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January 05, 2023 22:48 +0000  |  Cambridge Transit Urban Design 0

There's some exciting stuff happening here in Cambridge. The county council (the tier of government between municipal and national that handles Cambridge and the surrounding smaller towns) has declared that they want to build what they're calling a "sustainable travel zone" around pretty much all of Cambridge proper.

In practise, this means that within this area, if you drive your car, you'll be billed to the tune of £5/day. There are a series of exceptions of course, ranging from cabs to emergency vehicles, but on the whole most drivers in the city will have to pay this fare every day they enter (or leave) the city. And yes, this applies to people who live inside the zone.

Understandably, a lot of people are upset by this, but I think that it's a great idea that's long overdue.

I'm going to rant on this for a bit.

Why charging £5/day per car in Cambridge is great

For nearly 70 years, most of the developed world has been asleep at the wheel (see what I did there?) when it comes to urban design to the point where private cars are seen as not just a necessity, but even a force of nature. When pedestrians are mowed down by careless drivers in this country, the conversation inevitably falls to victim blaming, asking "why weren't they wearing their government recommended high-viz jacket?" Discussions around cycling centre around the decorum of those who violate laws written for cars, while ignoring the drivers who violate those same laws with fatal consequences.

Cars are dangerous

Cars kill 1.5million people every year and that's collisions alone. When you factor in the deaths from pollution and climate change, it's insane that we've entertained this pattern for so long.

Cars kill community

On top of that, a society that privileges private cars (ie. nearly every country) necessarily excludes the poor, the disabled, the young and the old. That means that events like all candidates meetings and football games, or public parks and children's play areas place an unfair burden on people to own and be capable of operating a car or depend on having someone else drive them. People can be isolated by their partners because they simply have no way to leave the house, or feel "fenced in" by the pedestrian-hostile world outside.

We know all this

The thing is, everyone knows this is terrible. 9 out of 10 drivers will agree: cars are terrible for all of the above reasons. However, when it comes to actually reducing cars on the road, everyone thinks they're an exception.

Everyone else needs to get off the road, but I have to drive my kid to school! What am I supposed to do, send her on a bike? It's not safe!

This of course comes from the self-fulfilling prophecy: we built a world so dependent on private cars that we can't interact with that world safely using any other means. You can have a development without cycle lanes or even sidewalks and no one will bat an eye, but dare to skimp on the free parking and people lose their frickin' minds.

Ok I get it, so what're we supposed to do?

This world our predecessors built for us sucks. Accepting that, where do we go next? To my mind, you have to start with a collective decision around what we want to become, and the rational answer to that has to be: Amsterdam.

Clean, quiet, safe streets mostly used by pedestrians, bicycles, and transit, allowing for delivery and emergency vehicles and even the occasional (very slow moving) private car. That's a world where you can safely send your kid to school on her bike, the world where an 80 year old woman can choose to live alone and still buy groceries and visit friends independently.

I don't think it's unreasonable to say that most people want this. The problem mostly seems to be around the public's unwillingness to accept that this is even possible. I want to go through some of the more common objections:

We can't do that here! The Netherlands is flat. We have hills!

There are plenty of examples of good pedestrian, cycling, and transit infrastructure being applied in cities all over the world, but like anything else, we can tailor our designs to the geography. Many towns (like Cambridge) are flat, so a heavy cycling focus makes sense. Other cities (like perhaps San Francisco) are probably better suited to biasing pedestrian and transit corridors, or subsidising e-bikes.

That's unreasonable. They had the density so it was easy for them. We're too spread out!

This sounds plausible until you realise that the Netherlands looked like this in the 1970s:

An Amsterdam traffic jam in 1970

Cities change all the time. We can change ours, but we have to want it.

That's nice, but the Dutch don't do the same kind of work that I do. I need a big truck to do my job!

This is laughable to anyone who's seen a hydraulic crane truck hoisting a grand piano three storeys into the air on the Haarlemmerstraat. Nine times out of ten, small trucks do the work just fine, and for that last 10%, a work truck can always be acquired. You do not need a land rover to buy groceries.

My office is in a business park off the freeway. I have to own a car to get to my job.

This is a symptom of our failed design philosophy: the idea that everyone owns a car, so they "they can just drive" to my cheap office space. These far-away office parks don't make anyone happy. They're painful and dangerous to commute to, require expensive hardware (cars) to make the trip, and typically exist in "deserts" where you can't find food or child care, let alone nearby homes.

This model is bad for everyone and has to die. At the very least, it shouldn't be cheaper to subject people to this.

What about the suburbs & villages? Those people need cars!

Some people don't like living in a "city" like Cambridge and prefer to live further out where the land is paradoxically cheaper, but where you must own a car to go basically anywhere. That's fine, but we can't let their preferences dictate the structure of our community. If Cambridge wants to be like Amsterdam, these people need to be dissuaded from driving their cars into the city.

The carrot & stick

The £5/day charge will be applied to cars driven within a very large "sustainable travel zone" (STZ) on any weekday. The proceeds from this levy will be applied to expanding transit (frequency and routes & lowering fares) as well as improving/expanding cycle infrastructure.

In effect, this is a classic carrot/stick arrangement: you can drive your car if you want, but you're going to pay. However if you're open to alternatives, they're now faster, cheaper, and more convenient.

It's not a perfect plan. Personally, I would have favoured outright banning of cars within the zone, or at least extending the STZ to include weekends, but this is a step in the right direction.

