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Archive for the ‘Personal Musings’ Category

Presidents Day weekend in the United States and we get some upsetting news about the death of a colleague whilst out hiking in the mountains.

Kate Matrosova was one of the primary users of the IT system that I manage. I never met her in person and was of help to her a couple of times. According to my colleagues in New York she was kind, sociable and popular, fairly new in the job. If the news reports are accurate she simply made a bad decision to go hiking alone as a vicious storm hit the North-Eastern USA.

Whilst trying to find out what had happened, I came across two reports: this one from Bloomberg. and this one from the (Daily) Mail Online. As these stories are usually taken down after a while I thought I would save the presentations.

Bloomberg

KM_Bloomberg Report

 

Compare and contrast with The Mail, who lead by  commemorating her main achievement in life: marrying someone who works at J.P.Morgan…

KM_DailyMail1

(For those outside of banking, a Vice President at an American bank is generally anyone that has been there for around 5 – 10 years. Figures are hard to come by but 30% of permanent staff is a reasonable guess. Oh, a “$1 million apartment in Midtown Manhattan” would be about 1 bedroom. We have more expensive two-storey terraced houses in the street next to ours.)

Anyway, the Mail couldn’t help notice she was a good-looking blonde, hence her life is illustrated with lifted Facebook images, alongside the Mail’s business as usual “disturbing pictures of a Lolitaesque Selena Gomez”. I’m not sure who Selena Gomez is.

KM_DailyMail2

 

So farewell then Kate. Well done you for snagging a nice husband.

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It feels bizarre to say that I’m happy we’re able to stop going to a big, well equipped swimming pool every weekend, but that’s the way it is.

Cambridge has two main public indoor swimming pools plus quite a few quietly tucked away in sports centres, colleges, gyms etc. The larger is Parkside Pool, the other is Abbey Pool. There are also at least two outdoor pools and some paddling pools in playgrounds that are filled during the summer.

Parkside and Abbey are both council-owned and – inevitably – outsourced to a specialist leisure services company. They are “Sports Leisure Management” but they have the same ad agency as the “Dave” TV channel and since 2008 call themselves “Everyone Active“. The closer one to our house is Parkside Pool, which is slap bang in the centre of Cambridge, overlooking Parker’s Piece.

Parkside Pool Cambridge

Parkside Pool Cambridge

Parkside  has the distinction of winning one architecture journal’s “Building of the Century” award, although it’s not clear how strong the competition was. It is a fairly spectacular edifice.

Parkside Pool Cambridge - 1

Inside are three pools: a 25m lane pool, a diving / family pool (the pool floor is depth-adjustable as a young woman found to her cost a few years ago) and a young childrens pool that also doubles as a jacuzzi for users of the health suites in the same building, assuming they like small children.

There are also two flume tubes: a larger one for going down in inflatable boats and a smaller one for bodies only. There is a large amount of spectator seating and a fairly run of the mill cafe, which I’m amazed has not been outsourced to Costa or similar.

It should be a lovely place to visit but I’m looking forward to abandoning it. My rant – for that’s all it is – is as follows, in no particular priority order. Dear “Everyone Active”, please can you…

