The thought receptacle

Stephen's mental dustbin

Mon, 05 Apr 2021

Ways to Wimpole

I was quite pleased to find that there's a nice way to cycle into Wimpole from the north-east, specifically along Wimpole Road (a bridleway) from Great Eversden. It's metalled for a decent way, then becomes a slightly stony surface over what seems like hard-packed fine gravel as it climbs up over the ridge. My tolerance to stony paths is pretty low and I found it pleasant. When you get to the top of the ridge, there is a short stretch of packed earth path to traverse along the edge of a field, but on my visit (early April, dry) this was pretty smooth and comfortable to cycle over, and you're soon joining up with the National Trust's own Wimpole Cycle Trail, again a slightly gravelly but a perfectly tolerable surface.

I must say it was lovely to cross the Wimpole Hall site with hardly any other people around... not your usual Bank Holiday. Like the cycle trail, the route through the grounds is officially only a public footpath, but one where cycling is explicitly permitted by the landowner, and the surfaces are very amenable to it.

I can back via Bassingbourn and Haslingfield, making a 36-mile round trip. For the whole ride, the opposition to East-West Rail was out in force, or at least in signage. I have some sympathy... the apparently now-chosen route makes no sense to me, and the failure to provide local stations is appalling. It seems to me that the local opposition group, Cambridge Approaches, hasn't played a good hand... they were pushing for a rather impractical and circuitous route around the north of Cambridge, parallel to the A428, and from my brief perusal I did not see a convincing story on exactly how it could be achieved. And it didn't help that their leading message was one of transparent NIMBYism, thinly disguised by the vague phrase “planning blight”. The latest “consultation” makes clear that their suggestion was not taken forward. Instead of offloading the problem onto villages to the north, they might have found their interests better served if they had argued in terms of what was best overall. The chosen route from Cambourne, cutting through the Eversdens and Haslingfield to Harston, is itself pretty circuitous and seems destined to create a bottleneck on the network between Harston and Shelford... the end result may or may not end up sympathetic to the landscape, but it seems likely to cause several years of unpleasant disruption in those villages, without the eventual benefit of a station to serve them. I am still struggling to see any reason why the old alignment could not have been adopted between Toft and near the M11 (or at least an alignment closely parallel, where telescopes get in the way), before crossing the motorway near the A10 roundabout and pushing through roughly parallel to the Addenbrooke's Link Road to reach the existing line north of the Shelford junction. That road is not very old, is much wider than a double-track railway, and was built without much fuss despite requiring compulsory purchase and demolition of several houses on Shelford Road.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the route, the plan is to reduce the number of local stations on the Marston Vale section, and re-site those that survive so that they are further from their village centres. The claimed justification is something vague about “space” for “expansion” at those stations (what expansion?). One cynically supposes this is so that the existing station sites can be sold off for residential development, and/or for huge car parks to be built at the new ones, and/or to curtail stopping services to free up express and freight paths. I am only surmising those. But like depressingly many public infrastructure projects, despite shiny “consultation” web sites, it would be hard to imagine a plan that treats local people with greater contempt, while spending hugely more than necessary to deliver what seems likely to be an overengineered yet underperforming product.

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Sun, 08 Dec 2019

Adventure games are disappearing (from history)

I played a lot of computer games when I was younger, and very occasionally I still do play them—old ones, I mean. Many of these games are being written out of history. I don't mean that individual games are being forgotten; of course many are, but that is inevitable. Rather, I mean that whole kinds of game are disappearing from the popular and even scholarly understanding of what games are, have been or can be. This might be what we'd expect, if we didn't have museums and exhibitions and articles and books on the subject. But we do have those things, and somehow they aren't helping. Here I am going to rant about how most of those who write or exhibit on this subject are actively hastening this forgetting, not countering it.

I started consciously noticing when I was reading some article or other (I've now lost the link) about Ico. It was described as an “adventure game”—always a vague phrase, but its use to describe an action-puzzle game was irksome. You may or may not share my Humpty-Dumptyish view that “adventure game” ought to mean a text or graphic adventure. The more important point is that when reading an article, watching a documentary or visiting an exhibition that purports to document some history or trend in gaming as a cultural phenomenon, it is likely that there be no mention of this kind of “adventure game” at all. Even worse, the impression given may well be that no such things have ever existed. For example, we hear endless claims that some game of the past two decades is or was “the first” to develop some aspect of storytelling or character. It almost never is, because adventure games did it first.

If this wrong pastiche of the history is repeated often enough, it will become “the truth” for most purposes. As one example, it is easy to encounter the appealing but false meme that storytelling in games is a made possible only by 21st-century technology (or current technology, or future technology). As I ranted back in 2006, I heard this coming from the mouth of none other than David Braben, clearly an amnesiac in his middle-age, who had the temerity to claim that some kind of “Hitchcock era” was imminent in gaming. (I argued that in fact the Hitchcock era had been and gone.) This social amnesia is mirrored by almost anyone nowadays who claims to be telling the story of computer gaming's history. Such a version of events is intuitively plausible: if you interpolate linearly from (say) Pong to present-day gaming, you might conclude that many modern games' far more cinematic form reflects a continuous progress in these aspects. It's just not an accurate telling of what happened, just as it would be wrong to draw a straight line between the Lumière brothers' work and the latest Marvel naffness and conclude that the story of cinema has been one of steadily more superheroes.

Charlie Brooker's 2014 documentary “How Video Games Changed the World” was the next culprit I encountered... or near-culprit, since it at least manages to dedicate one slot (out of twenty-five) to an single adventure, namely The Secret of Monkey Island. (You can probably find the documentary “unofficially” on YouTube, although I don't expect any single copy to hang around for very long, so you'll have to search.) Like Braben, Brooker is someone who should know better—and indeed does, I'm sure, but for some reason doesn't evidence that. We are told that Shadow of the Colossus “helped forge a new way of looking at games, one where the player could not longer be entirely certain that they were the hero”. This is hardly a new idea; it's a key theme of Ultima VI (1990) and shows up to some extent in Infidel and no doubt others I'm overlooking. A little later, listening to the documentary's gushing over The Last Of Us—a fine game I'm sure—you'd think The 7th Guest and the Tex Murphy games never happened. That's not a criticism of these newer games. I'm willing to believe that they are far deeper and more immersive than the older games I've mentioned. But it's completely wrong to say they're the first to develop these themes or ideas.

Later in the same Brooker documentary, one pundit opined that “game designers are getting older... they suddenly are thinking about games in a different way, not as systems, not as scoring mechanics, but as an emotional experience”, and goes on to claim that “in the next five to ten years we're going to see more games about emotions and about social situations, about politics and about society, because we are now living in an age where we understand what happens around us in a very interactive and very digital way”. Ever heard of A Mind Forever Voyaging? I didn't think so. And anyway, in what era was our “understanding” not “interactive”? In what way is our understanding now “digital”? The overarching pattern seems to be this: if you're called on to contribute some content about the history and trajectory of computer games, just talk some plausible-sounding bollocks. You'll pass for an expert. The prevailing standard could hardly be lower.

In 2015 I went to see Game On 2.0, a touring exhibition supported by the Barbican Centre (I saw it on a visit to Newcastle). It was notable for its complete lack of interactive fiction (e.g. no mention of The Colossal Cave), but also for an all-round action bias. There was also no computer role-playing game (CRPG) mentioned either, and a conspicuous lack of almost any strategy/management games (its only such exhibit was a late iteration of The Sims) or in fact any other open-ended game. The exhibition even featured an “informative” panel claiming games could be divided into three categories: firstly “thinking games”—examples including draughts and, bizarrely, CRPGs—secondly “simulation games” like sports or flight simulators—and thirdly “action games” (everything else, apparently). Of course, this is yet more bollocks. I can only assume that the exhibition's deadlines were pressing, and some hapless individual was given the task of making stuff up. (To be fair to earlier editions of the same exhibition, according to its Wikipedia article, these have included The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Secret of Monkey Island. Presumably these were eliminated for the “2.0” version. Again, the trend is towards erasing such games from history.)

Another exhibit is an article in The Guardian from 2014. This is simply repeating the same old trope: storytelling is clearly a “new” thing in games. As with the Brooker documentary, interactive fiction is completely absent, and graphic adventures have been reduced to a single line: in an interview with Dave Grossman, The Secret of Monkey Island is described as a “black comedy” (wide of the mark). There was no attempt to reconcile this citation, of a then-25-year-old game, as a clear a counterexample to the article's main contention that only modern games have stories. One supposes that other adventure games were omitted because the writers didn't know anything about them. By writing their article, they lessen the chance that others will.

What spurred me into writing this post was yet another visit, in April last year, to an exhibition—in fact a museum—that falls into exactly the same trap: the MADE in Oakland. It's an impressive collection and deserves credit for its emphasis on playability. If you want to play old arcade or console games, it's a great place to do it. The very helpful man at the desk was quick to warn me that the museum was mostly oriented towards consoles. That was despite a rather large collection of PC big-box games dotted around in the display cabinets and shelves... most of these were not playable, and labelled “do not touch!”. (For a playable collection of computer-based games, the Centre for Computing History in dear old Cambridge is noticeably better, although still not a museum that does justice to games per se—the world is still waiting for such a thing.) So, although the MADE has its merits, again it frustrates me that it superficially purports to cover all games, and in fact more besides—it's allegedly a museum of “art and digital entertainment”. But it falls short of this description, seriously but non-obviously. To be fair, it didn't completely ignore adventure games, just very nearly: from what I can recall, the playable DOS machine had at least three adventure games. These were The Adventures of Maddog Williams, Broken Sword and Day of the Tentacle. Maybe I missed some others, but not many. Separately, you could play King's Quest—as part of the “women” exhibit. Of course if they knew as much about computer games as they knew about consoles, they'd have a lot more women to choose from: try Jane Jensen, Muriel Tramis, Lori Cole, Anita Sinclair, Amy Briggs, or many others I'm forgetting. (And if you're going to choose a Roberta Williams game, at least choose a good one, like The Colonel's Bequest!)

My theory is that these omissions are so common because they fall out naturally from an even more popular mistake: telling the story of games through the lens of hardware. Although following the progression of hardware is an “obvious” structuring device, it's also a bad one, because, predictably, it biases attention towards recognisable bits of hardware—and hence to the games that they ran. This comes at the expense of other, less recognisable platforms, even if their games were at least as important. A named machine like “NES” or “2600”is iconic, unlike the longer-lived but more nebulous home computing platforms—“the PC” but even “the Mac” or “the Amiga”. These conjure only a vague visual of mostly-beige boxes. This is compounded by uncertainty even about what counts as the platform: sometimes people identify “the PC”, sometimes “DOS”. It's no surprise these are eschewed by those looking to tell a simple story for the masses.

The Smithsonian's 2012 exhibit takes exactly this hardware-centric approach. As a result, its collection of about 180 featured games manages to include precisely two graphic adventures—namely Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders and Grim Fandango. The former pretty clearly owes its place in the exhibition to its appearance on the suitably iconic Commodore 64, and the latter because it appeared just when PC gaming had reached the mass market (also, it's deservedly revered). The period 1989–94 was pretty much the golden age of graphic adventures, but the Smithsonian's selection for those years includes not a single one; according to the story it tells, all that as happening during that time was “Bit Wars” between the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis) and the Super Nintendo. For an organisation as august as the Smithsonian, this omission is unforgivable. (No direct link, but it's fun to look for the most critically acclaimed adventure games and just how many of them appeared during that period or a couple of years either side; you can do so on MobyGames here.)

What to do about all this? Clearly the real history needs telling. Perhaps my calling out writers and curators who do a crappy or misleading job is necessary, although in a guerrilla venue like this blog, I'm sure none of them will read it. More positively, we should recognise that not absolutely everyone concerned is making these mistakes. Appearing only a couple of months earlier than the dastardly Guardian article above was another one (actually in The Observer) specifically about the indie “revival” in adventure games. It doesn't deal too much with the history, but at least acknowledges its existence—one of very few newspaper features to do so. The thoughtful writing of Naomi Alderman is also well informed, even though it rarely talks specifically about adventures. Finally, elsewhere on the web there is of course no shortage of informed content; albeit far enough off the beaten track that it won't challenge the generally accepted story.

If the technology-centric telling of history is what's causing all this trouble, perhaps we should think about these oft-neglected games completely differently. The technology is not the primary thing, in that the lineage of adventures and CRPGs lies partly in forms that exist independently of computers: traditional storytelling, riddles and geometrical or logic puzzles, board games, role-playing games (especially D&D), and (later) branching novels and gamebooks. (Gamebooks actually came later than computer-based interactive fiction, though I don't think this matters.) I'd love to see an exhibition dedicated to this wide spread of culture—including the computer-based cases where they fit, but not seeing “computer games” as a thing apart. There seems little chance; we can but hope.

I'm also hopeful that we might see books by people who really do know what they're talking about. Jimmy Maher's truly excellent Digital Antiquarian blog has already amassed enough articles to fill multiple volumes. So far, I don't know any published books on the subject that approach the same quality, although I have yet to read Twisty Little Passages. “The Art of Point-and-Click Adventures”, is fully worth the asking price for its amazing art and excellent interviews, but sadly wraps them in interstitial text that is pretty clueless. “Dungeons and Dreamers” is also an odd mixture of good and less good... its improbable storytelling style suggests that historical accuracy was not a high priority (see this hilarious Amazon review by one of Richard Garriott's school friends), and the focus on two creators (Garriott and Romero), while providing valuable depth, necessarily avoids telling a more general history.

A final question is: what about the experience? Writing and exhibitions are all very well. The MADE has a good idea in this respect: these games were meant for playing. Playing adventures, however, is hard to do in a museum; it's not as casual as action gaming. You might want to have a pen and paper to hand; you might want or need to read the manual (or experience the in-box feelies!). While it's fun to watch the intro and play the first few scenes, these games need to be preserved in a way that creates opportunity to invest time in the experience. Rather than a physical museum where people can drop in to play, it probably needs to be more like taking a book out of a library. This might be achievable in a virtual museum, curated to enable the visitor to play the game in their own home. Given the low prices on GOG, I suppose the experience they offer is somewhere close to that, insubstantial as a PDF manual may feel. However, theirs is a very limited selection, and makes no effort to present the games in historical context. GOG is rather like Netflix, when what's needed is more of a BFI-style Mediathèque.

So much for the in-depth playing experience. In fairness, not all games are worth it. Again, Jimmy Maher has the right idea: his Hall of Fame is a curated list of high-quality and/or historically important games which “respect your time and won't screw you over”—a succinct description of the sort of filtering needed. He is right to mention the fact that a large fraction of adventure games are and were awful. But so is 90% of anything. The best ones are astonishing works, and constitute a unique art form. We shouldn't allow them to disappear from history.

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Sun, 12 Apr 2015


[I wrote this a while back, after getting annoyed by the links to Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and other “presences” proudly sported by government services' web pages.]

The British government still does not understand the internet. They seem limited to recognising that it's an Important Thing For The Future, one that's Unfashionable Not To Use. But to them it is a foreign, other-worldly thing which they do not believe they have any role in shaping. This is unfortunate, because the internet has serious non-technical problems which are precisely the sort of thing that government power is suited to sorting out.

Imagine going back a century to a time when some new way of doing business was coming about. And imagine the government endorsing the idea that there should be only one company capable of delivering any one service using these new means. And these would not be publicly-owned companies chartered to serve the public interest. They would be private, multinational companies with no accountability to anyone but their shareholders.

This might not have happened a century ago, but it has certainly happened in the last couple of decades, with internet services. Today you can hardly find a reputable institution that doesn't proudly sport front-page links for services such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn and so on. Government services are especially keen to do this. Name a department, and chances are they'll sport such links on their front page. BIS does, of course. The DfT does. Even the NHS does. The Land Registry does. I could sit here all night visiting government organisations' web sites, and I bet I'd find few that didn't.

Any service connecting people with people is a kind of network. Metcalfe's law tells us that networks' utility increases with the square of their size. So big networks have benefits. The problem comes when private companies retain exclusive control of a large network. Like any monopoly, this is bad for competition: the incumbents have both the power (and motivation) to crush young upstarts, to aggressively seek rent, and to avoid acting in anyone's interests but their own. Their network's size and mindshare means they get “business by default”; few people think of using anything else, and it's the best network anyway, because size trumps other issues. Once a proprietary network reaches a certain level of dominance, competitors don't stand a chance.

Our incumbent network-owners are not only being allowed to perpetuate their monopolies -- they're receiving direct government assistance in doing so. The government doesn't understand that “Twitter” isn't a technology or a concept. it's a closed service run by a profit-seeking corporation. Although there is an underlying concept, which we could call “social microblogging”, the Twitter model is only one of many ways in which such a network can operate. By changing laws and incentives, governments can change these dynamics. In fact, that's possibly the most widely agreeable, right-winger-friendly definition of what government is for. When monopolies arise by natural processes, government has at best flimsy excuses. When government is helping monopolies on their way, it's clear that something has gone very wrong.

Let's consider the equivalent scenario with the humble telephone. We all know monopolies are bad, so let's skip to British Telecom at the moment of privatisation. Imagine the government allowed BT to render its network usable only by other BT customers. Although consumers are allowed to get a non-BT phone, hence “competition”, there's a catch. Don't expect to ring anyone else with your non-BT phone. You'll only be able to ring those who are customers of your chosen company. This would be unthinkable... it would be missing the whole point of privatisation. How could we expect consumers to break the stranglehold of a monopoly if choosing a different provider meant being cut off?

Networks are quite a general concept. It's clear that Twitter and Facebook are networks. But a lot of other services behave like networks. For example, eBay is a network. Why would I search on another auction site? It might offer a better experience, but it won't have as many listings, so it's not worth my while. Amazon is something of a network too, since it is a de-facto rendezvous point between people and products: linking to a product's Amazon page, its de-facto “web presence”, is how people exchange links to books, music and so on, and the page is also a nexus for reviews and crowdsourced product information. Since Amazon is the dominant incumbent in the book-selling industry, this dominance automatically disadvantages competition and rewards centralisation of content onto the Amazon network.

