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Category archive: Europe

Thursday April 03 2014

So, speaking as I was lately about Lego, and loving as I do bridges, how about this?!?!:

image

In Germany.  Done just with paint.  Excellent, I think.  Found here (scrolling down is highly recommended).  Which I found because 6k recently linked to the same site, concerning something else, also very entertaining.

Tuesday December 17 2013

Incoming from Alan Little, from whom it is very nice to be hearing:

I thought this might be your sort of thing.

This being a collection, of course with photos, of 10 Spectacular Movable Bridges.  Definitely my sort of thing.

My favourite (for me) new discovery was this:

image

That’s bridge number seven, the Hörn Bridge, in Kiel, Germany.

It’s notable that about half (by my calculations) of these bridges are for pedestrians, or for pedestrians and cyclists, rather than road or rail bridges.

In recent years, local politicians have been discovering that a bit of well-judged public spending on a Popular Public Thing can really juice up the tourist trade, boost property values and tax take, etc.  This has meant, in particular, a proliferation of cute footbridges, often foot-and-bicycle bridges of course.  They are cute, but they are relatively cheap, certainly compared to bridges for roads or railways.

London has two recent footbridges (three if you count the Hungerford Bridge footbridges as two bridges), and two more are now being talked up, the Heatherwick Garden Bridge, and the one they are talking about that will connect Battersea to Chelsea.

I also liked bridge number eleven (aka bonus bridge number one), the Barton Swing Aqueduct:

image

The aqueduct, the first and only swing aqueduct in the world, is a Grade II listed building, considered a major feat of Victorian civil engineering. Designed by Sir Edward Leader Williams and built by Andrew Handyside of Derby, the swing bridge opened in 1894 and remains in regular use.

Cool.  Not something that anyone else felt the need to copy.  But still, cool.

Saturday December 14 2013

Incoming from Michael Jennings:

image

There is the end of Cape Bojador. This now scores high in the Brian blogs and Michael then goes there stakes.

Not very appetising looking, that having been my original point.  I just reread that piece.  Not bad.

LATER:

And when you get south of the point:

image

Not a helpful place to sale next to.

Thursday December 05 2013

And not just any old telly.  BBC1, The One Show, no less, watched by millions. I was and I am impressed.  Watch Elena Procopiu in action 25m30s into it, here, while it’s still there.  (For future reference, this was on Tuesday December 3rd.)

Elena was born in Romania and did a piece to camera about Romania and about Romanians in England, entirely in a Romanian accent until right at the end, when she said in her regular English voice that lots of Romanians have been here for years.  Many Romanians have already seen this performance, on the www.  Some, who missed the bit at the end, were surprised that someone who has been in England for so long still has such a strong Romanian accent.  None said that the Romanian accent was not a proper Romanian accent, which is not that easy to get exactly right, if you no longer have such an accent.

Tuesday November 19 2013

A few days ago I did a posting, featuring one of those faked up photos, about how they are talking of moving a bridge in Porto from down by the river to uptown.  Unfortunately, I muddled up two different bridges.  Michael Jennings informed me by phone of this muddle and then he added to the posting this further clarificatory comment:

The Dom Luis Bridge is in the centre of town, and is the principal pedestrian route from one side of the river the the other, the vehicle route for local traffic from close to the river one one side to close to the river on the other, and also (on the top deck) carries Porto’s light metro. The Maria Pia Bridge is the rail bridge a kilometre upstream that is no longer in use.

The Maria Pia Bridge was designed by Gustave Eiffel, although his employee Téophile Seyrig did much of the work. At the time it was the longest arch bridge in the world. Seyrig then (no longer working for Eiffel) built the Dom Luis Bridge, which then broke the record that had been held by the Maria Pia bridge. The two structures are similar, although the Maria Pia bridge lacks the bottom deck that the Dom Lewis bridge has. The two bridges are often confused. Also, perhaps rather sweetly, Dom Luis and Maria Pia were married to one other.

The plan to move the bridge away from the river seems a flight of fancy to me, although the basic problem that the bridge is very beautiful, very historically significant, and not presently used for anything does remain.

Michael spelt it Dom Lewis, but I’ve changed it to Dom Luis, because that does seem to be the proper spelling.  Or maybe it is Don.  Maybe it’s either Don Luis or Dom Lewis, and you can’t mix them.  Whatever.

