10 November 2008


I've moved this blog over to cliveandrews.com, so if you'd like to read or comment on anything, that's the place to go. All this content is there too.

10 September 2008

Doing the DO - A weekend with howies - PART 1

I've just returned from an amazing four days as the guest of howies for the inaugural DO Lectures.

howies is a clothing company who try to be a little bit different, a little bit thoughtful and to do the right thing whenever they can. They 'tax' themselves 1% of their annual turnover in order to do good stuff. And this year, they decided their 'Earth Tax' would best be spent hosting a series of lectures where inspirational people got to talk to an invited audience of folks in need of inspiration. Places were limited and applications were by handwritten letter only.

And so it was that a hastily scrawled note gave me a great way to end my planned cycling holiday in South West Wales. The DO Lectures 08 were held near Cardigan at fforest, a kind of luxury campsite with comfy tents, a beautiful setting and great organic food.

The DO speakers varied from philosophers to beekeepers, climbers and surfers to activists and architects. There was tremendous diversity in the range of subjects, but a common thread of inspiration that was clear in everyone we heard and spoke to.

The DO Lectures website has information on all the speakers, along with books and websites personally recommended by each of them. Videos of each lecture will soon be avaiable on the site.

There is also a DO Lectures Flickr group and a DO Lectures Facebook group.

Here's a quick summary of the folks we heard on days 1 and 2 of the four-day event, together with some of my thoughts.

I'll add notes from the third and fourth days soon.

Ken Yeang - Architect
"We can't have 100% comfortable eco-architecture. We need to change our expectations of comfort."
Ken is an architect specialising in buildings that attempt to re-connect the built environment with the natural environment upon which it sits.
He showed us highlights from his career, with a specialism in tall office buildings and complex urban schemes.

Ken's approach was characterised by the use of vegetation to connect buildings with their landscape. This extended not only planting on roofs and landbridges, but by placing greenery on the vertical areas and in interior 'skycourts' to visibly blur the boundaries of what he called the grey infrastructure, the green infrastructure and 'the red infrastructure' (humans).

We also heard about Ken's thoughts on the subjects more conventionally associated with the term 'green architecture': issues of ventilation, lighting and efficiency. He made it clear that these mechanisms should always be employed intelligently, but that their capabilities would never match those of fully mechanical systems. If we are to achieve a less energy-intensive environment, we need to make some sacrifices with our expectations of comfort.

Listening to Ken's lecture took me back to university days, as architecture grapples with engineering, creativity and sociology all in one go. The complexity of Ken's work was clear to us all. I found myself thinking about the additional resources needed to maintain the growth of vegetation planted on the walls of a skyscraper, and queried whether this was a responsible use of energy, fertiliser and human time. Ken acknowleged the concern but reminded me that there is a trade-off between the resources needed in order to build this way and the beneficial effects of integrating more fully with our landscape. He cited studies which have shown that recovery times in hospitals can be improved when patients' windows are fringed with trees and plants. Benefits such as this, he pointed out, make it all worthwhile.

More about Ken Yeang

Michael Braungart - Chemist
"Forget eco-efficiency. Go for eco-effectiveness."
Micheal Braungart applies his rational, scientific thinking to our way of living and points out the contradictions we accept. He suggests possible solutions to the crises we face, as well as some we didn't even notice.

He began by observing, through measured examples, the amount of toxic chemicals we allow into our lives. Clothing, luggage, furnishings, toys and foods were all pointed out to be havens for substances harmful to our health and that of our planet.

He then looked at some of the assumptions we make when we consider these issues, and proposed that our thinking is drastically flawed.

For example, Michael raised the issue of overpopulation. Are there too many of us on the planet, or are we just looking after each other badly? Apparently, the world's population of ants occupies four times more mass on Earth than do humans, yet we don't consider them to overpopulated. "Are we too many, or too stupid?" asked Michael.

