What I. learned this week: 07/07/19

A probably weekly hodgepodge of interesting – to me anyway – titbits that I learned this week. Writing this mainly for myself and as an exercise to keep me writing more often. As you can tell from this first one I have a fairly high tolerance for tedious reading and facts.

London to Dublin

This week I’ve been reading a lot about the history of the route from London to Holyhead. So far I’ve crossed the Irish Sea 8 times this year (one journey Liverpool – Belfast, 3 journeys Holyhead – Dublin), with probably at least another 6 this year to go.

In the present day it takes a minimum of 8 hours to get from London to Dublin – and more often than not it takes closer to 10 hours. Then it’s a further at least 3 hours to get to Limerick. So you can see that I also have a lot of time to think about the route and how it could be better.

Irish Mail from London to Holyhead

The steam train known as the Irish Mail took 5 hours 35 minutes from London to Holyhead, which is not all that much longer than it takes currently. The fastest time nowadays is slightly less than 3 hours 37 minutes, though it’s more typically at least 4 hours as the trains and ferries are mismatched.

Railway electrification and high-speed rail

North Wales may at some point be electrified, but there are no actual plans of when or how it will be funded. The new-ish trains on the route can travel at up to 90mph (no likelihood of high speed), but are limited to 60mph on large parts of the route. It also doesn’t help that it stops frequently along the route.

Ireland has no national electrified railway and nor has Norway. Neither have any high speed rail either. This baffles me in the case of Norway particularly as it has long spans of open countryside that high speed rail would be ideal for. And because it’s so open it’d be much cheaper than in the UK as you won’t have to demolish villages and pay for valuable land.

HS1 & HS2 loading gauge

The loading gauge of a railway is the maximum allowed height and width of the trains that can fit on it. This is limited in part by bridges, tunnels and overhead infrastructure. Britain in general has a very, very small loading gauge because the majority of its route is very ancient and was built long before double-decker trains were a thing.

Mainland Europe mostly shares a standard loading gauge so that trains for one country can smoothly fit into the next (with some exceptions outside of main lines and in a handful of countries). Incidentally Britain’s small loading gauge is a bit of a hindrance to British train companies building larger trains for the continent, because the cheapest way to transport new train carriages is unsurprisingly by rail.

HS1 and the planned HS2 will have a larger loading gauge than the rest of the UK because they are brand new lines. Upgrading existing lines is very expensive and in some cases actually not at all possible, so for now only new lines are likely to have increased loading gauge. There are several potential advantages to this: double decker trains, higher speed routes, and 

The one I thought would be a no brainer is that the railway could then fit ISO standard containers on trains (standard shipping containers that can be hauled on and off trucks and ships). Alas, HS2 is to be used for passengers service only. This will free up the old line to increase freight and slow speed passenger capacity, but seems slightly unsatisfying when there’s the prospect of integrating international standards into everything.

I’m actually mainly interested in HS2 because it will reduce the travel time to Crewe consequently reducing the travel time to Holyhead by up to an hour. I have seen no mention anywhere of this being utilised to increase the use of ferries to Ireland. It’s a very much overlooked part of our infrastructure.

Sailing across the Irish Sea

Prior to the steamers, crossing the Irish Sea sounds like a right pain. Journey times could take many days depending on the weather, and the whole setup wasn’t exactly customer friendly.

Profit maximisation was important then as now, and the boats would wait for the capacity of the boat to be completely full before departing. The weather also caused frequent cancellation of services and delays to departure, so travellers could be stuck in Holyhead for weeks.

I can’t imagine anything worse.

“It’s straight, but is it Roman?”

A month or so ago I bought a book called Hidden Histories: A spotter’s guide to the British landscape. It’s designed to be the sort of coffee table book you dip in and out of, with interesting.

I’ve been reading it cover to cover so far, and have found it to be very good. I did get a little bit hard to remain fully attentive for the extensive sections on stones, but predominantly the chapters are bite-size with enough to keep you intrigued and wanting to go out and explore the world further to see the ideas in person.

The section I’m currently reading is called ‘Lines’ – its section titles could do with being a bit more enticing – which is about roads, aqueducts, walls and more. My favourite chapter title so far is “It’s straight, but is it Roman?”, and it turns out the answer is ‘probably not’. Nicely following Betteridge’s law of headlines.

