Friday, 12 August 2011

#UKriots: A personal timeline and call for some rationality.

The big news story at the moment, probably in some small part related to but currently eclipsing the global financial "whoops," is the little breakdown in law and order in the UK, where the world is now observing that America and Arab, African and poor countries have no monopoly on rioting and looting.

Human behaviour is never simple, and society is never a simple collection of humans. Perhaps more hopeful than the riots are depressing is the way there has been a flowering of community togetherness in the form of broom brigades and support, with twitter hashtags spawning off to help people coordinate help for the aged, disabled and infirm.

@debcha: Urban rioting existed before social media. You know what didn't? Large-scale community cleanups, organized within hours.

But inevitably there have been arguments over causes and responsibility and what the proper response is.

My own opinions here are informed by having worked with the under- and un-privileged and studying enough Psychology to be very, very cautious whenever anybody emphatically states a simple concept as an ultimate truth.

Ever since the rioting began I have been struck by how everybody has, once again, been talking at cross-purposes with broad, sweeping generalisations and, because I can't help myself, I have been getting increasingly annoyed by the lack of actual debate.

Early on Thursday evening I was inspired to spurt out this frustrated little ditty on Facebook, under the heading:

Riots: The difference between "excuse" and "explanation" is insight

Here is the the problem with the most basic, and common, reaction to rioting:

Saying "They don't have the right to smash up other people's stuff," or "Alienation is not an excuse," ignores the following:

1. People need to know they don't have the right to bash, smash or steal.
2. People need to care about that, and let it drive their behaviour.

From what I'm hearing, a lot of people feel there's an entire generation in the UK (since, oh, Margaret Thatcher was in power) who haven't been given a reason to know or care. This is a failing in society. It's not an excuse, it's not permission, it's not even a mitigating factor, but IT IS A FAILING IN SOCIETY.

It was a development of what I had said to close the previous depressing evening of being involved in the publication of depressing news:

I sometimes wonder what simple change in people's minds would produce the best, most wide-spread, positive change. Tonight I'm thinking it's the ability to understand the difference between "explanation" and "excuse", and start talking about appropriate responses to each.

Throughout the night, I keep up a running stream of tweets and FB updates as instant reactions occurred to me.

A rough timeline of my other efforts looks like this, oldest first (my apologies for not linking directly to individual tweets, mine or anyone else's: I can't work out how to get the link out of Twitter's website right now, useless pack of ----): 

  1. If a society does not provide support to those who need it, it can not expect those people to support it.
  2. The word "draconian" is leaping energetically and irresistibly to mind.   
  3. What depresses me the most about the world right now is not the economy or the riots in the UK. It's the government response to the 
  4. Suddenly, I am beginning to see why Britain tends to produce dystopian SF like 1984 and V for Vendetta.
  5. Someone tell David Cameron 1984 wasn't written as a manual, guide or handbook.  (retweeted four times, by complete strangers)
  6. The country that produced V for Vendetta will use 1984 as a manual because it failed to realise the lessons in Lord of the Flies. #UKriots
  7. It seems UK parliamentarians are proposing to respond to violence arising from extreme alienation and disenfranchisement by alienating people more and de-enfranchising them further.
  8. Fuck humanity, bring on the genetically engineered apes.
  9. The most effective law and order intervention I've ever heard of was an advocacy and support service, not extra laws or police. 
And among the tweets I retweeted, this:

RT @kim_harding: Norway 92 kids killed & they call for more democracy. London riots & the they call for a clamp down on human rights...

I also, flippantly but bitterly, said this:

I am disappointed I have not seen a Guy Fawkes mask on a rioter yet. Mind you, that would require an education ...

Which sparked a discussion including the point that access to education is one of the problems, wherein I clarified that:

What concerns me is problems seem to be arising long before "tertiary" education is even an issue. These people have given up hope before getting to high school.


Maybe if these youth had been given more youth workers and programs they might have produced the next batch of Alan Moores, Sex Pistols and Monty Pythons instead of several billion dollars of insurance bills and a clogged criminal justice system where courts are working 24 hours to clear the backlog.

No matter how critical is personal responsibility, and not matter how inexcusable it is to bash other people, rob them, damage and loot stores, any discussion needs to come back to: Why are people doing this? Why are they not stopping themselves? What bit of their brain is not stepping in to say "Hang on, that's not on"? What's the difference between the looters and the broom brigaders?

On Wednesday night on Lateline, lifelong Tottenham resident and youth worker Clasford Stirling (isn't that a great name?) said:

You know, and this tension has been going on for a very long time. So, to see the youths acting in that way was not a surprise to myself and some of the workers that work with young people.

And in the last eight months - a year to eight months, there's been this added pressure of services being cut, families - people in families losing their jobs, and just the whole pressure of society.

And I think it's all come to a head now, because the unemployment, especially in Tottenham, is absolutely horrendous for young people. And if you're a young person who has, for whatever reason, got yourself in trouble, you are not going to get a job.


Well, I'm glad [UK prime minister David Cameron] said that: that they think the world owes them something. Well, I'm telling you, David Cameron, that the world does owe them something.

