Thursday, 23 October 2014

Hobby Horse (1)

Walking or cruising along the canals and rivers is a pleasurable pass time, much enjoyed but with a certain amount of risk attached to it.  A forgetful moment while stepping ashore from a boat can find you stepping into trouble.  Its the same for people walking the towpath the hazards are plentiful and are not limited to mud, hole or even the obligatory dog poo. 

There is one ever increasing danger which is starting to dominate the towpath. Its a danger that is being encouraged and at the same time ignored as an issue by CaRT in the search for ever increasing visitor numbers. This quest is being pursued relentlessly because continued funding is dependent upon reaching target numbers of visitors. To me this does not make any sense as a worthwhile and meaningful target. If the target has been set at reaching a certain level of 'customer satisfaction' then a whole new management ethos would prevail.

The real danger for anyone on foot started a while ago when the requirement to have a permit to cycle on the towpath was removed. Seemingly at the same time any no cycling and cyclists dismount signs were removed as were the few speed limit signs. More recently cyclists have been encouraged to use the towpath by the trust.  The trust boasts that canals and rivers attract over 21 million visits from cyclists. The trust appears to use the name 'greenway' for its designated towpath cycle route and also publishes a 'route of the month' for cyclists.

Gone is the slightly compacted, foot worn, narrow path that joined canal side areas together. Which also provided a pleasant place to meander on a nice sunny day. Partnership with sustrans to bring funding for towpath upgrades also brings with it serious problems. Now the emphasis seems to be on creating all weather high speed cycle routes. Paved area are becoming more common place in towns and cities.  Gravel strips are starting provide rapid transit routes between adjacent areas. The towpath is fast becoming a cycle path where those on foot or fishing are barely tolerated by cyclists. The priority is turning into one for cyclist by cyclists.

Now you can encounter long sections of deep continuous wheel ruts which make excellent tripping hazards. Which in turn with the ever changing weather are rapidly turned into a quagmire of sloppy cloying mud when it rains. Gone is the traditional sit-up and beg cycle. Its been replaced by an 'all terrain' bike complete with a sophisticated suspension system. Which comes complete with tractor tread tyres, multi-geared and even disk braked, but apparently delivered without a bell. Now named 'Mountain Bike' this is the equivalent of a 4 by 4 on the towpath. Specially designed and built for speed and endurance.

Now, I'm not anti-bike we have a folding electric bike on board whenever we go out on on the boat. At 12mph the electrical assistance cuts out. So there is no way that I could keep up with the average speed of the cycling wizz kids along the towpath. The difference is created because these are specially designed and intended for hill climbing. Plus the 4 X 4 bikes need somewhere to go. It looks like the towpath is the designated place for the future. Because mountain bikes have already been banned on some footpath routes in national parks. This is because of the amount damage to the footpaths that this type of bike create. And as if on schedule, mountain bikes are making their way onto the towpath in ever increasing numbers.

I sometimes feel that boaters, walkers and fisher folk are expendable 'collateral damage' for the trust. Which is preoccupied in the headlong rush to worship at the alter of visitor numbers.  The reason for this is that the Canal and River Trust is funded by a combination of Government funding and its own revenue streams. The financial arrangements agreed by Government with CRT guarantee £800 million over a 15 year term. The condition on this funding is based on CRT's performance relating visitor numbers as well as asset condition, towpath condition and flood risk management. With regard to the canal infrastructure. The stand still figure, (no improvement and no  degeneration) as given in a statement to the high court was £130 million a year.  There is a big chasm between income and the much needed expenditure. 

I may have a few answers to the above imponderable and one or two observations of interest. A few days ago, I had a word with a pleasant young fellow who passed me at a good speed. He did not ring a bell. Afterwards I found out that he did not even have one on the bike. He shouted 'coming through' which was less of a warning and more the issuing of an order.  I eventually caught up with him, he was stood a bit further along the towpath consulting a Nicholson's boaters guide. Apparently, as he assures me, they are very good for cyclists as well. 