Dulwich Estate & scheme of management

Last year we received a mysterious bill from our freeholder’s management company instructing us to pay £25 to Dulwich Estate. I was confused, because so far as I was aware we had no legal relationship of any kind with the Dulwich Estate, and I queried why it was necessary. The response was essentially a shoulder shrug.

So this year (a little late I appreciate) I looked up why this bill appeared. It turns out Dulwich estate used to own the freehold on most of the Dulwich area, and still holds sway through something through an Estate Management Scheme.

When a wealthy estate has to sell freehold to long-term leaseholders – various rights to this effect have come into force in the last 100 years – it could register an estate management scheme. What this effectively does is imposes rights for the former freeholder despite them no longer holding the freehold on properties. If you need to do building work on your property in the Dulwich area, you need not just the council’s permission (which seems fair enough), but also the permission of Dulwich Estate. And because there are fewer restrictions on estate management schemes they can be even more of a pain than if you were the leaseholder attempting to do work.

This doesn’t directly hit me because we don’t own freehold anyway, but it does seem a right bastard of a law.

Dulwich Estate incidentally is a ‘charitable’ concern, and last year gave out 84% of its £7.74m charitable disbursement to the 3 private colleges in Dulwich. This is for means-tested bursaries (they make quite a big thing about the fact they are means-tested), but it strikes me that their boast of funding 336 bursaries isn’t particularly impressive for £6.5 million. That’s almost £19,500 per student.

This seems bafflingly stupid to me, but then I’m not a wealthy landowner. I’m almost thinking of getting involved in the local community committees out of spite.

Reviewing Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World

I have to admit that reading about the history of cod probably isn’t going to make it high on your list of priorities for a quiet night in. I admit I was skeptical myself, but Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, takes an interesting idea an.

The book tracks the history and importance of cod from the time of the Vikings through to modern day overfishing. It keeps this niche history interesting via heavy use of anecdotes, sometimes fascinating anthropological observations and speculations, and recipes from around the world.

Between each chapter is a traditional recipe for cod, along with a small historical ethnographic detail about the recipe. Not being much of a cook myself I skipped the recipe parts, but I always found the background to the recipes interesting.

In fact it is always in the anecdotes that this book shines.

Mark Kurlansky has specialised recently in writing these niche topic-focused histories. Having read Cod, I am now reading Salt, which is about exactly what you would expect, and have read his Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. All have so far been interesting, and they appeal to my interest in niche history, and the importance of everyday ideas and things.

However, Cod falls down in the same place as the others – it’s big on anecdote, but weak on referenced historical details. Some speculation is necessary to spice up the history of cod – and you can’t talk about fish without tall tales of the briny deeps – but any book about history should at least give me confidence that it is accurate. Early on there are speculative claims made about the Basque discovery of Newfoundland, the  – all might be accurate, but the book barely attempts to demonstrate their veracity.

Sometimes the things it expects you to visualise stretched my imagination too much. I cannot accurately picture in my mind the filleting or the relative sizes that the book asks you to. But perhaps that is just a failure of my own imagination.

Cod is a book to read if you – like me – enjoy some niche historical interest and a strong narrative-led history. It’s not a book to read if you are looking for the definite factual guide on cod. But then, the success of this book is that it made me enjoy reading about something I wouldn’t have been looking for.

Inca Trail: High altitude nosebleeds

(Bit of a long read. Wanted to record this for myself, and unsure if long-form works for others. Lots to observe during the trail, so I’ve crammed a lot in from my Day 1 notes. Because of a mix of writing from notes and at the time this is written from the future and later Day 2 is written from the time.)

All my life I have been pro-oxygen. Definitely coming down on the side of more oxygen not less. The first day of our 4-day Inca Trail cemented this position into a fervour.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the rapid pumping of my heart could perhaps be mistaken for fondness.

It started out simply enough. Rising gradually, we walked the undulating, sometimes bumpy path of ‘Peruvian flat’ (as our guide Sandro calls it). Stunning views immediately. Even if the path and landscape around us had been dull, the distant glacier-capped mountains in the distance were distraction enough.

The landscape below us was mainly farmland, but around us was dry ground, with foliage and cactuses at the side of the path. We tasted the fruits of the cactus plants which were being sold by holidaying school children. It was juicy and refreshing. An ideal mini-break in the hot sun.

Interestingly thDye from cactus funguse fruits of the cactus aren’t the most useful part. The fungus that grows on the cactus is a source of a strong purple dye – it explains some of the colourful natural dyes used in this region of Peru, many of which are derived from this fungus in the area. The dye is now less important with synthetic dyes being so common, but it was once a very valuable commodity for the area.

