Monday, 17 December 2007

Movie reviews: Get it together

Film reviewers: can we please, for the love of all that is holy, agree on a single rating system? It seems every time I see a poster or other advert for a film it's plastered with star ratings. But some reviewers use a system of zero to four stars and others use zero to five stars. Can't you see that unless you standardize this, it's meaningless?! If I see a film with four stars, does this mean it's at the top of its scale and so "The best thing ever: miss this and you'll be excluded from every conversation for the rest of time and forced to fake-laugh when people quote lines of dialogue to each other whilst secretly you're dying inside!" or does this mean "Meh..."? Certainly, if I see a film with 5 stars, I can be pretty sure it's in the former category, but that's only until someone starts using a six-point scale and then the whole problem begins again.

As with so many things in life, psychology has the answer. As anybody with even a passing knowledge of the subject will know, to a first approximation our minds can only conceive of around 7 different levels of anything. That suggests that a six-star rating system would be optimal, with zero stars being one of the seven categories. You'll note that this mirrors recent developments in hotel ratings, which clearly proves I'm right.

Now at this point you might argue that because it's possible to award half-stars, we already have 9- and 11-point scales. To which I say: I'M NEVER WATCHING A FILM AGAIN BECAUSE IT'S ALL BECOME TOO STRESSFUL!

Friday, 7 December 2007

And now I battle werewolves

I just got tipped off about the synopsis of a novel called Thunder Moon, by Lori Handeland:

Residents of Lake Bluff, Georgia hope and pray that the small town has returned to normal after the werewolf incidents... However...something is stalking the town; this creature can rip a heart out of a person, but leave no marks on the epidermis. This killer seems to have arrived at about the same time that Dr. Ian Walker came to Lake Bluff. Attracted to the newcomer, she scoffs at his insistence that she contains powerful magic inherited from her Cherokee background. They team up to investigate a supernatural serial killer.

I... I don't know what to say.

Update: And now there's a promotional video! I know it's silly, but it really feels a little odd seeing my name there like that. But at least they accurately portrayed my rock-hard body and raw sexual magnetism...

Monday, 3 December 2007

Diesel-powered crime and mystification

The first work of sociology I ever read was Power, Crime and Mystification by Steven Box. It is an accessible and compelling work in which he argues that criminality is defined in such a way as to maintain the status quo in a society. His thesis is that by defining what is and is not criminal behaviour in very specific ways, the rich and powerful help themselves stay that way at the expense of the poor and powerless. So the same act gets classed as criminal or benign depending on who does it. If a drug addict snatches £50 from me on the street, that is a crime and if the 'thief' is caught they'll likely go to gaol. If, on the other hand, I lose the same £50 because an insurance company took it from me as a premium, knowing they had put some impenetrable clause into the contract for the purpose of not paying out claims... well, don't expect to see anyone in court any time soon, even though the money was deliberately taken from me in just the same way as in the mugging. Indeed, the insurance company's act is much more premeditated than the addict's and so arguably worse.

Other, more dramatic, examples surround homicide. If I stab or shoot somebody in a moment of passion (were I subject to such things), I'll likely be locked up for life. But think how much more time and effort the justice system would make to solve and punish my lone murder (which is unlikely to be repeated) in contrast to the big fat nothing it does to sort out the many many car companies who are selling cars right now which they know will kill people horribly. These deaths are being caused by people's deliberate actions. Are the innocent victims somehow less dead than in the murder? Of course not. Could the deaths be prevented by the criminal justice system? Absolutely, if it wanted to.

I've been pondering these issues recently in the context of public transport. I've already written on more than one occasion about the government's complicity in Britain's public transport woes, but I think the way Train Operating Companies work is a lovely example of Box's principles in everyday life. When I buy a train ticket, I pay a sum of money to be taken somewhere at the scheduled time. If I do not carry out every single part of my obligation - if I pay no fare, or only part of it - the system will make sure I end up in court where I will be fined, publicly humiliated and given a criminal record. The stations and trains are full of posters reminding me of this fact in gloating tones*. But if the Train Operating Company does not carry out its obligation in this deal they are held to have done nothing wrong when they take my money from me. Indeed, they can take my money knowing their service is not available and this doesn't even tiptoe around the herbaceous border of criminality, even though in other circumstances the same behaviour would be called theft, or fraud. The asymmetry of the situation, in which the corporation is favoured over the individual by the criminal justice system for the same act, is staggering when you think about it.

So what's the lesson here? It looks dangerously as though full reordering of our society is needed, so let's steer away from that and instead conclude this: If First's trains ran on time, and weren't mysteriously cancelled in the middle of nowhere half-way through their journeys leaving customers sitting around on wind-blasted platforms on cold nights, passengers wouldn't have time to think about sociological issues and then write about them in public. Yes, there's the moral right there. Jolly well done. Oh, and whoever has my copy of Power, Crime and Mystification, can I have it back please? Ta muchly.

* "Mr P from Whitchurch thought he could save £27 by not paying for his journey to London. We disemboweled his daughter and fed his cat to a crocodile ha ha ha."

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The People's 50 million: Vote, but don't be fooled

Like every blogger with an interest in cycling, I am now about to exhort you to vote for the Sustrans Connect2 project on the People's 50 Million charity giveaway. If you don't know about this, the National Lottery has £50 million to give to charity, and we can vote for where it goes (presumably to make us feel that we live in some sort of democracy). Anyway, I would suggest you vote for the Connect2 project, which will open up valuable possibilities for off-road cycling and walking all over the country. For example, the plans for the two cities in which I have a personal interest - Salisbury (where I live) and Bath (where I work) - will be magnificent developments, and the Salisbury plans in particular will transform cycling in the city. So vote now - it only takes a moment. And apparently you can do it even if you're not British, so all the people who visit this blog from places like Singapore and the US, you can help too!

