Posts tagged ‘london’

Drone War Legacy

In campaigning for the Presidency, Obama made it clear that he thought that much of the violence and hatred directed at Americans was self-inflicted -- ie our often ham-fisted, aggressive interventionism in the affairs of other countries, frequently backed by military force, was aggravating the world against us.  If we stopped, the violence against us would stop.

I rate this as partially correct and partially naive.  As the richest state in the world, one whose culture pours into other countries to the dismay of many of the local elites, we will always earn the ire of many.  But we certainly have made it worse with our actions.

But this just makes it all the more frustrating to me to see Obama's continued support, even acceleration, of the drone war.  I am not sure there is any other practice that emphasizes our arrogant authoritarian militarism than the drone war.  Americans are not used to a feeling of helplessness, so it is perhaps hard to fully empathize.  But imagine the sense of helplessness to watch American drones circling above your city, drones you can't get rid of or shoot down, drones that lazily circle and then bring death from above almost at random.   I can't think of any similar experience in recent western experience, except perhaps the V2 rocket attacks on London in WWII.

The Obama Administration claims that these are clean, surgical tools without any collateral damage.  They do this by a rhetorical slight of hand, essentially defining anyone who is killed in the attacks ex post facto as being guilty.

As is often the case with government activities, it is worse than we thought:

Via the British group Reprieve comes a report asserting that U.S. drones in Yemen and Pakistan kill 28 "unknowns" for every intended target. What's more, "41 names of men who seemed to have achieved the impossible: to have ‘died,’ in public reporting, not just once, not just twice, but again and again. Reports indicate that each assassination target ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death."

So much for the precision of drone strikes, which promise a future of war in which civilians and other forms of collateral damage are spared ruin and destruction. As President Obama said in 2013, by "narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us, and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

Well, sort of. From the Reprieve report:

As many as 1,147 people may have been killed during attempts to kill 41 men, accounting for a quarter of all possible drone strike casualties in Pakistan and Yemen. In Yemen, strikes against just 17 targets accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties. Yet evidence suggests that at least four of these 17 men are still alive. Similarly, in Pakistan, 221 people, including 103 children, have been killed in attempt sto kill four men, three of whom are still alive and a fourth of whom died from natural causes. One individual, Fahd al Quso, was reported killed in both Yemen and Pakistan. In four attempts to kill al Quso, 48 people potentially lost their lives.

Computer Modeling as "Evidence"

The BBC has decided not to every talk to climate skeptics again, in part based on the "evidence" of computer modelling

Climate change skeptics are being banned from BBC News, according to a new report, for fear of misinforming people and to create more of a "balance" when discussing man-made climate change.

The latest casualty is Nigel Lawson, former London chancellor and climate change skeptic, who has just recently been barred from appearing on BBC. Lord Lawson, who has written about climate change, said the corporation is silencing the debate on global warming since he discussed the topic on its Radio 4 Today program in February.

This skeptic accuses "Stalinist" BBC of succumbing to pressure from those with renewable energy interests, like the Green Party, in an editorial for the Daily Mail.

He appeared on February 13 debating with scientist Sir Brian Hoskins, chairman of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College, London, to discuss recent flooding that supposedly was linked to man-made climate change.

Despite the fact that the two intellectuals had a "thoroughly civilized discussion," BBC was "overwhelmed by a well-organized deluge of complaints" following the program. Naysayers harped on the fact that Lawson was not a scientist and said he had no business voicing his opinion on the subject.

...

Among the objections, including one from Green Party politician Chit Chong, were that Lawson's views were not supported by evidence from computer modeling.

I see this all the time.  A lot of things astound me in the climate debate, but perhaps the most astounding has been to be accused of being "anti-science" by people who have such a poor grasp of the scientific process.

Computer models and their output are not evidence of anything.  Computer models are extremely useful when we have hypotheses about complex, multi-variable systems.  It may not be immediately obvious how to test these hypotheses, so computer models can take these hypothesized formulas and generate predicted values of measurable variables that can then be used to compare to actual physical observations.

This is no different (except in speed and scale) from a person in the 18th century sitting down with Newton's gravitational equations and grinding out five years of predicted positions for Venus (in fact, the original meaning of the word "computer" was a human being who ground out numbers in just his way).  That person and his calculations are the exact equivalent of today's computer models.  We wouldn't say that those lists of predictions for Venus were "evidence" that Newton was correct.  We would use these predictions and compare them to actual measurements of Venus's position over the next five years.  If they matched, we would consider that match to be the real evidence that Newton may be correct.

So it is not the existence of the models or their output that are evidence that catastrophic man-made global warming theory is correct.  It would be evidence that the output of these predictive models actually match what plays out in reality.  Which is why skeptics think the fact that the divergence between climate model temperature forecasts and actual temperatures is important, but we will leave that topic for other days.

The other problem with models

The other problem with computer models, besides the fact that they are not and cannot constitute evidence in and of themselves, is that their results are often sensitive to small changes in tuning or setting of variables, and that these decisions about tuning are often totally opaque to outsiders.

