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.


Modern Perl for Non-Perl Programmers

Normally I keep my Perl posts over on my Perl blog. But although this post is about Perl, the regular readers of my Perl blog aren’t really the target audience.

That’s because I’m running a training course that is aimed at programmers who don’t use Perl. If you’re a programmer who is interested in learning about Perl, then you should have a look at Modern Perl for Non-Perl Programmers.

It’s a one day course at Google Campus in London on Saturday 6th October. Tickets are £30 and you can book your place by clicking the button below.

Eventbrite - Perl School: Modern Perl for Non-Perl Programmers


Olympic Clock Watching

Yesterday, in Trafalgar Square the London Olympic Games organisers unveiled a clock that was supposed to count down the 500 days to the opening ceremony in July 2012.

Today the clock stopped. There’s an obvious metaphor there, but we’ll ignore it and move on. There’s another problem.

The clock was started at 19:30 GMT on 14th March 2011. It was started with a count of 501 days. If you add 501 days to that date and time, you end up with 20:30 BST on 27th July 2012. Which is an hour after the opening ceremony starts at 19:30 BST.

I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s supposed to work. I’m pretty sure that the countdown is supposed to finish exactly as the opening ceremony begins. So why the discrepancy? Well, it seems that someone has forgotten that we’re currently on GMT and that as the opening ceremony is in the summer we’ll then be on BST by then. We will have lost an hour, and therefore the countdown will end an hour too late.

I know that time changes can sometimes be a bit confusing. I admit to occasionally turning up an hour late for appointments in March (or an hour  early for appointments in October) but you’d think that the Olympic Deliverance Team would check before making such a huge blunder.

Thanks to Zefram for pointing this out to me.

Update: The Guardian have published a letter from Zefram on the same subject.


Opentech Overview

[Update: Details of this year’s Opentech conference are at]

Yesterday was the annual Opentech conference. I’m going to have some more to say about it in some detail over the next few days, but those thoughts are still peculating so in the meantime here’s a list of the talks that I watched.

Community and Democracy in Hijacked Space

One of the Space Hijackers talked about some of their projects. If you haven’t heard of them, they are the people who drove a tank into the G20 protests. Their protests sound like a lot of fun.

Does FOI work? You bet! – Heather Brooke

Heather Brooke told the story of how she used the Freedom of Information Act to finally get details of MPs’ expenses out of the House of Commons. It was a long and complex story and Heather made it very interesting.

Digital Engagement – Richard Stirling (Cabinet Office)
Open Government Data – John Sheridan (OPSI)

Two civil servants talking about how the government is making more and more data available to the public. They were asking people to take the data and build interesting applications with it as the more applications built, the easier it is them to persuade people to release more data.

Opening Up Government Data: Give it to us Raw, Give it to us Now – Rufus Pollock (Open Knowledge Foundation)

Rufus Pollack of the Open Knowledge Foundation replied to the previous two talks explaining where he thought the government’s current efforts are falling short. They need to do more, sooner and they need to get the licensing right – the more open the license is, the better.

10 Cultures – Bill Thompson

Fifty years on from the original, Bill Thompson updated CP Snow’s “Two Cultures” talk for the twenty-first century and turned the title into a geek joke. Thompson’s main point was that the people making the big decisions in the UK all hold PPEs from Oxbridge and know next to nothing about the opportunities that digital technologies can bring us. We need more geekery in the halls of power.

Beyond Bad Science – Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre’s topic dovetailed nicely with Thompson’s. If people were better educated in science then there would be less excuse for the appalling science journalism that we currently suffer from. Goldacre went on to talk about the bloggers who are doing sterling work revealing the dangerous science stories that the mainstream media aren’t covering and suggested some tools we could build to help them to work together more efficiently.

The Guardian and the Ian Tomlinson story – Paul Roache

Paul Roache talked about how the Guardian dealt with the Ian Tomlinson video. Normally an exclusive like that would have been held back for the next edition of the paper. In this case they took the unusual step of putting on the web site first. This gamble seems to have paid off. Over the next day or so, the video was responsible for 20% of their web site traffic.

