More information has been released about TfL’s plans to turn a long length of land next to a railway into blocks of flats. With a number of towers being planned, they expect to add some 875 homes to the area, with around half deemed to be “affordable”.
The location, Bolo Lane runs alongside the District and Picadilly line tracks between Chiswick Park and Acton Town, and on the railway side, is mostly occupied by TfL car parks and a couple of office buildings.
The other side being light industry, it’s a fairly bleak road with a couple of architectural interests, one of which will sadly be demolished if the plans are approved.
The building that could go is Frank Pick House, currently occupied by TfL’s escalator repair teams, and it’s a rather striking blue metal building, in a very 1980s aesthetic.
Not that appealing to most people frankly, but it’s quite unique in design.
If the current plans are approved, Bollo Lane will be lined with a cluster of blocks, each separated by open space, and to the south end, a fake railway viaduct will create spaces for shops and a elevated garden.
The height of the new buildings will decrease towards the north of the site, with the tallest buildings at the southern end. This is in keeping with the local context, which has seen a number of tall towers built around South Acton and Chiswick Park. In the north near Acton Town station, the development will fit in with the lower-height residential blocks that are common in the area.
The end result will turn an admittedly unappealing road into something lined with lots of housing and some shops. The local feedback, as seems commonplace in consultations called for more independent shops, although there’s usually more practical demand for a supermarket than a boutique coffee shop.
To accommodate more of the smaller shops though, a row of fake railway arches will be built to provide the aesthetic people desire, and a roof-top garden above.
If planning is granted, works could start in Spring 2021, with completion around 5 years later.
I have previously complained loudly about “geek supremacists” and the overall elitist stance I have seen in Free Software, Open Source, and general tech circles. This shows up not just in a huge amount of “groupthink” that Free Software is always better, as well as in jokes that may sound funny at first, but are actually trying to exclude people (e.g. the whole “Unix chooses its friends” line).
There’s a similar attitude that I see around environmentalism today, and it makes me uneasy, particularly when it comes to “fight for the planet” as some people would put it. It’s not just me, I’ve seen plenty of acquaintances on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere reporting similar concerns. One obvious case is the lack of thought given to inclusion and accessibility: whether it is a thorough attack of pre-peeled oranges with no consideration to those who are not able to hold a knife, or waste-shaming with the infamous waste jars (as an acquaintance reported, and I can confirm the same is true for me, would fill up in a fraction of the expected time just from medicine blisters).
Now the problem is that, while I have expressed my opinions about Free Software and activists a number of times in the past, I have no experience or expert opinion to write a good critique of environmentalist groups, which means I can only express my discomfort and leave it to someone else. Although I wrote about this in the past.
What I can provide some critique of, though, is an aspect that I recently noticed in my daily life, and for which I can report directly, at least for a little bit. And it goes back to the zero-waste topic I mentioned in passing above. I already said that the waste produced just by the daily pills I take (plus the insulin and my FreeStyle Libre sensors) goes beyond what some of the more active environmentalists consider appropriate. Medicine blisters, insulin pens, and the sensors’ applicators are all non-recyclable waste. This means that most of the encouragement to limit waste is unreachable for most people on medications.
The next thing I’m going to say is that waste reduction isexpensive, and not inclusive of most people who don’t have a lot of spare disposable cash.
Want a quick example? Take hand wash refills. Most of the people I know use liquid soap, and they buy a new bottle, with a new pump, each time it finishes. Despite ceramic soap bottle being sold in most homeware stores, I don’t remember the last time I saw anyone I know using one. And even when my family used those for a little while, they almost always used a normal soap bottle with the pump. That’s clearly wasteful, so it’s not surprising that, particularly nowadays, there’s a lot of manufacturers providing refills — pouches, usually made with thinner, softer plastic, with a larger amount of soap, that you can use to either refill the original bottles, or to use with one of those “posh” ceramic bottles. Some of the copy on the those pouches explicitly state «These refill pouches use 75% less plastic per ml of product than a [brand] liquid handwash pump (300 ml), to help respect the environment.»
The problem with these refills, at least here in London, is that they are hard to come by, and only a few, expensive brands appear to provide them. For instance you can get refills for L’Occitane hand wash, but despite liking some of their products, at home we are not fond of their hand wash, particularly not at £36 a litre (okay, £32.4 with the recycling discount). Instead we ended up settling on Dove’s hand wash, which you can buy in most stores for £1 for the 250ml bottle (£4/litre). Dove does make refills and sell them, and at least in Germany, Amazon sells them for a lower per-litre price than the bottle. But those refills are not sold in the UK, and if you wanted to order them from overseas they would be more expensive (and definitely not particularly environmentally friendly).