I did computer modelling for years, though of markets and economics rather than climate.  But the techniques are substantially the same.  And the pitfalls.

Confession time.  In my very early days as a consultant, I did something I am not proud of.  I was responsible for a complex market model based on a lot of market research and customer service data.  Less than a day before the big presentation, and with all the charts and conclusions made, I found a mistake that skewed the results.  In later years I would have the moral courage and confidence to cry foul and halt the process, but at the time I ended up tweaking a few key variables to make the model continue to spit out results consistent with our conclusion.  It is embarrassing enough I have trouble writing this for public consumption 25 years later.

But it was so easy.  A few tweaks to assumptions and I could get the answer I wanted.  And no one would ever know.  Someone could stare at the model for an hour and not recognize the tuning.

Robert Caprara has similar thoughts in the WSJ (probably behind a paywall)  Hat tip to a reader

The computer model was huge—it analyzed every river, sewer treatment plant and drinking-water intake (the places in rivers where municipalities draw their water) in the country. I'll spare you the details, but the model showed huge gains from the program as water quality improved dramatically. By the late 1980s, however, any gains from upgrading sewer treatments would be offset by the additional pollution load coming from people who moved from on-site septic tanks to public sewers, which dump the waste into rivers. Basically the model said we had hit the point of diminishing returns.

When I presented the results to the EPA official in charge, he said that I should go back and "sharpen my pencil." I did. I reviewed assumptions, tweaked coefficients and recalibrated data. But when I reran everything the numbers didn't change much. At our next meeting he told me to run the numbers again.

After three iterations I finally blurted out, "What number are you looking for?" He didn't miss a beat: He told me that he needed to show $2 billion of benefits to get the program renewed. I finally turned enough knobs to get the answer he wanted, and everyone was happy...

I realized that my work for the EPA wasn't that of a scientist, at least in the popular imagination of what a scientist does. It was more like that of a lawyer. My job, as a modeler, was to build the best case for my client's position. The opposition will build its best case for the counter argument and ultimately the truth should prevail.

If opponents don't like what I did with the coefficients, then they should challenge them. And during my decade as an environmental consultant, I was often hired to do just that to someone else's model. But there is no denying that anyone who makes a living building computer models likely does so for the cause of advocacy, not the search for truth.

Education and Affirmative Action and "Diversity"

I don't really have much to say about today's Supreme Court decision on affirmative action.  Given that there were 4 different opinions written, the whole issue seems to still be in much dispute.  The continuing Court opinion is, I think, that affirmative action is legal (but as expressed today, not required) in education to address diversity and other goals.

My only thought on this is one I have had a long time about colleges and diversity.  Universities are, if anything, institutions based on ideas and thought.  So it has always been amazing to me that university diversity programs focus not on having a diversity of ideas, but on have a diversity of skin pigment and reproductive plumbing.  In fact, if anything, most universities seem to be aspiring towards creating an intellectual monoculture.  Diversity of opinion, of politics, and of general outlook among prospective students are not even decision-making variables in any educational institution I know of.  And within the faculty, many institutions seem intent on purging from their ranks any single voice that diverges from the majoritarian view.  I could have probably found more diversity of political opinion in a 19th century London gentleman's club than I can today in many campus faculties.

Punitive Bombing

I grew up in the 1970's, a time when a lot of Americans post-Vietnam were questioning the value, even the sanity, of war.  Opinions were certainly split on the subject, but one thing I remember is that the concept of "punitive bombing" was widely mocked and disdained.  Which is why I find it amazing to see bipartisan, multi-country support for exactly this tired old idea as applied to Syria.  Has bombing ever done anything but radicalize the bombed civilian population against the bombers?  The reaction to the London Blitz was not to have the English suddenly decide that they had been wrong in supporting Poland.  Nor did Germans or Japanese generally reprimand their leaders for the past policies as as result of our firebombing Tokyo or Dresden.  Or look at drone strikes in Afghanistan -- do you get the sense anyone there is saying, "Boy, have we ever been taught a lesson."

In the comments, readers are welcome to contribute examples of countries who "learned their lesson" from punitive air strikes and changed their behavior.

PS-  Apparently the reason we "must" have at least air strikes is that we have established a policy that we will "do something" if countries use chemical weapons.  And if we don't have air strikes, the world will think we are weak, right?  But the problem is that this logic never ends.  If the country then ignores our air strikes and behaves as before, or perhaps performs an FU of their own by using chemical weapons openly, then what?  Aren't we obligated to do something more drastic, else the world will think we are weak?

Corporate State and the Olympics

Wow.

The most carefully policed Brand Exclusion Zone will be around the Olympic Park, and extend up to 1km beyond its perimeter, for up to 35 days. Within this area, officially called anAdvertising and Street Trade Restrictions venue restriction zone, no advertising for brands designated as competing with those of the official Olympic sponsors will be allowed. (Originally, as detailed here, only official sponsors were allowed to advertise, but leftover sites are now available). This will be supported by preventing spectators from wearing clothing prominently displaying competing brands, or from entering the exclusion zone with unofficial snack and beverage choices. Within the Zone, the world's biggest McDonald's will be the only branded food outlet, and Visa will be the only payment card accepted.

