Monthly Archives: May 2011

Road racing

I was browsing Wikipedia today and the article on the Elfstedentocht (which happens to be in my HTC’s dictionary, giving you some idea of its prevalence in Dutch culture): a 200 km-long skating course along frozen Frisian canals, up in the north of the Netherlands. The skating competition is held irregularly as not every year does it get cold enough to freeze all 200 km of the route. I think it’s a shame that such an event can only be organised …basically, at the last minute; even so, it’s been 14 years since the race was last held.

I got reading further and it turns out there’s a cycling race running (in essence) parallel to the Elfstedentocht—the Fietselfstedentocht—but sadly, and like so many road races, the Fietselfstedentocht organisers are firmly against fun, and—relevant to me—recumbents (but not in a UCI kind of way). Here are some of their ‘conditions’ for entering the race:

  • “recumbent bicycles have to carry an orange safety flag [of a] sufficient height” but I’m glad to see the organisers promoting national pride
  • “because of safety reasons it is obligatory to carry a safety helmet”
  • “the maximum [speed of travel] is 25 km per hour”; there are apparently “time checks in Dokkum, Bolsward and Stavoren” to enforce this completely pointless and oxymoronic rule. It’s a race; what are you doing putting a speed limit on a race?
  • “participation by vehicles […] suitable for the transport of more than two persons is not allowed without prior consent of the board”, meaning my Yuba Mundo would need to be passed-by the organisers before I could ride it
  • “participation with motorised [or] electric bicycles is not allowed” …even though they cut-out at, I think, 24 km/h

What I’m trying to point out is that the organisers are just joykills.

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“Overweg vrij laten”

A few mornings ago, on the slow bus into Hilversum, I saw an sign which intrigued me at the level crossing between the platforms at Hilversum Sportpark railway station. The flashing traffic sign—two lights on top, two lights below; flashing like those motorway-side FOG signs that always seem to be on when there’s clearly no fog at all—read:

“Overweg vrij laten”

I saw this sign the other day but alas: it was unlit and I took less notice of it. It turns out this sign is lit during rush hour periods, and reads something along the lines of “keep level crossing clear”. Basically, it’s to remind thick drivers not to blindingly follow the car in front onto the level crossing—only to get stuck with nowhere to go, then hit by a train calling at Hilversum Sportpark.

I had to ask a colleague about this sign’s meaning since Google wasn’t much help. It was even less help when I stupidly tried to Google Translate (v.) one result of the search query ‘overweg vrij laten’—the Dutch Wikipedia article on level crossings—into English, since I knew the English article on level crossings wouldn’t have anything at all on vrijs or overwegen. Computer translation, or machine translation, is notorious for failing to take the context of words around a particular word under translation into account. When one Google Translates a website—rather than just a few words or a paragraph—upon hover, small bubbles appear over the translated text, showing the user the original text that was translated but, more interestingly, a “contribute a better translation” link—which when clicked, expands to a simple input field with the English (or rather Dunglish) text ready to be corrected.

A Google Translate'd Wikipedia article, showing Google's "contribute a better translation" bubble

First of all, files (pron. fee-lers) are traffic jams; the singular form of the word files is file, perhaps unsurprisingly. Dutch ‘file’ ≠ English ‘file’—as in a document—though file can also mean a file as in a document in Dutch. I’m only at the first word and the machine translation has already proven itself to be context-insensitive. The lead sentence of the ‘crossing equipment’ section—which should really read something like “…”—reads “depending on the level of security, Dutch consider the following items fitted”. The word order isn’t as bad as in some machine translation cases I’ve seen but it’s wrong, for a start; beveiliging, which the translation engine subsititue with “security”, would be more appropriately translated as “protection”, especially since we’re talking about level crossings. The Dutch noun overwegen—‘level crossings’—has been confused with the Dutch verb overwegen—to consider. The word kunnen (lit. ‘can’, as in “Dutch level crossings can be fitted with the following protections…”) has been ignored completely. Again, the word order towards the end of the sentence is getting raped pretty badly. And this is just one sentence in one of millions of Wikipedia articles. Imagine if the other Wikipedias were simply Google Translate’d ‘copies’ of the English-language site; fuck, that would cause a few arguments on the talk pages …in broken English of course.

