Leningrad It Ain’t

Nothing unites Russians so much as their agreement that they did a good job in defeating the Nazis in WWII, and hence this achievement has been wheeled out at various times by politicians looking to shore up their popularity or galvanize the citizenry in support of some nationalistic drive or other.

It was therefore not very surprising when the Russian government potrayed the uprising in Kiev as driven by facists, implying that the rebels in the east were doing pretty much what great uncle Ilya did at Stalingrad in 1942.  It was nonsense from the outset of course.  Regardless of any unsavoury elements involved in the overthrow of the government, those who took over were not the Nazis and they were not bent on elminating ethnic Russians.

Now as Russia steps up their military offensive into Ukraine, the WWII rhetoric is being ramped up.  Yesterday Putin likened the Ukrainian army in east Ukraine to the Nazis at the siege of Leningrad:

“Sad as it might seem, this reminds me of the events of World War II, when the German Nazi occupants surrounded our cities, like Leningrad, and directly shelled those cities and their inhabitants,” Putin said on Friday, speaking at the “Seliger-2014” youth forum.

He recalled the signs in St. Petersburg, preserved since World War II, which warned citizens which side of the road was more vulnerable to shelling.

Now “both towns and cities are surrounded by the Ukrainian army, which is directly shelling residential areas with the purpose of destroying infrastructure, and suppressing the will of those in the resistance,” Putin said.

Perhaps Putin has forgotten the siege of Grozny, which took place under his orders in 1999-2000, where the Russian army bombarded the city indiscriminantly, killing thousands of civilians in a manner not dissimilar to the Nazis at Leningrad.

But leaving that aside, I think he’s blundered here.  The siege of Leningrad, like the battle of Stalingrad, occupies a special place in the minds of Russians for the reason that they undeniably represent incredible suffering, sacrifice, and ultimately victory over an enemy that was determined to destroy them.  The siege of Leningrad needs no propaganda, the facts speak for themselves.  Even those who disliked the USSR and everything it stood for regarded the city with a pride which had nothing to do with its namesake, and it was for this reason that even former dissidents objected to the name change back to St. Petersburg in 1991.

I suspect there are more than a few Russians who will find this clumsy attempt to co-opt such a major event into this latest cause somewhat distasteful, and it would not surprise me if he comes in for considerable cricitism over this in later years, when his inevitable decline and fall occurs, even if nobody will dare say anything now.  The whole speech is an insult to the intelligence of those in the audience, and smacks of desperation.  Little wonder that he chose to share it with a bunch of kids.

Posted in Politics, Russia | Leave a comment

Russia Chooses

A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with a friend, a European who has lived in Russia for most of his adult life.  We were discussing the current political environment in Russia, particularly in regards of the situation in Ukraine, and he made an interesting comment.  He said what was different about the current situation as opposed to any before, and what surprised him, was that Russians who he previously considered to be more liberal and skeptical of the government line had bought wholesale into the Kremlin narrative and had fallen into the same patriotic fervour as the rest of the population.

I found the comment interesting because I have observed much the same thing.  Of the Russians I know and read online, I have always been broadly aware of which were the skeptics who could generally be relied upon not to offer unquestioning support for Putin’s policies.  But since this Ukraine mess started, and Russia annexed the Crimea, it has been interesting to watch how the views have aligned.  I don’t know why this is, but if I were to hazard a guess it is because this is probably the first time when Russia has really come under serious criticism from the West: chucking Pussy Riot in jail rankled with some people, but no sanctions were applied.  As such, it could be that Russians feel the need to defend their homeland regardless of the actions they wittingly or unwittingly support whilst doing so.

Personally, I’m not bothered – it’s up to the Russians how they think – but I’m also not surprised.  For all the complaining from Russians about the Soviet Union when it existed, and then when it did not, they tended to overlook the fact that an awful lot of them supported it unquestioningly right up to the point when it came crashing down around their ears.  The Russians were not some oppressed minority forced to adopt a system and language not of their choosing under orders issued from a foreign capital, in a way the Lithuanians or Latvians were.  Russians bear a responsibility for their lot both during and after the Soviet Union which in my opinion they’ve never really owned up to.  When pressed, they speak of the Soviet leadership as some sort of “other”, an alien government, but where was this sentiment at the time?  Other than a handful of dissidents, everyone else fell meekly into line.  I’ve mentioned this on here before, but one of the things which shocked me most when I read about the Stalin purges was the willingness of one set of Russian civilians to unquestioningly massacre their friends and neighbours.  By the million.

Putin’s approval rating among Russians currently stands at 87%, and I am quite ready to believe that is accurate.  Now, as then, Russia has united in the face of perceived attempts by foreigners to destablise Russia.  And now, as then, Russia is also clamping down internally.  Alex K. has posted some good stuff on the suppression of seemingly any form of pro-Ukrainian sentiment, and witch-hunts seem to be growing apace:

A veteran Russian rock star has been accused of betraying his country after performing in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by the Ukrainian army.

