I want to ride my bicycle: A personal history

When I was in high school, probably about 15 years old or so, I found out that my best friend’s parents let her cycle the several miles to the town library. Not one to pass up on an adventure, I begged my own parents to let me join her on a trip. They gave in, but only because my best friend had been doing it for over a year already and they knew I wouldn’t be alone.

The journey on a map looks quite straightforward – down one big long road and then up the other again.

Down the hill on Rt 32 in Montville, Connecticut
Down the hill on Rt 32 in Montville, Connecticut
The route on the map of how I travelled from home to the library
The pillgrimage from home to the Raymond Hill Library

Of course, it was down a great big hill and then up another great big hill. So, she and I would meet at the bottom of a great big hill and we’d cycle up the other hill together. It was only four miles, but it was a fantastically far distance to go without my parents around – at that point, the farthest I’d strayed from them without being driven was a quarter-of-a-mile walk to deliver something to the post office.

It was then that I realised the freedom that the bicycle could offer me. If I could cycle somewhere, I didn’t need to wait for my parents to give me a lift. I could cycle to the library, to my friend’s house, or to the grocery store two miles away. I didn’t do it for fitness, but to get out of the house.

By 17 years old, I was quite happy to cycle the 8.5 miles to a friend’s house across town, bicycle laden with lunch, a change of clothes, books, and whatever else I’d want with me for the day’s adventure. I still remember cycling across town one sunny summer day – at 90F (32C) and humid. I wasn’t bothered, just stopped to take a drink of water every mile or so.

[At this point, I’d include a photo of me with my bike, but I can’t seem to find it just now!]

I wore a helmet (legally required until age 18), but not fluorescent colours. It’s not that it was safer to cycle in my hometown back then, but just that it hadn’t occurred to me that it could be very dangerous. The main roads were wide so I could cycle in the gutter and leave plenty of passing space and there weren’t many cars on the back roads. Actually, the only thing I was ever really scared of on my bike was an angry dog tied out in a garden at one of the houses halfway up the steepest hill – he pulled the chain off the doghouse one day and chased me the rest of the way up the hill, starling at my heels.

I got a car at age 18, gifted from an elderly aunt who could no longer drive. I’d graduated high school, started college part-time and worked part-time. Driving saved time, especially with the distances involved (10-20 miles, depending on which campus I had to drive to), so I all but abandoned my bike to the shed.

I secretly celebrated the handful of times when my car would break down on days that I didn’t have class and I was able to cycle the five miles to the shop where I worked. I remember my family getting upset that I was using my bike to commute rather than asking to borrow a car. In the years since I had started my cycling, traffic had gotten busier along the main thoroughfare and they were worried about my safety. If anything, I worried less as my familiarity and comfort with the roads increased. I prided myself on being one of only a few cyclists in the entire town (I knew the other two, as our paths would very occasionally cross).

When I moved to Edinburgh, at age 21, I initially didn’t take a bike with me. I spent the majority of my first year of my undergrad wishing I had a bike, though, to visit the farther corners of the city in the free moments between studying and societies. When I returned for my second year, I brought with me a budget mountain bike from Wal*Mart that would suffice for the few years I had left of university and wouldn’t make me cry if it rusted to bits.

The first time I tried to cycle on the streets of Edinburgh, though, I discovered the fear. The traffic was on the wrong side of the roads, the signal lights weren’t overhead where I was expecting them, the roads that I frequently walked were one-way in the opposite direction, and there were cars and buses and taxis! I found myself paralysed. I remember standing outside my flat with my bike, unable to get on it and cycle on the roads. I walked to the Meadows and cycled along North Meadow Walk. I intended to cycle back along Melville Drive but couldn’t bring myself to join the road. I cycled back along the pavement until I reached the North Meadows Walk cycle path again. Confused by my nervousness I looped around the Meadows a few times, avoiding pedestrians as best I could, until I finally made myself cross at the pedestrian crossing at the East end of the Meadows, turn Right onto Melville Drive, and cycle on the road back to the West end of North Meadows Walk. I mounted the pavement and congratulated myself but didn’t do it again for awhile.

