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)))


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.


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.


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

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.

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