A prominent MP and other Kremlin supporters say Andrei Makarevich, a critic of Russian policy on Ukraine, should lose his state honours.

United Russia party MP Yevgeny Fedorov denounced Makarevich over his 12 August concert for children from Donetsk and Luhansk.

Fedorov said he should be stripped of his state honours, including one “For Services to the Motherland”.

Now, as then, it appears that anyone who doesn’t support the government’s policies is seen as a traitor.  More so than at any time since the USSR the population has thrown itself behind the government – or more specifically, the person who leads the country – and is rooting out dissidents both real and imagined.

This will not end well.  I believe Russians are sleepwalking – nay, rushing headlong and willingly – into a state that, via a rapid shifting of the Overton window, they will come to not like living in very much.  I don’t know how many times I can repeat “You’ve been here before,” but it is worth noting that it wasn’t the Gulags and famines that disgusted the Soviet citizens of the 1980s, but decades of stagnating living standards, unmet potential, and a slow realisation that their leaders had been living it up at their expense from the outset.  Putin is not Stalin, and he is not going to unleash The Great Terror Round 2, but as I implied above, Stalin did not lose the USSR – Brezhnev and his successors did.

If this is the direction Russians want to take, then good luck to them.  They are an independent and proud people, who deserve to choose their own path.  But they should be wary all the same.  When the Soviet Union ended there was a surprising amount of sympathy for Russians and the hardships they faced, as they were considered (wrongly, in my opinion) as being a victim of a system over which they had no control.  For all the complaints modern Russians have over how they were treated by the West in the post-Soviet era, they actually came off very lightly.  Aid money poured in, overseas visas were issued by the tens of thousand, and genuine attempts were made at reconciliation by both sides.  The worst that can be said is the Russians were given well-meaning economic advice but, as nobody realised the degree to which they were prepared to beat the shit out of each other and kill over money, the results were disastrous.  But note that Poland was given the same advice, and we don’t hear stories of mafia wars raging in Warsaw and Gdansk for a decade.  By historical standards Russia, as part of a collapsing empire which had been defeated after a long and often bloody struggle against an ideological, military, and political enemy that remained strong, got off awfully lightly.

Russians might do well to appreciate this, and consider that should a similar situation arise again they might get treated somewhat differently.  History is littered with examples of enemies not being finished off when the chance was there; there are not so many examples of an enemy being forgiven twice.

Posted in Politics, Russia | 11 Comments

Tough Times for Ronald in Russia

I was once told a story by an American who found himself working in Russia in the early 1990s.  He had met a fellow American who was involved with the opening of McDonald’s in Moscow, and the latter was finding things rather frustrating, particularly when trying to introduce western standards of customer service to the staff.  Apparently, he told one of the Russia servers to greet the customers and offer a smile, which prompted the following response:

“Why?  We’re the ones with all the burgers.”

It seems that almost 25 years later some Russians still haven’t worked out the basic relationship between business and customer as far as McDonald’s is concerned:

Russia’s consumer watchdog has announced unscheduled checks on McDonald’s restaurants across Russia as part of a probe into food standards.

The move comes after watchdog Rospotrebnadzor temporarily shut four McDonald’s restaurants in Moscow.

The actions come amid rising tensions and sanctions between Russia and the West over the crisis in the Ukraine.

The regulator denied the checks were politically motivated. McDonald’s said “top quality” food was its priority.

The regulatory agency said: “There are complaints about the quality and safety of the products in fast food restaurant chain McDonald’s.”

BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg said: “The suspicion is that because McDonald’s is one of the symbols of America, that’s why it’s encountering problems now.”

Russian MPs have also called for checks on other US fast-food brands, including Burger King and KFC, he said.

“It does seem, if not the public, then the people in power, are losing their appetite for American fast food,” he added.

The primary beneficiary of McDonald’s in Russia are those Russians wishing to purchase its products, who number in the millions.  (This point was driven home to me once when somebody in Sakhalin asked me, in all seriousness, to bring him a Big Mac meal from Moscow when I returned from a business trip.  The flight is 9 hours.)

The secondary beneficiary of McDonald’s in Russia are the Russian owners (it is a franchise), managers, employees, and suppliers whose income derives from its operations.  As somebody with a greater grasp of economics than a Russian policymaker points out:

“It’s an extraordinary decision, because McDonald’s is the great symbol of the West, but at the same time they’ve set up the most extraordinary network of suppliers in Russia to keep the whole system going.

“There are now something like 300 McDonald’s across the country, and they’ve got an enormous network of people providing them with potatoes, and beef, and everything that goes into the product… In fact, it’s going to hit an enormous number of people inside Russia.”

I am quite certain that those who have ordered these closures have no idea of the impact that this will have on ordinary Russians (and even if they did, they wouldn’t care) and genuinely think that Americans are making billions of dollars as the only beneficiaries of McDonald’s operations in Russia.

To find such economic ignorance you’d really have to go to…well, Russia.  25 years ago.  Plus ça change.

