Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Confession. And a Good-Bye.

What better time for an explanation than a special occasion? And, as Lovely Bicycle is about to reach the ripe old age of 6 (an absurd age, in blogging years, let's be honest), we felt that we finally owed its audience one.

Please do not be cross with us, dear readers. Lovely Bicycle was not so much a deception, or a prank, as an experiment. A projet, if you will. In the French sense of the word.

At the start we were not certain which way to take this project. Be assured that many in-depth discussions were had on the topic with esteemed Institute colleagues. These were followed by just as many shallow discussions with colleagues who are altogether despised. At length, it was agreed to let the project itself lead us. And so it transpired, that over the course of its thematically meandering and lexically dubious run (which was not meant to exceed a year, according to our original plans!) what we had on our hands was not entirely unlike a piece of interactive software.

The information we are trying to disclose to you, gentlest of léitheoirí, is that Lovely Bicycle was, in large part, a projection of your - the audience's - own unconscious. The weblog some of you have grown to like, others to roll your eyes at, and others still to regard with utter indifference, was in fact a patchwork of your own fanciful imaginings, hidden desires, unanswered questions and thinly veiled anxieties - clustered loosely around the concept of the bicycle - or, perhaps more accurately, around what that concept represents to you - and arrived at via a sophisticated algorithm using information gleaned from your very own comments. The workings of this algorithm (which will make us very, very rich in due course!) we shall not burden your minds with at present.

Who are we, some of you might be wondering by now? We are a close-knit team (rather too close-knit, some have insinuated - but we implore you to ignore them!) of post-doctoral researchers at the Flann O'Brien Institut für Mathematische Entwicklungspsychologie in Klosterneuburg, Austria.

It is no coincidence, after all, that - as, no doubt only the oldest of readers will recall - the Lovely Bicycle blog began here, in the magnificent city of Vienna. One day, as our research group picnicked on the banks of the Danube River, the weather being too fine to hold our weekly lab meeting indoors, we remarked on the need to find a suitable subjectmatter for the testing of our algorithm. What could this subject matter be, hm? We considered interior decor, crafting, vintage fashions, cupcakes (this was 2009, you will forgive us), Holga photography and other trending affectations. Just then, a lady cyclist rolled past on the scenic Danuberadweg and the eyes of all colleagues met in rapturous, silent agreement. Bicycles. Oh lovely bicycles! Before the end of the workday our project was ready to launch.

Only in the most general of terms, we sketched out an identity for our lady bicycling blogger, and, as readership picked up the algorithm did the rest. Almost immediately, a preference emerged for certain styles of bicycles. Then, a husband appeared. Then a move to Boston (luckily, one of our colleagues was due to take up a visiting position there, rendering the change of locale unproblematic). When a personality began to take shape, we were intrigued to find our lady blogger on the hapless and neurotic side, overly wordy, provocative at times, and harbouring a subversive streak - rather too Viennese, if you will! But our job was not to question the algorithm. We tweaked parameters here and there, ensuring a steady growth in readership numbers and, most importantly, a healthy plumpness of comment content. But mostly we observed with interest, collected and analysed data, and merely followed the course of the project's development - which progressed very nicely indeed.

After a year's time we had all that we needed. But just as we hovered over the blog's "Delete" button, with a measure of sadness but also a great deal of relief (it was an exhausting project, truth be told!), an altogether unexpected turn of events took place. Businesses, real businesses, began to offer us payments (real payments!) to advertise on the Lovely Bicycle blog. At first we intended to ignore these requests. But the head of the Institut, upon learning the news, suggested a different strategy. Why not keep the blog running, at once as a means of observing the algorithm's long term effects and as a fundraising scheme for our research group? And so the blog persisted, and the project thrived.

At this stage some of you may be thinking: But what about the woman in the photos? Naturally, we used models. And yes, models plural: Two women portrayed the Lovely Bicycle author over the course of its run. Our original model was French doctoral student and fledgling cyclist Veronique Rayons (merci Vero!). Upon completing her degree and leaving Boston, she was replaced by Polish linguist, part-time theatre actress, and occasional randonneuse Agnieszka Rowerowa, who continued to appear in the photos till present time. Can you spot when the change took place? Some of you did! - though any remarks attempting to bring this to light were, of course, redacted. Overall the change went down remarkably smoothly, we thought.