Opening up the Guardian – Simon Willison

Simon Willison talked about the Guardian’s Open API and Data Store. He also introduced the crowd-surfing application they wrote to process the MPs’ expenses details once they were published.

Spread The Web – Fran Sainsbury & William Perrin
Local web beyond the hype – William Perrin

Two linked talks about how the internet can help organisations and communities to communicate. The first talk was about the number of organisations who have paid stupid sums of money for a proprietary web site that they find too hard to update and how in many cases a simple WordPress site would be far better suited for their purpose. In the second talk William Perrin talked about using simple sites (again, WordPress or a similar technology) to bring communities together. This is an area I have a lot of interest in.

4iP – Public service tools for empowerment – Tom Loosemore

Tom talked about 4ip, a Channel Four initiative to support innovative digital projects. Tom listed half a dozen or so interesting projects that they have already supported.

Just before Tom’s speech there was a slight change of plan as Sir Bonar Neville Kingdom spoke to us. The text of his speech is now online. I highly recommend that you read it.

A fabulous conference as always. My thanks to all of the organisers. More thoughts on it over the next few days.


Eenin Stannet

I’ve lived in London for over twenty-five years. In that time I can’t have bought more than a dozen copies of the Evening Standard. And I don’t think that makes me particularly unusual. From what I can se, the Standard is pretty universally despised by people who live in London. The people who you see reading it on the tube are all people who are commuting home to the Home Counties. The Standard sells itself as the London paper but, in reality, its content is far too “middle England” to appeal to your average Londoner. The recent sale of the Standard, transfering ownership from Associated Newspapers to Alexander Lebedev has, so far, done nothing to change this image.

So I was interested to see the paper’s recent campaign apologising to Londoners. The paper claims to be sorry for taking us for granted, for losing touch with us and for being too negative. Only a cynic would suggest that they’re really most sorry for losing a large percentage of their readership to the free papers like thelondonpaper and London Lite.

And yesterday, the paper was relaunched in an avalanche of publicity. For one day only the paper was given away. So I picked up a copy and read it on my way home. I felt just like a real commuter. Here’s what I thought of it.

It certainly looks a lot nicer. The layout has been redesigned and it seems a lot cleaner. Part of that is probably the imporved paper stock that they’re using. They’ve added the word “London” to the masthead, presumably in an attempt to emphasise their link with the city.

But when you start reading, it really doesn’t seem that different. Oh, I don’t think it’s quite as borderline xenophobic as the old Standard was. And it seems to have lost some of its nasty “Daily Mail” edge, but that has been replaced by a higher amount of celebrity news like you see in the freesheets. I don’t think it’s as bad as thelondonpaper or London Lite, but given that reading either of those papers will actively decrease your IQ that’s damning with the faintest of faint praise.

Today the price gos back up to 50p. And I’ll go back to ignoring the Standard. They had one day to attract my attention and they blew it.

Although, to be fair to them, it’s not clear to me that there’s any paper that I’d pay 50p for these days. I’ve even got out of the habit of buying the Guardian every morning. I get all of my news from the internet. Which has a couple of distinct advantages to me. Firstly, it’s free (well, until Murdoch gets his way) and secondly I can read just the bits that I’m interested in and ignore the celebrity news and the sport.

So perhaps I’m not a typical Londoner. Maybe other people will be tempted to pick up the Standard again. I mean, they’ve apologised to us all. It would be rude not to, at least, acknowledge that.


Non-Magic Bus

Last June, writer Ariane Sherine wrote an article on Comment is Free complaining about the amount of religious advertising on the side of London buses. As part of the research for the article she calculated that it would take about 4,500 atheists donating £5 each to get together enough money to have an atheist advertising campaign on the side of a bus. This idea caught on and a pledge was set up to try to make it happen. This original pledge failed, but the idea had taken root and several people started beavering away to try and turn the idea into a reality.

The campaign relaunched today. This time, some recalculations have been done and the project team have worked out that they for £5,500 they can get adverts on 30 buses for four weeks. Richard Dawkins is involved and has said that he will match all donations up to a limit of £5,500 – effectively doubling the purchasing power of the campaign.

