The Virtual Tourist

It’s hard to believe that I have only had a smart phone for 9 months. Looking back this was a pivotal point in my evolution, akin to man’s discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel or realisation that my hair looks ridiculous without taming gel.

Discovery of fire – in a tuba in Leicester Square
Discovery of fire – in a tuba in Leicester Square

Last Year I wrote a guide to London. Now I’m back for my annual period of restoration and discovery but this time I’m armed with this ultimate guidebook. It even makes phone calls. With all of this firepower at my disposal I‘m understandably keen to find out how my HTC can improve the London experience.

My pocket advisor is already on the case as I make the journey south. The National Rail Enquiries journey planner live departure board informs me my train will arrive on time (surprisingly). It also tells me how the journey is progressing against schedule more accurately than the on-board train announcer’s updates.

Getting there
Getting there

Once in the capital I find two Android travel apps to be indispensable. The Tube Map by MX Data is brilliantly simple. It displays an interactive tube map (nice) and if you enter a departure and arrival station it tells you the most efficient route and likely duration. This proved enlightening when I had more than one route option as you can’t infer distance or duration from the tube map. Additionally if you register your Oyster card details the app will tell you your balance.

The other travel app called PubTran from App Brain is less satisfying to look at but a more comprehensive beast altogether. It looks at all transport options including tube, over-ground train, bus and even boat. You enter start and end locations (plus departure time if not imminent) and you get a full travel itinerary plus timings, with respect to life traffic updates. The maps are static and a little bulky but that’s a minor criticism. Overall, this is a superb app.

View better from the top deck of a bus
View better from the top deck of a bus

They say the best way to get around London is by foot. The ubiquitous Google Maps (for Android) is slick and powerful although you are always reliant on a decent GPS signal in order for it to work out exactly where you are. At one point while on the South Bank the Google map positioned me in the middle of the Thames, which was amusing but unhelpful. The latest version now enables map displays including 3D profiles, so a high rise looks different to a bungalow. I just found this a hindrance but you can easily switch to 2D mode. For me the most useful features – above and beyond general mapping – were:

  • Landmark labelling – you can see what’s around the corner and this aids discovery
  • Navigation – if you give it a destination it plots a pedestrian sat-nav route
  • Direction – simple though it may seem the basic compass feature is great when you are at a crossroads but aren’t sure which is north and which is south

An example of discovery – I’ve been staying at the City Road Travelodge for 3 years now and only now with an aerial map did I realise there’s a cricket pitch slap-bang right opposite the hotel on the border of the financial district.

Artillery Company Museum: Behind this...
Artillery Company Museum: Behind this…
...this: Bunhill Fields
…is this: Bunhill Fields

I went for a browse and it was gated off which seemed a shame given the shortage of green space in the city.

What to do when in London? I usually cast an eye at TimeOut but this year I have the TimeOut for Android app. It allows you to search by location and entertainment category but for me there were some niggles. It was admirably simple to use but perhaps a little light on features, while crucially it didn’t seem to pick up on my GPS location. It’s a new app and I’m sure improved versions will be on the way.

If you’ve been to London in the past 3 years you can’t fail to have noticed the propagation of Barclays bikes – better known as Boris Bikes after the frothing mayor of London Boris Johnson. Under this scheme anyone can rent one of the 6000 bikes (soon to be 8000) from any of the unmanned rental hubs that dot the city. If you want to know what I thought of the bikes themselves you’ll have to read my next blog as I’m sticking to the tech here. I downloaded the official Barclays Bike app which aims to:

  • explain the scheme
  • tell you where the bike hubs are
  • tell you how many bikes and free bike docks there are at each hub
  • provide navigation between hubs

I already understood the scheme having visiting the TFL website but the app included usage videos for the uninitiated. The facility to find maps was very poor. You just get a crowded map of London on the screen with countless hub icons overlayed in one confusing continuous mass. There are no zoom controls and it took me a while to realise I had to “pinch” the screen to control zoom levels. Furthermore when I downloaded the app in Derby a few weeks ago the map unhelpfully centred in on Derby and I couldn’t easily move to a London view to see the hubs there. Very poor.

Thankfully the hub consoles are better conceived than the smartphone app
Thankfully the hub consoles are better conceived than the smartphone app

The route planning capability was also flawed as it plotted out against main roads where there were quieter and more direct cut-throughs. Also, why not incorporate audible sat-nav instructions to make navigation a hands-free affair? Searching for a destination by text was flaky and once you had your route it was lost and forgotten if you navigated away from the screen.

The only positive things I have to say about the app are that it does tell you where the hubs are and also provides indicative numbers of bikes and empty docks at other stations. This app needs a lot more work and I’m convinced some independent developer can or has written a better app, assuming that there’s a half decent API available.

So far the apps have been all about planning and organisation but here are some softer angles. When you travel somewhere how do you find out what is happening at a local level out of the gaze of guidebooks and travel review websites? As a twitter user my social network extends beyond my home area, although I don’t have any regular London correspondence. A simple word search however (with or without Hashtags) soon enables you to find out what local people are up to. I searched for tweets including the words “Shoreditch” or “Hoxton” and soon found out what people were talking about and where they were going. I even exchanged tweets with a local about venues.

