Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Fat Man on a Bicycle

It doesn't seem right to mock the unusual view that Eric Pickles takes of cycling and cyclists. Apart from which, there people who can do it more generously than I would.


So as a distraction here is something from the BFI that has absolutely nothing to do with the idea that one day Eric might feel the roads are safe enough for him to try a bike.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Local sustainable transport fund

Today the Department for Transport has published guidelines on applying for grants from the sustainable transport fund.


This fund will provide £560 million over 4 years to 2014-15.The total amount allocated for this year is £80m. However £11m of this has already been allocated for Bikeability training. By my reckoning this leaves £69m. The annual funding goes up to £140m next year, of which £11m goes to Bikeability. It's all a bit shabby, but I'm not going to get into whether this overall level of funding is reasonable or not. That's what it is, and there isn't much any of us can do about it until the next election. The more immediate issue is how to make sure that it is used wisely.

Basically, each of our local authorities need to plead for their share of the money. It's a bit complicated to work out exactly who can apply, but I reckon it's about 150 local authorities in England. So that's about £1/2m for each authority this year, and a bit less than £1m each next year (on average).

The important thing is that the DfT will assess proposals on the basis of whether they meet two core policy objectives. Those are: supporting the local economy, and reducing carbon emissions. Beyond that it will help if proposals also deliver wider social and economic benefits (such as improving accessibility and social inclusion), improving safety, bringing about improvements to air quality and wider environmental benefits, and promoting increased levels of physical activity.

(this my summary - please refer to the source documents for the whole paraphernalia).

My current plan is to contact my local councillors to ask what proposals my own local authority is putting forward. In addition to the criteria above, the DfT says that they will also assess the degree to which any proposals have the support of the local community. So it sounds as though I ought to have an opportunity to express my support (or otherwise).

Before I put this into action, does anyone have any further suggestions?

Moving pictures

Since Christmas I've been trying out different ways of mounting my new helmet camera. I'm not happy with it stuck on top of the helmet. It makes me feel like a Teletubby, and my first attempts always ended up capturing either too much sky or too much tarmac.

So I've been trying some different ways of mounting the camera on the bike - with varying degrees of success.

The challenge is to achieve a decent line of sight, with a reasonable amount of stability. I want the mount to be easily attached and detached (without harming the bike). For now I'm happy just to have the camera  pointing forwards, but in future it could be interesting to try some variations.

The camera came with a choice of different attachments, but none of them quite cuts it. I'm not sure how others do this, so to start with I tried bodging alternatives from various odds and ends. Then during the great sort-out of the office and attic last week I re-discovered my old Meccano set. The Magic of Meccano is that it makes it easy to try out all sort of different ideas.

My Mark-I custom camera mount hangs from one of the handlebar drops. After clearing a bit of paperwork this afternoon I treated myself to an hour on the bike to try it out. I  looped over Winter Hill as the afternoon came to an end. Here is the result.

Hanging the camera from the handlebar drops seems to work reasonably well. It's out of the way of the bar bag, brake cables, and other gizmos, so the camera has a reasonable line of sight. The mount is easy to attach and detach. I can see whether the little "recording" LED on the camera is flashing, and I can reach to turn recording on and off while I ride. It would be nice if it was easier to vary the direction that the camera points in, but that can wait for now. Although it doesn't bounce around as badly as I feared, I think the first priority is to work on making the attachment more rigid.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Standards for success

In the middle of my panic about losing a heap of data, Steve sent me this link.

I remember an older and wiser colleague once telling me that you could track the disintegration of a project by the equipment that was being installed in the office. I don't know if it still works this way, but it used to be that all projects started by installing desks and computers, then as the schedule slid, and the working days got longer, they brought in coffee machines, then toasters, fridges, microwaves, and finally mattresses. (One of the big advantages of doing this stuff at home is that all those are already to hand).

These things are funny because we recognise a truth that isn't so funny, but they are the kind of comment that helped skewer me to my original plan, and stop me from just walking away. Now I have (pretty much) all the data back, and a (pretty much) working network. And Chris should be pleased that I've also got a working copy of Linux, that hosts a working GIS database, which I can access from elsewhere on the network.

So I'd say that standards for success didn't slip much at all. I lost a little bit of data, through my own incompetence. And for some reason that I can't fathom we are unable to use one of the printers from an old Windows laptop. Otherwise we are not just back where we started - some progress has been made.

In some ways this has all been a bit of a blast from my past. I may not be a technical wizard, but at least I've still got that stubborn determination not to be beaten by some stupid machine (whatever it costs in lost sleep).

