Sunday, April 13, 2014

A policeman wearing google glasses interviews you...

In the near future, you might face an interview with a policeman or woman wearing the google glasses. How might it go?

First he/she might ask you your name.

The glasses have access to images of you from various databases. If you give a false name he will know  straight away.

Let's say you are on a train. He might ask where you are off to today.

The ticket you carry has a unique number linked to your identity. He will know where you boarded the train. 

He might ask where you work.

Linked to the tax office database, he will have your complete work history. 

What changes with the glasses is the immediacy. Especially in identifying you.

Much of crime fiction is nostalgic. Typically (e.g. Rebus) the detective is an older male, quite uncomfortable with technology. He relies on younger people around him to make use of it. Even then, not a great deal of surveillance is employed. There might be some trawling through CCTV footage. Is the past somehow more human? Or just more familiar?

The availability of real-time tracking of individuals changes the nature of police work quite a bit. No more sitting in cars waiting for signs of activity. Just task a drone to watch, and follow when the person leaves. As the NSA could no doubt tell us, things change quite a bit when the default is to track everything. Encounter a new person of interest? You can look at their movements around the city for the past hour, the past week or even the past year.

In writing "Murder in the Fabric", which is set in Melbourne in 2020, I wanted to explore the nature of police work in the near future. Of course this space is dominated by 'Minority Report' where somehow the technology is aware of crimes even before they take place. I can't see this happening anytime - the real world is incredibly complex. I'm inclined to think of those famous lines on chaos theory in "Jurassic Park".

Immediacy with massive computing power, together with the "store all" option makes for radical changes. I've tried to give some examples.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ride a bicycle to evade the surveillance state.

My novel 'Murder in the Fabric' is set in Melbourne in 2020. The preferred mode of transport is to don the hoodie and the dark glasses. Then get onto your bicycle, and move freely wherever you like in the city. There is nothing distinctive about pedalling that will give the forces of darkness a handle.

I'm a big fan of the Jack Reacher books. I have read almost all of them. Jack is ex-military, the quintessential outsider. He has a bank account somewhere, but not much else. Drifting from place to place, he encounters trouble, and deals with it. In the books, the Jack Reacher character is physically quite large. Large enough to stand out in a crowd. Of course the character goes back quite a while, and mostly he is in small towns in the mid-west of America. He doesn't carry a mobile phone, all transactions are in cash. If he checks into a hotel then he invents a new name each time.

In the modern surveillance state, how long would Jack last in a big city without being detected? Cameras on every corner, drones hovering overhead. He's off the digital transaction grid, so only the visual surveillance could get him. Facial recognition would be a big issue, so Jack might have to take to wearing a hoodie and dark glasses. No real problem. However there remains the issue of 'gait analysis'. Each of us walks in a distinctive way. Given Jack's size then his gait would be quite distinctive. Stay away from cameras, you say. The forces of darkness don't advertise their capabilities, but there is a view that gait analysis from satellite may be possible.

The subway is out. In Melbourne you have to get an electronic ticket. Each one is identified, and can be tracked. A cab has a surveillance camera. Cars have number plates. Once your car is tagged by one camera, it can be followed through the whole system. There are big advantages to tracking. Once a single camera grabs you, then wherever you go, the system will have you. A complete trace.

 How long would Jack last? Maybe 30 minutes or so. The controversy over the film character, played by Tom Cruise is interesting in this context. A less physically distinctive frame has its advantages, he can move about more easily.

You want to move around a city without being detected? If you walk down a less crowded street then the cameras can get a good view of your face. Even with the hoodie and glasses they might have a chance. Best to find a crowd, and get yourself buried in deep in the middle of the crowd. Think one of those big pedestrian crossings in Tokyo, say Shibuya. The cameras will then be faced with the problem of occlusion - it's hard to break up the total image into faces. They might be able to follow you for a while, but as you move into bigger crowds, eventually they will lose you. Problem is, in Melbourne there are only two or three intersections crowded enough to evade the surveillance.

I look forward to Jack getting on the bike.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Cycling inland Australia in the winter

It's really Tom's fault. After all, if you can cycle Norway in the winter  then Australia should be possible, surely?

Australians tend to live close to the sea. So when they take off by bicycle they tend to follow the coast. Lots of bike tourers also. Some even go the whole way around. I've cycled the coast of Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales. Not all of it, but a lot of it. I'm in awe of people who go the whole way around, but the distances in Western Australia are beyond my reach now.

