Around the world, the government-charted monopolies and cartels that run the taxi business responded with protests and violence to the emergence of technology-empowered competitors such as Uber, which does not undercut traditional taxis on cost — in New York, its drivers earn about three times what a traditional cabbie makes — but is much more convenient for those who do not live or work in areas that are generally well-served by traditional taxis. As in most cities, New York law imposes price uniformity on taxis and long protected them from most competition, with the entirely predictable result that consumers are the worst-served parties in the taxi business. (It does not help matters that, unlike their London counterparts, famously steeped in “the Knowledge,” the typical New York cabbie cannot find the Brooklyn Bridge without GPS or turn-by-turn instructions from the passenger.) The lack of consumer focus has some perverse consequences here in New York: The taxi fleet schedules its shift change from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., meaning that taxis all but vanish from the streets during the hours when they are most needed. The New York Times calls this an “apparent violation of the laws of supply and demand,” which, New York Times geniuses, is exactly what happens when you use regulation to take supply and demand effectively out of the equation. A platform that combined Uber’s on-demand service with Google-style driverless cars would probably put the traditional taxi out of business — assuming that the cartels are not able to use government to strangle innovation in its cradle.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Race On, for Driverless Cars: On the beauty of putting the consumer in the driver’s seat”, National Review, 2014-06-01.
January 23, 2015
January 11, 2015
The wheel business settled, there arose the ever-lasting luggage question.
“The usual list, I suppose,” said George, preparing to write.
That was wisdom I had taught them; I had learned it myself years ago from my Uncle Podger.
“Always before beginning to pack,” my Uncle would say, “make a list.”
He was a methodical man.
“Take a piece of paper” — he always began at the beginning — “put down on it everything you can possibly require, then go over it and see that it contains nothing you can possibly do without. Imagine yourself in bed; what have you got on? Very well, put it down — together with a change. You get up; what do you do? Wash yourself. What do you wash yourself with? Soap; put down soap. Go on till you have finished. Then take your clothes. Begin at your feet; what do you wear on your feet? Boots, shoes, socks; put them down. Work up till you get to your head. What else do you want besides clothes? A little brandy; put it down. A corkscrew, put it down. Put down everything, then you don’t forget anything.”
That is the plan he always pursued himself. The list made, he would go over it carefully, as he always advised, to see that he had forgotten nothing. Then he would go over it again, and strike out everything it was possible to dispense with.
Then he would lose the list.
Said George: “Just sufficient for a day or two we will take with us on our bikes. The bulk of our luggage we must send on from town to town.”
“We must be careful,” I said; “I knew a man once—”
Harris looked at his watch.
“We’ll hear about him on the boat,” said Harris; “I have got to meet Clara at Waterloo Station in half an hour.”
“It won’t take half an hour,” I said; “it’s a true story, and—”
“Don’t waste it,” said George: “I am told there are rainy evenings in the Black Forest; we may be glad of it. What we have to do now is to finish this list.”
Now I come to think of it, I never did get off that story; something always interrupted it. And it really was true.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.
January 10, 2015
Charles Stross in full “beat up the optimists” mode over a common SF notion about sub-orbital travel for the masses:
Let’s start with a simple normative assumption; that sub-orbital spaceplanes are going to obey the laws of physics. One consequence of this is that the amount of energy it takes to get from A to B via hypersonic airliner is going to exceed the energy input it takes to cover the same distance using a subsonic jet, by quite a margin. Yes, we can save some fuel by travelling above the atmosphere and cutting air resistance, but it’s not a free lunch: you expend energy getting up to altitude and speed, and the fuel burn for going faster rises nonlinearly with speed. Concorde, flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 2.0, burned about the same amount of fuel as a Boeing 747 of similar vintage flying trans-Atlantic at Mach 0.85 … while carrying less than a quarter as many passengers.
Rockets aren’t a magic technology. Neither are hybrid hypersonic air-breathing gadgets like Reaction Engines‘ Sabre engine. It’s going to be a wee bit expensive. But let’s suppose we can get the price down far enough that a seat in a Mach 5 to Mach 10 hypersonic or sub-orbital passenger aircraft is cost-competitive with a high-end first class seat on a subsonic jet. Surely the super-rich will all switch to hypersonic services in a shot, just as they used Concorde to commute between New York and London back before Airbus killed it off by cancelling support after the 30-year operational milestone?
