Wednesday, 17 May 2017

On the slaughter of our raptors

Hen harriers pass food during courtship.
Photo Maxwell Law.
Dear Roseanna Cunningham

You'll have seen, I know, Raptor Persecution Scotland's letter to you following the slaughter of yet another hen harrier in Leadhills. Raptor Persecution Scotland are a gentle and polite body, and pull their punches rather dramatically.

I acknowledge, as they do, that the Scottish Government has

  • introduced vicarious liability,
  • introduced General Licence restrictions,
  • published annual wildlife crime reports,
  • commissioned a review of wildlife crime penalties,
  • commissioned a review on raptor satellite tag data

This all sounds very grand, but the outcome amounts to nothing.

Vicarious liability prosecutions are quietly dropped.

General Licence restrictions, where applied, are replaced by specific licences licencing all those things the estate owners would have wanted to do under the general licence anyway; and SNH are unable to impose any further General Licence restrictions because Police Scotland will not co-operate.

A report is a good thing. I'll allow you some praise for the report; but even this is of little worth if no action follows.

Penalties are of no worth whatever unless there's some prospect of their being imposed. Yet despite the clearest possible evidence, the Crown Office have repeatedly failed to even bring crimes before the court.

As to the satellite tag data, the review is nothing more than prevarication. I know, you know, the world knows where these tags a mysteriously disappearing. They are mysteriously disappearing on Scotland's 'sporting estates'. Furthermore, they are not disappearing equally on all of Scotland's 'sporting estates'. There are some estates - and we could both name them - on which tags disproportionately mysteriously disappear.

I appreciate that many large landowners are very powerful people, with great influence both nationally and (especially) locally. I appreciate they have many ways to bring leverage to bear which are less blatant than simple cash payments. But for any officer of the state - whether they be a police constable, a Crown Office lawyer, or a Cabinet Secretary  - to turn from their duty in response to either subtle inducements or subtle threats from powerful people - is corrupt behaviour, and it cannot be acceptable in Scotland.

You cannot, of course, force either Police Scotland or the Crown Office to do their duty (although it might be hoped that some of your cabinet colleagues can). But there is action which the law empowers you to take which would cut through this mess like a hot knife through butter.

The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016 gives you the power to designate land as environmentally detrimental, allowing community interests to force the purchase of that land. What could be more clearly environmentally detrimental than land on which protected species frequently die?

The Scottish National Party exists to achieve independence for Scotland. To persuade people to vote for independence for Scotland, you must persuade them that an independent Scotland will be a better place - a more equitable, more just place - than it is at present. Saying, as the SNP did during the 2014 referendum campaign, that we can have independence and nothing will change, will not cut it - as the 2014 referendum proved. We have to offer a vision of a better nation.

A better nation is not one in which six hundred people own half the land. A better nation is not one in which the powerful can break the law with impunity. A better nation is not one in which our uplands are turned into a blighted desert for the recreation of a tiny minority. A better nation is not one in which the glens are empty of people. A better nation is not one in which the selfish few can slaughter our wildlife.

Be brave, Roseanna. Tell the lairds that if raptors die on their estates, you'll take the land off them. You can. The law empowers you. And Scotland demands it of you.

Leadhills would be a fine place to start.

Yours sincerely

Simon Brooke

Friday, 14 April 2017

Of means, and ends

On the cliff path
I don't really understand my own mind. I watch my behaviour, as an ethnographer would, and try to infer intent from observed action. I perform experiments to test hypotheses. I'm sure other people don't do this - I'm sure other people don't need to do this.

Last weekend I rode my bicycle up to the cliff path. In part, I went to see whether there were any razorbills or guillemots nesting this year (there weren't, or, if there were, I didn't see any). But in part I went consciously to test how suicidal I was. If you really want to die, I said to myself, here's your opportunity.

I didn't.

This morning I tried my usual mental test of the same issue: if I had a lethal dose of opiates in the house, would I take them? And this morning the answer is a confident 'no'.

It's hard (for me) to pinpoint when an episode of depression starts. One could say with a fair degree of truth that I've been depressed to varying degrees for more than three years, but a period of high intensity - a period in which I've been struggling badly with suicidal thoughts - started in late December and ran until very recently. I've been making preparations to end my life - 'setting my affairs in order', as they say. There have been a few days in that that I'm genuinely surprised to have survived.

But it seems that period is over - of which I have to say I'm very glad. Which makes my current behaviour even more bizarre.

I've had the veins removed from my left leg, as a consequence of childhood illness. Consequently it doesn't drain very well, and tends to develop clots. Consequently, for the last twenty years I've been on blood thinning drugs: specifically, warfarin. Warfarin is a nasty drug. The lethal dose is only three times the therapeutic dose, and dying of warfarin overdose would be extremely unpleasant. I've thought about this a great deal, because of course the one drug I do have a lethal dose of in the house, and have had all through this period, is warfarin.

It seems I've been at best a dilettante suicide. I have several means of lethality at my disposal, none of which I've used; as I say, my routine test of how suicidal I feel has been, if I had a lethal dose of opiates, would I take them? For the last many weeks the answer has been 'yes'; but I haven't chosen to take the drug I did have.

Instead I've done the opposite, and I'm still doing it. And that's bizarre.

The therapeutic dose of warfarin fluctuates with a range of factors, and consequently one needs to have the clotting ability of one's blood retested regularly. I'm currently supposed to be retested fortnightly, but in fact the last time I was tested was on the 11th of January; since then I've refused. And three weeks ago I decided to titrate the dose down and come off warfarin altogether.

Without it, I shall almost certainly die, probably quite quickly. That's OK; I've never been afraid of death. Much worse, though, I may have a disabling stroke. My decision to stop taking warfarin was, consciously, another test of how suicidal I was. I could at any time, I thought, reverse the process, take a dose, go and get tested.

Well, I could. But, although I no longer feel suicidal, I haven't. So what's going on? Why not? Is it just pride, a refusal to back down? Is it indecision?

Am I capable of killing myself out of sheer stubbornness?

I don't know. It seems I am. I really don't understand my own mind.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

A really interesting map of Scotland

The map at just over 1,000 signatures
I've blogged before - a number of times - on maps which show the systematic difference in political culture between Scotland and England, but here's a really interesting one. This map shows the early signatories to a petition against the 'rape clause'. Why, on this issue, should there be such a sharp divide between Scotland and the rest of the UK?

Yes, OK, the campaign has been led by Alison Thewliss, an SNP MP. Yes, Nicola Sturgeon did reference it in her barnstorming interview at the Women in the World summit in New York. But this is a clause which affects women across the UK, a clause so perversely evil that it must surely offend people of any gender across the UK.

So why is Scotland so clearly delineated?

Obviously, this is early days; the petition has barely more than a thousand signatures. But it will be interesting to watch it over the next few weeks. Is Scotland not only left of the rest of Britain, but also more feminist?

Update, 14th April

Here's the map at almost 4000 signatures (coloured by % of constituents). Can you still see the Scottish border?
The map at almost 4,000 signatures

Update, 16th April

Now at 16,000 signatures, and still every constituency in mainland Scotland has more signatures than any constituency outside Scotland.


Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Peer to peer post-scarcity computing

Trinity College Library, Dublin.
In previous notes on post-scarcity hardware (here and here) I've assumed a single, privileged, main memory manager which maintains the canonical memory pool. All requests for memory objects go to that manager, and new non-private memory objects must be created in the address space managed by that manager. The memory manager thus becomes both a bottleneck and a single point of failure.

In the second note, I'd suggested that memory should be allocated in pages with each page belonging to a single thread. On true post scarcity hardware, that means that each page could physically co-reside with the processor on which that thread was run. That processor would be responsible for curating its own memory objects (which in essence means updating their reference counts, and garbage collecting them when they're no longer required).

