The Giant Adenoid that Ate St James’s takes a step closer to reality

Thursday 2 April 2009

Now it turns out that this light bulb over the colonel’s head here is the same identical Osram light bulb that Franz Pokler used to sleep next to in his bunk at the underground rocket works at Nordhausen. Statistically (so Their story goes), every n-thousandth bulb is gonna be perfect, all the delta-q’s piling up just right, so we shouldn’t be surprised that his one’s still around, burning brightly. But the truth is even more stupendous. This bulb is immortal! It’s been around, in fact, since the twenties, has that old-timery point at the tip and is less pear-shaped than more contemporary bulbs….

Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, pp.647.

Welcome to the homepage devoted to the Longest burning Light Bulb in history. Now in its 108th year of illumination.

Livermore’s Centennial Light.

First Meggezones, now this.

Google vs Death, Round 2

Monday 23 March 2009

Google Street View has finally launched in the UK and is already out of date. This is a good thing, as far as I’m concerned. I’m more interested in checking up on where I used to be than where I am now, despite the new pictures looking like they’re better quality than the Australian ones (and the taunts about growing up in a tip).
The Google camera car went up my street last summer. In fact, it went up my street twice:

I’ve talked before about how Street View’s illusion of the present masks a preserved version of the recent past, already decaying and proving less and less true to reality. Now we can see street corners that exist simultaneously in two time zones at once.
For most Britons, the illusory, alternate-reality nature of Street View is immediately visible in the high streets. The economic downturn has worsened in the time between the photos being taken and appearing on the web. Google’s Britain is a brighter, nostalgic land with fewer boarded-up shopfronts, where Woolworths, MFI, Zavvi, and other chain stores are still in business.

Back in Australia, the emerging anomalies are more poignant. On the main street of the town of Marysville in Victoria, the season abruptly changes from summer to winter for a few metres; then just as suddenly, the sky clears, the ground dries up again, and the trees regain their leaves. Of course, neither version is true: we know the town was all but obliterated by fire last month.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla Lite.)

So Close, Yet So Far

Thursday 12 March 2009

I swore off making fun of newspaper columnists a long time ago, but this one’s too good to let pass by. Sue Sharp, head of Guide Dogs Public Policy and Campaigns, has an opinion piece in The Guardian decrying proposed changes to London’s pedestrian crossings (I’ve added my own emphasis):
… plans to introduce “speedy street crossings” in London to free up traffic will seriously undermine the mobility of blind and partially sighted pedestrians in London.
Under these proposals, the amount of crossing time for pedestrians will be cut by up to six seconds, and there will be a reduced number of green man phases. As pedestrians walk at an average speed of 1.2m per second, such a reduction in crossing time could potentially leave them 7.2m short of the kerb when the light goes green to traffic, and more if they have a slower walking pace than the average.
If the metrics confuse you, here are some people under two metres tall walking at an average pace on a typical London street crossing:

Snow Day! Rothko post postponed.

Monday 2 February 2009

And it did end up snowing all night. Not having a job to go to anyway, I missed out on the thrill of being forced to skive off work because all the trains and buses were cancelled. I did get to spend the day at home with the girlfriend, however. Nice.
In any case, the girl was confined to quarters with a dud leg, so no skidding about on the snow outside for us. She contented herself videoing teenagers outside tobogganing down the street on a tea tray while I considered going out alone to take in the picturesque scene before deciding bugger it. I’m not getting cold and wet just for a few snapshots when thousands of much better views will be plastered all over Flickr by lunchtime.
Meanwhile, all across the island, Britons were rediscovering the innocent joys of a day (or evening) in the snow.

The Clichéd Study in Contrasts

Sunday 1 February 2009

Just spoke to my dad on the phone: he’s been telling me how hot it’s been the past week. Over a week of 40-plus temperatures, and nights which barely dip below 30 degrees. Everyone is feeling the strain.
Meanwhile, I got caught in the snow coming home this evening. It’s kept up all night, and I’ve been watching people trying to drive their cars slowly down the street, only to lose all traction on the small hill in front of my house and gracefully slide sideways down into the intersection below, gently crashing into the steadliy growing pile of grief-stricken vehicles scattered about. It all looks a little bit like this.

Guy Fawkes’ Month

Monday 27 October 2008

Out my window I can hear that it’s the time of year when fireworks start going off around the neighbourhood again.

