The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Well played, Ed

Instead of worrying how to put together another coalition (or even minority) government today, David Cameron has won an outright majority:

At the time of writing, with almost all 650 seats declared, the Conservatives had 325, Labour 229, the SNP 56 and the Liberal Democrats eight. In practice 323 Members of Parliament is the number needed to form a majority government.

As Cameron drove to Buckingham Palace to notify Queen Elizabeth that she had a new government from day one, rather than the chaotic search for a viable cross-party coalition of either the right or the left, [Ed] Miliband resigned as Labour leader, shocked by the scale of his rejection by the electorate. Among the night’s casualties were a raft of senior Labour figures, including his shadow chancellor Ed Balls, defeated in Leeds.

The result was a vindication of Cameron’s much-criticized decision to run a largely negative campaign, stressing the risks to Britain’s still-fragile economic recovery of a Labour government that would overspend and drive away investors through taxes aimed at the wealthy and their tax-avoiding practices.

The majority isn't large enough to guarantee passage of the Conservative agenda in full. For one thing, Conservative back-benchers will probably agitate to pull the country out of the European Union, which would be disastrous for Britain. And with the SNP's 56-vote bloc, another referendum on Scotland seems likely in two or three years.

The Economist:

Europe is especially dangerous for the Conservatives. Under pressure from Eurosceptics in his party, Mr Cameron promised to spend two years renegotiating Britain’s place in the EU before holding an in-out referendum by the end of 2017. Setting such a firm deadline was foolish: there is a real risk that, in the mid-term doldrums, British voters will sever their country’s relationship with its most important trading partner. But Mr Cameron has no option but to stick with it.

The difficulty will be calibrating Britain’s demands. Ask for too much and he will come home empty-handed. Win too little from Brussels and he will lose too many of his own party for his government to survive. He should avoid all talk of treaty change (which European governments are unlikely to countenance) and focus instead on cutting red tape, extending the single market and cracking down on welfare tourism. Then he should spin every slight achievement as a mighty victory.

Scotland poses a bigger problem. The Nationalists’ triumph was almost complete and they now have a large foothold in the parliament of a country that they wish to dismember. A second independence referendum in the next few years seems increasingly likely. English resentment of Scotland is growing, and is particularly strong among Tory backbenchers. One way out of this bind is for Mr Cameron to move more boldly towards far-reaching devolution. That might restore some Scottish faith in Westminster. And the country’s rent-seeking political culture will end only when the Scottish government has power over finances.

Like a lot of Labour-leaning people, I'm curious to see how the party recover from the loss today. The Liberal Democrats have a harder time of it, though: Nick Clegg also resigned, now that the entire Lib-Dem caucus is small enough to fit in a minivan.

Barking mad at dog poop

The London borough of Barking and Dagenham (yes, really) will fine you £80 if you don't clean up your dog's poop. How will they catch you? Doggy DNA:

In its pilot stage, only one or two local dog parks will be involved in the DNA testing, according to Eric Mayer, head of business development for Biopet Vet Lab. Anyone who wants to use those facilities will have to submit a canine swab, which cost about $45. (The fee will probably be split between the owner, the borough and the lab.) But by 2016, all 27 of the borough's parks and open spaces could be patrolled.

That seems a little invasive on the one hand, but on the other, it hurts dog owners everywhere when one or two lazy bastards fail to clean up after their pets. Still, who wants the job of matching samples to dogs?

In the cards

My catching-up on the Netflix version of Michael Dobbs' House of Cards has taken a brief hiatus as the friend in question has actual work and family obligations. I'm taking advantage of the pause to go back to the original BBC miniseries with Ian Richardson in the role of F.U.

You know what? It'ts better. It has a faster pace, more sharply-drawn characters, it's funnier, and it isn't sanctimonius—it's an actual satire. Francis Urquhart is evil, and doesn't care that we in the audience know it. Francis Underwood wants us to like him. That may be the difference between the UK and the US in a nutshell.

Still, in three hours of the BBC miniseries, I find myself laughing out loud at Urquhart's deviousness and at the lampooning of British political archetypes (that, granted, require some context about British politics post-Thatcher). The Netflix series just seems so...sanctimonious. Melodramatic. Long.

The British understand satire. Americans, not so much. Comparing the two versions of House of Cards side by side has been an education.

A day in the life of the Tube

Very cool simulation:

A new data visualization from a coder named Will Gallia shows commuters working their way through a day in the life of London’s Tube as exactly that: busy little pixels of commuting energy.

There are a few fun takeaways from this living, breathing transit map. Things get really, really busy, for instance, at around 8:40 in the morning, and again at around 6:10 at night. But there are also areas of consistent low activity: The Hainault Loop in the far right corner, for instance, attracts few riders even at the craziest of commute times. All transit lines are not created equal.

This is catnip to me.

The Big Stink

Yesterday NPR's Fresh Air interviewed Lee Jackson, author of Dirty Old London. Apparently my second-favorite city in the world came late to the sanitation party:

[B]y the 1890s, there were approximately 300,000 horses and 1,000 tons of dung a day in London. What the Victorians did, Lee says, was employ boys ages 12 to 14 to dodge between the traffic and try to scoop up the excrement as soon as it hit the streets.

This is the thing that's often forgotten: that London at the start of the 19th century, it was basically filled with these cesspools. There'd be brick chambers ... they'd be maybe 6 feet deep, about 4 [feet] wide and every house would have them. They'd be ideally in the back garden away from the house, but equally in central London and more crowded areas it was more common to have a cesspool in the basement. ... And above the cesspool would be where your household privy would be. And that was basically your sanitary facilities, for want of a better term.

He goes on from there.

