Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Rail is (nearly) Obsolete

Railways are a 19th Century solution to 21st century problems. And the Government's planning to invest £50bn in them (in reality probably £80-150bn) on a new, shiny High Speed 2 line from London to Birmingham.

That's £1,500-£4,000 for each taxpayer that could be spent upgrading the capacity (and so lowering fares) on the existing network. But no. Economic theory, when filtered through the daily moron idiot-o-graph, says "capital spending boosts the economy" and this is some capital spending, so the argument goes, let's do it. Plus politicians get to look (or say they're being) "bold" or "forward-looking". They're being nothing of the sort.

The economic case for HS2 is based on business travel. And it assumes the busy executive would 1) not work on the train, and 2) would be more likely to travel from London to Birmingham for a meeting. Of course what actually happens is the busy executive DOES work on the train, so high-speed mobile internet means the premiums to high speed travel drop markedly. Furthermore, he's more likely to travel from Birmingham to London for a meeting. The High speed lines from Lyons to Paris and from Osaka to Tokyo increased the centre's economic activity at the expense of the provinces, rather than providing the boost to regional economies as promised, and they reduced the need for local management jobs.

It's not just "business executives" who mostly have meetings less frequently than politicians imagine, and who will travel the other way to that anticipated. Night out at the Opera? - HS2 puts London's Royal Opera House in range, rather than Birmingham's (excellent, it's where I once saw The Marriage of Figaro, but less glamorous) Hippodrome. Will anyone be travelling from London on HS2 to go to the Theatre in Birmingham?

Of course HS2's a grotesquely expensive white elephant designed around the needs of a vanishingly small population: a tiny number of businesses who need to travel from London to Birmingham regularly, and Birmingham's 29 (28 next time...) MPs. Better to invest in the light rail, commuter services in conurbations like Birmingham where it might do some good. What's the point of getting to Birmingham from London, if you need a car to do so from

The main reason it's a white elephant: Self-drive cars which are on the horizon. The technology proven here & now, and will be available, if Google is to be believed, by 2018. This is what will revolutionise transport, not a single High speed line on a single track, at some point 25 years hence.

Think about it. Driving will no longer be dead time, you'll work in your car just as you work on the train. If you don't work, you'll read a book, watch a movie or stare blankly out of the window thinking about sex. Instead of sitting for 95% of the time, depreciating in car-parks or on the drive, cars can run errands while you're doing something else. Deliveries can happen at our convenience, not that of a delivery drivers tachymeter. All that space used to store depreciating metal will be used for something more productive. Vehicles, freed from human reaction time, will be free to cruise on motorways close together, saving fuel, increasing capacity. Delays will be greatly reduced. Junctions will not need traffic lights. Roads will not need signs, beautifying the built environment. Freed from the need to store cars, we can choose, central urban, or suburban/rural space. The effect on house-prices will be vast.

Everyone will have a door-to-door taxi, as and when they need it. Why go to the train station? Why subsidise trains? Don't spend £80bn (or whatever) on HS2. Spend it on something else. Or don't spend it at all.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Privatised Health services.

This is a tale of two sets of injections. Two on the NHS, for a fee, of £120, and a two in the private sector which cost £145.

The price points are near enough to think this isn't about "you get what you pay for", especially as I'm paying twice for my NHS "service".

The private sector offered appointments more or less at my convenience. When I arrived for my appointment, the nurse was already getting prepared. I was early, but only waited about 2 minutes before I was taken into a room, taken through a questionnaire, and given my innoculations. The whole process took 15 minutes.

Because it was so quick, I was early for my NHS appointment. Nevertheless I was seen 15 minutes late. The nurse had no clue what I was doing or why. Despite the fact the NHS injections were the second in a course of 2 and 3 respectively, I had to go through an enourmous faff. The nurse spent 10 minutes wandering around asking whether I could be injected into my thigh, because I'd already had an injection earlier in my upper arm, a question surely she'd be qualified to answer.

And trying to book an appointment for the final injection in 4 weeks' time was definitely about their convenience, not mine. The whole process took 50 minutes, and I was in the clinic for over an hour.

Anyone who thinks there aren't efficiencies in the NHS to be had that would be achieved by more marketisation, is an idiot.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Politics as Self-Identification: Cuts, Fracking and the Military.

There are two tribes of politics, the left and right, who are almost impossible to define in policy terms. They correlate imperfectly with Labour and Tory in the UK who, yes, in the short-run do look similar (though in the long run, very different). Whether you self-identify as left or right will define mostly what you're angry about.

