måndag 31 december 2007

Southern success story

These Electrostars are not the best designed trains ever to have run in Britain and as they are still being turned out, it is unfortunate that everyone has set their faces against some of the improvements that might have been possible, such as getting some extra width and developing proper long-distance version with doors at the ends instead of in the middle where they cause a draught and overload the heating and air con system and result in wasted space which could be used for more seating. And when the track is less than perfect, the ride is still as wild as ever. But that is how things are in Britain - people refuse to acknowledge problems.

That said, it is usually possible to find a comfortable seat, which is more than can be said for Voyagers, Pendolinos and the latest horrible refurbishment for First Great Western, on which the general verdict is negative. Indeed, for a long journey, I would rather travel in an Electrostar than any of the other trains mentioned.

But the real success story is that the operators and manufacturers have got on top of the complexities of these trains and they are running nearly as reliably as the simple and robust slam door stock which they replaced, so there must be a lot of people out there who deserve a pat on the back.

Train ticket machines

These ticket machines were brought in by Southern a few years ago. They have never been easy to use but at least are more reliable than they were to start with. Even if you know how to use them it does not help if you are stuck behind people who do not. Often they stand with their finger hovering over a keyboard, like someone offered a box of chocolates, who can't make up their mind which one to pick.

The trouble is they have tried to make the machines usable by everyone, but most of the people I know who are not comfortable with computers will not use the machines anyway. In which case they might as well be designed on the assumption that they will be used by people who are familiar with computers, with a windows-style interface, and the keyboard should be a normal one instead of the finicky touch-screen one.

There are now computers with heavy-duty keyboards and trackballs - I saw one the other day on the concourse at Gatwick airport, and that is presumably tough enough to stand up to conditions on railway stations.

Rail franchise musical chairs

The train franchises have been re-let and these trains have been transferred from Central Trains to the re-vamped Cross Country, which was Virgin. The whole operation is like a game of musical chairs. But because each franchise projects itself as a "brand", the liveries change, and the trains have to get repainted. In the meantime, the old company's labels are peeled off but you can see where they were.

In reality, the train operating companies are little more than management companies, and all that is needed are a few window stickers saying "Train Service operated by..." It is a lot of nonsense and nobody is fooled. There are less complaints but that is because people have realised it is a waste of time complaining.

måndag 24 december 2007

Ticket Touting

Ticket Tout, originally uploaded by Dave Hogg.

MPs are calling for action against ticket touts. But what has this to do with the government?

If touts can make a profit from tickets bought from the promoters of concerts and sports events, it indicates that the promoters are choosing to sell them for less than their market value. They obviously have some reason for this, probably because they prefer to sell off as many tickets as possible as soon as possible, leaving the touts to carry the risk of being left with unsold tickets. This sounds like a normal market mechanism working as markets should, to balance out supply and demand.

If it really is a problem, then the concert promoters could adopt various alternatives. They could simply auction all the tickets themselves. Or they could sell the tickets in the same way as as airlines sell their seats, making limited numbers of tickets available at low cost well in advance, and pushing up the prices as the time of the event approaches.

What about things like football matches where the tickets are available at concessionary prices to supporters and so on? All that is necessary to prevent the tickets being sold on is to make them valid only when used in conjunction with some kind of membership or other identity card, in the same way as Students' Railcards are.

Nobody is going to starve or be left living on the streets because they cannot get into a pop concert, and it is worrying that MPs see it as something they should be involved in. More worrying still is that their understanding of fundamental economics is so poor that they do not recognise it is the operation of simple market forces.

The forthcoming financial crash

People who criticise reckless lending by the banks generally fail to mention that this lending has been mostly used to fuel a speculative land price bubble, which closely resembles previous credit-fuelled land price bubbles occurring in 1990 and before that in the early 1970s. Indeed, these boom-bust cycles, based on the foolish assumption that land values will go on rising indefinitely, appear to be disrupted only by major wars, as records show them as having occurred with roughly the same 18 year frequency throughout the nineteenth century.

Whatever measures are taken to stave off a collapse, it is bound to come, and things will eventually pick up after that, though not without a lot of people getting hurt on the way. How can a recurrence be avoided, some time around 2025? Some commentators suggest that what is needed is more regulation. But this will not prevent a recurrence. For one thing, history shows that regulations tend to get dismantled when most needed and detailed circumstances vary; they cannot cater for every eventually. It is the underlying cause, surely, that needs to be dealt with - the finance of land purchase and consumer spending using speculative future land value as collateral. Like a plant feeding only on its own roots, the growth cannot continue indefinitely. Fiscal changes are needed which will make it pointless to speculate on land value and impossible to borrow against. The banks would then need to finance themselves by providing genuine services instead of creating money and lending it at interest on the collateral of bubbled-up land values.

lördag 22 december 2007

Blair and the unborn children

Following his reception into the Catholic Church, SPUC, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and others taking a similar stance, have been criticising Tony Blair's support for the liberalisation of abortion.