Michael, who happened to be just about to visit Porto when I said all this, was urged to send back photos of these two bridges.  He did, for which much thanks.

Here is the bridge that is still very much in use, the Dom Luis Bridge, with a railway at the top and a road for cars and pedestrians at the bottom:

image

Taken with his iPad camera.  Michael apologised for that, but I think it’s rather dramatic.

Later Michael sent two more pictures, presumably taken with a rather fancier camera.

First we have, again, the Dom Luis Bridge:

image

And here is the one they are talking about moving, the Maria Pia Bridge:

image

You can see why Portoans like their bridges, and why it seems like a nice idea to turn the disused one into a big piece of public sculpture.

Meanwhile, I repeat my earlier questions.  Will people be allowed on top of the bridge to take photos from it?  And: If Porto doesn’t want this bridge any more, can London please have it?

Monday November 11 2013

I have always liked that big bridge in Porto.  Indeed, I blogged about it, in 2004.

Well, now there is a plan to move the bridge, which is no longer in use, to a higher spot in the town:

image

I think this is a fine plan.  It would presumably make the bridge far more visible from afar.  It’s amazing what a difference a distinctive Big Thing like this can make to a city.  Ask Paris.

Will people be allowed to climb to the top of the newly located Porto Bridge?  It would be a fantastic place to take photos from, except that I rather fear that the most visually interesting thing in Porto is the bridge itself.  Views of the bridge, from various parts of Porto: great.  Views from the bridge: rather ordinary?  Don’t know.  Hope that’s wrong.  Actually, it looks pretty good.

Maybe if Porto doesn’t do this, London should put in a bid.  Photoing London from that Thing would be stupendous.

LATER: Just had a call from Michael J saying I’m muddling up two different bridges.  The one in the fake photo above is not the same one as the one in the photo in the earlier blog posting I linked back to.  That bridge is still very much in use.  The one that is no longer being used, which they are thinking of moving, is some way downstream.  Michael is about to visit Porto, and has told me that he will try to take some photos of both.  If he manages this, it would be most welcome.

Wednesday November 06 2013

More old photos, this time from the time when the Eurostar trains used to depart from Waterloo:

image image image

Taken with my old Canon A70, on June 21 2003.  So, over a decade ago.  I think the sign on the right of these three snaps is something of an exaggeration.  That’s about how long it takes now, isn’t it?  Not sure about that.

The pictures are all pleasingly worse than the ones I take now, with my Panasonic Lumix FZ150.  It would be terrible to think that neither I nor my cameras had got any better between then and now.

Eurostar came and went from Waterloo from November 1994 until November 2007.  Since then, not a lot.

But:

In 2012 a new proposal for the future use of the station was made, namely that it becomes the London destination of all the UK’s sleeper trains. This may become necessary as the phasing out of Mk2 vehicles and their replacement with Mk3 will make the trains too long for the platforms at Euston, and construction of HS2 will make the long sleeper dwell times at Euston untenable. If the Paddington sleepers were also diverted this would concentrate all sleeper services at Waterloo International, thus making use of the former Eurostar lounge facilities for sleeper passengers.

I can’t say I quite follow the logic of all that, but at least Waterloo Eurostar-that-was has not been completely forgotten about.

Monday October 28 2013

Quite often I start a BrianMicklethwaitDotCom posting, but when I’ve nearly finished it, I realise that it will do as a Samizdata posting.  This happened today, twice.

So instead, here is a link to a story, from April 2011, about Copenhagen’s Sperm Bike.  How did I miss this?  Probably because the site is called Treehugger, and peddles stuff about the need to screw up Western Civilisation because of the weather getting too hot if we don’t.

This is what the Sperm Bike looks like:

image

If you are wondering about how the steering works, I think this explains it.

Monday September 02 2013

Dezeen, which I nevertheless now like a lot, features rather too many, for my taste, dull rectangular private houses, commissioned (one suspects) by elderly relatives of the architect, to get him started. Can such houses later be sold easily, like real houses, or does the first buyer take a big hit?

But this next rectangular structure interests to me far more, and not just because it is scaffolding:

image

The thing is, it’s a building made of scaffolding.  Okay not a real building, a temporary art gallery.  But surely an idea whose time has come, and actually been around for quite a while.

See also this café made of scaffolding and shipping containers.