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A taxi driver’s morning in the Netherlands

In eighteen years of being in the United Kingdom, not once was I in a road traffic accident; two months in the Netherlands and I’ve been in one road traffic accident—the culprit being a taxi driver who fled the scene, leaving me and my bike half-wedged under an heavy goods vehicle.

This morning on Emmastraat, Hilversum, there was a lorry unloading in an advisory cycle lane—I’m just going to point out that this wasn’t illegal and the lorry driver was unloading into a property that the HGV could not have accessed any other way. The point of cycle lanes, cycle paths, separate junctions and traffic signals in the Netherlands is that cyclists are statistically far more likely to be seriously injured or killed when sharing roadspace with motor vehicles and so, in the Netherlands, pedal cycles and mopeds are kept away from more dangerous road users where practicable. I had to leave the relative safety of the advisory cycle lane in question—I’m stressing on the word ‘relative’ quite a bit—to overtake the lorry and, with no oncoming traffic, one would expect that a vehicle behind wishing to overtake would pull out further into the road to get around (at this stage of progression forwards) both me and the HGV. Instead, he felt I was in his way and intentionally shunted my recumbent from the side, causing me to hit—then slide under—the side of the thankfully stationary lorry. He fled the scene.

I wish to extend my thanks to the driver of the lorry and the woman who was driving behind the vehicle who hit me; both were a great help in, but not limited to, interacting with the police.

The driver of the taxi in question is responsible. SMIDSY is way beyond a valid excuse; fleeing the scene of a road traffic accident is illegal; and if caught, the Fifth EU Motoring Directive should guarantee that any insurance compensation comes from s/his insurance firm and not mine—though it looks like it’s highly unlikely that the perpetrator will be caught, since CCTV will be the only record of the vehicle registration number and the Netherl– let’s just say that the Netherlands doesn’t have quite as many CCTV cameras as the United Kingdom.

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Eurovision Song Contest 2011

Finland: a little cheesy …which is always a great way to start off a Eurovision Song Contest. Quite a cute guy too.

Bosnië–Herzegovina: lady on piano had too little forearm stiffness. Entry was never going to win.

Denemarken: sounded too much like Muse to take seriously.

Litouwen: isn’t really Eurovision: I think the UK entered something like this a few years ago.

Hungary: what about my ears, love?! Too club anthematic for Eurovision.

Ierland: thank buggering fuck this isn’t representing the United Kingdom. You could land a microlight on those shoulder pads.

Zweden: so cheesy; so distasteful. Bang on for Eurovision.

Estland: props should be against the rules, but the song: very Eurovision.

Griekenland: white men rapping are just… fuck off now. Song didn’t do anything for me.

Rusland: do wish these Eastern European men would stop conforming to attractiveness stereotypes.

Frankrijk: didn’t really go anywhere, and orchestral music with a solo vocalist just doesn’t make for good Eurovision.

Italië: that’s more like it; now you’re getting the idea, Europe. The Temperance Seven bridges were a little displacing.

Zwitserland: very good combination of vocals, uke, cello and drums.

Verenigd Koninkrijk: really didn’t do anything for me; just reminded me of the early 2000s.

Moldova: giant gnome hat-wearing unicyclist blowing a trumpet?; has to be a small country’s entry.

Duitsland: I don’t mind if you take that chair but I do mind when you sample Also Sprach Zarathustra. Way too ambient; just sounded like background noise to me.

Roemenië: classic sing-to-able piano pop song; shame the pianist wasn’t actually playing.

Oostenrijk: your standard vocal ballad: it wasn’t anything special.

Azerbeidzjan: swear I heard this song on Heart Cambridgeshire back in 2008–9.

Slovenië: a cross between Christina Aguilera and the soundtrack to the desert levels on Croc: Legend of the Gobbos.