This brand apartheid is designed to prevent "ambush marketing", the gaining exposure of an brand through unofficial means. One of the best known examples of this was in the World Cup in 2010, where a bevy of 36 Dutch beauties in orange dresses provided by Bavaria beer gained considerable media attention, to the chagrin of the official World Cup beer, Budweiser. At London 2012, branding 'police' will be on hand to ensure that nothing like this happens, with potential criminal prosecutions against those responsible. Organising committee LOCOG will also take steps to ensure that no unofficial business tries to associate itself with the Olympics by using phrases like 'London 2012', even on such innocuous things such as a cafe menu offering an 'Olympic breakfast'....And it's not just London. All the venues for the 2012 Olympics will be on brand lockdown. In Coventry, even the roadsigns will be changed so that there is no reference to the Ricoh Arena, which is hosting matches in the football tournament. Even logos on hand dryers in the toilets are being covered up. The Sports Direct Arena in Newcastle will have to revert back to St. James Park for the duration of the Olympics.

 

Phil Jones Hoping for Warming

I feel the need to reproduce this email in its entirety.  Here is Phil Jones actively hoping the world will warm (an outcome he has publicly stated would be catastrophic).  The tribalism has gotten so intense that it is more important for his alarmist tribe to count coup on the skeptics than to hope for a good outcome for the Earth.

>From: Phil Jones [mailto:p.jones@uea.ac.uk]
>Sent: 05 January 2009 16:18
>To: Johns, Tim; Folland, Chris
>Cc: Smith, Doug; Johns, Tim
>Subject: Re: FW: Temperatures in 2009
>
>
>   Tim, Chris,
>     I hope you're not right about the lack of warming lasting
>   till about 2020. I'd rather hoped to see the earlier Met Office
>   press release with Doug's paper that said something like -
>   half the years to 2014 would exceed the warmest year currently on
> record, 1998!
>     Still a way to go before 2014.
>
>     I seem to be getting an email a week from skeptics saying
>   where's the warming gone. I know the warming is on the decadal
>   scale, but it would be nice to wear their smug grins away.
>
>     Chris - I presume the Met Office
> continually monitor the weather forecasts.
>    Maybe because I'm in my 50s, but the language used in the forecasts seems
>    a bit over the top re the cold. Where I've been for the last 20
> days (in Norfolk)
>    it doesn't seem to have been as cold as the forecasts.
>
>     I've just submitted a paper on the UHI for London - it is 1.6 deg
> C for the LWC.
>   It comes out to 2.6 deg C for night-time minimums. The BBC forecasts has
>   the countryside 5-6 deg C cooler than city centres on recent nights.
> The paper
>   shows the UHI hasn't got any worse since 1901 (based on St James Park
>   and Rothamsted).
>
>   Cheers
>   Phil

Is this better or worse than rooting for a bad economy to get your favorite politicians elected?  Anthony Watt has more in this same tone, showing how climate scientists were working to shift messages and invent new science to protect the warming hypothesis.

The last part about the UHI (urban heat island) study is interesting.  I don't remember this study.  But it is interesting that he accepts a UHI of as high as 1.6C (my son and I found evening UHI in Phoenix around 4-6C, about in line with his London results).    It looks like he is trying to say that UHI should not matter to temperature measurement, since it has not changed in London since 1900  (a bias in temperature measurement that does not change does not affect the temperature anomaly, which is what tends to be important).  But the point is that many other temperature stations in the Hadley CRUT data base are in cities that are now large today but were much smaller than London in 1900 (Tucson is a great example).  In these cases, there is a changing measurement bias that can affect the anomaly, so I am not sure what Jones was trying to get at.

Riding the Tiger

The London riots, following on frequent Greek, French, and other European riots, would be immediately recognizable to even a Roman emperor.  For decades, politicians have ridden a populist wave to office, fueled by promises of more free government stuff to favored constituencies.  The mob serves whoever bids higher for its services, but always its expectations are that the each year's bid will be higher than the last.  But eventually the money runs out, and the bids can't be increased, or even maintained.  And the mob (or the army, or whatever group whose services are required to stay in power) then turns on those who thought they controlled it.  And politicians have no one to blame but themselves, for they were the ones who trained the populace in the first place that their power in a democratic government should be used to extract goodies from the minority.

Dust Storm

We get dust storms from time to time here (though not as often as, say, in Eastern Washington, at least from the short experience I had there).  Last night we had a big one, and as usual every surface is covered in dirt.  While it was going on, it looked like a London fog, but with dirt instead of water.

What made this one different for me is that I got to see it roll in from the south.  It was an amazing sight.  It looked like a scene from Steven King's the Mist, or perhaps from the bottom of a volcano slope watching a pyroclastic flow coming at you.  It reminded me of standing in the streets of Manhattan on 9/11 and watching the cloud of debris coming at us after the first tower fell.  Here is a picture from the AZ Republic of the storm rolling in from the south like a giant tsunami.

