My Favourite Little Friend

Lily Asleep in the garden

[originally written February 9th 2017]

You know before you step out the door. You’re going to the rescue centre, there will be something small and cute there and you will fall in love. You might tell yourself that you’re just going to look, but you’re not. You’re going there because you want to fall in love, you want to share your life.

You also know that one day it will end. The dog that jumps up to greet you after a hard day’s work that somehow makes it all better. The cat that sits and curls up on your lap and just purrs gently when everything seems lost. One day they will die. You know this, but when you’re stood in the rescue centre trying to work out a way of leaving without promising to take all of the animals you don’t accept it. You’re choosing a new life companion and in your head that companionship will last forever.

You know however as time passes that the day it must end is coming closer. When my cat Lily was about 14 I saw her laying motionless on my lawn. I found myself thinking that if she’d passed away I wouldn’t be so upset. 14 is a good age, she’d led a good life and right up until that day she’d been scampering round like a kitten. Yes, this was a good way to die, to find a sunny spot on the lawn on that warm spring day, to curl up and drift off into the big sleep just as she’d drifted off into any other sleep.

I crept closer to see if I could spot any sign of life. As my shadow fell over her I heard the faintest “mip” and she rearranged her paws. She was fine, just far more deeply asleep than usual.

I smiled and carried on walking, but that image stayed in my mind. If that’s how it happened, if one day I just found her curled up having just gone to sleep never to wake up, that would be OK.

Barring a miracle, that is not how it’s going to happen.

Looking back she wasn’t quite right this summer. We used to lose her in the summer, she  rarely came into the house. She’d be out prowling or sleeping either in the garden or in the nearby fields. She’d get sun-bleached, by late August she’d not be a black and white cat, more of a sort of brown stripy cat, not that we really had a cat you understand – she was nature’s child, wild and free.

This summer she spent a lot more time with us. We just put it down to old age and maybe not being as sprightly as she once was. As Autumn became winter however we noticed that she was losing weight fast. We tried a few different foods but none of them seemed to make a difference so we took her to the vet.

Initially all seemed fairly bright, there can be any number of reasons for older cats losing weight and many of them are treatable. As time progressed however there were more test results and we noticed more symptoms and the field of diagnosis narrowed. Sadly it was the benign things that were being eliminated. We’re now in a world where all probability points to her being terminally ill. We’re still not quite sure what the root cause is, but the weight of evidence points in that direction.

I hope that she isn’t in too much pain. Right now she doesn’t seem like she’s in too much pain so I still have that dream, that I walk out into the garden on a warm spring day to find her curled up in the sun, having shuffled off this mortal coil in the gentlest of sun and lightest of breeze.

The reality however is far more brutal. At some point she will be in pain. At some point the pain will be too much. At some point it will be better for my Lily, my dearest companion of the past 16 years if she were no longer here.

And I’m sat here now with tears streaming down my face as she walks all over the keyboard and rubs her cheek against mine.

At some point I will have to kill her.

I am terrified.


I wrote this post a few months ago and I didn’t publish it because at that time I thought it was – well – just too sad. It felt like I was writing her obituary long before she had died.

A few days ago Lily came to see me whilst I was asleep, she curled up and went to sleep next to me. For the first time I can remember when I woke she was still there. I dearly hoped that’s what I’d be able to tell you, that she’d died whilst peacefully asleep next to me. Sadly, as I predicted, that’s not how it was.

She had a brief spell where she seemed to recover a bit, but it soon became clear that it was temporary. She continued to become evermore frail. Over the past 2 weeks however it started to become noticeable that she wasn’t moving or even standing in the same way she used to. Her life seemed to consist of long periods of sitting on her favourite rug staring into space, going to the food bowl, going to the litter tray and coming to us for affection and comfort.

Reluctantly we concluded that by continuing to feed and care for her we were extending her life beyond its natural limit. As it was now clear that she was in pain we decided that to continue to care for her without there being a dramatic medical intervention was unethical.

We visited the vets last Friday and we were not able to come up with any medical solution that would have any reasonable prospect of giving her any further valuable life. We therefore took the decision to end her life in the most peaceful way possible.

We buried her in the garden on Saturday, in one of her favourite spots – almost exactly where the above photo was taken. Currently the spot is marked by a white lily plant. We say hello to her every time we go to work. She’s still with us, still part of our story, still part of who we are.

