Sunday, 26 December 2010

Motorcycle accidents in the media: Part 25

If you cross your fingers and wish very, very hard this may be the last one for the year!

On December 15, the ABC gave us Motorcyclist charged over 260kph chase.

Not an accident report, but worth noting for the sheer stupidity. What is going through the mind of somebody who decides that running, which is a definite charge and likely to get considerably worse, is better than playing by the rules and leaving the option of appeal for a to-be-decided minor charge?

Also: What, exactly, are the Victorian guidelines on police chases? There has been a bit of a debate and revision going on in other states recently and I'm sure public safety advocates would have something to say about this story.

Also December 15, the ABC gave us Motorcyclist killed at Thornlands, which is interesting because the Courier Mail had Motorcyclist killed at Thornlands.

Oooh, spooky! Actually, the weirdest part here is how short the Mail's headline is.

The Mail's report has slightly more detail but worse editing ("his motorcycle and vehicle crashed at Thornlands"), but the ABC has attached a video from the night's news, which is the sort of thing you can do if you're a multimedia broadcaster and publisher.

Jumping ahead to December 22, there's Moped driver who injured child pleads guilty from the ABC.

The lead paragraph is clunky but the rest of the report is fair enough, if baffling. If he was running away from "a group of youths" at the time, it looks suspiciously as though he was riding his moped through the park when they took offence to him (and, well, that may have been perfectly understandable), so he was probably eligible for at least one more charge into the bargain.

Some more background would have really fleshed out this story.

The Courier Mail also has the report, in Moped rider Michael Andrew Bolitho blasted for hitting boy, 6, on Gold Coast and speeding off.

A definitive Courier Mail headline: Too long, too informative for a headline and contains a carefully selected, emotive, value-laden phrase.

This report has the background, including the claims he was panic-stricken and couldn't get to the road because his tormentors were in the way.

The article, in fact, does the neat trick of painting the accused as both cowardly, callous and quite possibly deviant and, at the same time, a victim of "youths". Talk about spoiled for righteously indignant choice.

And that is the complaint I have about the CM article. It almost buries the fate of the boy, and the legal process, under social judgements. On the other hand, the ABC article goes to the other length and suffers only from being too concise.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Smartphone, n.: A device with not quite the lot

Picture this: you're shopping for a new luxury car, and the salesman is explaining that the seat can be adjusted in seven different ways via the one control and it can save settings for seven different people, and the steering wheel can control the radio, gears, cruise control and climate control, and it can steer itself between the lines and control distance to the car in front via radar, and...

Then you notice that it doesn't have an interior rear-view mirror and the wing mirrors are adjusted manually. The salesman looks baffled and says "It's got mirrors, doesn't it?"

That's how I feel we're being treated by smartphone manufacturers.

Item: HTC still hasn't worked out how to build a decent loudspeaker or camera.

Item: Nexus S, built by Samsung to be Google's next developer phone, doesn't have a memory card slot.

Item: my current shiny, with which I am still mostly very happy, the Nokia N900, doesn't have a now-and-even-when-it-was-new standard magnetometer to go with its not having MMS inbuilt and the version of Ovi Maps installed not having any facility for storing bookmarks.

Seriously, what are the thought processes going on in their heads?

With the iPhone, you knew you weren't going to get a feature until Apple was good and ready to give it to you, and that's a perfectly fair and reasonable decision.

With Windows Phone 7, they appear to have deliberately decided to cripple it by denying it memory cards or cut and paste and, well, at least they're being consistent.

But nobody else has that explanation. Even when you get the hardware it may not be activated - the N900 has FM transmitters and receivers, but there was no radio software in early firmwares to use the receiver.

Then there's Samsung, who produced one of the best mobile phone cameras in the i8910 but haven't put anything remotely as worthy in any Android phone.

Then you have screens. Motorola came out with the XT720, which had all the potential to be a great tablet phone, with good speaker and even good camera. And a screen so mirror-finish you can't use it outdoors in sunlight.

Even Nokia have been guilty of this, perversely removing the sunlight-friendly transflective layer from the N97 mini.

There appears to be a "95 per cent" attitude in the technology world at the moment. Apple gives you 95 per cent of the features you want, but does them really well. Everyone else tries to give you all the features, but only gets it 95 per cent correct.

Only one company seems to have the commitment and meticulous dedication to engineering perfection that even justifies a label like "flagship" and they're such control freaks I couldn't justify giving them money even if I could justify their prices.

And yes, I'm aware of the irony.

It's been a truism for a while now that Nokia doesn't release new phones when they're finished - you need to wait for a couple of firmware releases for that.

At the same time, the hardware set of top Android phones is the reason I've bought two more Nokias in a row. Samsung and Motorola are getting very close to convincing me, but Motorola have done stupid, unfriendly things with locked bootloaders - preventing custom firmwares while not committing to prompt and guaranteed updates themselves - and Samsung goes and does something like the Nexus S with no card slot and an average camera.

What I want is an N900, next generation, all updated and upgraded hardware, maybe the N8 camera (we can dream), still the keyboard, and Maemo 6, not MeeGo. And now that's doomed forever. Do I think the first MeeGo device will be worthy, and complete?

Don't make me laugh bitterly.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Motorcycle accidents in the media: Part 24

A sense of inevitable horror lead me to search and, guess what?

There has been at least one 24-cylinder motorbike made.

It has 24 chainsaw engines, was built by their manufacturer as an advertising stunt, basically, and apparently they all have to be pull started.

I almost wish I didn't know that.

At the other end of the scale, we have two stories concerning the same scooter.

From ABC: Scooter road rage driver loses appeal (December 8).

First of all, that headline is ambiguous about whether the scooter was the perpetrator or the victim. Yes, it says "driver", but stranger things have been done in the non-specialist media.

The summary is: A "pensioner" (at 50, that surely means either a disability pension or self-funded retiree because he's not yet eligible for the aged pension) chased a former work colleague in his car, shouted death threats and then ran over his scooter three or four times.

For this, he was sentenced to 18 months in jail and that, to a rider, is actually gratifying to see.

The driver argued his sentence was excessive but his appeal was unanimously rejected, and that forces me to ask: If you chase someone while shouting death threats, force them to take evasive action in fear of their life, and then destroy property, what exactly is an "appropriate" sentence?

The article is quite clean and, apart from the headline, unproblematic, but I can guarantee you there will have been riders reading it thinking "Yep, they really are out to get us."

The Courier Mail had a different and more informative take, published on the same day, with Road rage driver ran over man's scooter four times, then exchanges punches.

In this case, "Road rage driver" is clearer, but the entire headline is still too long and the comma is completely misplaced.

As the article points out, the case deals with using a vehicle as a weapon. All vehicles are always potential weapons. More people need to remember that.

There are a lot more details in this story and it is better for them. However, it is not so cleanly written and almost falls into the old "He said... then... then..." tedious-to-read list problem that commonly afflicts court reports where a record of events needs to be reported clear of any editorialising or risk of being held in contempt of court.

There are also some areas where punctuation actually would have been a good idea.

And while we're talking about appropriateness of sentencing, the comments on this article are entertaining as well: "Should have been longer," "Suck it up and deal with it," and the nicely worded "reckless endangerment and childish behaviour have no place in society."

Alas, most articles deal with deaths.

The CM has Motorcyclist killed in Bundaberg (December 9), a startlingly efficient headlines.

He was negotiating a bend on Quay  St (which appears to be straight with a slight curve) when he struck a guard rail and fell down an embankment.

Once again, we have the old nonsense of "his bike lost control and crashed."

I'm also not sure if Bundaberg, which is coastal, is really "central Queensland".

If I'm nitpicking, the third sentence needs the first "and" replaced by a comma.

From the ABC, a two-paragraph story: Man dies in quad bike accident (December 12).

Does that suggest to you that there were four bikes involved in one accident? I'm no expert, but the basic rule of thumb is to hyphenate compound adjectives and "quad bike" is, in this case, the adjective to the noun "accident", meaning "quad-bike accident" would make fractionally more sense.

As rules of thumb go, however, there are always debates ongoing.

I'll avoid arguing whether a quad is a bike.

I will point out that "was thrown from" is perilously close to ascribing intent to the quad, and that "thrown from it and pinned down by the vehicle" is a clumsy sentence construction.

Because that was short, one more:

On December 13 (not a Friday, sadly), after an RSS headline of "Two road deaths in southeast," which is perfectly fine, the Courier Mail give us Crash kills motorcyclist on Pacific Motorway at Pimpama; driver at Helensvale dies after his car leaves suburban road.

A truck, a minibus and a motorbike collided. It's like the start to a bad joke. No indication of how three vehicles came to come together, but it should surprise nobody that the rider died.

The editing in this article is not quite as I would do it, and there's an extra blank line towards the end, something the Mail does fairly regularly. I thought I would have a quick peak at the page source and noticed that HTML for a sidebar had been inserted in the middle of the article text.

I suggest there needs to be some debugging of the website management software.

