Monzo & IFTTT

Monzo & IFTTT

When I signed up for my Monzo bank account last year, one of the things that really excited me was the API they made available. Of course, as is so often the way with these things, my time was taken up with other things and I never really got any further than installing the Perl module that wrapped the API.

The problem is that writing code against an API takes too long. Oh, it’s generally not particularly difficult, but there’s always something that’s more complicated than you think it’s going to be.

So I was really interested to read last week that Monzo now works with IFTTT. IFTTT (“If This Then That”) is a service which removes the complexity from API programming. You basically plug services together to do something useful. I’ve dabbled with IFTTT before. I have “applets” which automatically post my Instagram photos to Twitter, change my phone’s wallpaper to NASA’s photo of the day, tell me when the ISS is overhead – things like that) so I knew this would be an easier way to do interesting things with the Monzo API – without all that tedious programming.

An IFTTT applet has two parts. There’s a “trigger” (something that tells the applet to run) and an “action” (what you want it to do). Monzo offers both triggers and actions. The triggers are mostly fired when you make a purchase with your card (optionally filtered on things like the merchant or the amount). The actions are moving money into or out of a pot (a pot in a Monzo account is a named, ring-fenced area in your account where you can put money that you want to set aside for a particular purpose).

You can use a Monzo trigger and action together (when I buy something at McDonald’s, move £5 to my “Sin Bin” pot) but more interesting things happen if you combine them with triggers and actions from other providers (move £5 into my “Treats” pot when I do a 5K run – there are dozens of providers).

I needed an example to try it out. I decided to make a Twitter Swear Box. The idea is simple. If I tweet a bad word, I move £1 from my main account into my Swear Box pot.

The action part is simple enough. Monzo provides an action to move money out of a pot. You just need to give it the name of the pot and the amount to move.

The trigger part is a little harder. Twitter provides a trigger that fires whenever I tweet, but that doesn’t let me filter it to look for rude words. But there’s also a Twitter Search trigger which fires whenever a Twitter search finds a tweet which matches a particular search criterion. I used https://twitter.com/search-advanced to work out the search string to use and ended up with “fudge OR pish OR shirt from:davorg”. There’s a slight problem here – it doesn’t find other versions of the words like “fudging” or “shirty” – but this is good enough for a proof of concept.

Creating the applet is a simple as choosing the services you want to use, selecting the correct trigger and action and then filling in a few (usually pretty obvious) details. Within fifteen minutes I had it up and running. I sent a tweet containing the word “fudge” and seconds later there was a pound in my Swear Box pot.

Tonight, I was at a meeting at Monzo’s offices where they talked about how they developed the IFTTT integration and what directions it might go in the future. I asked for the latitude and longitude of a transaction to be included in the details that IFTTT gets – I have a plan to plot my transactions on a map.

Monzo is the first bank to release an integration with IFTTT and it really feels like we’re on the verge of something really useful here. I’ll be great to see where they take the service in the future.

Brighton SEO – April 2018

Brighton SEO Camper

Yesterday I was at my second Brighton SEO conference. I enjoyed it every bit as much as the last one and I’m already looking forward to the next. Here are my notes about the talks I saw.

Technical SEO

Command Line Hacks For SEO

Tom Pool / Slides

I misread the description for this. I thought it would be about clever ways to use command-line tools for SEO purposes. But, actually, it was a basic introduction to Unix command-line text processing tools for people who were previously unaware of them. I wasn’t really the target audience, but it’s always good to see a largely non-technical audience being introduced to the powerful tools that I use ever day.

Diving into HTTP/2 – a Guide for SEOs

Tom Anthony / Slides

A good introduction to why HTTP/2 is good news for web traffic (it’s faster) and a great trucking analogy explaining what HTTP is and how HTTP/2 improves on current systems. I would have liked more technical detail, but I realise most of the audience wouldn’t.

Diagnosing Common Hreflang tag issues on page and in sitemaps

Emily Mace / Slides

To be honest, I was only here because it was the last talk in the session and I didn’t have time to move elsewhere. I have never worked on a site with pages that are translated into other languages, so this was of limited interest to me. But Emily certainly seemed to know her stuff and I’m sure that people who use “hreflang” would have found it very interesting and useful.

One thing bothered me slightly about the talk. A couple of times, Emily referred to developers in slightly disparaging ways. And I realised that I’ve heard similar sentiments before at SEO events. It’s like developers are people that SEO analysts are constantly battling with to get their work done. As a developer myself (and one who has spend the last year implementing SEO fixes on one of the UK’s best-known sites) I don’t really understand this attitude – as it’s something I’ve never come across.

It’s annoyed me enough that I’m considering proposing a talk called “I Am Developer” to the next Brighton SEO in order to try to get to the bottom of this issue.

Onsite SEO

Optimizing for Search Bots

Fili Wiese / Slides

Fili is a former Google Search Quality Engineer, so he certainly knows his stuff. But this talk seemed a bit scattershot to me – it didn’t seem to have a particularly clear focus.

Advanced and Practical Structured Data with Schema.org

Alexis K Sanders / Slides

This was probably the talk I was looking forward to most. I’ve been dabbling in JSON-LD on a few sites recently and I’m keen to get deeper into to. Alexis didn’t disappoint – this was a great introduction to the subject and (unlike some other speakers) she wasn’t afraid to go deeper when it was justified.