The risk

There's a whole bunch of politics operating under the radar here that makes this all rather interesting.

Cambridge's mass transport, like all transport in the UK (excluding London) is privately held. There are a handful of bus companies managing separate routes charging exorbitant fares for notoriously unreliable service and they don't even allow transfers. It's a terrible system that's barely used and politically, no one has dared step up with a solution to fix it. Through this plan, these companies stand to benefit considerably, effectively absorbing a public subsidy for a private service that has historically not been provided well at all.

In other words, this might just be a case of politicians finding a way to soak the public for some money so that they can give it to their friends in some private companies. It certainly wouldn't have been the first time.

What's worse is that they'd be doing this with the blessing of active transport activists like Camcycle who have pinned their names and reputations to the project for support. If this is, as I suspect, a fleecing of the public purse, it could be terrible for everyone.

Why it won't happen

The plan is being executed by the Cambridgeshire County Council which is presently governed by a Labour/Lib-dem coalition. The Conservatives, who are largely elected by car-driving village dwellers will likely use this as an issue to beat their opponents in the next election.

That election is timed to happen just before the £5/day charge comes into effect, but after the public funds have been spent "bolstering transit". My inner cynic says that this is all designed to take that public money, give it to the bus companies and then fold up shop before the next election so they don't have to go through with it.

All of this is terribly disappointing, but even given the very likely chance that this is all a scam, I find myself still siding with it.

When it comes to building our cities to be clean, quiet, and safe for everyone, I'm going to support any plan that furthers that goal. If the alternative is letting a bunch of carbrains turn around and kill it ensuring that nothing gets better, I'll back any plan that gets us even a little bit closer to a better home.

December 01, 2022 17:12 +0000  |  Mastodon 1

Mastodon is Twitter's logical successor. Like Twitter, it's a "microblogging" platform that lets you follow and ~~retweet~~ "boost" posts you like for your followers to see. The key difference compared to its predecessor is the "federated" nature of the platform, which others have written on heavily, so for the uninitiated I'll just say that "it's distributed, so no central authority controls it."

What we don't talk about nearly as much though, is Mastodon's painfully limited system of managing that federation at scale. When faced with the reality of dealing with unwanted content, the answer in the Mastodon community is "the instance moderator does that". The assumption being that not only does the owner of the server you're using have the time/skill/inclination to sift through reports of your content, but also that this moderator shares your values.

Additionally, instances can be "de-federated" from the greater network by moderators of other (potentially huge) instances for not blocking content those networks consider objectionable. It all sounds like a neat and tidy way to keep the baddies out, but it's also a recipe for an echo chamber.

The reality of living in a society is that there's very little consensus around what content should be permitted, and this is a good thing! Some people share pornographic content daily, while others consider this a mortal sin. For that matter, posting a drawing of a prophet is enough to drive some idiots to violence, while for others, it's considered hate speech.

The hate speech question alone is especially difficult, as the term itself even lacks a consensus-backed definition. It's regularly used in online spaces to shut down debate rather than to inform it.

So with all of this, how can we expect the human moderator model to scale? The word "scale" itself suggests expanding a system's capabilities beyond that of individuals. We must accept the use of algorithms in navigating this space, and we can do this without risking the bias AI-based systems have demonstrated.

For my money, the answer is community tagging and leveraging that tagging to allow clients rather than (or at least in addition to) instances to filter according to their values.

The idea is allow users to tag content (and even other users) with whatever string they want: tree-hugger, fascist, pedo, cute-puppies, porn, nazi, deluded-psycopath, nerd, bootlicker -- whatever. Instances or clients can then choose which tags they want to filter on, as well as the weight they want to allocate to tags applied by people and posts bearing specific tags.

So for example if a user gets a lot of nazi tags from 15 different accounts, your client, configured to have a nazi threshold of 10 will filter out that user's content. If however a user was tagged as pedo from 15 different users who are also already tagged as nazis according to your threshold, the weight of those tags could be diminished or completely invalidated and so the "probably not a pedo" user's posts would get through.

The idea is to mimic actual human behaviour. If a MAGA nut tells you that "that dude's a fascist" you're less likely to care about that statement than if it had come from someone whose opinion you actually value.

Of course this system suffers from the whole question of gaining a reputation from the start, so maybe this would have to work much like other reputational systems (eBay comes to mind) and rely on people less filter-conscious to rate people and posts before the more filter-heavy users see that content.

I'm curious what other Mastodon users (Mastodonians?) think about such a system. If they're satisfied with the current system of filtering/defederation or if they have different/better ideas to manage the problem with limited bias.

September 14, 2022 18:06 +0100  |  United Kingdom 0

Queen Elizabeth is finally dead. We all knew it was coming. The lady was 96 years old, and no matter how ridiculously rich you are, no one is immortal. This country is losing its mind over the whole thing of course, with everything from Cancer appointments to bike racks, and even other people's funerals being cancelled out of condolences to the royal family.

Not everyone in the country has lost their mind though. Shouts of "God save the King" were met with boos in Edinburgh, and there have been a variety of incidents of protest across the country. Some of these were put down by police of course because apparently holding a "Fuck imperialism, abolish monarchy" sign is grounds for arrest in this "free" country.