For the sheer scale of the accident, this article begs out for a follow up.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Queensland solar power: covered in coal soot

I stared at this story for a while, wondering what my response would be.

Then the Government published a media release as well, and I decided to go with: Pathetic, foot-dragging pack of short-sighted hypocrites.

The story is:

Under the definite headline Queensland to host one of the world's largest solar power stations, says Stephen Robertson, the Courier Mail reported conditionally on December 15 that:

Queensland could become home to one of the world's largest solar power stations, Energy Minister Stephen Robertson says.

This tendency to make unjustified, definitive claims in headlines (ie, "lying") is one of my biggest complaints against editorial practices in poor-quality journalism. Bald statements tend to get remembered, and headlines tend to get remembered, so the end result is the perpetuation of inaccurate perceptions. This, particularly in science journalism where a nuanced discussion of uncertainty is paramount, is unnecessary, destructive to an informed public and unforgivable.

But I digress.

The fact is that for a state blessed with wide open spaces and lots of sunlight (anyone not associate Queensland with sunlight? No? Didn't think so), Queensland has been as backwards as the state's reputation, and needs to stop being proud of plans that will barely even catch us up to where we should be.

This is a state addicted to burning things. Electricity generation is built on a platform of coal, and more coal. Even "renewables" production depends heavily on burning things. According to a 2009 report to the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE), in 2007 bagasse (sugar cane mulch after the sugar is extracted)  provided a third of all electricity produced in Queensland from renewable means. Surprisingly, hydroelectricity was most of the rest. Biogass and wood pulp contributed and there was a frankly surprising contribution from wind. Solar, including solar hot water heating, barely even registered.

To be clear: Even if you don't accept global warming, a heavy reliance on a finite resource has never been intelligent. Any manager with half a brain plans for things like expansion and increase, and any geologist, geometrician or anybody capable of acknowledging the spherical nature of the earth can tell you that no fossil fuel is available in unlimited supply.

If you do accept global warming, something it's becoming harder and harder for even the obstinately ignorant to avoid, burning agricultural by-products is questionable and burning fossil fuels is asking for trouble we've already started getting.

Nor is it acceptable to hide beyond excuses that "the technology wasn't ready".

Let's recap, shall we: Solar concentration through lenses was achieved BC and the first solar hot water heater was build pre-1900.

The photovoltaic effect was recognised in 1839, exploited in 1883 and explained by Albert Einstein in 1905, for which he won the Nobel Prize.

The United Nations held a conference on solar power in 1961 and spacecraft were solar-powered in 1967 (only the electrics, obviously).

The first solar car race in Australia was run while I was in primary school, and Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the White House in 1977 - they were later taken down by Ronald Reagan, who believed that the job of a leader and government is to prevent, at all costs, doing any actual leading or governing.

I believe that governments are elected, and paid out of our tax money, to lead, govern and look to the future. I'm also disappointed in their response to water management, but that's another rant entirely.

At this moment, in Australia, we have companies developing quite exciting concentrating dish photovoltaics,  concentrating dish solar thermal and dye-sensitised photovoltaic solutions in addition to the more conventional solar photovoltaic panels. And that's just what I uncovered in five minutes googling.

Whyalla in South Australia (40MW) and Mildura in Victoria (154MW) are both planning, or even constructing, large-scale plants. Yet the best the Queensland Government can do is a lot of plans, high-sounding words, ambitious statements and a couple of measly little power stations rating in the hundreds of kilowatts. Wizard Power is building a 40 megawatt, 4,000 kilowatt, station in Whyalla, a city a lot further south than the Queensland border. That plant is expected to produce 66 gigawatt hours of electricity each year.

According to that ministerial statement, Queensland's "first solar farm" will produce 335 megawatt hours of energy per year.

The state-government-owned CS Energy is building a solar thermal add-on to a polluting power plant, and it's planned for a capacity of 44MW and all it has to do is pre-heat water entering a coal-fired plant rated at 750MW.

For a state that prides itself on self-sufficiency and is selling itself as "the smart state" and "ClimateSmart" and the "Solar State", there is an awful lot of catching up to do and a deplorable lack of ambition. And that's even before we factor in the fact we export more coal than we burn.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Motorcycle accidents in the media: Part 23

I love it when media organisations follow minor stories. It goes without saying that big events will be given their endless, excruciatingly detailed days in the sun, but it's nice when small stories get updates.

How many times have you thought "Hey, I wonder what happened to...?"

Well, then.

More entertaining, however, is when the same story gets progress notes from different media organisations.

December 1 was a little rich for stories of bike accidents and general shenanigans. I'm not sure why - it was a Wednesday, so there was no weekend backlog to clear.

First up, and first series, Oxley traffic branch cop killed, from the QT.

The headline doesn't reveal that he was a fair way from Oxley when he died, or that he wasn't in fact shot in a drive-way revenge attack by mafiosi. He was way up north between Gladstone and Rockhampton when he hit a truck.

Once again, we have "his service motorcycle collided" as though no human had anything to say in the matter.

There's sad quotes from the Commissioner, but little actual details on the accident. He was riding escort, and there was a collision with a truck. I would love to hear the outcome of that investigation.

Also: Would a commissioner ever come out and say that an officer was anything but a "valued member of the Service"?

I suspect there was a web glitch and the last paragraph was supposed to be split into two.

Same day, the ABC has considerably more in Motorcycle cop killed on duty.

There are more quotes here, and some information about the accident. Bizarrely, there appears to be a paragraph or two missing.

We are first told "his motorcycle collided with a truck" but no more.

Then, at the end of the article, there is mention of a review of training of officers escorting wide loads - probably fair enough - and then "it does not appear the truck's speed was a factor in today's crash." This may be just another knee-jerk because-it's-expected reference to speed, but: "The truck driver was taken to hospital with minor injuries."

Um, what? The only way a truck driver could get injured in a collision with a motorbike, while they're driving the truck, is if they have a heart attack out of shock, bump their head from surprise or the bike flips up and comes through the windscreen, and that would be newsworthy.

Perhaps the answer comes from the Courier Mail, who had their say on December 7 with (deep breath, now) Wildlife corridor to be named after fallen policeman Dan Stiller, killed by jack-knife truck on highway.

Oh, right, that's why they collided! (You did get to the end of that headline, didn't you?)

Apart from that critical piece of information, the article is basically a long eulogy, with lots of regrets being voiced and a wider-perspective version of the same official photo used by the ABC.

Notice, however, that this article shows the value of subheadings. The ABC is not afraid of breaking up an article at logical places, and it helps the reader. The Courier Mail hasn't, but there is an extra blank line inserted towards the end which looks like a missing headline. I even highlighted the text in case my web browser was doing something funny and it was there, just invisible to me. No, it's just a redundant blank line.

The second story arc, also beginning December 1, is just two stories long and both from the ABC, beginning with Dirt bike rider in serious condition after crash.

Apart from the usual language issues ("fell off") it's a good story, perhaps less crisp than most ABC pieces are and has a good set of quotes from the organiser.

The follow up, from December 6, is unfortunately Injured dirt bike rider dies in hospital.

This story is shorter and has no byline, and is blunt and to the point. The lead par is perhaps a little clunky, but there's not really anything missing and not really anything wrong.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Of motorbikes and weighty matters

I have noticed certain trends in motorcycle design.

One is that three quarters of all bikes from mid to massive have a fuel consumption of 5.something L/100km. The bigger ones are up over 5.6, but even 660 singles are at 5.07 or thereabouts. Bikes like BMW's F800 or (don't laugh, it's true) Ducati's 1000DS and 1100DS air-cooled twins, with consumption figures around or even below 4, are exceptions.

Another trend is that sports tourers have settled into having weights of above 260 kg wet. 'Wet' in this case means all operating fluids and a full tank.

On the other hand, my K100RS came from BMW with a claimed fully-fueled road-ready weight of 249kg, and the its bigger-fairinged and touring-focused RT brother came in at a positively gossamer 253kg. I take those numbers from my increasingly-fragile copy of the owner's handbook - interestingly, disagrees on the RT's weight. By contrast, Kawasaki's attempt at a cheap RT, the original and still loved 1000GTR, came in at 307kg (

But let's see where we're at with modern bikes (all weights from, and links to, company's websites, we may as well grant them conditional trust and let them trade creative accountancy).

BMW's closest current equivalent to the RS is the K1300S, which claims to be a sports bike but, like all Beemers (with the exception of the S1000RR superbike), makes an admirable tourer (at launch, the K1200 came in an 'S Sport' version with a sexy and RS-esque half-fairing, but sadly no longer), which claims a respectable 254kg wet. A bigger engine, more plastic  and fancier suspension for only 5kg above the original sounds pretty good. The all-the-toys-but-not-a-leadwing K1300GT claims 288kg. The twin-cylinder beloved-by-police R1200RT claims a frankly surprisingly svelte 259kg (or 400kg with police gear in the panniers, I suspect). NB: BMW have built their Australian website so direct links are difficult, so sod them: They don't get any.