Here first slide showed some JSON-LD and she asked us to spot the five errors in it. I’m disappointed to report that I only caught two of them.

Cut the Crap: Next Level Content Audits With Crawlers

Sam Marsden / Slides

This started well. A good crawling strategy is certainly important for auditing your site and ensuring that everything still works as expected. However, I was slightly put off by Sam’s insistence that a cloud-based crawling tool was an essential part of this strategy. Sam works for Deep Crawl who just happen to have a cloud-based crawling tool that they would love to sell you.

Conferences like this are at their best when the experts are sharing their knowledge with the audience without explicitly trying to sell their services. Sadly, this talk fell just on the wrong side of that line.

Lunch

Then it was lunchtime and my colleagues and I retired just around the corner to eat far too much pizza that was supplied by the nice people at PI Datametrics.

SERPs

Featured snippets: From then to now, volatility, and voice search

Rob Bucci / Slides

This was really interesting. Rob says that featured snippets are on the rise and had some interesting statistics that will help you get your pages into a featured snippet. He then went on to explain how featured are forming the basis of Google’s Voice Search – that is, if you ask Google Home or Google Assistant a question, the reply is very likely to be the featured snippet that you’d get in response to the same query on the Google Search Engine. This makes it an ever better idea to aim at getting your content into featured snippets.

From Black Friday to iPhones – how to rank for big terms on big days

Sam Robson / Slides

Sam works for Future Publishing, on their Tech Radar site. He had some interesting war stories about dealing with Google algorithm changes and coming out the other side with a stronger site that is well-placed to capitalise on big technical keywords.

[I can’t find his slides online. I’ll update this post if I find them.]

A Universal Strategy for Answer Engine Optimisation (beyond position 0)

Jason Barnard / Slides

This tied in really well with the other talks in  the session. Jason has good ideas about how to get Google to trust your site more by convincing Google that you are the most credible source for information on the topics you cover. He also talked a lot about the machine learning that Google are currently using and where that might lead in the future.

Reporting

I was at a bit of a loose end for the final session. Nothing really grabbed me. In  the end I just stayed in the same room I’d been in for the previous session. I’m glad I did.

How to report on SEO in 2018

Stephen Kenwright / Slides

All too often, I’ve seen companies who don’t really know how to report effectively on how successfully (or otherwise!) their web sites are performing. And that’s usually because they don’t know what metrics are important or useful to them. Stephen had some good ideas about identifying the best metrics to track and ensuring that the right numbers are seen by the right people.

Top GA customisations everyone should be using

Anna Lewis / Slides

Having following Stephen’s advice and chosen the metrics that you need to track, Anna can show you how to record those metrics and how to also capture other useful information. As a good example, she mentioned a client who was an amusement park. Alongside the usual kinds of metrics, they had also been able to track the weather conditions at the time someone visited the site and had used that data to corroborate ticket sales with the weather.

Anna seemed to be a big fan of Google Tag Manager which I had previously dismissed. Perhaps I need to revisit that.

The Math Behind Effective Reporting

Dana DiTomaso / Slides

And once you have all of your data squirrelled away in Google Analytics, you need a good tool to turn it into compelling and useful reports. Dana showed us how we could to that with Google Data Studio – another tool I need to investigate in more detail.

[I can’t find her slides online. I’ll update this post if I find them.]

Keynote

Live Google Webmasters Hangout

John Mueller & Aleyda Solis

Two things struck me while watching the keynote conversation between John Mueller and Aleyda Solis. Firstly, I though that Aleyda was the wrong person to be running the session. I know that Brighton SEO tries hard not to be the usual stuffy, corporate type of conference, but I thought her over-familiar and jokey style didn’t go well in a conversation with Google’s John Mueller.

Secondly, I had a bit of an epiphany about the SEO industry. All day, I’d been watching people trying to explain how to get your site to do well in Google (other search engines are, of course, available but, honestly, who cares about them?) but they’re doing so without any real knowledge of how the Mighty God of Search really works.

Oh, sure, Google gives us tools like Google Analytics which allow us so see how well we’re doing and Google Search Console which will give us clues about ways we might be doing better. But, ultimately, this whole industry is trying to understand the inner working of a company that tells us next to nothing.

This was really obvious in the conversation with John Mueller. Pretty much every question was answered with a variation on “well, I don’t think we’d talk publicly about the details of that algorithm” or “this is controlled by a variety of factors that will change frequently, so I don’t think it’s useful to list them”.

The industry is largely stumbling about in the dark. We can apply the scientific method – we propose a hypothesis, run experiments, measure the results, adjust our hypothesis and repeat. Sometimes we might get close to a consensus on how something works. But then (and this is where SEO differs from real science) Google change their algorithms and everything we thought we knew has now changed.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fascinating process to watch. And, to a lesser extent, to be involved in. And there’s a lot riding on getting the results right. But in many ways, it’s all ultimately futile.

Wow, that got dark quickly! I should finish by saying that, despite what I wrote above, Brighton SEO is a great conference. If you want more people to visit your web site, you should be interested in SEO. And if you’re interested in SEO, you should be at Brighton SEO.

See you at the next one – it’s on September 28th.

2017 in Gigs

New Year’s Eve seems about the best date for my review of the gigs I saw this year (I know I’m not seeing another today).