I remember taking it slowly, re-learning how to cycle in Edinburgh. I remember mostly cycling with my flatmate who was, himself, an avid transportation cyclist. He cycled to class most days while I walked, but if we had somewhere to be together and needed to be there fast, then we could cycle and I would cautiously follow him. I remember the day I raced him across quiet streets to get to flat viewings and we were both surprised by how I’d taken to cycling. It took two years for me to cycle Edinburgh with confidence.

After I graduated, I donated my rusted bike to the Bike Station. I moved down to England where my boyfriend was working and found myself again wishing for a bike. There was a particular style of bike that I’d seen locked to fences in Edinburgh but couldn’t seem to find new or used! I was desperate for a racing bike like I’d used back in Connecticut, but with a dropped top-tube so I could still occasionally wear skirts. I managed to find one on eBay, collection-only in a village outside Nottingham. I fell in love with the cherry-red beauty and duly collected it and had to cycle it the 5 miles back into Nottingham because I couldn’t take it on the bus.

Red bicycle in the bike storage space
Cherry red 1984 Raleigh Stratos, affectionately named “Caroline”

Then, I moved to Cambridge. Cambridge, I’m told, is a cyclists dream in the UK. I found it more terrifying than cycling in Edinburgh because there were more cyclists and the drivers were more impatient with us. Where drivers would pass me wide in Edinburgh, or wait behind me until they could, in Cambridge they’d come within a hair’s breadth. In Cambridge, I had punishment passes, SMIDSYs, and a healthy dose of “damned cyclists”. Cambridge was better in some ways, but much worse in others. But I had a bike that I loved and a need to get out and see the city. I cycled into town every Saturday and Sunday from where I was staying in the outskirts, despite bad weather and impatient drivers. I loved it, despite everything.

I moved to Norwich where my fiancé had gotten transferred and took the train into Cambridge daily. That was when I invested in a Brompton which forced me to leave my beautiful and beloved Raleigh in the storage cupboard in Norwich rather than risk theft or mud at the bike shed at Cambridge station. I was sad about not riding my road bike, but the Brompton was much more practical. After a year and a half of English cycling, I moved back to Scotland and resumed my cycling in Falkirk and Edinburgh.

Raleigh Stratos and Brompton bicycles, propped up against the shed
My Raleigh Stratos and my Brompton

Things in Edinburgh had changed, noticeably, in the time that I was gone. The cyclists I saw weren’t only other students. There were more cyclists, more high-vis, more helmets. There was strength in numbers reminiscent of I’d seen in some parts of Cambridge but the drivers still didn’t have the impatience of the drivers in Cambridge. I couldn’t cycle as hard or as far as I’d gotten accustomed to on the flat roads of the English city, but it was fine. There was more of a community of cyclists in Edinburgh, rather than the isolation of cycling in Connecticut, or the free-for-all folks-on-bikes in Cambridge. There were a few sporty cyclists, some students, and a whole load of folks who’re just enjoying getting to work.

Before returning to Edinburgh, I didn’t see myself as a cyclist. I was just a person who happened to ride a bike. It was only in a conversation on the phone with my dad, when I’d commented about how much cycling had changed in Edinburgh and how happy I was to be cycling there again that he told me “Oh, Denise, you’ve always been a cyclist, you’ve always loved your bike.” That’s when I started reading blogs by cyclists, learning about cycling campaigns like Pedal on Parliament. I wrote a blog post about it, at the time, describing the different categories of cyclist that I could associate myself with.

I still don’t really see myself as a cyclist, it’s not my profession and it’s not even what I would consider a hobby. I only really ever cycle as A-to-B transport, but cycling is my favourite mode of transport and advocating for the bicycle has become my passion. It’s been really hard giving it up while I was pregnant, and now because I can’t carry an infant — but just wait, I’ll be back out there, soon, cycling to the train station!

Feminism in Technology and Cycling

I’ve wanted to write this for a long time, but got rather scared about posting anything about feminism after the recent “It’s about ethics in games journalism” nonsense.

The scariest thing is that I have friends who genuinely believe that it really WAS about ethics in games journalism, not about keeping minorities out of their exclusive club.

Feminism in Technology

I’m in the middle of this really great Venn diagram, so I’ve started seeing a lot of similarities in campaigning and threats. I write software user manuals, so I consider myself a part of the software industry. I also commute by bike (at least, I did until pregnancy made me take a break) and have gotten involved in cycle campaigning.

