What is “adaptive cruise control”?

My piece on driverless cars a month ago drew some attention and some excellent debate, although there was also some confusion about what “adaptive cruise control” actually is, and why it is in fact a fairly crude piece of technology (or, at least, will soon become so, in all likelihood).

Firstly, cruise control itself is not particularly well understood, for the simple reason we do not really think about it. The system works generally by the driver pressing a button or flicking at a particular speed, at which time the vehicle takes over the operation of the accelerator. This means the vehicle will maintain speed for as long as there is no intervention from the driver, nor anything which would require braking. In other words, the driver still has to look out for obstructions (including slower moving traffic), and notably also has to brake or use gearing on downhill sections to avoid speeding up (as the vehicle only controls the accelerator, nothing else). Primarily for safety reasons, this system was never available at below 40km/h or 25mph.

Secondly, the addition of a radar at the front of the vehicle to pick up traffic in front resulted in “adaptive cruise control”, which has been available on family cars for over a decade. However, in its initial phase, this was of limited additional value as the vehicle still controlled only the accelerator. On motorways it meant the vehicle itself could ease off the accelerator in line with the broad traffic flow (slowing gradually from around 100km/h or 60mph to around 80km/h or 50mph, for example), but still could not brake. The system also continued not to operate at all at low speed, thus had no value in queuing traffic and did not become widespread.

Thirdly, the addition of control of the brake pedal to the adaptive system led to the more modern “adaptive cruise control” (which really should be called something else, for clarity – perhaps “full range adaptive”). This means the vehicle takes control of the brake pedal as well as the accelerator, enabling: a) quicker deceleration when a vehicle is detected in front; b) maintenance of speed even on downhill sections; and c) reduction in speed below 40km/h, indeed even to zero. The system can thus be applied either at above 40km/h or whenever a vehicle is detected in front (even when both vehicles are stopped). Also, unlike regular cruise control, to system generally disallows acceleration until the vehicle is straightened up, enabling speed to be maintained through bends in line with preceding traffic, even if the vehicle disappears from the radar view on the bend itself (provided a speed of above 40km/h is maintained).

“Detection of a vehicle” is the key phrase, however. Modern adaptive cruise systems essentially identify objects in front as either “vehicles” or “obstacles”. Only objects moving forward in the same direction, or stopped directly in front when the operating vehicle is stopped, are deemed “vehicles”; anything else is deemed an “obstruction”. In the former case, the radar system will bring the speed into line (even down to or up from zero); however, in the latter case the driver is expected to take action – which is notable, because the latter case (the “obstructions”) even includes stopped vehicles when moving towards them (for example other vehicles stopped at lights).

The reason for this is that if these “obstructions” were defined any other way, you would find vehicles with adaptive cruise braking at in all kinds of odd places – for example when vehicles come the other way on curves or when road signs appear straight ahead as the road itself bends.

The challenge, therefore, is for technology to better define what is an “obstruction” and what is a “vehicle”. Attempts are being made at, for example, slowing the car for bends ahead (using satnav) or even scanning the scene in front to pick up pedestrians liable to walk out in front. However, although advances have been made, of course 100% assurance is needed before such systems can become widespread; and it should be noted that even modern adaptive cruise control causes some confusion with what it can and cannot do.

It is worth re-emphasising that I think we will see marked advances to the extent that even lower end cars a generation from now will contain autonomous features currently only being trialled in luxury concepts. However, a fully autonomous, driverless future? I’m not so convinced about that, for reasons which go beyond technology.

In NI, we need to be clearer what the problem is in order to solve it

Sinn Féin greatly dislikes the phrase “problem party” when it is applied to it. At one level, it genuinely does not understand why. The short-term reason, to be clear, is that there are only two parties required to enter the Executive – and Sinn Féin is one of them. The longer term reason is that Sinn Féin is, fundamentally, not a party of government; nor, really, is the DUP.

A lot of energy is being spent by the commentariat on the apparently short-term issues. Allegedly, according to the Greens and others, the whole thing comes down to Irish Language legislation. Believing that is a mistake.

Of course, were the Irish Language issue satisfactorily compromised upon, and the odds remain that it will be (albeit somewhat nearer Christmas than now), then the route would probably be clear for the formation of an all-party Executive. There would be much relief (and slapping of backs). Yet none of the problems would really have been resolved.

