The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

More evidence that David Cameron is a stooge

Shortly after my last trip to London I blogged that UK Prime Minister David Cameron's crowing about Britain's economic recovery entirely missed the point of how awfully and slowly that recovery was going. This morning Krugman freshens the evidence:

A couple of weeks ago I tried to get at what’s wrong with the latest tactic of the austerians in terms of a classic Three Stooges scene. Curly is seen banging his head against the wall; when Moe asks why, he replies, “Because it feels so good when I stop.”

As Simon Wren-Lewis tries to explain, this is exactly the basis of the Cameron government’s triumphalism now that UK GDP is growing again.

The basic fact of UK economic performance since the financial crisis is that it has been terrible — in fact, as the NIESR documents, GDP performance has been substantially worse than during the Great Depression.

It's tragic, really. The only question going into the May 2015 elections will be: do Britons understand how much better off they could have been?

The Weird Economics Behind London's Disappearing Pubs

From The Atlantic Cities blog:

Over the past decade, 1,300 London pubs have emptied their cellars and wiped down their tables for the last time. It's not just obscure, unloved bars that are dying. This winter, two well-known historic pubs, both open for over a century apiece, will likely be turned into private housing. One is the Old White Bear, a red-brick building hidden away in village-like Hampstead, a former spa town swallowed up by Victorian London. The other, just down the hill, is The Star, an inn dating back to the 1820s with a wood-lined interior (featured in this 1980s pop video) that makes drinking there feel rather like sitting inside a whiskey-soaked violin.

Under the British system, the pub "landlord" (in British pub terminology, this actually means a manager that rents a premises, rather than an owner) must buy their booze from the company they rent the pub from. With no competition, the prices they pay are generally inflated, meaning that even if landlords trim their profit margins, beer still comes out pricier than it otherwise needs to be. While pub companies turn a profit, individual landlords are pushed to the wall. The pub companies then sell off under-performing premises, even though pubs wouldn't actually be unsustainable if landlords got a better deal.

There's a silver lining, and not just from pubs like Southampton Arms: The City of London has taken steps to preserve some landmark pubs.

Problems with Boris Bikes?

The Atlantic Cities blog sounds the alarm about London's bike share program:

While the system recorded 726,893 journeys in November 2012, last month there were only 514,146. To cap these poor user figures, today Transport for London announced that the scheme's major sponsor, Barclays Bank, will pull out of its sponsorship deal in 2015. Given the bad publicity the system has received recently, it may be hard to find a replacement sponsor without some major changes.

None of this would matter much if London’s scheme was entirely self-sustaining. But while Paris's bike-share scheme actually makes money for the city, London's 4,000 bikes cost local taxpayers an average of £1,400 per bike per year. As the Daily Mail points out, this would be enough to buy each of the scheme's 38,000 registered users a £290 bike. Barclays has thus found its sponsorship deal a mixed publicity blessing – though the bank itself may be part of the problem. The £50 million it promised was never going to be enough, and the amount it has actually handed over so far suggests their ultimate contribution could be at little as half that.

So, Toronto and London are having problems; Chicago and Paris are booming. This is turning into a fascinating natural experiment.

Glow-in-the-dark bike path from the UK

This rocks:

The so-called "Starpath" is a type of solar-enhanced liquid and aggregate made by Pro-Teq Surfacing, a company headquartered southwest of London near the awesomely titled town of Staines-upon-Thames. It's in the prototype phase, with a test path running 460 feet in a Cambridge park called Christ's Pieces. (The British and their delightful names!) The material works by absorbing UV rays during the day and later releasing them as topaz light. In a weird feature, it can somehow adjust its brightness levels similar to the screen of an iPhone; the path gets dimmer on pitch-black nights "almost like it has a mind of its own," says Pro-Teq's owner, Hamish Scott.