If you are Australian, be prepared for comments like "why ?" or "there's nothing there...". Out here you won't meet many Australians. Some adventurous Germans, or Swedes, or Japanese. Despite having some of the most wonderful scenery in the world, Australians are highly urbanised and mostly not mentally equipped for the outback.

I want to recommend two tours I've done that are in the "less pedalled" category. Not quite as unusual as riding tracks like the stock routes off-road. 

In July 2012 I rode from Swan Hill to Broken Hill and return. In July 2013 I rode from Echuca to Cowra and back to Albury. The choice of starting and finishing point was decided by rail links. VLine will carry bicycles as baggage, without requiring you to box the bike. So this makes it very easy to transport the bike. In New South Wales you have to box it, so this is less appealing. In retrospect it might have been a good idea to get the train to Broken Hill and ride back from there. 

Why in winter? Several reasons. The weather is cold, sure. But it seldom gets below freezing, even at night. My coldest night was -3C. Overall the weather is more stable, and strong winds are less frequent. But two big reasons: heat, and flies. In summer the heat makes it very difficult to ride inland routes in Australia. If you google people trying to eat in the presence of swarms of flies, you can see the problem. It's awful. But when the temperature drops below 4C all the flies die off. 

Is it dangerous? No, I don't think so. If you are prepared. Even in winter in Australia the big issue is water. You might have to go four or five days without a water source. Sometimes you can get a top up from fellow caravan travellers, but not always. It's best to make sure you are carrying enough water. 

Is it hard to find a camping spot? The further you get from civilisation,  the easier it gets. There are certainly no householders to object to you pitching your tent. Once you get into the outback proper there are no trees to hide behind, so you hide behind bushes if you can find them. On roads such as the "Kidman Way" running north-south, these are old stock routes. They used to ride on horses and herd cattle along these roads. Stopping and camping. So there are more camping spots than you will ever need.

Camping about 60km from Broken Hill

Is it lonely? Along the Barrier Way there are no towns. If you study the map, you can find roadhouses. They have food and water, and in a lot of cases are good to stop at. I took to ringing them up, just to make sure they were still there. No good riding 200km to find that the store has closed. The roadhouse there really looked after me. Great meals, and a free camping spot. Wonderful people. 

What about 'Wolf Creek'? Australians have a lot of fear about the outback. The movie 'Wolf Creek' caters to that. But it's great fiction. Have a look at the statistics for troubles. All in the cities. Psychopaths hang out in cities for a reason. There is somewhere to hide. Nowhere to hide on a highway. They will be caught. Apart from the usual concern about mechanical breakdown, I've never felt safer.

There are roadhouses, but I took to ringing them up. 'Just checking you are still there, and have water' I would say. Some roadhouses only have bore water, so it pays to check. In winter I carried around 16 litres of water, to last me up to four days. 

So if you are considering a bike tour in Australia, study the map. Those outback towns are worth the pedalling.

A digger used to create the irrigation channels - near Griffith

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tasmania: heaven for bicycle tourers

I toured Tasmania from Devenport south to Hobart, then up the East coast back to Devenport. It was so easy just to roll my bike onto the ferry.

But what makes touring Tasmania so great?


Of course. You don't want to be riding along a multi-lane highway with cars zooming past. Tasmania has great scenery. From the plateau and the wonder of the great lakes in the middle, to the wildness of the west coast. There is lots of it.


Where I live, in Victoria, they have spent a lot on "no camping" signs. Almost every spot you might think to stop for the night has one.  Even in National Parks: they make sure they don't clear the bush and leave a spot where you can put the tent. Lots of parks have no camping at all.

 In Tasmania there are more free camping spots than you can throw a rock at. You might pass four or five in a day. Even better, quite a few towns have free camping in the middle of town. How incredibly civilised.

Road Signs

In the age of GPS, why do road signs matter? Well I don't like pulling out the phone and searching for a signal. I like just to know where I'm going. Almost every road intersection in Tasmania has a sign. It's almost impossible to get lost. It's a small thing, but it matters.


In general, the less traffic the better. On a bike we will take the longer route with less traffic. Through the middle of Tasmania I could ride for hours without seeing a single car. Incredible. On the East coast, for most of the way past Freycinet there was very light traffic.