Memory objects would still be requested by other processors by outputting the request on the address bus. Because memory objects are immutable, any processor which currently holds a copy of the requested object can respond by outputting that copy onto the data bus. Whether this is a win depends on topology, but my own mental model of the internal arrangement of the processor array is that each node has direct communication with eight nodes on the same layer, and nine on each of the layers above and below.

In this model there's no physical space to route a single address/data bus pair which connects every node, so the model is necessarily store-and-forward like old-fashioned Usenet, so it would be a win for the topographically nearest node which has the data to respond with it. This does of course require that every node can trust every other node to obey the rules of the system.

Reference counts are of course not immutable, but no node but the canonical owner of the memory object needs to know anything about them. Of course, when a node which is not the canonical owner of the memory object passes a copy of the object to a third node, it must communicate back to the canonical owner to update the reference count; and when a node holding a copy of an object deletes that copy, it must again communicate back to the canonical owner that the copy no longer exists.

It also means that, for any object, when the reference count of that object on its canonical node hits zero, it must not be deleted immediately, because an 'add reference' message may still be propagating through the system; instead, it must be queued to be deleted, and held in that queue for the maximum time it could reasonably take for a message to propagate.

There are some problems I haven't worked out, which may make this idea unworkable. Suppose a node (A) requests a memory object (1) from each of its 26 neighbours. None have it, so each passes the request on to each of  its neighbours which haven't yet received the request. One node in this second shell, (B), has a copy of (1) and responds. How do we communicate with each of the nodes currently retransmitting the request that the request has been satisfied? If the 'cancel' message propagates though the system at the same speed as the original message, then it can never catch it.

For sending 'update reference' messages to work effectively, each node must know which single one of its neighbours is nearer to the target node of the message, but this does not seem to me in itself problematic. Obviously broadcasting 'update reference' messages across a store-and-forward network would be dreadfully inefficient. But is broadcasting 'have you got' messages any more efficient than simply querying nodes on the direct route to the canonical owner? I'm not sure.

And, when receiving a copy of a broadcast message, its obviously desirable that each node should only rebroadcast it only to nodes which have not yet received it. But is it computationally cheap to know which nodes that will be? I think so, but I'm not confident and will have to prove it.

Finally, the single memory manager acted as a single point of failure. But a system in which every single node is the canonical owner of a segment of the memory map means that the loss of any node could mean catastrophic failure if that node was the canonical owner of some widely used object. Obviously if the object is widely used it's likely that many nodes will have copies of it, so it's probably possible to rebuild at least the critical bits of the missing node's memory.

But how does one construct an algorithm to decide which node should take canonical responsibility for the orphaned memory objects? How does one construct an algorithm that would scale, as nodes are progressively lost?

This I don't know.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Contemptibles, Lackwit, the Literal-Deadbeats, and the United Kleptocrats and Idiots Party

Being depressed, my view on the world is bleak; it's not necessarily irrational. Here are bleak thoughts on the current state of British politics.

The Tories are a party for the greedy, the selfish, the narcissistic and the sociopathic; the LibDems for those several sandwiches short of a picnic. UKIP are a party for those who hate and fear, and for those who seek to foment and exploit hatred and fear.

Labour comprise two tribes of essentially decent caring people, locked in a state of permanent civil war which erodes their decency.  The only party normal decent folk in England can vote for is the Greens, but it's irrational to vote for the Greens under FPTP, because they can't win.

In Scotland the SNP is composed of exactly the same decent, caring, internationalist and vaguely socialist people as Labour, except that they have one idea - independence - which unites them. This is why Labour hate the SNP so much - because the SNP actually can and do do the things Labour would like to do but can't because their chronic disunity prevents them from ever winning elections. Which is why the SNP and Labour will never be able to unite at Westminster; which means the Tory hegemony will endure the rest of my life.

The largest party in Northern Ireland, meanwhile, make even UKIP look like sweetness and light.

Here's an even bleaker thought: it is those who seek to foment and exploit hatred and fear who are now in the ascendency.

Friday, 17 February 2017

The Right Honourable Liar Carmichael and the problem of Fake News

Alistair Carmichael, who knowingly lied in an
election campaign
[This is my submission to the Westminster Culture Media and Sport Committee's enquiry into 'Fake News']

Before the 2015 General Election, a Scotland Office official leaked a story claiming that Nicola Sturgeon had told the French Ambassador, Sylvie Bermann, that she favoured the Conservatives to win. An enquiry was launched into the leak. Alistair Carmichael MP told that enquiry that he had not known of the leak until it appeared in the press. The election happened, and the Right Honourable Liar Carmichael was duly elected as member for Orkney and Shetland.

I can call him Liar Carmichael, because Lord Matthews and Lady Paton, presiding in the Electoral Court in Edinburgh, judged that he had told a lie (paragraph 44 of Lady Paton's judgement). He told a lie, because, as he freely admitted after he had been elected, he had ordered the leak himself. And yet the court judged that his election should stand: that it is acceptable for a politician to lie in order to be elected.

No ambiguity here
During the 2016 EU referendum campaign, senior politicians of the Conservative party and of UKIP toured the country in a bus emblazoned with the slogan "we send the EU £350 million a week. Let's fund our NHS instead". Those associated with this claim, who explicitly endorsed it, include the Right Honourable Boris Johnson PC MP, the Right Honourable Doctor Liam Fox MP, the Right Honourable Priti Patel MP, and the Right Honourable Andrea Leadsom MP.

On the day after the referendum vote, those who had ridden on that bus hastily rejected the claim. It wasn't a promise, said the Right Honourable Chris Grayling MP, it was an 'aspiration'. But Vote Leave director Dominic Cummings later admitted that they would not have won had they not lied.

Let's be clear about this: there is a problem with fake news. But fake news does not just happen. It is created: and it is created by bad political actors. People who engage in politics in bad faith, who choose to lie to achieve political ends which they could not achieve honestly.

Alistair Carmichael's election in the famously upright constituency of Orkney and Shetland was secured by a lie. The vote to take the UK out of the EU was secured by a lie. But there are no consequences for the liars: no penalties. Alistair Carmichael keeps his seat and his salary. And while the UK is dragged out of the EU, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Priti Patel, Andrea Leadsom and Chris Grayling all sit at the cabinet table.

None of these people has been banned from public office; none, in fact, has even chosen to resign it. None has been fined. None has been imprisoned. Indeed, in an extraordinary inversion of common sense, each of these people, who have chosen to use mendacity to secure factional political ends where honesty would not have served, are entitled to be known as 'the Right Honourable'. This is irony forged from the finest ores.

A democracy cannot survive under these circumstances. In a country in which it is acceptable to lie to gain office or to influence great decisions of state, the popular vote is meaningless, since it is impossible for the voters to trust their representatives.

So, as the House of Commons enquires into fake news, I commend to you the words of Matthew 7:5: first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Hard Cheese

Draft response to Food Standards Scotland's consultation on its regulatory strategy.

Nothing is without risk. All foods have health benefits and disbenefits, some of which are now well understood and some which aren't. Attempting to create a perfectly safe food environment is beyond the scope of modern dietary science. In particular an auto-immune system which is never challenged does not develop resilience necessary for good health; for example, pasteurisation has been associated with the rise in allergies.

There's no doubt that FSS policy to date has been highly detrimental to small innovative food businesses. The destruction of Errington's Cheeses stock on the basis of tenuous and unproven evidence - effectively, on the basis of pure prejudice - has had a very chilling effect on the ability of small food businesses in Scotland to raise capital and find investors. This runs directly against your proposed outcome of 'Enabling business compliance and growth', and detracts sharply from your proposed outcome of 'FSS is a trusted, empowered and effective regulator'.

It is obviously imperative that FSS use 'evidence based decision making', but that 'evidence' has to be open and transparent, and FSS has to be able to communicate clearly to the public exactly on what evidence its decisions are made. Otherwise there will be a widespread perception that FSS favours large industrial processors over smaller artisan businesses.