Google -- the last competitive triumph of public-facing internet services -- is an interesting non-example. Its search engine could compete with Alta Vista precisely because web search is not a network-like service. It didn't matter how many people were using Alta Vista already -- Google did it better. Slowly, the word spread. People didn't need to wait for their friends to switch to Google -- they just did it.

Once a service is a sufficiently large network, it acquires anticompetitive properties which only regulation can counteract. The answer is to legally enforce the openness of networks. Once a network reaches a certain size, it must be forced, by law, to operate on an open-access basis using open protocols. (Telephone networks and the rail network already have this requirement.) To this, we have to add the usual provision: the right of innovators to a limited right of exploitation of whatever innovation they create. So new network services can be rolled out proprietarily -- but once these services themselves reach a certain high level of uptake, they must be deemed mature and then subject to the same openness rules.

Before you lambast me for being all socialist in advocating “yet more regulation”, remember that competition is what I'm seeking here. Few people would claim that we have a working market in any networked sector of business on the internet. Government seems to think that the internet is “special”, that creating dependence on these private companies' networked services is some kind of brave new world of business and prosperity. It's time government learned that there's nothing that makes Internet monopolies magically beneficial in ways that other ones aren't. By supporting them, it's giving us all the disadvantages of monopolies without the benevolent intentions of state ownership. Even Thatcher would be appalled.

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Sat, 06 Sep 2014

Sandy story

In November 2002, I was in Parrot Records on King Street, in Cambridge. Exhaustively browsing the record stacks, as was my newfound wont, I stumbled on a CD whose cover bore a dated-looking black-and-white photograph of a young woman holding a whisky glass, eyes downcast, looking inconsolably sad. This was Sandy Denny, and the CD was Island's 1999 compilation “Listen, Listen: An Introduction to Sandy Denny”.

At that point, I knew only a few things about Sandy Denny. One was that she had been a member of Fairport Convention for a time, including the time of John Peel's favourite line-up. Peel had offered this opinion when playing a couple of tracks from the Free Read label's “Fairport unConventional” rarities compilation when it came out earlier that year. One of these, a session version of Tam Lin, had particularly captivated me. (Currently, you can listen to the album version here, dubious legality notwithstanding.) The other thing I knew was that in an article I read about the Delgados—a favourite band of mine at the time—the author had likened Emma Pollock and Alun Woodward's vocal partnership to Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews in a the immediately preceding Fairport line-up.

In hindsight, these two facts can be generalised a little to reveal quite a lot about Sandy Denny. Firstly, she made some music which is remembered fondly by most people who knew it. Secondly, she's a cult figure of the kind to which journalists will make a knowing nod whenever they want to appear knowledgeable. Even before I happened upon that CD in Parrot, these had conspired to create a place for Sandy on my mental list of artists to investigate. “An Introduction” was exactly what I wanted, so from that moment it was inevitable that I would buy the CD, even suppressing my nascent dislike for compilations.

I didn't buy it right then, though. The price was a little high (£11.99—which was a lot of money in those days) for my meagre student budget. It also seemed premature: I should probably listen to Fairport Convention first, I reasoned. During Lent term I bought a few Fairport records and enjoyed them a lot. Some time in Easter term I bought the compilation. (If memory serves, I got it by mail order from Action Records—it was listed on their web site, but the process for getting it actually involved writing down on paper what you wanted, and posting it to them together with a cheque. Yes, children.)

I listened to it literally once or twice before the vacation, and remember being distinctly disappointed. Something about it was extremely uneasy on the ear. The five songs from “The North Star Grassman and the Ravens”, which began the compilation, were particularly difficult. They move with obstinate awkwardness, shifting from one morose harmony to another and never gratifying the listener with an easy cadence (never mind a cathartic breakdown... I could go on). They sound like a listing ship caught in heavy piano-seas during a sleet-storm in November. It was a long way from the easy melancholia I had been so shallowly hoping for.

Later in the summer, I picked up the record again, and started to get something from it. Partly it was that I finally persevered, attention unwavering, right to the end, which has one solid gold pop song (“I'm a Dreamer”) and various rather different-sounding things (not least “All Our Days”) to lighten the gloom of the opening. Partly it was that I got used to the uneasy, shifting sounds of those earlier tracks. (I'd later learn that the opening selections were an unfortunate distillation of the gloomiest parts of the album they were taken from—and that's why you should never trust compilations, kids.) Partly, also, I was carried along by the wanting to find what I felt I'd been promised in her music. I can remember walking to work one summer morning with the lyrics of “No More Sad Refrains” going through my head, and having as much of an epiphany as it's possible to have at 9.05am in Irlam—as though I'd unlocked some meaning from them, a deep truth about Sandy's life as an Unhappy Person, and the kind of personal, personable connection which is one of the appeals of singer-songwriter music, at least to little old me.

There is a knack to appreciating Sandy Denny's music, and it has to do with taking its weaknesses the right way. Once you recognise that it's not uniformly great, it becomes a lot more enjoyable. The media talk it up not because of its world-beating supremacy, but because it has great moments, historical relevance, and a cultural cachet that comes from being well-loved in spite of various flaws. Sandy's story is very much one of an underachiever, someone who struggled, and who never really capitalised on her talents. (My reading of “No More Sad Refrains” is that it articulates this very fact, in a clever and subtle way—the intentionally disbelievable resolution to leave one's “old” self behind.)

Over the following year or so, I picked up various other Sandy Denny records, including her four solo albums. These weren't easy to find on CD, which was my format of choice in those days. The later two had only been released briefly on Hannibal in the mid-1990s, and were then long out of print. With patience, I got lucky with “Like An Old-Fashioned Waltz”, eventually finding a copy going for £6 plus postage, which wasn't bad considering that one Amazon seller was asking £100 at the time. “Rendezvous” was slightly more plentiful on US import for some reason, so I coughed up 15 quid or so. Not long afterwards, there was the reissue of the Fotheringay record (a mostly-Denny project from 1970), then the Fledgling boxed set in 2004. After devouring all these, I'd sampled Sandy's work quite extensively. As is the way of these things, while I never stopped listening to Sandy's records once in a while, nor Fairport's, my focus moved on to other things.

However, it turned out that the Fotheringay reissue and Fledgling box were only the beginning of something of a revival. Island reissued all four solo albums in 2005, and a steady stream of additional reissues and compilations appeared over the following few years. This included a revamped compilation of BBC sessions, to replace the Strange Fruit “release” which had been withdrawn on its day of its Kafkaesque “release” (which hadn't preventing me from obsessively searching, eventually picking up not one but two copies, but both of which turning out to be fakes). An impressive 19-disc boxed set on Universal appeared to be the final word, appearing in 2010 and swiftly going out of print. (Don't you just love “limited edition” releases? A copy can still be yours for a mere £600.)

In recent years, someone with a lot of commercial savvy has got behind her back catalogue. Not so many years ago I was eager to lap up any and all material, so it's churlish of me (what else?) to complain. But I can't help feeling that it's all being milked a bit too cynically. I'm unsettled by the anonymous commercial fingers which type behind “Sandy's” new Facebook page, magically appearing to send me advertisements once in a while after I innocently listed her name in my musical artists (before “Like” was even a feature, kids). And I'm both impressed and perturbed by the slick “official” web page that now advertises all these various wares.

Sandy is very marketable—a tragic figure, a charismatic personality, somehow hiding her self-destructiveness and fragility behind a quick smile and looks that are at once both striking and girl-next-door. And that is not to mention the astonishing talent of her voice. It all makes so much commercial sense. The English baby-boomer generation that witnessed her first time around is now at an age where it has a lot of spare time and money. Tempering my cynicism slightly, I'm sure there is not only money, but also love, behind this revival effort. Besides, it has enabled a lot of recordings that really deserve to be on sale to be cleaned up and re-released. (My Hannibal CD of “Like and Old-Fashioned Waltz” is the worst-mastered CD I've ever heard. It sounds like it's playing from the inside of a vacuum cleaner.)

But... to truly be a treasure, don't you have to be just a little bit obscure? People gushing tributes on “Sandy's” Facebook wall sometimes complain that she never had a hit single, bemoan that she never became a “major force” (or, heaven forbid, “more like Joni Mitchell”). To my mind, these people's viewpoint is completely wrong. Sandy could and (perhaps should) have been around longer and treated us to more of her creations. But her music was always a mixed bag, some weak and some strong, always more dill pickle than cheese—and that's the way I like it.

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Tue, 20 May 2014

Cyclin' USA

[I wrote this last summer, as you can probably tell.]

In late June I was in a piano shop in Palo Alto, California, signing a rental agreement. I ended up renting a portable digital piano. Since it was a portable, the guy was clearly thinking about letting me take it home myself instead of paying for the usually-obligatory delivery. “What kind of transport do you have?” “A bike” I replied. There was no raised eyebrow. Feeling myself at once the doubly-strange foreigner, I even made some comment about my self-perceived eccentrism, but he flatly rejected it. “No, no... round here is bike central!”.

In relative terms, he's right. In the San Francisco Bay area, there is no shortage of expressed enthusiasm for cycling. Local governments, including my local, Redwood City, are quick to state their firm commitment to cycling and other sustainable transport options. Companies too, including my own illustrious employer, are quick to include in their “mission” a “commitment” to something sustainable.

The problem is that it's all doublethink. Everyday people's lives are hopelessly locked into the car-dependent lifestyle. And neither companies nor any kind of government make any credible moves towards changing anything—after all, they are staffed by the very same kind of ordinary, locked-in people.

This doesn't sound so unusual. All the above would apply to most of the UK too. There are, however, big differences between here and the UK. Many differences are simply of extent—the same problems show up, but tend to occur here with greater severity. But there are also deeper differences in attitude.

One such deeper difference is as follows. In the UK, there is at least a token attempt, by authorities and lawmakers, to give cycling some kind of notional status as road users. Local authorities know that they have obligations towards cyclists, even if they don't execute them very well, and even if “ordinary people” don't think much about cycling. In the Bay area, it's subtly different. Cycling has (even) less status in the minds of local authority employees. reflecting its even lower status in the minds of people at large. Around Redwood Shores I couldn't legally turn left at a majority of junctions, because they use induction loops that are not calibrated to detect bicycles. At least in Britain, it is only the occasional rogue junction that has this property. Here it's at least half of all signalled junctions. Of course, the same city's web site proudly claims a commitment to making their roads accessible for all. But their deeds don't match up. My accumulated experience led me to believe that this is not just haphazard incompetence; it stems from a baked-in belief that cycling is not a thing that needs full consideration, that “people don't bike on this road”.

That's not to say that people here don't like to cycle. They do. Here's an illustration of the difference. There's plenty of cycle “tracks” or shared-use “trails” provided around here. In most cases, they are completely disconnected from the road. What they are connected to is the “parking lot”. Most cycling infrastructure is not provided so that people can get to places. Cycling is something to do at the weekend, very often “as a family”. How do you get to and from the cycle trail? You do so in your family car, of course. In Britain, there would at least be some ill-designed attempt at accommodating movement on and off the cycle route. This kind of omission is another sign of a locked-to-the-car mentality.

In fairness, you don't have to go far from Redwood Shores to find large populations that cycle for transport. Mountain View, with its Google and Facebook campuses, is a hive of cycle-commuting. San Francisco, too, sees a fair bit of cycling. But the inconvenience level of not having or using a car is cranked up that little bit more than in the UK. The psychological dependence is also cranked up. It's not that you need a car—it's that the idea that you both have and use a car is more firmly entrenched among people who don't think very much. In truth, you don't need a car, but you pay greater inconvenience and annoyance penalties for not having one, because you are fighting against the work of these people.

It is a cliché to say it, but California is a place of contradictions. It shows us what happens when self-consciously and proudly “progressive” people are situated among the decidedly non-progressive lifestyle norms of today's America. One outcome is that tokenistic measures are taken readily and trumpeted loudly—to eliminate plastic bags (though mysteriously, that doesn't seem to have happened around here), to recycle (which is done reasonably well, so long as you don't have an incompetent housemate who doesn't know how to separate). But the pervasive culture of thoughtless consumption is never far away. At Oracle, paper cups are abundantly supplied at every kitchen in every building. Naturally, they come printed with a lecture about how there is no such thing as a sustainable paper cup. So why provide them? Even worse, the uber-strict kitchen maintenance leaves no room for the cupboard of communal mugs—a feature of every other office environment I've ever known— so you have to work extra-hard to avoid using the paper ones.

Doublethink is alive and well here—thriving, in fact. Companies claim to be “committed” to encouraging the use of public transport, car-pooling, cycling, and other sustainable means. But they do very little, and their employees respond accordingly. Once, I happened to be out on Oracle Parkway (the road along which almost all HQ buildings are located) at 5pm. It was choked with traffic, moving at a crawl when it moved at all. My first thought was that these people must really hate their jobs. Why else would they jump from their desk at 5pm, only to sit in this traffic, rather than spending ten more minutes at their desk, which would inevitably translate into ten fewer minutes spent queueing outside, hence ten fewer minutes of their life wasted. Only if they really hated their jobs more than they hated sitting in traffic would they make this otherwise foolish trade. But that analysis presupposes that rational thought is at work. This sad traffic situation cannot be explained by rational agents, hard economic fact, or other refuges of the optimistic. It is a testament to the dull plasticity of human thought—the inability to act differently from “the norm”, despite whatever highly apparent justifications there might be for doing things differently. The state of cycling in the suburban Bay area is another instance of the same problem.

I was reading about Swift, a company founded by Aaron Patzer (of fame, although some years earlier he also interned at the same peculiar little research lab in Princeton where I would later spend the summer of 2007). The article's omissions say it all. There's a means of transport that is the ideal solution to the “low-density metro”. It can cover miles in minutes, and it even runs on those super-cheap “asphalt roads” that the article trumpets. Yes—it's the bicycle. That a person can write such an article and jump straight from “asphalt” to “car” says a lot about the problem. People aren't locked in to the cars by force, but by lack of imagination—by the very normal human inclination to do only what other humans do, the “normal”, familiar thing, unthinkingly.

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Tue, 29 Apr 2014

High streets

[I wrote this some time while I was living in Switzerland, probably in late 2012. I then edited it from a post-Switzerland perspective, but still didn't quite bother to post it.]

Recently, John Harris's article in the Guardian about the decline of the high street, and how perhaps to resist it, was trended into my view.

High streets are an emotive issue. People like them. I certainly do. However, I think John Harris's take is naive. It's not only big business that's working against high streets. Ordinary people are too. Resisting big business's influence on the high street by shoring up local support for independents is a losing strategy. It's better to take a step backwards and resist the underlying problems which give the same big businesses so much power—corporatism, unchallenged anticompetitive behaviour—than trying to fight the tide of consumer behaviour.

High streets are aesthetically appealing. They also foster individuality. Lots of small shops, run by diverse individuals, make for a heterogeneous collection, statistically highly likely to include its share of gems. Thriving high streets have character. Unfortunately, high streets are disadvantaged in two unavoidable ways: economically and transport-wise. Small shops will always be more expensive to run than a huge megastore. High streets are also (by my definition, at least) always centrally located, usually in the historic centre of a town. This sets up a classic problem: given the aspiration to keep road traffic out of town centres—a good one, I believe—people who might want to visit high street shops can't get there in their cars.

The comments on the Guardian article are interesting. They are remarkably pro-market for Guardian readership. They are also very pro-car. Of course, the ones claiming that the solution is simply to provide unlimited town-centre parking are also blinkered idiots, but I will return to that later.

What is a town centre anyway? Or rather, what should it be? I'd say it should be a pedestrian-friendly centre of work, culture and nightlife. It tends to be centre of public transportation. Should it also be a centre of shopping? Carrying shopping is one of the more defensible uses for a car, unlike travelling to work or for a night out. So, if town centres are to lose one of the aforementioned functions, I'd say shopping is one of the best ones to lose. I'm also reminded of the traffic queues that form in Cambridge every Saturday and Sunday... hundreds of people sat in their cars crawling towards the city centre car parks so that they can go to John Lewis et al. It was (and no doubt still is) a blight on the city. The cars literally blocked the way across town ... I would often want to cycle out west on weekday afternoons, and there was no route I could take that avoided the queues—which, of course, helpfully staggered themselves all over the width of the road, just to make cyclists' passage needlessly difficult. Even if you weren't trying to get somewhere by bike or car, they were still noisy, ugly and polluting.

So, would moving John Lewis (for example) to an out-of-town destination be the best solution? I don't believe so, although given the blight and timewastage of those traffic queues, it might be an improvement on the status quo. To reach any better alternative, we have to change the way shops work. It'd be nice if all those shoppers could come in by bike or public transport, experience a comfortable pedestrian-friendly high street environment, and peruse large and small shops alike. But then they wouldn't be able to take their bulky shopping home in their cars! Clearly, we need a new model of distribution: shop in-store, deliver to home.

Economies of scale make home delivery cheaper the more people use it. Given how many people seem to be driving in every Saturday/Sunday, there will be enough buying customers in any given residential locality for large stores to amortise delivery costs substantially. Of course, this is a more expensive model than pure mail-order operations like Amazon, because although you get delivery-side economies, you don't get the economies of scale of big distribution centres. But since shops need to be supplied anyway, to provide a browsing environment, the extra overhead is not that great—the same facilities that receive stock also have to be able to dispatch it, working like mini distribution centres. No doubt all this would push up costs a little, but not unaffordably.

Of course, implementing this is very hard, because it requires an investment of belief on the part of both consumers and shops. Neither one will change its ways without the other doing likewise, so it seems doomed to a chicken-and-egg stalemate. The best we can hope for is that some niche retailer pioneers the model and somehow breaks through into the public consciousness. John Lewis might be a good (okay, not-so-niche) option for that, because they already offer delivery. If they could only somehow discount delivery for people who don't use the car park, they might set about establishing the right patterns.

John Harris does make at least one reasonable point. Amazon et al get an unfairly good deal thanks to tax loopholes, and I'm all in favour of closing those. It some progress is happening on that front.