Firstly, this is the post-9/11 age. Obviously security is a consideration for all civil aviation, right? Well, no: business jets are largely exempt, thanks to lobbying by their operators, backed up by their billionaire owners. But those of us who travel by civil airliners open to the general ticket-buying public are all suspects. If something goes wrong with a scheduled service, fighters are scrambled to intercept it, lest some fruitcake tries to fly it into a skyscraper.
So not only are we not going to get our promised flying cars, we’re not going to get fast, cheap, intercontinental travel options. But what about those hyper-rich folks who spend money like water?
First class air travel by civil aviation is a dying niche today. If you are wealthy enough to afford the £15,000-30,000 ticket cost of a first-class-plus intercontinental seat (or, rather, bedroom with en-suite toilet and shower if we’re talking about the very top end), you can also afford to pay for a seat on a business jet instead. A number of companies operate profitably on the basis that they lease seats on bizjets by the hour: you may end up sharing a jet with someone else who’s paying to fly the same route, but the operating principle is that when you call for it a jet will turn up and take you where you want to go, whenever you want. There’s no security theatre, no fuss, and it takes off when you want it to, not when the daily schedule says it has to. It will probably have internet connectivity via satellite—by the time hypersonic competition turns up, this is not a losing bet—and for extra money, the sky is the limit on comfort.
I don’t get to fly first class, but I’ve watched this happen over the past two decades. Business class is holding its own, and premium economy is growing on intercontinental flights (a cut-down version of Business with more leg-room than regular economy), but the number of first class seats you’ll find on an Air France or British Airways 747 is dwindling. The VIPs are leaving the carriers, driven away by the security annoyances and drawn by the convenience of much smaller jets that come when they call.
For rich people, time is the only thing money can’t buy. A HST flying between fixed hubs along pre-timed flight paths under conditions of high security is not convenient. A bizjet that flies at their beck and call is actually speedier across most intercontinental routes, unless the hypersonic route is serviced by multiple daily flights—which isn’t going to happen unless the operating costs are comparable to a subsonic craft.
January 7, 2015
Over at The Register, someone accidentally let Simon Rockman get up on his hobby horse and start yelling nasty things about buses:
A bus is a fantastically efficient way to move a large number of people. Buses however are not. They are a dreadful system for getting people to work.
The difference is not as subtle as that sentence may make it seem. What lies behind it is that when you want to move a large number of people from one place to another all at once, a works outing for instance, a Charabanc makes perfect sense.
But it doesn’t scale. If you want to travel by bus there needs to be a regular service. That means lots of buses have to waft up and down a route in anticipation of there being someone who wants to get on. In a major city, and I live in London, that’s good for some of the time. So long as there is a steady supply of people there can be a good number on the bus. This of course doesn’t work very early in the morning or late at night when there are not enough people.
What’s worse is that buses don’t go from where people live to where they work. Unless you live by a bus stop, in which case you have the kinds of people who hang around bus stops hanging around your house, you’ll have to walk to it. The same is true at the other end. Then you have to wait for the bus. If I walk down to my nearest bus stop and a bus arrives as I get there I think it’s a fantastic, special happening. If I walk out of my house and my car is there I think “that’s normal”.
January 4, 2015
Camping out in rainy weather is not pleasant.
It is evening. You are wet through, and there is a good two inches of water in the boat, and all the things are damp. You find a place on the banks that is not quite so puddly as other places you have seen, and you land and lug out the tent, and two of you proceed to fix it.
It is soaked and heavy, and it flops about, and tumbles down on you, and clings round your head and makes you mad. The rain is pouring steadily down all the time. It is difficult enough to fix a tent in dry weather: in wet, the task becomes herculean. Instead of helping you, it seems to you that the other man is simply playing the fool. Just as you get your side beautifully fixed, he gives it a hoist from his end, and spoils it all.
“Here! what are you up to?” you call out.
“What are you up to?” he retorts; “leggo, can’t you?”