Venn diagram of cyclist, female, and tech

As a woman in technology and as a cyclist on the roads, I’m a minority. And, it turns out, minorities don’t really get treated fairly…

Physical threats

Inpatient drivers and catcallers don’t necessarily realise just how threatening they are. What they do have in common is that they’re unashamedly using their position of power.

It’s unlikely that a car that’s driving too close to a cyclist is going to be injured. The car can, then, be used as a tool to threaten a cyclist with little risk to the driver. Likewise, a catcaller is unlikely to catcall if they think there’s any risk that the target would harm them back.

Victim Blaming

When I come home, upset because my life has again been risked on the roads, the reaction from friends and family is rarely “I wish people were more considerate of you! The police should do something about this!” Instead, it’s questions of “Were you wearing high-vis?”, “Were you wearing a helmet?”, “Why don’t you just stop cycling if it’s making you so miserable?”. It doesn’t matter what someone is wearing – I should not be punished with assault just because I’m not wearing what people want me to wear.

It makes me angry, deeply angry, that friends and family should push me to give up something I love. I am not the one doing wrong here, I am not the one who needs to change. By advising me to give up cycling, they are implying that it is my own fault that my life is risked, not those other people who are breaking rules and threatening me.

Any sensible person wouldn’t throw themself into the path of a vehicle that would injure injure them. People on bikes aren’t the ones who wield the strength and power.

Women for years have been fighting for the right to wear what they want and to walk where they want without fear of assault.

I will cycle in a short skirt without a helmet– Why should that mean I’m asking for harassment?

Anti-Feminism and Vehicular Cyclists

I have a friend who’s a staunch vehicular cyclist. The reasoning being “I have the right to be in the centre of this lane, the motorists are obligated to slow down and wait until it’s safe to pass. There’s no problem here, just people not following the rules. Enforce the rules and you won’t need to take away road space just for cyclists.

This same friend of mine thinks it’s wrong to have women-only groups in the technology sector, on the grounds that it’s unfair to men.

I can’t argue with the “fairness” of it. Yes, it’s unfair to exclude men, but it’s also unfair that the minority groups such as women and people of colour are forced to endure marginalisation and harassment on a daily basis and we rather need to have a support group lest we leave the industry altogether!

Yes, it’s all well and good saying that enforcing the rules will make the roads a friendlier place — but people are only human and they will use the power that they have. They’ll do reckless things because they aren’t always aware of how much more power they have than the more vulnerable road users.

Where resources go

There is a problem with allocation of resources in both trying to get women into STEM and get more people onto bikes. There’s a huge number of campaigners all crying out for mostly the same things, but those with the money keep insisting on spending it elsewhere.

There’s a huge number of big software companies who are throwing money at schools to try to get kids into software development and especially the young girls. They should be spending money at trying to retain the few women they have already in the field which would, in turn, provide role models for the young girls they’re so desperate to get in. This would involve upsetting some folk (like those who think it’s unfair to have women-only groups) but it would benefit everyone in the long run if there was a more diverse industry.

Something similar happens with money to get people onto bikes . The politicians keep throwing money at the “easy solution” that won’t upset the motoring lobby– cycle training. But training won’t get people to STAY on their bikes. To get people onto their bikes and to get them to stay, there needs to be infrastructure changes. They’re expensive, and it requires ruffling some feathers, but it’ll benefit everyone in the long run.

 Cultural Change

There needs to be a cultural shift, there’s no question about that. Changing our society to make women equal, truly equal, is not just about paying them the same and letting them take time out for families. It’s also accepting fathers as caregivers, too. It’s about no one doing a double-take when you say that your closest female friend is a software developer, or that your father is a nurse;  anyone should be able do the work that they want to do.

On our roads, it’s about making the groups of such disparate vulnerability all equally safe. This means giving them their own space. This means enabling people to choose which mode of transport suits them best, because it is most convenient or pleasurable, not because it is most safe.

A Pedestrian for Pedal on Parliament

Every road user is a pedestrian at some point, even if you’re walking from your car parking space to the cinema. I spent years walking around Edinburgh and, now, walking around Falkirk as my primary form of transportation. Being a pedestrian should be easy, just a matter of walking along to your destination! Unfortunately, it’s not…

Too frequently, the pavements are not a safe place for those on foot. It’s bad enough that pavements are often potholed just as badly as the roads and are clutted with street furniture but, on particularly scary roads or where the cycle paths aren’t properly linked up, many cyclists will make use of the pavement (often considerately, but not always)[1]. Then, to make matters worse, many councils have been re-allocating half of already-narrow pavements for the use of bicycles! It’s hard to tell anymore which pavements are for the sole use of pedestrians and which ones we need to share. What is a walker to do?