As the day wore on, with the refreshing fruits long past, the sun continued to blaze, and we went higher and higher. As we rose I was hit by the altitude much worse than the others, who had been in Peru for a week longer.

Worryingly at about 3,500m above sea level (and not far from the end of the day) I got a nose bleed. Nosebleeds are associated with the worst kind of altitude sickness, and I was understandably kinda freaked out. I was also feeling light headed from the effects of altitude, and was dog-tired.

I bled on the ground, I bled on leaves, I bled on tissues, I bled on my bag (as I discovered 3 days later). Fortuitously it seems to have been just a normal nosebleed, and did stop eventually, but we certainly proved that high altitude = bleeding copiously. I’m glad I didn’t graze my knee or get a nasty papercut. I would have flooded a valley.

That final 15 minutes to the campsite was pretty difficult with a light head, and a now complaining stomach, but at least we were able to take it slow.

IMG_20160129_162201-PANO

Our mantra throughout was ‘move like a sloth’. When your muscles don’t respond properly, and you can’t properly catch your breath, taking every step carefully is the best approach.

We were lucky to not feel pressure to go faster, since it was just me, Kristin, and a friend of ours Clare in our own group. Just a group of 3, with a single tour guide (and 7 porters hurrying ahead of us). It meant we set our own pace, and don’t have to awkwardly get to know people when we’re tired.

Our sloth-like approach meant we were passed all day by what I’ve been calling (in my catchy way) ‘fast silly people’. People practically running up the mountain. Like the tortoise and the hare, we keep catching them up at every rest stop. They lie on the ground clearly suffering, and still exhausted having been at the rest stop for 20 minutes already. Groups of 10-15 chugging water and snacks.

It isn’t the fast approach to mountain climbing at altitude that baffles me though – they are clearly fitter than me, so more power to them if they want to run the Inca Trail (They won’t be beating the record time, which is apparently 3 hours and 45 minutes. Our 4 day hike seems less impressive in the light of this.).

What really baffles me is why they all seem to have earphones in while they climb. Maybe the sounds of nature are too boring? Are they all getting pumped listening to DMX? Is there an accompanying audio guide I missed out on? Do they feel uncomfortable without the sounds of traffic in their ears?

‘To be honest with you guys’ (a phrase used at least once in every conversation by our guide) I enjoyed the sounds of the walk, though I’ve been surprised by how loud the river at the bottom of the valley is. It keeps winding its way around the mountains, 100s of metres below, and often heard even when out of sight.

I’ve been surprised too that this part of the Inca Trail is inhabited. Since the only access is by the trail, motorbikes rushed passed us early in the day. Later in the day it seems only horses and llamas are able to traverse the tracks. It’s useful for us, since it means we can buy cold water and soft drinks! Much needed during a tough introduction to walking at altitude.

We were repeatedly told by our guide that Day 1 is a training day. A simple introduction to walking at altitude. Apart from the last 30 minutes it was good training. Day 2 is supposed to be the real test. Day 2 we’ll get up early to walk up to 4,215m. I will never have been so high in my life.

Peru day 2: cuteness overload

Day 2 in Peru started slowly. I spent the early parts of the day eating a lot and walking, trying out a bit of running. I ran 50m and felt like I was about to have a heart attack. Never again. I’ll stick to walking.

It occurred to me as I wandered that the mountains don’t seem so tall without some sort of low reference point. The small mountains I am looking at are already 3000m above sea level, but I think it will be hard to supervised that until we’re much higher up and can see further.

Once Kristin’s conference was finished done we went back from Pisac to Cusco – from where we will go on the Inca trail on Friday morning. On the way I experienced the first vehicle I have been in that didn’t take a disconcerting racing line through corners (wide in advance, tight at the apex). Looking down a sheer cliff is enough excitement without dodging traffic on the wing side of the road.

In the evening we joined some Quakers who had also been at the conference for dinner. Being Quakers they found a place that series local organic produce. Many had locally grown alpaca steaks. I don’t think I’m ready to eat a fluffy cute alpaca yet, but I’ll give it a try at some point.

Speaking of cute, everywhere we went there were unbelievably cute children. They have turned this cuteness into a money earner by charging money to pose for photos. Generally they have a rabbit or a baby alpaca to double down on the cuteness overload.