Rest in peace Lily, 17/04/2001 – 21/04/2017

[original artwork by Emma Green]

Never Work With Scientists or Engineers

Forget never working with children or animals. Never work with Scientists or Engineers.

Picture the scene, dear reader; the air is being turned blue with the kind of language usually reserved for the rugby scrum. Things are being thrown.

A calming voice comes from a distant room enquiring what the problem might be. I respond using “language” that mounting the picture in the frame has not gone as well as I had anticipated, it’s not quite central. I may have used the word “disaster”. I can’t recall what the other words were but I seem to recall them being quite short and decidedly pointy.

“But you can fix it,” comes that calming voice again, “you can fix anything.” I take a deep breath, think for a bit and conclude that yes, I can fix it.

There then follows a few minutes of calm and concentration before once again the demons are unleashed, the air turns blue again and more everyday household objects find themselves travelling at unnatural speeds towards various hard surfaces.

“Problems?” enquires the calming voice.

“Yes, ” I reply. You will understand of course that my actual reply was somewhat longer than this but there are international treatise preventing me from disclosing the full transcript. I then continue to explain the cause of my frustration, “have you ever tried to cut 1/4 of a millimetre off the side of a piece of A4 card? It’s impossible!”

It was at that point it hit me, I had a steel ruler on top of a piece of card, both clamped to a cutting mat and I was using a razor blade to trim off a tiny amount to correct an error that only I was ever going to know was there. It was pointless, I should have just put the card in the frame and forgotten about the tiny mistake.

That 1/4mm level of passion, that level of attention to detail is entirely the sort of thing that’s required if you’re an engineer that is, say, responsible for ensuring that 999 (911 ,112)  calls get dealt with correctly (which I am). When mounting a picture however it’s more like an anti-skill, a trait that does more harm than good.

On Suddenly Discovering I’m a Motorolan

Something happened yesterday that rather took me by surprise. It wasn’t the Mercedes that drove into the back of an Audi about 100 metres in front of me, you expect that on the M25. It was something entirely different.

My industry – I mean the supply of software to the emergency services – is dominated by major companies. There are however some smaller firms in there and I’ve spent most of my career working for them, being the underdog but also being the guy at the back of the room who’s in charge of a twin outboard rib not a cargo ship.

We’ve been able to be far more dynamic, responsive, far more agile because we have a smaller user-base, a smaller and generally newer code-base and virtually no red tape. We don’t have the power of the big players, but we can put pressure on them and win business by responding and even leading in ways they can’t.

In December however we were bought by Motorola.

It wasn’t until yesterday that it really hit me though. I was in a suppliers’ forum meeting with lots of the other firms and I found myself evading a question that I’d usually answer enthusiastically. The implications for my team hadn’t changed, I had however suddenly become aware that I was wearing a Motorola ID badge and that – regardless of any caveats I may add – if I open my mouth it’s not Cyfas speaking, it’s Motorola speaking. I wasn’t quite ready for that.

I’ll get used to it in no time of course, but right now I’m still just feeling my way into what is a surprisingly different role in this market.

Hello Moto!

I’m excited: it was announced today that Motorola Solutions has bought the ICCS business from Cyfas Ltd. For a little over a year I and a small team of very dedicated, talented people have been beavering away on a little industrial estate in Bedfordshire trying to produce something new, something genuinely groundbreaking in the world of the Emergency Service Control Room.

The significance of the project has been widely recognised within the industry and over the past few weeks we’ve been in negotiation with Motorola Solutions about becoming part of the Motorola family. Yesterday the transaction was completed.

This opens up a new world of possibilities for us, it allows us to go places and do things that we never could have achieved as a small company working on its own.

I’m hugely proud of what we’ve achieved at Cyfas and I’m genuinely excited about being able to take it to the next stage with investment from Motorola. 


All of which means absolutely nothing if you’re not familiar with the world of the emergency services control room, so here’s a quick précis.

There are two critical computer systems in any emergency service control room – the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD, sometimes called “Command and Control”) and the Integration Communications Control System (ICCS).