Posted in Economics, Russia | 12 Comments

The Russian Effect on Crimea

Thanks to Michael Jennings for forwarding me this story:

A man died and a woman ended up in a hospital in separate incidents in the line for the ferry between the Krasnodar region and the recently annexed Crimea over the weekend, local news website Kerch.FM reported.

The woman sustained a head injury Saturday after being attacked by other passengers for allegedly attempting to jump the line for the ferry back to the Krasnodar region, the website reported. In recent days, people have spent up to 40 hours in the line for the ferry service. Another man died from a heart attack after spending hours waiting to board a ferry to Crimea.

After border control was imposed between Crimea and Ukraine following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula last March, most Russian tourists and visitors to the popular summer tourist destination have started taking the ferry there instead of driving through conflict-torn eastern Ukraine. There is no border control for the ferry service.

Thousands of car passengers have been waiting in line for days to board ferries traveling in both directions. According to the website of the local transportation authority, the ferries transported 3,897 cars Saturday, of which 1,689 were traveling in the direction of Crimea.

In any normal country, the ferry operators would have anticipated the increased demand and brought in additional vessels, or switched to vessels of a higher capacity.  But in Russia, either the operators don’t give a shit or any attempt to procure additional vessels would get bogged down in a quagmire of bureaucracy and graft.

Following the annexation of Crimea, which is not connected by land to Russia, President Vladimir Putin pledged to build a bridge to link the peninsula with the rest of the country. In June the state-run road construction and maintenance company Avtodor estimated the cost of the 19-kilometer bridge at up to 376.5 billion rubles ($10.4 billion) and said it would take at least four years to build.

At 19km this bridge is roughly the same length as the Incheon Bridge in Korea.  According to the irrefutable Wikipedia, this cost about $2.7bn – double the projected cost – when it was completed in 2009.  At $10bn this bridge to the Crimea is already looking way overpriced, and given it looks as though they’re going to pass on a competitive bidding process in favour of handing the job straight to a mate in a state-run company, we can expect this figure to double or triple.  In fact, it looks to me like a continuation of the Sochi Olympic scam, which saw billions of dollars transferred from the state coffers into the pockets of favoured individuals via opaque construction contracts.  Those regions of Russia which are seeing earmarked funds diverted to Crimea might not be too impressed.

Two million visitors had traveled to Crimea this year as of Aug. 11, according to the region’s Tourism and Resorts Ministry. The government agency predicted the figure would reach 3 million by year-end. Last year 5.9 million tourists visited Crimea, according to the same agency.

I wonder how many of those 2m visitors were genuine tourists, and not merely servicemen, security personnel, and government bureaucrats arriving to take over the running of the place?  And of those genuine tourists, I wonder how many of them went there having been strong-armed into going by their employer:

As we talk, I gradually sense this young couple may be here not entirely through their own choice.

Word on the beach is that there is a new type of Russian tourist in Crimea. Since the crisis erupted in Ukraine, up to four million Russians who work for the state have been effectively banned from leaving the country – it’s rumoured that the government views holidays abroad as a security risk in their case. Since Sergei is an Interior Ministry official, I ask if he can still go holiday wherever he likes.

“If you are talking about money then yes,” he says. “But… we have certain restrictions connected to my job. So you see if we have to come here, we’re very happy with that too.” When I ask if he is forbidden to travel he says nothing and finally says that it’s “not recommended”.

But would you be punished for a holiday abroad, I persist? Another long pause. “I haven’t tried it,” he laughs.

Deadly queues for ferries, a wildly overpriced bridge, and a gaggle of tourists there under duress.  This annexation has gotten off to a flying start.

Posted in Politics, Russia, Ukraine | 14 Comments

The Rocks in Russia’s Harbours

For some reason, Russia has decided to respond to western sanctions over its behaviour in Ukraine by banning imports of stuff Russians like to eat.  Other blogs have covered the story well in terms of its stupidity and likely impact, but I’d like to weigh in as well.

Firstly, I think Russia will find it quite difficult to diversify its suppliers across a whole sector for the simple reason that doing business with Russian companies is a nightmare at the best of times and their current suppliers will have gone through a long, hard, and painful route to get where they are now.  New entrants from South America and Asia will find themselves having to leap through endless bureaucratic hurdles, provide reams of documentation containing papers which don’t exist outside of Russia, negotiate umpteen obstacles thrown in their path by every bureaucrat and gangster who has seen a way to make a quick buck, and then probably find that, after all that, they’re not actually going to get paid.

Secondly, I think enterprising Russians based overseas will quickly re-route, repack, and relabel EU produce and then send it through the otherwise normal channels, in the manner in which Israeli products routinely get sold in the Gulf States after passing through Lebanon or Jordan.  This operation needn’t be sophisticated, just good enough to allow a well-bribed customs official to plausibly claim deniability.  Although what it will do to the accuracy of sell-by dates of products on supermarket shelves may have some Russian consumers hoping toilet paper is one such foreign product that can still be imported.