Right, now you've done that, let's have a good moan about the whole process. What has happened to our country when a set of highly valuable and important developments - and the Eden Project - are having to fight it out in a vulgar, gladiatorial winner-takes-all combat for a piffling pot of money like this? It is notable that all four projects have some sort of ecological/nature theme, but there is only a small amount of funding and most must lose out. But in a contest to decide where money gets spent in this country, why isn't road-building included? Or Heathrow's expansion? Or the Iraq war? Even if we stick with the transport theme, £50 million is a drop in the ocean of the budget used for building and maintaining highways, or expanding airports and shipping capacity: Why can't we the people choose whether some money gets taken from these budgets to fund ecological work? That way we could fund all four bids. In fact, we could go crazy and give a few million quid to a whole raft of good causes (and the Eden Project). Of course, I've little doubt that in such a straight choice, the British people would choose to have lots more roads and runways now, rather than a peaceful and inhabitable planet in 100 years, but at least it would be their decision and their children would be the ones who would live with its consequences.

But my main concern with this preposterous contest is that it will almost certainly cloud the public and political memories for many years. Funding ecological or non-motorized transport projects three years from now is probably going to be a lot more difficult because as far as the average person and politician will be concerned, those issues were all taken care of during this high-profile event. Indeed, given the publicity that will inevitably surround the winning project, there's the real danger that the three projects that don't get funded (as well as the thousands that were never able to compete) will be perceived as "unpopular" or "unwanted" by the public, and so will be marginalized and in a worse situation that they are now (especially given all the money they will have spent on their bids and publicity). This contest could well prove to be a two-edged sword. Just be careful, is all I'm saying. The average Briton doesn't think about sustainability issues very much as it is, and if they get the impression that it's all been taken care of with a nice big media-friendly quick-fix, changing their behaviour in the future will be a lot more difficult than it is already.

To forestall any flood of emails telling me how great the Eden Project is: it isn't. I will not entertain claims to sustainability or eco-friendliness from an installation built down in a far distant corner of the country which is local only to a handful of cows and which cannot realistically be reached except by car. If they want me to believe they care about the environment they'd have built it near Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds-Sheffield or in the Scottish Central Belt. That way, there would be millions of people who could reach it without travelling a long way, and there would be a useable public transport infrastructure that could bring people from further afield. Tommy-rot.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Government's lost database: I'm ready

Given that our government has shown itself so incompetent that they see nothing wrong with giving junior staff the ability to burn a massive secret database full of personal information onto two CDs and bung them in the mail, I along with many others are now living in dread, given that our rulers are obsessed with national ID cards and storing all sorts of other biometrics about British people to foil every form of badness imaginable, from snoring to queue-jumping. As people have pointed out, if the government loses your bank account number and it falls into criminal hands, you can always get a new number. This isn't the case once the government is routinely using fingerprints and iris scans everywhere.

Or is it?! For I can reveal that I have finally perfected Remova-Finga™ technology, allowing quick and easy changes of fingerprints within moments of a government employee doing something so idiotic that it would be disappointing behaviour from a mollusc. I now just need to finish working on iBall-Swappa™ and we're all set to continue living safely under the rule of our mighty leaders.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

The Golden Age that I missed

I recently discovered the terribly talented Canadian cartoonist Kate Beaton. Perhaps my favourite cartoon on her website is her idea of what academic life must be like. As a 21st Century academic, I can't quite express the disappointment I feel in doing my job fifty years too late. Imagine how wonderful it would have been to teach at a university back in the days when one could sit in a seminar room with a group of students, sucking ruminatively on a pipe and watching the smoke play through a shaft of sunlight before eventually wagging the stem at one of the students and saying, "Hum, yes, but what you've overlooked is...". Now that's academic life as it should be.

Damn you, anti-smoking laws - you've ruined the dream! And all because of your "cancer" and "life expectancy". Bah.

Monday, 12 November 2007


I'm just watching Dispatches, this week a special documentary about road congestion in Britain. It's a huge problem, causing so many problems to so many people.

So here's a question: if our government is concerned about congestion and pollution - as they certainly claim to be - why the buggery flip do they allow train companies to charge more for travel at peak times than at times nobody wants to travel? If we want fewer cars on the road during rush hour, which everyone agrees we do, the alternatives to driving can't cost extra, and so be disincentivized, at precisely the times they are most needed! Dur! Dur!

Top Gear: Who'd have expected it?

For those who did not see the weekly British televisual car-beatification ceremony that is Top Gear last night, it was rather interesting. The presenters set themselves the challenge of crossing the whole of central London using a car (naturally), public transport, a bicycle and - curiously - a powerboat. Now, we know that in challenges such as this the bicycle always always wins. I was just amazed that such a vehemently pro-car programme showed the bicycle trouncing all the other options. By a large margin. And the car being beaten by every other mode. Who'd have thought it?