This year, I will be joining Pedal on Parliament as a pedestrian — because I know that improving our roads for the benefit of bicycles will also benefit the roads for pedestrians like me. Here’s how:

  • Where there are fewer cars, there is less overall risk of serious injury, given that collisions between bicycles and pedestrians are less likely to cause serious injury than collisions between pedestrians and cars! [2]
  • Where there is safe, separated infrastructure for bicycles that are properly joined up to other cycle paths, cyclists will not feel the need to use the pavements to stay safe or join up their broken journeys. [3]
  • Where motorised traffic is calmed, reduced, or removed to make space for cycling, it makes a more pleasant atmosphere for pedestrians, too. The air is cleaner and it’s quieter. [4]

So write to your politicians and then join me at Pedal on Parliament 25th April 2015 — I’ll bring my walking shoes, you should too!

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/10577958/Let-cyclists-go-on-pavements-if-roads-are-dangerous-minister-tells-police.html
[2] http://road.cc/content/news/109269-are-drivers-and-cyclists-just-dangerous-pedestrians
[3] http://road.cc/content/news/126192-get-cyclists-pavement-build-better-bike-lanes-washington-dc-finds
[4] http://www.bikehub.co.uk/news/health-and-fitness/more-people-on-bikes-and-fewer-people-in-cars-is-key-to-improving-air-quality-says-new-study/

The Alternative Dawn Alarm

Daylight lamps are expensive. I had been saying for years that I was going to buy one but I hadn’t quite gotten around to it. I used one, once, when I had a flatmate who kept his in the communal kitchen /livingroom so I know what a difference they can make.

After I moved out, I’d researched them to decide which to buy and came across dawn simulators like the Lumie bodyclock alarm clock. These are designed to make your body “see” a sunrise at about the time your alarm clock would go off, so that you wake up more slowly and naturally (rather than being jolted out of sleep, mid-REM, by an alarm clock buzzer).

In the Scottish summertime, I keep the curtains and blinds closed tight, trying to keep out the 11pm sunset and 5am sunrise (it’s too bright for me to easily fall asleep and stay asleep). In the winter, those handful of daylight hours are just not enough for me to ever feel awake. Dawn simulators, unlike just keeping the curtains open, switch on at the same time every morning — so, despite the seasonal differences, I can keep the curtains closed tight and the room dark and I’ll still have a sunrise for when I need to wake up for work.

I didn’t manage to buy one back then, because they were all too expensive (and I was a poor student/graduate). By the time I had enough money that I could feel comfortable investing in one, I’d already ended up with a much, much cheaper alternative…

A few years ago (has it really been a few years already?!), I’d seen a Lifehacker article about under-bed lighting. I showed it to my partner who thought it was a nifty idea so we plugged a multi-colour IKEA strip light in under our Malm bed and set it to red so that it would be dark enough that it would be only just visible at night.

A short time later, my partner and I had watched a BBC Horizon episode on how humans perceive colours. It turns out that blue light makes your brain think it’s dawn! We put two-and-two together, switched our LED lights from red to blue, and plugged the whole thing into an outlet timer. Voilà! Instant daylight alarm clock!

Our current setup doesn’t have the lights under our bed, because our current bedroom is too small and the light doesn’t bounce around the room enough to wake us up. Instead, the light is behind the dresser, bounces off the semi-gloss painted walls, and lights up the whole far end of the bedroom.

Blue LED lights reflecting light off a painted wall
Showing the current light and outlet timer setup

It’s not the most ideal setup, because some mornings the faint “click” sound made by the outlet timer switching on wakes me up (if I’m in a particularly light sleep at the time), but it’s a lot better than waking up to a buzzer every day! We’ve been waking up to this for a few years now and it works a treat. About 15 minutes after the light turns on, the radio also switches on using a timer (tuned in to the peaceful classical music of BBC Radio 3) — but we’re usually already awake by then so we can enjoy the warmth of bed whilst we listen to the news headlines.