Here is a video of it rolling in, which is really cool, if you can ignore the end-is-near typical style of local reporting that has to blow up every odd event into a catastrophe demanding that one tune in at eleven.

Peak Poop Theory

Donna Laframboise discusses 18th century transportation issues, and particularly the horse manure problem:

The Superfreakonomics authors draw heavily on the work of Eric Morris, whose urban planning Masters thesis explored the reality of horse-based transportation in 19th-century cities. A user-friendly encapsulation of his research appears in an 8-page article here. (It was published in Access, a U of California transportation publication. The entire issue is available here.)

Morris points out that, by the late 1800s, large urban centers were “drowning in horse manure.” Not only were there no solutions in sight, people were making dire predictions:

In 1894, the Times of London estimated that by 1950 every street in the city would be buried nine feet deep in horse manure. One New York prognosticator of the 1890s concluded that by 1930 the horse droppings would rise to Manhattan’s third-story windows.

The automobile helped solve this growing ecological problem.  Back in 2006, I had considered the same thing with a hypothetical blog post from 1870 which is pretty close to the Times of London article quoted above (which I had never seen):

As the US Population reaches toward the astronomical total of 40 million persons, we are reaching the limits of the number of people this earth can support.    If one were to extrapolate current population growth rates, this country in a hundred years could have over 250 million people in it!  Now of course, that figure is impossible – the farmland of this country couldn’t possibly support even half this number.  But it is interesting to consider the environmental consequences.

Take the issue of transportation.  Currently there are over 11 million horses in this country, the feeding and care of which constitute a significant part of our economy.  A population of 250 million would imply the need for nearly 70 million horses in this country, and this is even before one considers the fact that "horse intensity", or the average number of horses per family, has been increasing steadily over the last several decades.  It is not unreasonable, therefore, to assume that so many people might need 100 million horses to fulfill all their transportation needs.  There is just no way this admittedly bountiful nation could support 100 million horses.  The disposal of their manure alone would create an environmental problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Or, take the case of illuminant.  As the population grows, the demand for illuminant should grow at least as quickly.  However, whale catches and therefore whale oil supply has leveled off of late, such that many are talking about the "peak whale" phenomena, which refers to the theory that whale oil production may have already passed its peak.  250 million people would use up the entire supply of the world’s whales four or five times over, leaving none for poorer nations of the world

To the last point, my article on how John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil saved the whales is here.

Fiat Garbage

Radley Balko has a fascinating discussion about a switch in government policy in Fountain Hills, AZ  (a suburb of Phoenix and a town I visit for various reasons all the time).  Apparently, residents of the town got to actually select from competing trash vendors (lucky folks!) until recently when the town selected and enforced a monopoly trash provider.  Balko has a fascinating discussion of why progressives seem to universally support this decision and oppose the previous choice-based approach.

It may be odd at first to see a self-styled progressive mocking someone for criticizing a corporation for exercising too much power.  John Cole writes sarcastically:

My GAWD. I feel so violated. I'm going through my bills before the Steelers game and I just realized that Allied Waste is contracted to pick up my trash, so my personal liberties have been impinged by the creeping totalitarianism of nanny-statism. To show solidarity with the oppressed Fountain Hills trash protesters, I am going to dress up in my "Don't Tread on Me" t-shirt, stand at the edge of my driveway at dawn during trash pick-up on Thursday, and throw pocket constitutions at the sanitation workers. We shall overcome, patriots!

This from a progressive bunch who runs to the government for legislation when their Big Mac has one too few pickles on it.  If you can understand why progressives attack any corporation that they voluntarily do business with for having too much power, but defend any corporation backed by government authority, you will start to figure out exactly what progressives are really after.  Just remember that progressives have a deep distrust of individual choice related to any activities that don't touch on sex.  And they are much more comfortable with lines of accountability that run through government officials (elected or not) rather than accountability enforced by competition and individual choice  (more on progressives here).

I will just add this to the story -- Fountain Hills is a suburb to which the verbs tony, wealthy, and exclusive could all apply.  Given its position in the foothills around Phoenix, it is perhaps one of the most attractive suburbs in the metropolitan area.  It is the last place one would point to as having some sort of problem with unkept houses and rotting garbage.  This is entirely a power play by the city -- it has nothing to do with the quality of the area.

Brad Warbiany has even more on the story here.