Several commenters make another good point. Independent shops are a heterogeneous bunch, and that includes their quality. Part of the value of chain stores—and it is value, much as it pains me—is their predictability. If you know you like the coffee from chain store X, you have a safe bet whichever town you're in. Having a common underlying organisation operating a large number of shops prevents those shops from repeating mistakes, so allows them to reach a given quality level faster. Of course, it also stifles innovation beyond that point, so can limit quality too. But chains often do compete in quality as well as price.

On that note, here's a peculiar anecdote to finish with: it's my impression, based on limited experience, that standards in independent shops seem significantly better in the US—despite its being home of the mega-mall and all sorts of gigantic chains. Is my impression accurate? I'm basing my experience on coffee shops, food outlets generally, and record shops. And in fairness, my experience mostly originates in big cities. Still, I'm scratching my head for the explanation.

As an aside, I first want to address another fallacy appearing there: “it's better on the Continent”. This is an appealing falsehood. As someone who recently spent a year living in a well-regarded part of the Continent (namely Lugano, Switzerland), I've become aware of the peculiar British tendency to mythologise the continent. There are good and bad examples of town centres wherever you go. In Lugano, there are markedly fewer independent shops than in equivalently-sized settlements in Britain. Satellite settlements have even less to offer. I lived in a place called Gentilino, of about 1500 people, a 2.5km walk from the historic centre of Lugano. The nearest shop selling any sort of food, except for a petrol station, is a 1.6km walk away from the village centre (and at a large difference in altitude). Other smaller settlements are very often similarly bereft. In general, this area of Switzerland has relatively little character in terms of independent establishments. This may or may not be representative of continental Europe as a whole, but we have no data to say one way or the oher. We can do without inventing a fictional Utopian “Continent”.

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Sun, 13 Apr 2014

The long, long road

Last Sunday I went for short ride. I chose my route out of town to go via Long Road, after being advised that some new cycle lanes had recently been completed, with an apparently high-quality smooth surface.

The “facilities” and “infrastructure” I found were a case study in how not to do it. I took some photos (actually later the same day; forgive the blurriness). Allow me to catalogue what's wrong with it all.

Am I really supposed to cycle on that pavement? It's a pavement, with a surface barely fit for walking on—never mind cycling. Some bright spark council worker had a great idea: slap a blue sign on it, and that's the cycling box ticked. Absolutely nobody wants this.

Dropped kerbs that are not really dropped I didn't get an appropriate photo for this one. Getting on and off “facilities” is something their designers rarely consider. Getting on and off is also the part that is most easily made dangerous, and the designers rarely miss an opportunity to do so. The current thinking among those who build this “infrastructure” is that a narrow section of partially-dropped kerb, like you get on pavements in front of driveways, is good enough for bikes too. This is another (slightly different) case of repurposing existing pavement designs for bikes, and is completely inadequate. We need kerbs that are dropped right down to road level.

Now we are three A little further east along Long Road, we now have three distinct tracks or lanes, not counting the carriageway, on which cycling is somehow sanctioned. On the far left, only just visible, is the shared-use pavement (photo above). A new cycle-only lane spins off in the middle (soon to reach a bizarre lay-by area that I've yet to understand the function of), and there is also an on-road lane. All this suggests that there is no shortage of intention, or funds, for catering to cycling—what is lacking is thought-out design and general competence. I would never consider using anything other than the on-road lane (or the carriageway) here.

That pavement looks a bit better, but am I supposed to cycle on it? In the middle distance, we can see the pavement has been renewed. Is this one of those pavements that I'm supposed to cyle on? It's hard to tell, because there are no signs except a single very tiny blue shared-use sign, which you can see as a tiny smudge of blue in the above photograph—if you can find it at all. It is far too small and appears far too late to be a useful cue to get off the carriageway (even if there were some properly dropped kerbs about, which there aren't). It's also not clear that this sign isn't referring just to the side-path on the left, that leads to the guided busway.

That's the west-to-east direction. On my first run past here, I just kept going east along the carriageway and went about my business. But when I came back to take the photos, I U-turned here and inspected the “facilities” offered to the westbound cyclist. I started by assuming I had got there on the nice new smooth surfaces which apparently are (despite lack of signage) shared-use paths.

Oh, now I'm being led back onto the carriageway. I'd better do so, because the pavement that follows is clearly a no-cycling one.

...but it isn't. We find out at the next junction, where Toucan crossings guide us from pavement to pavement, handily interrupted by a completely unnecessary traffic island. Aside from the fact that we were just shepherded back onto the carriageway, meaning you need magical powers to realise that you could take these Toucan crossings instead, doing so would be tedious at best. It involves at least four of those non-dropped kerbs, stoppping and getting down from the saddle to press those pedestrian-height buttons, one or two lengthy waits for the crossings to change, and (at other times of day) evading with pedestrians on the pavements.

Pull 'em out, then shove 'em back in Now that we've been guided back onto the carriageway, let's assume we followed this guidance (even though, as I just noted, it turns out this was optional). The road narrows severely, and just as it begins to do so, there's a handy bike painted on the carriageway, as far left as possible. This is there to tell cyclists where they need to be to maximise the danger. The only way to safely navigate a severe narrowing like this is to take the lane, not to hug the kerb. So, the road markings are there to encourage cyclists not to do this; it exists to ensure that cyclists will be cut up (or worse) at this spot on a regular basis.

Another one: the next attempt at merging cycles back onto the carriageway has a lot in common with the previous one: it injects bikes at an angle that is sure to create conflict, with no clear indication of who should give way to whom.

I really hope that pavement isn't for cycling on Beyond the above photo, the pavement returns to its old, narrow bumpy self much like in the first photo. After the previous photo, you'd hope that that's not a pavement that anybody is expected to cycle on... but it is. As I cycled past I could vaguely make out the worn remains of painted bikes on the surface. They even painted some helpful give-way triangles at the various driveways and side roads that the pavement intersects. I didn't take a photo of that bit, but I have a bonus photo that I took on Trumpington Road immediately before all of the above.

Cycle gutter The view above is from Trumpington road's southbound “bus, taxi and cycle” lane. Within it is painted what I'd hope is the most insultingly narrow cycle lane you've ever seen, except that it's possible to find even narrower ones. Whenever I go down here, I deliberately cycle outside this lane (but inside the wider lane). Soul-crushingly, they recently re-painted the lines on this section of road, and, you guessed it, repainted the same stupidly narrow gutter marking, oblivious to its sheer inutility.

“Dismount and use footway”, even though there's a perfectly good carriageway. There are some works on Trumpington Road right now, so a section of the bus-taxi-cycle lane is closed. Helpfully, they have one of those nice red signs, and it says “cyclists dismount and use footway”. But the main carriageway is still open. So I just used that. Whose idea was the sign, and what purpose does it serve except to many non- cyclists believe that cycles have no right to use the carriageway?

That's the end of the photos. But even if it weren't for Long Road, the rest of my ride that day was also full of case study material—quite impressively so, in fact. I counted 22 different stupidities on my ride. Many miles of my ride were gloriously facilities-free, on quiet country roads, so the “facilities” were incredibly densely clustered. Sadly, most of them were relatively newly built. I'll save a run-down for a follow-up post. For this one, a quick summary would be as follows. I hate cycling on pavements. I hate doing so, and I hate being expected to do so. It's not okay.

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Thu, 10 Apr 2014

The joy of discovery

[I seem to have written this in June 2010. I joined up a few half-formed sentences, but otherwise it didn't need much finishing off.]

The most joyful times in life are often times of discovery. Discovering people, music, art, places, food, drink and pastimes can all be among the most exciting and rewarding things life has to offer.

My life in Cambridge (I could just say “my adult life”) has introduced me to many of the discoveries that have brought me the most joy. My interests or enthusiasms for music, film, wine, cycling and other people's company have all essentially arisen or properly sprung during my time here. I've also discovered some truly wonderful people and the pleasures of spending time with them. Summer evenings with friends, a walk at dusk or a new and perfect sandwich were all essentially unknown before I came to live here.

However, recently I've been forced to confront the fact that I just haven't been doing that much discovering lately, and that my life has been correspondingly low on joy. I don't want to overstate it; I've always had one thing or another going on that has kept my faith somewhat alive. In the last couple of years these things have included the radio of Gideon Coe, the joys of Belgian beer, cycling adventure, and the odd special person I've been fortunate enough to get to know.

What is joy anyway? It has something to do with an involuntary urge to smile. A friend once claimed I was a joyful person, which surprised me because often I feel anything but. Still, I must admit I am prone to sudden bouts of joy. I can be eating breakfast or generally daydreaming when the thought of something catches me and cracks me up completely. My joy-o-meter registers how often this happens, and this post is lamenting that it seemed to happen a bit more when I was younger.

Part of the secret seems to be to keep up the energy of exploration: move, don't stand still. Keep on digging for the good stuff, keep on challenging yourself, and don't stay in the same place for too long. Unfortunately I'm also a bit of a sentimentalist: I look back fondly at joys past and feel unable to part from them, even though the discovery was long ago and the joy now only a memory. It's a difficult idea to swallow: that life springs from freshness, that standing still means staleness and decay, and that today's bright fountain of joy is tomorrow's sentimental baggage.

Childhood is a process of continual discovery, which is why I think most people look back on it so fondly. I'd be quick to add that its joyfulness is often balanced by a lot of pain and confusion, and shouldn't be romanticised, but I suppose every one is different. What seems not to vary is that as we progress through adulthood, it gets more and more difficult to keep up the discovery rate. Jobs and commitments tie us down in space and drain the energy that we might otherwise spend on our imagination. Imagination is one thing you can't afford to lack if you want to keep challenging yourself, because as you discover more of life, it takes creativity to see where the next piece of unknown joy might come from. A high-entropy diet seems essential; if you have tips on how to get your w-a-day, I'd love to hear them.

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Blog holes

I haven't blogged regularly for a few years now. Even when I did, though, I had the bad habit of never posting a reasonable proportion of the articles I wrote. I'm trying to improve on both of these sorry situations. So, I'll try to post at a reasonable rate, and much of what I post will be articles I wrote some time ago. It's a bit of an experiment—I hope it proves worthwhile.

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Sat, 05 Apr 2014

Something about cycling

I seem to be thinking a lot about cycling these days.

Too much safety talk spoils the cycling broth

Safety is important, but we have a problem. When you ask someone why they don't cycle, safety is what they say. Let me repeat that. Safety is what they say. That doesn't mean cycling is dangerous; it means that it is perceived as dangerous by people who don't do it. Many apparently pro-cycling bodies spend a lot of energy talking about safety, campaigning for more of it, and so on. Most of them are aware that perceived safety, not actual safety, is the real issue. Then they proceed to act in ways that vastly worsen this perception. I follow various cycling sources on Twitter, and it's a depressing read, because it's always highlighting the never-ending stream of accidents. To somebody who doesn't cycle, this would surely seem terrifying. Cycling is not risk-free, but neither is walking, or driving, or taking the train. The health benefits of cycling far outweigh safety risks. The social benefits of a modal shift towards cycling (away from motoring) are also huge and unquantifiable. Even if we find ourselves with gold-standard Dutch-style facilities, we would only reduce fatalities per kilometre roughly by a factor of 2.5. This is obviously a good thing, but we need to get it in perspective. How much ill health and premature death is happening because of people being discouraged from cycling Right Now? How much social benefit are we stalling by telling people that it's not safe to cycle until we have Dutch-style roads? It's as if in the quest for proper government attention to cycling as a mode of transport, we've had to resort to shouting “cycling is dangerous! so please give money...”. This is the wrong thing to shout. Whatever scraps government might throw as a result, the current level of safety campaigning is counterproductive overall. We need to shout instead that cycling makes people happier and healthier, and makes economic sense, and that therefore we should take action to encourage it. We need to fight the false perception that cycling is a dangerous fringe activity. That means being much more focused and careful in how we present and debate the issue of safety.

Sport versus transport

A surge in popularity of cycling as a “sport” is all very well, but let's not keep mentioning it in the same breath as transport issues. Cycling to get around and cycling for sport are very different things. It's great that Britain has many Olympic cyclists, but that bears little relation to our transport habits.

Recreation versus lifestyle

Weekend cycle rides are one thing. Embracing cycling as a part of everyday life is quite another. That's why efforts such as recent bike-friendliness grants in the Peak District are a distraction from proper investment in other areas. As one commenter insightfully notes under that article, the public transport connections to and in the Peak District remain poor. So, under current conditions, the grant cannot do anything more than promote cycling as a weekend activity “for families”. That's not a bad thing, but we must be careful not to let it be portrayed as a substitute for proper investment in both public transport and support for everyday cycling—the things which together can enable and accelerate the shift away from the car. As before, we need to distinguish carefully what kind of “cycling” is being supported, and not accept any cop-outs from politicians that try to paint support for one kind of cycling as support for other kinds.

Facilities of the month

The blithe call for “facilities” often accompanies the safety message. This is always a dangerous call, because as we know, many attempts at facilities are of negative overall value. A large fraction are simply dangerous, owing to flawed design or substandard implementation. Other facilities might suit some set of people but can easily disadvantage others, either directly or (more likely) indirectly—such as by encouraging dangerous or disrespectful driving around those who choose to avoid them and cycle on the road. Aside from our local authorities' great track records of producing really badly designed attempts at facilities, I'm concerned that we're not emphasising a specific and subtle point: the population of people who cycle contains more disparate needs than users of other means of transport. This is a result of both disparate physical capabilities and disparate experience levels. While I'm all in favour of facilities which will make an underconfident person feel secure, they might not be the same facilities that make cycling quick and convenient for an experienced rider (which we all become, if we cycle enough). Provision of “facilities”, however inadequate or dangerous, is perceived by many [drivers] as eroding the right to cycle on the road. We must fight this attitude. (Of course, most “facilities” today are narrow, twisty, badly surfaced, constantly yielding to side roads, and full of pedestrians—in other words not “safe” for anyone. We must fight those too.)

No more “cyclists”

Talking about “cyclists” is something I've started trying to avoid. It somehow suggests that people who cycle are a separate species, thereby perpetuating the in-versus-out group mentalities that plague popular attitudes to cycling. I prefer to say “people on bikes”. I think if everyone did this, it might help somewhat to combat “species prejudice” that humans are unfortunately prone to.

Cycling, and walking, but not ‘cycling and walking’

“Action for Roads”, a government report published last year, contains 15 mentions of the word “cycling”, but 10 of are in the phrase “cycling and walking” (or something very similar). Anyone who's cycled beyond a few teetering first steps will know that cycling radically different from walking and needs wholly different kinds of provision. We need to fix the mistaken belief that the two can be lumped together. A recent ride reminded me that even Sustrans—an allegedly pro-cycling charity— offers routes with an appallingly high frequency of shared-use sections, many of which are simply a relabelled pavement—narrow, badly-surfaced, highly unsuitable for cycling, and causing unpleasant conflict with people on foot. This is worse than a waste of money: it's spending money on making things outright worse.

It's the culture, stupid

David Hembrow has an impressively complete selection of compelling arguments about why high-quality Dutch-style facilities are not only a good idea, but completely achievable in Britain, and why the counterarguments wheeled out by naysayers are all flawed. But one thing that's very hard to counter is the fact that in the Netherlands, practically every driver also cycles. The Dutch never lost their cycling culture. Ours was thoroughly lost many years ago, and this makes it an uphill struggle in Britain.

Where to begin?

I recently joined the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, and the membership form asked me the following questions. “What do you think most needs to be done to help cyclists? Is there anything you particularly think the Campaign should be doing?” I found it surprisingly hard to answer! I also want to nitpick that helping those who are (currently) non- cyclists should be part of the agenda too. Anyway, eventually I wrote the following. “Proper consideration of cycling in town planning, road design, new development regulations, etc.. Responding to popular misconceptions about cycling as they appear in journalism, policy statements, etc..” There is so much said and written about cycling that is either misleading or outright wrong. I believe that all this misinformation chips away at the popular perception of cycling, and we must fight it continuously. It appears to be a neverending struggle, but also, some strange small amount of momentum seems to be building here in the south-eastern UK in the last few years. We need to keep on pushing.

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Wed, 11 Sep 2013

The US Open—a report from your man in Flushing

With the end of the US Open yesterday, it seems past time that I post the results of my fact-finding trip to this intriguing tournament, which I carried out a little under two weeks ago. Being well-versed in lawn tennis as played in Britain, and expecting no less of my readers, I will simply highlight the few important differences which distinguish the sport on this side of the Atlantic.

The grass is blue, and incredibly short—so much so that it is very nearly impossible to see. Of course, the brilliant blue hue of the courts reminds us that it is there. Blue grass is a popular variety native to certain parts of North America, having been cross-bred in Appalachian areas from British and Irish strains. (Of course, it also gives its name to the music which also flourished in these areas. As I will report shortly, in America the worlds of tennis and music have more than just the colour of their grass in common.)

Tournament colours are blue and white, with occasional red—a welcome nod to the British and French origins of the sport of tennis. However, the towels provided for the players exhibit an intriguing secondary colour scheme: of white on white with white text on a white background. In contrast to the overpriced souvenir towels of Wimbledon, this colour scheme decision reflects an admirable audience-minded, do-it-yourself spirit. To make your own US Open souvenir towel, one can do do as follows. Firstly, simply buy any plain white towel. Secondly, enjoy!

Pimm's is nowhere to be seen. At first, this absence might seem horrifying. However, it is explained by a little consideration of timezones and some simple logic. In this more westerly timezone, Pimm's o'clock occurs before the sun is past the yardarm. As such, tempting as it might be, it would simply be improper to indulge in such a drink during play at the tournament. This loss might seem hard to stomach, but as any tennis fan will know, other beverages can approximate the experience not too shabbily. As a tribute to Louis X of France, cooled wine is available at the Open from certain vendors.

Overarm throws are the technique used by ballboys-and-ballgirls to transfer balls among each other, instead of rolling balls along the ground as practised in Wimbledon. This reflects the wider North American preference for air travel over surface travel—at least since the decline, in the middle decades of the 20th century, of North American passenger rail travel and green-grass-court tennis.

