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.


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.


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.


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.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Calling time on Kaye

I suppose it's no surprise that I am, yet again, shocked by Radio Scotland's tame shock-jock. After all, that's what shock-jock's are employed for: to whip up anger by espousing and promoting disgusting views. But this morning, in actively encouraging and providing a platform for rape apologists, she's gone too far.

Full disclosure: I know virtually nothing about the Ched Evans case. I wasn't a witness, I wasn't in court, and I have avoided reading about it. But, as far as I understand it, the following are facts:

  1. A woman went with a man to an hotel room, locked the door, had sex with him, and subsequently fell asleep;
  2. Ched Evans, the accused, fraudulently obtained a key to the room, entered the room, and had sex with the woman;
  3. No-one claims that the woman knew Evans, or had invited him into the room, or was aware that he might enter the room.

I do not know whether the woman consented to sex with Evans. I do not know whether what happened in that room was rape. But I can infer a number of things.

  1. When one goes into an hotel room and locks the door one has a reasonable expectation of privacy;
  2. The woman reported rape to the police the following morning;
  3. Obtaining a key to someone else's room in an hotel by deceit implies a dishonest purpose.

The question of rape is a pretty simple one: did the woman consent to having sex with Evans on this occasion, or did she not?

Whether she had consented to have sex with other men on other occasions is completely irrelevant. Just because you sometimes order an Indian takeaway doesn't entitle the staff of the Tandoori restaurant down the street to break into your house at the dead of night and force feed you Vindaloo.

Whether she was drunk is equally irrelevant. Just because a man is drunk doesn't entitle a woman to break into his house in the dead of night and cut his testicles off.

This is all really very simple. Cutting someone's testicles off is a crime. Raping someone is a crime. Getting drunk is not a crime. Sleeping in a locked hotel room is not a crime.

Yet all through the programme, Ms Adams used language to denigrate the alleged victim - 'not exactly a virgin' while praising the alleged rapist - 'a promising young footballer'. She invited callers to discuss the alleged state of inebriation of the woman. She invited onto the programme as a guest Mike Buchanan, a man who describes himself as 'leader of the Justice for Men and Boys Party', in the sure and certain knowledge that he would be incendiary - which, of course, he was.

This is not, of course, the first time that Kaye Adams has provided a platform for misogyny and hate speech. She's a shock-jock, that's her schtick, it's what she does. But in the welter of misogyny and rape apology so ably documented by Vonny Moyes this morning, it's one time too many.

So here's my complaint to the BBC Trust.

Unacceptable bias towards rape apologists

On Kaye Adams phone in this morning many derogatory and defamatory comments have been made about the person and character of the alleged victim in the recent Ched Evans rape case in Wales. The presenter herself described the alleged victim as 'not exactly a virgin', while an invited guest, Mike Buchanan, justified rape on the basis that the alleged victim should not have been drunk.

This is unacceptable. The law of rape does not exist to protect virgins. It exists to protect all women, whatever their state of inebriation and whatever their sexual history, against unwanted sex.

Ms Adams described Mr Evans as 'a promising young footballer whose life is now in tatters'

What of the alleged victim? Is her life not also in tatters? Did this programme, in which a BBC employee further traduced her reputation and led others on to do so, not further injure her? This is so far beyond what is acceptable for a publicly funded, public service broadcaster that I am rendered almost speechless.

I recommend you take Kaye Adams programme off air immediately, and replace it tomorrow with an hour-long abject apology.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Cycling as a mode of transport in remote rural Scotland

My cross bike and trailer, on the way home from Castle
Douglas with groceries.
Following the Dumfries and Galloway Local Transport Summit, at which the Scottish Government completely failed to consider active transport as a component of the transport issues in the region, a sort-of consultation has been opened. Cycling Dumfries have more to say on this (and how to submit your thoughts) on their website. Here is my response, which I've already sent to dandgsummit@transport.gov.scot:

Much of Galloway, and some of Dumfriesshire, is remote rural. Public transport options are extremely limited, and distances are considerable; for example I am more than ten miles from my nearest health facility or supermarket, and the only shop nearer than that is extremely small and has very limited hours.

In common with many other remote rural areas across Scotland, local wages are significantly below the national average. The combination of significant distances and low wages make cars unaffordable to many, and of course there are others who, because of age or infirmity, cannot drive. This observation applies equally to secondary school pupils as to the elderly. In the absence of frequent public transport - and in many places, the absence of any public transport at all - this leads to isolation.

It's hardly surprising given this overview that cycling is an extremely popular activity in the area. Castle Douglas, a town of 4,000 people, supports three specialist bicycle shops, while each of the neighbouring towns have at least one. This is partly due to the presence in the area of extremely good off-road recreational cycling facilities, but not wholly. Even a casual observation of Galloway's roads will reveal a high proportion of utility cycling - most particularly in and around Kirkcudbright.

Utility cycling has a real potential to improve health, decrease isolation, and provide access to services for a significant proportion of the remote rural population. Compared to cars, pedal cycles are inexpensive to buy and extremely inexpensive to run; fitted with luggage trailers or pannier racks they can effectively replace cars for many shopping trips as well as providing access to social events and healthcare. In summary, utility cycling should be seen as a critically important tool in improving the lives of the rural young and the rural poor, while having a contribution to make to the lives of rural people more generally.

Deterrents to the growth of utility cycling in remote rural areas include the high speed of traffic on rural roads and the lack of cycle parking facilities in villages and towns. In particular a lowering of speed limits on unclassified rural roads could be significantly beneficial.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The party of the lairds

Last week I posted my letter to Richard Arkless MP about the driven grouse petition. Here's his reply, in full. Needless to say, not for the first time, I'm bitterly disappointed by the cravenness of 'Scotland's Party'. In short, if you think the SNP will stand up for the people of rural Scotland who disproportionately signed the petition, don't be so fucking naive.

