Cycle Lane Email: Lord Watson

Dear Lord Watson,
I’d like to thank you for your work in the lords. The work people like you do is incredibly valuable.  I wish there was a mechanism that made it easier for the public to find out when members of the lords have spoken out on their behalf.
I am writing to you because as a member of a special interest group my electronic threat response system alerted me to something you said recently in the Lords. I apologies at the outset for emailing you in order to quibble.
Bicycle lanes now ‘ideologically planned now choke the roads’. You seemed to be suggesting that bike lanes increase the danger we face from terrorism.
I am sure like any rational person you are aware that obesity and ill health is a much greater killer than terrorism. The way terrorism succeeds is in the response it generates, more than by its direct effects.
I am very sorry if bike lanes have made  your journeys slower. I hope it helps to know that they do make a lot of peoples lives much better.
I am not anti-cars. I rented a very nice one this weekend to take my family to see friends in north Yorkshire. I just wanted to let you know that me, my wife and our 2 year old benefit immensely from being able to get about on bikes and do away with a private car. For what it cost me to fill the car twice, I can keep 3 bikes on the road for a year.
The money we save, contributes towards us raising our son in a home we own. It is the equivalent to a foreign family holiday every year and it means I can stay fit while getting to the shops. Hopefully as a fit and active person I will enjoy I long and happy life with my family.
Sitting it traffic for 6 hours on the M1 this weekend, I didn’t see a single bike lane or cyclist or narrow road. But I did see an awful lot of cars. More than I could count, and they seem to be the main impediment.
I don’t worry about my 2 year old being killed by terrorist. That is an extremely remote possibility. I do worry about my son being hit by a car. That is a very real threat that will require years of daly vigilance.
Even though it may not be to your direct benefit, please support the continued expansion of segregated bike lanes. They are delivering freedom. Both freedom of movement and economic freedom to the people who use them.
Bike lanes are a network. The benifits they provide increase exponentially as the network grows. A the moment the broken up nature and lack of segregation means most people are too scared of cars to cycle. We need to work hard to put enough lanes in to give normal people the option to switch to bikes if they want.
As a powerful and important person I know you can have a lot of influence over this. That’s why I have taken the time to set out my case for bike lanes as best I can.
Thank you for taking the time to read my email. It is greatly appreciated.
Best wishes Alex.

Adults: How to Have a Good Social Life

A lot of what plagues us now is that we have to consciously recreate conditions that served us well in the past. The trick I have found for staying thin is to basically simulate a neolithic food environment: 2 days a week I starve myself. This simulates the feasts of a kill and the famine of having to go gathering on other days, a bit like what our ancestors may have had to go through in the past. It is not a natural thing to do, and you have to train yourself before it seems normal. It’s necessary because the only people in our society who stay thin are those that find a reliable way to limit their food intake.

What if another form of abundance is also causing problems for us westerners? Do we have to many friends? In the past before trains, most people never went more than 14 miles from their homes. Now many of us move away from home to go to university. We make friends for life, and our technology means that we are never more than a few keystrokes from our nearest and dearest, regardless of where they live.

Perhaps the trick for staying mentally healthy in this hyperconnected world is to think about social fasting: As with anything in life it is about being realistic, knowing what you want and then prioritizing: Batch, don’t bother trying to juggle life and friends.

Try thinking about your friendships in terms of fondness AND proximity. There are people you really like but they are miles away. There are people you like a little who are close by. Hang with the local people as often as they will allow.

Make a point to let your good friends who live away know when you will be traveling to where they are as soon as you know you will be making the trip. That way, they will change their plans so you can meet up. Consider skipping foreign holidays to go stay with friends for an extended period of time.

A good proxy of happiness is having friends over for dinner several times a month: That can only happen if you cultivate local adult friendships, which is a skill.

I am helping a mate who lives up the road petition the council to get his road’s speed limit reduced. And I never fail to invite him out mountain biking. Basically find out what people near by are interested in and help them get it.

A big mistake I think I made for a long time was over sentimentalising my early friendships. That didn’t allow me or them to grow as people. It priverlaged friends I happened to make at a point in my past over the people I am meeting now.

My wife now even say’s to me: ‘we don’t have anything on this weekend, do you want to set up a mountain bike ride’.  Hayley lets me get out the house. I don’t waste time trying and failing to get my city mates to come out. Nor do I do activities that aren’t popular locally. Mountain biking is big here so when we moved I learned to love doing that. If I lived at the coast I would surf.

University wasn’t fun because everyone we had met up untill that point was there. It was fun because that was a time in our lives when we were up for mixing in. Rather than clinging to the past and limply liking old friends Facebook posts, why not cultivate new relationships?