Piped music is a very noticeable presence. It is one of the US's many under-recognised achievements to have developed the world's most extensive and sophisticated music plumbing infrastructure. Music is piped to practically all commercial buildings. (Another little-known fact, however, is that like the grid pattern and the underground railway, Glasgow was an early pioneer—but, in an unfortunate lack of foresight, its pipes were made with too small a diameter, making them suitable only for piped pipe music.)

Musical connections more generally play a strong part at the Open. It may surprise European readers, but here, tennis and music have often gone hand-in-racquet. One of the grandstand venues is the Louis Armstrong stadium, named in recognition of the remarkable double singles career of the great jazzman. Seeking to avoid confusion between his musical achievements and his tennis career, Armstrong played under the moniker Satchmo “Lefty” Gonzales, and won a number of minor singles titles before an unfortunate recurrence of his “trumpeter's elbow” forced him to quit the sport at the height of his powers. Decades later, Michael Jackson would immortalise tennis artist Billie Jean King in his smash-hit single. In the world of tennis she was already immortal, and indeed, the US National Tennis Center in Flushing is named after her. The depth of these musical connections are doubly humbling to us Britons ever since Tim Henman's charity single version of “The [Semi-]Final Countdown” so infamously failed to capture the nation's imagination.

Salesmanship and sponsorship are more prominently featured than at Wimbledon. Thankfully, this is done in an earthy and unpretentious manner. The street-talking salesmen of elaborate video gadgets for multi-court viewing were refreshingly familiar and will be comprehensible to anyone who has viewed The Wire. (They seemed puzzled when I inquired whether they had a “burner” version on offer.) On the court, large companies have generously donated unwanted banners in the tournament colours, along with assorted unwanted adornments which the tournament organisers playfully use to decorate the net, lending a likeable “scrapyard feel” to the ambiance.

The Line is surprising, since it does not exist. One would surely expect this fine American equivalent of that Wimbledon landmark, The Queue, but there is none to be found. In a remarkable piece of innovation, paying customers simply walk in, having already bought their tickets, since patience is not a criterion by which tickets are apportioned. Depth of pocket rules supreme. Sadly, the higher ticket prices do not seem to lessen the overpricing of “optional extras”, meaning food and drink. In fact, they seem even more inflated. Unfortunately, your correspondent was unable to purchase anything to evaluate its value-for-money more closely, having been caught unawares by the surprising finding that pounds Sterling were not acceptable currency.

Etiquette is every bit as established as at Wimbledon, but the rules are somewhat different. At the US Open, it is very poor form to clap except for a winner by your favoured player, or an error by the other player. Never clap at good play from the other player! Although this will feel counter to the sensibilities of most well-brought-up Europeans, a little reflection will reveal the equally upstanding American perspective: that to applaud for an action one finds displeasing is, above anything, dishonest. Besides this, it is also an unnecessary noise that might potentially disturb others.

That is all I have to offer you, dear readers. I hope it has been an enlightening experience, just as attending the tournament was for me. In my next report, I'll be sharing my experiences contrasting the factories of bustling Keswick with the “graphite belt” of Lakeland's new-world rival—Pennsylvania.

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Wed, 19 Jun 2013

Arrivederci to all that

Since a couple of years ago there's been a new camel in town, and it's a not-writing-a-blog camel. Sorry about that. I think this camel originates in Oxford somewhere, and has been following me around, but I'm trying to get rid of him.

My year in Lugano is fast receding into the distant past. It's a hard year to summarise. Work-wise, I learnt less and gained (even) less satisfaction than in the previous year, but I have also ticked a lot more career boxes. So I have possibly made more progress towards some future satisfaction, whenever that might turn up. More personally, it feels as though the year's generally low-fun diet has further chipped away at whatever youthful exuberance I had left. But I'm hoping that it's reversible. There's not much substitute for company that makes you laugh, .

I have actually still been writing the occasional blog item—just not actually finishing or posting them. But I'm going to follow this post up immediately with one for which I even did the finishing bit, just not (until now) the posting bit.

(That reminds me: I need to write some macros to make it easier to include photos in these pages. I'm sure some of my reticence is down to the fact that my web set up makes it unnecessarily much faff to post things.)

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Mon, 25 Feb 2013

Price of living

(I wrote this some time ago, which probably shows, but it still seems worth posting....)

“Cost of living” is a phrase I've heard a lot in the last year or so, both when talking to friends about their moves and when considering my own potential moves. It took me a while to realise that it's a phrase that usually doesn't mean what it appears to mean. Large cities are often cited as having “high cost of living”. But the whole reason we have cities is for economies of scale! Living close together is cheap, because infrastructure costs are so well amortised. This includes utilities, transport, food supply, and almost everything else. Living in rural areas, conversely, is expensive! That's why rural post offices struggle to keep open, rural public transport is generally poor, and so on.

What people mean when they say “cost of living” is actually “price of living”. Most large, successful cities have high prices of living because they are desirable as locations. In turn, this is largely because of their high value, including social and cultural value. Among these values is the diversity of employment opportunities that a city environment can offer. This demand is exploited by land- and property-owners, who adjust their prices far above cost. High demand combined with collusion creates a lack of choice, effectively coercing people into paying their high prices, regardless of how much lower the cost might be. Cost and price are definitely not the same thing.

There's something interesting about this adjusting-the-prices phenomenon. When traders do this by explicit collusion, it's called a cartel, or price-fixing. It's clearly scurrilous and interfering with the operation of the market. But when traders do the same thing without explicit communication, but nevertheless collectively, it's called “the market”, as in the so-called property market. The net result is the same as price-fixing, so why do we treat the two cases so differently? This might be classic supply/demand economics, but it is a very different kind of market from the good kind which most market advocates like to describe. In the best examples of markets, prices are driven by cost and kept down by competition. With property, prices are driven by demand and kept up by implicit collusion.

The unhelpful response is also a predictable one: of course people will set prices as high as they can, and “there's nothing you can do about it”. I think this shows a severe lack of imagination. Our institutions of ownership, trade and pricing can all be tweaked. The challenge is to come up with the right tweaks. The overriding question in this case is: how should contention for scarce resources be resolved? At present, it is solved by “who pays most wins”. Is there some “best claim”, “means test” or other criterion we could use instead? Scarce resources in other domains are decided on merit of claim rather than depth of pocket. These domains include higher education a.k.a. university places. They also include domains where the resource being assigned is itself money, as with funding for arts or science projects. There are no doubt others. Perhaps if the same kind of policy was applied more widely, we wouldn't have the problem of colluding land barons. (Alternatively, we could try to tackle the issue of collusion head-on, which brings us to rethinking our pricing systems. That's a topic for another time.)

On the subject of policies for resolving contention, I have some ideas, but I will save them for another post. They range between the peculiar and the fantastical. So I'll stick with a more easily digested message for this post: that cost and price are two different things, and that the collusion which undermines the virtuous operation of markets doesn't have to be explicit.

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Thu, 16 Aug 2012

Nobody mourned

Philip Hensher's recent article in the Independent was recently trended into my view. It made me angry. This also isn't the first time I've reacted this way to the arrogance of a small but vocal minority of those who identify their interest as being in “classical” music. So, there's nothing for it but to write this angry blog post in response.

What makes me angry? It's the appropriation of terms like “art” and “music” to refer solely to what suits Hensher's preferences (which he modestly equates with “civilisation”); insistence on partitioning music into “classical” (good) and “pop” (unspeakably awful, by implication), and conflation of art with technical skill.

I'm sure Hensher is not as stupid as his writing suggests. He is aware of the false dichotomy he is disingenuously constructing by contrasting “great classics” with “passing rock bands”. It's one of many tricks he uses to paint his own ilk as the poor, helpless, wise, persecuted victims. This feigned-injury self-righteousness really gets up my nose.

But aside from this distasteful rhetoric, the article reports an interesting phenomenon. Certainly, there is less popular familiarity with classical music than ever. I have no doubt that attendances and orchestra numbers are down all over the shop. But this decline does not mean that anything is dying. The fact is that Hensher's preferred musics have long enjoyed a subsidised mindshare owing to the kind of education he is demanding should be resumed---“an appreciation of the classics”. The classical tradition necessarily developed within the aristocracy. It requires expensive instruments; its technical demands require expensive training; its written tradition, which is seen as a defining characteristic, requires expensive education. The upper-crust heredity of our governments and education policies have ensured that until recent generations, “their” music was what “music” meant in school curricula, and in “respectable society” generally. This subsidy has ended, and the phenomena Hensher reports are perhaps a consequence.

With this loss of subsidy, Hensher is bemoaning a reality that has long been faced in all art forms not supported by such institutional measures. This reality for any art is that most people don't pay any attention to it, and certainly don't appreciate it. Even worse, considering music at least, what the majority of other people choose to listen to is clearly not very interesting. If only these people could be given a proper introduction! Then, surely, their lives would be improved! It's a tempting position, and I have felt the same on several occasions---in my case, a sudden impulse to purchase a sackful of Astral Weeks CDs and hand them out to random passers-by or, at least, anybody who expressed an interest. But there is a non-sequitur in this: just because there might be some music that a given person might come to appreciate vastly more than whatever mass-market pap is within easy reach, does not mean that Hensher's preferences, or mine, are likely to be ones that person shares. We have no right to impose our tastes on them, however much reward we personally have found in them.

If anything is worth adding to a school curriculum, it's the existence of a mind-boggling depth of output in music and most other forms of human culture. Even highly educated people often don't seem very aware of just how much really amazingly good music is being made and has already been made. Quite the opposite: people seem to doubt the value of music that they haven't heard of. As a result, they don't bother listening, and the cycle continues. I'll wager that most people who are interested in music have, during the formation of this interest, had their minds boggled by the realisation of how unfathomably much great music is out there. It continues to boggle mine. Making sure that every schoolchild is confronted with its bogglingness doesn't seem unreasonable. (Ironically, this enormous depth seems to elude Hensher, who only knows about the existence of classical music and whatever he understands by “pop music”.)

So, that's one curricular change. Next, it might seem tempting to try to teach something about how to listen to music. I reckon most people who are interested in music can remember going through a learning process of this kind, most likely by getting into a virtuous cycle of challenge and reward. The challenge is discovering new, “different” stuff to listen to, and the reward is discovering, after some perseverance, that you really love some of it. Tempting as curricularising this process is, I can't help feeling that this is not a journey for everyone. It's time-consuming, and is generally a solitary path. I think it's something only done properly by those who feel driven to do it. So, my feeling is that education can't do much beyond promoting cultural curiosity and an awareness of the riches to be mined; mining skills are teach-yourself.

There is a strange contrast between the learning process I just described, and the typical discourse on classical music. The latter, as I perceive it, has a huge element of “received wisdom”. Indeed, the fact that even ardent proponents like Hensher seem to revere the big-name “classics” rather than having their own favoured niche compositions. Are the “classics” really the best that the classical tradition has to offer the listener? I am sceptical about the extent to which a lot of ardent classical fans have ever really challenged themselves, as opposed to sticking with apparently respected, respectable “classics”. But it is the same with anything: there are mainstream crowds, and then there are hipster crowds; genuine independence of thought is at best rare and, to be honest, a myth---no human is immune to groupthink altogether.

There is more than a shred of truth to the idea that the narrow-minded conception of “music” or “art” among self-described appreciators of classical music alienates others from pursuing an interest in these musics. It's easy to trawl the web for people who share Hensher's interests and who come across, like him, as a mixture of upper-class twit and pretentious would-be intellectual. The comment section underneath Hensher's article, and the Wikipedia page about “Art music” and also the amazing talk page for the same all convenient honeypots for those of Hensher-like opinion. If I want to go and see classical music, putting up with these people would probably not be a price I'd want to pay.

The aforementioned Wikipedia page is particularly telling, because it turns out that what Hensher calls “art music”---an obnoxious enough label---others have the temerity to call “serious music”, “proper music” and “erudite music”. The talk page, in particular, seems to be ruled with an iron fist by somebody called Frédérick Duhautpas. Some faintly naive users put forward composer after composer as test cases to question the meaningfulness of the “art music” label, and Duhautpas bludgeons them with appeals to the authority of all-knowing musicologists who have probably never heard (or heard of) the music in question. If they have not spoken it, so it cannot be. The heart of the problem is that there is no intensional definition of “art music” By keeping the definition extensional, “art music” becomes---like aristocracy---a club into which only the chosen are ever accepted. This is practically the definition of elitism.,/p>

The closest Wikipedia gives to an intensional definition is that attempted by somebody called Catherine Schmidt-Jones: “art music” is “a music which requires significantly more work by the listener to fully appreciate than is typical of popular music”. So, where does that leave the atypical popular music? On that, she has also expounded as follows. “Popular music is, by definition, music that appeals to many people. You don't have to know anything about music to like a pop tune---it's ‘catchy’”.” This of course commits the novice and glaring error of failing to distinguish between “pop” and “popular”. But the more intriguing property of this statement is its corollary: that anything that is too subtle for mass-market success is automatically “art music”. If this was Schmidt-Jones's intention, then I tentatively salute her. But somehow, given the appalling ignorance of her pop-versus-popular slip-up, and the ugly generalisation she puts forward with it, I doubt this is what she meant. In any case, neither Hensher nor Duhautpas would agree.

(For me, “popular music” has always meant “music of the people”, and has nothing to do with popularity. In other words, folk music is the only true complement to the classical tradition, in that it is a musical culture propagated through precisely the complement of the aristrocracy, meaning through ordinary people. If you doubt the completeness of this analysis, I wouldn't mind hearing counterexamples. It's of course worth remembering that rock & roll owes its origin to the folk songs of African slaves and to the blues of the subsequent generations. In other words, “folk music” and modern Western “popular music” share the same root. Hearteningly, this interesting article suggests that my definition of “popular music” was once shared more widely.)

There is an interesting converse case to consider with Schmidt-Jones's “listening effort” definition. Surely “great classics” often rely on catchy tunes too? Does this make them “pop” and not “art”? I would be amazed if “classics” like Hensher's favourite Beethoven's Seventh exceed the complexity of the median record in my collection---a collection which, if you haven't guessed, doesn't contain very much that Duhautpas would call “art music”.

I think it's time to coin a new term. We want to exclude the made-for-marketability stuff that purports to be music, whether it's Katherine Jenkins or the latest X-Factor winner, and include any music made as an act of artistic endeavour---whether using classical modes and classical instrumentation, or the most modern and other-worldly sounds and structures, and regardless of technical complexity. Betraying my love of Malaprop and Del Boy, I'll go with “propular music”, for now, but send me your suggestions.

Even better: rather than trying to shore up arbitrary boundaries between musics---an elitist activity if ever there was one---why not just lump it all together? From the 20th century onwards, classical and folk traditions have become so hopelessly intertwined that there is no point trying to unpick them in any recent music. Why not embrace the melting pot? Fortunately, this spirit is at least somewhat alive within the very BBC competition whose apparent lack of profile Hensher laments. Lucy Landymore won her regional final in 2010 with a great performance of Zappa's The Black Page no. 1. Zappa is noteworthy as a composer of some highly complex popular music; of course, Frédérick Duhautpas vociferously denies his work is “art music”.

I only say “somewhat alive” because the BBC competition no doubt has some room for improvement in its attitude. I'm sure it's still run by people with similar mindset to Hensher's. Would an arbitrarily stellar-to-die-for performance of some technically simpler piece have won the same acclaim as Landymore's mastery of the Zappa/Bozzio drum solo? Of course not. These people are not impressed by music that isn't technically super-complex. Remember: you have to spend a lifetime learning “the art”! That's what Hensher thinks anyway, but he really needs to learn the distinction between art and craft. Much as I admire Zappa, instrumental complexity is not necessary for good art---it's just the way it comes out of some people, including that crafty Frank.

So much for the BBC's Young Musician of the Year competition. In the “other world”, of those happily stating a penchant for popular music, there is no such sniffiness. My first introduction to Erik Satie's Gymnopédies was a recording by Mercury Rev in one of their Peel sessions. Apparently they just felt like recording it. It didn't raise any eyebrows. My two favourite contemporary radio DJs, Gideon Coe and Tom Ravenscroft, have both featured pieces from the classical tradition on their programmes on occasion, when they happen to have discovered something they liked. David Byrne, one of my favourite music bloggers as well as a favourite musician, has a great TED talk wrote a great TED talk about performance spaces, which takes in the whole gamut spanning Gregorian chant, Wagnerian opera, CBGB punk and lots more. All these people think nothing of it. It's all music, after all.

If Hensher wants his preferred new composers to find an audience, and the concerts he prefers to keep happening, some of this inclusive spirit would not go amiss. I would suggest he stops mourning, starts opening his ears, and loses the persecution complex. Education can't force people to appreciate art, but perhaps it can make sure they know it's out there. Too many “art music” enthusiasts don't know the half of it.

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Wed, 12 Oct 2011

Speculation on speculation

Yesterday's piece by George Monbiot got me thinking. It's worth a read, whether or not you're interested in what it got me thinking.

Much of macroeconomics is concerned with the dynamics of lending, investment and growth. Many on the left tend to lambast “speculation” as the demonic cause of financial crisis. But speculation is an inherent and necessary part of absolutely any economy, because it is part of human activity. All investment, including lending, is speculative. Our problem seems to be something to do with the valuation of speculative wealth, not its existence.

How much is it okay to speculate? How much should we lend? How much value should we attribute to speculative wealth? These are the real questions.

What seems more suspect to me are the notions of money, “base money” and fractional reserve banking. What are reserves anyway? Why do we need them? The problem seems to be that when you lend money to someone, they have “money”, i.e. what you lent them, and you have a promise of its return, which is “valued” at the same. So, by magic, we have twice as much “money”---but half of it is speculative. In fact, it might all be speculative, if the money you lent in the first place was not real, but itself came into your account on some speculative basis. So what is “real money” anyway?