On the other hand, Honda's brand new and highly hyped (and ugly - my opinion) VFR1200F has a "kerb weight" claim of 267kg and the established, more GT-esque ST1300 sits at 289kg (frankly, I'll have the Beemer). Triumph's new Sprint GT, a closer comparison to these shaft-drive sports tourers than the slightly smaller Sprint ST despite its chain, claims 268kg.

Suzuki haven't quite got the hang of tourers, but the Bandit-with-a-full-fairing GSX1200FA, which isn't really sophisticated enough to play in this company, still claims a "kerb mass" of 257kg.

Yamaha's famously potent FJR1300 claims 291kg "with 25.0 litres of fuel", which happens to be the tank capacity, putting it in GT company. Kawasaki's current, king-of-the-engine-hill-and-we're-going-after-BMW-levels-of-technology-too GTR, the 1400GTR (interestingly, they don't have a "touring" section on their website and put it in Sport) claims a whopping and all too believable 304kg with a full tank and no panniers.

Most of the Italians no longer do this sort of sports-tourer, preferring to pursue the adventure-tourer style (Ducati Multistrada, Benelli TreK) but the Moto Guzzi Norge GT (PDF link, for the stats) lists a dry weight of 257kg, which puts it up near 290kg wet.

Even Honda's baby tourer NT700V Deauville (Doughville, Dulls-ville ...) with its built-in panniers comes in at a decidedly non-middleweight 257kg.

The cynic may point at all these similar-ballpark figures and suggest they're keeping more of an eye on other people than on possibilities, and an engineer may say there are only so many techniques you can use when you want to build a bike with that capacity and that level of ride comfort and weather protection without going totally overboard on costs.

But: Why? When the first K100RT came in under anything comparable today, and the RS ditto, where has it all come from? One answer is bigger engines, one answer is more plastic in the fairings, and the becoming-standard ABS hardware weighs a little, as well. On the other hand: 20 years of development.

Now, the original flying brick Ks had an aluminium engine that did most of the structural work, and an aluminium tank. Were BMW cleverer then than they are now? Did they decide the effort put into an aluminium engine block wasn't financially viable, worth it or the best engineering solution as power outputs climbed?

Or is there a "good enough" guide that even the famously individualistic engineers at BMW follow?

Which would be a great pity. My partner wants to stay with shaft drive motorbikes because she's sick of oiling, checking and adjusting chains, but wants something lighter than the RS without sacrificing power. Clearly, that's going to be difficult if not impossible and the best option seems to be a BMW F800ST, which has a low-maintenance belt drive and the same claimed power output as the K but 40kg less mass. And much more sex appeal.

And unlike cars, which have bloated with airbags, crumple zones, side-impact anti-intrusion beams, heavier laminated windscreens and a general increase in size of car and wheels, bikes haven't really added that much except cubic inches and ABS. So, clearly, experience and improved technology have not translated into net weight savings.

What I want is a shaft-drive, 1Litre semi-faired sports tourer for about 200kg. Clearly, I'm not going to get it. My best bet will probably be either an it-can't-be-can-it? 229kg R1200GS or sticking a windscreen on a 223kg naked R1200R, and no naked bike has ever looked good with a windscreen bolted on.

Motorcycle accidents in the media: Part 22

I really thought I had cleared my November backlog, but it appears not: Somehow, the chronological order of items in my Reader starred list had become messed up.

Le Sigh.

Okay, here goes:

Motorcyclist dies after collision with 'speeding' ute (ABC News Online, November 16).

There are many reasons in journalism to use quotes, including in headlines, but I'm not sure what the reason here was.

The ute was being followed by police, who hadn't got to the point of putting on lights and therefore making it a 'pursuit', and had a reported speed (which is probably accurate, from the police and all) of 140km/h. Which is 'speeding' anywhere but a couple of roads in the NT.

Quotes all too often make headlines look messy.

My other problem with this headline is that, as reported by the police and as demonstrated by the photo accompanying the article, the ute struck the bike. So why phrase the headline so a logical reading suggests the rider struck the ute? Yes, the ute is identified as being in the wrong in one sense, but 'bike -  collides - ute' implicitly puts blame for the collision upon the rider. 'Collides with' is a much cleaner construct than 'being struck by', and it can be argued that 'ute - strikes and kills - biker' is too close to an attribution of blame prior to a judicial judgement, but this headline feels like an unsatisfactory compromise.

It's a well written article, though, and provides much scope for discussion on whether the "technically it was not a police pursuit" is sarcasm from the writer - particularly given the last paragraph, where we are told the police investigation will be overseen by the ethical standards department.

What interests me here is that there is no quote from the police concerning the state of the driver. 140 is not actually all that fast, even at dark, with full-beam headlights on. I don't know what the state of lighting on that section of road was, but either the driver really wasn't (in a state to be) paying attention until the last minute, or the rider wasn't and merged at a fatally stupid wrong moment.

The lesson for all road users is: pay attention!

(As a side-note: I noticed when doing a final read-through that I had Freudianly written "full-beam headlines on".)

Now, from November 19, the Courier Mail went past over-long headline territory and into just plain actually wrong (language-wise, not fact-wise): Woman motorcycle rider killed crash at Withcott, east of Toowoomba.

Also: Why "Woman motorcyclist" in the headline, but "A female motorcyclist" in the opening par?

Interestingly, the RSS headline was "Warrego delays after fatal crash" which is slightly ambiguous (Who is Warrego, and what are they delaying?) but much cleaner.

Withcott is right at the bottom of the ranges, and marks a sort of gateway to Toowoomba. Murphy's Creek Rd is east of Withcott, and fairly major. The Warrego Highway is littered with uncontrolled intersections like that and there have already been speed limit reductions and serious signage put elsewhere at major blackspots. There needs to be a lot more flyovers. Oh, and better drivers.

10am means the sun shouldn't have been too low and in the eyes, a 50yo driver shouldn't have been so young they're getting eyesight or judgement problems, and there's no information given about who was doing what. As a motorcyclist, it's far too easy to put all blame on a driver who wasn't paying attention.

Apart from that, an okay article.

The ABC also covered it, same day - Motorcyclist killed on Warrego Highway.

Less information, nothing to complain about. Except the usual "her motorbike collided with" humanising of machines.

So, that's November out of the way. Again.

Leaping straight into December 1 with Crash survivor faces jail from the QT.

Apart from a confusing opening par, this one confuses me in general.

There's no mention of how the speed of "about 100kmh" (shouldn't that be km/h?) was judged, and I'm always confused when I see that someone who was unlicensed has had their licence suspended.

I would also dearly love to know how magistrates react when they hear someone has "struggled for many years with alcohol issues but was now getting counselling." My instinct would be to give them a harder penalty for not having sought help sooner for something that encourages illegal behaviours.

There is a whole other, highly entertaining, argument around whether psychiatric disorders, mental health conditions or substance use/addictive behaviour problems are "explanations", "mitigating factors" or "excuses", in decreasing order of personal responsibility. From my experience after nearly a decade working with people with various behaviour-modifying conditions, the professional viewpoint is: "You know you have {condition}, you know what it does, you have a responsibility to get help. If you can't control yourself in this service, get out."

Getting back to the article - there's some clunky sentence structures, but it reads less like a list of facts than most court reports do, and I only have one other quibble: Was it really necessary to write "Shaking her head, Magistrate Donna  MacCallum sentenced ... "?

At this point, I'd like to point out that there was a rash of reporting: Reader still has six items with a date stamp of December 1. Now, some of those may have been starred on December 1 but have been published earlier, still in November.

There are some double-ups and some running stories and I'd like to keep those together, so I'll do one more in this entry and it's from December 5, from the ABC: Motorbike rider dies on sand dunes.

It's a simple and straightforward report, and the only quibble I have is punctuation: In the second paragraph there should probably either be a second comma after Perth to close a subordinate clause, or no comma at all and run the sentence on. I would go with an Oxford double comma bracketing the clause, myself, but ABC style is to minimise commas where possible.

Today's lesson is: There are some really dangerous road users out there.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

No, that memory card slot is not optional

The more we demand our smartphones do, the more on-board storage they need.

As cameras get bigger and better quality, image files increase. Music playback is now standard, so we need somewhere to put the music files. Many devices still remember when "smartphone" meant being able to edit documents, and we still need somewhere to put them. Podcasts. Ebook readers. High quality video playback. Extra applications (more of a problem on platforms that don't have any to begin with). The list goes on.

And then there's the simple fact of operating systems getting bigger and bigger, and needing somewhere to put all the system files.

Once upon a time, "extra space" meant having a memory card slot. Then someone had the bright idea of soldering a memory card to the motherboard, and hey presto, on-board storage.

Most devices have both for added flexibility, although some of them make it a painful business getting at the removable card - under the battery cover or, in some particularly stupid cases, under the battery. Some only have the on-board storage.

And then there's Windows Phone 7 which, apparently, won't have a card in any device.

I don't care about Windows - there are many other and much better reasons why I won't have anything to do with it - but it doesn't make me very happy when other people decide to save themselves a buck by cutting that off the feature list.