Computer Aided Dispatch

The CAD system is in charge of incident management. When an emergency call is taken an incident is created and logged on the CAD system. Resources: ambulances, fire trucks, police cars etc. are then assigned to the incident, they deal with it and the incident is eventually closed. Today’s CAD systems have gone far beyond being simple log entry and recording systems, they have grown to include algorithms for suggesting the best resources to use based on where they are, where the crews are, what the type of incident is, what equipment is on the vehicle and what skills are available. They can prioritise incidents and even batch them up for crews to tackle one after the other. They are also able to communicate directly with stations, vehicles and people so that control room operators can quickly dispatch appropriate resources to deal with the incident and don’t have to keep checking up on them.
When I was at Seed Software I led the development of a CAD system, Brigid Command and Control (also here).

Integrated Communications Control System

The ICCS can be described very simply: it’s the system that manages the audio in the control room.
When an emergency call is made it first goes to the national operator – in the UK that’s BT. When you say which service you require the call then comes through to a local operator in one of the services’ control rooms.
Control room operators however don’t just sit around waiting for emergency calls, they can actually be dealing with all sorts of non-emergency matters. So they need to be told that there’s an incoming emergency that takes priority. These days that’s not done with a bat-phone, how the operator talks to the world is done via a computer system – the ICCS.
The operator can then – with a single click – answer the emergency call. That however is just the beginning – for instance the call may need to be transferred to another operator with specialist knowledge. An alternative might be to put the call in a conference so that both operators are on the call, or simply to have another operator listen in one the call. All of this needs to be carefully managed to ensure that every operator knows that it’s an emergency call and that there’s no possibility of the call being dropped.
The ICCS does a lot more than just operate telephone services however, it also operates the radio systems so that control room operators can speak to crews who are out and about. Sometimes this means operating several different types of radio and routing calls between the two so that people using one type of radio system can talk to people using a completely different one.
A lot of ICCS systems also have additional functions such as CCTV viewing and being able to operate building security systems.

Cyfas

In late 2014 I’d had my head in Computer Aided Dispatch for 6 years and I was starting to think that perhaps my time at Seed had run its natural course and that it was time to move on. About that time Hugh Evans (aka Moose) – then the manager of the then national DAB station Team Rock Radio – happened to mention on air that “Google had put a broadcast quality codec in the Chrome browser”. In his case that led to the famous edition of the breakfast show that they broadcast travelling across London using the free WiFi on the tube – an event that I recorded as important for home workers.
Other wheels were turning in my mind however – if they could use Chrome to broadcast a live radio show then audio handling within browsers must have reached the kind of standard where it would be possible to build at least a basic ICCS in a web browser. I wondered how difficult it would be to produce an open source web based ICCS but after playing around with a few designs I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the sort of thing that should be attempted as a spare time project.

I was not however the only one thinking along these lines. The Emergency Services systems world is perhaps surprisingly small and when I put the word out that I was thinking of leaving Seed one of the approaches I got was from Cyfas, who had just started to implement a design for a web-based ICCS.

This might seem like a crazy idea but it really isn’t. The days when the operator would have physical telephone lines and radios at the control room desk are passing quickly. Since the 1980s telephone trunks have used digital technology, cordless phones and mobile / cell phones have been digital since the 1990s so it will be no surprise that emergency calls are in fact delivered into the control room using digital technology and not actual wires.
Radios are going the same way, increasingly the services are provided by large infrastructure systems such as Airwave TETRA or its replacement ESN.

Thus the ICCS is changing from a system that directly processed analogue audio and tied together physical pieces of hardware into a digital controller that simply communicates with other computer systems to provide the voice services. There is no longer any need for this system to sit on the operator’s desk – there is only a need for it to have an interface on the operator’s desk.
What better way to do this than via a web browser? It opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

At its simplest, consider what happens if there’s a hardware fault with the system on the operator’s desk. With a traditional ICCS this has to be decommissioned whilst the ICT department replace it and wire in the new system. Often the configuration of the ICCS is so complex that the ICCS supplier has to come in to commission the replacement terminal.
If it’s just a web browser then any reasonable quality PC can be used – even a laptop. An ICCS terminal can be replaced in seconds, not days.

Consider also how you upgrade an ICCS – with a traditional ICCS the supplier needs to come in and individually upgrade each terminal. With a web based ICCS a new deployment can be loaded onto the web server and the entire control room switched over to the new version in the press of a button.

Another advantage is the fact that new terminals can be added at a stroke. In “spate” conditions where the control room is overloaded with calls an extra operator position can be added at a moment’s notice. What’s more it’s possible that operators from another control room can easily start taking overflow calls. This is important because spate conditions are usually localised and there may be spare capacity to take calls elsewhere in the country.