Commodity milk production in Scotland is now viable only at scales which militate against acceptable standards of animal husbandry, and which generate very little rural employment. If we're to retain a viable population in remote rural areas we must be able to create more jobs per thousand hectares, which means we must be able to add value to primary production at the farm gate; which means in turn that we must process our primary products into higher value products which escape the commodity pricing trap. This observation is made all the more true post Brexit, when we're likely to be forced to compete with food produced in global markets in which standards of animal husbandry are significantly below those which would be acceptable here.

If Foods Standards Scotland are able arbitrarily and impunity to close down any small food business,  this will result in increased rural poverty and depopulation, and lead to more villages ceasing to be able to support services such as shops and schools. Food standards do not exist in a vacuum, but in a wider context of policy objectives and desiderata. We could achieve perfectly healthy food production in Scotland by ceasing to produce any food in Scotland, but that would have serious social and economic consequences, as well as consequences for food security and resilience.

Obviously it is more complex and more costly to inspect and monitor many small producers distributed over remote rural areas than a few large industrial plants in urban settings. Obviously there are risks associated with small scale food production. Obviously there is a role for regulation and for inspection. But FSS must reverse the perception which it has established that it closes smaller businesses arbitrarily and without compelling evidence.

As you say in 2.10a, 'establishing trust is vital'. You are signally failing to achieve this.

In summary, bland words about 'evidence based decision making', 'transparency', 'minimising burdens on business' and 'promot[ing] mature and open relationships' are easy to write, but much harder to implement; and you have got off on a bad foot.

While I broadly welcome the words in your draft strategy, I have much less faith in your ability or even willingness to make good on them.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Post scarcity: Memory, threads and communication


One benefit of getting really annoyed with Daniel Holden's book on how to Build Your Own Lisp is that I have finally started work on building software for my decade-old Post Scarcity Software idea. There are some problems you don't really see until you start to build something.

Almost all previous Lisps have been primarily single threaded; I think all previous Lisps have been single user. Some problems occur with a multi-threaded, multi-user system which don't occur (or at least aren't problematic) on a single-threaded, single-user system.

In this note I use the words 'thread' and 'process' interchangeably; for the purposes of this argument, there is no difference between a thread and a process.

In a multi-threaded system, whenever one writes to an object, one needs to get an exclusive lock on it, in order to prevent any other thread trying to write to it at the same time. In theory, immutable data gets round this problem, since once a piece of memory is allocated it can't be written to. The problem with that is that memory management requires to keep track of the use of objects, and in typical schemes that involves writing all over the place. Also, memory allocation in a common pool must normally require locks.

Post Scarcity Hardware and the locking problem

The Post Scarcity Hardware proposal partly gets around this problem. Main memory is curated by one process running on one processor which does nothing else but curate main memory. It runs no user space programs, but instead only listens for requests for memory objects from 'normal' processors and streams the requested data over the data bus.

Each 'normal' processor has its own local data pool which both caches data requested from main memory and stores work-in-progress not yet returned to main memory. Each 'normal' processor  runs only a single thread of user-space program (it runs at least one background process managing bus access). But because there are at least hundreds and possibly millions of 'normal' processors the number of concurrent threads can be very large.

However, we don't yet have special purpose Post Scarcity Hardware, so for now Post Scarcity Software has to run on systems with low numbers - a few tens - of processors, running in a common memory pool.

Commodity hardware, and reference counting

I'm still experimenting with reference counting garbage collection. Reference counting garbage collection requires that every time one makes a link to a cell, the reference count on that cell must be updated, so the cell must be locked by one process in order that that update can be carried out. Having a lock on each cell makes every cell bigger, and consequently is expensive of memory. So reference counting makes the problem of multi-threading more difficult than would mark-and-sweep. Does this mean I should abandon reference counting? I don't think so.

The Page Per Thread model

The nature of immutable data is that a thread can 'see' - hold pointers to - only data written by its parent, grandparent or older ancestor threads. It also can't see new data written by its ancestor threads after it was spawned. This is because an older cell, being immutable, cannot hold a pointer to a newer cell. If new data is created by other, concurrent threads, then 'our' thread cannot except by extraordinary mechanisms see that data, and so it can't make links to that data.

A new cell can of course be created with a link to an older cell, but only an older cell which is visible to its process; which is to say, in the normal run of things, only a cell written by its own process or by an ancestor process. But in typical running, cells most frequently link to cells of similar age - to cells only a little bit older, and so, typically, in the same process.

This suggests an optimisation. We're organising cells into pages anyway, for a number of pragmatic reasons. If, instead of a lock-per-cell model, if we have a lock-per-page model we not only save a lot of memory; we also save a lot of contention. Threads can be assigned a page 'of its own' to work with, and, when that page is exhausted, can be assigned further pages. A separate free list is maintained for each page.

This means no thread will contend with other threads when writing new data into memory. Contention with other threads may occur when updating reference counts to older data either written by a still running parent process or by a common ancestor of another still-running thread. So there still needs to be a mechanism for locking pages, and a process must still verify that it has a lock before it can update a reference count, much less write new data. But since it will mostly be working in its own page, waiting for locks will be relatively infrequent.

Note that the 'page per thread' model works equally for mark-and-sweep as for reference counting. Indeed for mark-and-sweep it has an additional benefit - only one thread has to be halted while mark-and-sweep is done.

Communicating in an immutable environment

The problem

If we stick rigidly to the principle that data is immutable, it is impossible to set up a communication channel between two processes, and it is impossible for a process to access, for example, a newer version of some function written since the process was started. Indeed, strictly immutable data means a process cannot see any data written by its grandparent since its parent was spawned, by its great grandparent since its grandparent was spawned, and so on back to the root process. So we cannot create a communication channel between two processes, since neither can see what the other is writing.

If namespaces are implemented as association lists, then namespaces themselves will form trees mapping exactly onto the process tree. A name in a namespace, as visible to a process, will refer to the value it had when its parent was spawned, or to a value written by its parent before it was itself spawned, and so on back, recursively.

This is deeply undesirable. It means that if the root of the process tree - the ultimate ancestor process, equivalent to the init process on UNIX - is kept alive, and a critical software update is deployed in that ancestor, nevertheless that critical software update will not be available to any other process. Windows, of course, needs a reboot after any system update, but that is exactly the sort of crap that post-scarcity software is supposed to be making obsolete.

As I'm envisaging systems which stay up for very long periods - many years - a reboot to deploy new versions of system functions is not acceptable.

But the problem is worse than that. If Anne and Bill are working concurrently on a new bit of software, Bill cannot see the changes Anne has made and vice versa. If they aren't working in the same building, they can't even open a chat channel to one another.

Mutable namespaces

What I think this means is that some (not necessarily all; indeed, very probably not all) namespaces must be mutable. Of course this means that a namespace must have not only a reader access list but also a writer access list. Anything that is to be communicated between concurrent processes, or whose most recent value must be visible to other processes, must be named in a mutable namespace and, if requested by name, the most recently written value must be returned.

In this way system software updates are immediately available to all processes, and people can work collaboratively on the same things. It also provides a very crude mechanism for communication between processes, but I think as a mechanism for communication this is too crude and I shall propose another in a moment.

Automatic revision control in namespaces

If it's possible to rebind a name in a namespace to point to something new, what happens to its previous value? Is it lost and garbage collected, or is it retained as a 'previous version'? Both possibilities are desirable, but if we're serious about 'post scarcity' then economy of store is not a significant issue. I'd prefer automatic revision control to be the default behaviour, so that all previous values were retained and could be explored; so we can ask not only for the current binding of a name but also for a history of its previous bindings and for any particular binding from that history.

Inter-process communication

I already have the concept of read streams and write streams. A pipe can be implemented as a pair of a write stream and a read stream; if there's a shared mutable namespace visible to two processes, possibly owned by different users, then it's possible for one process to advertise a request to communicate to another, and for the other to accept that request.

