Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lettre à la RATP/Letter to the RATP

En français : 

(English translation below)

Cher RATP,

J'imagine qu'un agent RATP pensait qu'il serait une idée sympa d'ajouter de la musique aux annonces de nom de station, sur la ligne de tramway T3. Bien que j'applaudis cette initiative de tenter de rendre le système des transports en commun à Paris une expérience plus agréable, permettez-moi de vous expliquer pourquoi cette initiative en particulier est un échec.

Prendre les transports en commun à Paris est une expérience tellement désagréable, que je fais de mon mieux pour l'éviter autant que possible. Dans la mesure du possible, je préfère marcher, courir, ou prendre mon vélo, pour aller à ma destination. Lorsqu'il pleut, je suis contrainte de choisir entre me faire tremper à vélo, ou prendre le tramway. Ces jours-là, je monte dans le train avec les autres Parisiens. Plus de places assises, des poussettes multiples, des visages fermés (que l'on comprend aisément), des pickpockets et voleurs (je me suis effectivement fait piquer mon téléphone sur la T3) sont les joies que j'anticipe ces jours-là. Jusqu'à dernièrement, j'arrivais à me réconforter (me mettre sous calmants, si vous préférez) en écoutant mes chansons préférées sur mon baladeur mp3. Les voix apaisantes des mes chanteurs favoris m’emmenaient dans un autre monde, où je pouvais temporairement oublier les déficiences hygiéniques de mes co-voyageurs. J'observe qu'une grande majorité de passagers a également opté pour cette thérapie, des écouteurs étant présents dans la plupart des oreilles.

Cependant, ce matin, ma rêverie musicale a été brutalement interrompue par la musique beuglante sur les haut-parleurs du train, pendant les annonces des noms des stations. La cacophonie de ce son de mauvaise qualité, mélangé avec ma propre musique, me donne envie de sortir du train, me tourner vers le ciel, lâcher un hurlement perçant, et commencer à courir comme Forrest Gump, me distançant du tramway, du métro, de la tour Eiffel, et du reste de Paris, voyageant vers la campagne, les annonces cacophoniques devenant une mémoire distante et vague.

Alors, s'il vous plaît, ne mettez pas de la musique sur les haut-parleurs pendant les annonces. Une simple voix lisant le nom de la station est parfaite.

Merci de votre temps.

In English:

Dear RATP,

I imagine that an RATP staff member thought it would be a nice idea to include music along with the station announcements, on the tramway line T3.  While I applaud the effort in attempting to make the public transportation system in Paris a more pleasant experience, please allow me to explain why this particular attempt has failed.

Riding the metro and tramway lines in Paris is such an unpleasant experience, that I attempt to avoid this whenever possible.  I prefer to walk, run, or bike whenever possible, to get where I need to go.  On rainy days, I have the unfortunate choice of being soaked on my bicycle, or taking the tramway.  On these days, I enter crowded trains with the rest of Parisiens.  Standing room only, multiple strollers, understandably unsmiling faces of other passengers, pickpockets and thieves (I did have my phone stolen on the T3) are what I look forward to on these days.  Up until recently, I was able to console (sedate, if you will) myself, by listening to my favorite tunes on my mp3 player.  The soothing voices of my favorite singers take me to another place, where I can temporarily forget the hygienic deficiencies of my travelling neighbors.   My observation is that a large majority of passengers have opted for this form of transportation therapy, as headphones and earbuds are present in the ears of most passengers I see.

On a few recent occasions such as this morning, my musical reverie has been abruptly interrupted with the blaring music on the loudspeakers in the train, during the station announcements.  The cacophony of this poor quality sound mixing with my own music makes me want to exit the train, open my mouth to the sky, release a piercing scream, and start running like Forrest Gump, leaving the tramway, the metro, the Eiffel Tower, and the rest of Paris behind me, as I journey to the countryside, the cacophonous station announcements becoming but a vague and distant memory.

So please, do not play music on the speakers during the station announcements.  A simple voice reading the station name is perfect.

Thank you for your time.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bend over or just pay a tax?

This week the Supreme Court gave its ruling on Obamacare.  My main interest is in learning how the court was able to justify the individual mandate, and what implications this could have for future regulations in our private lives.


Since unversal health care in the United States seems to be as polarizing an issue as abortion or religion, and people may get carried away with hyperbole (the present author unexcepted) and ad hominem arguments when discussing it, before continuing this article, please do the following to get this negative energy out of your system:

Step 1
Select one of the insulting terms below which best identifies a group of people or ideology with which you disagree.  I do recognize that depending on your point of view, some of these terms may not be insults.

  • social darwinist
  • commie
  • capitalist pig
  • socialist pig
  • bleeding heart liberal
  • extreme fundamentalist religious zealot
  • extreme left environmentalist hippie
  • pot-smoking anarcho-libertarian
  • greedy 1%
  • entitlement-mentality occupiers
  • welfare-state leeches
  • illegals

Step 2
Go to your window and open it.

Step 3
Stick your head out the window.

Step 4
Now scream, at the top of your lungs:
"Fuck you, you motherfucking <insert term from step 1>!!!"