  • Implement a snake queueing system, so that at busy times there are not people queuing out of the doors and thus bringing January temperatures into the building.
  • Develop and publicly disclose a pricing structure whereby if you are going to charge children for having a general swim after their swimming lesson, only charge them half of the normal one hour full-swim rate.
  • Develop and publicly disclose a pricing structure whereby you can support restricting access to the child and family pools at busy times (i.e. “Main Pool Only” costing slightly less than “Access All Pools”), as opposed to simply issuing people with “Main Pool Only” armbands unless they specifically ask to swim in the family pools.
  • Not issue a “Main Pool Only” arm band and then not tell the purchaser – with their kids in tow – that they cannot use the family pools until they are climbing in. This did not happen to me but I’ve seen it happen twice.
  • Have the wit not to sell “Main Pool Only” armbands to parents with small children in tow, especially as non-swimmers are not allowed in 66% of the 25m pool.
  • Try and correct the original architect’s error in not having a wall between the pool zone and the cafe / reception / outside world zone, i.e. implement an airlock (see earlier point about queuing out of the front door and its effect on temperatures).
  • Try and correct the error made last year when attempting to implement an airlock by building an internal wall between the pool area and the cafe, whereby the automatic door in that wall is sited right next to the main toilets so that every time the toilet door opens, it trips the internal wall’s automatic door’s sensor, which opens and whoosh goes the airlock.
  • Not wedge open the non-automatic doors in the internal wall.
  • If you manage busy periods by asking people to wait in the cafe before selling them tickets, maybe give them a number as they arrive so that when you resume selling tickets, the people waiting longest get to buy them first rather than the people who have just that second turned up and started queuing.
  • Operate a “blue shoe zone” where at least one of the blue overshoe dispensers actually has blue overshoes (plastic bags) in it at all times. Especially at 09:15 in the morning.
  • Genuinely try and keep outside shoe dirt out of the wet areas by employing someone to monitor the area and stop people tramping mulch all the way in to the changing rooms. They do this in the Scandinavian countries, it’s not hard.
  • Instruct the poolside staff (sometimes called life guards but generally just bored students) that in summer, whilst they may be warm and want to open various doors to get a breeze through whilst cooling down with a slushy, the wet children in the swimming costumes might not appreciate the breeze.
  • Provide adequate space near the family pools for towels and bags to be placed. I believe they are now banned from where they used to be placed (i.e. for the last 6 years) because of some just noticed fire safety / evacuation route concerns. Fire safety is obviously very important in a swimming pool.
  • Allow children to go down the flume tubes if they are tall enough, rather than make them wait until an arbitrary birthday. The flume tube in Banbridge – completely in the dark – is much scarier than the translucent ones in Cambridge, yet there is simply a height restriction.
  • Do not ask people to hold their locker key wristbands in their hands as they go down the flume tubes, given that they can just as easily be worn: “wrist-band”,  clue’s in the name. This is especially true if you also don’t allow people to put them in their shorts pockets. Let’s face it, if you are trying to stay in an overtoppling inflatable ring your first priority is to hang on so that you don’t fall out and get run over by the inflatable boat or your ride partner, not worry about holding on to anything else. Yes sharp objects can scratch the inside of the tubes but at the moment I’d be more concerned about the leaking water from the tubes, TBH…
  • Find some way of publicising pool closures other than a sheet of paper next to the reception till, which is particularly good if you’ve just parked the car in the multi-storey next door. Let’s see, some way of publicising information to a wide community in the city of Cambridge, home of Microsoft, Autonomy, RedGate… think think think…
  • When imposing an unrealistically low “maximum number of bathers” limit on a big family pool, maybe have a way of controlling access to and from it, rather than letting anyone jump in and out from any point along the sides if they can get away with it. Makes it easier for the bored students to count the heads.
  • Maybe have more than one coat hook in each family changing room.
  • After giving people paper armbands with a pull-off tab covering the adhesive strip, have a small bin in each changing cubicle that can be used to throw the tabs and later the armbands away without them littering the floor and degenerating into sludge.
  • Maybe clean the pool once in a while? Tidemarks and grit on the bottom are not appealing.
  • I’m not sure why the life guard watching the small children’s pool has to permanently carrying a life ring. Whilst there is a need for a life ring across the pools – e.g. a very heavy person collapses and goes under – shouldn’t it be carried by the bored student watching the 1.8m deep 25m pool rather than the 0.5 m deep small children’s pool? Even more so given that the ring is too big for any child.

 Lifeguard1

Whenever I see the lifeguard carrying that thing I am reminded of the Pixar move “Up”:

ConeOfShame1

  • When making announcements about which bands are timed to come out of the pool, have this done by people in the pool area rather than the remote reception staff who are often busy doing other things and forget to do it at the right time.
  • Have a visual cue showing which bands are supposed to be out of the pool, given that announcements from a speaker 10m above your heads are usually not audible by people who have water in their ears and are amongst splashing children.

All pretty minor. So why are we abandoning this wonderful place?

Alex – who used to love swimming – cannot stand her swimming teacher.

I’ve always been wary of parents complaining about teachers because teachers have a fairly difficult job in the first place, have to manage a group rather than our precious individuals and normally I would trust people who have had some training over the opinions of amateurs who aren’t there all the time.