Mostly unrelated facts about Fountain Hills

  1. Fountain Hills was a development of the McCulloch family (of chain saw fame) as was parts of Lake Havasu City.  Both developments had a centerpiece attraction.  Fountain Hills has a spectacular fountain (one of the five highest in the world) while Lake Havasu City has the transplanted London Bridge.  As to the latter, the story goes that McCulloch thought he was buying the much more dramatic Tower Bridge, which American tourists often confuse with London Bridge.  As a further aside, I met the guy once who did the gunnite on the bottom of the transplanted London Bridge.  He was a pool guy and applying it over his head rather than under his feet was fairly new to him.  He said he never allowed his little kids to sing "London Bridge is Falling Down" in his presence, it made him too nervous.
  2. Our egregious Sheriff Joe Arpaio lives in Fountain Hills.  On a recent crime sweep of his home town, which he claimed had nothing to do with immigration, he arrested (or at least detained) almost all people of Mexican decent, in fact more Mexicans than I thought one could find in Fountain Hills, even on a bet.

Copenhagen as Income Redistribution

I am slammed here at work, but I will give you a couple of nice articles on this topic.  First from IBD:

The United Nations' Copenhagen Climate Conference is going fast into meltdown. It may be because it's not about climate anymore, but fitting a noose on the world's productive economies and extracting wealth transfers.

Poor countries have gone from defending their right to economic development as a reason for exemptions to emissions cuts to claiming a "legitimate" right to vast wealth transfers from the West to prevent emissions. They call it "climate justice."

Monday, the Group of 77, led by African states, shut down the conference for the second time, saying they would pick up their marbles and go home if the West didn't agree to their formula for emissions cutbacks and send them more than the $10 billion promised by the West....

Having manipulated the foreign aid racket for decades, the African officials knew just what buttons to push with Western Europeans. Not surprisingly, they won concessions. No doubt they'll do it again to get more, and the Danes and other one-worlders will give them what they want.

The second is from Charles Krauthammer

The idea of essentially taxing hardworking citizens of the democracies to fill the treasuries of Third World kleptocracies went nowhere, thanks mainly to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher (and the debt crisis of the early '80s). They put a stake through the enterprise.

But such dreams never die. The raid on the Western treasuries is on again, but today with a new rationale to fit current ideological fashion. With socialism dead, the gigantic heist is now proposed as a sacred service of the newest religion: environmentalism.

One of the major goals of the Copenhagen climate summit is another NIEO shakedown: the transfer of hundreds of billions from the industrial West to the Third World to save the planet by, for example, planting green industries in the tristes tropiques....

Socialism having failed so spectacularly, the left was adrift until it struck upon a brilliant gambit: metamorphosis from red to green. The cultural elites went straight from the memorial service for socialism to the altar of the environment. The objective is the same: highly centralized power given to the best and the brightest, the new class of experts, managers and technocrats. This time, however, the alleged justification is not abolishing oppression and inequality but saving the planet.

Update:

Leaders of fifty African nations came to Copenhagen asking $400 billion for the next three years to "offset" carbon credit "damages" which they claim to suffer. Inexplicably, two days ago, that demand was increased to an eye-goggling 5% of GDP (gross domestic product), estimated at $722 billion from the United States alone. There never was a response from the industrialized world.

The London Guardian reports today that the disgruntled Africans may boycott the rest of the climate summit. The conference's own web page quotes the Ethiopian prime minister as saying he will "scuttle" talks unless there is discussion of "real money" and "not an illusion."

What Global Warming Alarmism is All About

From a press release from the Environmental News Network that landed in my inbox:

It's Time to Re-think Economic Growth for Advanced Nations

LONDON - In Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, published by Earthscan this week, Professor Tim Jackson raises fundamental questions about the economics needed to tackle climate change. Jackson argues that, faced with the limits imposed by carbon sinks and the scale of "˜de-carbonization' of the world's economy required to stay within them, continued economic growth in the already affluent world does not offer the solution; it represents the problem....

there is a strong case for the developed nations to make room for growth in poorer countries. It is in these poorer countries that growth really does make a difference. In richer countries the returns on further growth appear much more limited; for example subjective well-being diminishes rapidly at higher income levels."

Assuming that such thinking is not just a crass excuse for totalitarian control, it represents an enormous failure of imagination.  The author cannot imagine what benefits increased wealth would provide, so he assumes those benefits to be zero.  There is absolutely no reason that this same exact thinking could not have been applied in 1300 or 1750 or 1900.    Fortunately it was not.

Wonder where the communists went when their philosophy was shown to be bankrupt?  Wonder where the anti-globalization folks went after they looted in Seattle.  Look no further than the global warming movement.  The author suggests, among other things:

  • support for "˜ecological' enterprise "“ resource efficient, community-based activities that offer meaningful employment and deliver low-carbon goods and services
  • clear restraints on unbridled consumerism
  • the protection of public spaces and a renewed vision of social goods
  • investment in the capabilities for people have to participate in society in less materialistic ways

Just say no to ecological Marxism.

What An Astounding Waste

Via Cato:

The private homes that New London, Conn., took away from Suzette Kelo and her neighbors have been torn down. Their former site is a wasteland of fields of weeds, a monument to the power of eminent domain.

But now Pfizer, the drug company whose neighboring research facility had been the original cause of the homes' seizure, has just announced that it is closing up shop in New London.