We have it set so that it doesn’t switch on at the weekends, but we barely sleep in more than 30 minutes, now, because our bodies have gotten so accustomed to waking up at a certain time. When the clocks changed, though, it only took us a few days of gently waking up earlier than we’d like before we were on the new schedule. I’ve never been a morning person, but I can wake up now without the grumpyness and anger at the alarm clock. I may still be tired if I haven’t gotten enough sleep, but at least I won’t be groggy.

Someday I’ll get a daylight lamp, to leave in the livingroom to have some “sunshine” in the winter evenings but, for now, this is enough.

NaNoWriMo 2013

This is the first year that I’ve joined National Novel Writers Month (NaNoWriMo). For those who are unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it is a challenge for participants to write a 50,000 word novel in only the 30 days of November. I don’t write much fiction, preferrering the structure, regularity, and utter lack-of-frills in technical writing.

Not to say that I haven’t tried “creative writing”. When I was still in school, I would often embark upon a short story, get about two thousands words into it, then give up rather unceremoniously. I thoroughly enjoyed creating the world, creating characters, but I struggled with finding a sound plot and the dialogue that I attempted was always dire.

I’ve had many friends get to the end of NaNoWriMo and tell me how liberating it was, quieting their inner editor to produce volume over quality. They wrote without regard to how well it would be written and it let them explore their writing in ways they’d never done before. There was also the satisfaction of having completed such a challenge, though silly it could be from an outsider’s perspective. The writers equivalent of running a marathon for no other reason than just to say you’ve done it once. I’d considered it in years past but something always came up – university exams, moving house, getting married – so I never tried. But this year, I had no excuses….

The first week of this year’s NaNoWriMo was exciting. I started out with dialogue and used that to create my characters. I interspersed it with some scene setting and sprinkled in some intruigue, hoping that any of it would lead to a plot. By the end of the first week, I had just over 10,000 words and no fewer than six interesting characters. Unfortunately, the story had gone nowhere.

It’s now Day 16 and I’m approximately 1000 words behind where I ought to be for this time on this day. I fell behind during what is referred to as the “week 2 blues”. I’d experienced something similar before – my company offerered an intensive one month training course (6.5 hours of lecture a day, 5 days a week, 3.5 weeks). The beginning of the second week was painful and all I wanted to do was give it a rest. For this NaNoWriMo, writing was like pulling teeth. I was uninspired and found myself wishing I was reading the Metro on the train instead of standing with my laptop propped up on the bicycle rack. I never stopped writing but I spent so much time staring at the screen that I’d fallen 2500 words behind.

Someone recommended that I introduce a natural disaster to shake the characters out of their lull – another friend recommended a fire. I thought I’d run with it, wrote that a neighbour’s house was set on fire, and let the characters react to that. Somehow, a plot bloomed. I found myself geting angry when the train stopped at my station and I had to shut down the computer to cycle home. I’d had a series of evening after-work outings and really ought to have been sleeping as soon as I got in, but I found myself laying awake in bed, forcing myself not to get out of bed to grab the laptop.

If in doubt, put your characters in a fire. If you really like them, then they’ll easily find a way to escape. If you don’t like them, then maybe their clever escape will redeem them.

15 days down, 15 days to go… [to be continued]

Pedal on Parliament 2 Musings

Pedal on Parliament, for those who haven’t heard of it, is a gathering of cyclists before the Scottish Parliament who believe that the Scottish government need to do more to support cyclists and pedestrians in this country. Last year, 3000 riders made it – this year it was 4000 despite the gloomy weather. The message, we hope, was clear: we need more.

My Brompton with Burley Travoy trailer

I took my Brompton, expecting that there might be a few other bikes on the train – but it was surprisingly quiet. I was, though, headed into Edinburgh several hours before the start of the ride.

I dressed my bike with my Burley Travoy, mostly to show it off to folk who may not have realised that not all trailers are designed for long hauls or children. I got a few comments from folk who saw how it could double as a shopping trolly (which is actually how I tend to use it) and thought it was a good design. I’d attached the Brompton’s front bag to the trailer just so that there would be something on the trailer.