These are young people. They want to work, they want to be educated - all these things that we have to do to make them better citizens. These things are being taken away bit by bit.

Please note, before accusing him of defending the indefensible, he also said:

I'm not for one saying that myself or anybody condones what a lot of them have done as regards to burning people's property and looting. And I think the people that I've spoken to in my community have echoed the words that I hope they're dealt with severely.


I think, yes, we do have to get tough with them. I don't agree with now that people like myself and other people's got to pay for all this damage. I think come down heavy on those looters that are caught, and even if it takes their whole life to pay back some of the money, that's what the Government should be looking at. Yes, come down tough.

Two ends of the issue: Give people an opportunity to become a "productive member of society", then be strict if they reject it. But who's going to be surprised if, not given an opportunity to do good, they do bad?

Then, a different perspective, from sociologist Professor Ellis Cashmore on Lateline Thursday night:

I would actually call it cannibalism more than [rioting] ...


I really do think that this is commodity-driven kind of phenomenon at the moment. I stress again: it is not rioting. It's young people eating up their own neighbourhoods.

It disappointed me, I have to say, that Lateline host Tony Jones didn't ask a sociologist why social behaviour was breaking down, what was enabling this - particularly as Tony had interviewed Clasford Stirling just the night before.

However these two perspectives really do highlight what for me, as you may have gathered if you've actually been reading all the way down, is the issue:

People are cannibalising their own neighbourhoods, beating their neighbours, and even telling people "This is my banker's bonus!"

Why are they not not doing this? Anything can spark a demonstration, particularly among the bored and the angry, but what sort of absence of moral opinion or presence of huge resentment has lead to this? 

Let me be very clear: I have worked with the unprivileged and the angry, the mental health patients with nothing and the drug addicts with self-induced mental health conditions, and we saw negative behaviours and we tolerated none of it. We understood, we identified the sources of their frustrations and, from outside unable to help, shared many of them, but we tolerated none of it on our neutral territory.

If I come across as ignoring the criminality in the search for an explanation, it's because I was feeling overwhelmed by the anger and by kneejerk reactions. The behaviour I have seen sickens me and my first reaction is to lock the lot of them up. I just don't think it would do anyone any good at all - not the looters, not the UK taxpayers, not UK society.

So don't go shouting you can't excuse this behaviour by looking for any explanation beyond David Cameron's crashingly bone-headed "pure criminality": We're not trying to.

Clasford Stirling, not the best public speaker, not the most coherent or the most considered, talked about a struggle to provide young people with any sense of hope and future at all. Professor Cashmore waved away suggestions of real poverty by talking about the welfare state, but try telling that to someone who find themselves unemployable and needs food stamps to survive while all around billboards advertise nice cars driven by the well-dressed to the Michelin-starred restaurants.

It's all very well pointing out the inanely obvious "They have to help themselves up!" but they need, at the very least, a fucking ladder.

Monday, 25 July 2011

A brief rant on evidence and debate quality - wind turbine edition

The ABC's 4 Corners has just broadcast an episode on wind farms and the people who claim they're hazardous to human health.

I knew it was going to annoy me and it did.

Even ignoring the people who say inane tripe like "What if a piece the size of a Commodore broke off?" (gee, what if a Commodore ran into someone? Or they, you know, like, built it properly?), the entire debate is, no real surprise, emotional and really, really poorly informed and generally lacking in any sort of science or, sadly, journalistic investigative rigour.

Here's the thing:

Lots of people are claiming they have health problems caused by wind turbines.

Nobody with any sense is claiming there are *no* health problems..

However, the central issue here is: Why? What is the causative factor? Is there any evidence?

Consider this:

  1. There is no solid evidence health problems are caused by wind turbines.
  2. There is some evidence wind turbines don't cause health problems.
  3. There is some evidence that earning rent from wind turbines is correlated with no health problems, which is an entertaining result.
  4. There are three health/causal possibilities:
    1. Health problems are caused by wind turbines (direct physiology - pressure waves, sound, infrasound, something like that)
    2. Health problems are caused by stressing about health problems that may be caused by wind turbines (psychotropic/psychogenic/psychosomatic - stress, most commonly).
    3. You have menopause, or an infection, or a pulled nerve, or something else completely unrelated to the wind turbines but the turbines get blamed anyway (probably a case of confirmation bias).


  1. If you are not interested in considering possibilities 4.2. and 4.3., you have nothing to contribute to this debate. However:
  2. If you are not interested in considering possibility 4.1, you have nothing to contribute to this debate.
  3. If you think "psychogenic" is an insulting term indicating weakness, go and say that to someone with severe PTSD. Preferably a former special forces soldier living on a disability pension.
  4. If you think "psychogenic" is impossible, go and say that to someone with severe PTSD. Preferably a former special forces soldier living on a disability pension.
  5. If you are just going to shout at me, piss off. You have nothing to contribute to this debate.

You may now enter the debate.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Arguing from ignorance only makes you look ignorant

God, is this thing still here?