“Don’t pull it; you’ve got it all wrong, you stupid ass!” you shout.
“No, I haven’t,” he yells back; “let go your side!”
“I tell you you’ve got it all wrong!” you roar, wishing that you could get at him; and you give your ropes a lug that pulls all his pegs out.
“Ah, the bally idiot!” you hear him mutter to himself; and then comes a savage haul, and away goes your side. You lay down the mallet and start to go round and tell him what you think about the whole business, and, at the same time, he starts round in the same direction to come and explain his views to you. And you follow each other round and round, swearing at one another, until the tent tumbles down in a heap, and leaves you looking at each other across its ruins, when you both indignantly exclaim, in the same breath:
“There you are! what did I tell you?”
Meanwhile the third man, who has been baling out the boat, and who has spilled the water down his sleeve, and has been cursing away to himself steadily for the last ten minutes, wants to know what the thundering blazes you’re playing at, and why the blarmed tent isn’t up yet.
At last, somehow or other, it does get up, and you land the things. It is hopeless attempting to make a wood fire, so you light the methylated spirit stove, and crowd round that.
Rainwater is the chief article of diet at supper. The bread is two-thirds rainwater, the beefsteak-pie is exceedingly rich in it, and the jam, and the butter, and the salt, and the coffee have all combined with it to make soup.
After supper, you find your tobacco is damp, and you cannot smoke. Luckily you have a bottle of the stuff that cheers and inebriates, if taken in proper quantity, and this restores to you sufficient interest in life to induce you to go to bed.
There you dream that an elephant has suddenly sat down on your chest, and that the volcano has exploded and thrown you down to the bottom of the sea — the elephant still sleeping peacefully on your bosom. You wake up and grasp the idea that something terrible really has happened. Your first impression is that the end of the world has come; and then you think that this cannot be, and that it is thieves and murderers, or else fire, and this opinion you express in the usual method. No help comes, however, and all you know is that thousands of people are kicking you, and you are being smothered.
Somebody else seems in trouble, too. You can hear his faint cries coming from underneath your bed. Determining, at all events, to sell your life dearly, you struggle frantically, hitting out right and left with arms and legs, and yelling lustily the while, and at last something gives way, and you find your head in the fresh air. Two feet off, you dimly observe a half-dressed ruffian, waiting to kill you, and you are preparing for a life-and-death struggle with him, when it begins to dawn upon you that it’s Jim.
“Oh, it’s you, is it?” he says, recognising you at the same moment.
“Yes,” you answer, rubbing your eyes; “what’s happened?”
“Bally tent’s blown down, I think,” he says. “Where’s Bill?”
Then you both raise up your voices and shout for “Bill!” and the ground beneath you heaves and rocks, and the muffled voice that you heard before replies from out the ruin:
“Get off my head, can’t you?”
And Bill struggles out, a muddy, trampled wreck, and in an unnecessarily aggressive mood — he being under the evident belief that the whole thing has been done on purpose.
In the morning you are all three speechless, owing to having caught severe colds in the night; you also feel very quarrelsome, and you swear at each other in hoarse whispers during the whole of breakfast time.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
December 22, 2014
December 12, 2014
Amy Alkon didn’t enjoy her most recent flight … but not because of the TSA goons, scheduling issues, or the ordinary wear and tear of flying. It was an encounter with the most modern, up-to-date parenting style:
I’ll take snakes on a plane. Snakes are quiet.
Last Saturday, I woke up at 4 a.m. to fly to an event across the country. “I’ll sleep on the plane,” I told myself. And no, I wasn’t being naive.
I came prepared: I had my “asshole-canceling headphones” (big Bose over-the-ear “cans”), industrial-grade earplugs to wear underneath, and an iPhone with selections of white noise.
The cute blonde 3-year-old seated in front of me wasn’t a screamer. She was a talker — in a tone and volume appropriate for auditioning for the lead in “Annie.”
I figured she would quiet down after takeoff. She did not. And, sadly, even $300 worth of Bose technology was no match for this kid’s pipes. After about 20 sleep-free, “SUN’LL COME OUT TOMORROW!!” minutes into the flight, I leaned forward and whispered to the child’s mother, “Excuse me, could you please ask your little girl to be a little quieter?”