To lure those jobs to New London a decade ago, the local government promised to demolish the older residential neighborhood adjacent to the land Pfizer was buying for next-to-nothing. Suzette Kelo fought the taking to the Supreme Court, and lost. Five justices found this redevelopment met the constitutional hurdle of "public use."

More Kelo coverage here.

That'll Teach 'Em

More evidence the British police forces seem to be losing their minds at least as fast as American police:

To teach motorists who leave their cars unlocked a lesson, police in Richmond upon Thames, a borough of London, have begun taking their stuff. The victims beneficiaries of these thefts educational efforts return to their cars and find that expensive items such as cameras, laptops, and leather jackets have been replaced by notes instructing them to retrieve their valuables at the police station. Not to worry, though: "If items are needed urgently," the London Times reports, "police will return the goods immediately." Which suggests that if you can't show an urgent need for, say, your computer, they'll take their own sweet time. The justification offered by Superintendent Jim Davis: "People would be far more upset if their property really was stolen."

Woe be to people who actually trust that the police are doing their job reducing crime and fail to secure all of their belongings from petty theft.   One hopes that the police of Richmond on Thames never start to percieve a problem with rapes in their fair city.

Putting the "Mass" in Mass Transit

Every traveller to London loves the tube.  There is no better way to get around this great city than with a multi-day Underground pass.

But as a tourist, I have always tended to ride the underground during the day, or late at night after a show.  For the first time, for a couple of days in a row, I have had to brave the tube and Victoria Station at around 6PM.

As a result of this experience, I have a message for "smart growth" urban density-seeking urban planners: please don't do this to me.  Never have I been so uncomfortable, so claustraphobic, and so ready to go Postal than I was in those tremendous moving crowds.  It is a system designed to move a maximum amount of people efficiently, but it does so by forcing human beings to conform to the requirements of the system, rather than the other way around.

Unfortunately, it is exactly this dehumanizing vision that so enraptures modern planners.   It is their mindset that people must adjust to their plans, not the other way around.   It is ironic that most of these people, who would claim to be children of the sixties devoted to individualism, are in fact the architects of the ultimate Tayloristic forced conformity.   I understand that such transit solutions may be necessary in a city as high of a population density as London, but please don't force that kind of density on the rest of us.   If you enjoy it, power to you, you are welcome to live in such an environment.  But leave the rest of us alone who want a car and 2.2 acres.

In particular, the whole notion of "congestion" really struck me.  City planners always talk about fighting congestion, but they always mean traffic on roads (though ironically much of what they do actually increases congestion on roads).  But what about pure human to human congestion?  I would far rather be stuck on a freeway in my air conditioned car listening to the radio than packed in a moving mass of humanity in Victoria Station, packed into a platform waiting for a train, and then packed for half an hour standing in a train straining not to topple over on the person next to me.

Greetings From London

Despite the fact that there is plenty to blog about right now (I think I have 551 unread articles in my feed reader) I will have to ignore much of it as I spend this week in London.  My son is going to summer school at Cambridge and he and I are spending this week together in London.

img00016-20090630-1753

As is typical of flights to London, we arrived at about 8AM.  I tried to share with my son the virtues of my long experience travelling (telling him to gut it out and not sleep on arrival day) but you know how teenagers are about listening to parental wisdom.  So while he napped, I wandered around some areas of Westminster I had never seen before, including Westminster Cathedral:

img00010-20090630-1725

I found this to be an odd church.  Byzantine on the outside, the inside is much more reflective of its Victorian heritage, with monolithic brick vaults.  It could have been quite beautiful inside, but the upper reaches of the church, including its domes, are entirely unfinished brick - not even a plaster coating.  The sign said that it was left unfinished for future generations to add murals, but given that about 5 generations have passed since its construction, it is probably time for a bit of decoration.  Right now the ceiling looks like the interior of a coke oven.  I did, however, walk into a mass in progress (which is why I have no interior pictures) and the organ and choir were magnificent.

Kelo Update

The AntiPlanner has an update on the New London, CT development that spawned the notorious Kelo case.  In short, they tore Ms. Kelo's house down against her will, and then the whole development deal fell through.  The city now has a nice vacant lot.

The homes of Susette Kelo and her neighbors have all been torn down or removed. But, except for the remodeling of one government building into another government building, virtually no new development had taken place in the Fort Trumbull district by May, 2008.

Having spent at least $78 million on the Fort Trumbull project, the city had awarded development rights to a company named Corcoran Jennison, which planned to build a hotel, an office complex, and more than 100 upscale housing units. The developer had until November, 2007, to obtain financing.

When that deadline lapsed, it received an extension to May 29, 2008. In desperation, the developer sought an FHA loan of $11.5 million. When that didn't work and May 29 came and went, New London revoked the agreement.

Wow

What are the London Olympic organizers thinking right now?  In the immortal words of Bill Paxton,"That's it man, game over man, game over." 

I was amazed by the opening ceremonies last night.  I am not sure how that will ever be topped, particularly since most democracies cannot reasonably pour several billion dollars into a single three or four hour show.  I guess one could make some Triumph of the Will allusions, but it was really the most amazing meld of technology and showmanship I have ever seen.