I wore my helmet to and from Pedal on Parliament 2, but I took advantage of the opportunity and left it attached to my trailer for the group ride from the Meadows to the Scottish Parliament. It was… unbelievably liberating.
I’ve written a separate post about my bicycle helmet and why I wear it when I cycle in the city. Have a look here: http://www.techaddiction.co.uk/2013/05/bicycle-helmets/

What I saw

The crowd of cyclists at Pedal on Parliament 2

I was absolutely tickled at the sheer number of families that were there with kids. I know it must not have been easy cycling down the Royal Mile with them (cobblestone streets aren’t pleasant at the best of times), the poor dears must have been terribly shaken (literally) by the time they reached the bottom. I don’t have kids but I desperately hope that, by the time I do have them and they’re big enough to ride their own pedal bikes, the roads are friendly enough that I can cycle along with them to school without worrying about their safety.

I was actually surprised by the amount of florescent I’d seen that day. I was expecting less. Really, I was expecting it to look more like the Pedal for Scotland last year where the vast majority of cyclists were just cycling in whatever they thought would be most comfortable for the day (generally shorts and t-shirts), like a miniature  Amsterdam or Copenhagen, if only for a couple roads for a couple hours.

On the day, I ended up wearing my florescent pink cycling jacket, mostly because there were some people I was hoping to meet up with and there aren’t many who wear hot pink on their bikes. I wanted to be found in the crowd.

I usually wear the florescent so that cars will see me when I’m pedalling  down the road. I’d recently read a study done by Direct Line which used eye tracking to find that that one in five cyclists aren’t seen by car drivers [source]. I don’t fancy being one of those unseen cyclists, especially when I’m cycling down the middle of the lane trying to avoid the horrible potholes.

What I hope happens now

Car driving in the cycle lane

As I’m sure you can tell, by now, all I want is a place I can cycle without needing to worry that I’m going to end up under someone’s wheels. The current infrastructure is neglected — the advanced stop boxes are not enforced; cars park in cycle lanes; cycle lanes end just before roads  narrow (where cycle lanes are most important); cars frequently ride in the cycle lanes, endangering cyclists currently using them; etc.

I really hope that our turnout shows those who have control over the planning and budget that we expect more of them.

Bicycle Helmets

I tell people that  the reason that I wear a helmet is because I once came off my bike (after skidding on a patch of sand left over from the winter’s gritting) and ended up against a stone wall. A helmet didn’t save my life, probably didn’t even save me a concussion, but it could have.

The truth is that the older I get, the less I think that my helmet is worthwhile. I keep hoping that, eventually, I’ll be able to cycle without the helmet. It’s really wonderful feeling the breeze through my hair. I forget just how sweaty the helmet makes my forehead. I keep thinking to myself I think I could enjoy cycling  without a helmet. And I don’t think it’s likely that a helmet would help much in the types of accidents I’m likely to have. [cyclehelmets.org]

But I keep reading, in the papers and online, stories like that of Audrey Fyfe who was struck by a car [BBC News]. Some key lines jump out at me that I feel compelled to share:

The cyclist, who was not wearing a helmet at the time…

and

The sheriff said Mrs Fyffe “wasn’t to blame in any way for the accident”, but added: “She was not wearing a safety helmet and that in my view contributed to her death.”

I find it  frustrating that journalists feel the need to mention whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet, as if that’s the thing that determines whether whether it’s a tragic accident or an asked-for eventuality. And I wonder if this attitude by the media is a reflection of the attitudes of the public on the whole (like the sheriff who partly blamed Mrs Fyffe for her own death) or if the attitudes of the public are affected by this constant reminder that this cyclist or that cyclist was or was not wearing a helmet.

So every time I read a news article that mentions whether or not the cyclist was wearing a helmet, I am forced to think to myself if I were to get into a collision, completely the fault of another road user, would my family be denied compensation because I wasn’t wearing a helmet?

NHS Hack Scotland

Two weekends ago, I attended NHS Hack Scotland with my husband. Well, he attended the whole weekend and I turned up for the Sunday. I really wish I’d been there for the full weekend!

The weekend event took place at the Edinburgh Tech Cube, an older university building that has been re-imagined as a first class technology startup space. I’d never been in the building before but I’d walked past it dozens upon dozens of times in my years at uni. The space that the NHS Hack Scotland was taking up was only very recently opened and was yet unfinished. Cables hung from the ceiling in a way that I could only describe as “a bit steampunk” but the paint was fresh, there were power sockets everywhere, and the wifi was strong!