Step 4a
If you are particularly sensitive to profanity, politely, yet firmly, state the following instead:
"You gosh darn <insert term from step 1> are really not too nice."

There, now do you feel better?  Good.

(You don't feel better?  Perhaps at least one of your neighbors doesn't feel too good either, after feeling targeted by your attack.  Maybe you should think twice next time before following instructions from a random blog.)

Is Obamacare good?

As I said, I'm really just interested at this point in the implications of the court's decisions, not the general idea of universal health care, or whether Obamacare is good or not (aside from the Constitutional questions).

But, but, but, you just have to tell me:

All the civilized/developed/first world/spiffy/<insert positive adjective here> countries have universal health care. The USA is a joke without it.

Your argument is invalid.

All the cool kids have Nike shoes, so I should have some too!

With a lack of originality: if the cool kids jumped off the empire state building, would you too?

With a bit of realism: All the civilized/developed/first world/spiffy/<insert positive adjective here> countries are going deeper and deeper into debt each year.  The USA would be a joke if it didn't go into debt too.   Whew, at least we're not a joke in that department.

Seriously, the simple fact that other countries (or people for that matter) do or do not do something does not alone give merit to that something.

Is Obamacare the only solution for bringing down health care costs?  I doubt it.   Other alternatives could be tried, but haven't.

In his book "The ten things you can't say in America", Larry Elder states that one of these taboo statements is "There is no health-care 'crisis'."  The book is about 10 years old, but it does outline some ideas which I don't believe the USA tried before jumping into Obamacare:

  • Have more doctors.  "It seems that the American Medical Association, with the support of overzealous state lawmakers, have artificially and intentionally limited the number of doctors produced by medical schools. For every med school applicant who gets in, many qualified applicants get turned down."  He also mentions that there are about twice as many lawyers as doctors.  It only seems natural that with more doctors, the price of medical treatment would come down.
  • Doctors should do the hard stuff. Allow nurses and physician assistants to do things like "fix broken bones, prescribe drugs, conduct annual check-ups -- all at a much lower cost".  
Other ways to reduce health care costs are (not my ideas, just do some research to find more):
  • Ability to purchase insurance across state lines
  • Tort reform.

I won't go into detail on all the possible alternatives to bring down the cost of health care without an individual mandate.

I also won't deny that an individual mandate is the most obvious (as in, the first thing that comes to one's mind, but not necessarily the most effective) solution for bringing down the costs.

But alas, the point of this blog was to discuss the implications of the Court's justification for the individual mandate.

The Supreme Court's decision

I did not read the 193 pages of the decision in its entirety, just as I have not read the 2400+ pages (!!!!!) of the law itself.  However, I did read sections II and III, which describe why the court was even able to review the case, why the law did not pass under the Commerce Clause, and why it passed under Congress' authority to tax (pages 11-45)

The US Constitution 101: The constitution lists specific powers that the federal government has.  The 10th amendment states that any powers not specifically delegated to the United States (the federal government) in the Constitution are reserved to the states or the people.

Since the Constitution does not explicitly grant the federal government the specific power to require citizens to purchase health insurance, we must dig into the Constitution to see if one of the clauses there can be interpreted as granting this power.

The two main arguments presented to the Supreme Court to justify the individual mandate as constitutional were the "Commerce clause" and the "power to impose taxes".

The Commerce Clause: Nice try, but not this time

Reading through the decision, I was pleased with the arguments laid out against the justification via the Commerce Clause, given the crazy ways this power has been stretched in the past.

The commerce clause has a really interesting history.  The actual clause is as follows:
The congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.

This literally means that Congress can pass laws to regulate buying and selling with other countries or across state lines.

Crazy Commerce Clause Cases

This clause has been very widely interpreted in some cases in ways that make you wonder what the Supreme Court justices were smoking, and if they could share some of it with you.  Here are my favorites (no doubtedly the most well-known cases):

Wickard vs Filburn (1942).  All your wheat are belong to us. 
Congress passed a law limiting the amount of wheat farmers could grow, in an attempt to stabilize the prices of wheat.  Farmer Filburn decided to grow a separate patch of wheat just for his own private consumption.   The Feds ordered him to destroy his wheat and pay a fine, for having surpassed the quota.  Farmer Filburn naturally thought, "WTF, this is my own fucking wheat, that only I'm going to use.  I'm not even planning to sell it to anybody.  So you can take your interstate commerce clause and shove it!".  The Supreme Court, however, decided that by not buying wheat, he was potentially impacting interstate commerce.  If he didn't have his own wheat, he might potentially be inclined to buy wheat from another state.  Therefore, his personal wheat patch impacted interstate commerce.