It seems to me that somehow we want to restrict the structure or shape of allowed speculation, to rule out pathological cases. This could be a solution similar in spirit to how Russell's notion of type ruled out a pathology which created paradoxes in naive set theory.

Our concept of money is so slippery---given some sum of money, we have no idea how much speculation is int it---that money supply, like the valuation of anything, is regulated by a “mood” rather than any rigorous process. We are doomed to a cycle of aparent boom and bust, because lending orgies followed by lending paranoia seems to be How Banks Work. Like a logical paradox, we oscillate wildly between two extremes that are both wrong, yet both inexorable consequences of each other.

Staying on the mathematical theme: why should money be a scalar? It seems that by collapsing various different dimensions of value---its magnitude is one, but also its uncertainty or “speculative-ness” might be another---we are creating confusion that can't be helping with the problem.

A final thought, to extend the metaphor even further, is as follows. Types are based on a notion of construction: we cannot quantify over sets we cannot first construct. So it seems that with wealth, we need a similar restriction: the wealth we speculate on should somehow, by some fairly direct route, be anchored in something of real worth. Many articles, including Wikipedia's brief history of fractional reserve banking, start with assuming gold (or other precious metals) as their most primitive valuable quantity. Currency issuers used to do the same, and now don't. It's fairly clear that real worth cannot be defined in terms of gold (a substance of mostly fake worth if ever there was one). I have no idea what: goods and/or labour that contribute towards a human goal (referencing some conception of human needs) seem to be the only things of “real worth”, but I wouldn't yet claim those can be built into a theory of value.

Nevertheless, I believe there is a design space of economies. At the moment, all western economies follow the same design, just with different parameters. Many people (non-CS, non-engineers) have a hard time understanding what I mean by “design space”, so here goes. Economies are like machines with different-sized parts but the same overall form. Different economies may have different levels of government intervention, different tax--spend balances, varying interest rates and inflation levels and so on. But they are nevertheless the same design.

The design is the same because some structural properties are shared across all of them. Here are some of those properties. The only notion of value is market value. Prices are controlled by market value. By default, anything can be traded. There is no direct link between labour and price. There is no distinction in the means of valuing supply-constrained (e.g. collectables) versus resource-constrained (e.g. iPhones) goods. These are all properties I think it worth reconsidering. Few people think about these things. In after-dinner conversation on economics. ‘What other system is there?’ is a popular question. Coming up with a plausible new way for economies to work a.k.a. a design, is a hard problem... at the moment I'm only arguing that more than one design is possible. Until we can get people thinking about the possibilities, we can't hope to find a viable alternative.

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Appalled by Newsnight programme: a list

This post is about the Newsnight report on computer science teaching, Monday 10th October. Here is the iPlayer link, and the report starts at 30:00ish. The programme will disappear on Monday 17th, but if you'd like a copy, I can possibly magic one up, so let me know.

Kirsty Wark could not have got the piece off to a worse start by telling a “joke” about “ten kinds of people...” NO! The whole point is that there are two, not ten. That joke only works written down. Kirsty Wark is clearly spouting her lines without understanding them, which is completely and utterly the problem. But perhaps she's old enough to be excused from even the hypothetical opportunity for a basic education in computer science, so I should move on.

The phrase “using computers” cropped up a few times as what's lacking in teaching. But that's completely the wrong phrase. That is what is being taught. I will expound on this in a moment. First, a more trivial complaint: even in its “flagship” and most “high-brow” programme, the BBC clearly can't resist spending its money on appallingly cheesy production, right down to the Crystal Maze-style captions introducing interviewees. Two Rory Cellan-Joneses is two more than I can handle.

I don't personally think a fall from third to sixth in the games industry stakes is actually a calamity. I think it was a bit of an accident of circumstance (or history) that we had such a strong games industry in the first place, and some fluctuation is natural. But if we take it as a premise that things are probably going down the tubes---and that doesn't seem implausible, regardless of the games industry numbers---then we might still care about the rest of the report.

The report cites teaching ICT as a “cause of decline”. This is clearly nonsense. Teaching how to use Word and Excel does no harm, and in fact is useful. I learnt to use Word when at secondary school, and it was pretty useful to do so. Rather, it's not teaching any of the other stuff that is the problem. And this other stuff, despite having something to do with computers, is not an alternative to ICT---it's just something else that needs teaching. “Proper computing skills”, another phrase that cropped up, is not it at all.

What we really want to encourage is an engineering mentality, applied to primarily non-physical systems---for which computers are the host substrate. "Digital Meccano" is an interesting idea which, unlike much else that was discussed in the report, captures the spirit that I think really is lacking. Seeing a computer as a host and enabler for a world of engineering possibilities---rather than a utility device for writing letters and playing games and media and social networking and reading news---is the key distinction.

Another high point of the report was how the Eric Schmidt quotation (which was spot on) was nicely framed. And the considerable talk about the “joined-up curriculum”, the games industry, the potential links between “conventional” were not badly positioned. That said, they did rather confuse the topic---since any proper engineering is a creative enterprise, whether or not it involves shiny graphics or music or other traditional “art” forms, but sadly this seemed to be too subtle for Rory Cellan-Jones to put across.

In the studio interview after the report, Ed Vasey was superbly slippery. His “many programmers are self-taught” argument was a wonderful bit of deception---people can teach themselves all manner of things, so why bother with an education system at all?---and he continued to trot out wrong-yet-appealing Big Society-esque arguments quite coherently for the rest of the interview. “We need businesses to get behind this” was the typical conservative message: the private sector can do it, silly. He claimed that “ICT is taught badly”---is it? For all I know, it might be taught very well. You don't need a degree in CS to teach ICT, for sure. So again, the point that we need computer science teaching as distinction from ICT has not really got through.

A thought about Raspberry Pi: why a physical computer? It can only mean faff plugging and unplugging cables. In general, being physical is limiting. It's good for kids in zero-computer households I suppose, and resummons a nostalgic picture of that charming conflict for the family TV. But then again, if you don't have a computer, you'll have to go out and buy a USB keyboard and mouse. Another doubt I have is that the hardware will be modern enough, and hence complicated enough, that it's probably not great for learning for low-level programming (which would otherwise be one good reason for having a physical device). Surely what we need is a cloud-hosted IDE, with a nicely-crafted HTML5 interface and the option to run code on emulated hardware targets if you want to do the low-level stuff. It is more fun to tinker with a real device, but a system-on-chip is not much less abstract than a cloud service. You certainly don't get the sense that you could build it out of ball bearings and bits of string. I once read a book chapter (but didn't subsequently actually carry out the project---how very me) about how to build a DAC, so basically a rudimentary sound card, out of a a parallel port and a resistive ladder. Now that was enlightening.

Vasey did eventually scored points by grasping the “office services” nature of ICT (nice phrase). But he slightly spoiled things on the next line by equating “computer science” with “how to program”. I might be asking too much by going into this distinction, but even how to program, although important, is not what computer science is about! It's a necessary step, but it's barely the beginning. A computer scientist is not just a skilled technician who can make a complex machine (i.e. a programming language implementation) do impressive things. Rather, he (or, sometimes, she) is a polymath: a philosopher who understands the essence of deep concepts---what are number, structure, meaning, computation, communication?---and an engineer who can apply this understanding to real-world practical tasks, through the complex physical devices. This means understanding how computers work (an understanding much deeper than just knowing how to program), but also knowing how they can work, how they might work, and consequently, having insight into what as-yet unrealised benefits computers might bring to humanity. An education system that can start enough bright young people off on this path still seems a long way off; understanding the different between ICT and programming is a small step towards it, but we can and should set our sights higher.

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Thu, 18 Aug 2011

Don't think alike

I used to think that The Independent was a reasonably good newspaper, but two recent clangers have made me despair.

On Tuesday, this masterpiece of an article by someone purporting to be “Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor”. Seldom have correlation and causation been so thoroughly confused to generate such an outpouring of sensationalist nonsense. As usual, there is no link to the original article, nor even an author name mentioned, so it took me ages to find this link, but find it I did. The article is itself extremely weaselly, in that it tries to suggest a causal link without having any grounds for doing so (and certainly no theory on a mechanism). That doesn't excuse the even more confusing write-up though.

On Wednesday, the rail fares increase attracted this stunningly enlightened comment from Sean O'Grady. It's quite all right, he says, that rail fares are increasing above inflation again, because “wealthy stockbrokers rumbling in from Guildford or Chelmsford can well afford it” whereas “some hard-pressed family in the Midlands that never uses a train” should not have to pay through their taxes. In other words, usable public transport is already only affordable by the wealthy and only available in the south-east---which, coincidentally, is where those wealthy people are disproportionately located. So let's exacerbate all three problems! Well done, Sean.

Long time no blog, by the way. I have some queued-up unfinished things (and a lot of bike rides to bore you about) but it's pretty difficult to find the time at the moment. I must do better.

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Sun, 05 Jun 2011


I previously was appalled by the concept of superinjunctions. The first time I heard about then was in the Trafigura case. There, they were used to unjustly protect the reputation of a company involved in some seriously unpleasant business. The disclosure of this was clearly in the public interest.

Now, it seems superinjunctions are less effective than ever, and may be on the way out. But it also turns out that they have a more benign use: to protect the privacy of celebrities. I'm all in favour of protecting celebrities' privacy, so I have no problem with these injunctions. There is no public interest in disclosing who slept with whom.

Are there more superinjunctions out there like the Trafigura one? It's possible there are. But in the press, we only hear about the ones concerning celebrities' private lives. This is a nice illustration of how dependent we are on the media. How can I possibly form an opinion about the relative merits of superinjunctions as a legal device? The media is a hopelessly distorting lens---peculiarly so in this case, since we rely on them simply for any hint at the existence of the injunctions, and they choose to disclose a biased selection. Not only would I have to do some serious research to form a sensible opinion---I would probably be stymied by the legally-enshrined non-disclosability of their existence.

It's also a story of how dependent we are on social media, since that's how everyone is actually propagating the supposedly protected information. Just as the mass media are a distorting lens, so social media distort in their own way. It's the wisdom-or-otherwise of crowds again, and like most popularity contests, I end up feeling quite puzzled about the outcome.

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Car centric

Naturally, when I heard that Devon Sproule was embarking on a summer European tour, I looked for the geographically closest venue. It's the Arlington Arts Centre in Newbury, the latter being only an hour or so by train. Actually, looking more closely, the arts centre is not in Newbury---it's a few miles outside, in the middle of nowhere. That could make for a pleasant venue. So how would I get there? Well, I would probably cycle from Newbury station. But how is Joe Non-Cyclist supposed to get there?

If his middle name isn't “Car Driver”, it looks like he's not wanted. The centre's web site displays a car-centrism worthy of 1980s Thatcherite motorway-widening out-of-town-shopping Milton Keynes town-planners' wildest pedestrian subway-building concrete-loving dreams. Call me optimistic, but I was genuinely surprised (and therefore outraged)---it's not the sort of attitude I'd expect of a 21st-century arts venue in an affluent south-east locality not very far from the culturally enlightened metropoli of London and, er, Oxford. It's really quite remarkable---not even their FAQ section has any mention of public transport. Even most American cultural destinations offer more public transportation information than this.

I had a look at the centre's funding, ready to be outraged further if public funds were responsible. It seems to be a pseudo-charitable enterprise whose proceeds are given to Mary Hare, “the national charity for young deaf people”. It's also a conference centre, which I imagine accounts for most of their income. If there was any government money going in, I thought, I would be on somebody's case pronto.

But wait! They are running a visual arts event whose funders are on this web page, and West Berkshire Council is one of them. They even have a handy locations map for a month-long series of events running throughout the Newbury area. You can click on any location and get “directions”---you guessed it, for car drivers only. What's even worse in this case is that there are bus services for getting to many of the venues, but there's no information about it.

Thinking that there might be a bus service to the venue. I tried trusty Transport Direct. What a depressingly incompetent web site. It just about works, but that's the best that can be said for it. I will rant about buses in a future post.

Appropriately enough, I went to see Devon in Cambridge instead (and did I mention that she was amazing?). This was possible thanks for fortuitous timing of my visit. She even mentioned (in a miniscule bit of chat when I got her to sign a couple of CDs) that the audience for the Newbury show had been a bit sparse. Perhaps if there was better transport in the area, more people would have ventured out for the evening? Or perhaps if the area was configured for a less door-to-car-to-door lifestyle, more people would be aware that there is an arts centre hosting quality acts on their, er, doorstep three miles away....

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Sat, 09 Apr 2011

Three-quarter turn

Here's my route back from a hard most-of-a-Saturday's computer science. It's an elliptical, eccentric route which will have to make do with an elliptical, eccentric description. The nice bits: Islip is a lovely, charming, massively picturesque village that I should go back to. The B-road from there to Wheatley is good cycling: it has some nice views, a few tough climbs, and, sadly, slightly too much traffic. Wheatley is charming, but punishingly down-then-up the way I traversed it. The next bit is the best: down to Chiselhampton mostly via single-track roads, including an absolutely fabulous panoramic vista shortly before popping out onto the B480. From then on it's pleasant rather than spectacular, but pleasant it certainly was. The only slight flaw was that the “just slightly too much traffic” theme continued, particularly on the B-road back from Abingdon to Cumnor but also between Chiselhampton and Clifton Hampden. None of the roads were busy per se, just rarely quiet enough to get that relaxed country feel, with the exception of the Wheatley--Chiselhampton section.

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One of the annoying things about Oxford from a cycling point of view that surprisingly many places are poorly connected other than by busy roads. The main reason is the Thames. In the south of Oxford, there are (I believe) no bridges over the Thames, except rail bridges, between Sandford and Abingdon. Sandford is itself unreachable from the south except by the A-road. This accounts for the bulge at the bottom of my route today. There are similar constraints out west. In general, this and my experience today suggests that the best cycling is probably in the north and east of Oxford, rather than the south and west, so I'll focus over there in future excursions.

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Mon, 04 Apr 2011

The big one: Cambridge to Oxford

This is a ride I've been meaning to do for ages. When Alan suggested it, I could not refuse. I began a few miles out in Oakington, and joined Alan in Newnham (as betrayed by the map). The total distance I travelled (not counting my ride home from the station!) is 145.2 km or 90.8mi. The first leg, from Oakington to Newnham, is 5.6mi or 9.0km, making Cambridge-to-Oxford proper by this route about 85mi---slightly shorter routes are available, as I'll mention.

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I don't really have time to talk through the route in detail, except that the first 35-ish miles I planned myself, as far as Steppingley, and the remainder is identical to Richard's route (taking the Kingswood diversion to avoid Ashendon hill). Richard's leaves Cambridge via the B1046, crosses the A1 on the level at Beeston near Sandy, and is slightly shorter. I've done that section of the route before, and it's fine, but I was slightly bored of it. It doesn't have a huge amount of scenery to offer, except the big after leaving the B-road towards Gamlingay. My alternative leaves Cambridge by the slightly quieter and more scenic route through Haslingfield, Barrington and out towards Ashwell, crosses the A1 on a handy bridge at Edworth, and is slightly longer and hillier.

I think that's a good trade, particularly since I decided I was still somewhat (unjustifiedly) terrified of crossing the A1 on the level a second time, but it's a bit of a personal taste thing. That's particularly in respect of the second of three would-do-differentlies. First of these is that after crossing the A1 and entering Langford, we skipped a bit of the busy-ish B-road (formerly A6001) by taking a permissive track. This wasn't worth doing---it's a short stretch and the track is too gravelly for comfort. Secondly, and most trickily, we made the inverse decision, probably the wrong one, between Gravenhurst and Silsoe: rather than taking the bridleway (which Google Maps claims is navigable by car, but appears not to be), we diverted up towards the A-road and back down. Google's aerial photographs reveal that the track continues as such for just over 1km, then becomes paved. The diversion up towards the A-road is probably 1km longer, and has other major disadvantages: it crosses the A6 on the level rather than on a bridge, has a few wearing climbs, and bizarrely, once you cross the A6 you have negotiate a couple of gates and a pile of rubbish. to get into the village proper! Much later, the final would-do-differently is that although we opted not to take the diversion via Elsfield on approach to Oxford, it's well worth it, because it avoids a giant descent-then-ascent up Headington Hill.

Finally, I'm sure you're dying to know what I ate in the 24 hours covering the trip, starting from the previous evening, so here's a list: around 9pm the day before, some of Jackie's birthday cake (thanks Jackie) to start my dinner en route back from London; later, haggis plus lots of tatties and veg (thanks Martin), around 10.45pm; cheese and biscuits to follow (thanks Martin); big bowl of porridge the next morning (thanks Martin); two slices of toast with jam (thanks Martin); one party-bag caramel crunch biscuit thing (thanks Jackie); two cheese and lettuce sandwiches on thick bread (thanks Martin); one toffee biscuit thing (thanks Jackie); one delicious chocolate and ginger flapjack (bought in Woborn village shop); one banana (ditto); another banana (ditto); just over half a pack of ready-salted crisps (thanks Alan); a chicken and mushroom pasty on arriving at Oxford station (thanks, West Cornwall); an apple when back home (thanks Martin); a big plate of spaghetti alla carbonara (thanks to my sublime culinary talents); two chocolate digestives and a small amount of ice cream (thanks, McVitie et al). That just about did it. I also drank 2x 500ml Lucozade Sport orange (others are available) and about 500ml water during the ride. If anyone wants to count up those calories, I'd actually be surprised if they totalled less than what I burned during the ride.

The ride from Cambridge (Newnham) to Oxford (city centre) took us about 8h40---from about 9.50am (estimated) to 6.30pm. There were a couple of extended breaks: one in Woburn, feeling disappointingly destroyed already at half-way, when it wasn't certain whether we'd make it all the way or bail onto the X5; the second near Kingswood where we got horribly rained on (hailed on, in fact). The weather was mostly fine otherwise, modulo a couple of brief showers, although there was quite a headwind at times. In case you're wondering, the route is in four chunks because my phone battery ran out before the end of the ride. I also forgot to start tracking my route until I was in Cambridge. Fortunately, a bit of Google Mapsing and the wonders of NASA's SRTM3 database have allowed GPS Visualizer to draw the full route including altitude data throughout. The alleged elevation gain over the route is 1300m, if this data is to be trusted. I've a feeling I saw higher elevation figures when I used just the GPS segment, but I don't suppose it matters. 1300m sounds a lot. The section after Woburn is the most punishing hills-wise, although the approach to Oxford via Brill and Woodperry is tough also. Overall: it was a great ride, and one I'd certainly do again---perhaps in the other direction!