Our approach to energy consumption was next in Michael's thinking. He challenged the consensus that decides we consume too much energy and that we must reduce our consumption. It is not the energy we need to re-allocate, he argued, but the materials we consume in our pursuit of energy. We consume coal, oil and uranium, and it becomes carbon dioxide, radioactive waste and other substances. The energy is not the real issue.

Michael extended this thinking to the manufacturing process, and our consumption of materials. He challenged the conventions of recycling, pointing out that we are rarely truely recovering the full benefit of the material when it progresses to its next use.

Interestingly, Michaul Braungart spoke in terms of 'technical nutrients', encouraging us to think of polythene, steel and carbon fibre as substances which can nourish our lives before they assume a different role and serve a different purpose. Incineration or landfill are ways of consigning these nutrients to the dustbin, rather than finding ways to 'Upcycle' them into their next use.

He did not blame us, as consumers, for the waste in our society. All we want, he noted, is to have clean clothes, comfortable feet, or effective communication. Yet when we buy washine machines, shoes or telephones, we are also buying bundles of materials and chemicals that are of no interest to us. We should buy the service, not the product, he proposed. Let's buy televisions by the hour, or computers by the year. Establishing realistic lifespans for products would help us to manage their disassembly and upcycling.

The were so many other nuggets of fresh thinking in Michael Braungart's DO lecture that I instantly decided I would be buying his book. Its title, Cradle to Cradle, is the term he has coined to represent his way of thinking. It was really challenging to have so much established wisdom (overpopulation, recycling, energy, even breastfeeding) examined and queried. Michael Braungart's ideas were not always easy to listen to, but were certainly worth the time spent reconsidering conventional wisdom.

More about Michael Braungart

Yun Hider - Wild food forager
"Calling them weeds does huge disrespect to them. They are very tasty plants."
Yun Hider makes his living by foraging - by finding and picking edible plants, leaves and flowers. He gave us an entertaining whistle-stop tour of the species we may want to find next time we're feeling peckish. There were even samples to try, and an optional workshop that ventured out into the woods. His enthusiasm and knowledge of his subject was evident, and I feel inspired to look at forest vegetation in a new light, though I may still steer clear of that wild roquette I've seen growing by the side of the south circular...

More about Yun Hider

Trevor Baylis - Inventor
"The most important thing is to find the thing you love doing and to keep doing it."
Trevor Baylis is most famed for his invention of the wind-up radio, and was arguably the most popularly known of all the DOers. He gave us a highly entertaining summary of his career, from competitive schoolboy swimmer, to his national service, his time as a stuntman, escape artist and then engineer.

Though his wind-up inventions are the most successful part of his history, he showed us some of the other items in his CV. An easily-constructed swimming pool for schools and a modular system of aids for physically disabled people gave a clue that Trevor's motivation has always been to solve problems - not to invent things for their own sake, but to make things easy or more affordable. His feted wind-up radio came about through a realisation of the need for rural Africans to have access to health information without a reliance on scarce expensive batteries.

Trevor Baylis's Do Lecture was highly entertaining and full of amusing anectodes. However, every so often, Trevor would show his anger and frustration as to how difficult it has been for him, and for other inventors, to get their ideas taken seriously. He showed us countless letters of rejection from funding bodies, investors and government agencies. Particulair disdain was reserved for the Design Council. "Bastards."

The messages were clear:

As a society, we need to take inventors seriously. We need to encourage and welcome inventions from everyone, including the young and the female - two groups Trevor believes have been historically overlooked in this field.

And as individuals we need to display determination in getting our ideas taken seriously. If we believe in something, Trevor insisted we must persevere, even when we're told our ideas unfeasible or impractical.