If the refills are really making such a difference as the manufacturers insist they do, they should be made significantly more affordable. Indeed, in my opinion you shouldn’t be able to get the filled bottles alone at all, and they should rather be sold bundled with the refills themselves, at a higher per-liter price.
But price is clearly not the only problem — handwash is something that is subjected to personal taste a lot since our hands are with us all day long. People prefer no fragrance, or different fragrances. The fact that I can find the whopping total of two handwash refills in my usual local stores, that don’t cost more than the filled bottle is not particularly encouraging.
Soap is not the only the thing for which the “environmentally conscious” option is far from affordable. Recently, we stumbled across a store in Chiswick that sells spices, ingredients and household items plastic free, mostly without containers (bring your own, or buy it from them), and we decided to try it, easily since I’ve been saving up the glass containers from Nutella and the jams, and we had two clean ones at home for this.
This needs a bit more context: both me and my wife love spicy food in general, and in particular love mixing up a lot of different spices when making sauces or marinades, which means we have a fairly well stocked spice cupboard. And since we consume a lot of them, we have been restocking them with bags of spices rather than with new bottles (which is why we started cleaning and setting aside the glass jars), so the idea of finding a place where you can fill your own jar was fairly appealing to me. And while we did expect a bit of a price premium given the location (we were in Chiswick after all), it was worth a try.
Another caveat on all of this: the quality, choice and taste of ingredients are not obvious. They are, by definition, up to personal taste. Which means that doing a direct price-by-price comparison is not always possible. But at the same time, we do tend to like the quality of spices we find, so I think we’ve been fair when we boggled at the prices, and in particular at the prices fluctuation between different ingredients. So I ended up making a quick comparison table, based off the prices on their website, and the websites of Morrisons and Waitrose (because, let’s be honest, that’s probably the closest price comparison you want to make, as both options are clearly middle-to-upper class).
If you look at the prices, you can see that, compared with the bottled spices, they are actually fairly competitive! I mean cumin costs over four times if you buy it in bottle at Waitrose, so getting it cheaper is definitely a steal… until you notice that Morrisons stocks a brand (Rajah) that is half the price. Indeed, Rajah appears to sell spices in big bags (100g or 400g), and at a significantly lower price than most of the other options. In personal taste, we love them.
A few exceptions do come to mind: sumac is not easy to find, and it’s actually cheaper at Source. Cayenne pepper is (unsurprisingly) cheaper than Waitrose, and not stocked at Morrisons at all, so we’ll probably pop by again to fill in a large jar of it. Coarse salt is cheaper, and even cheaper than the one I bought on Amazon, but I bought 3Kg two years ago and we still have one unopened bag.
The one part of the pictures that the prices don’t tell, of course, is the quality and the taste. I’ll be very honest and say that I personally dislike the Waitrose extra virgin olive oil I chose the price of (although it’s a decent oil); the Morrisons one is not the cheapest, but that one tasted nasty when I tried it, so I went for the one we actually usually buy. Since we ran out of oil at home, and we needed to buy some anyway, we are now using Source’s and, well, I do like it actually better than Morrisons, so we’ll probably stick to buying it, despite it being more expensive — it’s still within the realm of reasonable prices for good extra virgin olive oil. And they sell it in a refillable bottle, so next time we’ll use that one again.
Another thing that is very clear from the prices is just how much the “organic” label appears to weigh in on the cost of food. I don’t think it’s reasonable to pay four times the price for sunflower oil — and while it is true that I’m comparing the prices of a huge family bottle with that of a fill-your-own-bottle shop, which means you can get less of it at a time, and you pay for that convenience, it’s also one of the more easily stored groceries, so I think it’s fair enough.
And by the way, if you followed my twitter rant, I have good news. Also in Chiswick there’s a Borough Kitchen store, old good brick-and-mortar, and they had a 1L bottle for an acceptable £5.
So where does this whole rant get us? I think that the environment needs for activists to push for affordable efforts. It’s not useful if the zero-waste options are only available to the top 5%. I have a feeling that indeed for some of the better, environmentally aware options we’ll have to pay more. But that should not mean paying £5 for a litre of sunflower oil! We should make sure we can feed the people in the world, if you think that the world is worth saving, and do so in a reasonable way.
Before closing let me just point out the obvious: Source appears to have their heart in the right place with this effort. Having had my own business, I’m sure that the prices reflect the realities of renting a space just off Chiswick High Road, paying for the staff, the required services, the suppliers, and the hidden cost of families with children entering the store and letting their kids nibble on the candies and nuts straight out of the boxes (I’ve seen at least one while we were inside!), without paying or buying anything else.
