Everyone rants all the time about the Tube being rubbish. It’s practically a qualification for living in London, with instant deportation as a punishment for those who fail to join in. Which is fine: there are problems with the Tube, and it’s not as good as the public transport systems in East Asia (although I’d actually rate it at least as good as any public transport network I’ve visited in Europe or the US).
The thing which really annoys me, though, is when people blame Ken Livingstone, Tim O’Toole, Metronet or Tubelines for the system failures.
Between 1945 and 2000, with the exception of the absolutely-necessary-to-avoid-gridlock Victoria Line, the half-arsed-compromise Jubilee Line, and the Thatcher’s-Docklands-project-must-succeed Jubilee extension, there was no investment in the Underground system. None.
Central government skimped on the money for essential maintenance, and didn’t make any money available for capital projects such as major line or signalling upgrades. London was a declining city and the train was a declining transport mode – cars and suburbs were the way forward.
So anyone who blames the people in charge of the Tube for its state today is simply wrong. Ken, the current government, LUL’s current management and the infracos are the first people since the days of the London Passenger Transport Board in the 1930s to embark on a serious programme of upgrades to the underground. This isn’t necessarily because they’re all wonderful people, just that people have suddenly noticed that London is growing again and the private car is not a viable means of transport within London.
Yes, it gets frustrating when there are signal failures because 30, 50 or 80 year old kit doesn’t work very well. It’s also frustrating when there are signal failures or lift failures or train failures because brand new kit hasn’t bedded in yet [*]. But there’s a generally
understood curve over time in reliability of major capital assets – it doesn’t work very well when brand new, works quite well for some time after that, and then doesn’t work very well again because it’s too old. And at the moment, most of the kit on the Tube is either brand new, being replaced, or very old and knackered…
Hopefully, Ken’s Tory rival at the next Mayoral election will also be aware of the glaring reality that continued investment in London’s transport system is absolutely vital – although given their previous choices of a perjurer and a road-builder, I’ve got to admit I’m sceptical. But either way, anyone who refuses to vote Ken because they think he isn’t doing a good job on London’s transport is an idiot (of course, if they refuse to vote Ken because they don’t agree with his politics in other areas, then that’s a different story).
[*] or because a new high-speed train control system makes the trains accelerate so fast that the motors fall off, as with Automatic Train Operation on the Central line.
It’s not especially surprising to see a BBC article that looks at the start of a potential major positive in a country’s economic position, and then gets the consequences utterly wrong (this isn’t particularly having a go at the BBC for being leftie – the Times, Telegraph and Daily Wail are equally economically illiterate at times). This particular piece is on the introduction of supermarkets into India, and especially the associated Risks and Catastrophes.
Now, while gibbering loons and farmers everywhere bemoan and bewail the presence of supermarkets in the west, it’s clear that they’ve massively improved the quality and availability of food. Even if you’re very poor indeed in the UK, you can afford to eat well as long as you live within reach of a supermarket, even quite a crap one.
In the UK prior to supermarkets, people paid a great deal to buy food from local grocers, a few of whom are nostalgically remembered as good, while most were somewhere between mediocre and downright crooked. The supermarkets were a boon primarily to the poor, and shopping at farmers’ markets today is a badge of upper-middle-class pretension. The local shops have either turned into bastions of poshness or closed down, and good riddance.
I think this is the kind of narrative that charity worker Indu Singh is thinking of in India: “We have already seen that in places where these supermarkets are coming up, local vendors are losing 40% of their business. What we are seeing is a big divide being created, between the super elite and the poor.”
But the Indian supermarkets are the opposite of UK supermarkets: they are more expensive than the street markets for basic produce. So the only people who go there are people who are rich enough for the price differential not to matter. And India is still a very poor country, so there aren’t very many people rich enough for the price differential not to matter – even people who are solidly in the middle and upper-middle ends of India’s income distribution are still poor by global standards
Overall, supermarkets in India serve the top 5% income bracket – certainly not the top 40%. So if a street vendor is genuinely losing 40% of his custom to the supermarkets, either that’s because he’s selling the local equivalent of porcini mushrooms and truffle oil, or because his patch is right outside the poshest part of the community. But there is absolutely no way this is being replicated across the community – the impact on regular vendors, especially the poorest ones who sell the cheapest products, will be negligible in the medium term.
The longer term consequences are harder to predict. To roll out its supermarket chain, Reliance has also had to build its own food supply and logistics network, since India doesn’t have one of these to start with. In other words, it collects produce from rural farmers, sorts, grades and packs it, and trucks it via distribution centres to its urban stores.