Daniel vs Paul (1969).  What's in those snacks anyway? 
Congress passed the Civil Rights act in 1964.  Despite this law, in the 60s, many people and businesses still did not like blacks. (Thank goodness we have no more racism today!).  In this case, a particular recreational facility (with swimming, boating, dancing, and snacks - the snacks are very important), Lake Nixon Club, didn't want to serve blacks.  The club argued that it was a private facility which did not do business with residents of any other states, so the federal government did not have the power under the Commerce Clause to force them to not discriminate.  The court ruled that the federal government did indeed have the power, indeed under the Commerce Clause, to force this business to not discriminate. Why?  Because they might have customers from out of state?  Perhaps, but more importantly: because the snacks at the bar might contain ingredients which were made in another state! The fact that this facility sold snacks was the key to allowing blacks to come and swim, dance, and boat.  Read the text from the decision:

A "substantial portion of the food" served at the snack bar has moved in interstate commerce."
The snack bar's status as a covered establishment automatically brings the entire Lake Nixon Club facility within the coverage of Title II of the Act by virtue of §§ 201(b)(4) and 201(c)(4).

Now, I'm not saying that this facility was morally right in discriminating.  But what I am saying is: WTF?  Where the ingredients of the snacks at the bar came from is a primary justification for regulating discrimination?  I've got to give the justices credit for being creative.

Gonzales vs Raich (2005).  All your weed are belong to us.
Crazy interpretations of the Commerce Clause were not limited to the previous century. In this case, California legalized medical marijuana in 1996.  Angel Raich legally (under California law) grew her own medical marijuana, declared as essential by her physician.  The Feds destroyed the marijuana.  The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Feds, citing our famous Wickard wheat case as a precedent. If you can't come up with a new crazy justification, build upon a previously crazy precedent. Somehow, by growing her own personal marijuana for her medical use, there was an increased probability of some of this weed finding its way across state lines

The individual mandate is too much even for the Commerce Clause

Given that the Commerce Clause has historically been interpreted so widely to justify or extend powers to Congress that don't really deal with interstate commerce in any obvious way, it is no surprise that the government was trying hard to use the Commerce Clause to justify the individual mandate.  The main argument from the government was (my paraphrasing):

Individuals will at some point in their lives need medical care. Therefore, they are actively in the market for medical care.  Therefore they are participating in an activity impacting interstate commerce.

What does this mean? That there is no time limitation on the commerce clause. That the government may regulate your behavior today because of something you might buy across state lines in the future.  Fortunately the court found that even with all the past crazy interpretations of the Commerce Clause, there was no precedent to justify this one:

Everyone will likely participate in the markets for food, clothing, transportation, shelter, or energy; that does not authorize Congress to direct them to purchase particular products in those or other markets today. The Commerce Clause is not a general license to regulate an individual from cradle to grave, simply because he will predictably engage in particular transactions.

The court decided, and I'm glad they decided this way, that the government cannot regulate inactivity, even if such inactivity could have an impact on interstate commerce (or specifically on medical care costs):

Congress addressed the insurance problem by ordering everyone to buy insurance. Under the Government’’s theory, Congress could address the diet problem by ordering everyone to buy vegetables.... People, for reasons of their own, often fail to do things that would be good for them or good for society. Those failures——joined with the similar failures of others——can readily have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Under the Government’’s logic, that authorizes Congress to use its commerce power to compel citizens to act as the Government would have them act….While Congress’’s authority under the Commerce Clause has of course expanded with the growth of the national economy, our cases have “"always recognized that the power to regulate commerce, though broad indeed, has limits.”" Maryland v. Wirtz

Finally a court decision that sees limits to how the Commerce Clause may be interpreted, and which seems to disagree with the notion of a Nanny State.

However, the individual mandate was indeed upheld by the court as constitutional, under the power of Congress to impose taxes (Article 1 section 8).

The Tax Clause is the new Commerce Clause

Splitting-hairs vocabulary: "tax" or "penalty"?

Before even being able to evaluate Obamacare, the Supreme Court had to determine whether the Anti-Injuction Act applied.  This act basically states that the government cannot be sued for a tax matter until the tax has been collected.  If you don't believe a tax is just, you must pay it, and only after you pay it can you sue the government for a refund.

The Court's evaluation of whether the Anti-Injunction Act applies gets into hair splitting analysis of the terms "tax" versus "penalty".  I admit having a headache when reading this paragraph:

Section 5000A(g)(1) specifies that the penalty for not complying with the mandate ““shall be assessed and collected in the same manner as an assessable penalty under subchapter B of chapter 68.”” Assessable penalties in subchapter 68B, in turn, ““shall be assessed and collected in the same manner as taxes.”” §6671(a). According to amicus, by directing that the penalty be ““assessed and collected in the same manner as taxes,”” §5000A(g)(1) made the Anti-Injunction Act applicable to this penalty
As a great man once said: "Yo dawg we herd you don't like taxes. So we double penaltied your taxes in a non tax penalty tax."

The Court decided that the individual mandate was not a tax (but a penalty) for the purpose of the Anti-Injunction Act, meaning that the Court could make a decision on its constitutionality.