IJsland: nice, jolly song about something or other—but fuck: quite an animation they had behind them.

Spanje: instead of pretending to play instruments, like the other 21 entries, Spain decided to air play their song.

Oekraïne: completely ignored the vocalist as the live background artwork was far more interesting.

Servië: the Serbs have been watching too many Austin Powers films (and not concentrating enough on acknowledging the legitimacy of Kosovo).

Georgië: was barely listening; was trying to remember the name of that metal entry who won a few years ago. Did hear yet more white men rapping however.

Idea: clause depth changer

My style of writing uses clauses, as you’ve probably read before. Clauses are extremely useful for Erkläreideen und Erzählung—as well as just generally preventing the flow of a sentence from jarring to an abrupt halt. Since I’ve begun using the editor vim, the speed at which I write text (I hope) has improved and a few months on, I’m starting to get the hang of some of vim's—I guess you would call them—‘navigational’ shortcuts; these shortcuts are supposed to speed up your typing, though I still prefer using Ctrl + arrow keys over for word-by-word navigation—though not for changing or deleting text, which is where vim becomes very powerful indeed.

Clause depth for me is three-fold: in ascending order of ‘weight’, a comma affects a sentence the least, an mdash affects a sentence a little more and a semi-colon I use to combine related sentences or groups of related clauses; and, sometimes, I’m required to flip the weight of the semi-colon and mdash around—just so I don’t use one in close proximity to another.

Sometimes, it happens that I change my mind on how deep or with what glyph I want to clause (v.) a clause (n.); to go back and change, let’s say, a comma followed by a space to a mdash with spaces on either side would require, even using Ctrl + arrow keys, between seven and nine keystrokes. Couldn’t there be a simpler way to find the last comma-space and replace ‘, ’ to ‘ — ’ while retaining my cursor position in vim? I suppose it could be done with a macro—though I’m far from fluent in vim ‘beyond the basics’ .If you know of such a way, please: I’d be very grateful to know and the offer of a beer is… well, on offer for the most helpful response, though we may have to have a vote to eliminate (most) bias.

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‘People suffering’ owing to their own idiocy

Fuel protesters have staged a day-long protest, culminating with a demonstration outside the Shell oil depot at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire.

Protesting against a giant company like Shell is futile. Seriously; what are you doing, Cheshire residents? One protester told the BBC:

“People are suffering already from the high cost of fuel as they are having to give up jobs they can’t afford to drive to”

Get the bus?; get a bike? Walk? If you can’t be bothered to put physical effort into getting to your job, you’re a pretty shit individual. Then again: the State’s there to fall back on(!) This story gets even sweeter though:

Earlier, about 150 vehicles staged a go-slow protest along the M56 and M53, with lorry drivers, farmers and bikers travelling in 20mph convoys.

Because 20 mph will do wonders for your fuel consumption(!) You do realise what you’ve just done? You’ve just given oil companies more business by wasting your fuel protesting, retards; you’re going to have to fill up again and again. You have wasted your time, journalists’ time and my time.

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Kindle

On a recent North Sea crossing, I met a lovely woman called Ann. She recognised me as a ‘digital native’ (ghastly term, but we’ll go along with it) and enlisted my help with a few notebook and Kindle problems she needed sorting out before docking in Harwich and continuing her ’round-the-world trip; …something most of us would only consider doing once (perhaps in old age) but something Ann does a couple of times each year.

Ann is a Kindle user and she let me read a bit of Pride and Prejudice on the Kindle’s very paper-like display. I must say: for a long time, I’ve thought e-books are a little gimmicky but the Kindle does look very nice in person. The e-paper is excellent; the device is so thin; and, if only I had a spare €190,-, I would seriously consider purchasing one. I knew one could load PDFs onto Kindle devices, but plain text and HTML-formatted texts are also able to be read. Ann had also not only heard of Calibre but was an active user; the open-source provocateur inside me felt good when she told me. I’ve been torturing myself further by reading the informative Kindle Love blog; didn’t know you could do half as much with a Kindle: for example, free global 3G connectivity plus Kindle-friendly sites like Kindlefish makes for the best pocket phrasebook in history. Calibre can produce Kindle-ready ‘subscriptions’ of your favourite blogs and from news sources (in more than just English, which is good for me since I’m learning Dutch at the moment and will be for some time…). I know Instapaper can export itself to a Kindle-readable bundle of articles.