Chicago, one should remember, also had disgusting streets, and nowhere to put sewers. Our solution? In the 1850s, we raised the city about 1.2 meters above the surrounding terrain. Note that it still took London 50 years to develop that level of sanitation.

Now London is one of the cleanest cities in the world. Still, people from outside the city—particularly from the north of England—refer to it as "the Big Stink." Cultural memories last for a long time.

I see London, I see France

CitiLabs' Feargus O'Sullivan thinks London should stop looking to New York for guidance and concentrate on a city closer to home:

[L]et me outline the difficulties the U.K. capital faces. London's property prices are spiraling, products of a housing drought that's turning decent apartments affordable on a working class wage into urban legends. The city's inequality chasm is widening inch-by-inch, and once economically diverse neighborhoods risk becoming monocultures. This has helped to deaden and marginalize aspects of the city's cultural life that made London vibrant in the first place—a lesser point than displacement, no doubt, but a problem nonetheless. Meanwhile, the city's regenerative energies are ignoring the small print of daily livability and being channeled into ridiculously flashy grand projects that see the city as a mere display cabinet in which to cluster expensive, largely functionless infrastructural tchotchkes.

Does this all sound familiar, New Yorkers?

What makes [London mayor Boris] Johnson's NY-LON obsession more frustrating is that London actually has a far more relevant role model closer to home. It's a place that has strong historical connection with London, a city whose architecture and cultural life London long strove to emulate. Obviously, I'm talking about Paris.

It's worth a (quick) read.

Hello, GCHQ

A joint US-UK operation has obtained the master encryption keys to billions of mobile phones:

The hack was perpetrated by a joint unit consisting of operatives from the NSA and its British counterpart Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. The breach, detailed in a secret 2010 GCHQ document, gave the surveillance agencies the potential to secretly monitor a large portion of the world’s cellular communications, including both voice and data.

With these stolen encryption keys, intelligence agencies can monitor mobile communications without seeking or receiving approval from telecom companies and foreign governments. Possessing the keys also sidesteps the need to get a warrant or a wiretap, while leaving no trace on the wireless provider’s network that the communications were intercepted. Bulk key theft additionally enables the intelligence agencies to unlock any previously encrypted communications they had already intercepted, but did not yet have the ability to decrypt.

Oh, goody. Essentially, if you have a phone with a SIM card (in the U.S., that means you have AT&T or T-Mobile), the NSA and Britain's GCHQ can listen in to your conversation in real time. (The article goes into some good technical depth about the exploits and how they did it.)

Of course, they would have to be looking for you in order to do that, but still. This is the kind of revelation that (a) makes me think Edward Snowden may not have been such a bad guy after all, and (b) that because so few people care, the world is a scarier place.

By the way, I'm right now reading The Honourable Schoolboy, having finished Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in London last weekend. I'm rooting for Smiley and Westerby just the same. But you know, the USSR had 15,000 nuclear bombs pointed at us, and Western spying back then was aimed at the USSR, not at its own citizens.

Bar exams in two jurisdictions

Since last report, I've spent time at two bars known for their craft beer selection. Even though I've seriously reduced my beer intake for a variety of reasons (especially its effect on my Fitbit numbers), spending a couple of days away from home let me feel a certain license in my consumption.

Friday night, therefore, I found Kaschk, a Swedish-owned pub on the fringes of the Mitte district in the former East Berlin. Within a few moments of entering I knew I'd come to the right place:

Old Rasputin on draft? And what's this Brewfist Spaceman pale—Italian?

After a 90-minute conversation with the manager, Rab (yes, Rab: he's Scots), I actually accepted that somewhere in Italy someone knows how to make small-batch craft beer.

Then, last night, back to Southampton Arms, we had a rare (for Saturday night) sighting of Fred the Bar Bitch:

And as Southampton Arms is a true pub, the evening wound up with me and a very cool couple (Chris and Jess) closing the place down before I hit the Night Bus back to my hotel. After that began a disappointing and ultimately futile search for kebab. No matter; it was a great evening, with a limited number of very tasty beers, including Redemption Big Chief Ale.

And now I'm back at Heathrow, with a 20-minute walk to my gate commencing in just a moment. Then Chicago, then routine. And less beer.

Berlin history

Another big walking day in sunny weather took me up to Bernauerstraße and the Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall Memorial):

That's a mostly-preserved but partially-reconstructed section of the wall at the corner of Bernauerstraße and Ackerstraße, near the site where the first person trying to flee over the wall was killed. It's hard to imagine that the place I'm sitting now was once in East Berlin, just a few hundred meters from the place by the Wall where Reagan gave his famous speech in 1987.

I ended the walk at the DDR Museum, which outlined what life in East Germany was like from 1945 to 1990. In between I walked down Big Hamburger Street Große Hamburger Straße, in the old Jewish quarter, and stopped to check email (and have some non-German beer) at Sophie'n eck:

This is just a few meters from the monument to all of Berlin's Jews killed during the Holocaust. More grim history.

It's also fairly close to Museum Island which—wait for it—is an island on which sits nothing but museums (and the occasional cathedral). Here's the view looking downstream from the northern tip of Museums-Insell:

Upstream a bit is the Berlin Dom, which is not a BDSM maneuver but is still big, intimidating, and German:

Note that all of these photos are from my mobile phone. I have a few hundred on my real camera, but they're inaccessible right now because I forgot the proper cable. I aim to have some of those photos up by Wednesday or Thursday.

Tomorrow I'm off to my second-favorite city in the world, where I have set aside time and calories to park at Southampton Arms for a couple of hours.

Tonight, though: I've got another 6,000 steps to go. I missed 20,000 yesterday by just a handful, but I have over 100,000 for the week, putting me almost up to 80 km. (I've yet to hit 15 km in a day. Maybe tomorrow?)