Here are the reasons I will never, if I can at all help it, own a device without:

Easy portability

Let's face it, nobody's encouraging you to buy a phone and keep it for two years, even though that's how long plans generally last. Some devices aren't even supported properly past one year. So being able to take all of the files you want with you from one device to the next easily is nice, even if you're not a reviewer who has to do it several times a week (I'm not, sadly, I just manage to sound like it). Some people, of course, may be tempted to point out that nowadays we can do that easily with desktop software and syncing, which brings me to my next point:

Software agnosticism

Having removable storage means I'm not tied to someone else's - frequently quite bad - idea of how I should manage my own files. I use Linux on my desktop computer, so I can't run most desktop "companion" software anyway, making it specially important for me to not have to care. Microsoft have announced that Windows Phone 7 will only talk to their Zune desktop software, which is one of the very good reasons they can take their software and shove it. Apple devices only want to talk to iTunes, although there are workarounds. That sort of arse-hattery is one reason I still haven't considered buying an iPhone or iPod, even if I wanted to pay their exorbitantly inflated prices. I was bitten by buying a digital audio recorder that relied upon companion software which, surprise surprise, doesn't run on Linux. And even if you are happy using Ovi suite, or iTunes, or Zune, what if you buy a different platform? Ovi Suite will only talk to Symbian, I'm not sure about iTunes but I'm pretty sure Zune won't be happy talking to iOS or Android or Symbian or Bada or... Nokia have gone down a fairly sane route - their on-board memory is generally accessible via USB Mass Storage, the same way USB memory sticks and cards plugged into card readers are - but even then you are relying upon the phone working.

What if the device breaks? 

I managed to kill my N97 mini by leaving it on the roof of a car. My anguished scream is still echoing around the multiverse. Considering the interesting shape the phone was in after it was run over, I was amazed to find the SIM card and memory card unharmed. I could simply plug them back into my ancient N95, resync my calendar and contacts with Google, and away we go - images and ebooks and podcast downloads all intact. My alternative would have been to go to a repair centre, wait an indeterminate length of time and pay someone for the privilege. No thanks.

Upgradeable storage

With 32GB of on-board storage appearing routinely now, this is almost a non-issue. But, what the hell, why not say it: If the on-board disk dies or fills up, having a replaceable, upgradeable extra is not to be sneezed at.

Software installation

You may not have noticed, but some software demands memory cards, or comes on memory cards. Some GPS software companies will send you a card containing available maps. If you install a mapping program that can store maps locally (and if you don't, you're relying far too much upon network coverage), they will often warn against storing maps on a built-in drive.

As a final, bonus point: I don't trust the bastards.

You can make up your own minds, but I know which way my wallet will be voting.

Motorbike accidents in the media - part 21

Feast your eyes on this one: From November 24 from the Queensland Times, Man caught doing 300 metre wheelie.

That's: Caught on a public road, doing two wheelies, on an unregistered trail bike. It would only have been better if the cop in the unmarked car had been in a marked car.

Seriously, how selfish/stupid (delete by personal preference) do you have to be?

He said he felt he was in control and yes, pulling a stunt like that does demonstrate a considerable level of control, but it also demonstrates a considerable lack of judgement and considerable self-centredness.

I rather like the magistrate's remark: “You’ll be geting a letter from Transport near Christmas – it won’t be a Christmas card.” That spelling mistake was from the original copy, by the way.

Apart from that, a well-written and well-edited article. Also, entertaining for all the wrong reasons.

Same paper, November 27, actual accident: Teen dies after motorbike crash.

Only two things spoil this article, which is concise, clear and fairly complete: "The the" at the beginning of the second paragraph and "he from died from internal injuries" at the end of the third.

The Courier Mail had the story the day before, and ruined it with another classic CM headline: Young man, 18, in a critical condition after his motorbike strikes tree in Blackstone, Ipswich.

In Blackstone? At Blackstone?

Just as I'm beginning to think this was a well-structured, cleanly-written and good article before that headline was put on it, we have "his machine struck a tree". Give me strength.

And then, the QT did a full write up on November 29: Trail bike rider dies

This article says "bushland near Blackstone". The CM article named a street. I'm guessing the CM, as first cab off the rank, was given incorrect, preliminary information.

We have extensive quotes from a police officer, and for once they don't come across as patronising or just plain bloody stupid - they are, in fact, fair, reasonable, sensible and intelligent. Makes a nice change.

But then, having mentioned safety equipment in quotes - it is not known whether safety equipment played a factor in the crash at the weekend.

I'm inclined to think that when reporting a specific accident you should make your quotes relevant to that accident. Don't confuse the readers and risk giving them a false impression.

Other than that, it's a good article.

From the Courier Mail, November 27: Man dies as motorcycle hits power pole at Bowen.

The RSS headline for this was (at least initially) "Motorcyclist dies in crash", which is about as news-worthy and informative as "Advocates criticise spending".

So... the rider died? An onlooker died? Somebody completely unrelated to the event died?

"Smashed into" a pole, which is unnecessary use of language, then "passerby stumbled upon the scene", which always sounds as though he tripped over it before noticing it was there.

A lovely use of quotes for "failed to negotiate", and then another unnecessary verb - slammed - rounds out an overwritten article.

Okay, one more and that's November out of the way:

Courier Mail, November 29: Motorcyclist loses control, killed on Gympie Road Arterial.

At least they didn't say "Motorcycle loses control, kills rider". On the other hand: The correct form seems to be Gympie Arterial Road (incidentally, a quick googling lead me to Snarl, which seems very handy for Brisbanites).

Other than that, there's not really enough here to analyse, although the fourth paragraph, listing the two most recent accidents (both mentioned above) was too long and messed up its punctuation as a result.

Today's theme was: Quirks and failures of final editing (and yes, I'm sure I've made mistakes here. On the other hand - I don't have a second pair of eyes paid to correct them).

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

You can take your guilt trip and shove it

Our electricity bill landed the other day.

There's nothing particularly special about that fact - it happens with depressing regularity, four times a year.

What is interesting, however, is this little snippet:

"You generated 1.9176 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions during this period. To reduce your environmental impact, switch to Government accredited GreenPower, and offset the the carbon emissions generated by your travel."

Let's play a little game: How many mistakes can you spot in those two sentences?

There should probably be a hyphen in "Government accredited" because it's playing the role of a compound adjective, it's not clear whether GreenPower relates to travel or to household usage and oh yes: I generated 1.9176 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

I'm sorry, who did?

Over the period covered by that bill, I emitted various greenhouse gases by normal biological processes. My transport patterns, dictated first by the fact I don't live within cooee of public transport, has released many more greenhouse gases but since I use a motorbike mostly, not a car, that puts me slightly ahead of most people but behind those who are able to afford an electric vehicle. I also chose to use household electricity in various ways which, ultimately, determined the size of this bill.

I did not, however, contact the electricity provider and insist upon all of that electricity being generated by fossil fuels.

If I were still living in Tasmania most of it would have come from hydroelectricity, which only generates greenhouse gases through maintenance work. If I was in Denmark, 20% would come from wind power. If I lived in various parts of various countries around the world, I would be getting a lot of it, without making any decision, from various forms of solar, wind, geothermal, wave or hydro.

Because I moved to Queensland, I am getting it almost exclusively from coal.

The electricity providers in Queensland are blessed with high levels of sunlight and large amounts of unused land and even though our water supply is questionable, there are actually generators built into the dams which supply our water.

Yet we get our electricity from a finite, non-reusable resource which is dirty before it's burned and dirty after it's burnt.

I do have an option of ticking a box and getting charged more for electricity generated partially by renewable resources. Because my partner and I are both in casual employment and have debts to pay off, this is not a sane option for us.

On the other hand, the government is complicit by providing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry (PDF).

Subsidies. So stop saying "But coal is cheaper!" or "solar is too expensive!" Let's move all of those subsidies from fossil to renewable resources and see what happens. Of course, that might mean we charge China slightly more for the coal we export, but since there's so much of it I'm almost sure it wouldn't take much to make up the costs.

The reason "I" generated greenhouse gases is because this state is inherently conservative and technologically anachronistic.

I'll make you a deal: I'll keep an eye on my own usage, making savings where I can, and you do your job and plan for the future, whether it involves a carbon tax or trading scheme or not, and stop trying to make me feel guilty by blaming me for your lack of foresight, planning and courage.

The only thing you're doing now is hastening me moving to an alternate provider.

Motorbike accidents in the media - part 20

Here we go again and I'm now a month behind thanks to a massive surge in reporting and the complete inability of my free time to return to normal levels.

Excuses, excuses.

Five pieces here. Because.

There are two longer pieces I want to take a brief look at first. Not too surprisingly, they're both court reports. Court appearances are scheduled, predictable and full of quotable quotes as well as juicy details.

They're both from the Courier Mail:

From November 5: Man accused on hit-run death of pedestrian at Coorparoo granted bail

Yes, you could guess there was going to be an over-long headline, couldn't you?