Dear Simon,

Thank you for taking the time to contact me regarding grouse shooting. It is really good to hear from you.

I should say at the outset that responsibility for the environment and for wildlife management is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. I fully recognise the positive role that is played by shooting estates in the management of Scotland’s natural environment and in wildlife conservation, as well as the positive effect on employment in rural areas, and the Scottish Government will continue to work with shooting estates to achieve positive outcomes in this area. The Scottish Government and Scottish Natural Heritage support the Wildlife Estates Scheme – an initiative to encourage high standards of wildlife management led by Scottish Land and Estates – and also values Scottish Land and Estates’ role in the Partnership Against Wildlife Crime. I also recognise that well-managed grouse moors can make significant contributions to biodiversity targets, particularly with regard to upland wader species such as lapwing, curlew and golden plover.

Moreover, the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Act 2016 will help to ensure that Scotland’s land works for all of those who live and work on it. The measures in the Act will help to further encourage and support responsible and diverse land ownership, and ensure that communities have more of a say in how land is used.

In connection to this issue, I appreciate that many of my constituents are concerned by wildlife crime. The SNP Scottish Government has already introduced measures to tackle wildlife crime which are greater in scope than those employed in England and Wales, including the criminalisation of poisons commonly used to persecute raptors, the suspension of general licences where areas are being used for wildlife crime activities, and the introduction of vicarious liability, which has so far resulted in two successful prosecutions.  The fight against wildlife crime remains a high priority for the SNP Scottish Government, and of course all shooting businesses must comply with the law. I am confident that the Scottish Government will consider further measures for protection if current measures are found to be insufficient.

I trust that this is helpful in outlining my position, and I would encourage you to make contact with your Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) to inform them of your views.

If I can be of any further assistance with this or any other matter, please don't hesitate to let me know.

Best wishes,

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Preparing for the next Independence Referendum: building the software

During the 2014 Independence Referendum campaign, I did a fair bit of canvassing for Radical Independence and some canvassing for Yes Scotland. Both campaigns had similar systems - cards with tick-boxes. The boxes weren't easy to manage if you had a stack of them, and when you got back to base the results had to be manually collated. This wasn't efficient.

I'm told that part of Momentum's success in the recent Labour leadership election was down to a very good phone canvassing app which people could use on their phones and laptops. This allowed volunteers to see who to phone and, equally importantly, who had already been phoned (so people didn't get pestered multiple times).

Of course, Momentum had access to the phone numbers of many Labour members. In the second Independence Referendum, it's very unlikely we will have the phone numbers of voters, but we should have the electoral roll. We could do data lookup against phone book data but in the UK that's not free and I'm not sure how practical it would in fact be. In any case, many younger and poorer voters don't have landlines these days.

So while we should of course use a Momentum-style phone canvassing app where we have access to phone numbers for voters, I believe we also need a door-knocker's canvassing app. Obviously, both apps need to feed data to the same central database.

Dummy map view. For divided households
we'd need 'pie-charted' icons.
What I'm envisaging is something which, when you launch the app, shows you the immediate locality you are in as a map, with households coloured by whether or not they've yet been canvassed. Clicking on a household bring up a page which lists occupants on electoral roll. Against each occupant, there are yes/no buttons (probably labelled with Saltire/Union Jack).

So you talk to the folk on the doorstep, click the appropriate buttons, click 'save', and move onto the next household. If you're out canvassing with a team, the households the other members of the team visit update on your map, so you can see which house you need to go to next.

Many of our target voters live in flats and tenements. So I imagine there that you might click on the building on the map and get a list of all the flats; clicking on the flat gets you the occupants screen as before.

This isn't a complete specification - we need some means of recording doubts, so that we can target mailings on particular issues.

This makes canvassing quicker and easier, and also ensures that all the results of canvassing get back to the master database.
Dummy occupants screen. The
question-mark icon leads to a
per-voter issues screen.

Note that by geomapping electoral registration data we can also identify housing units where no-one is registered to vote, which might help with an electoral registration drive.

Obviously, if we're going to get an app ready for the campaign we need to start now. We should start by investigating existing open source political canvassing apps, to see whether we can adopt or adapt as this may be quicker than building from scratch.

The 'Field the Bern' app from the Bernie Sanders US presidential campaign is quite similar to what I'm imagining - I'm trying to get in touch with the folk who built it to see whether they'll let us use their code (some at least is on GitHub). Something I hadn't thought of which the Field the Bern app does is gamify canvassing - which may help motivate some canvassers.

There's a series of essays on building a canvassing app by a guy called Sam Corcos which looks interesting. His source code is on GitHub. I'll try to evaluate this over the next week. (Update: the code on GitHub isn't complete or documented, and, as far as I can see, doesn't work. That doesn't necessarily mean we can't use it).

But if we're going to get something built and out to volunteers in time to be useful in this campaign, we need to start soon.

Who's with me?

Monday, 3 October 2016

Don't just grouse about it

The driven grouse petition is due to be debated in the House of Commons on October 18th. If you haven't already done so, now is the time to write to your MP and urge them to support a ban.

Here's my letter. Please don't just copy it, because duplicate letters have less effect, but feel free to take inspiration from it. Other sources of inspiration include the blogs of Raptor Persecution Scotland and the Wildlife Detective.

Dear Richard Arkless,

You'll likely not recall me; we have met, and I delivered leaflets for you at the last Westminster election. I'm writing to urge you to support a ban on driven grouse shooting. There's to be a debate on the petition on 18th October, which I would appreciate it if you'd attend.