Until I mess it all up again, I am going to give myself a little pat on the back, then get to play with my new GIS database.

Oh heck, that'll be after I've done the tax form.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Panic over

Now that the dust has settled, and I know that I have all my business critical work secured I realise how close I came to losing something really important. That's my cycling spreadsheet, with a record of nearly three years of rides.

In the wee small hours of this morning I was worrying about the relatively trivial matter of re-entering a year's worth of book-keeping activity from the paper records in my little black box. Losing track of my Eddington number would have been a far more serious issue, and far more difficult to recover.

Many years ago I was a system programmer on mainframes. Screwing up the accounts database, along with the backup copy would mean that virtually an entire organisation would grind to a halt until it was sorted. More than thirty years on, I still remember a meeting with the Chief Accountant the morning after we did just that. You'd think I would have learned.

At times like this I repeat the little ditty that we used to recite in those days:

I hate this damn computer
I wish that they would sell it
It won't do what I want it to
Only what I tell it

It's my reminder that whether it's Linux, Windows, Mac OS, or the 1970's mainframe that we used to grapple with, there's not a lot of point blaming the software. The operating system didn't decide to over-write the back-up with corrupt data, or install the wrong version of a software package.

Anyway, I think we've got everything sorted now. Until it returns to normal the office is looking nice and tidy. I'm certainly going to to have another try at Linux, but I think I'll take a somewhat different approach next time. And I can go on working on my Eddington number, without having to reboot it.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

The most dangerous thing in the world: the enthusiastic idiot

Much of this week has been spent sorting out the office at home.

I can't quite believe it myself, but the previous sentence is true. I have spent almost a week sorting stuff out in the office. Unfortunately I'm no good at throwing things out. So I've accumulated a ridiculous amount of junk over the years, and when I say "sort out" it really means that some stuff goes, but most just gets rearranged, boxed up and stuffed into the loft. This isn't new, so the loft is already full of stuff that's been boxed up during previous efforts to get sorted.

So it was necessary to make some room in the loft as well.

Making room in the loft meant throwing out a lot of even older junk, including some old computers that have been stored up there since the days of Babbage, or thereabouts. The reason we kept them in the first place was that I wasn't sure what was left on the hard drives. The machines pre-dated USB ports, proper network connections, or any writeable media bigger than a floppy drive. So I decided that the best thing was to remove the hard drives, and install them in a newer desktop. That way I could transfer the contents to a removable drive. Of course the really sensible thing would have just been to trash them, but I wasn't thinking too clearly. Anyway, it all went surprisingly well. I stripped out three old drives, re-installed them, transferred the contents, and discovered that they didn't contain anything worth saving.

So it was really a waste of time, but at least I satisfied myself that the old computers could safely go to be recycled. And they did. At the same time I managed to fix a long-standing problem with a flaky graphics card on the newer desk-top.

Flushed with success, it then seemed like a good idea to re-configure the newer desktop so that I could dual boot Linux, and experiment with some open source stuff that isn't available on Windows. In practice all that proved a bit more difficult than I expected, but by this morning I had Ubuntu up and running, and I thought I was a wizard.

I played around or an hour or so, then I rebooted to get Windows back. Oops. Unfortunately I had messed up somewhere, and I discovered that I could no longer boot Windows on the machine that contains a chunk of useful stuff, including the company accounts.

I'd backed everything up, of course. Or at least I thought I had. But I hadn't.

Now I'm in the process of trying to rebuild everything. I seem to have access to most of the files. I've installed the main applications, and at the moment I'm struggling with re-connecting to the network. (I'm writing this on a different machine). I can see the files that hold the company accounts, but I haven't yet worked out how to get them working - which is probably the most important thing.

Time will tell, but I think I'll get there in the end. But it's been a terrible waste of time, not to mention a humbling experience.

Still, the office is looking a lot better, and one day I'll look back and laugh at what an idiot I am. Maybe.

Later: I've got the network back. Starting to install updates.

It's now gone 1:00 am, the network is working, the printers are working, I can access the external drives as well as the internal drive, and I seem to have got all the old files still.

The accounts package is working. I can import my last backup. But the contents are all garbled.

Not garbled in a normal way. Garbled in a completely different way.

Tomorrow is another day.

It's 10:00 the following morning, and I now have my accounts back. I'm a happy bunny. The only issue I have to face now is everyone telling me that you don't get these problems on a Mac.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Hambleden again

No messing about today. Nothing complicated or remarkable. Just a variation on a regular loop up through Marlow, Fingest, and Hambleden doing the usual stuff.

