May 2011

24 May 2011
Making driving more pleasant
Rob Fisher

Here is a comic strip about a handy device to make driving more pleasant.

13 May 2011
Sir Humphrey’s roads
Rob Fisher

I am currently watching the second series of Yes, Minister on DVD. This is a scene from the episode, Doing the Honours.

Hacker: How much further?

Bernard: A few minutes. This M40 is a very good road.

Hacker: Hm. So’s the M4. I wonder why we’ve got two really good roads to Oxford before we got any to Southampton or Dover or Lowestoft or any of the ports.

Bernard: Well nearly all our permanent secretaries went to Oxford, Minister. And most Oxford colleges give very good dinners.

Hacker: And the cabinet let them get away with it?

Bernard: Certainly not, they put their foot down. They said no motorway to take civil servants to dinners in Oxford unless there was a motorway to take cabinet ministers hunting in the shires. That’s why when the M1 was built in the ‘50s it stopped in the middle of Leicestershire.

Hacker: Oh, come on Bernard! Well what about the M11? That’s only just been completed. Don’t Cambridge colleges give as good dinners as Oxford?

Bernard: Oh yes of course, Minister, but it’s years and years since the Department of Transport have had a permanent secretary from Cambridge.

I wonder how much truth there is in it.

11 May 2011
On the spot fines for bad driving
Rob Fisher

The government seems to be keen on changing the rules of the road.

Police will get powers to fine careless drivers on the spot, rather than taking them to court, as part of a government strategy to make Britain’s roads safer.

Ministers say motorists who tail-gate, undertake or cut others up often go unpunished and that introducing instant penalties would be more efficient.

Offenders would get a fine of at least £80 and three points on their licence.

The trouble with on-the-spot fines is that they are easy for the police to hand out, and your average law abiding citizen will just pay up, rather than risk the cost of a court case. Of course, “the proposals will have to go through Parliament”, but these things have a certain inevitability about them.

There are also plans to mess about with speed limits. The Lib Dems are against the proposal to increase the motorway speed limit because of global warming. I’m not happy about the proposal to reduce rural speed limits because driving fast on rural roads is fun. I quite like the notion of “Top Gear politics”, though: it sounds like an improvement on normal politics and green groups are against it.

09 May 2011
Container ports and the Straits of Gibraltar
Michael Jennings

I took this photo in the port city of Algeciras in Spain last Thursday. I was looking for a nice contrast of things, and I thought that the bullring in the foreground, an in some ways fairly typical spanish city in the middle, and a long line of cranes indicating that this is indeed one of Europe’s most important ports in the background was nice.

Algeciras, like Felixstowe, is one of those ports that is not historically very important but is a very major point now due to its strategic location. The really large ships on the route through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal to Asia are not going to divert to Valencia or Barcelona, so they stop at the very bottom of Spain. Containers can then be transferred to smaller ships to head north or elsewhere, or onto trucks or trains to be taken to other points in Spain. (When container shipping arrived in UK, another reason why much of the shipping moved from London to Felixstowe was that the Port of London was very heavily unionised and Felixtowe wasn’t. I am not sure if a similar factor came into play in Spain, given that the alternative of Cadiz is also famous for its labour disputes and militant union men. in any event, Algeciras is now the key port.

With respect to the photo, having taken it I then realised that I also had the Rock of Gibraltar behind the port, and it is always delightful to get more in the photo that you intended.

Of course, “hub” seaports (in which containers are unloaded from one ship to another, or possibly other modes of transport) are like hub airports. Location is important in the sense that they need to be very conveniently on the route from A to B, but local markets are possibly less important than the strategic location and efficiency of a port. The busiest container port in the world is in Singapore, which is a significant but not very large market in a perfect location at the end of the Straits of Malacca. (The two Chinese ports of Hong Kong and Shenzhen - essentially two parts of the same urban area with a border down the middle - are each individually close to Singapore in terms of size, however. Combined they are massively busier).