Twitter: Immediately share that spontaneous picture with the world
Twitter: Immediately share that spontaneous picture with the world

Another app I use is Four Square which enables you to check into places in a rather sad and pointless way. One benefit (possibly the only one) is that you can read the comments that other 4sq users have made about locations. Check into Derby railway station for instance and somebody points out that a radio cab firm 50m away is cheaper than the stand right outside the station (I paid £4 vs probably £6 in a yellow cab). At Borough Market I was overwhelmed with eating choices but so many people on 4sq raved about the chorizo, pepper and rocket ciabattas from the Brindisa stall that I followed their advice. They were not wrong!

Chorizo, pepper & rocket in ciabatta. Yes please!
Chorizo, pepper & rocket in ciabatta. Yes please!

My final app isn’t really a travel app as such but I used it on a few occasions so it gets a mention. On first appearances Shazam is something of a gimmick. This app claims to be able to identify any music by recording 20 seconds of it. I’ve grown quite fond of Shazam because it’s such a clever and impressive app. If I find myself in a shop or a pub and there’s music that I like I can find out the track and artist. What’s more it seems to work even in poor conditions when there’s background noise.

In summary there can be no doubt that the use of a range of apps on a smart phone has enabled me to travel more effectively and opened up opportunities I would otherwise have missed out on. Of course you can spend far too long staring into your phone rather than taking in your surroundings. The trick is to familiarise yourself with the apps before you go so you’re not trying to suss them out later, and to rapidly dispense with the ones that don’t deliver.

Applications and connectivity will only improve and once they combine ease of use and quality of information with speed of delivery we will find ourselves reaping the full benefits of them with the minimum imposition on our valuable travel time. I suspect that there’s a lot more to come…

What’s In A Word?

Thanks but you can keep it

The English language is a curious fellow. Its unique depth, diversity and colour can be attributed to the tumultuous history of the British Isles. Countless invasions, migrations and social trends have thrown together disparate languages and dialects culminating in something beautiful.Globalisation and the age of electronic communication have fuelled the relatively recent explosion in the adoption of English, even if it now comes in such a variety of flavours. It is a living entity with a capacity to continuously renew itself. Presently the OED lists 250,000 words. Scrabble has never been so contentious.

With such a volume of words to choose from you might think that there must be no need to invent new ones. This didn’t prevent Douglas Adams & John Lloyd making hay with The Meaning Of Liff. There is an unparalleled joy for many of us in making up new words to suit (or not) the occasion.

What does it all mean?
What does it all mean?

One such occasion inviting of this creativity is the usage of Twitter. For the uninitiated (oh DO get with it) this platform enables you to broadcast messages to sufficiently interested people anywhere on the sole condition that you don’t exceed 140 characters. Such a simple proposition but nicely challenging – how do you communicate effectively when you are tied down in this way? How do you construct a short but meaningful message that targets the intended audience yet leaves some wriggle room for expression?


Twitter provides us with the simple joys of the #hashtag whereby any word/phrase preceded by # can be used to frame a message or filter for a subject. This week I stumbled upon the custom dictionary within my mobile phone and learned two things:

  • When I type a hashtag in twitter it appears to get added to my custom dictionary
  • The hashtags you use present an intriguing summary of your personal interests and proclivities.

And so a whole new offshoot of language is spawned – one that is entirely reflective of the author. At times the hashtag captures a wider discussion trend and on other occasions it carries no apparent understandable meaning but sits in isolation – a curious memento of some forgotten conversation. Some hashtags take on a life of their own as people adopt them to form little communities. It just goes to prove that language isn’t a monolith but a democracy – if enough people like a word or phrase it will embed itself in the vernacular, irrespective of “Queen’s English”.

Not amused
Not amused

Here’s what I found in my custom dictionary. I doubt that the Queen would be amused…


Perhaps this appears to be some journey of self-indulgence. And maybe it is. But I know plenty of people take real enjoyment in stretching the boundaries of the English language. Besides, this is my blog so I get to have the last word.

Social Me

What do you write about in your 100th blog entry? The easy and clichéd answer is – the previous 99 entries. Easy and clichéd – yes, that appeals to me, but I’m going to broaden out a little and talk about Social Media in general. There are countless blogs about Social Media – some of them are actually quite good – but this is going to be a personal account about my social media journey.

There is a common misconception that Facebook gave birth to “social media”. Not so. In the early days of the internet (before it was called the internet) I dabbled with bulletin boards. Going back to BTBL (Before Tim Berners Lee – the impending replacement for “BC”) I plied the CB radio airwaves under the “handle“ of Pheonix.

Before that grown men with a disproportionately large amount of facial hair sat hunched in garden sheds under the dim light of 60W bulbs talking purist techno-babble with similar souls around the globe via Amateur Radio. Perhaps there was a precursor still to this – maybe in pre-beard days people tapped out morse code to chat to strangers.