Even the variation wasn't much of one. In the past I've experimented with different routes home from Hambleden, but I've never tried the most direct one. That would be over the weir at Mill End then up Aston Lane to Remenham Hill, to join up with another regular route around Crazies Hill (yes, really). I think the only reason I've not returned this way before is that a couple of years ago I rode the reverse direction, down Aston Lane. In those far-off days it stuck in my mind as a long steep climb. It isn't though, and it made for a change.

The weather was a bit cold, but bright and sunny. We'd had a frost overnight, and there were still patches of ice around, but nothing to worry about. The Thames seemed very full, and the flow over the weir at Mill End was quite impressive.

It was nice to see plenty of other people out and about enjoying the day.

It's been great, and I've only done two rides so far in 2011, so plenty more to go.

Saturday, 8 January 2011


Definitions of "clarts" (noun) and "clarty" (adjective) in online dictionaries describe them as words used in Scotland and the North-East of England to mean dirt or mud. I've always used "clarty" more specifically for particularly sticky and messy mud. But I may be confusing "clarty" with "claggy". Either would be useful for the state of some paths on this morning's walk in Hodgemoor Wood (near Chalfont St Giles).

We had fun getting messy, followed by a pleasant lunch in the nearby pub.

There are comments on the web site from people who had got lost in Hodgemoor Wood because maps of the paths are lacking.This is one of the bigger areas of natural woodland in the Chilterns, with quite a mixture of ancient trees. It isn't huge though, so when we were reading up about it beforehand we had a chuckle at people who couldn't find their way around. It was our first visit, but we didn't see how you could get lost in a wood that's only a couple of miles across. It wasn't quite so funny as we made our second circuit through the claggy clarts looking for the car park.

The comments seem fair. A better map would be useful. Chastened, I checked on OSM when we got home. Some of the paths are shown, but not all of them. It would have been a good idea to trace and map our wanderings. Unfortunately I didn't. We'll have to go back.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Pickles and Hammond save the world

Tonight I will rest easy in my bed, secure in the knowledge that Eric and Philip (assisted by the mighty Greg Clark) are allowing Local Authorities to attract shoppers by setting competitive local parking charges, and allowing developers to provide as many car parking spaces as they want. They tell us that this will bring an end to drivers being unfairly penalised, over-zealous parking enforcement, and unsightly parking congestion. They also seem to think that it will improve the environment by encouraging people to drive into town centres instead of shopping out-of-town.

So, whoopeee!

They are spinning this as the end of the war on the motorist ("Today the Government is calling off Whitehall's war on the motorist".... says Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles. "This is a key step in ending the war on the motorist" says Transport Secretary Philip Hammond).

The spin is the most appalling nonsense, but presumably they think somebody out there is daft enough to swallow it. The reality (at least as parking charges go) is rather mundane.

This is the actual change made to the Planning guidelines on parking charges...

As part of an overall approach on parking, covering both the local transport plan and development plan, local authorities should adopt on-street measures to complement land use policies. Car parking charges should also be used to encourage the use of alternative modes. The RTS should set out the context for parking controls and charges by each local authority. Within this context, local authorities should set out appropriate levels and charges for parking which do not undermine the vitality of other town centres. Controls over public parking (both on-street parking and in car parks) need to be backed up by adequate enforcement measures.
As part of an overall approach on parking, covering both the local transport plan and development plan, local authorities should adopt on-street measures to complement land use policies. Local authorities should set out appropriate levels and charges for parking which do not undermine the vitality of town centres. Parking enforcement should be proportionate

It also seems that parking enforcement need no longer be "adequate". In future it will be "proportionate", whatever that means.

If the political ambition of Pickles and Hammond is to go down in history as the government ministers that removed a couple of irrelevant sentences from section 13 of a 25-part document on planning guidance, then lets hope their ambition is realised.

Meanwhile these are still decisions for local authorities. The planning guidelines still say that local authorities should:
  • use parking policies, alongside other planning and transport measures, to promote sustainable transport choices and reduce reliance on the car for work and other journeys
  • give priority to people over ease of traffic movement and plan to provide more road space to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport in town centres, local neighbourhoods and other areas with a mixture of land uses
Existing guidelines from the Department for Transport on local authority parking (in place since 2008) say this....

The setting of charges for parking on-street or off-street in designated areas is a matter for the [local] authority...

Parking charges and penalty charges should be proportionate, so authorities should not set them at unreasonable levels...

Authorities should never use parking charges just to raise revenue or as a local tax...

