mardi 30 juin 2015

French anti-austerity poll for July 5

Like to vote in the July 5 referendum on continuing Greek austerity? French activists have arranged a poll for you:

(Yet again we see politically convenient dysfunctionality on Twitter):

the true secret of cycling

from the three-at-last department

My guru used to ask "What are the two best things about cycling?" and expect the reply "Pain and suffering." But I, diddling sneakily on a triple, used to wonder what he was on about.

lundi 22 juin 2015

Taking the high road

from the they-don't-have-hills-do-they? department

Everyone who is sincere about encouraging greater use of the bicycle and less use of the private motor vehicle in the urban environment is naturally interested in the experience in the two countries where this tendency is most advanced: the Netherlands and Denmark. But the trend to copy those countries' cycle infrastructure with seemingly minimal consideration about whether this appropriate for its new locality is highly questionable.

Here in Nantes such separatist infrastructure is proliferating, with, in some cases, bans for cyclists who use the (superior) road alongside, so I do question it. (FR) A good example of this regrettable tendency is the two-way cycle track that has been laid parallel to the D75 which runs from the village of Indre, at sea-level on the Loire, to Orvault, ten kilometres north. Orvault bourg is fifty metres above sea-level. To get there, you climb out of the Loire valley, and up onto the lip of the Massif Armorican. This is considered a mountain range by the geologists, though it's a low one.

It's not quite true to say they don't have any hills at all in Holland or Denmark, but basically they don't. In the Netherlands, according to Wikipedia, half of the country is within one metre of elevation above sea level, and another quarter below. Now ask any cyclist: "Do hills make a difference?" Duh!

I rode the D75 last Saturday, and on its rather abrupt climbs and descents reflected just how inappropriate a narrow cycle lane is for such circumstances. Of course the D75 itself is beautifully engineered and smooth, as is normal in France, but the separated cycle lane is narrow, and there is no separate provision for pedestrians who are, admittedly, few. One is obliged to stop (stop line + stop sign) at even the most minor crossings (a hotel entrance, a farm road etc). Entries and exits to it from the major roundabouts are awkwardly angled. I don't have a speedo on the bike, but I'd guess I'd usually go about 45 km/h on the descents. Such a speed is safe enough on a road designed for motor traffic, but the reduced sight lines on the cycle path, and the loss of priority at side roads would make such speeds folly on the cycle path.

On city streets, I guess, I am mostly resigned to playing my part in the charade of motor traffic reduction. If you narrow the carriageway, motorists will drive more slowly, which is safer for everybody, and the so-called "cycle infrastructure" which serves as cover for this reduction in available space for driving is, I suppose, potentially progressive. I've scored a pair of 2-inch wide Schwalbe Kojak tyres for bouncing around the assorted kerbs, tiles, cobbles, and lumps and bumps that Nantes' mayor seems to think we cyclists will enjoy, and I'll certainly be hopping off the cycle path and onto the carriageway as I see fit.

I plan to continue to use the carriageway if I desire brisk progress though, and out in the countryside I'm damned if I'll be chased off France's excellent departmental road network: being able to ride on it is why I moved here.

Happily my fellow lycra-clad compatriots agree: there were quite a few of us roadies still using the road, and quite a few Sunday riders on their mountain bikes on the path (with assorted joggers and dogwalkers). That, it seems to me, is as it should be, though I shall continue to investigate how to reverse the cycling bans on the D75, D39 and D107. A clear statement by the mayor that "of course the paths are for the new cyclists," and "naturally we have no desire to impinge upon the traditional rights of existing cyclists," would be useful (and they can take those "No cycling" signs down while they're at it).

In an attempt to better understand the kind of cyclist who thinks separatist infrastructure would be a good idea, I'm following a few exemplars of the type on Twitter, and trying to understand their point of view. One wears a helmetcam as he commutes on busy A-roads around Glasgow (@magnatom); another is a cycling mother who wants to ride on the road with her four year old in Hackney (@bikesandbabies); and a third a Tyneside cycle campaigner who has a German cultural perspective (@katsdekker).

