Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Number crunching

I've been contributing in a small way to OSM for a while now, and I am always impressed by the amount of information that keeps being added to the map. Although there is still work to do on the UK transport network, I think most would agree that it is now well above the level of coverage needed to provide a valuable platform for all kinds of different applications.

What I didn't have a good feel for is how well other aspects of the map are covered. I like to measure stuff, so in the down-time between Christmas and New Year, I've been playing around estimating how many examples of different features we should expect to find in the database, and comparing that estimate to how many are actually recorded.

This is inevitably a bit rough and ready. I needed to estimate how many examples of a feature I should expect to find. Then I needed to figure out a simple way of measuring how many are already in the database; with a reasonable level of confidence that both figures are counting the same things. This doesn't always work. For various reasons it turns out that it's not straightforward to measure things like the number of public telephones, airports, windmills, car parks, cemeteries, and sports grounds. I've included some figures on facilities like restaurants, and hotels, but I suspect that the definitions used in different statistics might not be a very good match to the definitions used by contributors. With more care I might be able to improve these in future.

Still, it's a starting point, and with all sorts of caveats, I think I can identify some features that users of the data can generally expect to find already exist in the database:

Bus stations
Petrol stations
Police stations
Fire stations

I think I can also identify some types of features where coverage is less complete, but where any particular example is still more likely to be found in the database than not. Some of these are already the target of concentrated activity to improve coverage. Perhaps others are the areas where some more careful analysis would be most useful.

A and E (England)
Post Offices
Cycle shops

The list of features that I explored is deliberately pretty arbitrary. I covered some that I happen to be interested in; some where I had an estimate to hand, or could easily uncover one; some drawn from OSM project of the month / week activity, and others because I thought they might be of interest to contributors, or of value to map users. The following list shows some where it looks as though contributors will find it fairly easy to find additional examples to add to the map.

Pret a manger stores
Starbucks stores
Ice rinks
Night clubs
Golf courses
Letter boxes
Swimming pools
Anglican churches
Veterinary clinics
Garden centres
Community pharmacies
Lifeboat stations
GP surgeries
Bowling alleys
Convenience stores
Sewage works
Branches of Greggs
Fish and chip shops
National Trust properties
English Heritage properties
Shops of all types
Charity shops

Unsurprisingly, my impression is that coverage is generally better for the bigger features that are more obvious (e.g. schools), and for those which particularly interest the OSM community (More pubs than post offices. More bicycle shops than golf courses. Surprisingly few fish and chip shops, though there are some tagging variants that would slightly boost coverage of these if I collected them more systematically). Some of the services that potential users might expect to find are not so well covered (e.g. GPs and dentists).

Even if they are rough  and ready, I think it has been useful to put numbers on some of this stuff. Partly because it helps to measure progress, partly to help think laterally about priorities, and partly as a sanity check on the amount of detail that is both practical and important. And not least because it already demonstrates an impressive level of coverage. However, there is no shortage of opportunity to record the existence of more interesting and useful features in 2012. You can bet on seeing more casinos and bookmakers; while other contributors get their teeth into the missing dentists.

I'll probably come back to this again. It's a bit of an iterative process, and if anyone wants to suggest a better estimate, a source of suitable data, or other features that I should try to measure, then please comment below.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

More seriously

For a far better version, do not bother reading my post below - go and look at what the Cycling Embassy has to say.

It seems that the rather bizarre resolution on making cycle helmets compulsory will be discussed by individual WI groups, before being considered at the annual meeting of their National Federation in May 2012.

The WI has 210,000 members, and 7,000 local organisations. Many of us have relatives, friends, or  neighbours who are active members of the WI. This looks like an opportunity to get wider issues relating to cycling and road safety onto their agenda, and to help them to reach a more informed position on cycling helmets and safety.

Points they might be encouraged to consider include:
  • If they are going to take a stance on making cycling helmets compulsory, then delegates will want to find either conclusive evidence, or a high level of consensus which supports their position. Although it might seem obvious to the layman that using a cycle helmet will improve safety, in reality the issues are quite complex. Before deciding where they stand on this issue themselves, delegates who expect to be taken seriously will want to study a range of evidence. This is one starting point. And this is another. Delegates may also wish to survey the position taken by their friends and neighbours who cycle. Many regular cyclists know from experience that a helmet can protect them from certain injuries in certain cases (typically, bumping their head as a result of a straightforward tumble). As a result they will normally wear a helmet, and encourage others to do so. However, few will be under any illusion that a cycle helmet will provide worthwhile protection in the case of a more serious incident, such as collision with a car. This broadly matches the conclusion reached by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in 2009. However, wider research will uncover a variety of views, and evidence that is far from conclusive.
  • A number of different approaches are currently used to improve cycling safety. Examples include special training for cyclists, campaigns to raise driver awareness of the risks, devices attached to large vehicles to improve visibility, and investment in separate cycle infrastructure. Before they endorse mandatory cycling helmets as the preferred solution, delegates will wish to consider alternative safety initiatives, and assess their effectiveness and the wider implications.  The WI has a wide reach, high visibility, and considerable credibility. They will want reassurance that by endorsing one particular approach they are not encouraging drivers, cyclists, policy makers, and the general public to ignore or resist other safety measures that might, in practice, have greater potential to improve safety.
  • Cycling has been encouraged by successive governments on the basis of environmental and public health benefits. The WI has a history of supporting environmental causes, campaigning to reduce carbon emissions, and an interest in public health issues. Road traffic accounts for 22% of the UK's carbon emissions, and contributes to pollution, poor air quality, congestion and noise. Many see  cycling as a viable alternative to using the car for shorter journeys; as a means of reducing the environmental impact of traffic, and of making the roads more accessible to people who have no alternative to using a car. While there are risks associated with almost any physical activity, many cyclists feel that the risks they face are exaggerated, and argue that, from a wider public health perspective, the risks associated with cycling are outweighed by the public health benefits. Changes to government policy in this area will be challenged by a vocal cycling community which generally believes that any disincentive to cycling will have a knock-on effect on policies related to public health and the environment; and that international experience suggests that encouraging more cyclists onto the roads is an effective way to improve safety for all cyclists. A claim that compulsory wearing of helmets will encourage more cycling will need to be substantiated.
  • The government faces a number of different issues, and is committed to reducing regulatory burdens and red tape. Any decent government is concerned to represent interests across the whole of society. So before recommending additional legislation in one particular area it would be prudent for the WI to develop a persuasive case why cyclist safety should take priority over other risks. Why, for example, should the deaths of 111 cyclists and injuries to 2,600 cyclists a year take precedence over 800 deaths due to obesity, 4,000 children who fall out of windows, 9,700 people injured as a result of drunk driving, or 500,000 elderly people admitted to A&E departments as a result of a fall at home?
  • It has been long established (in principle and practice) that roads are a shared asset, funded by general taxation. Everyone is entitled to use them, whether in a vehicle, on a cycle, a horse, or on foot. With a mix of traffic, the free flow of vehicles, and the safety of all road users depends on a high degree of collaboration and consideration.  In principle, all those who share the roads have a responsibility to consider the safety of the more vulnerable. In practice, though, things are more confrontational. Many cyclists have experience of motorists shouting abuse, throwing things at them, or driving aggressively. Similarly cyclists are widely criticised for not considering the needs of motorists, and the safety of pedestrians. The WI is in the rare position of being able to encourage, on behalf of all road users, a more balanced, collaborative and considerate approach.  If they end up endorsing the mandatory wearing of cycle helmets they risk being characterised as seeing the most vulnerable as being solely responsible for this aspect of safety; and siding with those who argue that those who face the highest transport costs have the greater level of entitlement.
You can find your nearest WI here.

