July 08, 2015

Move among the crowd

Much as I like to take photographs, document the heck out of the subjects and share them with the wider world on Flickr, for the last couple of years I've had the feeling that too many of my adventures were being lived out there, not here, with my blog going oh-so-quiet. Flickr, of course, was a social network almost before the phrase was in common usage, and the well-documented changes to the user interface—the user 'experience'—that led to protests such as Flickr Black Day have been mostly ironed out. The protests were never going to be massively successful. While a comment thread garnering several thousand similar complaints, about squished-up information panels or infinite scrolling or loss of white space, sounds impressive, and indeed felt impressive if you were among those making the comments, it was small fry compared with the total userbase of many millions of individuals. Most of those are hyper-connected people for whom Flickr is more of a repository, to be uploaded to and linked to. This is really a reflection of the fundamental increase in hyper-connectivity that makes it convenient to do so. Flickr is much less the home now for what you might describe as the photographically erudite community, many of whom departed for other image hosting sites like smugmug, ipernity and 500px.

I stayed with Flickr, indeed I still use it, but my mood has certainly changed. It's been a gradual shift, brought about in part by reduced interaction from other users. Perhaps they're feeling much the same way. The trouble is that spending hours researching on old maps, for example, and probably twenty different other sources, doesn't guarantee any feedback. It's commonly said that 90 percent of the content is produced by 10 percent of the people, which means that 90 percent of the people are just hoovering up information—consumers, not manufacturers.

And in fact, the move to reflect hyperconsumerism is evident even in Flickr's own identity. On the way out is the quirky blue logo with pink accents, replaced with a streamlined version in pure white. It's as though we don't have time anymore to pause and reflect and reciprocate in kind: we just consume and move on. Hyper-connected humans are just locusts on an information feeding frenzy.

The groundswell ban on selfie sticks is not unrelated. Some cultures nowadays are not interested particularly in taking the time to experience something. One might go to see a new film, view the Grand Canyon, see Buckingham Palace, but it becomes a quick-fire visit–photograph–leave process. I was there! We were there! Then we went here! And then we went here! Alternatively, go to any concert now and try—just try!—counting how many mobile devices are held aloft to record the whole event. All of those people are watching a small screen to keep their shot steady and aimed just right. You know, there's a great big thing called a "stage", with great big loud things on it, and actual moving people, whom you helped pay to be on that stage in the first place. And all you can do is hold up your fucking phone because you're caught up in a perpetual cycle of digitising and sharing everything in your life, instead of taking in the experience and committing it to your memory using your eyeballs and your ears.

Flickr has been consuming too much of my time for too little feedback. In a way, I kind of liked my old website that was all hand coded with thumbnailed images that I inserted myself, sparingly and relevantly. Image sharing should be an adventure, not a chore, and certainly not a throwaway convenience that, for anything other than documentation of something, devalues the content.

So to turn to writing again. I had intended to collect my thoughts sooner, but for a musician whose untimely death affected me really quite deeply. And as usual, this post has taken three days to put together.

The Edinburgh Festival of Cycling has been and gone, last month's news. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Bike Week, too, is last month's news. I thought long and hard about what to wear to this year's Women's Cycle Forum. Last time, I wore padded shorts because I was riding my Brompton, but wore baggy shorts over the top because I didn't want to look too "cyclist". And I remember steaming down to the venue because I was going to be late, and thus arriving in a hell of a state. This year I wanted a nice relaxing pootle over to Teviot House: no pre-event shopping, no last-minute mending of flat tyres or adjusting of gears. And as it turned out, I ambled my way out of the house thinking I had loads of time, and en route convinced myself I was going to be late. So I steamed down the road and through the Meadows, and arrived in a hell of a state, my just-washed hair turning frizzy at the ends and my pink merino betraying my super high efficiency cooling mechanism. I can't even remember why I ended up rushing. Perhaps it was the indecision of clothing.

The irony was that I wasn't late at all. In fact, I was perfectly comfortably on time. I had thought offhandedly about bring the velomobile, because last year there was an Urban Arrow parked magnificently outside the Ukrainian Club and everyone had asked me, 'Where's your velomobile? I was looking forward to seeing it!' A Saturday evening outside one of the buildings in the University of Edinburgh wasn't the kind of environment I looked for in velomobile parking facilities. It was far easier to ride my Brompton and take it in with me.

Caroline greeted me at the door, complimenting me on my encouragingly rosy complexion. I might have objected a wee bit but she was having none of it. Sally Hinchcliffe and Suzanne Forup, the mainstays behind the WCF, said hello as I went through, and I placed Henrietta Brompton neatly alongside two others, then wandered around looking at the tables. Each was set up with a different theme about target audiences, for this WCF was more biased towards action. One table was about one campaigning generally, one was about engagement with women specifically, one was about people with impaired vision, and a few others I can't remember. But I still didn't feel I knew anyone, and so sat down at a rather empty table.