In the case of Alex’s swimming teacher I’m mixed. The teacher looks like they don’t care, doesn’t offer anything in the way of encouragement to the children and tends to stand at one end and shout rather than move with the children as they traverse the length of the pool. The children are still of an age / standard where they would benefit from having someone in the pool with them to show them how to do the strokes, i.e. actually move their arms and legs so that they get the hang of it. Then ending the lesson by making wet, tired children get out of the pool and stand shivering, waiting to jump into the much colder main pool, into water deeper than themselves, is also not winning any friends. Maybe do this shock therapy at the start of the lesson and then get the children straight into the warmth of the teaching pool?

Against this, I remember that when she was about three years old, Alex used to be resistant to putting her ears in the water and would not go on her back. We did not want to force her into this, being non-torturing sorts of people, however Alex’s (Portugese) swimming teacher basically told us we were making a mistake. “You are just teaching her to say no, not to swim.” We started forcing her and after initial hysterics all was fine. There’s an element of that at the moment, but sadly I think that the damage has been done.

Anyway, having had tears before leaving on most Sunday mornings and a distinct reluctance to get out of bed, we’ve admitted defeat and are looking for an alternative venue. The Abbey Pool is smaller, harder to get to, not so well equipped for very young children or accompanying adults but probably a better place to learn to swim. Let’s see what we can do.

For Parkside, the management seems to be suffering from extreme piclophobia. There used to be a single poolside sign with the rules on, which were almost literally “have fun and don’t do anything that would annoy others”. Now we have “don’t do the following…” signs all over the place: they’ve got a laminator and they’re not afraid to use it.

Ideally they should re-brand themselves “Everybody Anal”, I think, and that may certainly help traffic to their website.  Sadly, owing to the growth of Cambridge they’re not going to have a problem filling the place and really don’t have to try too hard. Just sit back, employ as few people as possible and rake in the profit.

Thanks, Cambridge City Council.

*Piclophobia: Fear of Personal Injury Claim Lawyers. Also known as “The Madness of ‘king Health and Safety” by the Daily Mail

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The nearest coffee shop to our house is Hot Numbers. I’m told that this is the go-to venue for the  coffeescenti of Cambridge, a group that would not usually include myself.

I went a couple of times just after it first opened and was under-impressed by the prices, selection of food and once the attitude of one of the serving staff.  Since then, the major thing that has changed has been myself, in that I no longer drink buckets of foamy espresso-tainted milk laced with sugary additives designed to make them taste like anything except coffee. Anybody seen Caffe Ritazza’s Caffe Tiramisu, for example? I couldn’t find a link for their latest, which is Apple Pie flavoured latte.

Anyway, Stephanie’s granny took her to Hot Numbers recently and Stephanie was enthused by the babychino [sic] offerring so asked to go and visit it today.

Flyer 2

I found it an interesting place to visit, although it’s still pricey. I didn’t actually see any prices displayed so cannot confirm the true whack and I have a slight suspicion that the server double-charged me for one coffee, but roughly “50% on top of Costa prices for a similar order” would not be far off.  The food selection had improved and the Chelsea buns were tasty, sourced from Fitzbillies (who made our wedding cake, back in the day but have since gone out of business and re-opened). It would be good if they could look at sourcing buns etc from The Norfolk Street Bakery as well.

Fitzbillies Chelsea Buns

Entering the place just ahead of us was a family who had collected their teen daughter from some sporting event and had parked the large new BMW outside. She was dressed in Perse School kit, which gave a hint as to their affluence as if the enormous BMW had not Earwigging on their conversation I was struck by the fact that they had actually driven to Hot Numbers specifically, so the place is doing not too badly. I also noticed that the cafe had a pair of NACSound Sonance Omni speakers out front (along with brochure). These speakers actually retail for more than the value of my car, although you’d be hard pressed to find a price quoted for them. Somewhere between £1,000 and £3,000 depending on the source.

Serious Audio

Comfortably settled inside…

Service for Steph

… I noted many more similarly well heeled looking people discussing businesses, plans and so on. There are a few little businesses clustering in this area now and we also have the Microsoft research lab just opened about 5 minutes walk away, down by the station. Lloyds of London started through people meeting in places like this (although presumably with less impressive audio hardware). There’s hope for us yet.

Coffee House Cambridge

Speaking as a reasonably affluent middle class individual, we’re well served for food in this odd little micro-domain within 10 minutes or so walk of our house. This has also been recognised by the Guardian. I made a map based on our own eating out experiences.

Sometimes it’s nice to live around here.