Obviously if there's a pipe it's possible to print a datastructure to the write end, and for the read end to create a copy; but I believe that it would be desirable also to be able to pass pointers over a pipe, so that instead of Bill being able to make his own local copy of Anne's datastructure he could just link to it directly.

Summary

Multiple processes means that there's potential contention when writing to memory; a fairly simple segmentation of writable memory should make it much less onerous. Immutable data makes interprocess communication hard; some relaxation of immutability is needed to make it possible.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

How not to build your own Lisp

Occasionally one buys a book which is a disappointment. Usually, when I buy a book which is a disappointment, I don't review it, because it isn't nice trashing other people's hard work; and that's especially true when the writer has written as engagingly and sincerely as Daniel Holden has. He's written a book I'd like to like.

But sometimes it's important to explain why a book is a disappointment, what is wrong with it, and what residual merit it still has.

Lisp is the List Processing Language. The clue is in the name. A linked list is a very simple and primitive data structure - essentially a node in a binary directed graph - from which other data structures (including executable programs, in the form of recursive functions) can be built recursively. And it is this inherent recursive nature which enables the other critically interesting point about Lisp: it implements the lambda calculus, Alonzo Church's groundbreaking mathematical formalism which made it possible to reason about the nature and limits of computation.

The problem is that the language Holden is showing you how to write, while it has some of the surface level syntactic structure of Lisp, isn't a list processing language at all. There are no lists. So there are no list cells. So there can be no primitive to construct a cons cell, nor one to take the value of its first pointer, nor one to take the value of its second pointer.

Holden does mention his lack of list cells, in a boxout on page 88; he says

'This naturally leads to an implementation using linked lists, a different data structure to the one we are using. I choose to represent S-Expressions as a variable sized array in this book for the purposes of simplicity, but it is important to be aware that the official definition, and typical implementation are both subtly different'

It's not subtly different. It's crucially different. You can indeed make something that looks like a duck out of papier mache, but it won't walk like a duck and it won't quack like a duck. It's not a duck, and this is not a Lisp.

For example, take a list '(a b c). Let's call that list p: (let ((p '(a b c))). Now take the tail of that list twice: (let ((q (cdr p))(r (cdr p))). Now suppose we test whether q and r (both, remember, being the tail of p) are the same thing:

* (let ((p '(a b c))) (let ((q (cdr p))(r (cdr p)))(eq q r)))

T

Yes, they are.

What about in Holden's language?

No, they're not.

They're both identical copies of the same thing.

We've lost the distinction between what is the same and what looks the same. We can no longer tell the difference between a duck and a papier mache copy of a duck.

Another crucial issue in the design of a Lisp is memory management, something I'm intensely interested in. Holden ignores this, simply delegating it to the C heap; but because instead of constructing homogeneous list cells all of which have the same size, he's constructing variable sized vectors, he will fragment the heap and ultimately cease to be able to allocate more memory even when there is memory available. Of course, in modern machines with very large amounts of memory it's unlikely that anything written in a toy programming language is going to get into this situation, but it's still disappointing.

All of this raises the question who the book is for. Lisp is not a popular language. It's a relatively obscure language, of interest to computer science geeks because of its simplicity and power. A book called 'Build Your Own Lisp' is likely to appeal to computer science geeks, and especially to computer science geeks who want to build their own Lisp. It's not likely to be of interest to beginner programmers, because beginner programmers wont know what Lisp is or why they should be interested in it.

So the people who will buy the book won't benefit from it, and are liable to be annoyed by it; while the people who might benefit from it are unlikely to buy it.

But they'll be missing a trick, because what this book is is a very good, clear, engaging introduction to writing a non-trivial program in C.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Those tyres: 650b x 42

A couple of weeks ago I posted my review of my Cannondale Slate. And, like more or less everyone who's reviewed the Slate, I said nasty things about the slick tyres. What's wrong with the tyres?

Well, on tarmac, they're excellent. They're fast rolling and supple, which, on tarmac, adds up to excellent grip. The problem is that the Slate isn't designed just for tarmac, and I don't use mine just for tarmac. It's a bike for roads, paths, tracks and trails. On damp grass, damp rocks, mud, or more or less any other off road surface in the wet west of Scotland, the degree of grip available is sketchy at best. To be fair, dropping the pressure does help a little bit.

Stopping at each junction between tarmac and non-tarmac to deflate or inflate the tyres would be stupid and impractical and I've no plans to do it, but they'll run at 3.1bar/45psi on tarmac without and significant deterioration of performance, and this is a compromise which more or less works. For now.

But I've been looking for a replacement 650b x 42 tyre with a bit of tread, particularly on the shoulders, because sooner or later those tyres are going to let go unexpectedly and I'm going to go down hard. I'm a little old to enjoy that, now. And the truth is there really isn't much available.

Schwalbe have two options, the Marathon Supreme which is semi-slick and, as Schwalbe themselves say, has poor offroad grip; and the G1 (actually in 40mm width, but that will fit), which has a fine overall tread which would probably roll well on road but I imagine would clog rapidly in mud. Their Hurricane, which might be the sort of profile I'm looking for, isn't available in 650b at less than 50mm wide.

Panaracer offer their Gravelking tyre in 650b x 1.5", which is more or less the same fit. It has a very slight tread - very slight indeed. They also do a Col de la Vie touring tyre, which has a diamond tread pattern which might work.

There are some minor American brands offering 650b x 42. There's a thing called a Grand Bois Hetre, which has barely perceptible tread; I don't think it would work in Scottish conditions. There's a thing called a Babyshoe Pass, which has just a tiny bit more. Mind you, it claims to be designed for mountain conditions in Washington State, which I don't imagine are very dry. And finally in this group there's the Soma Cazadero, which has decidedly more bite and would definitely be better off road - but probably less good on road.

All these boutique American tyres are very expensive - the Cazadero comes in at US$73.99 per tyre, before you've paid shipping.

The thing which most closely resembles what I think I want is the Continental Tour Ride, which Continental describe as an 'urban tyre'; it has a smooth central tread and chunky shoulder blocks. However, it's discontinued and I cannot find that its replacement, the Ride Tour, is available in 650b. Also, although Continental are a German company, I cannot find any European retailer offering the 650b version of this tyre.

And that's all I can come up with. It's not a big range.

There are good technical reasons for choosing the 650b x 42 tyre size: it produces a higher volume tyre, able to cope with rougher surfaces, with the same outside diameter as a 700c x 23, and consequently with race bike geometry. But if companies like Cannondale want to sell bikes with 650b wheels, they're going to have to persuade more tyre manufacturers to support them.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Search, and you shall find

I tend towards the view that Google sets out to be, and believes itself to be, on the whole a force for good. Sergey Brin's original motto for the company was 'don't be evil'; Google now says that its mission is "to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful"; that its core aim is "to make it as easy as possible for you to find the information that you need and get the things that you need to do done."

I'm going to take that at face value; in this essay I shall write as though I believe these claims to be true (and, in fact, that is true: on the whole I do).

So when Carole Cadwalladr, working from original research by Jonathan Albright, forensically demonstrates that Google is acting as a potent amplifier for neo-fascist propaganda, we need to ask what is happening.

There are, essentially, three possibilities:

  1. That Google is aware of what it is doing and has tuned its algorithms to promote neo-fascist views (for reasons given above I do not believe this is currently the case);
  2. That the neo-fascist right, by superior intellect and cunning, have been able to game the Google ranking algorithms (for reasons I hope to give below I don't wholly believe this);
  3. That a combination of naivety of Google's algorithms and the structure of far-right websites has accidentally created the current mess. This is what I (mostly) believe, and I shall explain why.

(Note that today Google tweaked the search suggestions system so that it no longer offers the 'Are Jews evil' suggestion that Cadwalladr highlighted, but this is a solution only to the problem of that specific query: it isn't a general solution)

How search works

People who are not computer scientists believe algorithms are inherently complex and magical. They're not. Most are very simple. Google's page-rank algorithm is now proprietary, and thus secret; it has presumably been tuned somewhat over the years since it was last open and public. But the core of it is extremely simple.

