The Surgeon of Crowthorne – Simon Winchester

October 29, 2009 at 22:21 | Posted in books | Leave a comment
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I’ve just finished ‘The Surgeon of Crowthorne’, an account of how an American military surgeon, Dr W C Minor, afflicted by what is now believed to be schizophrenia triggered by his experiences in the American Civil War, shot dead an innocent man in London and then spent most of his life in Broadmoor Asylum.

It is also the story of the Oxford English Dictionary; a project of huge ambition borne in the Victorian era where bewhiskered men built railways, sewers, street lighting and telegraph networks – indeed much of what we now take for granted as ‘civilisation’. In such an environment, surely a simple dictionary, even one as all-encompassing as the OED, could be completed in a reasonable time.

As it was, it took seventy years. And for many of those decades it was overseen by its irrepressible editor, James Murray, a brilliant (and suitably bewhiskered) linguist who led the project with an iron discipline corralling a small army of volunteers to work on different words in perhaps the first ever example of distributed content creation.

The lives of the two men – Murray and Minor – became linked when Minor became a tireless contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, compiling quotes and sources from his Broadmoor room. It’s a story of eccentricity and organisation, friendship and separation, madness and genius. It’s a fun read that rattles along like a good yarn.

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Another new bike!

October 15, 2009 at 22:45 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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Well, as you may have seen elsewhere, I bought another bike. I did something that I would probably never recommend to anyone; that is I bought a bike from a supermarket, in a box, sight unseen. I was given some confidence, however, by the positive vibes given on some internet forums. And for $200, well, I reckoned I could justify it simply as a toy.

So I popped out at lunchtime today and bought one from the Aldi in North Sydney; they had perhaps 12 of them in stock. People seemed interested in it as I took it form the pile and to the checkout; several people asked me whether it was any good, and mentioned they were interested in a bike.

This theme continued; I took it back to the office, and took it out of the box. Lots of people cam over to see it; and were very interested, Much more interested than they have ever been in any of my other beautiful bikes. Several people wanted to take it for a ride, including the CEO, who rode around the office on it, barking out pretend orders to people as he sailed past their desks.

It’s an interesting thing. My road bikes look, I suppose, a bit scary to non-cyclists. Something rather serious that you need to know what you are doing; all those levers, dropped handlebars, narrow saddle and such like. This bike positively encouraged people to have a go on it; everyone wanted to sit on it, ding the bell, go for a ride. It just seemed like fun; this kind of reinforces a feeling that I have that people are put off cycling (or even see it as dangerous) because it requires all this special equipment. Show them a bike that can just be hopped on, in normal clothes, with a comfy saddle, that doesn’t look like you need to ride fast, and it brings out the inner child in people – ‘wow, that’s so cute and fun!’

Anyway, ‘what’s it like to ride?’ I hear you all clamour. In a word, small. I’m not especially tall (about 175cm), but even with the saddle as high as it would go, it felt like my knees were round my ears. And the handlebars seem very close too. Whilst this is fine for riding round the office, it gets very tiring riding over the SHB into a headwind…

The steering is also quite twitchy, but I soon got used to that. Getting out of the saddle to climb a hill (man, Anzac Bridge was hard work) is a bit difficult; the twichyness is amplified, and you have to work quite hard to keep the bike stable.

Gears (6 speed Shimano, bottom of the range jobs) are so-so; they don’t seem to be adjusted perfectly (no surprise there), and they also mis-shifted a few times. But they work, and are set at pretty low ratios for low-speed cruising. Brakes work quite well, although they grab somewhat; you go from ‘gentle slowing’ to ‘locking up the wheel’ rather quickly.

But all in all, not too bad for $200. It seems solid; it has mudguards (yay!) and a rack which are quite sturdy, and the build quality is actually quite OK. Cheap tyres, of course, but they are standard 20″ size, so it would be easy to change them – Schwalbe make most of their puncture-resist tyres in 20″ size, for example. It’s a bit tricky to fold up; I haven’t yet got the knack of knowing what angle to put the pedals at to fold it; get the angle wrong and the pedals catch on the brake levers or cables.