“No,” the woman said.
Lucky me, seated behind another proud purveyor of “go-right-ahead!” mommying. And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t ring the call button to “tattle” on her. Those uniformed men and women walking the plane are flight attendants, not nursery school dispute resolution experts. Also, a mother who sees no reason to actually, you know, parent, is unlikely to start because a lady with a pair of wings pinned to her outfit tells her she should.
We experience more and more of this these days — parents who apparently see any correction of their children’s behavior as a form of abuse. We have “parents” like this in my neighborhood. Throughout the day, through closed windows, you can hear this horrible high-pitched screaming. No, nobody’s taken up urban goat slaughter. Those are the impromptu audio stylings of their 3-year-old going underparented.
November 27, 2014
Published on 16 Mar 2012
John Schlesinger’s outstanding “fly on the wall” film about a day in the life of Waterloo Station. It was nominated for a BAFTA Film Award for Best Documentary. As well as being a masterpiece of film it has a magnificent soundtrack composed by Ron Grainer (who later composed the Doctor Who theme).
Published Crown copyright material has protection for 50 years from date of publication. Copyright on this film has thus expired.
H/T to Eric Kirkland for the link.
November 23, 2014
It is a curious fact, but nobody ever is sea-sick — on land. At sea, you come across plenty of people very bad indeed, whole boat-loads of them; but I never met a man yet, on land, who had ever known at all what it was to be sea-sick. Where the thousands upon thousands of bad sailors that swarm in every ship hide themselves when they are on land is a mystery.
If most men were like a fellow I saw on the Yarmouth boat one day, I could account for the seeming enigma easily enough. It was just off Southend Pier, I recollect, and he was leaning out through one of the port-holes in a very dangerous position. I went up to him to try and save him.
“Hi! come further in,” I said, shaking him by the shoulder. “You’ll be overboard.”
“Oh my! I wish I was,” was the only answer I could get; and there I had to leave him.
Three weeks afterwards, I met him in the coffee-room of a Bath hotel, talking about his voyages, and explaining, with enthusiasm, how he loved the sea.
“Good sailor!” he replied in answer to a mild young man’s envious query; “well, I did feel a little queer once, I confess. It was off Cape Horn. The vessel was wrecked the next morning.”
“Weren’t you a little shaky by Southend Pier one day, and wanted to be thrown overboard?”
“Southend Pier!” he replied, with a puzzled expression.
“Yes; going down to Yarmouth, last Friday three weeks.”
“Oh, ah — yes,” he answered, brightening up; “I remember now. I did have a headache that afternoon. It was the pickles, you know. They were the most disgraceful pickles I ever tasted in a respectable boat. Did you have any?”
For myself, I have discovered an excellent preventive against sea-sickness, in balancing myself. You stand in the centre of the deck, and, as the ship heaves and pitches, you move your body about, so as to keep it always straight. When the front of the ship rises, you lean forward, till the deck almost touches your nose; and when its back end gets up, you lean backwards. This is all very well for an hour or two; but you can’t balance yourself for a week.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
November 9, 2014
We got to Waterloo at eleven, and asked where the eleven-five started from. Of course nobody knew; nobody at Waterloo ever does know where a train is going to start from, or where a train when it does start is going to, or anything about it. The porter who took our things thought it would go from number two platform, while another porter, with whom he discussed the question, had heard a rumour that it would go from number one. The station-master, on the other hand, was convinced it would start from the local.
To put an end to the matter, we went upstairs, and asked the traffic superintendent, and he told us that he had just met a man, who said he had seen it at number three platform. We went to number three platform, but the authorities there said that they rather thought that train was the Southampton express, or else the Windsor loop. But they were sure it wasn’t the Kingston train, though why they were sure it wasn’t they couldn’t say.
Then our porter said he thought that must be it on the high-level platform; said he thought he knew the train. So we went to the high-level platform, and saw the engine-driver, and asked him if he was going to Kingston. He said he couldn’t say for certain of course, but that he rather thought he was. Anyhow, if he wasn’t the 11.5 for Kingston, he said he was pretty confident he was the 9.32 for Virginia Water, or the 10 a.m. express for the Isle of Wight, or somewhere in that direction, and we should all know when we got there. We slipped half-a-crown into his hand, and begged him to be the 11.5 for Kingston.