What I want to focus on here is Richard Hammond's experience of cycling in London. I wrote here about some of the problems that city has with its cycle facilities, but it was very interesting to see on television somebody's frustration with such magnificent provision as cycle lanes which run for 5 metres then disappear, dumping the rider in traffic. Most interesting was his obvious anger at constantly stopping at traffic lights. The excellent book Bicycling Science (which sits on a shelf next to my desk - can you guess what the next book along is?*) contains this formula:

which describes the power used to ride a bicycle. This formula tells us many things, including that in general, stopping then re-starting a bicycle uses about the same effort as riding 100m. So stopping at just 10 junctions in a journey is as much work as riding a whole extra kilometre. The corollary of this? If your local authority is providing cycle facilities that make cyclists stop unnecessarily - for example, at every single driveway and side-road on a roadside cycle path - then it's just not good enough and you should demand your money back. And as for "cyclists dismount" signs, I just can't swear enough to express my contempt.

* The Bicycle Wheel by Jobst Brandt. If you guessed that correctly then I love you.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

First: Traumatising Travel

A few weeks ago I wrote about the lamentable arse-fest that is First Group's Portsmouth to Cardiff rail "service", and how they are vastly bloating their profits by running a monopoly as poorly and as cheaply as possible knowing that we have nowhere else to go (with full government complicity). In that entry, written well over a month ago, I mentioned that one of the trains I regularly find myself on has two toilets, one of which had been out of order for weeks. Well, it's now at least three months since that toilet broke - a whole quarter-year in old money - and it still isn't fixed. But my joy has reached new heights, because the one other toilet on that train is now buggered too, as you can see! So for the foreseeable future, there will be no toilets for the hundreds of people on that train! Hoorah for First! Hoorah for Bratislava service at Tokyo prices!

The thing is, I find myself in a real bind. Traditionally, people like myself, who work in transport analysis and so point out that people drive too much, have suggested that people should make more use of public transport. But how can I go on telling people they should use public transport when the monopolistic arse-bags who have seized all the services in this country can't be bothered to uphold their end of the deal by providing useful and non-sub-human services? (In case you don't travel by British train, the toilets are just a poignant symbol- they're not the only problem we face as passengers, but they are damned emblematic.) I was always uncomfortable recommending that people use private, profit-making companies instead of driving, but I could at least cope with this if those companies made some effort. But if their greed, arrogance and complacency have reached such a level that they can't even be bothered to pay a plumber a few quid to unblock a toilet - a sum that is hardly going to dent their £109 million profits all that much - then screw them. That's right: screw them. I'm no longer going to recommend people use these "services", because frankly they aren't a suitable alternative to driving.

So is that it? Ian can't have a wee and so turns his back on the nation's transport problems in a sulk, thereby tacitly supporting untrammeled expansion of private driving? Well, no. The key issue here lies in our definition of "public" transport. At the moment we don't have such a thing. We have "mass transit", run for the benefit of a few Directors and shareholders, but we don't have "public" transport - transport systems operated for the benefit of the public. We have allowed ourselves to fall for the monstrous and evil lie that privatisation and deregulation of public transport offered benefits to the nation. Well, I've lived through the last 25 years. I've seen our public transport degenerate from an affordable and practical solution to personal mobility into a swollen badger's cock of a shambles which is solely focused on profit maximization*. I've travelled all over Europe and sampled public transport in at least a dozen countries, all of which do it better. So I'm here to tell you that privatization and deregulation have not worked. At least not for the British public (the funds of political parties may be another matter). When we have public transport again, I can recommend it. Whilst our services are cynically run as fourth-rate monopolies, with the full encouragement of the government, who award the franchises without even pretending to put the public's interests first, I'll have nothing to do with them.

As for how I personally will travel from now on, I have a plan. Watch this space.

* True fact: when First took over running Bath Spa station, they saw nothing wrong with making the platform staff wear jackets marked "Revenue protection officer". The people who used to be "guards" - i.e., there to look after the customers - were now officially there primarily to make sure First didn't miss a penny of their lovely lovely profits. I mean, even if the staff are there just to assure profits, it takes a very special type of not giving a shit to rub our noses in it like that, doesn't it?

Friday, 19 October 2007

Let's not forget - or lose - what's good about Britain

Life in modern Britain is irritating in many ways, often thanks to greed and incompetence. So sometimes it is helpful to be reminded how good we have it compared to many other places. I've just been reading a report on Minivan News, a Maldivian anti-government news site, about Abdulla Mahir. Mahir is a torture victim, now granted asylum in the UK, and was recently arrested in the UK for throwing an egg at the Maldives president who, he alleges, had him tortured.

“The police treated me very nicely. One officer said to me 'I hope things work out in your favour.'”

“Another policeman was laughing throughout the interview,” Mahir added.

“It was 99% different being under British custody compared to being questioned by Maldivian police. The interview technique was different. I was allowed my lawyer to sit with me throughout the interview and the whole thing was tape recorded. At the end, my lawyer was given a copy of the tape recording. Then a doctor and a nurse came to check that [Maldivian President] Gayoom’s bodyguards hadn’t hurt me.”

It is slightly humbling to see someone so astonished by what we would consider the absolute basics of decent treatment. This is all the more reason we Britons have to be so careful about the relationship between us and the state we, in the final analysis, own. We must, more than ever, guard assiduously against sleepwalking into a state of ever-greater control, suspicion and our government assuming we are all potential criminals as their default position, because it would be a damned shame if our society changed such that the above statement lost its power.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Bicycles and trucks

The tireless and all-knowing Dave Holladay asked me to co-sign a letter to today's London Evening Standard on how adding an extra set of little side-mirrors to trucks isn't going magically to stop trucks crushing cyclists with depressing regularity, as some people seem to believe. In my correspondence with Dave, I made a point about trucks which I think is important, and which I'd like to record here:

When I see vans and lorries with their "If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you" signs, I am powerfully inclined to conclude that this simply isn't good enough: if you can't see me and I am in a perfectly reasonable place, your vehicle isn't suitable to be used in an urban environment. Full stop.