I saw 41 gigs in2017. That’s two more than in 2016 and a lot less than my average number (which is more like the high forties).

Let’s get the disappointments out of the way first.  Tanita Tikaram was just dull, as was Natalie Imbruglia (I waited to hear “Torn” and then left). Normally, Amanda Palmer gets an instant pass to the top ten list, but the album she recorded with Edward Ka-Spel wasn’t my cup of tea at all and the gig they played together promoting it was terrible. She played a few other shows in London over the year, but they were all on nights when I couldn’t be there. The Stone Roses at Wembley was all you’d expect it to be – overpriced and uninteresting. And I left the Magnetic Fields show at the interval. Oh, and for the first time ever, I did the same at an Icicle Works gig.

And here, in chronological order, are my favourite shows of the year.

  • Laura Marling at the Roundhouse. I see Laura Marling play whenever I can. She’s always just stunning. The Semper Femina tour wasn’t quite as impressive as the one for Short Movie. But it was still one of my best nights out this year.
  • HAIM at Islington Assembly Hall was a large-minute, fans-only, free gig which was filmed for a documentary to promote their new album. It was full of the false starts and repetition that nights like that often suffer from. But it had been years since I’d seen them and they are still as great as they ever were.
  • Belle and Sebastian at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Belle and Sebastian always put on a great show and this was no exception. I was particularly happy that they played “Lazy Line Painter Jane” – which I’d never seen them do before. And the support, Honeyblood, are a band I’ll be looking out for in the future.
  • Kraftwerk at the Royal Albert Hall. It had been 25 years since I last saw Kraftwerk (on their The Mix tour). In the meantime, technology has really caught up with their vision of what a performance should be. This run of gigs probably had more of my friends in attendance than any other tour this year. All my gig-going friends seemed to go to one of the shows.
  • Kate Nash at the Shepherds Bush Empire. I saw Kate Nash twice this year. This was the second show I saw and it was only better than the Village Underground show because she was celebrating the tenth anniversary of the release of Made of Bricks and played the whole album.
  • Lorde at Alexandra Palace. Incredible to believe that Lorde is still only twenty-one. She’s like a force of nature. Melodrama was such an advance on Pure Heroine.  And this show was so much better than her previous tour (which was also great).
  • Radiophonic Workshop at the British Library. Something a bit different. A group of geriatrics playing the most futuristic music you’ll ever hear. They don’t play often, but try to catch them when you can.
  • Midge Ure at the Shepherds Bush Empire. This was basically Midge Ure playing Ultravox’s greatest hits. Which is enough to make me happy. And when you add Altered Images as support, it becomes an awesome night. Even the boorish Christians as the second support couldn’t spoil the evening.
  • Bananarama at the Hammersmith Apollo. This was a bit left field. And stupidly expensive. But it was worth every penny for the grin that was fixed to my face for the following three days. This was, hands-down, the most enjoyable gig I saw all year.
  • Wolf Alice at Alexandra Palace. I was late to appreciate Wolf Alice. I just failed to get a ticket for their previous tour where they played somewhere like The Forum. Ally Pally isn’t my favourite venue, but the band were on top form and having Sunflower Bean at support helped make this a great night.

And a few that fell just outside of the top ten.

I’ve seen and been very disappointed by the official current Yes line-up a couple of times, so it was good to see the “less-official” Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman who were great. And who proved to me that if you’re singing Yes material, you need Jon Anderson as lead singer.

Sigur Rós at the Royal Festival Hall were great. And very loud.

The fact that St. Vincent didn’t make the top ten is a mark of how great this year’s gigs. Masseduction is a great album and the tour was fabulous.

Wildwood Kin are a band to look out for. Two sisters and their cousins playing modernist folk. One day (soon) it will seem astonishing that I got to see them somewhere as intimate as the Borderline.

I can’t believe that I haven’t mentioned Tegan & Sara, Adam Ant, St. Etienne, Amy Macdonald, Suzanne Vega, Dweezil Zappa, Billy Bragg, Penguin Cafe, The Unthanks or Kate Rusby – all of which put on great nights that sent me home smiling (and humming).

What am I already looking forward to in 2018? Beth Orton, Superorganism, members of the Art of Noise recreating In Visible Silence, Belle and Sebastian, Arcade Fire, Sunflower Bean, Tears for Fears, The The and King Crimson. It’s already looking like a great year for gigs. Perhaps I’ll see you at one.

What about you? What gigs did you enjoy in 2017?

 

 

 

 

When Smart Meters Aren’t

In a process that took ten years, from 1986 to 1996, the Conservative government privatised energy supply in the UK and turned it into a competitive marketplace. The British public resigned themselves to a lifetime of scouring pricing leaflets and frequently changing energy suppliers in order to get the best deal. This became simpler with the introduction of comparison sites like uSwitch and nowadays most switches can be completed online with very little effort on the part of the customer.

Of course, one of the crucial reasons why this works is that nothing actually changes on your premises. Your gas and electricity are still supplied through the same meters. The actual changeover is just a flick of a switch or a turn of a tap in a distribution centre miles from your house.

I’m a member of the Money Saving Expert’s Cheap Energy Club. This makes my life even easier. They know all about our energy usage and a couple of times a year I get an email from them suggesting that I could change a bit of money by switching to a different plan.

