Porto: From top deck of Dom Luís bridgeEarlier in October, along with a great number of other people from my research group, I went out to the ISMIR 2012 conference in Porto. (I was helping to present a tutorial; you can watch a screencast of my segment of the tutorial here, though I warn you, in this format, it even sends me to sleep.)

I’d never been there before, my wife came over with me for a couple of days before the event, the weather was mild, and ISMIR is a friendly conference with material I’m always interested in, so we had a pretty nice time of it—Porto being a good place to hang out in cafes in, as well as a ludicrously photogenic town.

Porto in fog: GaiaMy colleague Luís lent me a copy of Martin Page’s lively potted history of Portugal, The First Global Village. If nothing else this is yet another useful corrective to the sort of history I learned at school—treating English and (later) British empire interests as a peripheral and rather sordid matter. A lot of it seems a bit too good to be true (did the Portuguese really bring not only tempura and the chilli to Asia, but also cause the invention of the spring roll and the Chinese dumpling?) and Amazon reviews suggest it might not always be all that accurate, but it’s great fun and an interesting departing point for further reading.

Porto: Houses and dogPorto itself doesn’t feature much in this book until quite late on, with the early 18th-century port wine concessions. But what it doesn’t really do is explain how so many of those concessions came to be owned by English companies, or at least companies with English names. Definitely the next thing to find out.


A Watery City

Olympic park: Orbit and stadiumA striking thing about the venues for the 2012 Olympics in London is that their locations make more sense when seen as connected by water rather than by road.

The Olympic Park sits on the River Lea and a couple of its former working branches, and is bounded on one side by the Lee Navigation canal.

Greenwich Park (equestrian events, modern pentathlon) overlooks the River Thames at Greenwich. You can get there on foot from the Olympic Park by taking the Lee Navigation towpath to the Limehouse Cut and traversing Docklands before cutting under the river through the Greenwich foot tunnel—see map below.

It’s a nice walk, though you can’t do it directly from the Olympic Park during the Olympics because the Lee Navigation towpath is closed for “security reasons”. I hope they remember to re-open it afterwards. In the meantime you’ll have to join the towpath at Stratford High Street.

Also on the Thames, the Royal Artillery Barracks (shooting) in Woolwich are just downstream, a bend away, on the same riverbank—roughly opposite the entrance to the Royal docks, on which the ExCeL centre (fencing, boxing, weightlifting etc) sits.

Hampton Court (cycling time trials) and Eton Dorney (rowing) are on the Thames as well, much further upstream. More centrally, you can find Horse Guard’s Parade (beach volleyball) and The Mall (marathon, cycling road race) set back only a couple of hundred metres from the river.

The Lee Valley white water centre (canoe slalom) is on the same river as the Olympic Park. Presumably you could canoe between the two of them, though it might take a while.

Lord’s (archery) is accessible from the Regent’s Canal; from there you can walk all the way to the Olympic Park along the towpath via the Hertford Union Canal—apart from that pesky tunnel at Islington, for which you’ll need a boat, or to rise to street level (see map).

Wembley Stadium (football) and arena (badminton) are on a site bounded by the River Brent. An ideal way to get there from Lord’s should be to take the Regent’s Canal down to Little Venice, the Grand Union Canal from there up to Alperton, and then follow the Brent through the Tokyngton Recreation Ground. But I’m not sure whether that last connection can easily be made on foot, and the Brent isn’t navigable. I’ll have to go and take a look.

Earl’s Court (volleyball) and Hyde Park (open-water swimming, triathlon) can’t be reached by water, but both were built on top of culverted rivers or streams—Earl’s Court on Counter’s Creek, which reaches the Thames at Chelsea harbour, and Hyde Park over the Westbourne, which formerly supplied the water for the Serpentine.

The odd one out is Wimbledon, which is nowhere near any present or former waterway as far as I can see.



Journalist’s First-Person Plural

Mark Easton for the BBC:

Do we have a completely mistaken view of what our landscape is like? … The lesson might be that we need to celebrate the truth about our green and pleasant land. Or perhaps it simply tells us we really should get out more.

This is a great example of what I think of as the Journalist’s First-Person Plural, that is, using “we” to mean “I, and the friend I spoke to while writing this”.

The article opens,

What proportion of Britain do you reckon is built on? By that I mean covered by buildings, roads, car parks, railways, paths and so on – what people might call “concreted over”. Go on – have a guess.

My wild guess was about one percent. So the actual figure of 2.27% for England, or 1.48% for the UK as a whole, seems rather worse than I’d hoped. I don’t really understand why we are supposed to find these figures surprisingly low, but then, I’m also only a sample of one.