In winter it is cold. In summer it can be quite hot. But in the autumn and the spring, you can get long stretches of mild weather. I had one day with rain. No real days with heavy wind. Yes, amazing.

Lots of compelling reasons. But they are not the most important reason. It's the people. In my home state it's rare to go a day without at least one incident involving an impatient or abusive motorist. Nothing too lethal, but annoying. You know: the tooting, the passing too close.  Just a subtle reminder that you are in the way. "Go somewhere else", is the message.

In Tasmania I found the locals to be really careful about cyclists on the road. Everywhere. It was not unusual to be riding up a hill, with a car following you at a distance. Waiting for a safe place to pass.

The most compelling reason? They want you to come.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: not your normal review

The story in a sense is well known. The question this movie asks is: "what does it take to hunt down someone like Osama Bin Laden?" Most reviews compare and contrast with "Hurt Locker", but I haven't seen this.

There is no broad focus, no real insight into the workings of the CIA.  We don't learn a lot about Pakistan. It follows Maya, who becomes obsessed with Osama Bin Laden. I don't want to give away details, but at one point the hunt has gone very cold, and it is looking very very unlikely that it will be successful. Maya is upset, and a colleague asks her "what are you going to do?" and she replies that she is going to hunt him down, and kill him.  The statement hangs in the air, and at the same time looks ridiculous, and brave.

Portrayal of torture? To me it showed the toll it takes on the interrogator as well as the interrogated. It strongly hints at the truth that most people will most likely say anything that will stop the interrogation.

Yes, we don't learn much about Maya. Her family, her background remains a mystery. No boyfriends, nothing. She becomes enmeshed in the hunt totally. When her boss asks her how long she has worked for the agency "12 years": 'what else have you done for us': "nothing, nothing else".

Any big organisation has it's Mayas. There are people that do things, and people that stand and watch.  A lot of what we learn is the incredible difficulty of intelligence work. That it was absolutely impossible to get any confirmation of who actually was in the compound without going in and blowing doors open. A determined, intelligent adversary who is aware of the technology and methods of his hunters can effectively neutralise them. Knowing that they could track anything connected to the internet, he never connected to it. Knowing that he could be sighted from above, he never appeared out in the open.

Maya is an incredibly powerful character. She will take enormous, career destroying, deadly risks in order to complete the search. But to me, the real content of this movie is about exactly what that requires. How hard it is to go into a room full of risk-averse executives and somehow persuade them to conduct a fishing expedition in a foreign country. How hard it is to keep going when (almost) everything goes wrong. When it looks beyond hopeless. When everyone around you is playing the odds, and positioning themselves for when the operation fails.

More than that, it asks what is the personal cost of all this. In answer to the question "what does it take?" the actual, real answer is "what have you got?"

Washington Post story on the real 'Maya':

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Bike Shop Divorce

It’s the little things, in the end, isn’t it ? The little things become big things.

It all started so smoothly. I bought my Avanti Blade, and I loved it. So I persuaded people to buy more. It was all so light and easy. It was a virtuous loop. I took the bike in for a service, and told them that I was different. “I live on this bike”. So please don’t hesitate to fix any small thing that is wrong. And they did. It was all good.

How many expeditions, how many rides with them servicing the bike? I’ve lost count. Yes, they made mistakes. Who would forget when they left that badly worn chain on. I got halfway up the hill and it broke. But I just smiled and took the bike straight back, and they fixed it on the spot.

When I spent any time at the store it was like going home. We’ve known each other so long. Chatting away in the store. No need really to buy anything, just hang around. Talked about the Tour de France. Talked about riding around locally. Even talked about the family a bit.

Ah, the things we did. Completely renovated the whole bike over the last few years. Only the frame really is original. Everything else has gradually been replaced.

So how it did it go bad? Well, it was the wheel. The new wheel. The time had come to replace the back wheel - it was too far gone. A new one, with a solid spoke pattern and a strong rim.  On the last tour I did I had a really tough final day- 70km into a raging headwind. My fault. But about 25km from the end I heard a loud “crack”. I just ignored it, didn’t want to know. Yes, I made it to the end with a broken spoke, so I guess that showed that it wasn’t a bad rim. Spokes break. It happens.