For my part I want to be clear that have never had a single fuck to give about Elizabeth or her entire family. They're all entitled, inbred parasites and they need to go. Elizabeth was far from the "sweet old lady" people like to pretend she was, but rather just another manipulative billionaire who banned "coloured immigrants or foreigners" from working in her palace, tried to steal money from a poverty fund to heat said palace, and sat upon a mountain of money while her "subjects" literally starved.

Now that she's in a box, that mountain of money and investments all pass to her son Charles, with zero inheritance taxes thanks to laws she likely helped write thanks to King's consent conventions dating back to 1728.

It is absolutely maddening that, in the 21st century, in a country where people are literally having to choose between eating and heating their homes, that those same poverty-stricken idiots are lining up to pay their respects to a billionaire parasite. I don't get it. I likely never will. These people are insane and they clearly deserve this level of subjugation.

August 29, 2022 14:39 +0100  |  Music 0

Today, I thought I might tell you a story about someone else. Maybe you've heard this one, but if you haven't perhaps this post will add a sense of urgency to your life, or maybe it'll just remind you of the terrible tragedy of being. Either way, it's a story about an amazing young woman that I want to share.

This is her. If you watch through to 1:40 and aren't hopelessly blown away by her talent, you are indeed made of stone.

Christina Grimmie was one of those breaking stars in the earlier days of YouTube, a kid with no industry connections wielding an internet connection and a bottomless well of raw talent. She updated her channel regularly and over time built up a fan base, was doing live shows, and even cutting albums. Her life was looking up: she was young, beautiful, and amazingly talented.

Then one evening at one of her shows, all that ended when a complete stranger murdered her.

Her Wikipedia page tells a more thorough story of her life and death, so I won't add more here. If you're curious, you know where to read it. I just wanted to share her song with you, and maybe remind us all that sometimes, our time on this earth isn't as much as we expect.

August 10, 2022 08:31 +0100  |  Education Religion United Kingdom 2

Anna is will be four years old next year, and they start kids into school early in this country, so Christina and I have begun the process of looking for a school for her.

Apparently, it's not as simple as "you go to the one closest to you" here, but rather there's an application process wherein you rank your preferences and you're awarded your first, second, or third choice based on a variety of factors, including (possibly?) any personal appeal letters you might submit to justify your choice. It all sounds terribly stressful and yet another way to enforce class structure.

The process is made additionally complicated by our preferences: we don't want to put her into a religious school and we want to avoid mandatory uniforms. OMG does that limit the field of options.

In the UK, school uniforms are touted as a virtue and in parent's circles people have a tendency to get completely irrational on the issue. As a result, it's often the case that when you're comparing schools on any sort of official list, uniform mandates aren't even mentioned, so you have to dig into each of the (poorly designed) school websites to find out for yourself. It's not been fun doing this digging. The number of sites that think it's ok to use comic sans is... unfortunate.

The religion question is murkier.

There are straight-up religious schools here, typically Anglican, but there's also Catholics, and presumably others I've not seen yet. There's also supposedly non-religious schools (ie, not funded/controlled by the church) with names like St. Matthew's (check out the font choices on that one) that make figuring this out based on name alone difficult.

It gets even more complicated though. There's an official policy here called "The Cambridgeshire Agreed Syllabus for Religious Education" which sounds like some progressive guidelines to expand kid's understanding of religion in general... that is, until you read it (emphasis mine):

Teachers should consider the religious experience of the pupils in the classroom and the whole school when planning which religions to look at and in which order. * Christianity will be studied in all Key Stages.

  • The choice of which other religion(s) to study in KS1 should be relevant to the experience of the pupils in the class and local demographic. Where Christianity is the only religion present the school will choose the other religion to be studied.
  • However, by the end of KS2 all major religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism) and a secular world view (humanism) must have been studied.
  • In KS3, building on KS2, all major religions and a secular world view must have been studied in greater depth.

It is desirable that all pupils visit a church or other Christian place of worship and the school should make all efforts to plan visits to religious buildings of other faiths. Visitors from different faiths and world views should be encouraged to visit all schools. When neither visits nor visitors are possible then the use of virtual tours and resources are recommended.

I'm reasonably certain that something like this wouldn't be ok in Canada, but apparently this is normal here.

Annoyingly, the above (and the rest of the guidelines) are clearly written to be very flexible, so the guidelines themselves aren't enough to tell you what kind of education you're signing your kid up for. You could have teachers that discuss Christianity in the same way most people talk about Greek Myth and do a field trip to a local church cemetery as part of a local history unit. You could also interpret the above to teach Christianity as the default, and other religions as adorable savages.

It's so hard to tell if I'm signing my kid up to be indoctrinated and the state is clearly not on my side here.

April 29, 2022 22:43 +0100  |  Media 0

I have a kid now, which means the kind of media floating around in my home has changed since my child-free days. Sure, we still find time to watch The Witcher and The Wheel of Time, and I still love The Expanse when I'm on my own (Christina doesn't care for it because she's a savage), but for the most part, if the TV is on these days, it's playing something kid-friendly because you can't have people getting their heads chopped off in front of a 3-year-old.

As you might have guessed though, the quality of children's programming is all over the place. From the brain-rotting Cocomelon, to the formulaic and ear-wormy Octonauts there's a lot of options out there that can make any adult forced to watch a little bit crazy.

So, I thought I'd make this (short) list of shows that I've been watching recently that I'd consider "kid and adult friendly". If you've got kids, or just enjoy exciting kid-friendly stories, you might wanna check these out.