What I fear we really need is this type of services to scale to the level of big high street grocery stores. Maybe with trade-in containers in place of bring-your-own for deliveries (which I would argue can be more environmentally-friendly than people having to take a car to go grocery shopping). But that’s something I can only hope for.
A very wrong-headed campaign has been set-up that claims that railways are bad for the environment.
Specifically, HS2 — which a coalition of campaign groups argue is going to destroy lots of woodland, promote air travel and dump tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
It sounds very worrying, but it’s also wrong.
The biggest concern, or at least the one generating the biggest awareness is the damage to ancient woodland. Undeniably, digging up any woodland is generally bad, and ancient woodlands do tend to have a more diverse environment, but if the choice is between digging up some woodlands, or encouraging more people to drive cars — which is the lesser of two evils?
On average, motor cars generate 7 times more CO2 than a modern railway trip, and yet if action isn’t taken to improve the railways, which are straining to cope with demand, then we’re just going to push more people onto the motorways instead.
Not good for the environment at all.
But to build a new railway, sadly, yes, some damage needs to be done to permit the construction works.
Ideally, we have both a new railway and preserve the existing woods, but the patches of ancient woodland are scattered like confetti along the route, and unless you put the entire railway in a deep tunnel, the reality is that we’re faced with making choices, so which is the less bad choice to make?
In fact, there’s much to be said that is good from HS2 in terms of woodland impact. Firstly we should look at just how bad HS2 actually is.
The impact is vanishingly tiny. It’s expected that less than 0.01% of ancient woodland will be affected by Phase 1 of HS2 (London to Leeds/Manchester). Of course, that’s not good for the trees that are affected, but if you were to be really concerned about preserving ancient woodland, would you be attacking HS2, or, for example the Lower Thames Crossing — a new motorway tunnel under the Thames which has a huge impact for its modest size.
From an environmental perspective, isn’t it a bit odd that a railway is getting more protests than a motorway extension?
Lets be frank, all ancient woodlands were once brand new woodlands — and HS2’s plans include planting an awful lot more woodland as it is built. Not just as replacement for what’s lost, but actually taking the opportunity to create whole new woods as well.
What’s being planted today will be the ancient woodland of the future.In the long term, there will be more ancient woodland than exists today, which is a huge benefit for the environment.
Long term thinking – what a good idea.
There is also a woodland fund that will support the cost of repairing ancient woodlands within 25 miles either side of the railway.
To put that into context – 10% of England is currently classed as woodland, whereas the woodland fund for HS2 has a potential impact of around 7% of England. Obviously, not all of the potential land would be covered in trees by the fund as it’s replacement only, but it helps show the scale of the tree planting that’s being considered.
In a way, the woodland fund’s huge coverage reminds us that HS2 is not just an isolated railway between cities, but as I have previously shown, a project with UK-wide benefits as its main role is to increase capacity on the older railways by removing the capacity hogging intercity trains so that regional commuter services can be increased.
Improving commuter services helps to encourage motorists out of their cars onto the trains. Another win for the environment.
Another argument against HS2 being put forward from an environmental aspect is that it’ll be a huge carbon emitter during construction. Yes, undeniably that is the case — but the same would apply to say, building new homes or hospitals, and I don’t remember any protests against those on environmental grounds.
The goal that should be supported is how to minimize the impact, or even negate it entirely where possible. Modern technologies are a huge help, and building a new railway to modern standards will emit less CO2 than trying to bolt on bits around the old Victorian network that we have at the moment.
Incidentally, a lot of the extra costs for HS2 are not due to the railway itself, but overly onerous government contractual conditions forcing the contractors to over-engineer the project and build much larger and deeper foundations than is conventionally required. If you want to reduce costs and also reduce the amount of CO2 emitted by all that excess concrete being used, then normalise the contracts
Another part of their argument is that HS2 is not compatible with other trains. Which is absurd. OK, if you want to push a HS2 train down a tube tunnel, then no, they are not compatible. But on the mainline, then most of the rail network will be compatible to some degree with HS2 trains.
HS2 trains will be able to switch to older tracks — in fact that’s an essential requirement from an engineering perspective — so the claim is baseless.
Obviously, a HS2 train wont be as efficient when it runs on a regional railway. It’s rather like taking a journey on a motorway then switching to a small rural road. You can still get most vehicles down the rural road, just fewer of them and rather slower.
HS2 is the same.
While it’s good that we live in a country where the environmental lobby is listened to, and can rightly affect outcomes, a lot of the anti-HS2 argument is sadly misdirected. If your main goal is to reduce carbon emissions, which is a good thing to strive for, then of all the things to target as bad, HS2 is so far down the list as to barely register on them.
