turn up and go · 18.03.14

Over 6 months ago, a question came to mind: how far could I get from London for a tenner? Or twenty quid? Where by going I generally mean by train. And at the weekend, as I’m working at an occupation requiring a fixed number of hours a day. And, crucially for the state of the British train system, where you could just turn up and go. No prebooking, no advances. Just me and a cheap day return.

Well, this is a hard problem. Current travel sites generally expect you to put in where you’re travelling to and from. This is a different kind of question.

The kind of question you want to stick on a map.

So – the answer is Brighton for a tenner, Peterborough for £20, and Liverpool for £50 (£41, actually).

View the map on its own here. Fares likely to be out-of-date by May 2014, and may just be wrong.

the trains bit
(or: the stories you can tell from a visualisation like this)

One thing to note about all of those fares is that they only apply for one train operator on the route – FCC for Brighton and Peterborough, and London Midland for Liverpool – in fact, there are £30 fares with some restrictions on Saturdays if you’re prepared to take the slower train to Liverpool (it’d be £79.70 on Virgin).

So, competition seems to work. Where there are several operators, you can trade off speed for cheaper fares. It’s also worth buying tickets on mainlines, and then buying a separate return for local connections if you want to go somewhere further.

SouthEastern is relatively expensive compared to other operators in the South East. It’s over £30 to get to the coast. A shame, really, as they’re the only operator to most of Kent.

These fares ignore any special offers – SouthEastern and SouthWestTrains have both run cheap weekend day returns recently. And more permanently, the Southern DaySave is great value with a day’s unlimited travel for £15 (if bought a few days before).

I really believe you should be able to walk up and travel on a train. Advance tickets are the only way for many to afford rail travel these days, but the sacrifice of specifying exact trains, with the heavy penalty of having to buy a new expensive ticket if you want to change, means train travel is far less fun than it used to be.

But – you can get to the coast from London for a tenner! That’s great.

(And yes, you can still buy rail tickets to Calais or Belfast via ferry. Or even the Isle of Wight by hovercraft.)

the how it works bit

Oh man, I now know so much about the UK train system. Every few weeks I’d have another crack at getting just a little further.

The fares system encodes every change to British Rail and National Rail from the last 40 years. The system we have at the moment, with Anytime, Off Peak, Super Off Peak and Advance fares is a thin veneer on the old fares mainframe. Every time I thought I got closer to answering the question, another caveat or quirk of the rail network would appear, and I’d have to learn about the Routing Guide, the various ticket types, permitted routes and much much more.

It’s Big Data – many millions of data points. Hard to wrangle, even though I only wanted a few thousand pieces of data.

The people at the Rail UK board know more than most about the UK rail system, and have endless enthusiasm for solving people’s rail travel and ticket problems. They are good people. One of the posters created a way to turn the pretty horrible mainframe dump into something MS SQL Server understands. I took extracts from this and imported it into the non-programmers’ data wrangler of choice, Excel. The open rail data group has produced a number of databases of station location, and I found a way to tie the station data from the fares database to a lat/long (there are at least 6 different incompatible ways stations are referenced on the British rail network) – my Excel workbook is here. I then exported a table of cheapest fares and locations to CSV, and uploaded it to CartoDB, which throws the points onto a map and allows easy manipulation of the data (such as taking input from a slider). Phew. Thanks to Paul for suggesting CartoDB.

A proper coder with a proper database could have knocked it together in a day or two, knowledge of rail ticketing withstanding. You could then make other queries, such as a map of advance tickets, or a map with a railcard applied, or from another starting place far more easily.

I’d like to add in travel time as well, but the timetable data is a whole other nightmare to understand. I’ll leave that to people like Matthew.

the data bit

To be honest, I didn’t think it would even be able to start to answer the question – but I was pleasantly surprised that a dump of the fares database is available under a Creative Commons licence. Other people have made sites like brfares.com that provided a very useful different view on the data.

I wonder if professionals working with this data have this kind of view to help them do their job. Can they ask questions of the data? Does a fare-setter at FCC know what other rail companies are doing? Have they seen their network like this? I’m lucky enough to work in a place where asking questions of data is normal and I wonder how much it has changed other industries.