While it seems that the whole decision of the Supreme Court really just relied on a question of vocabulary, this was only to determine whether the Court could even hear the case.  Fortunately the justices try to reassure us that the Constitutionality of the individual mandate was based on an evaluation of what the mandate really is in practicality, not just on the way the writer of the law decided to use his thesaurus:

It is of course true that the Act describes the payment as a ““penalty,”” not a ““tax.”” But while that label is fatal to the application of the Anti-Injunction Act, supra, at 12––13, it does not determine whether the payment may be viewed as an exercise of Congress’’s taxing power. It is up to Congress whether to apply the Anti-Injunction Act to any particular statute, so it makes sense to be guided by Congress’’s choice of label on that question. That choice does not, however, control whether an exaction is within Congress’’s constitutional power to tax.

In passing on the constitutionality of a tax law, we are concerned only with its practical operation, not its definition or the precise form of descriptive words which may be applied to it”.

It's not about what Obamacare says or actually means, it's about what it COULD mean

The justification of the individual mandate as a tax is tricky.  The text of Obamacare uses language such as "shall": "individuals shall maintain health insurance", and describes the tax for those who do not buy insurance as a "penalty."   This indicates that the intent of the law is to require individuals to purchase insurance.  Under the Commerce Clause, and even under the tax clause, Congress does not have the power to require individuals to buy anything.  The obvious decision at this point is that therefore, the individual mandate is not Constitutional.

However, the justice does not stop at this point.  He argues that even though this may be the first, obvious interpretation of the law, there could perhaps be another interpretation that could be considered constitutional.  If there are various interpretations of a law, if at least one of them is constitutional, then the Court will not strike down the law as unconstitutional.

The justice then tries to find a more Constitution-friendly interpretation of the law: Perhaps, instead of reading the law as requiring individuals to purchase insurance ("a legal command"), we could read it as a simple choice, which:

can be regarded as establishing a condition - not owning health insurance - that triggers a tax - the required payment to the IRS. Under that theory, the mandate is not a legal command to buy insurance. Rather, it makes going without insurance just another thing the Government taxes, like buying gasoline or earning income. And if the mandate is in effect just a tax hike on certain taxpayers who do not have health insurance, it may be within Congress’’s constitutional power to tax.
The question is not whether that is the most natural interpretation of the mandate, but only whether it is a ““fairly possible”” one.

Even the justice seems to indicate he's stretching his interpretation of the law, trying really hard to find a way to read it that would render it constitutional, even if it's a stretch.  In the end, this is the interpretation he accepts.

Scary decision?  Don't worry, because... well... actually, do worry

As I read this, I thought:  Great.  So the government can't abuse the commerce clause to no limit, but they can now essentially force me to do anything by "taxing" me if I choose not to do it.  This is even worse than the Commerce Clause.  At least with the Commerce Clause, they would be required to find creative interpretations as to how some activity I was participating in was impacting interstate commerce.  Now they can just say: "Bend over!  If you don't want to, fine, just pay a $1000 tax".

The justice seems to have anticipated these concerns, but fails to alleviate them, even though he tries pretty hard.

Obamacare isn't too bad

First, he tries to explain how in practicality (regardless of the actual terms used in the law), the individual mandate is really just a "tax" and not a "penalty" (a "penalty" would imply you did something wrong and are being punished):

  • The amount of the tax is not unreasonably high: it can never be more than the price of insurance anyway.  It's therefore not a punitive tax.
  • There is no "scienter" requirement.  Yes, I had to look this up in the dictionary too.  My understanding is that this means the non-purchase of insurance is not considered as "illegal" or "violation of any law".  It is a perfectly valid legal choice (which happens to trigger a tax).
  • The IRS collects the tax "through the normal means of taxation - except that the Service is not allowed to use those means most suggestive of a punitive sanction, such as a criminal prosecution".

Slippery slope?

Ok, so perhaps the individual mandate itself isn't too bad. But what about the slippery slope? Does this decision set a precedent for the government trying to force us to do anything by just simply offering us a "choice" between doing said activity or paying a "tax"?  Seeing how the Supreme Court relies heavily on previous decisions to decide the constitutionality of new cases, the "slippery slope" effect is a perfectly valid aspect to consider.

The justice echos my concern:

If it is troubling to interpret the Commerce Clause as authorizing Congress to regulate those who abstain from commerce, perhaps it should be similarly troubling to permit Congress to impose a tax for not doing something.

Right on, he understands my concern exactly (unlike the generic stock responses I get from senators and representatives when I send them e-mails with specific questions).

Let's see if he can reassure me:

Reassurance attempt #1: Nothing new here?

First, and most importantly, it is abundantly clear the Constitution does not guarantee that individuals may avoid taxation through inactivity…Congress’’s use of the Taxing Clause to encourage buying something is, by contrast, not new. Tax incentives already promote, for example, purchasing homes and professional educations….Upholding the individual mandate under the Taxing Clause thus does not recognize any new federal power. It determines that Congress has used an existing one.

So this is supposedly nothing new: the government already tries to control our behavior with taxation.  Somehow this doesn't exactly bring reassurance.  The examples he gives about purchasing homes or professional education are really different from an individual mandate.  Nobody is required to purchase a home or education.  Choosing to not purchase a home will not result in a tax.  Purchasing a home might result in tax deductions, but this is not the same thing!  I'm afraid we have a logic #fail for point 1.  Although he says this is nothing new, he fails to cite any precedent for the government essentially requiring an individual to actively partake in some activity (or purchase a product) or face a tax.