Previous search engines, like Alta Vista, had scored web pages based on the content of the page itself. Thus if a web page contained the word 'Jew' many times, these search engines would rank the page highly as a source of information about Jews (in this essay I am using 'Jew' and 'Jews' as an example of a word that has become gamed; this essay itself has nothing to do with Jews and says nothing either positive or negative about them). The more times the page repeated the word, the more highly it would be ranked for that word. This was based on the naive assumption that people writing web pages were honest, well intentioned, non-delusional and well informed. And as most people are honest, well intentioned, non-delusional, and don't write about subjects on which they're not well informed, for a while this algorithm worked well enough.

But it was extraordinarily easy to game. The search engine believed what a web page said about itself. The search engine reads the text of the page, not the formatted image (that's still true of Google today). So Alta Vista, although it would give higher weight to words that were in headings than to words that were in body text, gave the same weight to words which were, for example, in white on a white background (and which therefore a normally sighted human reader using a normal browser wouldn't see) as to words which were black on a white background. 'Invisible' text could be inserted into pages - including as headings - which search engines would see but readers would not. Very often this invisible text would be a single repeated word: 'Jew Jew Jew Jew', or variations 'Jew Jewish Jews Judaism'.

Google's insight was that what a page says about itself is not trustworthy; Google's insight was to treat what other, unrelated sites said about a page as more trustworthy. The Web is a collection of linked pages; rather than counting the words on a page, Google counted the words in links to the page. So if a page contained the word 'Jew' a hundred times, Google (unlike Alta Vista) would not be more likely treat that page as an authoritative source of information on Jewishness than if it did not contain the word 'Jew' at all. But if pages on a hundred other sites - that is, sites with a different domain name - all have links to the page, and all those links contain the word 'Jew', then Google would rank the page highly as a source of information on Jews. The greater the number of such links, the higher Google would rate it.

People, on the whole, are more likely to link to sites they agree with than to sites they disagree with. So for example, I create a lot of links to stuff by Andy Wightman, Lesley Riddoch, Cat Boyd, Vonny Moyes. Different communities of interest also use different vocabularies. So for example if you type 'land reform' into Google you'll get a set of results broadly favourable to land reform; if you type 'land grab' you'll get a set of results broadly unfavourable towards land reform. The reason is simple: those who oppose reform are much more likely to frame it as 'grabbing'.

So we have a situation in which a page which is linked to be a very large number of other pages with the word 'Jew' in the link text is rated highly as a source of information about Jews, and it happens that the majority of pages which use the word 'Jew' in link text use those links to point towards anti-semitic pages; and thus Google, using its very simple algorithm of counting the links which contain the word, treats those anti-semitic pages as authoritative about Jews. Google isn't being evil; it's simply being naive.

The question is why it happens that the majority of pages which use both the words 'Jew' and 'Evil' in links point to anti-semitic sites. Originally, I'm pretty sure it was happenstance. Thousands of rabid mouth-frothers created thousands of links on thousands of blogs, all using the word 'Jew'. Ordinary serious Jewish people, writing about Judaism, probably don't use the word 'Jew' very often, because in their discourse Jewishness is assumed; and in particular they're pretty unlikely to link it with the word 'evil', because people tend not to think of people within their own community as evil.

The Google game

But once this pattern emerges and is recognised, what happens? I can go out this morning and buy a hundred internet domains all with apparently unrelated names, all with a hundred apparently distinct registered owners. I can point those domains at servers I can hire cheaply in the cloud, and I can host a hundred different websites. On each of those websites I can host a page with a link with the text 'Jew', which points to a single, common page saying something negative about Jewishness. If I choose a page which is already fairly highly ranked on the word 'Jew', I can push it even further up the rankings.

This is a scheme which has already been used for years by spammers and scammers; it would be a miracle if conspiracists had not noticed and begun to exploit it. So, as I wrote above, I believe that the current situation where innocent searches can lead to extreme or malicious material has arisen by accident as a result of naivety on the part of an essentially-reasonably-honest Google; but I also believe that it has now begun to be gamed.

But beyond that, the search suggestion system can be gamed. The search suggestion system is just an ordered list of the most common search queries. It has some slight tweeks, but that's essentially it. So if a million monkeys sit at a million keyboards and type 'are Jews evil' into a Google search all day, then 'are Jews evil' quickly rises up the suggestion list and starts to be the first thing offered by the suggestion system when someone innocently types 'are Jews'. Of course, those monkeys don't need to be real monkeys - a bot-net of hacked computers could easily be programmed to repeatedly ask Google particular questions, forcing other phrases up the suggestion list.

Search in a capitalist society

I sat down yesterday evening to think, OK, how does international civic society work with Google to limit this problem, to algorithmically build a better notion of trustworthiness into the evaluation of links, when I stumbled on an - obvious, when you have thought of it, but very disturbing when you first stumble upon it - even more potent problem.

We live in a capitalist society. Capitalism is disentropic of wealth; people who have wealth have opportunities to accumulate more wealth which are not available to people who don't have wealth. This is true at all scales; a home owner has more economic opportunities than a tenant, a millionaire than a home owner, a billionaire than a millionaire. In normal functioning, in a capitalist society, wealth is concentrated more and more into fewer and fewer hands, and the rate at which this concentration happens accelerates over time. There is a stark tension between this fact and the idea of fairness which appears to be innate in human beings, which even very small children can clearly articulate. Historically, there have been events when capitalism has reached crisis, when wealth has been radically redistributed from the very rich to rest of society; the most recent of these was during and immediately following the Second World War.

But since then, the ratchet has been working quietly away again, as simple mechanisms will.

One of the things which happens when capitalism reaches crisis is the rise of the right. This isn't in the least bit accidental. People who are very wealthy wish by definition to remain very wealthy, since giving away wealth is easy. People with wealth can fund political campaigns, and political persuasion. It's no accident that, throughout the Western world, the bulk of mass media is owned, not by readers or workers co-operatives nor by civil society, but by individual plutocrats. It's no accident that very wealthy people stand for high office - and win.

'The immigrants are taking our jobs' is an explanation for the reason that employment is getting harder to find. But in an age of globalisation and automation, it's hardly a very persuasive one. There are alternative, more persuasive, explanations: the investor class has offshored our jobs; the technologists have automated them out of existence. Yet in the narrative surrounding both the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the Trump victory in the United States, it it accepted that a significant proportion of the vote was driven by xenophobia against immigrants.

Why?

Well, certainly one explanation is that the right amplified that message at the expense of the alternatives. And the reason the right should choose to do that is because the right represents the interests of capitalism's winners - those who have, by luck, chance, dishonesty, inheritance, or by any other means accumulated more than their equal share of the world's wealth, and who want to hold onto it. The 'offshore' and 'automation' narratives both place responsibility for the loss of jobs in western economies on the heads of the investor class which chooses where to place investments, and chooses which technology. The right seeks to shift responsibility for loss of jobs from the few powerful plutocrats to the many powerless migrants.

And the evidence is that they're succeeding, which is, tangentially, where we came in.

But the fact that the right is succeeding is not the horrible thought. On a level playing field we could counter the right's success in exploiting Google, either (which I would prefer) by working with Google to develop algorithms and architectures which would make it easier to assign a trustworthiness score to a link, or by creating a new left-oriented search engine, or by 'reverse gaming' the page rank algorithm, architecting a 'web of the left' to balance the existing web (whether accidental or designed) of the right.

But this isn't a level playing field.

There ain't no such thing as a free search

We don't pay for Internet search. We accept that search is, like so much else on the Internet, free to use. Of course, it isn't free to provide. To handle the billions of search requests Google receives each day, to run the spiders which continually explore the Web to keep search results up to date, to run the indexers which convert the pages collected by the spiders into ranked data that search responses can be collated from, takes a mass of hardware and an enormous quantity of bandwidth. But Google doesn't provide us with this free, rich search experience out of charity. It doesn't even provide it as a loss leader. On the contrary, it is the enormous profitability of search which cross subsidises Google's many more experimental ventures.