One of the things I enjoy most of all is to engage people on the towpath in conversation. It provides an endless source for the sort of stuff I write about. I learned a great deal from our short conversation with my new acquaintance. It started when I said with a smile - 'You were going at some speed when you passed me. 'No speed limits on here, no sign - no limit' he says a bit defensively. To which end he was factually correct as there were no signs.  'Why did you not ring your bell when you came up behind me.' I said. 'Bell! There are none of them on a bike now.' Seeing that I was not being hostile he added. 'Bells are for sissies and don't work very well, only add an extra bit of weight.' (The bikes are of amazing light weight construction and he let me try its weight, it was certainly a great deal lighter then the Raleigh blue streak 5 speed I had as a kid in 1960) I said 'Well it would save you shouting if you had a bell.' He says 'If I shout loud and startle people, they move aside and stand still. I'm past before they even know it.'  I said 'Not everyone has good hearing.'  His next comment made me think. He said 'Deaf people are more aware of cyclists, they are always looking round.'  

Continued in part 2 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Nanny Forums.

I participate in a facebook forum about boating issues. Its over managed and I don't understand the rational behind banning certain kinds of postings. Or entering into heated debates between consenting adults who choose to have a disagreement. People hate the 'nanny state' and it applies in any walk of life. When you have an outright ban it has to be implemented without exception, fear of favour. 

When I worked in academia I was involved in a research group called the Virtual Campus Project. Ultimately researching towards virtual Universities. Where virtual means on-line. The project was built around an integrated system whereby we could manage groups of up to 35,000 students. The theoretical limit was 300,000 students per system. The course work and appropriate lecture notes were delivered in this way. This was for students on and off campus. Encompassing distance, part time and full time learning.But the system had to fulfil lots of other functions that students enjoy as part of the university life experience.

As you might imagine the administration was quite intensive involving dozens of people. It soon became clear that we would need to manage the system much less proactive and to allow the systems to develop almost passively. So a second research project was developed to look at the social engineering of forums and shared work spaces. The initial period of the project was done to gather staff and students opinions and ideas on how the system should be developed. With each iteration things improved and support staff workloads reduced. Ultimately two members of staff managed the whole system from hardware/software and the staff student administration.

This helped to breakdown the very obvious barriers between student groups on full/part and distance learning. It also broke down barriers between the various disciplines. So that arts student for instance would interact with engineering students. Altogether it provided a very informative research project on social media. 


We thought that one of the simplest ways for staff and student to manage inappropriate content was to encourage the students to comment upon it, being the eyes and ears. Rather than the administration group having to seek, find and destroy. However, the anonymity that people who report items demand. This created more suspicion and discord. But we found that still proved to be a time consuming task. Then we decided to just leave it as is. A straw poll indicated that the vast majority of staff and students actually expressed the view that they would like to be able to make up their minds for themselves. They even agreed that there should be no anonymity when Item were subsequently flagged. What was very obvious what was deemed as inappropriate to one was perfectly acceptable to others. In retrospect when conducting a periodical review. There were less complaints, people just used common sense and ignored what had personally been deemed as inappropriate.

We also discovered that different administrators had different views. One admin would see an item as needing to be flagged for administration. While another thought it perfectly acceptable. This cause discord amongst the staff student body. Censorship of any kind is anathema to most people. There is usually considerably more discussion about the need for administrative action, creating angst between the three sides than the actual items posted. Some admin were seen as 'power crazy' thought to be flexing their muscles to frequently. This turned out to be a much bigger problem that might be imagined.

So we decided to revisit what we called 'the rules of engagement' Pruned them down to cover ethnic, bullying and pornography. (With 35,000 students most nationalities and religious persuasions were involved) The moment the rules were relaxed. The level of discord and discontent went away. What we thought were sensible precautions to protect the student body, turned out to be over zealous reaction by ourselves. We went on to create an 'Exchange and Mart' section which proved to be the most popular of all. What was clear was that as the shared workspace developed, individuals felt ownership. Trends and patterns would evolve flourish and fade over time. The whole system was dynamic and the users were in control.