Key points from a Galloway perspective are:

This is a local issue and a current issue. Our eagle population is very small and very threatened. We have two nesting pairs. Yet, from that critically small population there's regular attrition. One was shot on a grouse moor near Wanlockhead in 2012; one satellite-tagged bird from Galloway 'disappeared' on a grouse moor in the Cairngorms this May. These of course are the birds we know about, one because it was found by a member of the public, one because it was satellite tagged. The number of Hen Harriers killed in Galloway is something we simply don't know at all, but they too are critically rare.

Wildlife tourism benefits Galloway. The successful reintroduction of Red Kites in the Glenkens is estimated to be worth £21 million to the Galloway economy. A more vibrant eagle population, making it easier for tourists to see eagles, would undoubtedly increase this further.

Grouse moors, by denuding steep slopes and high hill land of trees, greatly contribute to flooding in towns such as Newton Stewart and Dumfries at a cost of many millions to the local economy.

In short, driven grouse shooting provides entertainment for a very small number of very rich people at cost of promoting extensive criminality, environmental degradation, and significant losses to property. It has no place in modern Britain.

Yours sincerely,

Simon Brooke

Consultation on the future of forestry: my response

My house, in the middle of my, err, wood.
This is my response to the Scottish Government's current consultation on the future of forestry. It isn't terribly exciting, but it's here for the record. The consultation questions are in italics. It may be noted that some of my responses are somewhat tart.

1 Our proposals are for a dedicated Forestry Division in the Scottish Government (SG) and an Executive Agency to manage the NFE. Do you agree with this approach?


2 In bringing the functions of FCS formally into the SG, how best can we ensure that the benefits of greater integration are delivered within the wider SG structure?

While I understand the motivations for bringing an arms-length public body back into government and broadly agree with the approach, any benefits are for government. It won't really have any significant effect on forests, foresters, forest managers or the public at large.

What additional benefits should we be looking to achieve?

We should be seeking to achieve much greater local and community control of Scotland's forests.

The Forestry Commission was set up with two primary objectives: to provide a strategic timber resource, and to keep people on the land. It largely succeeded in the first, and wholly failed in the second; and I would argue that it failed primarily because of over-centralisation, taking all decision making power and planning away from communities, and consequently deskilling them.

3 How should we ensure that professional skills and knowledge of forestry are maintained within the proposed new forestry structures?

By keeping the central unit extremely small, and devolving as much capacity as possible to communities.

4 What do you think a future land agency for Scotland could and should manage and how might that best be achieved?

All land is local. There is no place for a central land agency, except as a co-ordinator of last resort. Land is a matter for community councils, not central government.

5 Do you agree with the priorities for cross-border co-operation set out above, i.e. forestry research and science, plant health and common codes such as UK Forestry Standard?


6 If no to question 5, what alternative priorities would you prefer? Why?

It is completely the wrong time to be talking about 'cross border arrangements', since we do not know what nation we will be in in five years time, let alone which trading blocks.

Of course tree diseases do not respect international frontiers and some degree of co-operation will be needed in future, but it would be completely wrong to predicate these arrangements on the continued existence of the UK, since that frankly isn't very likely.

7 Do you have views on the means by which cross-border arrangements might be delivered effectively to reflect Scottish needs?
For example: Memorandum of Understanding between countries? Scotland taking the lead on certain arrangements?

In the immediate future, when we do not know what future constitutional arrangements and treaty obligations will be, we should proceed on the basis that Scotland may or may not be in any of the UK, the EU, or the EEA. We don't know, and we can't pretend we know. So without behaving undiplomatically, we should not predicate arrangements on the assumption of any of these positions.

It would, obviously, be in the interests of Scottish forestry (as of all other aspects of Scottish life) to resolve this uncertainty sooner rather than later.

8 Should the Scottish Ministers be placed under a duty to promote forestry?


9 What specifically should be included in such a general duty?

Forestry is, in much of Scotland, not a very certain commercial investment, but has many non-commercial benefits, in the form of environmental improvements and amenity, carbon capture and storage, carbon-neutral domestic fuel, flood water control, wildlife habitat, and so on.

Forestry has particular importance in binding topsoil on steep hillsides, preventing erosion, and, gradually over time, improving soil fertility. And, as deforesting hill land has been a primary cause of catastrophic flooding in Scotland's towns and lowlands, it is reasonable to charge those who maintain deforested hill land with the cost of that flooding.

But forestry as a major land use cannot be considered in isolation from the more general issues of land reform. The land, in Scotland, is overwhelming in the hands of a tiny plutocratic elite. It cannot be justifiable to spend public money bribing the already very wealthy to mitigate the harm they cause to their poorer neighbours.

Consequently, public subsidy to forestry should be limited strictly to

  1. community owned land, or
  2. holdings of fewer than 100Ha.

10 Recognising the need to balance economic, environmental and social benefits of forestry, what are your views of the principles set out in chapter 3?

The principles set out in Chapter Three are apple pie; I doubt you will find any voices disagreeing with the thought that forestry should be promoted, nor that it should be sustainable, nor yet that the environmental, commercial and amenity interests should be 'reasonably' balanced.

The principal that governance of Scotland's forests should be repatriated to Scotland is in my view a good one, but as this will be an almost inevitable consequence of the chaos and catastrophe of Brexit it hardly needs comment.

In short it matters less what the principles are, and more how they are applied. But there is one principal that might well be added:

Forest policy should aim to promote community ownership and diversity of ownership of Scotland's forests.

11 Are there any likely impacts the proposals contained in this consultation may have on particular groups of people, with reference to the ‘protected characteristics’ listed in chapter 4? Please be as specific as possible.

There are many people in Scotland who are now landless, who wish to have access to land, and who are denied access to land by the pattern of land ownership. It would be wonderful if a consequence of the changes in this proposal were that it should make land available to such people. However, the thing which characterises these people is that they are rural and that they are poor, and neither of these things is a 'protected characteristic'.