They also set up deals for their customers. They have enough clout that they can go to big energy suppliers and say “we’ll give you X,000 new customers if you can give them a good fixed deal on power”.

And that’s how I switched to British Gas in February 2016. I got a good fixed deal through the Cheap Energy Club.

The next innovation in British power supply was the recent introduction of smart meters. These are meters that can be read remotely by the suppliers, eliminating the need for meter readers. Because it’s automatic, the suppliers will read your meters far more frequently (daily, or even more often) giving customers a far better picture of their usage. You even get a little display device which communicates with the meter and gives minute by minute information about how much power you are using.

Last August I investigated getting a Smart Meter through British Gas. They came and fitted it and everything seemed to work well. All was well with the world.

Then, a couple of months ago, British Gas announced massive price hikes. This didn’t bother me at the time as I was on a fixed deal. But that deal was going to end in October – at which point my electricity was going to get very expensive.

A week or so later, I got an email from the Cheap Energy Club telling me what I already knew. But also suggesting a few alternative plans. I glanced through them and agreed with their suggestion of a fixed plan with Ovo. My power would go up in price – but by nowhere near as much as it would with British Gas. I clicked the relevant buttons and the switchover started.

Ovo started supplying my power this week and sent me an email asking for initial meter readings. I contacted them on Twitter, pointing out that I had smart meters, so there was no need for me to send them manual readings.

Their first reply was vaguely encouraging

But actually, that turned out to be untrue. The truth is that there are (currently) two versions of the smart meter system. Everyone who has had a smart meter installed up until now has been given a system called SMETS1. And SMETS1 meters can only be read remotely by the company who installed them. There’s a new version called SMETS2 which will be rolled out soon, which allows all companies to read the same meters. And there will be a SMETS1 upgrade at some point (starting late 2018 is the best estimate I’ve been able to get) which will bring the same feature to the older meters (and by “older”, I mean the ones that have been installed everywhere).

Of course, the SMETS1 meters can be used to supply power to customers of any company. But only working as dumb meters which the customers have to read manually. And, yes, I know this is very much a first world problem, but it would be nice if technology actually moved us forward!

I see this very much as a failure of regulation. The government have been in a real hurry to get all households in the UK on smart meters. At one point they wanted us all switched over by 2020. I understand that target has now been softened so that every household must be offered a new meter by 2020. But it seems that somewhere in the rush to make the meters available, the most obvious requirements have been dropped.

The power companies keep this all very quiet. The market for power supply in the UK isn’t growing particularly quickly, so they’re all desperate to grab each other’s customers. And they won’t tell us anything that would make us think twice about switching supplier.

Ovo will come out and fit new smart meters for me. And (like the original British Gas installation) it will be “free”. Of course, they aren’t giving anything away and customers are paying for these “free” installations in their power costs. It would be interesting to see how many households have had multiple smart meter installations.

Of course, if you’re switching to save money (as most of us are), then I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t switch if your smart meters will no longer be smart. But I’d suggest asking your new supplier if they can use your previous supplier’s smart meters. And making a loud “tut” sound when they say they can’t.

And when you’re offered new smart meters, don’t get them installed unless they are SMETS2.

Brighton SEO

Last Friday, I was in Brighton for the Brighton SEO conference. It was quite a change for me. I’ve been going to technical conferences for about twenty years or so, but the ones I go to tend to be rather grass-roots affairs like YAPC or Opentech. Even big conferences like FOSDEM have a very grass-roots feel to them.

Brighton SEO is different. Brighton SEO is a huge conference and there is obviously a lot of money sloshing around in the SEO industry. I’ve been to big technical conferences like OSCON, but tickets for conferences like that are expensive. Brighton SEO is free for most attendees. They must have lots of very generous sponsors.

The conference took place at the Brighton Centre. The people I was staying with in Brighton asked how much of the centre the conference took up. Turns out the answer was “all of it”. Not bad for a conference that started out as a few friends meeting in a pub just a few years ago.

The conference day is broken up into four sessions. It was easy enough to choose sessions that sounded useful to me. I’ve only really been looking into SEO since the start of the year and I’m more interested in the technical side of SEO. I don’t have much time for things like content marketing and keyword tracking (although I’m sure they have their place).

So I started in a session about Javascript and Frameworks. This began with 

This was followed by Emily Grossman talking about Progressive Web Apps – which are basically web sites bundled up to look like smartphone apps. I plan to try this out with a couple of my sites soon.

The final talk in this session was David Lockie on Using Open Source Software to Speed Up Your Roadmap. I’ve used pretty much nothing but open source software for the last thirty years so I needed no convincing that he was advocating a good approach.

A quick coffee break and then the second session started. I chose a session on Onsite SEO. I was amused to see that even after only eight months of working on SEO, I could pick a session that was too basic for me.

The session started with Chloé Bodard on SEO quick wins from a technical check. This was interesting because it’s close to a service that I’m thinking of offering to clients. But I learned very little.

Chloé was followed by Sébastien Monnier with a talk entitled How Google Tag Manager Can Save Your SEO. Earlier this year I was involved in discussions where a client was talking about using Google Tag Manager. Another developer and I managed to persuade them that it was a bad idea as GTM inserts data into the page using Javascript and the right approach was to ensure that the correct data was inserted into the page as it was first built. It was gratifying to hear Sébastien (who is a former Google employee) say that (and I’m paraphrasing) “GTM is really a tool for SEOs to work around bad developers”.