"During his premiership Tony Blair became one of the world's most significant architects of the culture of death, promoting abortion, experimentation on unborn embryos, including cloned embryos, and euthanasia by neglect," said John Smeaton, SPUC's national director.

"SPUC is writing to Tony Blair to ask him whether he has repented of the anti-life positions he has so openly advocated throughout his political career."

Perfectly reasonably, in the circumstances, but this focus shows a strange attitude. From their comments, anyone might think that Blair had nothing to do with the evil and illicit invasion of Iraq - as if whilst SPUC and others quite rightly stand up for the rights of the unborn, they fall silent over the rights of the born.

If the empty statements that have characterised his years in office are anything to go by, Blair may be nothing more than a naif at large, and barely culpable for his actions. What is worrying is how the political system can allow anyone like that to become Prime Minister. And his successor looks set to preside helplessly over economic disaster. Any how many more abortions have there been and will there be because parents cannot afford or do not have space for another child as a result of the Blair/Brown economic policies? And will SPUC have anything to say on that subject? Why do some Catholics tolerate cruel and unjust economic institutions and cry out only at the consequences? Whilst others, concentrating on economic issues, advocate Marxist and Keynesian nostrums, whilst ignoring the teachings of the Catholic church on the subject?

Catholic social teaching is seamless and it does nothing but harm to focus on one part to the neglect of the rest.

A long wait to collect the Christmas post

The picture shows only part of the queue outside Brighton sorting office on the Saturday before Christmas - it was more than 100 yards long. If the Post Office can't get your package through the letter box or it needs to be signed for, then they leave a card and the post is taken back to the sorting office and you have to collect it.

Unfortunately the system isn't very good so it takes them a while to find your packet when you give them your card. And they do not seem to have got the idea of having numbered paper tags that you can take, which allows you to go off and do your shopping, so instead, people have to waste their time standing outside in the cold, like this. And being British, they don't complain, and so nothing changes. I feel sorry for the people behind the counter who have to scurry around trying to find people's post, especially as they are probably not in a very good mood after having waited for the best part of an hour, but what kind of managers does the Royal Mail have when they let this kind of thing go on?

fredag 21 december 2007

This Christmas will cost the British economy £21 billion

Rioting Christmas trees, originally uploaded by Edgley Cesar.

So said Steven Alambritis, spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, explained this evening.

This begs some important questions, such as how should the economy be measured, what is the economy for and who in Britain will bear this cost?

The trouble is that the questions are not asked, and governments pursue policies whose main purposes is to increase the size of the Gross National Product. Unfortunately, that which the GNP measures has little direct relationship with that which creates in people a sense of pleasure and well-being.

It was Oscar Wilde who famously said, "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". If he was right, it would mean that we are now in the age of cynicism, which I do not believe. I just get the impression that collectively, we have lost our ability to see the wood for the trees. That is plain stupidity. But until clarity of vision is recovered, the economy will continue to be an all-devouring monster that is destroying the planet and everything on it, whilst adding little to the sum total of human happiness.

Mid-ocean shopping mall

Giant ferries ply the Baltic between Sweden, Finland and Estonia. They are quite a comfortable way of travelling, and not too expensive. But why are they registered at Mariehamn. Where is Mariehamn? What is Mariehamn? And what are these floating shopping malls about?

Mariehamn, population 10,000, is the capital of Åland, the group of islands off the coast of Sweden, populated by Swedes, that actually belongs to Finland. And it has an odd history. As the Swedish empire was pushed back by Russia from the beginning of the eighteenth century, first Estonia and then Finland, in 1809, came under Russian control and with it the semi-independent of status of Grand Duchy. The Åland Islands were taken over by Russia at the same time.

In 1917, when Finland declared independence, there was a dispute between Finland and Sweden over ownership of Åland. To cut a long story short, the islanders wanted to be part of Sweden, Finland wanted to keep them and the Swedish government had little enthusiasm in getting involved in a conflict. The matter was eventually resolved by the League of Nations, which in 1921 decided it should be part of Finland, on the grounds that Åland is joined to Finland by a continuous archipelago.

Since then, commonsense has prevailed. The islands are semi-autonomous and in 1995 obtained special terms when Finland joined the EU. These include certain tax advantages which the ferry companies make the most of. Which is the reason for these floating shopping malls

torsdag 13 december 2007

The sacrifice of a colombian soldier... for what?

I recently came across a picture of a young Columbian soldier who had his legs blown off in the "war on drugs". I don't pretend to be knowledgeable about the situation in Colombia. But there are obvious parallels with that and events in Afghanistan and some general points to be made.

Because of the desire for drugs in Europe and the US, coca and heroin are very valuable commodities and restricting supply only makes them more so. Hence the determination of criminal suppliers to protect their business and of rival gangs to get a share of the action at any price.

