Monday, July 30, 2012

Making cycling an accessible form of transport

In Japan, nearly everyone uses a bicycle as a form of transport at least some of the time. In Japan, nobody wears Lycra to get to work, or wherever else they might be going; Lycra wearers are rare and seen only on weekends when they're out for a ride. Everyday cyclists just wear whatever they're going to wear at their destination, be that jeans and a t-shirt, long flowing skirts, or a business suit.

In Australia, very few people use a bicycle as a form of transport. In Australia, Lycra wearers make up a large proportion of regular adult cyclists. Even those who aren't wearing Lycra frequently wear sporty clothes (and a hi-vis vest), and get changed when they reach their destination.

My bike has a brown seat and handles
When I returned from my year in Japan, I ditched my mountain bike and bought a vintage-styled bike. It's not a particularly good bike. It's not even good as the bike I had in Japan, despite coming with less included and costing more. It's pretty heavy for a start, and the gearing doesn't have as much range as I'd like. Unfortunately, bikes like the one I wanted are uncommon in Australia, and there's not much choice except beautiful but $1000+ European brands rather than the plethora of $100-$200 choices available in Japan. Despite all these gripes, I wouldn't swap my rather cheap new bike for either a top-of-the-line road or mountain bike. What it gives me is freedom and flexibility and comfort:
  • The step-through frame combined with a chain guard means that I can wear a skirt or dress when cycling. My wardrobe is not limited by what is bike-safe. In Japan, men use step-through frames too, because it allows carrying a large load on the back (or, frequently, a passenger), without having to swing one's leg over the load.
  • I have a basket in the front, and have just added one at the back. I can carry my uni books or a small grocery run, and won't get a sweaty back from wearing a backpack.
  • The upright posture is much more comfortable. My neck doesn't get sore from having to look up to see in front of me, I'm naturally looking out rather than down. Also, I don't need to worry about exposing (and burning) skin where my shirt meets my pants.
  • No more sore bum, even with the standard seat. Also, I found that my bike in Japan with suspension only in the seat was more comfortable to ride over rough ground than Hunter's mountain bike with full suspension. This was mostly because on an upright bike, your hands aren't weight bearing, so you don't get jarring through your arms.

A lot of effort is being made by various groups to try and increase the number of cyclists and thus take cars off the road, but they're doing it all wrong. The message that people receive is that in order to ride a bike to work, they need a fancy expensive bike and get kitted out in full Lycra. This is bound to intimidate more people than it encourages. There needs to be a greater range of options, to suit different attitudes to cycling, and the Japanese/European styled commuter bike has the potential to appeal to a much broader cross-section of society than the high-end bikes. If instead cycling is made accessible to the ordinary person, by showing them how simple it can be to just jump on a bike at point A, and hop off it again at point B, without the need for a change of clothes, a shower, or a race against the cars, how many more people could we take out of cars and put onto bikes?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Back on the bike

After having lived in Japan for, it seemed natural to me to continue cycling, after all, it had been my primary form of transport for a year. It's environmentally friendly, practically free, and helps me to keep fit. However, I quickly found that the hilliness of Toowoomba, combined with our peripheral location, made it impractical to reach many places at all by bike.

Off to O-Week
All is well again. We now live within easy walking/cycling distance of a train station, and, more importantly, I live within cycling distance of uni. 

I also have a shiny new bike that's as street-practical as I could find from the low-budget end of the bicycle market. For me, this means I can wear normal clothing, including skirts and dresses, and also carry things other than just in a backpack.

It has a front basket, mudguards, and a rear rack which will have a back basket attached next week (yay! groceries!). What it didn't automatically come with (and would have in Japan) are skirt guards to prevent clothing tangling in the spokes, a pedal-powered light, and somewhat strangely, a bell.

It takes me about 20 minutes to ride to uni, and about 15 to come home again, and it's quite a pleasant ride, except when it's raining, like it was today.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Can men and women be friends?

On the radio recently, I heard the start of a conversation about whether men and women can be friends (without sexual attraction complicating things). So here's another take on the same question. Can bisexuals have friends (without sexual attraction complicating things)?