And / or sign the petition here

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

We urge Her Majesty’s Government to make the wearing of helmets in the home a legal requirement

We urge Her Majesty’s Government to make the wearing of helmets in the home a legal requirement in order to prevent unnecessary deaths or serious and long lasting injuries.

The purpose of helmets is to reduce the risk of serious injury to the head. There is currently no legal requirement in the UK to wear a helmet in the home.

More accidents happen at home than anywhere else. The cost to society of UK home accident injuries has been estimated at £25,000 million annually.

Every year in the UK more than 5,000 people die in accidents in the home and 2.7 million need treatment at an accident and emergency department (this compares to 111 pedal cyclists killed and 2,620 seriously injured on the roads).

Falls are the most common accidents in the home - 55% of accidental injuries in the home involve a fall. Every year more than 4,200 children are involved in falls on the stairs and 4,000 children under the age of 15 are injured falling from windows. However, the risk of falling in the home increases with age. Falls account for 71% of all fatal accidents to those aged 65 and over. The most serious injuries usually happen on the stairs.

But falling is not the only risk. In the United States the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported a significant number of injuries and deaths in the home related to televisions falling on children. More than half a million people a year suffer injuries to the head at home, and accidents in the home account for about 40% of all head injuries.

Hence, helmet wearing in the home could encourage more people to spend more time at home - particularly the elderly. However, some may consider that this resolution is too narrow. Perhaps it should propose compulsory helmet wearing as just one part of a wider drive to encourage more people to stay inside, where they will be safe. Or even compulsory wearing of a helmet at all times.

And if you think this sounds bonkers, consider the WI 2012 resolution short list briefings

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Wednesday, 14 December 2011


It would be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to the Portas review of the future of high streets. I'm no fan of celebrity-based policy development. These issues are complex, there are significant changes in play that are not going to be reversed, some of the remedies that have been bandied about are implausible (to put it mildly), and a number of powerful vested interests are busy grinding axes. However, in this case, her core message is important, and she is helping to get a real problem on the public agenda . It's the specific recommendations that need unpicking.

"I... fundamentally believe that once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow."

Her core idea seems to be that high streets should be developed as an asset to the community, so that economic benefits flow from social benefits, rather than approaching things the other way round. This approach seems right to me, and an insight that deserves widespread support. She offers some creative ideas about how her vision might be achieved. But the report ends with a number of specific recommendations, and here things begin to fall apart a bit. There are 28 in total, and my general feeling is that they could have done with a bit more consideration of how best central government can influence policy at a more local level.

For example, she recommends that local areas should implement free parking schemes, and just use parking revenues to improve parking. Oddly, Portas seems to recognise the wider context. The section covering the issues is even headed "access to town centres" - but then she dives straight into a discussion of parking issues, ignoring the others. And finally concludes that the solution is that parking needs to be insulated from the wider context. This just doesn't make sense to me.
  • Local authorities either need to generate additional income, or cut services (or both). Any money that doesn't come from parking will have to come from somewhere else. Retailers, and people who park cars have every right to plead that the impact should not fall on them. But everyone else has a right to make the same case. Parking provision costs money, so, in effect, providing free town centre parking is offering a local government subsidy to shoppers and retailers. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but if we push that issue up our ranking of priorities then something else goes down. I'm sure we all like the idea of having a vibrant town centre, but I doubt there is the same level of agreement about what we are prepared to give up to achieve it. Most importantly, resolving those trade-offs is the domain of local democracy, not Whitehall.
  • Secondly, parking is just one aspect of local transport policy. Personally I avoid taking my car into a town centre because I want to avoid congestion - not the cost of parking. Every car that brings someone into the town centre is contributing to congestion, and makes town centre access more difficult for others. Because of where they live, or because of mobility problems, some people can only reach their local shops by car. Depending on the quality of the local road network, level of parking provision, and extent of the public transport network, offering free parking may make things no better, and could make things worse for shoppers and retailers. I'm sure there are examples where free parking would help, but I'm pretty confident that it's no panacea.
  • Thirdly, town centres are not only competing with online, and out of town alternatives. They are also competing with each other. Visitors make a significant contribution to the health of some our most successful  high streets. There is little future in encouraging a race to the bottom between neighbouring towns, based on the price of parking. If she is going to realise her vision, then neighbouring towns should be encouraged to compete on the quality of the experience, not prevented from doing so where her specific choice won't work 
I know that retailers tend to obsess about parking issues, but her brief was to promote the high street, not encourage use of cars. So I don't understand why the report didn't recommend something more along the lines of  "Local authorities must be encouraged to integrate public transport, parking and highways policy in a way that ensures that the high street is easily accessible to the whole community".

Something a bit less prescriptive, and a bit more local.

Monday, 12 December 2011


Cycling* England collects figures on participation in different sports. The latest statistics were published last week, and relate to the year up to October 2011.

Sport England measure the proportion of adults participating in different sports. The measure of cycling covers recreational and competitive cycling but not cycling for travel purposes. It includes BMX, cyclo-cross and mountain biking.

In the first part of their survey year I would have qualified as participating in cycling, in the second part of the year I wouldn't. However, more than 8% of survey respondents did. That's more cycling than kicking footballs, and more than twice as many cycling as hitting golf balls. There are a lot of swimmers.

However, the detailed report on cycling shows that the amount of organised cycling remains fairly static, but there is a decline in informal cycling, and among some age groups.

* Not Cycling England, of course - that should be Sport England


I've been trying out Bikehub, asking it to generate rides of 30, 60 and 90 minutes starting from home. Two of the routes that it has suggested are almost identical to two of the best routes that I found by myself, and the third is very similar to another.

I am hugely impressed.

But there are a couple of flies in the ointment.

All three rides took a lot longer than Bikehub suggested. I don't think I can blame them, though. I already knew that I have to work on my speed, and perhaps I should stop less often to admire the views.

And, if Bikehub can generate good rides so quickly and easily, what is my next excuse for poring over maps to work things out for myself?

Try it here

Monday, 5 December 2011

Points of interest gadget

There are something in the region of a thousand scheduled monuments and protected historic buildings within cycling distance of where we now live. Some of them will be worth adding to OSM. I also see some of them as potential destinations or stopping points as I trundle around on the bike. I'm also trying to learn a bit about the area. So I'm interested in what is there, and where it is.