Comment [1]

Two allegories about making the web · 21.01.14


Last week I went to hear Graham Linehan interview Adam Buxton for Radio 4’s Chain Reaction (the previous episode, Neil Innes interviewing Graham Linehan, is up now). One of the interesting things was their differing attitudes to coming up with ideas: Linehan actively studies writing and creativity, Buxton procrastinates until something good appears. Linehan has also written comedy with a partner, or a team, whereas a lot of Buxton’s work was made on his own.

It struck me that we may just be coming out of the solo period of making the web. A single lone designer can still make a huge difference on a service or site (and is better than no-one caring about design). And they may be good at other things – user research, HTML coding, web ops. But what GDS has taught me is that there’s nothing, nothing like having a team of complementary people working on the same thing. I think it’s similar to moving from the practice of the single comedy writer to the writer’s room: many specialists trying to constructively out-do each other. And that makes the final thing a lot more awesome.


Linehan also talks a lot about redrafting. The first draft will always be like pulling teeth.

I’ve heard writers talk about this a lot, but I never re-draft and rarely re-write. But that’s because I’m not a professional writer (and kind of hate writing). I’ve realised I do rewrite all the time when making a presentation, and by folding in various design and agile methods, we’re now doing it at GDS with web design and websites. And our trump card over writers: we never have to say they’re done. We can keep improving, re-making, even after we’ve turned it on. And we do.


Reading Thomas Keller ‘s cookbooks, one thing has really stuck in my mind. If a cook touches a sauce, it gets passed through a sieve. Everyone is always trying to guarantee that the final product will be better.

And working with developers, researchers, writers and designers at GDS, I’m struck how we’ve assembled a team that treats websites in the same way. A feature may cause a code refactor. Or the opportunity to quickly redesign something. Or a dev might just catch a spelling mistake or styling that just doesn’t make sense. And they’ll fix it. No story cards, no consultation with product management, just get on and make it better as part of making the thing. If people are unsure, they’ll ask someone for a quick sense check. Continuous improvement, at the micro level as well as the macro.

a bluffer's guide to The Drowned Man · 14.10.13

On Friday, I spent 6 hours in the 1960s, in Los Angeles. Just outside Paddington Station.
Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man is the story of a film studio that mysteriously closed overnight.

I’d been once before, but that gives you the merest taste of what’s happening and what happened. There are multitudes of plots, completely intertwined. Huge scenes and small set-pieces. Even after another 2 visits, I only have some idea of what’s going on.

Even as someone who generally likes a good sit down and to be entertained (and hates the idea of being locked in a room with an actor inches from my face), it’s pretty spellbinding, from the intricate sets, to the utterly in-character acting. The hour I spent with the head of the studio was one of the quickest in my life. So I’d generally recommend getting a ticket.

However, I know of many that have been frustrated. It’s more dance than words. It’s possible to take all the wrong turns, see nothing, and leave wondering what on earth everyone was raving about. So I’ve compiled a few tips that might make a visit go with a bit of a bang:


It is a promenade performance. Unlike others, like Shunt’s, for example, there is action happening all over the set at all times. There is not a single story to follow, and it’s very likely that even after multiple visits, you will see scenes that you haven’t encountered before.

It’s unlikely, but you could get wet. Or sandy. Or even a little bloody (don’t worry, it’s not your blood). And you’ll be moving around, sometimes quite fast. So stout shoes and clothes you can easily move in. All bags have to be checked.

You will be wearing a white mask. It’s plastic and vaguely uncomfortable (and sweaty). If you have glasses, it can push in places and be quite uncomfortable – but I’ve found most masks have a knot or even a toggle at the back, so loosen it a bit and you should be fine.


(or what they really should be telling everyone)

As the precis you are given intimates, there are two versions of the story: one set in Temple Pictures, and another outside the studio featuring local cowboys and the townsfolk. The main characters are replicated in both versions.

The story plays out three times, more or less. This means each loop lasts about an hour. If you enter after the start, you will be missing part of a loop. So far they are not checking ticket times, so you can enter at any time, no matter what is printed on the ticket. When you hear rousing music, that’s normally the character resetting to the start of their loop.

It’s big. There are 4 floors – the studio extends through the basement, and most of the ground floor, and some of the 1st floor. The top floor… you will have to discover for yourself.