It's the anger of these tribes, amplified in the echo-chamber of social media, with nuance and facts drowned out in the cacophony of 140 character soundbites which so distorts political debate.

Any attempt to explain detail and facts will be met with the charge that you're one of the 'other' and so can be ignored.

I've been arguing on twitter with people on the right, whose assumptions I broadly share, who've persuaded themselves that the UK has cut its military to a point of irrelevance. They're basing this view on the endless diet of "cuts" stories in the Daily Mailograph.

The fact remains the UK is a major military power, with the 4th largest Defence budget on earth, dwarfed by the USA, about half that of China, 2/3rds that of Russia and equivalent to Japan's. From that defence budget, we maintain full-scale war-fighting competence, unlike many other mid-ranking powers (*cough* France *cough*) who maintain formations and kit which cannot be deployed for want of support formations, logistics and intelligence capability.

Britain maintains a Brigade-level deployment in Afghanistan. While this was being maintained, we are able to operate in 30 counties, maintain out-of area contingencies; and were yet able to help the French with their operation in Mali, who were unable to deploy their (significantly larger) army to their own doorstep.

The reason for the French failure in Mali is their politicians have been unwilling to cut the number of infantry batallions for political reasons, and have instead cut logistics capabilities. The UK, thanks to a continuous cycle of operations going back centuries do not have the luxury of seeing the military as a national willy to be waved at other nations, as this would leave it incapable of achieving tumescence and firing naught but blanks.

British politicians asked "what additional capabilities does a small carrier with a handful of harriers bring that couldn't be achieved with typhoon and air to air tankers?" The answer came "nothing". The French have not asked that question of the Charles de Gaulle, which they maintain at great expense, but to little purpose. A bit like Brazil whose flat-top carries an air-wing of... 4 jets to... nowhere in particular.

Likewise, the left, who've persuaded themselves that Hydrolytic Fracturing (Fracking) is poisoning groundwater, creating earthquakes and putting methane into people's taps, and done so against all the evidence because like the right, talking to themselves about the military, they are willing to be lied to by people with axes to grind, whose assumptions they share.

I used to be angry about military cuts, until I saw dispationate discussion (at the highest level) about WHY the cuts were taken. I was forced to challenge my assumptions. I suggest you all do.

The great risk of social media is the tribes of left and right divide into mutually deaf echo-chambers who don't challenge assumptions, instead reinforce idiocies by then endless pointing to "evidence" (in practice newspaper articles or dubious "reports") that supports and reinforces priors.

Question everything. And in doing so accept the Government is sometimes right. Brown's handling of the credit crunch was OK (it was his management of the economy for the decade beforehand which was criminal). The British military is effective, and enormously so for its size, and we have Labour's willingness to slay military vested interests to thank for that. The cuts to wasteful public spending are the right policy thanks to Tory willingness to slay vested public-sector interests.

Fracking is safe and should go ahead.

The Tories are delivering cuts to that which can be cut, whatever right-wing morons who think the cuts aren't happening may think. The cuts aren't leaving people dead in the street, whatever left-wing morons think.

Ignore the idiots, who spout meaningless soundbites. Listen to those who force you to challenge assumptions. Some of them come from the other tribe.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

A Simple Policy to make the UK Happier...

...Would be for the Government stop funding, and the BBC to ignore, the following organisations and their output:

No, not Young Professionals meeting for a drink after 
work, but dangerous addicts damaging their livers.

There are plenty of others you can add to the list fake charities: government funded lobbying organisations who produce endless "studies" supporting the ban of whatever their bee is in their bonnet; all in the name of "public health", whose policy-based evidence-making goes entirely unchallenged on the BBC.

And people turn on the radio, and hear some ghastly purse-lipped harridan, with a mouth like a dog's arsehole from Alcohol Concern spewing forth statistics about "middle class binge-drinking" (by which she means sharing a bottle or two of a weeknight evening) like so much vomit. As she sits there, unchallenged, calling for warning labels or more tax, or a minimum price of Alcohol or some such nanny-state fuss-bucketry, the people lisening feel put upon and oppressed, as the vague notion that the Government is going to make their few remaining pleasures more expensive, harder to get forms; even if nothing is happening.

These temperance bags of spite have already destroyed the working classes' social life by taking away their local boozer thanks to the smoking ban. Now they want to price the "squeezed middle" out of their chilled Chardonnay when they get in from work. 

LEAVE PEOPLE BE, for pity's sake you fucking evil puritan cock-wombles. Leave us alone.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

On Fracking, David Cameron and The North/South Divide.