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The little one: Henley to Oxford

A couple of weekends ago, after the boat races at Henley, I cycled back to Oxford. After a hair-raisingly fast-and-straight road out towards the Chilterns, the right-turn out towards the Assendons brings a nice undulating slice of Chilterns. After a while there's a gruellingly incessant climb, followed by a very fast descent. The route is following the B480 almost the whole way. It's nice and quiet to begin with, but gets busier (and wider) nearer to Oxford. The bit around Chalgrove airfield is particularly ho-hum and basically like a quiet A road. There is a nice reprise of quietness and narrowness around Stadhampton and Chiselhampton, before the final grind into Oxford.

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Stadhampton has a particularly lovely green, and Chiselhampton isn't bad either. However, Stadhampton also marks the place where I met a cavalcade of traffic coming off the M40 (presumably not post-races traffic as I had presumed at the time, unless they took a very odd route out of Henley). On getting back into Oxford, I took the opportunity to extend my knowledge of cross-town routes in the south and east to reach my fashionable lower west-side abode.

In case you wondered: the route is 44.5km or 27.8mi, and the elevation gain is 412.8m.

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Sat, 26 Mar 2011

WAFT from the past

I wrote this around Christmas 2009, thinking I'd sent it to WAFTI, but somehow I never finished it to my satisfaction, and then its timeliness faded. But anyhow, I just had another look and thought I'd “put it out there”. There's a few things I'd change (it's DRAFTI) but I haven't edited it at all except for one egregious typo. Enjoy.

Digital economy “turned off” by accident

Economists have announced a breakthough in understanding the ongoing downturn, after it was discovered that the “digital economy” had been mysteriously turned off. Experts are currently unable to explain how this situation arose, although it is presumed to have been accidental. Modern economic thinking holds that the digital economy should remain “on” at all times.

As in most Western countries, the British digital economy represents a rapidly growing sector. Its production consists of a mixture of internet services, high-tech business, wrist-watches, prosthetics and beach footwear. The sector is notorious for its stop--start nature, but until recent events, most economists believed it would remain “on” for the foreseeable future.

Sean McDiddley, a researcher at the Wordsworth Littlemore Institute, told WAFTI that "this challenges our entire understanding of the economy. Until now, we were assuming the digital economy was always on. Now, we know that it can also be off." He added that the implications for conventional economic thinking were severe. "We simply don't know what patterns of human behaviour would motivate turning the economy off. We hope to find out, using a combination of rectangular trigonometry and playing lots of Monopoly on our computers."

The Conservative party was quick to blame the oversight on government borrowing. “If you go out with the freezer full, you're bound to come home to a giant defrosted puddle in your kitchen,” said the shadow chancellor, Alec Llewellyn Diaz-Smyth. "A Conservative government would stop stuffing the nation's mouth full of borrowed digits, and start chopping ice."

Shops today have been inundated with consumers hunting for Boxing Glove Day bargains, indicating that the digital economy may already be back on. Those interviewed showed little interest in the economic discovery. “Those electricians will always find a way of making flippy floppy,” said one Cardinal entering the Scunthorpe pogo park. “I'm just glad that they scrapped the 5% toenail tax.” Initial reports show a surge in sales of Cadbury's chocolate fingers in Chippenham. One eager shopper was reported to bite the hand off an inattentive shelf-stacker, although no suits were pressed. Supermarkets say they have been working hand-to-mouth to meet the sudden demand for flip-flops. Other popular mitten-fillers receiving a boost include Garibaldi biscuits, electric drills, ticker tape and the Polish flag.

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Sun, 20 Mar 2011

The long road home... from Swindon

On my return from a trip way out west (meaning Wales), I decided to pass on the delights of Didcot and instead cycle home from Swindon.

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I was a bit unconvinced when starting this trip. I was somewhat underslept and hungover, and it was already approaching 3pm when I got going. I was travelling without a spare tube, unusually, and although I had earlier reckoned that this was a “safe” ride because you're never more than five miles from a railway, I had been forgetting that there are (since 1964) no intermediate stations between Swindon and Didcot, making the railway of no use.

I shouldn't have feared. It took me what seemed like an age to get out of Swindon, but once I did, this became easily the best ride of the year so far. The roads were miraculously quiet, and the villages unfailingly picturesque. It helped of course that the weather was gloriously sunny, wind-free and, owing to the later start time, blessed with that warm late-afternoon light.

Quite a bit of the route is on B-roads, but these were all no busier than a quiet unclassified road (that is, not busy at all), at least on this one Sunday afternoon. The route cris-crosses the A420 in two places---on near Watchfield nearer Swindon, the other near Pusey nearer Oxford---and the difference in traffic level was remarkable. I romped straight across the first time, with almost no traffic in sight, whereas the second time I was waiting for over a minute (along with two cars) at the T-junction for a gap in a neverending stream of traffic heading towards Oxford. Clearly, the residents of Oxford like to spend their weekends, erm, somewhere in the Oxfordshire--Wiltshire borders.

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Varsity mashup

Last weekend I travelled from Oxford to Cambridge by what I call “train--bike mash-up”. This means getting the train from Oxford to Bicester, cycling from Bicester to Bletchley, getting the train from Bletchley to Bedford (alighting at St Johns station, not Midland, of course) and cycling to Sandy, from where you can get the train to Cambridge (via Hitchin), as I did, or cycle the extra 21 miles to Cambridge if you're feeling keen. Feasibility depends on the combination of timetables and your cycling speed. Right now the timing, on Saturdays at least, works nicely for not-so-fast cyclists such as me. I got the 9.27 train out of Oxford, the 12.01 from Bletchley and the 13.48 from Sandy, arriving in Cambridge a little before 3pm. In each case I had a comfortable wait for the train (10--15 minutes) on arriving at the station. Here's the map of the cycling.

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Predictably, this route is great when it's on roads (most of the way), and terrible when it's on NCN-endorsed tracks (the stretch between Winslow and Bletchley). The last bit before joining the road into Bletchley is particularly annoying---bumpy, rutted, and plain uncycleable in many sections. The large detour to avoid this section would be worth it if I repeat the journey. Annoyingly however, the NCN route alternates between these annoying tracks and some really excellent paved (i.e. on-road) sections.

The ride from Bedford to Sandy is short, and I've blogged about it before. Getting onto it from St Johns station involves negotiating two fairly busy roundabouts, taking Rope Walk at the first one (second exit, although the traffic was fast enough that I wimpishly chose to cross pedestrian style, before realising that pedestrians were not catered for at all) and the car park exit thingy at the second, from where it's easy enough to find the riverside path which joins the former railway path a little further east.

This route covers the two chunks of rail service remanining from the Oxford--Cambridge “Varsity Line”. (I'm always slightly dubious about that name, or at least curious about whether anybody actually called it that while it was still running.) The Bicester--Bletchley cycling route crosses the line at several places, and is directly alongside it for one long stretch. The track is still in place for almost the entire of this section, with modern level crossings and similarly modern signage. Like the Cambridge--St Ives railway, the route was kept in intermittent use until the early 1990s. We can only hope that a better fate awaits this line than being turned into a guided busway. Meanwhile, the Bedford--Cambridge track is long gone but the alignment has found benign use as a piece of the NCN as far as Sandy, with a few annoying diversions. From Sandy, there is no way to follow the line particularly closely. The train takes you away from the former railway route, going via Hitchin instead. I have cycled through both Potton and Gamlingay, the two main towns on the old line from Sandy to Cambridge, but there's no nice cycle route that takes you particularly near the railway route in that area, although nearer Cambridge, the B1046 crosses the route a couple of times.

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Thu, 17 Mar 2011

More London cycling

At the weekend I took my bike on the train from Cambridge to Oxford. Unfortunately the tubes were down between Baker Street and Paddington, so I had to cycle that bit. When I emerged from Baker Street station, the noise, bustle and ferocious traffic of Marylebone Road made me distinctly not-enthralled by the prospect of the cycle ride. However, I knew better than to go down the main roads. A quick map check later, and I had planned a backstreets route. And lo! the moment I turned off Baker Street into Dorset Street, the bustle was gone. It was replaced by a dense grid of quiet backstreets. I think a lot of people are put off cycling in London from seeing the busy streets (and yes, the people cycling on them), since these tend to be the ones frequented by pedestrians looking for shops or other attractions. But this is groundless, since if you cycle, you can usually stay on the quiet streets that you wouldn't normally visit. As if to make my point, eventually (although not in a planned fashion) my route merged with the London Cycle Network which was signed towards Paddington. So, if I had actually known where I was going from the off, the whole ride would not be much hassle at all. Despite this delay, my station-to-station journey still took a bit less time than the X5 (although not by much).

Nevertheless, I've been forced to accept an unfortunate conclusion: that getting the train between Oxford and Cambridge avec bike is not a good deal. Taking a bike on the tube between Paddington and King's Cross is a bit of a hassle already, mainly because of the stairs. If the tube isn't running, it can get worse. In future I'd plan to cycle between Paddington and King's Cross---I imagine a decent route is available, and it's past time that I look it up. Once you know where you're going, it probably takes about the same amount of time as the tube. The real killer is the ticket price of the train, which is something like three times that of the X5. Given that the X5 does take bikes, unlike most buses, and although I hate sitting on the same bus for three and a half hours, it wins because it's both cheaper than the train and a way to avoid any sort of hassle deriving from a change in London. Crossrail is all very well, but what would be a really good idea, if you'll excuse the German, is a “London Hauptbahnhof”.

One particularly nice hassle-reducing property is that the bus begins and ends in the right places, so getting on and off, and depositing or retrieving your bike, are fairly relaxed affairs. Taking the train between Oxford and Paddington often means changing at Reading, off or onto a First Great Western train of the intercity style, for which the bike arrangements are slightly fraught: you have to sit in the coach at the end of the train, since that's where the bike compartment is. But you don't access the bike compartment from inside the coach---so at Reading you have to hop out, walk the length of the coach to the bike compartment, open that door, untie your bike and get it out before the doors are slammed shut again. There's not actually much danger of this going wrong, since there's easily time to get into the bike compartment, and once you've done this, the platform staff aren't going to slam the door without checking inside. In practice, a stop for a slam-door train like these always seems to take a few minutes, much longer than the minute or so that bike retrieval does. However, this rational angle isn't quite enough to make the process worry-free.

I neglected to mention that there's another way between Oxford and Cambridge, which I tried on my way out: train-bike mashup. This was ver successful---I'll post about it shortly.

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Mon, 07 Mar 2011

Joni Mitchell -- a rebuttal

Sitting in a park in Paris, France

There's no need for the provincial qualifier. You're in Europe now, Joni---you know, where the history comes from. This is the real Paris, not one of those North American knock-offs.

Reading the news and it sure looks bad
They won't give peace a chance
That was just a dream some of us had

Well done, Joni, for being one of that exclusive and enlightened club who had the brilliant idea of peace. It's a shame not everyone is so clever.

Still a lot of lands to see
But I wouldn't want to stay here
It's too old and cold and settled in its ways here
Oh, but California
California I'm coming home
I'm going to see the folks I dig
I'll even kiss a Sunset pig
California I'm coming home

Don't try to pretend you're not Canadian. Just because it's the Sixties and you want to pretend to be a hippy doesn't mean you can claim citizenship. Oh, wait---it's the Seventies, so you're a bit of a latecomer to that scene anyway.

I met a redneck on a Grecian isle
Who did the goat dance very well
He gave me back my smile
But he kept my camera to sell
Oh the rogue, the red red rogue
He cooked good omelettes and stews
And I might have stayed on with him there

Don't count on it. If you'd stayed on with him he might have robbed off with your “silver” that you're always putting on... oh wait, that's another song. Anyway, he might just have booted you out for being annoying. Going on about California all the time probably doesn't help your case.

But my heart cried out for you, California
Oh California I'm coming home
Oh make me feel good rock'n roll band
I'm your biggest fan
California, I'm coming home


Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers

That's what happens when you travel, Joni. I thought you liked that? Perhaps it's just the social connotations of travel that you like---the experience seems less your thing.

All the news of home you read
Just gives you the blues
Just gives you the blues

That's one good reason to stay in Europe, where people aren't so terrified of Communists.

So I bought me a ticket
I caught a plane to Spain
Went to a party down a red dirt road
There were lots of pretty people there
Reading Rolling Stone, reading Vogue
They said, “How long can you hang around?”
I said “a week, maybe two
Just until my skin turns brown
Then I'm going home to California”

You're such a jet-setter, Joni. Well done for blending in with those pretty young people. I bet only a few of them spied you for a faker. That was some deep reading material they had---clearly enough to impress a skin tourist such as you. You know, it's sunny in California. In fact, California's climate is a bit like Spain's. It's not like Canada. You have been to California, haven't you?

California I'm coming home
Oh will you take me as I am
Strung out on another man
California I'm coming home

Another man, you say? I'm not sure who the first man is. Perhaps the redneck who likes goats? Or perhaps you just slipped the “other man” in there... it would hardly match your style not to have someone to be “strung out” on.


Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
More about the war
And the bloody changes
Oh will you take me as I am?
Will you take me as I am?
Will you?

Thanks, but no thanks.

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Tue, 08 Feb 2011

Bee thousand

It wasn't an auspicious start. Feeling in the mood for some live music, a few days ago I noticed the Sea of Bees gig in Oxford, and decided to go, in a nothing-ventured style. The venue was listed as a place called The Old Bookbinders, and a quick web search revealed the location of a pub of that name in Jericho. On the day of the gig I did a quick check again, but noticed something odd---two different street names were being turned up for the venue, and only one of them in Jericho. The other was Green Street, off Cowley Road. It turns out that there are two entities known as “The Old Bookbinders” (well, a space in the last word sometimes distinguishes them). The pub in Jericho is one, but there's also a community arts centre. I went with the latter, which turned out to be the right choice.

Wow! It's the best venue I've been to in ages. Comfortable tables and chairs sit in front of the stage filling (but not crowding) the near half of the floor space, while the rear half is a standing area and features a discreet bar selling very tasty beer. There's some charming decor including streamers, a lighty-uppy plastic tube vine-like thing (what are they called?) and a tasteful red backdrop to the stage. The sad part is that, despite being lovingly decked out, it's a completely temporary set-up. The host building is due to close on 31st March for redevelopment (as “luxury” flats, or so I hear).

All three acts were of the mostly-acoustic singer-songwriterly style. First up was James Walbourne and his two backers (upright bass and guitar/percussion) making a rollicking racket of folk-esque, blues and brighter acousto-near-pop numbers, and doing so superbly well. One CD purchase was already confirmed in my mind. Next up, Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou did their deft, delicate and sweet double-vocal (with occasional harmonising) over the pair of acoustic guitars. They are a married couple and share a single microphone in a cute way. I recognised one of their songs (an “older” one) as something I'd enjoyed on Gideon's programme. They finished with a great version of Charlie Parr's “Cheap Wine”. I wasn't quite convinced I needed the CD, but kept an open mind.

As usual, I apologise for the dire quality (in every way) of my camera phone photos.

Sea of Bees were the headline act. I knew I had heard some songs before, but couldn't remember them. Anyway, the descriptions sounded interesting. Before and in between the sets I had been talking to a charming and very friendly chap next to me, Giuseppe, an Oxford resident originally from Sicily, who was there with his (also charming) wife (she from Portland). They was there because she happened to know one of the two band members, Amber---who I was even privileged to meet very briefly before the set.

The “band” is really the songs of Julie Ann Baezinger, with Amber on back-up guitar and voice. Julie is a unique stage presence---while being a quiet, shy, rather awkward presence on stage, she somehow manages to be a completely charismatic performer at the same time. Her voice is like a tiny candle-flame which somehow, as if amplified through elaborate wooden horn, becomes a room-filling presence. It has both power and a contorted tension, a little like a less artful Joanna Newsom. It sounds cliche, but she sings songs of an adult life with the joy, the anguish, bewilderment and desperation of a child. Her between-songs banter is somewhat child-like too, but brave, carefully introducing each song with a brief recounting of its story, however personal, always with the same artless sincerity. She isn't always quiet either---notable was her love of returning whoops to the crowd with interest.

After the set (there was one encore) I rushed out to withdraw cash, then rushed back to the venue to buy CDs. Trevor and Hannah-Lou were manning the stand, so I couldn't not buy their record. They seemed like lovely people; I shook their hand as I departed. I hope I'll make it back to the venue before it closes. There doesn't seem to be any sort of “save our bookbinders” campaign---when it's gone, it's gone, or so it would seem.

In summary, it was a great night, and I'll be lucky to keep on discovering gems such as this as I get to know Oxford. Oh, and the kebab I had beforehand from Bodrum was awesome too (a bargain, and definitely not yer usual fried-grease-in-pitta).

Long time no blog, by the way. I'll be ranting about my new Oxford situation soon. In the meantime I have to stop, because I'm COVERED IN BEES. Sorry---I couldn't resist.

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Do the modern protest

As I walked back to the department after my lunch today, there was some sort of protest going on down by the Radcliffe Camera. I guess it was about fees and whatnot. It seemed quaint that these people were choosing to protest by walking down a street while shouting. Futility was very much in the air. In this post-Thatcher era, people power is a dragon that has ceased to exist, for lack of belief. Our downtrodden population is once again resigned to living under an aristocracy. Today, the aristocracy is the super-rich, with the politicians as both their willing puppets and, in many cases, among their number. Cynicism has worn us down. Most people cannot be reached or motivated in any way. The modern way to conduct effective protests seems to use communication technology to reach a very high percentage of the minority who can be motivated, rather than trying to rouse a general rabble on the streets. Unfortunately, so far the biggest success of this method seems to have been getting Rage Against The Machine to Christmas number one single.