Over the past six months or, to be perfectly honest, year, my rant/discuss energy has been diluted by twitter, which makes it too easy to make simple statements of opinion or belief without developing the argument, and Facebook, which does something similar.

Which is of course the trouble with most social media - it makes it far too easy to comment, argue and insult from a position of ignorance.

Stop being sarcastic, I know that's not news. However, no matter how obvious that fact is it is enabling an incredibly low standard of debate across even more fora.

Last night I saw a long string of comments on a FB post, all arguing about an event which was thoroughly explained in the media at the time, without one person providing the missing, documented, information. Instead there were quite offensive allegations and wild, wildly inaccurate, suppositions.

Here's the first tip towards being a more informed, less confused member of society, consumer, voter and debater: don't wonder, find out.

Don't, as an anti-vaxer tried with me when I kept answering his questions with documented answers, say "I just wonder ...": find out.

Chances are there will be answers, sometimes astonishingly easy to find.

Every field of contentious science has common denier tropes, and they all make you look ignorant:

Anti-vaccination: Rates of autism soared after vaccines were introduced (no, definitions changed and awareness increased).

Evolution: If we descended from apes, why are there still apes? (Not descended from, there was a common ancestor we are both descended from).

Climate change: it has been warmer in the past (only in small areas, the issue is world-wide warming. Oh, and basic physics).

The thing is: if all you say is "follow the money" and "the government line" and "sheeple", all you are doing is demonstrating your inability or unwillingness to do your background research, test your assumptions and develop your arguments: in other words, to "debate".

On ABC1's Lateline on Wednesday June 22, Australia's new chief scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, said "If he wants to address the substance of the issue, he can. He's entitled to. He can argue his case and he can put his own arguments and his own evidence that he's - or the evidence - the conclusions that he's drawn from the evidence that he has on the table and have them properly debated"

The key point being: you need to have evidence, or arguments, in order to play. Otherwise you are just part of the noise, not the signal.

When I was the information officer for a disability support agency, it was obviously simple professionalism that saw me investigate new health claims and new or old treatments before saying anything to clients or colleagues, regardless of how much or little background I had in that area.

It was the experience that restarted my research and critical skills, atrophying since I finished my first degree, and got me keenly interested in science again.

When I kept being confronted by the (sadly ongoing) big-shouty health issue of the day, the alleged link between vaccines and autism, I found out the mercury link was fundamentally unlikely, large studies had found no correlation between vaccination and autism, studies of unvaccinated populations had found the same rates of autism as in vaccinated populations, and the side-effect rates of vaccination pale into insignificance compared to, say, the health effects of measles. Check out Science Based Medicine for an overview.

I read as much as I could about evolution and found that evolution has been witnessed in action and yes, we have transition fossils.

Then, when I was comfortable with those, the issue of climate change got raised (around a bonfire, while drunk) and I had to take a deep breath and dive back into research again.

The idea of climate change being a conspiracy appears at face value to be laughably paranoid. It would need more collusion than, frankly, we've ever demonstrated ourselves capable of. So yes, I went in sceptical of the sceptics, expecting to find more explanations than cover-ups.

I found out about the difference between climate and weather, and why local weather patterns over the short term are irrelevant. I found out the century-old knowledge that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and how we know that human activity is increasing levels in the atmosphere and why the claim "it's irrelevant because there's so little of it" is not just wrong, it's completely idiotic (hint: it takes a lower concentration of arsenic in your blood to kill you.

And so on, and so on and so forth. There really is an enormous amount of evidence.

And, at no point, although I have said extremely unpleasant things about particular people to select friends, at no point have I sent abusive or threatening emails to people, no matter how much ... Actually, no, I shall avoid the provocation to link to anyone, no matter how much they have abdicated the right to avoid insult by denying it to others.

The point is: I shut up until I felt I had as much of a handle on the evidence as I could given my background, time and willingness to learn ("I am not a scientist, but ..." in my case: But I listened to those who were).

In this age of the internet, when so much is available, good quality and bad, diving in without having done the basic background research may be easier than ever before, but has never been less excusable.

Shut up until you've done your homework. Then we can talk.

Friday, 11 March 2011

How (not) to manage a trial version of software

There are essentially five models to selling software over the internet:
  1. Don't, it's free
  2. Allow download only after purchase
  3. Give away a limited free trial
  4. Give away an "ad-supported" version that uses up your bandwidth and screen real-estate and, sometimes, time, by displaying ads but is otherwise fully functional.
  5. The "freemium" model: A limited free version missing functions that are activated after payment, but which is otherwise fully functional and time-unlimited.
Having a limited trial can take one of several models. One of the world's best twitter clients, Gravity, has a 10-day trial during which absolutely everything works, then it refuses to work at all until you activate it. You don't have to reinstall anything, it just checks on start-up if it's registered or not and stops working until you register your phone during check-out after payment.

For networked applications like the Twitter (and Facebook and FourSquare and ReadItLater and Google Reader and Flickr) client Gravity that's not a problem, but unfortunately some applications that don't otherwise need networking at all will be ad-supported or go away and talk to their home server anyway, which is a nuisance and potentially expensive.

