Grab back control

A recent edition of the Evening Standard, which I never read even when you had to pay for it and I still don’t despite it is now free – as a wise man once said, twice crap is still crap, you just have a bigger pile – carried a banner headline (it must have been as I saw it on someone else’s copy) cycling city touting the new bike hire scheme, similar to Paris’ VĂ©lib’ programme.

This is a tremendous idea, don’t get me wrong, more people on bikes is a winning situation on so many levels. Cycling is now a viable method of commuting in London, which it wasn’t 15 years (and some 35,000 miles) ago when I started on two whiles about this metropolis. Cyclists are a lot more visible on the capital’s road and, by extension, the chances that the car driver behind you is also an occasional cyclist too have now grown. If more people get out, even a little, on bikes then life does get better for all of us.

But Boris needs more than just a few thousand hire-bikes and some headlines. The “cycle superhighways”, especially the two scheduled for “opening” in May of this year, are possibly progress – although what’s a new lick of blue paint really going to accomplish? You’ll still have dozens of sets of traffic lights and too many cars, vans and buses fighting over too little road space with drivers and other cyclists who have little or no roadcraft, patience or manners worth speaking of.

The problem is that London’s roads are no longer fit for purpose. From the bus lane on the M4 to the kerfuffle about the Olympic lanes, drivers complaining about red-lighting jumping bikes, motorbikes being allowed in some bus lanes; too many people feel that they’re special and that it’s everyone else who is the problem.

We are all the problem. When I’m on my bike I’m a smaller problem admittedly, but my daily round-trip is now almost 25 miles, surely that’s the hub of everyone’s problem? Too many people are working in too compact an area – be it the West End, the City or Canary Wharf. Too many people are being moved into too small an area, too often by a transport infrastructure that cannot be taken seriously.

I don’t intend to move to the East of the City, but for now I’m working there. Canary Wharf had the chance to do it right. They started the place from almost scratch and could have designed in cycle access but it really feels that they did the exact opposite. The roads within a mile of the development are generally massive and car-focussed. Actually everything East of the Tower, so make that three miles. Cyclists aren’t expected to feel like second class citizens here, they are expected to consider themselves are untouchables. In 2007 90,000 people worked in Canary Wharf and just 2.9% cycled. Frankly, I’m surprised it is that much considering how we’re treated.

I don’t want much – and maybe May’s cycle superhighway number 3 will be enough – but I’d like London to repay some of my taxes by allowing me to travel to work without risking my life on a daily basis. Canary Wharf is a soul-crushing place at the best of times, it doesn’t have to be a body-destroying one on the commute too.

I don’t expect to cycle from my front door to the secure underground parking (sic) with neither stopping nor even putting a foot down, and having broken no rules. We all will need to stop and give way at points, but frankly the current situation is ridiculous – too many red lights where all I’m doing is waiting (and probably watching other cyclists going past me) for no obvious good reason.

If Boris wants to make a difference he needs to get everyone moving and not stopping, helping each other and not getting in each other’s way any more than we have to. The system is now built to stop and control, taking away our right to think and react. A cyclist at a redundant red light has more ability to exert some freewill than the car nth in the queue – but because it’s “illegal” everyone gets up in arms.

I’m not about to condone their flagrant disrespect, but get angry at the red light, not the cyclist flexing some degree of independence. In these pre-election times, the traffic light is about control; the zebra crossing, roundabout or crossroads are about give-and-take and letting us sort ourselves out. It’s about democracy versus totalitarianism. We don’t all always need to be told what to do. Running a red light is almost certainly unsafe because the junction doesn’t assume you to do it, so why shouldn’t we hand some control back to the road users and have us work out for ourselves what we need.

Grab back control

Some taxes are just fine by me

No one likes being taxed, even when it’s not called a tax but a licence.

But as the very fine David Mitchell said recently

the BBC is the envy of the world. Why are we letting its competitors, and the politicians they have frightened or bought, tell us that we can’t keep it as it is?

There’s a lot wrong with the BBC, and if they close 6Music then there’s even more to add to that list, but in comparison with some of the other things to complain about, it’s just about the best thing that the UK has at the moment.

It’s a bargain; the mealy-mouthed words of the sponsored politicians and the journalists who just rehash their masters’ thoughts cannot take that away from any right-thinking person.

Some taxes are just fine by me

Red lights distract

Recently Boris decided that it might be an idea to investigate whether cyclists should be allowed to (conditionally) turn left through red lights.

While it certainly is not the answer, it’s not really even part of the question.

There are innumerable reasons why cycling is dangerous, but the fundamental one is that cyclists are not considered first class citizens when the road system is being planned, amended, dug up, redesigned or rephased.

My commute is around 7 miles each way. On my morning route in the other morning, just for fun, I counted the number of sets of traffic lights that I had to cycle over. 32. Thirty-two. That’s more than one every quarter mile. There are just four zebra crossings.

I divided the lights into 3 categories: those which were fair enough, e.g. major junctions etc. (12), those that were pure pedestrian crossings that could be easily replaced with zebra crossings (12) and those which I couldn’t quickly decide on (8). It’s these pedestrian request lights that are the most irksome – people pressing the button, then walking across on green, only for the lights to kick in anyway. How about a cancel request button?

It’s no wonder that cyclists run red lights (I don’t, but I’m in a minority) when so many of them are blatantly surplus to requirement. Surely zebra crossings must be cheaper to install, cheaper to maintain, greener (given the average wait times) and less likely to provoke irritation at others’ behaviour? After all, I’m convinced more car drivers would run reds if they could – but they’re constrained by the guy in front.