The article is mildly detailed on events and fairly free with its commas. It does not, to put it plainly, paint a sympathetic view of the accused. String of offences - extensive history - false licence plates. That's even before getting to the actual charges relating to this event.

Plus, I would be very interested to hear what the opinion of the court is when a "letter from a drug rehabilitation counsellor at Cleveland who has been helping" is handed up as supporting evidence.

A problem I see in many longer articles, and particularly court reports, is the endless stream of "he said, she said" comments and this particular example is not immune. That may be due to deadline pressures, it may be due to legal concerns. It's tedious, whichever it is.

This article is also lacking any details on how the alleged accident occurred or what is alleged to have happened. It was a hit-and-run, and that's all the detail we're given.


The second article is also November 5, and deals with the speeding-and-collision event previously covered in this series, the infamous "like an F-111" highway incident: Jail for speeding motorcyclist who struck man severing his leg at Woolloongabba

Right in the opening paragraph we have "abhorrent history of speeding" and "at the speed of an "F1-11",".

The first one should not have been there unless it's a quote - and in that case, mark it as such - and the second one is phonetic but nonetheless inaccurate.

So a good start, then.

The copy-editing on this piece could have been tighter, as well.

Reading it, I get the feeling I should be grateful they don't try a poorly-informed description of the bikes, like "powerful one-litre motorcycles" or "large-capacity motorcycles." It's been done, you know.

However: "Sparrow, a martial artist with a criminal history for violence". Um, what? Cue up another stereotype. It is not, in this context, relevant. If some of that history was directly related to his school, or if he had used his training as a threat, even then it wouldn't be relevant to this story. Even stating he has a criminal history of violence is barely relevant in this context - the history of speeding fines and the fact he struck someone at excessive speed, severing their leg - those facts are relevant. The rest, not so much.

The actual incident is one of those cases that make the rest of us want to thump the riders responsible while screaming "YOU'RE NOT HELPING!"

Mind you, I haven't been keeping an eye on media reports of four-wheel idiocy so I don't know what the comparison is.

Interestingly, defendant Sparrow was disqualified from driving absolutely. So it can be done, then.

It is hard to avoid the feeling, reading this article, that the paper judged as well as reported. And that wasn't necessary or good journalism. A bald reporting of the facts of this case needed no emotive additions from the writer or editor to get the point across.

By comparison, from November 7 from the same paper we have Motorcyclist dead after falling from bike at Noosaville.

Headline still too long but the article is crisply written, contains just the essentials and, although it could have done with some brief rearrangement of facts between paragraphs, is perfectly good brief news writing.

From November 8 the CM gives us Motorbike rider hurt in crash with car in Red Hill, Brisbane.

I've been to the Broncos NRL club for a work function and I don't particularly like the road outside it. Of course, we're given no information on whether the location of the accident was relevant or just a coincidence - somebody been drinking, perhaps?

This could be have been a little more tightly edited, but the main problem I have is: "motorbike rider" comes across as a clumsy construction. What's wrong with "motorcyclist"?

I'll finish up with a longer piece, from ABC News Online this time. From November 12, Moto-cross rider badly hurt in fall.

See that headline? Perfectly good and only six words, if you count a hyphenated construct once. I'm actually surprised it is hyphenated. I was expecting motocross to be one word by now.

Personally, I would have rewritten some of the paragraphs during editing. For example, third paragraph: "He's recovering today" is a bit redundant. Leave it out, say he had an eight-hour operation, and we can assume he's recovering unless told otherwise. There are only three choices: Worse, worrying or improving. Only one of those is really newsworthy.

Also, those quotes:

The mother said "He has a couple of small bleeds in his brain but they're not worried about that at all that's a bit of head trauma and that's just affecting his short-term memory, that's normal, they've said so."

Ummm... head trauma can be a huge concern, an affect on short-term memory might be permanent and small bleeds can be serious if pressure continues to build. With all due respect for the fact I Am Not A Doctor, I suspect either he's not getting most appropriate supervision or she misunderstood what they said. "That's normal" could be misinterpreted as "that's normal, so it's fine" instead of "that's normal, unfortunately." This is pure conjecture, of course.

Also: "We all just pray for broken bones and they all heal." Unfortunate choice of words? I think she meant "We all pray for just broken bones, which heal."

It's nice to see an inline link in the article, however, something the ABC does less than some other news outlets.

I wish him a speedy and complete recovery, or at least a recovery indistinguishable from complete, which is usually the best we can hope for when any nerves are damaged.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Motorbike accidents in the media - part 19

Well, gawd. When I promised to examine all media reports of motorcycle accidents that came my way, I had wondered if I'd be able to keep it up all year.

I hadn't realised that my free time wouldn't match my obligations. Since handing in my thesis, I've had what feels like less time to blog or anything else.

Two three-day weekends away, a bike rally and a romantic jaunt with my fabulous girlfriend for my birthday, helped.

But, seriously, how did I get this far behind?

Going back to November 2: Motorcyclist killed at Dayboro after his bike collided with a car (Courier Mail)

One day these headlines will kill me.

I can only think of two explanations for why journalists and editors use "the vehicle did" instead of "the driver did", and they are: Tiptoeing around offending anyone by blaming someone's death on themselves, and; avoiding legal complications by not attributing blame.

I am really going to have to investigate that one further.

This article is five paragraphs long, the lead paragraph is uselessly short, and there is a weird combination of the definite ("was thrown... near a bend... just after...") and the uncertain ("It is believed he was found..."). Huh?

The driver was still being treated at the scene, which suggests after massive shock or a major accident to cause injuries to the occupant of a cage as well as the rider.

The ABC also covered this same accident: Motorcyclist killed near Brisbane

A headline which is, if anything, a little short.

Three paragraphs, hardly justifying a byline, and the lead quite comprehensive.

Then there's the final paragraph: "The driver of the four-wheel-drive was not injured."

Huh? So what was he being treated for in the CM story?

From November 4, from the CM: Man killed in moped crash near Cooktown was wearing a helmet

It appeared in my RSS fees as "Helmet no help in moped death".

What. The. Fuck?

The headline on the site is pointless - it's law we wear helmets. So what? The headline I got in my RSS feeds, sitting there quietly grinning at me even today, is just stupid. What was going through the mind of the editor who wrote either one? Libertarian anti-helmet sentiments, perhaps? Nothing, maybe?

Then, in the lead paragraph: "... was wearing a helmet at the time, say police."

Facepalm. Oh, very facepalm.

He was from Victoria, probably lost control on loose gravel, which is very easy to do, and then a final paragraph about the road toll for the year.

I can only assume that the useless commentary on the helmet was a desperate attempt to bulk out the article. There was no actual point for it.

Now, there are two big solid article I want to address in a separate post, so one more:

From November 5, from ABC News: Motorcyclist jailed after high-speed race

The opening paragraph mentions crashing "into a truck driver", which raises eyebrows until you get to the fifth of six paragraphs, which says two riders veered into a breakdown lane where one struck a truck driver, who was presumably outside his vehicle at the time.

This article seems to have passed through a higher degree of editing - it's crisp, and linear.

I will just point out one piece of civilian hyperbole: "it was like being passed by two F-111's."

F-111's? The fastest road bikes, without and even with serious modifications, are capable of about 300km/h. The Japanese manufacturers have a hand-shake agreement with their government to fit limiters, to 299km/h.

I'm pretty sure an F-111 pilot would have to struggle to get down to any speed that low.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

N900: Ah, Linux in your pocket

I recently, as anybody who keeps an eye on this blog may have noticed, got my hands on an N97 mini and found it nice but wanting.

Then, in a rare (not being sarcastic, it really was rare) moment of brain-fartery I left it on the roof of my friend's car, from where it hit the ground and was run over by a tram in Melbourne.

Which left me back on the old N95. Which is now unusable because the ribbon cable to the screen broke.

Which, of course, left me needing a replacement and, despite the availability of the brand new Nokia N8 and a swag of new Android devices, I went for something with confirmed power but an uncertain future. Oh, and a keyboard and a Debian-based operating system.

I got a Nokia N900.

This is therefore my usual rambling sort of things-I've-noticed post, and this time not only am I writing it on the device, I'll be posting it as well, using the MaStory blogging app.

So anything could happen.

It is, first and foremost, a Linux computer. This is very, very cool. It means that all sorts of things that wouldn't normally be possible, are. Application having problems? Run it from the command line and see what it says. Try doing that on a different platform!

I am, right now, cheating slightly by writing a few paragraphs from my desktop computer, using vim, after ssh-ing into the N900. Yes, that's all possible.

This is not a phone that grew up and wants to be a computer - this is a computer that shrank enough to be a phone.

The build quality is up to Nokia's usual standard, which is to say: potentially great, but on this device about 95 per cent of great. There are a couple of little niggling things to do with fit and close lines, but generally absolutely solid. The biggest worry is the neat little kickstand that folds out from around the camera housing. It just feels fragile, quite apart from being off-centre.