Cheerily back to the store. Fixed the broken spoke, all smiles. Then I rode for another couple of days. Felt a bit of a drag. Looked at the back wheel. Another broken spoke. Now I’m not happy. Back to the store. Very embarrassing. “Re-spoke the wheel: only charge him $50”. So at least I’m getting a new wheel. Although now the price of the new wheel all-up is mounting.

But riding away from the bike shop I notice that the re-spoked wheel sounds a bit noisy. I look at it, and some of the spokes are way too loose. I tighten them. No, I don’t go back to the shop. Now I have doubts - now I would rather do it myself, at least I know it’s done properly.

But that wasn’t the final straw. About a week later I go to adjust the seat position and I look at the seatpost clamp. It’s the type where the bolt screws in, not the quick release type. The thread is pretty much stripped. I loosen it and tighten it again and, yes, it’s gone.

How could this have happened? I think about it. They have adjusted the seat and taken it for a test ride, and stuffed the clamp. A clamp costs about $5 - I would have happily paid for new one. All they had to say would have been “seat clamp on it’s way out - replaced it”. But instead of that, they fudged it.

I can fix almost anything on a bike. I used to do all my own maintenance. Looking at that seat post, I reached a decision. I can’t go back to that store. I can’t explain that fudging a seat post clamp lead to irretrievable breakdown of the relationship. I just can’t go back.

So from now on, I’ll be doing my own maintenance. Maybe a once a year full overhaul at one of the larger stores in the city. It lasted so long, it was so good, but now it’s all gone.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Harry Callahan(1) approach to making cycling safer.

You’ve got a bucket of money to promote cycling. How would you spend it? Recreational events, encouraging school children to ride to school, and so on. All well and good. But in my city, Melbourne, which is mistakenly promoted as a cycling city, a recent audit(2) showed that this is not effective. More people are not substituting their car trips with bicycle trips, despite the fact that they buy bicycles in increasing numbers.

How can this be? Well let’s consider this from the viewpoint of competition for road space, and dominant cultures. In Melbourne you can’t commute on bicycle paths exclusively. So sooner or later you are going to have to interact with cars, and car drivers. The road rules here are fairly good, in that they clearly state that bicycles are equivalent to cars on the road. So in theory all is fine.

So how far do our new cyclists get on their new bicycles? Probably as far as the first roundabout. Here they will attempt to get cars to give way to them, and fail. As is the nature of dominant cultures, car drivers will not acknowledge you as a road user. I’ve had cars try to physically run me down as I walk across a pedestrian crossing with my bicycle. Why? In the viewpoint of the dominant culture, we don’t exist.

It is nice to think that persuasion and education will change this. But where is the evidence that it actually works? Certainly in Melbourne despite many years of these programs I have yet to see any change at all.

Which brings me to enforcement. The reason we enforce laws is to change behaviour, and where the culture is not what we want, to bring about change. We were one of the first to introduce seatbelt laws, and to have hidden speed cameras.

But if you look at enforcement and cycling, you will find articles about bad behaviour by cyclists. How to train cyclists to follow the rules. Of course. This is how dominant cultures work. I’ve hit you with several tons of metal? Silly you, it must be your fault. When you look at the accident statistics, it shows that roughly 60% of the time it is not your fault, it is actually the car driver’s fault. But since we are the dominant culture, it’s your fault. So just behave better, ok?

What really annoys me is when supposed cycling advocacy organisations fall for this trick. I think they have a cosy, cosy approach to compromise. If we play along with the dominant culture then perhaps we will get more bike lanes. Maybe even a bike path. But this just reinforces the car, and fails to make it safe for cyclists. Let’s face it, it is bullshit.

How can we make Melbourne safe for cyclists? I would spend the money on plainclothes police on bicycles, with patrol car backups. When the car driver forces the cyclist off the roundabout, or fails to give way to a cyclist, they find that they have just been fined a significant amount of money. It is necessary to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of the dominant culture that they will not be able to offend with impunity. That the cyclist they see in front of them just may be a policeman.

It is a nice thought that dominant cultures might voluntarily change, but I suggest that the evidence is to the contrary. Only a widespread  enforcement campaign will make Melbourne safe for cyclists and pedestrians. So that when you stop at a roundabout waiting for the car to give way you will be able to say “.. go ahead, make my day.”

(1)  Harray Callahan : a fictional policeman star of Clint Eastwood movies.

(2) Auditor General’s Report on “Developing Cycling as a Safe and Appealing Mode of Transport”