Kipo and the Age of the Wonderbeasts

  • Available on: Netflix
  • Published by: Dreamworks
  • Ages: 3+
  • Links: Wikipedia, IMDB

I love this show. Kipo is an inspirational character abound with wonderful human qualities. She has a way of seeing the world -- her wild and fantastical world -- that just makes you want to be a better person.

The supportive characters (heroes and villains) are interesting, complex characters with their own backstories and development, the art is fantastic and the music is brilliant. By the second season I was literally punching the air at the opening credits of every episode! It's so good!

At Anna's age (3), I don't think she gets all that much out of it. The characters are cute & funny and the music is fun to dance to. I don't think she's really grasping the plot or anything like that just yet, but I imagine that this show would be enjoyable for pretty much anyone.

The show had a fixed run of 3 seasons, all of which have been released.

Infinity Train

  • Available on: Cartoon Network, HBO Max
  • Published by: Cartoon Network Studios
  • Ages: 8+
  • Links: Wikipedia, IMDB

I don't think Anna's ready for this just yet, but if your kids are older, it's a great thing to sit down and watch with them.

With each episode running at just 11 minutes, each 10-episode season of Infinity Train follows a different "passenger" as they traverse the train and learn how to sort out their life before they're permitted to return home. Our heroes meet new and interesting characters as they pass through car after car after car after car, learning about themselves and growing as people. Each car is different and more bizarre than the one before it, and the characters we meet along the way are fun, interesting, and sometimes voiced by awesome people like Kate Mulgrew (squee!)

For the most part, I'd say that this is safe for really young kids, but there are a few problematic scenes for younger kids that mean you probably want to avoid it for the young ones. In season 3 a character dies somewhat graphically (no blood, but it's still scary), and in season 1 a character is turned into a sort of shadow monster.

Hilda

  • Available on: Netflix
  • Published by: Silvergate Media and Mercury Filmworks
  • Ages: 2+
  • Links: Wikipedia, IMDB

Anna loves this show and has for a long time. I originally picked it up because my friend Robin worked on season 1 and he sent me a link. I loved it within the first few minutes so I made sure to inject it into Anna's diet in place of some of the dumber stuff.

Hilda is a great character, full of adventure and courage, with a strong sense of justice. She lives in a fantasy world loosely built around Scandinavian folklore, with giants, elves, thunderbirds, and dear foxes, and because Hilda is "a friend to all animals and spirits", she gets along well with (almost) all of them.

The stories are largely self-contained with long-running character development but not much in the way of the "season arcs" you tend to see in some other shows. I think what I love most about the show (aside from Hilda herself) is her relationship with her (single) mother who is objectively a fantastic role model for her kid. Oh and Alfur. He's fantastic too. And Twig! And Woodman!

You should watch this show.

Honourable Mentions

The three above are lesser-knowns, so I wanted to give them special treatment, but there's a few more that're worth covering if you've not heard of them yet:

April 29, 2022 21:29 +0100  |  COVID-19 Health 0

On April 12th, our child minder called to let us know that she had COVID-19 and as a result would have to close her doors 'til she was done with it, which likely meant the rest of the week. I cycled over there to pick up Anna, put her on the back of my bike and Christina's parents (visiting from Greece for a few weeks) took care of her for the rest of the day while I finished my work.

By Thursday, Anna had minor symptoms. By Friday she had a heavy fever and a positive lateral flow test. Both of Christina's parents were also suddenly positive and I had a very feint line on my test as well. Christina was blissfully healthy.

Friday was the easy part. I continued to work from home and Anna mostly slept on my lap while I wrote code and attended meetings as if everything was just fine. Christina's parents had mild symptoms and spent the whole day inside trying not to stress themselves.

By Saturday, Anna was fine, getting more active & animated, wanting to dance to the Octonauts theme etc. Unfortunately Saturday is when COVID hit the adults pretty hard. I literally couldn't keep my eyes open for big chunks of the day and Christina's mom Carol and I took turns keeping an eye on Anna while the other slept. Christina's dad Yannis helped out in the times in between, and Christina, still happy & healthy went to work.

Sunday through Tuesday I was in no shape to be useful, so I took those days off and tried to just focus on getting better. Wednesday I said goodbye to the in-laws and went back to work (remote) feeling pretty good. Thursday I felt a little worse. Friday I was a mess again and had to clock-out early so I could sleep the rest of the day. Christina & Anna came home to me fast asleep at 1730h.

I took another lateral flow test tonight. I still have it, and the line is much darker this time than it was when I tested last week. I don't know if the line intensity correlates to level of infection, but either way, I'm very much not over this thing. I'm going to take the whole long weekend to do as little as possible, sleep whenever I'm tired, and stay the hell away from everyone else.

Thankfully, Christina is still just fine. My guess is that she is/was an asymptomatic carrier or just still has sufficient immunity from her shot back in January. She'll be able to care for Anna while I'm down for the count and can even do grocery shopping etc. I honestly don't know what single parents do in this situation. It's one thing to be sick & miserable living alone, but to be charged with caring for someone who's not sick and wants to run-around-and-do-all-the-things is a whole other nightmare that I'm glad I don't have to live in.

From what I've been reading online, COVID-19 infection & symptoms can last anywhere from 3-4 weeks with a misery peak at around 10days so this weekend should be fun. At least my symptoms are manageable and not life-threatening. I'm mostly tired, with inflammation in my sinuses. I still have my senses of smell and taste, it's just that my arms and legs are so much heavier than they usually are. Hopefully some more rest and fluids will get me through this soon.