(The area of the UK is a bit less than 250,000 km², so 2.5 × 105 km² or 2.5 × 1011 m². If 1% of it were built on and half of that was residential, that would be about 1.2 × 109 m² for 6 × 107 inhabitants, which is about 20 square metres each. My family of four lives in a flat of about 120 square metres which is one of six stacked on a single plot of land, so my instinct is to find that pretty believable. I didn’t do those sums until afterwards, though.)

Still, the rhetorical trick clearly worked on me—it’s got me reading the article and downloading the paper it describes, and I’m really keen to find out what else is in it. So perhaps it’s all for the good.



I’ve just come back from a conference in Kyoto.

I’ve never been to Japan before, so although this was a very brief visit—the four-day conference wasn’t quite enough to get over the jet lag—it was always going to be an interesting one.

Inevitably my perception was coloured by comparison with Taiwan, a place I’ve been to a few times which has seen a certain amount of Japanese influence for obvious historical reasons.

A few things that struck me:

  • It’s quiet. Perhaps this is just Kyoto, but I was surprised by the difference between the harsh door chimes of 7-11 and Circle-K shops in Taiwan, the general outdoor noise, the brash and badly-transcribed classical tunes played by rubbish trucks there, and the quiet door chimes of the same places in Japan, the cheeping road crossings, and surprisingly pleasant tunes on the Metro lines.
  • Similarly, there are hardly any smells. Even the fish stalls on the covered market in central Kyoto don’t smell and there seemed to be few pungent restaurant or snack foods. This in particular makes the place feel unexpectedly local, as if you’d just travelled to another city down the road rather than going half way around the world.
  • Kyoto has a terrific location—a flat valley plain surrounded on three sides by mountains. It has a fairly big city feel (and a greater population than any in the UK except London) but it’s straightforward to get around, there are several small rivers and watercourses dividing it up, and it’s easy to get up into the forested mountains in almost any direction.
  • I couldn’t remember any Japanese. I learned some about a decade ago and could even read a bit but, never putting it to use, I forgot it all again. I had imagined that with a bit of prompting, some of it might come back—but no, not at all. (I wonder how many other things I knew ten years ago I would be completely unable to recall now.)
  • A bit of Chinese was useful though. Not the spoken language (they have nothing in common) but I can recall enough written characters to give a sense of pleasant familiarity to things like street signs. It’s rather nice to be able to see that the Japanese street name you don’t recognise simply means “big west road”. Of course, this probably hinders my remembering any Japanese—when I see 出口 and read it as chukou, my brain isn’t giving itself much chance to remember deguchi.
  • Japanese crispy mackerel skeletons are right up there with pork scratchings as the finest pub foods imaginable.
  • Given the clean and healthy air of the place generally, it seems surprising that you’re allowed to smoke in many cafes and restaurants. Some of my colleagues were absolutely delighted by this.
  • I don’t cope with jet lag as well as I used to, or else my recollection from previous trips to Asia or Australia is flawed—either way, it makes me feel rather old. Though waking up irrevocably at 4am with your body telling you you’ve just had a quick siesta does give you a good opportunity to go for an early-morning run, which is a joy in a place like Kyoto. It’s just a pity about the consequences for the rest of the day.

Running around London

During the past few months, for very boring reasons, I’ve been spending a bit of time running relatively long distances around London.

It’s been quite a revelation. London is, as every Saint Etienne fan knows, a very big place1.

It’s hard to find the time to walk around very much of it, just because the distances are so big. I used to cycle occasionally, but everything goes by a bit quick that way and you’re liable to crash if you spend too much time looking around you. Running turns out to be a pretty good compromise. I’ve been through more interesting bits of London—many of them via canal or river routes—during these few months than I have in years.

From Chelsea Bridge

I’ve lived in London for nearly 18 years and in west London for ten, yet I’d never before seen the splendid Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park up close, been along the leafy Thames path on the south bank west from Putney, realised that Trellick Tower (below right) sits on the canal side, or had any sense of the relationship between the westbound road, rail, and canal routes from the Paddington basin. (Did you know the canal goes over the North Circular?)

I’d worked near Mile End for six years without ever having been along the Lee Navigation or seen the dramatic Bow locks—never mind peering at the near-future Olympic site.

Trellick Tower

And I’ve worked in Docklands, yet the only time I’d ever been through Wapping and joined the dots between docks and City was on 7/7, walking home across London when all the transport was out.

I even realised recently that, no matter how many times I may have passed the front of the Palace of Westminster, I’d never been along the length of the building to get any real impression of the scale of it.

I’m not completely ignorant of this place: I know my way around the City and West End well enough, I’ve spent a lot of time walking in various areas further out, I’ve lingered in the Barbican and on the South Bank and so on—which is partly why it’s been so much fun to be reminded how much even of central London I’ve still never properly seen.

1 Apparently the quote about London at the start of You’re In A Bad Way is from the film Billy Liar. I’ve seen the film since becoming familiar with the song, and I didn’t even notice the line. Hopeless, I am.