“We stopped at the IKEA café, where the coffee was cheap and the service friendly, but we didn’t see anyone writing poetry”

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Having just remarked that Australia doesn’t get much attention in the British press, a few articles have just surfaced in the papers about Starbucks closing most of its Australian stores. I don’t know if anyone has bothered to point out that Australian Starbucks was at least one of the lesser failures to be associated with Natasha Stott Despoja’s political career, which coincidentally ended about the same time as the coffee chain’s attempt to dominate the Antipodean market.
There has been some tentative speculation about whether this business decision has more to do with the credit crunch, heroic localised resistance to encroaching globalisation, or just the realisation that Starbucks coffee isn’t very good. British chin-stroking on the subject has been clouded by the difficulty most Brits have in distinguishing a macchiato from Marmite.
It is a truism that the British don’t know how to make coffee – a defining cultural trait, centuries in the making, which still holds sway even in modern-day London. The symptom of this deficiency most immediately visible to the London visitor is the large number of Starbucks, all full to capacity, with queues to the counter sometimes stretching to 20 people. It is an eye-opening contrast to the typical Australian Starbucks experience of a faintly caffeinated morgue, empty save for a small scattering of listless tourists.
Worse still, the majority of British, virtually alone among the Europeans, think it’s what good coffee is supposed to taste like:

Like every other UK coffee geek I’ve conveniently airbrushed from my memory the debt I owe Starbucks; how, before they arrived, coffee was a throat-rasping, lip-puckering laxative tar dispensed in caffs that couldn’t give a toss; how we delighted in our first taste of a cafe culture and how we sucked down the enticing new mixtures.

Sadly, Starbucks was probably a true advancement for the British appreciation of coffee. For coffee lovers, London is a Bizarro city where the small, independent café will generally serve an inferior coffee to that offered by the multinational chains. On my way to work each morning I stop off at the nearby branch of a coffee franchise (not Starbucks) for my long black. Just up the street is a stylish independent café where the bright young things congregate. It has excellent pastries, and weak, milky coffee that costs half as much again, which is all too typical. The swill served at the (overrated) traditional “caffs” doesn’t bear thinking about.
If the girl behind the counter warns you it might be too strong, the coffee will be almost acceptable. After two years in London, my girlfriend made the mistake of ordering a “strong latte” out of habit on her first visit back home to Melbourne, and had the jitters for an hour afterwards.
The trouble in London is that Starbucks has set a standard of burnt, watery mediocrity to which many have risen, but so few aspire to exceed. We probably get the evil multinational conglomerates we deserve. Starbucks coffee may be bad, but badness hasn’t stopped other franchises from spreading around the world – look at McDonald’s. But then again, look at the local variations McDonald’s has made to its menu in Australia, and in other countries all around the world (British Maccas even serve porridge for breakfast). It seems that, when confronted with a particular café culture in Australia, Starbucks could not or would not adapt to survive in it.
Of course, our former colonial masters scoff good-naturedly at the idea of Australians being “too sophisticated” for Starbucks – this light-hearted derision coming from a country where packets of pasta are printed with recommended cooking times giving a minute or two leeway, and the baristas ask if you want ice in your long black. A country in blissful ignorance of an entire continent of excellent coffee that lies just across the Channel.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

May as well punch Jamie Oliver

Sunday 3 August 2008

(A supermarket in London. The checkout kid is concentrating on an item of produce with furrowed brow and bemused demeanour. Eventually…)

What’s this?

That’s garlic.


(Without much further struggle he locates the right price code and proceeds. Two tins of tomatoes, one packet of spaghetti and a cheap hunk of parmesan later…)

(brow furrowed)
What’s this?

That’s also garlic.


A Dozen Dormobiles

Monday 14 July 2008

OK, NOW the name and subject indices are updated to the end of June. And the old VW campervans just keep multiplying around my block.

Pavilion Plot Thickens

Sunday 29 June 2008

Two months after the mystery pavilion appeared in Bedford Square, another one has started to spring up on the next corner. The first one, the AADRL TEN Pavilion, finally has a sign posted beside it to explain what it is. This new one will probably also take a few months to explain its existence.

A few pics of the construction site are up on Flickr. Meanwhile, one of the two warning signs stood beside the first pavilion has been disappeared, and the other is fading to an interesting colour. Well after their job was finished, the unemployed barrier poles are still hanging around like Ken Livingstone (TOPICAL HUMOUR!)

The Secret History of Peckham

Wednesday 28 May 2008

Except for an unwitting pass round the back of one of the sites on a drunken midnight ramble in February, there’s a major London pilgrimage I still haven’t done, even though I’m living right in its backyard. Since 1973 artist and Peckham native Tom Phillips has been working on 20 Sites n Years, one of the great works of rephotography:

Every year on or around the same day (24th May – 2nd June) at the same time of day and from the same position a photograph is taken at each of the twenty locations on this map which is based on a circle of half a mile radius drawn around the place (Site 1: 102 Grove Park SE15) where the project was devised. It is hoped that this process will be carried on into the future and beyond the deviser’s death for as long as the possibility of continuing and the will to undertake the task persist.

As someone who has attempted a similar undertaking – much smaller and less thorough, but based on the same principle – I understand the fascination these projects can exert. The city is revealed as a living thing, continually changing, but with each element changing at its own pace. A temporary sign can endure for years, while the building behind it vanishes. Then again, some scenes will suddenly travel backwards in time, reverting after a succession of revisions to way they were some years earlier after.