More about Trevor Baylis

John Grant - Marketer
"If you sell your product as green, people will try to find fault. If you have a good product, sell it as one."
John Grant didn't deliver a DO Lecture. In his place, two glove puppets, a sheep named Love and a wolf named Greed, played out a series of conversations illustrating real-life examples of the difficulties that arise within social enterprises. We witnessed, though the voices of Greed and Love, the challenges that arise when entrepreneurship comes together with the desire to operate an ethical business or enterprise.

Love (the sheep) found herself partnering with Greed (the wolf) in order to bring business skills to her social enterprise. We heard them ponder various quandaries as they found themselves motivated by different aspects of working together.

It seemed that for several people in the audience, the puppet show struck a chord. People already involved in social enterprise seemed to relate very strongly to the ideas John was illustrating with his furry friends.

More about John Grant

Guy Watson - Farmer
"Pandering to customers and offering choice can be a barrier to doing things responsibly."
Guy Watson told us the story of his organic vegetable delivery company, Riverford Organic. He explained how, having grown up on a farm, and gone on to be a high-flying businessman in the 1980s, he returned to the UK to his farming roots, going on to establish a highly successful co-operative between Devon farmers, producing fruit and vegetables which are distributed nationally via franchisees.

It was clear that Guy is an ambitious businessman who balances his commercial progress with a desire to operate in an evironmentally sound way. He acknowledged that there have been many challenges and difficult decisions, and spoke of studies he's conducted to calculate which part of the growing and delivery process is most responsible for CO2 emissions.

His tip for the audience? "If you're getting into any business venture with anyone, ask them where they want to be in 10 years."

More about Guy Watson

Andrew Whitley - Baker
"There is something in the making and sharing of bread that counters the negative trends in our society"
Andrew Whitley's lecture concerned the state of bread as purchased in the high streets of the UK.
He is a professional baker, having set up his own bakery several years ago in a small Cumbria village. Andrew explained to us how, in the interests of economy and industrialisation, much of the goodness of wheat has been removed, and many additional ingredients added.

After a technical analysis of bread's various ingredients, he then spoke about how bread has historically played an important role in our society, providing nourishment and requiring time and patience.

Andrew proposed that if we stop demanding fast, cheap bread, and return to an emphasis on quality, the benefits will be great for not only our health, but for society in general.

Andrew Whitley is a great advocate of baking one's own bread, and he held a breadmaking workshop the following day, the rsults of which were shared at mealtimes and were very tasty.

More about Andrew Whitley

Further notes from the third and fourth days of the DO Lectures will follow soon...

14 July 2008

An Easy Guide to Buying a Bike

It’s summertime. So, of course, it’s the time of year when everyone rummages in the shed, finds their bike lying unloved and rusty where it was deposited after a wet ride last year, and decides to treat themselves to a new machine. It’s not surprising that bike shops do their best business during these warm sunny months.

It’s also the time of year when I get most emails, texts and phone calls from friends looking for a few tips on what kind of bike should be their next purchase.

I don’t mind helping friends with bike questions at all. In fact, I love it - there's nothing quite like the simple pleasure of spending someone else's money in a bike shop. But, in recognition of the fact I repeat the same advice to numerous people, I thought I should summarise the key points somewhere online.

So here, carefully distilled, are some of the nuggets of wisdom I most frequently suggest. Some are the answers to questions that often appear in my inbox, on my phone or across a pub table, while others, frankly, are just well-intentioned rants I feel the need to pass on to any friend who will listen.

Of course, not all my friends are bike beginners – many are far more knowledgeable than me. So bikers, feel free to criticise and add to what follows. And the rest of you, I hope this stuff comes in handy when you step into the bike shop.

Here goes…

1. It doesn’t matter which make you buy.
More than any other question I get asked, the most frequent is “What’s a good make?”. But it’s also the question that matters least. There are many good bikes out there, made by many companies. And to be honest, as long as you have a realistic budget, and you don’t go for inappropriate gimmicks, it’s very hard to buy a bad bike. Unless you go for the wrong size.