And this is the root of it: lorries and other large trucks are designed primarily for the motorway, and the vision they afford the driver is entirely suitable for this, as on a motorway the edges and immediate rear of one's vehicle are largely irrelevant. Lorries should therefore be seen much more like military tanks: great in the environments for which they are designed, but absolutely not suitable for coming into towns and cities. Economics notwithstanding, the "proper" arrangement should be that lorries report to distribution centres at motorway intersections and unload their goods to smaller vans for urban delivery.

So there you have it. Sorry Messrs Tesco, Spencer and Sainsbury - I know you don't like ideas like this. But you can console yourself with the fact your directors' continued affluence has vastly more influence on government policy than road safety, congestion or pollution ever will. And to head off your inevitable counter-point: yes, I will gleefully pay 3p more for each tin of beans I buy if it makes my roads better.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Obesity - where's the transport link?

Today obesity is again in the news headlines, the second time this week. The UK government is getting in a right old tizzy about the subject, and rightly so: this is an important issue (although the claim that Britons being fat is as important as global warming is, erm, just a tad anglocentric, don't you think, chaps?).

But why on earth, in all that has been said about this subject, is nobody seeing a role for transport in solving this problem? The facts are that (1) our bodies are not intended to be sedentary and (2) most people drive for most journeys. The majority of journeys under 2 miles are carried out by car, expending practically no energy whatsoever. Getting people to walk and cycle these journeys would make a huge blow against obesity, but it is not being mentioned. Shifting short-distance transport to active modes would change so much and do it simply, but instead we'll probably end up with hamburger-taxes or something equally silly. Sigh.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Drowning in spam

This afternoon, in the space of about 2 hours, I received over 1000 spam emails. These were almost all messages that had bounced and 'come back' to me because they pretended to come from my domain. The headers were all something like

From: "lorimer Bunker" []
Subject: snongiad

Cannot deliver this message: recipient doesn't exist

meaning that spammers must have sent out thousands of messages purporting to come from my domain, each with a made-up email address. I have received 50 more bounced emails in the time it has taken to type this paragraph. Five more came just in the time it took to type that last sentence!

I'm so livid that I'm being abused this way. I'm furious with the spammers, obviously, but I'm also pissed off with Microsoft, whose woefully insecure operating systems have allowed hundreds of thousands of computers to fall under the spammers' control (because this is how spam is sent, you know: the spammers take control of people's PCs and get them to send all the mail). I'm also mad at the imbeciles who (a) bought Windows PCs and (b) allowed them to get infected. It's not rocket science. Buy a unix computer (such as a Mac, or Linux box) or take extreme precautions: there's just no middle ground. If you allow yourself to get infected you're part of the problem. I hope women laugh at your tiny manhoods.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Celebrity politics

One of my colleagues in our School for Management has shown how people are so unengaged with politics that their voting preferences can be massively swayed by a single celebrity endorsement.

If people are (a) so alienated by the political process that (b) they are happy to chose their political leaders on the basis of Gordon Sodding Ramsey's say-so, then I'm sorry but this democracy idea clearly isn't working out. I hereby announce my readiness to serve as a dictator. Frankly you could do a lot worse.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Everybody on the train rejoice! Rejoice, I say! *

Excellent news, rail travellers! Last year First Group made £108,800,000 profit on its rail business.

But given that this news is some of the best to hit our nation since VE Day, why is it that amongst all the undoubted joy I feel for First's directors and shareholders, I still find myself wondering why I spent an hour on Thursday evening standing with dozens of other people in a cramped vestibule on one of their improbably short rush-hour trains.

And although I'm obviously thrilled that last year eleven First directors between them trousered £2,108,000, a little joyless part of me can't help wondering why the vestibule I was squashed into contained a toilet - one of only two for the entire trainful of people - that to my certain knowledge has been out of order for at least 8 weeks. Perhaps - and here I go being old Dr Cynical again - it might be related to the fact First Group's executive directors all got company cars, or car allowances, to the tune of £80,000 on top of their salaries, which possibly does not entirely encourage them to travel on their trains themselves. Am I the only one who thinks it odd that the people who run a public transport business award themselves company cars for their own travel? Why, it's almost as if they are disingenuous hounds for whom the services they expect us to use are not good enough! Thank goodness that's not true.

But never mind all this! My regular suffering, and that of my fellow passengers on the Cardiff-Southampton line, is a tiny price to pay for ensuring First Group's directors got average bonuses of £168,750 each last year, a sum which, at slightly less than 10 times the annual salary of a First Great Western guard, is practically a slap in the face for them given how hard they worked for it. All my doubts about privatized rail without any possibility of competition between operators have been laid firmly to rest. I no longer see any impediments at all to our getting people to abandon their cars in favour of public transport, and am frankly mystified why anybody would still drive anywhere these days given they can make the same journey with far more delay, cost and discomfort whilst supporting magnificent businesses like this one. Where's the chuffing bunting?

* We're clamping down on non-rejoicers on our railways. Failure to rejoice could land you with a £10,000 fine and a criminal record. Don't risk it.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Around the world by bicycle

Many congratulations to my father, who has calculated that he cycled around the world - 40,000 km - in just the past three years. This is a remarkable achievement.

Of course, he's pretty much managed to cycle around the world without leaving Yorkshire, which somehow seems the proper Yorkshire way of doing exploration...

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Thought for the day

Removing cyclists from the road to protect them from traffic is like removing patients from hospital to protect them from MRSA.

Who said it? Me, just now in a meeting!