Another popular model is to allow the software to run indefinitely, but not to save anything. I've seen this model used in 3D modelers that can load or edit anything, but can't save any changes.

Or, sometimes, the "limit" is that starting up takes longer and gives you an annoying note, every time, that this wouldn't be happening if you manned up and shelled out for the licence fee.

All of these are, I have no doubt, legitimate. The freemium model is gambling on enough people wanting the extra features, the time-limited feature-full trial offers potential buyers a vital chance to make a complete evaluation, and the pop-up warning and ad-supported models pit the non-buyer's patience against their frugality.

The feature-limited trial can be highly annoying and limit your ability to truly evaluate the functionality, but hey, it's an option.

The only model I really don't like is the "buy it or nothing" option, where you have to take it on faith you will like it and even be able to get along with it.

However, there are a right way and a wrong way to approach each of these models.

The first right way is to put comprehensive and clear screenshots on your web site, regardless of what you're doing with the software. The second right way is to clearly announce what you are doing.

I have just found a piece of software that violates that second principle, and almost as a matter of principle I won't be buying. 

It's not from a company and there are better ways to provide feedback, so I'm not going to name and shame here.

I'll just make it really obvious and say I was looking for a small application to track expenses on my N900. 

I found three - one free, one freemium and ... another one.

Its website has a huge list of features, mentions it's cross-platform, has screenshots and a video, and it's only when you get to the Download page that you are told, in fairly poor English, that it is fully functional except it won't save data between sessions until you enter a registration key you can get after donating via PayPal.

No price, just making a donation at all.

Now, that right there annoys me just a little. Either decide what it's worth, or ask for donations but don't require them, or just give it away. What, you want the processing fees on a 1c donation? That's what I'm tempted to do, here.

What's worse, however, is that the application is available in the repositories for the N900, so it's possible to find it and install it via the on-device application manager before finding out this limitation. In fact, it's possible to install it, run it, enter lots of data, close it down and then, next time you start it up, find all your data missing, think it's horribly buggy and abandon it in disgust.

The first version I installed was from the extras-testing software repository and it was not, to put it mildly, too advanced. I then updated the entire device (I love a system that lets you do that. As opposed to Nokia's other smartphone OS, that doesn't) and got a new version, with extra features, from extras-devel which, explicitly, is not expected to be safe for regular usage because it's cutting-edge.

So the version that looks complete and usable isn't available to sensible people.

I also noticed a brief notification saying I hadn't registered it, and another one saying it wouldn't work fully until I did. 

First of all, I don't remember that second, fairly important, notification from the earlier one, which had the same limitation. Secondly, those notifications fade and disappear fairly quickly. So if you're not looking at the screen, you don't notice it.

It's really, really poorly done.

I shall keep my opinion of the icons to myself.

If you are looking for an expenses tracker for Maemo 5 on the N900, I recommend Toshl. It's freemium, cleanly and attractively designed, easy to use and to comprehend and has full backup onto the web site, where the premium version gives you extra features. It's also available on all the major platforms except WebOS and Windows Phone, although there is a non-functioning button for that so it'll probably be soon.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Ride report: KTM 990SMT, 990 Adventure R, 990 Super Duke

Sometime last year, in mid November I think, I saw notification of a KTM ride day and, ever the opportunist, registered.

And promptly forgot all about it until, five days beforehand, someone from Moorooka Yamaha rang me to confirm.  Did I still want to take part? Like hell, yes!

KTM is Austrian and, although Germany tends to think of the country as the hick cousin everyone’s embarrassed about, Austria sits on some very interesting borders and looks like what happened when German engineers were seduced by Italian designers, made sweet love and had children neither country was quite ready to admit to.

Or at least KTM is, anyway. They have great teutonic engineering and the lunacy only the Italians can really bring to motorbikes.

The company’s history is in dirt bikes and serious off-road racing, e.g. their near-total domination of the Dakar rally in recent years, and this is worth remembering. It gives you the fundamental clue to understanding basically everything they do. The rest of it is driven by wanting to be a bigger company than BMW.

A few years ago, they responded to BMW building a dirt bike around the R1200 engine (the quite insane feral pig that was the HP2) by building a dirt bike around the carburetted 950 V-twin from a previous generation of the now-iconic Adventure bloody-everywhere tourer. Not being stupid, they stuck road wheels on as well and called the result a big supermoto to increase their sales. Many people immediately noticed it was almost comfortable (gasp!) seemed potentially sensible (shock!) and was, in fact, KTM’s best road bike.

Either from long-range planning, or paying attention, or because they spotted this themselves (towards the end of its life, the 950 SM was sold in a touring version - same bike, plus luggage), the replacement 990 supermoto (fuel injection, which was inevitable under European emissions legislation) came in a touring version - the Supermoto T or SMT. When this was announced I found myself staring at it for ages trying to work out if I liked it or not. I didn’t like the listed fuel consumption, but the bike itself had everything I wanted: V-twin, welded tubing frame, tall suspension, promise of comfort, just enough fairing to be effective, bit of style.