There remain three main and fundamental problems. First, there is a lack of respect between the two largest parties (that is, basically, why it needs to be an all-party Executive); and this works both ways. For every “curry my yoghurt” there is a “sunny side of the street”. Neither party can even really begin to see the other party’s point on some of these issues – largely because it does not want to.

Second, there is a structural problem. Let us again remind ourselves that the fundamental issue is not that we do not have an Assembly, but that we do not have an Executive. On this, we should move quickly to clarify that Ministers remain in post on a caretaker basis not until polling day but until the next Ministers are appointed; that would have calmed much of the current crisis in administration. We should then move, perhaps less quickly but nevertheless without delay, to a situation where voluntary coalition at least becomes an option (I have outlined in the past how this may work).

Third, there is a cultural problem which goes right back to the electorate itself. Voters still seem to regard Stormont as a county council, with no serious powers. Right now, as I write, absolutely contrary to what the political bubble commentariat seem to suggest, there is in fact no sense of crisis among the general public whatsoever. That there are no politicians in devolved institutions to manage budgets, push forward health reform or administer changes to the school estate should be seen as a crisis, but in fact it is not. Most people when they went to the polls in March, as would be the case if they had to again in October, fundamentally do not believe they are elected a government which will take decisions affecting their daily lives on all the key domestic issues, from hospitals to schools. Yet they are. As a result, we get parties charged with government who have no interest whatsoever in actually governing – and voters willing to give them a mandate not to govern.

Northern Ireland spent over a generation without a devolved government and thus became used to being governed by outsiders – culturally, this runs very deep and thus government by outsiders, far from being seen as the democratic outrage it is, is still in fact what is expected. That, at our very core, is the problem. It is why the next “talks process” should involve far more than politicians.


NI deserves better. Or does it?

People unsure whether they will have a job in the autumn; whether they will get that vital operation this side of 2019; whether their children will get into the school they want… the economy, Health and education appeared, curiously, to be the issues people claim to care about but were absent from the talks process.

Northern Ireland “deserves better”, we reassure ourselves.

Well, no, actually, it doesn’t. Northern Ireland deserves exactly what it votes for. It voted for identity politics in place of good government so that’s what it’s getting.

That’s the thing about representative democracy. You get precisely what you vote for (or what you allow others to vote for while you sit at home).

It is no good asking politicians to show “courage” when those who voted for them didn’t, opting instead for the safety of the communal numbers game. It is no good asking politicians to move beyond party political interest when they were given a mandate to promote precisely that interest on a communal basis. It is no good expecting politicians to prioritise good government when they were elected to prioritise other things.

You get what you vote for – and you don’t get what you don’t vote for.

And you deserve what you get – and you don’t deserve anything else.

UK harmed by bizarre exceptionalism

I was planning to write a piece on the frankly bizarre British exceptionalism evident in Brexiteers’ cheery dismissal of the simple facts around the poor performance of the UK economy and its huge vulnerability to leaving the Single Market (which will inevitably send living standards crashing, particularly among the poorest).

It turns out I do not need to, the CER has done it for me here.

Anyone with a genuine interest in the UK’s future and the well-being of its people must read and grasp that linked article.

Sinn Féin can’t deliver United Ireland

Predictably, absolutely nothing new of real consequence emerged from Sinn Féin’s conference on a “United Ireland” last month. While attendees were invited to think new thoughts, there was precious little evidence of any. We should nevertheless welcome that at least Sinn Féin is now engaged with reality – no, they are not the “legitimate government”, yes Ireland is partitioned in reality, so indeed persuasion (and nothing else) must be the way forward.

For all that, it should be obvious that this is already an almighty task. For all the talk of finding ways to reflect “Unionists’ British identity” in a United Ireland, there is very little evidence that this identity is seriously understood and, in any case, the fact is that Unionists’ British identity is already reflected by the constitutional status quo.

Even if this could be overcome, one of the most obvious “new thoughts” should have been, of course, that Sinn Féin cannot deliver a United Ireland. You simply cannot, on one hand, apologise for a terrorist campaign designed to force Unionists into a United Ireland and then, on the other, act as persuaders of those same Unionists. The level of trust will never seriously be there to accomplish that.