The final talk in the session was Aysun Akarsu and On the Road to HTTPS Worldwide. This was a good talk, but it would have been far more useful to me before we moved ZPG’s three major web sites to https earlier this year.

It was then lunch and with some ZPG colleagues I wandered off to sample some of Brighton’s excellent food.

For the first session in the afternoon, I chose three talks on Technical SEO. We started with Peter Nikolow with Quick and Dirty Server-Side Hacks to Improve Your SEO. To be honest, I think Peter misjudged his audience. I was following the conference hashtag on Twitter and there were a lot of people saying that his talk was going over their head. It didn’t go over my head, but I thought that some of his server-side knowledge looked a little dated.

Then there was Dominic Woodman with a talk entitled Advanced Site Architecture – Testing architecture & keyword/page groupings. There was a lot of good stuff in this talk and I need to go back over the slides in a lot more detail.

The session ended with Dawn Anderson talking about Generational Cruft in SEO – There is Never a ‘New Site’ When There’s History. A lot of this talk rang very true for me. In fact just the week before, I had been configuring a web site to return 410 responses when Google and Bing came looking for XML sitemaps that had been switched off two years ago.

For the fourth and final session, I chose the talks on Crawl and Indexation. This session began with Chris Green giving a talk called Robots: X, Meta & TXT – The Snog, Marry & Avoid of the Web Crawling World. The title was slightly cringe-making, but there was some good content about using the right tools to ensure that pages you don’t want crawled don’t end up in Google’s index.

I think I wass getting tired by this point. I confess that I don’t remember much about François Goube’s How to Optimise Your Crawl Budget. I’m sure it was full of good stuff.

There was no chance of dozing off during Cindy Krum’s closing talk Understanding the Impact of Mobile-First Indexing (the link goes to the slides for a slightly older version of the talk). This was a real wake-up call about how Google’s indexing will change over the next few years.

I had a great time at my first Brighton SEO. I wonder how much of that is down to the fact that for probably the first time this millennium I was at a conference and not giving a talk. But I’m already thinking about a talk for the next Brighton SEO conference.

Many thanks to all of the organisers and speakers. I will be back.

Mail Rail Map

If you read yesterday’s post about my Mail Rail trip, you’ll remember that my slight quibble with the experience was that there weren’t any maps showing the route that the tour takes.

Well, I’ve found one. And I think it explains why they don’t shout about the route.

I was Googling for any maps of the whole Mail Rail system when I came across this blog post from 2013 where John Bull examined the documents that made up the planning request that the British Postal Museum and Archive had submitted to Islington Council. For real document buffs, the blog post included a link to the original planning request.

But, for me, the interesting part is the diagram I’ve included at the top of this post. It’s a map of the intended route. And it ties in well with the tour I took on Saturday, so I’m going to assume there were no changes in the four years between the planning request and the exhibit opening.

The Mail Rail exhibit is the coloured sections. The Postal Museum is on the other side of the road in the Calthorpe House. The bit in green is the entrance hall and gift shop and the blue bit is where you queue and board the train.

And the pink shows the route that the train takes. You can see it doesn’t go very far. In fact, it doesn’t make it out of the Mount Pleasant complex. It goes from the depot, takes a sharp turn to the right and pulls into the south-east Mount Pleasant platform. That’s where you see the first multi-media presentation. Once it pulls out of that station, the train comes off of the main tracks and takes a maintenance loop which brings it back into the same station but on the north-west platform where it stops for the second multi-media presentation. After that, it returns to the depot where the passengers alight.

So, all-in-all, you don’t get to see much of the system at all. I knew that you wouldn’t go far, but I’m a little surprised that you don’t get any further than Mount Pleasant station. And that, I expect, is why they don’t publicise the route.

To be clear, I still think it’s well worth a visit. And it’s great to see such an interesting part of London’s communication infrastructure open to the public.

But I really hope that in the future, more of the system can be opened up – even if it’s just for occasional trips for enthusiasts. I know I’d be first in line for a ticket.

Riding the Mail Rail

I rode the Mail Rail yesterday. It was very exciting. More about that in a minute. Before that, I went to the Postal Museum.

I’ve often thought that the UK needed a museum about the Post Office. And the new (well, newish – it’s been open a couple of months) Postal Museum is a really good start.

Most of the museum is a pretty standard chronological look at the postal service in the UK. There are exhibits telling the story of the service from its earliest incarnation five hundred years ago. It’s interesting and the displays are well-designed but I couldn’t help thinking it was all a bit simplified. There were many places where I would have welcomed a deeper investigation. Mind you, I find myself thinking that in many modern museums, so perhaps the problem is with me.

Towards the end of the museum is a small cinema area where they show various short films associated with the Post Office (yes, this includes Night Mail). I could have sat there watching all of them – but I didn’ t have the time. And I think they missed a trick by not selling a DVD of the films in the gift shop.

The Postal Museum is well worth a visit. It’s not as big as I thought it would be. We went round it all in about 45 minutes.

But the reason I left it a couple a months to visit the Postal Museum was because it was only this weekend that the other nearby attraction, the Mail Rail, finally opened to the public.

The Mail Rail is an underground railway system which, between 1927 and 2003 was used to transport post around London. I remember hearing about it soon after I first moved to London and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since.