More importantly I felt like tinkering a bit with Openlayers on a smartphone.

So I've made myself a little gadget by kludging together various bits. There's a KML file of points of interest that I scraped (using Perl) from various published lists. I then edited the examples of Openlayers that use geolocation, display the OSM map, and overlay a KML file. The result is that I now have an "app" (really a web page with a slippy map) that works on a smartphone to mark Points of Interest with a pushpin. It follows me around, staying centred on my current location. A brief description of each point will pop up when a pin is touched.

For me it was a bit of a learning curve to get this working, but that says more about my limited expertise than it does about how difficult it really is. In truth none of it is very complicated.

To begin with I found it most useful at pointing out things that I hadn't noticed beforehand. Several buildings that I had been passing without a second glance turned out to be more interesting than I realised.

Now I've tried using it to locate a specific destination - and that worked fine as well. As I came home on a bitterly cold evenng it occurred to me that when our visitors arrive for Christmas and want to explore the area, we can send them out with this - while we stay warm indoors.

Pre-loading a smart phone with a collection of things that need fixing on the map seems like something that would be useful to the OSM community. An even larger group of people might like to pre-load the equivalent of a local guide-book.

But those happen to be the first two things I thought of. The nice thing is that, with the right tools in place it's fairly easy to generate data sets for displaying all sorts of different kinds of point of interest on a map.

Somebody must already have thought of this, and produced something a bit more sophisticated than my little gadget.

But who?

Friday, 2 December 2011

Charles Harper heads north

I discovered Charles Harper, and his "Cycle Rides Round London" when we lived in the Thames valley. It provided me with some ideas for interesting rides, rediscovering the routes that he described in 1902, or thereabouts.

Now we have moved to the other end of the country, I've been sampling his book on the Great North Road. I doubt if this is going to prove a useful way of devising routes, but parts of it are a still a bit of a treat (once you get used to the language).

As usual Mr Harper is pretty pungent about the local aristocracy, but it is new to find him being equally rude about the weather. Sometimes he combines the two. He suggests, for example, that border warfare was the way that the northern aristocracy kept warm (and that football took its place when the courts started to take a dim view).

He was writing some fifty years after railways had displaced coaches as the main way of travelling between London and Edinburgh. On reaching Darlington, he expounds on the different merits of the two systems.

Describing the railway as "a method of progression which does not admit of outside passengers" he continues...

Nothing in its special way can be more exhilarating than travelling by coach as an "outside"; few things so unsatisfactory as the position of an "inside"; and if a well-groomed coach is a thing of beauty, there is also a beautiful majesty in a locomotive engine that has been equally well looked after. One of the deep-chested Great Northern expresses puffing its irresistible way past the green eyes of the dropped semaphores of some busy junction at night-time, or coming as with the rush and certainty of Fate along the level stretches of line that characterise the route of the iron road to the North, is a sight calculated to rouse enthusiasm quite as much as a coach. Nor are railways always hideous objects. It is true that in and around the great centres of population where railway lines converge and run in filthy tunnels and along smoke be-grimed viaducts they sound the last note of squalor, but in the country it is a different matter.

The embankments are in spring often covered with a myriad wild flowers ; the viaducts give a human interest to coombe and gully. Lovers of the country can certainly point to places which, once remote and solitary, have been populated and spoiled by the readiness of railway access; but the locomotive has rendered more holidays possible, and has kept the roads in a decent solitude for the cyclist. 

Imagine, if you please, the Great North Road nowadays without the railway. A hundred coaches, more or less, raced along it in the last years of the coaching age, at all hours of the day and night. How many would suffice for the needs of the travelling public to-day ? and what chance would be left to the tourist, afoot or awheel?

More than 100 years ago, he saw railways freeing the roads for cyclists.

There's a thought.

The book can be downloaded here.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Stramongate School

We were wandering round Kendal yesterday when we discovered this building with a sign explaining that Stramongate School has connections with two famous scientists.

John Dalton taught here from 1781 to 1793. Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, was born here in 1882, when his father was headmaster.

John Dalton worked on developing atomic theory.

As regular visitors to Tlatet should already know, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington was a British astrophysicist who is known for explaining and confirming the theory of relativity. But when he wasn't distracted by work he devised a measure of long distance cycling. The Eddington Number is defined as E, the number of days a cyclist has cycled more than E miles.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Where can you cycle to in an afternoon?

It has been another lovely autumn day today. I thought I would set off after lunch and see how far I could get along the coast. The plan was to head north until 3pm, then turn round and head back again.

It turns out that I can reach Chinon in the Loire Valley. Or, as it is known around here, "Bamburgh".

I claim Chinon, on the basis that The Lion in Winter is set in Chinon, and they are using a picture of Bamburgh Castle on the poster for the current production at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. It's perfectly recognisable, under Robert Lindsay's beard, though it seems to be back-to-front. Since Chinon has a medieval castle of its own it's a slightly odd choice.

My route crossed the East Coast main line several times, and as I rode towards one of the level crossings the barriers were closed. As I got closer I watched the train pass, then as I approached the barrier it opened to let me through with perfect timing. It was a magical moment and from then on I seemed to be riding more easily. I built up speed, and felt I was flying along with little effort.

Once I reached my destination I realised why it had got so easy. Sadly it was nothing to do with my performance at all. A tail wind had been building up, and it was pushing me along as I headed north. On the return journey I was riding into the wind, and found it more heavy going.

However, the wind aside, it was a good clear day, with lovely views towards the Farne islands. That's been my longest ride for a long time, and now that I'm home I feel tired, but pleased with myself. I didn't see Robert Lindsay, or Joanna Lumley though.

(I was going to show my age by remembering Bamburgh as one of the locations for the 1968 film of The Lion in Winter. But that would really have shown the toll that age is taking. I think it was actually the 1964 film Becket that I was remembering - wrongly).

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Jum today

One of the quirks of place-names around here is that an ending of -gham is normally pronounced "jum". So Bellingham, for example, is pronounced "Bellin-jum" rather than "Belling-ham". This isn't always the case though. Chillingham is pronounced the way it is written.

What has been confusing me even more are two places fairly close to each other called Edlingham (pronounced Edlin-jum) and Eglingham (pronounced Eglin-jum). I get the two of them muddled.

Both names have Anglo-Saxon origins. Edlingham was the home of Eadwulf, and Eglingham the home of Ecgwulf. This was before we had post-codes, and Anglo-Saxon postmen obviously liked to keep things simple.

Today I decided I would ride to both. They looked like interesting places, and they are connected by about 10 miles of quiet country lanes. I thought it would make a nice ride, and it might stop me getting them mixed up. And pronouncing them wrongly.