Obviously, I put my name down to ride one. Since they wanted two other options I opted for the 990 Adventure and, to be fun, the Duke 690 street stunter. I thought it was one ride and hope you get your preferred bike.

I didn’t realise I could go on three rides and get them all in (sound effects: cackling and rubbing of hands).

So, I got to ride: The 990 SMT (not the brand-new ABS one, more’s the pity), the Adventure 990 R (slightly fancier version with a dirt-bike seat design - someone else was on the basic Adventure) and, because by this time the rest had been loaded into the transporter to drive to Adelaide, the SuperDuke 990. Three bikes, same engine, two and a half different purposes.

So what where they like?

990 Supermoto T

Jesus, for a tourer it’s a hooligan. Suddenly, everything I had heard about KTM’s reputation became real. The accessory Akrapovic pipes sounded, to steal a phrase, like an angry god ripping up a hanky. The throttle was so twitchy it took me about a kilometre to get to grips with it (pun intended). There was more braking from the engine than my BMW gets from the rear brake, and the clutch had the instant take-up of a frightened hare. Then, when you did want to take off, a judicious twist of the wrist would make the front wheel light in any gear, at any speed, from 3,000rpm up to a red-line you never, be honest, ever need to go near. I didn’t have the courage to make an injudicious twist of the wrist.

It’s surprisingly low in the seat, putting you in a dirt-bike upright stance but in the bike rather than on it, very comfortably seated in airflow smoothed out by a tiny-looking but, in typical KTM fashion, well-integrated and effective screen. I didn’t have enough seat time to really evaluate comfort, but I’d be quite happy to head off for a 600km day (hint, hint).

The bars are dirt-bike wide and that’s not something I’m used to but we got along. The handling was fantastic - where I put it, it went. No shaking, no hesitation, just diving into any corner at any speed and staying there. It has dirt-bike style hand guards that, I know from experience on the BMW, will be brilliant in cold weather. It was stinking hot when I rode it, but I didn’t roast my calves off the engine, despite said engine sounding like something that gets adjectives like “nuclear” or “atomic” attached to it.

“Refined” is not the right adjective. Not sloppy or rough, by any means: construction is solid and high-quality, with smooth paintwork and welds, beautifully well thought-out details, solid plastic and fat, fully-adjustable WP forks and shocks. Well, KTM own WP and, I believe, use them pretty much exclusively. But “refined” it is not. “Aggressive”, yes. “Savage”, potentially.

The 990 SMT is like a trained tiger. Sexy, muscular and obviously dangerous but so cute people might be lulled into forgetting its true nature until it tries to eat Roy Horn - and if you’re not on guard, it can eat you.

God, I loved it. I did not want to get off. It’s not a light bike but when you settle into it you stop feeling it, it’s precise and even with the Akrapovic pipes trying to make my ears bleed I could hear Mt Glorious calling. Or possibly Mt Panorama. Or the Stelvio Pass. It’s a bike for mountains, Gandalf!

Adventure 990 R

An interesting beast, this. Tall and lanky, it looks more like a big-engined Dakar racer than any competing “adventure tourer”. It’s the bike Ewan McGregor’s less famous and more knowledgeable friend wanted to ride around the planet before KTM decided that two rich film-stars with multiple backup teams and the willingness to do combat training as preparation couldn’t do it, and left BMW to rake in the publicity.

This is the dirt-worthy older brother of the 990SMT. How does it compare?

Very well, thank you. The R is slightly taller, so I had a slight stretch getting my heels on the ground (I’m 6’2” in boots, hate me if you like) but it felt like nothing more nor less than a slightly more solid version of the SMT. That’s it. With standard pipes it sounded more humane, but with the same engine the only real difference in get-up-and-run-screaming-at-the-enemy-brandishing-a-claymore is down to the Adventure’s extra weight - a matter of 10 or 15kg.

It has some very nice touches, like a power outlet in the dash (they sell a waterproof case for phones/GPS devices, very nice) and a small glovebox where a normal bike has its tank, inside of which is the fuse box with spare fuses. I like this bike - that’s the sort of neat touch I had only previously met from,  you guessed it, BMW. The actual tanks are, plural, mounted one each side and form the large, slab-like flanks that prevent this bike from looking quite as sexy as the SMT.  Capacity is about the same 19-odd litres as the SMT, so range is about the same as well at something south of 300km, by all accounts, depending on how much fun you have. Not much compared to the other Adventure and its 33L tank, but you can get larger replacement tanks if you really feel the need.

I obviously didn’t get a chance to try it in loose stuff, and frankly the thought scares me a little despite the poise all these bikes displayed. And speaking of poise: Handling was just as nice as the SMT, possibly even more so at moderately sane speeds thanks to its narrower, therefore quicker-cambering offroad-capable tyres. The front wheel is a proper dirt-bike 21", but the bars are so wide this doesn't slow steering down unless you're really going for it. Speaking of tyres: At no point could I tell I was on something a bit chunky in the tread - the Pirelli Scorpions did a very nice job, and I’ve heard elsewhere they wear well, too.