And last week it opened as a visitor attraction. New carriages have been installed which are (only just) more comfortable for people to sit in and you can take a 20 minute guided tour of the line. Well, it’s 20 minutes if you include the time the train is sitting in the platform as you all board.

I enjoyed the ride. To be honest, I would have been happy just riding around the tunnels for 20 minutes, but there are a couple of points where you stop and are shown a multi-media presentation about the system and the postal service. A lot of time and money has been spent on them and they were really enjoyable (if not particularly informative).

As you leave the platform at the end of your ride, you pass though an interesting exhibition on the history of the system.

If I had one suggestion for improvement, I would like to have seen a map of the system with the bits that the tour covers marked. I suspect that you don’t actually get out of the bits of the system under Mount Pleasant sorting office. [Update: I found a map. See here for details.]

I recommend a visit. I’ll be returning at some point in the future to see it again.

Here’s a video I took of my tour.

Previously on Game of Thrones

In just a few weeks, HBO will start to broadcast the seventh series of Game of Thrones. The show has a large cast, so I thought it would be useful to take a look at who’s still alive, where they are and what they are doing.

To start, I’ve looked at all of the forty-two actors who have appeared in the main credits for the show. Twelve of these characters had died before the start of series six, so let’s get started with those.

(In case it’s not obvious, this article assumes you have seen all six previous series of Game of Thrones – so there will be spoilers for the first six series. I should also point out that I’m only considering the TV show here – I won’t be talking about the books at all.)

Viserys Targaryen

Viserys has the honour of being the first major character to be killed off in  the show. In episode six of the first series, he was killed by Khal Drogo by having molten gold poured over his head.

Robert Baratheon

In the very next episode, Robert died after being gored by a boar while on a hunt. It was his death that lead directly to the War of the Five Kings.

Eddard Stark

Ned Stark was beheaded at the order of King Joffery in the ninth episode of the first series. Things started to go very badly for the Starks from that point.

Jeor Mormont

The next major character death wasn’t until episode four of the third series. Jeor Mormont got involved in a fight with wildlings at Craster’s Keep and it didn’t end well for him.

Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark & Talisa Maegyr

The Red Wedding took place in episode nine of series three. The Freys and the Boltons plotted together and killed Robb Stark (along with his mother and his wife). That’s what you get for breaking a promise, I suppose.

Joffery Baratheon

Of all the major character deaths in the show, this probably got the biggest cheers (certainly in my house). Joffery has poisoned at the feast following his wedding to Margaery Tyrell. This was in series four episode two.

Ygritte

The wildlings were attacking Castle Black. Jon Snow knew nothing, but Olly took the shot and killed Ygritte in the ninth episode of series four.

Shae & Tywin Lannister

In the last episode of series four, Tyrion goes on a bit of a killing spree. Having found his lover, Shae, in his father’s bed, he strangles her and then shoots his father with a crossbow.

Stannis Baratheon

By any reasonable criteria, Stannis was Robert Baratheon’s true heir. But instead of being crowned king, he got involved in a bloody and pointless war and eventually got himself killed by Brienne of Tarth after his army failed to take Winterfell

 

So that was all the major character deaths up to the end of series five. Series six took it all up a notch.

Roose Bolton

Roose legitimised his bastard son, Ramsay back in series four. But that did stop Ramsay being very suspicious when his stepmother gave birth to another potential Bolton heir. Ramsay’s solution, in episode two, was to kill his father, his step-mother and his half-brother.

Ramsey Bolton

But Ramsay didn’t last long as Lord Bolton. When Jon Snow’s army, with help from the Lords of the Vale, took Winterfell in episode nine, Ramsay must have realised that his life expectancy was rather short. But it still rather took him by surprise when his wife, Sansa, fed him to his own hounds in revenge for the way he had treated her.

Margaery Tyrell & The High Sparrow

The number of casualties from the Red Wedding took some beating, but Cersei Lannister managed it in episode ten when she blew up the Sept of Baelor when it was full of people waiting for her trial. Pretty much anyone who was anyone in King’s Landing was there. And they all died.

Tommen Baratheon

One of the few named characters in King’s Landing who wasn’t blown up in the Sept of Baelor was King Tommen. But he was watching from his room and when he saw what had happened, he was so appalled that he killed himself by jumping out of the window.

Other Series Six Deaths

But it wasn’t just major characters who died in series six. Many other characters died too. This is a list of the other named characters who died during the series.

In episode one we have a clean-up of Dornish characters. Elleria and Tyene Sand kill Doran Martell along with his guard Areo Hotah and Obara and Nymeria Sand kill Doran’s son, Trystane .

In episode four, the wildling Osha attempts to kill Ramsay Bolton while seducing him. He sees through this and kills her instead.

In episode five, one of the saddest deaths so far was Hodor’s. He died holding a door so that Bran and Meera could escape. We also saw that the reason he could only say “Hodor” was that while this was going on in the present, Bran was watching him in the past and the shouted instructions to “hold the door” somehow leaked through time and affected his brain.

In episode eight, Lady the Crane (the actress who Arya has befriended) is killed by the Waif. Arya responds by kill the Waif.

In episode nine, Rickon Stark is killed by Ramsay Bolton just before the Battle of the Bastards. And the giant, Wun Wun, is killed breaking down the doors to Winterfell.