2. It does matter where you buy.
So much more important than the brand you buy is the shop you buy from. Ask where friends bought their bikes. Shop around. Which bike retailer seems to be the most genuine? Who seems to ask the right questions about you and your riding? Who would you feel comfortable coming back to with a problem or a query? See if anyone is willing to throw in a few extras (helmet, lights, a lock, maybe) but don’t be greedy – a saving of £25 on accessories is arguably not as valuable as the reassurance of buying from a local shop you like and trust.

2. Choose your weapon.
The make may not matter, but the type of bike certainly does. Be realistic about your needs. Fast and speedy road bike? Versatile street/hybrid machine? Or rufty tufty mountain bike? If in doubt about what you’ll be doing, veer toward the off-road end of the spectrum. It’s easier to adapt a mountain bike later to make it speedier on the road than it is to convert a road bike for off-road duties.

3. Don’t be afraid to spend a bit of money.
A few times, friends with a fair bit of money in their back pockets have asked for my opinions on new bikes costing under £150. For a new bike, £150 is really not much money to spend at all. In fact, the quality is likely to be so low that they would be put off cycling for life. If you’re looking to buy a bike on a budget, then consider the fact that at that level, an extra £50 or £100 can make a world of difference. Upwards of around £300, bikes start to become the kind of machine you can ride on a regular basis with some feeling of enjoyment. If this seems a lot, check out secondhand options.

4. Don’t forget secondhand options.
If you’re struggling to afford a decent new machine, then yes, there is always the secondhand market. For the price of a brand new pile of shiny creaking scaffolding poles, you can find a perfectly good pre-owned bike. The usual warnings apply as with anything bought secondhand, especially via the internet. If you find a bargain, be sure that the bike you’re buying is the right fit and size for you. The only way to be sure is to visit the seller for a test ride. The best bike in the world fails to be so if you can’t ride it comfortably.

Ask about the history of the bike, and ask to see receipts. If you suspect a bike to be stolen, the honourable thing to do is to walk away. Bike thieves are a certain special kind of scum. Their customers are not much better.

5. Getting the right size is the most important thing of all
Use this three-step guide to getting the right size:

i) Goolie clearance – first check you can stand over the bike with room to spare. You’ll need a few inches for off-roading, If it’s too close for comfort, try a smaller size.

ii) Seat height – Next, adjust the seat to the correct height (see 6). If you can’t get it high enough without exposing the ‘Max insert’ mark on the seatpost, try a larger size.

ii) Reach – arguably the most important thing to check. When you’ve sorted the seat height and you’re sat on the bike in riding position, do you feel comfortable? Does your weight feel nicely balanced between your hands and your bum? If you feel too huddled, try a larger size. If you feel too stretched, try a smaller size. But bear in mind, if you’re checking out a sportier bike than you’re used to, a bit of stretch might be part of the bike’s design. Go for a test ride to settle in.

The main rule of bike sizing: Ignore the nominal size classifications the manufacturers use. On one brand of bike, you may measure up as a 19”, as opposed to their alternatives of 17” or 21”. On another make, you may feel comfortable with an 18”. Some bikes have abandoned this way of sizing in favour of the S,M,L,XL system. Whatever bike you’re looking at, size up each different model from scratch, assuming that one marque’s idea of a ‘Large’ or a ‘17”’ is very different to another’s. It invariably is.

6. Correct seat height might be higher than you think.
Forget what you learned at school all those years ago about being able to touch the floor with both feet. If you use this as a guide to seat height, you’ll be nursing very sore thighs and bulging knees after a couple of miles. For most riding, the best seat position is one where, with the pedal at its lowest position and your heel on the pedal, you have the very tiniest amount of bend on your knee – virtually straight. If you feel more confident with the saddle an inch or two lower, especially off-road, then that’s fine, but you will lose some pedalling comfort. You should never ride with the seat too high – if you’re rocking your hips or you can feel your legs stretching to reach, lower your saddle immediately.