And what of those of you who've "met" Lovely Bicycle in person, thus convinced of our bloggeress's realness? Well, certainly. You have met either Veronique or Agnieszka, depending on when this meeting took place. Both are exceedingly pleasant ladies, well-informed on the topic of cycling and thoroughly briefed on the Institut's algorithm project. In fact, so personable and charming are our models, that readers who met either woman would often express being pleasantly surprised, uttering remarks such as: "You are not nearly as tedious as your writing suggests!" and "Normally, bloggers come across as fun online, but turn out to be rigid and humorless in person. You're like totally the opposite of that!"

Indeed there is much to ponder about the ways of the algorithm.

But finally, on approaching the 5 year mark, the Board of Trustees at the Flann O'Brien Institut für Mathematische Entwicklungspsychologie agreed it was time to end the project. By now, we recognised that Lovely Bicycle had become an entity in its own right, with thousands of readers all over the world (though mostly in Boston and California) looking forward to reading it with their morning coffee and porridge. To end it abruptly would be cruel. Instead we tweaked the algorithm in hopes of letting it fade naturally. We decreased the frequency of posts, while engineering a divorce, a move to a remote, difficult to relate to location (conveniently, Agnieszka was due to take up a position at the University of Ulster), a decrease in bicycle acquisitions, and a subtle change in tone which we thought should prove unpopular with readers. As the readership numbers dwindled, we anticipated, the algorithm would begin to lose strength, until it stopped functioning altogether - a process we expected to take no longer than several months.

Alas, over a year later this expected result has not been attained. If anything, the algorithm seems to have adapted all too well to the new parameters - with readership numbers and comment content continuing to feed it. Meanwhile, the Institut no longer has the interest and resources to maintain the project, advertising or no advertising. We need to, as they say, stop f*ing around, and focus all our energies on preparing the algorithm for commercial use. You understand.

And so this is why, most precious of legentium, today we thank you for the role you have played in our project, as we announce the end of Lovely Bicycle and bid you all a fond good-bye.

With compliments,

Flann O'Brien Institut für Mathematische Entwicklungspsychologie

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Bicycle Safety Check: from Mnemonic to Automated Ritual

If you've ever gone on club rides as a beginner cyclist in North America, chances are you have heard of the ABC Quick Check. Not sure whom to credit for its original composition, but I'll quote the League of American Cyclists:
A is for Air,
B is for Brakes,
C is for Cranks and chain,
Quick is for Quick releases,
Check is for Check it over.
This mnemonic is meant to encourage riders to get into a habit of performing a basic safety check on their machines before setting foot to pedal. But how many of us actually perform such a check? It took a rather disconcerting incident for me to realise that I do.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Studded Tires in March: A Cross-Atlantic Seasonal Summary

Nokian Hakkapelitta 650B Studded Tires
"You do not realise how good you have it there," I was warned as I packed for my flight apprehensively. And in a sense they all had a point: My current appreciation of springtime in Ireland is certainly enhanced by having spent the first half of March back in Boston, immersed in the sort of deep winter one might expect in January - and even then, only once in a great while. It was the sort of winter you'd tell your great-grandchildren about. And they would roll their eyes behind your back - because they'd only half-believe what you were telling them, and because you'd tell the goddamn story so many times. "It was a terrible, formidable winter indeed!..."

It was a winter that now stretched into March, ready to embrace me with its frigid open arms. Our landing was delayed at Boston Logan, the airplane forced to circle aimlessly while the runway was hectically shoveled again, as fresh snow had already covered it since the previous shoveling.

Monday, March 23, 2015

On Financial Incentives for Cycling and the Psychology of Compliance

This morning I came across a recent Atlantic CityLab article called The Problem With Paying People to Bike to Work. It interested me immediately, as just a few days earlier a friend and I were debating the effectiveness of UK's cycle to work scheme (which offers discounts and tax breaks when buying a bicycle for commuting). The CityLab piece, however, focuses on something a bit more radical: France's pilot program that pays employees to commute to work by bicycle. In case you've never heard of this, it was a 6-months trial in the course of which bicycle commuters were compensated roughly 43 cents per mile when cycling to work. The project received much fanfare at the start, but the results have been less than stellar. The author of the CityLab article critiques the program and offers two explanations for its limited success: the continued availability of cheap and free parking, and the "fixed" nature of commuters' habits. As this latter explanation is based on psychological studies and I happen to be a (former) research psychologist by profession, I offer another perspective for consideration:

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Toward the Self-Evident

Temple Project, Derry by David Best
Shortly after returning from freezing, snow-covered Boston (where I nonetheless managed to get around by bicycle with ease) I find myself marveling again at how difficult cycling in Northern Ireland is by comparison. These thoughts come as I push myself up the vertical Fountain Hill in Derry, my eyes nearly popping out of my head from effort and incredulity. I had never been up here before, had not even realised this city had such torturous inclines. At some point my ears pop.