This is a long way from complete (the plan is to roll out over 1,000 stores, and it currently has 40), but could entirely transform the way India’s agriculture sector works – or, more accurately, the way in which it fails to transport produce to market in a timely fashion, leading to massive wasteage and ultimately driving poverty and starvation. At this point, undercutting the market stalls might be possible, which would be massively beneficial to India’s urban poor. Alternatively, the whole system could fail, and one of India’s richest families would become slightly less so. Either way, it’s very exciting and could do with some better reporting…
In other bloggish news, I’ve got a new article up at the Sharpener on why, even though homeopathy is nonsense, the reason for this is not because we have no idea how it could possibly work – indeed, we have no idea how a huge number of demonstrably effective drugs could possibly work.
Apologies for absence; I’ve been working insane hours on a pharmaceutical industry project, which is now over.
Interesting tangentially related statistic #1: a patented cancer drug takes seven years to bring from the start of human trials to market, and has a 9% chance of actually reaching market. Even after successful Phase II trials (which determine effectiveness), it still only has a 30% chance of reaching the market. Statistic #2 is that, if a cancer drug does reach the market, manufacturing costs are around €25 per dose, while the drug sells for around €750 per dose.
Now, do we think that #1 and #2 are related? Do we think that maybe, just maybe, the overregulated drug safety system is at least as significant than the Evil Moneygrubbingness Of Big Pharma in ensuring that patented drugs sell for such a high price? Do we think that perhaps drugs for rapidly fatal conditions such as treatment-refractory cancer should be marketed once broad efficacy is proven, rather than waiting to see if they might slightly increase your chance of a heart attack if you’re lucky enough to be cured? Yes, actually we do.
(obviously this is only true for drugs that treat acute, fatal conditions – if a drug is being widely prescribed to people who aren’t acutely ill for chronic usage, as with cardiovascular or mental health drugs, then the Phase III trial phase of checking a large group of patients for unusual but serious or long-term side effects is a useful one.)
Unrelatedly, I’ve got another piece up at the Sharpener, on drink-related sillyness. I’d also like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that the UK police have conspired to destroy the lives of thousands of innocent people, and nobody seems to care.
I’ve got a new piece up on the otherwise increasingly moribund Sharpener, about the terrifying public and press reaction – both in the UK and in Iran – that risks escalating a minor diplomatic incident into a casus belli. Hopefully sanity will prevail: ideally on both sides, but at the very least on ours…
Dear Lenovo -
Congratulations on making some of the best and most rugged laptops available; buying IBM’s PC business was a good idea (even if you have been dogged by Japanese suppliers‘ ineptitude at battery manufacturing).
However, now that your machines no longer fall under the IBM umbrella, there are a couple of bizarre Big Blue eccentricities you might want to remove. In particular:
1) put a Windows key on the keyboard. I know IBM and Microsoft always had an uneasy relationship, but that’s no excuse. I’d wager 95%+ of your PCs use Windows, so it’s utterly Pyhrric to leave it off.
2) put the USB ports on the right hand side. Most people are right-handed; most laptop USB ports are used for mice and memory sticks which are best accessed with your right hand.
3) remove the umbelievably irritating website navigation buttons that are immediately above the arrow keys, which mean that when filling out online forms and aiming to move the cursor you instead go back to the previous page and lose everything you typed.
Otherwise, carry on as you were.
What’s that? You say he’s not the only saint whose feast day is today? You’re right: it’s also the feast day of Cyril’s brother Methodius. I wonder why it got called the Cyrillic alphabet and not the Methodical alphabet?
So, congratulations to Cyril and Methodius. May they be remembered every February 14.
I’ve got a new piece up at The Sharpener on Threshers’
brilliant ad campaign unfortunate voucher mistake.
George Osborne has floated a new public sector recruitment policy to be applied should the Conservatives get into power: all media advertising for government jobs will be pulled and instead a central website will be set up (at an alleged cost of £5m a year) to offer them.
Given that he could be the next-but-one Chancellor of the Exchequer, I hope that Mr Osborne is making a cynical appeal to public ignorance of recruitment markets and eBusiness costs, rather than believing this plan to be a good idea in its own right.
We’re the Tories, so let’s nationalise stuff
For starters, the £5m a year cost is a gross understatement. In the private sector, market leading online job site Monster.com spends $187m on non-marketing non-wage costs to offer 12 million jobs a year. The civil service site would offer about 1.2 million jobs a year (20%ish turnover on 5.5ish million public sector workers); even assuming Monster’s size generates no economies of scale, then this takes the cost up to $19m (£10m).
Now, given that it costs the government £40,000 a year to run a blog, and given that Monster.com’s original setup costs have been written off, do we think that the real cost will be in the £5m bracket, the £50m bracket, or the £500m bracket…?
I don’t understand, unless he is merely appealing to ignorance (or the desire to stick one to the Guardian, which currently has the highest market share for public sector recruitment), why Mr Osborne would float a policy of nationalisation that’s guaranteed to result in another public IT disaster.
Wanted: blind janitor with 1337 5k177z
In any case, there is absolutely no way the government could rely on this site for job advertising.
