Monday, 26 December 2011

Christmas Message from The Vole

The Archbishop of Canterbury likens our society to "atoms spinning apart in the dark". This is the kind of thing we expect our religious leaders to say. It is what they are for. It is the kind of thing they have been saying since the birth of their religions, and other religious leaders were saying the same before that. In the earliest writings that have survived, distinguished elders were talking about how society is falling apart, how the younger generation has no respect and no responsibility, and how everything is certain to get worse in the future. People must have been saying these things even before the first writing came about. This is a permanent part of human perception. Only the language changes slightly. The Archbishop appropriates this time concepts of science, with his atoms spinning, ironically, as the religion he represents has been opposed to scientific and rational progress, and the concepts he now appropriates, of the testable realities of invisible or non-experiential things, were developed in spite of the religious domination of human thought in the past.

So a group of our wise people and leaders always say that everything is always getting worse and that society is always collapsing. The Archbishop mirrors David Cameron's claim of a "Broken Britain" (while being more careful to apportion blame equally at the poor and rich ends of society). And yet others believe that there is moral progress, and that humankind is in engaged a continual evolutionary improvement of its conditions. A strong case may be made for this. Scientific and medical progress, rising average standards of living, more democratic, fair and open societies, lower levels of intolerance and vicimisation, lower levels of war, violence and insecurity, these all seem to be (also arguably) historical trajectories of human society.

How to reconcile these contradictory views? Science cannot measure human happiness comprehensively, though people try. Economic conditions can be measured fairly easily. Whether you believe in continual decline or continual progress probably depends mostly on what sort of a person you are, what your job and role in society is, and what you are expected by society to say.


On the subject of religion, in a nice article Confessions of a recovering engineer, Charles Marohn gives some insights into the mindset of the American traffic engineer, which could well be relevant to those elsewhere as well. He says:
A book of standards to an engineer is better than a bible to a priest. All you have to do is to rely on the standard. Back in college I was told a story about how, in WWII, some Jewish engineers in hiding had run thousands of tedious tests on asphalt, just to produce these graphs that we still use today. Some of our craft descends from Roman engineers who did all of this a couple of millennia ago. How could I be wrong with literally thousands of years of professional practice on my side?
When the public and politicians tell engineers that their top priorities are safety and then cost, the engineer's brain hears something completely different. The engineer hears, "Once you set a design speed and handle the projected volume of traffic, safety is the top priority. Do what it takes to make the road safe, but do it as cheaply as you can." This is why engineers return projects with asinine "safety" features, like pedestrian bridges and tunnels that nobody will ever use, and costs that are astronomical.
I wonder if all this tells use something about how Transport for London arrives at the road designs that it does, despite the public and virtually all politicians – maybe, to give him the benefit of the doubt (it is the season of Goodwill to All Men, after all), Boris Johnson himself – telling it to do something different.


One of the resolutions being proposed for the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) to adopt in 2012 is:
6. The NFWI urges Her Majesty's Government to make the wearing of helmets when cycling a legal requirement.
On their resolution briefing sheet (pp. 8–9), while there is some acknowledgement that helmets may not the be-all and end-all of cyclist safety, this bizarre statement appears:
compulsory helmet wearing may encourage more people to take up cycling, whilst improving the overall safety of cyclists. 
Aside from arguments about the actual effectiveness of cycle helmets as a safety intervention, how, logically, could any activity that society wants more of, let's call that activity "X", be encouraged by making a law that requires people doing X to do some new thing on top of X that adds to the difficulty and expense of X and makes it less practically and socially convenient? It's a total, obvious, logical nonsense.

If you have not already done so, please sign the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain's petition urging the NFWI to reject Resolution 6 and:
focus instead on creating conditions in which all members of society will feel safe and comfortable riding a bicycle
The petition wording is expanded upon in an open letter to the NFWI from the Embassy. The letter covers the facts that everywhere in the world where it has been tried, helmet legislation has led to a dramatic reduction in cycling and no overall, proven increase in cyclists' safety, and that a reduction in cycling would be bad for public health, before calling on the NFWI to support a campaign for better safety for cyclists through better infrastructure:
Your resolution shows that you have the interests of cyclists and their safety at heart but we hope that you’ll be able to think wider than just helmets and training to infrastructure based on the Netherlands model that has had proven success giving freedom of movement and empowerment to all.
So the NFWI is not merely being asked to reject something here, not merely being told where they have got it wrong, but being asked to become participants in a real, positive campaign for safe cycling for all. If they did this, British cyclists would have powerful ally on their side. This is precisely the type of social coalition-building that is needed if we are ever to succeed in getting cycling in the UK to break out of its current tiny minority ghetto to attain the sunlit uplands of mass culture that it occupies in several comparable countries in the world. I urge you to sign the petition.


Since hearing his song, via A view from the cycle path, M'n fiets is gejat ("My bike has been nicked") I have become a fan (possibly the first non-Dutch fan) of Ronnie Ruysdael (formerly the front-man of the band De Sjonnies from Nijmegen). This man is a musico-comic genius. He deserves exposure outside The Netherlands. He might get it if he did something in English, which he does not appear to have done so far.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from The Vole.

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