About 20 minutes before the end, characters will start leaving for the finale, with all performers and the entire audience in one space. If you do not follow them, black masks will direct you.

There is a bar in Temple Pictures; it’s labelled Studio 3. It opens after everyone is in (after an hour). You don’t have to wear your mask in there, and there are some characters hanging around if you want a chat.

You can easily spend a few hours just exploring the sets, but if you want to follow the action, you need to follow a character. The main characters are pointed out to you in the lift, but note that they attract quite a lot of followers, especially on the 2nd and 3rd loops. You can easily lose a character if they meet up with another in a small room.

If a character starts to stare at you, hold the gaze, if they offer you their hand, take it, if they open a door for you, go through.

But also get out their way! If they’re moving, give them room to move.



It’s worth reading a summary of the plot of Woyzeck (which the main plot is based on) but also worth watching/reading The Day of the Locust. Several of the characters are from this.

There are three sets of characters: the studio employees, who stay in the studio, the actors and townsfolk, who move between the two sets and plots, and the cowboys, who stay outside the studio.

If you want to follow characters, most of the studio employees meet up in an orgy in the big room in the basement, and most of the cowboys meet in the Western saloon for a hoedown. These are pivotal scenes for the main plot, but also good places to swap following from one character to another.

If you can’t find anything happening, listen for where there’s noise or music and follow that.

Fun things to find:
The tape recorder room (follow Lila)
The church
The sunflower room and the red string room in the basement
The mirror maze and intimate lounge behind the band in Studio 3
The tunnel to the potion room

You can watch Felix Barrett talk about Punchdrunk’s attitude, which includes a few shots of the set:



A knowledge of the tarot and Freemasonery may keep you alert to items in the set and certain scenes.

Places to hang around, where characters do regular 1-to-1s:
Studio 8 (the caravan separate from the others, obscured by the bright light in the forest)
The toy shop
The grocer’s
The doctor’s office

Scariest 1-to-1s:
The Dust Witch
Badlands Jack in his trailer
Mr Tuttle
The Doctor

If you have been a few times, follow Mr Stanford. You’ll see a lot of scenes with new eyes. Conrad is good to follow, moving from the studio sets, dressing rooms, through to the Western saloon, the actual bar, the motel and… Studio 8.

And for the ultimate spoilers, join the Facebook group. There are maps, character loops, and the unpicking of the motivations and reasons behind The Drowned Man (and thanks to the members of the group, for making The Drowned Man very enjoyable and quite unmissable).

I think I’ve done my time in there, but I may go back before it closes. The building (an old Royal Mail sorting office) may be knocked down soon, so it’s likely to finish in early 2014.

· 9.07.13

A little while ago I started a small mailing list, in the style of Roo’s Letter and Robert Brook’s, but about food and drink. It’s mainly a way for me to remember the places I’ve been and what I’ve eaten. And to talk about sherry. It’s irregular and very low volume. It’s called caņas.
There have been enough murmurations of enjoyment so on it will go.

You can also see the archive of previous emails to get a taste.

Sign up here:

<< | Home | Join The Internet of Newsletters | ? | >>

Modulor · 7.05.13

Last week, when I was in Berlin, Matt casually mentioned Modulor. “It’s like London Graphics Centre meets B&Q.”

When I realised I was walking past it, I went in. It’s all that and more: the good bits of magma, John Lewis, 4D model shop, Paperchase, anywhere crafty. And all carefully but casually laid out. You can have all kinds of material cut to order; there’s a sewing studio. I picked up some very fine whiteboard markers and static-cling post-its.

It made me a little sad – I’d always told myself that something like Tokyu Hands just wouldn’t work in Europe, but here it is, so useful and inspiring.

One thing quickly pulls us back into European reality:

Modulor fail. Printer supplies section closed on Saturdays. WTF.

— Boris Anthony (@Bopuc) May 4, 2013

Anyway. When in Berlin, go.

Modulor, Prinzenstr. 85, Berlin. U-bahn Moritzplatz.

Comment [1]

kindleframe · 5.05.13

One of the things I talked about at UX London (which I will write up soon) was a thing called Kindleframe. I realised that every morning I checked on a few apps that did a few things – the weather for the day, how the tubes were running, and my two calendars, work and home. Well, if I remembered I checked. And when I didn’t, I was always caught out by a tube line being out of action or that it would be raining heavily later.