This also has implications in the case of a building emergency. It’s not unknown for control rooms themselves to suffer emergencies and have to be evacuated. The ability to simply transfer the control room function at the flick of a switch to elsewhere is highly desirable. On top of this there is the ability to turn any office – in fact any space that sufficient network bandwidth, into a control room in minutes. Even a Portacabin or the back of a truck.

There is a further advantage in the using web technology aligns nicely with the current direction of the software development industry. The web has become critical to the functioning of our society. Consequently there has been an awful lot of time and effort invested in making sure that web sites don’t go down. That same technology can be brought to the world of the ICCS to ensure that service is never lost.

A logical extension to this is the concept of ICCS as a service, where the service itself doesn’t actually manage any hardware themselves, instead they simply pay a subscription to a cloud provider (such as Motorola) to provide them with the service.
Whilst this might initially seem quite frightening there are in fact a number of possible configurations of this which can reduce the risks associated with potential losses of network service.

With the backing of Motorola we’ll be able to provide all of the above, something that it’s unlikely Cyfas would have been able to do on their own. I’m genuinely excited about it, about the journey in the future and about where it could take us.

Intlerocked.Exhange and the Atomic Option

Developers are now having to deal with concurrency issues far more than we ever have in the past. Our languages are evolving more and more features (like the Parrallel.* class in C#) that allow us to take advantage without too much pain.
These are great, but they’re not always the answer and they don’t negate the need to understand the fundamental issues of concurrent programming. This is in fact the very subject that this blog started with several years ago...

Today I’d like to talk about Interlocked.Exchange. Its purpose it to exchange two variables in an atomic way. It’s the atomic nature of the exchange that’s the important factor here, it means that nothing can catch the exchange in an incomplete state. It’s either completely one value or completely another value.

Thread Safe Exchange

The significance of this becomes evident when we consider the traditional method of exchanging two variables.

var spare = first;
first = second;
second = spare;

This is not thread safe. The problem is that a second thread could interleave into the first. Consider the following path of execution. Let’s assume the value of first is 5 and the value of second is 10. The table shows the values of the variables as two threads interleave.

Thread Code first second spare 1 spare 2
1 var spare = first; 05 10 05
1 first = second; 10 10 05
2 var spare = first; 10 10 05 10
1 second = spare; 10 05 05 10
2 first = second; 05 10 05 10
2 second = spare; 05 10 05 10

Oh dear… that didn’t work, did it?

If we’d used Interlocked.Exchange we wouldn’t have the problem, because the exchange is atomic no interleaving can take place, the first thread will finish then the second will take over.

Thread Safe Changes of Scope

When it gets really interesting though is the fact that Interlocked.Exchange returns the original value.

public static T Exchange(
    ref T location1,
    T value)
    where T : class

The beauty of this is that we can use this to change scope. There’s a wholly unsafe pattern that gets used in Dispose handlers all the time:


class Blah: IDisposable
{
    SomeDisposableType someObject;

    ...

    public void Dispose()
    {
        if(someObject != null)
        {
           someObject.Dispose();
           someObject = null;
        }
    }
}

It’s possible that two threads could interleave between the null check and someObject being assigned to null, resulting in someObject being disposed twice.

Alternatively…

public void Dispose()
{
    var myCopy = Interlocked.Exchange(ref someObject, null);
    if(myCopy != null)
    {
        myCopy.Dispose();
    }
}

What the Interlocked.Exchange does here is to set someObject to null in the object scope and return its (former) value to myCopy which is in the method scope.
If two threads call Dispose at exactly the same moment, then both of them will succeed in setting the value of someObject to null. In the case of the thread that calls Interlocked.Exchange first, it will return the original value of someObject to its myCopy and set someObject to null. When the second thread calls Interlocked.Exchange it will return the value that the first thread set someObject to, that being null. It will then proceed to set someObject to null again.
The effective is that someObject is set to null twice, but only one of the threads gets the original value of someObject, so only one will pass the null check and only one will call Dispose on someObject.

Note that this isn’t a good Dispose pattern fullstop however. Microsoft have written some guidelines.