The trap is:

I can’t do much about how I feel about my old friends. I like them a lot.

The trick is:

I can control how much distance there is between me and my friends in only two ways: I can travel to go see them or make new friends who are close by. If a friend doesn’t live close and you wouldn’t feel comfortable staying at their house for a week, perhaps you can skip time with them to make ‘mates’ near by.

If you do I bet you are 12 months away from the happiest years of your life.

Reaction to: Childhood obesity: a plan for action

Many thin people impose a rule to moderate their intake of unhealthy food. Such as only buying sweets once a week (one of my rules). Perhaps Government could help by restricting the times when confectionary is sold. i.e. confectionary is only available on a Friday.

It could be extended to say: You can have as much as you want, but you can’t impulse order sweet at a restaurant.  You have to declare you want pudding when you book the table. They want to ‘respect consumer choice’ but clearly this isn’t going to be resolve unless we can find acceptable ways to infringe on  consumer choice, because 3 decades of ‘information’ hasn’t worked.

The sugar tax is good. I just wish we had been more creative. A some point we have to realise that the obesity crisis is evidence that humans aren’t perfect decision making machines.

I was a fat person. I am now a thin person and you know what I would happily give up a few minor freedoms if it help a mum struggling to get her kids to eat correctly. If that meant minimum pricing on alcohol and only being able to get ben&Jerry’s on a Friday i’d be ok with that.

From twitter it is clear that some people blame the parents. The trouble  is that there are apparently more bad parents than ever before, or something else is driving up obesity. I would ask: Has any social problem ever been resolved by chanting ‘personal responsibility’ like some kind of magical incantation. It takes a village to rase a child. If there is nothing you are willing to give to help struggling families with fat kids, then that seems like a pretty heartless stance to me.

I credit the government with actually picking the lowest of low hanging fruit and taxing sugar but I think it would be pretty easy to do better: Ask successful dieters what they do that works and see which suggestions will scale.

IT SHOULD BE BANNED: (it might be too much fun)


click to make big

Owen Smith the candidate for Labour leader called for a ban on departing PM’s giving Honour’s to staff. This made me shudder. Instinctively I knew this was a mistake. But crediting Owen Smith with some intelligence I had to ask my self why he would say something so transparently silly and petty.

He said it to win support.

Bans should reduce harm. Bans should be enforceable. I prefer bans that don’t impact me e.g. bans that limit my freedom and enjoyment and I think, the smaller the number of things that are banned the better.

The more things we ban, the more it cost to police. Bans that don’t reduce harm are useless as are bans that can’t be enforced and bans that effect me are inconvenient.

Anarchists would argue that we don’t need laws and that order will emerge naturally. I would argue that the was the case and the structures we have in place now are a result of such a system. We used to live in tribal bands that had extremely high murder rates and now a single murder in a western nation has a reasonable shot of bean national news. Things are ok.

It must be the case that some bans are effective while others aren’t. It must be the case that enough bans work, or society would have grown weary of banning stuff long ago. We would instinctively here the words ‘they should ban this’ and respond with a look of derision and then blow a loud raspberry.

We like fairness, so bans that prohibit extremely unfair things like murder where one party looses their life and the other party gets target practice have to be just. It is probably good to ban extremely asymmetrical situations

I asked Reddit for some examples of bans that worked. Bans that drove the harm or negative activity to zero. All the good examples that people came up with such as Lead paint, hunting endangered animals, Incandescent light bulbs, have commonalities. They effected a tiny number of people. There aren’t many murderers left in the world but there are even fewer light bulb manufacturers in the world and switching cost where relatively low. The Eu didn’t ban light bulbs or artificial light. They just banned one type of light bulb so the impact of the ban was small on the general population.

So: very harmful things done by a small number of people: banned.
Things you don’t like but are done by lots of consenting adults for mutual benefit will be hard to enforce and probably cause more problem or substitute the current problem with the new problem of criminalising lots of people.

The interesting cases are: ‘very bad things done by lots of people’. And ‘quite bad things done buy some people’. Violence and dubious business practices. Violence clearly needs to be banned on principle, even if it is unenforceable. In the absence of anything effective, you may as well use a deterrent and hope for the best.

As for things companies do to us we don’t like. We may have to accept that the state only has a limited ability to protect us. This of course is where my arguments fall down because I am effectively saying: ‘life will hand you lemons, deal with it’. That pitch isn’t a real electoral landslide winner. But as intelligent adult you and I know its true. This explains why politicians are so trigger happy when it comes to banning things.