When setting charges, authorities should consider the following factors:
  • parking charges can help to curb unnecessary car use where there is adequate public transport or walking or cycling are realistic alternatives, for example, in town centres...
  • charges should be set at levels that encourage compliance with parking restrictions
  • charges can reflect the value of kerb-space...
  • if on-street charges are set too low, they could attract higher levels of traffic than are desirable
Of course it could be that the government anticipates that local authorities are about to increase parking charges to cover some of their funding shortfall, and they are trying to ensure that their own hands are clean.

If that's not the reason, then apparently three government ministers think there is so little to worry about that they can spend their time tweaking a document to make it clear that local authorities have the freedom to do something that they can do anyway.

Maybe that should be reassuring - but somehow it isn't.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Longest ride of the year

There's nothing very special about riding an easy 21 miles on a Sunday afternoon, but it was pleasant enough for the first outing of the year. I went down the Jubilee river, then on to Datchet, and back through Eton and Eton Wick. On the way I located and mapped a few more of the local war memorials, but the real point was just to get out for a bit of a stretch. There were a few other cyclists around, and we shared a little bit of sunshine and some quiet roads.

I hope this won't rank as my longest ride of the year for very long, but just at the moment I'm proud to declare that I'm 20% ahead of schedule on my annual mileage plan. It won't last.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Review of 2010

Once again my track record against the year's cycling resolutions is a bit mixed. I achieved some of my goals, but missed more. Purely on the numbers I'm a bit disappointed with myself. Being walloped by a car back in October was definitely the low point of the cycling year. It's no excuse, but it was one of the factors in falling short on the numbers. The other factor was either my inability to set myself realistic targets, or my inability to achieve the targets I set myself. Either way, it doesn't really matter. What's important is that I've had some lovely days out on the bike, a variety of different experiences, and quite a lot of ground has been covered. Looking back over the whole of the year it has been thoroughly enjoyable, and I feel reasonably satisfied.

I knew that setting a goal of cycling 3,759 miles over the year was going to be ambitious, and I was absolutely right. In the end I covered 3,010 miles. That's a long way short of the plan, slightly more than I covered in 2009 (2,853), and slightly less than I covered than the year before (3,019). I'm plateauing at about 3,000 miles a year.

I wanted to reach an Eddington number of 50 in 2010. At the start of the year I didn't think that was very ambitious, but at the end of the year it stood at just 49 (i.e. I've ridden 49 rides of more than 49 miles since I started counting). Just one more 50 mile ride would have allowed me to put a tick against this one. To fall short by just one ride is a bit galling.

I didn't manage another 100 mile ride in 2010 either. My longest was 76 miles, but I did do half a dozen rides of more than 70 miles. I was particularly keen this year to clock up rides that were longer than 60 miles. I did better at that than I had in 2009, but not as well as I hoped - with 16 rides in 2010 of more than 60 miles compared to 10 in 2009

I did better than I planned on reaching famous churches. The idea here is to take a list of famous English churches, rank them by the distance from home, and ride to them in turn. Each time I reach one the next is a bit further away. Each year I seem to set my ambition a bit too low for the number of churches I reach. In 2010 I planned to reach the 40th, and ended up reaching the 50th furthest from home. Since I started this project it has proved to be one of my better ideas. Many of the churches are in pretty little villages, but not all. So it has encouraged me to explore areas that wouldn't otherwise occur to me, and taken me to some interesting places as well as helping me to gradually increase the length of my rides. I can't help feeling that the idea has run its course now though. To reach the next tranche would involve round trips of about 70 miles, and take me to places of no great interest, through busy road networks. I need an alternative for 2011.

I had a wonderful week cycling in the west of Scotland back in May. It was not the ideal weather, but I saw plenty of glorious scenery, met some lovely people and generally had a whale of a time. I had also intended to do at least one overnight trip with the bike in 2010, but I never managed to fit that in. On shorter trips I had plans to fill some of the local gaps in Open Street Map, and retrace more of the routes around London that Charles Harper charted in 1902. I've done a bit of both, but not as much as I would like. On the other hand efforts to locate Blue Plaques, old Milestones and local War Memorials have worked reasonably well as incentives to vary the short trips I take exploring  local byways.

On progress towards reaching the ideal height for my weight, the least said the better.

That leaves the question of what goals to set myself for 2011. My track record in setting and reaching annual targets in 2009 and 2010 is iffy to say the least. More importantly cycling has to fit around some significant family and work plans for 2011. For various reasons this is going to be a particularly difficult year to predict. So my current thinking is to go with a target of cycling 3,000 miles over the whole of the year, but otherwise to track short-term progress on the basis of a "project of the month". We'll see how that goes.

Meanwhile, thanks to everyone for sticking with my ramblings in 2010, and best wishes for 2011.