Where children aren’t carrying bunnies, they are having water fights. One lucky kid in Pisac had a water pistol, while the rest are just chucking buckets of water at each other, readily supplied by the adults. They would be drenching each other if they were actually strong enough to throw the water. It is fun to watch.

In a piece of very good news, my big rucksack rejoined me last night after being stranded in Lima. Happily I’d packed stuff into my carry on, but it was a relief to be reunited with my walking gear.

Today in Cusco, at the start of day 3, we’re going to do some proper touristy stuff, and grab some high calorie food for the Inca trail tomorrow. I won’t have internet until Monday, so this will be my last post for a while.

I am looking forward to it, despite the forecast of rain.

Peru day 1: unexpected golden retrievers

I’ve been in Peru for just over 24 hours, and it has been full of firsts and personal milestones. I’ve never been so fast south, I’ve never been to Peru (or anywhere in South America), and I’ve never been at the ground at high altitude.

Getting here took…. a while. 17 hours worth of whiles. Less painful than I thought they’d be, but not hugely eventful. My main muzzy reflections:

  • Madrid airport is comically oversized. The bus ride to another terminal felt like it took less time than the night bus home from central London.
  • The plane’s definition of blockbuster and miner differ somewhat. Mad Max I get, ‘aloha’ I don’t, nor:
    • Pawn sacrifice
    • Ricki and the flash
    • Sleeping with other people
    • The end of the tour
    • Digging for fire
    • Mistress America

Flying into Peru was unsurprisingly spectacular. The first hint came with the daylight when I suddenly realised that I want looking at a distant cloud bank, but rather snow capped mountains.

Coming in over the Andes, I realised I have never been simultaneously so high in the air and so close to the ground. Particularly flying from Lima to Cusco, the ground rises up faster than the plane, until we’re swooping between cliffs and along valleys. It felt oddly thrilling.

I couldn’t help but be surprised at the colours of the landscape as we rise too. Browns and the white of ice, against rough black stone. Those I expected, but not the musky greens that seem to be more prevalent the higher you go. Almost the reverse of Norway, where the greenery abruptly halts at a certain altitude.

Lima is much less green. It crawls along hills and hides in little valleys. Buildings pump out smoke like cloud machines, with the city wreathed in mist. It’s not all that romantic when you see just how many industrial buildings are pumping out smoke.

Straight off the plane in Cusco I met Kristin, who had been here for over a week already. Happily she was able. 

Last night I stayed in Pisac, just 30 minutes from Cusco. With jet lag and altitude I was pretty drained, I haven’t been up to much other than rating and wandering. That is enough here. I will end up overusing the word stunning.

Agriculture and geology both fascinate me as I eat breakfast (my kind of thing, simple scrambled eggs on toast). You can see the stepped fields, forestry, eucalyptus trees (I think), some grazing. But I don’t think my Spanish is yet up to the task of along about the economics, primary products and labour requirements of the whole system.

Once my Spanish is up to scratch I’ll try my best asking about a few other things too. How common are landslides? Why I’d your WiFi better than mine in London? Why are there so many golden retrievers? Do people really easy alpacas?

There are way more healthy looking retrievers than I expected. So far 3 more than I expected. I have seen 3 retrievers. Why retrievers?

For now I’m going to go wander along the valley, while Kristin finishes her conference. We’re going to Cusco to see the sights, whatever they may be. This time I think I’ll have enough brain power left to drink in the sights on the breathtaking drive there.

TTFN

The Greferendum has left me certain of just one thing

I can’t say I have a strong opinion on whether Greece should have voted Yes or No in the referendum. It seems like both outcomes lead to uncertainty, and both have major downsides.

One thing I can say for certain though: we shouldn’t be celebrating this as a serious victory for democracy.

When the Council of Europe thinks Greece hasn’t met it’s fairly mild guidelines, I don’t think we should be using them as a case study for how to do direct democracy. I don’t think we’d accept less than two weeks of decision making in a referendum in the UK, and I don’t think we should hail it as a victory just because we agree with the results.

Less than two weeks to campaign, unbalanced coverage, and no opportunity for observation. None of that sounds like a strong democracy to me.

Perhaps the practical need to make a decision quickly outweighed the needs of a fair democracy – but if that’s the case, why was this referendum held at all? For me it just leaves a sour taste.

Immigration: unequivocally good?