This was definitely one of my better ideas of the week. Both places are lovely. Edlingham is perhaps the more interesting to visit. It boasts an 11th century church, a 14th century ruined castle, and a large viaduct left over from the old Alnwick to Cornhill railway. For what it is worth, it also lies on the Devil's Causeway, an old Roman Road that ran from Hadrian's Wall to Berwick-upon-Tweed. But Eglingham also has a church with a 13th century tower. And it has a pub too, but I forgot to take any money with me, so I didn't feel I could really drop in to sample it.

The main point of the outing though, is that the road connecting the two is terrific for my level of cycling. It rolls gently, without being too strenuous, and the views are wonderful. It's also very quiet. I thought I was going to be able to say that I only saw one car in almost ten miles, but just as I was entering Eglingham there was another. Two cars in almost ten miles isn't too bad. Almost like having a dedicated cycle path to myself.


The ride out wasn't bad either. It was a bit more hilly than I am comfortable with, but it was almost as quiet as the main stage. I must have seen half a dozen vehicles in about ten miles. And the views here were quite something too.

My route back was on a busier road (at least a dozen cars in nearly ten miles), and the views weren't in the same league, but it was an easier ride - because it was largely downhill.

I've seen quite a bit of wildlife today - mostly pheasants, but there were also a few circling birds of prey that I can't identify. Judging by the quantity of fresh road-kill there were even more pheasants around yesterday. It's a bit puzzling how so many of them managed to get hit by so few vehicles.

The only other cyclist that I saw was on the way back. For a long time they were riding ahead of me in the distance, but then they stopped and as I passed they were crouched over something on the verge. Naturally I stopped to check that everything was OK. "I'm fine", was the answer, as they put a fresh pheasant into their pannier bag.

Today was perfect autumn weather for a ride, but this would be a good route even on a day that was less than ideal. I'll definitely be going the same way again. However, we have other plans for the rest of the weekend, and I'm afraid I won't be visiting either 'jum tomorrow.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Please refrain from parking on the footpaths

In another universe all the road signs are as polite as this one.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

On the grid

In our previous house Wifi comfortably reached all rooms, and provided some coverage into the garden, but before we moved we were starting to have intermittent problems losing broadband access. We decided that the best thing was to transfer the old equipment into this house and wait to see what happened.

In this house we have almost 2 feet of stone on some internal walls, and there is a longer reach to some parts of the building. We found that we could get a decent wireless signal in most of the main rooms. But it was no surprise to discover that the signal was a bit flimsy in other places. And we continued to have the same intermittent problems with dropping broadband. So we decided it was worth replacing our old Wireless Router / ADSL Modem with separate ADSL Modem, and smarter wireless router.

I'm always a bit wary of fiddling with network stuff. It seems like a bit of a dark art, and I tend to panic and start flailing around when things go squiffy. But for once installing and configuring it all went remarkably well. Credit is due to those who design the software. The only real problem I encountered was that immediately after placing the order I realised that I hadn't changed the default delivery address properly. I had to ring up the supplier and explain that I was an idiot who had moved house. They were very helpful. From then on, everything went pretty much to plan. It has been working for the last week or so, touch wood. And I can prove that by posting this.

Happily, the wireless signal does seem to be stronger in the more distant parts of the house. Also, for whatever reason, we no longer seem to be dropping the broadband connection  occasionally (touch wood again).

Unfortunately, after sorting all that out, I discovered a few days ago that my GPS system for the bike has also gone belly up. I've tried all the obvious fixes, with no result. All I can get is a blank screen.

A replacement will have to wait, so in the meantime I'm trying out some of the alternatives on the smartphone. So far I've only used these while walking, rather than while cycling, because on foot it's easier to fiddle without falling over and it doesn't matter so much when you bump into things.

I'm quite impressed with apps for collecting GPS tracks. There seems to be a decent choice, with each concentrating on a different mix of priorities. I've found one that seems to fit my needs, and which is particularly adept at collecting tracks and transferring them into OSM. This seems like an elegant way of exploiting the technology, and using it to combine a number of different functions into a sensible solution which is easy to use.

However, I'm not so taken with the apps that emulate the functions of a basic cycle computer. A bit like those which emulate a compass or a spirit level, they look lovely. But I don't really understand the point in investing so much effort in getting a relatively expensive piece of complex technology to look and act like a relatively inexpensive piece of fairly simple technology.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

You know who you are

There are lots of good reasons to go cycling, and losing weight isn't one of the best. However, it is what got me re-started. Without any scientific evidence whatsoever, here are my tips for anyone else who wants to lose weight cycling. In no particular order:

  • It's probably bulk that matters to you, rather than weight. So assess progress by the length of your waistband rather than your weight. This is a more visible measure, and improvements are likely to be more predictable, so progress is more satisfying. And it avoids any need to explain that increased weight is due to converting fat into muscle 
  • Find a good greasy spoon about 5 miles away, and ride there for a bacon sandwich whenever you fancy one. You get to eat all the bacon sandwiches you want (at about 350 calories each) but you burn off more than that in getting there and back
  • Work out a standard half hour route, and try to ride it on more days than you don't. It's really easy to think of excuses to avoid more ambitious rides, but it's hard to invent excuses for avoiding something which is so quick and easy
  • Write down some goals, and tell people about them. It doesn't really matter what they are. What matters is that you write them down and tell people. Anyone with a bit of imagination can fool themselves into thinking they are achieving a goal that they haven't written down or shared.
  • Once you've told people about your goals, it's important that you brag about achieving them. If you find you can't achieve them, then just change them to something easier. If they turn out to be so easy that you are embarrassed to brag about them, then change them to something harder
  • Getting a bike solves nothing. You are going to have to ride it. And unless you are having fun you won't. So find some better reasons than weight loss for going for a ride 

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Guano shed

The other day I rode to see a ruined Guano shed, that lies just south of Alnmouth.

The building dates from the 18th century, Guano was imported as a fertiliser, and because of its smell it was stored as far as possible from the harbour (goodness knows how the sailors coped on the voyage). But in 1806 a fierce storm caused the river Aln to change direction. Alnmouth church and cemetery were cut off from the village, and Alnmouth harbour silted up. After that the Guano shed was re-used as a barn.

It would be nice to describe this as being a bit of a sh*t destination. But that wouldn't be right, although there's not much left of the shed. Even the bit of roof mentioned in the official listing seems to have disappeared. The location is interesting though. It should be possible to scramble over the high dunes to reach the beach (I didn't attempt this). There are fine views of Alnmouth over the estuary. You can still see quite clearly where the old course of the river has silted up. There is also a view of a ruined chapel that was built in an attempt to re-open the cemetery on Church Hill after the river changed course.

Alnmouth from south of the river
From a personal point of view this has satisfied a long-standing itch. I've been visiting Alnmouth since I was knee-high to a thrupenny bit, I've looked over the river many times, and wondered what it was like on the other side. But I'd never been there. And now I have.