In fact, the very first step in any progress towards Irish unity would be an acceptance that that terrorist campaign was both illegitimate and pointless. It is easy to forget that most Irish Nationalists do accept this basic point, even if they rarely say it as directly. So if a United Ireland is ever to become feasible, it will be those other Irish Nationalists, not Sinn Féin and certainly not Gerry Adams, to make it so.

Are we interested in tackling prejudice, or just talking about it?

I was appalled by an MP’s use of a derogatory and unquestionably racist term in Parliament earlier this month. Yet I also found the righteous indignation which followed it somewhat unhelpful to the overall objective of ending prejudice. To me, it hinted that some Liberals are more interested in theoretically removing prejudice from our vocabulary, than practically removing it from society. Research backs up this concern.

Consider this: research shows beyond dispute that parents are two and a half times more likely to complete the google search “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?”

This is remarkable, because of course boys are no more likely to be gifted than girls (in fact, the evidence suggests they are marginally less so). If any parent were asked in public or in a survey if they thought it more likely boys were gifted than girls, they would deny it. If a politician suggested such a thing they would face righteous indignation and their resignation would be demanded. And yet, in the privacy of their own home, people (that is, lots and lots of people) do actually think it.

It gets worse. Let us try the same test when we remove the word “gifted” and replace it with “overweight”. Boys are in fact considerably more likely to be overweight than girls, so we would expect this to be asked of sons as often if not more often than of daughters. Yet in fact the google search “Is my daughter overweight?” is twice as common as “Is my son overweight?”

If anything I find this second even more concerning. Although we would all publicly deny it, it shows right from the outset a profound social reality that females are judged on appearance much more than (twice as much as) males – even by their own parents. That is prejudice, pure and simple – why should overt displays of good health be demanded of one gender more than another?

Similar research shows alarming realities about our attitudes towards different ethnic groups, different religions and different sexual orientations. For all the demands that we have to be careful with our language in public and even in surveys, collectively our attitudes remain often quite frightening when confronted with what we actually search for alone and in private.

We Liberals should then halt our righteous indignation and confront ourselves with the real question. Are we Liberals ourselves really less likely to be prejudiced, or are we just more likely to have had the good fortune to be educated to a level where we can just avoid expressing our prejudices in public? The research has the answer to that too…

Sinn Féin needs to learn value of cooperation

Sinn Féin is an electorally clever party but politically novice one. The latest example of this was its clumsy attempt at getting the European Parliament to grant “special EU status” to “the north”.

Firstly, what the European Parliament rejected – by a huge majority, by the way – was Sinn Féin’s ludicrous version of special status (essentially for Northern Ireland to retain membership). This has always been a practical impossibility, and now this has been demonstrated – rendering Sinn Féin campaigns on the issue now void.

Secondly, Sinn Féin can no longer now blame “the Brits” or “the DUP” for failures on this issue. The European Parliament has roundly rejected Sinn Féin’s stance.

Thirdly, it should be but probably will not be noted that what was rejected was not the notion of “special status”, but specifically Sinn Féin’s stance on it. This harms the whole cause.

By compromising with others, and perhaps even learning from others, Sinn Féin could probably have put a motion to the European Parliament on “Special Status” and won. However, it was never going to do so purely on its own terms.

This is a constant failure of Sinn Féin’s. Locally, it demands an Irish Language Act purely on its own terms, rather than seeking a compromise. In fact, a range of other issues – from protecting Human Rights to Same Sex Marriage – could be dealt with if Sinn Féin were willing to compromise with and indeed learn from others.

That is what comes from a movement which is all about making demands and rarely about taking responsibility for actual delivery.

Is the West really poorly served by roads infrastructure?

A recent post over on Slugger attracted a lot of attention because it made an apparently unanswerable case that there is an infrastructural east-west divide in a Northern Ireland. Although I myself have long been strongly supportive of improved road links to the North West, I would suggest the case that the West is particularly poorly served by infrastructure is, at the very least, debatable.

The maps in the linked post appear obvious – all of Northern Ireland’s motorways bar a small stretch of the western M1 and all of Northern Ireland’s railways except the scenic Coleraine-Derry line lie east of the Bann. Obviously, therefore, the West is poorly served?