Today I read the paper for the first time in weeks. I was taken aback by how depressing it all is. Julian Assange is being stitched up; Russia has started expelling foreign journalists; the “redevelopment” of a historically significant and seemingly valuable estate in Elephant & Castle is being steamrollered through despite apparent local protest; it was revealed that British ministers had bent over backwards to release a mass murderer from prison for the sake of “diplomatic relations” with Libya; I didn't even get to read George Monbiot on the recent tax relaxations made to benefit big business, but now that I do, it's even more depressing. I feel that I should be protesting about dozen different things, yet I don't protest about anything. Some of it is laziness; some of it is that I don't know where to start. And the rest is that I don't know how to do it effectively. Please send advice on a postcard.

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Sun, 12 Dec 2010

Fast times

I recently discovered that I'm a desk-faster. (If you've been overdosing on the FT, by which I mean reading it at all, you may need to delete some cookies before you can read the article. If that doesn't work, try the “Chinese” version---it's in English.)

Lucy Kellaway can't conceive of why anyone would eat breakfast at work. In my case, the explanation is simple: I eat my second breakfast at work, because my first one forces me out of the house. Details, details... in any case, she isn't the first to observe that the boundary between work and non-work has been blurred. Twenty-five years ago, the fictional (but still wonderful) Earl Culver made the same observation far more memorably.

Hopefully, dear reader, Earl has awed you sufficiently that you no longer have any time for Ms Kellaway. But if you'll permit me, I have to drag attention back to her momentarily. (I wouldn't if I didn't have to, honest---even her name seems designed to antagonise me.) I admit I'm hardly her target audience---clearly, only those who not only own dishwashers, but couldn't conceive otherwise, are in her target demographic. But anyway, there are several reasons why the office is a better place than home for doing a great many things.

Most obviously, while I can't speak about her office, at mine (okay, so it's called “the Lab”) there is a dishwasher, although I wouldn't use it to wash up my breakfast bowl. Even when I do join the ranks of the dishwasher-equipped-at-home, I doubt I'll use it on my breakfast bowl. But disregarding the dishwasher, the Lab kitchen is well-equipped: it has teatowels, washing-up liquid and a reliable supply of cloths and sponges. You don't need to rely on housemates refraining from trashing the place, because for some reason, at-work shared facilities engender a higher standard of cleanliness. That may have something to do with having cleaners to look after them.

My luxury home environment affords me the joys of creaking plumbing which takes minutes to reach lukewarm flow from a “hot” tap. Meanwhile, our Lab kitchens have a stainless steel mixer which willingly blurts out scaldingly hot water at the smallest of twists in the red direction. Even the shower at the Lab is far superior to at home. It is built to a decent standard, and also stays hot---rather than suddenly and turning into a freezing cold dribble without warning at random intervals. (HMO regulators should be required to examine any landlord with a set of questions, including “is a single reservoirless combination boiler suitable for a house shared between six people?”.)

In our offices, there is a cleaner too. He is a friendly and efficient man named Les. He's been known occasionally to lend the discerning office-dweller items from his Steven Poliakoff VHS collection. The last time I had a cleaner at home, it was a College-contracted company who sent a friendly pair named Alan and Jo to “clean” every so often. Although cheerful, they made no bones about just how much they hated their job, and reaffirmed as much in their attention to their work. With regard to their allotted duty of keeping the house stocked with toilet roll (out of their industrial toilet roll reserves), their efforts can only be described as too little, too late.

In the office, there are facilities which can easily be justified when shared between hundreds, but which would be unaffordable or extravagant between one or a handful: an espresso machine, a pool table, table football, and, er, lots and lots of toilets. Perhaps our homes are our castles, but simple economies of scale mean that work can usually offer a better-equipped castle, if a less homely one. Communal living is not so popular in our culture (although on this subject as with many, we could do worse than listen to Bertrand), but communal working is an unstoppable institution... so why not exploit those economies?

More generally, I'd contend that tolerance of blurred distinctions between home and work is the sign of a more egalitarian society. In the old world, the class-based division between the worker and his overlords was a power structure which needed to be maintained culturally and psychologically by the overlords. What better way than to deny workers reasonable use of facilities, or any other concession to convenience---never mind understanding of the fact that they may indeed have children and other trappings of “personal life”. Today, fortunately for us, most workers are indeed treated like people. Perhaps all this sharing and lax attitudes to power structures is too much like anarcho-communism for FT types like Miss Kellaway. To me, it's an unexpected reminder of the irrepressible creeping of progress, even in these transiently yet depressingly Conservative times.

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Sat, 20 Nov 2010

Crossover hit

Here's one example as to why listening to the radio while working can be dangerous.

Many libraries written in languages which do not provide native introspection will nevertheless layer their own run-time self-description (or “type information”) into their data structures, by adopting particular conventions. One example is Belle and Sebastian.

It actually turned out to be the intro to New Order's “Procession”, which I misrecognised as B&S's “Electronic Renaissance”.

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Wed, 17 Nov 2010

It goes like this

At 4pm yesterday I was writing an e-mail. Around then, without realising, I accidentally pressed Ctrl-W. This is a keyboard shortcut that some other apps use, so perhaps I was context-confused.

My mail refused to send, and the mailer was behaving as if there was no network connection. After checking that there definitely was a network connection, and restarting the mailer, I decided it must be a bug in the mailer.

I therefore decided to upgrade all my packages, as it'd been a while. Since the last upgrade, I had added some Debian repositories because various packages I wanted weren't available in Ubuntu.

The upgrade pulled in a lot of packages from Debian... many of which turned out to clobber Ubuntu packages, or attempt to, in various ways. After it becomes clear that the Debian packages are a bad idea and must be eliminated....

.... I tried to remove them by hand. No good, so I re-read the documentation on dreaded APT package pinning and configured my APT to “downgrade” everything back to Ubuntu.

Around this point, I really had to leave the lab for the evening. I manually re-typed my e-mail and send it using Lab machine. Since my laptop battery spontaneously failed a few days ago, I had to hibernate my machine instead of putting it to sleep.

The next day, the machine failed to boot, complaining that “it seems udevd is already running” (which, first thing at boot, is unlikely). I try booting the Kubuntu disc, so I can chroot in and fix the packages. No joy---there are tons of read errors on the CD, whose messages fill up the consoles, while the X session fails to start.

I tried an old Debian netinst disc, but it's too old to support either of my network devices. Although all the packages I desperately need are on the Kubuntu CD, and might be readable, I can't eject the CD drive when booted from it.

I tried booting Windows 7 to google the udev error message, but the machine hard-locked just after login. I remember that the temporary (broken) battery I'm using does that, so I remove it, reboot, and wait inordinately long for the recovery boot process. Googling reveals nothing useful.

At the Lab, I booted my Knoppix disc and successfully connected to the network. I successfully downgrade away the rogue Debian packages, after much manual package-twiddling. Sadly the machine doesn't boot... it just hangs there on a text-only Ubuntu bootscreen.

Back in Knoppix, I try randomly reinstalling a bunch of important-seeming packages including the kernel. The machine now boots, modulo a spurious “gave up waiting for the root filesystem” error which can be manually guided around.

A bunch of packages I actually do want were somehow removed somewhere along the line, so I spend a while reinstalling those. Around 5pm I am back to where I was at 4pm yesterday. It turns out that Ctrl-W enables “offline mode” in my mailer, which makes things look suspiciously like there is no network.

Can I add that I woke up underslept (not for want of trying), with a horrible cold, in a freezing cold house intermittently devoid of hot water. Then the Co-op was out-of-stock of nearly everything I wanted to buy this morning (hmm, that's only a slight exaggeration). I also knocked over a stack of CDs into my breakfast plate. Having now wiped off the baked bean remnants, I have no more mishaps to report, but yes, life is clearly conspiring against me.

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Tue, 12 Oct 2010

Genre bender

Several weeks ago I went to see The Brothers Bloom at Saffron Screen. It's a wonderful film which I highly recommend, particularly now that it's out on DVD. Not only is it funny, witty, charming, visually inventive, and a rollicking story, but it explores some fascinating themes which resonate particularly with me---primarily the question of authenticity in one's own existence, but also about the nature of habits, acceptance, family ties and other things.

On the other hand, I should warn you that not everyone was as impressed by the film as I was. A leading Amazon reviewer criticises it as “genre-confused”. He or she is put off by the fact that it doesn't seem to subscribe to any well-defined genre---it's not really much like a typical detective story or an adventure movie; it's not even really best described as either a drama or a comedy, despite having elements of both. Clearly, this bothers some people---even Peter Bradshaw was “baffled” (his word).

It puzzles me why anyone would consider this a problem. To criticise a film as “genre-confused” is the tail wagging the dog---genres emerge from films, not the other way round. The most interesting works, not just films but any kind of art, are often those which challenge, combine or subvert established styles. “Genre-confused” ought to be a compliment rather than a criticism. In music, perhaps even more than film, many of the very best albums can't at all be described by a single genre-tag, unless they happened to be the work that spawned the tag itself. I'm sure you can make your own list, but to shamelessly drop some albums from my own: Astral Weeks, What's Going On, Remain In Light, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea or whatever other famously brilliant album you could care to mention don't suffer from being genre-confused---they revel in it.

Some people value genres. I've even heard of people who organise their record collection by genre. They must be dull collections. I couldn't even start to genre-ify my collection... any attempt would quickly get stymied by the genre-combining, genre-confusing and genre-defying. A while ago I spoke to a chap who was doing his PhD on French film wanting to discover “where there was a genre of French post-grief drama” in film. I couldn't help thinking what a pointless question this was. Meanwhile I notice that the Guardian's current film season is another culprit: they're running a series of supplements with articles on “the best films”, broken down, you guessed it, by genre. One of the genres is “arthouse”. What on Earth does that mean?

One of the ways in which certain music journalists often annoy me is that they try to describe music by its similarity to other artists. You could claim this to be helpful, in that it might be relating unfamiliar music to something you've heard before. In practice it never is, partly because the comparisons are frequently way-off, and partly because the journalist is really just trying to show off their own knowledge, usually by picking artists comparably obscure to the one being reviewed. In either case, it's unfair on the music being described: to say it sounds like something else is at least an implication of unoriginality. So really, this treatment is best saved for the work that truly is derivative (er, Delphic maybe? or insert some other derivative band here).

Rather than endlessly trying to relate some new piece of art to prior or peer works, why do people find it so difficult to take things as individual works, to be considered on their own merits? Instead of asking “does it do X as well as work Y?”, ask “do I like it?”. In summary: I hate genres. I hope you do too.

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Mon, 04 Oct 2010

Cambridge to St Albans the hard way

Here's the cycle route I took from Cambridge to St Albans on Saturday. It took me 4h08m to cover the 75.8km (about 47mi), of which 3h35m was moving time. As usual I merrily plotted a straight-line backroads route with concern for only the most obvious of gradients; the elevation gain over the route is a fairly strenous 854m (or put more usefully, about 11m for every kilometer travelled).

[If you're seeing this, whatever software is in control of rendering doesn't support the “object” tag. If you're viewing a syndicated version of this content, try clicking here.]

Except for the wonderful Chapel Hill between Haslingfield and Barrington, it's fairly flat until Royston. The Old North Road into Royston was a bit unpleasantly busy, but navigating Royston, beginning with the A505 roundabout, turned out to be quite straightforward. After this is where things get interesting. The straight-line climb to Therfield turns into winding narrow rural roads around Kelshall, Sandon and Rushden before popping out on the A507 briefly. I then went out of my way into Cottered, climbing a giant hill which I could have avoided if I hadn't missed my turn towards Cromer (signposted only for Luffenhall). Back on the intended route, the B-road through Cromer and Walkern is surprisingly pleasant---not too busy, and being narrow, it has a country lane feeling.

The route to the east of Stevenage, hugging the hillside before crossing into Aston, is quite pleasant also. After that, things change a bit: most of the rest of the route is on narrow single-track roads which are often bumpy, pot-holed, slippery from treefall, and flooded or near-flooded in places following the wet weather preceding my trip. Following Bragbury End and Woolmer Green, there is perhaps the muddiest and roughest-surfaced stretch along Danesbury Park Road (a wooded backroad seemingly undergoing residential development), before a brief respite through the comfortable home-counties feel of Welwyn town centre. It's then more of the same winding muddy single-tracks through Ayot St Peter and Coleman Green into Sandridge. I passed a Ford sign around Ayot St Peter, but was relieved when no ford emerged. Some of the downhills in that area felt like a mountain biking experience, and on a different bike might have been exhilarating rather than bone-shaking. The ford game levelled on Coleman Green Lane when a completely flooded section appeared unannounced. I let the car behind me go ahead so I could judge the depth and bumpiness. Luckily I then made it across none the wetter.

In hindsight, the uppy-downiness and hair-raising surfaces of the single-track roads would make me rethink my route a little for next time: probably I'd take a more northerly route between Stevenage and Sandridge, through Knebworth, Codicote and Wheathampstead. Those roads are mostly wider (“generally more than four metres wide” to use the Ordnance Survey language) but I am only guessing that they would be any better in practice. I might also be tempted to avoid Royston and the hilly, twisty Therfield area by taking the B1368 to (hilly, less twisty) Barkway and then sidling over to Buntingford, backpedaling north slightly before crossing the A10 onto the unclassified road towards Cottered.

For the return journey, I took the Alban Way from St Albans to Hatfield, from where I got the train back to Cambridge. I wanted to call this the “easy way”... after all, it's six miles' cycling on a tarmac surface, and ex-railway paths will surely be devoid of hills. Sadly it's not so easy: the surface, although technically tarmac, is abominably bumpy and rutted, and of course there are several places where the path leaves the railway earthwork, in a hilly fashion, either to duck around some private property or to route around a now-disappeared bridge over some road. It really annoys me that this sort of path, while no doubt trumpeted by many a councillor or other transport spokesperson as a boon for cyclists, is actually far less usable than a road would be. I really want to knock some sense into whoever pays for such a half-hearted job to be done on these cycle routes, or fails to maintain them to a decent standard, since a bad job is worse than no job at all. Anyone who decided to use the path as a trying-out route for getting into cycling could easily be discouraged for a long time.

You may notice that the map shows a proper GPS-generated track rather than my previous approximate Google Maps efforts. It was generated by Google's My Tracks application running on my (fairly) new HTC Wildfire. The app is fairly good, if a bit slow.

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Sun, 12 Sep 2010

Alien nation

My last post is a bit irksome. On reflection it's gapingly flawed in at least two ways. Firstly, it's needlessly comparative. All of my points would have stood without introducing flimsy anecdotal claims that women are perhaps on average more conservative than men (which may or may not be true, but is irrelevant), as opposed to being simply sufficiently conservative to make the publishers' actions rational (which is the real point). Men are conservative too, but I'm being swayed too much by the anecdotal fact that I consider myself less conservative than average (in the relevant respects) and am also a man. Secondly, there is a hypocrisy in demanding data while being happy itself to advance arguments from a distinct absence thereof. These are rhetorical failures rather than logical or factual flaws, and the written sentiments reflect my honest beliefs fairly accurately. So, although this admission contradicts a position I hold with near-religious conviction, sometimes honesty is not the best policy.

The real problem is that my mood recently has been sufficiently grouchy that any sector of humanity is liable to get it in the neck from me given half an opportunity. Last night it was the Last Night crowd's turn. I'm talking about the Proms of course. It still puzzles me how so many people can give themselves so unselfconsciously to a sentiment that is not only gigantically cliché but so clearly meaningless. What is nationalism anyway? What should I feel about my home country? I might have a slight fondness for it, in the same pseudo-nostalgic way that I'm fond of the town I grew up in, or the film that turned me on to cinema (Stand By Me), or the destination en route to which I discovered my love of cycling (yes, Bedford), or the place I first ate really good pizza (okay, no, I can't remember). But beyond that, pageantry just seems so transparently unjustified. It's not as though I can claim any kinship to any significant proportion of my fellow countrymen, when most of them are nothing but a vaguely well-meaning source of annoyance competing for our isle's scarce resources, and many of them are somewhere between annoying and loathsome. If you need confirmation of that, just check the Mail's circulation figures. Every nation has its pompous anthem, claiming its citizens to be the most decent and brave and upstanding and whatever. Clearly, they can't all be right, and it's likely that none of them is.

So, with pomp and circumstance as with so many things, somehow my brain just says no; it's not okay to go along with what these other people are doing, because it would mean feigning subscription to ideas that are disagreeable or even, in the case of nationalist pomp, just nonsensical. Honesty is the best policy, after all. Just as I sometimes wonder if I'm the only person who compulsively practises extreme honesty---paying the full fare (bus, train, cinema, you name it) even if you can get away without it, not claiming expenses for the grey-area things (never mind black-area), refusing to sing hymns (in the rare occasions when called upon) because he can't subscribe to their sentiments, disliking most kinds of ceremony just for the sheer pretence of it, and generally being an honesty obsessive---so also I feel like the only person who craves not just honesty but authenticity. There's just so much bullshit that it's so easy to take lying down, to say “yes, isn't that nice” in complete betrayal of brain. Most people are happy to wave flags, to smile blandly at Hollywood films, to nod along to whatever music is on the radio (where nodding is whatever other people seem to do), to justify their actions on the grounds that they're “what people do”. I can't “just do” these things; I have to question them, to the point where I can say I've understood and can subscribe to what I've understood. It seems I am this way predisposed to a unique extreme. I'm not sure why... how can you endorse anything before you've considered it for yourself, unless you've decided honestly to nail your very personal colours to it? Nationality in particular is just too vague a label to be worth that honour. In general I find it quite easy to feel alien from my fellow humans for one thing or another that they apparently subscribe to, whether or not they would think to remark at all on that thing it themselves.