We can also expect “businessmen” in Kazakhstan and Belarussia to do well out of this.  These two countries have not adopted the Russian sanctions yet are in a customs union with Russia.  Therefore, in theory, these countries can import as many EU goods as they like and re-export to Russia without interference.

I expect these two re-routing options to meet the bulk of the demand for goods banned by the sanctions, at a cost to Russian residents of somewhere around 10-30% in price and reduced freshness of the produce itself.  Where the Russian government intervenes with price controls, we can expect those products to disappear from shelves almost entirely and a healthy black market springing up.  The EU producers will suffer, but only in the short term whilst these re-routing schemes are put in place.

I am quite certain that the demand won’t be met, as some Russians have been confidently predicting, by domestic suppliers.  Yes, Russia does make cheese but Russia also makes cars.  There are good reasons why these imported goods appeared in the first place.  There is also the issue of whether Russia’s factories can increase production to meet demand.  I once pointed out to a rather dim journalist that just because watercress can be grown in Britain, it does not mean that all imports of watercress are unnecessary, i.e. ability to produce a certain quantity does not equate to an ability to be self-sufficient.

As several people have noted, the nostalgia for the USSR among sections of Russian society has been apparent for some time.  Up until now, I didn’t know such nostalgia included Brezhnev-era food shortages and 1920s double-digit inflation.  But as I’ve said before, many times, Russians will gladly endure any manner of hardship if it allows them to thumb their noses at the West and feel better about themselves.  See this post, for example.

Good luck to them.

Posted in Russia | 8 Comments

An Olympic Legacy

This is a damning report:

Athens’ Olympic venues lie empty and disused as the tenth anniversary of the Games approaches.

Greece spent over £7bn on the Games, yet the canoeing and aquatics centre are now completely dried up.

The pictures say it all:

_76804358_athens8_getty[1]_76803679_athens4_getty[1] _76804189_athens7_getty[1]That last picture is of a beach volleyball stadium.  The one above is of a softball stadium.  Why build such facilities for hosting a sport which nobody watches outside of an Olympic jamboree lasting only a few weeks?

The Games cost almost twice their projected budget, with organisers not opting to use any temporary, collapsible venues, as other host cities have done.

Why?  Because permanent venues offered greater opportunities for kick-backs, make-work schemes for unionised employees, and photo shoots for politicians, that’s why.  All paid for by the taxpayer.  And how’s that worked out for Greece?  How’s their economy looking these days?

And just in case we thought London was any better we get this report:

A major parliamentary report into the London 2012 Olympics warns that the prospect of an “effective and robust” legacy from the Games is in jeopardy unless there is a change in government approach.

The report finds “little evidence” of increased participation in sport, highlights the uneven distribution of economic benefits of the Games across the UK, and also criticises funding body UK Sport for its ‘no compromise’ policy on sports without short-term medal prospects.

So that’s one major justification for splurging £10bn which has turned out to be a load of bollocks, then.  Fortunately, we have a world class Olympic venue as an enduring legacy.

Oh, hang on:

The Olympic Stadium is not being used as well as it should be, according to a group of Lords who also questioned the legacy of London 2012.

The House of Lords Committee on Games Legacy said the £429m stadium was a “national asset that should be used to the full”.

But it remained “unconvinced” that present arrangements would deliver an “effective and robust” legacy.

The major examination of London’s legacy efforts by a cross-party committee of peers claims political impetus has been lost and there is a “lack of ownership” from the government over building on the opportunities the Games provided.

Personally, I don’t really give a stuff, as I am not a UK taxpayer, let alone a London rates payer.  But I remember when the games opened social media was full of Brits declaring themselves “proud”, and dismissing anyone who objected on grounds of cost or principle to be a grumpy stick-in-the-mud.  I find it hard to believe so many people can be so fucking stupid.  Maybe in 10 years Londoners will see the same legacy the Athenians have to face every day: derelict facilities and an enormous bill their grandkids will still be paying decades after they’re gone.

I only hope the Rio de Janeirians wake up before it’s too late.

Posted in Politics, Sport | 10 Comments

The False Start of Electric Cars

I have noticed that there is considerable optimism in some quarters about the future of electric cars, and many people are pointing to Norway as a sign that the internal combustion engine may be on the way out:

Norway may seem like an odd place for electric cars to thrive, but the 1,493 Tesla Model S new registrations last month set a new single-model sales record. That’s more than sales of the two next-best selling models, the Volkswagen Golf and Nissan Leaf, combined. In fact, so far this year, the Tesla Model S is the best-selling car in a cold country that has quickly warmed to electric vehicles.

Only when you look a bit closer you find the underlying reason as to why Norwegians have taken to the Tesla in such numbers:

Unlike many European countries, where electric cars carry a huge price premium, there is no import tax or 25% VAT tax on [electric vehicles] in Norway. 