I imagine that many people in the poorer parts of the poorer, bigger and less tidy sorts of cities out in Asia live in dwellings constructed of scaffolding, and that soon, many more will.  Nothing like a building bust to leave lots of otherwise useless scaffolding lying around, begging to be put to more permanent uses, by people who would otherwise be living in smaller sheds on the ground.  But, that’s just a guess.

Sunday July 07 2013

Incoming from Craig Willy, of whom I did not know until now:

Hello Brian,

I see you’ve written a great deal on Emmanuel Todd. I have just written a summary of his big history book, L’invention de l’Europe. I thought you might find it interesting.

I also see you have the impression he mainly criticizes the U.S. for being a “hollowed out,” financialized “fake” economy. In fact he is incredibly critical of the eurozone, for that very reason, which he argues is responsible for the hollowing out, dysfunction and financialism of the French and peripheral European economies.

All the best, and feel free to share if you write anything new on Todd. My Twitter.

Craig

In response to my email thanking him for the above email, and asking if he has written anything else about Todd, Willy writes:

I discuss him a fair bit on my Twitter feed as he offends many with his criticism of Germany and euroskepticism. Otherwise I just wrote this short piece on Todd and the euro from a while back.

This I have now read.  Very interesting, and I think very right.  Interesting parallel between the Euro and the Algerian War.

Things appear to be really motoring on the Todd-stuff-in-English front.  At last.

Sunday June 16 2013

This is a short posting, just to make a note of some links that I have acquired, to things about Emmanuel Todd.  Microsoft is in the habit of shutting down my computer without warning, and I don’t want to have to go hunting for them again.

Here is a review of a new book about America called America 3.0 (which I already have on order from Amazon), by James Bennet and Michael Lotus.  This book includes some of Todd’s ideas about family structure by way of explaining why the America of the near future will be particularly well suited to the free-wheeling individualism of the next few years of economic history.

In this review, T Greer says:

I was delighted to find that much of this analysis rests of the work of the French anthropologist Emmanuel Todd. I came across Mr. Todd’s work a few months ago, and concluded immediately that he is the most under-rated “big idea” thinker in the field of world history.

Spot on.

Greer also makes use of this map, which first appeared in this New York Times article:

image

Slowly, very slowly, Emmanuel Todd is starting to be noticed in the English speaking world.

Saturday May 25 2013

No, not taken by me, of course not.  By my compulsively globe-trotting friend Michael Jennings, who has recently been trotting around in Georgia ...:

imageimage

Foreigners, eh?  An endless source of fun.

… and in Warsaw:

image

The Warsaw one being bigger, because the title of the email in which this one arrived went:

This is my favourite photo for quite a while.

I’m guessing this is because the old Soviet-imposed Palace of Culture is upstaged behind and beside by skyscrapers, and in front by Polish people actually having quite a good time, buying stuff, doing capitalism etc.

I can remember when that bag of wind John Gray was saying that liberated Eastern Europe, for which people like me had such high hopes, would all end in tears, because in John-Gray-world high hopes always do.  But look at it now!

I visited Warsaw in 1984, I think it was.  I recall rather liking that Palace of Culture, even though I wasn’t supposed to, on account of the nastiness that it was built to spread, and probably also because of the defencelessly fine stuff that got smashed to rubble to make way for it.  I could entirely see why the locals all hated it. I, on the other hand, considered it to be an example of one of my laws, which states that the splendour of a building is inversely proportional to the excellence of what goes on inside it when it first opens for business.  Later, better things can get done in the thing.  But the tendency is: not to start with.

Thursday February 14 2013

At his talk chez moi on Friday Feb 22nd (see below) on How globalisation has made the world less rather than more homogenised, Michael Jennings intends to show us some photos.  Indeed, he will be dropping by earlier in the week to make sure that the relevant technology can be guaranteed to work properly on the night.  This may also require some creativity with the seating.

Here, in the meantime, are a few photos that he has emailed to me, together with commentary.  Enjoy.

Georgia:

image

This is in Sukhomi, Abkhazia, a breakaway non-recognised state that is de jure part of Georgia (and is supported by Russia). Mango is a fashion label that grew out of a stall in the Ramblas market in Barcelona, and is now to globalised retail what the sub-prime market is to home ownership.

Cyprus:

image

An interesting phenomenon occurs when there is a market for a particular international business, and that international business does not operate in that particular market for whatever reason: because the market is too small, too distant, too poor, too corrupt, or there are political problems. Clones of the business will often spring up. These can be particularly entertaining in places where there is no trademark law, trademark law is weak, or where it can be legally difficult to pursue claims from the owner of the trademark. This burger place in northern Cyprus in no way resembles Burger King. Obviously.