This scope switching trick can be useful in other places too. Consider if you’re writing a log file of some description. Writing an ever-expanding log file causes problems, it’s good to have a cut-off and write a new one every so often. A common method is to write one file per day of the week.

public class LogWriter : IDsiposable
{
    StreamWriter writer;
    public string FilePath {get;set;}
    ...

    public void WriteLog(string s)
    {
        writer.WriteLine(s);
    }

    public void StartNewDaysLog()
    {
        var newWriter = new StreamWriter(FilePath + DateTime.Now.DayOfWeek.ToString() + ".log", false);
        var oldWriter = Interlocked.Exchange(ref writer, newWriter);
        if(null != oldWriter)
            oldWriter.Close();
    }
    ...
}

With this implementation multiple threads can safely call WriteLog continuously. When StartNewDaysLog is called a new StreamWriter is set up ready to go, then the two are switched in an atomic fashion. Nothing can catch this out half way through the switch – as far as anything calling WriteLog is concerned one entry was written to one file and the next to another: it’s seamless.
After the switch, StartNewDaysLog is left with the old StreamWriter which it then has to Close (which in turn calls Dispose).

Conclusion

Interlocked.Exchange is a surprisingly useful little tool. Its plain usage – to simply exchange a value in a thread safe way is useful, but where it really comes in handy is in its ability to replace a value and return the original one into a narrower (thread safe) scope. This is particularly handy if you need to move or consume something in a simple way that doesn’t imply graduating to a mechanism such as ReaderWriterLockSlim or SemaphoreSlim.

Callback Trace Listener

lightSo you know about the Trace facility in System.Diagnostics, right? If not then you should because it’s really rather handy. It provides a set of static methods that you can call to write out trace information to any number of connected “Listeners” which you can define in code or in config.
The default trace listener writes to the Win32 OutputDebugString stream, you can view this in Visual Studio’s “Output” window or using a viewer such as Sysinternals DebugView.

Sure if you need more extensive logging and tracing then you should look to something like log4net, but if your requirements are simple then System.Diagnostics.Trace and System.Diagnostics.Debug are really handy.

Anyway, that’s not the point of this article.

Quite often I end up writing non-production apps – little gizmos for this or that – which could do with informing the user of what’s going on via some sort of rolling log on the UI.

So I wrote this tiny little class to help.

public class CallbackTraceListener : TraceListener
{
    public event Action<string> WriteToOutput;

    public override void Write(string message)
    {
        if (null != WriteToOutput)
            WriteToOutput(message);
    }

    public override void WriteLine(string message)
    {
        Write(message + Environment.NewLine);
    }
}

It’s a Trace Listener just like the one that writes to OutputDebugString. You need a little bit more code to make it work, in the initialisation of the your application you need to register an instance of it as a trace listener…

public MainWindow()
{
    var uiTracer = new CallbackTraceListener();
    uiTracer.WriteToOutput += UiTracer_WriteToOutput;
    uiTracer.Name = "UITraceListener";
    Trace.Listeners.Add(uiTracer);
    Trace.WriteLine("Debug window initialised");
    Trace.WriteLine("Ready...");
    InitializeComponent();
    ...
}

Now every time you use any of the Trace methods that write output, the UiTracer_WriteToOutput callback will be called with the string that’s written. You can add the strings to a ListBox, or put them through any other kind of processing you want.
It’s a really simple and useful way to subscribe to up your own Debug/Trace stream.

Let’s Go to the Winchester…

Don't Vote Leave...It hit me about 4pm today that although I’ve done a lot of myth debunking on social media and directed people to well supported articles, I haven’t actually expressed my opinion on the EU Referendum.

It was inevitable.

In the UK we’ve had something like 8 years of economic stagnation. Whenever something like that happens there are certain things that history tells us will follow. People will lose faith in the politicians of the day and start looking for answers elsewhere. New movements will spring up saying that they have the answers. The things they say are always the same, we need to break free of regulation, bureaucracy and red tape, we need to empower the individual, the problems are caused by some external entity (usually immigrants) and most of all we need to take our country back and make it great again.

Right now that’s Farage, Trump, Le Penne, Marusik, etc.

These things are not the answers because the sad, soul crushing reality is that there are no answers right now.

Our problems are not caused by our membership of the EU, Boris Johnson said as much in 2013, I’m paraphrasing but basically “the only thing leaving the EU would achieve is to make Britain face up to the fact that its problems are not caused by the EU.”