Let's be absolutely clear. There is very little to object to about fracking. The issue is almost entirely political. Groundwater contamination can be avoided, and the threat of earthquakes is just grotesquely exaggerated. There are "seismic events" but they're equivalent to someone dropping a bowling ball out of a tree. Detectable, but unlikely to knock your house down. Any objections remaining are "general industrial" objections to plant and machinery moving about. But fracking plants aren't particularly big, or noisy and when plumbed into a grid, don't require much in the way of plant moving about.

The environmental benefits are mainly from replacing coal. Coal is dirty, and produces more particulates and sulphur (things that actually destroy lungs and trees) than gas. Per unit of energy, it also produces more carbon dioxide than gas at the power station. One of the objections to fracking is that leaks of Methane from the process enter the atmosphere. These leaks can almost entirely dispel any benefit to Greenhouse emissions as Methane is a far more potent Greenhouse gas than Carbon Dioxide. However CO2 accumulates in the Atmosphere, whereas methane breaks down quickly. EPA estimates of leaks range from 2% (at which level there are clear greenhouse benefits to Gas) to 14% (at one rig in Utah, which appeared to be an outlier).

Methane leakage is a regulatory and engineering problem. It isn't fundamental to the technology.

Cameron thinks Fracking can reduce energy bills. Well he's half right. If the technology is adopted across Europe, then yes, it will but UK supply will be fed into a European gas network, and will unlikely be enough to significantly alter prices on its own. What will happen is that taxes will be levied on production and the majority of the benefit will flow to the exchequer. Furthermore, the balance of trade will improve, probably strengthening Sterling as we once again become an energy exporter. This will help to reverse the slide in living standards as imports will become cheaper again.

No-doubt Labour, gifted Lord Howell's remarks about the "desolate" North East being suitable for Fracking, then rowing back by saying he meant the North-West (well that's OK then...) will make this about a posh, southern "them" doing fracking to the poor, benighted north. Hence Cameron pointing out that much of the shale is in the South East of England, and his (neighbouring) constituencies had better get used to it.

Fracking. It may make your Gas bill a bit lower, but the main effect will be on helping to close the fiscal gap, reducing the pressure on the rest of the economy, and generate cheap, relatively clean energy. The risks are grotesquely overstated by the sort of people who would object to anything, anywhere, ever.

The US Environmental Protection Agency is due to report in November. But they seem to be saying in their update report that most of the problems so far identified are exaggerated, and soluble. The potential benefits to the UK are far more than lower energy bills, and most of the objections are spurious. Let's just get on with it. Cameron's right. Let's frack, baby frack.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

So the Liberal Democrats want to ban cars...

...which emit CO2, by 2040. Details can be found in this document. (PDF)

The main problem I have with this document is that it makes no mention of the biggest change to transport technology on the horizon, the driverless car. Instead, the Lib-Dems are wibbling about High-Speed Rail which will be almost completely obsolete by 2050 as everyone will be snoozing in their own autonomous vehicles. Such vehicles will run door-to-door on a vastly greater network of tracks (let's call them "roads" shall we?) than any train network will ever be able to compete with.

It also seeks to pick the winner from the competing technologies, suggesting battery cars are the future when they probably aren't.

Since the 1980s there has been a near perfect experiment in car design. The Americans used rules to define what emissions are acceptable, and relied on the motor-manufacturers to deliver more efficient cars. In Europe, a tax was applied to fuel, and pressure from consumers demanded more efficient cars. The Americans relied on state dirigisme, the Europeans relied on the market.

And as you can see, the State can drive the low-hanging fruit, but it takes a market solution (like a tax on fuel) to drive the technological changes which allow some cars to do 80-90 miles per gallon. Furthermore, rules can be gamed, which is why not included in the graph above are the grotesque pickup trucks which are popular in the USA as they are not included in the emissions regime.

The Liberal Democrats appear to want to use the bad American approach to vehicular emissions, and not the winning European one.

This document is being presented in the news as "silly lib-dems with unworkable proposals". Actually it's far from blue-sky thinking and merely a re-hash of old dogmas. It's arguable the oil price may fall. The lib-dems assume it will rise. VED is a VERY blunt tool to drive emissions compared to fuel duty. Road Pricing is likely to be insanely unpopular, and achieve little more than fuel duty does currently, and drive people off trunk-roads and onto smaller, more dangerous roads, increasing deaths and congestion. 

All the approaches in this turgid little document have been tried elsewhere, and been shown to be either useless at best, or counter productive at worst. The Weird Beards at Conference will love it.

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