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My favourite tramlines 12 February 2020

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  1. The Lisbon 28. 
    Lisbon is a paradise both for the vehicles (with controllers marked ‘Wolverhampton 1904’) and the crazy switchback routes. The 28 winds up the hill from Rua do Conceição in Baixa past the cathedral and up to the viewpoint above Alfama at St Tomé. The viewpoint is also a squeezepoint, with 4 tracks converging into a single one [photo] as the 12 and 28 diverge. Trams chase each other like something out Indiana Jones’s Temple of Doom. Just after the fork the 28 squeezes along a street so narrow the tracks have to interlace with each other, penetrating the maze where no bus would be safe. It’s great that Lisbon has now realised what an asset its trams are, and in 2018 persuaded the operator Carris to reopen part of line 24. Further extensions are planned. See Wikipedia for an excellent historical map.
  2. San Francisco Powell-Mason cable car.
    Whoever moved heaven and earth to preserve this line were geniuses. It must be one of the city’s biggest tourist magnets. It’s a unique technology, powered by cables running in ducts under the road at a steady 9 mph. At the termini, the cars are rotated on hand-pushed turntables. An arcane problem arises where the line intersects the California St line while going up a steep hill. How do you keep grip on the cable when another cable is crossing at right angles? The solution is that the line makes a shallow dip as it crosses California, and as the car approaches the crossing, the ‘gripman’ driops the cable, coasts across the junction and then picks it up again. This must require iron nerves and immaculate timing. You can see the giant cable drums and tensioners that power the system at the Car Barn near the junction of Mason and Washington Streets.
  3. I can’t leave out the Brussels 81, on which I’ve been commuting on and off for 34 years. Nothing modern about this line, which describes a semicircle round the southern side of the city centre, connecting working-class areas of St-Gilles and Etterbeek with Midi and Merode stations. In its central section, it winds through narrow streets, some cobbled, and dips into tunnel, but at either end gets room to breathe in a central reservation. I think it has only survived because it forms the only link above-ground link between the eastern part of the network, including the Woluwe tram museum, and the city centre. It’s therefore a good place to see (and hear) museum trams. A curiosity is the looping figure of 8 tracks that connect its Montgomery terminus with the 39/44 tracks to Woluwe. Over the last few years, STIB/MTUB has had the spare vehicles to intensify the timetable, and the line has got much busier. Stops have been moved and lengthened so that it can accommodate the 43-metre low-floor Flexities. So it’s now a viable inner-city ring line. But it also encapsulates the soul of the city, and at one time had a community newspaper named after it.
  4. A total contrast is Amsterdam’s line 26, the IJtram. Built in 2005 as the lifeline of the new suburb of IJburg, an archipelago of artificial islands in the IJsselmeer east of the city, it was originally going to be a metro, and has express characteristics – it runs at up to 70 km/hr, on reserved track of course, and has widely-spaced stops. It’s the only tram in town that will carry your bicycle. As IJburg has grown, capacity has had to grow to match, although nowadays you can also escape from IJburg by a bus connection at its eastern end. Peak headway is now every 3 minutes, and in 2020 GVB plans to introduce coupled sets. At Centraal station it has two alternative terminal loops – the normal one at the front, and an emergency one on the IJ side, just underneath the new Eurostar terminal.

Thirst for learning 12 September 2019

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Why don’t government-run archaeological sites in Greece have cafés?

This summer we made a tour of some of the most venerated ancient sites in Greece – Delphi, Olympia, Nestor’s Palace near Pilos and Mistras near Sparti – and noticed a paradoxical common denominator: they lack catering facilities. At Delphi the museum and ticket complex includes a café – but it is closed (and the drink vending machines don’t work). At Olympia, a building that looks exactly like a possible cafe stands derelict. Even the brand-new Acropolis Museum in Athens does indeed have an impressive restaurant – which in inaccessible because you have to make a reservation. This is no joke when temperatures are in the high 30s.

Contrast this with some of the privately-managed cultural attractions: the Benaki Museum in Athens is surmounted by a marvellous cafe with air contitioning and panoramic views from its terrace. Even the Diros caves in faraway Mani (one of the cooler experiences one could wish for in the height of summer) has a café at the entrance.

We posited a number of possible causes for this:
– a highbrow attitude from the ministry that seeks to present ancient cultural artifacts in some sort of ‘pure’ state, to be studied high-mindedly and not cluttered up by commercialism;
– the recent austerity forced on the government means that they have had to lay off ancillary staff such as caterers;
– the local chambers of commerce have objected to ‘unfair’ competition.