7. Handlebar height – Don’t worry, be happy.
Your handlebar height is rarely very adjustable. But that’s OK – it doesn’t need to be. If you’re feeling strange about the fact that you can’t lift your bars to a height that matches your saddle, then don’t be alarmed – it’s quite normal for your bars to be lower than your seat. A proportion of your weight should be borne by your hands – not just your saddle. Don’t think of handlebars merely as some kind of steering accessory.

8. Test Ride, every time.
Don’t ever consider buying a bike without a test ride. Whether you’re going for new or secondhand, you can never tell if a bike is right just buy sitting astride it. Any decent shop (or reasonable secondhand seller) will accept some kind of security (credit card, cash sum or small child) as deposit while you go for a spin. When you test ride, try to pick a route with climbs, descents and corners that will give you a reasonable impression of the bike’s fit and comfort. If it ain’t comfy, don’t buy it.

9. You don’t need suspension.
Suspension is fairly new on the scene. Just a few short years ago, it was seen as an expensive novelty. Don’t assume that just because your riding may take you over a few bumps, suspension is vital. Most decent mountain bikes costing anything over a couple of hundred quid will have front suspension. This is no bad thing, and helps to make the ride smoother and more comfortable. But unless you’re spending an amount approaching £1000, I would think twice before you opt for rear (or ‘full’) suspension. On sophisticated bikes, rear suspension is great. On cheaper models, it’s a heavy waste of money that detracts from the quality of the rest of the bike.

10. Helmets are optional, but recommended.
It’s not compulsory to wear a helmet. If the idea of wearing a helmet is putting you off riding a bike, then fine – get a bike, ride helmet-less and enjoy yourself. But think about it. A helmet costs £25. And it gives you an 80% better chance of surviving a head impact. I wear one, and I’d recommend all my friends to do the same. And if you’re going to wear one, take a few minutes to adjust the straps for a proper fit. There’s nothing quite as useless as a helmet perched on the back of your head with the straps swinging down like a hammock.

11. Don’t fear the gears.
Most bikes these days will have between 14 and 27 gears. But it’s not the quantity that counts – it’s how you use them. Don’t assume that the higher the gear, the faster you will go. Get used to spinning your legs in nice fast even circles – each revolution taking much less than a second. Then adjust the gears to suit your legs – not the other way round. If you’re pedalling with a discernable left-right-left-right feeling, or you can feel yourself rocking from side to side, you’re very likely to be in the wrong gear – change down and be kind to your knees! If your bike has gear shifters on both sides of the handlebars, and you find yourself confused, then go easy on yourself. Leave the left-hand shifter in ‘2’ and do all your changing with your right hand, with continuous pedalling that eases for a stroke or so after each shift to allow the gears a chance to change.

12. Use your balls.
Pedal using the balls of your feet: the widest part. Try not to pedal with your heels or the centre of your feet. If you’re wearing high heels and you find that the pedals naturally seem to fit at the back of your foot, then don’t wear high heels.

13. Women’s bikes.
Historically, manufacturers who offer ‘women’s bikes’ have been supplying traditionally-shaped frames with dropped crossbars – handy for riding wearing a dress or long skirt. Like you do.

Serious female cyclists would avoid these anachronisms in favour of a standard, or ‘gents’ model. But things have changed. Most of the major bike brands now offer women’s bikes that look at first glance like regular machines. The difference is in the detail. These bikes will typically be shorter, to accommodate smaller arms. They’ll often include other details like smaller brake levers, shorter cranks, women’s saddles and softer suspension. Check them out – they’re often worth a look. But don’t assume that a women’s model will necessarily fit you just because you’re female. Test ride standard bikes alongside these women’s versions and go with whichever feels most comfortable. Try not to be swayed by the pink flowery designs that often decorate these girlie bikes.