At the road end, my map suggests a shortcut that ends up taking me through a housing estate covered with sectarian graffiti. I am too exhausted to worry about this, my legs delighted by the gentler gradient of the hairpin path that winds past the rows of terrace houses. I nod at a sleepy-eyed man who sits smoking a cigarette on his front steps, beside a sprawled bulldog tethered to the fence. He nods back. The bulldog inspects me with mild curiosity. A woman opens her door and peers out to have a look at me, then disappears back inside.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Everyday Pilgrimage

St. Aidan's, Magilligan
We live in an era when shops throughout much of the world are standardised to such an extent, and exported goods so easily available, that being asked to procure something "local and unusual" from one's neck of the woods for curious friends can present a daunting challenge. Luckily, in this remote corner of Northern Ireland I have a few tricks up my sleeve for such purposes. Pulling one of them out this windy morning, I set off to visit St. Aidan's Well.

Two miles down the main road from my house, a modest sign points to this local landmark. The back road it invites you to take then winds its way up the looming Binevenagh mountain. From this vantage point, the mountain has a stacked, tiered appearance - resembling a misshapen cake. First come the grassy tiers, then the forested ones, finally giving way to the flat-top cliffs. The well is located along one of the forested tiers.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Concretely Speaking: Musings on Preferred Road Surfaces

Tined Concrete Lane, Northern Ireland
The house I live in stands at the end of a .7 mile farm lane that winds its way through fields of grazing cattle. Thus being the first and last leg of any journey I embark on, this lane - with its lack of traffic and nice scenery - has served as a backdrop for many of my bike photos. Funny enough, the thing that consistently interests readers about the photos I take here is not the scenery but the road surface. What is that stripey stuff and what's it like to ride on? Ah, what indeed! Well, instead of explaining again and again, I thought I would write a post addressing the matter concretely. Got the hint yet?

Monday, February 23, 2015

Creatures of the Night

a quick rendering of last night's adventure [dramatisation]

Returning home after dark last evening, I was proceeding unhurriedly along a narrow farm lane when, in the far-reaching glow of my light beam, I noticed a gray furry thing emerge from behind the row of hedges at the left and make its way toward the field on the right. A split second later, I saw the unmistakable striped, elongated profile. It was none other than a badger!

Being a fairly optimistic person, I was hopeful of an ideal outcome to the situation: that by the time I reached the critter, it would have already completed its journey. But having sensed my approach the poor fellow froze smack in the center of the lane and just stood there, crouching low to the ground, its short paws and hefty torso vibrating with tense indecision.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Cycling Routes and Cycling Abilities

Family Cycling, Glenveagh Castle
On a visit to a nearby nature reserve last weekend, I noticed a man out cycling with his 3 small children. The elder boy and girl, who looked no older than 6 and 5, pedaled along on their own tiny bikes, while the youngest - a toddler - sat in a child's seat at the back of the father's hybrid. I spotted them at the end of the road leading up to the Castle, which meant they were in for a 5 mile round trip overall. Impressed with the kids' good behaviour and stamina, I tried to recall the last time I'd seen children so young out cycling. It had been a while. In the rural area where I now live it's uncommon to see children on bikes beyond the confines of their immediate neighbourhoods. This is not so much due to a lack of infrastructure, as to the nature of the local topography. The area is hilly, and most routes involve climbs and descents that may prove beyond a child's ability. Heck, even adults who are not "cyclists" in the athletic sense of the word, can find themselves overwhelmed.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Wear and Tear on Your Bicycle: Expectations and Experiences

Yesterday afternoon I decided to do some maintenance on my folding bike's mud-encrusted drivetrain. Although when I say "decided" what I really mean is shamed into it ("Look at the state of that thing - It's a wonder your gears don't seize up!"). Some cyclists are, shall we say, a bit more fastidious than I am when it comes to bicycle maintenance. But on this occasion even I conceded that my everyday transport bike deserved a good wash. After all, it had been over a year since the last time! And so the next several hours were spent cleaning the bike - starting with extracting packed dirt and grit out of all the nooks and crannies in its maze-like system of pulleys, and (since, let's be honest, one tends to get carried away with these things) ending with polishing the hubs, spokes and chain links till I could see my crazed reflection in their surfaces.