I changed my mind quite quickly, because the theme didn't excite me too much, and found the engagement table. Serendipitously, also at my table was Lizzie, previously chair of Leeds Cycling Campaign, now I think Belles on Bikes in Glasgow. Even more serendipitously, Irish-accented Louise arrived and sat next to me. I realised before long that this was Urban Arrow Louise! – the same lady who starred in many photographs from Pedal on Parliament because of her impossibly stylish Victorian outfit complete with straw hat loaded with flowers, tweed coat, long flowing skirt and leather boots, sitting on her shiny black, and impossibly English, Pashley Princess bicycle. In fact, her children, in the Urban Arrow piloted by her equally well-attired hubby, had been wearing leather helmets and flying goggles. And not just because she was a customer of Laid Back Bikes but because she wasn't afraid to be a bit different—or possibly completely different—and pull it off with aplomb, I liked her immediately.

We had an engaging and relevant presentation from Ceris Aston, who'd been behind the No More Page Three campaign. She spoke far better than she thought she did. Carol Botton, standing in for Alice Ferguson, talked candidly about the Playing Out campaign, the movement to return our streets to a community-owned shared place for children to play in, rather than our streets being purely somewhere for driving through and for parking vehicles in. Also at my table were a few other interesting people whose names I've completely forgotten. At other tables we had Jan Brereton (Bikes Breaking Barriers—disability stuff including vision impairments), Claire Connachan (also Belles on Bikes), Brenda Mitchell (disarmingly uncyclist-looking normally but the powerhouse behind strict liability and cyclist lawyering), and I didn't get much of a chance to meet Katja Leyendecker from Northumbria University, or Briana Pegado from the University of Edinburgh, or Abi Wingate, a tough looking mileage monster of a touring cyclist and officer from Heriot-Watt University (yay!). Sara Dorman popped by our table for a bit, talking at a hundred miles an hour, and Sally came along for a bit too.

The output was a carefully arranged matrix of actions, our "Build a Better World Bingo Challenge" (or as the ridiculously specific hashtag #BaBWBingo).

And no, you don't get points for actions that you've already completed.

Eschewing beer for bed, I rode home a bit of the way with Suzanne and Louise, then enjoyed the comfort from having opted to wear my mountain biking lycra shorts (to hell with trying not to look "cyclist", even if the perception of the necessity of looking "cyclist" is part of the turn-off of someone wanting to ride a bike in the first place).

Have bike, will festival At any rate, I was able to deploy maximum cyclist technology the next day for the third annual Ligfiets Zondag. I brought my velomobile down to Laid Back Bikes and mingled with a dozen or so other deviant bikes and their riders. David and Irene were of course on their mighty Nazca Quetzal tandem; Angelo was on his Nazca Fuego; Audaxer and TV star Dave Crampton brought along his ICE B2; Peter was on his Nazca Gaucho; 'firedfromthecircus' on his Catrike; Chris was on his fat-tyred ICE trike; a John Byrne lookalike who hails from Rotterdam and whose name I don't know was riding his vintage Roulandt; 'scoosh' mainly of the Cyclechat forum but occasionally of our CCE forum, and whose name I don't know, was riding his Nazca Fuego; Kim (of the EdFoC) was onboard the EdFoC Urban Arrow, and Louise (and children) was riding her own Urban Arrow; 'tarmacjockey' whose name I always forget was riding upright and mostly wielding his camera; and Liz was riding her Ridgeback tourer. We also had a man called Bjorn come on the ride; he was doing a camping tour of Scotland, having ridden his M5 CHR (carbon high racer) from his home in Hamburg!

Promenadorama As in previous years our destination was Cramond promenade, there being plenty of space for mucking about on bikes. Alas the modernist cafe at Silverknowes was under new ownership and still being outfitted, so there were no bacon rolls or veggie sausage sandwiches to be had; instead we frequented a cafe at Cramond, pigged on scones and jam, and basked in some rare sunshine. The return trip took us through some surprisingly good segregated infrastructure in Granton—the kind Edinburgh builds when it has lots of space to play with—and back to Laid Back Bikes and the Argyle Arms for drinks and conversation.

The following evening was the quarterly meeting organised by Spokes, the Edinburgh and Lothians cycling campaign, about bikes on trains. Des Bradley from Abellio Scotrail had drawn the short straw and was rather in the firing line from much of the audience.