Pro-Teq is hoping that governments will embrace its self-aware, supernatural-looking pathway for its energy-saving elements and the ease in which it goes down. The installation is fairly quick (the Cambridge job took about 4 hours), and because it's a resurfacing technique doesn't involve the burdensome disassembly and disposal of existing pathways. "The main bulk of the U.K. path network is tarmac, where perhaps it's coming toward the end of its useful life," says Pro-Teq pitchman Neil Blackmore in the below video. "We can rejuvenate it with our system, creating not only a practical but a decorative finish that's certainly with the Starpath also very, very unique."

From the company's press release:

This product has recently been sprayed onto the existing pathway that runs through Christ’s Pieces open space, Cambridge between the city centre and the Grafton Centre, and is used by pedestrians and cyclists during the day and night.

The Cambridge pathway measures 150 square metres, took only 30 minutes to spray the material on, and the surface was ready for use less than four hours after the job commenced. This short installation time allowed minimal disruption to the public.

Bike hike to Cambridge, anyone?

Favorite pubs in the world

The question just came up in an email exchange with a friend's friend's sister: what are my favorite pubs in the world?

After a couple minutes' thought, I got here:

1. Duke of Perth, Chicago. Obviously; it has been my remote office off and on for over 20 years.

2. Southampton Arms, London. If I ever live in the UK, this may switch places with the Duke. It's just hard to say a place is my favorite when it's 6,000 kilometers away and I only go there twice a year.

3. Tommy Nevin's, Evanston, Ill., my former remote office.

4. Nag's Head, Hoboken, N.J. Another that used to be my remote office—but in the days before Wi-Fi and ubiquitous laptops. I still visit if I have time while I'm in New York.

5. Guthrie's Tavern, Chicago. Since the Duke of Perth is halfway between my house and Guthrie's, I don't get there as often as I used to. But it's worth the trip.

Some honorable mentions:

  • Bucktown Pub, Chicago. I'm starting to warm to the place, especially after many trivia nights there. Unfortunately, I don't live in Bucktown.
  • Peddler's Daughter, Nashua, N.H. (A former temporary remote office.)
  • The Bridge, Amberley, England. A real, live English country pub.
  • Kennedy's, San Francisco. By day, on its patio, it's wonderful. At night, it gets a little too loud and crowded, and there are too many TVs. Still, I almost always stop in when I'm out there.
  • Tigin, Stamford, Conn. My then-girlfriend lived right around the corner.

And some that are no more, and missed: Abbey Tavern, New York, where I hung out weekly from 1997 to 2000; closed in 2006. And The King's Head, Earls Court, London—which was really great before the new owners turned it into a trendy gastro-pub.

I'm always looking for suggestions.

What Shakespeare sounded like

I live for this kind of thing:

What did Shakespeare’s English sound like to Shakespeare? To his audience? And how can we know such a thing as the phonetic character of the language spoken 400 years ago? These questions and more are addressed in the video above, which profiles a very popular experiment at London’s Globe Theatre, the 1994 reconstruction of Shakespeare’s theatrical home. As linguist David Crystal explains, the theater’s purpose has always been to recapture as much as possible the original look and feel of a Shakespearean production—costuming, music, movement, etc. But until recently, the Globe felt that attempting a play in the original pronunciation would alienate audiences. The opposite proved to be true, and people clamored for more. Above, Crystal and his son, actor Ben Crystal, demonstrate to us what certain Shakespearean passages would have sounded like to their first audiences, and in so doing draw out some subtle wordplay that gets lost on modern tongues.

[D]espite the strangeness of the accent, the language can sometimes feel more immediate, more universal, and more of the moment, even, than the sometimes stilted, pretentious ways of reading Shakespeare in the accent of a modern London stage actor or BBC news anchor.

Next trip to London, I want to catch an OP production at The Globe.

How to lie with statistics, UK-style

I'm a big fan of the Ed and Dave show, also known as Prime Minister's Questions, which C-SPAN airs live when the House of Commons is in session. Today's game included a series of set pieces in which Conservative MPs had batting practice with the PM who hit a bunch of pop-ups that any competent infielder should have caught.*

Unfortunately, Ed Milliband leads the Labour Party right now, and—continuing the metaphor into extra innings—his side of the house play like Cubs.

