The beyond-world

Baker became, during those years of chase, an explorer of what he called the ‘beyond-world’: the wild world of birds and small creatures that existed in hedgerows, in woodlands, in the air, and out on the coastal borderlands of the mudflats and saltmarshes. This ‘beyond-world’ was always occurring, mingling with our world of tarmac and cars and pesticides and tractors, rarely more than a turn of the head or a turn in the road away. Most people were entirely blind to this world, but Baker saw it wherever he looked. In his eyes, the Essex landscape—never more than 150 feet above sea-level, only fifty miles from London, heavily farmed—was as inspiring and elemental as the Pamirs or the Arctic.

Robert MacFarlane, writing in The Wild Places (p. 279), about John Baker’s idea of the ‘beyond-world.’ Baker spent an entire winter tracking peregrine falcons in Essex. Essex, for those of you who don’t live in the UK, is one of the least wild places I know of, aside from a city.

The idea of the ‘beyond-world’ immediately struck me. I love the idea of looking just beyond what is immediately before you to see something else: a plant growing up through a crack in the sidewalk made by the root of a nearby tree, a ruin giving way to nature in the middle of a giant metropolis or an insect you’ve never seen before just outside your door.

In the idea of the ‘beyond-world’ there is something of Rebecca Solnit’s grandmother sources, of listening beyond the single story to the endless stories unfolding around us.

When I lived in Austin, I twice had the experience of seeing the world before me fall away and reveal something else. I was once walking on 12th Street towards the ACC campus, when I reached the top of a hill. At the bottom of this hill was Shoal Creek. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there. Suddenly, I could imagine the entire area covered in trees with just a dirt track winding its way down to the creek. It stopped me in my tracks and lasted only a moment before I went on my way, back in a city on my way to school.

The second encounter with a ‘beyond-world’ was a very different kind of imaginative rewilding. I was walking down 6th Street, when I looked at the buildings around me, just past the neon signs for clubs and bars. In that moment, 6th Street revealed its origins as a pioneer street, something from the Wild West. The architecture was still there, just barely covered over.

I now live in Hampshire, but work in London. London often has this effect on me, often when I’m crossing them Thames at night. There is a flood of histories, but also the strange, simple realization than I’m in London. That I’m living across the world from my home and that I know London better than anyplace I’ve ever lived.

Hampshire is not unlike Essex in some respects. It’s not terribly wild, at least not on our end of Hampshire. We live in a village surrounded by farmland, but we don’t have to go far to explore. My morning run takes me through two different woods and a holloway. On the weekends, we’ll often take an Ordnance Survey map and find a place we don’t know to go explore. These aren’t wild places. They are for the most part ancient rights-of-way, marked on the map in broken green lines. We’re often on these paths alone, and are surprised to come across other people. It gives us time to look at the world, to find a plant or insect we’ve never seen before, to discover interesting stones that may reveal something about the underlying geology or to find scattered hints of other people who have passed this way before.

I believe these mini-adventures are a way of making time to see the ‘beyond-world’ and make us all better at seeing it at times when we might otherwise rush past it.

The Thames is back on the map (and possibly zones)

I’ve been a bit obsessed with the recent changes to the Tube map. It appears that the story may be coming to an end.

According to a story on BBC News, TfL will reintroduce the Thames to the Tube map in December. And it sounds like zones may be back as well.

A TfL spokesperson had this to say:

The overwhelming public reaction is that the Tube and Thames should be reunited, so that’s exactly what we will do.

New maps showing the Thames will be reintroduced from December, the date of the next scheduled revision of the map.

We are also looking again at the provision of zonal information to ensure that it is widely available to customers and aim to reach a conclusion on that, also by December, when the new Circle Line service needs to be reflected.

In the meantime, I noticed two things.

Zones aren’t even provided in the “Index of Stations” on the new paper tube map. This makes me wonder if TfL aren’t considering a flat fee across the network (this is how it works on the New York subway subway system).

The second thing I noticed is an old Tube map with zones at Tooting Bec Station (pictured above). I don’t think this was there on Thursday, but it was there yesterday.

Hampstead Heath

Kite Hill, Hampstead Heath

After seeing this foliage map of the US (via kottke.org), I was initially a bit jealous.