Update from Hollywood

Unfortunately, despite several appeals, I have not taken any photos around the hotel.  One reader asked if I have seen anyone famous.  The answer is, I don't know.  Let me explain.

Some years ago (maybe 8-10) my wife and I were driving through Malibu on vacation, when we stopped at a little coffee shop for breakfast.  After we were done eating, my wife went to the bathroom while I sat outside on a bench to wait for her.  Sitting there was another husband who was clearly also waiting for his wife to come out.  We chatted for about 5 minutes, with this British gent telling me he had just gotten back from London on business.

Well, my wife came out and I met her at the car.  The first thing she said to me was "Oh my god, you were talking to Pierce Brosnan."  I said "??"  Sure enough, on reflection, it did seem to be he, particularly since my wife also recognized his wife from People magazine.  In my defense, one does not expect to encounter James Bond in a psuedo-Denny's wearing sweats and a week-old beard.  But since then, I have not really trusted by celebrity-identification skills.

Problems With London Congestion Charge

The idea of a congestion charge is a good one.  London, however, is struggling with the implementation.  Apparently, while the number of cars in the congestion zone has gone down, the rush hour congestion has gone up.  Why?  Because the congestion charge does not change by time of day, it is more than high enough to drive out off-hour users, but is not high enough to change the behavior of rush hour drivers.  Basically, they have made the center of London quieter at night.

This is actually not surprising. Economic theory would say that the
demand for travel at rush hour is more inelastic (i.e., less
susceptible to fees) than travel at other times of the day. (If it were
not inelastic, people would be willing to drive in such congestion.) If
fees don't change during the course of the day, they will have the
greatest effect during the hours that are more elastic. A properly
designed fee should temper peak-period demand; a fixed fee instead
tempers off-peak demand.

And, as I can attest from my last visit to London, where I was actually dumb enough to drive a car into town, the way they have implemented the system is not very amenable to time of day pricing. 

Aerogels look cool

Q&O links a cool article from the London Times on aerogels, apparently the least dense substance manufactured by man.  They are apparently great insulators and can be apparently be tweaked to be selectively permeable or absorbent of various substances, making them useful for filtering applications.  And they are being used in tennis rackets  (I have a theory that tennis and golf equipment manufacturers are to new materials what pornography is to new digital distribution mechanisms -- they seem to always be early adopters). 

Postscript: Of course we get this same article about material X every five years ago in the press, so it is OK to be skeptical.  But the picture is still wicked cool.

Health Care -- The Trojan Horse for Fascism

Every time I write that government funded health care and health nannyism are becoming a Trojan horse for fascism, I get several emails telling me I am being a paranoid flake.  So I will have to just keep posting this kind of thing (from England), via Overlawyered:

SOCIAL workers are placing obese children on the child protection
register alongside victims thought to be at risk of sexual or physical
abuse.

In extreme cases children have been placed in foster care because
their parents have contributed to the health problems of their
offspring by failing to respond to medical advice.

The
intervention of social services in what was previously regarded as a
private matter is likely to raise concerns about the emergence of the
"fat police".

Some doctors even advocate taking legal action against parents for
illtreating their children by feeding them so much that they develop
health problems.

Dr Russell Viner, a consultant paediatrician at Great Ormond Street
and University College London hospitals, said: "In my practice, I can
think of about 10 or 15 cases in which child protection action has been
taken because of obesity. We now constantly get letters from social
workers about child protection due to childhood obesity."

More on My Light Rail Bet

Thanks to Tom Kirkendall for the link to my light rail post.  For quite a while, he has been "railing" against Houston's light rail proposals (where I was born and raised).  By the way, he is right that Phoenix is even less amenable to a rail-based system than Houston.  Houston has low population density and its downtown area is small compared to metro-friendly cities like New York, making rail an iffy proposition.  But Phoenix is even less dense and its downtown is tiny compared even to Houston.

A previous post of Tom's also gives me data to feel even more confident about my proposed bet, which was this:

If we take the entire cost of the system's construction, plus its
annual operating losses/subsides, I will bet that we could have bought
every regular rider of the rail system a nice car instead and gas for
life cheaper than the cost of the rail system.

Obviously we don't have Phoenix numbers yet, but he links an LA Times story with Los Angeles numbers:

Three light-rail lines have been added to L.A. county's transit system
in the last 20 years. Together, these cost $2.5 billion in capital
costs, they serve about 125,000 passengers per day and account for a
fiscal loss of approximately $252 million per year -- if one
acknowledges that capital costs are real, something that transit
operators and boosters often neglect.

Note that LA's system is actually a more desirable system from a rider standpoint than the one in Phoenix, since in some areas the trains avoid traffic lights, making them closer to heavy rail, and thus have a faster speed.  So lets run my bet against LA's numbers.  We don't really know what the core ridership numbers are.  Certainly its less than the 125,000.  And we don't know if an out in the morning and back at night commute counts in these numbers as one passenger or two (From here, it looks like 125,000 passengers making 2 trips each).