Reassurance attempt #2: Obamacare ain't so bad... really

Second, Congress’’s ability to use its taxing power to influence conduct is not without limits…We have nonetheless maintained that ““‘‘there comes a time in the extension of the penalizing features of the so-called tax when it loses its character as such and becomes a mere penalty with the characteristics of regulation and punishment.’’ ”…We have already explained that the shared responsibility payment’’s practical characteristics pass muster as a tax under our narrowest interpretations of the taxing power. Supra, at 35––36. Because the tax at hand is within even those strict limits, we need not here decide the precise point at which an exaction becomes so punitive that the taxing power does not authorize it.

This point basically says that the specific instance of the individual mandate for Obamacare is obviously not a severe penalty, and so the court does not at this point need to determine how far the government should be limited in their taxing power.  In other words, open door for a slippery slope.  Let's just let the government decide at their convenience when and how they'd like to control our behavior via more taxes like the individual mandate, and we'll look at the constitutionality of the cases as they arrive.  Wait, weren't you trying to assure us that this decision was not "troubling"?

Reassurance attempt #3: Just pay the tax and you'll be fine!

Third, although the breadth of Congress’’s power to tax is greater than its power to regulate commerce, the taxing power does not give Congress the same degree of control over individual behavior…Once we recognize that Congress may regulate a particular decision under the Commerce Clause, the Federal Government can bring its full weight to bear. Congress may simply command individuals to do as it directs. An individual who disobeys may be subjected to criminal sanctions. Those sanctions can include not only fines and imprisonment, but all the at- tendant consequences of being branded a criminal: depri- vation of otherwise protected civil rights, such as the right to bear arms or vote in elections; loss of employment op- portunities; social stigma; and severe disabilities in other controversies, such as custody or immigration disputes.

By contrast, Congress’’s authority under the taxing power is limited to requiring an individual to pay money into the Federal Treasury, no more. If a tax is properly paid, the Government has no power to compel or punish individuals subject to it. We do not make light of the se- vere burden that taxation——especially taxation motivated by a regulatory purpose——can impose. But imposition of a tax nonetheless leaves an individual with a lawful choice to do or not do a certain act, so long as he is willing to pay a tax levied on that choice.

Point three says that if the law had been upheld under the Commerce Clause, that would be even more fucking troubling, because failure to comply could land you in jail and strip you of your rights.   Since the law is only upheld under the "taxing power" clause, you have nothing to fear as long as you pay your tax!


So, in conclusion, yes, the government can make you bend over, or ride a unicycle, or play Russian Roulette, as long as they offer you an alternative which is a tax.  The tax might be exorbitant (like your life savings), since no limits were defined at this point.  Don't worry, just pay the tax and you have nothing to fear, or take the government to court if you think they're out of line.  Easy.

Note: the images in this blog are memes I ripped off the Net.  Since they are memes, it's really quite impossible to cite the original author.  Please don't sue me.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bike road trip from Paris to London

A year since my first bike road trip from Paris to Bordeaux, I decided to embark on another adventure, this time to London.  I really lucked out with beautiful weather during the whole trip, which I'd say is unusual for this time of year in Paris and London.  I met a few challenges on this trip, but it was a pleasure again to be rolling out in the countryside.


Here is an overview of the main stops:

A: Paris
B: Gisors
C: Forges-les-eaux
D: Dieppe
E: Newhaven
F: Brighton
G: Sutton
H: London

The trip by bike took just over four days; five days including the return trip by Eurostar.

Most of the gear I had with me on this trip was the same that I took on the Bordeaux trip.  In addition, I attached a bag to my handlebars for things I would need to access often while on the road: water, snacks, and sunscreen.

I had done no preparation whatsoever for the Bordeaux trip.  Since that trip, I have been cycling to work everyday.  The commute is 13km round trip.  This is not an extreme workout, but I assumed that it would be sufficient to better prepare me for the London trip.  My performance on the London trip ended up about the same as on the Bordeaux trip.  I guess proper training would involve cycling with heavy gear over longer distances.

Time for a new bike?

I'm still using the bottom-of-the-line mountain bike I had on the Bordeaux trip.  The following are the pros and cons of my current setup.  I'm considering getting a new bike, or at least making some changes to my current bike, to make the trips easier and be able to enjoy riding even more.

- Cheap. If it is stolen, it's only a minor drama, not the end of the world.
- Sturdy tires.  I have not had a single flat tire in over 4000 km.  I occasionally (though rarely) have to travel on unpaved roads, so this is a major benefit.
- Suspension. Front and rear suspension makes traveling over most bumps almost unnoticeable.
- Heavy-duty bike lock.  After my first bike was stolen, I purchased a heavy lock at a motorcycle shop. This gives me peace of mind if I have to leave my bike alone in public for a while.