And that reason is the government has, through taxation (particularly import taxes, which are a function of horsepower), made the price of ordinary cars artificially high. From Wikipedia:

As an example, by early 2013 the price of the top selling Nissan Leaf is 240,690 krone (around US$42,500) while the purchase price of the 1.3-lt Volkswagen Golf is 238,000 Krone (about US$42,000).[9] Electric vehicles are also exempt from the annual road tax, all public parking fees, and toll payments, as well as being able to use bus lanes.

Plus what gets left out of the purchasing figures in Norway is how many of these cars are bought by government departments for whom image is more important than value for money.

Personally, I am of the belief that the uptake of electric vehicles in Norway doesn’t tell us anything about the future viability of electric cars.  When you look at the development of the motorcar in the US between the wars, the boom was driven by an overwhelming desire of individuals to move around freely and independently, and the car companies rushed to meet that demand whilst the oil companies competed with one another to build the infrastructure to support it.  I can’t think of anything further from this situation than a government taxing the hell out of something and shoving a population in the direction of their chosen product.  Would Norwegians be buying Teslas if ordinary cars were reasonably priced?  According to this Reuter’s article, Norway’s electric cars require an annual public subsidy of up to $8,200.  This is the future?

What we have here is a government picking a winner, and this rarely ends well.  The underlying assumption is that everyone driving electric cars is a desirable end, and I’m not convinced this has been proven.  Norway registered about 11,000 electrical vehicles in 2013, which might make Oslo’s air a bit cleaner and the streets quieter, but is in no way indicative of what might arise should even half of Norway’s 5m inhabitants eventually switch to electric cars.  11,000 electric cars quietly charging themselves off the grid at night won’t make much difference, but 2.5m of them?  You’re going to need a lot more power stations to cope with that sort of demand, and although Norway currently produces around 96% of its electricity using hydroelectric power it is far from certain that they would not need conventional power stations to meet the increased requirements.  In any case, it is somewhat unlikely that other countries, should they choose to emulate Norway in this regard, would be able to meet the increased demands using renewable energy sources.

In fact, the whole drive to use electric cars seems at odds with campaigns by Green organisations and politicians who are constantly nagging us to save negligible amounts of energy by unplugging phone chargers and not using TVs on standby mode.  I think when most people talk of electric cars, they think charging them is simply a matter of plugging them into a grid which is already in place, and I suppose this is true while their numbers remain small.  But an increase in just one order of magnitude – let alone two or three – is going to require a complete overhaul of the electricity generation infrastructure in a manner which is going to render unplugging phone chargers even more negligible than it is now.

Just where is this additional power going to come from?  Wind is a non-starter, suffering from the same physical limitations the Dutch faced on their windmills a couple of hundred years ago.  Tidal sounds great, except it is mind-bogglingly expensive to construct and maintain, and wrecks the local environment. Wave power suffers from the difficulty of converting uneven, irregular reciprocal motion into rotary motion and the fact that any wave powerful enough to be of any use is likely to have a big brother in the vicinity which will destroy any device used to harness its power.  Solar has potential, but the technology is likely a few decades away yet.  In 40+ years time I can envisage an efficient system whereby solar power is used to generate energy which is stored in cells, and converted to electricity in cars which is then used to power a motor.  But even with huge leaps in solar technology I don’t think we’ll ever be in a situation where:

Solar > electricity > battery > motor

is an improvement over:

Petrol > engine

either in terms of efficiency or overall effect on the global environment.  Not even close.  As I say, perhaps this might work:

Solar > energy cell > electricity> motor

with the energy cells being instantly replaceable, but until then I think this whole electric car concept is dead in the water.

Aside from the economics, the enormous appeal of the motor car is its flexibility, a large part of which it is its near-permanent availability.  The electric car, as currently envisaged, does away with this as it is unavailable for several hours while it charges.  Unless one can predict exactly when the car will be used and for how long then it won’t be much use, and although in theory this sounds ideal for regular commuting the shortcomings of such a system quickly become clear.

Even those who use their cars mainly for commuting also use them for unplanned or irregular trips, e.g. at weekends or in emergencies.  The non-availability of an expensive asset will become an issue to even the most organised of citizens, and some might even keep an ordinary car as a spare.  And supposing you hit traffic on the way to work?  You can switch off the car and conserve your battery, but let’s hope you don’t live anywhere too hot or too cold (like Norway!) otherwise it’s not going to be very comfortable.  One of the beauties of the internal combustion engine is the waste heat means even the crappest of crap cars is warm; people don’t realise how damned cold a car would be without the engine pumping out heat, and to generate the equivalent amount of heat from a battery will eat into the range considerably.  According to this calculator driving with an outside temperature of 21°C with no heater gives you a range of 283 miles; drop the temperature to zero and put the heater on and you’re at 234 miles, a reduction of 17% (and 27% with the smaller 60kWh battery).  And that’s for a new car, that reduction will increase only as the battery and heating elements start to wear.  You could find yourself thinking you’ve got enough juice to get to where you want to, and then hit traffic and find your destination is outside your range.  The advantage of the internal combustion engine is that they burn little fuel when the vehicle is stationary yet keep you warm with no additional fuel cost.