If you need more than one admin person - you have operational problems.
If you have rules that cause discord between individuals - you have a bad set of rules.
If your system is not dynamic, evolving, flourishing and in a constant state of flux - then its time to rethink.
Forums are living breathing things that die if they are stifled.
If you system is not controlled by the wants and needs of its users - its broken.
If you need to operate a nanny knows best system - then its broken.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Veteran and the Vet

It's Sunday and the old girl Abbey is clearly not a well dog. Because she is profoundly deaf and almost blind its sometimes hard to tell. She is very lethargic which in itself is not unusual and she is not interested in food or drink. This is not unusual either as she is very picky over what and when she will eat or drink. I had to check her temperature using the hand on the belly technique, she seemed to be a bit warmer than usual. Then she started with the squirts. This leaves us with a dilemma, we can't let her out on the towpath because that risks every other passing dogs might be infected. As look would have it, we still had a bag of puppy training pads available from when the younger dog was a pup. It was all hands to the pumps so to speak.

We are moored out in the sticks and so finding a vet would be difficult. Compounded by the fact that it is Sunday and most practices would be closed. We were advised by a vet a long time ago to get a bottle of Pepto Bismol as a fast fix for us and the dogs when we were out on the boat. Medicines intended for humans are usually not good for a dog. However, Pepto is fine to use as long as a sensible dosage is used. 1ml per 5kg of dog. In Abbeys case, that would be 3.5 ml. So first I used the syringe to get some fluids directly into her mouth. I managed to get 20ml in followed by a dose of Pepto. Then I continued at a rate of 10ml of warm water every 30 mins.

Now it was time to move to somewhere where we might be able to summon a vet if needed. Both of our dogs are registered with a 'national vet group' and a look up on line showed that one vet in the group further along the waterway was open on a Sunday. Three hours later and we were moored up in close proximity to a main road and the  large nearby town. Information published on the internet might not be up-to-date. I gave the practice a call to establish that they were open, should we need them.

I explained that I was checking that they were open for business. That we had an old girl who was not well. The first question was 'Are you registered with us?' No I says, 'we are about seventy miles away from our own vet. But they are registered with the 'national vet group'. Through which I had found their address and information on the website. 'There is an £80 pound registration charge' I'm informed. 'Plus as you are not already registered with us there are additional weekend charges as well. There will be a consultation fee and then the costs of any treatment.' I said 'We would have difficulty in transporting the dog and we might actually want a vet to call on us.' Would you like to make an appointment?' enquires the voice on the phone. What will it cost I enquire - '£230 plus the treatment charges, inclusive of the call out charge, but excluding the consultation fee' I'm informed. So doing a bit of mental gymnastics I make that circa £320. I politely declined the offer.

I felt guilty, but felt I should make a point of principal. Later in the evening I gave her a second but reduced dose and more fluids. The squirts abated her tummy had stopped gurgling and she had a good night of unbroken sleep (though that did not extend to me) and  this morning she was clearly much better. She has been up and walking around but turned her nose up at her usual morning cup of tea - which in itself is not unusual.  But the indicator of general health, her tail was almost erect.  In fact she was very much herself.

The old girl is insured though we would stand the first £100 cost of treatment. To be honest the charges are the last thing I would be worried about. It was the daylight robbery being practised that got to me. Then we are a nation of dog lovers and easy targets for the rip off merchants.  So for the next few days I shall be out chatting to the local dog owners walking the towpath and telling them of our experience. I'm sure that will soon spread around the locality.

As for the 'national vet group' where we have had experienced excellent service in several of their outlets while boating the system. A rather long letter of the contrasts in our experiences, amongst their members, will be landing on the doormat any day now.