Cycling in Birmingham

At the moment I’m juggling hospital visits, work, being a responsible pet owner, and all the other things I do. This has lead to a few logistical challenges, but since I was kindly loaned a bike a couple of weeks ago I have found new ways to do everything I need to do and still manage to see new parts of my local environment.

I’m not a fan of cycling on busy roads, and although I’ve done it a few times recently, it’s very much a means to and end, and not an enjoyable journey. The ones I’ve enjoyed are where I can use parks, cycle paths and canals to get around – and Birmingham is surprisingly good for those kind of routes if you know where to look.

The journeys I’ve particularly enjoyed (with links to routes) are:

The park near my house to Good Hope Hospital via Sutton Park – I’ve done this one 3 times now, and it doesn’t go anywhere near a main road until Sutton Town centre. One day I will explore the top part of Sutton Park too, but that’s a trip for another day.

An alternate morning commute – This takes me to my local train station, but via two parks rather than a busy main road. It’s quite short (I walk most of this with the dog a couple of times a week), but it’s a really pleasant cycle when the weather is nice.

Good Hope Hospital to the park near my house via lots of parks and cycle paths – After cycling back from hospital twice on the roads, I vowed never to do it again (especially during rush hour). This route got my home more quickly, despite being longer, and is at least 2/3 off road. It’s also a really lovely ride through leafy cycle paths and past meandering streams.

Witton Lakes to the City Centre, via the canals – I’ve dubbed this one the canal graffiti tour, but it’s not quite as bad as it sounds, and it ends up at the Mailbox with only one tiny bit of road cycling on the way. I like graffiti quite a lot, so I suspect I’ll be coming back to this one with a proper camera at some point.

All of this has been really enjoyable, so I guess I’ll be buying a bike (or two?) soon.

A brief interlude

I was just flicking back through my historical blog posts for reasons. One thing that amused me is what I wrote at the end of my 2013 post celebrating our Green Impact campaign at work (

“Hopefully what we have done so far has made a difference, but we already have plans for the next twelve months to build on this good work and hopefully aim for a Gold Plus award this time next year.”

So it turns out I called it. Because we did actually win Gold Plus, which I completely failed to mention in this year’s post on a similar subject. Of course, that means there isn’t anywhere else to go next year other than to try and sustain this year’s effort. But I suppose that is a good sort of problem to have.

And good problems are my favourite kind of problems.

Going Paper Free

I wrote this article for a blog at work, but thought a slightly tweaked version might be of interest to a few people here.

I’ve never been a great fan of printing, so when I was asked to pick a project for the Green Pledge at work I thought a month of not using paper at work would be a good one to go for. The pledge was for the month of November, but I found myself sufficiently weaned off paper that I’ve carried on with it for what is now (at time of writing) over 5 months. I found it fairly easy, although it has been hard at times to get the message across to other people that I didn’t require printed meeting minutes or copies of documents they had already sent me by email.

First off, I don’t think this initiative would have worked anywhere near as well if I didn’t have an iPad. I’ve been using my iPad to take notes at meetings for a while, and from November I stopped carrying a paper notebook completely. On my iPad I have access to my email, internet access if I’m on campus, and I have automated the creation of separate documents for each meeting I attend with an agenda and space to type minutes. This has ensured that I don’t miss action points, and that I have a searchable record of each meeting I attend.

I also think the strategic move to Sharepoint in my workplace has helped. With Sharepoint I can access all my sites and documents using my iPad, and as long as I’ve got an internet connection then I have access to all the information that would normally be printed out and handed around.

But there were some things that were more challenging, and I thought it was worth documenting those challenges and how I tried to overcome them.

1. In order to recruit new staff we have to have various bits of paperwork printed out and signed. This makes sense to me, but I did resent having to complete a document that I knew would be printed out as soon as I submitted it. We’ve got an online eRecruitment tool, and I’m not sure why management and budgetary approvals can’t be handled without paper. There is also another recruitment related issue in that we have to photocopy and sign proof of ID for all candidates. I can do all of this on my iPad, but there is a stated requirement for a paper copy. I’ve not really got a solution for this one, other than to continue to campaign for systems that do not require printing and photocopying to work.

2. We still have printed rotas in our office, which are stuck to the wall each week. I moved these over to Sharepoint early on in the process, but they are still getting printed out as well. I found it really useful being able to access these from anywhere, but I can see why there may still be a need for a paper copy at times.

3. Most people I meet with now know that I don’t require a printed agenda, or minutes of the previous meeting. It took a bit of work to get to this point, but once I explained what I was trying to do (and why) then people were generally fine. However, some people did really not understand why this was a good idea, and/or could not see how it was possible to work without paper. This includes people who have work iPads. As part of this initiative I moved all of our team documentation to Sharepoint, and I now chair and document meetings from my  iPad. At time of writing I’ve not taken paper to a meeting for over 5 months, but unfortunately I have left with the occasional printed document. They have all been either reused by my team, or recycled, but I need to get better at refusing them in the first place.