14. Disc brakes - Good or gimmicky?
As with suspension, disc brakes are a feature which has made mountain biking more comfortable for many people. Discs are more powerful than other braking options, which means you’ll need less effort to achieve the same braking effect, so no more tired fingers after long descents. Other benefits include longer maintenance-free running time between services, an easier ride home following a wheel-wobble-inducing incident, and more life from your wheel rims, as discs don’t grind away at your wheels like conventional brakes do.
But, just like suspension, all these benefits come at a price. Cheap bikes with disc brakes will often be sporting the worst examples of this technology, with more weight, poorer durability and worse performance than rim brakes on an equivalently priced bike. If you’re looking at a disc-equipped bike for less than around £500, check out the V-braked equivalents. You could be in for a surprise.

So there we go. My 14 commandments. Can anyone think of anything I've missed?

07 May 2008

It’s Early May and History is Repeating Itself

Since 1999, the first weekend in May has always been the cue for a kind of nervous excitement for me. During the years I worked overseas for Neilson, this time of year was generally the time when, after several weeks of preparation, our first customers of the summer would arrive and we would swap our hammers and paintbrushes for uniforms, clipboards and big grins as we began our real task of biking, windsurfing and sailing with our guests.

My last summer season overseas was in 2002, but since then, working in the Neilson office, I’ve still been party to the genuine excitement of the annual Official Start of Summer.

This year is different. Time for a change. For nearly nine years I worked for Neilson as a mountain bike guide, as a centre manager, as a product executive and latterly as their online editor. But I decided to move on.

It would be the most enormous understatement to say I will look back on my Neilson years with fondness. My first summer, in 1999, fresh from a Liverpool bike shop, was a magical experience. I simply couldn’t believe that I was being paid to live in the Turkish sunshine introducing people to mountain biking and taking them on pleasant rides along breezy coastlines and pine forests. The customers were great – my colleagues were even better.

Gundogan 1999 was followed by Finikounda 2000. Fini, as anyone who’s been will confirm, is the most magical Greek village. The Fini team of 2000 became a bunch of friends who, I think, showed the customers as good a time as they were having themselves. Some of my friends from summer 2000 remain my closest pals today, and I suspect they always will be.

A brief taste of ski chalet hosting in the winter helped to prepare me for my first summer as a manager – in the legendary mountains of Chamonix in the French Alps. Accompanied by a pair of accomplished chalet hosts, we welcomed people for weeks of mountain biking and other fun in one of the most amazing locations I have ever spent time.

Then followed a winter in the Caribbean on the island of Grenada, as a bike guide once more. I’ll never forget Christmas Day 2001: a ride through the rainforest villages before a relaxed lunch on a golden beach with blue surf rolling in.

Then in 2002 I returned to Finikounda, this time as centre manager. A few new challenges, but the same laid-back Fini, same great biking and the same kind of up-for-it guests that made this work such a pleasure.

Even after I began my five year stint in Neilson’s Brighton office, early May would still bring a rush of excitement as colleagues in the Mediterranean would open their doors for the summer.
But this year, for the first time in nearly a decade, I’m no longer seeing May from a Neilson viewpoint. I’m now working for CTC – a cycling organisation. And my first task is to oversee the setting up of a cycling project for the disabled. I feels good to be working once again with people and with bikes.

So, on the first Monday in May, I find myself, after weeks of preparation, excitedly opening up a shed full of bikes, pulling on a brand new uniform shirt and cycling with beginners in a sunny forest. Just like I was nine years ago.

And as I write this, I know another beautiful day is beginning on a wonderful beach somewhere in southern Greece…

25 March 2008

Blame it on the Twitter

I’m about to do what I never thought I would do.

I have been an infrequent blogger over the last couple of years, writing irregularly and infrequently, sometimes for work and sometimes for fun. I have always harboured a dislike for blog posts which begin “Oh my dear readers, I am so so sorry for not having written more recently, but I’ve been so busy, etc. etc.” Who cares? If you have something to say, then say it. If you don’t, well fine – there really is no need apologise. There is plenty of other stuff out there to read.

