open to the public I think just on Sunday afternoons.  Technically the area to the north and west of the windmill is Putney Heath (not Putney Common which is a separate patch of land much closer to the Thames) and the capital ring follows a series of paths across this area.

Richmond Park has its own distinctive feel, with deer (though not many in evidence on the day that we walked through it) wide open landscapes with patches of bracken, and areas of woodland.  The capital ring takes you past the Pen Ponds and on a walk right through the centre of the park towards Richmond itself.

Pen Ponds, Richmond Park

Near Richmond Gate is a viewpoint – technically just off the capital ring and inside the enclosure surrounding Pembroke Lodge.  It’s known as King Henry’s Mound and that is a sign that we have, once again, encountered the influence of Henry VIII.   It’s tempting to assume that, wherever there’s a tudor, there’s a grisly story, and this is no exception.  It’s reputed that Henry VIII stood here waiting to see a flare, which confirmed that Anne Boleyn had been executed and that he could become engaged to Jane Seymour.  In one direction you can see St Paul’s Cathedral, 10 miles away and a protected view through a gap in the trees.  In the other direction you look out over the Thames, a beautiful view over a curve in the river.

Deer, Richmond Park

Although I know the area well, the final stretch out of the park, to the riverside and into Richmond itself, is unfamiliar to me.  The path took us down the hill from King Henry’s Mound, past some rather well-camouflaged deer on the day that we were there, and into Petersham Meadows.  Sadly no cows were in evidence when we passed, but it’s still a great way to approach the riverside path into Richmond.