We don’t expect to vote on the permissions granted to us at work by the IT guy. We understand that the boss lets us see stuff to do with our work and we are kept away from the details of everyone else’s pay. Even if we don’t like it, we accept that the IT Guy has a better understanding of how the system works and that he keeps us away from the stuff that could bring the business to it’s knees.

When it comes to the nation we are all experts on the formation of rules. We also tend to think about it like this: Does this ban effect me? No. OK: Ban it. The problem with that approach is that it infinitely expands the number of thing society is trying to do. It creates and asteroid belt of regulation around the individual and means that rather than standing on the shoulders of our ancestors we are berried under a pile of their corpses, unable to move or do anything. Hello, single digit economic growth rates!

On the bright side this world view, provides an easy way of spotting interesting topics of conversation. Any time you see an organisation, group or note worthy person change the position on the fairness vs popular axis you know there is going to be something you can say-loads and do-nothing about. Banks are making more money, fairness probably reduced. Something has been legalised, either it has become too popular to police, or we’ve learned it wasn’t such a big deal in the first place.

So good rules reduce harm and can be enforced. Good rules don’t just get rid of things I don’t like. The reality is that much like Han Solo we find our self in an asteroid belt of silly rules imposed on us by people who want to grab power and we just have to go for it and hope we don’t get hit:

Princess Leia: You’re not actually going IN to an asteroid field?
Han Solo: They’d be crazy to follow us, wouldn’t they?




Back to the future


The strange thing about learning to code is that you don’t really no what lies ahead. I have been amazed by the things that I have discovered.

It is very nerdy but I am actually writing this blog in a programme that was written in the 1970′s: Vim. Its name comes from VI which is short for visual. The ‘m’is from iMproved. VI is the editor that got created when computers first had screens. Today the idea that an editor that displays just text is somehow ‘visual’ seems strange, but it is from a time when most computers didn’t have screens.

You might also think it is hard to understand anyone wanting to use such an old programme today. It turns out that Vim has never before been so popular. The reason is that it is used by computer programmers to edit their programmes. So why should anyone else care? When it comes to anything on a computer it is well worth aping anything that programmers do.

If you are like me when you have seen someone use Vim you will have thought:’A witch!’ and felt a definite flight and fight response as though you are in the presence of evil for sure. The reason Vim is so good is that it was written by the type of genius that occupied the MIT computer labs in the 1970′s if not the very same geniuses. The people who created the world we live in today knew how to solve problems and with Vim they solved a butt load of them.

At the time there still wasn’t a computer mouse. So you have to be able to edit text with key board commands. That of course is Vim’s big problem. In order to use it you have to invest 30minuets to learn the commands and then you have to keep using it to retain a perishable skill.

So why do programmers choose to edit text documents in Vim? Its fast. Speed also aids flow. If you can get the machine to do your bidding at the speed of thought, you don’t break your flow. If you have to stop typing for a spelling mistake for example, you don’t have to find your spot on the page and then the corresponding spot in your train of thought to start typing again.

I was typing ‘vim’, and the spellchecker was politely letting me know that its a name so ‘Vim’ is correct. I didn’t know the command for find and replace all so I googled it, dragged and dropped it to Vim and hey presto, 10 instances on 5 lines of that word correct without me loosing my spot. Without me diving into a single menu and most importantly of all in a matter of seconds.

Additionally I thought it would add something to give the specific number of words I changed. So again that was only a few keystrokes away.

Vim is very quick and easy to edit text ‘programmatically’ in. i.e getting the machine to do repetitive tasks, but it is also quicker to not use the mouse. You have 9/10 fingers at your disposal. The mouse is a pointy-clicky-stick. The reason Steve jobs got so exsited when he saw a graphical user interface and the mouse was not that the mouse is a great advance in computing. It is that the mouse is the computing equivalent of a white cane. The folders, mouse and an operating system like MSWindows make it possible for someone with ZERO computing knowledge to navigate in this digital world. The reason he saw dollar signs and the people working at xerox park missed it, is that the mouse wasn’t a massively useful tool for them, it was largely redundant. Steve jobs could see that the mouse helps people most that DON’T know the keyboard commands.

Saying I don’t need to learn the keyboard short cuts is a bit like saying:’eyes, no thank you. I’m happy with this white stick’

If the mouse was the best/fastest way to get around a computer, then very likely it would have been the first method used. Steve jobs other pearl of wisdom is that the computer is a ‘bicycle for the mind’. Note not the car not a Ferrari. It is a bike for the mind because you have to put some effort into get the most out of it. Basically, a computer  extends our abilities. It does easy boring things really fast, like count how many times a word occurs in a document. But in order to do that the hard bit ‘thinking’ gets even harder.

The tough bit about using a computer well is not the learning it is the thinking.