The limited range isn’t actually the issue, as petrol cars also have a limited range.  The problem is the charging time, which renders the vehicle unavailable for several hours.  If you run low on petrol, you spend 5 minutes filling up and you’re on your way again.  Anyone who relies on an electric car to complete a journey within 20-30% of the maximum range is going to have to be very well organised – which most people aren’t, particularly when it comes to travelling by car – and have luck on their side as well.  The whole concept on which the current breed of electric cars is based will collapse as soon as there are more than a handful of stories of people being caught out miles from home – children in the back, howling – and having to wait at a charging station for hours before being able to continue the journey start to appear on the internet.  Until electric cars can overcome this issue, perhaps by using instantly replaceable energy cells instead of recharging, I don’t think they’re going to make even a dent in the supremacy of the internal combustion engine.

Whatever the Norwegians think they’re doing, game-changing it ain’t.  I give it a year or two before we start seeing news reports of electric cars found abandoned by their owners between Bergen and Stavanger due to a flat battery and a desire to sleep somewhere warm that night.

Posted in Climate Change, Economics, Engineering, Norway, Politics | 13 Comments

Weird French Rule #12,763

The weather has been warm in Paris of late, and so last Saturday my wife and I decided to go to the local swimming pool on the Île de Puteaux, which features deckchairs, an outdoor and indoor pool, and a kiddy pool.

Having paid the best part of 10 Euros each to enter, I was prevented from accessing the pool area because I was wearing Bermuda shorts like these:

What they had in mind was that I dress more like this:

(Huge thanks to TNA for letting me use his pic.)

The security guard actually invited me to purchase a set of budgie-smugglers from a vending machine out the front.

Fuck that.

So I went home, and my wife went in.  Later she told me that a security guard had pounced on two men lying on sun loungers for having the temerity to put their t-shirts on.  That the sun had gone behind a cloud and the temperature dropped was no excuse, apparently.

The French: effortlessly homosexual since 1923.

Posted in France | 7 Comments

La Rochelle and the Côte Atlantique

For the third of the 4-day weekends in May, my wife and I took a trip by car to the town of La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast, going via Tours and returning via Nantes.

I have already written about the quality of the French autoroutes, although it should be mentioned that they do add to the cost of a journey.  This trip saw me rack up about 90 Euros in road tolls, which is not insignificant, although I made no attempt to avoid them and I use a device which lets me go straight through the barriers without stopping, thus avoiding both the queues and seeing how much it’s costing (until the bill comes).

One other thing is worth mentioning.  During this trip we stopped at several motorway service stations, and found them to be very nice indeed, and far better than those in the UK (or at least, how they were 10 years ago).  They are bigger, cleaner, more modern, and just more tastefully designed in France and competition between them is fierce.  I know this because I attended a presentation by one of my colleagues in that side of the business who told us that market research shows it is women, not men, who choose which station to stop at, and the men simply fill up wherever missus has ordered him to stop.  And women judge service stations on cleanliness and other criteria, and as the petrol companies can’t compete much on price, they compete on these.

Also, probably because of the longer distances and greater internal tourism in France (more on this later), the service stations are used slightly differently.  In the UK they are used primarily to stop for a piss: few British people fill up with overpriced motorway fuel, nor buy what passes for food at record prices in the Little Chef or whatever they have there.  A bag of crisps and a bottle of coke bought during a 5 minute stop is about the height of it in UK service stations.  (Maybe 10 minutes if you stop to bargain with the bloke selling dodgy watches or leather jackets out of the boot of his car, which was a feature of service stations on the M6 when I used to drive that route.)  By contrast, the French actually seem to stop for a while, and eat a proper meal.  Some of the service stations were more rest areas with nothing but an unmanned toilet block and lots of picnic tables, and these were very nice as well.  And however else you might describe the French motorway service stations, you cannot deny one thing: they are busy.  Every one I went to was seriously busy, probably unsurprising for a long weekend in France, but few families seemed to take the option of bringing sandwiches and stopping to eat in a lay-by somewhere.  We stopped at quite a number of these places during our trip – and not just the ones run by my employer – and all of them were pretty good.

So we left Paris at about 9:30 in the morning and got to Tours sometime around 1pm, to find it grey and raining.  Tours is historically important for reasons I’ll let you discover for yourselves (I’d not heard of it before, but my knowledge of French history is pretty poor), and the main feature of the town is an impressive cathedral (the same caveat applies here, too).

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We poked our heads in and looked around, and it was worth it.

IMG_2850 IMG_2851I like cathedrals of this style, whatever it is.