April 18, 2022 15:17 +0100  |  Climate Change COVID-19 Europe Family Politics War 1

I always post an annual "recap" on my blog. It's useful for me to keep track of the past, but also as a nice way to look back on my life with a sense of nostalgia. I rarely write this sort of thing until the year is completely over, as you never know what might happen even in the last few days of the year. I don't think I've ever waited this long though, so as my memory of 2021 has begun to rot, I find myself stretching looking for stuff to include here.

Family

By far the biggest news of the year for me was Violet's diagnosis with Stage IV neuroblastoma. It shook the whole family, and the waves travelled outward to everyone: friends, colleagues, even the entire town of Peachland where she lives. Her family uprooted themselves from the Okanagan and moved down to Vancouver for treatment into the wonderful Ronald McDonald House for the remainder of the year.

Shawna gave up her job and stayed with Violet in the hospital, while my brother had to split his life between seeing his wife & kids, and working to keep his job. Shawna's parents moved into RMH too to offer support and help take care of Violet's sister Lucy was dealing with the emotional toll of her sister's condition along with moving her whole 5 year-old life to a new city under strange new conditions.

By the end of the year though, things were looking good, and despite the odds, Violet appears to be doing better. Just a few weeks ago (April 2022), my brother informed me that Violet has had a bunch of scans all showing literally no Cancer left in her system. We're all cautiously optimistic.

Friends

As you get older (and coupled), it's difficult to find & keep friends. It's even harder when you sabotage things by moving to a new city every few years or decide to have a kid. Add to that a pandemic, and you've got a recipe for suck.

Rahel & Stepan

Our friends Rahel & Stepan came to us early in the year to announce that they were moving to the Philippines. This was rather disappointing, since we'd become quite fond of them, and Anna and Stepan had bonded (he's really good with kids). He's given up his job and the two of them are moving in with her parents to figure out what comes next for them. Honestly, I don't get it, but I with them luck.

Annie

Also in out-of-the-blue friend news, Annie sent me an email one night just to say hello. "If anyone still has the same email after all these years" she said "it's Dan", and she was right. We caught up a big on what's been going on in her life and it turns out she has other friends & family here in the UK, so I hope to see her in-person some day soon.

Work

I finished 2020 finally escaping from Workfinder with a job offer to work at Limejump starting in January. There was a 2-month gap between my the former and the latter, so I returned to MoneyMover temporarily to help get them sorted and eventually connect them with my replacement. From what I hear, they're all doing quite well over there, having now gone full-remote. They still meet up for social drinks & dinner though, and sometimes I'm invited, which is really nice.

My work at Limejump has been pretty great. I was worried about stepping into the tech lead role though: I knew I had the technical experience to guide a project, but wasn't sure I could be trusted with actual people to do the work. "What if", I thought, "I start working there and everyone are resentful assholes who fight me on everything out of spite?"

The thing is, I've been that resentful asshole at previous jobs. I've been saddled with tech leads & CTOs who demonstrably don't have the technical chops to do the work, yet insist on telling me how to do my job. So I decided to use this as my superpower: I leveraged my experience of what it was like to be on the receiving end of that sort of thing to remind myself not to be the kind of person that solicits that sort of thing from other developers.

The result of all of this is that our team developed a sort of "architecture by way of consensus". One of us proposes a solution, we all poke at it until we're happy with it, and then we apply it together. The only "hard lines" I've imposed have been along coding standards (black, isort, pep8) and offering some anecdotes & best-practise-by-way-of-experience stories here and there.

I don't want to give the impression that I'm taking credit though. My team are fucking awesome people to work with. Rob has a welcoming and friendly attitude that really makes you feel like you belong there, Rémy is attentive, organised, and excellent, at the big picture, Emmanuel has been friendly, receptive, and hard-working, and Leo is the most knowledgeable, organised, and collaborative product guy I've ever worked with.

It's not just the team though. Nearly everyone at the company is stand-out amazing at what they do. There are problems at the company for sure, but there are problems everywhere. What I love about working at Limejump is that I get to solve problems with awesome people.

COVID-19

Contrary to what everyone was secretly hoping, December 2020 wasn't the end of the pandemic. For the entirety of 2021, governments around the world applied pandemic restrictions in the least effective way possible in an effort to be seen as "doing something" rather than to actually keep people safe.

From selective re-openings to ridiculous rules around when a mask was required and when it wasn't, to outright hypocrisy from government -- as far as I can tell, no country followed the science. It's a harrowing sneak-preview of our climate future.

The UK was especially egregious, pushing to re-open earlier than most countries with the campaigns like Eat Out to Help Out that paid people to go to restaurants. There were no mask mandates in restaurants and no limit was applied to locations with outdoor eating.

A Vaccine

The big moment came in 2021 though: we had a vaccine. We had, in fact, multiple vaccines of varying effectiveness and variable shelf-life. There were lots of discussions around how the timing of testing for effectiveness can vary the results, which was interesting, and there were also warnings of blood clots from the Astra-Zeneca and Johnson & Johnson versions.

There was also lots of geopolitical fighting over vaccine availability. Astra-Zeneca over-promised its stockpiles to both the EU and the UK, and when it actually came to distribution time, the two were suddenly at odds as if AZ hadn't been the one at fault. The global north unsurprisingly screwed-over the global south, with most of us getting as many as three shots before those in India (who were being ravaged by oxygen shortages) received even one.