National Cycle Route 1 runs parallel to the A1068 between Warkworth and Lesbury. Just north of the turning to High Buston there is a track that leads east to the dunes. This has a pretty rough surface, and I wouldn't suggest riding it on a highly tuned road bike. But it was OK on a touring bike, and it should be fine on anything with a bit of suspension. The map is here, but you can see more of the ruins, dunes and beach from a satellite (the row of dots along the back of the beach are anti-tank defences from WW-II)

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A proper ride (at last)

This afternoon I took off for what I think qualifies as my first proper ride in months.

I don't think of it as a proper ride because of the distance (which was only a little more than other recent outings). Nor because it was particularly strenuous (I was working quite hard at times, but I really ought to accept this as the norm, and stop going on about it).

It qualifies as a proper ride because I set off to explore some familiar places, and as with all the best outings, I ended up finding some which were unexpected.

One of my destinations was Warkworth - a pretty town, well known for its imposing castle, its Norman bridge and church and the views along the main street. I've been there many times, but I've only cycled through once. I've never explored away from the main sights, and main routes. This time I entered the town along the conventional route, but I left heading westwards.

Warkworth is almost completely surrounded by the River Coquet, and the road I chose crosses it via a ford. I chose this route partly because I enjoy riding through fords. Like riding through puddles, it appeals to my inner child. But the others that I've ridden through have only been small. This is more of a grown-up ford. It looked very wide - wide enough that I couldn't judge how deep it was in the middle. And it looked as though it was going to be slippery.

I had second thoughts, and considered using the footbridge. But then, surely the river must be relatively low at the moment. What's the worst that could happen? An hour's ride home, soaking wet, covered in mud didn't seem too awful a prospect. I asked myself: man or a mouse? or otter?

I decided to risk it.

I took it steady, and tried to stick to the tracks left by cars, because they seemed less slippery.

The first third was fine. After that the water was deep enough to be coming over my feet as I pedalled. I couldn't see any clear tracks to follow. The wheels were starting to slide about a bit.

An hour's ride home, soaking wet, covered in mud was beginning to look quite likely. But the worst didn't happen. I managed to stay upright, and I kept pedalling. With the exception of my feet, I had a dry ride home.

And although I've ridden past an imposing castle, a Norman bridge and church and I've again seen the lovely views along Warkworth main street, it's the experience of crossing the ford that I will remember.

Postscript - the ford was originally tagged "highway=ford" on OSM. That's in line with the recommended approach, and the way that I would have done it. Routing seems to work OK, but the ford itself wasn't rendering. So it looked as though there was a gap in the road on Mapnik and OCM. I know we shouldn't tag for the render, but because this ford is so long the gap was obvious (and misleading). I've changed the tagging to "highway=minor, ford=yes" with a node where it cross the centre of the river tagged "highway=ford, ford=yes". I'm hoping that this will provide more appropriate rendering, while maintaining a record of "what is on the ground". We will see, and if anyone has a better alternative the link is here.

Monday, 26 September 2011

One real, and one virtual ride

My brother visited us for the weekend. He brought some cycling clothes, and the two of us managed to get out for a couple of rides. One of them was just to check that my spare bike was in good working order. That one is hardly worth counting. This morning we were a bit (not much) more ambitious.

Nice views, fine weather, quiet roads, and good company made for a very pleasant ride of a couple of hours. However, both of us are a bit out of practice. We went further than we had planned but not quite as far as the coast.

After lunch my brother left us to head home. At that point I could have worked on reducing our long list of things that need to be done. On reflection, my wife and I decided that it made a lot more sense to go for a walk along the coast instead.

We headed north of Boulmer, and followed part of the coastal path, which here doubles as National Cycle Route 1. This part of the path runs past a series of lovely, secluded sandy bays. There are views up the coast to Dunstanburgh castle, and quite a variety of of sea birds to watch.

It's more than two years since I cycled this way. It's a lovely ride, and now we don't live so far away I should be able to ride it more often. But having said that, this part of the path is also a pleasure to walk. It's slower on foot of course, and you can't cover as much ground as you can on a bike. But it's easier on foot to get down to the beach, splodge through the sand and scramble over the rocks.

In brief, today I've fitted in both a nice ride, and a nice walk. I've seen several different types of seabird that I cannot name, And I've recalled a good ride from a couple of years ago. That adds up to a pretty successful day. Oh, and I also set up our new phone. The rest of the to-do list will wait.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

One less excuse

It was a short, but pleasant ride over to the local bike shop this morning. I returned with a new chain on the touring bike, and a basic frame pump. They fitted the chain, and adjusted the indexing while I waited. The pump will replace the one that was liberated from the hybrid before we moved.

I asked about the best local rides, and the advice they gave is starting to sound familiar. The suggestion is to start by heading northwards along the coast (which is as flat as it gets). As I get better at dealing with the hills, I should work towards the more dramatic landscape further west.

It was a nice ride this morning. The local bike shop was very friendly, and helpful. But it was hardly a challenging ride. With a new chain, a promise of good weather, and a bit of a hold-up on the work front, I really must stop procrastinating, and get myself off for a bit more of a stretch.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Catwalk report

I realise that visitors to Tlatet are far too polite to ask, but I can tell from coverage in today's papers that at the start of London Fashion Week there must be considerable interest in what I wore for this morning's ride.

Starting at the top...
  • A threadbare cotton jumper, over a dark blue shirt. The shirt could be from almost anywhere, and probably is, but the jumper isn't just any jumper. It's a green Marks and Spencer jumper. I like to think of it as an understated tribute to Yehuda Moon
  • My trousers were dark blue cords, accented by patches of brown. I adapted these few months ago when I was a bit careless stripping varnish from some old furniture, without bothering to change into something that was even more appropriate for a messy job. They have been washed many times since - it must have been good varnish.
  • On my feet I wore an old pair of brown casual shoes, bought, as far as I remember, from a Clarks discount outlet (it was a long time ago). They recently acquired some splashes of white when we were painting the garden shed.
As I was cycling this morning, I did make a couple of special adjustments. On the rare occasions that I come off the bike I tend to bang my head, so it always seems like a good idea to wear a helmet. And to stop my trousers getting tangled in the chain I wore my lucky reflective cycle clips.

Clearly this is not a look that anyone can just go and buy off the shelf. It has taken years of refinement. So having achieved something close to sartorial perfection I don't vary it much. I didn't have to change this afternoon to take rubbish to the tip. Apart from a clean shirt, socks etc., I wore the same yesterday for taking down some shelves, and the day before for some light gardening. I suspect that little will be different tomorrow. That is, unless the jumper or trousers have to disappear into the wash, in which case I will be thrown into confusion.

Postscript: afterwards we found most of the missing parts of our shutters up in the loft, covered in decades of debris. After scrabbling around to get them down through the hatch, today's outfit did go into the washing, and I've scrubbed up.

A long half hour

Despite a forecast of rain, this morning turned out to be beautiful. I had intended to take a couple of loads to the tip, then move some of the clutter around so that we will be ready to strip another room next week.

However, I was told (in fairly strong terms) not to be so silly, and to get out on the bike for "half an hour".