Then we went to look for somewhere to have lunch and we stumbled across a place done out in a rustic theme packed full of French enjoying what looked to be large, leisurely lunches.  Welcome to provincial France.  So in we went, and over the course of the next hour and a half had two rare steaks with Rocquefort sauce, a cheese platter, coffee, a coke, and half a bottle of wine with excellent service in a wonderful, lively ambiance for a grand total of 35 Euros (£28).  Try getting that anywhere in the UK.  Or Australia.

The weather had brightened up by the time we left the restaurant and we continued on our way to La Rochelle.  We didn’t spend any time looking around Tours, which may have been a shame because it looked like a nice spot to do so, but time was pressing on.  One thing I learned on this trip is that France is actually quite large and the distances a bit longer than you first think when looking at a map.  It was several hours later by the time we reached La Rochelle at around 6:30pm in glorious sunshine, but the long summer evenings meant nothing was lost.

La Rochelle is another place of historical importance about which I know nothing except that it was one of the locations out of which the Germans based their submarines during WWII, and a raid on the concrete pens was part of the Commandos 2: Men of Courage computer game which I played a lot in 2002-3.  The local tourism office is unlikely to snap me up.  Nowadays it is a very pleasant port town with an enclosed yacht marina guarded by two large fortified towers between which they used to run a chain to prevent boats from entering.

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It is known for its seafood, and the area around the marina was chock-full of restaurants which were in turn chock-full of people.  For a place to sit in the evening sun and get a beer, it couldn’t be beaten.

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From wandering around the harbour area it was obvious that La Rochelle is a sailing centre, based on the number of yachts and sailing schools.

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I intend to get back into sailing at some point, and part of the reason for visiting the Atlantic coast was to identify suitable locations for doing so.  La Rochelle may well prove to be one such possibility.

Having been turned away from a few restaurants because they were full, we eventually found one and had the type of meal that we’ve come to expect in France by now: good, inexpensive, and served with panache.  We did notice that the crowd – both customers and servers – were considerably less formal than they are in Paris, though.  I think there is a sizeable student population in La Rochelle, and whereas a waiter in Paris would be in a white shirt and black trousers, they tended towards jeans and t-shirts here.  We only stayed one night, which was nowhere near enough to see the whole town, but what we saw of it was great and we had a very pleasant evening.

The next morning we headed over to the nearby holiday island of Île de Ré, which can only be described as magnificent.  The island has an interesting history but…oh, you know what I’m going to say!  Anyway, you get there via a long and elegant toll bridge that was built in the late 1980s, and even crossing the bridge we could see this place would be busy.  To cut the description short, it is a largely flat island about 20 miles long and 3 miles wide, and stuffed full of holiday homes and campsites.  The French flock there by the tens of thousands, park their cars, and ride around the island on the miles and miles of cycle tracks that have been installed, visiting the beaches and small towns.  The weather was bright sunshine and roasting hot when we drove through, and hundreds of cyclists were out enjoying themselves.  We didn’t stay long, but the road took us through the quays at Saint-Martin-de-Ré and out towards the northern coast, providing ample evidence that the place would be superb for a family holiday.  No wonder the French love it so much.  As we were to see in the other coastal holiday towns that day, huge supermarkets have set themselves up to serve the influx of holiday makers, and their size and frequency gives you an idea of how the population must explode in the summertime.

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We stopped at one beach and found the tide was out and people were picking what I assume were cockles from the sands.  No stranger to the Atlantic coast having grown up in Pembrokeshire, I recognised this kind of beach at once.

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We left the island without really stopping, using this trip as a sort of reconnaissance mission for taking a proper holiday somewhere later on.  We drove back to the mainland and then headed northwards following the coast towards La Tranche-sur-Mer.  We drove through a series of small holiday towns, spotlessly clean but with barely a soul in sight, with hundreds of signs for campsites and caravan sites, and holiday cottages set back off the road in the trees adjacent to the beach.  It reminded me a lot of the small towns (Sorrento, Mornington, and Frankston) that I drove through last Christmas Day on my way to Point Nepean.  Throughout the day I found myself in places which reminded me of the coast around Point Nepean and Cape Woolamai: long stretches of beach fronting an ocean that spends as much time grey and angry as it does tranquil and blue, with footpaths and cycle tracks running along large sections of the coast.

We pressed on northwards up the coast, stopping for lunch in a seafood buffet place filled with pensioners, stopping every so often to look at a beach or two, and arrived in a town I’d never heard of before called Les Sables-d’Olonne.  We stopped on the coast a few miles south where small rocky cliffs pushed into the sea, with sandy beaches a little further along which continued right the way into the town.  My wife and I agreed that this spot looked like the one a short distance along the Bass Highway from Phillip Island, and noticed how similar some of the other villages were to those we passed through on the Great Ocean Road.