Because of the high cost of buying drugs, many users in the US and Europe descend into a chaotic lifestyle in which their life is dominated by their need to obtain the money for the drug. Hence the amount of property crime by these people. If the government really wanted to reduce the crime figures it would legalise drugs - which is not the same as abandoning control.

The tobacco manufacturers may be nasty outfits. But it is infinitely preferable for powerful commodities like drugs to be in the hands of properly regulated companies than in the hands of violent men acting outside the law.

lördag 8 december 2007

£60 to stand from London to Swansea

This is First Great Western for you. The trains just need to have more carriages.

Unfortunately the platforms at Paddington (below) have been shortened to make a shopping mall where the carriages used to stand so the station would have to be changed back again to what it was before if they are going to run longer trains.

Paddington Station

First Great Western has ruined its trains

Not enough luggage space

First Group has paid some design consultant to refurbish its 30 year old Inter City 125 trains on its Great Western routes. These redesigned trains must be amongst the most unpleasant long-distance trains in Europe. The interiors induce a feeling of claustrophobia. They have stuffed in too many seats too close together, and they are cramped and uncomfortable. They are also arranged in a face-to-back layout, as in coaches and aircraft. This causes trouble with luggage. Coaches and planes have luggage holds, whereas trains do not; on trains, most of the luggage space is between the seat backs. But when the seats all face the same way, the space between the seat backs no longer exists. So there is not enough luggage space at all and people are leaving it in the doors and gangways, blocking them up like this.

The company says that this was done on the basis of a survey which found that passengers wanted more seats on the trains, but it is a dumb survey that does not spell out that packing in more seats will mean cramped seats and insufficient room for luggage. And it is equally dumb to just act on the results of such a survey. Now they need to do another survey which will find that passengers want luggage space and and legroom.

Interior of Inter City 125 train

torsdag 6 december 2007

Who were the Physiocrats?

I have continued my blog with a new web address, one I can remember.

It is www.physiocrat.blogspot.com.

Why Physiocrat and who were they? They were the first people to put the study of political economy on a sound footing. Unfortunately, few today are building on the good work they began.

The Physiocrats were a group of intellectuals in the court of the French King Louis XIV. They were the first to put the study of political economy on a sound footing.

Quesnay (1694–1774), perhaps the best known of them, argued that as all taxes come out of land rent, the multiplicity of taxes then applied in France should be abolished and replaced by just one on the rental value of the land. This was the "impôt unique". Apart from collection of the rental value of land, the Physiocrats held that governments should not interfere in the operation of the economy, since, once the tax was collected, things would more or less look after themselves.

Unfortunately, vested interests have ever since meant that land rents have stayed with the landowners and there is no end to the government interference that goes on.

onsdag 5 december 2007

Ticket touts

Chimaira concert photographs from Tilburg Holland 06/10/03 MORE bands artists singers pop stars www.yoursuperstar.com
Originally uploaded by www.yoursuperstar.com.

There was a piece on the radio this morning about concert promoters who want a cut from people who buy concert tickets and then sell them on at a profit, often using the internet. The obvious question that comes to mind is that if the promoters want their full whack, why don't they just charge more for the tickets in the first place?

As the discussion developed, it turned out that sometimes, the tickets are sold at a discount from the original price. In other words, the intermediaries, the so-called touts, are taking a loss and doing the promoters a favour by taking the tickets off the promoters' hands.

All in all, then, these intermediaries are performing a useful function all round, in providing the promoters with an assured market and customers with an assured supply. It is a kind of insurance, with the "touts" taking part of the risk.

It is sad that public understanding of basic economic principles is so poor that their activities are regarded with opprobrium instead of being recognised as a useful service.

tisdag 4 december 2007

Canon Ixus RIP

I never liked this camera, when the lens jammed I tried to open it up to fix it but all the bits are stuffed in and the task is impossible except for Canon's technicians who charge almost the price of a new camera.

It has lasted just two years and I took around 12000 exposures. All the same, it is unlikely I will be looking for another one of the same make. At least it cost a lot less than film but it has encouraged quantity rather than quality.

All suggestions welcome. I already have an SLR which lives under my bed and almost never comes out so a digital SLR is not for me. Olympus mju 795SW is a possibility.

The argument against religion

There are lots of arguments against religion, but it would be nice if the people who felt that way would at least put their brain cells together, if they have any.

I am going to Peter Atkins' retirement dinner on Friday. He is a buddy of Richard Dawkins, probably Britain's leading atheist. As a Catholic, on the whole I prefer atheists to bible-bashing Protestants. Peter Atkins is the author of some of the best chemistry textbooks ever, but he doesn't seem to have much in the way of a cogent argument against religion, saying that science can explain everything. Actually, as a physical chemist he should know better, as at the quantum scale things go all awry, but that aside, one cannot dismiss people's claims of religious experience as meaningless or delusional . At the very least, it has to be studied as an epiphenomenon of neuroscience, and an aspect of sociology and phychology.

Virus questions - and the Swedish exception

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