But with several weeks since I last enjoyed the selfish buzz of expanding some thought or other on my blog, I have found a need to look at why I’ve not been writing as much recently. And I haven’t had to look very far.

The culprit? Twitter.

If you’ve not seen it or played with it, Twitter is one of the best toys on the internet, largely down to its sheer simplicity. In summary, imagine a text message, or a similar 140 character outburst, in response to the question “What are you doing?” Your answer, via web or text, gets distributed to anyone who has decided to ‘follow’ you. Correspondingly, you receive, through your gadget of choice, a series of so-called ‘tweets’ - the thoughts of your friends as a string of short messages scrolling through your awareness.

'Microblogging' is one term that's been coined to describe what Twitter does. 'Ambient intimacy' were the words used by one of my friends to more accurately describe Twitter’s gift to the internet. With so many grown-up tasks occupying a day, it’s comforting to be exposed to the ups, downs and emotions of others you know. “Sitting on the beach watching seagulls”, “In need of a cup of tea and a coconut macaroon”, “Off to a meeting to learn more about a new project” or simply “Having a bad day” all represent the stuff of tweets.

When you’re feeling unmotivated, it can be great to receive a humorous tweet from someone having a better day. And when you’re on top form, it’s nice to share that with others, through the simple investment of 30 seconds of thumb-time.

Pre-Twitter, each time I had a thought, it would linger in my mind for a day or two before either fading away or providing the seed for a blog post. Now, I have no reason to wait – I just grab my phone and in the time it takes me to produce a text message, that thought is on the internet. It is on the screens of my followers, it is on sidebar of my blog and it is even fed directly into the status update on my wretched Facebook account. The current feed-based nature of the web helps content to spread quicker than ever before in a very focused way. This is both a strength and a weakness of my current fondness for Twitter. Great as it is for thoughts to just fly from one’s conciousness onto the internet, I sometimes wonder if something gets lost in the haste to tweet. Would an idea, more thoughtfully considered, become a more informed bit of writing if allowed to grow? Equally, would it be consigned to the bin where it may arguably belong?

To get the very best out of Twitter, you need the right equipment, set up the right way. That’s not to say it’s difficult to do, however. When I first dipped my toe into the world of Twitter, I was strictly a web-based tweeter. A look every so often at my Twitter homepage would show the thoughts and emotions of everyone on my list.

But taking the simple step of setting up Twitter on my phone has really started to show me what this is all about. As I grumpily wait for a train, I receive a tweet from someone recommending a new pub or reveling in a new recipe. Moreover, tweets often contain links to recommended places on the internet. This is where the benefits come in having a current web-enabled phone rather than the antique rubber Nokia with which I struggle along (to be fair, I am long overdue a phone upgrade, but I am equally put off by the dual prospects of either half an hour haggling with a call centre or being talked at in the flesh by an 18 year old with an excessively wide tie and a glut of product in his hair). My next phone will enable me to fully engage with this fun, following links and joining in as quickly as this stuff flows around the web.

Grand Hotel, Brighton
So who uses Twitter? Well, as a newcomer myself, I can’t pretend to give an accurate picture, but I think it’s fair to say that it is largely the toy of those working in marketing, web stuff and ‘new media’ (I still dislike that term...). A quick look through my short list of followees reveals that I was drawn into this gentle addiction by a bunch focused largely around Brighton’s web marketing scene, chiefly at Nixon McInnes, an agency with whom I worked during my time as Neilson’s webmonkey.

I feel slightly as if I have gatecrashed a party. A party where everyone is discussing films, food, hangovers and other banter alongside their favourite database languages and jokes about obsolete code. But geeky though it may be, this is a party attended by warm, amusing folks who are very welcoming to an outsider such as me.