“Nobody will ever know, on this line,” we said, “what you are, or where you’re going. You know the way, you slip off quietly and go to Kingston.”
“Well, I don’t know, gents,” replied the noble fellow, “but I suppose some train’s got to go to Kingston; and I’ll do it. Gimme the half-crown.”
Thus we got to Kingston by the London and South-Western Railway.
We learnt, afterwards, that the train we had come by was really the Exeter mail, and that they had spent hours at Waterloo, looking for it, and nobody knew what had become of it.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
October 31, 2014
In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf talks about the travesty that is the US government’s no-fly list:
Months ago, The Intercept reported that “nearly half of the people on the U.S. government’s database of terrorist suspects are not connected to any known terrorist group.” Citing classified documents, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux went on to report that “Obama has boosted the number of people on the no fly list more than ten-fold, to an all-time high of 47,000 — surpassing the number of people barred from flying under George W. Bush.” Several experts were quoted questioning the effectiveness of a watch list so expansive, echoing concerns expressed by the Associated Press the previous month as well as the ACLU.
The Intercept article offered a long overdue look at one of the most troubling parts of the War on Terrorism. Being labeled a suspected terrorist can roil or destroy a person’s life — yet Team Obama kept adding people to the list using opaque standards that were never subject to democratic debate. Americans were denied due process. Innocent people were also put on a no-fly list with no clear way to get off.
As the ACLU put it, “The uncontroversial contention that Osama bin Laden and a handful of other known terrorists should not be allowed on an aircraft is being used to create a monster that goes far beyond what ordinary Americans think of when they think about a ‘terrorist watch list.’ If the government is going to rely on these kinds of lists, they need checks and balances to ensure that innocent people are protected.” The status quo made the War on Terror resemble a Franz Kafka novel.
October 4, 2014
Another fellow I knew went for a week’s voyage round the coast, and, before they started, the steward came to him to ask whether he would pay for each meal as he had it, or arrange beforehand for the whole series.
The steward recommended the latter course, as it would come so much cheaper. He said they would do him for the whole week at two pounds five. He said for breakfast there would be fish, followed by a grill. Lunch was at one, and consisted of four courses. Dinner at six — soup, fish, entree, joint, poultry, salad, sweets, cheese, and dessert. And a light meat supper at ten.
My friend thought he would close on the two-pound-five job (he is a hearty eater), and did so.
Lunch came just as they were off Sheerness. He didn’t feel so hungry as he thought he should, and so contented himself with a bit of boiled beef, and some strawberries and cream. He pondered a good deal during the afternoon, and at one time it seemed to him that he had been eating nothing but boiled beef for weeks, and at other times it seemed that he must have been living on strawberries and cream for years.
Neither the beef nor the strawberries and cream seemed happy, either — seemed discontented like.
At six, they came and told him dinner was ready. The announcement aroused no enthusiasm within him, but he felt that there was some of that two-pound-five to be worked off, and he held on to ropes and things and went down. A pleasant odour of onions and hot ham, mingled with fried fish and greens, greeted him at the bottom of the ladder; and then the steward came up with an oily smile, and said:
“What can I get you, sir?”
“Get me out of this,” was the feeble reply.
And they ran him up quick, and propped him up, over to leeward, and left him.
For the next four days he lived a simple and blameless life on thin captain’s biscuits (I mean that the biscuits were thin, not the captain) and soda-water; but, towards Saturday, he got uppish, and went in for weak tea and dry toast, and on Monday he was gorging himself on chicken broth. He left the ship on Tuesday, and as it steamed away from the landing-stage he gazed after it regretfully.
“There she goes,” he said, “there she goes, with two pounds’ worth of food on board that belongs to me, and that I haven’t had.”
