mercredi 11 novembre 2015

Is cycle infrastructure the new helment?

from the new-Fordist-distractions department

The open access arm of the BMJ has just published the results of an ecological study from Canada, where legislators have created an interesting natural experiment by requiring cyclists to wear helmets in some provinces, but not others. The authors claim surprise that they found no effect in either the overall injury rate or the head injury rate between the provinces, though those of us who have followed what BikeSnobNYC calls the helment (non-)issue are perhaps less surprised. Forced by their negative results to admit helmet legislation has no effect on the substantive issue--reducing danger for cyclists--the authors then proceed to claim that "more cycle infrastructure" is the solution. Although they review the literature, they themselves have no data to add, and as the issue of road design and behaviour is fraught with complication, conflicting interests, and perverse effects, I thought they weren't entitled to a free pass at their sweeping and not altogether well-founded discussion.
As ever when someone is wrong on the internet, I freely composed a comment for the delectation of both the authors and the public. This the BMJ have failed to publish, so, in the best traditions of this blog, it appears here:
These are valuable results and the authors are to be congratulated on their clear presentation.
Given the health and well-being effects of regular cycling, the overall risk of hospitalisation of 622/100 million trips is worthy of wide attention: a chance of ~1 in 160,000 that your trip will end in hospital rather than your intended destination is really rather low, even in the present motor-dominated environment.
However, the recommendation by the authors that more "bicycling infrastructure" is the answer to increasing modal share, thereby augmenting the "safety in numbers" effect is controversial, and is neither justified nor refuted by the evidence presented here. (Cyclists were asked about whether they used their bicycles, not about the routes they took).
My own view is that developed countries already have a highly developed infrastructure that is ideal for cycling called the roads, and that the real problem is negligent driving. Some design features that privilege more direct routes for cyclists and exclude excessive motor traffic (cycle contraflows, modal filters, bicycle boulevards) may be useful, but the real enemies remain excessive speed and drunk driving, and the newer menace of distraction by mobile devices.
Effective measures to reduce these, including stricter policing, driver education, strict civil liability for drivers who collide with cyclists, and proper accident investigation to ensure lessons are learnt, are more important elements for those who would emulate (and surpass) best European practice.
I shall footnote this comment with two more:
1) I am surprised and disappointed at the BMJ's failure to publish the comment in situ, though I suspect this reflects organisational failure to monitor the relevant disqus account rather than any conspiracy to silence me.
2) I suppose it is not surprising that people deluded into a focus on the victim-blaming issue that is cycle helmet promotion and compulsion, will, brought to their senses by the lack of supporting data, switch their allegiance to the unicorn of "cycle infrastructure," instead of the elephant in the room of much-needed motor traffic reduction, better driving-related laws, enforcement thereof, and driver education. These present real challenges of course: but addressing them is what's needed, not demands for a parallel reality of "cycle infrastructure" before cycling can be widely adopted.
And given that such infrastructure is often second-rate while delegitimizing existing cyclists' right to the road, they may be assured that this cyclist at least, will keep calling them out, until his dying breath has been finally drawn.

lundi 5 octobre 2015

Separate development? Or civilised behaviour?

I recently commented on a Guardian article discussing recent deliberate attacks on cyclists in the UK, which uncritically presented the statement:
building segregated bike lanes [is] proven to be the best way to prevent such deaths
 I reproduce it here, for ease of navigation:

Reference required? It is rather a controversial matter. It is true that the countries where extensive segregation of cyclists has long been practised (Denmark, the Netherlands) have markedly better safety records than their neighbours. They are no paradise though: there are still 200 cyclist deaths a year in the Netherlands, for example.
But their segregated networks have been obtained at a certain price: the exclusion of cyclists from many parts of the road network (and its superior surfaces and direct travel lines), and slow and complicated junctions.
A Canadian study has showed higher accident rates for cyclists who habitually use footpaths rather than the carriageway. Most collisions happen at junctions. Footpath (and cycle lane) users generally find themselves at a positional disadvantage with respect to the traffic flow just when they most need to be correctly positioned.
A pre-eminent Dutch road safety expert has just published a paper (paywall, sorry) admitting that, in part, his country's superior cycling safety record is because their cyclists ride more slowly. They have to, on often tight cycle paths. Waits at complicated junctions can be long too.
Building cycle paths does reduce the space available for other modes. Such paths are the cowardly choice of the policymaker too timid to confront head-on the reality that the private motor vehicle is a dysfunctional form of urban transport, but nevertheless would, understandably, appreciate less noise, pollution, danger and fewer parking spaces in their town centre.
It has little to do with increased road safety for cyclists though: in fact, life for the cyclist may well be more difficult after they have been implemented, though if this also means fewer motor vehicles in town, this may be nicer for everyone.