Algeciras on the Straits of Gibraltar is a perfect place for such a port, but so is Tangier in Morocco. (The Indonesian island of Batam is as good a place as Singapore, too, but building a major port in Indonesia is just too hard). And as it happens, there is an enormous project to build a gigantic port in Africa, directly opposite Algeciras, the so called Tanger-Med, port, actually about 40km east of Tangier. I visited it the day before I visited Algeciras.

Well, when I say visited, I mean “went past it in a bus”, actually, so my photographs are perhaps a little lacking because of this. However:

It’s actually a lot bigger than that - I was only able to get a certain amount into the photo. In fact, when complete, it will be much bigger than the port at Alegiras on the Spanish side.

There is a lot more under construction, too. Plus there is an extensive motorway system heading south. When the port is complete, it will be the largest and hopefully busiest in Africa. To some extent it is to compete with Algeciras - in terms of transferring containers from one ship to another, Tanger-Med will be more modern and will have lower cost and (hopefully) more flexible labour. As well as that, the port is about trade between Africa and Spain, Europe, and further afield, and this is all good too.

Spanish registered truck, there.

One hopes that this is actually a sensible project, and that it will aid African development and international trade in a significant way. This of course requires efficient management, relatively free markets, the rule or law, and reasonably low levels of corruption. The port is apparently being built with government money, and run by “a private company with public sector privileges”. That sounds like an invitation for trouble, but is probably no worse than the arrangements by which many ports are run. One does also wonder from who the Moroccan government has borrowed the money. There is a reservoir of cheap capital that is used to fund Arab infrastructure (and other) projects that is ultimately based on the huge oil wealth of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Like all mispriced capital, such money can be useful if you are trying to borrow money to finance and build a sensible business, but the mispricing also tends to encourage bubbles, rentseeking, excess, and an ultimate collapse under a mountain of debt. Given the strategic location of Tanger-Med, a sizeable port is sensible, but one hopes that massive overbuilding has not occurred. The story of EU aid for infrastructure projects in Spain and Portugal was starting off with sensible projects, and ending up with absurdity, and one hopes that this is not similar.

05 May 2011
Electronic signs at railway stations – good but not perfect
Brian Micklethwait

As a Grumpy Old Man, I believe it is my duty to note some good things as and when they happen, if only to establish my bona fides when grumping about bad things.  And one of the trends in human affairs of recent years that I have liked is the way that really quite informative electronic signs have multiplied in railway stations concerning the next bunch of trains, and if you are even luckier, at bus stops concerning the next bunch of buses.

They could be better, mind you.  The railway signs typically tell you all the stations that the next train will be stopping at, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what stations the one after that will be stopping at, or the one after that. They only tell you the final destination.  Not knowing whether the 13.36 will stop where you want it to might seriously affect how you feel about the 13.25.  Yet, as it is, you have to wait until the 13.25 has come and gone before you learn for sure where the 13.36 will be stopping, at which point you could already have placed a bad bet, by not getting on board the 13.25.

So, these signs are not perfect.  But anything is better than ploughing through an idiotic Dead Sea Scroll timetable, which tells you the entire contents of some gink’s head last October, concerning all the railway trains that he believes will be in motion in the south of England, this entire May.  Talk about a needle of information in a haystack of too much information.

Another imperfection of these signs, from my point of view, is that they can often be impossible to photograph.

Take this sign, for instance, which I snapped yesterday:


That was actually quite informative, yesterday, when I looked at it for real.  It told me, while I was waiting at Vauxhall on the way to visit my brother, that there had been a fatality on the line at Clapham Junction, and that I and all my fellow travellers should expect delays and rearrangements.  And no, since you ask, it was not moving.  Or, it didn’t look to the human eye as if it was.  Only when I looked at my camera screen did it start jumping about manically.

An unusual fatality sign is just the kind of titbit that you want on a blog, is it not?  But, all my photo can do is illustrate a rumination about the weirdness of how digital photography sometimes interacts with reality.

Sometimes, such weirdness can be entertaining, but here only a frustration.

Although, interestingly, you can tell from the above photoat exactly what time it was taken.

This sign, on the other hand, proved to be entirely photoable:


Under what circumstances might the photographability of an electronic sign be of significance to someone other than a mere blogger?