Sure, some people probably aren't capable of being friends with someone who has the remotest potential of becoming a romantic interest. Some people aren't capable of maintaining friendships at all. But taking men and women and lumping them into supposedly cohesive blocks so that generalisations can be made that are supposed to apply to all individuals? Well, I guess things like that are just the stock of radio talk.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The dreaded pink

A few days ago, I bought a label printer. Somehow, this rather obscure act brought back one of my pet peeves.

I'm not overly fond of the colour pink. I wouldn't say that I hate it, but I would very very rarely choose pink over any other colour. Except... Except when purchasing pink products mean a donation to breast cancer research/support. I had a choice of three products. One blue, one silver, one pink. All the same price, only the pink one gave $1 to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. I then had to wrestle with my conscience, to pink and do good, or not to pink, and thus not have pink. This time, the pink won out. That doesn't mean I have to be happy about it. Breast cancer happens (mostly) to women. Pink is the feminine colour. Therefore, paint everything pink. Argh!

Monday, July 9, 2012

On moving and unpacking

After a few weeks of being consumed by packing our stuff up, and now purchasing all the things we need to properly set up house for the first time, this resonates:


Sunday, July 8, 2012

We're in Melbourne

We left for Melbourne Tuesday morning and arrived early Wednesday afternoon. The drive was pertty uneventful. We spent most of the trip listening to an audio-book of Stephen Fry's Moab is my Washpot. Stephen Fry is an excellent travelling companion.

We are as settled in as we can be considering that our furniture and most of our other stuff isn't going to arrive until Friday. We've done quite a bit of shopping for homewares, and exploring the area, but have no Internet due to some problem during the connection process. Telstra is on it...

I have fallen in love with Melbourne. There are so many exciting food shops around! In our suburb, there is an Asian food store that is probably the size of all the Asian food stores in Toowoomba combined, and had me drooling and jumping up and down with excitement. There are people from all over the world around. It seems that everything we could possibly want access to is close by, and I have even managed to drive a bit without crashing or dying or anything dramatic at all.

Hopefully, I'll have more time to explore in the next week, and I'll be able to describe some of the highlights of the area.

Argh! Removalists! - Part 2

So I thought the removalists were going to come on Sunday, but I didn't hear anything from them. I checked my emails, and realised that the date in the email was for Monday. I was pretty sure I'd heard Sunday, but it did seem a bit odd, I probably had mis-heard it. Monday was fine.

On Monday morning I called up the removalists to find out what time they were coming. I was told they'd call me back with a time. They didn't. A bit over an hour later, I called again, and was informed that they were loading up in Brisbane, and  would give me a call a call when they were on their way to Toowoomba. We waited for the call. At about 3:00pm, I called again, and was informed that they weren't actually going to take our job, as the job in Brisbane had blown out, and there wasn't room for our stuff.

I was furious. It was obvious that they had known this for some time already, and hadn't bothered to let me know. They wouldn't be able to take our stuff until Thursday now. We had now been stood up twice by Moving Again. Thursday meant at least another 3 days delay, and what were the chances that our stuff would even make it onto the truck that time? ARGH!

In the end, with the help of Mum and her partner, we got onto Grace, who were able to pick up our stuff the next morning. They even gave an estimated arrival time, and arrived pretty close to it, I'm not sure exactly, as we were gone by then anyway. Hopefully, the next post on removalists will be to say that our stuff has arrived and that will be the end of it.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ethical shopping

A large percentage of the goods we consume are produced by people in developing countries, working in terrible conditions, earning barely enough to survive. Some of these people are effectively slaves.