HS2 is the least bad way of getting people from one part of the country to the other. Unless we literally ban people from traveling, then it is important that the journey causes as little damage to the environment as possible.
Given the choice between electric powered trains, or petrol based road, or even worse, air travel, railways are by far and away the least damaging option for getting around the country.
People shouldn’t be criticizing HS2, but championing it as an exciting forward thinking environmentally enlightened project.
So, in 2020, lets have less of the bah humbug, and more of the celebrating a green transport project.
The holiday season is usually a great time for personal projects, particularly for people like me who don’t go back “home” with “the family” — quotes needed, since for me home is where I am (London) and where my family is (me and my wife.) Work tends to be more relaxed – even with the added pressure of completing the OKRs for the quarter, and to define those for the next – and given that there is no public transport going on, the time saved in commuting also adds up to an ideal time to work on hobbies.
Unfortunately, this year I’m feeling pretty useless on this front, and I thought this uselessness feeling is at least something I can talk about for the dozen-or-so remaining readers of this blog, in an era of social media and YouTube videos. If this sounds very dismissive, it’s probably because that is the feeling of irrelevancy that took over me, and something that I should probably aim to overcome in 2020, one way or another.
If you are reading this post, it’s likely that you noticed my FLOSS contributions waning and pretty much disappearing over the past few years, except for my work around glucometerutils, and the usbmon-tools package (that kind-of derives off it.) I have contributed the odd patch to the Linux kernel, and more recently to some of the Python typing tooling, but those are really drive-by contributions as I found time for.
Given some of the more recent Twitter threads on Google’s policies around open source contributions, you may wonder if it is related to that, and the answer is “not really”. Early on, I was granted an IARC approval for me to keep working on unpaper (which turned out possibly overkill), for the aforementioned glucometerutils, and for some code I wrote while reverse engineering my gaming mouse. More recently, I’ve leveraged the simplified patching policy, and granted approval for releasing both usbmon-tools and tanuga (although the latter is only released as a skeleton right now.)
So I have all the options, and all the opportunities, to contribute FLOSS projects while in employment of a big multinational Internet company. Why don’t I do that more, then? I think the answer is that I work in a bubble for most of the day, and when I try to contribute something on my spare time, I find myself missing the support structure that the bubble gives me.
I want to make clear here that I’m not saying that everything is better in the bubble. Just that the bubble is soft and warm enough that makes the world outside of it scary, sometimes annoying, but definitely more vast. And despite a number of sensible tools being available out there (and in many cases, better tools), it takes a significant investment in researching the right way to do something, to the point that I suffer from CBA syndrome.
The basic concepts are not generally new: people have talked out loud at conferences about the monorepo, my friend Dinah McNutt spoke and wrote at length about Rapid, the release system we use internally, and that drives the automatic releases, and so on. If you’re even more interested in the topic, this March the book Software Engineering at Google will be released by O’Reilly. I have not read it myself, but I have interacted on and off with two of the curators and I’m sure it’s going to be worth its weight in gold.
Some of the tools are also being released, even if sometimes in modified ways. But even when they are, the amount of integration you may have internally is lost when trying to use them outside. I have considered using Bazel for glucometerutils in the past — but in addition to be a fairly heavy dependency, there’s no easy way to reference most of the libraries that glucometerutils need. At the end of the day, it was not worth trying to use it, despite making my life easier by reducing the cognitive load of working on opensource projects in my personal time.
Possibly the main “support beam” of the bubble, though, is the opinionated platform, which can be seen from the outside in form of the style guides but extends further. To keep the examples related to glucometerutils, while the tests do use absl‘s parameterized class, they are written in a completely different style than I would do at work, and they feel wrong when it comes to importing the local copy of the module to test it. When I looked around to figure out what’s the best practice to write tests in Python, I could find literally dozens of blog posts, StackOverflow answers, documentation for testing frameworks, that all gave slightly different answers. In the bubble you have (pretty much) one way to write the basic test — and while people can be creative even within those guidelines, creativity is usually frown upon.
The same is true for release engineering. As I noted and linked above, all of the release grunt work is done by the Rapid tool in the bubble — and for the most part it’s automated. While there’s definitely more than one way to configure the tool, at least you know which tool to use. And while different teams have often differing opinions on those configurations, you can at least find the opinion of your team, or the closest team to you with an Opinion (with the capital O) and follow that — it might not be perfect for your use, but if it’s allowed it usually means it was reviewed and vouched for (or copy-pasted from something else that was.)