When I arrived at the end of the Saturday, I sat quietly in the corner until an organiser (whose name I can’t recall) approached and asked if I’d just arrived. When I said I had and asked how the event was progressing, he waved me over to where my husband was and encouraged me to join the group. I quickly learned that my husband’s group was creating a One Website to Rule Them All for the NHS, pulling in local information about NHS24, GPs and A&Es and such, so that a user could quickly get contact details for the help they need. I must say that I was a bit disheartened to find that such a tool was necessary in the first place, as I had assumed that the NHS24 site was already doing precisely that (See NOTE 1 below).

That evening, I joined everyone in the pub and then on to Illegal Jacks where I  chatted with a couple other attendees at length about Basic English and restricted vocabularies to increase consistency in patient pamphlets (See NOTE 2 below).

Because I was only there for the second day, most of what I learned about the other groups came during the final presentations. I watched many groups describing solutions such as an app to record anxiety levels (to contrast with the current pen-and-paper solution), an app to direct ambulance drivers to the nearest GP, pharmacy, or A&E (since they are already at the house with the patient, it doesn’t strictly send them out of their way to bring a not-too-ill patient to their GP instead of to the A&E), and a game that encourages patients to continue on with a new regimen. All of them were great ideas to solve problems that I didn’t know the NHS even had!

The folks that were there were quite split between developers and NHS staff. It was great having the opportunity to show those who are not particularly technical how problems can be solved relatively quickly and easily with a bit of clever code. I, myself, am not a coder, nor was I NHS, so I provided what services I could — I drew a wee logo and helped facilitate conversation. I would love to attend an event like this again in the near future, especially knowing that it doesn’t matter that I’m not a stellar programmer.

Yes, that is all.

NOTE 1: The poor information architecture of the NHS24 website, in contrast to the webpage that our team put together, made me very interested in learning more about UI design. It’s something I’ve always wanted to get involved in but, without an academic qualification in the subject, few will trust my suggestions. So, driven, I’ve signed up for a Human Computer Interaction course on coursera.org. Wish me luck!

NOTE 2: A future NHS hack project might be creating a text editor for the NHS that restricts the vocabulary to only words that a child about 10 years old could read and understand. If a user of the text editor uses a word that is not in the dictionary, it underlines the word and suggests simple synonyms. Because medicine has a lot of required terminology, a word can be “excused” provided it is defined in a glossary written in simple English at the back. This would ensure that the majority of patients could understand what is written, and it would encourage more consistent writing across practices.

Cyclist Labelling

Anyone who’s spoken to me in the last couple years is probably bored of hearing about my bicycle. I love my bicycle and I love cycling — to the point that I am starting to hate walking and how slow it is. I love the feeling of wind through my hair (well, what wind can make it through the holes in my cycling helmet) and the rush that comes from keeping up with the taxis going down the hill. I also love talking about cycling, about infrastructure improvements, about infrastructure failings, about my experiences cycling…. (ask me sometime, when you’ve got a few hours free)

But when I talk to people about cycling, I have to make it clear that I don’t represent all cyclists. In fact, there’s as many different types of cyclist as there are types of driver or pedestrian. So here’s a couple terms that could be used to describe me:

  • I am a female cyclist. It shouldn’t make a difference but it seemingly does to some. From what I can see on the streets of Edinburgh, there’s one female cyclist for every 3 male cyclists, which agrees with the various websites I’ve read. There are still many of us, but we are a minority.
  • I am a transportation cyclist (a.k.a. utility cyclist). I cycle instead of using a car, every chance I get (though, to be fair, I usually only cycle as far as the nearest train station). I have my Brompton which folds up to go on the train or the bus as necessary, and I have a Burley Travoy for when I have a lot to carry on my bike. I don’t cycle for sport and very rarely do I go for a wander on my bicycle. I don’t like Lycra and would rather cycle in everyday clothes because it’s more convenient for me (the only cycling-specific clothing I tend to wear is my fluorescent pink cycling jacket, so cars see me). I enjoy running my errands by bicycle but, if I don’t have somewhere to go, I tend to stay home.
  • I am a vehicular cyclist, partially. Vehicular cyclists want to be treated like any other vehicle on the road and they behave like any other vehicle on the road (this includes stopping at red lights, yielding to buses pulling out, not filtering through lanes, etc). Unfortunately, though, ‘vehicular cyclist’ is also the term ascribed to any cyclist who campaigns against cycling infrastructure because they believe that cyclists belong on the roads with any other vehicle (which I don’t). I’m of the opinion that I will use the roads and expect to be treated as any other vehicle on the road (admittedly, a slower one, perhaps not unlike a tractor), until there are safe cycling routes that are equal to or superior to the main roads in terms of convenience of use. It also means that I rage just as much as a car driver  when I see another cyclist flaunting the rules of the road.
According to this study by the Department for Transport (which I highly suggest everyone read), I can also be defined thus:
  • Reasons for Cycling: Experiential aspects of cycling
  • Ways of Cycling: Assertion