Here's a video from the UK of the kind of angry entitlement we can expect from motorists once a cycle path, however unsatisfactory, has been built alongside a main road. Talk about realpolitik! (Cyclists in the UK retain their right to ride on the road, and are not obliged to use any cycle path.)


Thanks to the authors of these tweets for inspiring this post:

dimanche 30 août 2015

Sorting out saddle problems

from the keep-dancing-on-the-pedals department

This article appeared in the pages of Cycle, the membership magazine of the CTC, almost ten years ago. It doesn't seem to be easily available online there, and it's still useful, so I'm pasting it here for those in need.

 When I confessed to my own saddle problems in the rather public forum of the London Cyclist ten years ago, I certainly discovered one thing: cyclists' bottom problems are a taboo area. There were lots of giggles for a few months after publication, though fortunately the dignity of my profession enabled me rise above them. The article also proffered the anecdote of my own resolution of the problem--a couple of boils on the perineum. Round town I switched from gel to sprung leather, and, on long distance rides, adopted a recumbent. Result: no more problems.
The part of the body that relates to the saddle on a conventional machine is technically termed the perineum. Now, most animals are quadrupeds, and their perineum has less to do, being vertically inclined and acting as the side, rather than the base of the bucket. But humans' upright stance makes the pelvic outlet (as it is known) an insoluble conflict between ease of labour in childbirth and mechanical efficiency when walking on two legs.
The umbrella of muscles suspended from the inside of the pelvis and sacrum collectively is known as the pelvic floor. In men its only defect is the anus, but woman need the space of the birth canal too. Hence, as is widely understood, the adult female's broader girth about the hips, on average, than males.
This fact of nature—the distance between the ischial tuberosities that form the lateral bony boundary of the pelvic outlet—is an important variable in saddle selection. Best bought in person, grasp the demonstration model in the shop, and bring it firmly into alignment with the your ischial tuberosities there and then. Any saddle whose widest part is narrower than this distance runs the risk of inflicting pressure injuries potentially deeper than the skin, as the right and left perineal blood vessels and nerves course forward to the genitalia close to the midline. The anus is also in the midline, but its internal and external sphincters are reasonably robust to saddle trauma.
Out of the shop, saddle correctly fitted, the most obvious saddle injury, instantly painful, is an unexpected blow from an unyielding saddle on an unsprung bike. Unexpected road surfaces--I speak of potholes--can result in a stiff biff where the sun don't shine that is rarely appreciated if unanticipated. Usually the pain settles in a few minutes and the damage is minor, but you certainly don't do it for fun.
More insidious but with the same disastrous potential as a direct hit, is damage caused by lack of blood flow when the pressure of the saddle exceeds the pressure in the blood vessels. The circulation of the skin and pelvic floor muscles is rarely a problem in young adults of either sex, but older riders may start to notice problems, with the first symptom noticeably slower recovery and healing times after longer rides.
The perineal skin can suffer local infection at any time, though it is more likely in summer or warmer climes, when the increased transpiration of moisture from the sweat glands encourages yeasty organisms such as Candida, and mechanical problems such as chafing and maceration of damp skin. If you're prone to a spot of groin rot over the summer months it's probably safe to suggest a strategy of a couple of days of rest off the bike, preferably in a sarong rather than a pair of Y-fronts, and the application of a little clotrimazole cream twice a day, while nature runs its course. Hint: a small folding mirror and a good light can be very helpful when monitoring the progress of your perineum through the course of its cycling career.
There's much more that could be said of course, but do so would require longer than the editor allows: consult your doctor if symptoms persist.
Among cyclists who really know about these matters: the randonneurs and racers of this world, opinion divides on both prevention and treatment of perineal problems, but on one fact all will agree: if you're not dancing in the pedals, you are already finished. As to the merits of padded shorts, the application of pre- and post- ride ungents (such as Vaseline), or specially-shaped saddles (once the basic requirement of physical fit has been satisfied), none agree, as you would expect from the ruggedly individualistic body of cyclists.

samedi 1 août 2015

On the road to cycling hell

This is a translation of an original post I published in French here.