One of the most extreme cases in which this phenomenon occurred was in South Africa under apartheid. Many international companies boycotted the country, which in some ways was a modern country with a sizeable middle class, economy and legal system. (In various other ways, it wasn’t and isn’t.) South Africa in 1990 was therefore full of quite good clones of international businesses, that until then were constrained as to where they could operate, but faces competition only from one another at home. Post 1990, the international businesses that they were clones of entered South Africa in a big way, and the South Africans themselves were subsequently able to compete in the wider world. The South African clones weren’t good enough or rich enough to compete in the home markets of the major internationals, and have subsequently expanded into countries that are poorly served by the internationals for a variety of reason - this means Africa, parts of Eastern Europe, parts of Asia, parts of the Middle East. Politically dubious markets of questionable legitimacy a lot the time. One often finds South Africans and Russians side by side.

Tianjin:

image

One could write an entire book about fake Apple Stores. The ones in China (this one is in Tianjin) are the most awesome. The entire story of international brands in China is itself fascinating. Everyone is there, because of the perceived size and importance of the market. Yet the country is far more chaotic, far more unstable, far more corrupt, for more authoritarian, has weaker copyright and patent laws and a weaker rule of law in general than many of the markets these companies would generally consider operating in.

Mumbai:

image

India is more problematic in some ways: bureaucratic beyond words, and culturally difficult in ways that make foreign business models work less well, or at least require a lot more adaptation. (Imagine you are McDonald’s, and you are told that you are not permitted to use either beef nor pork in the food you sell). There have historically been limits on foreign investment. Supermarkets are only now in the process of being legalised. Very large companies can find entry to the Indian market - car makers or mobile phone companies. Medium sized companies - which is where most of the interesting stuff happens - find it much harder.

It’s going to be an interesting evening.

Wednesday November 14 2012

So far, for me, one of the most impressive or a great many impressive things to be found in Steven Pinkers new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is his description of The Enlightenment.  (I mentioned this huge volume, in passing, in my latest Samizdata posting, and at greater length in an earlier posting.)

So.  The Enlightenment.  This is a word I have heard all my life.  But what did it, does it, mean?  It is assumed that all educated people know what The Enlightenment means, and that it was and is a noble and fine thing, and why it was and is a noble and fine thing.  But why, exactly?  I guess that, until now, I was not educated.

What makes Pinker’s exposition of the ideas behind The Enlightenment so excellent is that he explains how the scientific project at the heart of The Enlightenment was joined at the hip to a new moral vision of mankind.  This was not merely a couple of vaguely benevolent quests, for scientific truth on the one hand, and for moral excellence on the other.  For, as Pinker asks, why did the quest for scientific truth necessarily imply a quest for moral improvement (as we now regard it), for greater “humanity” in our treatment of other humans?  Pinker answers this question.

image

I found that picture of Pinker here.

Whenever I scan in a great gob of verbiage from a book into this blog, I warn readers that the posting may disappear without warning, in the event of the slightest objection from the author, or from the publisher, or from anyone else connected with upholding the intellectual property in question.  There is no way that me reproducing this relatively tiny fragment of Pinker’s huge book will damage its sales, quite the reverse.  But, if those charged with overseeing such things inform me that, in their view, a line has been crossed by this posting, a line they consider worth defending, this excerpt (from Chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution”, pp. 216-221 of my Penguin paper edition) will immediately vanish.

In other words, if, having read the above, you decide that you will be wanting to read what follows, best to do that now.

Bringing people and ideas together, of course, does not determine how those ideas will evolve. The rise of the Republic of Letters and the cosmopolitan city cannot, by themselves, explain why a humanitarian ethics arose in the 18th century, rather than ever-more-ingenious rationales for torture, slavery, despotism, and war.

My own view is that the two developments really are linked. When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases - given that they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else - we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian Revolution.

I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further. The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy - a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers.

It begins with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. One therefore ought to seek good reasons believing something. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty - all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.

Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness comprises several kinds of experience. These include the perception of an external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, and an appreciation of beauty).

We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the careful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic.

Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge - not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.

The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure in each of us.

