Life in the slow lane

For a couple of mechanical reasons I had cause to travel a little slower this morning, nothing too major, I just wanted to be able to stop more steadily (a small bulge in my front tyre and a desire not to clip it with the front brake blocks mainly).

So I was taking things a little more leisurely, cutting a few mph off my cruising speed and letting the speed fall a little earlier approaching junctions and hazards. Life in the slow lane, if you will, and it’s a different place! Normally I bash along passing most people, grappling with the burn from the lights and generally mixing it with the cool fast kids at the front (beating more than I lose to, natch – there aren’t many non-RLJs who’ll stay ahead of me 🙂

The manners back there were awful. Now, I’m not perfect, but when I get to some lights, I won’t queue jump. I might go to the outside, but I won’t go around and then push in, or go up the inside (or go on to the pavement). On the plus side, at least people were stopping, but the manners at the lights just seemed so much worse to me today. I was cut up and undertaken way more than I would consider polite. Maybe some of it was that I will have been taking my normal (fairly aggressive) road position and wasn’t necessarily then punching my weight, but that didn’t excuse all of it.

Well, maybe it’s about seeing the world from a different viewpoint, walking a mile in another man’s shoes (which is always a good idea, because if you realise that he was right, he’s a mile away. And you have his shoes.) I’m sure that the minor infractions that other user groups complain about cyclists is because we can, but that’s a reason, not an excuse. Just because you can do something doesn’t always mean you should.

Approaching Menace

Whether you have form or whether your experience is shouting answers from the sofa at the screen, taking the next step and actually answering the contestant call for Mastermind (wiki), filling in the form, passing the audition (which was done at Bvsh House, which was quite exciting in itself) and then accepting the place are all reasonably straightforward.

Even the realisation that you should be revising again, however many years since your last exam, isn’t too bitter a pill; you should be picking subjects that are fun or little real effort. Fortunately I’d given a relatively small bibliography, but that’s where the worrying started. When I’d filled in the form and was searching for specialist subjects, I’d turned to my bookshelves and plonked down a few things for which I’d both interest and several books already. Bletchley Park was an obvious choice given the couple of feet of shelfspace donated to it and, once I’d got over my surprise that they’d not had anyone do it before, I got down to re-reading the books and noting down question fodder. (I heartily recommend Mental Case for a desktop/iPhone assistant.) That’s when the nerves first raised their head. GC&CS is such a wonderful story with such a number of people interested in it, that my worries were now that if I made a big mistake, or the question setter misunderstood my description of the subject (I’ve just about to managed to forget the disastrous semi-final of the radio version), or if I just froze, there would be lots of people watching the eventual broadcast with a huge sense of disappointment. I had to perform well for the sake of the people who have a vested interest in the subject.

The day dawned. The train struck out from London and the last few pieces of reading and revision were trying to get stuck in.

I walked to the studios, as much to clear my head as to enjoy the quirky post-commercial, architecture of central Manchester. Entering by the same gate as about 15 years ago was a fun little trip down memory lane. In reception we were collected at a similar time to the Countdown contestants (and saw Jeff Stelling, Susie Dent, Sharron Davies and Rachel Riley in make-up, so that was a plus for the day before anything else). We were briefed and the four of us got our first introduction to each other: confirming the order for the first round (I’m to go third), the text that will appear on screen and a first hearing of the other specialist subjects and a review of the rules. Then a little dancing in the conversation: who’d done it before, any previous TV credits. So who had the form?

I’ve always suspected that your draw isn’t complete coincidence, there are generally two strong entrants in each heat, perhaps one a slight favourite, then two others who might not be quite as strong; strong enough to merit their place but whose recall is a maybe a little off the pace, whose specialist choice was a little too broad or who don’t revel in the spotlight. Who’s who? Which are you? (As the old business cliché goes, if you can’t spot the mug around the meeting table, it’s probably you.) Chatting while wardrobe ironed the duds didn’t really help, the nerves were out, but the chat wasn’t giving anything away. My money on my major oppo was on the slightly older chap with the subject closest in our heat to serious culture (I suppose mine probably counted for that as well).

Then we were changed and being miked up, before walking into the studio and being introduced to the audience. Still no sign of John Humphrys, though. Indeed, apart from being behind the desk and in the line up for the opening shot, we had no time with him – very unlike Paxman’s behind the scenes persona. We were the first recording in the day, so maybe it was not surprising that he didn’t come back afterwards, but a little surprising that there was no chit-chat.

Sat in our seats on the set, with a bit of banter from Ted Robbins, the warm up king, and Humphrys arrives. He runs through his intro autoue a couple of times, then boom. The iconic music is playing, Paul’s up first and he’s already answering real questions. I was expecting some warm-ups, some level checking, but no. He’s already well into his two minutes. Maybe this is a good thing, kill the nerves as quickly as possible.

He’s chosen FIFA World Cup Finals since 1970 and, to be honest, it was a little too broad, with questions on goalkeepers, sendings off, teamsheets and strike threats, just asking too much of him. His tally of eight points is decent, but I’m relaxing. Robin, the older chap, is next on the TV plays of Alan Bennett. It’s a decently small canon, some scope for slip ups, but generally a solid 14 points with a few passes and there’s the line drawn in the sand. I was right – he is serious. But now it’s me.

“The next contender, please.” And I’m walking. I see some tape on the floor, taking the curved route and making sure to not fall off the stage, then I’m sitting down, making sure not to slide off the chair. That would be embarrassing. He’s asking my name and I’m coping with that, I even get my specialist subject right. Almost coming a cropper on the alledged open goal first question, but then I’m off to the races. One genuine guess, then the last question – the buzzer goes and I probably should have had him repeat the question as I know as soon as I’ve answered that I’ve gone for the other chess champion … (There’s always a clue in the question and I knew that Stuart Milner-Barry had never been British chess champion.)