Our problems are caused by a combination of the poor performance of the global economy and our own mistakes and inadequacies. We have consistently failed to invest in public services and infrastructure. We have failed to properly regulate the financial sector. Time and time again we have put short term gains before the necessary long term strategy. These things and others are the cause of our current malaise, not our EU membership.

I can’t believe it, but I basically agree with what Boris said in 2013 (I disagree on many of the details, BTW).

Leaving the EU will not bring us any significant gain, even in the areas that the Leave campaign are targeting.

If we stay in the Free Trade Area (like Norway and Switzerland) we will have to accept almost all of the EU’s rules, including the free movement of people.
At the moment we’re one of the big 3, with France and Germany we’re the most influential countries in Europe. We’d lose that so we’d effectively lose sovereignty – because at the moment we have some control.

It would also make democracy worse as at the moment we all have a voice through the UK government and through our MEPs. We’d lose that.

I’m sure I needn’t point out that the proposed points system on immigration is highly unlikely to be acceptable to the EU if we remain in the Free Trade Area.

So we’re talking about a substantial divorce from Brussels, that’s the only way we can get any freedom of movement on immigration. Sovereignty and democracy are more complex arguments but neither would be a cavalcade of success. They’re both pretty minor gains if you analyse them in depth (NATO, WTO, IMF, UN, House of Lords, FPTP etc).

The problem with this is that even the Leave campaign recognise that this would hit our economy hard. Unemployment would rise, the welfare bill would rise and the economy would slow down long term. The slower the economy the less money there is flowing around the less the government gets in tax, the less we can afford to pay out in welfare and services. Even a tiny slowing would eclipse the EU membership fee from the government’s budget so what we’re facing here is not investment in services like the NHS, but even more and ever more severe cuts at a time when we really, really don’t need that because half our problems are caused by our failure to invest in the past.

The numbers can only work if we remain in the Free Trade Area which gains us nothing but a tiny bit of pride. It’s pointless.

There’s no quick fix for the situation we’re in, it’s going to be a long hard slog but there will be an upturn. When there is there’ll be more money flowing in the economy so the government will get more in tax and we can afford to put right some of the mistakes of the past.

If we stay we can hold our heads high, we’ll be at the top table of the EU, the largest market in the world, a major player on the world stage. If we leave we seriously risk becoming an ever more irrelevant and isolated sad little island.

I am proud to be from Suffolk, proud to be English, proud to be British. I care about this country and I care about its place in the world, so I will be voting to remain a member of the European Union.

 

[You will appreciate this is rather a hasty hack of an article, I haven’t really had time to properly reference it and I’ve glossed over a lot of detail that I would have included if I had longer]

I Was Growled at by a Car Lion

Samson Car Lion

Samson the Car Lion

Meet Samson, he’s a Car Lion. His job is protect the car he’s in against any unwanted attention. Currently he lives on the dash of our hauling, ferrying and carrying car – a Honda Jazz (aka Fit) called Delilah.

Samson is a very happy Car Lion, Delilah is very spacious inside, so he has a large territory. The Jazz/Fit also has a considerable amount of glass in the cabin and the cab-forward design means that he has a large and very prominent area to prowl and make sure that all is in order.
He also likes window stickers and we keep him well supplied with them.

Samson's Favourite Snack

Samson’s Favourite Snack

Now let me introduce you to another Car Lion with a less fortunate story. You see it came to pass that we needed to buy a second car. We didn’t really know what we needed or how long we’d need it for so we played it safe and bought a Ford Fiesta. We called the car “Rory” because he didn’t need a name, he was only “tempoRory” [sic].

It may surprise you to learn that Ford Fiestas are often supplied without a Car Lion to protect them. So we went to Africa Alive and came back with this gorgeous little fellow. It was clear that this Car Lion was far too big to live on Rory’s dash though, so we came to an arrangement that he would live on the back seat.

Rory's Car Lion

Rory’s Car Lion

He liked to sleep a lot when he wasn’t on duty so he liked it there – it was warm and soft. Being somewhat larger than Samson he wasn’t too worried about being on higher ground because he could easily jump up and growl at any potential miscreant. It’s true that Rory wasn’t as roomy as Delilah is, but it had some additional creature comforts such climate control and more importantly an MP3 player – because Car Lions have got to have their choonz.