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So yesterday I had Stephanie (aged 4) with me when I nipped into a bike shop to pick up a new lock. Steph starts looking to try out some of the bikes. Fine with me, she’s the right age.

A friend of hers from nursery is there, getting a basket… for her scooter. Said friend points Steph away from the bike she was looking at and towards “the girls bikes”. At this point I am starting to bristle, and not just because I still have my Movember growth.

The idea of “girls bikes” has always annoyed me. Painting it pink is one thing, but we then have three things that are missing from every “boy’s bike” in the shop:

  1. Baskets
  2. Tassles coming out of the handlebars.
  3. A “child-carrier” seat on the back for a doll.

An example with a basket.   If baskets were there because “they’re actually quite practical”, why do none of the boys bikes have them? Presumably because boys won’t have handbags when they grow up.

An example of the rest (that Stephanie tried out). To quote the description: “And with a doll seat and tassles its perfect for any little girl”. Obviously they have never met Steph in all her many disguises…

Apart from aesthetics, my problem with tassles is that I was told at a young age that you don’t put lots of doofers hanging around your bike that would get into the moving parts. A dolly carrier may be a nice toy but bikes aren’t toys. Distractions? Great when you are learning to cycle on Cambridge’s narrow roads. Anyway, a child seat actually prevents you from dismounting the bike by swinging your leg over the seat, as I have found out to my pain whilst having the real thing mounted on my bike over the last 5 years. But of course demure little girls wouldn’t be dismounting like that, would they?

So, sorry local bike shops (of which there are many in Cambridge) but unless you can do better then our Xmas shopping is going to Argos for one of these,  which, whilst billed as a boy’s bike, would suit Steph’s current Pirate obsession. Oh and here it is in “girl”.

When are we going to get a range of children’s bikes that will encourage girls to grow up into the mighty Victoria Pendleton?

Victoria Pendleton

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An update to this post.

Since writing my original post I have had the joy of just missing a train (thanks, London Underground) with the next one delayed. The train I missed was the 19:15 on a Friday night, hence the busiest time of the week.

Having the chance to look around was good, the new fast food options are interesting, if expensive. I had to fight the impulse to tuck in to sushi, felafel or tacos that I didn’t actually need.  The pub has a good choice of beers and food but has been built with an absolutely lethal step down as you approach the bar. I cannot but think that the likelihood of a handful of drinks going flying most nights is high.

Otherwise, the experience was exactly the same as waiting for a delayed train in a building with a less-gorgeous roof.  One new observation: a welcom addition to the range of services available would be a chiropractor or masseuse. Half an hour of staring hopelessly at the really quite high departure boards doesn’t half take it out on you.

And the final thing on the wish list?  Trains with toilets that do not flush straight onto the tracks.  Before summer, please.

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The new extension to Kings Cross Railway Station has been open for three weeks, after a similar number of years of construction work.  There is still plenty of work to do to the Western Concourse – more shops to be opened, AFAICS –  and also to the rest of the station.  For the station, the existing front canopy is to be removed and much of the surface of the great glass roofs are still under scaffolding and cladding. I’m told that the project will end up costing £550 million, although the provenance of that figure is unclear: it has been reported in the press but what it actually covers is vague and may include  (e.g.) the cost of moving Kings Cross / St Pancras Thameslink Station half a mile .

Commuting through it (sort of) every day, my impressions are as follows:

  1. The new Western Concourse looks magnificent from inside and out;
  2. It is good to have the choice from the new shops and eating places;
  3. It’s good to have a pub at the station after about four years without one. The prospect of stopping there to watch the footie when I am coming back late is very appealing, assuming they shell out for the Sky Sports licence;
  4. It has been built on the expectation of massive increases in passenger volumes and train operations.
  5. It has not been built for the needs of commuters.

This last comment deserves an explanation if I am not to be described purely as being a curmudgeon.

 

First, anyone exiting the tube station via the Euston Road entrance / exit now cannot get to the platforms via the southern station entrance. This is the old main tube entrance that services most of the lines (except the Northern).  To get into the station, travellers are routed to the Western concourse, which is not an issue if you have plenty of time, but if you are struggling then you will find that an unnecessary minute or more has been added to your journey. This is exacerbated if your train is going to leave from the lower-numbered platforms (Zero, One etc.). The Western concourse is a station’s width away from platform Zero, whereas if you could just walk to the platform directly from the southern entrance / exit it is half that (or whatever the geometry of triangles comes out at).