In episode ten,  Plenty more people die in the explosion at the Sept of Baelor. These include Mace Tyrell and his son, Loras, and Kevan Lannister with his son, Lancel. Qyburn has Pycelle killed and in the Twins, Arya kills Walder frey.

So, all in all, that’s quite a clearing of the board. Who’s still around? And what are they doing?

Daenerys Targaryen

After six series of shilly-shallying around on Essos, Daenerys has finally got a fleet together and is sailing towards Westeros to claim her crown. On the ship with her, we see Tyrion, Missandei and Varys. Theon Greyjoy (with his sister, Yara) are on another ship.

Jon Snow

Jon had an interesting series six. He came back from the dead, was reunited with his half-sister Sansa (the first time two members of the Stark family have been together since the Red Wedding),  gave up his command of the Night’s Watch and took back Winterfell from the Boltons. The series ends with him in Winterfell, being proclaimed King in the North. The other main characters we see at the proclamation are Sansa Stark, Davos Seaworth, Peter Baelish and Tormund Giantsbane.

Oh, and we’ve just found out that Jon isn’t Ned Stark’s bastard son at all. He’s the son of Ned’s sister, Lyanna, and Rhaegar Targaryen. He doesn’t know this yet.

Cersei Lannister

Having destroyed the Sept of Baelor and killed all of her rivals, Cersei has been crowned Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Her brother Jaime (who returned, with Bronn, from the Siege of Riverrun in time to see the aftermath of the explosion in  the Sept) watches from the side of the room.

Samwell Tarly and Gilly

Sam and Gilly have arrived at the Citadel where Sam hopes to be trained as a Maester. He has been invited explore the library. Gilly (as a woman) had to wait outside.

Bran Stark

Bran Stark is just about to go back south through the wall with Meera Reed. He has become the “One-Eyed Raven” and is having lots of visions that explain the back-story of the show.

Arya Stark

Arya finished her training as a Faceless Man in the House of Black and White, but she turned her back on their mission and took back her identity. It appears she has gone back to working her way through her list as she was last seen killing Walder Frey at the Twins.

Others

Melisandre was exiled from Winterfell by Jon Snow. She left on a horse, but we don’t know where she is going.

Brienne of Tarth was last seen escaping from  the Siege of Riverrun on a boat with Podrick Payne.

Jorah Mormant was sent off by Daenerys to find a cure for his greyscale.

Elleria Sand was last seen plotting with Olenna Tyrell and Varys and agreeing to support Daenerys’ invasion of Westeros.

Daario Naharis was left behind in Meereen by Daenerys. He has be told to keep the peace in Slaver’s Bay.

Sandor Clegane is wandering around the Riverlands with the Brotherhood Without Banners.

Jaqen H’ghar was last seen in the House of Black and White.

And then there’s Gendry. Gendry was last seen back in series three when Davos helped him escape from Dragonstone by putting him on a boat to King’s Landing. Who knows if he got there of if we’ll ever see him again.

 

So that’s where we’ve got to. Now read on…

A Gig Without Phones

Phones at Gigs

On Wednesday, I went to a gig without phones for the first time since… well, since before everyone had a camera on their phone.

I wasn’t planning to go to a gig on Wednesday but on Tuesday afternoon I received an email from Songkick inviting me to a secret gig by Haim. I accepted the invitation and on Wednesday I got further details of the show. This second email also contained this information:

HAIM would like to invite you to enjoy a distraction free concert experience at their upcoming show at Islington Assembly Hall.

No cellphones, cameras or recording devices will be allowed at this show. Upon arrival, all phones and smart watches will be secured in Yondr pouches that will be unlocked at the end of the show. Guests maintain possession of their phones throughout the night, and if needed, may access their phones at designated Yondr unlocking stations in the lobby.

We appreciate your cooperation in creating a phone-free viewing experience for this intimate show.

That sounded interesting. I had heard of Yondr before, but I had never been to a gig where their system had been used. I didn’t even know that they were active in the UK.

But let’s start by addressing that first paragraph.

HAIM would like to invite you to enjoy a distraction free concert experience at their upcoming show at Islington Assembly Hall.

To put it bluntly, that statement is bollocks. Oh, sure, perhaps it’s true that bands would rather people were watching them rather than taking photos or telling their friends on Facebook how much they were enjoying the show. But let’s be honest here, no-one would have invested time and money developing a system to prevent people from using phones at gigs if it was just about encouraging a “distraction-free” environment.

No, this is about copyright protection. That’s where the money comes in.

It’s surely no coincidence that the first gig where I see the system in use is one where the band are trying out songs from their (as yet, unreleased) new album. It also happens to be a show that is being filmed for later release as part of a documentary about the band.  That’s why they don’t want us to record it.

The system itself works well enough. While we’re queuing outside, someone comes along and demonstrates it to us (annoyingly reiterating the bogus “distraction-free” excuse as she does it). It’s a neoprene (or something like it) pouch with a sealable top. She describes the sealing mechanism as “the strongest magnet available”. It looks to me something like the devices they use to tag clothes in shops – certainly, the release device looks identical to the mechanisms used to remove those tags.