"Be careful what you wish for: it might just come true one day..."

We, as London cycle activists, were always careful not to fall into the pockets of the road engineers and planners, whose responsibility was always for "the possible." We, on the other hand, were struggling with "the impossible"—the end of car culture in town, with its impossible demands for space, its danger and pollution. My vision is still to reclaim the roads for the cyclist, and leave the pedestrian unmolested on the sidewalk. And the Dutch method of "cycle apartheid" has absolutely damn-all to do with promoting cycling; rather it is a dangerous source of oppression.

It's true that planners can do useful things for cyclists: allowing cycle contraflows in one-way systems for motor vehicles (the principle of cycle permeability), and reducing speed limits on roads where necessary. But if each "advance" is accompanied by a degradation, such as, for example, the appearance of "No cycling" signs on roads with cycle paths alongside, one begins to doubt the good faith of the authorities. (This happened in 2012 around Nantes, on the D69 between Nantes and Sucé-sur-Erdre, the D75 between Indre and St. Herblain, and the D107 between Chantenay and Indre).

So I went to a meeting organized by Place au Vélo (Nantes' most significant cycling organisation) to hear a talk by the author and transportation journalist Olivier Razemon yesterday evening, and to criticize their strategy.
I spoke up against this pavement cycling (and separatist infrastructure) during the meeting.

I began my remarks by quoting the aphorism "The road to hell is paved with good intentions", and my opinion that, in the seven years I have lived in Nantes, conditions for cyclists have worsened. And I read an extract from Olivier Razemon's latest book to illustrate the true problem which prevents sharing the road:
"We've all met, at least once, an arrogant, overweight driver, steering wheel in one hand, the tyres of his 4x4 squealing, as he accelerates towards pedestrians, while giving the finger to cyclists."

(They're certainly more common in England, hence my preference for life in France! And the beautiful strict liability law—the loi de Badinter—passed in 1985, gives strength to the cyclist's elbow as well). And I asked Olivier Razemon, and the auditorium in general, if we were ignoring the true problem, that he so expertly describes, whilst scrabbling round in the details of local authority expenditure on street design, with €80 millions budgeted to the year 2020, etc, etc.? Behavioral problems are solved by education and the law, not just road design.

I didn't say at the time, though I might have, that one could justly revise this extract to read "Everyone has already met, at least once, a fit, arrogant cyclist holding the handlebars with one hand, tyres skidding, as he accelerates towards pedestrians, middle finger held aloft to drivers," as a reminder of the new daily experience for crossing pedestrians since Nantes' main north-south cycle route was laid past Commerce. The enemy isn't the transport mode chosen, nor the road design nor its marking: it's the users of wheeled vehicles who lack respect for others.

I think my French was sufficiently fluent to express my ideas, but I don't think my intervention was particularly welcome. The president of Place Au Vélo contradicted my remarks by expressing his affection for the now obligatory cycle path running alongside the D39 D69 to Sucé, and made an ad hominem remark, that, as I was already a convinced cyclist, I was not part of the group of new cyclists they were looking for.

I'm certainly familiar with this line of argument from my time in England, but, to speak frankly, it's bullshit. I have no problem with a choice between a cycle path and the road. But why do you have to make the cycle path compulsory? Because it is inferior.

And there you have it: that's how the rights of cyclists are trammelled whilst claiming to enhance them! It's a manoeuvre of Fordist political genius. The Fordists never forget their fundamental principle: everybody must drive a car. Pedestrians and cyclists alike are an insult to this principle. What could be better then, than to mix them together on the sidewalk in conflict with one another, while leaving the road clear for the real travellers? And if the cyclist has the temerity to continue to use the road when there's a cycle path alongside, give him a good blast of the horn, the rebel! Defenders of cyclists' rights? I don't think so!

mercredi 29 juillet 2015

Rohloff sprocket yields to custom chain whip

from the down-the-vet's department 

So I ordered a new sprocket for the Rohloff, and the special tool to remove the old one, from Bike24. This admirably clear instructional video had given me confidence that replacing the sprocket would be a straightforward job:

The chain whip tool I've long owned is about 30cm long, but when I tried it as recommended in the video, it was clear that it wasn't going to budge the sprocket. I began to develop a serious case of chain whip envy: that man's in the video is simply enormous! Also, I didn't have a 24mm spanner, and an adjustable spanner just isn't as good to use. So, inspired by this video:

I decided to make my own chain whip tool (and score myself a 24mm spanner).