4. Carrying an internet enabled device with me at all times bought with it a few new challenges. I could check email anywhere, and would also see notifications from Twitter and Facebook when I was in meetings. I largely fixed this with discipline, and also by turning notifications off for anything except work email. I also think that an iPad is much better than a laptop for using in meetings, as the angle an iPad is used at doesn’t present the same physical barrier as a laptop screen does. Also, it’s a lot quieter to type on.

5. I discovered that I spend a fair bit of time in meetings fiddling with my pen. As I don’t carry a pen now, I found myself needing something to do with my hands when I was not typing or talking. Carrying a stylus round helps that, but there is still a lot of temptation to scratch that itch by checking email or Twitter.

I think this was a really worthwhile experiment, and one I plan on continuing with. The only challenge is to come up with something else to do next year.

A tale of two cities

Yesterday we did all the walking in the world, or if not all the walking then enough to result in a huge purple line drawn around several major chunks of the city. We explored beaches and parks, main streets and backstreets, and saw everything from the most opulent parts of the city to the areas which demonstrate a level of deprivation I have not seen for a good while. I always say that when I visit cities I want to experience everything they have to offer, and to try and discover what it would be like to live in them. There are plenty of places here that I would happily live in, but also areas that made me feel very conscious of how privileged I am to be in this city and to have the opportunity to briefly explore areas that the people who reside in them would probably give anything to escape from.

That was just one observation of many, but it is the one that sticks most firmly in my mind.

Other things I noticed were far more positive, and are further evidence that this is the sort of city I feel at home in. I think the main one is probably how environmentally aware everyone is. There are recycling bins everywhere, and sustainability seems ingrained into the culture here. The whole city is very cycle friendly, and I think if I ever return here then I would definitely look at hiring a bike. There is also a decent amount of good public transport, with fuel-efficient bus/tram hybrids, and the sky bus, which is like a cross between London  Underground and a monorail system.

There is also food of every type available, and we have already sampled several delightful cafes, as well as the restaurant at the Four Seasons hotel which was pricy, but worth it for the delicious food and perfect service. Another thing I like to do when I visit a place is to try and eat how the locals do, and I hope to do much more of that over the next couple of days, starting with breakfast as soon as I have finished writing this blog post.

Talking of which, my soundtrack to writing these words has been “Kaputt” by Destroyer. It’s a record I’ve long loved, and one which very much sums up Vancouver to me. I like to soundtrack my travel appropriately, and hearing Dan Bejar singing about Chinatown and Downtown and knowing that I walked those streets only yesterday makes me feel closer to the music in some way, and I am sure that listening to the music in the future will make me feel closer to the city too.

Green Impact

(originally posted as

My department have done so much to promote sustainability and green issues, but in this article I am going to concentrate on the work done by my team – the IT Service Desk.

In 2012 IT Services were awarded a Green Impact Gold Award for the first time. As part of that initiative we looked at the way we work and made some changes. We cut down on paper, explored virtualisation technologies, and set up a green board in the office to make everyone aware of environmental issues and how each person could contribute.

In 2013 we went a little further, and started a more proactive approach to bringing down the carbon footprint of the team, and raising awareness of the role each of us has to play in building a sustainable future.

Initiatives we undertook in 2013 include:

Putting together a whole workstation by re-using and scrounging furniture and IT equipment. We have used a lot of the old kit from Aston Web C-block that was going to be binned, and have actually saved a fair bit of money by doing things this way. People often forget that reusing things is generally better than recycling them, and this initiative nicely demonstrates that. Also, we did it all in about two hours, and carried all the furniture ourselves rather than using a van.

Along similar lines, we have also just refurbished another office using furniture from C-block, and cascaded our old furniture to other parts of the library.

We have a new Green Board, in the corridor outside our office. We have all the usual things, plus a Green Ideas Tree. Students can write suggestions on it, and we can pass these on to the relevant people periodically. We also have a poster detailing iPhone and Android apps to do with sustainability and environmental concerns (including QR codes so people can download them).

For years we have re-used old PCs as servers, test machines, and as a way to have access to as many different OS/browser combinations as possible for testing purposes. This year we measured the power consumption of these older machines and found they were using significantly more electricity that the other computers in the office. As a result of this we now use virtual machines for anything that doesn’t involve running something on specific hardware, which has cut down massively on power consumption, as well as making the office feel a lot less cluttered.

And finally, we’re also trying to raise awareness with our staff. Just little things like asking them to justify having a second monitor, making sure PCs and printers are switched off when not being used, and trying to avoid using fans, heaters, and anything else that consumes a lot of power. We also use an online Knowledge Base as our primary way of disseminating information to students, which cuts down on the amount of paper we use.

Hopefully what we have done so far has made a difference, but we already have plans for the next twelve months to build on this good work and hopefully aim for a Gold Plus award this time next year.