So how does free search convert into enormous profits? By building up a detailed picture of your interests in order to sell highly targeted advertising. To see what a search engine looks like without that revenue, look at Duck Duck Go. Duck Duck Go doesn't identify you, doesn't collect information on you, and doesn't sell the information that it doesn't collect to advertisers. It is also a commercial company, seeking to make profit from search. Instead of collecting data about you to sell on, it sometimes (but not often) shows adverts at the top of the search results.

Duck Duck Go is there, it works, it's relatively unintrusive. You could use it, but you don't. You don't use it partly because you know Google will find you what you want; you don't use it because you intuit (and, it happens, correctly) that the results will not be so good.

What you don't see is how up to date the results are. In a typical week, Googlebot - Google's spider - reads more than 500 pages from my personal website. In the same period, DuckDuckBot reads one. And that differential represents the difference in resources the two companies have. Google crawls websites based on their own metric of how often a site changes, but nevertheless they check most pages on my site most days; my site changes rarely. Sites which change more frequently are crawled more intensively. Google clearly has the resource to scan the whole web very frequently: search results from Google will always be very up to date. DuckDuckGo don't say how their spider searches, but nevertheless it's clearly much less often.

But there's more that DuckDuckGo can't do that we've come to expect Google to do for us. Because Google collects and stores a lot of information about us, it can tailor it's search results to be relevant to us. It knows what I've searched for in the past, where I live, what car I drive, which websites I visit, what items I've shopped for but not (yet) bought. It can show me things it thinks will interest me, and a lot of the time it's right. DuckDuckGo cannot do this, because of a choice - arguably an ethical choice - its designers have chosen to make: they've chosen not to collect the data which would make those personalisations possible.

Who owns our searchers?

Google is a commercial company which makes enormous profits by collecting a great deal of information about its users so it can target advertising at them. I continue to believe that Google is on the whole a relatively ethical company. At least one of its founders thinks seriously about the ethics of what Google does, and while his ethical judgements are not always the same as mine (and, it seems to me, do not always win out, these days), I don't see the company as ethically vacuous in the way many are these days, still less actually evil. I believe that if we could show Google how to develop referrer quality metrics and integrate them into search, they would do this. I believe that we could work with Google to make it harder for political interests (including ourselves) to manipulate search results.

As long as their mission is "to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful", as long as that is a sincere statement, we can work with Google, because improving the perceived political neutrality of their search (to the extent that there is such a thing as political neutrality) improves the quality of the product.

But Google is a publicly listed company. It can be bought. And Google is not necessarily the world's most popular librarian for ever; Facebook is coming up fast behind, and there's no pretence that Facebook is an ethical company. We cannot trust the places people go to find information on the Web will be benevolent. On the contrary, like big media, they are likely to become targets for people - very wealthy people - who wish to influence public opinion, just as the major newspapers and television channels have been.

Google has restructured itself to be part of a new group, called Alphabet (although Google is by far the largest and most profitable company in that group). Alphabet's market valuation is something more than half a trillion US dollars. That's about equal to one third of the combined total wealth of the poorer half of the world's population. The poor cannot buy Google, or anything like Google. The left cannot buy Google. But as few as ten of the world's richest people could club together and buy Alphabet. It would be a good investment. It's still very profitable.

And, of course, many of the world's richest people are (very) right wing.

The library of lies

Control information - control the information it is possible to search for, possible to discover - and you control thought. Heterodox ideas - heresies can be made unfindable. Books need not even be burned; they can simply be hidden, bowdlerised, altered; false, perverted copies can be produced as the real thing. False 'news' can be mixed with true until the two become indistinguishable, as has already begun to happen to readers of some newspapers and viewers of some television channels.

People discover the Web largely through search. It does not matter how much true information, how many clear and logical expositions of interesting heterodox opinion there are out there on the Web, if search - the search we choose to use - does not find it for us. Network effects mean that at any one time one search engine will dominate search - the biggest search engine has the most resources, so can be most up to date and responsive, so everyone uses it - why would you use anything else? Thus Alta Vista supplanted Lycos and Google supplanted Alta Vista. Possibly someone will come up with an algorithm so much better than Google's that they will sweep Google from the Web; more likely, companies like Facebook and Apple will fragment the Web into separate walled gardens in which they control search, and into which they don't allow third party spiders.

But whether Google remains king of the hill, or whether it is supplanted, the politically ambitious rich must now be eyeing search in the same way that fifty years ago they viewed broadcasting and a hundred years ago they viewed newspapers. Control information, and you control thought. And the means by which people access information, in a capitalist economy, can be bought.

Yes, I believe that the left - and civil society generally - could work with Google to create 'politically neutral' search, for some value of politically neutral. We could because, I believe, Google is at its core still a well-intentioned company. But in a future - a future I think under capitalism more or less inevitable - in which search is owned by people like the owners of the Daily Mail, the owners of Fox News, could we then work towards 'politically neutral' search?

Well, only to the extent that Fox News is now politically neutral television.

Look to windward.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Cannondale Slate: a good bike for bad roads

The Slate in its native environment
For some reason I've never really understood, my review of my Cannondale Jekyll is still, twelve years after it was first published, one of the most popular posts on this blog. Now, a month after getting my second Cannondale, it's time to review it. How to start?

A decade ago, I used to run a 24 hour event across all seven of the 7 Stanes mountain bike courses, and the roads between them. Riders, in relay teams of four, would set off from Glentrool on Saturday morning and arrive in Glentress early on Sunday morning. The only rule was that the relay baton had to be carried by bicycle the whole way. It wasn't formally a race, but in practice, like many audaxes, it really was a race. There was no prize, but every team wanted to be the first team home.

Because the route was a mix of gravel roads, tarmac roads and extremely technical mountain bike trails, teams brought a selection of bicycles: cross bikes for the gravel roads of Glentrool, cross country mountain bikes for Kirroughtree, Dalbeattie, Mabie, Ae, Newcastleton and Glentress, and race bikes or time trial bikes for the roads in between.

But on one of these events one team brought a bike that interested me greatly. It was a Cannondale Silk Road - a road bike with Cannondale's 'Fatty' suspension fork technology. The fatty fork had the suspension movement inside the head tube of the frame. The Silk Road put in very good performance both on gravel and on tarmac.

The Silk Road series was not commercially successful; by the time I saw it the bicycle was no longer in production. But for the back roads and unmetalled tracks of Galloway, on which I do a lot of riding, it struck me as a near ideal vehicle.

Old meets new: my old Dolan with the new Slate outside
Studio Velo
Earlier this year my beloved Dolan cross bike started to die. It is twelve years old, and the bottom bracket, which is worn out and creaking horribly, has seized in the frame. I considered my options. One option was the Cannondale Slate. It would be hugely expensive, and was obviously not the most practical option. But the idea of a road bike with a little bit of suspension really appealed.

The Slate is the spiritual successor to the Silk Road. Like the Silk Road it has front suspension, this time using a short travel Lefty monoblade. I like lefties; I may have mentioned this before. They work exceedingly well, and they're just elegant technology.

It also comes with unusually high volume tyres on smaller-than-normal wheels. Every review of the Slate that you can find online criticised these tyres; I'll come back to them. But I was aware of them as a potential problem.

Nevertheless I may have slightly overpersuaded Gareth Montgomery to get a test bike in to ride. The bike he got in was the base model, which comes in green with Shimano gears. I took it out for a wee ride on the road. It was faster and more responsive than I'd expected, and climbed extremely well. I didn't take it off road because it was a split-new demo bike, but I liked it.

I'm a snob. I don't ride Shimano. And I like my bikes black. So I ordered the top of the line CX1 model, and the day after my birthday it arrived.  The handlebars on the stock bike were an extraordinarily wide 46cm; Gareth kindly agreed to swap these for 42cm which fit me better (I'm tall, but I'm not actually a big guy) and fitted my choice of pedals free of charge. And then I rode it away...