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
September 28, 2014
It may be little more than a token measure, but the Canadian government is moving to revoke the passports of Canadians known to have gone overseas to join ISIS:
AS WESTERN democracies struggle with how to deal with homegrown terrorists fighting abroad, the Conservative government of Canada has begun revoking the passports of its foreign fighters as well as people still in Canada planning to join them. Chris Alexander, minister for citizenship and immigration, would not say exactly how many passports have been revoked, only that it has been done multiple times against some of the estimated 130 Canadians fighting with extremists, dozens of whom are in Iraq and Syria.
Taking passports away from suspected terrorists is controversial. It gives other countries the incentive to respond in kind, and it severs the route home for those who might be having second thoughts. Human-rights advocates in Canada say the secretive process used to determine whether a person is a threat to national security, one of the criteria for having your passport revoked, allows the government to make arbitrary decisions. These can be challenged in court but only within 30 days of the decision.
Ever since the attacks on the United States in 2001, Canada has been toughening its terrorism legislation. In 2004 a Liberal government brought in a law allowing it to revoke passports under certain circumstances. This is the power the government is now using. In 2013 the Conservative government made it a crime to leave or attempt to leave the country for the purpose of committing terrorist acts abroad. Earlier this year the government passed a law allowing it to revoke the citizenship — not just the passport — of dual citizens convicted in Canada or abroad of major crimes, including terrorism. Mr Alexander has not yet used this power but says he will do so, despite objections that this creates two-tiered citizenship.
September 20, 2014
I’ve seen this CBC link mentioned several times by US commentators:
American shakedown: Police won’t charge you, but they’ll grab your money
U.S. police are operating a co-ordinated scheme to seize as much of the public’s cash as they can
On its official website, the Canadian government informs its citizens that “there is no limit to the amount of money that you may legally take into or out of the United States.” Nonetheless, it adds, banking in the U.S. can be difficult for non-residents, so Canadians shouldn’t carry large amounts of cash.
That last bit is excellent advice, but for an entirely different reason than the one Ottawa cites.
There’s a shakedown going on in the U.S., and the perps are in uniform.
Across America, law enforcement officers — from federal agents to state troopers right down to sheriffs in one-street backwaters — are operating a vast, co-ordinated scheme to grab as much of the public’s cash as they can; “hand over fist,” to use the words of one police trainer.
August 14, 2014
James Lileks on the mindbending phenomenon that is Uber being supported (and even loved) by evil right-wingnuts:
Many people on the right have embraced Uber, the company that lets you call a ride from your smartphone instead of standing on the corner with your hand up looking like a statue of Lenin leading the proletariat to the Future, or maybe to that tapas place downtown. This confuses people who regard conservatives as dumb apes who poke Shiny New Things with a stick and screech in alarm. How can they support Uber? It’s a Cool Thing, and they’re all middle-aged dorks in polyester plaid shorts and black socks with sandals who like to “get down” to bands that sing about pickup trucks, or they’re pale evil men who wear three-piece suits to bed and drift off to sleep fantasizing that they’re slapping the birth-control pills out of the hands of poor women. Uber is good, Uber is an app, for heaven’s sake — how can these cretins possibly be on its side? It’s like finding that all the kale in the country is fertilized by Koch products.
As for Uber itself, well, let’s take a look at the wonderful world of cars-for-hire. When I lived in D.C. in the 90s, I took a lot of cabs. Now and then you’d get a spotless ride with a courteous older driver who knew every street and alley. When I say “now and then” it was in the sense of “now and then, there’s a presidential election.”
For the most part, the cabs had seats that felt like the thin battered beds of a hot-sheet motel and a sweat-and-barf perma-funk that made you roll down the windows in January. The fare wasn’t set by distance or time, but by zones, which encouraged the drivers to drive fast. While this made for speedy trips, and the not-unpleasant sensation of feeling your cheeks ripple with G-forces as he shot down the Dupont Circle tunnel like someone testing a rocket car on the Salt Flats of Utah, the occasional moments of weightlessness when you hit a bump reminded you that you were doing 50 mph in a car whose shock absorbers didn’t, and whose brakes probably wouldn’t.
When I moved back to Minneapolis I had no occasion to take the cab, except for trips back from the airport. The cars weren’t exactly new; when you looked at the fleet idling in the bays, it made you think, “this is what Havana would look like if Castro took over in 1982.”