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The road took us right into the centre of  Les Sables-d’Olonne, but veered away from the beach which ran right across the length of the town creating a promenade of 2-3km in length.  We drove around to the northern side and parked the car up opposite a huge marina sporting hundreds of yachts and giant signs of the two best-known French yacht makers, Beneteau and Jeanneau.  This was obviously a huge sailing centre.  It was also very busy, packed with tourists who, judging by the looks, language, and car registrations were almost all French or Belgian.  The boats entered the marina area using a sort of creek alongside which a long promenade-cum-pier had been built, and we walked along this to the end, where a concrete breakwater stood with a lighthouse on the end.  All of this taking place in brilliant afternoon sunshine beneath blue skies, watching the yachts motor in and out of the marina, I was impressed.

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As I said, I had never heard of this place, which surprised me.  This was a sizeable town and looked a fantastic holiday spot, but which seemed to be kept somewhat of a secret from foreigners (Belgians and, I was told afterwards, Dutch excepted).  It later dawned on me that the French internal tourism industry is enormous, probably bigger than anywhere else in the world outside the USA.  Almost all of the places we’d visited on this trip were set up for French tourists, mainly coming from Paris and the Île-de-France region, and probably don’t advertise for (and probably don’t want!) foreign tourists, who generally head for the Mediterranean coast.  I am sure that as we continue to explore France we’ll discover more nice holiday towns that are off the map for foreigners, as internal tourism seems to be pushed heavily in France: travel programmes on TV are often showing the various regions of France, which seem to compete with one another for visitors and (judging by the slick advertising as well as the smartness of the actual places) probably receive considerable state funding.  I believe the result of the competition between the regions and the fact that the visitors are domestic is standards that cannot be found in the foreign holiday resorts, where visitors are only likely to come once and if they do complain, it’s in a foreign language on a website weeks later.  If a French holiday town lets its standards slip, especially in terms of food and drink, this will be all over Paris by the next weekend.  Sadly, the same effect did not apply for the British holiday destinations such as Blackpool, Great Yarmouth, and Skegness.

As with Tours, La Rochelle, and the Île de Ré, we left Les Sables-d’Olonne thinking we’d not spent anywhere near enough time there and it would be well worth coming back for a proper visit.  It was getting late by this point and so I left the coastal route and took a main road to Nantes, but it still took a couple of hours.  France really is a bit bigger than you think.  Unfortunately, by the time we got to Nantes it was pouring with rain and the best we could do once we checked into the hotel was to find a restaurant.  As expected, this one was absolutely packed but they managed to squeeze us into a two-person table on the upper floor, and they food and drink predictably didn’t disappoint.  By the time we finished we had only enough time to briefly look at the Château des ducs de Bretagne in the drizzle before we’d had enough of getting wet and exploring and went back to the hotel.  As with the other places, Nantes is probably worth looking at in more detail.  It supposedly scores the highest in the French quality of life index due to its relative cheapness compared to Paris, its ease of access to the capital via the direct TGV link, and its proximity to a wide selection of beaches and resorts on the Atlantic coast.  The bits we saw in the rain didn’t look particularly inviting, but another time we might see it in a different light.

The next morning we drove back to Paris in about 4 hours, arriving mid-afternoon…and then I went on the piss with an Angolan until 5am and awoke the next day at 1pm too drunk to drive my wife to the airport to catch her flight to St. Petersburg.  So I bundled her into a taxi instead.  As you can tell, the haute culture of France is rubbing off on me.

Overall, I was mightily impressed by the small section of the French Atlantic coast that we visited.  A return trip, and further exploration, are a must.

Posted in France, Photos, Travel | 10 Comments

Another World Cup, Another English Defeat

I did not watch all but the last 10 minutes of England’s inevitable defeat at the hands of Uruguay last night, which effectively ends their world cup campaign after only 5 days.  Instead I found myself at a bar with a Scottish colleague who is leaving for distant shores, and weighing up the options I decided it was better to remain with him than go home and watch the football.  After all, I might not see him for a while but a “heroic” England defeat comes along at every major championship.

And so to save time, I’ll merely repeat what I said after England bombed out of the last world cup:

Theories abound as to why England are performing so badly, but I believe I know why and the answer is frighteningly simple: the players are simply not good enough.  And that’s about it.  There are many factors which go into making a player good: fitness, skills, mental strength, etc. and James’ site is an excellent source of discussion on sports psychology, but the sum total is failing England’s players and has done so for years.  An old boss of mine in Manchester who had been watching live football every weekend for years told me this over ten years ago.  See those world class players?  They’re not.

See also this post from around the same time, and Chris Waddle’s remarks:

Why don’t the FA look at other countries and say ‘how do they keep producing this talent?’ Where is our Plan B? We haven’t got one. The back four can’t control the ball, can’t pass, we lack so many ideas it’s frustrating.

Has anything changed since then?

Of course, the problem is compounded by the English media, which I can only assume is a reflection of the population, having expectations which far exceed reality.  Like the BBC and NHS, the England football team is one of those institutions which is considered world class – inside the country.  Outside, they are regarded with a contemptuous “Hah!”  You will know when England stand a chance of winning a major football competition when foreigners start talking about the likelihood of England winning, not just the English press.  And that hasn’t happened in my lifetime.

Posted in Sport | 10 Comments