In reality that turned into a two hour ride, heading (more or less) directly north, then retracing the same route back. The first part of the ride crosses a valley, but beyond that it's about as flat things get around here. For the furthest part of the ride I was on the Sustrans cycle route that follows the Northumberland coast, but at that point it runs some way in land, so there were only occasional glimpses of the sea.

One of our new neighbours does a bit of cycling locally, and they have suggested three approaches to deal with the hills. Option one: get used to them. Option two: stick the bike in the car and take it somewhere flat,  and option three: explore the area I chose today. To the extent that I have a plan, it's to follow a mix of all three.

Although today's ride was fairly flat, there was a bit of a headwind on the way back. I felt that I was having to work quite hard, but that's probably more to do with a lack of practice. Apart from the wind, the weather was near perfect. It was clear and sunny, but quite cool - particularly early on. The countryside was looking nice, and I diverted through a couple of pretty villages. For the more dramatic landscapes I will either have to head over some bigger hills, or get further along the coastal route, where it is nearer to the sea, and you get more than glimpses of the coast.

Traffic wasn't too bad. I was on reasonably quiet roads, by local standards, and they are a lot quieter than I was used to in the Thames valley. There were only a few other cyclists around: a couple who looked as though they were touring, and some who looked like locals cycling to the shop. Quite properly, greetings were exchanged with every cyclist I passed, as well as with most pedestrians and bystanders.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Neatsfoot Compound

I'm taking a short break from clearing the garden shed. On one of the shelves we discovered this can of Neatsfoot Compound. Until fairly recently I wouldn't have known what it was, but in recent years it came up regularly in conversation with my wife's father.

My father-in-law was born in 1918, and had been a keen cyclist in his youth. When I began cycling again a few years ago, he wanted to help me keep on the right lines, so we heard some interesting stories, and I was never short of advice. He was a big advocate of Brooks saddles, and strongly recommended applying Neatsfoot Oil to the leather.

It's not something that I had come across before. I did chose a Brooks saddle for the touring bike, but I've been using Brooks Proofide to dress the leather.

We know that there were some keen cyclists in this house before us. They seem to have agreed with my father-in-law.

According to Wikipedia Neatsfoot oil is a yellow oil rendered and purified from the shin bones and feet (but not the hooves) of cattle. "Neat" in the oil's name comes from an old name for cattle. It has nothing to do with those not in employment, education or training (that would be neets-foot oil). I see that Vanner and Prest Neatsfoot Compound is available: here.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Cut Throat Letch

One of the most useful books on my shelf of cycling stuff is "The Golden Wheels of Albert Winstanley" by Albert Winstanley. It isn't useful because it is packed with valuable information. It's useful because it encourages me to go out exploring on the bike. It takes an approach that some might find old-fashioned, but which suits me fine. On each of the trips that Albert describes he takes obvious delight in some aspect of history, the landscape, or just the name of a place. In that spirit I rode off this afternoon to explore some minor country lanes, and to find a stream called Cut Throat Letch.

I have no idea where the "cut throat" bit comes from, but in this context, letch comes from an Old English word, leccan, which means to make something wet. It's related to the verb to leak. Around here it normally refers to a stream that runs slowly through a bog. And that's pretty much what we have here.

So it's nothing much to look at. But as a name for a destination you couldn't ask for much more. I have had a nice ride on quiet roads, and now I can drive the family nuts by going around for the rest of the evening saying

 <pirate voice>"I've been to cut throat letch"</pirate voice>.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Over the hills, not far away

No cycling today, but we discovered a lovely walk from Bellingham through ancient woodland to this waterfall at Hareshaw Linn. We were a bit late - this walk seems to have been popular since Victorian times. Details here.

This was originally intended to be a side trip on the back of our other plans, but they went a bit pear-shaped, and our walk turned out to be one of the highlights of the day.

The other highlight was the magnificent road out to Bellingham, passing through the National Park. The weather was perfect, the views were magnificent, and the roads were lovely and quiet.

We saw a few cyclists on the way, climbing the hills, and swooping down the descents. For me the car was doing the hard work today, and I could only envy those on two wheels. The roads over these hills must provide marvellous cycling.

At this stage I know that I couldn't manage them comfortably myself, but I already aspire to be in good enough condition to tackle them. What I realised today was that the proper goal is to be in good enough condition to enjoy them, not just to tackle them. It remains to be seen whether that's possible, but I live in hope.

Thursday, 18 August 2011


When we acquire a new gadget we always keep instructions, and carefully file them away in any number of different places. The places I put them make perfect sense at the time, but not much afterwards. On top of that, when we get rid of a gadget we never think to dispose of the obsolete instructions. One day the house will be full of instructions for things we no longer own, and we will have to move out.

You can't read the f'ing manual unless you can find it, and because I'm not properly organised it's become near impossible to find instructions when I need them. Usually I need them when the clocks go forward or back; or when a battery needs replacing. So when the battery needed replacing on the cycle computer I did what I always do. I had a half-hearted look in several different places to try and find the original instructions. I found all sorts of other interesting stuff, but not what I needed. So I gave up and fiddled around for a while trying to work it out by myself. Just before I got frustrated and destructive, I went and downloaded a copy of the instructions from the web site. Not for the first time, we next had a protracted debate about the best place to buy lithium button cell batteries, until my wife had to go into town. She kindly brought back the ones I needed.

Fitting the battery only took a matter of a minute or two. It took much longer to re-set the clock and enter the right tyre size. I'm sure I must have written down the right setting for the tyres last time, and I filed it with the instructions (how pointless that was). This time I didn't bother. Now the old battery is waiting with all the other stuff that needs to be taken to the recycling place.

It's only changing a battery for goodness sake. How can such a trivial task end up being so complicated?

Monday, 15 August 2011

Grand old Duke of York

Squeezed between getting ourselves organised, doing the tasks that have to be done, greeting visitors, meeting neighbours, and otherwise enjoying ourselves, I have managed a short outing on the bike this morning. I only had a limited amount of time, so it seemed best to face up to the contours of the land, and head straight out to explore possible routes over our nearest decent hill. I reckon that once I'm a bit more comfortable with climbing that, several interesting longer routes will open up to me.

I did manage to climb it, but I was a long way off being comfortable. The first part wasn't too steep, and I was able to acknowledge the morning dog walkers without looking like a complete numpty. But further on as the road got steeper I was beginning to puff and pant a bit. Luckily, by then there was nobody else around, so I didn't feel I was at risk of embarrassing myself. Then the road levelled out a bit more and I realised that I had earned some lovely views. From higher ground I could also begin to see the line of some of the more  ambitious rides that I am planning.

Today wasn't a good day for me to undertake any of those though. There are too many things on the To-Do list. So I turned back to loop home, and carefully negotiated an even steeper route back down the hill.

A ride like that is never going to add much to the mileage in my spreadsheet. However, it was good to get out. When I was up I was up. The views were worth the climb, and I've got a better idea of potential future rides.