Now, some specifics:

The screen isn't up to capacitive levels of sensitivity, but is rather good and the image quality is truly stellar. Everything is fantastically crisp.

Camera: great. Software interface less so, and I am disappointed to see that the excellent night mode available on the N95 and N97, with the same camera hardware, is not there. Dual LED flash very nice and there's a program available to use it as a torch.

Speakers: as good as the old benchmark N95, just about.

Text entry: for some reason, there's no on-screen display of the old Nokia standard 'abc/Abc/ABC' lower-case, first-letter-upper, all-upper notification. As it sometimes but not always automatically capitalises first letters (there's a setting for that), it would be nice to know, you know?

The Notes application is a different approach to the 'list of simple notes' application in S60, and damn it's good. A proper little rich-text word processor. I'm using it here (or I was, until I copied and pasted - which is not only possible, but uses desktop-standard keybindings - into MaStory.

Which brings me to: the keyboard. It's so much better than the N97 mini's keyboard, actually friendly to my slightly long thumbnails, good feel and nice rounded profile for easier usage. Could be even more pronounced, but that would probably impact upon the already, um 'noticeable' thickness of the device. Also, having the apostrophe needing an extra key press is a bit annoying for those of us who know how to use it properly. The only other issue is that, as All About Symbian noted, it would be slightly easier to use if taller.

And then there's the writing aids. Has auto-completion but it's quite weak. Has no auto-correction. Having said that, it copes fairly intelligently with punctuation and seems to learn for the auto-completion, which is nice and will no doubt be quite helpful.

Now: Nokia didn't provide any MMS functionality on this device. A fantastic camera, all data options, full multi-tasking, but no MMS. Didn't they *learn* from the first iPhone? There is, however, fMMS, from The Community Of Developers, to fill the gap. Nokia have even released a semi-official statement saying, in essence, "We're not going to provide MMS functionality because, well, gee, isn't it just *swell* someone in the community did our work for us?"

Now, the first problem with that approach is the comment from early in the development cycle to the effect that "I can't make it work yet because it's a proprietary Nokia API." The second problem is the hell of a time I had making it work. I managed it, but I still have no idea how (I think you have to have the right GPRS and WAP APNs configured, but *not* an APN for MMS, let fMMS take care of it).

The third problem is the fact that, as I was swearing with it, I found that my current provider, Crazy John's, don't provide MMS configuration settings for the N900 because it's not necessary on a device that can't do that. Crazy John's have quite another problem in insisting upon doing everything with auto-config SMS instead of just providing a list of bloody settings (you can find them if you go to the Android FAQ pages) but you should be able to see my point: no official supply means no support. Good one, Nokia, for ignoring a fundamental piece of a modern phone.

Oh yes, and not only but also: WTF were you thinking, Nokia, when you built Ovi Maps for Maemo with no provision to keep, let alone sync, bookmarks? There is a workaround - have a Contact for each bookmark, with full address, and it will give you a little globe icon that opens that place in Maps. But oh dear, for a company that invested so much (buying NAVTEQ, for a start) in GPS and mapping - just not good enough.

Moving on.

Multiple homescreens: I'm not convinced it's the greatest idea of all time. There are more efficient ways of launching applications, and it's really only an advantage for dynamic widgets. I think that HTC's way of doing an overview - thumbnails of desktops filled with widgets - is an excellent idea if you're going to have multiple screens. The N900 could do this - it would just be a modification of the current, fully dynamic and live task manager view of running apps. Damn, I wish I had the skills to program that.

There's a problem with some Qt applications. After spending huge amounts on purchasing Trolltech and their Qt, and coming up with two cross-platform device strategies, some twat at Nokia let a release out the door with a default setting for some text fields of black on black. Truly, WTF?

When it was launched, it was notorious for not having any form of portrait mode. That has slowly improved, but where it does appear there are bugs and issues. In typical Nokia fashion, we find a huge WTF in the web browser which, in portrait, gives you a couple of option buttons but no way to access others until you rotate back to landscape. So you can't, for example, close a web page. This is annoying.

Overall, I am enjoying it immensely. None of the twitter clients are as good as Gravity on Symbian (not much is) and at least one of them still hasn't been updated for OAuth and some of them don't work very well at all and the best of them isn't in the repositories yet, but that's a niggling issue next to the sheer power of the device.

Unfortunately, I also have to say "potential" about a device which has run up against a change in Nokia strategy and may be orphaned very soon, but there are some very good developers and they are doing some very good stuff.

And oh, the shiny is great with this one.

Treating drivers as simpletons is a major cause of road accidents

All of a sudden, five stories from the Queensland Times appeared in my RSS reader.

They are, in the order in which they appeared: Speed cameras do help save lives, Drivers disregard the Fatal Four, Forget the phone, you're driving, Enough is enough - Drive 2 Stay Alive and Count the cost of careless driving.

Spot the theme?

It appears that Drive 2 Stay Alive (I will withhold my comments on cutesy SMS-like usage of homonymic numbers) is a program adopted by the QT to encourage road safety, and all five of the articles list the other four in a "Related links" box right at the top.

Which is all very admirable - the intent, I mean, not the internet formatting. I really can't fault the QT for public interest journalism in this matter.

In fact, it's fantastic that the last-named of these articles points out the costs of road accidents aren't just in fatalities, and include medical treatment, disability care, clean-up bills and legal costs as well as costs to the economy in loss of labour (I've always wondered how they calculate that...)

But I would like to make a few points, because my cynicism doth runneth over.

Over the next four weeks, we will provide informative features to help you stay alive on our roads, and by taking the online pledge, you are saying enough people have died needlessly on our roads.

Umm... I will withhold my opinion of online pledges, as well, but admirable, admirable.

Let me get into the meat of criticism, now, and it's exemplified for me by this statement:

Colin Goodsell from the RACQ said distraction while behind the wheel was one of the top causes of accidents on Queensland roads aside from the fatal four – speeding, drink driving, seatbelts and fatigue.

Okay, first of all, not wearing a seatbelt is not generally a cause of accidents. It can be - you could lose control because you moved relative to the seat in a corner or while braking - but it's generally a cause of getting hurt in an accident, not a cause of the accident happening. Language like this may be approved by marketing and may present a united front, but I'm not sure it helps.

Also, if the "fatal four" is speeding, drink driving, seatbelts and fatigue, is it a "fatal three" for motorcyclists or do they have a different set?

And then there is the argument that distraction is the biggest cause because if you were truly paying attention then, either you wouldn't be speeding or it wouldn't be as a big a problem, you wouldn't be drink driving and you would be managing your fatigue.

All of these road safety campaigns, possibly in an attempt to get the message across, over-simplify matters so badly that you're left with the impression of a collection of tick-a-box, exclusive and non-related options. I have been complaining for years that some of the most dangerous drivers I meet on the roads are the ones who aren't speeding, and I've been much more comfortable in cars where the driver was speeding but competent than in some cars where the driver just wasn't paying attention to much except the speedometer, the road signs and the conversation.

I am convinced that ignoring the interaction between all cognitive factors and driving decisions is just going to lead to trouble.

It's also a major factor in my complaint against the anti-speeding arguments and the anti-speeding initiatives and the crowing of authorities when a rise in speed cameras is correlated (say it with me: "Correlation does not equal causation") with a reduction in road fatalities.

If they don't, in public, consider the possibility that the reduction is not because people have decided to not speed but because they are keeping a much sharper eye out for cameras and camera vans and are therefore more likely to spot and respond to other dangerous situations, then I just aren't going to take them seriously.

In fact, the "Speed cameras do save lives" article is a classic of waffling, unsubstantiated claims that would get laughed out of any research proposal. "Police have linked...", "increase in speeding detection... has been credited..." Oh, puh-lease.

And then there's the almost throwaway line "... more people driving to the speed limit and road conditions."

Just try and convince me that the two are necessarily (to use the word in its nice and exact meaning) related. Go ahead, just try. Most articles run like that: "Speeding.... speed limit... too fast... dangerous.... road conditions." Slipped in almost as an afterthought, the one most important factor - road conditions. Driving to the speed limit at all times is just a recipe for disaster the next time there's a decent storm.

What I would like to see, in all of this pleading, public displays of hurt bewilderment and patriarchal trumpeting from the various authorities, is this exhortation: Take responsibility for your own driving, and look out for everyone else.

That's it. Drop all this talk of specifics, mention it when it's relevant to individual situations, but just keep reminding people that, actually, they have a "licence" to drive, not a "right", and they are in command of several tonnes of metal travelling at speeds never before attained by human beings and in excess of what our physiology and neurology evolved to cope with.

Start treating drivers like complicated, thinking, sentient human beings and, just perhaps, they'll start behaving like it.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A brief motorcycle accidents diversion: safety initiatives in the media

As I see it, there are three components to motorcycle safety:
  1. Motorcyclists looking out for themselves, paying attention and not making stupid decisions
  2. Car drivers looking out for other road users, paying attention and not making stupid decisions
  3. Not building roads and road furniture which will compromise, slice, dice, pulverise or flatten motorcyclists who do happen to come off because of consequences of 1.), 2.) or even 3.), because the roads are slippery, unstable or can't get rid of diesel oil.
Number 1 above seems to be the entire focus of Queensland road safety advertising, which is one reason I have so little respect for the authorities up here.