All three share a touching faith in "better cycling infrastructure." I don't disagree with this for major roads (where there are angled slip roads), but if you were to ask me to increase cycling levels as a policy objective, I'd suggest fewer cars, more courteously driven, and better training for cyclists, not some fantasy parallel reality imagined into being by the most anxious cyclists out there. Cycle training is easy for policymakers to pay for. What is not readily legislated for, but what is really required, is greater respect and courtesy from drivers towards cyclists. Strict liability laws would help. So when Kats Dekker suggested on her blog that:
We should be listening to the people who we want to see cycling in the (near) future i.e. the 97%, and make them the subject of our city cycling research – through their eyes can we see the “real” world. Due to circumstances beyond their control, the current cyclist had to turn a blind eye. The current cyclist is desensitised – not by making a conscious decision.
In other words, ignore the 3% of people who actually do cycle when formulating cycle policy, I did feel impelled to respond:
It is true that a perception of danger is the main reason that non-cyclists cite for not cycling. But people say many things. Yer Conservative voter was famously reticent with the pollsters in the run-up to the recent general election for example. But the underlying problem is that it is not normal to cycle. Most people consider themselves to be normal, and would like to drive a car they've seen advertised on the telly.

As for the minority who do cycle turning "a blind eye" to danger: I doubt that this is true, or they wouldn't be cyclists for very long. Existing cyclists have learned to take their place in the traffic. Yes, road conditions can be demanding, and we can all imagine better. Training helps. "See that cycle lane on the left? Ignore it as you approach the junction!" There: just cut your actual risk of dying on your bike by more than 50%.

Note: if a business is trying to grow, it first tries harder to satisfy its existing customers...

Ms. Dekker has not to date posted the comment, so it is published here on the usual premise that it is rejected comments that are the most interesting and valuable. I note the one (anodyne) comment which was posted under that article seems to have disappeared. This lack of desire to discuss her ideas (which resembles Hembrow's) would be sufficient explanation for her being so mistaken in her views.

mercredi 6 mai 2015

On the ignorance of moral philosophers

 Over the years my online reading has expanded to encompass several philosophical blogs. Of course we all love (phil) knowledge (sophy). So I suppose by a philosophical blog I mean a blog written by someone formally engaged in the activity promulgated by university philosophy departments.
Now in the course of this, I've started to note a pattern in philosophical discourse, in which the author feels free to devise some fairly simplistic example,* and then uses it to reason towards some questioning of a universal value. Here is a recent example, written by Richard Chappell, a philosopher interested in morality at the University of York. In it, he questions the idea that people are equally worthy of moral consideration by inviting us to consider our actions faced with Gandhi and Hitler (as personifications of good and evil presumably) and a single dose of a painkilling drug. I didn't like this, and submitted the following comment:

1) Who was responsible for stock control of the analgesic drugs? Poor job. Most well-established analgesics are cheap. Even with more resource-intensive treatments, there are usually ample rational criteria for selecting patients in whom the treatment would be most beneficial, other than their wealth or putative moral status.
2) The safest, most practical, and most moral course of action is to treat everyone, Hitler, Gandhi (who was no saint), Gilles de Rais, whoever, with as much professional élan as you can muster. In the British Army Medical Corps, for example, there is a certain ethical pride in treating all casualties optimally, whether friend or foe. It's called respect for the Geneva Convention. Would you like to rescind it? And more generally, to do otherwise, in the healthcare domain, is potentially an assault on the patient's right to life. Or perhaps you're planning to do away with human rights as well?
3) In a world in which even professors of moral philosophy question the moral equality of every human being, it is particularly important to be known for trying to treat everyone as well as possible, should you yourself need treatment one day. Imagine a judgmental doctor who considered moral philosophers worthless blowhards and treated them less favourably in some way. That would be awful.

Of course, M. Chappell has no obligation to publish any remark of mine, though I note that he has posted ten other comments, all more cosy to his way of thinking. Setting this comment up has proved somewhat tedious, but I post it here anyway on the general principle that such rejected comments are the most important ones to publish. And Chappell's ideas must be classed in that flora of delicate organisms which survive only under laboratory-controlled conditions, with little, if any, relevance to contemporary problems.

*Stevan Harnad posted a particularly objectionable example of the genre on his Google+ profile recently, inviting the following "thought experiment":
"You are a driver of a runaway train hurtling towards a set of points. You have a switch that can send the train one way or another, but you can't stop. On one track your child has been tied to the rails. On another, someone else's child. What do you do?"
This was presumably designed to evoke contemplation of justice and family values, but my first reaction was: "Well, who's going around tying children to railway lines?" and "err, given the supposèd urgency of the situation, how come you've got this perfect information on the identities of the children ahead?"
But such refusal to join in the philosophical game I fear makes me an unsuitable playmate in this playground.
I dislike all this for the useless waste of time and energy it represents. It is misguided. There is no shortage of real world ethical and moral problems. Why not use your talents and energy to discover and describe real things that have actually happened, then reason about them?

