Jan 11

Qype: St Pancras International Station in London

LondonTransportationPublic TransportStations

Okay, I admit it. I’m an anorak.

I’m crazy about train stations, and when St Pancras International opened after its long-awaited refurbishment, I visited late night on a Sunday on an architectural pilgrimage with camera and tripod.

I was honoured as a photographer to have one of my photographs of St. Pancras printed onto a large poster and installed into a 2m high display on the concourse of the station itself and featured in the Metro last year for a Valentine’s promotion. (http://www.matsmithphotography.com/photolife-blog/mat-smith-photography-in-metro)

I had the most glorious time admiring its historic beauty, the gorgeous monument to timekeeping that is the iconic Dent clock commissioned as a replacement for the original as part of the Eurostar refurb, the magnificent statue “The Meeting Place” by British artist Paul Day, and the Betjeman statue by British sculptor Martin Jennings; I wasn’t the only one. At this time the station was filled with single old men wandering around gazing in awe with their cameras. It was a bizarre but special night for me.

Since then I have been back a number of times, not to travel, but just to enjoy.

The St Pancras Grand Brasserie, Oyster and Champagne Bar (Searcys at St Pancras) is a fabulous place to enjoy a glass of bubbles. If you sit along the concourse adjacent to platforms, the booths are designed like little train carriages, and when it’s cold you can even grab a complimentary blanket and turn-on the seat heaters using a button below the table. It’s one of my favourite places to drink Champagne.

The station also has a Carluccio’s if you are that way inclined, and the station ground floor concourse has a whole host of places to shop, offering everything from precious gifts, useful travel purchases, M&S Simply Food, restaurants and decent small cafés – something for every budget.

St. Pancras is a destination in itself, a wonderful large open space when you are feeling London-claustrophobia, a place where you can pretend that modern train travel is still romantic, and a useful drop-in for convenience shopping when in the area.

And if you are an architect geek like me, you will love the stunning refurbishment of this historic building.

Check out my review of St Pancras International Station – I am hazymat – on Qype

Jan 11

Confessions of a GTD junkie

My background is music, my teens were spent in music lessons, music centre rehearsals, practising for gigs, listening to music, and my university studies were classical music.

My speciality is improvisation, and if you put me in front of a huge audience and gave me a grand piano and a song request of pretty much anything I could hum (especially something interesting like a jazz tune), I would confidently play the song without music, form my phrases correctly, play with the rhythms, and make a piece out of it. (A skill which is second nature to me, but seems to impress most non-musical people I know.) I am fearless when it comes to musical improvisation, and I know that small mistakes are sometimes what gives a piece character and spirit.

The same is not true of life.

Small mistakes – or forgotten thoughts – lead to lost sales, decreased efficiency, and generally adds to the feeling that there is something important that I haven’t thought of.

(A small example: having to go back to the supermarket because you bought all ingredients for an amazing recipe except the critical one.)

In reality the small mistakes don’t get in the way of my efficiency and rarely lead to lost sales.

It’s more that the fear of small mistakes, and I’m sure this is irrational, the fear of small mistakes is something that hovers over me like an impending huge mistake in itself, unless I have a mechanism to thwart it. Unless I have a tried and tested system.

GTD stands for “getting things done”, and the theory and tools are a very popular subject for discussion on websites such as lifehacker.org.

I have a strong suspicion that many people who place a little too much emphasis on searching for the perfect method of getting things done (rather than just… getting those things done!) have this same affliction.

To put it in a more positive light, I actually enjoy the process of recording tasks. It sounds ridiculous, but in the same way I get caught up with the intricate process of brewing my coffee, with the exact right brew ratios, water temperature, coffee age, pouring technique; I like to get a bit caught up in the process itself. Perhaps it’s because it gives me time to think about other things. Or perhaps it’s just how my brain is wired. I fought it for a while … futile.

By ‘caught up’ I mean that I sometimes stay up late reading the blogs of people who write various GTD (task list) applications, contributing to discussions, and the like.

I flip from one method to another. Windows application, iPhone application, application that syncs between Windows, iPhone, and ‘the cloud’, hosting own php task-list applications online, I even toyed with the “pen and paper” method, which is whereby you write a list on a bit of paper (or in a book) – magic I know.

(This didn’t work out for me as soon as I realised that I keep different writing books for different things, and that my Moleskine exists for me to brainstorm my life mid-week. It’s useful for drawing connections between notes, writing freestyle, and the like, but not appropriate for recording things in a running list whilst I am on a job, in bed, for good, in a searchable, archivable manner that you can come back to at any point.  Also I have this belief that paper should not be used for things that have to be properly recorded, due to their annoying habit of getting lost when you need them.)