One solution popular in leftist circles is to remove yourself from the exploitative chain of supply and demand. Instead of buying clothing produced in Chinese (or other) sweatshops, buy locally produced goods, or even better, make your own.  Even important and valuable organisations like Oxfam falls prey to this fallacy. Their recommendation (at least on their Australian site): buy Australian made:
If clothing carries the Ethical Clothing Australia (ECA) label it means the garment was manufactured in Australia and the manufacturer has committed to ensuring that all of the people involved in its production received, as a minimum, the legally stated wage rates and conditions — known in Australia as award wages and conditions.
Here's the rub though. If you buy locally, you're not actually helping, in fact, you might actually be doing harm. Sure, you can soothe your conscience, because you're no longer complicit in the exploitation, and buying local isn't bad in and of itself. However you are in no way actually helping those exploited people. The problem is that these people are mostly working under terrible circumstances because they need the work, they need the money. Yes the conditions are appalling, but for them, enduring these conditions is better than the alternative: no income at all. By buying ethically Australian made clothing, you are ensuring that more Australians are employed, and you might even help lift some Australians are lifted out of poverty. However, if enough people make the same decision, then people barely earning enough to survive lose their jobs. It doesn't take a genius to work out that although all poverty is terrible and soul-crushing, there's a world of difference between poverty in Australia, and poverty in the developing world.

I'm not turning into a sweatshop advocate, far from it. However, we need to recognise that issues such as this are far from black and white, and the people who advocate simply shutting down sweatshops have not thought through the consequences of their ideals. If sweatshops just close down, the workers need to find other work, often being forced into more hazardous lines of work. For example,
The Harkin Bill ... was introduced into the US Congress in 1992 with the laudable aim of prohibiting the import of products made by children under 15 ... As of September 1996, the Bill had yet to find its way onto the statute books. But the mere threat of such a measure panicked the garment industry of Bangladesh, 60 per cent of whose products — some $900 million in value — were exported to the US in 1994. Child workers, most of them girls, were summarily dismissed from the garment factories. A study sponsored by international organizations took the unusual step of tracing some of these children to see what happened to them after their dismissal. Some were found working in more hazardous situations, in unsafe workshops where they were paid less, or in prostitution.
UNICEF - The State of the World's Children, 1997
If we actually care about the people working in sweatshops, what we need to do is provide them with a real alternative. They don't need to be paid the same as Australian workers, at least not yet, not until their economies catch up to ours. What they do need is to be paid a living wage, enough to support themselves and their families. Enough that the parents can earn sufficient money that they don't need to send their children to work. Enough so they can afford to send their children to school, because access to work without education will never break the poverty cycle. They need to have safe working conditions. Most of all, we, as consumers, need to support those companies that provide such employment opportunities in the developing world.

Of course, it's easy enough to say that, it's more difficult to carry out, especially as it can be difficult to make informed decisions. Some things are pretty easy. When buying chocolate, tea or coffee, look out for the Fair Trade logo. Yes, I know the system isn't perfect, but for us ordinary consumers, it's the best information we can get. It won't necessarily cost more either. Since Cadbury started producing Dairy Milk as fair trade, I've bought it almost exclusively. For cosmetics, I've started buying from the Body Shop. It's more expensive than what I used to buy, but that's fair - before, someone else was paying the price.

Beyond a few basic items though, finding ethically produced products becomes difficult, as there is no accredited international system of recognition. Take clothing. Ethically produced clothing tends to be hard to buy in brick and mortar stores, and buying expensive clothing without trying it on is not a risk many people, myself included, are keen to take. Also, most ethically produced clothing is hippy styled. I don't take issue with that per se, it's just that I want more variety in order to suit my personal sense of style. I don't mind a bit of hippy, but I want more than that. I also want to be able to dress ethical business, ethical dressy, ethical jeans and t-shirt, and have it fit and flatter.

As for electronics, forget ethically produced, all we can hope for at this stage is least damaging. About all I've been able to find is an assessment of the use of conflict minerals, but that's far from the whole picture.

I'm not advocating purchasing some brands and boycotting others. What I'm suggesting is that next time you buy something, especially if it's something that you buy regularly like coffee, chocolate or moisturiser, think about where it came from, who is profiting from your purchase, and if you could buy a slightly different product that shares that profit more equitably. A small change in our purchasing habits could make a world of difference to people currently living in poverty, no handouts required.