And now I am down, am I down? A few hours after I got home my legs are still feeling the effects. I might not have got as much done today as I planned, but I can definitely feel that it did me good to take some time out.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Normal service to be resumed shortly

We have now moved into our tenth home, far from the Thames Valley, near the Northumberland coast.

Choosing where to live has always been a big decision,  and usually involves some compromises, but this time we haven't been as constrained by work and family commitments as we have in the past. With more options, and without others forcing some of the decisions, we have had to make up our own minds about what is important to us. Obviously the promise of some decent cycling featured somewhere in the list, but there were a lot of other things to consider too. So we've taken our time coming to a decision, and over time we have built up some high expectations.

So far, a week after we moved, things seem to be working out. We are gradually getting stuff sorted. My bike was the first thing to come off the removal van, but on balance it didn't seem the best idea to ride off immediately. In any case, it has taken longer to discover the related stuff. All the important things are unpacked now, though, and today we reached the point where I felt I could take off for a couple of hours to go exploring.

I rode out towards the coast, taking a 15 mile loop, mostly along quiet country roads. It was glorious, with almost perfect weather, and lovely views. Away from town, I came across very little traffic.

I thought I had picked a fairly flat route for my first outing, but it was still more hilly than I'm used to. However, every important decision involves some compromises. I will just need to work on my hill climbing (which is probably not a bad thing). When I stopped for a break, another cyclist pulled up to share the bench, and we had a chat about the best local routes. I already had some ideas, but now I have some more to try.

This is going to be fun.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Cycle to enhance your career prospects

There's an interview with Ed Williams, the Chief Executive of Right Move in the business section of the Times today.

For those who haven't moved house recently, Right Move is a web site that consolidates information from Estate Agents on property for sale or rent. According to the article it is a highly successful business, and one of Britain's most popular web sites.

Ed Williams ascribes the success of his site to three principles: keeping things simple, making sure the information it provides is up to date, and hiring the right people.  To quote the article, he has a penchant for people who do sports such as cycling and rowing, where there is no downtime, rather than football or cricket.

"We look for people who stick at something, who just keep doggedly at it".

I am never going to know whether cycling would have had a positive impact on (what some laughingly describe as) my career, because I got interested too late. When cycling does come up in conversation with work colleagues we tend to talk about the destinations, and the challenges we set ourselves. I suppose that sits well with the idea of doggedly determined cycling. I tend to skip over the sheer pleasure of just pootling around by myself, enjoying the sense of freedom. Emphasising my slow pace, and anti-social approach might reveal more than I really want to, about my lack of enthusiasm for corporate culture.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

More 1/2 inch map

Thanks to my brother I now have an original Bartholomew's half-inch map of Northumberland, dating (I think) from 1957.

From that date, it doesn't show the Alnwick bypass, which was built in 1968, and it does show the Alnwick branch line, which closed in 1968. Before it closed this line operated some of the last steam-hauled passenger services under British Rail. The map also shows the Alnwick to Coldstream line, which was never very commercially successful. It would have been closed by 1957, but presumably the track was still in place.

Earlier Bartholomew's maps had covered Northumberland in two sheets. This one covers virtually the whole of Northumberland, from Berwick to the Tyne, but misses a little around Allendale in the south, and around Haltwhistle in the West.

Thursday, 7 July 2011


The quote we got for house and contents insurance is remarkably thorough. It seems to cover pretty much everything we need, including loss or damage of a bicycle worth up to £5,000. They will even pay for professional counselling under certain circumstances.

But there are some tight conditions on what they cover following a violent domestic dispute.

So I'm not going to be spending £5,000 on a new bike any time soon.

Friday, 24 June 2011


I got this from a flea market in Paris about ten years ago. I told myself that it was to help me find my way walking along the Paris meridian. Really I just liked the look of it.

When I moved back to the UK it went missing, and I assumed it was lost for good. But we have been taking a load of boxes out of the loft for sorting, and it has turned up again, along with a lot of other bits and bobs.

On the back it says "Stanley London, 1935". There is a folding prism on the side, which is obviously for taking bearings, but until this afternoon I hadn't managed to figure out how to use it.

A lost compass was never much help, and I don't suppose a found one is going to get a lot of use either. But it's nice to have it back.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Under construction

This is part of the original Bartholomew's revised "half-inch" contoured map of Herts and Bucks. We found it in a second-hand bookshop a few days ago. The history on the back cover says:

"This map has unique record among cartographical publications. The first sheets were brought out in 1875 with simple colouring by counties. At the Paris Exhibition of 1878 Mr Bartholomew showed specimen sheets printed in layer or contour colouring. That system was eventually adopted for the whole publication, which thus became the first topographical series in any country to use it. Based originally on the Ordnance Survey, by permission, it is now kept up to date by its own service of information and is generally acknowledged the most up-to-date of any map in the country".

These maps didn't carry a date, but judging by the text on the cover ("By appointment to the Late King George V"), it has to date from later than 1936, and as it shows the railway line from Bourne End to High Wycombe, it presumably dates from before 1970, when that line closed.

I've also been looking at details of various Bartholomew design changes here. As far as I can make out from the index of sheets it was based on a layout that was used  from 1940 onwards, and the cover design seems to date from before 1963. Judging by the original cover price (2/6), it dates from the early 1950's. However, it shows the Maidenhead bypass as being under construction. That became the first section of the M4 in 1963. So perhaps it actually dates from nearer then.

Beneath the map is this note:

"The publishers record their appreciation of the valuable services rendered in th past by map users un assisting to maintain the accuracy of this series and are always pleased to acknowledge any corrections brought to their notice".

I guess it's probably too late to let them know about Beeching, the construction of the M4 and M40, or that there are no longer Youth Hostels in Maidenhead, Henley, Beaconsfield / Chalfont St Peter, and Lane End. Instead (if only there was an agreed tagging scheme) we could all be out there adding abandoned Youth Hostels to OSM.

These days, of course, a fifty-year-old map is of no practical use whatsoever, but it is a thing of beauty nevertheless.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

A modest proposal

Stoke Row Steam Rally

As to  the number of persons in charge of a locomotive propelled by steam, or any other than animal power to be used on  any public highway. It  shall not be  lawful  for  any owner  of  such locomotive, either  in his own person  or  by his servants, to use any such locomotive, wagon, or carriage on the turnpike or other roads, except  there  be at the least three persons to  drive  or conduct  such locomotive: one to steer, one to stoke, and one to proceed sixty yards ahead with a red flag to alert those in control of horses of the imminent approach of the vehicle.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Elliot 803

This is a video of an Elliott 803 computer. It's the first machine I ever wrote a programme for. The whole thing was the size of a room. The only input and output devices used five-column paper tape.

We prepared our programmes on teletype machines. Then we used little switches on the console to boot the machine with the Algol compiler, and read our programmes in. I remember them as toggle switches, but they seem to be buttons here, so I must have got that muddled.