I’m a GTD whore, and I often declare my allegiance to one application over another then change my mind.

I am currently using a sub-optimal solution on my iPhone that syncs with a cloud-based system that gives me access to my tasks on a laptop if I need. It’s extremely flexible, safe, and efficient, but sub-optimal for many reasons I won’t go into here.

I have compared tonnes of apps (for an idea of what I mean, see this list – I’ve looked in detail at every one of them myself, and spent many hours customising a number of them for my needs. Yes, I know. Not efficient).

I probably shouldn’t disclose here how many apps I have also purchased for this.

Confessions over.

Jan 11

Sync with cloud – Today ToDo

Please don’t read this post unless you are interested in the title. It will bore the socks off you!

With that out the way, here’s what I think about the subject.

First point. Resist ALL temptation to host own service. This will invariably lead to an enormous amount of dissatisfaction with the app itself as even the slightest outage will globally affect the perception of the entire application, potentially losing an enormous number of users, reputation, etc. User data is personal, business critical, and task lists are extremely important to the everyday running of users’ lives. Even if the service runs slow for 10 minutes in one year, it’s enough to put a large section of the user-base off investing their time in ever using the software again. Even if you have the infrastructure and personnel to provide high-reliability 24/7/365 coverage, with globally distributed failover servers, this will fail unless you are Google, Apple, or someone with a proven track record (Toodledo). It can never go well for you! At least if using a third party service, the blame can be transferred. Enough said.

Now for more observations:

  1. People like me are serious about using cloud services, recommending them to business associates, colleagues, managers, and cloud sync can go very well. For the same reason, it can go very badly.
  2. Even some of the high reliability services (Google, Apple, Amazon, Dropbox, etc.) do not have published statistics as to their *absolute* uptime limits. It’s simply not possible as it depends on too many variables (i.e. global politics). At least if you use one of these services, their reputation is large enough to cover any problem.
  3. On the matter of politics (sorry this is really boring), the most democratic way to run cloud sync service is to provide the software to anyone, open source, so they can either run their own private / personal clouds, or so small companies can start up providing free or paid services. This is less relevant to the argument, but it’s worth stating as the utopian ideal. The problem is that the liability for code vulnerability is shifted then to the developer… big pitfalls there!

Onto the issues of interoperability, usability, usefulness, and profit.

  1. We all know Google is King when it comes to providing reliability of service that is free, as well as reliable APIs. Problem is they have a history of changing their APIs (in the name of development) with little or no notice, meaning you may have to be quick-off-the-mark in providing updates. In reality this isn’t an issue, their service offerings have arguably settled down of late, with the exception of new offerings such as Wave.
  2. ToodleDo and other GTD/task-specific cloud-based services are a great way to reach new customers because you get a listing on their site. It would doubtless impress the majority of existing Today ToDo customers as well. I would judge ToodleDo to be the most reputable service provider, but they have their own business agenda which will impact on your users’ data. For example, unless you have a paid account, archived tasks are removed after 6 months. Therefore your users are forced to pay them a subscription charge in order to keep a perpetual log of what they have done. Many won’t care, and you could provide another way to back this up, but this would force users to remember not to forget to back up their stuff. For me this is a deal breaker. I don’t want to pay a subscription charge for keeping a task list, and I don’t want to have to make sure I back-up every 6 months. This will never happen; I’d rather use pen and paper.
  3. The options with Google as far as I know are to sync with their own task list implementation OR have a custom interface using e.g. Google docs or some kind of implementation whereby tasks are stored as emails / attachments. The task list implementation provides the best usability as it’s reasonably good and supports multiple lists. Access is also good, iGoogle, Chrome and Firefox extensions, and the like. The same is true of ToodleDo. (Though it’s not as good in this sense.)
  4. Dropbox or similar file-based cloud service is designed for storage of files, not custom access to their data. It could be a good way to export list summaries for printing, but then so is email. Unless you committed to providing other interfaces for users to get to their tasks on their computers using Dropbox or Skydrive you would be forced to implement some kind of flat file XML/text storage of items, and deal with the ensuing concurrency issues etc. Not nice.

Of course other services should get a look-in, like MobileMe, but they don’t really provide free options as far as I know. I don’t like the idea. As I said, I would rather use pen and paper.

My ideal solution would be for you to develop a personal PHP or ASP web server with HTTPS connection options, because anyone could host their own on a shared host for the same price as ToodleDo, but in reality this probably isn’t an option. (Is it?)

In summary I would say a clever use of Google tasks would be the most suitable and satisfying for the most users.