Tracking down the steel flat bar required to make the chain whip tool was the biggest part of the job. A physical copy of Yellow Pages turned out to be more useful than my online searches, which just tended to pull up endless cheesy business directory sites. Anyway, I can highly recommend Blanchard Matériels Industriels (SARL) in Vertou, who were very helpful, even though 45cm of 4 x 25mm mild steel flat bar for €2,65 may not be the biggest order they've ever fulfilled.

Then it was up to Ouest Injection for the correct spanner (the Kraftwerk brand, pleasingly), and home in time for tea! The sprocket had been marinading in WD40 all day, but even with the new longer chain whip it wouldn't budge, despite applying hideous amounts of force. I decided to try heating the sprocket with the Camping Gaz stove. The ensuing WD40 fireball certainly impressed my admiring family audience. Finally, I dipped the sprocket in a bucket of boiling water (holding the wheel horizontally), and at last it yielded. So I have now fitted the new sprocket. You can see the old one, seriously worn, with two missing teeth, lying on the red cloth in this pic:

From top to bottom: Rohloff-hubbed wheel with new 16-tooth sprocket fitted, new 45cm chain whip, old 30cm chain whip, new 24mm key, old adjustable spanner, old sprocket, grease, link extractor.

Oh, and I agree with the commenter below the "make your own chain whip" video that it is crazy to use M3 bolts to secure the short lengths of chain to your flat bar. Using the original chain rivets works perfectly well. According to my vernier, the chain rivets are 3.84mm in diameter, so holes drilled to 4mm diameter in the flat bar were just fine. After a false start placing the holes slightly too far from the edge of the bar to accept the chain links easily, I started over, and hid the bodged holes under the handle tape. You can't use a rivet extractor to resite the rivets (the bar is in the way), but a few careful taps with the ballpeen hammer slid them into place excellently well.

lundi 20 juillet 2015

A brief note on street "closures"

from the opened-for-other-uses department

Using my mother's Mac for a couple of days, and I just rediscovered this comment that I wrote last summer. A Sheffield cyclist had posted a nicely illustrated blogpost of human powered traffic on the streets immediately after the Tour passed there last summer, and was asking for more of it. 

>At least two callers [to a local radiostation phone-in] have suggested that we need to close the roads more often

As you have so vividly illustrated, when we close roads to motor traffic we *open* them to other more convivial uses such as chatting to the neighbours, evanescent art projects, walking, cycling, and even bicycle racing.

This point may seem pedantic, but if, as a cycle campaigner, you fall in with the dismal motor paradigm that does not even admit of a choice in the matter of use of public space, then you are already losing before you begin. Reclaim the roads!

Please note also that there is a large and influential lobby of businesses connected with the provisionment of motor traffic in all its glory--motor vehicle manufacturers, oil multinationals, civil engineering firms etc etc--that would be extremely threatened by the widespread adoption of cycling. As the clamour against road deaths rises, second line measures such as exporting all cyclists to a imagined parallel universe of cycle infrastructure offer false promise of reduction in danger for cyclists. In fact, junctions--the principal source of collision risk for the cyclist--become more complicated, and are arguably, in the absence of modifications in driver behaviour, more dangerous.

The policy of separating cyclists from other traffic also has the highly desirable effect--for the motor lobby--of delegitimising cyclists who ignore inferior infrastructure and continue to ride on the road.

These points may seem to be slightly pedantic, but to paraphrase Richard Stallman, please don't ever embody in your words the assumption that the only traffic is motor traffic, because if you presuppose that reclaiming the roads for other uses is impossible, and that's embedded in your way of speaking, then you'll be working very much against that. And the big picture third paragraph attacking big business is a classic Beezer tactic: just hoping to change one person's mind, just once, at a moment when they might just be ready to. And that is why I write comments, even if they are considered the lowest form of internet literary life.

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 is 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. 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, D39D69 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.

Update 2319h 19/7/19. Following the introduction of separatist-critique tag, the Guardian comment that was here is now has its own page.