COGS talk

Tonight I'm talking about cycling in Salisbury. Here is a copy of the slides for anyone who attended. (Warning: big file - >13Mb)

In other news, the Beeb obviously got wind of my talking as I was interviewed on BBC Radio Wiltshire and BBC Swindon in rapid succession this morning. It was very interesting: despite their asking more-or-less the same questions I managed to give them both totally different interviews!

Friday, 21 September 2007

BBC Solent

I'm being interviewed on BBC Radio Solent tomorrow morning at around 1015. I'll be talking about how drivers and other road users interact in shared-space environments, i.e., streets where all the signs and markings are removed. Expect nervous excitement amongst the people of Hampshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight all morning.

Targeting bad cycle lanes

The BBC today has a short video report on London's cycle lanes, which focuses on how cyclists often feel at risk when using them. Those of us who work in cycling know that feelings of danger are a huge deterrent to more people cycling. Now, as it happens, we also know that cycling is a lot less dangerous than it looks, and that any danger which does exist is far outweighed by cycling's health benefits: it is always much better for your life expectancy to cycle than not to cycle; but as long as people avoid bicycles because drivers choose to put them at risk, we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

The BBC report, with its London focus, got me thinking about a conversation I had earlier this year with a London-based road planner, whom I will keep anonymous. He explained how, although the various London Councils are all naturally in favour of increasing cycling, they generally try to make this happen through one simple system: lengthening the London Cycle Network, the city's network of cycle lanes and tracks. A longer LCN is the target because the number of kilometres of cycle lane in a city is easily measurable, you see - you can do it with a ruler - whereas aiming to make cycling 'safe', 'fun' or 'useful'... well, such vague hand-waving oogy-boogy concepts seem like voodoo to the leaden souls at the top of local government.

Because 'lengthening the LCN' has become synonymous with 'improving cycling' in the minds of decision-makers, London's road planners are under great pressure to get a cycle lane - any cycle lane - onto every street. It doesn't matter if it is a good cycle lane, or one that flagrantly makes journeys longer and puts people in danger: if the LCN grows, it's a good thing. Exactly the same principle is driving so many other authorities around the country.

Right now I am submitting a funding proposal, with Lazio Regional Authority and other partners around Europe, to the EU. Our aim is to build research on all these other aspects of cycle infrastructure and to ask how can we best assess concepts such as safety, pleasure and usefulness. When we crack this issue, town planning might be able to get away from the cycle-lane-kilometre as the sole measure of success when it comes to catering for cyclists, who do, lest we forget, pay for these roads and 'cycle facilities', more than do motorists.

Finally, here's a short movie I spotted from my old home town of York, showing exactly why this stuff shouldn't be left in the hands of local authorities when their main aim is just to get a cycle lane - any cycle lane - down on the street. The last of the three examples irresistibly suggests the influence of health and safety inspectors - the one group of people who can make the Tomás de Torquemada look free-thinking and undogmatic.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Google adverts for weirdos?

Google's adverts are context-sensitive: they scan the page they are appearing on and advertise things related to that page's content, so that people viewing a website see adverts they are likely to be interested in.

Look at the advert I just spotted on this blog. Apparently Google thinks I attract cat deviants. Feed your passion? With hairballs?

Cycle talk in Salisbury

Next Tuesday (25 September) I'm giving a talk on my cycling research, focusing on how drivers and cyclists interact on the road. This will include my work on drivers overtaking cyclists, as well as other really interesting research on driver-cyclist interaction. There'll even be some stuff hot off the presses (seriously - I haven't even done the analyses yet!).

The talk will be at a meeting of COGS, Salisbury's excellent cycle campaigning group, at the Methodist church in St Edmund's Church Street. I do hope to see you there at 7 o'clock. All are welcome, whether members of COGS or not.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Area under two curves in [R]

As it's Talk Like a Pirate Day, it seemed a good time to share a recent insight from working with the statistical system R. Why the pirate link? R, Jimlad...

Anyway, I recently had two overlapping curves, like in the first diagram, and wanted a way of finding the area that fell under the two without getting too complex, as one must normally do. I've a horrible feeling I'm about to say something really obvious as though it's profound (not for the first time), but having meddled for ages trying to find a way of doing it, it was something of a revelation to me suddenly to realize that for practical purposes (i.e., for simulations and graphs) you can find this area simply by taking the minimum y-value for each value of x. The lowest curve at any point is the upper-bound on the common area, so working across the x values taking the minimum is a really simple way to extract the shared region. Let's first create some sample data - these are the two curves in the diagram...

x <- seq(-3,3,0.1) #create a sequence of x values
y1 <- dnorm(x) #create the first curve
y2 <- dnorm(x + 0.75) # create the second curve
plot(x,y1) # graph the first curve
lines(x,y2,lty=2) # overlay the second

Then find the minimum at each point...

common <- array() #create a new array to hold the common area
for (i in 1:length(x)) { #for each value of x...
common[i] <- min(y1[i],y2[i]) #...take the lowest y across the two curves

This gives you the variable called 'common' which represents this shared area, and you can do all sorts of things with this, such as plotting a coloured region as I have in my second diagram.

polygon(c(min(x), x, max(x)), c(0, common, 0), col="lightblue")

As I say, this might be obvious to most of you, but it was a useful thing for me to work out so I hope it may help others. R, Jimlad.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Studying science - if only they could

Today we see the news that a record proportion of our postgraduate science students are coming from overseas. Although we are certainly seeing more applications from places like China, this shift is in the most part caused by fewer and fewer postgraduate students coming from this country. Working in the university sector, this is no surprise to me.