mardi 14 avril 2015

Going Dutch? A note of caution for cycle activists

It's almost certainly unwise of me to publish my original compositions in French: the inevitable clunkiness of my style in that language probably frightens off potential clients, and it is unlikely to be the most useful contribution to debate further afield. Nevertheless, such was my burning desire to express myself during this discussion of the effect of the implementation of cycle lanes on traffic more generally (on the CarFree France site) that I broke the rule. And now, no less a personage than Carlton Reid, author of the excellent (and beautifully illustrated) book 'Roads Were Not Built For Cars,' has asked me to translate my comment there. Happy to oblige! Here it is:

 Like Benchaouche Yassin, I live in Nantes, and I agree with him that the arrival of cycle paths does not necessarily mean there has been an improvement in life for the cyclist. There have certainly been good intentions to make policy that encourages cycling here. And the town hall spends a fair amount of cash on the streetscape dedicated to cyclists. Unfortunately, a "gymkhana effect" has been created: an obstacle course of kerbs, bollards, deviations, unnecessary curves, contradictory traffic signals two metres apart etc—which may make the keen mountain biker happy, but hardly seems the right thing for a humble worker who just wants to get to work with a minimum of effort. And what's more, the sensible cyclist who avoids this traffic engineering bullshit by riding on the road alongside now gets given a lesson—by the medium of the car horn—by drivers. It must remain an absolute principle that the cyclist must always retain his or her right to ride on the road. The new lanes are for the new cyclists, the old, the disabled, and children. Of course, it's always good to have a choice. But often, that choice will be direct and quick, on a smooth road.
"Mummy, why is the cycle lane compulsory?"
"Because it's rubbish."

vendredi 27 février 2015

No more translations from Jacques Guilbaud

I was sad to hear that Jacques Guilbaud died this week. I didn't know him well: indeed it is only today that I have had the pleasure of perusing his website, which bears impressive testimony to his many interests other than that of being a sworn ("assermenté") translator and interpreter in French and English within the French legal system.

But it was this official status which meant so much to me back in 2010 when I was just starting out as a professional translator. He, presumably over-committed, conferred a set of adoption papers to me, for rendering into English. The job–about ten pages–was notable for being delivered by hand, and I recall that it served as the justification for my first ever purchase of OCR software. (After geeking out on the reviews I opted for ABBYY FineReader, which is... fine). The files that ensued were saved as .odt in OpenOffice (as then was) and thence passed smoothly into OmegaT for segment by segment translation.

Though I say it myself, this was pretty cool and efficient, as I then had little work to do formatting the English version when the translation was completed. The job was equally delivered on paper, and Jacques was kind enough a few days later to judge the translation "immaculate"; quotable praise that was deeply appreciated at the time, as was the cheque which arrived with commendable promptness.

Jacques was old school–he gained his official status in the French system back in 1979, when the idea of a personal computer was an obscure Californian passion, the translator a master of recondite knowledge in communion with a collection of dictionaries, and possibly, if successful, a dictating machine and a secretary. The transcriber of such a tape would have heard a soft Canadian English, with its discernible vestiges from the Scottish highlanders who made northern America their home in centuries past; this I always found entirely delightful to listen to, quite apart from the variety and interest of substance in any conversation with Jacques. He will be sadly missed.

samedi 21 février 2015

No more tracks from Geoffrey Carnall

Geoffrey Carnall 1 February 1927 - 20 February 2015

My father died yesterday aged 88. Much will be said in his memory in the coming days and months by the many who knew him, but the contribution I can uniquely make here is to highlight his brief career as a dub recording artist. At the time he was making fairly frequent visits to various London libraries, researching his biography of Horace Alexander. This meant that I had the pleasure of his company on several evenings. As my great passion at the time was creating tracks in a little digital recording studio I had set up in my front room, it was only natural to offer me dear ole pop a turn at the mic.

Part parlour game, part digital experiment, working under a poster that read "Trust me, I'm an artist," I'd quickly diddle a basic dubtrack into existence, before my father proffered his vocal improvisation, in a single take, ministry of quaker-style. Much more might be said about the detail of the process, but it's perhaps only important to note that the tracks were produced for instant online release on my weblog at the time, entitled "dougie's blog." Edits were light, decisions instant, regrets few, and there's a freshness and spontaneity to these tracks that I still enjoy to this day, besides the obvious satisfaction of immortalizing my dad's voice.

All who knew him are invited to the funeral (483kB pdf): Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh at 1500h, Friday 27 February 2015. No flowers; donations to the Peace and Justice Centre, St John's Church Crypt, Princes Street, Edinburgh