The donations page on Just Giving went live this morning. When I gave my donation at about 10am the total stood at about £4,500. As I write this, it’s approaching £15,000.

The response has been phenomenal. Atheists obviously really want to get their message out to more people. It looks like the campaign will be able to put posters on far more buses than expected and therefore reach far more people than they hoped for. This is obviously an idea which has struck a chord with a great many people who are tired of being presented with religious advertising which largely goes unquestioned.

So it looks like it’s going to happen. The adverts will probably start appearing on buses in the next few months. They will say “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”. The “probably” there is to satisfy the bus advertising people that they aren’t leaving themselves open to accusations of blasphemy. Seems a little weak to me as the religious adverts make the most ridiculous claims with no need to back them up in any way.

If these adverts raise a smile then it will have been worthwhile. If they stop just one person from taking a religious advert too seriously then the campaign will have been a great success.

The campaign are still accepting donations on the Just Giving page. Most people seem to be giving £5 or £10. Please consider giving a little bit to the cause.

Sherine has another piece about the campaign on Cif today. The story has also been covered by the BBC and the Times. I expect it to get more coverage tomorrow, once it becomes clear just how successful it has been. I can’t wait to see how the Mail covers it.

Now. Who’s up for trying something similar in the US?


Livery Companies – Project Complete

(Well, stage one of the project, anyway.)

A couple of years ago whilst I was working in the heart of the City of London, I noticed that my lunchtime wanders were taking me past a few of the City Livery Halls. I’d always been aware of the Livery Companies, but I’d never really investigated them, so I didn’t know how many of them there were or how many still had Livery Halls. So I decided to find out a bit more about them.

I also started taking photos of the halls that I passed. Of course, when you have the collector gene that I have, just taking pictures as you wander past buildings randomly isn’t enough. I had to find out where all of the remaining halls were and get pictures of them.

And finally, a couple of months ago (as I was walking to a meeting) I took photos of the last three. I only uploaded them to Flickr last night as I had some trouble with Shozu (which may or may not be related to the general phone weirdness I mentioned last week). But anyway, I fixed the phone last night and was able to upload the final pictures.So now I have a set of photos which (as far as I know) contains all of the Livery Halls. There are forty-one pictures in the set, but one of them is a plaque marking the site of the Cooks’ Hall which is no longer there (they kept burning it down). If you know of any I’ve missed, I’d love to hear about it.

Why do I say that this is just the end of stage one of the project? Well, I was a bit disappointed to see that there was no good site on the web to get information about the Livery Companies. What information there is out there is scatter amongst a number of sites. So I decided to put that right. I’m in the process of building which will hopefully become the definitive place on the web to find information about these fascinating institutions.


Cross-Eyed Texan Warmonger

Time for our newly elected mayor to start earning his money. I may not agree with him on many things, but I love what he said about George W Bush.

The President is a cross-eyed warmonger, unelected inarticulate, who epitomises the arrogance of American foreign policy.

I wonder if Boris will be meeting Dubya on his forthcoming trip to London. Maybe Boris is a secret supporter of Operation Manticore.

Look, posters based on the this quotation!

Update: Ooh. New! Improved! Pictures


Livery Halls

Long time readers (and followers of my Flickr stream) might remember that a couple of years ago I developed an obsession with taking photos of the City of London Livery Halls. The obsession waned when I stop working in the City but over the last couple of weeks I’ve been wandering around the city a bit and have noticed some maps pointing to halls that aren’t in my collection yet. So at some point soon I’ll start trying to get photos of those (I think I’m missing half dozen or so).

But then I started thinking about maybe organising a walk round the City one weekend to see as many of the halls as possible. And, of course, in order to do that you need a map showing where they all are. And the easiest way to plot random points on a map is to use the “My Maps” feature in Google Maps.

So, after a couple of hours work – here is a map showing the London Livery Halls. Actually, currently it only shows the ones I’ve photographed. I’ll add the missing ones soon. I’ll also add more information to each pin – the address, a link to their web site and perhaps a photo. But I think it’s interesting and useful as it stands, so I thought it was working mentioning it even though it’s still a work in progress.