It's quite inconvenient to be such an authenticity obsessive. Basic tasks like clothes-shopping are difficult because of the alienation I feel from the pictures of models all around... who are these sneery, implausible people staring at the camera with contempt? Can I really endorse their exhibitors by giving them my money? Even buying washing powder is an alienating experience... I don't have a family, and why does this box have a picture of a baby on it? Eateries, coffee-eries and drinking establishments are also subject to a filter... if the ambiance speaks to someone other than me, or if the clientele seem too alien, I am easily made uncomfortable.

Some people like to reflect on their non-uniqueness as human beings, to note all the ways in which they tick the boxes of some stereotype and are superficially similar to large portions of the population. But I have the opposite problem: I feel like an alien, citizen of a nation of one. I feel like Sting would if he was the only tea-drinker in the universe. Snowflake, cornflake or nutflake? You decide.

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Sat, 04 Sep 2010

Ghetto blasting

Lionel Shriver's comment piece in yesterday's Guardian is a very neat microcosm of a circular trap (I almost said “paradox”) that seems recurrent in social attitudes held by and concerning women. The author is, I should mention, a woman. Go on, read it.

On the one hand, there are undoubtedly certain institutionalised prejudices which make it more difficult for women to gain recognition in various ways---in Shriver's example, for their cultural or intellectual achievements as authors. On another, publishers persist in pursuing a series of patronising and stereotype-derived tactics in the hope of capturing the female market. This is particularly significant because publishers and the media generally have a curious role as a reflector, in this case reflecting patronising views about women back into society. Arguably, in so doing they amplify them; at the very least, the media are guilty of not damping them as much as Shriver and many others would like (myself included, for what that's worth), and can therefore be blamed for their part in the “ghettoisation” Shriver talks about.

There is, unsurprisingly, a third side to this triangle, and it's the thorniest one. Are the publishers wrong? Undoubtedly, some women would be put off by a cover depicting elephant carcasses, just as her publishers feared. To what extent can we blame publishers for building this ghetto, versus observing that women seem inclined towards buying into the ghetto that is built for them? Among the demographic of intelligent and successful women who are my peers, I would venture that certain conservative qualities are, for better or worse, significantly more prevalent among the female than the male half of that demographic: risk-aversion, a capacity to be wary (I nearly said “dismissive”) of cultural artifacts which they identify as “not for them”, and a preference for conciliatory bending to established social conventions and roles rather than defiance and self-definition.

Before you explode in an outrage at my sexism (and remember that I consider myself a feminist), let me emphasise I'm talking about prevalence rather than universality... and in any case these are not “bad” qualities (although I invariably find myself admiring women who don't conform to these generalisations). Risk-taking and social norm-challenging are stereotypically male inclinations, and one can see plausible genetic explanations for this. Besides which, it's well-known that the variance in many psychological characteristics is greater among the male half of the population (there are more male outliers). In other words, the uneven distribution of these qualities between the sexes may not owe simply to “outdated” artifacts of cultural antiquity as Shriver suggests, but to less transient effects. That is not to deny that human universals are always subject to a cultural adjustment, and in deciding that adjustment, attitude-shaping debate such as Shriver's article plays a worthwhile part. I should also concede that while overt defiance is less commonly the way of women, there are other and subtler methods of dissent and change that I am not accounting for. In any case, like all forms of media, publishers probably have a moral duty to damp rather than reinforce stereotypes, and to seed questioning attitudes in the best tradition of the creative arts and of progress generally... but sadly morality is often not compatible with staying afloat in business, particularly in a sector like publishing that is currently being squeezed hard.

The triangle, in fairness, has a fourth side. I'm thinking about Shriver's man on the Strassenbahn here. Surely he is also culpable in preferring not to be seen holding the stricken-woman cover image, just as much as the women who might be discouraged if the cover was otherwise? Asking myself what I might do, when faced with such a book that I wanted to read, the likely answer is that I'd grit my teeth and put up with cover-embarrassment. But this still acknowledges that there is something to be self-conscious about. While I'd like to think I'm atypically unbothered by such things (indeed, some attest that I even look like a woman from behind), there'se still something there.

The article deteriorates a little. Shriver goes too far in her unsupported claim that “women, unlike men, buy books by and about both sexes”. Who's stereotyping now? Perhaps this one is an accurate stereotype---and if we were in the business of wagering, I do find it broadly plausible (in the same way that “men love football” is plausible)---but claims like that require data. Soon afterwards she claims that if the careers of “smart female authors” depended only on appealing to women, they would “narrow their subject matter”. But hang on---wasn't the earlier point that the subject matter isn't the issue, because contrary to stereotypes, women are broad-minded and will read a wide range of material? And would these “narrowing” authors really be “smart”? I think “patronising” would be more appropriate here, since surely those authors are basing their narrowing on stereotypes. The alternative interpretation is that female authors would much rather be narrow for their own art's sake, irrespective of audience, and currently force themselves to broaden their oeuvre purely for the sake of that pesky patriarchal establishment. I don't think that's Shriver's intended interpretation, which is just as well because I don't believe it for a moment.

As usual, my grumbles can be summarised as Not Enough Logic and Not Enough Science. Data could probably undo Shriver's central effort too. Her protest that “girliness and goo isn't the way to every woman's heart” is certainly true, but nobody ever said otherwise. The publishers are only acting on the basis that this holds in enough cases to make their strategy commercially reasonable. In other words, while Shriver places the blame squarely with the establishment---and I'd agree that it has a lot to answer for---a significant chunk of the “problem” lies in a much more diffuse set of memes (and possibly a few genes) that can't really be blamed on anyone. That's no disrespect to her sentiment, because I would love it not to be so. Nothing makes a man (er, meaning me) feel alien from his sisters than observing the influence of media-driven girlification--- a far stronger force than laddification or blokification has ever been, although perhaps explicably---whose sway certainly acts against creative merit in a large proportion of cases. But getting rid of the ghetto, if it's ever to happen, means taking on more than just the establishment: taking on people as a whole.

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Tue, 27 Jul 2010

Film cuts

Ever since the current government took office, I've been reading details of proposed spending cuts with interest. It's clear enough that the cuts are primarily ideologically motivated, and at each turn a government official has been on hand to claim that the cuts will deliver overall improvements thanks to private-sector initiative. This is clearly not true nearly as much as our Conservative friends would have it---contrary to the mantra claiming that the market is some sort of responsive, elastic, optimising miracle-worker, in fact it is a dumb machine that gets stuck in all sorts of ways, from arms-races to price-fixing to short-termism to simple unimaginativeness and the dull plasticity of human thinking.

Nevertheless, I can sometimes read details of cuts and wonder whether that one specific case or other might not be a bad idea. Having a periodic search for the dead wood and hardened inefficiencies is not a bad thing. Some of the earliest cuts announced, to ministerial expenses (like cuts in chauffeur-driven cars and suchlike), while absolutely miniscule in impact, seemed like good ideas to me and an indication that there was scope for at least some some latent inefficient habits to be shaken up. It's a bit like how our unfortunate cultural treatment of job losses means that a recession, in giving companies an “excuse” to let their ill-employed staff go, can rather unfortunately fill a useful role by improving resource allocation in the longer term, where these changes would be somehow unpalatable in “normal” circumstances. This is an unfortunate norm which needs to be changed, but one thing at a time.

Arts funding is the latest issue, following today's news that the UK Film Council is being axed. The general reaction has been very negative, but again, it's worth considering the alternative viewpoints. Two particularly iconoclastic positions have appeared recently: Mark Ravenhill provocatively argued that the arts budget should be cut because a lot of it is wasted on “development”, while Alex Cox with characteristic free-spiritedness claimed (scroll down) that the Film Council's mistaken treatment of Bond and Harry Potter films as “British” has cost independents their share of lottery funding.

The conclusion of all of this seems to be that the reality of an organisation is often quite different from its overt intentions. In turn, this means that the consequences of policy decisions are incredibly complicated. It's not necessarily true that schemes with sensible mission are necessarily worth the money, but the converse is almost certainly true too: apparently less useful schemes might have all sorts of complex indirect benefits. We should therefore be very sceptical of any but the best-qualified commentators. We should certainly be sceptical of politicians.

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Fri, 23 Jul 2010

Spektral visions

She had been on stage barely seconds before the first cry of “I love you!” rang out from the audience, followed in a split second by an even louder “I love you more!”. It's quite impressive just how much the kids love Regina. For once, they're not wrong. I've found her records patchy (at least, the two of them that I've heard) but nevertheless sprinkled with enough great moments to make them worth listening to. For me, the negatives are usually some sort of self-indulgent whimsy and, on more recent records, an offputting slickness of production, especially when laid over the occasional thuddingly ill-judged song.

Yesterday's live set had none of the negatives; only great songs and fabulous performances. Even the opener Better, a tune from Begin To Hope which for me is one of the more gripe-inducing ones, managed to get me on side, with its great drum build-up and Regina's voice free from the annoying over-processed sound on the record. In fact it had never sounded better... as usual, the sound at the Corn Exchange was top-notch, and I was quite awed by Regina's voice for the whole night---it's a remarkable instrument which she seems to have complete control over. In other words, when she weirds things up you can be sure she's doing it deliberately.

The new songs I mostly didn't know, because I still haven't got round to buying the “new” record (I think it came out about a year ago), but they were consistently great enough that I became quite convinced that I needed to make the purchase. There's a great sense of drama to her performances, and the new material seems to play to that strength particularly well---there's amazing almost operatic feel in the more epic moments. The trade-off seems to be less whimsy, but I can live with that (though losing it completely would be a shame!). Owing to personal bias, I'm also always very impressed with performers who can play nontrivial piano parts while also singing superbly, and Regina can certainly do that. (Tim Minchin is another performer whose amazing talent in this department has been witnessed in the Corn Exchange in recent memory... clang goes the name.)

It was nice to hear Summer In The City, one of my favourites from the Begin to Hope record (I kept thinking it was the closer on Soviet Kitsch, but that's Somedays), and the popular duo of Samson and then Fidelity closed things off. There was no encore and essentially zero banter the whole night, which made more sense right at the end when Regina made a quiet and arrestingly heartfelt statement about her cellist Dan Cho, notable by his absence on stage because he died tragically a couple of weeks ago earlier on the tour. Rarely has such an excellent show been concluded with such a stunned and sad crowd leaving the venue.

It was still a great evening of music, although trust me to come up with a negative: a more peculiar-to-me dampener on the evening is the unfortunate fact that my affinity for any artist is limited by their popularity. Although I make efforts to be easy-going, at heart I am quite an irritable person, at least in that the presence of strangers can easily make me uncomfortable. I'm fairly sure this property doesn't hold for all musical performances, but certainly in Regina's case I suffer from a very unsociable gut reaction, which tells me that the specialness of a moment needs to be divided by the number of others it's shared with. My uncontrollably grumpy alter ego can't help but look for excuses by which to distance myself from those around me, and there was no shortage of petty irritations that I managed to abuse for this purpose: the two annoying swaying couples in front who kept obscuring my view, or the occasional singer-along behind me, and so on. I wish I wasn't such a misery guts, but I did really enjoy the show---honestly.

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Thu, 22 Jul 2010

Law or logic (but not both)

Nick Clegg has got himself into trouble by claiming that the Iraq war was illegal. Yet again, I am appalled at the lack of rational thought to be found among our politicians, journalists and, in this case, lawyers.

Whether the Iraq war was or was not legal is not a matter over which Mr Clegg has any influence. Perhaps the war was legal, in which case there is no problem with what he said. Perhaps it wasn't, in which case he misspoke. The interesting case seems to be this: perhaps it is not yet known whether the war was illegal. This seems to be the consensus. But so what? If the legality of the war is not yet known, then it was clearly wrong for Clegg to claim its illegality as a matter of fact (which, implicitly, he did). So, the bottom line is that Clegg has made an erroneous claim when speaking in his official capacity. No doubt, ministers can be relied upon to occasionally do such things.

The Guardian claims that “in such a formal setting [Clegg's words] could increase the chances of charges against Britain in international courts”. If so, then the courts are truly bonkers. How on Earth does an erroneous statement by a minister suddenly make charges more appropriate?

The article proceeds to quote Philippe Sands, who is apparently a Professor of Law at University College London, as saying that “ public statement by a government minister in parliament as to the legal situation would be a statement that an international court would be interested in, in forming a view as to whether or not the war was lawful.” So, the legality of the war is not just undecided, but depends on what some minister, whose government was formed years after the war began and ended, and had no part in either of those events? In other words, its legality can be changed retroactively, and simply by the mistaken statements of politicians? This is clearly what Sands is saying.

If he's right, I despair for the world. Even if he's not, I still despair. It's bad enough that the legal system is so messed up, but the politicians and journalists are also culpable: why did they not highlight the central insanity behind this whole non-story? I read the Telegraph article also, and it was just as bad as the Guardian's. Both the journalists and the politicians currently seem preoccupied with the question of whether or not Clegg was “speaking in a personal capacity”, which is simply irrelevant, except perhaps for the style of ticking-off that Clegg should receive behind the scenes. Whether he was speaking personally or officially, he simply made a false statement. Beyond that, it the statement is of no logical consequence. I really hope the same same will be true of its legal consequence.

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Sun, 04 Jul 2010

London callings

I've cycled to London from Cambridge twice in the last month-and-a-bit, over two mostly different routes, so here they are. In both cases, I went on-road as far as St Margarets and then mostly off-road on the Lea towpath to get inside the M25, so the interesting route differences are in the first section. Of course, I'll rant about the second section too, in just a moment.

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The first route, shown in red on the map, is based on this one, as far as St Margarets. The B1368 is a nice route, and is really fairly quiet once you cross over the A505. The hills between there and Barkway (and a little beyond) are fairly hard work, but not destroying if you pace yourself. The rustic section between Puckeridge and Wareside is particularly pleasant, but getting from Wareside to Stanstead Abbots on the bridleways (as in the link above) is not for the faint-hearted. You really need an off-road bike, and since I don't, I wouldn't take that route again---it's bone-shakingly bumpy, and steep enough that I had to get off in places. The immediate alternative is to take a large detour into Ware, as shown on this map, and while it looks excursionary, it's probably quicker and more pleasant for most bikes.

Second time around, and shown in green on the map, I tried Tom Anderson's route (reversed) to get to St Margarets, with two notable modifications. Firstly, instead of taking NCN 11 between Great Shelford and Ickleton, I went through Little Shelford, Whittlesford and Duxford. This avoids the sections alongside the A1301, which as usual are a reason to distrust the NCN. Secondly, after Brent Pelham, do not attempt to reach Furneux Pelham along Violets Lane unless the weather has been extremely dry. It turns out that Violets Lane is the longest ford in Britain (perhaps in Europe?). It's essentially a track along a river-bed, intended to be passable only on horseback (the sign says “unsuitable for motor vehicles”, and that doesn't mean bikes are okay!). It certainly wasn't anywhere close to passable by bike when I went there---fine water-worn pebbly gravel gave way to mud, thick mud, then stagnant water. At that point I ventured no further, but I imagine the stream would have been flowing once my hypothetical Land Rover travelled a bit further south. Unless you're in a Land Rover or some serious off-road motorbike, or on a horse, attempting to get through it will prove somewhere between comical and dangerous. It's rather quaint that sections of our public highways retain that designation even when horseback is the envisaged mode of passage (with “motor vehicles” having been advisorily ruled out). On a wet day the ford is really quite spectacular, as this and this and this and others will attest, but This village walk suggests that with wellies you can get through the ford okay on foot on a not-too-wet day, but that doesn't mean I'd take my bike through, given how easily my mudguards got clogged. From the same village site, this is the rightful flip-side of all those Land Rover videos.

The first time I tried the Lea towpath, I got a bit lost on the way towards Waltham Abbey---having missed NCN1's left-turn away from the river, I ran out of path and ended up taking the B194 through Lower Nazeing. “Nazeing” is a strange name for a place, and I spent a while wondering what it might mean, before realising that if I had a gavel, nazeing is probably what I'd be doing (all over this land). I certainly can't recommend the B194---it's busy! The NCN is a better option, but as usual, it manages to be stressful, because the poor signage and twisty-turny nature always has you worried that you've missed a turning and lost the trail. Second time round I avoided doing so, even when I thought I had: in some parkland across the river from Cheshunt, the path takes a dizzying uphill zigzag that I was sure indicated that I'd left the NCN and entered a pedestrian pathway, but not so, since eventually the NCN signs resumed.

Grumble grumble... I've grumbled about the NCN enough on these pages, and the grumbles don't stop---NCN 1 is full of dangerous, bumpy, practically unrideable sections, particularly along the river, and the usual difficult-to-follow signage will leave you guessing in several places. If in doubt, keep as straight as you can, and don't cross the river even if a signed London cycle route does so. That's if you want to stay on the NCN---I kept on til Canary Wharf, but in general I would recommend joining the on-road London Cycle Network at your earliest convenience. I was quite impressed with the LCN: the smooth surface was welcome, the roads were consistently quiet, and the signage is good. Even better, the roads have bicycle symbols painted on them at intervals, so you can be fairly sure you're on the right track. My only grumble is that the network is poorly-connected---plenty of cycle-friendly streets are not on the network, and there are lots of gaps between the sections that are. I suppose that's a funding issue, since signage and painted bicycles don't come for free. So you need to be prepared to plan the hops between different LCN sections yourself. Invariably you can do this while staying on quiet LCN-like roads. I hopped between NCN 21, LCN 22 and LCN 25 in this way, which got me as far as two streets away from my destination.

On balance I prefer the second, more easterly route to St Margarets---the roads are generally slightly quieter (although there's not a lot in it), the hills less severe, the villages slightly prettier. Much Hadham is deservedly the many-times winner of Hertfordshire's Best Kept Village award, and there are several other contenders on the route. You could even flip between the two routes if you wanted---Furneux Pelham is a reasonable place to flip from east to west, into Braughing, and Barwick is your last chance to flip from west to east, catching the southern end of Much Hadham. Langley and Hare Street are also connected, via Meesden, or you could avoid the busier section of the B1368 by crossing from Elmdon via Great Chishill into the charming Barkway, avoiding the worst of the hills in the process. Ah, the possibilities for superb cycling are endless....

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