 

Second, the architects have presumably planned to have everyone moving in a single direction, i.e. West to East when entering platforms Zero to Eight and North to South when leaving them. Great when you start having huge passenger volumes, as you occasionally do in the rush hours. This has an added advantage that you only need station assistants on one side of the barrier at each spot. A disadvantage is that where you have a new train arrived (e.g. Platform Seven) and people moving to board another train (e.g. Platform Five), the North to South mob is likely to intersect with the East to West congregation, like “crossing the T” in an old fashioned naval battle.  There is now a bridge across the platforms at mid-platform point with escalators down and RADAR key-operated lifts. If I was in a wheelchair I wouldn’t like to trust these latter to be working, however, as if your lift is not then you have a long trip back to anywhere that you can then access your platform from. Better to always use the ground floor entrances.

 

Third, it is possible to walk underground from the London Underground platforms in the south and exit into the Western Concourse. I tried this once and discovered that the previous up/down staircase sited right next to the platform barriers has now been made down only. This means that you have to walk back south or else on to the next exit, at the northern end of the northern concourse – about 100 metres – followed by doubling back more or less the same distance above ground to get to the platform entrances.

 

Finally, the shops. There are a few “brands” there and I can see the likelihood of me giving people presents bought (at the last minute) from Hotel Du Chocolat increasing. Again this is geared at the occasional traveller. Most commuters have trains every half hour or so,  we aim to arrive near the train departure time. When we get to the station we just look to get on the train and get a seat before the crush gets too bad. The only times that we commuters spend time in stations are:

  1. When we  really want to arrive in sufficient time not to miss a train (usually late at night, having been working late or out on the lash);
  2. When we’ve just missed a train ;
  3. When our train is delayed, usually along with all the others.

 

In the first case, the best thing would be to have the fast food outlets sited as close to the platform entrances as possible. We just need the capacity to grab something and make sure we don’t miss the train. Now, there is a “posh cafe” outlet of “Leon”  near the new barriers but most places are at the Western extremity and, more so, on the upper level. Burger King – which is always quick, if not exactly filling, is now in the “Arrivals only” part of the station, effectively killing 75% of their trade. I bet the franchisee is happy.

 

In the middle case, the new Kings Cross is ideal. It has the obligatory M & S Food store to complement the vile Whistlestop supermarket that is now in the “Arrivals only” part of the station. Both are hideously expensive but with M & S you can buy stuff that is both tasty and overpriced, rather than just the latter.

 

In the third case, we suffer from information underload. We’re aware that our train is delayed but have no idea how long for.  The railways are unable to cope with things not running as they should and are unable to put up “estimated time of departure” times. At Kings Cross,  they will normally post the train as “on time” right up to the second it is due to depart, even if the train before it is still showing as “Delayed” and every platform is empty. This means we have no visibility on expected delays. As a result, we don’t want to head off to shop or eat as we know that  the moment a departing train is announced, everybody will pile onto it and it will leave within nano-seconds. Woe betide any poor soul that has just been standing around for 45 minutes and had popped off to buy a sandwich and drink.

 

Overall, I suspect that the development has been shaped by the large office / residential development that is happening to the north of the stations. A subsidiary of my employers have taken a lease on a new building there, in between Kings X and St Pancras, that will break ground after the Olympics. It would be great for my daily commute if they packed me off there, to be honest. My theoretical lunch hour could then be spent sampling the shopping delights of Kings Cross at leisure, rather than strolling around the duckpond in Regent’s Park. My lunch hour is theoretical as I cannot remember the last time I actually left the building at lunchtime.

 

The new building does all look great, though. They had to fit it in with the existing curved facade of the Great Northern Hotel so a circular design makes sense. It does remind me of the end of “This Island Earth, with a flying saucer half poking out of the sea. I see photographers in the concourse every day. I’m sure I’ll get used to it, although on balance I would prefer £550 million to be spent in other ways, rather than creating a great roof to admire as I wait for a delayed train…

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One of my favourite paintings…

Christina's World

from one of my all-time favourite 20th Century sites:

Christina’s World at Mark Harden’s Artchive

…. and for the InfoGraphic generation…

Christina’s World

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