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?
Update 28/1/19 The trolley problem is everywhere. I suspect people are finding it a useful pre-packaged discourse on the problems of self-driving cars. I doubt if it's the most effective way into consideration of road danger reduction issues. Still, cars that respect all road traffic rules? Bring 'em on.
I particularly liked this quote, by an engineer working at X, Google's autonomous vehicle division: "the answer is almost always ‘slam on the brakes'". To which one might add: "Don't go too fast in the first place."

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

dimanche 25 janvier 2015

One annotation site to rule them all?

from the my-kinda-people department

I did not know that Marc Andreeson, programmer of the first graphical web browser, NCSA Mosaic, had originally included a built-in commenting feature, but rapidly disabled it when the resource implications of hosting the entire web's remarks about the entire web's content sank in (!) Fair enough. But the reason why commenting is a personal itch for me is because this is the bit of the web that so obviously represents a novel departure from traditional publishing processes. A web "page"? Meh, 2000 years off the pace, dude. Anyone anywhere can comment instantly on what's just been written? Now that is wow! like WOW! Though of course, as Gary Wolf so memorably wrote in his article about Craig's List in Wired all those years ago, the public is a motherfucker.

But from Slashdot to BMJ Rapid Responses, to Comment is Free and a slew of comments across a heap of blogs that I read on RSS, commenting is something I do, and something I follow. It seems to be where the action is. So I was very excited to come across this morning, which, as I understand it, has the ambition of taking up where Andreeson left off, and providing a reliable annotation framework for the whole web:

Digging around a bit deeper, hoping to join in, I came across this design document, written by a leading light in the project back in 2013 which outlined the approach the project is taking to facilitating the quality, and eliminating the spammy*:
The reputation of a user represents our trust of the user. In mathematical terms, we can think of the reputation as of a probability of the user telling us a correct statement. If reputation is zero then the user always gives wrong information. If reputation is 1 then the user always correct. If reputation is 0.5 then the user gives correct information in 50% of cases.

From other point of view, reputation expresses how much useful content a user has contributed. For example, in stackoverflow, more good answers I contribute, more reputation I have. Intuitively, this reputation is proportional to amount of useful work the user has done.
I was impelled to comment:
The idea of "one reputation score to rule them all" is obviously seductive when considering the ranking of multiple comments. But reputation in whose eyes? Surely a reputation system worthy of world wide use should reflect the reality that different people have different assessment of each other's reputations (particularly when we consider--ahem!--interdisciplinary contributions).
I'd certainly be interested in a system that enabled me to deprecate or appreciate comments made by other persistent identities in the knowledge that so doing would reduce or augment my probability of **me** seeing comments by that commenter in future. But I'm sure it would be a bad thing to impose my own assessment of someone else's reputation on anyone else.

But (ironically) that comment seemed not to be registered. So I'm posting it here.

FWIW: The current federated system seems reasonable. We just need better meta-information about sites that host discussion well (including archiving), and sites that cheat: pretending to host comments, but then not doing so, so we can avoid them in future. (cf SourceWatch)

* This plan involved:
Phase 1 - Simple spam triage
Phase 2 - Simple voting
Phase 3 - Metamoderation based on social graph
Phase 4 - User notifications

Update 7/2/14 1423h: 

samedi 10 janvier 2015

May the earth hear the words of my mouth

from the truth-is-still-getting-its-boots-on dept

Email to the Editor, [sent 16:39h, 30/12/2014]

Dear Editor,

I live in Nantes, and I have a google news alert set up for Nantes, which is how I came across your story entitled: ' "French Rampage Attack Injures Ten; Driver Shouted "Allahu Akbar" ' (

I was in the area that evening, and have followed the press coverage of this event particularly closely. Your account is at variance with the local press reports, which clearly state that there was NO reputable report that the driver shouted "Allahu Akbar;" indeed this was categorically denied:


If the driver had indeed made such an utterance, there were certainly plenty of witnesses available to hear it.

I accordingly submitted a comment at the foot of your story which read:

All official sources reported by Ouest France are quite categorical that the driver in Nantes did NOT shout Allahu Akbar: (Fr). There were certainly plenty of witnesses to hear him, should he have done so.
Place Royale is a public square in the centre of Nantes, not an "area."