I’m also a fan of the front covers the device displays when in its ‘sleep mode’. I don’t have an image of this from Ann’s device, but I do have an image of me helping her to change her password in the Taste Restaurant aboard the Stena Hollandica. (Apologies for the HTC-quality photograph.)

Showing Ann how to set her Kindle password

Showing Ann how to set her Kindle password

I asked Stephen Radford before I popped off to the Netherlands if I could borrow his Kindle, but he said no: I think he would have missed it considerably but it would have been handy: cutting almost 3 kg of books down to 250 g when cycling long distances is sensible.

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Trains, ferries and cattle trucks

Yesterday, I had the good fortune of taking Dutch trains to my ferry out of the Netherlands, and the misfortune of suffering at the hands of the shambles we Brits call a rail network.

I arrived at Hollandsche Rading station by bakfiets taxi and I’d purchased my ticket (with extreme ease) at Hilversum Centraal the afternoon before. I’ve discovered there are three types of Dutch train: double-decker, average and Sprinter—in ascending order of shitness. I took an average train the ten-or-so kilometres south to Utrecht, seeing far fewer orange-clad Dutchmen as I was anticipating: for it be/was Koninginnedag. Switching to a double-decker?; no problem, just a change of platform. At Rotterdam, another change of platform and a change of train type: this time to a Sprinter. NS Sprinter services are nippy little buggers; the closest I can relate them to is a trip on a Class 313; anyone reading from north London and Hertfordshire will know that these First Capital Connect trains are shit, dirty, cramped and certainly not worth the £20 one paid to get to London. But, aside from my personal opinion, no problems at all and the price for the journey was €15,20.

On the ferry (actually on the Sprinter to Hoek van Holland) I met a lovely American lady called Ann—she’s currently on a ’round-the-world holiday and having got the train up from Antwerpen the night before, was travelling to Harwich (or ‘Har Wick’ in her words) then onto London. I helped many-an old lady yesterday: one in Utrecht, one in Rotterdam and Ann across the North Sea. She was lovely company, I must say.

At the other end, boarding a train at Harwich International required a half-an-hour wait (though I fully understand that a ‘train meeting a ferry’ should come with a little delay) but no problem beyond my British experience with railways. Manningtree on the other hand was a bit different: the train up from Harwich failed to meet a connection with a train heading towards Ipswich. Five minutes for a connection sounds like a long time …in the Netherlands, where trains run on-time (though actually in the past three weeks, they’ve been running and leaving ahead of time). I was intending to catch a train from Harwich International up to Manningtree, a connection from Manningtree to Ipswich, and then grab a nap on the Ipswich–Cambridge service. No. Kevin instead had to wait an hour for a train to Norwich—though another ferry-goer—Evan of Austin, Texas—was company on the platform, and briefly in the platform-side pub until I realised I only had euros on me. The Norwich train was late by a few minutes, and a few minutes at 21:30 on a Saturday can’t exactly be blamed on overcrowding or whathaveyou. Onwards to Norwich where National Express decided to turn off the lights in my carriage to pocket yet more money for its shareholders (and I guess default on yet another franchise when the going gets tough), and then a ten minute-connection to a train to Cambridge. Via Bury St Edmunds was the original plan but hey.

Oh yeah: just to reiterate. Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day) is a public holiday in the Netherlands. Hollandsche Rading has a population and station no bigger than Foxton, Cambridgeshire: it gets two trains an hour on a public fucking holiday. Foxton gets one train an hour Monday–Friday, you’re lucky if you catch one at the weekend, you’re delusional if you think you can catch one on Bank Holidays and Foxton station has forty-six fewer cycle parking spaces than Hollandsche Rading.

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