Number 2 seems to have only been covered recently by the "Don't ride us off" campaign, which was years ago now.

Number 3 is, well, a bit of a worry. If the bodgy road patch-repairs and non-repairs around here aren't of concern, the road edging, lighting and "safety" rails are. Sharp-edged end caps, wire-rope barriers referred to by riders as "cheese-graters", unnecessarily narrow lanes on fast corners, etc.

There really is a "it was your decision to ride, f--- you" mentality evident in road policy in this state at the moment.

And the "well, don't crash, then" response is a "f--- you" response. If you fail to plan for the worst eventuality, it just means you won't be prepared when it happens. I never intend to crash - I can't afford the pain or financial loss - and there are road conditions that make me paranoid, but I still wear helmet, gloves, jacket and boots every time I ride. Unexpected circumstances aren't expected. You maximise your alertness and attentiveness, monitor your road position and everyone else's, keep an eye out for suspicious behaviour or loose loads, and then one day there'll be a patch of oil that blended in with the road, or mechanical failure, or...

So I was extremely interested to see this crop up:

'Bendy signs' could prevent motorcycle injuries (ABC News Online, October 21).

You know those poles they have in competitive skiing, that all the skiers run over and which whip back upright when they've gone? Something like that, but a lot less bendy, I imagine. You can see smaller versions as road edging markers, knee high white poles with a red rubber hinge at the bottom.

I invite anyone to jump out of a moving car at 80, straight towards a road sign's metal pole, and then tell me this is not a good idea.

This is a neat little article, pointing out the fatality figure, saying that these signs have been effective (or at least 'some success') at reducing the fatality rate in Britain, and giving some details of the trial.

Wonderful idea.

Just one, little, teensy-weensy problem with the article:

The Queensland Government is hoping to reduce the number of motorbike accidents with the use of flexible road signs.

Now wait just one goddam minute, there.

"Accidents" and "fatalities" are not synonymous, no matter how much more vulnerable we are on bikes. The fact that the media and the public relations campaigns of roads and traffic authorities get all hung up on deaths does not mean that the deaths are not vastly outnumbered by the non-fatal injuries which merely, oh, I don't know, result in life-long serious physical, cognitive or behavioural disabilities and financial ruin.

And bendy road signs could not, except under the most stupid of circumstances, prevent accidents. They can, as the Main Roads Minister pointed out at the end of the article, prevent injury once you've parted company with Mr In Control and are headed, in the company of Mr Momentum, towards the otherwise fatal road furniture.

Journalism students are taught that the headline and opening paragraph are absolutely vital. They are, in fact, either the reason people read the article or the only part they read. The opening paragraph needs to say as much as is possible, without massacring Ms English Language, of the core journalism questions Who, What, Where, When, (Why), How - W5H.

I put Why in brackets because straight news reports may not investigate that. The rest, however, are pretty much mandatory. It's called the 'lead', and it both leads the story and, hopefully, leads readers into it.

For the sake of one little word, credibility can be lost.

In the vernacular: facepalm, and head-desk.

Stay upright, and I'll see you on the road.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Motorbike accidents in the media - Part 18

Alrighty, time for another one:

First up, Biker dead in Woodridge crash (Courier Mail, October 03)

Now, this is a very straightforward article, basic and complete as far as it goes, with just one problem: "he was dislodged from his bike after veering into a median strip."

What? "Dislodged"? and "veering"? Without an eye witness, "veering" is an assumption. And "dislodged" is just plain stupid. What's wrong with a plain and simple "came off"?

"Dislodged" is a wank, plain and simple.

Next, Motorcycle rider dies in crash at Elimbah; other crashes at Toowoomba and Cape Tribulation (September 18, Courier Mail)

Chronologically out of order. Whoops, I suppose.

Yep, another gloriously bad headline.

The article itself is okay - brief and to the point, detailing three separate accidents. There's a formatting problem, but what the hell.

Pumicestone Rd is a bit country, and at 5am all sorts of things can go wrong, including one or both speeding, getting distracted, or running out of talent.

The language used is fairly neutral, so that's good.

And moving on to: Man dies in hospital eight days after motorcycle crash on Esk-Kilcoy Road (Courier Mail, September 19)

I have no idea why the dates of items have become messed up, I really don't.

Five paragraphs, mention of three separate fatal motorcycle accidents, the second of which is the Pumicestone Road one above.

The first one, three paragraphs, is a single-vehicle accident on the fairly fun Esk-Kilcoy Road. Make your own mind up about that one.

The final paragraph mentions "falling off his motorbike". Give me strength.

Otherwise, concise and inoffensive article.

Finally: Drunk biker disqualified (Queensland Times, October 21)

Hallelujah, not a fatality!

Not an accident, either, but I humbly suggest it still qualifies for this series.

Basically: Unregistered and uninsured 250CC (not sure why the capitals, there) bike, .125, while unlicensed.

The first bit that gets me is: If he's already unlicensed, what has he been disqualified from? I can only assume: from reapplying for his licence.

I'm also interested that they put in the engine capacity of the bike, but nothing else about it. I can only assume it was in the police report. Not sure why it was in the police report, though. Probably because: the rules said so.

This bloke lost his licence originally for drink driving, then had two seizures and then not reapplied, because he was "lazy". Seizures aren't good. Particularly not for road users. In fact, there is now an entire law in Queensland requiring people with medical conditions which may affect their driving, to report them. We have this law after lobbying from a woman whose son was killed by a driver with, funnily enough, epilepsy. Story, also from the QT, at Jet's Law honours toddler's memory.

This bloke may not even qualify for his licence, ever again.

This is a nice, succinct article, but following that lead about seizures may have been interesting. Or, possibly in another article. Sounds like a good excuse to me.

P.S.: While working with brain injury, I spoke to a man who wanted to get a licence "just to drive around home on the Sunshine Coast, I don't want to go on the highway or anything, just local, where I know the roads." While working, in that capacity, I was considerably more polite and sympathetic than I would be now, even when he complained that he couldn't see why they wouldn't give him one. Of course, the simple answer is: They don't have licences that work like that, so no, you can't.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Yes, I wish we could all ignore reality and use all the water we wanted to, as well

This post will prioritise an angry response over diplomacy, and as such I'm about to make a lot of people very angry. Many of whom are very big men who think fights solve things. I shall rely on my relative anonymity to go sailing past unnoticed.

One of the biggest issues I have with my fellow human beings is short-term thinking.

Take the current argument over the extremely sick Murray-Darling Basin river system, a considerable chunk of south-eastern Australia and the water feed to a considerable chunk of our agricultural output, not to mention other primary and secondary industries as well.

Breaking the issue down, the propositions are:

  1. Agricultural and mining industries need water
  2. Reducing their water allocation will hurt them
  3. Communities are hurt if their industries are hurt
  4. The river system is dying because it does not have enough water in it.
Try and add those up to something that works. Go on, I dare you. Can't? Start feeling sorry for the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, then, who have to.

Let's try looking at this a different way, using impeccable logic:
  • When total output consistently exceeds total input, total volume decreases to zero.
Now that just doesn't help at all, does it? Looks like we might have a problem!

Now, to me this represents an interesting and complicated issue which will probably require innovative, sideways thinking and a complicated set of solutions.

Changing crops and maybe adjusting Australian eating and clothing habits, perhaps. Researching new water delivery systems that involve less spraying out into the air and more targeted feeds. More efficient processes. Not growing rice which needs to sit in standing water, possibly. 

Much of this won't be cheap, won't be easy and won't be quick. Neither was converting from manual to automated farming methods. And the alternative is we either become Fremen or we end up with a Water and Power authority. It's not a coincidence that when Frank Herbert had his Bene Gesserit describe the most basic form of control through withholding scarce resources, he used water as the exemplar.

The problem is that all of the complaints I have heard to date have boiled down to 1+2=3. If you reduce water, you reduce productivity, which means masses of job losses, so therefore let us keep the water.

Unfortunately, the scientists are saying 4. Water volume in the Basin is steadily decreasing. Basic physics says that if this continues, there won't be any. At which point, everybody is .

It sucks, it arguably shouldn't have been allowed to happen, but guess what? Life is hard, particularly when vital, irreplaceable resources start running out.

And just in the past few days, legal advice has come down that the Authority failed to adequately consider the social and economic impacts of their proposals, and stressed environmental considerations too much.

Step back a minute: Option A. is: the entire Basin dries up, we're all . Option B. is: We get to some sort of stability where enough water is returned to keep it at its present level. Option C. is: We rejuvenate the whole thing, with enough water as is required.

Obviously, Option C. is most desirable, environmentally speaking, but would involve considerable human hardship. The problem is that Option A. results in considerable human hardship as well, just not before the next election. And maybe not when the current irrigators turning out and burning copies of the preliminary draft guides to the report are still working. Maybe when they're retired and the town crumbles about their ears, leaving them homeless.