- Cheap.  Since the bike was cheap, the material is probably heavier than what I would get with a more expensive bike.
- Sturdy tires.  I'm sure I could whiz by much more quickly if I had some ultra-thin tires and tubes inflated up to maximum pressure.
- Suspension.  I believe the full suspension may contribute to the heaviness.  Since I rarely travel on unpaved roads, I think I could live with only front or even no suspension, if it could make the bike much lighter.
- Heavy-duty bike lock.  This adds to the already significant weight.  In all the hotels I stayed at when touring, I could leave my bike in a secure place (either in a private parking or in the room itself).  So I'm sure on my next trip I'll carry a lighter lock.
- No panniers.  Most of the weight of my gear was carried on my back.   Even if I don't get a new bike, at a minimum I should install panniers to distribute the weight away from my body a bit.

France versus the UK - Challenges

Based on my experiences cycling from Paris to Bordeaux, Paris to Dieppe, and Newhaven to London, I can say that I feel much more at ease cycling in France than in the UK.  Of course the experience will vary depending on where in these two countries one decides to cycle, but on the routes I've travelled:

- Hills. The routes I travelled in France were generally much flatter than in the UK.   From Brighton to Sutton I saw one sign warning about a 15% grade, and another for a 16% grade.  These signs were on a route recommended by a Brit who described the route as "almost flat".  If this is "almost flat" for Brits, I'd like to see what "hilly" looks like!  I'm pretty much a novice to bike touring.  I haven't trained, and my goal is really to just be outside, not necessarily to push myself to test my physical limits (which seem to be pretty low :) ).  So, I think I'll plan my next trip for Belgium and/or the Netherlands... :)

Quiet country road in France, entering Picardie
- Traffic.  One of the craziest areas I've biked in, in France, is probably Place de la Concorde, in Paris. Here's a satellite view, where you can have an idea of the traffic there.  I can say that I've felt more comfortable cycling in Place de la Concorde than in many areas of the UK.  A few of what I thought would be remote roads in the countryside in the UK turned out to have many cars, going fast, with narrow lanes and not much visibility.   The epitome of this was Pebblehill road, which I describe later.  Fortunately, the majority of the trip in the UK was quiet.

- Roundabouts.  Although riding on the left side of the street didn't pose a problem most of the time on long distances on a single road, intersections and roundabouts were a bit trickier.  I navigated many roundabouts in the UK as a pedestrian, walking my bike across each section.  I have a feeling that I was probably a bit overcautious here, and that most cyclists would probably have no problem riding these roundabouts :)

Despite the challenges biking in the UK, once in the small country roads, the scenery was beautiful and the ride enjoyable.


Day 1: A sunny start in Paris

On day 1, the trip gets off to a good start in Paris.
At the Arc de Triomphe
Bye-bye Paris!

Day 2: Forges-les-eaux to Dieppe: the Greenway (avenue verte)

The morning was a ride from Gisors to Forges-les-eaux which went much faster than I anticipated.  I arrived at Forges-les-eaux around noon, and decided to continue on to Dieppe, which I had initially planned for the following day.
Just me and the cows

A bike/pedestrian pathway runs from just outside of Forges-les-eaux to Dieppe.  Removed from traffic, running mostly through scenic farmland, this is the perfect route for bike touring, strolling, or roller blading.  I would like to come back at some point and just spend the day here, either on bike or roller skates.   Something to look forward to as warm weather approaches...
The Avenue Verte in Beaubec-la-Rosière

Day 3: The Dieppe-Newhaven ferry

The ferry ride from Dieppe to Newhaven is about four hours. I took it on an early Sunday morning, and it was quite empty.  I had never ridden a ferry like this before, so this was a new experience. The only ferries I'd ridden previously were for short trips (about a half hour): at New York and at Bordeaux.  This ferry was huge, with plenty of places to sit, shop, or eat.    There were some seats which resembled seats on an airplane, except more comfortable with much more leg room.  This is the way to travel!
Arrival at the Newhaven port

Day 3: Brighton

I was lucky to have magnificent weather as I came into Brighton.  I discovered the Undercliff walk, a welcome flat stroll for several kilometers along the beach leading to the pier.  I took it easy this day and mostly walked.
Lunch break between Newhaven and Brighton
View from the Undercliff walk leading to Brighton

As I approached the pier, I discovered the Brighton Mile / Sport Relief.  I wasn't too sure what this was about, but I assumed it was some fund-raising/charity event, as I saw men, women, and children of all ages, shapes and fitness levels, running.  Some were dressed in costumes such as cheerleaders or rabbits.

Without a cloud in the sky, and with the warm temperatures, the sunbathers, street performers, and the pier, I almost thought I was in Santa Monica.
Brighton beach
Brighton beach

Day 4: Devil's Dyke

After a tough climb going up Dyke Road leaving Brighton, I was rewarded with this view:
View from Devil's Dyke

The Pebblehill detour

On the route from Brighton to Sutton, I came across a street called Pebblehill road, about 15km from Sutton.  This is a very beautiful area, with trees lining the road, on a steep incline (16% grade) with no visibility around bends, little room for cars to pass cyclists, and no path for pedestrians.  Upon seeing this, I hesitated for a while, and when I didn't find any reasonable alternative paths, I decided to go for it.  
16% grade
Debating whether to go up Pebblehill road:

Just then, a resident of the area saw me and we chatted for a while.  He told me that he had been living there for 15 years, that there had been four cyclist deaths up this passage (I haven't been able to verify this), and that he refused to walk up this passage.  He recommended an alternative route, which went through private roads, on a very steep and narrow footpath, with two fences I had to lift my bike over.  I felt like I was on a reality TV show, my endurance and willingness to continue being tested. In the end, it took me an hour and forty-three minutes to navigate less than one kilometer.  But when I finished, I felt like a warrior who could accomplish anything!  Raaawwww!!
The narrow and steep footpath I took 
Hurdle #1 - Almost there...
Hurdle #2 - Over this and it's back to the road! 