12 Do you think that the proposals contained in this consultation are likely to increase or reduce the costs and burdens placed on any sector? Please be as specific as possible.

I see no reason why they should do either. The proposal is to replace one system of public administration with another, which will have broadly similar remit and competences.

13 Are there any likely impacts that the proposals contained in this consultation may have upon the privacy of individuals? Please be as specific as possible.

These proposals cannot be considered other than in the context of land reform, and, in particular, reform to land ownership documentation. It is essential that the beneficial ownership of Scotland's forests, as of Scotland's other land assets, should be on public record. This has an impact on the 'privacy' of Scotland's elites, and may be expected to be resisted vigorously by them. It is, ultimately, on its courage and its preparedness to stand up to elites in the public interest that this government will be judged.

14 Are there any likely impacts that the proposals contained in this consultation may have upon the environment? Please be as specific as possible

We may hope that repatriating the governance of Scotland's forests may result in better environmental management at the margins, but since this will be essentially the same officials administering broadly the same policy it is inconceivable that there will be significant impact.

15 Do you have any other comments that you would like to make, relevant to the subject of this consultation, that you have not covered in your answers to other questions?

Events march on. As I write, the date for the UK government to make its Article 50 declaration, and, in consequence, the likely date of the next independence referendum, has just been set. It is highly likely that this consultation will be overtaken by events.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Whose right?

Madonna of the Yarnwinder:
a small part of Richard Scott's inherited wealth.
Let's start this by restating something which I've said often before, which has been for the past year the 'pinned tweet' on my Twitter profile.
The preservation, by the privileged, of their privilege cannot be a human right.
A group calling themselves Demos Scotland have proposed a draft constitution for a Republic of Scotland. As a convinced republican who believes that the independence of Scotland is in the interests not only of the people of Scotland but of the wider world, I am of course interested.

Now of course it's possible that Dr Mark McNaught, who posted this draft and presumably had a considerable hand in writing it, deliberately put in bombshells in order to spark debate. I don't think so, because, to me, most of the draft constitution reads very well; it's a sensible, if not a poetic or inspiring, document. But if he did he is to be congratulated, because I tripped over an epic one.

Consider article II.B.7:
[All citizens and residents of Scotland, regardless of their status, shall have] the right to hold private property, and to the peaceful enjoyment of his or her property.
Seems sensible, doesn't it, on the face of it? No-one wants strangers barging into their house in the dead of night and throwing them out into the street. No-one wants strangers arbitrarily seizing their phone or their laptop or their bicycle. Obviously everyone should have the right to keep their stuff, the right to enjoy their stuff in peace...

Oh, wait.

Wait a minute.

Wait a cotton picking minute.

This is Scotland we're talking about. Scotland in which just 432 citizens, residents and, in fact, primarily non-residents, own more than half of all the privately owned land, and similar proportions of other asset classes. So we're going to take that extraordinarily skewed distribution of wealth and we're going to enshrine in the constitution for all time?

I don't think so. I so do not think so. That is exactly how you start the bloodiest revolutions.

The right, in Scotland, to hold property cannot be unabridged. On the contrary it must be abridged by ideas about equity and justice.

There's a reasonable case to be made for a meritocracy: for a society in which everyone starts out with a more or less equal inheritance, and each person keeps all (or a high proportion of) the wealth they individually generate, through creativity or hard work, in their lifetime.

But the ability to acquire wealth is at least largely a matter of pure blind luck. A purely meritocratic society is not a generous place. It's not a good place to be ill, to be disabled, to have a random accident. A purely meritocratic society does not meet my conditions for a good society; I doubt it meets yours.

There's a reasonable case to be made for a communist society, in which private wealth, in so far as it exists at all, is distributed according to individual need - so someone badly disabled and not very productive would receive a slightly larger share than someone fit, creative and productive. As Marx expressed it, 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs'.

But many people will feel that a communist society does not provide enough incentive for people to achieve. To an extent, I feel that myself; when I finish writing this I'm off to buy myself a new bicycle, as a reward to myself for having worked hard and produced useful stuff. We are, at the very least, socialised to believe that good work should be materially rewarded.

However, I am going to assert that the good society lies somewhere between those two positions. The good society is not one in which the lottery of birth determines whether you have a life of ease or of hunger.

Looking at Scotland today, J K Rowling is hugely wealthy because work she has done in her own lifetime has given great pleasure to hundreds of millions of people. Richard Walter John Montagu Douglas Scott is hugely wealthy because he is the eldest male child of a long line of more or less rapacious mercenaries and thieves.

Of course, Rowling has also been lucky; across Scotland, across the world, other people were writing childrens' stories at more or less the same time. I'm an admirer of her work: it rattles along with pace and wit. But it isn't, qualitatively, vastly better than the work of many other contemporary writers. It's good; but also, she was lucky. She caught the zeitgeist and rode it.

A just society, I think (and I'm sure J K Rowling would agree), shares some proportion of that wealth around. To the writers who, for one reason or another, never caught the zeitgeist; to those who, for reasons of health or ability or luck, were never able to write at all.

But there is an element of merit in Rowling's wealth. She sat down and grafted. I know well just how much work there is in writing a novel, and particularly how much work there is in finishing one. There's no element of merit in Scott's wealth. He has done nothing significant to contribute to it, and very little at all to contribute to the well-being of the communities who have provided it.

There is, and must be, some moral distinction between these two types of wealth. I can see a good argument for J K Rowling being guaranteed a right to the peaceful enjoyment of at least some of her property. She has, one can reasonably argue, earned it. I can see no argument whatever that Scott should be guaranteed such a right. He is not a meritorious individual; on the evidence, somewhat the opposite.

So I'd like to propose an amendment to Demos Scotland's draft constitution.