By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us in many superficial ways - their gender, their race, their culture - are like us in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare’s Shylock asks:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into account - including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific understanding casts them in doubt.

The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both reasoning beings.

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me - to get off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning - then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish.

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.

From the factual knowledge that there is a universal human nature, and the moral principle that no person has grounds for privileging his or her interests over others’, we can deduce a great deal about how we ought to run our affairs. A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange.

This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.

If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it. Though not necessarily atheistic (it is compatible with a deism in which God is identified with the nature of the universe), Enlightenment humanism makes no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or a God who responds to individual people. It sweeps aside many secular sources of value as well, if they cannot be shown to be necessary for the enhancement of human flourishing. These include the prestige of the nation, race, or class; fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor; and other mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, and struggles.

I would argue that Enlightenment humanism, whether invoked explicitly or implicitly, underlay the diverse humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first liberal democracies, most transparently in the ‘self-evident truths’ in the American Declaration of Independence. Later it would spread to other parts of the world, blended with humanistic arguments that had arisen independently in those civilizations.  And as we shall see in chapter 7, it regained momentum during the Rights Revolutions of the present era.

Sunday September 16 2012

Some of Michael J’s better bits of writing, as regular readers here will know, take the form of comments.  Knowing that a few people at least are interested in the topic in question, and knowing something about it (Michael knows something about everything), he often finds himself then able to let fly, as he might not be able to do in a regular blog posting.

Here’s the latest MJ comment, on this, which is by Rob Fisher, about taxies:

At Skopje airport in Macedonia last year, I found the worst regulated taxi mafia I have ever seen, and that is saying something. Not only is there no public transport of any kind into the city from the airport, regular taxis are not allowed to pick up passengers from the airport either. There is a special class of horrendously overpriced “airport taxi” that is the only way of getting into town from the airport. When I arrived in Skopje last year I was approached aggressively by half a dozen of these taxi drivers as I walked out at the terminal.

This pissed me off. I had already found out about their scam (and knew that they were likely to charge me something like 25 to 30 euros to get into town), but their being rude and aggressive to me as well annoyed me. (Note to foreign touts trying to sell me stuff when I am visiting your country - I do not like it when you keep trying to sell me something after I have said no, and I *really* do not like being shouted at. Being in a situation where the people selling you something have done their best to make it impossible to prevent you from buying it does not lead to high standards of customer service, generally, either. The supposed justification for this taxi mafia is probably so that foreign visitors will receive a “high standard of service”, I suspect).

So I walked out of the carpark towards the road. The taxi drivers followed me halfway out of the carpark, but eventually figured out that I meant it. I had downloaded local maps onto my iPad, and I knew that there was a town perhaps half to three quarters of a mile away, and that this was on a long road connected to several other towns and the centre of Skopje. I walked down the side of the busy road and past the field full of ageing NATO military equipment that had been brought for some use in Kosovo and after a half hour or so reached the town and road on the map. My guess was correct, and there was a bus stop on that road, and people waiting at the bus stop. (There were also bars, restaurants and grocery stores in the town, that were open). I waited a few minutes, a bus came along, and caught the bus into town. The fare was about 40 cents. The bus driver was warm and friendly.

Amount of effort required for the local bus company to offer a service to the airport? Essentially none at all - that existing bus route would merely need to divert briefly to the airport. However, the airport taxi mafia was clearly powerful and well connected enough to prevent this. First impression given to foreign visitors by all this: Skopje is a town full of rude, nasty rip off merchants. (As is often the case, most locals are not actually like this, but not a good first impression. This really did not give me a high opinion of the quality of local governance, however).

Heaven knows who you have to be related to be to get one of these airport taxi licences though.

(And if I had not found a bus route? Well, as long as those bars, grocery stores and restaurants had in fact existed and been open, I am sure that there would have been no trouble if I had gone into one of them and asked a barman or cashier how to find a taxi. The “taxi” in question might well have ended up being a private car driven by the barman’s brother in law, but the negotiated price would have been much fairer).

One of the best things about blogging is that you can vent about things that really, really annoy you.  if it’s a business which needs customers to do voluntary business with them, who knows, they might do regular ego-googling and get your message, while fearing that others might be getting it too.  Things might improve.  Your rant might improve the world for all of us, a tiny little bit.  Good.

If it’s the government, which the above circumstance is, pretty much, you can at least tell the bastards, and the rest of the world, what you think of think of them.  This too is soothing.  Also good.