Until I read this article encouraging Americans to visit London. Why? To see the view from the London Eye? To shop at Harrods? Nope. To see the fall foliage on Hampstead Heath.

I’ve mentioned Hampstead Heath recently and taken few photos there. It really is one of my favorite parks of all time, and it’s just a ten minute walk from my office. With any luck, I’ll take some photos of that spectacular foliage this fall.

It’s also one of the few parks I know of with an active twitter account. Apparently, Hampstead Heath’s catch phrase is “Heath love for all.”

New Tube map: no zones, no Thames

The new Tube map is significantly less cluttered than the previous version, presumably in an attempt to address some of the criticism the Tube map has received lately.

Most of the information that has been removed isn’t essential for most commuters; however, as Londonist points out, the removal of zones might cause issues. Personally, I don’t need zones on my day-to-day commute. However, this is crucial information if I’m travelling to some far-flung Tube station. How do I get this information now? I’m not sure. Do I have to wait in the ticket queue just to ask a TfL employee what zone Station X is in? At the moment, I can download the old map from the TfL site, but I wonder how long it is before it disappears. Of course, if I plan my journey in advance, I can always get the zone information from Wikipedia.

This raises some interesting general questions: Is less clutter a good thing when vital information has been removed? Is designing for the 80% always the best idea? When removing rarely-used features, what alternatives should be provided to ease the transition to the new, simpler version?

I should add that I really do miss the Thames, even though I can see that it doesn’t add any useful information.

London Web Standards May: Structuring CSS

It’s that time of the month again. London Web Standards will be meeting on Monday, 11 May.

This time, Justin Cormack of Squiz UK will be leading a discussion on Structuring CSS.

He’ll be covering techniques for creating modular, maintainable CSS. Along the way, he’ll be talking about Squiz’s mashable design, Nicole Sullivan’s Object Oriented CSS and dynamic CSS generation techniques, such as SASS.

It sounds like it’s going to be a fantastic presentation and should lead to the usual lively discussion.

If you’d like to join us, please RSVP on the meetup site.

London to Brighton (again)

Saturday was a fantastic day. Sunshine. Not too hot. Not too cold. The perfect day for a bike ride. In fact, the ride had been planned for some time. Charlie, James and I cycled from London down to Brighton.

What a ride

It was a fantastic ride. My favorite part was Slugwash Lane, which is a typical English country lane. Hedgerow alternated with small woods, where the bluebells were in bloom. It was lovely.

But the most rewarding part of the ride is the ride down to Brighton after climbing Ditchling Beacon. I stopped very briefly (~10 seconds) on the way up, but I pretty much managed to climb the whole thing. And it seemed much less grueling than last year.

It seems that Charlie enjoyed the ride to Brighton, as well. So much so, that he cycled back on his own.

Braver than me

For me, this was just a ride to Brighton on a lovely sunny day. For both Charlie and James, this was a preparation for a much longer ride. Both of them are going to be riding from London to Paris in the Big Issue London to Paris Bike Ride. That’s 240 miles in 3 days. Impressive.

James has a great post on why the Big Issue is worthy of your support, and Charlie has a similar post on why the London to Paris event is important for the Big Issue.

They invited me along, but I declined. I didn’t feel that I would be able to raise the money. What a wimp!

Show your support

So, to make up for my wimpiness, I’m going to urge you to support James and Charlie, even it’s just for a couple of pounds / dollars. Both of them deserve your support, both are very near their target and it’s for a great cause. Here’s how to support them:

I know both of them (and the Big Issue) will appreciate any support you can give.

London Corpse Walks

I’m pleased to announce first London Corpse Walk, beginning in Canary Wharf. It will finish six to eight miles from there, but at the moment the end-point is a closely guarded secret. The walk will start at 10.30pm on 8 March. We’ll be meeting just outside of Canary Wharf Tube station. You’re free to come along, just give me a heads up if you’ll be joining us.

But “corpse walk?” you ask. “What kind of a creepy enterprise is this?”

Allow me to explain.