Still 15 points and no passes isn’t bad, and after Steve does a grand job of 13 points on U2, I’m leading at halfway. That has to be seat you’d choose; the ability to sit and wait and know what to do. Paul’s GK at least overtakes me, Steve sets a better target, then Robin’s off. He fluffs a couple but, especially with the extra half minute in the second round for this year, he’s climbed to 27 (albeit with a fist full of passes – hindsight says I really should have paid attention to that).

It’s me again, to chase a decent target, but should be gettable. I start well, with the first 4 or 5 out of the gate, but then a few go begging and maybe my aim of guess not pass might not have been the best strategy. I’m getting some wrong and Humphrys has to correct me, burning valuable seconds. I confuse the character and the author with Rankin and Rebus, and then a question about an attraction named for the Greek word for movement and all I can remember is the UC final and hippodrome. Then it’s the last question on the city where Jane Austen lived and based some of her novels. I don’t know, but as a guess, I can’t go away from the city of my youth, I know she lived (and died ad I think is bured) there, but I don’t think it’s right. “Winchester.”

Bath. And while I’ve only passed on the one, I have burned too much time, and I’m one short. 26. Only one more correct amongst a handful which I should have claimed would have done it.

But how good is it? Will it be enough for the semi final? We’ll have to wait for the next round of filming. 6 from 24 heats will get the nod. It would have been enough last year, but with that extra 30 seconds it probably won’t be. I’m in with a shout, but I can’t really say more than that at this point.

(For the next week, it’s still on iPlayer.)
Update: mentions

The anti-smug backlash

The excellent London Cyclist blog asked this morning, what London’s cyclists thought of the tube strike?

The general concensus was that there were more out there and that there were many who really didn’t understand how it worked. As I suggested in a post 3 years ago (almost to the day)

Your normal tube journey has tourists getting in the way and making you grumble. You fairweather, occasional cyclists are the tourist on my tube. Don’t be surprised when I grumble at you!

Much has changed in three years, but apparently not that much. There were definitely more bikes and definitely more people who were clueless as to how to ride in traffic and, as importantly, how to ride considerately in a group.

While I’m not going to tout myself as some elite level cyclist I have ridden for years in pelotons, on club rides and just generally in groups who know what they are doing, some of the n00bs scared me yesterday: both from a blatant sense of danger, but also that it is their behaviour who drivers and other road users will remember. I’m generally happy to wait my turn – I’m faster than most and I’ll let my speed do the talking when the lights go red, but the amount of queue-ignorance and just pure bad manners was simply staggering.

It is not a race track out there but n00bs see people riding fast and assume it is, not to mention the queueing at lights (let’s leave the jumping and skirting down on pavements alone for a moment). You wouldn’t jump the queue when getting your coffee when you get to work so why do it when queuing for the lights?

After almost 20 years and over 40000 miles on London’s roads, it is clearly a better place to cycle now than in the early 90s when I started regularly riding here. I’m afraid, though, that we’re in danger of seeing a backlash if the general level of bike nouse doesn’t increase. We might have safety in numbers, but we’re going see more clampdowns and rules because we obviously can’t control ourselves.

Some predictions

  • Cycling will be banned in many areas where it is currently tolerated, perhaps as a result of being shown as not being able to play nicely with the other kids e.g. on the South Bank.
  • Some of the semi-autonomous districts (BIDs) will be looking to ‘solve’ the problem themselves (as highlighted by the well argued I Bike London). Canary Wharf, as another example, is semi-private and it wouldn’t suprise me if the landlord started actively putting obstacles in the way of cyclists (rather than merely passively making cycling out here problematic and dangerous)
  • There will be some enforced insurance and possibly even a licensing scheme. If you’re a member of the LCC or the BTC, possibly even on your house insurance, you already have third-party insurance. And just like car drivers have to be insured to drive their vehicle (of course many aren’t) and it’s not beyond the realms of credibility to expect that cyclists will have to do the same.
  • Number plates. If you can anonymously break the rules, leaving fuming drivers in your wake, it’s not going to be long before someone mentions some system for being able to identify you.

The weather turned slightly worse this morning and there were fewer people out there, so until the next tube strike, I expect the roads to return to something approaching normal.

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.

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.

What the Olympics really mean?

With the population content to cheer and line the streets, but when it really matters?

And what other sport has to deal with the attitude we get as cyclists on the road? I certainly haven’t noticed any sudden courtesy to cyclists in the wake of us being the most successful British team in the Olympics. I cycle to the velodrome most days and I have one narrow escape for every hour on the road. I just think, ‘Holy shit, I could die on my bike out here.’

To a cyclist, these bloody motorists might as well be running around with a loaded gun. When you have that sort of attitude towards cyclists how are we going to move our sport into the mainstream?

– Victoria Pendleton, Olympic Gold Medallist, quoted in an interview with the Guardian.

Money and Sport

So I was recently asked to complete, using my own skill and judgement, in more-or-less 30 words, the following phrase: "The problem with all this money in football is …"

… that it gives [the] sport an over-inflated view of its own importance with the money-making becoming the end in itself, rather than the means to make the sport better, leveraging the sport’s assets, both physical and emotional, exploiting fans’ natural affinity and goodwill for gain that belongs without the sport, e.g. debt reconstruction and the badge-kissing, club-hopping mercenaries.