By the end of the year, I'd been vaccinated 3 times: first and second with Astra-Zeneca, and a third time with Pfizer.

And after all that, the world had to go back to school and learn how exactly vaccines even work. After presidents and prime ministers declared that the vaccine would "stop" the virus, they had to backtrack. COVID-19 is so aggressive that it still manages to spread fairly well among the vaccinated, and symptoms can even persist (albeit with much less lethality). This was a nuance lost (or more likely ignored) by the grifters and charlatans though. Suddenly the vaccine was a lie to keep you afraid and "controlled" (whatever that means). Public health has become political because people are gullible idiots.

Restricting travel

When you're an expat, your life is all over the world. My kid has family in Greece, Vancouver, Kelowna, and Ottawa, and we've got friends in a smattering of other countries.

This does not play well with anything that restricts international travel. My parents last saw Anna when she was 6 months old. She's now 3 years old and they still won't have a chance to see her 'til she's almost 4.

In the words of my mother-in-law: "I've lost two years".

Clearly, things could have been worse, but it still sucks.

The News House

In September, we moved from our cold, damp rental housing into a lovely new-build home just on the other side of the River Cam. It's big, beautiful, warm, and dry, with Ethernet in nearly every room and a heat pump in the back yard.

It's also in the wrong country of course. We keep looking back to what we left behind in the Netherlands (with all its faults, I'd still rather be living there than here). The truth is though that we'd managed to save up a decent-sized chunk of cash and the combination of the pandemic, plus the inevitable rise of inflation we knew was coming afterward dictated that we needed to move that cash into something that wouldn't lose so much value in such a short period of time.

We did the math:

5 years renting at roughly £1500/mo = £90,000

This means that if we bought a house and paid the mortgage for 5 years, we'd have to lose £90k on the resale value to make this a bad decision. Given that the housing market is the way it is, that loss is very unlikely, so this just made sense.

Also, have I mentioned that it's warm & dry? Why the fuck is this such an uncommon perk in the UK?

I Quit Twitter

In April, Lindsay Ellis posted a video on her channel about the current drama she was enduring over Twitter. The way the platform is designed to sow discontent and just fill people with rage was laid bare and it set me thinking about it for a long time.

Later that month I signed off Twitter for the purposes of interaction, and by November I'd dropped it altogether switching entirely to Mastodon, a federated Twitter-like network with no central control. If you're interested in following me, you can do so there.

Majel: Raspberry Pi

Majel has been developing very slowly. Maybe I've lost interest in the project and I just haven't accepted it yet, or maybe it's just gotten to that point where distribution is the problem. I'm not sure yet.

I spent a good chunk of 2021 working out how to package Majel for distribution to others. Ideally, I'd like it to be something like a Raspberry Pi image, but there are a few problems with the CPU architecture that make this difficult, not the least of which is the absence of the proprietary Widevine DRM for aarch64 systems.

The other problem of course is that my day job is technically challenging, so I often end the day without the energy to take on something else.

Still, the project is (slowly) progressing. For the moment, you can follow development here.

The World

On the world stage has been dominated by two things: the pandemic and climate change. The former has been driving the stupid into the arms of proto-fascists, and the latter has been creeping up on us like a roaring lion looking to eat a dumb kid playing candy crush with headphones on.

The Idiot's Coup and the Rise of Stupid Pride

2021 opened with the horde of objectively stupid people demanding that Trump be awarded a presidency he didn't win, culminating in an assault on the capitol. The degree to which there was inside help is still being investigated and Trump's complicity remains insufficient to put him in gaol. He may well run for president again.

The US is also embroiled in a moral panic around critical race theory, a phrase that has a very specific meaning but to which the right-wing has attributed every bogeyman they could invent to scare parents.

The anti-vaxxers have been having a field day with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. Before the pandemic they were just dangerous idiots, now they're dangerous idiots with substantially growing numbers. There's even a guy out there who claims to be the inventor of the COVID-19 vaccine telling people it's unsafe, and people are listening to him as if he's an authority.

He's not. He's a dangerous lunatic.

And finally, fuelled by Facebook, Twitter, Telegram, and the seemingly bottomless potential for human stupidity, QAnnon is still a thing.

Eurovision!

On a happy note, Eurovision returned this year! Not only that, but the top performances were all from groups that sang in their native languages, hopefully marking the weakening of a trend toward English-only events.

Here are some of my favourites if you're curious:

Fire & Water

There were two major climate events in 2021: the massive flooding across Europe and the unrelenting wildfires in Greece. The floods claimed 196 lives and cost roughly €10 billion, while the fires in Greece ravaged the entire country. The outpouring of resources and personnel was inspiring, with firefighers, trucks, planes, and helicopters arriving from across the EU and beyond

The Withdrawal from Afghanistan

NATO finally pulled out of Afghanistan in 2021, making this Canada's longest-running war ever: 20 years. I remember when it started, just after September 11th the US, and to a lesser extent, the whole world was looking for a target to direct our wrath. There were a few measured voices, calling for reason and reflection, but the overwhelming response was a call for blood. "Those people over there" had to pay for the 2,996 lives lost and we made it happen to the tune of a kill list so long it has a whole Wikipedia page devoted to trying to measure it.