Is it a better tourer than the SMT? Yes. I would have liked to try the standard seat, but touches like the power outlet and a saner, more useful set of luggage attachment points (the SMT has clips on the exhaust shields designed specifically for its very own soft luggage, the Adventure gets a proper rack system) make it a much better choice.

But as a sports tourer, the SMT just has it hands down. Tiny percentages in weight, seating position and handling add up to a big difference in character, and if you’re serious about pushing grip levels you will need the fatter, stickier tyres of the supermoto.

The SMT is also a better choice if you’re short, but only by 10cm or so on the standard Adventure.

And then we have the:

SuperDuke 990

Take the same explosive engine and put it in just about the smallest naked bike package you can make. 

Result: The first, by my recollection, pure road bike built by KTM.

It’s tiny. If it wasn’t so potentially dangerous it’d feel like a toy. After riding a long-wheelbase BMW and, occasionally, a TDM, and then the SMT and Adventure, it just felt too small, too short, too low to the ground. It changed direction like the above-mentioned hare and would make a brilliant, if thirsty, commuter, but it simply fills a niche I just don’t understand.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Yes, Virginia, epidemiology is really hard

I had been trying to get away from these road safety rants of mine, I really had.

But this was too interesting to pass up: An interesting, amusing (as in "funny hmmm....") and self-aggrandising article from the Courier Mail: Fast-aid cuts road toll to lowest since 1952 (January 04).

What does? I thought it was speed cameras! Also: Where, dear deity, did that hyphen come from? "Fast-aid" isn't mentioned elsewhere in the article so it's not a brand or other name, and clearly it's not a compound adjective - "cuts" is a verb. It's bloody stupid, is what it is.

The point of that article, as expressed concisely and almost well in the lead, is:

BETTER, faster ambulance crews helped Queensland achieve its lowest road toll last year since accurate records began in 1952.

Again: I thought it was speed cameras!

In the midst of a health system SNAFU (it's probably so long-term it doesn't deserve to be called a crisis anymore) where staff aren't paid and emergency beds have waiting lists, hearing that any aspect of the ambulance system has been improved is fantastic.

What interest me here, however, is that it is a beautiful, nay, elegant illustration of the fact that reality is really complicated and, therefore, epidemiology is quite hard.

There are two factors affecting the road toll: How many people are injured badly enough to be fatal and; how many are given adequate treatment. The first factor can be broken down into: How many people are involved in potentially fatal accidents and; how well they are protected by the car and fate.

The road toll is therefore affected by road and traffic conditions, the judgement of drivers, the road-holding and handling of their cars, the crash protection and passive and active safety features of those cars, and the response times and skill of all arms of the emergency response services.

This is why I keep describing the road-safety debate as puerile, shallow and all but a waste of time.

The point of this article is that: The road toll is lower because more people are being prevented from dying.

Yes, there are numerous other factors, short- and long-term. But I would really, really love to see the figures reported as: total accidents/potentially fatal accidents/fatal accidents. Give us some perspective.

There is also this:

In 2010, there were 5.5 road deaths per 100,000 Queenslanders, which met a target to virtually halve the rate from a decade ago.

Note halve. There are more many more people using the same road network, meaning higher traffic densities, meaning greater risk, and yet per capita roughly half as many people are dying. If you ever look at the annual traffic toll and observe the sameness of the figures from year to year, ponder what that means in terms of a growing population. It means that it has never been safer to be driving. Well, not since cars were limited to walking pace and they attracted gawkers wherever they went.

Well, they're using a historical low for comparison purposes, which will make any statistician beat their head against their desk, but you see the point.

Whether it's due to stick approaches like cameras, or better driver training (although I have my doubts) or the simple fact that cars are improving in capabilities and tank-like levels of occupant protection out of sight (and bikes get the occasional nice feature like ABS or traction control) while the roads and speed limits are staying the same, we have seen real death tolls plummet.

I'm not sure which is worse: The publicly portrayed understanding of causality or the public portrayed understanding of mathematics.

Monday, 3 January 2011

How road safety articles should be

After so much ranting and so many brickbats, I felt I should really present a bouquet.

This is now three weeks out of date because, well, that's what the past month's been like.

It was from the Queensland Times, by staff journalist Andrew Korner (who's also a nice bloke) and it's the first halfway lengthy newspaper/online article on road safety I've seen in quite some time that hasn't lowered my opinion of the outlet and/or the talent being quoted.

The title is a nicely positive Annual Ipswich road toll slashed.

The reason I like this is right up front in the first paragraph, and doesn't get worse:

POLICE have attributed a sharp drop in the number of Ipswich road deaths to drivers making smarter decisions and obeying the rules of the road.

Lower down, a direct quote from Snr Sgt Hamilton which may be the best yet on the topic at hand:

"At the end of the day a traffic crash is the result of people making poor choices and it's that fewer people have made poor choices on the road that has led to the reduction."

Slightly mangled syntax (pot, kettle, black...), but you should be able to detect that this is the most intelligent thing I've seen said about road safety in some considerable time.

He's not focusing on one problem which is a factor in less than a third of crashes, he's not talking down to motorists, he's recognising the complexity of the problem and the paradoxically simple solution: Drive smarter.