Michael Clemens from the Centre for Global Development on immigration [emphasis mine]:

The research we have shows that immigration has had a positive effect on economic growth in Europe overall. This remains true in economists’ most sophisticated forecasts for the future. Christian Lutz and Ingo Wolter forecast a positive effect of immigration on German economic growth. Katerina Lisenkova and Miguel Sanchez forecast a positive effect of immigration on UK economic growth. And so on.

I would go as far as to say that this is a consensus opinion among economists. That is saying a lot, because economists are known for putting caveats on everything. But all the serious evidence we have points to large gains in overall economic activity from reduced barriers to labor mobility. Ninety-six percent of American labor economists agree that the economic benefits of US immigration exceed the losses.

That is essentially unanimity. While a handful of economists make vague claims of economic harm from immigration, they generally have not done any peer-reviewed economic research to support that claim, and their views should be regarded as political opinions rather than reflecting economic expertise.

Of course, speed matters. There are many reasons to expect the impact of a million immigrants to depend on whether they arrive over three years or over 20 years. This is largely absent from public debate, which tends to focus instead on absolutes like “stop them all” or “let them all in immediately.”

A more nuanced debate would begin from the solid consensus of serious economic research that there are large overall economic benefits, and discuss how to transition in order to capture those benefits. Economic development in poor countries is associated with more emigration—not less—for the same reasons that you’re more likely to see people from an outlying neighborhood living and working in an upscale part of your town-center when that outlying neighborhood gets richer. One of the great policy challenges of the 21st century is how to build policies that translate mobility into economic benefit, rather than building naval blockades and mass-detention camps.

More of interest from Michael in Vice

I have recently been struggling to come up with a single policy/movement that would have a greater impact than opening borders (even gradually).

 

Is it the responsibility of citizens to vote?

As the election draws near a common phrase has been cropping up on my Facebook feed: “it is the responsibility of citizens to vote”. And that phrase makes me uncomfortable.

Until recently I couldn’t articulate why, but the recent debate in US politics on compulsory voting gave me some clarity. It is simply because the correct phrase should be “it is the responsibility of citizens to use their vote responsibly”. An irresponsible vote is not one that strengthens democracy or improve a country’s ability to govern.

Voting responsibly doesn’t mean that people should vote for who I want them to (whenever I decide who that is anyway), or that I think protest votes don’t have a place in politics. It simply means it is the responsibility of a voter to consider their choices carefully – not to tick a box without thought.

Compulsory voting discussions gave clarity to me here because they are the enemy of responsible voting. Even when there is a “none of the above option” it encourages lazy voting. Why not tick a party box if you have to turn up anyway? Might as well tick something, even if you haven’t considered the options much.

Voting should be a conscious choice, with a deliberate thought behind your decision to change the place you live on through politics.

Countries like Australia are not better democracies because of compulsory voting – they are worse. And even in non-compulsory world we need to be careful of what we are asking citizens to do on polling day, and the somewhat lazy rhetoric we use to get people out to vote (nit-picker that I am).

That said, get out there and vote on 7th May, just think about it first!

What are the black spider memos?

The Guardian have started doing great short explainer videos for some of their long-running coverage. This one on the Prince Charles black spider memos is a great example. Campaigners are increasingly producing short video-explainers, but I think the clarity of the Guardian videos is something to learn from.

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/mar/20/prince-charles-letters-supreme-court-judgment-due

Are police cameras such an obvious win?

Recently read this interesting article from Bloomberg on the perils of police cameras. They seem like such an easy and obvious win in response to incidents like Ferguson, but Bloomberg make a strong argument for why it isn’t quite so simple.

On recruitment and effective policing:

Police cameras are also prone to intentional abuse. With mysterious frequency, they seem to accidentally get switched off or malfunctionat critical moments. One obvious remedy is to require that cops always keep them on. But that can be counterproductive. Witnesses and victims may be less forthcoming on camera. Attracting competent officers could become harder if their every interaction is recorded. Crucially, officers may simply avoid engaging certain communities, or avoid areas where confrontations are likely, if they know they’re being filmed.

On privacy:

equipping police with cameras and audio recorders means that they’re constantly conducting surveillance on innocent civilians — and potentially storing it all. Police frequently enter private homes and encounter people in medical emergencies who may not want to be filmed. Some officers may be tempted to record people on the basis of race or religion. And some departments have asserted that the public has no right to see such footage.

Having recently read The Circle, this particular that seems particularly resonant to me – do we really want the police to surveil us constantly?