Well, not necessarily. Here, for example, is the straightforward Google map covering all of Northern Ireland:


Sure, all of the blue seems shifted to the east, but what about the green? If you choose to focus on primary roads rather than specifically motorways, suddenly the West does not seem particularly poorly served at all.

It is true that there is only a limited amount of dual carriageway in the west, but there have been notable expansions to the dual carriageway network there in the past few years, including the extension of the A2 from the outskirts of Derry to the airport and the extension of the M1, as the A4 expressway (the first in Northern Ireland in fact) to Ballygawley. There were also pre-existing stretches which clearly hinted at greater things to come before the Troubles intervened (notably the A29 north of Cookstown). Much of the single carriageway network in the west is in fact superior to that in the west; with their hard shoulders, the A6 single carriageway is better west of Toome than east of it and the A4 in Fermanagh is generally much better than, say, the A3 or even the A7 further east. Therefore, in terms of the basic primary route network, it is far from clear there is a west/east divide.

It should be noted that there are also stretches of road, most obviously between Lisburn and Newry (currently still a basic dual carriageway, not even an expressway), which are blatantly sub-standard but which serve significant social and economic corridors.

Then we come to population density. This again can be visualised here, courtesy of Wikipedia:


The Belfast “Travel to Work” area accounts for less than a sixth of Northern Ireland’s land mass, yet it contains half the population. Not only is it therefore inevitable that the wider (multi-lane) roads are generally found there, but also that money will be spend on freeing up major intersections to improve traffic flow. Railways and expressways require critical mass – of the type found in areas as densely populated as Greater Belfast and the area around it, but not in rural Tyrone. Furthermore, even purely objectively, the above map shows there is at least a case for prioritising the Belfast-Armagh-Dungannon corridor (more or less the old Linen Triangle) ahead of any other – as was done when it received the first motorway.

The above map also demonstrates rather clearly why the A5 corridor (well to the west) was never prioritised before the Irish Government offered specific money towards it. In fact, the priority North-South corridors (linking M2/A6 to M1/A4) would objectively be Antrim-Lisburn and Magherafelt-Cookstown-Dungannon. Building an expressway to link such comparatively small population centres is not redressing a balance, but rather shifting it clearly in favour of the west. There is an economic case for doing that (albeit a highly contested one), but we need to be clear that is what is proposed.

The map also shows why it is difficult to maintain railways in the west. With such a low population density, in practice people need cars to move around from and to precise locations at precise times. With the population thinly spread and cars necessarily predominating, there is simply no chance that mass transit will be widely used. Overlay the current Northern Ireland rail network on the above map and you will see it is far from illogical that it serves where it serves.

On top of all of this is the reality (countered only by a heavily subsidised airport in Derry) that Northern Ireland’s ports of entry are in the east. Again, it is understandable why two ports and two airports are positioned in the Belfast area (and a third main port along the Belfast-Dublin corridor), given that most people and goods are arriving in from the east and, not least as a consequence of that, that is where most people live. Noteworthy also is that Northern Ireland’s main cross-border corridor is (understandably for the same reason) along the east coast to Dublin. This does not just mean that people entering Northern Ireland generally do so (again, to emphasise, for wholly understandable reasons) in the east, but so does freight. To get goods into Northern Ireland requires in practice bringing them in to Belfast (either directly or via Dublin along the east coast) and then distributing from there. It is hardly surprising, in this context, that infrastructure will reflect this reality. Put another way, good infrastructure around Northern Ireland’s ports of entry serves everyone in Northern Ireland, not just those who happen to live near them.

It is interesting, therefore, that we hear plenty about “evidence-based policy-making” but we do very little to explore the basis on which that “evidence” is developed. Clearly people living in the west, and perhaps Nationalists in general, will prefer to promote aspects of the Slugger article linked above to make their case, and they are not wrong to; but people in the east and perhaps Unionists more broadly will prefer to emphasise the points above. The notion that there is one set of “evidence” on which all decisions must be based is flawed. It depends, somewhat, on exactly what your vision is and what you are trying to achieve.