II.B.7: delete all and substitute:
The right to hold a reasonable and limited amount of private property, and, within that reasonable limit, to the peaceful enjoyment of that property. Nothing in this clause shall invalidate any tax, duty or custom levied in accordance with the CSL, or an environmental regulation imposed on the development or use of land or natural resources. Nothing in this clause guarantees the right to pass property to a successor, nor to inherit property from a predecessor.
That last bit?

We all want to inherit from our parents. My father's copy of Heimskringla, my mother's rocking chair, my great grandfather's clock, the santa-claus hat I put on my little sister's gravestone each Christmas, are all precious to me. They are precious partly because they have been part of my life since early childhood, and partly because they bind important memories of people I've lost. To pass down small objects laden with memory and association from generation to generation seems undoubtedly a good thing.

But there's a line to be drawn somewhere between passing down these sentimental objects, and passing down items which make a fundamental difference to people's life chances. Is my life materially better because I have a copy of an old Icelandic book? Probably not. Is my life materially better because I grew up in a household where there were many books of early European thought and literature? Well, actually, probably it is. Would my life be materially better if I had inherited, for example, not an old and dusty book but the Madonna of the Yarn-winder?

Well, actually, yes it would. Dramatically better. And that is the point. We cannot have a good society and inherited wealth, because inherited wealth locks in inequity and privilege across generations. Even if you view earned wealth as a good thing, unearned wealth - inherited wealth - cannot be.

The right to property and most particularly to inheritance, in a good society, cannot be unconstrained.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

On functional programming: why tools and their quality matter

My rule-driven cellular automaton, MicroWorld,
modelling human settlement in the British Isles
Writing software is about solving problems, about finding elegant ways to solve problems. But it isn't and shouldn't be about finding elegant ways to solve the problems caused by the shoddy workmanship and poor technical design of platform you're working on. If the platform you're working on is shoddy, don't work on it.

Java is a case in point. Java was designed as a special purpose language for writing embedded software for small 32 bit appliances with limited memory. For that special purpose, it's OK - it's certainly more usable than assembly.

Jave inherits syntax from C, which in turn inherits it from BCPL, which inherits it from Algol. It inherits the idea of a virtual machine from BCPL's CINT Code Interpreter. It is, then, an imperative language, one step up from a macro-assembler. There's no mathematical formalism underlying its design.

There's a sort-of object-oriented layer bolted on top of the Algol-like language even in the earliest version of Java, but it's done without conviction. Primitive data items are not objects; there's no orthogonality. And there's no multiple inheritance, either, so it needs to be very clumsily simulated with interfaces. On the very small, memory-limited devices for which Java was designed, these were reasonable choices. But we now very rarely use Java in such constrained environments today.

The orthogonality problem was sort-of fixed in Java 5, with 'boxing' of primitives - if you referred to a primitive as if it were an object, the compiler would magically transform it into an object. But it's a hack.

And Java continues to be extended by hacks. Java 8, for example, hacked on functional programming, because functional programming is a fashion of today. But once again it's 'sort-of' functional programming, just as Java 1 was 'sort-of' object oriented.

Functional programming is in fashion today because we've reached the physical limits of Moore's law: individual processor cores are no longer getting faster. To increase performance, we need to share processing over more and more processors: to share the load. That's simple if the data being acted on by the process on one processor cannot be changed by a process running on a different processor, and so functional languages with closures and immutable data make programming for parallel architectures trivial.

But Java data is inherently mutable: that's the nature of object orientation. The state of an object is altered by setting its instance variables. Java also doesn't have first-class closures. So Java's 'functional programming' hack doesn't do what it implies on the tin: it doesn't make programming for parallel architectures trivial. On the contrary, it introduces more opportunities for subtle and intermittent bugs.

This is software design by marketing focus group: our customers want X, let's bolt something which looks superficially like X onto the side of our existing product.

C# is, in origin, an even worse story than Java. Java was designed to do something - to be used to create embedded programs for small appliances. C# is just a fit of pique, because a judge wouldn't let Microsoft release a non-standard Java and call it Java. So C# is a language like Java and inheriting all Java's faults, but deliberately incompatible with Java. And as each new feature has been bolted onto the side of either Java or C#, the other has slavishly (but subtly incompatibly) copied.

Programming languages don't have to be like this. Structured Query Language is soundly based in relational algebra; Prolog is based on first order predicate calculus. But the only computer language anyone actually needs to know is a straightforward implementation of the mathematical basis of computation itself: the lambda calculus.

Yes, I know all computer systems of any significant size contain elements which seemed like a good idea at the time and which later turned out not to be. Interlisp, Portable Standard Lisp and Common Lisp are all examples of LISP-2 - they have separate value and function pointers on every symbol. Interlisp and Portable Standard Lisp both also have subtly different symbol binding mechanisms between interpreted and compiled code, which means that the scope of symbols is different leading to semantic difference - which was an uncommon but horrible pitfall when your code worked when interpreted but broke when compiled.

Interlisp had an awkward inorthogonality between older functions which have abbreviated names in ALL UPPER CASE and newer ones which have LongerNamesInCamelCase. Oh, and there was the curious CLISP feature which you could either see as magical or a well of despair, depending on how you used it (I didn't).

Finally, in the Medley release, Interlisp had Common Lisp bodged onto the side. Common Lisp is a bit of a mess anyway, but the attempt to make one system interoperate functions written in two different syntaxes must have made for interesting debugging. But I had moved onto Prolog before Medley was released, so I never really had to deal with that.

In most early Lisps, too, data wasn't really immutable. The functions rplaca and rplacd, which allowed the overwriting of pointers in data structures, were Lisp's dirty little secret. These 'destructive' functions made data mutable. But even back in the 1980s, when parallelism wasn't yet a significant issue, we knew that these functions were inelegant and shouldn't be used.

Modern Lisps, like, for example, Clojure, don't have destructive functions. Data is immutable, and, consequently, parallelism really is trivial.