As most readers of this blog probably know, I like a good walk. Over the last few years some friends and I have walked the London Loop and the Capital Ring. I may have missed a few stages, but we’ve basically walked around London twice over a period of several years.

Last month, we walked the last stage of the Capital Ring. At that point, we had a few options. We could stop going on semi-regular Sunday walks. We could make our way through one of the many books of London walks. Or we could create our own walks. We decided that creating our own would be the best option.

Prior to finishing the Capital Ring, I was talking to Dave Letorey, who mentioned that when he was living in Sheffied, he and his friends created their own walks. The only rule was that each walk had to begin where the previous walk ended.

This sounded like a great idea. Starting where the last walk finished would mean that we’d be more likely to explore new areas of London. I proposed to the idea to the Capital Ring walkers, who also liked the idea. We came up with a few additional rules and dubbed the walks “corpse walks,” after the surrealist game exquisite corpse.

After several months of discussion and planning, I’ve finally bought a domain and put up a website, where we’ll be announcing and recording all of the London Corpse Walks. Drop by have and have a look around. The site is still a work in progress, so if there’s anything you think we should add to it, just let me know.

Snow Day!

Photograph of snow on a wrought iron gate.

As anyone who follows me on twitter probably knows, it snowed in London today. I didn’t go into work, but managed to get some work done from home.

Nevertheless, Joanne and I managed to make a few trips into the snow. I’ve uploaded a a few photos to Flickr. Highlights include the many snowfolk on our street and visiting Stella at the Landor.

There were massive amounts of snow. I can’t remember the last time I saw this much snow. We were pretty sure the back garden was going to fill up.

Elsewhere on the web, Ben Marsh created an excellent application to document the #uksnow tweets on twitter. On Flickr, several pools have sprung up to document the day.

Darwin: What’s the Big Idea? (Part 1)

Yesterday, Joanne and I went to see the Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum. It’s a fairly large exhibition, and we only managed to see a little over half of it. Nevertheless, I’m already very impressed. We’ll be returning to see the other half later this month.

The exhibition feels very comprehensive, nevertheless, it feels very accessible. The reason for this is that the exhibition concentrates on several aspects of Darwin’s story. There is the science, obviously, about which more later. The exhibition also allows you to follow an adventure story: a bright, young man gets the chance of a lifetime to see the world. And there is also the story of Darwin the man and his relationships, both within the scientific community and with his own family.

What most impressed me was the gradual way in which the exhibition introduced Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin’s letters and notebooks take centre stage here. The exhibition picks out key moments in the voyage of the Beagle and explores how each of those moments contributed to the slow genesis of his “big idea”. It is absolutely fascinating, and very well done. At the end of the section of the voyage of the Beagle, the idea of natural selection (or at least of evolution) seem almost obvious. At the same time, you emerge with an appreciation of Darwin’s hard work and eye for detail.

The design of the exhibition also deserves a mention. It is perfect. It feels simultaneously Victorian and contemporary (think McSweeney’s / The Believer with a slight steampunk edge). The graphics are colorful and eye-catching, without being over the top. The brass-edged glass cases in the Beagle section feel suitably nautical. A detail as simple as the faux stitching along the edges of the labels in the document cases captures a sense of a time when most documents were hand-written.

I have only two small criticisms of the first half of the exhibition.

The first is not really a criticism of the exhibition itself. We were told that an hour and half would be plenty of time to see the whole exhibition. It wasn’t. I’d recommend giving yourself at least three hours if you want to take in the whole thing. Fortunately, the folks at the Natural History Museum were kind enough to give us vouchers to come back to see the second half of the exhibition.

My second criticism — and it is really more of a regret — is that some of the scientists featured in the short film at the end of the Beagle section sounded almost defensive. On second thought, that ever so slight tone of defensiveness may have been appropriate given that the second section explores the reasons that Darwin took almost 20 years to publish his theory. From my brief glimpse at that part of the exhibition, it also explores the ongoing reaction to his theories.

Despite these small criticisms, the exhibition is a must see. The amount of research and hard work that has gone into it is worthy of Darwin himself. It is certainly worth the £9 entry fee.

Update: We also visited the London Ice Sculpting Festival, which Joanne has covered on her blog and I uploaded some photos to flickr.