I have to admit that we didn’t really think about the Car Lion in Rory. He was there, doing his job and he seemed to be happy enough. It didn’t occur to me that we might be neglecting him – we had after all given Rory a name and we weren’t intending to keep Rory long. The poor Car Lion didn’t even have a name.

It was when we sold Rory that it finally dawned on me. As I took him from the back seat the full horror hit me – the back seat. The car we replaced Rory with is a much more permanent affair, she’s called Mina and, well, the problem is rather obvious.

Mina

Mina

So there were two things I needed to make up to our sadly anonymous Car Lion. The first was easy for me – although Mina is very snug she’s a convertible which means that she makes an excellent home for a Car Lion. He can stay safe and warm when he needs to or go out and prowl as far as he likes. Being in the front seat however there was a problem – the car only has two seatbelts and he’s too big to have roaming around when we’re both in the car. So I made him a little seatbelt of his own.

Car Lion All Strapped In

Car Lion All Strapped In

The second problem is more difficult – the obvious name for a Car Lion that protects a car called Mina is Jonathan, but Mina wasn’t his first car so I think calling him Jonathan is unfair, we need to respect the very good work he did protecting Rory. So what do we call him?


It was somewhere in the region of 23 minutes before someone suggested Liony McLionface, which was rather longer than I expected. Other suggestions so far include:

  • Cecil (but I’d have to sew a bullet-hole through him somehow)
  • Cedric
  • Clarence (how rude!)
  • Denn (long story)
  • Don / Vito, as in Don Car Lione (badoom-tish!)
  • Kenneth
  • Kieran (another long story)
  • Leo
  • Lionel
  • Liono
  • McGrath
  • Numair  (Arabic – “panther”)
  • Simba
  • Roan Miry
  • Vlad

In the end we decided on a name, so meet Vito Car-Lione… He’d like to be your friend, and that’s an offer you can’t refuse.
Vito Car-Lione

Too Much Information!

Broken Seat ClampWe, the cycling advocates, want more people to cycle. We dedicate our time to producing useful material for new cyclists and people who are thinking of taking up cycling. Are we barking up the wrong tree though?

Articles on how to get the right bike, what clothes to wear, how to pick the right helmet, how to ride in traffic, how to ride in the countryside, what tools to take, how to maintain a bicycle, what the best sub-miniature lightweight pump for mid-distance touring rides is…

It’s all meant well. It’s all meant to try to help people. If I put myself in the position of someone thinking of taking up cycling though I see something different. What I see is a lot of articles telling me how complicated cycling is. I need to make sure I have the right bike, the right clothing, the right helmet, the right tools. I need to remember how to ride in traffic, how to ride at a roundabout, when to take the lane and when not.

I recently cycled to an event where I met a lot of new people. We were all waiting around, talking about this and that and I started to become aware that there were a lot of people listening to me and I was being asked a lot of questions about how I came to cycle there.

No, I haven’t changed my clothes – I cycled here in this pair of smart trousers and shirt. No, I don’t have cycling shorts on underneath that would be really uncomfortable.

No they’re not special cycling trousers or a special cycling shirt. They’re just good quality, comfortable clothes.

No, there aren’t any showers and I don’t need a shower because I cycled here at a sensible pace. It wasn’t a workout.

About 37 years.

Actually I didn’t wear a helmet today. Yes they do help in certain types of crash but they’re not some kind of magic bullet that will save you if you’re run over by a train. They do reduce the risk, yes. Sometimes I do wear a helmet, I’m not quite sure how I decide when to and when not to.

No actually, most helmets have vents in them, vents large enough that you can lock the helmet to the bike to the bike rack.

I’m wearing a blue and white spotty shirt. That’s not a naturally occurring phenomenon in most environments.

It’s locked to the bike rack at the front of the building. No, it’s not an expensive bike. Yes it is actually covered by my house insurance.

It didn’t look like rain so I didn’t bring a coat. It’s not a freezing cold day so if it rains on the way home it’s no biggie. I’ll just change when I get there.

No, a couple of miles isn’t far.

No, it’s a couple of miles. That really isn’t far enough to cause any kind of problem that would need that sort of cream.

No I’m not super-fit.

No, I actually avoided that and took the cycle path that goes across the docks. I have cycled round there before though and it’s not as scary as you might think. Remember you’re higher up on a bike so you can generally see better than cars can.