The evening after that was an event I was simultaneously dreading and looking forward to, like when you have a job interview the next day. Last year I took the top spot in the Biketrax Brompton folding competition, my own technique flowing far more smoothly with a brand new bike than it does with my mine (3000 miles nearly in its hinges). It's all just a load of fun, what's not to love? Ah, but STV Edinburgh was going to be filming the event this time! The alternative was to go to the hillclimb competition on Kaimes Road, a gruelling ascent half a mile long and (according to OSM) 124 feet of elevation gain. But, really, I couldn't not go to the Brompton thing, could I? Not with a record to try to uphold. The time to beat: 10.82 seconds.

I showed the presenter how one folds the bike, and I did a piece to the camera explaining how one achieves a fast folding technique. Looking back, I almost felt content with my voice. My years of practice in public speaking paid off nicely, compared with poor Robin Williamson who wasn't nearly as fluid or fluent. Some friends came along, too—Ewan and Eric from Bromptonites—and someone called Richard who seemed very very serious about folding times. In practice, getting used to the official Brompton timing clock where you hit the green plunger for "Go!", fold-fold-fold, and hit the red plunger for "Stop!", I invented a newer technique that seemed worth trying. My first few attempts at speedfolding were laughably uncoordinated, not least because I had to remember to fold the pedal as well, but I just had to find my rhythm. Another piece to camera saw the presenter go head to head with Ewan and Richard, and I had to wade in at the last minute to help out when he became all tangled up.

Then came the main event where we all did solo qualifiers against the clock to get the top three. Eric preferred to spectate; Robin and a couple of the other guys from Biketrax turned in times easily below ten seconds, but as employees they were forbidden from winning anything! Going forward after the shoot-outs were Ewan, Richard and me. I somehow speeded myself up just enough and edged out Ewan in the race to fold the bike and lift it up (to show that it was properly folded). And that's someone who's owned more Bromptons than I've owned recumbents. Richard was fast, very fast, though as Eric and I noted earlier it was all in the marginal gains of preparation: clamps not too tight, cranks casually aligned just-so, crouch and hands at the ready, Le Mans-style. I played to the spirit of the competition and set my bike just as if I were about to ride it away. Three…two…one…go! as Robin pinged the starter's bell. Loosen those clamps, smoothly, don't rush…lift and fold and drop, get that saddle down, tighten the lever, remember the pedal!…and lift!

I looked across and Richard's bike was in the air at the same time. What? Of all the results to have, we scored a dead heat, and we had to go again!

OK, bike unfolded and prepped, a little more this time. Mentally rehearse the process: clamps, fold around, saddle, pedal. Check the crank position…and: Ping! Fold-fold-fold-done! Lift! Look across…damn! My super speedy method went like clockwork and I checked in a time of the order of 7.6 seconds, and I was still beaten. In fact, chatting with the others a little later on I realised, thinking through the white heat of pivots and levers and clamps, that I couldn't actually remember performing all those moves. Muscle memory and all that, as you'll recall if you saw me on the telly. Richard took home a rather spiffing sprocket trophy, like the one from Scrapheap Challenge but scaled right down. Your valiant runner-up took home a Brompton slapwrap, which I can use every day. All part of the plan, you might think!

Wednesday morning was the Bike Breakfast at the City Chambers, and even though I'd had my Weetabix I still joined the queue for a veggie sausage roll and a cup of coffee. I wasn't meant to be drinking coffee, really, but I was sick of drinking tea. Lots of familiar faces, too, including many from CCE, and various councillors and Spokes members and hangers-on. The velomobile even had company, from a Sinclair C5 no less. Now that was an interesting comparison, of finely tuned aerodynamics and high-efficiency transport idealism. The C5 might have cost much, much less, even by today's standards, but the Quest wins on comfort, weather protection, speed, and perhaps in its flowing lines (and nine foot-long presence) hasn't suffered the stigma of being treated like a jumped up vacuum cleaner.

I escaped to the south for the weekend, in pursuit of warmer weather and yet more bicycles. On one hand it was to attend the reinvigorated York Rally, beloved tradition of the bearded, Carradice saddlebagged tourers, albeit organised in a new grassroots volunteer manner, and on the other hand it was simply to get away from everything for a few days.

Back to Swallow Hall My destination of choice is Swallow Hall, a neat little campsite a few miles south of the city and indeed home to thriving colonies of the little birds, darting around close to the ground of an evening. By using a couple of small lanes, rather than belting up and down the A19 which is a horrible road, really, and National Cycle Network route 65, once the East Coast Main Line between York and Selby but now an extremely pleasant and convenient cycling facility, I could reel off the eight or ten miles to the railway station or the Knavesmire racecourse quite easily. Of course, I haven't been in York when it snows, so I have no idea whether NCN65 nor the lanes are viable.