Option B is probably the best we can hope for, and the thing is: If we don't get Option B as a minimum, you can wave goodbye to maybe not your livelihood, but definitely your childrens' livelihoods. Feel good about that, do you? 

Threatened or actual riots aren't going to make it rain. Burning things is only going to accelerate the carbon cycle, not fill the marshlands. Complaining about job losses is not going to restore parity.

The only thing that will restore parity is ensuring that outputs are maintained at the level of inputs, or below. Anything else is trading long-term stability for short-term selfishness. 

So start talking. Stop shouting, start talking. 

You're not winning any concessions from reality, and you're not winning any respect from the rest of us. 

There has been intelligent discussion - there have been people talking about improvements already made. There has been discussion centred around lack of consultation, rather than the result. 

But the sad fact is that shouting and burning make for good television, and bury anything intelligent that anybody may have to say. 

So: Either start thinking, you're homo sapiens, you're supposed to be able to, and: shut up, you're not helping.

Motorbike accidents in the media, part 17

The big problem with having things you have to write is that it doesn't leave you any time for things you want to write. Which means that thesis has taken a huge priority over blogging and randomly scrawled fiction.

So I'm about two months behind, here, and am only going to comment briefly.

Straight out of the blocks with:

Man's leg broken in trail-bike accident at Dayboro (Courier Mail, September 19)

Slightly long CM headline, but not too bad. Four paragraphs, pretty complete, nothing to take exception to and they even said "coming off his bike" rather than "the bike crashed."

Motorbike rider dead, pillion passenger hurt as bike hits tree in Ipswich (Courier Mail, September 30)

Now, there's an excessive CM headline for you. I'm not sure they're expecting people to actually read the articles.

Six paragraphs. Fernvale Rd at Brassall, which is fairly straight and through suburbia. No mention of any known cause, which gets the the police bonus points for not having a superficial, knee-jerk speed reference.

"A police spokesman said it was believed the motorbike left the road and collided with a tree."

So, either the headline is not entirely justified, or the police are being cautious to the point of silliness. I would have thought that would have been obvious - a cause, not so much. But having hit a tree that wasn't actually in the road - pretty obviuos.

Oh, well. The impressive thing about this article is that it manages to get three different spokesmen into six paragraphs.

Man killed after hitting tree - same writeup, longer and more informative from, surprise surprise, the local regional paper the Queensland Times (October 1).

Seventeen paragraphs, starting in good emotive style with Shocked residents have told of the horrifying moment...


This time we have "veered across Fernvale Rd" and a photo of nice big skidmarks in grass, pointing straight at a tree.

This bit gets me: "The man's helmet landed in our front yard," she said.

Not wearing it, or not done up, or the strap ripped right off? The rider was given CPR at the scene before being pronounced dead and the male pillion was taken to hospital still breathing, so neither were completely dismembered and, therefore, it's hard to imagine helmets coming off unless they weren't being worn properly. Hmm...

Another resident heard the motor "revving really loudly." Yes, well, it's a bike, so there's not a lot we can say about that. Some bikes with modified pipes sound like they're racing at idle.

Okay, not a bad article, but there's a huge whiff of ghoulishness about it.

Okay, one more: Heartache drives man to drink ride (QT, October 2)

Six paragraphs, some quite long, court report.

Attempting to overtake using the left lane, which happens to be illegal (note: Riding on the right without overtaking is also illegal in some states, but doesn't seem to be enforced in Queensland), crashing, blood alcohol concentration of 0.152 which makes it impressive he hadn't crashed before then.

Also: L plates, rear tyre not roadworthy, weeping hydraulic flood (so the brakes weren't working properly, not much else that's hydraulic on a bike), and he broke his back twice, his knee and has to learn how to walk again.

I think we can say, unreservedly: Idiot.

Again, no mention of speed, which is great to see, and nothing extraneous. A baffling story, but a good article.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Speed camera defences are facile and unhelpful

Recently, while riding or driving, I have done the following obviously dangerous things
  • Strayed onto a white line in the pouring rain, and had the bike slip sideways in the middle of a corner.
  • Almost pulled out in front of a car because it was 2am and I had a lapse of concentration.
I have been threatened by other road users in the following ways:
  • Overtaking vehicle leaving its wheels in my lane, next to me, while looking at something else.
  • Vehicles cutting in front while driving slower than me, making me brake sharply.
  • Vehicles trying to merge into me.
  • Vehicles starting to merge in front of me while I was overtaking.
  • Vehicles creeping into road in front of me from a side street, leaving me unsure what its intentions were.
That's just what I can remember, right now.

Notice anything about all of those? Notice any uniting factors?

There were two of them:
  1. They all involved lapses of judgement, and (with one arguable exception) concentration, and;
  2. None of them involved exceeding the speed limit
And yet, the one message we have rammed down our throats is "Speed kills!", "Don't speed!", "Speeding fines are for your own good!"

The most obvious reason is, of course, that speeding is easy to police and it's a low-hanging fruit: Set up fixed cameras with radar/laser attached, set up mobile cameras and leave them, put automatic equipment in patrol cars.

It's much harder to police fatigue, much harder to police inattention (although very obvious when the inattention leads to something dangerous actually occurring), much harder to police drug and alcohol usage (just look at the effort involved in running a random breath test) and much harder to police the road rules in general, although we do have red light cameras.

I have four basic issues with the campaign against speeding:
  1. It focuses on a factor which has been identified, at various times, in various jurisdictions, as being quite a minor contributor to accidents fatal or otherwise;
  2. It is conducted in a way which is offensive to the intelligence of all road users;
  3. It obscures the far more important discussion of driving technique and skill;
  4. I do not remember any sensible discussion justifying this focus, merely scattered claims in advertising.
You could also add: I've never seen any sensible explanation for why speed limits are set the way they are, or justification that they are anything but arbitrary.

And now here we have another contribution, an opinion piece submitted to the Courier Mail from the chief executive officer of RiverCity Motorway, the organisation running the clusterfuck that is the Clem 7 tollway tunnel:

Speed cameras help keep Clem 7 on the road to safety.

When you read this article, you at first don't notice that it's anything but a news story. Then it dawns on you that it's editorialising a bit, then it gets personal, then you look down the end to notice the byline.

Online, this needed to have been flagged as a column from the very start.

The big problem with this article is illustrated right here:
For those people who don't believe speed cameras are an important road safety measure it is worth looking at the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, which opened in 1992 without speed cameras. In 1997, it became the first road in NSW to have fixed speed cameras installed.

This action was taken when it was found that 30 per cent of drivers using the tunnel exceeded the speed limit by 20km/h or more. The highest recorded speed in the Sydney Harbour Tunnel was 199km/h.

After the cameras were installed, the percentage of speeding motorists fell dramatically.

Closer to home, the speed cameras inside the Clem7 are in place to safeguard the people who use the tunnel. Speed cameras are the only practical method for speed enforcement in tunnels.
I would like you to notice that at no point in those four paragraphs was there any mention of any accident, crash, injury, fatality, minor bingle, brief nudge, complaint, collision or scrape.

No logical pathway, in fact, from "For those people who don't believe speed cameras are an important safety measure" to "speed cameras inside the Clem7 are in place to safeguard the people who use the tunnel."

No mention of whether the dramatic fall in speeding in the Sydney Harbour Tunnel was in any way, shape or form associated with a drop in accident rate.

Speeding is wasteful in fuel, reduces safety margins, is potentially rude and, in traffic, hazardous if you puts you at a different speed to everyone else. The faster you hit something the more damage you do, but this bald claim? I'd like to see anyone get this through an undergraduate essay in any science or otherwise research discipline.

So I have to ask: Have people become so used to seeing the proof that they assume it, and skip over the bit in the middle? Or is this just a debate that runs on unthinking consensus, ideological certainty?

If it's run on proof, then more of that needs to come out in the public debate.

At the moment, there are two factors limiting my speed: What I think is safe, and: the likelihood of getting fined and losing licence points.

And a slavish adherence to the big black numbers in the red circle doesn't seem to have anything to do with what I think is safe. Far more important to me is the behaviour of other road users, the quality of the road, how awake and focused I am, the light conditions, the atmospheric conditions, the vehicle I'm on or in, and the likelihood of somebody or something running across the road in front of me.

I have become used to people I overtook back there overtaking me here because my reading of the conditions made me slow down. I'm used to people who do 75 in the 80 zone then doing 75 in the 70 zone. I've become used to people doing 70 in the 80 zone who do 60 in the roadworks 40 zone, crowding me or trying to get past while I'm riding 2 metres from people wielding shovels.

Speeding? That's the least of the things I worry about.

At the end of this abysmal, preaching article there is this:
It is very pleasing that the vast majority of motorists are driving safely through the tunnel.
And the only evidence presented is that only .5% of motorists have collected a speeding fine.

It's very difficult to have any faith in the ability of any authority to manage any roads when this is the quality of their debate.

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