Can we get this guy as spokesman state-wide, please?

Lower down, after an out-of-place all-caps IPSWICH traffic branch's 21 officers... we are told that police will be patrolling roads, conducting RBT's and speeding, licence and vehicle checks. Speeding as one component of a complete approach - wow.

Finally, I was ecstatically glad to see something other than speeding identified as one of the most common contributing factors (note: contributing factor, not cause): fatigue. This particularly makes me happy because the fatigue-awareness ads we've had are, almost exclusively, better than any of the anti-speeding (not speed-awareness: anti-speeding) ads.

Particularly the ones with Dr Karl in them.

News reports don't have to be bald, basic, simplistic, or pandering to lowest common denominators. I maintain that even the most purely objective news media has a role to play in encouraging thought, debate, discussion and a general improvement in the logical and cognitive capacity of the community at large.

Plus, if you talk to adults on their level you're much more likely to enlist first their ears and then their support.

I really, really want to see more like this.

There is an art to good coffee and there should be

Nearly three years ago now I was pushed into rant mode by the then-new coffee machines using little prepackaged pods of coffee.

Nespresso machines are clean and neat and easy but generate huge amounts of excess waste packaging and take all the fun out of making coffee and the website is built using flash.

I've recently encountered one of these machines again and, I have to say, they can make a quite decent cup of coffee. But three years later, are the arguments stacking up any differently?

No. They're not.

Have a look, for example, at the next café you go to. Airport, McDonalds, pub, actual café, wherever. They're all still using the old-fashioned hand-operated machines. Not only do they not use prepackaged pods, they don't even use those fully-automatic fancy expensive machines that grind their own beans, measure, pack, tamp, espress, clean, all at the push of a button. No, they're all using the most time-intensive, skill-essential old style where a human has to do the measuring, tamping, and sometimes even timing of the draw. And then there's coffee grounds everywhere and it has to be constantly cleaned. This may be at least partly to do with image, but the benefits of a skilled barrista making coffee by hand can not be overstated.

And then there's the more concrete and psychological reasons.

Have a look at the price of the the pods. For a start, they're very difficult to get - they're not in supermarkets, for a start. An eBay search finds lots of 50 pods available for just under $50 including postage, or just less than $1 each. I haven't checked the prices on Nespresso's website because it requires you to register first, and frankly I'm not going to give them the satisfaction even in the name of journalistic investigation. Well, not unless someone pays me for it, anyway. Googling is immensely frustrating, so let's just say that $1 per cup is a good round number.

Now, I pay about $9 for a 200g tin of coffee, ground to my specification. A shot of espresso is technically 7g, according to my measuring spoon. That's about 28 shots of espresso per tin (which is frighteningly small, and explains why I have to get it refilled so often). That's 32c per cup. Even at those small prices, one third the cost adds up. Plus my tin is reusable, which means that my packaging cost is the bulk packaging that beans get delivered to my outlet in. My one reusable tin, or 28 little pods that take up a lot more space in the trash? My grounds don't even get thrown out - they end up as organic material in one garden or another.

But, finally, the one argument above all others I care about: Coffee is supposed to be involved. It is supposed to be a ritual. Coffee from a Nespresso machine may be nice, when you've picked the right pod, but it is the least satisfying cup you can possibly drink.

At home I have three different plungers, three sizes of stove-top machine (should be four, I need to replace my sadly departed one-shot machine), an espresso machine (that needs a new pump) and we even have two drip-filter machines, one larger and more complicated than the other and both of them living under the bench because, after using the timer feature about twice, my partner went back to using a plunger when she felt like real coffee.

And all of them have their individual little techniques and processes worked out over many years to produce just the right result. For example: For a pot on an electric element, the best procedure is to turn the element on first so it's hot when the pot goes on it, use filtered water from the fridge and take it off just as it starts to hiss towards the end of extraction. For a plunger, don't let it sit or it'll go bitter. Pour, plunge, pour (some people say stir, but you get that from pouring water in the right way). The espresso machine is, of course, an art in itself.

They are all of them satisfying. Making a cup of coffee, if you're going to move beyond instant, is a ritual. It has its rules and its regulations, its shibboleths and its superstitions. Its, to borrow a term from an excellent source, cultural chemistry.

That's without even going into the way I drink it - the single shot of espresso as a drink for pleasure, the standard-strength long black as a drink for productivity, the double-strength long black to get me over the finishing line when the brain starts to fade.

I really wouldn't have it any other way.

Everyone needs some luxury in their life and if you want to put your coffee effort into paying for pods and ordering them online and throwing out the detritus, go ahead. I'm going to put my effort into actual coffee.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Do we make them justify anything?

In case you haven't worked this out already: I really, really don't think much of the road safety discussion currently being played out in the state and national media.

It's important but it's crude, simplistic, over-wrought and driven far too much by government and police sound bites, and I don't even mean the almost exclusive focus on deaths to the exclusion of permanent trauma causing lifelong disabilities at a tremendous emotional, physical and financial cost to individuals and their families.

And most of the discussion orbits the topic of speed cameras.