After a while the machine punched out another reel of paper tape containing the executable programme that it had generated. We rebooted again with the little switches to load the executable, and waited for the results.

My most successful programme generated solution to "Seven Bridges of Königsberg" type of problems, which it output as yet another reel of paper tape. That went into a pen plotter for the final result. It's (more or less) a standard routing problem, and the algorithm I used was pretty crude, but I was very proud of it at the time. Somewhere I think I still have the listing and paper tape, but years ago when I took another look at it I realised that there was a bug that my test cases hadn't picked up. I was gutted.

This must have been in the late 60's. I was still at school, and immensely lucky in those days and at that age, to have access to this technology. Happy memories, but things have moved on a little since then. It's amazing how evocative the various sounds are.

I hadn't realised that they had one working at the National Museum of Computing in Bletchley Park. I must plan a visit.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Trying to be helpful, but...

On this afternoon's outing I met a group of cyclists riding the Sustrans Thames Valley route from Hampton Court, then planning to get a train back from Henley. They must have covered about 25 miles at the point we met, and they still had about 8 miles to go. They had stopped at a point where the Sustrans map is a bit vague. I know the route well, and it wasn't difficult to point them in the right direction.

We then got to discussing the next couple of stages of their ride.

After crossing some fields, and following some minor lanes, the Sustrans route then follows a woodland path, over a hill. It's a nice ride, but a bit steep and heavy going. It's OK for mountain bikes, I guess, and sometimes I've taken that route, but normally I bypass it and take the flatter road.

After that they would need to get off the Sustrans route to reach Henley station. The two obvious options both involve minor A-roads. Neither is great for cycling, but the one they were planning to take is quite narrow, with a few blind corners. I prefer the other. Although it is busier, there is more space, so I find the traffic less of a problem. An even better option is to take a longer route down a little side lane and along the river. I'm not sure what the official position is on cycling along that part of the riverside path, but people do, and it's a nice ride.

Proud of my local knowledge, I blurted all this out without thinking it through, then realised that I'd probably caused more trouble than I'd saved.

Some of the group were prepared to admit that they were getting tired, others were still up for more of a challenge. A couple were in favour of switching to the easier route, others preferred to stick with their original plan. I'm sure they will have sorted it all out, but having thoughtlessly caused confusion it seemed best to retreat and leave them to it. Next time I'll try to engage my brain before opening my mouth.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Google correlate

I'm not at all sure what this means, but it's a fun time waster.

The topics that correlate with cycling are obvious enough. And since this activity is so seasonal, it's not a great surprise that skiing crops up when the data is shifted by six months.

But it completely defeats me where this lot comes from on the correlation with oenstreetmap.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Is this a disused pub, or isn't it?

I regularly ride past this closed pub on my "flat but quiet" 15 mile cycling loop. It strikes me as an attractive building, but a sad sight, and it seems to be on the market for redevelopment. I've not stopped to read the notices, but I assume there is planning permission for a change of use.

The other pub in the same village is now owned by a group of villagers, and seems to be thriving. It's odd how I will pass these things for months before it occurs to me to check whether they are recorded properly on the map. Having checked, I've added the open pub (which was missing), and changed the tagging on this one to show it as disused.

This leads on to the controversy about how best to tag features that are no longer in use. I've decided to mark this one as "amenity=pub, disused=yes", which is one of the common approaches. But that's not the only option, and there are good arguments against the approach I used.

For those who don't follow this stuff, the main problem is that it's as though I'm saying "this is a pub - oh not it's not". Anyone who is very thirsty might stop listening after the first half of the sentence. If I'd said "this WAS a pub" it would be OK. Similarly, somebody who is using the raw data to draw pubs on a map, or provide directions to the nearest pub is normally going to search for things described as a "pub". They will find more than 30,000 in the UK, including this one (unless they listen carefully).

What they probably want to find is pubs that are still in business. So they want to ignore the 70 or so that are already marked as "disused", and a few more that are marked as "closed". They will have to eliminate these explicitly. There are also more than 100 features described as a pub where the name is set to something like "Royal Oak (closed)". There are a few dozen more where there is a note attached (in free text) to the same effect. There are also a variety of less standard ways of indicating the same thing - all against features that are basically marked as being a "pub". The more of these that they handle explicitly, the more accurate their data will be. Any they miss can mislead their users.

The main alternative is to describe these things, not as a "pub", but as a "former pub", "disused pub" or even "dead pub". There are several dozen examples of each of these in the OSM data for the UK. The general approach is fairly common, but the actual values that are used tend to vary quite a bit. This approach has the advantage that none of these will match a simple search just for "pub". So the default behaviour of any software that uses the data is going to be what we would expect most people to intend. On the other hand, if they are mainly interested in pubs that are closed, or all pubs whether they are closed or not, then this data is not going to be a lot of help.

So given the choice, why did I chose to mark this is "amenity=pub, disused=yes", rather than "building=disused_pub" or something similar?

Partly it's because there is a well-established scheme for tagging pubs, and another well-established scheme for tagging things that are disused. Sticking to these keeps the data fairly clean.

I'm also a bit suspicious of advocating ways of tagging that make assumptions about how the data is going to be processed. Who is to say that it is most important to make life easy for people who want to identify active pubs? It's the obvious case, but what about people who are interested in pub history, pub architecture, the number of closed pubs. Or, in checking data quality against some external directory. Or (perhaps more likely) giving directions such as "turn left at the Royal Oak".

I reckon that anyone who seriously wants to extract active pubs from the database is going to find it fairly easy to filter out ones that are disused, as long as the tagging follows some basic principles. And if anyone thinks it is going to be too difficult to ignore features tagged as "disused=yes" then they should expect much bigger problems handling the other variants.

But mainly I've tagged it this way because that's what I see as I am riding past. From a distance I spot a pub, and when I get close I realise that it's disused. Once it has been developed it may look different, but for now, that's what it seems like to me.

As the OSM database gets more rich, and more detailed, and covers a wider variety of objects there are a number of areas where contributors need different forms of tagging to describe subtle differences between similar features. They already have access to a number of different idioms that they can use to express their different perceptions.

Some people have a problem with that. They want to drive out subjectivity by defining explicit data structures in great detail. In some areas this is probably the right approach. Consistency can sometimes be more important than other considerations. But in many areas a more subjective and expressive approach can (and in my view, should) be encouraged.

The arguments for avoiding forms such as "amenity=pub, disused=yes" are understandable, but as a contributor it has the advantage of being easy to understand, and apply in different situations. The form is already widely used. Most importantly it expresses what I see better than the alternatives. Although alternatives are also widely used, they lack the level of consistency that some potential users of the data may need.

This isn't a problem just for pubs, of course. Similar issues arise in OSM with abandoned railway stations, canals, and other amenities.

Nor is it a problem unique to Open Street Map. In the same village there's a house with a painted sign outside that says something like "Church House, Formerly All Saints Church, Now a Private Residence". I wonder why they went to the expense of putting that up?