So rather than the red herring of turning left (which could be often useful, but more often than not, not) – let’s have TfL justify every set of lights with a pedestrian request phase and ponder if that crossing could be better served by a zebra crossing.

That would be a real win in the battle to wrestle control of our roads back from the car.

Update: Someone’s on my wavelength. Ealing is putting a bag over many after realising that the wisdom of crowds works well. Hoorah for them.

Red lights distract

Banking Hypocrisy

No, not anything about the merchant banks and the mess they’re making of the world.

My phone rang over the weekend: a number I didn’t recognise. I answered it … nothing. A few minutes later the same number called again and an automated voice introduced themselves as being from my credit card company and, with a reasonable voice emulator, said my name. Apparently they were seeking verification that I’d been responsible for some recent transactions. I was asked to press 1.

Then I was asked to identify myself by tapping in my birthday. At which point I hung up.

I don’t have a problem with fraud prevention and the bank trying to recognise unusual usage patterns and asking me to verify them. Far from it, I’m more than happy to make sure my balance is no higher than I make it.

Banks – all banks – are on at us to keep our PINs secret, to not fall for phishing scams and to be careful with our discarded paperwork, yet here was my bank being blatantly dumb. My postman knows my name and has a reasonable guess as to a lot about my life. Every shop assistant or waiter who takes a plastic payment from me knows precisely what credit card I hold and a decent guess as to my name, quite possibly my address and other data too.

Yet when they ring me, I was asked to identify myself. They rang me. They can identify themselves first. Otherwise, no dice.

I searched for the area code and then searched for the credit card name and the town – and I got some hits. So it is possible that this was genuine. (Or maybe an enterprising call centre worker.)

Either way, they can ring me back. But unless they can prove their identity, I’m not going to talk to them or tell them anything.

Update: I did ring them back and, eventually, got through to a human who was friendly enough and we verified the transactions but, more importantly, I was removed from their automated call list. Any fraud questions they might have, they’re perfectly at liberty to contact me for verification, but I’ll ring them. I’ll go to their website, find their number and call them.

Banking Hypocrisy

Email disclaimers

I own a number of domains. Recently one of these has started to receive a number of email messages to apparently genuinely real people who definitely don’t have an email address on that domain but who, for some reason, are receiving email. (My favourite theory is a badly configured mail server appending an incorrect domain to outgoing messages.)

Several of the messages I’ve received have had disclaimers appended to the end, you know the form,

This email is only intended for the recipient, if you are not the recipient, please douse your computer in moonshine and howl at the moon.

(Due credit to MetaFilter)

I have taken to responding in a slightly disdainful tone (haughty? moi?) that if the sender can’t be bothered to verify that they’re sending email to real addresses then I can’t be held to their grip on the law.

Google searches suggest I’m on reasonably solid ground:

Even though their effectiveness in court is doubtful, they may provide a useful argument in negotiations to resolve a dispute.

The central conceit here is that while I’m not the target for the email I’m being given something. I’m not picking it up in the street, looking over someone’s shoulder or poking my nose into someone else’s private space. This is my email account and someone is, mistakenly, putting something of theirs into my inbox. I refuse to accept conditions – if they can’t send it to addresses they have validated to be correct, why should I obey their wishes?

I’m interested in why I might have got this wrong. I’m also interested in the real reasons why other people have so little regard for their businesses that they could configure their systems to get it wrong.

Email disclaimers

Universally Challenged

It’s been a funny old week for the old lady of student quizzing.

Probably the most press and PR successes for any winning team; we had a bucket load in our year in comparison to most recent winners, but our page in the Evening Standard and interview in Times 2 can’t compete with the shed-load that Trimble et al. have received since overcoming Manchester in a great final.

But all of that is forgotten because one of the ‘winning’ team forgot to read the rules and has been disqualified.

University Challenge is generally recorded in two blocks. The first (and these days the high scoring losers’ repechage and second) round in June and then the remaining knockout rounds in a long weekend in October and November. These two blocks are in different academic years and thus they required that any competitor in the first block was intending to still be at the institution at the time of the second block and subsequent broadcasts.

And, let’s be absolutely clear on this point because the rules were absolutely clear – and they’ve been that way for the entire run of the show under Jeremy Paxman – if you were in your team you had signed a form expressing your intentions.

When we competed in 95/96 we knew that we had to ensure that we’d still be students until the Final was broadcast (in May ’96 in our case). If the circumstances changed in between the two dates, you had to tell Granada.

The Corpus team claim not have realised they’d broken the rules, but then it would have been their fault for not reading them closely enough. Sam Kay should have thought to at least mention it – it beggars belief that four obviously intelligent people wouldn’t have given it any thought.

It is unfortunate for Manchester to “win” in such circumstances but it’s only a quiz show – as they told us when we discussed topics like unfair draws and dubiously phrased questions, “we’re not running the British University Quiz Championshship; it’s a TV show, it’s entertainment.”

It’s not really headline news, it’s not really important, but if you’ve just been plastered on the news pages of half the press in Britain as being intelligent and Google in human form, it is just a little embarrassing to be proven as being unable to read an application form for a TV show.

Universally Challenged

Not for the kids

If you’re not already aware of the delights of the podcasts of either Collings and Herrin or Phil(l)s Jupitus and Wilding then you’re really missing out (and if you’re not a 30-something Brit then that’s probably also a reason); what better way to acquaint yourself then with their Festive 12 (or for the DVD extra).

Warning: while not being safe for work (unless you’ve got headphones, of course) it’s also not safe for when you’re around people as while many people write LOL for things that are merely whimsical or drily amusing, there are genuine outright chuckle grin worthy moments which will make you look like a loon if you’re on the tube.

Like I was this morning. Thanks.

Not for the kids