If the core ridership number is 125,000, the highest possible choice, then the total capital cost of the system per rider is $20,000 per rider.  This means I was right, that we could have instead bought ever rider a car for the same money.  Since the real ridership is probably less than that number, this means we could have bought ever rider a car and had money left over.  Concerned about the environment?  Then make every car a Prius, which the money would just about cover even without the volume purchasing discount they would likely get.

But what about gas?  Well, they say they have a $252 million per year operating loss.  This subsidy, which is above and beyond ticket sales, equates to $2,106 (!) per daily rider, even using the higher 125,000 figure.  At $2.50 per gallon, this equates to 15.5 gallons of gas per rider per week. 

So you can see with the LA numbers, even using the largest possible interpretation of their ridership numbers, the money used for the train could have instead bought every passenger a new car and filled the tank up with gas once a week for life.

Yes, I know, the argument is that the train reduces congestion.  Supposedly.  I have two responses:

  • Rail has never reduced congestion in any city.  Go see London and Manhattan.  In fact, rail seems to encourage urban density that increases congestion. 
  • In Phoenix, where rail will often replace existing lanes of roads, the train will likely carry fewer people than the lanes of traffic used to, so congestion will increase.

I Don't Get Light Rail

Phoenix is in the process of tearing up half the city to put in its first light rail line.  There seems to be a hard core of people out there who get a huge hard-on for light rail, and I just don't get it.  Some random observations:

  • We are building light rail that is essentially a "trolley."  This means it runs at street levels, often down the median strips of roads, and has to stop at stoplights just like cars and buses.  My question is, in this configuration, how is light rail any different than a bus?  Except for the fact, of course, that it is far more expensive and far less operationally flexible. 
  • The system is not up and running yet, so I have not seen ridership numbers, but I will make a bet:  If we take the entire cost of the system's construction, plus its annual operating losses/subsides, I will bet that we could have bought every regular rider of the rail system a nice car instead and gas for life cheaper than the cost of the rail system.
  • It looks to me like the rail system will actually increase congestion.  For most of its route, it is removing lanes from busy roads, and by running down the middle it will make left turns more difficult and complex. 
  • Supporters of these systems point to NY or London as examples of what we can achieve.  Bullshit.  No city that has embarked on this light rail stuff has had the success or the political will or the money to build out a network with the critical mass that these larger cities have.  Most end up with orphaned routes (see LA, for example) that don't tie into anything. 
  • Phoenix is the last city on the planet that a rail based system should work for.  I don't have the book in front of me, I will have to get it from home, but I remember a book on urban development that showed Phoenix had the flattest population density distribution of any city studied.  What this means is that we don't have a city center and suburbs - it means that we are basically all one big suburb.  So there are no single routes (for example in Chicago from the northern suburbs into downtown) that have any critical mass of traffic.  People are driving from everywhere to everywhere.  In fact, my suspicion has been that there are a group of politicians and business people who want to try to create a downtown area, and are using massive public funds in the form of light rail lines converging on the city center to try to jump-start such development.
  • The Commons Blog has a link-rich post on the failure of the Portland light rail system, supposedly the model all light-rail promoters point to.

Update:  Jackalope Pursuivant has more on Phoenix light rail

World's Largest Banana Republic

Unfortunately, it is behind the WSJ paid firewall and not on their opinion journal site, but Gary Kasparov has a very interesting editorial that confirms my fears about Russia:

Russia may not have much industry or democracy left, but we do have
massive amounts of oil and gas plus other natural resources. When
combined with our nuclear weapons, these resources are sufficient to
buy entry into the G-8 despite Mr. Putin's transformation of Russia
back into a one-party dictatorship. This newfound international sway is
also having serious repercussions inside my country. Many here would
like to believe that Mr. Putin is ushering in a return to our Soviet
superpower glory

He tells some pretty amazing tales of self-dealing by government officials on a massive scale. 

In perhaps the best example, the giant energy company Yukos was
dismembered and its chairman jailed. Next, Yukos assets were put up for
auction and the crown jewel, oil unit Yuganskneftegaz, was purchased at
a bargain price by the state-owned company Rosneft, which received
billions in mysterious loans. On July 14, Rosneft had an IPO in London
to sell these stolen assets and, of course, the money didn't go into
the treasury. This isn't nationalization, it's simple robbery. In
Russia the expenses are nationalized and the revenues are privatized.

That last line is a great one.  I for one have scratched my head at why Bush as consistently given Putin a pass.  My only guess is that he has prioritized his war with Muslim fundamentalism so high that he needs Putin as a potential ally in the area, though Kasparov presents evidence that Putin is likely exactly the opposite.  He concludes:

The West is making a terrible mistake by mixing realpolitik with a
battle of values. Drawing and defending moral lines is the first and
most essential step in combating extremism and there is no room for
double standards. If the West is keeping track of its friends, it's
time to take Mr. Putin off the list.