Of course, Clojure too has its faults. It is partially crippled by the JVM's limited, fixed size stack (back to that notional 32 bit minimal-memory set-top box Java was designed for); but while for many functions I believe that the recursive expression is both the most expressive and most natural, if you make idiomatic use of Clojure's lazy sequences the use of deeply recursive algorithms can be avoided.

There have been some bizarre decisions in Clojure's language design:

  • the default arithmetic operators do not gracefully switch to bignums on arithmetic overflow (although there are alternative operators which sensibly do, if you know about them);
  • nil is not the empty list (both (nil? '()) and (empty? nil) return false) and is also not false ((false? nil) returns false); also, bizarrely, the car of the empty list is nil ((first '()) returns nil) but the cdr is the empty list ((rest '()) returns ());
  • the decision to remove a layer of parentheses from cond and case means that pretty-printing does not give a rational code layout (and also makes translation of code from other Lisps that bit harder);
  • the decision to notate arg-lists and let binding lists as vectors is also bizarre and again introduces needless inorthogonality (yes, I know that as compiled for the JVM they're implemented as vectors, but that's an implementation detail)...

And so on. There is no perfect computer language.

But anyone who has looked at a fern-moss, or a frond of bracken, or a waterfall, or a birch tree, or a cloud, or a prawn, or the development of a human embryo, has to acknowledge that if God does not write Lisp, God writes some language so similar to Lisp as to make no difference. The physical world is built in all its aspects and at all scales of simple functions recursively applied. It physically hurts me to work on systems whose underlying architecture is a bag of hacks kluged together.

A good craftsman chooses his tools.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Witcher III: Poland's astonishing cultural achievement

Anna Henrietta, Duquessa de Toussaint
Last night I managed to get Anna Henrietta, Duquessa de Toussaint, killed.

I didn't mean to. I intended exactly the opposite. And in the moments after she was assassinated I rocked back quite literally, thinking 'my God, what have I done?'

I could have prevented her death. I did - clearly - know the risk. I had even alerted the captain of her personal bodyguard to it. But I did not tell the Duquessa herself, and I could have done so. I did have the opportunity.

Today, I have been thinking through the scene again, and come to the conclusion that, despite the dreadful consequence, I had made the right decisions. Geralt must believe in the possibility of redemption; otherwise he is not a monster slayer, he is just a monster.


When you play computer role playing games, you very often have great latitude to choose the character you play as. As such games have become increasingly voice-acted, it's no longer possible in many to choose the name of the character you play as; in the Mass Effect series, for example, you play as 'Shepard', but you may play as male or female, and have a wide choice of character traits.

But in The Witcher series of games, you play as Geralt, and Geralt is not malleable. He has an established character, created over a series of post-modern fantasy novels set in a dystopian eastern European by a highly regarded Polish writer, Andrzej Sapkowski. If you're not familiar with his work, the nearest thing in English literature would be Angela Carter.

Sapkowski uses his fairy tale world to talk about dark themes: ethnic and religious war, pogroms, genocide, ethnic cleansing, evil and redemption, the conflict between free will and destiny or fate. He does this centrally through the adventures of Geralt, a 'Witcher', or itinerant pest control operative.

Witchers, in his world, are a guild of specialist hunters, hunting and killing such magical pests as ghouls, draconids, vampires and so on. They do this largely for hire. Witchers are uncommon partly because the training is extremely arduous and involves the use of performance enhancing drugs which are toxic and cause the deaths of many trainees, and partly because religious cults view them as abominations.

Within this framework, Geralt, as he emerges from the novels, is a terse, hard-bitten man who affects cynicism but is deeply concerned with the morality of his actions; who is at once serially promiscuous and at the same time has strong loyalties to several lovers and a magical quasi-monogamous bond to one in particular, a sorceress, Yennefer of Vengerberg.

In playing The Witcher games, you play as this character, and it's my experience that whether you intend to or not you will gradually inhabit this character, thinking hard about making the decisions that Geralt would make. Because the greatest strength of the series - and they have a galaxy of strengths - is the moral ambiguity of the world. Decisions are hard. There are no clear blacks and whites. There are uncertainties. It is a world in which you - you playing as Geralt - must do the very best you can, knowing that whatever you do you may not be able to prevent bad outcomes.

The death of Anna Henrietta is a case in point. As a child, her sister, Silvia Anna, was believed to be cursed, having been born during a solar eclipse. As such she was considered to be evil, and blamed for everything that went wrong. Sometime in her late childhood or very early adolescence, her parents had ordered a group of knights to take her deep into the wilderness in winter, and abandon her there. There is an implication that the knights raped Sylvia Anna before they abandoned her.

Many years later, Sylvia Anna has returned. She has, by a process of blackmail and deception, had the knights who took her out to be abandoned hideously murdered. If you follow the path through the plot that I followed, you have foiled her further plot and have captured her; you know for certain that she's manipulative and cunning, and, crucially, you know that she had intended to kill her sister.

Is Sylvia Anna evil because she was born during a solar eclipse? Or is she angry and vindictive because of how she was treated as a child?

On the other side, Anna Henrietta is an absolute ruler, spoiled, arbitrary, passionate, given to management by tantrum; when her sister accuses her of a lack of compassion it's hard to disagree with that charge. Anna Henrietta, as the younger sister, was a child when Sylvia Anna was abandoned, and didn't become ruler until some twenty five years later. Nevertheless, it's true that since she became ruler she hasn't done anything to find out whether her sister really did die, certainly hasn't sought her out.

However, in a world where war, genocide and pogroms are widespread, Anna Henrietta's quasi-independent duchy is relatively speaking extremely well ruled. There is no war. There is no starvation, although there are a few beggars. There is order and a certain degree of justice. Anna Henrietta is, then, no paragon; but, within the context of her world, she's a better ruler than most. There is also no obvious succession, so the potential consequences of Anna Henrietta's assassination are all the more dire.