So, before you next start ranting about cyclists (or, if you’re a cylist, ranting about drivers), pause to consider — we cyclists are individuals, and that cyclist over there who just ran the red light was not me.

Digital Weddings

On a day like today, with the sun shining bright and the birds singing, the last thing I want to be doing is sitting at my computer, sorting the receipts for things we’ve bought for our wedding. Thankfully, we’ve got ourselves a shared Google Docs spreadsheet that’s keeping track of our budget, and a last-minute to-do list on the whiteboard.

Our friends will know that ThatScottishEngineer and I are both rather heavy tech-users.

When we began our wedding planning, we were thrilled that Google had created www.google.com/weddings which helped us keep organised. At the time, I was living in Cambridge and he was living in Newark, so most of our planning was done over Google Talk and using these shared spreadsheets. Our wedding website was set up using Google Sites and our RSVP was a Google Docs spreadsheet form.

But not everything is on Google’s servers. Our very-digital wedding registries are at Amazon.co.uk and Argos.co.uk. Invites were drawn in InkScape, our seating plan was drawn up in Microsoft Office Powerpoint, and all the letters I’ve had to send with cheques were written up in LibreOffice. Constantly having to move files from my Windows work machine to the Linux machine with the printer or my WordPress server has deepened my appreciation for both FileZilla and DropBox.

But what sort of documents are needed for a wedding that are well suited to the digital world? I didn’t think it would be that many until I got engaged and got started planning this massive project. Here’s a rough idea of what we’ve cobbled together:

  1. Website — Google Sites
    Just like context-sensitive HTML help! It helps if you make it clear to everyone that it’s being regularly updated and that they should check it frequently for changes. Not all grandparents understand RSS feeds.
  2. Invitations — Designed with Inkscape, printed on postcards from Moo.com. Digital until publishing, like some other items that I’m including in this list. No hand-drawing/writing for me!  In fact, doing these on the computer was not too different to flyers I’ve done before. Probably the easiest thing about the whole wedding was designing these.
  3. Guest list — Google Documents
    Name, household, address, phone number, email address, invites sent, kids ages (kids don’t count for the meal), etc.
  4. Photo shoot list — Google Documents
    A comprehensive list of all the shots I want taken (lists of guest names for each) of our wedding  day for my pretty album.
  5. RSVP spreadsheet — Google Documents
    Urgh, spreadsheet from HELL. Because it was a Google form, it ended up being very poorly formatted. Name, address, phone number, email address, which events attending (UK wedding, UK reception, US reception), whether transportation is needed to/from reception,  Dietary requirements…. I rather wish I’d done it in Microsoft Office Excel so I could colour-code it all, but it was attached to the RSVP and very much a Google Doc. Ended up copying most things over to the Guest List (#3).
  6. Seating Plan — Microsoft Office PowerPoint
    If you have £10 to spend, I’d suggest using www.toptableplanner.com. For the amount of time I’ve wasted fiddling with PowerPoint, it’s probably worth the cost.
  7. Gift Registry — Amazon.co.uk
  8. Gift Registry — Argos
  9. Thank You list — Google Documents
    Consolidated from the Gift Registry pages and extra notes of personal cards we’d gotten.

Those are just the digital documents. Certainly, though,  there’s a lot of scraps of paper in the expanding file folder on the shelf, including sketches of the wedding venue and schedules. But for the most part, this wedding has gone digital because it lets me collaborate with my partner and parents and anyone else who wanted to help.

So I guess digital is better for documents. When it comes to other things, though, I still suspect that an organist would be more reliable than an MP3 player…