So I wanted something that pulled all of this information together. Initially I thought something by the front door (like Russell’s bikemap) but I realised I didn’t have any useful power sockets near the door. So then it turned into something that could sit on my bedside table.


A Kindle seemed like the perfect display or information radiator. It’s e-ink, so it’s not glowing in the dark. And the hi-res of the screen means that you can fit quite a lot of information in a small space that’s still readable. There are three problems: the first is that the power connector is on the bottom of the device. The second is that it’s not flat on the bottom. To solve both, I turned it upside down (and added a right angle micro USB cable to make it a little less intrusive). The third is the charging light next to the power connector, which needs black insulating tape to solve. I did think about putting it into an actual picture frame, but there’s really no need (and the glass made it harder to read when I tried it). Simply take a cheap picture frame, remove the back with the stand, and use tape, glue or Command strips to stick it to the Kindle’s back.


I used the code from this weather display, but swapped out the SVG renderer with PhantomJS and a simple web page that loads 4 other web pages: TfL information, BBC weather, a page made out of two scripts that minimally render my Google calendars, and a page from github that I could update with freetext. Then I set up a cron job on the server to render a page every 5 minutes, turn it upside down (with imagemagick) and compress it with pngcrush into something the Kindle could display. The pages are mobile-friendly so they render well on the Kindle.

On the Kindle, I jailbreaked it, and installed a script to download (wget) the rendered image from the server and display it (eips -g) every 5 minutes.


Because it’s just the web, it’s easy to update and change URLs to build into the page – e.g. the BBC mobile weather URL changed after a few weeks, and it was easy to update the html page to point to the new URL.

If you want to build something similar, I suggest reading everything (especially the comments) on the original kindle weather display, and then you can grab what extra little code there is from here. Jailbreaking the Kindle is quite infuriating, especially getting login via wi-fi working, so please see the forums if you need help with that.

Comment [1]

others, elsewhere, waving · 27.02.13

This is great, partly because it’s rare to see the design/product process in public for such a project, but also because it’s a latent need I’ve seen in every job I’ve had. I’ve mainly worked in large corporations, where teams are all working together but often with others, remotely located; I mean, sometimes on another floor, sometimes in another city, sometimes 8 timezones away. A need that’s never been scratched, with corporate IT providing overbooked, expensive videoconferencing when everyone just wanted to use Skype.

Smart things are often proposed to connect people and teams, but they’re always overwrought and overthought (or wisened and abandoned like most intranets). Just showing what’s going on, elsewhere, elsetime, is what’s needed to connect. So something like Polarbear, on 24/7, gives enough personal and emotional connection to continue conversations and teamwork when physically apart.

Somehow reminds me of the BBC penguins too.

The Shard, September 2011 to February 2013 · 3.02.13

I went up the Shard on Friday, on the first day of public opening. The floors of the viewing galleries, 69 and 72, are the same ones I stood on in 2011, when they had just been poured. Still a great view, best in London.

Shard construction site visit


Shard construction site visit


Shard construction site visit


Shard construction site visit


See all photos from September 2011 and February 2013, and Tom’s writeup of our construction site visit.

2013 · 1.01.13

More cuckoo clocks.

985 words about ramen · 3.12.12

Ramen, then. Whilst burgers go deep into the trough of disillusionment in London (there are 3 burger places opening in Soho just this week), we’re into the hype cycle with ramen. Ittenbari opened a few months ago, then Tonkotsu, and now Bone Daddies and Shoryu.

Ramen hasn’t been totally devoid in London: the secrets of Nagomi at lunchtime, Cocoro, Ramen Seto (RIP) and the once a week ramen at Shochu Lounge were certainly shared in the Japanese community, hoping for a taste of the original. Friends who wouldn’t touch ramen in Tokyo would obsess over eating a London ramen, all fell a little short of the mark.