In this situation, should I let an attempted reconciliation between the sisters go ahead?

I did. I encouraged it.

I believe that is what Geralt would do. More, I believe it is what Geralt should do. More yet, it is what I, playing as Geralt, would do again.

Because it is right that the spoiled, fortunate, successful sister, having chosen against character to show love and compassion, should have an opportunity to do so. And it is right that the despised, outcast, sinned-against sister should have the chance to repent her own sins and find redemption.

It was, I say again, the right decision for Geralt to make, and I, playing as him, made it. And he, and me playing as him, are responsible for the consequences.

So, one decision. One hard decision, on the outcome of which two women die who did not need to die, and a peaceful duchy is brought to the brink of civil war. A hard decision which you take with careful seriousness, and which afterwards you rethink and rethink and rethink - how could I have played this differently? A real moral dilemma, a genuinely engaging piece of action. Is this what makes The Witcher as a game?

Yes, a thousand times. Because over the course of the series there are certainly hundreds, probably thousands of decisions of equal weight. Story telling, character, and the agency of the player to act within the story and by so doing change its outcome of the story. Moral ambiguity, hard decisions, are, as I said, the greatest of the many great strengths of this series of games.

What are the others?

Toussaint, the duchy over which Henrietta Anna rules and in which the tragedy of the two sisters plays out, forms an epilogue to the plot of of  The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt. It is a sort of idealised Languedoc, strikingly reminiscent of Guy Gavriel Kay's Arbonne; it's stunningly beautiful, a limestone landscape of bright sunlit days and lambent nights, among vineyards, olive groves, sunflower fields, forests and open maquis, full of castles, comfortable homes and ancient ruins, and centred round the beautiful - and beautifully realised - city of Beauclair. Simply riding through the land of Toussaint is sometimes startlingly reminiscent of watching the Tour de France - the landscape is that well realised.

And it's peopled with wonderfully rich characters. Foppish knights, philosophical vampires, a most engaging boot-black.
But this richly beautiful environment isn't the world of The Witcher 3; it's an afterthought, an indulgent bit tacked on at the end. The majority of the action of the story ranges across the war-ravaged landscape of the northern realms, as competing minor kingdoms, faced with determined invasion by a much more powerful southern empire, instead of uniting fall into internecine chaos.

Across this scarred and blighted landscape Geralt's adoptive daughter is hunted by powerful magical enemies. The action of the main plot is to track her down, to gather allies who can together overcome these enemies, and finally to confront and defeat them. Not then, in itself a hugely compelling plot; but as this main plot drags you across the world it throws you into a series of other plots, stories and dilemmas.

What hits you about any of The Witcher games is the extraordinary beauty and conviction of the game world. Everything is believable; the world has very few artefacts which break the willing suspension of disbelief. For example, signposts are used in this third game as fast-travel points, which is convenient but unnatural, but they look just like one would expect medieval signposts to look. In fact, I very quickly stopped using fast travel; the world is so beautifully realised that it was an actual pleasure to ride across it, enjoying the scenery and happening upon new adventures organically.

The world is a reimagining of thirteenth century Europe in exactly the same way that Arbonne, or Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion are. But it is very specifically a Polish reimagining, and in that reimagining are remembered the brutal crusades of the Teutonic Knights, the history of pogroms, the savageries of the thirty years war and of the Nazi holocaust. All these and more are distilled with the grimmest of fairy tales into this landscape - a landscape of abandoned battlefields, of heaps of corpses, of roving bands of deserters and bandits, of terrified refugees, of feral orphaned children, of carrion-eaters, smugglers, spies, guerrillas, warlords. But it's also a landscape of orchards, forests, swamps, rivers, farmlands, villages and cities.

To say this world is of extraordinary beauty is not to say it's a world of sweetness and light; on the contrary it's a world of war, massacre, genocide, terrorism, despotism, fundamentalism - and a world filled with every monster and supernatural being from a broad sweep of European folklore. This is strictly adult art, and not because it includes sex scenes (although, yes, it does). It's adult because it includes scenes of extraordinary and visceral brutality. For example, the scene which plays when the player first enters the main square in the free city of Novigrad is a real, bloody horror.

Amidst all this is a great deal of satire and wit. I greatly enjoyed my visits to the university town of Oxenfurt, although even there the academy is closed because the local ruler wanted the young men for his war effort, and because the fundamentalist sect he encouraged wanted the books burned.

There are few bugs. Your horse, Roach, will very occasionally get stuck somewhere improbable, or will put his head through an apparently solid wall. I once saw a monster - a harpy - stuck in a wall. In over one hundred hours of playing the game has crashed only once.

Sailing boats always seem to have the wind behind them, even if you sail in circles.

There are also usual issues I complain about in all games of this genre. As characters have become increasingly voice acted - in common with many modern games, this one is entirely voice acted - so the richness of interaction has declined, because it is much more complex and time consuming to voice-act deep dialogue trees than simply to script them. So the vast majority of non-player characters you encounter have no conversation at all.

Partly in consequence of this, there are too many situations where the only way to deal with an opposing character is to kill them - and it would be very difficult to get through the game without killing many people, who are often little more than petty criminals or soldiers of a tyrannical king. It would, for me, have been improved either by having better ways of negotiating a way through potential conflict situations, or of using stealth to work round them.

There's another downside to voice acting. It seemed to me - and I may be wrong - that Shani, a character I'll come back to later, was voiced by a different voice actor in the third game. This obviously is a minor point; but together with a subtly updated character model (which actually isn't unreasonable - Shani would be ten years older, although she still seems very young) it made a character whom I felt I knew well and very much liked suddenly unfamiliar, and, as such was jarring.