But these don’t stack up:
– the key sites have well-designed modern museums, into or near which it is perfectly possible to build a café without trespassing on the remains;
– reopening the cafés would provide both local jobs and boost the ministry’s coffers (by the way the entrance fees are absurdly cheap by northern European standards – especially for seniors);
– at Delphi and Olympia the eponymous villages are some way from the sites, and so cannot satisfy immediate demand for a cold drink.

The absurdity of the situation is shown by the fact that at Olympia the Red Cross of all people has erected a tent to dispense bottles of water to thirsty visitors!

So we are left with a contradiction: the mainstay of the economy (tourists bring in 21% of national income) is left frustrated, while funds that could stimulate local economies and pay for more excavations go untapped.

Bremain 18 June 2016

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Of course I’ve become infuriated and dismayed by the referendum campaign, and doubt that even Jo Cox’s incomprehensible murder will bring campaigners to their senses.
Of course also I’m something of a Brussels insider – but this is a rational choice, by a political refugee from Thatcher, you might say.
I’ve been dismayed by one of my oldest friends teetering on the brink of voting ‘out’ because he sees the EU as undemocratic (people who live in glass houses…) or – an argument even harder to counter – not up to the job of world unification (but it’s the best approach we have). I’ve been annoyed by facetious French calls that Britain should just go away and leave Europe alone (playing with fire). And I’m intrigued to wonder how much the referendum result will matter: whichever way it goes the Tory party will be riven down the middle so the sniping will go on. I’ve been given pause for thought by being called a ‘transnationalist’ in the ESF community, as if transnationality was something odd, rather than being the raison d’être of it all.
Multi-level governance and subsidiarity are complex arguments to make. It seems to me that the popular sentiment against ‘Europe’ is a matter of displacement, a sleight of hand by the UK’s own politicians. The government has hollowed out democratic accountability, stripped local government of its relevance though centralisation and privatisation, so that people have lost their sense of agency. The country they “want back” has been stolen from them not by Brussels but by Westminster.

Found in translation 8 April 2016

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Every Christmas my cousins ask me what it is I actually do in Brussels and every year they claim they still don’t understand. Waiting to board a plane for Manchester at Charleroi on Tuesday to go to Keith Richardson‘s funeral, I piloted the following non-technocratic response: “We help European governments to improve their employment, inclusion and training policies by learning from each other” – and it worked brilliantly. The young woman who’d asked said she’d started to turn off when she heard the word ‘government’ but it sounded really interesting. I’m glad to say: it is.

It reminds me of the dictum attributed to Einstein that if you can’t explain something to your grandma then you don’t understand it. Here’s the more technical version.

Horizontigo 27 February 2016

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CIMG9333 Horizontigo. Twiske mill in the distanceI thought I’d coined a new word to describe that feeling of disorientation I still get when faced with an entirely unrelievedly flat landscape – horizontigo. It still gets to me even after 2 decades of constantly travelling through it in Flanders and Holland; I long for a rolling Chiltern hill or a Yorkshire moor.
So I was disappointed to find the Urban Dictionary has got there first, defining it as the feeling you are going backwards when the vehicle next to you starts up. I think the Germans have a great train-related word for that, but I can’t find it.

Austerlitz vs. Waterloo 11 June 2015

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P1010044 Austerlitz PyramideWith one week to go until the bicentenary of the Battle of My Street (it’s next Thursday), we made a coincidental discovery.
On a sunny cycle ride through the forests between Amersfoort and Utrecht, we detoured to visit the strangely named village of Austerlitz. Napoleon’s army camped there, and named the place after the 1805 battle at what is now Slavkov in the Czech Republic. That battle was a victory for Napoleon, and his brother Louis Napoleon built a pyramid to commemorate it. After suffering some erosion it has been restored and equipped with a very gently Dutch uitspanning complete with ice cream, toy railway and various harmless amusements.
P1010050 butte du Lion info panel ironic about NapoleonAfter you have climbed the 80 steps to the top of the pyramid it is worth examining the very well-thought-out information panels mounted on the parapet. The panels are surprisingly generous to Louis Napoleon, who went native and introduced such useful attributes of civilisation as national unity, land surveys and surnames. But the panel comparing this pyramid with the Butte du Lion at Waterloo is memorably ironic:

    “On the top is a giant bronze Dutch lion, looking censoriously towards France. This monument was erected by King William I in memory of the heroism of his son on the battlefield. While ‘our’ Pyramid is a real French monument, the Butte du Lion is a Dutch memorial, despite the Walloons’ attempts to exploit it as homage to Napoleon.”