I’ve been waiting for good ramen places to opening in London for years. I wanted the choice, the exoticness of all the ramens catalogued on Ramen Adventures ; cheese ramen, silent ramen, fatty ramen. I’ve had a few in Japan, eaten my way round the Yokohama Raumen Museum, and Hong Kong’s recent ramen infatuation. I’ve made ramen noodles by hand (it’s very hard work), and cooked the non-trad Japanese-American ramen of Momofuku. I know what I like: overdrive. Salty, over tasty, fatty ramen (in my head I have a fantasy bowl called a foie-grasmen that may kill me). Often, but not always, pork stock. Maybe an added pork cheek on the side to slide in. A soft egg. I’m not hot on mushrooms, nori and menma takes persuading. This is how I feel about ramen:

So I’m lucky. 3 places have opened serving tonkotsu. To be clear: if any of these had opened last year, I would have been deliriously happy. But now there are 3, and that means: time for a tonkotsu-off!

Tonkotsu – a pork bone soup, with ramen noodles, something vegetal, and traditionally a few slices of pork belly. Thick, milky, maybe verging on yellow. Covered in fat. A side of gyoza is acceptable, sushi less so.

One negative of all new London joints – you don’t sit at a ramen bar. Shoryu is all tables, some almost too tiny, Tonkotsu has a few bar tables, but without easy view of the ramen being prepared (it is, however, easily viewed from outside), Bone Daddies is all high tables with stools, but the kitchen is downstairs. Even Ittenbari, that used to have bar seating in its previous incarnation as Ryo, has got rid of this and used it for storage.

To the ramens –

Tonkotsu have been planning their take on ramen for over a year – I went to several of their test events at their sister restaurant, Tsuru. During these, I had a great Tokyo spicy soy ramen, and one time, honestly the best tonkotsu ramen I’ve had in the UK. It was thick and glowing yellow. The current tonkotsu at their Soho retaurant isn’t quite up to that porky craziness, but it’s still a good broth, with the best pork belly of all restaurants and a great soft boiled egg. The noodles were, sadly, on my latest visit slightly overcooked and had the soapy quality that alkali noodles can sometimes have. On the plus side, brilliant gyoza that are worth a trip in themselves and a wide beer range, from the gassy but traditional Asahi on tap to a few perfect pale ales from Kernel. They’re getting a noodle making machine for themselves soon, so they could easily edge over the competition having to import dried noodles. They also do a veggie ramen, which I don’t understand but is useful for those with tree-hugging friends. One day I will get them to hug the pig.

Bone Daddies was rumoured for a while, and finally opened a month ago. An ex-Nobu chef with a modern take on ramen. I’ve eaten there a lot, recently sampling their tonkotsu for the first time – the wide range of ramen styles is a definite plus, including the only tsukemen (or dipping noodles) in London, I think, tantanmen, sweet corn & butter ramens and more. A friend had had the tonkotsu early on, and it was clear that she’d been served a clear chicken-y broth rather than the milky pork broth. None of that problem now, it’s the thickest and tastiest of all broths at the moment. Good noodles, good pork belly, and a great soft boiled egg. You can have a pipette of pork fat to add if you wish – and I wish. There’s free garlic to smash into your ramen, and sesame grinders. If there’s any criticism, it’s that it’s served slightly cooler than a traditionalist would demand (the fat should lock in the heat). There are good, if non-traditional, sides too: cabbage and miso, house-made pickles, soft-shell crab and chicken karaage. It has loud music, which ranges from the terrible to the brilliant, but always at least over 20 years old. It’s fun, very friendly, and open late.

Shoryu is related to the Japan Centre over the road. It’s… the most Japanese. Someone bangs on a drum as you enter, and complains at the table you want to sit at. The menu, unlike the others, is mainly tonkotsu, with a variety of extra toppings, from yuzu to piri piri. The broth is delicate. It reminds me of cream of chicken soup. The soft boiled egg is a double yolker, but hard boiled in my bowl. The pork is scrappy. Loads of beansprouts. So many beansprouts. To counter all this, it has the best cooked, best tasting noodles, imported thin hosomen noodles, cooked on the harder/al dente side. It’s the most traditional and sometimes I’ll want that.

So which is best? It depends what you want, how you’re feeling. To my extravagant, fat-loving brain, it’s currently Bone Daddies. But the ramen x gyoza x kernel combination at Tonkotsu is one of the best meals in Soho. And if wanting something a bit more delicate and contemplative, I’m glad Shoryu exists. Itadakimasu!

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