It’s nice to be party to the thoughts of this genuinely entertaining crowd, but if I’m honest, I wish Twitter would pick up a little more with the rest of the world; the rest of my world, at least. It would be great to trade moments of wisdom with fellow mountain bikers, to knock about ideas for a night out with my usual bunch of drinking buddies, or to keep up-to-date with the thoughts and work of the amateur photographers I have got to know through Flickr. To be fair, many of these folks must be using Twitter – maybe I just need to do a better job of finding them. Or persuading them.

Look at Facebook. A year or so ago this was a niche site with a word-of-mouth appeal. Then word got around and it’s now ubiquitous – some would say regrettably so. The genius of Twitter is that it is simpler, more adaptable and less of a chore to engage with. In fact, since I linked my Twitter account to my Facebook profile, I rarely bother to sign on to Facebook, happy in the knowledge that friends can follow my rambling momentary thoughts without me having to dodge the flying hordes of custard pies, vampires and other detritus which litter the site.

So there is my confession of the new love in my life – Twitter. But I realize that for all the benefits of this instant banter tool, I miss the enjoyment of knocking around a thought with a little more consideration, a little more editing and a little more time. So I'm back on the blog. After all, why say in 140 characters what you can say in 6,594?

09 January 2008

Double 700C and Tonic

Just before Christmas, I found myself joining the staff of a bike shop for a Christmas night out. We started in a pub before moving on to a Chinese restaurant.

Early in the evening, the boss returned from the bar with a substantial round of drinks, and we started discussing the considerable mark-up placed on drinks by the licensed trade.

Tubes and Drinks
Later in the night, we somehow got onto the subject of how we could hardly judge - seeing bike shops have their own equivalent profit-maker: inner tubes.

Inner Tubes.


What followed was a boozy conversation which, though it seemed like a good idea at the time, is admittedly one of the geekiest in which I have ever played an active part. For some reason that I can't explain, it seemed a natural process to find an appropriate drink to match each of the inner tubes for sale in a bike shop.

I present below our reasoned findings, transcribed from the paper napkin upon which they were noted. Make of them what you will.

Inner Tube Drink
700 x 38C Schraeder White Wine
700 x 35C Presta Real Ale
20 x 2 Schraeder Vodka Red Bull
700 x 21C Presta Mineral Water
27 x 1 3/8 Tubular Red Wine
26 x 2 Schraeder Carling
26 x 2 Presta Becks
20 x 1 3/8 Schraeder
Vodka and Tonic
16 x 1 3/8 Schraeder
Tanqueray Gin and Tonic
29 x 2.2 Presta Single Malt Whisky
700C Cyclocross Tubular Sloe Gin
24 x 2.5 Schraeder Strongbow Cider
26 x 3 Schraeder Stella Artois Lager

07 January 2008

Cycling Meets Agriculture Down on the Allotment

A couple of days after Christmas Mel and I found ourselves in the beautiful city of Bath. We spent a lazy day wandering round shopping, drinking coffee and taking in the atmosphere. I was keen to see the beautiful Royal Crescent, so on our way back to the car park we detoured through Victoria Park before we chanced upon a sizable area of allotments, where Bath's keen smallholders were cultivating their fruit and veg.

Melody loves her allotment, and the idea of snooping around other people's always excites her, so we climbed over the gate and began nosing around the cabbages and leeks. We were about to leave the allotments and resume our search for the car, when I spotted what looked like a bike, but with its front end attached to some kind of archaic mechanism.


This bike had been adapted into a pedal-powered sieve, presumably to rid the local soil of stones and lumps. A chain lead forward from the pedals and was connected to a large mesh drum, which was then intended to rotate, shaking the soil contents so that fine earth falls through and rocks are retained. It was sadly not functional, else I would certainly have hopped aboard and taken it for a cheeky spin.

I've always known that bikes have the ability to solve many of the world's problems. But I never knew that lumpy soil was one of them.