Day 5: London

I made it!  It was a pleasure to see Big Ben and the London Eye as I cycled up to Lambeth bridge.
At London
In front of Big Ben
And to finish the trip, a nice meal of Guinness battered fish and chips, at a pub:
Fish and chips


How could one of my blog posts be complete without at least some statistics and a chart?

The following table and chart show my performance progress (or regression :) ) as the trip went on.  I excluded the Pebblehill detour, because it was a statistical anomaly, not within the bounds of the typical values for speed and distance (i.e., it would bring down my stats too low and make me feel less proud of myself. :))

Trip segment Path Avg Speed (km/h) Distance (km) Time (hours)
Day 1-morning Paris-Gisors 10.5 76.4 7.3
Day 2-morning Gisors-Forges-les-eaux 10.6 49.7 4.7
Day 2-afternoon Forges-les-eaux-Dieppe 10.9 57.1 5.2
Day 3-morning Newhaven-Brighton 4.5 21.9 4.9
Day 4-morning Brighton-Pebblehill detour 8.8 58.8 6.7
Day 4-afternoon Pebblehill detour-Sutton 7.7 19.4 2.5
Day 5-morning Sutton-London 8.3 18.0 2.2
8.8 43.0 4.8

301.2 33.4

What next?

It will probably be a while before I can go on a long tour again, but I'm already thinking about possible tours to do next.  There are a couple of 3-day weekends coming up in April and May.  Based on my how I did during this trip, and assuming on a shorter trip I'll have a lighter load, I could plan for about a 200km trip one-way over 2.5 days, returning the afternoon on the third day by train.   On a regular 2-day weekend, I could plan for 100-125 km trip.  For a more relaxed trip, I might first take a train out of Paris and start the cycling in the suburbs or countryside.  Here are a few possibilities (not sure if the trains connecting Paris to these cities allow bikes):

3-day weekends:
Paris-Le Havre

2-day weekends:

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Letters to EU parliament about ACTA

I sent the following letter to members of the Committee on International Trade (INTA), a EU Parliament committee.

My comments concern the April 15, 2011 version of the ACTA text.


I am writing you to request you to not support ACTA.   

I have the following concerns with this treaty:

* This treaty has been negotiated for several years behind closed doors, and the public only discovered it when it was exposed by Wikileaks.

* The treaty does not reference any independent studies or analyses with concrete numbers on the impact of online piracy on potential sales of music or movies.  This treaty is based on an assumption that piracy is a significant problem.  Assumptions are insufficient.  Concrete justification is needed to justify a treaty of this magnitude.

* Article 9 - "DAMAGES" - allows the rights holders to claim any amount of damages they deem appropriate.  If a rights holder considers the actual value of the downloaded content as "lost profits", this is unreasonable as in many cases, people who download pirated content would never have purchased the content legally, even if it were not available illegally.  This is the sort of thing I would like to see included in an analysis of the impact of online piracy.

However, the damages are not limited to simply the value of the pirated content. Article 9 also allows unspecified "additional damages".  In other words, there is no limit for damages rights holders may claim.  We have seen in several cases a few years ago where rights holders in the United States sued individuals for millions of dollars for downloading a handful of songs (for example, Capitol v. Thomas).  The punishment in these cases has been grossly exaggerated compared to the infringement committed.

* Article 12 - "PROVISIONAL MEASURES" - mentions provisional measures "inaudita altera parte".  My understanding is that these measures bypass normal judicial procedures and due process to favor the rights holders, in the case evidence might be deleted.   Due process and human rights of the people should never be sacrificed in the name of profits of corporations.

* Article 23 - "CRIMINAL OFFENCES" - would criminalize using a mobile phone to capture a favorite scene from a movie on display in a movie theater.  Criminal procedures and sanctions are beyond extreme for this activity.

* Article 24 - "PENALTIES" - allows imprisonment and high monetary fines as a deterrent.  In a society where due process and human rights are respected, a punishment is proportional to the actual crime committed, not increased in anticipation of possible future crimes.

* Article 27 - "ENFORCEMENT IN THE DIGITAL ENVIRONMENT" - Section 1 - allows for "remedies to prevent infringement".  This opens the door to government censorship of the internet. 

* Article 27 - Section 4 - requires internet service providers to violate the privacy of customers and disclose personal information about internet activities to rights holders who simply suspect a user of infringement.  This violates reasonable expectations of privacy that individuals have when they use their computers and surf the internet.