So the Dutch monument is in Belgium and the French monument is in Holland. The last clause is classic. You don’t often find Dutch nationalism in such a raw state!
How funny by the way that after the French objected to a special €2 coin being minted, Belgium has minted a €2½ one instead!

43 cablecars full of readers 5 January 2015

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Was it purely by accident that WordPress counts you, my readers by cablecar-loads?

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here's an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 43 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

This nonsense about uncertainty 14 September 2014

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IMG_1714 In de War, Warmoesstraat crVoltaire: Le doute n’est pas un état bien agréable, mais l’assurance est un état ridicule. [letter to Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, 1770]

I’ve been irritated recently by the chorus of business leaders (seemingly organised by the ‘No’ campaign) who have opined that a Scottish vote for independence on Thursday will be bad for the economy because it will create “uncertainty”. It seems to be taken as axiomatic that business dislikes uncertainty. This is at most a half-truth.

Business opportunities only come about through uncertainty. Someone with both information and imagination spots a need which they can satisfy and for which people are willing to pay. It’s a gap in the market. It’s otherwise known as risk. The entire justification for profit-making is that it involves risk. Financiers demand a “risk premium”. Risk-taking is seen as that grand thing, an entrepreneurial mindset, and tolerance of ambiguity is a political and diplomatic necessity.
Business can’t have it both ways. Either they are not taking risks – in which case the justification for taking profits disappears – or they are taking risks, in which case a bit more uncertainty is a good thing as it opens up entrepreneurial opportunities.
What these business leaders are saying is that they like the cards stacked in their own favour, just like they have always been. They don’t want the apple cart to be upset. They only want to deal with uncertainties that they have already analysed and assessed. They don’t want the bother of having to adjust their spreadsheets, set up new lobbying operations, do new market research or pay attention to new voices of citizen and consumer representation.
Uncertainty shouldn’t induce paralysis, but a search for new paths – the much praised activity of innovation. If people are poorer, that is a market opportunity, as discounters like Aldi have correctly deduced. The media industry thrives on uncertainty – without it there would be no demand for newspapers or television current affairs programmes. Uncertainty is the consultancy industry’s bread and butter. There is enormous growth in online information services that feed on uncertainty by advising us how to avoid bad weather or traffic jams. This market exists because we humans are quite risk-averse ourselves – we all want to know that is likely to happen next. And we all love a good thriller – the hero of Breaking Bad is even nicknamed Heisenberg, presumably after the inventor of the Uncertainty Principle.
So this outbreak of uncertainty-mongering must be code for something else, some other underlying fear. By voicing their fear of uncertainty, business leaders are unmasking their true nature as conservative rent-seekers, seeking to preserve their privileges – and this is hypocritical because their public stance is that they are agile and responsive to changing market demands. In principle, they should welcome change, as it opens up opportunities for innovators to make the system more efficient in meeting consumer needs.
The veiled threat is that business people will refuse to invest unless they can be sure of a predictable return. So what they are saying is that they are not entrepreneurs, just managers. They are not in business to take risks – only to preserve profits.
What’s fascinating and heartening about the Scottish referendum debate is that it has finally let out the pent-up anger at the way the City of London establishment has messed up. Their complaints about uncertainty are not only hypocritical, they are discredited. Anyway, an independent Scotland will be full of entrepreneurial opportunities.

Euronews video on To Kastri co-operative in Siros 18 November 2013

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Euronews video on To Kastri co-operative in Siros

Euronews has just published a short video on social entrepreneurship in Siros, Greece. It was shown at the Social Entrepreneurs – Have Your Say! conference in Strasbourg in January 2014.

I demand less TV! 2 October 2013

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Belgian flag TVI have a modest proposal for an innovation which would save us all a lot of time and make our days brighter, more focused and creative.
What I want is a way to reduce the number of television channels I receive – not at random of course but by picking out the good ones and consigning the rest of the rubbish to permanent and invisible oblivion. At The moment the sheer exhausting number of mindless channels that would invade my home is seriously deterring me from switching to digital TV (yes I’m still analogue).
I suppose the catch is that cable channels earn their money by charging the channels for distributing them, so they want to pump as many options into each home as they can. But I think this has backfired. Today the range of channels to be clicked laboriously through is simply exhausting, and in the end revolting, given some of their mindless content.
Television needs to be repositioned higher up the market, and that means giving viewers a way to cut out the dross so it never bothers them again. Surely some sort of ‘channel concentrator’ – a filter that only lets through the channels you have chosen – would be child’s play to make?

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