Phillips has uploaded all the photographs from the past 35 years on his website, with his own analysis and discussion of the history of each site (although these written observations end at 1992, the 20th anniversary). [amazing late-night observation eaten by dodgy web browser]

News from the Pavilion

Thursday 24 April 2008

Last month I wrote about the AADRL TEN Pavilion which was under construction around the corner from where I work, and which was due to open 13 March. Well, the fence around the construction site finally came down sometime in the past week.

After the cyclone fence, pallets and assorted rubbish was cleared away, the pavilion was roped off for a few days until the punters were finally allowed to play with it. The unemployed barrier poles are still loitering around a nearby lamppost, conspiring.

The pavilion still isn’t quite unfettered: a warning sign has been propped up at either end of the edifice. Someone’s gone to a bit of trouble to make those signs.

With hindsight this problem should have been obvious, although I admit that my lifestyle is so sedentary it never occurred to me during construction that the pavilion would make an excellent jungle gym.
As it stands, it’s an irresistable attraction for the urban thrillseeker. I have a couple of friends who, after an evening of drinking, would habitually become seized by a desire to go climbing things. One night in Melbourne they attempted to conquer the dome of the Royal Exhibition Building. The relatively low height and plentiful footholds of this pavilion make it just too tempting.

April in London

Sunday 6 April 2008

I woke up early this afternoon and saw this out the window:

After a whole winter of not-quite-snowing we finally get some frozen action. It’s a revealing part of their psyche that the British like to call April “British summer”, but only when it snows.
By the late afternoon the local kids were climbing up onto the garage roof to harvest the remaining snow, to build up a stockpile of snowballs to deploy on unsuspecting passersby in the street below.

Oh, the name and subject indices are updated to the end of March, too.

They Must Be Architects

Thursday 6 March 2008

Update! Alan Dempsey, one of the architects, has written in with a link to his informative team blog, which documents the history and progress of the Pavilion. Check the archives for the background on how the structure is designed and built.

Just around the corner from where I work there’s a strange construction going up in Bedford Square. At the moment, it resembles a temporary albeit stylish stage: the deck on the scaffold helps this impression. There were a few placards on the fencing explaining a little about the project, but not much too helpful. Some of the workers would occasionally stop and chat to curious passersby.
Its location in a square on the edge of a park suggests that it’s a piece of public sculpture, but its structure makes it look like architecture. A bit of googling of the names on the placard yielded this website, and it immediately becomes clear that it’s architecture.

First giveaway: the entire site is done in Flash, so the site is hard to read and navigate, overly fiddly, and impossible to quote whatever information the designers wanted to impart in the first place. Of course, plenty of art websites use too much (i.e. some) Flash, but they usually have some scraps of helpful information on them, or at least have a section in which they try to justify their existences. On this particular site, though, there is a complete lack of interest in explaining itself to the world. This is the second clue that this thing is about architecture.
According to the website, the construction is called either the DRL TEN Pavilion, the DRL.TEN Pavilion, or the AADRL TEN Pavilion, depending on which part of the screen you click. TEN may or may not be capitalised. There is no evident explanation as to what an AADRL is, nor of what if any function the Pavilion has. There seems to be an exhibition connected to the Pavilion, which has already opened, but there’s no information on what it’s about or where it is.

The Pavilion itself is announced as opening on 13 March. Judging from the state of the worksite it’s going to be a close thing.

Swings Like a Pendulum Do

Thursday 28 February 2008

Late Monday night the house swayed a little the way it does when a heavy truck rumbles past; only this time the peak vibration didn’t quickly pass. The house rocked up and down a little for five or ten seconds then stopped. I thought, “That was an earthquake, that was” (I’m getting down with the native speech patterns now) and went to bed….
Only to emerge from my house the next morning and witness TOTAL CARNAGE.

The Evening Standard, which is published three times in a day, pulled out all the hyperbolic stops. EARTHQUAKE HITS LONDON, it bawled, arrogantly trying to claim for the capital a geological event which actually happened in Lincolnshire! … It used the same agency photographs that were used around the world (none of them taken in London): a hole in a roof in Barnsley where a chimney pot had fallen through (I saw this on the front page of, I think, the Mail today); a woman in her dressing gown (“surveying the damage”, which mainly involved her standing on her own undamaged doorstep); some more chimney pots; and, er, that’s it.

But the best, most distinctly British reaction I’ve seen to the event has been this rather sheepish article, and the readers’ comments that follow it (“may I mention my bad cold in this context?”). I’ve been trying to discover what are the good bits of my British heritage to embrace. Part of this involves working out the fine distinction in nuance between Australian apathy and British cynicism, as seen on display in the linked article above:

When the bed shaking woke me up on Tuesday night I thought my boyfriend was in the throws [sic] of some kind of fit. Although having said that my concern did not extend to turning all the way over to check he wasn’t swallowing his tongue or anything so maybe on some level I just knew! I did however ask him if he was alright so I feel I can safely say I would have absolved myself of any guilt in the unlikely event of his death.

The former seems born of nihilism while the latter is of disillusionment. I am hoping my dual citizenship entitles me to both.