This you have yet to publish. I wonder if you have any plans to do so? I would be interested to know of your decision.

With best wishes,


Update: 1110h 10/1/15. No reply has been received from the editors, and the comment has yet to appear at the foot of the page, so it is published here.

It is interesting to consider how sketchy the evidence is for anything said amidst the understandable distress occasioned by violent events, even when immediate formal investigation of living witnesses is possible, as here. And how easy it is invent any old nonsense that suits your agenda, and broadcast it to the world. But the truth will out, even if, as it would appear, that's not a business that Jewish Voice NY is in.

[About the title: "May the earth hear the words of my mouth" is the masthead slogan of Jewish Voice NY, may peace be upon them]

vendredi 9 janvier 2015

Better to keep quiet and be thought a fool...

from the all-doubts-removed dept

I quite liked the Three Percent podcast in many ways: those guys served my mental model of conversation with a couple of smarty pants east coast literary types. Host Chad Post seems a knowledgeable guy, if slightly pressured in his speech; the lofty drawl of regular guest the bookseller Tom Roberge served in pleasant contrast to him—their chemistry is good. And their objective—of promoting the sale and reading of translated books in the US—is entirely honourable.

So it is with modest regret that I write this post (and hit unsubscribe), following my strict artistic rule that comments that I write for publication in situ "below the line" of a blogpost that do not get posted (for whatever reason) must be logged here.

Briefly, the setup: about 45 minutes into podcast #85, Chad and Tom start to discuss the translation of various English language titles that have been translated into French, and also French titles that have been translated into English. Unfortunately, in so doing, Tom Roberge revealed some rather basic ignorance of the French language, which, considering some of his claims in previous podcasts—to have been welcomed as an honorary member of "Oulipo" for example—are is plainly an embarrassment for all concerned.

Now, ignorance is not to be condemned wholesale—anyone that tussles regularly with the French language knows it's a tricky beast that's best not provoked—and we're all at where we're at in our knowledge of it.

But still, given the academic pretensions of the host, it seemed important to set the errors straight—to leave them unremarked would be to foster ignorance.

Turning to the comments to contest the matter, I found that someone called Marc had already beaten me to the correction of the most egregious errors—Chad and Tom had seemed unaware that the verb "tirer" does indeed mean "to fire [a shot]" as well as "to pull"; and that "personne" does indeed mean "nobody/no-one" as well as "person." As these matters can be resolved simply by consulting a dictionary, these are hardly worthy of further discussion. (Though obviously it would have been worth actually doing this before slagging off the translations in a podcast).

It is more challenging to consider the adequacy of "Whatever" as a translation for Michel Houellebecq's "Extension du domaine de la lutte," but emboldened by the evidently blank terrain that had opened before me, I wrote:
Wot Marc said.
And I would add Houellebecq's title "Extension du domaine de la lutte" is not so nonsensical as all that: "Lutte" (~struggle, but also wrestling (the sport), and political movement) is a common enough word in French. The protagonist's failure with women and incipient racism set up two areas of struggle in his life: what's not to translate?
It is understandable that a title along the lines of 'Expansion of the struggle into new areas'** was not felt to be a commercial proposition by the publisher. We can only surmise the editorial process that led to the choice of 'Whatever', but I sense loss (as in someone lost)—and mischief—all the way.

—**Maybe seek out some retro Trotskyist newsprint before committing to a precise phrase.
I just wrote the comment, clicked submit, and moved on. Someone was wrong on the internet, correction supplied, we've all learned something. But what is totally unacceptable to me (and it is for this reason that I have unsubscribed from the podcast) is that when I went back later to check the comments, I found that they've suppressed the comments altogether.

Fortunately the Disqus commenting system used makes it possible for me to reconstruct the discussion here. But how dishonest! If I have a bête noire online, it is sites that pretend to host comments, but then don't post the ones they don't like. Of course that is their right: but it's also contemptible, and I'll always call it out here.

Update 12:09h, 13/1/15. Both Chad and Tom have responded to this post on Twitter so I have Storify-ed the relevant tweets. (This was a good opportunity to play with Storify for the first time. Verdict: OK to meh). In setting up the comment in this post I mistakenly conflated two different Three Percent contributors in my own mind, Tom Roberge and Daniel Levin Becker. Becker is the Oulipo man, not Roberge. Sincere apologies for this error.