I have over the past few years had at least half a dozen highly intelligent and motivated undergraduates whom I would dearly love to have kept at university for a PhD, but there was never any money to pay for them to do so - not even the few thousand pounds a year necessary to pay their fees. The only real option open to me today if I want to offer a student a PhD course is for me to submit a full grant proposal to the ESRC or EPSRC to pay for the studentship. Now, such an application can easily take six months, but that's not the main problem. Because of recent changes to the way universities do their accounts, this application is treated like any other full-scale grant proposal, and so must request money for all sorts of things that the university is paying for anyway - my salary for the time I spend supervising the student, the heating and lighting in my office - and things that are actually covered by the student fees: computer access, every piece of paper the student is likely to use, etc. As such, if I apply for the funds to get one of my graduates onto a PhD course, because of all this double-payment the minimum amount of money I have to request from a funding council is something like £200,000 - which of course is so much that there's bugger-all chance of me getting it!

If our talented and potentially world-changing students aren't to keep slipping through our fingers, we urgently need an increase in postgraduate funding and, more importantly, a sensible procedure for applications which does not require everything to be paid for twice, gobbling up what little money is available. In the old days there was a simple (albeit underfunded) process where our students could apply for the relatively little money they needed to do a PhD direct from the ESRC in an annual national competition, with the best applicants getting funded. More of this sort of thing.

Chewing gum on the streets - the real solution

It seems scientists have developed chewing gum that doesn't stick to the floor. To me, that doesn't seem the proper solution to chewing gum on the street. Surely a better way of dealing with people spitting gum all over the place would be the public flogging and subsequent sterilization of anybody who has ever told a child the flagrant idiocies that swallowed gum will wrap around their guts or stay inside them for seven years.

I've swallowed every piece of chewing gum I've ever had and it's done me no harm - and our streets are cleaner as a result. Okay, well there was one piece that fell out when I laughed at a joke once. But I picked it up. I picked it up!

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Passive smoking on the road - but what's it called?

A few days ago I wrote about attending the Cycling and Society symposium and mentioned Jake Voelcker's work on drivers' responsibility for harming others.

Jake made a really interesting analogy between driving and passive smoking. Just as the person sitting next to a smoker gets all the risks of smoking with none of the pleasures, so the pedestrian or cyclist who shares the road with a driver is put in danger by the car but gets none of the benefits in return. And in both cases, the danger is transferred to the recipient without their consent.

I suggested to various people at the symposium that campaigners for vulnerable road users need to start mentioning this at every opportunity, and suggested that to extend the analogy we should use the term passive driving. However, although everyone thought it was a good idea for us to highlight the ultimately selfish nature of driving, I was clearly in a minority of one with the name: everybody else thought "passive driving" was a rubbish term which didn't explain things at all.

So what do you think? What should this phenomenon be called? A good suggestion could quite seriously earn you immortality, as there's a definite need for this term to exist. Let me know.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Back to Snowdonia

I spent this last weekend back up in Snowdonia with a couple of other people (just visible as black dots in this photo - that's right, my friends: I'd left them for dust...). We climbed Cadair Idris from the north, along a totally different route to my last trip, which meant other than the very summit, the whole thing was new to me - it's wonderful how one can experience the same mountain in two totally different ways.

Having just looked at the Wikipedia entry for Cadair Idris, I see the line:

In recent years, the Fox's Path has degraded sufficiently to make it a dangerous descent for any other than experienced hikers and scramblers

which I wish I'd seen before doing it! It wasn't as bad as some other descents I did on the Cambrian Way, but you'd certainly want a bit of confidence in your skills if you're going that way.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Cycling and Society: Putting faces to names

Since I've got a 45-minute wait in Woking railway station before I can squeeze onto what will no doubt be an sweltering and overcrowded train, I thought I'd briefly mention that I've spent the day at the CTC's headquarters attending the annual Cycling and Society symposium. The Cycling and Society group is a loose network of researchers united by an interest in the big issues surrounding the use of bicycles, and I've been a member for about a year. Today was all about sharing our recent work with one another and with the practitioners who make policy, campaign for cyclists or implement cycling initiatives on the ground.

It was a very interesting day - most of the other speakers were from more of a sociological background than me, which meant I was hearing about some quite different ideas and issues than I normally encounter. I couldn't hope to summarize all the talks here, so I'll simply point you at Jake Voelcker's fascinating and readable review of how the legal system treats drivers who kill people, which everyone should read. The only downside was I got the impression the practitioners who attended were hoping they'd get more in the way of "here is something practical you can do tomorrow" rather than "here's a new theory...", which is what they pretty much got. There's a real issue of how we academics can best get our research to people who can use it. We will always need to publish academic papers, as when research is carried out there has to be a record which contains all the detail - all the statistics and the minutiae of how we carried the study out - for others to check we haven't made mistakes. Unfortunately, this need to report in detail means the articles we produce aren't usually suitable for general audiences. Most of us are quite capable of writing accessible summaries, but there's a real lack of places to put them. Perhaps blogging will provide me with an avenue in the future?

The best bit of the day in many ways was finally meeting about a dozen people whom I have known only virtually so far - often for quite a long time. In the case of John Parkin from Bolton University, a quick check of my emails reveals we have exchanged no fewer than 139 messages over the past year, and written a document together, but I've not clapped eyes on him until today! What a strange and interesting way of working we have these days.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Teenage drinking - two interpretations of one finding

There's an interesting contrast in this BBC report on a recent Institute for Child Health study. The study found that people who drank a lot of alcohol as teenagers are more likely to experience a host of personal problems, such as criminal convictions and mental illness, when they are 30.