No, actually most drivers are really good. There are always a few idiots and yes they’re far scarier when you’re on a bike. No actually, I’ve not had a serious crash on the road in all the 37 years I’ve been cycling.

No, I don’t have a spare tube or a puncture repair kit. I’m in town, there are cycle shops and even if there weren’t it’s a couple of miles. I can walk. Punctures are uncommon anyway, modern city [puncture resistant] tyres are pretty good at stopping them.

If I’m right and this was a representative sample of the public then we have a bit of an issue. The message that we want to get across is that cycling is fun, practical, cheap, easy, safe and something that anyone can do.

The message that we seem to be getting across is that it’s expensive, complicated, dangerous and requires a Lycra Licence.

So what can we do about it? I don’t think we should start un-publishing the articles that are out there – many of them are really good and contain a lot of useful information. I think the problem stems from the fact that most of us cycling advocates are sports and leisure cyclists. We invest time and money into cycling because it’s a hobby. We want to share that with other people and that’s great, but we’re bringing the wrong character. We’re bringing the person that loves to cycle 25 miles through the rolling hills to that great little café by the brook that does the proper tea and the millionaire shortbread with that really thick caramel layer.

It’s an intoxicating image, but distances like 25 miles are going to put the willies right up a potential new cyclist. The idea of being 25 miles from home with a machine they don’t understand and can’t maintain is pretty scary too. Group rides are terrifying because they’re afraid they’ll hold everyone up and Lycra – which many seem to believe is mandatory – requires way more (body) self confidence than most people have.

Yes we’re selling the dream, but it’s too big, too far away for most people to grasp. They will get there, if they want to get there, but we need to start smaller.

For instance, many of us aren’t just leisure or sports riders. We also use a bike to pop to shops or to commute to work. We don’t do that in Lycra riding a Santa Cruz Nomad. OK, so most of us don’t use a battered 2nd hand beater bike either, but we could do. We need to try to get across the the joy of just being able to grab the bike and go – the freedom that comes with not being strapped into a little metal stress box, even on short journeys. We need to place cycling as a part of everyday life, something that normal people can easily do and as a cheap, effective and safe way of enriching your existence.

For want of a better way of putting it, we need to humanise cycling. Make it normal, accessible, everyday. We need to place them in the saddle.

We need to talk about things like how social cycling is – and I don’t mean meeting other cyclists because the idea of a cafe full of people in cycle gear chatting about the latest carbon fibre seat clamp scares the hell out of most new cyclists. I mean things like my neighbour, the keen gardener who always waves and says “Hi” when I pass.

Cycling is about connecting with the environment, being part of life.

Climate control, cruise control, stereo, sat nav, cooped up in a little sound proof reinforced cage. That’s about isolating you from the environment, from the journey, from life. Driving is the nearest thing you can get to posting yourself somewhere, all wrapped up nicely in a neat package to be delivered. Sometimes that’s just how it has to be but when it doesn’t we have the opportunity to be part of something so much more fulfilling.

Out of bread? Just grab the bike and go, past the flowers in Mary’s garden that always smell so nice at this time of year, the fields we can see from the top of the hill that stretch for miles and miles all different colours, the little cottage that we’d definitely buy if we had the money and then play the game of can I make it down into the village without having to peddle again?
Walk into the village shop where Carol lets you know that they’ve just got in some of that bread you really like… Go past that cafe, it smells good so just turn round, lock the bike up outside and pop in for tea and a cake because… because it’s Tuesday!

You don’t need to ride 100 miles, you don’t need a £4000 bike, bib-shorts and a comprehensive track toolkit to do that, to be that person, to be that engaged with life.

You just need a bike.

That is the message we need to get across.

Connectorum Reseatorum

Compact!

Compact!

Last time I talked about De Morgan’s law which I learnt in electronics but still use in computer science.

Today I want to talk about a revered piece of arcane wisdom, a ritual handed down from electronics master to apprentice according to the strictest laws of tradition. It’s called “Connectorum Reseatorum” and I just used it to raise my compact camera back from the dead.

What they don’t want you to know is that you don’t actually need any complex electronics expertise to perform the ritual. All you do is take the case off and then one-by-one take each connector apart, clean the contacts (surgical spirit / rubbing alcohol works quite well) and then put the connector back together again.

It’s surprising how many electronics faults are just down to a bad connection and can be fixed simply by cleaning contacts and removing dirt.