* Article 27 - Section 5 - makes it illegal to create or use software to circumvent DRM protection.  The existence of DRM is already a violation of consumer rights.  If I purchase a song online, or if I buy a DVD, I should be able to put this song or DVD on any number of devices I own.  Current DRM technology makes this difficult, and ACTA would make it illegal to circumvent these restrictions to do what is perfectly natural: watching content I've purchased on any device I own.

* Article 31 - "PUBLIC AWARENESS" - essentially dictates countries to run propaganda campaigns to promote the views of the major media corporations.  I insist again on the need to have an independent study of the impact of online piracy.

* Article 36 - "THE ACTA COMMITTEE" - the committee may modify the treaty via ratification, acceptance, or approval.  Where do the people have a voice here?


Le escribo para pedirle que no apoye el tratado ACTA (Acuerdo Comercial contra la Falsificación).

Tengo las inquietudes siguientes respecto al mencionado tratado:

* El tratado fue negociado durante varios años a puerta cerrada, y el público lo descubrió solamente después de que fuera expuesto por Wikileaks.

* Este tratado no hace referencia a ninguna investigación o análisis con cifras concretas sobre el impacto de la piratería en internet sobre las ventas potenciales de música o películas.  Este tratado está basado en la suposición de que la piratería es un problema significativo.  Las hipótesis no son suficientes. Una justificación concreta es necesaria para justificar un tratado de esta envergadura.

* El artículo 9 - "DAÑOS Y PERJUICIOS" - permite que los titulares de los derechos reclamen cualquier valor que estimen apropiado.  Si un titular de los derechos considera el valor del contenido descargado como "ganancias perdidas", esto es poco razonable como, en muchos casos, una persona que descarga un contenido pirata nunca lo habría comprado aunque no estuviera disponible ilegalmente.  Ese es el tipo de información que me gustaría ver incluida dentro de un análisis del impacto de la piratería en internet.

No obstante, los daños no se limitan al valor simple de un contenido pirata.  El artículo 9 también permite indeterminados "daños adicionales".  Es decir, no hay límite a los daños que los titulares de los derechos pueden reclamar.  Hemos visto algunos casos hace varios años, en que los titulares de los derechos en los Estados Unidos entablaron juicio a algunos individuos por millones de dólares por haber descargado un puñado de canciones (por ejemplo. Capitol v. Thomas).  El castigo en estos casos ha sido extremadamente exagerado comparado con la gravedad del delito.

* El artículo 12 - "MEDIDAS PROVISIONALES"- hace referencia a medidas "sin haber oído a la otra parte".  Tengo entendido que estas medidas evitan trámites judiciales normales y juicio justo para favorecer a los titulares de los derechos, por si acaso las pruebas son destruidas.  El juicio justo y los derechos humanos de la gente nunca deben sacrificarse en nombre de los beneficios de las corporaciones.

* El artículo 23 - "DELITOS" - establece sanciones penales por una persona que utiliza su teléfono móvil para grabar su escena preferida de una película en un cine.  Procedimientos y sanciones penales son desproporcionadas para tal actividad.

* El artículo 24 - "SANCIONES" - permite el encarcelamiento y sanciones pecuniarias "suficientemente disuasorias".  En una sociedad en que el juicio justo y los derechos humanos son respetados,  el castigo es acorde con la gravedad del delito, y no aumentado en anticipación de delitos futuros posibles.

* El artículo 27 - "OBSERVANCIA EN EL ENTORNO DIGITAL" - párrafo 1 - permite "recursos ágiles para prevenir las infracciones". Eso deja la puerta abierta a la censura en internet por el gobierno.

* El artículo 27 - párrafo 4 - requiere que los proveedores de servicios no respeten la privacidad de sus clientes y que revelen información personal sobre las actividades sobre internet a los titulares de los derechos quienes simplemente sospechan que la persona haya cometido una infracción.  Eso es una violación de la esperanza razonable de privacidad que tenemos todos cuando utilizamos nuestros ordenadores y navegamos por internet.

* El artículo 27 - párrafo 5 - declara ilegal la creación o utilización de un software para sortear las restricciones de DRM (gestión digital de derechos).  La existencia de los DRM ya es una violación de los derechos del consumidor.  Si compro una canción en línea, o si compro un DVD, debo poder escuchar esta canción o mirar este DVD sobre cualquier cantidad de dispositivos que poseo.  La tecnología de DRM ya lo hace difícil, y este tratado declarará ilegal la evasión de estas restricciones a lo que es perfectamente natural:  mirar contenido que he comprado sobre cualquier dispositivo que poseo.

* El artículo 31 - "CONCIENTIZACIÓN PÚBLICA" - establece esencialmente que los gobiernos de los países hagan campañas de propaganda para promover las opiniones de las corporaciones y sellos discográficos.  Tengo que insistir de nuevo en la necesidad de un análisis independiente sobre el impacto de la piratería en internet.

* El artículo 36 - "EL COMITÉ DEL ACTA" - el comité puede modificar el tratado vía aceptación, ratificación, o aprobación.  ¿Donde está la voz de la gente aquí?