While Sir Humphrey may be the public stereotype of a civil servant, many public sector roles are not highly skilled. The median wage in the public sector is £488 a week, slightly above the private sector median wage. There are an awful lot of people working in the public sector on low incomes with poor literacy and IT skills (after all, how much of an IT whizz does a park-keeper need to be?), so recruiting them over the web is not going to produce a good selection of candidates.
A sizeable proportion even of better-paid people (particularly senior age groups, disabled people and ethnic minority groups, against whom the government is attempting to avoid discriminating at the moment) also do not currently use the Internet for job applications. We’ve all met senior bosses in the private and public sectors who are very good at their jobs but who rely on their secretaries to print and type their email.
Even among people who are able to use IT for basic work purposes, many may not be willing to trust the online channel for something as important as job recruitment – according to consulting group Forrester, 68% of people don’t even fully trust the web for shopping. A government website is obviously more trustworthy than dodgydavesphishingsite.com, but plenty of people are seriously paranoid about technology.
They’re doing it already, and it isn’t enough
For an obvious, concrete example of why the site wouldn’t be enough on its own, simply Google for online job application statistics, as I did earlier. Nearly all the initial hits are online recruitment pages for public sector roles. And guess what? Despite already having access to this channel, these employers recruit through other channels as well…
A list of government recruitment sites wouldn’t be a bad idea – at the moment, there is no central resource that points applicants both to the civil service careers site and to the London councils careers site, as well as all the other arms of government and quango-ery (apart from Google).
But turning this link-list into a mega-IT project in a doomed plan to annoy the Guardian would be a tiny little bit silly.
The London Astoria is one of the capital’s best-known live music venues; hundreds of groups ranging from Nirvana to the Stones have played there over the last 15 years. It’s also reportedly “under threat” from property developers in sinister allegiance with the Olympics and most recently Transport for London’s evil machinations. Indeed, it is true that if the (absolutely essential for London) Crossrail scheme goes ahead, the long-overdue rebuild of Tottenham Court Road station will require the venue’s demolition.
Let’s get one thing straight – it would not be a bad thing at all if the Astoria were demolished and replaced with another comparably sized venue. On the current site, the acoustics are rubbish, you can’t see the stage from the bar, the bits of the venue away from the main floor are too small for its capacity (after each gig, there’s an enormous queue to escape, not helped by the fact that the exit passages are too small to maintain separate queues for the cloakroom and the door), and it rains sweat. The gig experience at the Astoria is far inferior to that of other similar-sized London venues like the Brixton Academy or the Shepherds Bush Empire.
The problem is that London has too few of these mid-sized gig venues for its population (even ignoring its uncontested status as the world’s most important city for music). The amount of venue space in central London, far more convenient for gig-goers than Hammersmith or Shepherds Bush or Brixton, is particularly limited. Bands play at the Astoria even though the facilities are poxy because they have little choice, and tearing it down without replacing it would be a disaster for the London music scene.
But surely, one of the core conditions of demolition consent for such an important public amenity would be to build a music venue as part of the development on the new site, right? Sadly not – and this is where we run into the very issues that’s responsible for the shortage of live music venues in central London in the first place. Although rents are high and property developers are keen to exploit the fact that rents are high, neither of these is the critical factor that will ensure the Astoria goes unreplaced.
No, the reason the Astoria will go unreplaced is the same reason that there are no decent nightclubs in central London, why nearly all pubs (except, for some reason, ghastly chain pub-bars like Tiger Tiger) in central London shut before midnight despite the new licensing rules, and why drinkers in one of London’s finest establishments face instant expulsion if caught attempting to dance: the decision is in the hands of miserable provincial killjoys.
Central London, in the “Underground Zone 1″ sense that visitors understand and that I’m using here, is made up almost entirely of the City of London and the City of Westminster. Aside from lunchtime-and-after-work venues, the former is irrelevant for going out; Westminster accounts for the rest, including Soho, the West End, Covent Garden. It is the local council for the Astoria area, and it has an active policy of discouraging people from having fun (unless it’s in a suitably ‘artistic’ format).
The West End should be run as an entertainment area for Londoners and visitors. That is its traditional function; that is what it does best; and that is what its geographical location demands. Unfortunately, Westminster City Council has other ideas: it classes the West End as a stress area, meaning that new pubs, bars, nightclubs, venues and restaurants will generally not be approved there. As part of the planning consent for demolition of the Astoria, Westminster has stipulated that instead of a new venue, the developers must build yet another theatre (because the Astoria was classed as a theatre before it was converted into a music venue 15 years ago).
Westminster City Council is clearly the villain of this piece: it is relishing the opportunity to convert a sweaty venue where uncouth types swill beer and mosh to rock-and-roll into yet another opportunity for tweedy elders to enjoy Mr Lloyd-Webber’s latest offering. In general, it relishes the opportunity to punish people and companies that steer clear of sanitized, corporate-friendly, safe, sober, high-spending entertainment.