In order to justify the use of speed cameras as a road safety initiative, not merely a fundraising initiative, there needs to be a direct and confirmed causal link between the usage of cameras and an overall reduction in the rate and severity of accidents. Not just a correlation - a causal link. There are too many possible factors impacting driving behaviour for us to jump to a simplistic conclusion if there's a dip in the death rate.

Then, if we've done that, we need to be sure that there are more effective, more cost-effective ways of addressing the road toll. Maybe speed cameras work, but not as well as some of the alternatives.

Maybe the road and traffic authorities know what they're doing. But it's really hard to be sure of that, because they're not talking as if they do.

Let's start with More speed cameras deployed to cut road deaths from the ABC (December 15).

It tells us: Police are trying to cut road deaths; they are putting camera vans in 40 and 50 kilometre per hour zones; there are more camera vans in service (12, now); in two years 57 people have died in 40 and 50 zones; the road toll is lower than it was last year, and; putting camera vans in low-speed areas is part of a plan to cut the road toll.

There are logical holes in that. There is no justification that camera vans help to lower the road toll, they are concentrating resources on areas with a very low percentage of the toll (57 in two years, when the two-year total toll is in the region of 600) and where death is less likely due to the low speeds anyway.

Are non-suburban areas less important? Or is it harder to put resources there, so it's too much of an effort?

There is not even any indication of how many deaths are related to speed anyway, which would give the public some hope of working out for themselves if the tax money they're paying to be used in crude behaviour modification on them has any hope of being spent in a way remotely resembling good value.

From the Brisbane Times (December 18), we have Sixteen reasons for covert speed cameras.

Ooh! Justification!

Hahahahaha, psych! No, it's just another article saying "We have road deaths, let's do something simple and easy."

Here's the interesting part, right up front: 16 speed-related deaths in two years in 40 and 50km/h zones. That's 16 out of 57 in low-speed zones, or 28 per cent, or less than one third, and that's out of a tiny proportion of the total. Tell me: What are the police doing about the 72 per cent of deaths that weren't speed-related? Anything?

If we take a two-year total of about 600, that is, as pointed out in the comments to this article, about 2.7 per cent of deaths getting the added attention of two covert camera vans. May I suggest that's a little disproportionate?

There is, however, a balancing although inadequately explored opinion delivered by National Motorists Association of Australia, saying that covert cameras are all about revenue raising and can never be as effective as police on the streets.

It would be nice to have some sort of discussion about why that is.

Finally, appearing in the RSS feeds as "Speed cams are lifesavers" (what, muscular men in red speedos?), the Courier Mail gave us Covert speed cameras linked to Queensland plummeting road toll.

Okaaaay. Linked by whom? Statisticians? Accident researchers?

Well, I've read the entire article twice and I'm still not sure. It's not really stated.

The salient points are: A poll showed 25 per cent of motorists have changed their behaviour as a result of covert speed cameras; quite a lot of money has been charged in fines this year, and; there are concerns of a bounce in the accident rate as people adjust their expectations and return to previous behaviours.

The whole "cameras = less deaths" thing is only ever hinted at.

It is assumed that "changed their behaviour" means "safer." They might, instead, be driving slower but angrier and more aggressively. They may be safer but it could be because people are more alert on the roads trying to spot covert police and are therefore more aware of road and traffic conditions, rather than because they're driving slower.

If that's so, then good. But there might be better, more generally useful ways of getting the same result.

It's even assumed the current low death toll has any explanation beyond annual fluctuations. I've forgotten too much about statistics to know what the thresholds are and gee, it'd be nice to hear someone explaining it.

As an exercise, I went to PubMed, typed in "speed cameras" (with quotes, to get the actual phrase) and had a quick read through the abstracts of relevant articles.

There's the usual problem of identifying articles that have anything to do with the topic, and then when you find them there are a nice smattering of methodological problems. I even found one article finding a difference in effectiveness between different types of roads, and then another article using one category of road as a control and the other as an intervention group.

There was also, astonishingly, a Cochrane review, conducted by researchers right here in Brisbane.

Going to the source, we find that the Cochrane Library contains 12 articles relating to prevention of traffic crashes.

(NB: The conclusion of Motorcycle rider training for the prevention of road traffic crashes is "We have no idea, no study has been of a high enough quality to justify drawing any worthwhile conclusion.")

The camera review is here.

A review of 35 relevant studies concluded that cameras are associated with lower speeds and lower rates of accidents, but the degree of effectiveness can't be confirmed because the studies are of varying and generally moderate quality.

There, see? We have a result: Research has concluded that speed cameras help lower the road toll. It took me five minutes to find that.

Now, before I have any faith that my tax dollars are being well spent, I want to see:

  • Discussion on the best form of cameras - point-to-point, visible fixed, visible temporary, covert temporary, and visible or covert vehicles in the traffic flow.
  • Discussion on what to do about all the accidents that aren't related to speed.
  • Some sort of visible commitment to research-based policy.
  • Research into why cameras have that effect, and how to maximise it.

I know, "tell him he's dreaming'."

We can hope.

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