Nevetheless, we can say with certainty that the case that the West is uniquely poorly served by infrastructure in Northern Ireland is less clear objectively than it is to people in the West!

Language or dialect? It doesn’t actually matter…

In Italy, linguists refer to lingue italiane ‘Italian languages’ – plural. This is odd. Travelling around Italy, by and large, the road signs seem to be in a single language, waiters address you in a single language, newspapers are in a single language. So why ‘languages’?

This is complicated further by the fact there are various ‘degrees’ of ‘language-dom’ apparent across the country.

Firstly, let us start with the basics. The language we refer to as ‘Italian‘ is, as noted in the link, in fact based on a conservative form of literary Tuscan. This, notably since the Risorgimento of the mid-19th century, has been gradually accepted across the country as the written and subsequently even spoken standard. All Italians can now speak it, and a majority now do in all contexts (even informally among family).

Secondly, like any large European country, Italy has borders which were (and on the margins in some cases still are) contested, with national and linguistic minorities thus left within the boundaries of the Italian state. Thus, to the northeast there are tens of thousands of Slovene speakers; in the north there is a German speaking majority in South Tyrol; in some northwestern valleys there are speakers of dialects which would be more commonly linked to French rather than Italian; and in the Sardinian town of Alghero an estimated 20,000 people speak Catalan. These are languages with their own standards which are clearly distinct from Standard Italian, which can themselves be written, and which are clearly therefore different languages. So far, so easy.

Thirdly, within Italy, there are other Latin-derived languages with their own clear identity and, broadly, their own standard form. Two of these are particularly noteworthy. First, there is Sardinian, which like Standard Italian derives from Latin but which broke off and became literally isolated much earlier than dialects on the mainland or in Sicily and is thus markedly distinct – few doubt that Sardinian constitutes a different language with regional status. Second, there are Friulian (near the Slovene border) and Ladin (in South Tyrol) which are also derived from Latin but also broke off from Latin earlier than dialects elsewhere in Italy, which were maintained in valleys of mountainous areas (often largely cut off from communities elsewhere), and which have now developed their own place in education and written standards (Friulian and Ladin, alongside Romansch in neighbouring Switzerland, are related to each other more closely than any is to any other Latinate language, but are spoken in distinct regions and thus generally treated separately). Sardinian and Ladin-Friulian constitute a different case, as they are spoken by communities which have been based for over a millennium within the boundaries of what is now the modern Italian state. They are regional minority languages, but they are not languages of national minorities (and thus they have their own standards developed within Italy, rather than based on national or regional languages spoken in greater numbers elsewhere), which requires somewhat different treatment to enable their protection and development.

Thirdly, there are ‘languages’ (usually referred to as such in Italian, but as ‘dialects’ in English) of clear historical importance – notably perhaps Venetian, Sicilian and Neapolitan – which are spoken in some contexts by millions of Italians. These are written informally but have no agreed ‘standard’ as such, nor is there any particular desire for one – by and large, speakers are happy for written communication to be carried out in Standard Italian. These are not, however, ‘dialects of Italian’ – they followed a distinct progression from Latin and therefore do not derive from the same medieval Tuscan origin as Standard Italian (although they are historically and linguistically closer to it than Ladin-Friulian or Sardinian).

Within Italy, there is also a noteworthy linguistic boundary, referred to as the ‘La Spezia-Rimini line’). One marked distinction between traditional speech on either side of this line is that plural forms take -s to the north (including in Friulian-Ladin, Sardinian and Venetian, as well as in all dialects of French, Spanish and Portuguese and all regional Latin-derived languages and dialects in France, Spain and Portugal; thus Spanish lengualenguas ‘language-languages’) but involve amendment of the final vowel to the south of the line (including in Neapolitan, Sicilian and Tuscan and thus in Standard Italian, so lingualingue).

Then there are naturally versions of modern spoken Italian (i.e. generally close to the standard) which include traces of these latter regional ‘languages’. These may properly be referred to as ‘dialects of Italian’ because fundamentally they do, for the most part, derive from the Tuscan-based standard.

Why does this matter to us, say, in Northern Ireland?