Now, this is almost certainly a result of what we researchers call the "third variable problem", i.e., it isn't that drinking as a teenager causes your problems later in life; rather, the teenage drinking and the later problems are both the result of other, underlying causes - in this case social deprivation, poor education, lack of opportunities and so on.

The quotes from the report's author suggest he is a careful researcher who understands this.

[Dr Viner said that] policies needed to focus on a range of areas, not just restricting the availability of alcohol to teenagers
Contrast this with the ridiculous yet predictable knee-jerk reaction from the government:
A Department of Health spokesman said the government was determined to reduced [sic] the harm caused by young people drinking.

"We are preventing the sale of alcohol to children by cracking down on irresponsible retailers and working with the industry to reduce underage sales of alcohol, while continuing to educate youngsters about the harm of alcohol abuse.

"Alcohol education now has a higher profile in schools across the country and is a major part of the national curriculum"

Gah! They've merrily taken the findings as proof that drinking per se causes criminality, mental illness, etc. Is it too much to ask that the people who speak for our government have a basic understanding of scientific research and how it should be interpreted before they pontificate on it? The Department of Health may want to send one or two of their people to our Masters of Research in Psychology degree, where they can learn not to make such mistakes again.

Edit: When did our government departments revert to being departments of things? I thought they'd all rebranded themselves as departments for things, subtly suggesting that whilst they're generally in favour of health, transport, education and so on, we shouldn't expect them to go as far as taking responsibility for such matters.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

The wheeled workplace

Whilst walking along a main road just now, I spotted a white van, presumably on its way to a day's work. It held three young men in the front (not wearing seatbelts, I might note) and prominently sported one of the official smoking ban signs smack in the middle of the windscreen.

At first the sign seemed an odd thing to see displayed so blatently in a vehicle, but then I realised that the van would be owned by the young men's employer, and that it was therefore effectively a part of their workplace - hence the sign.

This got me thinking about an idea that has been floating quietly around the road safety world for a while now, which is this: for millions of people the road is a place of work, but when it comes to the safety of these workers, all the usual regulations are suspended.

If you work in a hazardous place or with dangerous machinery, your employer must go to great lengths to ensure you cannot come to harm. As a student I once spent a summer working a powerful hydraulic press - a brief lapse of attention, which was entirely probable given the repetitive nature of the task, would have meant instantly losing a hand. As a result, the press was designed so that it would only operate if two widely separated buttons, well away from the jaws of death, were pressed simultaneously and a protective screen had already been lowered. This ensured that the operator's hands were nowhere near the danger area when the machine went to work. In other words, no matter how careless the operator was, the workplace was explicitly designed so they simply could not come to misfortune.

Now consider the person who drives as part of their job. Where are that person's protections and failsafes? Unlike the press operator, the sales rep or courier is frequently working in an environment where a moment's lapse of concentration could well kill them, or someone else, but nothing at all is done about it. The employer sends their workers out into a hazardous environment but has no responsibility to ameliorate the risk to their employees, and is not liable when one of their employees is killed or injured in the course of their work. The owner of the white van I saw didn't even have to ensure their employees were wearing seatbelts, for goodness sake! I don't think employers are required even to do something as basic as telling their employees not to speed. The working environment of anybody who drives professionally is practically Dickensian.

Of course, in certain sectors some measure of protective legislation does exist: there are a handful of rules on how many hours a long-distance lorry driver can travel without a break, for example. But there are still millions of people who drive as part of their work - everyday ordinary people like postal workers, couriers, midwives, photocopier repairers, consultants - who are regularly put in danger without any protection. Unless we're talking about protection from making an adult decision to smoke some legally obtained and taxed tobacco, in which case don't worry: the government is all over that one.

A cat's map of the bed

There's a nice post on the excellent Strange Maps blog. This one uses a cat's map of how a bed is laid out as a jumping-off point for interesting facts about cats and a list of famous cats. I'm mentioning it here to allow some blatant pedantry. In the list of famous cats, we see the line:

The Master’s Cat: belonged to Charles Dickens, and would snuff his reading candle to get attention

But let me tell you this, dear reader: In the context of candles, 'snuff' is decidedly not a synonym for 'extinguish': snuffing was actually the process of trimming the wick of a candle, something that had to be done every twenty minutes or so before the invention of the modern self-snuffing wick, which magically shrinks as the wax burns away so that at any given time there are just a few milimetres of wick showing. Prior to this, the wick remained its original length as the candle burned and would eventually flop down onto the table or shelf if left unattended, which was an important factor in so many old buildings catching fire so often. Unless, of course, Dickens's cat was clever enough to nibble the wick to length as a way of getting attention. Now that would be a great cat...

(O'Dea, W.T., 1958, The Social History of Lighting, Routledge & Kegan Paul)

Monday, 3 September 2007

Community courses for Salisbury

Today I had a very interesting meeting with the University of Bath's Lifelong learning division. The plan is that I'm going to run two evening courses in Salisbury next Spring, in the venue of Sarum College. The first course, privisonally titled Cognitive psychology: the science of the mind will cover all sorts of interesting things about memory, language, hearing, vision and so on; the second, which will probably be called How to lie with statistics*, will be a largely non-mathematical introduction to how scientific research is carried out and how statistics are generated. The idea is to give people the skills to understand -- and question -- the research and figures they see every day in the media.