Riding home was hilarious. I rode with a friend (who has a rather beautiful Masi), and he just couldn’t stop laughing. I just looked so ridiculous. Especially as I as all dressed up in my best roadie spandex. And it was hard work – it’s about 12km, but when I got home my legs were dead; my knees also felt it a bit because of the low saddle. Still, no-one overtook me, and I did manage to drop a few roadie-types on the way…

Once I got home, I had to admit to Mrs Chillikebab that I’d bought a new bike. ‘When are you going to use that?’ she asked. When i suggested that it might be suitable for her, she snorted ‘ah, you bought it for me, I see…’. The look she gave me, coupled with the fact that she is nearly six months pregnant told me that I wasn’t getting anywhere with that angle. Then she just shook her head in a resigned way.

So the only decision left is whether to ride it to work tomorrow. I left my Salsa at work in order to ride this one home, but I do have another road bike in the shed I could ride in with. Or I can take the Aldi special. The ride to work is much more uphill. Hmmmmm.

Of gears, panniers and fitness

October 5, 2009 at 22:41 | Posted in bicycles | Leave a comment
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Well, as some of you may remember, a little while ago I bought a new bike. Here it is:

Other than feeding my addiction, I bought it because I wanted something more practical, something I could carry stuff around on and do longer rides. Oh, and I lusted after swishiness.

Well, the first thing to note is that if you want to bring about a global drought, go and buy a bike with mudguards. Since buying that bike, it has never rained when I’ve needed or wanted to go anywhere, except when I was on the wrong (mudguard-less) bike.

The second point is that gears make you soft. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it seems to be true. I’ve mainly been riding this bike, and I just have this impression that my fitness has dropped slightly. (Of course, that may not be the reason – I have also developed an addiction to Arnott’s Lemon Crisps; I’m not sure that consuming an entire packet at midnight prior to going to bed is exactly the nutrition of champions.) Hills on the fixie are brutal and short. On the new bike, they take longer, and I feel more spent at the top. Of course, the new bike is heavier. Sometimes much heavier, as I also have fallen victim to the First Rule of Panniers.

Yes, I also bought panniers. Why are panniers so expensive in Australia? I do make an effort to support my LBS, as I figure the service and convenience of a bike shop around the corner is worth paying a premium for. But when you can buy panniers from the UK and get them delivered to your door in less than a week for under half the cost of buying locally, well, something seems a bit wrong somewhere.

Anyway, the First Rule of Panniers, for those unfamiliar with it, states that whatever size of pannier you get, your stuff will only just fit in them; the corollary being that your stuff expands to fit the size of pannier that you buy. The panniers I have are thirty-eight litres, pretty standard for touring. People use them for things like round the world trips and moving house. However, for some reason my commute to work how seems to require me to fill them up, whereas previously I could fit my stuff into a small backpack. Almost every time I go out there is some reason why I have to take a load of stuff with me. It’s very mysterious. And heavy.

In the course of this, I also learned why tourers like such low gears. Getting out of the saddle when the bike is laden is very weird, unsteady and tiring. So you stay in the saddle and spin in a lower gear. Maybe that has affected my fitness. Or maybe I’m just more tired because I’m hauling an entirely unnecessary 10kg of extra weight around with me. I’ve also become much less tolerant of the SHB steps, as wheeling a heavy bike up and down them is much more difficult than slinging a lightweight one over your shoulder and jogging down.

Still, I do love my new bike. Lots of people ask me which one I prefer (well, not lots actually, most people can’t tell the difference, but a few have asked). So after some consideration, I have developed this analogy.
The fixie is like a mistress. It’s fast, racy and fun, but not always practical. And whilst it’s a blast now, there is a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that this is not something I’ll be settling down with; it’s not going to be suitable for my old age.
The tourer is like a wife. Comfortable, practical, and unlikely to solicit as many gasps of admiration, but ultimately the one I’d choose if and when I have to start being sensible.

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