As we enter the venue, our phones are taken from us and sealed in pouches (there are several different sizes to accommodate different phones) but the sealed pouch is returned to us to hold on to through the show. This is, I guess, the clever bit. You’d get a lot of kickback from people if you took their phones away from them. But letting them keep their phones, albeit rendered unusable, removes a lot of objections to the system.

If you find you really need access to your phone to during the show, you can go back to the foyer, where someone will open the pouch for you. But you’ll need to have the pouch re-sealed before returning to the venue.

At the end of the show, you file out past two desks that are set up with the release devices. There were maybe a dozen or so in total, and I didn’t queue for more than about a minute.

So, the system works and is pretty painless. I didn’t really enjoy the hour or so that I was waiting in the venue before the show started, without access to Twitter or Facebook, but I’m sure I’d get used to it. I don’t think that the distraction-free environment really added very much to the atmosphere, but I suspect the band (or, more likely, their management and record company) are very happy that no footage of the show will have leaked out.

I do wonder if it’s all necessary. I’m reminded of a couple of gigs I saw within a couple of weeks a few years ago. Bjork was recording her “Biophilia” show at Alexandra Palace. All around the venue were signs telling us not that filming and taking photos was banned. And there was a lot of security trying to enforce the rules. But hard rules like that just encourage people to try to break them – so the security guards were having to work really hard as a large proportion of the crowd tried to grab a quick photo.

On the other hand, a little later I saw David Byrne and St. Vincent at the Roundhouse. Before the show, there was an announcement over the PA (it might even have been by David Byrne saying that they understood people would want to take videos and photos and asking the audience to just please try not to get in the way of anyone around you. That, more friendly, approach seems more likely to succeed. I’ve also seen shows where the act announces that the next song is unreleased and asking the audience not to film it. If you have a nice audience, that works (and if you don’t have a nice audience, then you have a whole load of other problems to deal with).

All-in-all, I’m not sure. I didn’t find Yondr to be a huge inconvenience to me. But I’d rather not be part of an audience where I feel slightly untrusted. I don’t think it will stop me from going to a show, but I really hope it doesn’t become very common.

What do you think? Have you been to a Yondr-ed show? How was it?

Top of the Pops and Me

In 2011, the BBC started repeating old episodes of Top of the Pops. Initially, they were showing one episode a week, as close as possible to thirty-five years after the original broadcast (starting with shows from 1976). More recently, they’ve been showing two episodes a week, so we’re currently in early 1983.

I’ve been watching them avidly since they started, but I’ve been even more interested in watching them over the last year or so – since the repeats hit October 1981. That’s because that’s when I moved to London to go to university and I started to watch fewer and fewer episodes as I, increasingly, had better ways to spend my Thursday evenings. So I’m seeing many of these broadcasts for the first time.

Over the summer of 1982 I pretty much stopped watching completely. I managed to get myself elected as Social Secretary at City University and many of my evenings were spent running gigs, discos and various other entertainments for the students.

I’ve written before about a couple of things that happened while I was Social Secretary (here’s me being threatened by the lead singer of Bad Manners and here I am booking Marillion at the start of their first major tour) but recent episodes of Top of the Pops have reminded me of a few other incidents.

There was the time that I was mildly censured by the London Student newspaper because I had booked Toto Coelo for a Christmas Party. Or the time I booked the Hee Bee Gee Bees (featuring Angus Deayton and Philip Pope) and ended up inviting Philip Pope back to a hall of residence party[1].

A few recent episodes of Top of the Pops have featured Blue Zoo singing “Cry Boy Cry”. I’m not sure I realised what a big hit that was. They played a few gigs at the university – including a “Blue Party Night” at a hall of residence where I painted my face blue, using dye that took days to get out. And I’m pretty sure that they were the band I cancelled when I was offered the Marillion date I mentioned above.

But a recent Top of the Pops reminded me of the biggest mistake I made while I was Social Secretary. I turned down the chance to book Culture Club.

To be fair to myself, no-one had heard of them when I was offered them. Well, no-one who wasn’t really in tune with the London music scene. Of course, you could say that someone who was running entertainment for a London university should really be in touch with the music scene. And I’d have no answer to that.

But when their agent called to offer me the gig, I hadn’t heard of them.

They were just about to start a tour and wanted somewhere to play a warm-up gig. Back then (and, I suppose, it’s still true now) bands used to like using student unions for warm-up gigs. Student unions were like private clubs – you couldn’t get in without a union card. Acts could get their performances right without making fools of themselves in front of the general public. That was how most student unions got most of their decent acts.

So Culture Club’s agent called me and offered me a warm-up gig for their first national tour. And I turned them down because I had never heard of them.

I thought that was the last I would hear of it. But I was wrong. A few months later, at the end of October 1982, they made their first appearance on Top of the Pops. I think this is it (warning, a few seconds of Jimmy Savile at the start of this clip).

Of course, these days we’re all used to seeing Boy George on the telly. But in 1982, this wasn’t the case. It was a sensation. He was all over the tabloid front pages the following day. People talked about it for weeks. Instantly, everyone knew who Culture Club were.

Oh, and the date that I had been offered for the warm-up gig – it was, of course, the day after this Top of the Pops. If I had taken the booking, it would have been a great night. I would have looked like someone who really had his finger on the pulse of the music scene.

Instead, I’m the man who turned down Culture Club.

[1] Although looking at the dates, it seems more likely that this was during the previous year – when I was just a member of the entertainments committee.