A radio ham - yesterday
A radio ham – yesterday

In fact I never owned an amateur radio but I did obtain a licence (G7CQV – missed out on the legacy G1’s by a month – analogous to an old school British black passport) but beyond the academic achievement of the exam success I soon realised that unlike CB where you had a “normal conversation” the strict code of conduct surrounding Ham Radio forbids any form of discussion not centred entirely around the equipment you are operating. Curiously I had assumed Ham was dead ATBL (work it out) until I visited Derby Silk Mill recently and some (bearded) Hams were chatting into the ether for reasons unknown. Needless to say they were describing their equipment to some hirsute listener.

It matters not, the point I have predictably over-laboured is that technology in all of these forms has provided a means to communicating with people you don’t know and may never meet.

So social media has been around in one form or another for a long time. It has just exploded recently because the internet has brought it to the masses and IT students-come billionaires have made the experience a damn sight slicker – ironic given the stereotypical demographic of IT people as being socially inept. I’m a former IT student and… well, anyway….

Returning to internet based Social Media ATBL Friends Reunited was an early personal experiences. Like everyone else I lost interest in the site because it failed to offer a sustained experience (everyone except ITV who bought this former racehorse for £175m after it had bolted and then later sold the decrepit old nag for £25m).

Tom - 1 million friends but no mates
Tom – 1 million friends but no mates

Next I think was MySpace which didn’t seem to make it easy to connect with like-minded people unless your name was Tom in which case you had millions of “friends”. Now MySpace provides a popular focal point for bands and musos which proves that on the internet you can survive and indeed thrive if you are prepared to evolve.

Next I was sucked into the vortex of that ubiquitous tornado known as Facebook, along with every living thing in its path. I still use the site to keep in contact with family and some friends but while it provides an effective means of sharing rich content with trusted friends it does not IMHO lend itself easily to the art of discovery. In other words FB is the site you are more likely to use to communicate with people in your existing social circles. It remains the pre-eminent social media site, yet more and more people are shifting their attention as I have to…

Twitter – a glorious melting pot of all and sundry. It is here that I have been lucky enough to come across some wonderfully talented and genuine people. This is where I have found people who share my interests – real ale, travel, local affairs, food, silliness not to mention people you can’t pigeonhole, such as my kindred spirit truth junkie – resident of a far off desert (you know who you are). In fact I follow a kaleidoscope of disparate individuals whom I find interesting or funny. There is no obligation to follow bores or self publicists (sorry Bill Shatner – you disappoint me). In summary…

Twitter is the global populous rebuilt from scratch in the form of our choosing

You can be the person you want to be, hang out with anybody you like and discard those you don’t. Twitter is a level playing field, ground zero – a new world order.

And then there’s my WordPress Blog. When I penned my first entry in June 2009 it was a leap into the unknown. I knew I enjoyed the process of writing but I had no idea where it would lead – if anywhere. My cousin pointed out that most blogs don’t get beyond 5 posts and it’s true that I have visited many blogs with 2 or 3 submissions.

By whatever means I find myself writing this blog – my 100th – and I can look back and pride myself on having not knowingly imparted any useful information during this time and only on occasion has my writing got “all serious” (sorry). I have never believed in letting facts pollute my flow. If you want facts then the world is already full of them.

Looking back at my blog some subject trends emerge…

38% – Travel

I’ve regaled and embellished my travel encounters with the spirit of Hunter S.Thompson at heart. In Cornwall I was Scott of Arabia. In the Lake District I discovered a night club in the hills. Dorset was Jurassic and New York City – well that’s a story of it’s own. Let’s not forget London such a favourite destination I compiled my own useless tourist guide.

31% – Football

God knows why I thought I could sustain a blog every day for last years month-long World Cup. It almost killed me but despite the workload and threats from a “celebrity” agent I pulled it off, with the help of an unwitting crack panel of pundits. Just. The Golden Mullet competition was a roaring success unless you judge it by the number of entrants.

9% – Kitchen Activity

It’s true, I love to create loads of extra faff by sharing recipes with you. One day I’m going to blog the washing up – see how you like it.

…and the rest

Amidst my subjective social commentaries you will find reportage from a variety of bespoke events that I feel the world needs to know about.


But where are the so called “big issues”? Politics, Religion, Society, Innuendo? Am I as fatuous and featherweight as my subject matter might suggest? The truth is that they are such weighty topics I fear I would struggle to do them justice in a concise form. They are too important to short change but who wants to come here to read a tome any more than they want to read a political manifesto, the 1st testament, the magna carta or Rogers Profanisaurus? That’s not to say I wont turn my hand to such things in due course but in the meantime somebody has to be the standard bearer for piggy whiffle and it might as well be me.

As this post comes to an end conventional editorial wisdom suggests that I neatly wrap things up with a summary and some conclusions. Rules – who needs them? I seem to have largely ignored them to date and I wish to remain an individual. So no tidy ending, no lessons learned and no moral to the story. You are just going to have to keep on re…