Here's a typical exchange:

Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con):
Since we last met there has been a spate of good economic news, both in Tamworth and around the country. Unemployment is down and the economy is growing. Manufacturing is up, exports are up and construction is up. Is it not time for those who still propose it to stop messing around, give it up and abandon plan B?

The Prime Minister:
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have had welcome news over the summer: exports are up 5.8% on a year ago, business confidence is at its highest level since January 2008, consumer confidence is up and all the figures on construction, manufacturing and services are going in the right direction. We must not be complacent—these are early days—but it is because of the tough decisions that this Government took that we can now see progress.

We ought to remember that Labour Members told us that unemployment would go up, but it has come down, and that the economy would go backwards, but it has gone forwards. It is time for them to explain that they were wrong and we were right.

OK, since the Labour Party couldn't explain why the Conservatives were wrong, let me try. It's great that the UK's economy has improved in the last six years, but it could have grown faster without the Tory Party's emphasis on cutting the deficit. A lot faster. In fact, Tory policies probably delayed the recovery by 18 months to two years.

My larger point is this: neither side got it right. But to quite literally sit there and take it seems like bad politics. Especially since we got this exchange right at the end of Questions:

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab):
Is it not the case that real wages have fallen by nearly £1,500 a year since the right hon. Gentleman became Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister:
Of course we live in tough times because of the incredible mess we have had to clear up from the Opposition. I have to say that the Opposition complaining about the economy and living standards is like the arsonist complaining to the fire brigade. It is this Government who are turning the economy around, and that is the way we will get living standards up.

Shit and fried eggs, you've got half a million more people in work since 2010, but they're all earning less money? And the Labour MPs have no response? (At least two other Labour back-benchers got in some facts about the profiteering of free—i.e., charter—schools and the £3.3 bn in energy company profits coinciding with an average £300 per-household increase in energy costs. I've indirectly experienced those high energy costs, too.)

Also towards the end, an old reactionary Tory hawk, Dr. Julian Lewis, trashed the Tories' coalition partners, causing nearly all of them to walk out of the House during the session. Oh, not by himself; I think most of them left when Cameron suggested that the Conservatives would rule alone after the next election that the Lib-Dems had had enough.

Oy. At least we've got nearly two years before the next election, giving the Tories a lot more time to screw people. I hope the Labour Party figures out how to win some matches before May 2015.

* Can I use a baseball metaphor when discussing the UK? Of course I can.

Routers that don't speak American, and other UK adventures

I didn't intend to go dark for the last 48 hours, but it turns out none of my devices (laptop, tablet, phone) could connect with the WiFi hub where I've been staying.

Not that I tried any more than the most basic troubleshooting (reset laptop WiFi, reboot router, change router channel). I've been in Edinburgh, with only one full day to explore the city, and struggling with my computer for half an hour seemed like a bad way to spend it.

I've also not shaved since Sunday morning because of Scottish energy prices. Let me explain.

The friend who lent me her spare room last night, and also who generously spent her day touring the city with me, lives in a really cute house just a few minutes outside central Edinburgh. She has a hot-water tank and a boiler, but also, for reasons she has given up trying to work out, an electric shower. The landlord put the electric shower in probably for the same reason people in the US put in granite countertops: because that's what everyone else does. And as she told me, "after looking for a place to live for eight weeks I didn't feel I needed to check the plumbing before signing up."

This friend lived in Chicago for a while, so when she uses relative expressions to compare the two countries, she isn't exaggerating. She told me that heating up an entire tank of hot water costs quite a lot of money. Further, it only goes to the kitchen and W/C taps along with the radiators. So in the summer, she leaves the hot water heater off, since outside the shower (which has an electric heater) she has no compelling need for hot tap water.

You can see where this is going.

It turns out, I don't have an electric shaver; I use shaving cream and a razor. Though my host and I didn't discuss her shaving habits, I infer that she has no difficulty shaving in the shower without a mirror. So, no hot water in the taps, and no mirror in the shower, and at the moment I've got a Don Johnson thing going on, only without the hair, looks, or white jacket.

It's these little differences between the US and UK that keep me coming back.