A final issue before I stop carping on about voice acting. It's clear that lip-synch for the game is not to the English text (I imagine it's to the Polish text, and it's quite reasonable that it should be). In many conversations, characters go on apparently speaking silently for significant periods after the English language speech has come to an end. So I had an uncomfortable feeling that there were probably subtleties and nuances in the original Polish script that were quite literally lost in translation.

There's a more serious issue, for me, with the characterisation of Geralt's potential love interests. Partly this goes back to Sapkowski's books. Geralt's primary lover, and most of his incidental lovers, are sorceresses; this is taken from the books. Also taken from the books is the fact that the sorceresses, as a class, are manipulative, devious, ambitious, vengeful and deeply engaged in the internecine politics of the northern kingdoms.

Again, from canon, Geralt is bonded to Yennefer by a magic bond which he himself chose to make. He cannot help but love her (and she him), but this is because of a wish which Geralt himself made to resolve a serious problem with a djinn. He had to make a wish, but he did not have to make that specific wish. So Geralt is bonded to Yennefer, but because he has chosen to be.

The problem for me is that Yennefer as realised in the game is not a particularly likeable person. She's certainly very beautiful, but she's also certainly manipulative. She's on balance good, and she does help out when the going gets tough, but she also certainly uses Geralt. In the course of the game, Yennefer undoes the magic bond, so that she and Geralt are no longer magically constrained to love one another. And really, when you don't have to, I don't see why you would.

This is, as I've said before, not really a problem with the game. The game does realise the character of Yennefer very much as she is drawn in the novels. It's just that the game doesn't show you - or at least, didn't show me - why Geralt would choose her.

This issue is for me conflated because the alternative love interest in the main plot is Triss Merigold. Again, she's a sorceress. Again, she's a character taken from the novels, with her own canonical past. From the novels we already know that she and Yennefer are friends. But, in the sequence of games (which if you're playing this third game, are also sort-of canon), in the first game, in which Geralt was suffering from amnesia, she was also a main plot love interest. In character she's remarkably similar to Yennefer - she's arrogant, manipulative, and (in both the first and third games) uses sex with Geralt essentially transactionally to get him to do things that she wants done.

In this third game - at least, following the path I followed - Triss seemed to be drawn as a slightly warmer, slightly more sympathetic character than Yennefer. It has to be said that in my game I chose Yennefer, not Triss; if I'd made the other choice perhaps I'd have a slightly different view (and I do intend to play through again in order to find out).

But the fact is, for me, these characters are very similar. If you wouldn't choose one, why choose the other? There are many female characters in the plot who are at least equally attractive and who seem just much better people. I'd mention two in particular: Cerys an Craite, one of the candidates for the vacant kingship of the isles of Skellige, who I thought a genuinely serious, thoughtful, thoroughly likeable person (I supported her candidacy, and saw her elected); and Shani, the other main-quest love interest from the first game (in the books, Shani is never a lover of Geralt's, but does have an affair with his even more promiscuous friend and amanuensis Dandelion).

Shani is a sort of thirteenth century Medecins sans Frontiers; she's a dedicated doctor who practices her trade in plague hospitals and on battlefields. She is again presented as a serious, thoughtful, warm, generous person, and is in my opinion definitely the better of the two choices of love interest in the first game. In the third game, however, she appears only in an epilogue, and, in that epilogue, although there is a path for Geralt to have a casual liaison with her, there does not seem to be (or I did not find) a way to build that into a more settled relationship.

My 'big' computer is, even by today's standards, quite powerful (i7, eight core, 3.2 GHz, 16Gb RAM), and has a fairly good graphics card. I was able to play through the early part of the plot on very high graphics settings, and, on those very high settings, the visual beauty is remarkable. However in the crowded, incident filled streets of Novigrad the graphics performance started to struggle, and I had to turn the settings down a bit. I never turned them up again, because actually on medium settings it's still extraordinarily beautiful and runs without stuttering. Nevertheless it would be interesting to play it with a really top-end modern graphics card to see how much difference it made!

So, minor flaws. Very minor.

But how does one sum this up?

It's an astonishing achievement. A work of art bigger in scope than a dozen feature films, than a handful of novels; as big in scope as one of the modern blockbuster TV series such as Game of Thrones. But, in contrast to any of those things, this is not a linear narrative. Instead, the consumer - the player - is deeply, personally involved in the plot, making thousands of decisions which will affect the fates of characters and of nations. And amidst all that complexity and variability, the story not only must play out to a satisfactory conclusion: it does do so.

I never noticed a building model which had been reused (although the world contains, certainly, tens of thousands of buildings); if plant models were reused (and I'd assume they were) again, I didn't notice it. A few character models are reused, but mostly these are uniformed guardsmen (for example) who would look alike. The only voice character model I noticed being reused was one merchant. The depth and richness of the art needs to be experienced to be believed.

I've described the very broad outline of the plot, and story-telling. I've described a few of the hundreds of characters. I've sketched a few elements of the scenery. I haven't begun to describe the wonderfully realised and varied architecture, the glorious sound track, the superb animation.

I took a fairly direct route through the main plot, and then played both the Heart of Stone and Blood and Wine extensions. There are many subplots and sidequests I haven't yet explored, and, of course, there are combinatorially many hundreds of thousands of alternative paths I could have taken through the main plot (although there will be at most only a few tens of these which are very substantially different).

The score system says that, in over 100 hours of playing, I've explored only 36% of the world, and I'll believe that. Thus, compared to something like, for example, all the box sets of the Game of Thrones television series watched end to end, this is substantially bigger. Size, of course, is not quality; but the combination of the quality - which I hope I've conveyed - and the scope make this an epic, a monumental, cultural achievement.

If you're at all interested in story telling, in fairy tales, in European history, in modern literature, I urge you very strongly to experience this game.

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License