British human power I was a bit concerned that I might find myself wandering the Rally alone, browsing through the shows and trade tents with ruthless efficiency, and ending up with far too much time in hand. Once, and it was partly a consequence of awful weather, I dispatched the whole show in a morning and left early to do more interesting things. But no sooner than I'd completed my perfunctory circuit of the lightweight camping area to see what tents people were using, I bumped into TJ and Joan, long of yACF (that is, yet another cycling forum), ACF before that and CyclingPlus even before that. They of course now have their little one, who was much more interested in twigs and sticks than shiny bicycles. That put the day on a nice high for starters. The show wasn't huge, certainly not by the standards of previous years, but the vibe was much better. It felt cosy, with a friendly DIYish ambience. Mainstays among the displays were the British Human Power Club, Bikefix, ICE trikes, Circe Cycles, JD Tandems and Spa Cycles, all of whom are left-field to a greater or much greater degree. I fitted right in. In fact, I parked my Lightning at the BHPC tent, and when I returned an hour or two later it had gained the company of several more recumbent bikes and was practically part of the display, alongside Windcheetah trikes, velomobiles, Kingcycles, and several of Mike Burrows' creations, including his latest race bike and the monster tandem he built with Miles Kingsbury for Guy Martin and Jason Miles' 24-hour distance record.

Even better, Mike was there in person. Between him and Karl Sparenberg (now at the helm of AVD, builders of the Windcheetah, as originally designed and built by Burrows) I spent an inordinate amount of time talking engineering.

Peter Eland, until recently at the helm of Velovision magazine, and now one of the team behind the York Rally, was there with Debz; I said hello to Howard Yeomans, formerly of the Bikes Made Good repair service and now at the helm of Velovision, with his stand set up in the trade tent; I met Ian Perry, a very strong velomobile pilot; I renewed my acquaintance with Lee Wakefield, another very strong velomobile pilot currently sidelined by injury and making a name for himself with his superb carbon fibre repair work; and I also bumped into recumbenteers Kim and Barakta from yACF.

Here we go: a hundred mile an hour traffic jam! Sunday was mostly spent playing at the new velodrome at the York Sport Village, part of the University of York. The BHPC had the track for an hour, with people like Mike Burrows and Ian Perry going at it hammer and tongs, and then the rest of us had the track to ourselves! For a nominal fee I had my first taste of following the red line, the blue line and heeling over on the 45 degree banking. Kim and I had cycled there together, along with Dave Holladay on his poor creaking Brompton, and we stripped our bikes down as much as possible, bar our GPS receivers. Kim's ponytail is longer than mine, and it streaked out behind her as she spun her way around the circuit while I piled on the coals for a top speed of 23.5mph, fierce headwind notwithstanding. For an hour or so we all played on the track, and then, our lungs bursting, took to the infield to watch others having their own fun. Bromptons, tadpole upright tricycles, a bike with a Trailgator, even a Nihola cargo trike had a go!

I spent the rest of the afternoon at the railway museum, a bit of a tradition really, in the hope of a late hot lunch and a wander. They'd sold out of soup and I was too late for hot food. Dave, who'd come with me, went to catch his train home and I cycled back to my tent for hot tea and coffee, self-heating pasta and cold pancakes, and to listen to the animals in the forest. But by then it was dark and only 15ÂșC outside, so I stayed in my tent and imagined what the birds looked like.

21 June 2015
Bird noises at 22.24: a low-flying 'parrrp-prrrp-prrrp-wheek' – surely not an owl? It calls out about three times as it flies overhead. Not many other birds at this time.

And for comparison, last year I noted:

19 August 2014
21.08. Sounds: 'tweek' and 'woohoohoo-a-hoo'. The owls are making so much noise! And this one is 'peepeepeepeepee'.

My tent, of which I should write more sometime, also collected most of the pollen in Yorkshire, on account of me setting up camp underneath a huge oak tree. It was all I could do to brush the worst of it off before packing up on Monday morning. My train home was another Cross Country Voyager, which meant hanging my bike up, which meant having to remove all the luggage and wrestle within the confines of train vestibules. I managed, but someone shorter or less strong would have real difficulties, with no train staff particularly interested in helping. Back at Waverley it was raining, and I rushed to get my bike and bags off the train, and banged my shin in the process.

Back at home I put some butter in the frying pan and finally had hot pancakes and maple syrup for dinner, and they were lovely.

July 01, 2015

Create a new dimension

Master of Time
Setting sail
Over all of our lands
And as we look
Forever closer
Shall we now bid
Farewell farewell

Chris Squire was cremated at 15.00 MST today, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Scotty Squire asked all fans to celebrate his life by playing their favourite Yes or Chris Squire song. My choice was Awaken.