In the end, the war served to spawn another war in Iraq, the creation of an entirely new movement for an Islamic state, and likely thousands of disparate terrorist networks. Our exit was so abrupt and disorganised that any semblance of liberalism was crushed by the Taliban within days and now the new enemies we've made have new crops of desperate people to recruit to the cause.

I'm not an expert on any of this, but any fool can see how broken this whole process was from the start. There was never an achievable goal to the whole thing, just perpetual war, which I suppose is an end unto itself. Regardless, if you'd like to hear the opinions of actual experts, I strongly recommend Canadaland Common's excellent new series, "War" that covers the withdrawal and the chaotic disaster that it was for the people left behind.


And I guess that's where I'll leave it, if for no other reason than I'm tired and I've been writing this for a few hours now.

I just want to say though, that I'm conscious of how lucky I've been this last year. Despite a global pandemic, my family is all still alive, my kid is happy and healthy and we have a home to raise her in. I have a skill that's in demand so employment is reasonably secure and despite the ineptitude of the local government, the UK remains largely unscathed from the horrors others have had to endure.

I'm not sure that "thankful" is the right word, since it suggests some external force to thank for our good Fortune, so instead I'm going with a recognition that our fortune is localised, that it could change any time, and so I need to remember that when spending time with the people I love.

January 30, 2022 13:30 +0000  |  Canada COVID-19 Politics 3

For those not up on Canadian politics (though this is all international news by now), a large group of truckers started what they call a "freedom convoy": a long stream of trucks have driven to the nation's capital (Ottawa) and demanded that the government end the vaccine mandate imposed on border crossings with the US. They see this mandate as imposing on the right of bodily autonomy (it's not exactly a "choice" when your alternative is starving) and they want it gone.

Unfortunately, that's the limit to any semblance of critical thinking these people have exercised on this front. There are a number of legitimate problems with this campaign:

  • The mandate at the border exists on both sides. In order to enter the US you must be vaccinated, so even if Canada didn't have this mandate, this would be a zero net-gain: you'd still have to be vaccinated to enter the US in the first place. This is likely a deliberate agreement between the two countries to ensure limited migration of the virus across the border.
  • Health policy in Canada is generally set by the provinces, and the federal government has no jurisdiction in this area. These people left their own provinces to protest at the seat of a government that can't make the changes they're demanding.
  • And finally, my favourite one is that their demands are not for the Prime Minister or even the House of Commons, but to the unelected senate and largely ceremonial Governor General, neither of which have the power to do anything without legislation voted on by the House.

The people running this thing are clearly not burdened with an overabundance of schooling, but that hasn't stopped tens (maybe even hundreds) of thousands of people from joining the campaign in their own cars. My brother is telling me that he's seeing cars and trucks lining up all over BC, and there are similar reports of smaller groups forming all over the country.

Who Are They

The protest has evolved from one ill-conceived campaign against a cross-border vaccine mandate into one against any attempt to further combat the virus and that's got a lot more traction with a lot more people.

There's a lot of different groups of people in this thing. You've got antivaxxers, anti-maskers, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and straight up Nazis in the mix, but it's important to note that these groups don't entirely overlap. My understanding is that the majority are anti-maskers, and while a lot of them aren't vaccinated, a lot of them claim to be vaccinated themselves. They're not all racists, bigots and Nazis, but a lot of them definitely share a lot of racist content on Facebook where this thing is being organised.

As an aside, seriously, if you're in a Facebook group where people are sharing stuff about the "great replacement theory", how do you manage to think: "yeah this is definitely a group I want to be in"?

What's Happened So Far

The result of all of this is that this mob has rolled into Ottawa to stand in front of Parliament to shout at an empty building about how they want their freedoms back. After the debacle of the American coup attempt, Canada's politicians decided to be smart and get the hell out of there well in advance. Trudeau and his family have been relocated to a secret location and other MPs have been warned not to go home but rather somewhere "safe".

Personally, I'm concerned for the residents of Ottawa, especially my family. If you cram enough trucks and people into a small town like that, getting them out of there becomes a real logistical problem. Even if the organisers decided to turn around and go home right now, how exactly do you coordinate that many cars when the drivers have been told that they're there to blockade? How will the grocery stores get stocked? How will emergency vehicles get around?

...and they're not turning around right now. People are still coming. In terms of infrastructure alone, how well can the city hold up when a bunch of people who should have flunked grade 6 social studies drive into town with no plan or intent to leave?

At least things have been mostly non-violent so far. There's been some vandalism, and some crass, shitty behaviour (not at all surprising), but unlike January 6th, no one has tried to kill or kidnap anyone.

Trudeau's Failed Leadership

Out of all of this, I think I'm most angry at Trudeau and his Liberal Party (though not for the same reasons as the mob). Canada has been dealing with COVID for more than 2 years now and while information was skint when this all started, everyone definitely knew that there would be a massive toll on Canada's medical infrastructure and the economy in general.

His leadership in these areas has been terrible during the pandemic. He effectively bet everything on a vaccine and did little to address the gaping holes in Canada's medical system that existed long before the pandemic. Doctors and nurses are still working 16-hour shifts watching people die every day. Hospitals are still underfunded, understaffed, and completely unable to handle the new reality: COVID isn't going away.

Inflation is way up, driving up food prices while wages have remained largely flat. Housing costs remain exorbitantly high, and as a result, millions of working-class Canadians are constantly afraid of losing their jobs, their homes, and finally their lives.