Over the past month I've ridden it about 300 miles, probably three quarters on tarmac. That's not a lot to evaluate a bike, so this is necessarily a first cut at a review; I'll probably write a more considered one later.

I've mentioned the lefty fork and the tyres above; the third significant idiosyncrasy of the Slate CX1 is that it has SRAM CX1 groupset, and, specifically, a single front chainring driving an extraordinarily wide ratio eleven speed cassette. This means that the bike actually has fewer gears than any bicycle I've owned since 1980. How does this very unconventional bike work in practice?

On Road

On road, this is a remarkably fast road bike. I didn't really expect that; I thought the big tyres would be draggy. Because of that expectation I originally ran the tyres at 60psi, which although low for a road bike is high for these tyres. They aren't draggy, at least not at 60psi; on the contrary, the bike rolls extremely well. I've found it reasonably easy to sustain twenty miles an hour on the flat, and I'm old and not very fit. Whether it's quite as quick as my road bike I'm not certain, but I think it pretty much is.

On climbs, there is a little movement of the lefty, particularly when you're out of the saddle. This isn't problematic. You can lock out the lefty when climbing but I've rarely felt I needed to.

Just look at the size of that bottom gear!
The gears? I'm still not used to having only a single derailleur; I still instinctively try to put the bike onto the big ring. But I've found the 'double tap' mechanism very easy to adapt to. On road climbs the gear range is more than adequate - the lowest ratio, 44/42, is extremely low. At the other end of the scale the highest is 44/10, which is not far off the 53/13 of my road bike. Yes, you do ultimately run out of gears on a descent, but you're probably at a speed where tucking down and being as aerodynamic as you can is more efficient than pedalling.

The benefit of the single chainring setup is that the gears are remarkably quiet in use; it also seems very unlikely that the bike will suffer from dropping the chain, and despite the length of the derailleur arm chain tension seems very well controlled - I've not had any issues with chain slap.

Obviously, with only eleven gears, there are quite big gaps. But is isn't as bad as you'd think. There's no overlap between gear ranges, and those gears are reasonably spaced. I hadn't expected I'd ever have to change either up or down two gears at a time, but in practice I frequently do. I haven't had a problem finding the right gear for a comfortable cadence.

The limited suspension travel is rarely noticeable in itself but even on poor tarmac there's no road buzz. I initially assumed that the fork was doing very little on good tarmac, but by regularly resetting the rubber o-ring and checking its movement I find that the bike regularly uses at least two thirds of its 30mm travel even on the best of roads. It's very comfortable, and doesn't seem to have any negative effect on speed.

How can I say how nice hydraulic disks are on a road bike?

My two most scary moments on a road bike have been down to inadequate brakes. On an audax to Lindesfarne I was descending a steep twisty back-road hill with the instruction 'straight on at crossroads'. What the route sheet didn't say was that the road we were about to cross was the dual carriageway, seventy mile per hour, A1. That was on a Raleigh with single pivot Weinmann brakes. I stopped in time. Barely.

The second was on the Exmouth Exodus, an overnight ride from Bristol to Exmouth. I was on my Dolan cross bike. We arrived at the top of the Cheddar Gorge in a torrential downpour. The road was a river, and the Frog Leg cantilever brakes on the Dolan - which until then I'd thought pretty good - essentially didn't work at all. A lot of other people's brakes didn't work well either, which contributed to the scariness of the descent, but that was not a good experience.

I haven't yet tried the Slate's brakes in torrential rain, but I'm confident they will work well. In everything I've done so far, they've been powerful, smooth, progressive, reliable. Of course, modern dual pivot calipers are also fairly good, but they're still working on the brake track which will be very wet in heavy rain. Hydraulic disks are just much, much nicer.

Overall, on the road, the Slate is an extraordinarily nice bike. It's distinctly better on road than I expected - I had expected that the specialisations which allow it to work off road would compromise its on road performance. They don't.

Off Road

Slick tyres are extremely sketchy on
damp surfaces
Off road... well, it's those tyres.

When I originally had the tyre pressures at 60psi, I thought they were suicidally sketchy. On damp off road surfaces there was virtually no traction. The rear wheel would slip instead of drive, and the front would slide sideways with startling ease. The bike has excellent handling and is very controllable while sliding; I haven't fallen off it yet. But at 60psi a damp bend off road needs to be negotiated with care and not much speed.

Fortunately the tyres will run a lot softer. I've now dropped them down to 45psi, which doesn't seem to have had a noticeably negative effect on on-road performance but has improved off-road significantly. The tyres are still sketchy, and don't like either mud or loose gravel, but it no longer feels actively dangerous. I still don't feel comfortable descending fast off road. The chassis would happily go faster, but the tyres let it down.

I could run the tyres softer yet; tubeless, they'll go down to about 30psi. But judging from other people's reports, at that pressure the on-road performance is significantly compromised.

This isn't, of course, the first time Cannondale have let a fine bike down with a poor choice of tyres. I think I may have mentioned the dreadful Hutchinson Scorpion Airlights that my Jekyll came with. By fitting light tyres, Cannondale make their bikes seem lighter in the shop. But if those tyres aren't really up to real-world conditions, it's a pretty illusory lightness. Having said that, other reviewers have complained that the tyres supplied on the Slate are excessively fragile, suffering from sidewall rips too easily. So far I haven't had any problems of that nature. I've picked up one slow puncture, but considering how often I've been off road that isn't dreadful.

This isn't a mountain bike. The suspension travel is short; to descend comfortably off road you need to be out of the saddle. But then you probably do anyway for control, so it's not a big issue. It's not a bike that you would take fast on rough singletrack; its low-speed stability and agility aren't as good as a mountain bike, and the suspension travel is limited. However, it would manage singletrack, and on dirt roads be sufficiently faster than mountain bikes that overall it would probably keep up.

I've got used to having in-line brake levers on my cross bike, so that I can brake with my hands on the tops as well as on the hoods. The Slate doesn't have these, and I miss them (especially so given sketchy tyres!)

Hope supplied prototype hydraulic in-line levers to some of their sponsored riders this year, and apparently they're compatible with SRAM, so (if these go into production) that may be an upgrade I'll make.

If you thought slick tyres wouldn't throw much mud around,
you were this: dead wrong.
I'm not entirely certain what I'll do about the tyres. The Cannondale slicks are superb on road, and anything which provided decent amounts of mud grip is almost bound to compromise that. On the other hand, for me reasonably safe off-road performance is as important as fast on-road performance, so that's a compromise I'll probably make. Ted King, who won the Kanza 200 this year on a nearly-stock Slate CX1, used Schwalbe G1 tyres, which look as though they would roll fairly well on tarmac. On the other hand, his conditions were fairly dry. Something with more tooth, especially on the shoulders, would be nice, but it's hard to find in 650b x 42.

I think the Slate is probably a very nice off-road bike, too, but at present its performance is limited by the very sketchy tyres. I think that finding the right tyres with the right compromise between off-road traction and on-road rolling will make the difference between it being a nice bike and a superb one.

Presentation 

This is an expensive bicycle, and you'd jolly well expect it to be well presented. And it is; the frame is made to Cannondale's usual very high standard, and finished in matt black with gloss black lettering. The wheels feature purple anodised hubs, and the crank-arms are a matching purple. It provides a nice visual highlight to the presentation. But two minor points let this down.

Firstly, all the purple-anodised parts are Cannondale own-brand. There's one other anodised part on the bike: the control knob on top of the Lefty. It is also, obviously, Cannondale proprietary, and you'd have thought it would have been obvious to supply it in a matching purple; but no, it's red - the only red detail on the bike (well, my lights are also red anodised, but they didn't come with the bike). So from a purely visual design point of view I feel they missed a trick there.

