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.