It means that within Italy there are various languages and dialects in use: firstly, there are languages spoken more commonly in neighbouring countries with longstanding written standards; second, there are Latin- (but not Tuscan-) based regional languages now in use in education with developing written standards; third, there are regional languages (in fact with much greater numbers of speakers than either of the previous two categories, but whose speakers use them only in limited circumstances) with significant historical relevance but limited modern use and no widely accepted standard written form; all in addition to the Tuscan-based Standard Italian which initially developed primarily as a literary and thus written form. The important point is this: in fact most Italians in informal speech speak along a spectrum between their regional language and Standard Italian, tending increasingly towards the latter with each passing generation.

Which of those are ‘languages’ and which are ‘dialects’ is irrelevant, particularly given the last sentence. In fact, most Italians speak what is clearly a language (Italian) in a dialect form influenced by what they themselves generally regard as another ‘language’. There are at once Italian languages (plural) alongside a single Italian language – and this causes no problem to any Italian.

Bring this back to Northern Ireland and we have some obvious parallels. First, like German in South Tyrol or Slovene near the Adriatic, languages such as Polish or even Mandarin have pre-existing standards in their own country of origin, so although there are rights for speakers of those languages there is no need for a process of ‘linguistic development’ because they are not endangered and have standard forms, dictionaries, grammars and so on. Second, like Sardinian on Sardinia or Friulian-Ladin in mountainous areas of northern Italy, Irish is a native language of the jurisdiction (under severe threat) with a written standard but which does, unlike Polish and others, have a requirement for linguistic development because its use has (or, at least, had) declined and, if Northern Ireland does not take action to protect and promote it, there is a serious chance it will be lost altogether. Third, like Venetian or Neapolitan, Ulster Scots (like Scots across the North Channel) is a historical regional language whose speakers now use it in a spectrum with Standard English tending towards the latter; arguably, its historical importance requires some intervention to protect it, but such intervention would not be the same as is appropriate for Sardinian, Ladin-Friulian or Irish.

Those who are serious about the development of minority languages will reflect on these realities sympathetically as they introduce legislation and policy designed to promote both speakers’ rights and protect languages which may otherwise be lost. Desirable outcomes will perhaps be different in each case, and the approach towards attaining them will inevitably be.

We are, of course, about to find out who is serious and who is not.


Green populists also capable of “fake news”

On 2 July, an article ran in the Sunday Times which was, simply, a lie. In a desperate attempt to block the construction of a road which has already been agreed democratically and accepted legally, environmentalists placed an article suggesting the Conservative-DUP deal meant a road was to be built through “Heaney Country”. This is utter nonsense.

Firstly, the deal has nothing to do with the A6 road at that location whatsoever. Construction of that road was agreed democratically in 2007, funded democratically from 2015, and confirmed legally earlier this year. The deal came after construction started, based on decisions by Executive Ministers, and had and has absolutely nothing to do with the UK Government. The whole premise of the article was false – based on a lie by environmentalists.

Secondly, separately from the Deal, there is an appeal against the legal decision allowing construction to proceed which is, publicly at least, about wildlife (whooper swans, specifically). Yet the article was about “Heaney Country”, an issue irrelevant to that appeal which has long sense been dealt with. So the article had not even attempted to deal with any of the actual current issues.

Thirdly, the Deal may or may not have an impact on the potential construction of an expressway from Derry to Dungiven, which also happens to be part of the A6 but 40 miles to the west of “Heaney Country”. Did no one check this?

Add this to the ludicrous level of coverage being given to a Green candidate mounting a “legal challenge” to the Conservative-DUP deal (to the outcome of a democratic election, in other words), and we see how some environmentalists are in fact fundamentally opposed to representative democracy. If coverage must be given to them, it should be to challenge them on that basic point. Fundamentally, democracy requires us to accept decisions we don’t like. Loyalists were (rightly) mocked for refusing to accept the outcome of a democratic vote in Council in 2012. Why are environmentalists not challenged, and indeed even mocked, on the same basis?

This type of article (and the broad refusal to apply the same basic democratic rules to everyone) gives journalism an appalling name – it is shoddy beyond belief. Most of all, however, it confirms absolutely that “fake news” is by no means confined to the alt-right. Here are environmentalists delivering fakery in a big way, being deliberately deceptive. In fact, as “fake news” goes, this was as fake as I have ever seen. It should be challenged, not promoted.