I'm particularly excited about the second course. It occurred to me recently that my training and experience with research and statistics allows me to be very critical about what I see in the news, and I can usually tell immediately if a piece of research is worth taking seriously or not; and when I can't, as when the report does not give enough information, I always know what information I need to find to make that decision. It will be wonderful to pass these skills onto a general audience, and they could really help empower people -- especially as I'll cover understanding medical research as a special topic.

Let me know if you want any more details.

* title inspired by this excellent book

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Dumbing Down?

I spent quite a bit of time over the past few days making plans for the statistics course I'll be teaching next semester. There's been a great deal of debate over the past few years on whether education is 'dumbing down', i.e., making increasingly lower demands of students, with the implication being that students today have it easier than they did in the past - an idea that is admittedly seductive for those of us whose days of assessment are safely and successfully behind us.

Now a great deal of ink has been spilled already on this topic, so I won't get into the whole issue of whether A-levels and degrees have got easier since I got mine (although for what it's worth, my suspicion is that A-levels generally haven't got much easier, but schools and students have got vastly more savvy about how to tackle them: there was no coaching on how to phrase your answers best to meet the markers' criteria when I was at school, let me tell you...).

Instead I'll comment on the assessment for my statistics course. For the past few years, the final assessment for my second-year statistics module has involved analysing three data sets and for each, writing a short results section, just like those found in research papers, to describe the findings.

I've used this form of assessment because the main point of teaching statistics to psychology students is so they can analyse data sets and write up the results when they carry out research projects (as well as to interpret the research findings of others). As such, the assessment I have been using directly measures the students' ability to use their new skills in the appropriate real-world context, and so makes a great deal of sense from a pedagogical point of view.

But this year I have decided there is no option but to give the students a simpler task in which they do not write up a results section like those found in research papers, but instead just report the outcomes of their analyses in as straightforward a form as I can devise. This is because for the past two or three years I have endured such a barrage of complaints from undergraduates about finding the assessment too difficult that it has clearly become unsustainable (although students managed to understand it perfectly well five years ago, I might note). This is despite my last year explaining the requirements repeatedly in lessons and putting half a dozen sample questions - with model answers, showing exactly what sort of responses I wanted - on my website to clarify what was expected. I really don't know how much more I could have done last year to support the assessment and show people what they needed to do short of saying, "These are the exact answers I want you to write. Copy and paste them into a document and hand them in."

Now you might argue that as this is a top university I should continue to push students into unfamiliar territory and make them go beyond what they are comfortable with in their assessments. And you would be correct. But we are under great pressure to respond to feedback from students these days - in part because of league tables and the spleen-venting exercise that is the National Student Survey - and if enough of them make a request for a change in the degree we do generally respond, which raises interesting questions of who best knows what students need for their development: them or us. (In case you are wondering, students have become a great deal more demanding since they started paying tuition fees and my feeling is that we listen to their demands more than we used to as well (despite the fact we don't see a penny of these fees! Our budgets and salaries are just the same as before the fees came in, dear undergrads. We don't know where your money goes - ask Gordon Brown, who insisted you pay, or your own MP).)

So in summary, from this year the assessment in my statistics unit will be easier than it has been for the past few years. This is in response to repeated demands from students that it be made so. Dumbing down? Call it what you will, but I can't help feeling uneasy, especially given that the previous system unarguably worked: the good students got good marks and the bad ones did not.

Friday, 31 August 2007

Traditional celebrations - the feline way?

A very professional and reasonably priced glazier arrived this morning with a new pane of glass for our back door. No ordinary pane of glass, this one had a hole so we could fit a cat flap, thus ending months of running around opening and closing the door for our ungrateful little beasts. Hurrah!

However, for some reason Marmot's first response to getting a new cat flap was to run off into the garden and kill a blue tit. Is this a traditional form of cat celebration, a sort of barn-raising party which takes the form of a ceremonial sacrifice? Or is it her way of saying, "At last! Now I can bring dead things into the house any time of the day or night! I hope you don't mind mice on your head at 3 am hur hur hur."?

If killing little animals is a form of celebration, I'm just glad it's not something we humans do. Imagine:

"Susan, your excellent work around here hasn't gone unnoticed: we're going to promote you to Deputy Vice-Head of Marketing (Hertfordshire)."

"That's wonderful news. Excuse me..."


Thursday, 30 August 2007

The Cambrian Way

A couple of days ago I came back from a week walking the northern section of the Cambrian Way, an unofficial high-level mountain trail through Wales, which involved around 90 miles of walking and over 9,000m of climbing. You can see more photographs if you like - I'm quite proud of some of them.

The Cambrian Way has had a tricky history. When first proposed, there was a lot of opposition to the route. Some of this came from land owners worried about extra walkers strolling over their property, but with the advent of the Right to Roam, this is no longer such an issue as the vast bulk of the walk falls within the CRoW agreement.

More interesting is the second original objection to the walk: that giving it official status, like that enjoyed by its better-known cousin the Pennine Way, would encourage people onto the route who are not experienced enough to do it safely. Having spent a week doing the northern section, I have to say I now have a lot of sympathy with this view. The Cambrian Way through the Rhinogs and Snowdonia was one of the most enjoyable, breathtaking and rewarding walks I have done, but I'm certain that it was only thanks to years of hill-walking experience - including several other long-distance trails - that I was able to enjoy it properly. Indeed, had I not had well-developed navigation, scrambling and emergency skills, I know I'd have spent a considerable amount of the time blundering around in circles in almost zero visibility, or clinging to slippery rocks half-way down cliffs and grimly waiting for the icy kiss of hypothermia to put me out of my misery. Yes, Cnicht, I'm thinking of you...

It's an odd idea for a holiday, when you think about it. Can't wait until next time.