Front: Cannondale Hollowgram Si, showing wear
after only 300 miles; rear: Campagolo Chorus,
as new after about 30,000 miles.
The other issue is to my mind more serious: at just 300 miles, the anodising on the crank arms is already beginning to wear through. Now, obviously, things wear; crank arms rotate and I'm clearly habitually brushing the crank with my ankle as I pedal. But the photograph on the left shows the crank of the Slate, where the pretty purple anodising has already worn through, in front of the equivalent crank of the Campagnolo Chorus chainset on my road bike, which shows no obvious wear after twelve years and approximately 30,000 miles.

I like the purple cranks; I think they're a nice detail. But I don't think this is good enough quality for a bike at this price. If the anodising can't be made durable enough to last a little longer, it would be better not to anodise.

Conclusion

I've been quite critical in this review. That doesn't mean I'm unhappy with the bike, or that I think I've made the wrong choice. It is both fast and comfortable on road, making it an excellent bike for audaxes and sportifs. Even with its present tyres it's reasonably capable off road, and I've been very much enjoying being able to mix road and off-road riding.

When I first rode it, with the tyres at 60psi, I thought Cannondale were being irresponsible selling the bike in the British market with slicks. At that pressure - which would be normal on a cross bike - the slicks are so sketchy as to be actively hazardous off road. But I no longer think this since the tyres roll well at much lower pressures than I'd anticipated. Nevertheless, they are very poor tyres off road.

Of course, a partial answer to the tyres problem is to have two sets of wheels, one for on road use and one for off. I had that setup on the Dolan cross bike. But changing a lefty front wheel is not as quick as changing a quick release; and in any case you cannot take a spare set of wheels with you when you are out, and what I want from this bike is very much the ability to mix on and off road riding. I need to find better tyres.

Note that my criticism of the tyres is entirely about their performance off road (and, specifically, their lack of grip in wet conditions). On road, they're fine - comfortable and very fast rolling. If you're thinking of buying a Slate for on road use, don't be put off by my criticism of the tyres.

It is - as I expected it would be - incompatible with my current trailer, so it can't (yet) be used for camping or for shopping trips. Also, because the wheels aren't quick release, it doesn't fit easily into a car. Those problems can be solved with a new trailer and a bike rack for the car. And they will be solved, because I'm confident this is going to become the bicycle I choose to use, not just for big adventures but also for everyday rides.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Response to the consultation on the 2016 referendum bill

The following is my response to the Scottish Government's consultation on the new referendum bill. If you have not completed the consultation I urge you to do so. Questions are in italics; my responses in plain text.

Questions

1 What are your views on the proposed arrangements for managing the referendum?

One of the features of the 2014 campaign was that several groups, including but not limited to the Radical Independence Campaign, ran voter registration drives especially in poorer urban areas, resulting in a significant number of people who had not been registered choosing to register.

Towards the end of the campaign we received advice that this wouldn't be permitted in future, because of new electoral registration legislation. I am not certain of the validity of this advice.

It is essential if the people of Scotland are to vote that civic society voter registration drives are encouraged, and not prevented.

2 What are your views on the proposed technical changes to polling and count arrangements?

I'm concerned that '100% checking' may make it more difficult to register homeless people to vote. There are particular problems with helping homeless people to register anyway - many are vulnerable and may have literacy of other problems, and many are exceedingly wary of any interaction with the state. I'm also not clear what '100% checking' would mean in their case.

I'm also not clear why 'persons over the age of 16 who are normally resident in Scotland' would not suffice. Why, for example, should Syrian or Afghani refugees, settled here, be excluded from this vote?

3 What are your views on the proposed changes to rules on permissible participants?

Schedule 4, para 2, reads:

"For the purposes of this schedule, each of the following is a “permissible donor”—
(a)an individual registered in an electoral register,
(b)a company—
(i)registered under the Companies Act 2006,
(ii)incorporated within the United Kingdom or another member State, and
(iii)carrying on business in the United Kingdom,"

The referendum is a matter for the people of Scotland. It is not at all clear to me what standing a company registered outside Scotland has to seek to influence the outcome.

I believe that item (i) should be amended to read 'Registered in Scotland under the Companies Act 2006' and that item (ii) should be struck out.


[for clarity, I did not make any comment to questions 4 and 5 as these seemed to me uncontroversial]

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Streets paved with gold

So what we know of the state of the EU negotiation so far is as follows (don't laugh, anyone. This really isn't funny).

The EU won't allow access to the single market without both

  1. Free movement of labour;
  2. A large payment of money.

The UK wants access to the single market for London, but definitely not for Scotland.

So London is to be in the single market, with free movement of labour and all that; but the Home Counties are outside, and don't have access to the single market or nasty immigrants or anything like that.

Let's think for a moment about what that might mean.

Part of Geneva Airport is in Switzerland, and part is in France. To cross the airport from the French side to the Swiss side (or vice versa), you have to go through a full customs and immigration check. If you hire a car from the French side of the airport you can't legally drive it in Switzerland, and vice versa.

You could imagine, perhaps, Heathrow airport being like that: part of it in London, and part in England. That means that an agricultural worker from Poland could legally get off a plane at Heathrow, and go to London. But wait! What if they travelled through London, and out to Kent or Lincolnshire to do agricultural work?

Well, obviously, that can't be allowed.

So you have to have a hard border with full immigration checks (and customs checks as well, of course) all round London. Of course, lots of people who work in London live in the Home Counties, so they'd have to get work permits to work in London (since, not being EU citizens, they wouldn't have a right to work in London), and they'd have to go through immigration checks every morning. This isn't impossible, of course. Lots of people who work in Geneva live in France (it's cheaper) and go through immigration every morning. It's very efficient. It only adds about an hour to the commute.

But wait: suppose we in Scotland (or even the good burghers of Windsor) elect an MP, to represent us in Parliament. Does that MP automatically get a green card? What happens if she doesn't? Do we have to have a new class of parliamentary visa which entitles the MP to sit in parliament? If so, does it also entitle her to give interviews on College Green?

But wait again: London produces virtually no food. In fact, it produces virtually nothing of any use to anyone. So everything used in London, every bottle of champagne, every sheet of paper, every staple, has to go through customs checks. Is it CE marked so that it can be used in the single market? Has appropriate duty been paid?

This matters, of course, because VAT on goods sold in London goes to the EU, whereas any sales tax on goods sold in the UK presumably doesn't. So any commuter who buys a box of staples in his home town and uses them at work in London is smuggling, is denying the EU of revenue. And, of course, vice versa.

So: is the M25 in London, or is the M25 not in London?

Just so we're clear, the Scottish border is eighty miles long, and has two railways and nineteen roads crossing it, including one motorway. The M25 is one hundred and seventeen miles long and has thirty three junctions, six of them with motorways; it's crossed by about twenty five railway lines.

If it's in London, then anyone commuting from, say, Oxford to St Albans would have to pass through customs and immigration checks to get onto the M25 and then through customs and immigration to get off it again. If it's not in London, then anyone delivering vegetables from Croydon to Golders Green either has to pass through customs twice (and, incidentally, have a green card to work in the UK), or else drive through central London, increasing congestion.

This sounds as if it will all work sweetly, doesn't it?

"Ah but," you'll say, knowingly, "London doesn't mean Greater London, it only means the Square Mile." You may even point out in your know-it-all way that the City of London isn't technically in the UK anyway.

Oh good. This has a number of benefits. Only about seven thousand people live in the City of London, because it's so expensive. So any nasty foreigner who took advantage of free movement of labour to work in the City of London would have to be an extremely rich nasty foreigner, and, consequently, not all that nasty really. Westminster isn't in the City of London, so no problem for MPs. Of course, you'd have to have customs and immigration checkpoints at every underground station in the city and we'd have to get tourist visas to visit the Tower of London, but that's, surely, a small price to pay.

An excellent solution, isn't it? The City of London in the Single Market, the rest of Free Britannia outside it?

There's only one fly in the ointment.

Canary Warf isn't actually in the City of London.

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