Trudeau's response to all of this as been to scapegoat antivaxxers and anti-maskers who, while objectively being selfish assholes, are hardly to blame for high inflation and housing insecurity. He's found a wedge to drive into the public, that keeps us all blaming each other instead of him for his complete lack of leadership in key sectors during a pandemic. What's worse is that by politicising the unvaccinated, he's driven a biologically significant portion of the public to dig-in and refuse vaccination.

People are idiots, but it's a leader's job to know this and find a way to help everyone despite their idiocy. Trudeau has done what all Liberals do though: found a way to keep his job by pitting Canadians against each other.

Why the Convoy is Stupid

There are legitimate criticisms of Liberal leadership, but we can't talk about them because doing so requires adult concepts like understanding other people's perspectives and accounting for nuance in complex topics. Trudeau doesn't want these sorts of conversations because it would inevitably lead to interrogating his failures, and so the convoy is great news for him.

Now he can point to a clearly identified minority who get their "facts" from Facebook as the problem, and then go back to doing nothing to actually help them. All of those people who are afraid of losing everything -- they now may well do just that, and he's cool with it. He's convinced enough of us that they're the real problem after all.

January 12, 2022 23:58 +0000  |  COVID-19 Mental Health Politics Science 0

It's been just over two years since this all started. Back in 2020 everyone with half a brain was concerned: there was zero immunity, not even an inkling of a vaccine, an endless void of things we didn't know about COVID-19 and mass graves being dug in urban centres around the world.

Since then, by some estimates around 5.5 million people have died from the virus. In the U.S. alone, COVID-19 killed more people in the last 28 days than car accidents killed all year. No matter how you cut the numbers, this has been far more dangerous than the flu. The threat was real, the evidence speaks for itself.

A few important things have happened since then though:

  • We've rolled out around 9.6 billion vaccine doses. Yes, the distribution of these doses has been grossly disproportionate between the rich and the poor (hooray for Capitalism!), and some of these have been more effective than others. Some doses have had some scary side effects (albeit in fringe cases), but huge swaths of the world are now demonstrably safer than we once were.
  • Our understanding of the virus has exploded, and with it, public understanding has grown considerably (though the misinformation is rampant out there as well). Some of the key critical pieces of information we've learnt so far include:
    • Children under 12 don't seem to be affected very strongly by the virus. In nearly all cases, if symptoms exist at all, it's indistinguishable from the common cold. They are however demonstrated carriers.
    • The vaccine does not prevent infection (fun fact: few vaccines manage this), but importantly while it reduces the negative effects of the virus on the recipient, transmission appears to still be common, albeit likely diminished compared to the unvaccinated.
  • The Omicron variant, while difficult to pronounce for some (seriously people, find a Greek to help you already) is proving itself to be a milder form of the virus. It causes far fewer severe cases, even fewer hospitalisations, and even fewer deaths. Among the hospitalised and dead, the highest proportion are the unvaccinated and those who likely would have bought the farm with a bad case of the flu.

So, as rational people who accept new information and circumstances as they are (rather than trying to distort them through a lens of bias) we must re-evaluate our response to the virus with this new information in mind. Let's recap the above into something easier to digest:

  1. People most likely to suffer severe side effects have a vaccine to protect them.
  2. This vaccine has proven very effective at keeping people alive.
  3. The latest (and dominant) variant is a demonstrated lower risk.

Now combine that with the effects of our COVID-19 countermeasures on society:

  • Domestic abuse cases are up
  • Education has been torpedoed for two straight years, disproportionately affecting the poor who lack access to study space, internet connectivity, and/or computers at home.
    • Putting aside the academic costs, the price paid by children in their social development will only be seen with time.
  • Substance abuse cases are up
  • Obesity rates are increasing among children (and I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume the same for adults).
  • Our collective mental health is an absolute disaster.
  • Our physical health is taking a beating too, with people avoiding hospitals, Cancers are going undiagnosed until it's too late.

It's in the context of all of the facts that we have to weigh the social costs of things like closing schools, gyms, and other public venues, cancelling public events, and mandating vaccines for children. On a personal level, it seems prudent for people to dial back the fear. It's not 2019 anymore. We know more, we have more defences, the risks to our health are greatly diminished and that's something to celebrate.

We need to calm down and stop screaming at our leaders to do crazy things like lock the country down again. If that was going to work, we should have done it (properly) two years ago. Doing it today will only give you the illusion of safety, which frankly is the more dangerous public policy. We need to stop trying to force parents to vaccinate their 5 year olds and start reaching out to people who have been isolated throughout the pandemic. Let's address mental health, tend to the wounds of those of us who really got screwed by all of this: the poor, the working class, the global south, and take a sober second look at the state of our health care system.

I'm going to do my part. It's been two years: I can recognise the results of my own social conditioning and I don't like what I see. I'm going to make a concerted effort to break down the walls I've built around me over the last two years and I encourage you to do the same.

I'm going to continue wearing a mask indoors when I go shopping, because while the science on masks-as-public-policy is still pretty fuzzy, I think more than anything it's a recognition of consideration for the feelings of others. As time goes on though, I expect to lose the mask as well. Once the official guidance changes over here, I'm also going to start going back to the office -- provided my team members are of similar mind. I need to get back to my life, and now that we have the knowledge & tools at hand, it's finally the right thing to do.