An inside joke from the Google bubble is that the documentation is always out of date and never to be trusted. Beside the unfairness of the joke to the great tech writers I had pleasure to work with, who are more than happy to make sure the documentation is not out of date (but need to know that’s the case, and most of them don’t find out until it’s too late), the truth is that at least we do have documentation for most processes and tools. The outside world has tons of documentation, and some of it is out of date, and it’s very hard to tell whether it’s still correct and valid.
Trying to figure out how to configure a CI/CD tool for a Python project on GitHub (or worse, trying to figure out how to make it release valid packages on PyPI!) still feels like going by the early 2000s HOWTOs, where you hope that the three years old description of the XFree86 configuration file is still matching the implementation (hint: it never did.) Lots of the tools are not easy to integrate, and opting into them takes energy (and sometimes money) — the end result of which is that despite me releasing usbmon-tools nearly a year ago, you still need an unreleased dependency, as the fix I needed for it is not present in any released version, and I haven’t dared bothering the author to ask for a new release yet.
It’s very possible that if I was not working in a bubble all of these issues wouldn’t be be big unknowns — probably if I spend a couple of weeks reviewing the various options for CI/CD I can come up with a good answer for setting up automated releases, and then I can go to the dependency’s author and say “Hey, can I set this up for you?” and that would solve my problem. But that is time I don’t really, when we’re talking about hobby projects. So I end up opening up the editor in the Git repository I want to work on, add a dozen line or so of code to something I want to do, and figure out that I’m missing the tool, library, interface, opinion, document, procedure that I need, feel drained, and close the editor without having committed – let alone pushed – anything.
Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) perched on a tree knot. Wiewiórka (Sciurus vulgaris) siedząca na sęku. <a href="https://flic.kr/p/2hQD3qd" rel="nofollow">https://flic.kr/p/2hQD3qd</a>
Uploaded November 25, 2019 at 09:03AM
Tracking how people move around tube stations by following their smartphones has lead to a number of changes to TfL’s own travel guides.
The data collection, which began in July 2019, is harnessing existing Wi-Fi connection data from more than 260 Wi-Fi enabled London Underground stations. Although TfL has long been able to track people entering and leaving stations through their Oyster cards, and calculate their journeys, the interchanges inside stations couldn’t be monitored other than by manual counting, which is slow and expensive to carry out.
The Wi-Fi data adds the missing piece into the puzzle.
TfL notes that the data is depersonalised so that it has no way of knowing which individual is doing what, but they now have more than 2.7 depersonalised pieces of data to play with, and that has already been throwing up some interesting insights about how people use the network to get from A to B.
For example, a person starting at Waterloo has many different routes to get to King’s Cross, and the tracking found that many different routes are indeed being used.
Now that they have the data, it’s time to make practical use of it, and TfL’s first update has been to their website’s Journey Planner to more accurately reflect the time it takes to travel through stations.
Through collecting data TfL says that it has gained a greater understanding of the routes people take across the network, where they interchange and how long people may have to wait at certain points along their journey due to crowding or maintenance work.
TfL’s own in-house data scientists worked through the data and identified a number of situations where the time taken to travel through a station was longer than they had previously said on their website.
TfL has now adjusted Journey Planner timings for journeys involving 55 stations.
The changes are focused on stations where there are periods of time where crowds build up and slow down how fast (or slowly) people are able to get around the station.
Some examples include Canada Water, which in recent years has become hideously slow to get from the Jubilee line up to the Overground or the exits during rush hours. At high tourist areas like Bond Street, Covent Garden, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus, times have been adjusted to take account of higher usage outside of peak periods due to theatres, museums and other leisure activities nearby.
At stations towards the end of Underground lines in outer London, times have also been adjusted to take account of increasing passenger numbers.
Work is also underway to see what further information can be sourced from the depersonalised Wi-Fi data, such as understanding where customers interchange on certain key routes in London, such as King’s Cross St Pancras to Waterloo and Liverpool Street to Victoria, to see whether better alternatives could be suggested at busy times.
Unsurprisingly, the the aggregated data is also being used by TfL’s advertising partner, Global, to improve where it positions advertising and its ability to report back on how visible adverts are on the network.
Lauren Sager Weinstein, Chief Data Officer at Transport for London, said: “These changes to our online Journey Planner using depersonalised Wi-Fi data collection is just the start of wider improvements we are hoping to introduce which will provide better information to our customers and help us plan and operate our transport network more effectively for all. As we do this, we take our customers’ privacy extremely seriously. It is fundamental to our data approach and we do not identify any individuals from the Wi-Fi data collected.”
Work is now underway to improve data around crowding at platform level to help customers consider alternatives before they travel, and that is expected to be released as a public service next year.